What happens when you believe that you are being watched, that others are monitoring your every move and controlling your destiny? And what if your paranoia is justified: not only are you an integral part of the plot, but one of the prime movers? In Mark Kilburn's HAWK ISLAND, a young drifter finds work at a bleak, glamourless casino, where he is drawn into an underworld of crime. After a botched robbery he finds himself exiled to a mysterious colony where days are filled with hard labor and cruel punishment. At times he catches sight of a fog-shrouded island in the distance: Hawk Island, with its stone tower. Soon he is made overseer on the island, in charge of the "stone people", a race of humans without language. Here he learns the truth about his role in the events that have been unfolding. Hawk Island is a haunting and darkly beautiful fugue on the the banality of evil.
Excerpts from Hawk Island
All excerpts copyright©2001 by Mark Kilburn
As soon as I swung into the driveway I knew Helena was dead. The bedroom curtains were open, and at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon that wasn’t so usual. More—the cherry tree which stood in the front garden was caught by a light breeze, pressing it gently, making it bow. A premonition, I thought, as I got out of the car.
I stalked round the back way. The door to the kitchen had been forced. Splinters of fine, white wood lay on the concrete. Once inside I expected them to be waiting for me—to see The Beak’s fat, unseemly form, or Wax Man’s pockmarked face. Instead there was a message, painted on the kitchen wall: Your sin will find you out. It was signed: Pearlman.
As far as I could make out they’d decided against ransacking the house—at least downstairs—so I took time out and poured a drink in the lounge. Outside the light was beginning to fade. The thought of Helena’s lifeless body was disconcerting and I was tempted to burn the place down there and then—to remember her as she was in those last few days we were together: warm, healthy, radiant in her pregnancy. Corny, I know. But something inside nagged at me—told me to go up and pay my last respects. Deep down I suppose I was just afraid of seeing the mess they’d made of her.
I needn’t have worried. She was lying on the bed, partially naked. She’d been strangled with piano wire—the Beak’s work, I could tell. Her eyes were open and her face had turned blue. I kissed her for a while and then covered her with a sheet.
That should have been the end. But there was more—something unexpected. A naked man—or should I say what was left of a naked man—was lying in front of the wardrobe. He was about my height and weight, I guessed, although it was difficult to tell. Small pieces of his head were spread around the room. The rest—a thick collage of red and grey—was clinging to the wardrobe and the wall.
A scenario emerged. Wax Man had taken the stranger out thinking it was me, pumping three or four of those exploding bullets he liked so much into the head until there was nothing identifiable left. Then they must have turned their attention on to Helena. That was why they weren’t waiting.
I began to laugh. I stood in the middle of the bedroom, knee-deep in the remains of a stranger’s cranium, and I felt relieved: relieved that The Beak and Wax Man were so dumb; relieved that Helena had called up one of her lovers; relieved that through some bizarre stroke of luck which bordered on insanity I was still alive.
I don’t remember how much longer I stayed in the house. I went downstairs, into the lounge, and sat in the dark, drinking. Then I went back up into the bedroom just to make sure what I’d seen was real. I suppose it must have been around three a.m. Monday morning when I began dousing the place with petrol. Who knows? From that moment life took on a dream-like quality. I remember staring at the sky—the clear, star-studded sky—before I rolled the car out onto the road. And when the place went up I thought how beautiful it looked—fire against night sky. And for some reason the number of people inside kept playing on my mind. There were three, I kept telling myself. Not two, but three.
* * *
Nothing will make sense unless I say something about how I began working for Pearlman. At that time I was a drifter. A bum, looking for work. What makes a man that way? Where do you look in his past to find an answer? Back further than I care to look, is the answer. For those who are interested I’ll say just this: I never knew my parents. I grew up in a succession of kids’ homes and got out as soon as I could. There were some good times and some bad times and times I tried hard to forget. In my twenties I worked in factories, on beaches, in two-bit bars. I drank a lot, I got into trouble. One time I did a spell in prison for burning down a hotel. Why? Because the manager irritated me. That was the kind of person I was.
