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connectionsbooks by Paul Stuart

Your entry to the Connections series

Who Did You Sit Next To Today?

My first novel introduces John Lomax as a central character. We first meet him when, after a bad weekend at home with his wife, he uses his mobile phone on the train. He hates people who do this. His conversation is overheard and the content is used against him. What is normally a routine journey to work becomes a journey that changes his life forever. His life is never the same again, as he learns the hard way that the only way to keep a secret is not to tell a living soul.


Do you know who can trust?


Why is he pursued by DCI Sandy Lane? Who is The Biker?


Read the taster below, but be careful, you may not want to put it down.


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-1 –

The weekend had been a complete failure. She had been tetchy and disagreeable throughout.  Whatever he had tried to do or say made no difference; she was, for some reason, disgruntled and he could not change it.  Try as he might, and he really had tried very hard, nothing softened her mood.  Saturday morning breakfast in bed with the paper, flowers, a good meal and fine wine at their favourite restaurant, a gentle Sunday morning stroll with lunch at the village pub, even a lazy Sunday afternoon by the open fireside. None of these things had brought about one iota of change in her.

Something was bothering Karen and for the life of him he didn’t know what it could be.  When he had left for work on that Friday morning all had been fine.  Easy, comfortable. He tried, of course, to find out, but none of his usual methods had proved successful. He had tried wit, cheerful banter, silence, anger, cajoling and everything else the normal male has tried throughout history.  You name it, he had tried it.  In the end he had given up completely and retreated into the solitude of his study with a bottle of single malt. Karen was unapproachable and untouchable.  Out of bounds.  Off limits.  Verboten.  Interdit.

The Monday morning routine was proving equally as difficult.  John Lomax sat in his seat (not first class as his employers had yet to sufficiently acknowledge his worth) on the 7.44 to Paddington. He had burst out of the house much as a champagne cork explodes from its bottle: under pressure and glad to be free.  Relieved to be going to work, where at least he was appreciated, albeit in a minor and perfunctory way, he hadn’t bothered with breakfast yet again and had already burned his lips on the coffee hastily purchased from the station.  He had never quite got the hang of dealing with those infernal take away coffee cartons.  Should he remove the lid and risk major spillage over his immaculate and expensive suit as the train jolted on its stuttering way, or should the lid remain in place, so that he had to raise the carton to a ridiculous angle to even get a sip out of the improbably tiny hole?  Even then the lid was only safely in place in so far as the half asleep shop assistant had pressed it down tightly, and he certainly couldn’t trust that particular specimen of today’s youth.

Why are even supposedly simple tasks so difficult? He balanced his briefcase on his lap with the carton precariously on top and extricated his mobile from his jacket pocket.

He didn’t really like using the mobile in public as he viewed those who did as being vulgar, showy and pretentious.  He was most certainly not like that! He didn’t want to know somebody else’s evening arrangements, what Jenny was having for tea or worse still, what Mary was doing with Frank and how many times she expected to do it.  He also hated the tinny noises that emanated from those tiny earphones and those awful bleeps when people texted each other.  He loathed the stupid ringtones some people had programmed into their mobiles and insisted on having turned up to ridiculous volumes to show how important they were. He sympathised with many of the views forwarded so charmingly by The Grumpy Old Men on TV even at his age.

Just as he was lost in thought with these matters his own mobile warbled insistently.  The sound made him jump and he spilled a dollop of coffee on his suit trousers in a most embarrassing place.

"Shit,” he whispered, flipping open the phone amid a flurry of fumbling fingers and a searing pain in his groin.   Sod’s Law had struck.

“Hello?”

“John?”

His wife.  Considering her mood when he had left she was the last person he expected to be calling.  She knew he hated using his mobile in on the train, so something must have happened.  He decided to be curt, to show he was irritated specifically by the call, his present situation, the entire weekend and all of life in general.

