Aliya Whiteley lives in Lincoln, UK. She has been writing for ten years and 'The Message' is her first mystery short story. Her romance/mystery novel, 'Caught By The Cougar' is currently available as an E-book through the Leaky Pen Press.
The plan was to get drunk.
The barman stopped polishing the glasses and stared at me as I walked in; dinner would not be over for another hour. The other passengers were gorging on overdone beef and sticky roast potatoes. I had the bar to myself.
I sat down on the stool opposite him and ordered a Black Russian, straight glass, no ice, which he delivered double-quick. I drained the liquid and felt the mellow spread of alcohol through my body. Then I ordered another.
The barman asked me if I was okay. I told him yes. I was used to telling lies - lies used to be my job.
I worked hard then, telling myself it was for my future. I was an administrator of pensions, and I knew the importance of paying in regular money. I had my picture postcard retirement in my head; I was waiting for the country cottage and the world cruise.
And then I moved departments to Annuities. I took phone calls from people who were trying to live on a pittance; people who had paid in their regular money for years. People who had followed the rules, and believed the lie that everything would turn out well in the end.
So I quit my job, took out my savings, and treated myself to that cruise. By my last night on board, I couldnt remember any of the sights I had seen. So, time to get drunk; so drunk that I could move to the rail of the ship, lose my balance, and not feel my skin freezing and my lungs bursting as I took away the future, because I was determined not to start again.
Then I felt his eyes upon me.
He loomed large in the doorway, stiff backed with vanity.
The barman straightened as the man approached and ordered something in a murmur. The voice contained purpose. It sent an electric charge through my stomach.
I bowed my head as he occupied the stool next to me. He wore a sharp, tailored suit and his hair was stylishly cut. He had my attention and he knew it.
"I have a message for you," he said.
"Oh, really?" I ran my forefingers up the straight lines of my glass. It sounded like a pick up line, and a not very good one at that. I waited, but he did not elaborate, not even after he took a mouthful of his tumbler of whisky.
He broke the silence "Ive been watching you."
"And youve been watching me," he said. He smiled as he delivered that rehearsed line.
He was right. I had watched him during the long lunches and buffet breakfasts, putting mouthfuls of food mechanically in my mouth whilst following him with my eyes. He was different from the other passengers; I had sensed that on the first day.
This was the start of a game. I could tell that he wanted me to lie. He wanted to chase a liar. So instead I told him the truth.
"Yes, Ive watched you. Youre confident of yourself, arent you?"
"Im confident of you. I understand you." I finished my second Black Russian and he immediately ordered another.
"Try to make this one last. Id rather you didnt escape the conversation through alcohol."
"I came here to drink. I can order my own drinks," I said, raising my chin.
"Havent you ever been told no?"
"Not by a stranger."
"But I know you," he said. For the first time I thought that he might tell me something that would stop me from carrying out my decision to end it. I concentrated on the life of lies that I would return to - such thoughts turned me back into a rock, immutable. I picked up my glass, determined to drain it. I clashed eyes with him and ended up taking a sip instead.
"Did you ever pick the wrong girl tonight," I told him.
"Desperation attracts me," he replied.
"What a sad admission. Do you want a round of applause for it?"
"I want us both to feel better. I want my desperation to mingle with yours." He adjusted his tie with his fingers and then dropped one hand on to the bar, baring his wrist to me. It was a vulnerable gesture, designed to charm. I felt something stir inside me.
"I find it hard to believe youre desperate," I said.
"Do you? Why? Here you are, sitting in a gold dress, tanned limbs bare, smiling the smile of a flirtatious woman, and only your clenched fists give you away. Cant you do me the courtesy of believing the same thing about me?"
I looked at his long fingers, still against his glass. "I cant see any weakness in you. You dont clench your fists."
He grinned. His pleasure told me he had been building towards this moment. "Thats because Ive reached a decision. A decision makes everything easy." His eyes held mine. "And I know what youre running from. You hate life. You hate knowing its all a scam. Tell me about it. I want to hear it. I can take it."
