Ben Howels - Runner up

Competition: Unreliable Narrator Short Story Competition

Ben Howels hails from Devon, England. His short fiction has been published in multiple anthologies and magazines, and he’s just starting to smack agents round the head with his first novel. He can usually be found writing on his laptop, lifting weights down the gym, or distracting himself on Twitter as @BenHowels

Ben Howels

I'm New To This

 

You know how on TV civilians wander up to crime scenes, slip under the tape, and then traipse around like they own the place?
It’s utter drivel.
If there’s been a serious crime, then the police will have a presence on-site 24/7. Believe me, I bothered to check.
I may be new to this, but I’m not an idiot.
Of course, just because the police are there doesn’t mean they’ll be swarming the site; it just means you can’t simply waltz in. If they think an area’s unlikely to be accessed – let’s say a tall wall encloses the back garden – then they probably won’t have someone patrolling it all night.
Particularly not when it’s pissing it down.
The rain hasn’t stopped me, of course – but then, I’ve been waiting all day to get in. And I’ve had a long one.
“Where the hell have you been?”
That’s how my working day started, about nineteen hours ago. Up most of the night, I still got myself in to the office thirty minutes early, but Hansen – my Editor in Chief – was already grumpy.
“Sorry, Sir.” No point in arguing.  I’m new to the Echo, and exist somewhere below krill on the food chain.
“Just had an anonymous tip-off. Murder up near the University. Two dead.” He scoured the office, desperate to find someone more experienced than me to look at. “I would go myself, but… well, we’re short-staffed. Bloody Terry’s off in Marbella.”
“What about Katherine?”
He looked at me like I’d just thrown up on his briefcase.
“Called in sick.”
“Another hangover, was it?”
His scowl could have stripped paint from the wall, but my stomach was doing a somersault; my big break was really happening. I would be lead reporter on a double murder.
Hansen reluctantly handed me a scribbled note.
Number 16, Rose Close.
“Keep it professional.” He started ticking things off on his fingers. “Be nosy, not aggressive. Get the facts. Cosy up to the police, but don’t push them.”
I got out fast, and drove to Rose Close faster. It’s a wealthy area – pretty much every place is its own cul-de-sac. Privacy as a paid-for privilege.
Number 16 was at the far end, a police cordon already in place – flashing lights, blue and white tape everywhere, and the whiff of petrol tainting the tang of recently cut grass.
As I got close, I found my breakfast trying to revisit my mouth; usually I’m pretty relaxed around police officers, but seeing this many of them up close… well, let’s just say I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of them.  
I was maybe twenty feet from the tape, readying my camera, when a monolith in a bright yellow jacket approached.
“Who are you, and how’d you get up here so fast? We’ve only just set up.”
“I’m Dave Simms from the Echo – Stan Hansen sent me. Said he received an anonymous tip.”
“That’s proper bollocks. Who’s your inside contact?”
I think my knees started wobbling at that point.
“It’s the truth. I got in early, and he sent me up here first thing. He didn’t know who the caller was.” I tried to look honest – which felt far more difficult than it should have done, considering I was telling the truth – and pulled a recorder from my pocket. He scowled and waved it away.  
“No comment. Like I said, we’ve barely arrived. You’ll get a press release once we have something.” He started to walk away, then stopped and turned. “You’re new, yes?”
“Two months in, but I’m local.”
“Some friendly advice. Don’t cross the tape; don’t even lean over it. Respect the police, don’t underestimate us, and we’ll get on just fine.”
His smile seemed genuine; large, but genuine. Maybe he had a son my age or something, I don’t know, but I was happy to take it. As for his advice – well, I have a lot of respect for the police, and I have no intention of underestimating them.
I’m willing to do almost anything to get ahead, but I’m not stupid.
Alone again, I walked the length of the cordon, left to right, snapping anything that looked appealing. Like I said, I’m new to this – I was aiming for quantity, in the hope I might get some quality.
There wasn’t much to see though; some officers, some cars, and a long, bland lawn that sloped down towards the house.  
Dejected, I was just about to start looking for neighbours when a pair of ground floor curtains slid open. I couldn’t see much from where I stood, but with my zoom lens handy it didn’t take me long to get a good view of the lounge – leather furniture, a wooden bookcase, and a widescreen TV big enough to play table tennis on.
There was also a forensic team in protective clothing.
I played around with the angles a bit, maxed out the zoom, but I couldn’t see any bodies. Then again, photos of fresh corpses wouldn’t feel very “Echo”.
It was just as I started to pan away that I saw the bug, stuck to the back of the bookcase. A “Whisper 3000”. Trust me, I should know. Great sound quality, damn easy to buy off the web… and easy to trace. There’s always a paper trail.
My breakfast started to kick up a fuss again.
Now, if I’d been a good little citizen I would have mentioned the bug to the smiling policeman – but I’m not a good little citizen. This was my big break, remember?