"What is it?" he growled, rubbing the wet patch in his groin furiously, and drawing a few curious glances. Maybe they thought he was rubbing a little too hard, so he carried on to spite them, but found time to give an embarrassed smile to a particularly inquisitive and good looking woman in the hope of either shaming her into stopping her grinning at him or, hopefully, opening the way to productive conversation later.  Who said men can’t do two things at once?

"John? Is that you?  What are you doing?  Sounds like you’ve run the 100 metres.  Either that or you’ve got a woman with you.”

He concentrated on his trousers.  Did he have another pair at the office? No. But he knew where he could get one. Gradually he realized that Karen was crying.

"Karen, calm down. What is it?" She annoyed him in many ways.  Her incessant nagging about coming home for dinner, her refusal to recognise when things needed doing around the house, her blind devotion to mindless soaps on the box, her continual worrying about how much things cost.  But crying was not one of her faults.  She hardly ever cried.

“There’s another one!” she snivelled.

His stomach did somersaults as a multitude of his secrets flew across his brain.

"Another what?"  He asked, playing for time.

"Another body.  A woman this time."

“Is that all, Karen?  Is that all you phoned me for?” He twinkled his eyes at the woman opposite and was gratified to get more than a courteous smile in return.  Perhaps the day would get better, he mused, and put the briefcase on his lap both to cover the damp patch and hide the evidence of his rising interest in the woman.  Karen sniffled in his ear but he hardly heard as his imagination explored the day’s possibilities.  He allowed it to roam freely and was lost in what it came up with. Suddenly, he realised he was not listening to his wife and, with an effort, snapped back to reality.

There had been several bodies found in the last few years, two of which had been local.  They had been stabbed to death and then eviscerated, for no apparent reason. One, following what appeared to be a minor argument about a supermarket parking space, and the second apparently because a shop window had been broken.  The police could find no links with either of the two murders or any of the others, and the cases remained unsolved.

"John," Karen said, catching her breath, "it was in Paddington."

“That's miles from us," he dismissed, but at the exact same time felt a definite chill. He walked through Paddington twice each day, to and from the office.  Indeed he was going there now.  Perhaps he'd brushed past the killer, shared a carriage or, God forbid, sat close to him on the train.

"But that makes three now!"

“I know, I can count too,” he snapped.  "Karen, the chances are millions to one he’s got you or me in mind for the next one.  There’s no need to worry.”  Placatory now.

"No need to worry!” She exclaimed. “Why not?  Don’t you see?”

He didn’t.

“What do you think?" She asked.

“About what?”

"The victims have all been in their thirties, and they all lived near Paddington.”

“I can take care of myself," he said absently, again smiling at the vision opposite.

“I’m worried, John.  About you, I mean.  I’ve been thinking about this all weekend.  You’ve been getting home so late and you never know who’s around or close.  And that walk in London.  It’s dangerous, John.”

“Karen, I’m busy.” Another glance.  “Look at it this way: The papers say he picks a victim once a month.”

“Mmm.”

“So there’s no need to worry for a while, is there.  I know it’s a callous way of looking at it, but it’s true.  So, we can relax for a while, can’t we?" He knew he sounded patronising, but couldn’t help it and didn’t actually care.  He was fed up with the subject and wanted to end the call.

"Are you trying to be funny?” Karen asked.

His voice rose. "Karen, I really have to go. I don't have time for this." The woman opposite gave him an even more meaningful glance and his mind raced to inevitable places.

"Excuse me, sir?" The voice belonged to a sandy haired businessman next to the woman opposite, and, although polite, carried a tangible menace.

“Yes?” John was not in a mood to be intimated, did not appreciate the interruption and he made sure his face showed it.

“I'm sorry," he said, "but you're rather loud and some of us are trying to read."

John took in several of the other commuters and there was irritation on their faces.  He was in no mood for lectures.  He was committed by now and stood his ground.  Everybody used mobiles on the train, he reasoned.  If one rang a dozen hands went for their own phones faster than a western gunfight.

“Well,” he said, “I was here first.  There are always quiet carriages you can use.  You saw me on the phone and then sat down, so it’s your own fault. Now, if it’s all the same to you...”

