Andrew French - Runner up

Competition: Crime or Thriller Short Story Competition

Born in the urban jungle in the north-east of England, now living with the coast on one side and the countryside on the other. Currently working on two manuscripts and a number of short stories. Made the shortlist for Strands Publishers Water anthology. Shortlisted for Eyelands 7th International Short Story Contest 2017 and will be published in their anthology.

 

 

Andrew French

The Switch

It would be the biggest job I’d ever done, to steal something so important: to take a life to save my own.
A very long time ago, when I still had a home, a job and a wife, I’d read an article claiming that somewhere in the world every one of us possessed a doppelganger, another human who looked like us in every way. I dismissed it as eloquent nonsense and never thought of it again until I literally ran into mine.
Five years of living on the streets and every day was a struggle: finding enough to eat and drink, sheltering from the worst of the elements, avoiding abuse from the general public, dealing with harassment from the police, and confronting violence from your fellow homeless citizens. The worst of these had grandly christened themselves the Kings of the Streets.
The Kings would seek us out on a regular basis, those that were below them in the pecking order, to take anything and everything they thought would be useful to them. If you had nothing they wanted then they would enjoy themselves with a bit of torture at your expense. They had particular favourites for this and I was fleeing from them when I stumbled around the corner and into the arms of Charles Foster Marlow.
We fell and thrashed around on the floor, squashed into each other’s arms like two strangers instantly regretting their frenzied one night stand. As I lay on top of him, our faces no more than a few inches apart, I could feel the shock vibrating through both of our bodies: for him it was because of being bundled to the ground by one of the great unwashed; for me it was the revelation that doppelgangers did exist and that mine was currently cursing into my face.
His hair was immaculate, cut short and neat with not a strand out of place; mine was long, down below my shoulders and unwashed for more than a year. His face was blemish free and smelt as if the most expensive moisturising creams glided across that perfect skin at least twice a day; I had twelve months of beard obscuring my good looks. He was incapable of recognising our perfect duplicity like an ape unaware of its shared ancestry with the human race.
Before he could chastise me anymore I was up and running and heading out and under the bridge over the river, finding a place in the shadows where I could discover what treasure I’d stolen from my doppelganger. His wallet was full of credit cards, medical details, home address and even his identity card for work: partner in one of the city’s largest firms of lawyers.
The prospect of committing cold – blooded murder was not something that I took lightly but my existence as a homeless person was already teetering on a perilous precipice; if the Kings didn’t end my life soon then the lifestyle would.
While my prey was reporting his stolen wallet and cancelling his credit cards I went and sat in the dark across from his home. I observed him follow the same weekly routine: Monday to Friday he left for work at seven in the morning, returning at seven in the evening. At the weekend he visited the same exclusive nightclub; the Mosley, where he left with a different woman each time, always back to their place, never to his.
His work routine was long but he went to lunch for an hour at twelve every day, visiting the cafe across the street to order scrambled eggs, two slices of toast, three rashers of bacon and a single artisan sausage. All washed down with strong black tea, in which he plopped two large sugar cubes.
It was a solitary period for my doppelganger, apart from the newspaper that he took with him. He pored over every piece of text on those black pages, always ending with the crossword.
He would always leave the paper behind after finishing his meal and, when I got the chance, I would walk over to the empty table and grab the discarded pages into my eager arms. The staff must have thought that it was just another homeless man in a desperate search for something to keep warm at night; in reality, I wanted to immerse my mind in the same things that he’d been reading.
It was early Saturday morning when I was sitting outside the flat of my doppelganger’s latest squeeze. I just had to wait for him to follow his usual procedure – leave between three and four in the morning, have a cigarette, then phone for his taxi.
Two hours of waiting until he stepped out into the gloom. As he lit his expensive lighter I stepped into the flickering illumination. He stared right through me, still intoxicated by his recent cocktail of sex and booze. I transmitted a sense of urgency back into his brain by shoving his stolen wallet into the immediacy of his vision, before snatching it away again and walking away and into the alley.
As I heard him cursing behind me I gripped on to the knife in my right pocket; in the left was the coup de grace. Fifty yards into the narrow shadows I felt his alcoholic breath on the back of my neck.  He was trying to say something to me but I closed my mind to all sounds and swivelled on my feet and thrust the blade straight into his Adam’s apple. I pushed him backwards and into the pile of rubbish that was strewn across the floor.
