Jonathan Barnes

The Somnambulist

Chapter 1

Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.

Yet I cannot be held wholly responsible for its failings. I have good reason for presenting you with so sensational and unlikely an account.

It is all true. Every word of what follows actually happened, and I am merely the journalist, the humble Boswell, who has set it down. You’ll have realized by now that I am new to this business of storytelling, that I lack the skill of an expert, that I am without any ability to enthrall the reader, to beguile with narrative tricks or charm with sleight of hand.

But I can promise you three things: to relate events in their neatest and most appropriate order; to omit nothing I consider significant; and to be as frank and free with you as I am able.

I must ask you in return to show some little understanding for a man come late in life to tale-telling, an artless dilettante who, on dipping his toes into the shallows of a story, hopes only that he will not needlessly embarrass himself.

One final thing, one final warning: in the spirit of fair play, I ought to admit that I shall have reason to tell you more than one direct lie.

What, then, should you believe? How will you distinguish truth from fiction?

Naturally, I leave that to your discretion.

Chapter 2

We begin with Cyril Honeyman.

Honeyman was a gross, corpulent little man, permanently sweaty, whose jowls flapped and quivered as he walked. His death is a matter of pages away.

Please don’t get attached to him. I’ve no intention of detailing his character at any length — he’s insignificant, a walk-on, a corpse-in-waiting.

But you should, perhaps, know this: Cyril Honeyman was an actor, and a bad one. And by ‘bad’ I mean more than simply incompetent. He was wholly and irredeemably awful, an affront to his profession, an ham who had bought his way into theatre and squandered on plum parts the vast allowance he was granted by his overly indulgent parents. At the time of his death he was preparing to play Paris in a production of Romeo and Juliet at some luckless fleapit desperate for cash, and on the night itself he was out carousing with the rest of the cast, the majority of whom were almost as wretchedly talentless as he. He left them around midnight, saying that he was returning home to work on his lines, though he had, in truth, a different destination and quite another pastime in mind. He walked for the best part of an hour, leaving the theatre district behind him and moving with clammy-palmed purpose toward one of the seamiest parts of the city. Just being there excited him. He enjoyed the sense of transgression it gave him, its whiff of illegality.

He moved through the streets for what felt like an age, breathing in the noisome air of the place, reveling in the dirt and degradation of its inhabitants. The train station had been closed for hours, any respectable residents had long since retired to bed, and the streets found themselves given over to veniality and vice. Honeyman shook with illicit pleasure as he ventured further into this latter-day Gomorrah, through the darkened alleyways and thoroughfares lit only by the sickly, guttering light of the gas lamps. A mist had descended, lending the streets an eerie, phantasmagoric sheen, and the people Honeyman passed seemed vague and insubstantial, only partially real, like characters in a story book. They called out to him, begging for food or alms, promising clandestine pleasures or offering themselves for money, but Honeyman strutted past them all. He had been here too often, had become jaded and bored and accustomed to the sight of mankind sunk to its lowest and most degraded state. Tonight he sought new and baser pleasures. He wanted to fall further into corruption.

Silhouetted beneath a gas lamp stood a figure of a woman. She was well dressed for her surroundings, a new bonnet perched decorously upon her head, and her figure, lissome and lithe, was lent emphasis by a dress which showed a good deal more flesh than polite company would ever have allowed. Her skin looked as though it had once been porcelain white, but now was pitted and scarred and crusting over with a layer of grime. The city was cruel to women like her.

Honeyman drew closer and doffed his hat in greeting. Even beneath the greasy ochre of the lamp her youth and beauty shone through. A fallen woman, certainly — but only recently. A woman of the unfortunate type but one still new and fresh to the game.

“Looking for something?” she asked.

Honeyman stared back, his eyes licking her shamelessly. Surely, she couldn’t be more than eighteen. Almost a child.

He gave a furtive grin. “Might be.”

“Want to know how much?”

He mumbled: “Go on.”

“Enough to get me a bed tonight. That’s all I ask.”

“My dear. You’re far too precious a thing to be dawdling out here. You’re a pearl amongst swine.”

If she noticed his crude compliment she gave no sign. “Want to come with me?”

“You have somewhere in mind?”

“Somewhere safe. Private, like. So we can get more intimately acquainted.” Doing her best to play the coquette, the woman gave a crooked smile. She was tired, probably drunk, and the pretense was obvious, but Honeyman, his ardor now inflamed, saw only a lascivious girl, a wanton, a sylph waiting to be conquered. She moved away and he followed without thinking. Before long his thighs grew sticky with perspiration, rubbing uncomfortably together as he walked. He grimaced, half in pleasure, half in pain.

“How much further?”

“Not far.”

They walked in silence for a time before the woman paused and pointed upwards. “There.”

Honeyman stopped short as a vast structure reared out of the darkness above him — a thing horribly out of place in the modern age, perverse in its anachronism. Wreathed by the night, illuminated only by the anemic light of the moon, it resembled some primeval monument, a slab of Stonehenge wrenched from Salisbury Plain and thrust unaltered into the depths of the city.

“What is it?” he whispered.

She spat upon the pavement and Honeyman tried hard not to show his distaste at her vulgarity.

“Don’t worry about that. You coming up?”

“Up there? Why?”

“Best place to do it.” Her client looked unconvinced. “You’ll like it,” she wheedled. “It’s more of a thrill this way. More exciting. More dangerous.”

Honeyman gave in. “Let’s go up, then,” he said, and noticed as they drew closer to the tower that it appeared to be constructed entirely from a smooth, sheer metal which glinted ominously in the moonlight. The woman produced a key and let them inside, and Honeyman warily followed, taking especial care to bolt the door behind him.

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