Until that spring day I had never seen anyone die. I was walking home from the bus stop at a leisurely pace, enjoying the spring weather and planning a quiet evening watching a film on TV. I was only a hundred meters from my apartment building when I heard footsteps running behind me and someone called my name. I turned and saw Nick about twenty meters behind me, out of breath and running hard. Then two shots rang out in close succession and Nick fell to the ground, in a sort of slow motion movement that left him lying, slightly skewed, at the edge of the sidewalk.
I stood as if paralysed; for a moment my mind did not connect the sound of the shots and Nick falling to the ground, then realisation hit me and I ran towards him. He was badly hurt; his head was angled to one side and blood was pooling under his neck and shoulder. When I knelt beside him he lifted a trembling hand and his voice came out in a panting whisper, “Help me!” His eyes closed but his hand was still raised just above his chest, clenched and shaking.
I was vaguely aware that a car had drawn up alongside us, but I did not look up. There was a burst of three rapid shots and I flinched with shocked surprise as Nick’s head seemed to disintegrate. My head snapped up and I just caught an impression of a dark car accelerating away; sound seemed muffled and muted. I looked down at Nick again and knew that there was nothing I could do to help him now.
The hand that had reached out towards me was resting on the ground, as if tossed aside. I lifted the limp hand and put it on his chest; it was a shock that it felt so warm when I knew Nick was dead. There was a key on the sidewalk beside his legs and I picked it up as I rose. Three people ran towards me, one of them was shouting something but I could not hear the words.
A middle-aged man got there first and looked down at Nick in horror. “My god! That’s awful!” I felt oddly removed from the scene, as if I was observing it and myself from a distance, as if this was not happening in real time.
“We must call the police,” I said to the man. I hesitated, unsure of quite what was needed. “And an ambulance?”
“I’ll do it.” He pulled out a cell phone and I watched him without moving. The other two had reached us now; one of them was an older woman carrying a guitar. She looked at Nick and then at me and put the guitar case on the ground, pulled a tissue from her pocket.
“Oh, you poor thing – let’s get some of that blood off your face.”
I stood quietly while she dabbed at my forehead and cheeks. I knew I was unhurt so it must be Nick’s blood, but somehow it did not concern me. Everything seemed unreal and remote still. While the stranger cleaned me up I tried to think of what I must do next, but my mind was blank. The man tucked his phone in his pocket and looked down at Nick again. “Should we cover him up with something? It doesn’t seem right to leave him like this.” He looked round as if expecting someone to hand him a blanket, but what he got, held out at arm’s length, was a shawl clutched in the hand of a young girl. I had not really noticed her till now; her face was white and shocked and her lips were trembling. “Here, take this – oh, the poor man!”
She took a step backwards, her eyes still on Nick. The man bent down and covered Nick’s shattered head with the shawl. As he straightened up we heard the sound of sirens and I turned round towards the sound. A crowd had gathered, some on our side and a bigger group on the other side of the street, staring across at us.
And that was how it started. Sudden and horrifying, but with no indication that it would soon change my entire life and make me do things that I would never have thought myself capable of until circumstances forced me to confront violence and danger.
A police car came to a halt right beside us and two men jumped out. “What happened?”
The man who had called the emergency services replied. “This guy was shot by someone who followed him in a car.”
One policeman lifted the shawl that covered Nick’s head. “Definitely dead,” he said and straightened up. He went to the car and we heard him talking over the police radio. They moved everyone, who had not been an eye witness away from the scene, telling the rest of us to stay where we were. We stood a slight distance from Nick’s body, a little clump of white-faced people, not talking or even looking at each other, just waiting.
Within minutes the place was a hive of controlled chaos: more police officers, an ambulance, yellow ‘police incident’ tape, more calls on the police radio and more people. A van arrived with a PVC structure like a square tent that was immediately erected over Nick’s body.
I stood there, watching with a kind of detached interest as the scene was quickly transformed into an organised and tidy operation by people who knew exactly what to do. A chubby man in plain clothes appeared in front of me, studying my face as if he thought I might suddenly faint or burst into tears.
“I am Detective Sergeant Benson. I believe you were first on the scene? Do you mind telling me what you saw?”
I hesitated, not quite knowing where to start. “Well, I was on my way home - I was coming from the bus stop, from that direction. I heard someone shouting my name and I turned round and saw Nick running towards me.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “So you know him?”
“Yes, he’s my boarder. I thought he was out of town, I didn’t know he was back.”
“Tell me what you saw.”
“I heard him calling and turned round. Then there were two shots and Nick fell, so I ran up to him and knelt beside him. I thought I might be able to help him. A car came alongside us and they shot him again, three times in the head – and face.”
I shuddered at the memory and for the first time I realised I could have been killed myself. “And then the car sped away.”
“Did you see what kind of car it was? Did you get a look at who was in it?”
“I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t look up until they had fired those shots and all I saw was a dark, medium-sized car driving away. I don’t know what make it was. There must have been two people in it because I saw the arm of someone on the passenger side window sill as it drove off.”
The man, who had called the police, interrupted. “I’ve just told the constable here that it was a dark blue or black Honda Accord, a fairly recent model. I think the registration plate started with GF or GE.”
Benson turned back to me. “I would like to talk a bit more with you. Would you prefer to come to the station or can we come to your place? This is probably not the best place for you right now.”
“I think I’d like to get home and get cleaned up. I live just a few doors down the street.” I knew from the way Benson’s eyes were roving over my face that I still had at least smears of blood on me.
“OK, let me write down your name and address and phone number. I’ll come and see you a bit later. Just give me Nick’s full name before you go.”
“His name is Nick Cheviot.” I gave him my details and turned to go, but he was not quite finished.
“Is there anyone at home at your place? No? We can get Victim Support to send someone over to be with you.”
I shook my head. “No thanks. I’ll be better on my own. At least for now.” I gave him the PIN code for the street door and he wrote it down in his notebook.
“All right - I’ll be with you as soon as I can. Fifteen or twenty minutes max.”
As I walked the short distance to the entrance of the block of flats where I lived I was hoping that I would not meet any of my neighbours. I had lived there for two years and Nick had rented my spare bedroom for a year and a half. He was on the road for his job nearly every week and when he returned to town he spent very little time at home.
A look in the hall mirror showed me a distressing reflection; streaks of smeared blood on one cheek and splatters in my hair and on my neck. Suddenly some primitive urge gripped me; I could not bear having a dead person’s blood on me for one moment longer. If Benson turned up too soon he would just have to wait. I dropped my bag in the hall, tore my clothes off in the bathroom and stepped into the shower. I scrubbed my face and neck and shampooed my hair twice before finally turning the water off. As I stood there letting water run down my body a sudden brief fit of shivering travelled through me. I think I realised even then, at that very early stage, that I was more resilient than I had known. I was upset and shocked by what had happened, but I was not going to break down and cry or need someone to hold my hand; I was surprised by the discovery.
Benson rang the door bell about five minutes after I had dried myself and got into clean clothes. He did not introduce the young uniformed man who was with him as I showed them into the living room. We sat down and the constable got a notepad out ready to take notes while Benson explained that it was important that I tried to be as accurate and descriptive as possible even if some details might seem unrelated or unimportant.
“So let’s start at the beginning” said Benson. “How long have you known Nick? And what was your relationship?”
Already at that stage I knew instinctively that I had to make it clear that I had no ‘relationship’ with Nick. I could tell that Benson had reservation about me, that I had been moved from ‘witness’ to ‘potentially involved’ when I told him that I knew Nick. Now it I wanted to put a distance between Nick and myself, to...