The brittle shell of my armour was collapsing. His words had pierced it, leaving me unguarded. "Ive got nothing to say," I whispered into my glass.
"Thats not true," he said, and I was glad he had seen through my final lie.
And then I began to speak, my mouth spitting out words as if they were poison. I told him why I didnt want to live any more; why I couldnt go back to watching people living their entire lives for the sake of dreams that were never going to come true.
I poured it all into him and he took it, disgust or disapproval never crossing his face.
When I stopped, stuttering and shaking, I was a long way from exhaustion. For the first time since the cruise began I felt energy course through me.
"Thank you," I said.
"No, I should be thanking you," he said. "You have almost restored my faith in humanity."
I must have looked confused, and he continued. "Not faith in the mass out there who make the world a shouting, struggling place. They're not human. You are. You see and understand this as I do - I've found another human. And, believe me, I've been searching a long time."
I realised that meeting him had not changed my decision. In fact, it had strengthened my resolve. I had been waiting to find the ability to act, through alcohol or despair, but in speaking to him, Id found it. And, somehow, he knew it as well.
I told him what I planned to do, and asked him if he would to try to stop me.
I saw no pity in his eyes, not even judgement. Only agreement. "How can I, when it's all I want, too?"
"I don't understand."
"I told you - I have a message for you," he said. He leaned forward, holding my arm beneath my elbow. He was hot, alive, intelligent, exciting to me, and his body told me that I had the same effect on him. "The message is this. You want to be dead. And I want to kill you."
I started to laugh. A great wave of freedom crashed down over me, and I was borne along in it.
He laughed with me. "We have different solutions to the same problem," he said. "We both hate life. You want to run away from it. I want to track it down and kill it. But I need a willing volunteer for the first time. So I can get the hang of it."
"Are you stalling, or changing your mind?"
"Just finishing my drink." I took the last mouthful and felt nothing but release. The moment I had been searching for had come.
"Right, let's do it."
We walked out of the bar into the crisp air of the night. The safety rail was icy to the touch but I grasped it with whitening knuckles, watching the oil black sea pass around the cutting metal of the ship, opening and closing over its path.
He did not try to take my hand or kiss me as I had expected. His smile hung in the air and suddenly I understood that this was not an elaborate joke at my expense. This was real. He meant for me to die. All certainty I had evaporated, and I was left with nothing to hold on to. If only he had taken my hand and kissed me, I might have let him do it.
"Wait," I croaked, but he was already pushing me, trying to force my stiff body over the rail, and I reached up for his tie, pulling it tightly around his neck. It was an automatic reaction to twist down as he scrabbled for freedom, and then his mouth, so sure and confident a moment before, formed a half-moon of surprise as he fell away from the rail, away from me.
He fell into the sea.
I stood for several minutes, not wishing to raise an alarm and so start time moving again, but eventually it did, as it must. I explained it as an accident, and the next day I left the ship behind me.
Life chose to continue.
I have become a different person, with a very different game to play. One that gets me through the nine to five and gives me a reason to live.
The party is boring, but Im hopeful it will improve as I walk outside into the darkness of the street and wait. Theres a soft cough by my shoulder and I know now that I dont have to hurry to respond. With a new-born grace I straighten up just enough to see the outline approach me. The streetlights catch his profile and reveal a new contender; not as predatory, not as aware, but not a bad start since Ive only just learnt the rules. Hes smaller, and rounder, and he leans towards me as if hed trust me with his soul.
"Did you follow me out here?" I ask him, wagging a finger at him.
"No. But Ive wanted to talk to you. You could call this a lucky coincidence."
"I could," I agreed. "You know, you have immaculate timing. I like that in a man."
"Really? I dont suppose you were looking for someone to share the stars with?"
I shake my head and tilt it slowly to one side, sliding one hand into my handbag to slide around the knife I have started to keep inside it. "I have a message for you."