For a while I took up with a married woman and almost settled down. We planned to run off together but it didn’t work out. In fact, it ended in tears and bloodshed. After I left her I decided to move north. I got as far as the city of M and stayed in a hostel for a week or two. Then I got some casual work at the fruit market. I grew to like the city. Even more than that I liked the idea that I was in the north. Why? I don’t know. Don’t even ask me.
Pearlman’s casino was a couple of miles out of the city centre. It was a large, converted two-storey house and lay on the outskirts of a well-heeled, leafy residential area. I’d seen the advertisement for trainee croupiers in the evening newspaper and decided to try my luck. I couldn’t add up to save my life but what the hell.
The house was painted off-white and you had to negotiate a tight turn off the main road. It could easily be missed—two rows of pine trees had been carefully nurtured on either side of the entrance. There was a short, wide drive with parking spaces to the rear. A bay window, the glass sagging beneath the weight of the lead strips, seemed to bulge out at you as you approached. The house was slightly angled, with the front entrance to the right. The heavy oak door was always open during business. Behind it was a thick glass door, beyond which lay a hallway with slot machines on either side. From there you walked through an archway into the gaming room, which consisted of three roulette tables, a blackjack table, a few rubber plants and not much else besides. Customers, it seemed, were obliged to concentrate on one thing only.
Because the casino was situated in such an old building I felt curious and apprehensive as I approached it that first time. Casinos were supposed to be glitzy places with neon lights. This place could have been anything—a brothel or a private library, take your pick.
When I arrived for the interview the place was empty. I walked in through the front door into the gaming room and stood around long enough to have cracked the safe three times over. I didn’t try because I knew they were watching me. There were a couple of mirrors on the walls and I suspected they were two-way. So, I stood there, like a little boy on show, and waited.
Oldman swept in and apologised for keeping me hanging around. I remember thinking he looked young for his age. He was one of those guys that smile a lot and introduced himself as the manager. He was slim with fair, collar length hair which had been neatly parted down the middle, reminding me of one of those medieval kings. His full cheeks and nose were slightly blotchy, indicating a drink problem perhaps. He wore a moustache, which he kept well trimmed.
He took me over to a table and turned the wheel.
"Shifts are from nine p.m. to four am, six times a week. Would that be a problem?"
I said it wouldn’t. He was smiling at me all the time. Oldman took a ball the size of a marble from his pocket and flicked it with his middle finger. I watched it race around the inner rim of the wheel.
"You good at sums?"
The ball began to lose speed and there was a silence between us as it dropped into the red and white grooves, bouncing eagerly, settling in red number two. Oldman handed it to me.
I had the feeling that I was still being watched—as if there were three or four others observing through the two-way mirror.
"Middle finger," Oldman said.
I flicked the ball. It barely made it round the wheel twice before settling in black thirty-four with a dull thud. I looked at Oldman. He was still smiling.
"Spread your hands on the table. Let me take a look."
I did as I was told. Oldman examined my fingers, turned over my hands and ran his thumbs over my palms.
"Working at the moment?"
"Casual. In the market.’
‘Heavy work, huh?"
‘Yeah. Heavy work.’
His smile began to fade.
"What else have you done?"
I told him. He nodded slowly.
He disappeared through a door at the far end of the room which I took to be office space. I toyed with the ball and tried not to look at either of the mirrors. A few minutes later Oldman emerged. He told me to take a seat at the side of the table.
"We can’t use you as a croupier. Your hands are too rough. We get some strange sons-of-bitches in here and one thing they don’t like to look at is rough hands. Understand?"
"But we could use you elsewhere. See, we’ve been thinking about employing someone to help out generally."
"Kind of odd-jobs. You’d be serving drinks, taking coats, cleaning up, helping out with the everyday running of the place. That appeal to you?"
I told Oldman I was after a steady job and that I wasn’t too fussy what it was, so long as I got paid at the end of the week.
He stood up and extended his hand. "I think we can do business. Go into town, buy yourself a black suit, then come back later tonight. We’ll show you the ropes."