I looked carefully. The bookcase was maybe a few feet from the window, hugging the wall. The bug was high up. I could only just see it from one angle, and the police wouldn’t spot it from the inside; not unless they pulled the bookcase out. And why would they do that?
But if they were looking in from the outside…
I’m nothing if not proactive, so I turned towards the big copper and started yelling.
“Hey, am I allowed to take photos of inside the house? I mean, it’s great for the Echo, but I don’t want to get you guys in trouble.”
He turned, saw me pointing at the window, scowled at the open curtains, and started talking into a radio. Once the curtains were shut he walked over, thanked me, and promised the Echo an extended press release.
Result.
A few interviews with the neighbours later, and I was headed back to the office, ready to write an introductory piece. When the extended press release came through, Hansen even patted me on the back – but I still felt tense.
I needed that bug.
And that’s why I’m here now, crouched in a muddy puddle at three in the morning, with only a rosebush for company. My stomach’s roiling with every breath I take, every squelch I make, but there’s only one officer around, and she’s currently standing under a lean-to at the side of the house.  
I would feel sorry for her, but I’m in a far worse position than she is – if I screw this up, things will be getting custodial.
I hug the left side of the garden, well out of sight of the lean-to, and scuttle to the back door. To be honest I’m glad it’s raining – otherwise the officer might hear me picking the lock.
Not like I haven’t done it before.
Oh come on, don’t judge me! It’s a handy skill for an investigative journalist to have. Besides, there are so many training videos online I’m amazed everyone isn’t doing it.
I push the door gently, then slither through heavy curtains. Aromas slap at my nostrils – leather polish, traces of aftershave, and a hint of air freshener. The percussive thudding of the rain on the roof would normally soothe me, but knowing I’m about thirty feet from handcuffs is surprisingly unnerving.
I stand still for a while, controlling my breathing, letting my eyes adjust to the gloom. The impenetrable black cloak slowly dissolves into menacing shadows, then identifiable shapes; furniture and a closed door.
The bodies are gone.
The lounge is huge, running from the rear door all the way to the front windows. I’m relieved to see the curtains are still shut.
Creeping forward, I settle into a routine – check in front of me, then look to the closed door. Path, door. Path, door. Path…
Now I’m by the window, at the edge of the bookcase. I reach around behind it, careful not to lean in too close, careful not to knock it, careful not to make a sound.
Where is it?
The gloves mean I can’t feel the cobwebs I must be dusting, but if I can just…
There we go!
Twisting the small plastic box, I pull it gently away from the wood. I’ve probably left a dab of blu-tack behind, but I doubt that can be traced to me. I pocket the bug and make my way back across the room. No need to linger.
Peering through the back curtains, I’m glad to see the garden is still empty. I leave as carefully as I came in – though as I cross the grass, it feels like I’m looking over my shoulder into eternity.
Then I’m over the wall, and into the parkland beyond. Once I’ve washed and charity-bagged everything I’m wearing, I’ll be safe.
The smile’s unstoppable. I’ve got a lot to be happy about.
For a start, Katherine texted yesterday evening. She apologised about not making it in, and wants to see me again. Beautiful lady, but she really can’t handle her drink.
More importantly, my big break’s safe. I listened to some of the recordings at home earlier. It’s amazing how much the police chat. The inside information will really add flavour to my article.
True, it would have been better if the bug could have stayed there for a few more days, but leaving it would have been too risky.
Yeah, I made a rookie mistake – but like I said, I’m new to this.
I won’t be next time.

Judges Comments

Ben Howels' I'm New To This, the runner-up in our Unreliable Narrator Short Story Competition, is one of those stories that you read through, and then read again, backwards, combing it for the clues the writer has embedded within it. We know from the beginning that our unnamed narrator is keen to get on in his new job. By the end of the story, it becomes evident what lengths he will go to.

Ben has delivered his ambitious first-person narrator, and his murderous zest, with an infectious glee that gives the story a relentless pace. He's almost comical in his determination to convey his actions, but beneath this apparent transparency, Ben has neatly embedded the clues that, when pieced together, form the part of the story he isn't telling.

It's a well-told, well-paced tale, so snappy and lean that the one bit of padding (the remark 'Privacy as a paid-for privilege', which sounds like authorial comment) strikes an uncharacteristically bum note. I'm New To This, though, gives us a highly enjoyable (if unnerving) glimpse at life inside the mind of someone who will do whatever it takes to get on, with Ben skilfully laying a trail of information that, when reassembled in the light of what we're told, allows us to interpret the story beneath the one we're being presented with by a narrator with some very nasty goings on to hide.

 

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