No one walks through London with a machete.
Unless you count the two men passing him just now. Niall had already wrapped up taking pictures of the spot where the Effra River had once emptied into the Thames, when one of the two men looked back at him. The man’s gaze lingered a split second too long, his eyes offering an invitation. At least, that is how they seemed to Niall. Perhaps the man wanted to challenge him, defy him. Hey, look what we can do. Nobody is even trying to stop us. Here in this city, which bans all rubbish bins anywhere near government buildings out of fear that someone might plant a bomb in them. As if bins were the only places where people deposited such things.
Niall actually had a lot to take care of before the shoot next week. He needed to decide what he was going to film, which camera angles would work best, which scenes would make the most sense. Then grocery shopping and home… actually. But now he was trailing the two men, the machetes making him both vaguely uneasy and a little curious. Besides, an underground river was hardly going to disappear on him.
The men strode along the southern bank of the Thames and under the railroad bridge, before turning left and walking a short way along the edge of the park. They did not seem to be in any particular hurry. Although they passed other pedestrians, nobody paid them the slightest attention. Everyone was focused on their own thoughts, their own lives.
Actors, Niall concluded, on their way to an audition or a film shoot. But why would actors have to bring their own props? A small acting troupe, perhaps. Or showoffs with something to prove. A dare like they did for stag nights, just not something silly this time, something with weapons. There had to be a reason. Should he call the police? Or should he wait a few minutes? After all, they were not bothering anyone and did not seem all that dangerous, despite the machetes. In any case, they were carrying the weapons confidently, as if they were toys. Maybe they were. Surreptitiously, Niall snapped off a few photos. Nobody would believe him later on if he had no proof.
They looked like brothers from behind: same height, similar build, jeans and sneakers. As far as Niall could tell, they both had short black hair, dark brown skin, and neat beards. One of them wore a green tee-shirt, the other a blue one. Nothing else distinguished them, at least, not from the back and at a distance.
They turned into the park, before coming to a halt. They were chatting, as they had been doing off and on the whole time, occasionally laughing. They even glanced back at him once to make sure he was still there, which did not seem to bother them at all.
Niall was still holding his phone, ready to call 999 at any moment. But nothing happened. The machete men just stood there cheerfully, as if waiting on someone. Niall guessed they were somewhat younger than him, though not by much. Mid- or late twenties. Both very fit. The one in the blue shirt was quite attractive: regular, open facial features, large, watchful eyes. With his thinner lips and more closely set eyes, the one in the green shirt looked more secretive.
Two joggers were wheezing their way through the park, while a young woman pushed a stroller alongside another woman of about the same age. A boy, twentyish, strode past Niall and cut across the grass.
Since nobody else seemed disturbed by the machetes, Niall decided they had to be toy swords. The men were meeting here in the park for some kind of role-playing game, and their friends would show up any minute with more toy weapons, perhaps even in costume. All of it harmless. Good thing he had put off calling the police, since he would have just made a fool of himself. Niall snapped off a few more pictures of the men before turning around and walking off.
He had almost reached the edge of the park when he heard someone start screaming, followed by several voices yelling all at once. He spun back around. The machete men were threatening someone: the boy who had walked past him so resolutely. His hands were thrown up, as if in surrender, and he kept crying out, “Leave me alone.” Although he was much taller than the other two and as fit they were, he seemed off-balance, vulnerable. He was alone against the two of them, and they were armed. They were keeping him at bay with their machetes: one of them in front, the other behind, their knees slightly flexed as if about to jump. With their arms spread out and their weapons as extensions, they seemed about to embrace each other.
The joggers had come to a stop close to Niall, and they were also watching the three men.
Niall still gripped his phone, but instead of calling the police, he tapped the camera symbol.
“Call the police,” he instructed the joggers.
Both of them reached for their phones.
“What for?” one of them asked, as his companion dialed 999. “You’re holding yours.”
