Karen coughed a single, hacking cough.
Blood sprayed in a shower of partly congealed globules over her blouse, indistinguishable from the one she was wearing a short while ago all crisp, white and freshly ironed.
She made a feeble attempt at wiping away the blood with her left hand, which visibly shook and thudded listlessly onto the carpet when the realisation that her impotent actions would not return her cherished blouse to its former glory hit home.
In unison, Geoff and Joe turned their heads in the direction from which the sudden noise had come.
There had been one of those silences that occur now and again when the world seems to close down for a few seconds; maybe to draw breath before continuing on its relentless journey, or for moments like this when a particularly dramatic effect is needed. The lawnmower had stopped, as had the incessant thud of the football. No one spoke, no one laughed. The Toy Town train had long since left the station.
These random quietenings, profound and shallow, largely go unnoticed and unheeded in the hustle and bustle of everyday life; passing like phantoms in the graveyards of busy minds.
The occupants of the unpretentious but tastefully furnished room were too wrapped up in their own private crises to notice the hush that had settled around them. Only now, after Karen's solitary cough, were they hauled from their preoccupations to a common focal point.
Geoff reacted first, visibly shuddering as his eyes widened to the point where his eyeballs were in mortal danger of falling from their sockets. His upper lip knotted into a grimace that belied the shock waves surging through his body.
Terror, elation, panic, rapture, dismay, love, hate. Each took their turn to parade themselves on the contours of his near faultless face. Faultless apart from the small scar above his left eyebrow, procured from a screwdriver thrown by his father during one of his raging fits; which Geoff had rather stupidly managed to walk into the flight path of.
'See what you've done now, Geoffrey?'
"What! I didn't ... His throat palpitated as he choked back the bile rising wave after wave from the pit of his stomach; which itself was churning like a washing machine set on fast spin.
The sound of Joe's voice wrenched Geoff's tormented gaze from the limp, recumbent form of Karen's twisted body.
Geoff waited for his eardrums to be blasted by the sound of Joe's hysterical, angst-ridden pleas of help for Karen. Any moment now he'd be staring into eyes that begged, Jesus, how they begged, beseeched, implored!
He felt the biting glare pierce his forehead, travelling, searching through the labyrinthine maze of passages and corridors hidden deep within his brain. Winced at the thuds as doors were thrown open with such force they were torn from their hinges and scattered like driftwood from a sinking ship.
Searching, searching. Ruthlessly looking for the room marked 'Compassion - Authorised Entry Only.'
"It's down the corridor labelled 'Delicate,' just past the Kid Gloves section." He heard himself say, unaware that no one was paying the slightest attention.
But Joe wasn't ranting or raving or pleading or begging. He wasn't asking for mercy or plundering Geoff's brain for an ounce of that elusive compassion.
He gazed lovingly at Karen and said, or more appropriately whispered, "No. Oh God, Karen!" Repeatedly, over and over.
Joe's eyes flicked from Karen to the splashes of blood that formed a crude crescent on the carpet in front of her; the bubbles of dark red liquid twinkling in the light from the window like stars in a light green carpet sky. "There's the Big Dipper, and ... No, it can't be ... Orion? Well fancy that!"
She coughed again, launching a shower of shooting stars that formed another constellation in the rapidly expanding Axminster galaxy.
Joe cringed with sympathetic pity as her body heaved lazily with the effort needed to produce a cough that would normally be disregarded without a second thought. He watched her labouring chest rise and fall erratically as she gasped air into her thickly congested lungs.
Joe repeated the four words sounding like a record whose needle was caught in a deep scratch. "No. Oh God, Karen! No! Oh God, Karen!" His voice becoming quieter with each repetition.
Geoff could only stare in wonder as Joe mouthed his meditation-like chant.
It reminded him of the Mass at his local Catholic Church to which his devout mother dragged him every week. He recalled the hours spent watching the congregation with avid interest whilst he pretended to be taking part in the ceremony. This pretence, for the benefit of his mother who seemed to go into a trance as soon as she passed through the huge wooden doors into the cold, imposing interior, probably saved him from a verbal lashing infinitely more damaging to an eight year olds psychological stability than the frequent clips round the ear he'd taken as being a part of growing up.
He'd view with fascination the procession of men, women and the occasional child who filed one at a time into a box from which they emerged a few minutes later with expressions of relief and contentment etched across their faces where previously there had been shame, apprehension and guilt.
His eyes would follow them as they shuffled by, muttering under their breaths; their mouths moving with nothing coming out but an incomprehensible whisper.
Joe's mouthed had stopped moving, but Geoff could sense that the sentence was still echoing around inside him.
'No. Oh God, Karen. No. Oh God, Karen!' the voice inside Geoff's head sneered in that sarcastic, mocking tone favoured by the playground bullies whilst playing piggy in the middle with the school wimps satchel.
"Shut up!" He seethed, “show some respect, arsehole!”
'Ooooh, Geoffrey! Not going to throw a tantrum are we?' His mothers voice this time, acrimony oozing from every syllable, 'you know what happens when you get stroppy, don't you?'
He instinctively flinched, expecting pain to explode in the side of his head at any moment.
Joe, who had begun to shuffle his body slowly, inch by inch, towards Karen, spotted Geoff’s movement in the corner of his eye. He tried to duck and protect himself, but the rope binding his wrists tightened even more, further restricting the flow of blood to his rapidly numbing hands.
'That’s no way to talk to your mother!’
"She's not my mother, so piss o..!" Geoff started to retaliate but fought to quell the inevitable conflict. He'd let his concentration waver, his bodies steel-wire tautness that kept him primed, ready to react, had relaxed to a semi-hard state of near sedation.
"Stay there!" He shouted aloud as movement, slight and jerky, demanded he wake up and pay attention, “stay right where you are!”
Any movement Joe might have wanted to make towards Karen, was rendered almost impossible because his joints had stiffened through kneeling in the same position for so long. He recognised the tingly tightening that started just behind the knee and faded somewhere in the middle of his left buttock as being the imminent onslaught of cramp.
Joe froze rigid at the sound of Geoff's voice and instantly regretted what he had done. "Keep still you idiot!" He cursed to himself, trying to ignore the stabbing pain rising up his left leg, "move and I'm likely to end up like Karen. Now, think!"
He needed time to workout a plan of action. "Time. Time is something I don't have," he said to himself, watching Geoff closely for any sign that his movement hadn't pushed him too close to the edge.
Subconsciously, he prayed that Geoff’s outward appearance of being in complete, albeit precarious, control was being duplicated deep within that twisted mind. If he had only known that inside Geoff was experiencing the complete opposite of the image he outwardly projected, he might have something to grasp onto; some glimmer of hope.
Geoff’s nerves jangled and shuddered at the slightest sound or movement, whilst his mind raced like an express train hurtling driver-less at full pelt through red stop signals towards a freight train on the same track coming the other way.
Happy, for the time being at least, that Geoff was prepared to keep Armageddon locked up in its metal box, Joe let his analytical mind take centre stage.
Seventeen years experience as a computer programmer and systems analyst writing complex programs, solving mind boggling problems and working to strict deadlines would, he thought, be invaluable in this situation. But...
Karen gagged weakly, almost inaudibly.
...his mind had emptied. Not even a safe and sensible 'do nothing' entered the void inside his head.
He glanced at Karen for inspiration but only managed to feel ashamed at having convinced himself that there was nothing seriously wrong with her, "just a nosebleed, dickhead!" He remonstrated with himself, annoyed at the cowardly way he had chosen the easy option instead of facing up to what had actually happened and thereby wasting precious time. Time in which Karen was slowly, agonisingly, dying. A solitary tear rolled down his cheek and died in the maze of fine wrinkles that lined his thick muscular neck.
"Oh Karen, what have I done?" He mouthed, his head bowed, "I'm so sorry!"
Geoff watched the tear, tracked its course until it ran itself out. He stared, feeling both embarrassed and guilty at being witness to Joe's subliminal resignation. Far away in the bowels of his mind he heard feint creaking as the door marked 'Compassion - Authorised Entry Only' nudged open a fraction before noisily slamming shut. The force of which sent a shiver running the length of his spine as if he'd been touched by Death's icy finger.
"Bastard!" Joe screamed, "don't tell me to 'stay there' when Karen needs help! Who do you think you are?"
Joe's inability to formulate a workable action plan, to coin a phrase plucked from the everyday vocabulary at Com-Tech Systems (UK), the computer systems and support division of the multi-national Fuhiya Corporation of Japan, where Joe worked, had left him with no other option but to resort to a more basic approach.
Come out fighting and sod the consequences, he thought. That's the way to go, no pussy-footing about kneeling here shaking like a mouse on a trap, show him you’re not afraid anymore, scare him!
"I wasn’t talking to you." Geoff replied calmly. Smiling.
Joe swallowed hard, "Shit!" He thought sheepishly. "Shouldn’t have done that! Should NOT have done that you stupid idiot!"
Joe was shaking again. He visualised Geoff losing control, finishing Karen off properly, firing once in the centre of his forehead before turning to the... No! Surely he wouldn't kill them as well, would he? He's not, No! Surely not them!
He turned off the vision and killed the thought before it reached its unthinkable conclusion. He hated himself. From the moment his outburst had shattered the lazy, almost serene, ambience that hung in the afternoon air, he regretted his rashness and wished that he could have reached out, grabbed the words, and stuffed them back into his mouth before anyone noticed.
"Why the hell is he smiling?"
"Who do I think I am?" Geoff asked, looking directly into Joe's petrified eyes, "ask her! And, whilst we’re on the subject, who the hell are you?"
Joe could tell from the slight tilt of the head and the playful glint in his eyes that Geoff wasn't asking him out of politeness, he was daring Joe to repeat his impetuous act of bravado, maybe give him an excuse to put a stop to his snivelling, his whinging. His life.
"Nobody." Joe whispered.
"Nobody." He repeated a little louder, clearing his throat to eke out more volume.
Geoff was in control again. Actually, he hadn’t at any point been other than 'in control, but Joe preferred to live with the false hope that for a second, a brief and satisfying moment, he had gained the upper hand. He knew it was all a sham, something to make him feel better and take him away from the bare-arsed reality that surrounded him. The upturned television lying like a dead animal with its legs in the air. Karen, who could soon be joining it in the obituary column and the children, quiet, probably cried themselves to sleep, huddled together on the settee. And, of course, Geoff standing before him gun in hand, smiling that smile.
Where had he seen it before? Who had he seen wearing that exact same expression?
Joe scoured his mind, searched for the answer amongst rank after rank of memory banks, misty and incoherent through fear and dread. All to no avail. It was someone famous that much he knew, someone he admired, worshipped from afar.
"It'll come to me.?" He thought, subconsciously continuing the hunt whilst redirecting his attention to the gun, sitting less than a foot from the middle of his forehead, "did he say, ask her?"