The next exciting installment in which Eustace’s fortunes change for the worse.
He got the large tin of white paint out of the garage and swung it painfully into his knee by accident on the way up the hall, went into the living room, and began removing the last traces of Virgil from existence. As he methodically deleted his friend’s image, smoothing out his rough blackness into white, he realised that he had not entirely let go. He closed his eyes for a time, then went into the kitchen and got the last of the whiskey. Back in the living room, he swigged heavily and then, because it felt like the right thing, splashed the rest upon the ceiling, in homage. He white-washed the rest of the ceiling, and went to sleep until his aunt got back.
She burst in at 8 o’clock, set her shopping down, bustled into the other room, and shook him awake.
– Eustace? … Eustace!
She swum into existence as he opened his eyes. She looked worried, which was not normal.
– Eustace, there are two men at the front door. They assure me that they are army investigators. They want to talk to you.
He shakily righted himself and progressed to the doorway with trepidation.
Two men were indeed standing in the doorway in military fatigues and with their identical crew-cut heads turned pre-emptively towards him as he made his way down the hall.
– Mr Mateus?
– We’re sorry to bother you at such a late hour.
Eustace doubted this, although their demeanour did positively radiate helpfulness and service, hands clasped in front of them in order to affect a more respectful trespassing.
– We are here because we have been charged with carrying out an investigation into the disappearance of Virgil Alighieri.
Eustace felt as if his gut was being coated in molten lead.
– May we come in for a moment?
– …Yes … yes, certainly.
He ushered them through the narrow hallway and into the kitchen, where he offered them a seat, his stomach lurching and twisting. When they had been seated, they continued in the same polite, non-threatening manner.
– It seems that private Alighieri was due to undertake a short tour of duty in the middle-east in early July of last year, and our records show that he did just that.
The taller of the two shifted in his seat, as if he were not used to sitting. The shorter carried on where his colleague had left off.
– You may be wondering, Mr Mateus, why we were not alerted to his absence sooner, but you must understand that the nature of this mission was highly covert, and even contact with headquarters was heavily restricted. This is why we had no knowledge of the absence until recently and did not contact you sooner. I realise that the last year must have been distressing for you, not knowing when, or if he would return.
At this point, Aunt Olivia came in with the tea, wearing a look of anxious interest. Eustace made some quick mental leaps. It appeared that Virgil had done a bunk, preferring to spend his tour drinking with his friend. Thinking back, Eustace had noticed that he had been somewhat restless for a few months that year when he had got back after telling him that his tour had ended early.
– As one of the private’s oldest acquaintances, we were hoping you might be able to shed some light on the matter for us? Of course, we do not need to impress upon you the importance of finding Private Alighieri so that he made be tried by the proper authorities, as is the law.
The investigator shot Eustace a pointed look.
His guts were spinning wildly now, his heart jamming into his ribs. The implacable buzz-cuts sat matter-of-factly on the soldiers’ heads and seemed to judge him. He moved his teacup from the lip of the table and then back again, and shifted his chair more towards the table. His worry spattered into his stomach in hurried gouts. He could claim ignorance of the whole affair – realistically, they had no reason to suspect him. Somehow though, he knew deep in himself that it would not be right. Even as he tried to think up an appropriate lie, he was horribly certain that he was not about to sully his friends passing with some lashed-together untruth.
He knew then, with a terrible finality, that he would have to tell them.
– If you would come with me into the living room, what I have to say would be best explained in there.
The soldiers looked uncertain, but followed him in, and to their credit, sat patiently for half an hour as Eustace took white spirit and scraper in hand feverishly wiped and scraped the new paint from the ceiling, balancing upon a step ladder. When he had finished, he calmly set his equipment down, and explained.
– I have no idea why it was Virgil’s intention to shirk his duties, but he did turn up here a short time afterwards.
He sat facing them, straight-backed, fingers laced on his lap. He paused.
– It may surprise you to learn, gentlemen, that Virgil is dead. He was, in fact, possessed by a demon in the bedroom above this ceiling, and while his body was burnt away – in front of my very eyes, I should tell you – his soul escaped …
He snatched away the rug that had been covering the hole.
– … Down this apparently bottomless opening, which I suspect may lead to hell.
Those are the facts as I am aware of them.
It took a long time for the soldiers’ subsequent expressions to turn up on their faces.
* * *
The back of the police van was unbearably hot with the sun shining fiercely down upon its roof as it conveyed Eustace to the station. His wrists ached where the hand-cuffs bit into them. He was soothed, however, by the assurance of his innocence and his truthfulness. As an innocent man, he had nothing to hide. Though, would an innocent man, fearing no retribution, have such a lump in his throat, or quite so heavy a film of sweat on his brow?
The car pulled up and he was taken into the station, led to the desk and his finger prints, retinal information and weight and height were carefully noted and recorded. His personal effects were removed, boxed and filed. He demanded, as he was led somewhere to change out of his clothes, what it was that he was being arrested for, and the answer came – Suspected Murder, first degree. His trial would be in three days time at the crown court. He shouted then, and cursed and struggled against those who led him, but he was dragged inexorably into a tiled room containing nothing but a mattress and a seat-less, steel toilet. The door was bolted and he was left with nothing.