Direct from Simon Toyne’s upcoming thiller, The Boy Who Saw, we have this incredible sneak peek extract to share with you:
‘Three may keep a secret, If two of them are dead.’
Nothing else smells like blood.
Blood mixed with fear is something else again. Josef Engel had not smelled it in over seventy years – seventy years and he still remembered it like the years had been nothing. And this time the smell was coming from him.
He stared down at his shrunken body, his head too heavy to lift, old skin drooping like canvas over the frame of his ribs. Blood dripped vivid against the white of it, leaking from cuts in his chest that formed the Star of David. Other wounds tickled as they bled, slashes on his back where he’d been whipped, puncture wounds from something that had pinched his flesh together to cause fresh pain when he thought he’d already felt every kind there was. The pain was everything now, burning like fire through flesh that remained oddly slack and useless.
The man had come right before closing, walking into the shop and embracing Josef like an old friend. Josef had embraced him back, surprised by the action of this man dressed all in black like a shadow. Then he had felt the pinprick on his neck and tried to pull away, but the shadow man had held him tight and a cold numbness had quickly spread out from the pinprick and into his whole body. He had tried to call for help but it had come out as a drooling moan and his head fell forward on neck muscles no longer able to support the weight of his skull. There was no one around to hear anyway and the man must have known, for he had not been agitated or hurried as he calmly steered Josef to the centre of his atelier through the headless mannequins. He had slumped to the floor in the centre of the room, his arthritic knees cracking like gunshots, another memory from seventy years ago.
Josef had watched the man’s shadow, cast by the skylights above, moving on the polished wooden floor as he removed Josef’s shirt. A blade had appeared close to his eyes, turning slowly so the light caught the sharpness of its edge before it moved to his chest and cut through white flesh down to the bone, the blood welling around the blade and dripping down his front to the floor. He had watched it all and gasped at the explosions of pain the blade drew from him, wondering how so much agony could be contained in his old body, and why the drugs that had numbed his muscles did nothing to block the pain. He was a prisoner in his own flesh, feeling everything but incapable of doing anything to stop it. Warmth spread over him as first his blood then his bladder and bowels emptied. When the smell of that hit him he had started to cry because the humiliation was painful too.
Josef had not been this afraid since the war, when pain and death had been commonplace in the labour camps. He had escaped death then but now it had caught up with him. He watched its shadow move away across the polished wooden floor, heard the front door being unlocked and hoped that maybe the shadow man was leaving. But the door was relocked and the shadow returned and something was placed on the floor in front of him.
Tears sprang to Josef’s eyes as he read the faded gold lettering on the wooden sewing machine box – Pfaff. It was the same make as the machine he had learned to sew on, before war had come and the world had gone dark, when all he’d wanted to do was listen to the purr of the busy needle and make beautiful things with it. Holes had been drilled in the curved top of the box and a small hatch fitted on one side with a sliding bolt keeping it shut. A faint scratching was coming from inside.
‘Du weißt warum dies dir passiert ist?’
The man’s German was accented and Josef didn’t recog-nize the voice. He tried to look up again but his head was still too heavy.
‘You know why this has happened to you?’ the voice repeated, and a phone appeared in front of Josef’s face, the light from the screen too bright in the evening gloom.
‘Erinnerst du dich hieran?’ the voice asked.
Josef squinted against the brightness and looked at the black-and-white photograph displayed on the phone.
‘Erinnerst du dich hieran?’ the voice repeated. ‘Remember this?’
Josef did remember.
A hand swiped the screen and more photographs appeared, stark images of terrible things Josef had witnessed with his own eyes: piles of bodies in mass graves; skeletons behind wire fences, on their knees in the mud, too weak to stand, their bony shoulders tenting striped uniforms, shaved heads hanging forward while men in grey uniforms stood over them with whips and guns or the strained leashes of snarling dogs in their leather-gloved hands.
‘You should have died in the camp,’ the voice said. ‘We should have wiped away the stain of you back then when we had the chance.’
Josef stared into eyes sunk deep in skull-like faces and imagined bony hands reaching out for him across the distance of seventy lost years, and pushing into his chest.
‘Der bleiche Mann,’ he whispered, his numbed tongue blurring the words.
The shadow on the floor moved closer. ‘Tell me about him. Tell me about the pale man.’
‘Er kommt,’ Josef replied, his tongue wrapping around a language he had not spoken in decades. ‘He is coming.’ His mind was drifting now, fogged by the intense pain spreading out from his chest. ‘He will save me und die Anderen . . . Comme la dernière fois. He will come and save us again.’
‘Die Anderen,’ the voice said. ‘Tell me about the others. Tell me what happened back in the camp. State your name and give me your confession.’
Josef hesitated for a moment before starting to speak, the words flowing out of him in a steady stream, loosened by the drug and the feeling that as long as he continued to talk he would be allowed to live. ‘I kept it safe,’ Josef said when he had finished his confession, his hands tingling as the drug began to wear off. He reached up to where the skeleton fingers continued to tear at his heart and pain bloomed.
‘What did you keep safe?’ ‘The list,’ Josef gasped. ‘Tell me about the list.’
‘Der weiße Anzug,’ Josef clutched his chest and pushed back against the pain. ‘The white suit. We promised to keep it safe and we did. All these years we kept it safe.’
Josef managed to raise his head a little and stared up at the outline of his killer silhouetted against the skylights. The man reached down and Josef closed his eyes and braced himself for some new pain, but something touched his face and he opened his eyes again and saw a white tissue in the man’s hand, dabbing at the blood around his eyes as gently as a mother cleaning jam from a child’s mouth. Josef started to weep at this unexpected gesture of kindness. He could smell disinfectant on the man’s hand and saw that he was wearing thin surgical gloves the same colour as skin.
‘Remember the camp,’ the man asked, ‘remember what it was like at the very end, all those bodies piling up and no one left to bury them?’ He moved over to the wooden box and twisted the tissue until blood squeezed out between his latex-covered fingers. ‘Do you remember the rats?’ He bent down and fed the tapered end of the tissue into one of the larger holes and the scratching intensified. ‘All those walking skeletons but the rats never went hungry, did they?’ The tissue twitched and was tugged inside the box with a flurry of squeaks and scratching. ‘I caught these rats near a chicken farm almost a week ago. They haven’t eaten much since – only each other. I wonder how many there are left?’ He reached down for the bolt holding the hatch shut and Josef felt panicked pain explode in his chest. ‘Or you could tell me more about the white suit and I’ll keep the box shut.’
Tears dripped down Josef’s face, stinging as they salted the wounds on his chest. The pain was unbearable now. He had never escaped the camp, not really. He had carried it with him all this time, and now it was bursting out of him again.
‘Tell me about the suit.’ The man slid the latch across but held the door shut.
‘The pale man,’ Josef said, shaking uncontrollably, his breathing shallow. ‘We made it for him.’ He dragged his eyes from the box and looked desperately over at the door
as if hoping he might be standing there. ‘He said he would come for it. He said it would keep us safe. We made a deal. He will—’
Pain erupted inside Josef, a jagged explosion of glass and fire that forced all the air from his lungs. His eyes flew wide and he crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath but getting none. He lay on his side and saw a thimble lying deep under one of the workbenches, worn and familiar and bent to the shape of his finger over long years of work, the same thimble he’d had back in the camp, back in that cellar. He had lost it a month or so ago and looked for it everywhere. And there it was. And here was he. The pain was consuming him now. Swallowing him whole. Pulling him down. His killer dropped to the floor, cutting off his view of the lost thimble, and Josef felt a pressure on his neck and smelled rubber and disinfectant as fingers checked for a pulse. Josef’s view shifted as he was rolled on to his back and he heard a thud and felt a fist hammer down on the centre of his chest, heard a rib crack but didn’t feel anything because the pain inside him was already too great.
Josef looked beyond the silhouette of the man and up to the sky where thin white clouds slid across the deepening blue sky. He had worked in this room for over forty years but this was the first time he could remember looking up. He had never looked at the sky in the camp either, had always found it too painful to gaze up at such simple, bound-less beauty when all around him was ugliness and horror.
The man continued to pound on his chest but Josef knew it was pointless. There was no saving him now. The man in the white suit was not coming. He would not cheat Death a second time. He took a last, deep, jagged breath. Stared up at the indigo sky. And closed his eyes.
Want to read more? The Boy Who Saw will be out in hardback on 15th June! Pre-order now: http://amzn.to/2q8lbTn