“Well, I didn’t mean anything,” the man blustered and blinked, taken aback.  “I was only wondering if you could speak more quietly.  We don’t all want to hear, you know.”

“Karen, just don’t worry about it.   Nothing’s going to happen. Now, can you do me a favour?  I need my best shirt for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

John didn’t actually need it but he was irritated by his wife’s call and the other man, so he said, more loudly than he needed to, “I just need it for tomorrow.  Can you get it ready for me?”

“I’m actually quite busy today,” she said, “why didn’t you say something last night?”

John let silence hang between them.

“OK,” she sighed eventually, “but promise me you’ll be careful today.”

“I promise. I have to go now.  Bye.” He shoved the mobile into his jacket pocket, trying to make sure it couldn’t interrupt him any more for a while. The man gave him an annoyed look but seemed sufficiently cowed and sighing loudly and pointedly, gathered his newspaper and briefcase and moved several seats away.

It had been a bad weekend.  Karen was grouchy and unapproachable, now his crotch was damp with coffee and he’d been forced to use his mobile on the train.  He had defended the indefensible he thought, quite well and he felt his mood lift.  He cheered himself with the thought of the woman opposite, who seemed impressed by his feisty defence and had taken the opportunity to move to the empty seat next to him.  She sat close enough for him to feel her thigh press against his.

Although a man of experience, the train was a first for him.  Despite pretending to be in no hurry, he knew they had limited time as the train rushed towards Paddington. It was bumpy and the jolts quite often arrived at odd and disconcerting moments, but the train had a certain rhythm to it and the woman seemed to have enjoyed herself.  She had certainly entered into the spirit of the occasion and had proved amazingly flexible in such a confined space.

Every cloud has a silver lining and Sod’s Law had been defeated at least for a while. Great way to start the day, he thought, as the woman left the train at the next station. Back in his seat and feeling enlivened he found his mobile.

“Jayne’s Flowers?” he asked. More commuters were getting on the train. John tossed his briefcase onto the seat next to him to discourage anybody else from sitting there.

A moment later the woman's voice answered. "Hello?"

"Hey, sweetheart, it's me."

A moment of silence.

"You were going to call me last night," the woman said coolly. He'd known Susan for eight months. She was, he'd heard, an estate agent and was also, he supposed, a wonderful, generous woman in many ways. But what he knew about her-all he really cared to know-was that she had a soft, buoyant body and long, cinnamon-coloured hair that spread out on pillows like warm satin."I'm sorry, sweetheart, the meeting went on a lot longer than I thought.”

"Your secretary didn't think it went on all that late.”

Hell. She'd called his office.  Why? She hardly ever did.

"We went out for drinks after we revised the deal contract and then I ended up at the Four Seasons. You know."

"I know," she said sourly.

He asked, "What're you doing for lunch today? Meet me at your place?"

"No, not today. I'm annoyed with you.”

Annoyed? Because I missed one phone call?"

"No, because you’ve missed about three hundred since we've been seeing each other."Seeing each other.  Where did she get that phrase? She was his mistress. They slept together. They didn't see each other, they didn't go out, they didn't court and spark.

"You know how much money I can make on this deal. I couldn't let it go sweetheart."

Shit. Mistake.  Susan knew he called Karen “sweetheart” and didn't like it when he used the endearment with her.

“Well," she said frostily, “I’m busy at lunch. I may be busy for a lot of lunches. Maybe all the lunches for the rest of my life."

"Come on, Sue."

Her laugh said: Nice try. But he wasn't pardoned for the “sweetheart” glitch.

"Well, do you mind if I come over and just pick something up?"

"Pick up something?" She asked.

"A pair of trousers.”

"You mean, you called me just now because you wanted to pick up some laundry?"

"No, no, Sue. I wanted to see you. I really did. I just spilled some coffee on my trousers. While we were talking."

I’ve got to go, bye, John.”

“Susan”

Click.

Shit.  Mondays.  How he hated Mondays.