As I slowly removed the knife he continued trying to talk but the blood was already congealing in the wound, his body struggling against me as I started to remove his clothes, beginning with his jacket and shirt before any blood crept on to them.
I made sure that the house keys and new wallet were there before stripping him of shoes, socks, trousers and underwear. He was still gurgling something when I lifted him up and dressed him in the rags that I’d been wearing for the best part of a year, resting his head back onto the ground when his words finally escaped the river of blood that was choking him.
‘The children.’
Maybe he had kids after all? That would be problematic.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I can’t wait.’
I retrieved the can of gasoline from where I’d placed it and poured it over him, concentrating on his face and hands. I’d already turned and was heading back onto the street when the match landed on to his saturated chest. I walked a couple of miles before using his phone to call a taxi to take me to my new home.
It didn’t take long before I was turning the keys in the lock and stepping into the house, turning the TV on to a news channel, and then finding his laptop to open up a local news website. I thanked my doppelganger for keeping all of his passwords in his wallet.
The news flickered across the screens while I went upstairs to run a bath; there was a year’s worth of dirt that had to be scrubbed from my skin. As the water splashed across the porcelain I found some scissors in the bathroom cupboard and started to hack away at my hair; then my face enjoyed the luxury of an expensive shaving kit.
After an hour I went downstairs to check the news; it was too early in the morning for any reports so I left both screens on and went back upstairs and crawled into bed.
It was nearly noon when I woke. Standing in the shower I went over the next part of the plan again: phone his work on Monday and go on long term sick leave, eventually quitting the job and selling this house.
There was mild panic in my heart when I was getting dressed and I thought I heard voices downstairs, breathing normally again when I realised that the TV was still on. A quick scan through the news channels revealed nothing about last night; it was exactly as I hoped it would be – the death of another homeless person, no matter how grotesque, would mean nothing to most people.
I switched the TV off and got set to explore my new abode when those human sounds came again, this time coming from beneath my feet. I walked out of the living room and into the kitchen to see if there was an exit to a basement but found nothing. Then I remembered coming in last night and seeing what looked like a study on the other side of the lobby. The voices got louder as I made my way there.
The room was crammed with books and yellowing newspapers but at the far end, slightly hidden away, I could see another door. I tried the handle but it was locked, forcing me back into the living room and grabbing the house keys.
One of those fitted the lock and turned; I pushed the handle and saw a light switch on the left. The crying got louder as I walked down the steps and stared at the two girls that were chained together on the floor. My mind was a whirl of horror and confusion when I heard the front door being smashed apart above me. By the time the uniformed police came down the steps there were three of us crying in the basement.
A neighbour had heard the noise of the TV blaring all night and thought that something had happened inside so called the police. A search of the house uncovered enough disturbing material to warrant them to dig up the floor of the basement, where they found the bodies of ten others.
The trial was short, my sentence long. My cell door is open and the other inmates are on their way to see me. I close my eyes and dream of the open streets once again.

Judges Comments

In The Switch, the runner-up in our competition for crime and thriller stories, Andrew French neatly draws together two familiar storytelling tropes - doppelgangers and 'be careful what you wish for' - and weaves these threads skilfully into a neat, nasty  story of crime and punishment with resonances of something otherworldly and deeply unpleasant.

Without a thought for the consequences of his actions beyond improving his own lot, Andrew's destitute narrator preys on his doppelganger with the intention of stealing not just his identity, but a lifestyle which is in total contrast with his own. This is the sole motive for his actions: self-improvement. There's no moral ambiguity here: the narrator plans a crime and is as guilty as hell of committing it. But Andrew's twist in a story that already, thanks to the use of the doppelaganger, has resonances of the uncanny, is that the narrator is completely outstripped in unpleasantness by his victim. The narrator is amoral and venal; he has stolen the identity of someone who outclasses him on every level, including his capacity for evil. It's a very well told, pleasingly disturbing tale of the unexpected where in getting away with the crime he committed, our narrator inherits the punishment for crimes almost too horrible to imagine.

Back to Showcase