“I’m filming,” Niall said.
“Twit,” the other one snapped.
The man in the blue shirt lunged, aiming for the boy’s throat, but he ended up striking his left arm which was raised in defense. With a howl of pain, the boy fell back a step and doubled over, as he tried to press shut the bloody gash on his upper left arm with his right hand. The man in the green shirt was also filming everything with his phone. Niall heard him tell his friend: “One more time. You’re not done yet.” It was as if he were supervising a motorcycle repair job.
“That’s what I’m doing,” the one in blue replied, before kicking the injured boy in the back of the knees so he crumpled into the grass. Between sobs, the boy cursed his attackers, then the man in blue bent down and started stabbing.
The one in green cheered him on: “Yeah, that’s right. You’re doing great!”
“I know.” The other one sounded irritated. Even after the victim’s agonized screams broke off, the attacker continued stabbing, though less enthusiastically than before.
“It takes a while,” the one with the phone commented.
“I know,” the other man repeated. His movements grew sluggish, until he was just jabbing the body with the tip of his sword. His friend circled the two of them, filming. The attacker finally gave up and lazily slashed his machete through the air, blood dribbling from the blade and down his hands. His shirt was also covered in splattered blood, and beads of sweat mingled with the boy’s blood on his face.
The man in green lowered his phone, nodded encouragingly at his friend, and slapped him on the shoulder, before glancing over at Niall, the joggers and the other people who had gathered around them. Spectators. The fascination of death was always stronger than fear.
“We have an audience,” the man in green declared.
The murderer followed his gaze and straightened himself up to his full height. “That’s good.”
Fade to Black
Zoë Beck, Rachel Hildebrandt (Trans.)
© Zoë Beck, 2014
German version published March 2015, Heyne
English translation forthcoming from Weyward Sisters, Spring 2017
Zoë Beck writes, translates (fiction from English), and co-directs with Jan Karsten the publishing company CulturBooks. She studied English and German literature in Giessen, Bonn and Durham, after which she became a creative producer for international film productions. Since 2004, Zoë has been engaged as an editor, scriptwriter and director for dubbed film and television productions, in addition to her work as a novelist and translator. Her first publication in English is A Contented Man and Other Stories from Weyward Sisters. Zoë now lives in Berlin, and her next novel will be published in 2017. Her awards include the following:
2010 Friedrich Glauser Prize for „Best Crime Short Fiction“
2014 Crime Prize from Radio Bremen
2016 German Crime Fiction Prize (national), Third Place, for Schwarzblende (Fade to Black)
With degrees in art history and historic preservation, Rachel Hildebrandt worked for years as a historical consultant and editor before transitioning to literary translation. She has published both fiction and nonfiction works in translation, including Herr Faustini Takes a Trip by Wolfgang Hermann (KBR Media), Link and Lerke (KBR Media), and Collision by Merle Kroeger (forthcoming September 2017, Unnamed Press). Rachel is also the founder and publisher at Weyward Sisters Publishing, which focuses exclusively on translations of crime and noir fiction by women authors from the German-speaking countries.
“Already in the first paradoxical lines of her new thrillers, Zoë Beck’s new thriller provides a Kafkaesque shock. […] The young German author carries this sober tone through to the end of the novel. This might be the reason why the impossible seems to function for her: fictionalizing a contemporary, political hot topic and capturing it in words.” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14.4.2015
“The Berliner Zoë Beck has mastered the ability to transfer contemporary phenomena into stories that have about as many layers as her novels have pages.” Die Welt, 13.3.2015
“This is criminal fiction at its best: radical, gripping, contemporary – essential.” Die Zeit, 5.3.2015
“Fade to Black is a political thriller that analyzes and dissects a society frozen in the face of terror (whether Islamicist or Anti-Islamicist in nature). You could hardly find something more contemporary or timely. A smashing success.” WDR/Funkhaus Europa, 31.3.2015