* * *
For the first few months I did precisely what Oldman said I’d be doing. I hung up the coats, delivered plates of sandwiches to the "guests," as they were called, and kept the gaming room and the rest room tidy. That first evening Oldman told me with a smile to keep my mouth shut and do what I was told, which, he said, would earn me "trust."
"If you don’t earn trust, there’s no future for you here. Remember that."
The rest of the staff did likewise. There were four croupiers—two women, two men—a cashier and a short-order chef. The women wore long black skirts and pink, diaphanous blouses. The men wore the regulation black suit and bow tie. The cashier was a gaunt-looking woman in her late forties who smoked a lot. The short-order chef was a deaf and dumb guy named Michael. I don’t think I said more than a few words to either of them in all the time I was there.
The management team consisted of Oldman and his two assistants. They were a kind of double act and seemed to work in opposition to each other. One was fat and pale with greased-down hair. The other was short with a hook nose. Oldman introduced me to them on the first night but I soon forgot their real names. Instead I christened them Wax Man and The Beak.
Although I was either in the gaming room or the restroom most of the time, I got the feeling that I was looked on with suspicion by the croupiers. This, I soon realised, was because they thought I was "a plant," assigned by the management team to relay any gossip I overheard. I tried to appear jocular and easy-going during their hourly breaks. I’d go in to the rest room with sandwiches and coffee and try to make light conversation. But it was useless. The women sat reading magazines or touching up their make-up while the men usually watched television. After a month or so I gave up trying to be pleasant. Anyway, I was more concerned about earning my trust.
One night The Beak gave me a set of car keys and said: "Here. Park Ronson’s Porsche."
Ronson was a scrap metal dealer and a heavy player on the tables. Up until then the parking of the guests’ cars was the sole domain of Wax Man and The Beak. It was a sign of Oldman’s growing confidence in me that my duties were allowed to expand beyond the menial. As the months went by I was intentionally drawn into the management team. For the first time I was allowed into Oldman’s office. It was spacious hi-tech—lots of black leather and chrome—and confirmed what I had always secretly known, that the mirror was two-way. There were also four small TV screens, linked to tiny cameras hidden in the ceiling above each table, which allowed Oldman full view of what was going on. The first time I was allowed in was to collect coffee cups but I had the feeling it was an initiation of sorts—a coded entry into Oldman’s world.
"Come over here," Oldman said early one evening. "Look."
He was watching a game on the blackjack table. A single guest was playing against Tony, a tall, prematurely balding croupier.
"What do you see?"
I stared at the screen. Tony was dealing from a shoe.
"Cards," I said, foolishly.
I shook my head. The Beak walked in and sat down.
"OK," said Oldman. "What about this. Would you say the guest is up on his money?"
In the corner of the screen I could see a pile of chips.
"Yeah," I conceded. "Looks that way."
The Beak lit a cigarette. Oldman leaned back in his swivel chair.
"Go over to the table and ask the guest if he’d care for anything to eat or drink."
I walked out of the office and across the gaming room to the blackjack table. I felt vulnerable—thinking all the time as I walked about Oldman and The Beak watching my image on the TV screen. The guest was a man in his mid-thirties. He’d taken his jacket off for the game. He was wearing a white polyester shirt and a burgundy tie. He looked like he needed to shed a few pounds.
"Anything to eat or drink, sir?"
He brushed me away with a sweep of his hand. I lingered long enough for Tony to catch my eye. He looked worried.
For the next few days I remained locked in my room. I was waiting—for what, exactly, I wasn’t sure. Waiting for Wax Man and The Beak to burst in through the door and finish me off; waiting for Oldman; perhaps even for Pearlman himself. Every movement, every sound that I heard—the shouts from upstairs, the ring of the doorbell—seemed to convince me that the end had come. I played the most likely scene over in my mind many times: I imagined one of Pearlman’s yellow transit vans parked outside, ready to receive my bloody remains, whereupon Wax Man and The Beak would either squeeze or blast the life out of me, before transporting me along the motorway to my final resting place beneath six feet of concrete. Nobody would know that I’d been killed. The room would eventually be re-let and my few possessions sold in lieu of unpaid rent. After what happened at the old people’s home I was convinced they would show up. It was just a matter of when. Perhaps even the house I lived in belonged to Pearlman. I was tired and scared and I didn’t care.
At times, in a morbid acknowledgement of my helplessness, I actually yearned for the sight of my murderers. During these moments I’d try and calm myself by recalling the months spent at the old people’s home—re-reading the plan I had made and recalling the scent of the garden and the evenings spent gazing out of the lodge window. Otherwise I’d think of Helena, staring at the few pictures I possessed of her for hours on end.
It was sheer hunger that forced me out of hiding. I had no food and the pain in my stomach became unbearable. I started going out—at first to the shops and back, then into the city, just to walk around and relieve the tension. If they were waiting to pounce then let them pounce.
Slowly I began to return to a life of relative normality. I lived off a small amount of cash I’d kept hidden in the room. It wasn’t going to last long but at least it gave me breathing space—kept me alive.
One day I took the bus out to the old people’s home and viewed the open space which had once accommodated the trees and the building. All was barren. All was dust. The rubble had been cleared and the ground levelled. I walked around the building’s invisible contours, recalling in detail the plan I had made. Then I just stood there for a few moments of sombre remembrance. I thought of Whiskers and the midget, Chambers. Did they both work for Pearlman? I remember staring at the parched earth for a long time, thinking of the buried money and wondering what else—or who else—lay there.
After the visit I returned to the city centre. Walking through the main square I stopped and listened to a preacher. Standing on a wooden crate was an elderly black woman, brandishing a bible with the same passion and ferocity as I’d brandished the crowbar the night Chambers had arrived. The woman seemed oblivious to the people about her. Some sniggered. others shouted abuse. But such was her conviction that her words seemed to soar into the air like clusters of exotic birds.
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse
And a branch shall grow out of his roots
And the spirit of the lord shall rest upon him
The spirit of wisdom and understanding
The spirit of counsel and might
The spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the lord.
The old woman’s sermon had an uplifting effect and seemed to fill me with defiance. I found myself making my way back to the bus station and boarding the bus which ran along the main road out to the casino. My intention was to confront Oldman. If it proved to be the last I ever did, then so be it. All I knew was that I had to defy them and demand the truth: I wanted to meet Pearlman face to face.
I should have known better. As I walked towards the main entrance I was met by boarded up windows and a heavy steel door. A note informed me that the casino had closed.
* * *
My story could have ended here. At times I thought that everything that had happened was nothing more than an episode from a strange dream which would soon be banished from my memory. Until, that is, a few weeks later.
Every Thursday I received a free newspaper. It carried local news items about over-active pensioners and brave young children. Usually I did nothing more than read the situations vacant column. But I became fascinated by a story which appeared over a number of weeks. An unknown man, wearing only a loincloth and a crown of thorns, had been discovered by the side of a country lane. He was unconscious and had been badly beaten. He was taken to the local hospital where he lay in a coma. Despite the best efforts of the police his identity remained a mystery. Now, I discovered that the unknown man had died.
I attended the funeral out of curiosity. To avoid any possible misunderstandings and in order to remain unseen I observed the burial from a distance.
The service was a hasty affair—a few words spoken by the hospital chaplain to an assorted group of bored newspaper reporters and ward nurses who had attended out of deference to the deceased. But one person stood out. He wore a three-quarter length beige mac and was hunched against a headstone, well away from the other mourners. I recognised him immediately as the young detective who had been at the casino the night I lost my temper with Ronson. He seemed to be expecting someone. More than once I noticed him eyeing the cemetery gates. Half way through the service he received a call on his mobile phone and left.
After the mourners had disappeared and the JCB had filled the grave I stood for a while in quiet contemplation of the unnamed man. I would have stayed longer had it not been for a sudden downpour of rain. The rain, I felt, was another signal of sorts and I started walking down the hill. As I reached the gates I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. A florist’s van entered the cemetery and came to an abrupt halt. The driver got out and placed what I took to be a wreath on the fresh grave. Then the van drove off. I ran back up the hill to see what had been left. Placed on top of the raised earth lay a single rose. Tied to the stem was a card. The message read: To S. W. from P. Make me a clean heart.