Conrad stood behind the lectern and retrieved his notes from his jacket pocket. As he placed them in front of him, he noticed his hands were shaking slightly and he could feel a growing knot in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly he felt way out of his depth. Taking a deep breath, he began.
‘It was on my first day at university that I met Don. I arrived at my hall of residence and was directed to the room that I would be sharing with another fresher. I was the first to arrive and was beginning to unpack when a whirlwind of energy exploded into the room, heavily disguised under a mop of improbably long curly hair and an affected cockney accent. That was my first meeting with Don. For both of us it was our first time away from home and we were both searching for our adult identities. I think it’s true to say we spent the intervening years still looking, however, we remained firm friends from that day until…well…now,’ Conrad paused and looked around at his audience. Amongst most of them he could see the faraway smiles and glistening eyes of once happy, now sad, memories provoked.
Then he saw something else. As he scanned the room, he took in the two doorways, one at the far end directly facing him through which everyone had entered, and the other to his right, the congregation’s left, through which everyone would exit to a small terrace. Standing by each of these portals was a man in a dark suit. The one at the back was tall with lank hair while the other to Conrad’s right was shorter and tubbier with shaved head. No one could leave the chapel without walking within an arm’s length of one of them.
The anticipated threat had materialised, of that he was certain.
Again Conrad felt his stomach turn as adrenaline coursed through his body. He looked back at the mourners who were gazing at him expectantly. He had paused for slightly too long, preoccupied with his impending predicament. After discreetly clearing his throat he continued.
The rest of his eulogy passed in a blur as far as Conrad was concerned. Although it was his voice doing the talking, his brain wasn’t concentrating on what he was saying. Thankful for his notes, Conrad delivered the rest of the speech on automatic pilot while his mind raced, working out his next move. He became aware of silence pervading the chapel and realised that he must have finished and not even noticed. He looked the faces turned toward him and couldn’t avoid glancing at the two men guarding the exits. Their presence mocked the memory of a man who sought only to speak out against injustice, fuelling Conrad’s growing ire and outrage that their presence should intimidate and threaten him. He resolved that one day, somehow, he would exact revenge on these two men whose faces he would now remember forever.
The vicar was at his side interrupting his reverie by gently touching his elbow to usher him back to his seat.
‘Let us pray,’ he intoned as Conrad resumed his place.
As the final prayer ended, the sound of Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavanne” filled the space as it played through the chapel’s sound system, its intensity gripping the congregation and tears flowed freely. As the piece reached its first climax, the coffin slowly began to slide toward the beech door that led to the furnace. The door slid noiselessly open and the coffin passed elegantly through. As it did, the thick velvet curtains closed with a slight audible whir of an electric motor, masking Don Silver’s final journey.
As the music meandered through its haunting melodic and harmonic climaxes to a conclusion, the vicar explained that everyone was now at liberty to leave by the door on the left and view the floral tributes. Slowly, people rose to their feet and began to make their way unhurriedly down the aisle toward the door and soon a large, jumbled crowd had gathered at the front of the chapel, making their way to the exit.
This was the moment Conrad had been anticipating. He rose to his feet but kept his head down, crouching slightly to stay out of the sight lines of the man positioned at each exit. Looking between the people around him, he caught glimpses of them hopping from foot to foot, craning their necks after losing sight of their quarry.
Conrad made his way as quickly as he could to the front of the chapel and nimbly stepped up to the lectern. Maintaining his ungainly stooping gait, he rapidly crossed to the blue velvet curtains and disappeared behind them. Once out of sight, he fished his mobile out of his pocket and pressed the auto-dial for Charlotte’s number. While waiting for it to connect, he examined the dais where the coffin had stood. The beech door through which it had passed lay half open as if the mechanism that operated it had given up before it slid into the fully closed position.
Conrad leaned across and peered through the gap. There was no sign of the coffin in the gloom and, reassuringly, no sign of any furnace. He was certain from his earlier reconnaissance that the actual furnace was situated in the other building they had seen behind the chapel.
Charlotte answered his call.
‘The engine’s running,’ she said without preamble.
‘Change of plan, get round to the back now. I’m on my way,’ Conrad whispered urgently.
He climbed on to the dais where, only minutes earlier the, coffin had been and lay on his stomach. He grasped the beech door firmly with both hands and, using all his strength, pushed it toward the fully open position. For a moment it held then, with a faint sound of something mechanical breaking, it suddenly gave and slid open. The abruptness of this almost threw Conrad off balance from his precarious perch on top of the myriad conveyor rollers.
He glanced over his shoulder, fearful lest anyone heard. Hardly breathing he listened but all he could hear was the muted buzz of a hundred voices as they slowly exited the chapel. Turning, he looked through into the tunnel where the coffin had slowly disappeared. The rollers he lay on were proving uncomfortable; there were so many it was impossible to avoid some pressing painfully into joints and muscles. He gripped the frame of the aperture and pulled himself through. As he did, the rollers cut into him painfully, one of them ripping a button from his jacket.
Conscious that time was not on his side he reached in front and dragged himself into the narrow tunnel as quickly as he could. Ahead lay impenetrable darkness.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish