Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Complete Works, (so far!)

Hey there, and many thanks for stopping by. On this site you’ll find a collection of my short stories and screenplays for your enjoyment. Please feel free to leave feedback both good and bad – as Plato once said –  the worst thing is to just be ignored!

Even better however, would be if you could find your way to actually purchasing one of my published books using the links below, that way I may continue to dodge bullets and bailiffs with your help. All books are available online, in all reputable books stores, E-books… and no doubt soon, all local Charity Shops.

Hope you find something here to enjoy….

Best Wishes,

Mike   x

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“SPRINGBOARDS”         – A further collection of original short stories, short scripts and feature screenplays.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Springboards-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1291060103/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1369732955&sr=8-2&keywords=michael+zealey

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“BUM NOTES”          – A collection of eighteen original and diverse short stories:

bum

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1447839889/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=103612307&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=1447823931&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_r=0G9A7XND7E5NS8XMQ3Z1

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“DIFFERENT STATES”           – One Man, One Credit Card, One Continent… No Plan. A travelogue from East to West Coast USA.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Different-States-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1447824245/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366284192&sr=1-3

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“MOLEHOLE”            – Essays on the Human Condition. The story of one man’s dark and lonely three year journey so far up his own ass that he arrived out his mouth to recount the tale to a deaf world.  (Not suitable for minors or miners.)

miol

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molehole-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1447824113/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332168305&sr=1-1

Thanks awfully x

Thicker than Water

Ross had expected to feel something before he’d heard the news. Some sort of psychic warning that his brother was in trouble. He’d read about identical twins sharing the knowing of each other across thousands of miles distance but here in Berlin his brother was only six hours away by train, and yet he had felt nothing before the phone call that morning from a mutual friend.

Ross had one shot to make things right again. Make his peace and bury the decade of poison that flowed like an ever growing river between them both. Even though most of this ill tide was on his brother’s part, he still hadn’t been able to reach out to him on the other river bank such was the strength of feeling. Days had become months, months became years, neither picked up the phone. And now he’d only heard his brother had terminal cancer of the throat by chance. How ironic had been his first thought that someone who’d spent the majority of his life spouting so much shit should finally be killed by his mouth.

As children they had got along fine, but his brother had always reached for the stars whereas he’d always been of the opinion that you should never lose the ground, it was always there to be hit, and so he’d pretty much stayed at sea level. Even their parents had found it hard to tell them apart physically, but mentally they were chalk and cheese, and as they matured into young men only a mole on his brother Ivan’s top lip could distinguish them, and sometimes just for fun, his brother would cover it up with his mother’s concealer and they’d pretend to be each other. Ross smiled despite the heavy rain as he remembered the sunnier memories. Damn it he had to at least try to get the money to visit and bury the hatchet, he had to try, even if Ivan buried the hatchet in his back.

And so that is how Ross found himself hovering outside the doorway of Berlin’s premier Texas steakhouse on one of the rainiest and industrially depressing nights of the short year. The restaurant looked so inviting looking in from outside in the bitter cold of this winter’s evening, the condensation steaming up the inside of the window. Mixed with the raucous sound of laughter and bass line thumping against the glass Ross knew that the usual house bet must be on. Ross checked the menu one last time to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. ‘The 75 once steak challenge. Free if you eat it in twenty-five minutes and 75 Euros too. I50 Euros bill for the meal if you fail. Ten winners only in five years. Dare you?’

Ross steeled his resolve. He knew that he dared but whether his digestive system and gut agreed he wasn’t so sure. Having quite a skinny frame he had a strong appetite and fast metabolism but his very size meant he couldn’t rack and stack the food anywhere. Still, needs must, he told himself, and if he didn’t get that 75 Euros he couldn’t get his train fare back home. And home was where he desperately needed to be and quickly. His brother’s success in life had been in direct proportion to Ross’s failure, and his brother was very successful if a little shady. The hatred that existed between them had certainly not been built of competition between twins, his brother had always won everything hands down, and since his work involved something to do with property, possibly gun-running and definitely money-laundering, Ross had never dug too deeply into his brother’s affairs: except for the one affair that had caused all the trouble. He remembered all those Sunday morning’s in church as well as his brother: ‘Thou shalt not covert thy brother’s wife’.

No one noticed Ross enter the restaurant, all humble and dishevelled, but when he sat himself down in the empty steak challenge chair, the bell above the kitchen galley rang out and a whoop went out from the chef. The regular diners, of which there were many turned round as one to see who had been foolhardy enough to take up the challenge. Their goodwill was immediately extinguished by the pitiful figure that greeted them, all bent out of shape and looking like an unmade bed.

But a challenge is a challenge and the manager came over, explaining rules into Ross’ face, breath full of coffee and garlic. Ross heard the important points and reached inside his soaking wet jacket to pull out an equally battered wallet from which he fished out a credit card that he knew would never work.

The manager accepted it as deposit and started cooking up the mountain of meat. A steak so large it looked like a cow had been shot whilst conveniently standing over a large plate.

‘How you want your steak cooked?’ leered in the manager.

Ross thought about the reality of what would soon be in front of him. Real juicy and raw, using the blood as a kind of soup to lubricate it all down his throat; or char-grilled and denser, smaller yet tougher.

As with so many things in his life he went for the middle-ground.

‘Medium, please…’

The first few mouthfuls tasted like heaven. The hot succulent flesh all crisp and charred on the outside yet soft and melting within. Ross involuntarily closed his eyes to savour the moment as the thick meat juices ran down the back of his throat. Behind him the manager shouted out the clock and Ross remembered the seriousness of his undertaking, with less than fifty cent in his pocket and despite only eating bread and beans for the past week, he wasn’t here to enjoy himself, and failure would mean not making the money, not making peace with his brother, and probably getting a royal kicking to boot when the manager realised his credit card was declined.

By the twentieth minute he had a good meat sweat on.  The taste sensation had now become rancid in his mouth, too much blood. By the final two he knew he was dead. Countdown down to the wire, meat hanging out of his mouth, each chew like a horse’s saddle on a hot day by the sea, salt-stained and dry. The crowd counted down with him, sensing up to this point a man of purpose. He’d chewed through the first fifty ounces like a combine harvester through buttered corn. Even being allowed to cut of the grissle and excess fat had probably saved him about nine ounces in weight. But this final twenty ounces was proving to be a bit sticky.

Eight, the crowd clapped out the final ten seconds behind him. With each piece of now cold and grey steak he swallowed it clicked down his throat louder than the claps behind him.

Seven, a tail of yellow fat, caught on one of the sinews of the final chunks made him gag, it felt like he’d just swallowed a rat and its tail was still sticking up over the back of his tongue. He fell forward on the table, literally using the table-edge to ease the hunk of flesh further down his oesophagus into his stomach. He felt like a bloated anaconda, eyes bigger than his tummy.

Three, two… he wasn’t going to do it, he was knew he was going to miss by a New York mile. He spat out the final chunk on the whistle, grateful more than anything that he didn’t need to swallow it. That was it then, he thought to himself, putting down the fork and seeing the manager approaching, credit card machine in hand. Not for the first time this year he was fucked. Failed by his own hand yet again.

Ross could tell by the manager’s face he’d already tried to run the card through the machine and come up with a blank. Bad blood left on the plate, bad blood in the restaurant. The manager shoved the hand-held credit card machine into Ross’ face. The crowd turned back to their business trying to forget losers. But intercepting the credit card machine on which he thought he’d vomit was a hand. Ross looked up the sleeve to see a clean pressed cuffs and gold cufflinks. The hand held two hundred dollar bills.

The hand spoke through Ross’ meat haze.

‘Forget the card. Here’s the cash ok.’

Ross looked up at his good Samaritan and into kind eyes.

‘If you’re sure, sir?’

‘Sure I’m sure. Just have a drink with me, I’ve got something to discuss with you.’

‘Me?’

‘You.’ The eyes briefly lost their kindliness and Ross could see dark hard flint in the pupils.

He took the money and placed it in the juiciest part of the plate, watching the bills absorb the blood. The manager fished them out and offered him back the declined card, but Ross shook his head.

‘Keep it Herr, no use to me.’ He turned to his well-dressed saviour. ‘Better not to drink here, hey?’

The man nodded agreement, ‘I know a place close-by.’ He held out his hand to Ross.

‘I’m Christof, Chris.’

Two hours and ten rounds of drinks later, both men found themselves loose and comfortable in the now empty bar Chris had found. Ross found it easy to talk to him, he felt there was no artifice, no mask to the man. He seemed open and honest, if a little tired looking and odd.

‘Fuck it,’ laughed Chris, ‘I’ve just been on a six-day bender and I came up with this…’ He pulled a wad of folded and crumpled paper from the back of his jeans pocket, almost bowing slightly to Ross as he lifted his buttocks off the chair to allow access. Ross noted his accent now he was drunk and slurring his words, definitely from the Austrian border region, possibly even Austrian. He hadn’t even asked him where he was from, such had been the intensity of their drinking, so he made a mental note to ask, then instantly forgot. Chris spread the paper out on the table trying to smooth out some of the creases with his open palm. Ross tried to focus his eyes in the dim light of the bar. Handwritten with sketchy ink diagrams. The palm continued to try to smooth out the ruffles but it wasn’t helping, it still looked like the ramblings of a disordered mind.

‘What am I looking at here…?’

Chris immediately whipped the paper away with a self-conscious flourish. ‘Ah, fuck it, it ain’t nothing. Forget it’.

Ross shrugged his shoulders and looked round to attract the waitress’ attention. Being the last two left in the bar she immediately picked up on his hand signals, and let out a sigh as she realised he didn’t want to settle the cheque but was in fact ordering up another round. She grimaced a pained smile to him, no words spoken between them but meaning carried across.

Ross turned back to Chris feeling fuelled by the break in the intensity of their conversation. ‘So tell me Ross, where would you like to live if money were no object. I’m talking totally in terms of women here. Women being the top consideration, then things like weather, landscape, vibe, you know…. but women being pinnacle?’

Ross leaned back on the chair, but being old hardened wood it didn’t have as much give to his back as he’d like. Trying to push the rickety poles back he creaked out his thinking:

‘Thailand.’

‘For real you would?’

‘Yeah, I think so.’

‘No, Thai women don’t do it for me. New Orleans. I’m a jazz man, I want to be in a hot bayou stink. Wiping the sweat from my brow as I take another line. In fact…’ He got up from his chair and moved to the jukebox against the pool table. Ross hadn’t even noticed it in the gloom, but he drained his drink watching his new found benefactor punch in numbers to the machine. Almost instantly some Jazz sound erupted up from crusty speakers buried out of sight in the roof. Chris began to shimmy back to the table, make believing he was dancing with someone solely for Ross’ benefit. Ross laughed to himself, part in the comedy of the moment and part in sympathy for this strange fool who’d paid for his steak and watered him with great whiskey all night. Chris sat back down and as if on cue the waitress brought over the drinks. Chris picked up his crumpled paper left on the table to make way for them.

Ross acknowledged the music with his finger pointing it skyward before swinging it down to the drinks, pointing at them, then bringing his whole palm back up to his temple, snapping out an army-style salute to Chris and the waitress.

‘Thanks.’ He grabbed his scotch and water and drained a good half before slamming it back down on the table. He suddenly felt selfish.

‘Tell me then if you won’t show me. What had you written there? No really, I’d like to see it.’ Ross pointed as Chris folded it once more, hurrying it away into his jacket .

Chris shook his head and leaned forward again in a similar bowing motion, this time he reached into the other jean pocket.

‘Nope. That was your only chance to see it, I feel foolish showing you it now. Anyhow, no matter. This speaks better than my writing…’

The gun hit the table as a brute fact. He let the revolver speak for itself, no words necessary to supplement. Ross’s eyes went from swimming to pin-sharp panic. He looked up at Chris and then back down to the firearm, desperately trying to deny the reality. Chris spoke, his voice now as cold as the gun metal.

‘Firearms really are so sexy aren’t they? God you just feel so powerful pulling it out.’

Ross froze, the delightful warm fuzzy sensation in his brain instantly drained, chased out by sharp icicles. Chris placed his index finger in the trigger and spun the gun faster and faster.

‘Sorry, old boy…’ he said, ‘but I need you to shoot me, and neither of us can leave till you have…’ And then, with an inflection as if he’d just ordered up two drinks from the bar and was checking the order… ‘OK?’

When Ross’ voice came it was thin and high, ‘What is this? You gone all Deer Hunter on me…? What the fuck is this?’

Ross made an instinctive reach for the gun with the reflexes of an animal in danger, but Chris, sensing this as predator got their first, beating him to the draw.

‘Afraid so. I require… no I NEED you to kill me… and quick’.

‘Quit kidding around. OK you’re actually starting to freak me out here…’

The eyes remained unchanged, steel purpose, no humour. The gun looked the same.

‘It’s simple. I need you to go to prison for my murder. I’m sorry but that’s just the way it is.’

Ross stood up, kicking his chair back, all in. ‘You’re odd mate. Fuck this’.

‘Show me your palm.’

‘What?’

‘Your palm, give it to me, I come from a long line of palmists, my grandmother was Romany gypsy. I can prove to you it’s written in your palm that you must be out of sight for ten years.’

Without fully knowing why, Ross sat down and offered up his palm. Ridiculous as it felt, Chris’ southpaw comment had thrown him. Chris took the open palm and studied the contours for a few seconds before gently placing the revolver in it. Chris curled the fingers of Ross’ hand around the butt and laughed.

‘Do it.’

Ross snorted. Chris repeated.

‘Do it pussy..’

Ross dropped the gun back as if it were molten hot, it skidded across towards the beer coasters and pistachio nut shells narrowly avoiding knocking the pitcher of water off the table edge. Chris steadied it with his free hand.

‘Everything’s already in place. It’d make no sense if you left now, Mr. Ross. Mr. Ross Zimmer, date of birth twenty-fifth June nineteen seventy-seven, National Insurance number KA 55 33 E5, address 6 Palo Alto, Berlin…’

Ross sat down with a thud. ‘How you know that, how the fuck you know all that, i just met you.’

Chris touched the gun with his index finger.

‘Just pull the trigger mate, it’ll save a lot of time. You’ll do it in the end anyway.’

Ross drained his glass, thought about looking round to the waitress but felt a pang of sudden paranoia.

‘No.’

‘Look, I’ll make it simple, I need you to spend ten years in prison. Quickest way I can guarantee that is for you to shoot me in cold blood. I’ve left a paper trail that’ll back up our story. Payments, bank accounts, deals gone sour… your wife. You’ll be looking at a ten stretch, no more.’

Ross leaned forward on his elbows across the table trying to moderate the noise.

‘My wife..? What you know about my wife?’

‘Hell, they said you’d be tough. Come on mate, be a good boy, just do it, hey?’

Ross knocked his empty glass over causing it shatter on the concrete floor. The waitress jumped off her stool and headed towards the last table. Ross sensing her perfume in his heightened state stuck up his hand and warned her back. She shuffled on the spot unsure what to do next. Chris reached down to a bag he’d been cradling between his ankles. He flipped it up onto the table, covering the gun.

‘I’ve been told I can go to three hundred thou maximum, just so you know. That’s all that’s in the bag, that’s all you can have.’ He threw open the bag to display wads of fifty Euro bills in elastic bands, encased in bubble-wrap. Ross found himself staring at the brown rubber bands holding what he judged to be small tight and urgent wads of two thousand Euros.

‘That’s mine? For shooting you, let me get this straight yeah, you fucking nutter.’

‘No. That’s three hundred k for you killing me AND doing ten years inside. That’s the important part.’

Ross rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, his voice incredulous and dripping with sarcasm.

‘Fine. Sorry if it’s an obvious question but why do you want me in prison for ten years?’

‘Ah that I can’t tell you. Let’s just say we need you off the scene for a while.’

‘We..? Who’s We?’

‘We…’ Chris let the sound hang in the air and now he himself caught the waitress’ gaze as she hovered halfway between the bar and the table. With a voice that sounded to Ross a whole too powerful and relaxed Chris ordered up another round of drinks.

‘I promise it’ll be the last round, honey. Hey bring the cheque too if you like.’ Chris looked down to see his drinking partner’s hand reach under the navy blue sack trying to locate the gun. Chris leaned up on elbows and slammed them down onto the bag either side of Ross’ hand, trapping it.

‘Only go for it if you’re going to use it. OK?’

Ross tried to hold his gaze but blinked in the steel certainty he saw, and withdrew his hand, pulling with it some bubble-wrap that had snagged on one of the studs.

Chris looked at his watch and began tutting, ‘ You’ve got just under ten minutes to shoot me, otherwise the bet’s off. They’ll be coming through that door and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.’

Ross shook his head as if trying to rattle a dream from his brain. The fight had gone out of him. He collapsed back into the chair, methodically popping the little round air-pockets in the bubble-wrap. Each pop felt like another synapse in his brain frying.

‘Look, you’ve got to help me out here. You can’t just tell me to kill you and, hey, here have half a million…’

‘…three hundred thousand…’ Chris interjected.

‘… Jesus… OK three hundred. Why not five fucking trillion. I’m not gonna shoot you am I? That money could be counterfeit for all I know.’

‘What you mean if I could prove the money was real, you might do it?’

‘Yes, No… I mean. Ok this is some sort of tv show yeah? The bullets are blanks, yeah? This is all some mindfuck tv thing?’ Ross threw out his arms as if ready to accept the joke. When no camera appeared he suddenly felt his arms flung wild more as a crucifixion. Exposed and frightened he leant over the bag pleading with Chris.

‘What the fuck’s going on here?’

‘Eight minutes fucker.’

‘Why me?’ Ross’ voice had a pitiful tone to it now. The question asked by the small child in him. Chris responded by kissing his teeth.

‘My mistake… Seven minutes…’

The waitress slammed the drinks down on the bag, making as much of a critisicm as she dared. She looked across at Chris.

‘Here let me get that’, he said, reaching for the bag with his left hand, carefully sliding his right under to move the gun with it.

She placed the drinks left and right, pulling up her low-cut top when she saw Chris ogling her. The time for flirting was done, she wanted them out of here. She looked across at Ross, sweaty and nervous in the dim light, his face had taken on an almost blue shade. She felt it worth noting.

‘You alright hunny?’

Ross managed to choke out an unconvincing affirmative. The waitress felt back in control and regained her composure. ‘Good, well drink up folks this is the last one. I got off half an hour ago.’

Chris raised a glass in agreement and she, satisfied order had once more been restored, returned to her comfort zone behind the bar to cash up the night’s takings. Once he was sure she was safely ensconced in her task, Chris brought the revolver out again and, holding it by the barrel, he offered the handle to Ross.

‘Quit fucking around hey Ross and just do it? Do it quick. Do it fast and take the caaasshhh…’ There was that Austrian twang again, Ross noted.

‘…Then just staaasshhh it somewhere, somewhere safe so that the police never find it, so you can spend it when you get out. Listen, listen carefully. Pull the trigger, head immediately to Zoo Station and rent a locker. Stash the bag in the locker then get a tram to the other side of town. Then, just do what you want. They’ll find you eventually, so hang out, take a movie, get drunk. Actually hell yes, get royally drunk, as you won’t be able to for ten years.’

Ross took the gun and felt its weight.

‘What if I shoot you, take the money and then fly out the country to south America, start a new life?’

‘Nope, sorry, we need to guarantee you’re not around for ten years. But try it if you like… knock yourself out. Ha. This is real life Ross not a movie. How far do you think you’d get creating a new identity and slipping through international borders?  Ha, you’re a superspy yeah?’

Ross pointed the gun at Chris, peaked by his humiliation, but this only made him smile more.

‘That’s the spirit, jolly good show. Come on, less than four minutes now…. time to shit or get off the pot as they say…’

‘This is insane…’

Ross rested the gun on top of the hold-all and pulled back the zipper to look for himself. Beneath the wads of cash he saw the dark brown corner of  something. He reached in and pulled out a European passport. Opening up the fly-leaf he recognised the holder instantly. ‘Ivan Zimmer’. Digging deeper into the bag he pulled out a whole clump of documents all revealing the same name, a name he knew well even after a decade of bad blood.

‘My brother? I knew it. I knew he had to be involved somehow…’

Chris nodded. He seemed almost glad that the secret was now out, and smiled at Ross with a genuine warmth he hadn’t hitherto seen.

‘I’m glad the cat’s out the bag, pardon the pun. Don’t ask me any more details as I really can’t.’

Ross scratched his head trying to piece it all together.

‘So he’s in some kind of trouble… other than dying?’

Chris seemed surprised by this but answered flatly ‘He’s not dying, I can tell you that much, maybe he wants certain interested parties to think he is? I genuinely don’t know, I only get told so much, Ross.’

Ross nodded. ‘Ah, now it makes sense. He’s done something and needs me to take the rap for it? This money is my incentive to pretend to be him and do his time for him. Meanwhile he runs about free as me? Am I close?’

Chris shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s no use I can’t tell you.’ Ross tried again.

‘There’s one thing I don’t get though, why do I have to kill you? What’s in it for you? You love my brother so much you’re willing to die for him? You’d be the first who did, I can tell you that for truth.’

Chris’ eyes narrowed. ‘All I can tell you is it involves family and money. Sometimes a life only makes sense with what you can leave behind for others. You’re not the only one with family, hey.’

Ross picked up the gun and pointed it at him as he zipped up the bag. Chris was once more getting impatient.

‘Less than a minute, Pal. Fucking do it. Pull it’. Chris tightened his stomach muscles and scrunched his eyes shut. His top lip began to quiver even though he bit down hard on it. Ross studied his face, in the dark light of the bar he looked like he’d seen some hard battles, scars and pitted skin, and up top by the hairline were heavy burn marks, almost as if his face was melting in the heat of the candle light.

‘No’, replied Ross. ‘I can’t kill you in cold blood, I can’t kill you without knowing why, oh hell, I can’t kill you anyway’.

‘You must. You simply must. Pull that cunting trigger. Do it now. Pull it now…’

Ross still had the barrel pointed at his drinking partner’s chest, it wavered in his hand, trembling more than Chris’ lip.

‘I…’

‘NOW…’ Chris threw his arms wide and slammed his knees into the table, lifting the legs off the ground. He screamed at the top of his voice, startling Ross who flinched and squeezed. Something in the timbre of the voice now shouting he recognised and the realisation struck him harder than the bullet he’d just shot into Chris’ chest. The waitress dropped the tray of glasses fresh from the dishwasher, the lingering sound of the smashing glass on the hard concrete floor seemed to form a counterpoint to the brisk ear-splitting crack of the gunshot. Ross had only applied the slightest pressure to the hair-trigger but the shock had been enough to set the gun off. Chris looked down at his chest to see the reddening mess of his rib-cage opened up and as bloody as the seventy ounce steak. With the last of his life force he reached up to his face which now seemed to be melting in his death throws. He grabbed a loose piece of latex by his hair line and pulled it off in a long downward motion revealing a different, more angular and tanned face underneath.

‘You always were a jumpy pussy, Ross, mum was right.’

Chris tore another latex strip off the mask then grabbed under the remainder and just pulled. Enough of the real face was now visible under the mask for Ross to realise the truth. He saw himself staring back at him. Identical in everyway except for the mole on the top lip. Twins.

‘Ivan.’

‘I got you, I finally got you, you little bastard. Now suffer like I did. I was dying, that’s no lie, now I really am dying. But I’m glad YOU rather than cancer caused my death. Cancer can’t go to jail, cancer has no feelings, there’s no point trying to get revenge on it. Cancer can’t be made to suffer..’

Ivan revealed, his hand full of latex and blood pointed now pointed to Ross.

‘But YOU can, my brother.’

Ross’ eyes went wide as oyster shells, he stumbled from the chair spluttering pure petrified emotion, ‘I was coming, coming to see you, I…I loved you… I…meant…to…find…you…’

Ivan laughed a mucus sticky laugh, his lungs filling with blood, bad blood. As he spoke, his lips stuck to his teeth,  ‘I didn’t have much time left, so  I found you…’ He exhaled a final death rattle, the last cobra twisting lost as the bar doors flew open and a squadron of riot police stormed into the bar, spotlights and pepper spray. Ross, his brother’s passport in one hand and still smoking revolver in the other raised his arms towards the speakers in the ceiling still pumping out jazz heavenward, waiting for what must inevitably come next…

Snake Eyes

‘Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more, my love.’ (Donovan, Riki Tiki Tavi.)

 

20:30pm. Backstage, Live Animal-Handling Restricted Area. Excalibur Casino , Las Vegas, NV.

About one year ago…

The sharp fangs slammed down on the plastic cup and Jared helped the venom out by gently pushing down on the serpent’s head. The hot ejaculate squirted out in angry bursts through the puncture marks, staining the side of the sealed beaker with white milky streaks.

Jared was aware how much his hand was shaking as he carefully put the viper back into the cage. He looked at the clock on the wall counting down to Showtime. He’d only just had a drink, but darn it if these shakes weren’t getting worse and he still had two more mambas to make safe before curtain up. He shot a quick glance at them curled up under the cage’s heat lamp. They seemed especially pissed at him tonight and Jared had to admit there was something in the air. He felt it in the gamblers seated at their tables as he’d walked through earlier, sensed it in the waitresses keeping them lubricated with complimentary drinks. No free drinks for him this evening. He was earning every cent.

Shaking the jar of venom he watched as the deadly poison splashed up the sides. There was enough behind that concave plastic to kill a man forty times over. Jared reached with his free hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his hipflask, shaking it too in an attempt to gauge how much vodka-venom remained to him. The sapphire eyes of the silver cobra engraved on the flask twinkled back at him, hypnotizing him to drink deeply and kill the noxious thoughts. But there was backwash only remaining, not enough to last the night and certainly not even enough to kill a man once, especially not on this sweltering August night deep in the Vegas stink. Another quick look to the clock, he knew the time anyway but wanted to second guess himself, looking for a reason to justify what he knew, sure as eggs was eggs, he was about to do. Well for hell, he could make it, just one quick nip out back in the lot, out of sight of the CCTV, it couldn’t hurt any to take the edge of the shakes and snakes to tide him over until he could skedaddle out at half-time to the liquor store across from the Denny’s store.

Jared opened the Stage-Door deep in thought, a couple of showgirls hurried past extinguishing their cigarettes under sequined shoes, their feather boas and brightly coloured plumage startling him as they brushed across his stale three day old chequered shirt leaving a delicate scent. This place was as hectic as Grand Central station, how he longed for some cooling and contemplative silence. Vegas had no heart. Empty vessels and all that, on the surface it was the biggest smile on earth, but dig deeper and it ain’t a smile, it’s a maggoty wound that won’t heal as it’s always being cut by freshly broken dreams. He held the door for the last of the dancers before stepping out. As the door closed on its hinges he instinctively looked over his shoulder to see if the last showgirl was checking him out. At thirty-three he reckoned himself still in with a chance, but the drink had bloated and ravaged the edges of what had once been a strong jaw-line and most days he wanted to hide in a swamp along with all the other croaking toads. She didn’t look back and he turned dejected to the night. It had sure been a long while since he’d gone wild, he was always milking other people’s snakes and had neglected his own. The hot desert air hit him full in the face but he knew his sweat wasn’t due to heat, but a deep thirst which no amount of air-conditioning could quench.

Making sure he was out of sight of the Eye in the Sky CCTV, he nipped freely from the flask, remembering how optimistic he’d felt on first arriving in Vegas all those months ago and finally outrunning his orthodox Christian upbringing. As he stood in the car-park swigging his whiskey he laughed at remembering how within the first week he’d been pulled over for speeding on Fremont Street and the traffic cop had issued him with a fifty dollar fine. Jared had thrown him a hundred dollar bill out the window and told him to keep the change as he was coming back the same way tomorrow. Such optimism. Such arrogance. He’d had to sell the car soon after, but he’d only been heading in one direction for a while now anyway, and he didn’t need an engine to go downhill. Even the stage manager had told Jared he was digging his own grave with his mouth swigging that shit day after day. But he was great at milking the snakes so he let it go. Taking the poison out of them somehow balanced the poison he was putting into himself. Guiltily he knew that for a long time now he’d been putting in much more than he’d been taking out. Maybe he should just cut out the middle man and drink the milky beaker back there on the table and be done with it? But he knew it wouldn’t work having been brought up in the flatlands of Texas as part of the Snake Handling Church of Mesquite. Even though he knew it now to be ridiculous, a small part of him still felt sure no serpent would harm him, protected as he was by God. God…

God the fucking time! Jared kicked the metal stage door with his boot and barreled back into the room. Despite the cushioning of the booze he felt a sudden stabbing fear as he looked over at the empty cage, the heat lamp shining down on a vacant floor. Almost simultaneously Jared heard the roar of the expectant crowd through the tannoy linked to front of house and he knew he was too late. Something was gonna get bit and chances were, it would be his Vegas career. No longer caring who saw, he took out the hipflask and drained it whilst through the speaker he could hear the audience’s screams of joy turn into fear and panic.

 

 

10:40pm. Desert Plains Mesquite, about thirty miles north of Snyder, Texas Panhandle.

Present Day.

‘Fucking snakes’ll be the death of me, I swear it.’ Jared kicked the small brown rattler away from the wheel arch of his pickup truck and pulled the tarpaulin over the open back. It didn’t look like rain, but things changed quickly out here in the desert. He talked to himself as he yanked on the rope, securing it on the hook:

‘A man is changed by the desert, they said. Go out and be tempted, they said. Face those demons. Look ‘em square in the eyes and say: enough. Repent…’ He caught his finger on the sharp metal of the side of the pick-up where he’d had a minor scrape the week before, drunk and with no recollection of whether he’d hit possum, person or Porsche.

‘Fucking repent they said. I’ll fucking resent.’ Jared hated being back amongst his family. It didn’t seem fair. Life had kicked him in the nuts once again. It had taken such courage to go against them and seek his fortune in Vegas and now what busted his balls the most was how the community hadn’t even viewed his return as a failure but as a prodigal son seeing the light and returning to the fold to help with their evangelical touring ministry. Selling yourself for money was one thing, selling your soul was a whole different show. How could he in good conscious preach something he knew to be false?

Even though the sun had been down a full hour it was only now starting to get cooler. He could feel the sweat on his shirt starting to freeze and stick to his back causing a fine shiver, barely detectable over his alcoholic shakes. The not wholly unpleasant sensation acted as a reminder and from the back of his jeans pocket he pulled out the cobra hipflask and gulped down the warming whiskey, telling himself he was just keeping out the cold desert night.

Jared was thirty miles in to the barren desert and about as many years deep into the arid and parched hinterland of his own existence. ‘They’ figured out this was his time and chance to get back. Confront himself and the empty desert head on. Trouble was, he thought, as he struck out into the black emptiness, ‘They’ were a bunch of pussies. He made camp in the shadow of the table top mountain that was still just visible as darker against the threatening sky. Throwing down his rucksack he walked five measured paces away from it, then using his left leg as a point of compass, he dragged round the right leg and surrounded the sac in a dirt circle as he’d been taught by the Native Americans growing up. Happy with his sacred space he walked off into the brush to gather wood for a fire. Kicking around in the undergrowth he drew together a collection of kindling with his boot and checking for snakes before picking it up he returned to his circle. He dropped the wood and raised his fist to the circle, spinning on his heel and keeping it neat.

‘Kill or cure, they said. I’m that fuckin’ clinical tonight, that fucking clinical. I’m not leaving this circle before it’s one or the other.’ As if to prove a point to the desert he flipped the bird round his dirt circle. ‘Come on then, let’s see ya Booze Demon step inside my circle if you dare. Face me, bitch.’

Jared immediately felt troubled by the lack of response. The silence, tapped him on the shoulder and worked itself into his ear unbalancing him. He reached into the army surplus rucksack and fished around for a can of beans he knew to be there, but as he’d secretly hoped his hand felt the phallic tip of the whiskey bottle first. Who could eat at a time like this anyhow?

‘Holy spirit, Teen spirit…’ he unscrewed the cap and smelt the contents, ‘…smells like white spirit’. He gave a rebel yell out into the gathering dark and knocked his head back.  A coyote moaned in reply, it’s sickly cry mimicking his own as the whiskey kicked out the back of this throat. Jared built his fire desert style, short and tight, fashioning three of the larger twigs he’d collected into a pyramid from which to hang his crock pot over the tidy blaze and, retrieving the can of beans, he poured the contents in.

 

 

04:20am. In the shadow of Acoma mesa. Forty-two miles into deep desert.

He was proper drunk. Drunk even by his own standards. The fire had grown ridiculously large, far bigger than he needed it, but each time it had burned down to a red ember glow the shadows had come, strong and long against the ancient native American rock and he’d felt like an unwanted intruder. He felt the presence of spirits disturbed by his own uninvited presence. The pleasant smell of cooking refried beans had long been replaced by the acrid stench of charring matter but he was in the grip of his drinking and had totally forgotten. He wandered over to the crock pot, now stained black by the hours of hot fire and beating back the smoke he picked up a large stick which poked out of the fire and nudged the pot. Like a jack-in-the-box a flurry of black streaks jumped out at a rainbow of angles like launched missiles. Jared watched them hang in the air before descending around him, thudding to the ground and writhing round his boots. Hot smoking black snakes, their molten hisses sounding like steam. Jared stumbled backwards and watched in horror as they slithered around his dirt circle like a cyclone. He threw his arms out wide in fear and with the burning twig he shooed them off into shadow beyond the fire’s reach.

Jared shook his head. That hadn’t just happened he reassured himself, and within moments he believed it. This whiskey was making him blind. He was rocking on his centre of gravity, and felt he’d either fall forward into the fire or backwards into the colder night where the snakes were lurking. Maybe he should try to walk the booze off, step away from the fire and let his face cool down a bit from the searing heat and mad thoughts. His head still lolled on his shoulders like a bowling ball and after only a few steps he collapsed to the ground, rolling around in the scorpions and scrubland like an octopus with epilepsy. His was a blue desperate drunkenness, with no one else to mitigate it or take it out on he felt absolutely alone.

The fire seemed a long way off. All he could see in front of him was a large cactus looking as alone as he. Jared slapped its side, his hand digging into one of the sharp spikes and drawing blood. He looked at his palm and pulled out the bloody spine like a crucifix nail. The blood dripped onto the desert floor, immediately absorbed by the parched earth.

A voice came to him from somewhere nearby but he couldn’t quite locate it, at first indistinguishable from the wind but gradually forming into distinct words: ‘…A fire burns in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it…’

The voice was incredulous and now loud enough for him to pinpoint. It was coming from inside the cactus. Jared allowed himself to forget the drunken absurdity and went along with it, hoping to get a better fix on the origin, ‘Well that’s gotta be biblical I’m guessing?’

The cactus gave an almost imperceivable nod in the warm night breeze that had swirled up the ground dirt and Jared brushed away the desert tumbleweed that had collected in the arch of his legs. He realised he was outside of his sacred circle.

“Remember, If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.’

It was definitely coming from inside the huge cactus. Jared poked the tough green skin between the fearsome spikes. Somewhere way up above them on the mesa an eagle screeched and dislodged some pebbles which came cascading down a few feet away from his fire.

‘And what does it matter if a man wins the world but is himself lost?’ Jared stood up and faced the cactus.

‘Sheet, it’s just like they said’ Unbalanced by the drink he immediately fell forward again onto his knees and as he did so the hipflask fell out the back of his pocket and began leaking onto the dirt floor. Despite his religious upbringing he instinctively scurried round on the ground trying to collect up his precious holy water. He turned back to the cactus, shaking the flask to assess the loss and feeling more guilty than ever.

‘You’re here to tempt me, aren’t ya?’ he said.

The cactus bristled in the wind. The voice soft and mellow.

‘No, I’m here to help you. What’s the point in tempting you, you’d choose give in immediately anyway.’

Jared reassured himself there was still enough whiskey left by taking a long pull. If this was to be his breakdown hallucination, he may as well charge up as much as possible.

‘I’m a good person, I’m deserving of love, ain’t I, Mr. Cactus?’

‘So what? Deal with the fact life isn’t fair. Compare The billionaire New York banker to the three year old girl in the African famine, do you really think the world views both their lives as equally important? The best piano player ever born lived in the Favelas of Sao Paolo, he lived and died without ever seeing a piano in his life. What’s fair? Even tomorrow hasn’t been promised to you? Why do you feel such a sense of entitlement?’

‘You don’t sound like God?’

‘Neither do you.’

Jared noticed that the spines of the cactus were beginning to glow. He rubbed his eyes to clear away the alcohol but the fat green buttons had undeniably begun to look like a lit Christmas tree. It had finally happened, he reassured himself, all the stress, all the booze, all the years of mental torture had finally come home to roost and ripped a whole through his brain. He was having a breakdown, a perfect and complete psychotic episode. Go with it, don’t fight it. Accept the madness, it can’t be anything worse than he’d seen in his time on The Strip, he reminded himself. At a loss as what to do next, he quickly traced round another circle in the ground with his boot and sat down in the centre of it, cradling his hipflask between two open palms.

Jared looked around him at the new circle, there was a shuffling in the early dawn, a scraping sound subterranean around him disturbing the ground more than any wind. They broke the ground as one following the circle, a large circumference of snakes each biting onto the tale of the one before it, slithering round him their eyes turned inwards upon him. He feared they might attack, but they continued their circumvention as if unable to cross into the sacred space. The dark glow of the cactus had begun to register against the dark desert background looking at first like a bruise on the soft green skin, but gradually growing in strength, pulsating and throbbing. Jared felt drawn in as the skin became translucent and he could see veins and cloudy red light coming from within. It was as if the cactus itself had become a womb, growing a secret internal life, sustaining it. Jared was aware of the voice continuing, now with a lisping and breathless delivery as if each word was being immediately whipped away by the wind and carried to him with the tumbleweed and gecko scales. At the centre the cactus opened, like a slit in a serpent’s belly with a white light slicing through the dark green, and from it came a large snake.

The snake flopped out of the cactus and moved towards him. The circle of smaller snakes began to bury themselves back underground, wiping away any trace of the dirt circle with their tails. The large snake stopped by his boot and raised itself up until it was eye-level with him. Jared was powerless to move, he was transfixed by the snake’s milky eyes. But as he gripped the corners of his flask waiting for the coup de grace, the snake bowed its head and his hands immediately stopped shaking, and an incredible sense of peace lay upon him, unlike anything he’d ever felt before, more genuine and heartfelt than any chemical drug reaction in his brain. He opened his eyes and saw a small silver cross caught around the snake’s neck, a scab had formed around the point where the tip of the cross had become embedded into the skin and already the skin was showing signs it was getting ready to slough. The silver cross reflected his campfire way off behind him. Jared leaned in and saw his own face reflected in the polished metal. Without quite knowing why he addressed the snake through booze-chewed words: ‘is hell bad?’

‘You tell me,’ replied the snake, ‘you’re there right now.’

‘I burned my finger once real bad, I was torturing a fly and pushed it inside a plug socket to see if it would be electrocuted, it wasn’t I was. It threw me across the room and I watched as the fly scuttled out and flew out the window. It was so painful and I thought if it is this painful on just one finger, imagine this all over your body… forever. That was my first understanding of hell. But as I got older there’s a different type of hell isn’t there. A mental hell. One that doesn’t burn you up all at once but slowly, leaving nothing but absence as it scorches. That’s why the drink. It puts out the fire… Are you going to kill me?’

He looked down at the underside of his bare arms, the veins were standing out, raised as shadow in the distant firelight. But like the cactus before him the veins seemed to take on an internal glow of their own, powered by something under the skin. In horror he felt his blood congeal in the arteries and begin to slither round his body like a hundred snakes wriggling through fleshy tunnels blind and insatiable. Jared flapped his arms as if trying to dislodge them, but with a growing anxiety he knew them to be inside him. The snake hissed long and slow, it felt to Jared like the release of a pressure valve inside him, the frantic air escaped through his fingertips, taking the memory of glowing snakes with them. Again the sense of unspeakable peace descended upon him.

‘Sit…’ hissed the snake, drawing out the sound like a slowly deflating truck tire.

‘Sure muthafuckin’ thing,’ said Jared, touching his imaginary cap as he collapsed to the earth. This was his breakdown and he was gonna suck it up, goddamn it, ride the bitch and see if he could stay the course without getting thrown. He was so lost in his own thought that he wasn’t even aware of the snake mumbling again in such a soft and seductive voice he had to make an effort to continue his own private and brittle thoughts.

‘The earth is but a little blue bubble in a massive vacuum of nothingness,’ it hissed, ‘Treasure it. Right now as you stand here, all across the surface of the globe there are people engaged in following through on their existence. Some are laughing for joy, some are screaming in agony, some hope this moment never ends, others are looking to the future. Starving, bloated, sick, joyous, some are crying at what they’ll never be while some are crying at what they are.’

‘All of life is being played out now,’ it said, ‘every living thing is breathing in deep from my life-force and exhaling their own reality. Your particular story is as brief as summer lightning, each grain of sand just as memorable and important as you. Enjoy it as much as you can whilst the white-hot energy of life flows through your veins because what you do really doesn’t matter, so long as it is compassionate and honest. Only human arrogance would assume that they’re the most enlightened living creature around these parts.’

The snake took on a mocking southern drawl, causing it’s forked tongue to quiver. As it spoke its tail began to rattle in time with the cadence like a cold-blooded beat box.

‘A peach tree doesn’t think about growing fruit, it just does it. Trust your instincts. You knew how to grow from a baby to a man, trust that you also know how to grow to your conclusion. It’s so very simple, I really don’t know why you, why you all make it so complicated. I’m telling you this now for truth, Jared. Go back. Go back and reclaim the cross. Take it back from those who use it as a totem of suffering and loss. Throw out your arms and accept. Reclaim the action from those who’d remind you of guilt, sacrifice and suffering’.

Jared threw his arms out wide as if being pulled apart by an unseen force.

‘Do it. Stretch your arms out in joy and acceptance, not in pain at having them nailed to a plank of wood. Let the universe flow through you and out the other side. Accept it all. You are it and it is you. Forget about personal sacrifices and feel unified with the one.’

Jared looked up into the sky to see black spots circling in the watery dawn. At first he thought it was dirt in his eye, but as he focused he could see they were desert vultures. What did they know that he didn’t? he thought.

The snake retreated back to the burned out cactus and Jared was aware of feeling connected again to his surroundings.

‘Did you miss me desert, it’s been a while since I’ve come out here. I won’t leave it so long next time.’

The reply came back, rumbling through the canyons and up through the petrified forest lisping, ‘How can I miss you when you’ve never been away?’ The rumble dragged on, becoming more man-made, more like truck tires on loose dirt. sounded more like car tires. Jared forced his eyes to focus. Two white spots were getting larger in the darkness. Coming from the south Jared reckoned it was the Mexican border. Either border police or immigrants. Immigrants probably given early morning light. Out of the periphery of his vision he could detect the Sierra Nevada mountains etched darker against the encroaching dawn. The mountains were lit by hundreds of pinprick small bonfires. The two spotlights grew from snake eyes to car headlamps and were on a direct course to go through his own small fire. Jared stood his ground. He counted seven Mexicans clinging to the sides of the jeep, all freshly crossed from a hole cut in the wire border he reckoned. They screeched to a halt next to his fire, causing the dry sand to shoot over the embers sending red hot sparks into the sky. The driver pointed to his fire.

‘San Juan?’ The men began to laugh as the driver throttled the engine and twisted the wheel to spin off into the promised land.

Jared looked at the date on his cheap Casio watch. Or course. Tonight was the Mexican feast of San Juan where they all jump over their bonfires to wipe out the sins of the previous year and start fresh. He looked back to the snake curled up in the open cactus and he felt a sudden need to wipe his own slate clean. Holding the serpent securely by the neck he took a run at his campfire and jumped as hard as he could, which weighed down as he was by two litres of Wild Turkey and a large rattlesnake wasn’t too high. The heel of his boot caught the tip of a charred log and sent a July 4th of fireworks into the rattlesnakes tail. Jared could feel the snake open wide its mouth in disgust as he held it between thumb and forefinger. Jared landed and twisted round, careful to keep the snake’s face from his to see the cactus burst into flames and set against the dark blue sunrise.

‘Give me a break, who am I? Moses and the fucking burning bush?’ He could see inside the ruptured and burning ribcage what looked like a beating animal heart, still bloody, the fat around its edges beginning to render in the heat. But at its base a dozen snakes had gathered and were edging up trying to catch the fatty run-off. In the half-light it was hard to tell where cactus ended and snake began. Charred flesh and dirt caught in his throat. He reached in his rucksack for his canteen of water, knowing his hipflask to be dry, unscrewing the cap he gulped the contents down.

‘Bah. Turn my water into wine then, King of the Jews.’

Laughing with a confidence that felt fake to him, he took another sip. It tasted like the finest white wine, light and aromatic. He spat the mouthful out onto the cactus, seeing the yellow liquid fizz off the smoking remains.

‘Bah. I only drink red,’ he slurred, eyes flickering on heavy lids.

Jared passed out, his left hand hurling the canteen in front of him, whilst his right kept an instinctive tight grip on the rattlesnake. Within seconds of his head hitting the dirt he was sound asleep, his hold on the serpent slowly relaxing until it was free to slither away or attack him. But it did neither… It stayed.

The sun rose over the canyon gradually warming first his arm, then creeping across his whole body. He looked at the cactus, it looked as if it had imploded from the inside out. He studied it with the intensity and clarity of vision that only a truly epic hangover can provide. He saw the morning dew settle on the snake-like skin and manna forming along the length of the spines. He ate greedily and it seemed to fill him in a deeper place than his stomach. A familiar rattling sound interrupted his feasting and he looked round to see the snake, still with the small silver crucifix embedded in its neck reflecting the sun. Without fear Jared reached down and picked it up, putting it head first into his rucksack and tying a strong knot at its peak.

 

 

06:40am. Encampment of the mobile Snake Handler Church. Snyder city limits. Texas Panhandle.

Jared saw the smoke from encampment’s fire trailing up to the cloud in the early morning sky. Another hot day was promised for all the good it would do them he thought with their faces buried in dusty bibles. Opening the pick-up door he smelt the coffee and the sizzle of hot bacon grease on the breeze. He felt a sudden pang of home-sickness before reminding himself that for better or worse he was home. He walked round to the back of the truck and removed the tarpaulin to carefully pick up his rucksack, he noticed the warning rattle as he put it on his back reassuring him the snake was still healthy enough to be angry, much like his own self. As he strode towards his great-uncle’s trailer he could feel the hipflask in his jeans was totally dry. Of all the times he could do with a hit, this moment was up there with them. Darn it.

Jared pulled on the weather-beaten Formica door and it came open so easily he wasn’t sure if it was unlocked or just rotten. Instantly he heard the clatter of the old air-conditioning unit above the lower hum of his uncle’s morning prayers. He knew he was interrupting but somehow took a perverse delight from the knowledge as he took in his surroundings, unchanged since he’d first gone in their as a child. It seemed even smaller now, claustrophobic. Another reminder of his own failure. Here were all the photos, all the memories, all the indoctrination of everything he’d decided to run away from. Like a rubber band pulled beyond its natural tolerance, he had snapped back to the other extreme: Las Vegas, about as far from the dour caravan as he could get.

Jared closed the swing door behind him with as much noise as the thing plastic would allow. His uncle got up off his knees, a frown beneath his wispy grey eye-brows and moved through to the kitchen area without saying a word, reaching for the same ancient coffee pot, putting it on the stove and striking a match on the wall to light the gas. The coffee smelt like it always had, two day old and acrid. He’d rather drink water from the stagnant creek.

Once the coffee was steaming his great uncle finally turned to him.

‘Mornin’ Jared.’

‘Mornin’ Obadiah.’

The old man heard the rattle coming from Jared’s rucksack. He lit a cigarette and his nostril hair caught fire in the lighter. He breathed up quickly to extinguish the nasal blaze and began sniffing out the debris.

‘Do ya ever smell pork when you burn yourself?’ He flicked at his nostrils, dislodging the charred hairs. Jared remained silent, silhouetted in the doorway with rucksack. His great-uncle rubbed his nose and pointed to the squirming bag.

‘Is this to be an assassination then, J?’

‘Not today old timer. I wanted you to see something.’

‘What ya got in there then son? Sack ‘o serpents instead ‘o spirits for a change. Both as deadly to ya, boy. Did ya learn anything out in the desert?’

The coffee-pot whistled with him. He fixed himself and Jared a cup.

Jared’s hand was shaking again as he put it on the door frame to enter up the steps, ‘Got anything stronger?’

His great uncle ignored the question.

‘I was just thinking about my pa. Strange that you should come a-calling now.’

Jared sat down on the stained sofa and rested the bag between his legs. Leaning forward he unzipped the rucksack and cautiously peered into its black depths.

‘My grandpa? I never knew him…’

The uncle poured the coffee into stained floral cups, unaware of Jared’s timid investigation.

‘Of course ya didn’t, died before your time. Your granddaddy was like John the Baptist, he went out into the desert, lived on locusts and wild honey, came back with a bucket load of serpents that would never bite him. He lasted about forty days out there. How was your forty minutes?’

It was Jared’s turn to ignore the question. The old man treated himself to a rhetorical cackle and before continuing.

‘Ya granddaddy spoke with a lisp that pretty much made him sound like a snake, and what with those eyes of eyes, all yella and serpentine, hell, the deal was done. What else was he gonna do but preach out here? He was special, touched. After all he said we really thought that someone was coming after him, someone great. But shucks…’

The old man rummaged through the cupboard above the sink, its door hanging forlornly from one hinge. Disappointed he turned back to the two mugs and carried them towards the seating area.

‘We was sorely disappointed… sorely… Your daddy was about as much use as a bull with tits when it came to snakes. He got bit and stayed bit, far as they were concerned. But you… you had a talent. And what do you do with it? Ya haul ass to Vegas to whore out ya talent. But, it seems fit to the lord that he’s brought you back to us. Saints be praised.’

Jared looked at the windowsill to see a neat row of green peaches ripening in the sun.

‘That ain’t how ma tells it… she said he got bit holdin’ up a Snake Farm in Jefferson County…’

The old man threw the plastic coffee mug into the sink, slamdunking it off the draining board.

‘That was never proved, you shouldn’t listen to too much of what your ma says anyhoo…’

Jared looked at the peaches ripening on the sill. He shivered as he remembered how his great-uncle treasured that old peach tree out in the yard growing up, how he’d picked them like rosary beads each autumn and always placed them in the window, turning them every few hours to ripen each side, religiously like it was a penance. So desperate was Jared for a drink he checked each peach to see if his great-uncle’s forgetfulness had allowed any to ferment. None had, but he went deeper into memory as he sipped on the gravel coffee, recalling an afternoon long in the past when a few peaches had fermented and he and Ronnie Graham had got his older sister to do their Tarot card reading. His great-uncle had caught them and beaten him within an inch of his life because his god was a god of love who didn’t deal in witchcraft. It dawned on him for the first time, maybe that was why he’d chosen Vegas to make his line in the sand. Jared poured the steaming coffee out of the window, covering a few peaches in the overspill. The old man’s lips curled up dryly around his receding gums.

Jared stared him down, ‘Won’t you just leave it, hey?’

The old man sized him up, Jared was a hulk of a man now and there’d be no whipping today. He backed down with a soft voice. ‘Just saying that’s all. Don’t get all bent outta shape about it. Hey, what ya got in that sack then?’

Jared looked at the old and hunched man, broken by the years, tortured by a self-inflicted life on the road preaching the good word and daring the devil serpents to bite him. Jared felt pity at a life wasted without daring to look at his own. In the early morning light his horizontal pupils, a family genetic defect, looked more like a snake than ever. Jared consoled himself that his ancestors had been snake faith handlers for so long, he was sure there was probably a snake out there with human eyes, so much blood, sweat and tears had been exchanged on both parts.

‘Yeah well I never got bitten by the religion bug, did I? I heard my daddy talkin’ ‘bout the parable of the seed and only felt that stony ground inside me.’

‘Bah’, shouted the old man, ‘Even if I had a million dollars, I’d still be sitting here preaching, that’s the difference between you and me boy, you got no heart.’

‘I’ve had a gut-full of you already,’ muttered Jared under his breath, ‘Look at this,’ he said, reaching into the rucksack with his right hand, straight down, unafraid. From inside the warning rattle could be heard, dry and crisp. Nature’s maracas. Jared yanked it out and brought the rattler’s head to his own eye level.

The old man drew a sharp breath, dislodging the catarrh in his ancient Marlboro country lungs. The snake fixed its hypnotic eyes on Jared and stopped rattling, choosing instead to wrap its tail around his neck. Once again it bowed its head. The alcoholic shaking in his Jared’s hand immediately stopped.

‘See, I don’t need a drink so long as I can do this. What you think about that. Am I cured or what?’

The old man squinted at the brown rectangles on the snakes back. ‘You didn’t catch that round these parts… He’s a copperhead, and a big bastard at that.’ The old timer began scratching his arse, tentatively at first, but then really getting into it. A dust storm had begun to whip up, thick sand battered the thin plastic door, the thinner granules penetrating and collecting in a dagger shape on the rug.

‘Have you found it yet?’ asked Jared sarcastically.

‘What?’

‘Whatever’s up your arse?’

‘Hell, not yet boy. Doesn’t your arse ever get so sweaty and itchy it feels like a baby’s toothless mouth chewing on peanut butter?’

‘Oh man, that’s fucking disgusting. No my arse gets a diff’nt type of sore – on account of all the times the Man has stuck it to me, know what I mean?’

Jared shoved the snake towards him and the old man snapped back against the wall.

‘Where’d you get that, boy? You tell me now, and don’t give me no monkey-shine about no Mesquite plains, I’ve been trampling this route for years, you don’t get rattlers like that this far northeast.’

Jared brought the snake even closer and the old man’s hand went for the hot coffee pot.

‘Watch it, they’re the meanest most vicious snake you’ll see, darn poisonous too. If it bites ya somewhere integral and central you’ll have about an hour tops. I’ve seen these bastards hold a grudge and actually hunt a man interstate.’

It was then he saw the small silver cross embedded in the snake’s neck. The old man let go the coffee pot and made the sign of the cross.

‘Mary mother of god, let me look at that.’

His face turned as white as the silver cross.

‘As I live and breathe’ his eyes narrowed and he looked suspicious. ‘Alright, the jig’s up. You’re playing a trick on me, ain’t ya. This is your granddaddy’s cross. You cooked this up with your ma?’

‘What you talking about?’

The uncle could clearly see from Jared’s open expression this was no set-up. He looked the snake straight in the eyes.

‘Cyrus? Is that you? Oh Cyrus… it is you, ain’t it?’ The old man reached out for the snake and gripped it safely under the jaws with his left hand. He took the snake and turned the head back towards Jared.

‘I told him he really gonna catch the devil if he kept messing round with those snakes, it was unnatural, like he’d become one of them. One night went to bed with stomach pains, and in the night he went to the outhouse and shit out an egg. He kept it in there, secret, telling everyone the shithouse was broken and he was fixing. Then one night there was a commotion and a snake came out. Soon after he disappeared, he just went clean out of his head. Ran off into the desert, probably to talk to the cactuses.’

His great uncle looked deeply into the snake’s milky eyes.

‘We found him a week later, dead. At his request we gave him a heart burial, you know, where the body is buried one place and the heart is removed and buried in another. We buried his heart in the snake pit not far from here. You can hear them at night, the half-breeds I call ‘em, crying at the sun going down, losing the heat they need you need your sour mash. This beauty’s getting ready to slough off his skin.

Jared looked paranoid out the window, feeling his heart beating in his chest. He checked the peaches in the vain hope one might have fermented some.

‘The old man leapt forward with a sprightliness unfitting his years and shoved the snake full up into Jared’s face

‘Say hello to your granddaddy, son.’

‘You’re insane old timer. Has that rancid coffee finally curdled your brain? I worked in Vegas remember, don’t try and fool me with this old shtick. You’re just an unsuccessful wannabe celebrity, with your snake-charmer’s show’.

This bit harsher than any snake-bite and he threw the snake back at Jared.

‘It’s not snake-charming, it’s a goddamn act of faith,’ he immediately held his finger to his lips, ‘forgive my cussing, oh Lord.’

‘Yeah it’s an act for sure.’

‘Talk to me about celebrity? Why ya back here with ya tail between yer legs? I understand though, you couldn’t settle up in Vegas so you had to settle down.’

For only the third time in his life inside that caravan Jared cursed, it just came out like a snap reflex of a snake’s tail.

‘Go fuck yourself…’

The uncle dropped his coffee cup and went to strike his nephew, but as his hand went down the snake curled up, fangs bared to greet the palm. He withdrew.

‘Don’t you cuss in here.’ His uncle shook his head slow like the ticking of a great pendulum ravaged by time, creaking yet still keeping correct time.

‘No, you’ve got it all wrong, son. You think things stay the same. But everything with a beginning can be stopped. When you think of being seventy six, you imagine YOU now at seventy-six, but you change. You change.’

Jared began to feel the night’s excitement upon him and looked at his watch. The alcohol was rendering out of him and he nothing to replace it with till the parish shop opened in two hours. He was scared to sleep, but suddenly just as scared to stay awake.

‘Being back here is just a retreat for me, you understand? This isn’t me. This isn’t me at all. It’s just that out here in the desert you can really strip things back to basics, to the bone and see what’s really what without the complications of the daily grind. And believe me… it fucking grinds. That’s something you don’t know about old timer, something you can’t lecture me on. I had the cojones to poke my dick above the parapet – you just hide in here with you dusty books.

‘Yeah, you poked it above the parapet all right – got it clean shot off too, didn’t ya?’

Again Jared felt the fangs dig into his heart, and the response came like the recoil of a cobra.

‘You wanna dance? Really? I tried… at least I fucking tried…’

‘Go back to your Gomorrah then and whoop it up if you miss it so much, high-tail it round town with some whore… oh but excuse me…you can’t can ya, you ain’t got a red cent. I’ve got chickens out in the coop with more credit than you…’

Jared leapt to his feet and squared up to the old man hunched against the Formica worktop, towering over him to such a degree that even in his red rock rage it still felt like an unfair fight. The old man felt that the wave of anger had broken in his great-nephew and the moment had passed. ‘At least ya still got some fight left in ya, son…’

Jared crumpled back over his rucksack and sunk into the cushions against the window. The rattlesnake made a beeline for the corner of the room away from the noise.

‘It’s going to take so much to get me back into it though,’ Jared whimpered, ‘Like I was saying, you can cut it to the bone out here, but once you want to get back into the game you need money for rent, money for romancing even for relaxation. Out here I don’t miss it, but if I went back I couldn’t even pay the tip on my existence. I’d just end up all resentful again.’

‘Just like your old man. You’re a goddamn pussy. So you ain’t even gonna try?’

Jared looked at the snake curled in the shadows of the broken wooden flooring. He felt a quiet optimism as delicate as desert dew.

‘Yeah I’m gonna fuckin’ try… get off my back, old timer.’

His great uncle moved past him and off towards his prayer area. He reached for the upturned book resting on the rug and turned his back to Jared.

‘If I had a dog as lazy as you I’d shoot it. And that’s for truth…’

Jared reached under the skirting and pulled out the snake which came without trouble. Putting it back in the sack he took a last look at the old man bent over in prayer.

‘What you gonna kill me with? Your book of poison or your fuckin’ poisoned coffee?’

Forgetting his years, the old man instinctively leapt again at his great nephew striking him on the left cheek with the back of his gnarled hand.

‘Now git. Ya hear me…? Get…’

Somewhere deep inside himself Jared knew he deserved that one and let it sting unchallenged. He slunk out the door and back towards his own tiny trailer down by the creek on the edge of the camp. Opening the door he immediately saw the previous morning’s emergency bottle of J&B Whiskey on the breakfast counter.

Jared felt his hand begin to shake as he reached up to unhook the serpent from his neck and set it down next to the bottle where it immediately curled its tail around the glass base. Was he going to drink or leave it? He wanted to leave it, but the shakes were already beginning to make the snake edgy. Jared reached for the bottle, the snake let off a warning rattle. He could see the nostrils flaring in and out and noticed the eyes were opaque, ready to slough its skin. Once more his hand stopped shaking.

‘Steady as a fucking rock.’ Jared ran his dry and cracked hand over the snake’s skin like he was rubbing a phallus, he expected it to be slimy and cold but it felt warm and dry. The snake hissed appreciatively, it’s forked tongue wiggling in ecstasy. Carefully, Jared reached behind its head to where the tiny silver cross was embedded and pulled. It came out without too much resistance and the snake continued to wiggle it’s tongue without distress. He studied the smooth metal.

‘Aw, you drunk skunk, don’t start believing your own bullshit.’ He sank into the giving sofa and let the cross gradually slip from his hand as a final sleep descended upon him. The snake began to rub itself against the splintered leg of the sofa, dislodging the dead skin as if peeling a banana.

It was late evening when Jared finally came to. His face was burned in strips from lying in full glare of the day’s sun through his blinds. He touched the painful red flesh like it was streaky bacon frying without enough oil. About the same time, he wondered why his leg felt so warm despite still being in darkness and leaning up he realised he’d urinated down his inside leg. But all this was lost on him as he looked to what lay just beyond his boot. The snake was nowhere to be seen, but on the floor was a huge empty casing, a sloughed skin as thick and translucent as bubble wrap. The discarded skin was in the perfect shape of a man, sprawled out on the rug as if the police had drawn his outline in chalk.

Jared stood open-mouthed staring at the enormous rice-paper skin, it felt as dry to the touch as his own tongue. The plastic door of the mobile home flapped open and closed in the morning’s sweet scented breeze. Jared picked up the whiskey bottle from the table and leaning out on the step, he poured it away onto the parched earth. He reached across to the broken handle and closed the door behind him, securing it by the old boot lace. Something had left in the night, and he hoped it wouldn’t be back any time soon….

 

 

The Publisher

‘We’re all born with the most sophisticated hardware in the known universe,’ Bull tapped his forehead,  ‘Your brain… and you want to get a good tune out of it while you’re here. Simple as that really. Where’s your ambition gone, Strenton?’

‘I was born retired…’ said Strenton, shrugging.

Bull Wendell half-heartedly flicked his beer coaster across the table, ‘…Retarded?’

Strenton threw it right back at him, catching him in his Adam’s apple, ‘You heard me right.’

It was Bull’s turn to shrug, trying another tack, ‘And you’re happy with that at twenty-four, yeah?’

The couple at the table next to them got up to leave and Strenton leaned across to drain the dregs from the man’s beer glass before responding, licking his frothy lips with the satisfaction of a cartoon cat.

‘Sure I am. The way I figure it, I got another forty years or so to keep dodging the bullets until society deems my lifestyle acceptable. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Strenton together again…’

Bull began to tear at the cardboard coaster, making sure each rip was neat and straight, ‘I don’t see it that way at all. You’re just phoning in sick to the job of being alive. Maybe it’s just your destiny to see everything but the nose right on the front of your face?’

‘So I’m broke. I’m like a… a…’

Bull coughed over him: ‘…BUM… s’cuse me…’

Strenton carried on like he hadn’t heard, ‘… a Zen monk, I got my writing, I got my woman, my music, I got my drink and my smoke, occasionally I’m tossed a juicy bone, what else do I need? Who are you to tell me I shouldn’t be happy?

With the coaster now in pieces, Bull turned to gnashing his teeth, ‘Fuck it, who am I to tell you how to get down? Face it though, it must be pretty damn easy being a Zen monk, hey? I mean their stress levels must be through the floor… but what a fucking a cop-out! Where’s the risk? The pain of life comes from engaging and getting stuck-in to the hussle-bussle of hopes and failures, the missed chances and soaring successes. Sit on a mountainside and reflect long enough and I’m sure you would keep peace of mind, but isn’t that just the ultimate avoidance tactic? The older I get, the more I cling to my certainties like a drowning man to an estate agent’s sale board. But it’s wrong: I should go out into the world with eyes open, wild with wonder and willing to forget everything I thought was true when presented with new truth. We never stop learning, the teenager eventually feels disappointed that he never actually becomes an adult to himself, we’re all just playing at being grown-ups, aren’t we?’

Strenton lit a cigarette and tried to blow a nonchalant smoke ring, but there was too much spittle in his mouth. Bull clasped his hands behind his head and leant back on the bar chair, continuing: ‘I’ve known you since school days and you’ve always been the same. Always a seeker, always dissatisfied with the present and searching…’

‘Yes, but I finally found what I was looking for…’

‘And what was it..?’

‘The real me. No front, no bullshit. We’ve got two hemispheres in our brain and science has just proved there’s a consciousness in each one. Both are us. That’s why when you ‘ask’ yourself a question, you can give yourself an answer. You can choose to make either voice your consciousness, but both will always be there. One is the real us, the other is our ego. I finally chose the real me.’

Strenton took a block of hashish from his pocket and checked around him before biting down on the brown lump like it was a Mars bar.

Bull straightened the creases out of his purple shirt with downward swipes of his palm, ‘So dope’s the answer then?’

Strenton licked his tongue around his top gum, clearing the sticky remnants, he leant forward grinning at Bull like a dog that’d just eaten a turd from a trash can.

‘Dope’s part of the answer, sure. Why not? It’s definitely in my arsenal. Hash keeps a man’s ego small and helps him be aware. Ego kills your honesty. Anyway, the truly enlightened don’t go around worrying about whether they’re enlightened or not, do they? If you’re a realized master, then you should be one anywhere, factory floor or mountaintop… Meditation is the surest long-term way, but drugs sure are a fun short cut.’

Bull ordered up another round of drinks, this time without Strenton even having to ask. Strenton was on a roll, the words spilling out of him and he could see Bull was buying.

‘If some Yogi put a gun to my head and asked me for my truth, then that’s exactly what I’d tell him. God and the Devil are human concepts, created by the wise minds of that time who felt the left and right hemispheres of their brain acutely, the division in man, and couldn’t understand how two such opposing forces could live inside the same small headspace without there being fireworks: Our incredible need, and it really is a fucking need to create, whatever form that creation takes: a meal, a painting, a farm, a play, a baby. Our selfishness versus our endless capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice. We may be born as blank sheets waiting to be written on by the experiences of our lives, even deeper than that there is a genetic disposition to feel love. But like the Ying Yan, there is an opposite force in us of destruction, a dark and primeval propensity deep in the tar pits of our being that we don’t like to talk about at dinner parties to devour and destroy everything in an obscene and glutinous hatred. So we spend our lives wrestling the two on the mind’s smack-down mat. Life always gives you a chance, you just got to have enough courage to take it. I’m just smart enough to realize that I know fuck all. Most people don’t want to be enlightenment anyway, they’re enjoying their lies too much. Treat them like mushrooms – feed ‘em shit and keep ‘em in the dark.’

The drinks arrived and Strenton took his off the tray before the waiter had a chance to put it down.

‘Two hemispheres; One man. I know all about the divided self.  If you need something badly enough the mind has a strange way of bringing it towards you. Self-fulfilling prophecies and all that…’

‘Bullshit,’ said Bull flatly, ‘You reap what you sow.’

Strenton took a long pull from his drink, the ice rattling against his stained teeth, ‘The real trouble is I just like myself drunk and stoned, d’ya know what I mean? Either way, we’re still young, no need for second-chances or regrets yet, we’ve got time… just do what you love till someone pays you for it. Here, have another drink…’

(Excerpt from the novella: ‘The Bull That Wouldn’t Fight.’ © Harry Rinse, 1996.)

Time: 09:30. Date: Thursday, June 24th, 2011. City of London.

It felt more like a Monday. Harry Rinse had struggled to get out of bed when the alarm had gone off and pulling back the curtains to see a cold and grey drizzle sky had almost sealed the deal with him to throw a sickie, but he was out of time. Rolling over and feeling the beautiful cold of the other side of the mattress he saw his half-open sketch book on the floor and remembered he needed the money. He need the money badly. Maybe if he got out of bed and went downstairs he’d find a letter on the doormat with a big fat royalty cheque for his book and he wouldn’t have to go to work ever again? Maybe. Maybe not…

It was not, so like a zombie with salt on his tongue Harry moved to the kitchen and somnabulistically prepared his petit-dejeuner amongst the damage of last night’s French brandy bottles and Post-It notes. He shoveled in the cold porridge, feeling it settle in his stomach like wet cement and making every movement even more of an effort as he sluggishly got ready for work. Cack-handedly throwing the empty bowl into the sink he looked up at the old family photo taken nearly nine summer’s ago. It made his stomach sink even deeper than the porridge had. His eyes lingered on his daughter Chloe, she was holding a bunch of freshly picked purple posies to her chest and he allowed his mind to wonder to that glorious summer’s afternoon when everything had seemed to be buoyed up on an endless tide of laughs. With a remembrance that squirmed inside him like acid inside a marshmallow he realized that today must be her birthday. Another year had lurched by without contact. God how he missed her. Harry quickly jumped all over that thought, stamping it out of his head. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, he couldn’t, some truths were just too painful, especially after a brutal night of bottles and bones. He felt a sudden urge to call her, to forget all the back story, all the reasons he didn’t want to admit fault and just… call her. He stared down at his mobile phone, he desperately wanted to know how her voice had aged in the intervening years and beyond anything else he wanted to hear that voice forgive him, as he knew it would if only he’d call. But his pride wouldn’t let him and hell, he didn’t even have a current number for her anymore. Focus on now, that was a big enough challenge just to get through the fucking day. He put on his self-tailored cloak of failure and swirled out into the brutal morning.

Looking at his watch Harry prayed their wouldn’t be any delays on the Northern line this morning, but catching the notice-board as he descended the escalator he saw there were. He boarded the train and sat motionless in the Charing Cross branch tunnel waiting on a signal change. He reached into his leather satchel for his sketch book and began drawing the passengers that faced him as he usually did every week day. Each person looked different in their seat but their expressions were always the same at this time of the morning displaying a kind of washed out disbelief that was being propped-up by a crumbling front of confidence and mp3 players, with eyes glazed over dreaming of being someplace else.

But Harry wasn’t interested in their whys and wherefores, he just wanted to get into the right mindset before sitting in Court Number Two of the Old Bailey and sketching the scene for television and occasionally newspapers, as cameras continued to be banned from British Courts. Thank God, he thought to himself as the train pulled into Waterloo station, he wasn’t making any money from his writing so at least he could fall back on the skills he’d learned way back at art college when the future had still been anything he wanted it to be. Somewhere along the tracks of his forty-five years he’d stopped dreaming of the future, driven on through the present, to now arrive at dreaming only of the past. He’d lived in London for so long now that everywhere he went was loaded with past memories. Everything reminded him of something else, each bar, each building, each street sign. For this reason he loved to write, feeling he’d never really been fully present in anything he’d done, he liked to revisit it through his memory to re-live it fully.

He walked across Waterloo Bridge in the rain, resentful of how his options had shut down, how he’d allowed himself to be corralled into this cul-de-sac. The rain was beginning to soak through the plastic covering of his sketch-book and he knew his careful charcoal drawings would soon blur into one big soggy tea stain. Fuck it, he felt so depressed and angry he wanted to kick a priest in the face. The downpour caught him right on the centre of the bridge, the grey battleship River Thames stormed beneath him like everyone upstream had cried into it on this hopeless Monday. He ducked into a bus shelter and nestled into the corner, turning his back to the wind which whipped the rain in at impossible angles. He looked through the sketch book to check the damage. There was Monday’s sketch of passengers, the guy on the seat by the door had smudged a little but his distinctive purple cravat was clearly visible. Tuesday’s sketch the same, little bit smudged but the man in the door seat had a purple cravat that also caught his eye. How strange thought Harry, the same man in the same seat two days running on a rush hour train that carried hundreds of faceless people. Wednesday’s drawing showed the same. Harry turned to this morning’s sketch with hands that tingled with more than the cold rain. It was the same. There was the man in the purple cravat.

Harry tried to think back to the week’s journey but it was all a sleep-stained blur, how could he not have noticed? He looked over his shoulder to see a bus coming over the bridge, it pulled in, waiting for him at the stop. Harry waved it on and the driver shook his head, angry at the gridlock this rainy favour had caused behind him. Harry flicked back through the previous week’s drawing and his mouth fell open to catch the metallic rain like a wide bucket. In each sketch on each day there was the same man. Always staring at him, always in the same seat.

09:30. Friday morning. Waterloo Underground station. City of London.

Harry was so excited he could barely hold his charcoal to sketch the row of passengers. He’d teased himself by starting to draw the people sitting furthest from the door, but he could resist no longer and shot his eyes across to that end seat. His heart skipped a beat. there he was, suited and booted, the purple cravat perfectly creased.

At Waterloo station the man had got up and left the train. Even though this was Harry’s regular stop he still felt like a stalker. Turning out of the station and onto Waterloo Bridge the morning was bright and clear, the sun twinkled off the water and showered everyone with diamonds, it was a Friday to boot and the suited workers had an easy spring in their step. The difference a day can make, thought Harry as he watched his quarry pause at the centre of the bridge and look behind him. Harry knew he had to look anywhere but in his eyes… so he looked in his eyes. Harry knew he’d been made, it was now or never. He walked up to the man and leant over the rusty guardrail, keeping enough distance between them to still deny everything. He looked down into the eaves of the bridge and saw what looked like a green finch, its emerald green’ rump sparkling, but as his eyes focused a larger bird landed on the ledge putting it to flight. It was a mean looking magpie and it began to peck at something shiny reflecting the sun. Harry had always been the suspicious type and this to him was a bad omen, so in an attempt to ward off the hex he touched his imaginary cap. The magpie eyed him suspiciously and looked off into the direction the man was now headed. Harry felt confused and had a sudden twinge in his guts that he was being delusional, but once again he stamped down quickly on the thought. He needed this, he needed something to believe in, so quickening his step Harry followed him across the bridge and up through the narrow cobbled alleyways towards St. Paul’s Cathedral with its huge dome dwarfing the scuttling masses absorbed in the morning rush.

Harry watched the man walk up the great stone steps to the entrance where he paused, dwarfed in the imperious oak doors and looked again over his shoulder. Harry immediately leaned against a phone box and studied his fingernails feeling as self-conscious and obvious as a comic book spy. The man continued in to the cathedral just as the bells rang out the hour. Harry realized he was now too late to make the morning session of court, he was committed to see how far his fantasy would take him.

He shuffled sideways up the entrance steps like a depressed hermit crab and quickly scuttled into the building, scanning the cool and darkened interior for his subject. The air was thick with dust and incense, his cheap office shoes echoed on the stone with each step. Where was he?, Harry wondered. He found him in the transept paying for a ticket up to the Whispering Gallery. Harry resisted the urge to run towards him and confront him there and then, but he was sure the man had looked straight at him just before disappearing into the narrow stone spiral staircase that led ever upwards to the vaulted dome. The entrance fee came to more than Harry’s lunch and train fare money, it cut into his evening drinking budget, but he was so lost in the moment he didn’t care.

With each turn of the twisting torch-lit staircase Harry always kept the tip of the man’s long shadow on the wall ahead of him, picking up his pace each time it tapered off round the corner. He reached the Whispering Gallery exit that ran in a circle across the dome, Harry poked his head out to see the man sit down half way across the circumference and reach into his pocket, unwrapping a sandwich. Seating himself about a third of the way along from him, Harry stared up at the huge painted dome, it looked like a massive brain. He sat down and pressed his ear against the cold stone. On the other side, the man continued to eat his sandwich. Harry could hear the bubble of chatter, the same as when he’d put a sea-shell to his ear as a child. The twenty or so visitors were all leaning into the wall, testing out its acoustics. Harry strained his ear to hear whispers beneath the bubble, older noises stored in the stone telling four hundred year old secrets. A shiver ran along his ear canal to brain, he was sure one of the voices belonged to Chloe, his daughter. She was giggling and laughing, other voices became more distinct singing a Happy Birthday refrain, as if through water. He strained in closer still, his ear becoming a suction cup on the grubby masonry, but the voices all seemed to fade away into background noise, leaving a single baritone to come through:

‘Why are you following me?’ it rasped, the voice cooled through centuries of stone. Harry felt his ear redden and burn, he removed it from the wall, but quickly felt compelled to put it back again. The voice was still there, now growling and angry:

‘Yes, I’m talking to you, pal…’

Harry looked across the balustrade to see the man pointing straight at him. The game, such as it had been, was certainly up.

Harry limped across towards the man who was now putting his sandwich down and standing up, ready for the confrontation. It felt a very long walk and Harry felt his face redden as he neared, hearing his heart pumping in his ears. When he reached the man and began to speak, his voice sounded like a little girl being strangled.

‘Excuse me. I know this’ll sound odd, but you take the Northern line each morning south to north. Am I correct?’

‘Yes. But you know that because you followed me….’

‘I’m a writer, it’s nothing dodgy, I… was just following an idea… you’re in every sketch I’ve drawn… ’

The man took a step away from him and rested his hand on the guardrail. Harry quickly spoke to reassure him,

‘God no that sounds odd doesn’t it? I meant that I’m an illustrator and…’

‘I thought you just said you’re a writer?’

Harry was rambling, ‘Yes, that too, look, you’ve appeared in all my sketches going back months, I only noticed it yesterday, months… it’s really too much to be coincidence. It has to mean something, it has to. I was hoping you’d… oh I don’t know, it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?’

The man’s body language softened and he leant over the guardrail, motioning Harry to join him with his hand. Harry looked over and took a deep breath, glad of the sense of distance. The man turned to him.

‘I know a lot of writers. When they get an idea into their heads, hey. I’ve even known a few bring their characters to life, show me the drawings…’

Harry was dumbfounded. He felt a tingle running up his spine like the sexy fingers of a snow-witch.

‘I knew it. I knew it had to mean something. Thank you cosmos. So what are you? Just a figment of my imagination, a piece of undigested gristle?’

‘The man laughed but when Harry didn’t laugh with him he stopped, looking at Harry as if he must be insane,

‘Um, sure. I’m your guardian angel, your own personal Jesus, or better still, a character from one of your books…’

Harry punched the air. Finally something was happening.

‘Really…?’, he spoke with such childlike wonder that the man could continue the deception no longer.

‘What the hell do you reckon? Of course I’m fucking not. Are you ok, I mean are you going through something?’

Harry suddenly felt foolish and slapped his hands on the wooden railing as if playing an invisible drum, ‘Sorry, it’s only when I said it out loud I realized how stupid it sounded.’

‘That’s Ok. I deal with a lot of writers in my profession. I’m used to it. I’m a publisher.’

Harry turned to him, the desperation now clearly visible in his eyes.

‘I know this sounds odd, but I could really talk to someone right now, you’re right: I am going through something. You seem like a good bloke, I understand if…’

The man patted him on the shoulder, ‘Sure thing. I was just killing time this morning anyway, truth be told. How about a coffee? I know a great place on the river.’

‘Prefer a drink?’

‘Whatever’, he looked at his watch, ‘a little early for me.’

‘I’m a writer, I need my oil for the mental cogs.’

‘Quite so, have you written anything I’d have read?’

‘How about ‘The Bull who wouldn’t Fight?’

‘No’.

‘Cadence?’, said with a hopeful look in his eye.

The man shook his head.

‘Then nothing you’d have read’, said Harry despondently.

Beneath them a long line of choristers were taking their places and fiddling with their sheet music.

11:30. Top Deck. Zen Restaurant & Bar. Tatershall Steam Boat. River Thames, Embankment side.

As Harry sat down amidst the relative opulence of the floating restaurant it suddenly dawned on him that he’d spent the last of his money getting into the gallery. The waiter floated over looking like he owned the place and Harry felt red-faced yet again, like he’d jumped out the water and was flapping on the deck for air with his empty pockets making no noise. He thought it better to speak up sooner:

‘Look I’m a little light at the moment, I’ll just have a water.’

The Publisher wagged a finger, ‘Nonsense, this one’s on me, pal. You’re having a bad day, so my treat. Knock yourself out.’

Harry turned eagerly to the smug waiter poised with his notepad.

‘Well, for starters I’ll have depression, followed by a main of self-doubt, and then for pudding – I think the low self-esteem soufflé – unless it won’t rise of course.’

The Publisher took off his sunglasses to wipe his forehead, his eyes twinkled in the water reflecting up from their starboard table.

‘That bad, huh?’

Harry drummed his fingers on the table in an attempt to defuse some of his building tension. He wanted to just blurt it all out and be free of it, but reminded himself he was in professional company. The Publisher was considering the wine menu.

Perhaps you need some rosé coloured glasses?’

Harry shook his head and drummed his fingers once more.

‘Can’t drink rosé, it makes me mean, well… meaner. The Pinot looks good though, perhaps a bottle of the Californian?’ Harry trailed off as his eyes locked on the price.

The Publisher waved his hand to the waiter in agreement, the waiter collected up the menus and sauntered off into the galley.

‘Please continue…’, he said.

‘I feel like an empty sewerage pipe,’ Harry began, looking out across the river to the far bank, ‘It’s like I woke up today realizing all my dreams have been unrealistic and now it’s too late to start again.’

Leaning over the side of the boat had caused the publisher’s sunglasses to slip down his nose and he pushed them up with his index finger.

‘It’s better to travel hopefully than arrive, eh? We men are like water, we find the path of least resistance… that’s why you get crooked rivers and crooked men.’

Harry laughed for the first time that week, ‘You’re not wrong.’

‘Look, seeing as fate has brought us together why don’t you pitch me some ideas then, I’m always looking for new titles. Tell me about ‘The Bull that wouldn’t Fight?’ Pitch it to me…’

Harry froze as if a rabbit, feeling altogether too depressed to switch into selling mode, but he forced himself to focus, perhaps life was throwing him a juicy bone.

‘Well it was a novella back in ninety-eight, but it’s already published. I’d rather pitch you my new stuff….’

The publisher waved his hand again, ‘Unpublished…?’

‘Hell yes!‘, Harry blurted out without thinking.

‘Got any Chick-Lit type stuff?’

Harry involuntarily gripped the table-cloth.

‘No’.

‘Shame. Chick lit’s where it’s at money-wise. Lot of money in the genre.’

The waiter arrived with the wine and Harry stole his glass from the tray before the waiter could put it down. The waiter paused and rolled his eyes. Three magpies landed on the boat’s smoke stack just to the right of their table. Harry craned his head, using his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sun.

‘Fucking magpies been following me all day, I swear.’

The Publisher followed his eye line, ‘That makes three for a girl, doesn’t it?’

‘Yeah, and four for a book deal’?

The Publisher returned his gaze to the table.

‘Lot a money in Chick Lit. You got a daughter?’

Harry’s sudden tension was palpable like a cloud had crossed the sun. He answered with a prickly defensiveness.

‘Yeah… you?’

‘Nope. I’ve got a pot plant though. I’ve had it for a year and I’m really trying to take care of it. I figure if it grows, then I’m safe to take care of something bigger, like a dog… then who knows maybe a kid..? I’ll take baby steps… What I meant was maybe you could pump your daughter for ideas?’

Harry felt uncomfortable with the image that brought to mind and replied with a final, ‘We don’t speak anymore. Nothing in my life has turned out the way I thought it would.’

The Publisher nodded sagely and threw an overspill from the breadbasket over the side of the boat to one of the circling magpie, ‘You’re a glass half empty kind of guy then?’

Harry drained the last of his wine. ‘I am round here.’ The publisher recharged his glass from the bottle.

‘Don’t be too down. It’s probably not your fault anyway. Psychologists reckon that if you look at a person’s life in childhood: their loves and hates, their personality, then throw in their life-experiences to date then you usually find that adult sitting before you is exactly as they had to be. It was a natural logical evolution. Don’t beat yourself up about it, you didn’t really have a choice. There you were, mewling and puking in the crib, much like you’re doing now may I just say, born into the world with the most impressive hardware in the known universe, and an empty hard drive waiting to be filled with what was rolled in front of your face – slaps or kisses you didn’t have any choice in the matter in the formative years. Then once you reached maturity and the jelly of experience had set into an adult brain, your body begins to slowly decay and you spend the next seventy years putting out the fires of your original imperfect mould.’

Harry kept his eye fixed on the publisher, his left hand reaching out for the glass without needing to look, he always had a sixth sense for where his glass was in the same way a mother connected to her child. ‘Christ, you’re a barrel of laughs…’ he looked down at the water, ‘you’d better walk the plank.’

The Publisher gave a salute. ‘I don’t deal the cards, I just play with the hand I’m given.’

Harry was starting to feel the sincerity of the wine flood his bloodstream, warming his alligator blood.

‘I still believe the universe is uncaring, not to say it is evil; it’s just totally neutral and non-judgmental: Think what implications that really has for living. We have choice. We’re set free. I still believe there’s an energy that flows like a stream of brilliant light through the centre of every living thing that just IS. It’s not good or bad, it’s not sentient as we understand it. But, just like a tree falls down in the forest making only vibrations it takes an ear to turn that vibration into sound. The same with life energy: it needs a living host to register it and feel it as pure love.’

The publisher poured himself another glass.

‘And how’s that life-philosophy working out for ya?’

Harry picked up the bottle from the stand but it was empty.

‘Oh it’s surely over for me. I took my shot and missed’, He thumped the table, ‘I guess I’ve just got to deal with it. I’ve just got to come to terms with mediocrity and forgetting about all the things that should’ve been. I’m forty-five for Christ’s sake, look at the belly, the hair. Never again will I run my hands through long locks, never again will I sleep with a beautiful girl, ripe as a peach and bursting with fresh joy. I’ve seen them in the clubs and supermarket queues, looking at me like I’m their father.’

The publisher clasped his hands behind his head and looked up into the ozone, the words rushing through him and up to the cosmos.

‘That’s getting old for you, I guess. Just got to suck it up and accept it… or you could get rich and powerful, that works too.’

‘Sure, if I had success then I’d still be in the market, I’d be relevant… Ah, bullshit. My last novel was panned. No one loves an alcoholic but his barman. That’s why I’m working as a lowly court sketcher: my prose is flowing like this morning’s porridge. My last novel was called Cadence: about a man who believed everything had a vibration and could be measured, if every living thing’s vibration was sampled and turned into a note then he thought that would be the chord of creation, actually creating life. So he did it…’

The publisher avoided Harry’s stare by looking over at the waiter and dangling the empty bottle, requesting another.

‘You sure you not got any Chick Lit..?’

Harry exploded, the wine had given him a false confidence and he momentarily forgot who was paying,

‘Fuck the Chit-Lick. I could write ten of those fuckers in a day and still go out dancing.’

The publisher tasted the wine, swilling it around his mouth, taking his time as he considered things.

‘I’ve an idea. How’s about a bet then? It’s not as easy as you think. I’ll bet you can’t pitch me some chick-lit good enough to publish. If you can, then I’ll promise to take the synopsis and personally kick it upstairs at my publishing house. How about it? Go on, pitch me, bewitch me.’

‘Hell yes. You’re on. You better believe I need the money. I can write all house-styles. But where to start though, what’s the brief?’

‘Same as with all great writing. Start with the truth. But remember, as Brecht wrote: our job is not to show reality, but to show how things really are’.

Harry took a long breath.

‘Ok. I went into my local deli this morning from my Manhattan loft…’

‘Good, aspirational life-style’s a must for Chick Lit, she must work in fashion or journalism or TV, she must be moderately successful and good looking, but be single and dissatisfied with her life. It doesn’t matter that in reality most women would like to have her starting life-style of cocktails and taxis, massive Manhattan lofts and travel all on a P.A.’s salary, etc…’

‘Mmm, Ok. Well, she goes to get some sushi out of the deli refrigerator…’

‘No. New Yorker’s never buy the pre-made sushi – it’s guaranteed food poisoning. It’s got to be realistic.’

The waiter arrived with the fresh bottle, breaking Harry’s concentration.

‘Sound-bite me! Who’s writing this fucking thing? Ok, so she’s going in to buy a wheat smoothie and there was a real feral stink to the place and two men were mopping out the chiller cabinet. She asks the teller what’s creating this funk, and he said a disgruntled employee had shit into his own hand and hidden the turd at the back of the cabinet just behind the chocolate yoghurts. It was only when enough of the yoghurts had been bought that the shit was revealed: some poor woman had grabbed the last carton and thought it was leaking, but when she smelled her fingers she apparently screamed and ran out the shop. The teller had gone to investigate and there sitting royal and proud was the melting dump.’

A magpie landed on the guardrail and Harry quickly shooed it away, nervously waiting on a response.

‘Yeah, I’m not sure that’s what women want to read about… what else you got?’

‘Oh I don’t fucking know, something about being Size Zero and struggling with reality? Something about lonely twenty somethings with one too many cats and lo-cal chocolate bars? No? How about a single mother fighting against the odds to get her little shit of a son diagnosed with ADHD, whilst still allowing her weed-smoking boyfriend to beat him with an Xbox controller whilst she stuffs him with sherbet and E-numbers?

Harry once again drained his glass. The sky was beginning to cloud, adding to the temperature on deck.

The publisher looked at his watch as he mumbled, ‘Stereotypes don’t sell.’

‘You sure about that? Stereotypes wouldn’t have meaning if they weren’t actually anchored in a general truth. Think about it.’

A fly landed on Harry’s napkin and he slammed his open palm down on it, leaving a red and yellow mush on the brilliant white fabric. Unaware of the stain, he took the napkin and tucked it into his shirt, leaving the remnants of the fly exposed to the Publisher as the waiter approached with some canapés. Harry reached across him, once again unable to wait until the plates were put down. He picked up a chicken drumstick but instinctively feeling it too hot he released it back onto the descending plate, licking his sauce-stained fingers.

‘You ever think when you look at your palm how much your thumb looks like a chicken drummer?’

The Publisher looked out across the Thames to watch a passenger ferry scoot down towards the city. Harry saw it too, he looked through the fiberglass windows at the suited and booted commuters being whisked off to some important meeting further downstream, probably Canary Wharf he imagined.

‘Jesus, I used to have so much energy to compete. Where did it all go, eh? I’m like a fucking bomb that never went off. It’s all finished.’

The Publisher spat a pistachio nut shell out over the side, blowing it through an open fist, ‘God, black and white thinking is the curse of our age. The truth on anything, a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g is always gray. A complicated brain gray. It’s natural. When you’re young everything is so important and deep, it’s all new and fresh because you’re doing it for the first time. You’ve got a massive cannon of white-hot energy and you want to fire it all over something, but by the time you reach your forties you’re running out of gunpowder and pretty much dribbling blanks.’

Harry tried again for a drumstick but it was still too hot. He followed the publisher’s lead and picked up some pistachio nuts from the bowl, throwing them in his mouth and crunching down on the hard shells. He leant over the guardrail and spat out the crap, feeling his gums already starting to bleed.

The Publisher looked at his watch, ‘I got to go soon. Try again. Pitch it. The diamond-sharpest you can get…’

Harry wiped his lips with his cuff and tried to compose himself. With the clouds clearing, the sun shone on the table once more, illuminating the publisher’s purple cravat. Harry thought of Chloe, his daughter holding the posies.

‘OK. How this for a story then: We open on a young and good looking female scientist…’

‘Good. Name?’

Harry looked round the boat pretending to need inspiration, but there was only ever one girl’s name on his mind.

‘Let’s call her Chloe. She discovers a drug which when injected into her subject allows her to take over their mind and operate them just like a machine. It’s like Zombie Haiti chemical tribal compound. Now, Chloe had a tough childhood and decides she wants to punish her father for being such a shit. She tracks him down and injects him with the drug and takes over his mind, leaving him powerless to stop whatever situation she wants to put him in. He still feels everything, all the kicks and punches, but his mind is being controlled by the scientist. Chloe exacts her revenge on him by making him do all these crazy, embarrassing, reckless things, until he realises the error of his ways. The torture then becomes an atonement and he asks her for forgiveness…’

Harry broke off and wiped his eyes with the soiled napkin.

‘….But he fears he doesn’t deserve a second chance…’

The floodgates opened and he let it all out over the top deck of the restaurant, the magpies drinking up the hot salty tears, ‘…Sorry, I really don’t know where all that came from. Like I told you back there, I’m really going through it today.’

The Publisher reached across the table and patted Harry’s forearm in consolation.

‘Maybe you should call your daughter, huh?’

Harry brushed the hand away.

‘Not that it’s any of your business… Oh maybe you’re right. Hell I don’t even have a number for her anymore.’ He stood up, feeling a  little unsteady on his legs but put it down to his being on water, ‘I need a piss.’

The publisher called out to him as he reached the deck door, ‘Stick with it Harry, I know all about the divided self. But it’s the writers and musicians who change the world, not the bankers.’

Harry made a cautious descent, his undersoles slipped on the wet rubber of the narrow stairs and he fell, bouncing down to the bottom on his backside where he was met on arrival by the waiter, smug as ever with arms folded and exasperated look.

‘Don’t worry, just finding my sea-legs, old chap,’ said Harry dusting off his work trousers. His bladder was filled to bursting and he needed to piss so badly he couldn’t think straight. In the back of his mind he knew he had to keep the publisher on the hook with a big juicy idea, pitch some more ideas to him, at least get a business card. As Harry shook the final drops he suddenly realized he didn’t even know this guy’s name. How strange of him not to have asked? He washed his hands, long and thorough, really scrubbing between the fingers like a surgeon, for the first time in years he felt like he’d purged himself of something. He felt sprightly and light as he bounced back up the steps. But when he got back the publisher was gone. The napkin had been neatly folded and next to it the tip of the check poked out from the restaurant’s black wallet. Harry opened it up to see the bill had been settled and wedged into the spine was a business card. Harry shook the card free and looked at it. On the back side was a phone number scrawled in biro, on the front was a name only. As he read the name the ship’s horn blew dislodging the magpies and sending them scattering into the sky. It was a name he knew well: ‘Bull Wendell.’

Harry felt on auto-pilot as he reached into his jacket for his phone and dialed the number. After a few rings it connected at the other end, a woman’s voice, changed by years but unmistakable, it was a voice he recognized instantly, ‘Hello..?’

‘It’s me…’, he struggled, gulping down the emotion. ‘It’s Harry…’

There was a pause on the other end of the line before a sound that came out on a rush of disbelief and relief which sounded to Harry as if it contained every vibration in the universe:

‘Dad..?’

 

Checkin’ on the Chicken


Marcus Garvey Tower Block. Hackney Downs, East London. Evening.

Quinton Nganbi reached under the hot grill and turned the chicken wings with his fingers letting out a yelp as the hot fat burned into his young flesh. He kicked the bottom of the cooker in frustration and then cussed when he saw the grubby dent he’d made in the white steel. His mum was going to tear him a new ass for this.

His phone rang and glad of the distraction he went to open the back door and out into the garden to try and get a better signal. As the call progressed, he noticed the sweet smell of chicken fat was gradually being replaced by a more acrid and bitter scent and casting his eyes lazily back up to the kitchen door he was horrified to see a black pall of smoke belching steadily out like an volcano. Dropping the phone he rushed back indoors and instinctively reached up to remove the grill, burning his fingers once more.

‘Clot!’, he chastised himself as both the grill and blackened chicken hit the floor in an explosion of grease and smoke. It looked like the bonnet of a burning car after a smash. Now his mum was surely going to dance on his grave.

Quinton stood arms out stretched, mouth open, shaking his hands like he was trying to take-off and cool his own burnt flesh. But as the smog dissipated he saw above the cooker a face he knew well. A face his mum dragged him to see every Sunday come rain or come shine. Staring back at him was the son of god.

‘Christ!’

Quinton gawped in disbelief at the perfect imprint of the face of Jesus Christ left behind the cooker on the smoke damaged wall. It was undeniably the messiah, each twist of grease and ash perfectly finding the contours of his bearded countenance.

Quinton stumbled back, catching his foot on the grill and causing the remainder of the grease to stain like blood round the linoleum. He rushed to the living room and pulled his mother’s bible from the shelf, flicking through the rice-paper pages not quite sure what he was hoping to find but needing to do something, as he then stood in the doorway staring back through to the kitchen and feeling a sudden sense of dread. He didn’t want to go back in there under any circumstances. Instead he ripped a few pages from the bible, stuffed them in his pocket and left the apartment without looking back.

 

Shoreline, West Reservoir. Hackney. Half an Hour Later.

Quinton sat on the concrete edge of the lake, his trainers just kissing the skin of the water in the evening sun. With the thin paper from the bible he rolled a joint and holding it tightly lit it hoping to draw a line under what had just happened. He breathed in deep from the blue smoke resisting the urge to blow a smoke ring in case that face should reappear. He felt an unnatural stillness to the lake this evening, even the birds had become silent in the trees and as he stared at his reflection in the mirrored water he noticed a slight ripple begin in the image. Perhaps it was just the weed messing with his mind? There was no breeze. He mouthed the words to a tune that had been on his mind as he drained the joint, pleased by how he looked in his reflection. He heard a sound behind him and turned to see a man crossing the path with his dog. Quinton felt his ghetto dream disappear and remembered that he wasn’t in East L.A but self-conscious and skint in Hackney. He kissed his teeth at the man for the interruption and turned back to the lake hoping to recapture the moment.

The dog came up to him and nuzzled under his arm. Quinton couldn’t resist stroking his head and patting him even though it didn’t fit with the image he was trying to project. He’d always wanted a pet growing up but had never got one. His mum always said she had enough trouble finding the money to feed him let alone another mouth. The dog rolled over onto his belly and Quinton stroked the soft skin, liking the total submission to his mastery that the dog was displaying. The man whistled and the dog quickly rolled over to follow him off into the brush.

Quinton found himself aroused by a sense of power but almost immediately felt frustrated. He was desperate and paranoid that at fifteen he was still a virgin, but he couldn’t find any girl who looked as great as they looked in the R&B videos: and he knew more than anything that if he got with an ugly girl then that would show his friends just how much he didn’t respect himself. Was an ugly girl really all he could get? No, his self esteem was worth more than that, how would people think he rolled if his woman wasn’t ‘peng’? No, it was more important to have respect than to be liked in his world and as not many people liked him he felt things were just fine.

His legs had remained still against the concrete wall but the water had began to tap the bottom of his trainers at regular intervals. He looked down between his feet to see there was now a definite disturbance in the water, at first like the oxygen bubbles of a large fish, but gradually a circle of water was beginning to broil like a hot kettle was being held just beneath the surface. Quinton found himself standing up and moving back from whatever he felt was coming feeling reminded of the cartoons he still sometimes watched, guiltily, caught on the bridge between child and manhood. Godzilla? In Hackney? Again he felt foolish and threw the joint roach into the centre of the bubbling cauldron. Something was coming, like a sliver of silver an inverted V shape broke the water as delicately as a hypodermic needle. Up the shimmering silver strip went into the evening air, catching the sun before it set over the surrounding tower blocks. Finally as the hilt broke through the water, Quinton recognized it to be a sword.

A green glow continued to bubble beneath the water, lit from some hot unseen source. A delicate hand twisted around the sword handle, diamonds of water and fish scales falling around the wrist. The sword too now began to glow with a bright green luminescence. Quinton was totally sucked in by the sight,  the sword seemed to beckon him, willing him to come forward and take it. He felt a sudden sense of ownership and right, he knew this gift was for him and him alone.

Without thought for his new trainers, he lowered himself into the water and swam out the short few metres to the prize. Treading water, he grabbed the sword with both hands and felt the cold and smooth hand let go her grip and the digits slip round his own enclosing palm like the tentacle of a squid.

Not quite daring to believe it was really his, Quinton swam back to shore, behind him the hand slowly disappeared back below the water line and the birds began to sing for the dusk again.

The sword clattered on the concrete retaining its eerie green glow. Quinton hauled himself out and sat next to it. It was his. He admired it in the dying light full of strange symbols and inscriptions lost on him, but fearing the glow would attract too much attention he felt exposed and the moment’s spell had been broken once more. The bark of another approaching dog, sure to be accompanied by an owner, sealed the deal. He must go. Quinton carefully shoved the sword down his left trouser-leg and pulled his T-shirt over the hilt which protruded up from his belt to around his chest. Walking like a man with a wooden leg but feeling self-conscious like a man who’d shit himself, he staggered back to his mum’s consoling himself that he’d sure be laughing tomorrow when he sold it.

 

Next Day. George Antiques, Angel Islington.

With the sword concealed under a long coat Quinton moved through the crowds as inconspicuously as a two foot broadsword would allow. Even at the best of times he still felt uncomfortable in this part of town. He didn’t understand the rules or what was expected of him in a place like this. The antique shops wound their way along the cobbled street, the old buildings leaning in like gossipy hunchbacks over his head. This was out of his postcode and he could easily be in trouble if the wrong gang was passing. Quinton looked out of the alley and onto the main road searching the telegraph wires for shoes slung over them by the laces. His worst fears were confirmed. He comforted himself with the thought that at least for once he was armed. He wasn’t sure which shop would be best to sell the sword, but figured the one with a small dagger in the window was probably a safer bet than the ones he’d just passed with their china dolls and lace bullshittery on display.

He went in and was surprised by the large bell which rang with his entrance. He felt like a greyhound out of a trap and ran forward with the sword pointing out toward the equally startled owner.

‘You may put your lance down, son. I’m not jousting today’ the owner quipped, the unease clearly heard beneath the sarcasm.

Quinton lowered his weapon and took a deep breath. This shop smelled old. Old like his grandma’s coats at the back of her wardrobe. Old like money. He felt sure he’d come to the right place.

‘You buy swords and shit, innit?’

The man had regained his composure and leant across a large oak desk playing with a clay pipe, the burned gray tobacco in the bowl matching his own hair.

‘I deal in metallurgy if that’s your question, although I’m not sure you’d be interested in any weapon pre nineteen eighties?’

‘Whatever. I’m selling not buying… So how much for this..?’

Feeling like he had the biggest dick in the world Quinton produced the sword in one elegant swoop.

The man’s eyes lit up in disbelief.

‘Jesus Christ! Let me look at that would you.’ All traces of sarcasm had drained from his voice.

Quinton handed him the sword expectantly, blade first.

‘It’s just an old sword though, hey?’

‘No it most certainly isn’t. You’re not old enough to appreciate beauty yet. You haven’t had the life-experiences to know shit from Shinola, son.‘

‘You don’t know me.’

‘True, true. But you don’t know this…’ He cupped his hand at the tip of the blade and carefully, gently, allowed his palm to run down the edge of the blade to the hilt, where he twisted it in his palm, reading the inscription.

‘Old English most certainly. The metal in the blade has clearly been folded more than the date would warrant… Ah, here we have a crest, Arthurian. Platinum! Solid bloody platinum…’

The sword began to throb and the green glow now familiar to Quinton grew from somewhere inside the blade. The shop owner dropped it fearfully onto the oak desk.

‘Jesus Christ. Where did you get this?’

Quinton shrugged his shoulders, ‘I don’t know, round the…’

‘WHERE?’ the man’s voice came impatient and strong, the clay pipe shaking in his mouth.

‘Fuck you prick. What’s it worth? Gimme two hundred and you can have it.’

The man’s jaw became slack and a bubble of hot snot began to build out of his left nostril.

‘What’s it worth…? It’s priceless.’

Quinton kicked the bottom of the oak desk in frustration, once more leaving a grubby indent on the soft wood. He quickly stepped back hoping the man hadn’t noticed, but he was lost in a reverie.

‘Shit though. Priceless? Not even worth a fiver? Come on man. That’s bullshit. You know it and I know it. There’s got to be a price we can agree on. It ain’t priceless you’re just trying to stiff me.’

Quinton went to grab the sword but the shop keeper brought to his senses defensively pulled the sword in close to his chest.

‘No! No, It’s too important. There’s no way this is yours. No. No way.’

With a convincing left hook, Quinton caught the man on the corner of his jaw sending the clay pipe splintering to the ground. The effect was impressive and immediate. The man let go the sword to instinctively protect his face, leaving Quinton free to run from the shop and back along the cobbled alley, charging with the sword as if running to some epic battle. The lunchtime shoppers parted around him like the Red Sea as he made his charge. Once clear of the antiques alley he leaned against a lamp post to catch his breath, the sword hanging from his side. Quinton looked up straight into the window of a passing police car. The officer in the passenger seat couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The squad car burst into life with sirens and flashing lights, turning viciously in the road, almost hitting an approaching cyclist. The officer in the passenger seat jumped out brandishing his night-stick but Quinton was already ducking into the nearby shopping arcade.

The officer launched himself through the glass doors and quickly gained on Quinton disadvantaged by the heavy sword. He caught the back of the boys legs with his long black truncheon causing Quinton to barrel into a popcorn stand, the ready-made bags cushioning his fall. The policeman was upon him about to rain blows, instinctively Quinton pulled the sword from his coat and deflected the first of them. The huge broadsword connected with the truncheon and split the vulcanized rubber down to the metal. This gave the officer pause for thought. Quinton got to his feet and began a running sword-fight through the shopping centre. The policeman was relentless in his pursuit and seemed oblivious to the distress of the shoppers caught up in his swashbuckling. With each parry and thrust Quinton played back in his mind how he’d got himself into this situation, what had he actually done wrong? One thing was now for certain, things had gone too deep. There was no turning back now, he was committed to getting away. He ducked into a supermarket and with a huge sweep of the sword he quickly took out an aisle of wine bottles, the glass shattering around the chasing officer and hopefully slowing him down. Without looking back to see how much, Quinton ran for the store-room and through to the loading bay sneaking out towards the high street.

Quinton continued running, he tore down the smallest alleyways he could find, zigzagging through the borough like a rat in a maze, the sound of sirens now all around him and shutting him down. Risking the main high street he caught his reflection in the large glass-fronted Camelot National Lottery offices, he liked how he looked with the sword at his side. Running round the side of the building he found himself in front of Hackney Town Hall, the steep stone steps leading up to the main entrance and a smaller side alley off to the side of the vast building. Behind him the sirens grew louder. Daring a look behind him Quinton saw the police car mounting the pavement, bathing the first few steps in a revolving blue light.

They came from the left and the right. Quinton knew he was cornered. His only chance of salvation was the side-alley at the top of the steps. He bolted for it taking the steps two at a time, trying to keep the sword up in front of him, but the tip of the blade dipped down and caught the final step acting like a pole-vault and sending him over the hilt and crashing against the wall. His left hand refused to let go of the blade and it arced over his rolling body embedding itself in the Town Hall wall. The sword shuddered through the concrete in a burst of unnatural green light, brighter than any soldering iron. A sound like the crying of a thousand souls in pain shattered the night air causing all those in the immediate vicinity to hold their ears. The sword tore into the wall like a knife through butter right up to the hilt where it stopped and remained firmly lodged.

Quinton rocked on his spine in agony, he was sure he’d broken his left arm. He twisted round to look back down the steps and saw three policemen, their nightsticks drawn, lurching up the steps towards him, their faces as eager as ravenous pigs. Clutching his broken arm to his chest, Quinton headed for the side alley and out of sight, his pain driving him on to impossible speeds. The policemen stopped their short chase and returned to inspect the sword. They were dumbfounded. Each took it in turns to yank on the ornate handle but it was clear it wasn’t budging. The fattest officer lifted up his helmet to wipe the sweat from his brow, his matted hair stuck to his forehead.

‘That’s not going anywhere, is it?’

‘Ok, best call it in then,’ replied the second.

The third officer scrunched up his neck and began speaking into the microphone attached to his dark blue jumper.

‘Two Seven to base. We’re going to need a drill down here… Yes, that’s right… drill.’

The voice squawked back harshly, seeming to bounce off the metallic hilt. ‘That’s a negative Two Seven. Be advised not possible till morning. Secure area.’

The officer released the intercom button and turned to the other two men who were now sitting down on the top step of the town hall, sweating from all the exertion.

‘Fuck it, I’m giving it one more try…’

With a base anger not befitting his uniform the officer pulled on the sword. He put his foot to the wall to get better leverage and yanked until he felt his eyes would pop out of his head. He groaned, he wailed, he cursed at the sword, but it would not move an inch. The seated officers began to laugh but quickly fell silent when they noticed an eerie green glow emitting from the hilt and travel up the policeman’s arms.

‘Shitting hell. Get away from that mate. Look…’

The officer saw his hands illuminating and quickly let go in fear.

‘Fuck that. It’s electrified or something, I ain’t touching that. It probably hit a junction box or live cable as it went in.’

The other officers got up and moved towards the squad car.

‘Well I guess it isn’t going anywhere, so balls to it. Just call it in and let the morning shift deal with it in the morning.’

Quinton had run a huge circle around the building and had taken to crouching unseen by some bike racks across the road behind the officers. He watched them return empty-handed to the squad car and drive off into the night. He felt an overwhelming desire to have the sword. He knew it was meant to be his and despite the risk he was damned if he’d leave it to be stolen by the council. Looking left and right he made a run at the steps, taking them three at a time. With a last power leap of four steps he found himself face to face with the hilt of the sword. With his right hand he reached out, closing his fingers around the cold steel and feeling the bevelled uneven surface of the ancient hilt. Quinton took a deep breath and pulled hard expecting no movement, but to his amazement the blade retracted from the concrete as smoothly as pulling out a birthday candle and the excess energy caused him to stagger back violently almost spilling down the steps.

Now free, the sword continued its wide arc, swinging into a low mounted CCTV camera and neatly chopping off the lens. Quinton heard them before he saw them: the unmistakable whining siren like a massive and dangerous baby. He spun round just in time to see the blue light of the police car. The two officers were already on the bottom step but their over-weight bodies allowed them only one step at a time in their ascent towards him. Quinton raised the sword above his head and shouted at the sky. His cry rang out across the borough as if amplified by the sword. A brilliant green light burst from the blade bathing the whole area in a supernatural glow. The officers threw themselves down on the steps, fearing an explosion, leaving them prostrate and kneeling a few metres down from Quinton who pointed Excalibur to each in turn as if knighting them.

‘Right, you fuckers. There’s gonna be some changes around here…’ he said.

Ex-Stacy

The following story is for adults only. It was recounted to me last week in a bar in Montmartre and I have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

 

03:00. Friday morning, Le Crazy Horse Strip-joint.  Pigalle, 18th arrondissement, Paris.

Despite all eyes being on her, Stacy still felt bored. Worse than that she was actually beginning to feel numb to the whole experience. She didn’t even feel that rush of excitement anymore when she took the stage to see the eyes of all the seedy men light up with a dirty animal desire, a desire not to love her, but to possess her body as a trophy, an outward symbol to other men of their own power. For Stacy, the feeling of ennui had been a slow creep over a couple of months, but as she removed her basque and brushed her breasts against the silver pole turned purple in the rotating floor lighting she felt a blankness that depressed her. She kept her eyes fixed into the middle-distance on a neon beer sign above the back bar, trying to conceal the fact that her heart wasn’t in it as she revealed everything else to the leering crowd.

Stripping defined Stacy, it was her metier, she needed to get the excitement back and quickly, otherwise it became just another job and she’d be no different to the grubby men out there in the audience trying to pay for a fantasy moment outside of the mundane grind. She used to consider herself the John the Baptist of stripping, evangelising to other women how liberating and empowering it was. But tonight it felt squalid.

Perhaps she’d give the protest rally a miss tomorrow she thought as she gyrated in time to the bass-heavy music. Maybe it was her illness, maybe just the season. How long would she be allowed to continue lap dancing once her monthly medical came back anyway? She upended herself on the pole allowing her legs to suspend her vertically as she twisted slowly back round to the ground, all the while worrying whether she’d deadlocked the door of her small apartment on the Rue de Rivoli earlier that evening. Things were getting desperate, she prayed for something to take her out of this stasis, but she reminded herself that you should always be careful what you wish for. And sure enough, the next day she met Gortman.

 

15:00. Friday afternoon, Protest rally, La Défense business district, Paris.

The rally was quickly descending into a full on riot. If it was one thing Parisians liked to do it was moan, and Stacy was no different. The Banking Crisis had in turn led to massive cuts in public sector spending, and she felt it was her duty to take a stand and voice her dissent, just to feel part of the greater society, even if that society often judged what she did as immoral as the bankers. She was carried by the angry crowd towards the head offices of Credit Lyonnais, a mass of hooded and masked youths brandishing poles, chair-legs, anything they could get their gloved hands on to weaponise for this storming of the Bastards. She’d seen how quickly the mood of a crowd could change enough times at Crazy Horse to know it was time to leave and using her snake-like flexibility she began to weave through the crowd and off down a side-street.

It was cooler here in the shade of the overhanging buildings and she meandered up the alley unsure what to do next but enjoying the respite from the dusty battle. Sitting on the pavement curb in front of a small bistro a solitary man sipped from a can. He looked out of place down in the gutter with his smart suit and Stacy caught his eye as she passed.

‘Good march?’ he asked, his accent sounding southern, Marseilles she guessed.

‘Nah, it’s too much.’

Yep, for me too. I’m just trying to get home.’

He offered up his drink and with her voice being so hoarse from shouting along with the crowd she accepted, sitting down next to him, feeling the cold stone kerb on the underside of her bare thighs.

He smiled at her, flashing capped white teeth, ‘You do realise, you’re drinking with the enemy?’

‘You’re a banker?’

He nodded his head, pointing at the entrance to the road where the marchers were still filing past.

‘It’s such a complex issue, these numpties think it’s so black and white.’

‘And isn’t it?’

‘No. Why should us rich pay more for services we never use and the poor pay nothing for using everything?

‘I thought all you bankers were bastards, that’s what I’ve read in the papers’. He took back his drink.

‘The only thing I believe in papers is the date, my name’s Gortman.’

A rose-seller stumbled past them, his flowers broken.

‘Flowers. Such a female thing. They serve no purpose but to be beautiful, that’s why men never buy them. But women have an eye for beauty. They want flowers just because they are beautiful. Men are interested in human flowers no?

She eyed him suspiciously. Maybe he’d seen the Le Crazy Horse logo on her bag.

‘…but we’re of no use or value except to look pretty for you, right?’

‘Exactly. Nature has made you bloom, why complicate things?’

‘No, I hate that shit. You assume because I take my clothes off for money I can’t have a thought in my head, and that I’m being taken advantage of by evil men. Am I right?’

Gortman rested the can between his knees and crushed it a little.

‘How should I know that you’re a stripper?’

She gritted her teeth at hearing the word.

‘I’m an Exotic Dancer.’

A boy in a hooded top, his face obscured by a white plain mask, picked up a loose paving stone at the entrance to the alley. They watched as he hurled it at something unseen further down the main road.  Stacy jumped in the air and looked around her. Everyone seemed to be angry and lashing out, their faces hidden behind balaclavas and masks. She looked to the banker for sudden reassurance and his calm, smiling face relaxed her. Another angry wail went up from the crowd. Gortman tutted.

‘At least in medieval times the food the peasants were forced to eat was healthy potato peelings from the rich man’s kitchens. Now the peasants must go to one euro frozen food stores to feast on antibiotic-fed grey chicken and processed fats. If I was them, I’d probably be rioting too.’

Stacy lifted her right buttock and relocated it as far away from him as the step would allow.

‘Urgh, you really are a hateful individual, aren’t you?’

He took a sip from his can of cola still cold enough to have condensation running down the side, as red and flowing as the perspiration on her forehead.

‘Yep. I certainly am. Never said I wasn’t.’

He stared intently at her, not so much undressing her with his eyes she thought, but more as a slave-trader would study a particularly pricey subject.

‘You have a bloom, darling. You do know that, don’t you?  I could put some very lucrative work your way. If you were interested of course? If you see a future beyond today’s smashing of bank windows?’

‘I’m not with these dicks… I’m with Satyagraha. Are you a model scout then?’

‘After a fashion, I scout for the unusual, the brilliant, the things money can buy. You have the bloom, I want to buy you…’

‘What the fuck?’

‘… I want to buy your time for one evening. Tomorrow night in fact… if you’re available of course’

‘Where?’

‘You are a beautiful flower that needs arranging next to other beautiful flowers. I’m sending you to an underground florist.’

‘Eh? Maybe it’s not just coke in your can?’

He reached into his tailored suit pocket and produced what looked to Stacy like a small jade hand. She took it, feeling its cold and heavy weight in her still sweaty palm, flipping it over she could see something engraved.

‘Ex-Stacy?’

Gortman drained the remainder of his can and swallowed noisily.

‘Uh-huh. It’s Latin. Out of Stasis. It’s where we get the word Ecstasy. Out of the boredom. Remember, a flower only blossoms for so long, then after that you can give it all the sun and water it needs and it won’t stop it fading.’

Stacy ran her fingers through her hair.

 ‘It’s worth about five hundred pounds,’ Gortman continued, ‘It’ll get you into the private party I’m arranging. Do you know the catacombs?’

‘Sure, who doesn’t.’

‘Well, some friends of mine, some very rich friends of mine, some very rich and powerful friends of mine are holding a soirée and they need…entertaining shall we say?’

‘An orgy? You’re talking about a fucking orgy aren’t you? Do you think I’m a whore?’

He threw his head back and laughed with such force that it echoed up, ricocheting off the tight glass buildings and causing a nesting pigeon to scatter.

‘Orgy doesn’t quite cover it. This is phantasmagoria for the senses. I’m talking extremely connected people, ambassadors, royalty, magnates. You may know them as Illuminati. I bet you’ve never danced for them in the Crazy Horse?’

She shrugged her shoulders.

‘We get all sorts’.

‘You only have to dance, you won’t be expected to join in. All girls have to be medically checked in advance and there isn’t time.’ he winked at her.

‘I wouldn’t pass anyway.’

He took her hand holding the jade and pressed it against his.

‘See the trust I’m putting in you. You can run now and use the jade hand to slap me in the face by selling it. Or you can do yourself a favour and come tomorrow night and get a round of applause with twenty more hands. Yes, five thousand Euros.’

He played with his salmon pink tie, flipping it up and down over his pale striped shirt.

‘You know beneath our differences you and me are the same. We’re both viewed as politically incorrect by the repressed and jealous mainstream. Society insists you must be miserable and exploited because you work as a stripper…’

‘Exotic Dancer…’

Exotic Dancer, excuse me… and I must go to hell for being successful and rich, made to constantly apologise and feel guilty for my hard-earned wealth.’

He let go of her hand and she saw he had left a small alabaster coloured business card with the jade.

 ‘Yeah, we’re regular peas in a fuckin’ pod you and me.’

‘Come-on, what was it Al Capone said? No-one’s untouchable? Every person has got their price. Look at all these hooded numpties smashing windows and rioting. Do you think if they were taken aside one at a time and offered millions and inclusion into the world of the rich they wouldn’t jump at the chance and miraculously forget their principles? They’re not philosophers at all, they are just angry at being excluded from the playground. They see us having fun and are jealous. Just like the feminists wearing their denim dungarees and comfortable shoes are jealous of the power you have over men with your body. Because they can’t do it, they resent you doing it. And woe-betide if you actually enjoy it: they’ll scatter more than your cushions.’

Stacy leant back on the paving stone now that the sun had crept over the facing building and watched the rays light up her floral skirt, the green becoming luminescent against her manicured finger nails freshly painted with the red, white and blue of the French flag in anticipation of the rally.

‘Yep, I hate to admit it but I was actually thinking the same last night,’  she conceded, ‘Feminists say: let’s have a campaign for real women in the media, and as long as they are misshapen and over-weight like us then we’ll be happy. It’s body fascism whichever way you slice it. Slice of lettuce or slice of chocolate cake. My sister hates what I do. She’s convinced that I must be secretly exploited somehow.’

‘Why?’

‘Because she and her right-on feminist friends aren’t comfortable with a woman making money from her body. Feminism says a woman is only allowed to make money from her mind. If she’s making money from her god-given beauty then she must be being exploited because most women are in secret competition with each other and can’t stand the thought of others getting by on beauty when they can’t. They see it as unfair so they want to spoil it for everyone else. Real women must have one breast smaller than the other and hips that look like they’ve been flattened by a steam-roller, Then they’re not a threat to the feminists. Pretty people don’t feel pain? No danger. Well sorry. I’m dangerous. I’m not going to reach out to you with an apology for my sexuality. DEAL WITH IT. DEAL ME IN.’

‘That’s quite a rant. You should go into politics. You play poker then?’

‘You better believe it. I’m the best I know.’

‘Mon Dieu, but it’s too good! I’ve got a deal for you then. You simply must come tomorrow night, they’ll be a great game too.’

‘Straight?’’

 ‘Full House. So you’ll come then?

Yeah, fuck it. Why should the boys have all the fun?’

‘Excellent. Bring a mask.’

 

11:30. Saturday night, Catacombs, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, Paris. 

‘You sure you just want to be left here?’ The taxi driver turned in his chair to face her, showing a genuine concern.

‘That’s what the man said’, she replied giving him a small tip for caring.

It was only when she got out of the taxi and tottered on her stiletto heels that she understood what the driver had meant. Once out of range of the small orange street light she found herself walking in complete darkness. The entrance to the catacombs was a simple turnstile cut out of the rock face. The entrance portico was covered in a lush dark green algae drooping down over the door to give the effect of dreadlocks over a yawning mouth. A man was waiting in the glass booth to the left of the door watching a small portable television. He was captivated. Stacy guessed it must be CCTV with the grey flickering image, but what she saw was such intense pornography that she knew this old goat had probably rigged up the internet somehow. She tapped on the glass with the heel of her stiletto before putting it back on her feet. She looked at her mud-encrusted toes. Shit, she’d need to freshen up before she went in, but what were the chances? She was getting a sinking feeling. This whole enterprise was starting to smell of a joke:  The entrance to the catacombs with its faded tourist guides in many languages looked deserted and this old pervert in the kiosk was dressed like a tramp, neither boded well for a multi-billionaire’s orgy.

The man in the kiosk asked for identification, she reached into her bag and pulled out the jade hand. He replied with his own hand, pointing through the now unlocking door. She followed, leaving him to his porn.

It was hard to walk on the loose shingle in such high heels, so feeling that her feet couldn’t get in a much less presentable state anyway, she took them off and walked along the torch-lit stone passageway with nothing but the scrunch of pebbles echoing off the limestone walls. Only the rich can afford silence she thought to herself. After the hot anger of the previous day’s marching, the noise of smashing glass and drunken orc roars, sirens wailing and nightsticks a-crashing, the tranquility of the catacombs was exquisite. Turning a corner she heard the shrieks and groans of people lost in ecstasy, all wrapped around the rhythmical throb of heavy Timpani drums beating as on a slave-ship marking the strokes of the oar, the crack of the whip on sun-burned backs.

A further hundred meters and she could see the bright flicker of unnatural torch light. It was more silver and beguiling than regular flame and burnt with an intensity. She moved directly under one of the torches and looked beneath it, the walls weren’t rock at all but human skulls, long-since polished to the smoothness of sea stone with empty sockets no longer raging at the inequalities of the world they’d been born into centuries ago without invitation, their rioting long past. Ahead of her she could see two small carved statues, each had the face of a smiling Buddha with clay horse heads covering their genitals. As she walked closer she jumped as one of them moved.

‘Your invitation madam?’

She reached into her purse and showed him the jade hand.

‘Mademoiselle, this way…’.

The heavy silk curtain was pulled back by the two masked men and as she walked through she could smell the musk of the curtains already getting damp in the cold cave air. A futher smell, coupled with a dramatic rise in temperature hit her. It was a smell she knew only too well from the club. Her mouth fell open at what she saw. Even for someone who’d spent two years dancing at Sapphire in Las Vegas she was shocked. It was like watching the fall of the Roman Empire, all lit by bright silver burning torches with magnesium flame. Such decadence and profanity that someone who’d only ever worked a nine-to-five job could never hope to imagine. At first she thought the glistening on the cave walls was from water above, but the steam coming off it told her it was sweat from the mass of writhing naked bodies engaged in acts of such depravity that a pope would tear his own eyes from his sockets.

Each person was masked in the style of a Venetian ball, but the intricacies of each mask, so complex and diverse in styles, some seemed to be pagan, others tribal African, some were in the style of angry Chinese dragons, cast from solid Jade. But of all the masks one stood out with a chilling simplicity. It was a plain white mask, slightly too small for the jowls it tried to contain. The expression was blank with only a mouth and two eye holes cut into the plastic. Compared to these indescribable works of masked art rising and falling on an invisible tide of ecstasy all around her, this surgical mask was anathema. The wearer sat on top of a pyramid of naked flesh corpulent and engorged, like a fly recently feasted on dead carrion and now too satiated to move. Bodies were intertwined and creating a hot steam that rose up to this fat fly. He was the head fly and beneath him his maggots writhed obediently. Stacy squinted her eyes to see what it was he was doing, but immediately averted her eyes in disgust. Of all the sights she’d see that night, this was unspeakably depraved. Other masked people walking past, upon seeing what he was doing, involuntarily threw-up where they stood. The vomit slowly moved like lava towards the lower incline where it was collected with all the other juices of the night.

The sound of a single bazook like a strangulated wail rang out reaching into every stalagmite crevice. People began to gravitate towards a black stone altar at the far end covered with a large drape showing incantations and sacred inscriptions. On top of this a woman was lying prostrate, grimacing in an opiate ecstasy. All began to gather at the foot of the altar as if being called by a mullah to a dark pray. The woman inserted a small Faberge egg into her sex. She groaned, half aware. The bazook stopped to be replaced by a slow rhythmical drumming. Stacy looked through the circle that had formed, past the altar and to the circle behind, all with hands linked, all masked and all with erections. A naked and masked servant handed the woman what looked to Stacy like a small green snake. The woman held it by is neck, tail writhing wildly and inserted it to follow the egg. The snake disappeared up to its tail, which remained in the entrance, throbbing instinctively from side to side. The woman continued moaning, lost in a dark pleasure. The snake re-appeared, pieces of shell on its head, as it ate the mysterious contents of the delicate egg. Stacy tried to catch the eye of the girl on the altar, but she seemed oblivious to everything except her own thoughts.

‘Jeez, whatever they paying you sister, I hope it’s enough…’ Stacy whispered to herself.

The drumming stopped, replaced by a low chant of voices, neither Gregorian nor Tibetan, a low guttural repetition that seemed to melt into the rocks and reverberate  back imbued with their ancient strength.

She looked around at the men showing everything but their faces and wondered if Gortman was amongst them.

Away from the altar, a servant was leading a white tiger towards the centre of the cave. Around him the many skulls of plague victims and French aristocracy which were stuck into the walls of the burial crypt looked on, unable to avert their eyes, forced to watch as the man goaded the beast. It appeared drugged, with large once-imperious head lolling from side to side, trying in vain to resist the yank of the masked man on the linked metal chain around its neck. The man’s mask reminded Stacy of the Gargoyles she’d seen at the Sacré Coeur years ago. Demonic creatures reaching out of the towers, horned and leering, tongues outstretched beneath rolling mad eyes, much like the men on the building sites when she went to work each morning. She recognised the look. Dying of thirst, but not for water, for something more primal and necessary.

The chanting rose in volume as the man pulled out a ceremonial dagger from a strap on his leg. In a swift and decisive downward arc, the man sliced the tiger’s throat causing an arterial spray to shoot a clear six foot onto an oblivious naked couple lost in their own passions. Stacy jumped in the air and looked around her. Not for the first time this weekend, everyone seemed to be possessed and angry, lashing out, their faces hidden behind balaclavas and masks. She felt powerless to do anything but watch. The tiger fell first to its knees as if in prayer, then slowly rolled to its right side where it collapsed, its legs twitching in motor spasm. Out of the shadows they came, the naked masked figures, male and female, all shapes and sizes. They fell upon the tiger and rolled in its life-blood. ‘Blooding’ themselves in the successful hunt. Taking in the tigers strength and vitality.

Stacy turned away in disgust and headed for a side door hewn out of the wet rock, hoping to find a drink, a lot of drink. What she found instead was the poker game. At the head of the table she recognised the white plain mask, beer belly hanging over the felt. The head fly spoke to her.

‘Ah my dear. Would you care to join us, we could use some new blood?’

She chose an empty seat and sat down. The player to her immediate right spoke up. He wore a mask that reminded her of the statues she’d seen in a travel brochure for the Easter Islands.

‘Too hasty. What is her collateral? I don’t see her chips before her?’

The man in the white party mask leant forward, his beer belly pressing against the felt table causing his chips to cascade towards the dealer.

‘It looks like I’m all-in at last gentlemen.’ He silenced the modest ripple of laughter that followed with his upturned palm. In the silver magnesium light bouncing off the watching skulls, his greenish hand reminded her of the jade ornament. She instinctively checked it was still in her bag. It was. Good, she thought, I can either use it as collateral or to cut my loses and get the fuck out of this madhouse with a profit.

‘Reality is better than the dream here at the Hellfire Club, my dear.’

The fat man beckoned over one of the servants. Now up close Stacy could see they all wore gold masks with eyes casting downwards in subservience, she guessed this must denote to the other guests their position and that they were not to be included in the action. He brought across a large tureen filled with a grainy brown substance. Ignoring the large silver ladle that hung from the side, the fat man stuck his whole hand into the bowl and pulled out a fistful which he began to devour, licking his sticky fingers like a cat after fresh kill.

‘Do you know how they make foie gras, my dear?’

Stacy confessed that she didn’t, and didn’t much care either.

‘They force feed a young chick grain until its liver explodes.’

Stacy began to play with the dealer button, twisting it between thumb and forefinger trying to consciously look nonchalant. The fat man was enjoying her discomfort.

‘I am a gastronaut, an explorer of fine wines and food. So much so that a few years ago I needed a liver transplant. It was such a success I celebrated by having my own cirrhosis liver served to me with a rare bottle of Israeli wine found in the Qumran caves where they found the dead sea scrolls. In case you were wondering, my liver tasted excellent having been steadily marinated in the finest wines and brandy for fifty years previously. So tender my dear. I think I’ve developed a taste for it.’

Stacy tried to remain as business-like as possible. ‘I was told I’d be paid five for dancing tonight. Could I use an advance on that to buy some chips?’

The whole table broke into sinister laughter.

‘The blinds are five and ten my dear,’ his voice dripped with condescension, ‘But there is another way. How about a side bet for two?’

‘Thousand?’

Again the sinister laughter moved round the table like a Mexican wave.

The man held up his hand to silence them. His voice was deadly serious.

‘Million, my dear. We don’t deal in thousands down here.’

Her voice came back with an equally deadly earnest.

‘What’s the bet?’

‘Human foie gras. A true delicacy especially when coming from such a young chick as you. If you lose then our expert surgeons will insert a catheter directly into your stomach and pump you full of the finest grain and Louis XVI brandy until your liver ruptures and releases my fine foie gras.’

Stacy moved back in her chair, the legs catching on the ancient rug. ‘Cannibalism? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me and besides, what use is two million to a half-eaten corpse?’

‘My dear, of course we give you a new liver, and you’d be under general anaesthetic for the whole procedure. It should take about twelve hours from start to finish. Our debauchery here lasts three days and nights, as was the lost time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. We’ll even wait for you to come round so you can join us in eating your own liver. Just imagine it gentlemen!’

One of the other players began masturbating with a handful of 50k chips under the table. They fell to the floor clattering on the loosely laid Moroccan rugs. Stacy stood up from the table and tried to catch her breath whilst the fat man clicked his fingers, recalling the servant.

‘Check with Hans that we have a transplant surgeon on standby as usual…’

He looked across at the masturbator.

‘Hell, if we haven’t, you could do it yourself, hey Piotr?’

The masturbator slammed his fist down on the felt table causing his remaining poker chips to dance in the air.

‘No names. She now knows I’m a world class surgeon AND my Christian name.’

Stacy felt compelled to speak.

‘If you were going to operate on me, you’d best believe I’d be checking you weren’t just a naked guy sitting here beating his meat. Anyway, don’t worry, my job is to keep secrets anyway…’

‘Really? Let’s say Liver Let Die? You’re a spy then not a whore?

‘I keep telling you people… I’m a fucking Exotic Dancer… Exotic Dancer!’

‘Ah. How weak and feeble is the male desire when compared against that of the female. What’s your name?’

‘It’s ok for me to tell you my name, huh? I’m just little people, right?

‘Right.’

His honesty took her aback.

‘It’s Stacy’.

‘It’s too beautiful’.

‘Thank you’.

‘No, don’t you see? Our evening is called Ex-Stacy – literally out of stasis. And we’re taking your liver out of you, literally Ex Stacy – Out of Stacy. It has to be. You must accept.’

Not quite believing she was saying the words, Stacy found herself sitting back down at the table to a rapturous round of applause.

’‘Deal me in,’ she said.

She felt something brush against her bare leg and looking under the table she saw a masked man felating the player to her left. She looked up slowly into where she judged his eyes to be. He spoke softly:

‘You came here looking for suckers, eh?’

‘No, I never go looking for suckers, I look for champions, then I make suckers outta them.’

He pushed the man under the table away, feeling a little deflated.

One by one, the hands were played and as she’d hoped they all played like ego-maniacs to a man, never believing she could be bluffing. Within four short hours she had made her mark on the table. Within seven the men were pleased they were wearing masks to hide their twitching, tell-ridden faces. Stacy could smell victory, she even began allowing herself brief moments when she left to make her toilette of thinking what she’d do with the money. But as is always the case with counting chicks before they’ve hatched her over-confidence was her undoing.

She looked down at her two personal cards to see an Ace and a King of Clubs suited. She raised and everyone but the fat man folded. She studied his body language, trying to get a read on him in the absence of any facial tics. What did he have, she wondered? She knew her hand to be the second best hand to have at this stage, so felt it was probably now or never to settle it.

When the first three cards of the flop came all Clubs she could barely hide her excitement as she made the nut flush: five cards all suited. Nothing could beat her. She moved all-in, pushing all of her chips to the centre of the table.

It took her brain a moment to register what the fat man had just said:

‘I call…’

She daren’t believe it was true. She knew she was almost guaranteed to win about  95% of the chips in play, as she turned over her hand to the table. She looked up triumphantly but the mask on the fat man’s face remained as implacable as ever, as he revealed a pair of aces to a gasping table.  Excellent, she thought.  He’d made his three of a kind, and now she was going to read him the news with her mighty flush. What felt even better to her was knowing how badly this mysogynistic prick would take it.

The next card came as a seven. Her heart began to flutter. Then like a bird being shot out of the sky the last card fell. The fat man’s belly began to wobble in the building laughter.

‘Another seven. Would you credit it. My full house beats your flush, my dear.’

The room began to spin around Stacy coinciding with a sinking feeling as if gravity was trying to pull her through the gravelly floor of the catacombs. She slipped off her chair and watched helpless through the legs as the fat man summoned the servant who came into view carrying a large hypodermic needle on the tray.

Despite feeling winded, Stacy managed to speak in short, gasping syllables.

‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you’.

‘And why not my dear, a bet is a bet. We just want your liver?’

Holding the arm of the chair she rose to her feet as the fat man approached salavating with his glistening injection.

‘I have Hepatitis C’, she replied.

Going Down in the Drinks Elevator

 

21:43. A Thursday two weeks after Mardi Gras. Decatur Street. French Quarter, New Orleans. Present Day.

With the job gone everything else had followed with a certain inevitability, like a Louisiana mudslide gathering speed and swallowing everything in its shit-coloured path. To Saul Barstow it had seemed more like a car crash in slow motion only he’d long ago taken his hands off the steering wheel and petulantly folded his arms in defiance to the gods. When the impact of how he’d been living finally crashed home, Saul found himself without an airbag or insurance.

In the days that had followed him walking out on his job he’d initially felt a certain rush of freedom, but this was soon replaced by a lethargy. He told people who asked him, less and less now, that his get-up-and-go had got-up-and-left and he couldn’t be bothered to go look for it. Despite the absolute freedom that came from being answerable to no one he found he still needed a routine. But after the first year even maintaining that came to feel like a job. It was so boring buying the same old things each day, milk, bread, something for dinner, it became like a treadmill. Do the washing up, just more to do tomorrow, have a shave, the stubble always grew back. The absolute futility of it all! Why did it always end in lost these days, never found?

So he just stopped. He stopped looking, he stopped it all.

Only there was one thing he couldn’t quite bring himself to stop…

‘Hit me up again, barman, the booze is flowing like molasses round here…’

It was round this time he discovered The Drinks Elevator. It was usually to be found in the Apple Barrel, a bar half way down Decatur street, but these days he could mostly find it anywhere. He didn’t have long tonight, he had something to deliver. He picked up the massive rucksack and slung it on his back. He hated it, stuffed full as it was with unpaid bills, unfulfilled dreams and the general detritus of life washing round in a stagnant harbor like so much fetid flotsam. How much heavier the backpack felt when he thought of it in those terms. He became Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, but his only progress recently had been paying off his outstanding tab at the local liquor store. The nylon straps on the rucksack had become twisted and now cut into his shoulders as he prepared to leave the apartment. Hang it all he needed a drink! Now the weight was on his back again, he knew it’d be a miracle if he could remove it without one.

‘Fuck it. I’ll treat myself to the elevator. It’s a smoother ride and I deserve it today.’

Miracles are to be found in the little things he told himself as he tied the laces on his pumps. They don’t have to be thunderbolts or old men parting the sea with heavy stone tablets. Miracles happened everyday if we could only stop to look, but most of us were too busy or self-absorbed to ever notice. This thought always made him feel glad he was without gainful employ. He had the time to stop and look and catch a glimpse of the divine plan in the overlooked cracks. He recalled an incident from his childhood growing up on his parents homestead in the Ozark mountains, a frog was being eaten by a snake. He’d been darkly fascinated, unable to look away like the urge to rubberneck a car-crash, not really wanting to see the smashed bodies but transfixed all the same. It hadn’t been a fair contest, the snake had the frog bang to rights clamped between its reticulated jaws, and was slowly digesting it. The frog was reversing down the snake’s throat and each time it squeezed on the frog’s belly the amphibian let out a squeak much like a dog’s chew toy, getting more desperate with each life-draining squeeze. It wouldn’t be long now. The meal was taking place in the long grass at the back of the homestead, no-one else on earth was supposed to see this. Then for no reason the snake seemed to sneeze and let the frog go. The frog kissed its teeth to the snake and hopped off towards the mangrove swamp. A miracle for the frog, but of no real importance in the scheme of things, but a miracle nontheless. This was how he viewed the Drinks Elevator, it was his own little miraculous secret, his second chance away from the serpent’s jaw.

He walked towards the Art Deco elevator admiring as he always did the ornate doors. His phone began to ring, he didn’t need to look at the screen: whoever it was he didn’t want to speak to them, not now he had set his mind to the wheel. He pressed the button to call the lift, there was only a down button, there only ever had been a down button. With a groan of cables and badly oiled cogs the lift gently rose to meet him.

Inside, the attendant reached eye-level with him, touching his cap in respect and resplendent in his neatly pressed shirt and collar with jacket buttons so polished that Saul paused to check he hadn’t left any turkey sandwich between his teeth in their reflection.

‘Good afternoon, sir. A little early today aren’t we?’

Saul swung the backpack as he got in, intentionally hitting the man for not minding his own business.

Going down I assume sir?’ said the attendant, pulling shut the grayling. The interior was spotlessly clean, with paintings of great historic battles on each side surrounding a central relief of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

The elevator descended to the next floor and came to rest with an almost imperceivable bump. Through the grail Saul could see his ex-work colleagues busying themselves in what looked like a hotel banqueting suite. He could hear the chink of crystal glass and the deep murmur of convivial bullshittery. He didn’t usually bother getting off at this floor anymore, finding it far too formal, but he managed to swipe a large glass of white wine from a passing waiter without even having to step fully out of the elevator. The lounge speakers droned out a Burt Bacharach beat and the whole thing just screamed flakiness at him from his vantage point safe inside the cage. Those that were dancing did so in nervous jittery movements like the spasms of shot deer, all the while trying to hold on to their drinks and the next conversation, never really listening, using the time the other person was speaking to think about what they were going to say next. Saul didn’t feel up to mingling with any of them and instructed the elevator attendant to speed on down to the next level, resisting the urge to go straight to the basement, knowing that may well come in time.

As they rattled down to the next level the light became softer and the music more relaxed. Saul visibly exhaled with relief as he saw three of his acquaintances leaning against the bar. He exited the elevator and headed over to the polished wooden counter. He hadn’t seen any of them in a while and quickly fell into an easy conversation once the ice had been broken with a few swift shooters of Jameson’s. At the appointed time he returned to the elevator with a spring in his step, bouncing into the carriage so that the floor yawned on the metal cables.

The attendant was leaning against the picture of Venus, collar undone and buttons seeming a little less reflective.

‘Feeling a little better sir?’

‘Jack, I’m feeling a million dollars. Take me down to the third floor immediately.’

Saul took his phone from his inside pocket and rested it on the horizontal metal bar of the lift. He reached his left hand out to the room in front of the lens as if trying to grab all his friends and everything else in that moment, freezing time.

‘Good luck to you, sir’.

‘Luck’s just the door, you got to come in through the window.’

‘Well said, sir’, the attendant seemed to hiccup as the last syllable trailed off into a burp.

Saul felt like he was flipping a silver dollar whilst having his spats cleaned on the corner of Chartres Street as he’d seen his father do when they used to go to the races on a Saturday morning. Saul’s phone started ringing again, only this time faint from inside his pocket like an embarrassed cough, inconsequential, the signal fading as the lift descended.

Saul had become talkative and barrel-chested. ‘I’m like a stereo see? And the booze and the drugs are like my graphic equalizers, I adjust them up and down, trying to find the perfect alchemy of buzz with which to get stuck in to the action.’

The attendant moved Saul’s jacket out of the way of the closing doors. He flipped down the pulley lever and the elevator once more began its descent.

Saul heard the musical baseline before he could see his friends dancing in the dimly lit club. Green and blue strobes shone through the elevator door to cast strange shadows over his face. The air was thick with weed and tobacco.  Fairground music and gunshots.

Saul ordered up another round of shots and tried to dance. He almost convinced himself he was having a good time, but something felt missing. The more he tried to hoof it, the emptier he felt. Instead of feeling loose he began to feel a pitching queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He looked up at his friends who were gurning up at the strobe lights. How could he be feeling so separate right now? He could feel the hot salty lava building in his osophegus burning its way up, hellbent on an eruption. No, what was this bullshit? It was far too early! He hadn’t even drunk that much as far as he could remember. He tried to tell his friends that he was feeling a little off colour but they just seemed to look straight through him lost in their private dancing, only wanting to know about the next round of drinks and happy stories. Saul knocked back a large one for the road then on the excuse of finding the rest room he instead found the elevator. The attendant seemed surprised to see him back so soon.

‘Everything alright sir?’

‘Take me down Jack, life should be lived on the knife’s edge but I’m feeling as soft as rancid butter all of a sudden.’

‘Perhaps you should slow down a little sir? Take some water on board perhaps?’

Saul waved him away with his hand.

‘Fuck it. Don’t tell me my business. You’ve been doing it all evening. What are you, my wife now?’

The attendant didn’t answer. He simply closed the sliding door and yanked on the down lever. With his back turned to him, Saul couldn’t see the sly smile on the increasingly aging face of the elevator attendant. Saul was looking into the reflective glass of the elevator doors. Not for the first time he didn’t recognise his own reflection. He stared into the bloodshot eyes and didn’t get any flash of self. How he imagined himself to look in his mind’s eye was at total odds with the reality now presenting itself. When did he get so old? Some haggard version of his father looked back through the frosted glass as the outside neon lamps streaked past as the elevator fell further.

His heart always skipped a beat as he approached the fourth floor and saw the orange sunset strike him in the ankles like a welcoming searchlight through the slats of the elevator door, gradually ascending to his thighs, then his chest and face as it reached level. He saw her silhouetted against the sun coming through the roof-terrace, vines thick with succulent grapes and her looking like the most succulent of all fruits. Saul’s feet left behind the sticky metal floor and touched pampas grass. The Mexican evening felt hot on his bald patch as he walked towards her. He was suddenly overcome by nerves, he hadn’t planned on stepping off at level four tonight, he’d felt too self-conscious and worthless to delve into this memory, and yet, here he was, walking towards her, the sound of the ciccadas mixing in his ears with his own pumping heart, but as he got closer he fancied it was actually the croaking of frogs.

She was pouring some of the new season olive oil onto an end crust of the morning’s bread now hardened in the dusk. Her usually jet black hair had found the heart to melt to a russet in the strong sunset. He walked across the veranda and pulled back a metal chair making it grate on the dirt floor.  He sat down, facing her, feeling the bougainvillea wrap itself around him as he lent against the fence.

He stared straight into those blue whirlpool eyes, he knew she saw him even though she continued to stare off across the valley munching on the oil-soaked bread. Feeling keenly the inadequacy of words Saul tried pure telepathy. He looked at her and tried to find the honesty of himself to connect with the honesty of her.

‘We couldn’t even be in the same room to begin with, do you remember? It was so strong, the electricity between us, it was like bringing two lightning bolts to a magnet, the whole room would get so electrified people’s hair would stand on end when we kissed.’

He studied those eyes trying to see a flame get started, but all he saw was his own memory of the two of them intertwined like a medicine snake in those black pupils, from that black past. Nothing more. Fuck it, now he had a new medicine and a new snakebite he didn’t need her. Time to get back to the thing he could always rely on. Memories were lies anyways, like old movies he could re-edit again and again in his mind choosing with each viewing what scenes to leave out until they played perfectly, according to his iron will.

He walked quickly back to the elevator unhappy with this surge of unwanted emotion. The attendant was there as usual with a kind word:

‘I wouldn’t dally here if I were you, sir. Time is a-wasting’.

Saul tried the same telepathic look into his eyes, but they were opaque and emotionless, like a snake about to slough it’s skin. He suddenly felt like a frog unable to escape the jaws of the elevator. He allowed his gaze to lose its intensity and fall down the attendants uniform. It was looking bedraggled, what buttons hadn’t fallen off were now sullied, none of their proud sheen remained. They were unpolished and unloved; yet so was he. Damn if he didn’t need another drink already. The sweat had broken out on his forehead and he tried to rally the woozy attendant.

‘I like your style Jack, respectful. You know what, I’m gonna tip ya right now, just send me down quick, uh?’

Saul rooted around in the pockets of his slacks. Feeling nothing folding he moved to his jacket inside pocket and pulled out a cheque book. The cover had been torn into neat rectangles from the rolling of numerous joints. He flicked open what remained to find nothing but stubs.

‘I seem to be a little light tonight, I’ll get you on the way back up.’

The attendant continued to stare blankly at him.

‘Ok then, good… I always say…’ Saul’s voice had been battered down by the booze to a mumble and he gripped the handrail to steady himself. Caught in the sickly glow of the elevators strip lighting he cut a broken figure, cowed by every bottle he’d ever drunk being smashed over his head in the morning.

‘…Just take me down the drain, Jack…’

The eyes of the attendant flickered open like a TV screen being switched on. He reached his hand up to the lever, now carved in the shape of a snake’s head and let it hang over the snout.

‘Are you sure sir? It’s still early. I was told you had business to attend to?’

‘No, the basement is best ways tonight, Jack, the game’s not worth the candle.’  .

The attendant’s legs buckled as he raised himself up on his haunches to depress the lever.  He still looked a little queasy round the gills but a good belch seemed to correct it enough for normal service to be resumed.

‘Mind the doors please. Going down.’

He reached for a rope cord hanging  from the wooden slats and yanked. The meat-packing service lift closed horizontally. And as it slammed shut, Saul saw that the attendant was now just wearing an off-white vest. the hairs on his sunburned back turned silver in places.

The elevator felt like it was free-falling snapped loose from controlling cables. It shot down to the basement with such force that it knocked Saul off his feet and into the air where he and the attendant hung for an instant as if strange Cosmonauts engaged on a sling shot round the Sun. When the metal cage slowed to a bumpy halt just before the smash, Saul found himself on his hands and knees. There was a silence. He could hear the burb rising in his throat before swallowing it back down, feeling the need to remain straight, in front of the attendant.

Until it had stopped he hadn’t even been aware of the tinned music in the elevator, but now it was gone it was almost like there had been another person in the room. On his knees Saul heard the tinkle of soft harpsichord notes, as if plucked on a metal wheel.

The elevator doors remained closed and he looked over to the attendant slumped on his corner stool, sound asleep. Saul called out to him to open the doors, no response. He got up and shook him by the lapels, still no response. Feeling justified in the circumstances he slapped the attendant round the face, softly at first, then harder. He remained stone unconscious.

Saul smelt he’d reached the basement before his eyes caught up. A heavy scent of rich myrrh, cigar tobacco, opiates and just enough astringent disinfectant to add an undeniable piquancy. He felt he was home again. As if loaded with explosive charges, his backpack jettisoned off his back and shot against the door control lever. Like a troll’s sickly yawn the elevator doors creaked upon horizontally. Saul rubbed his sore shoulders.  It sure felt a lot easier without that weight on his back. As he left the elevator he hoped that whatever had been in the sack wasn’t important or urgent, he couldn’t remember now, but no matter, he comforted himself with the knowledge it was usually there neatly stacked by the elevator in the morning.

The attendant was slumped in the corner without the strength to lift the elevator shutters. Saul yanked on the cord and stepped through like a child in a sweet shop.

He gave a last look over his shoulder to see the elevator’s shutters transforming into the metal jaws of a bear trap. They snapped shut like a robotic mouth on a breeze of necrossing halitosis. He moved through the wooden cellar, the smoke so thick it was as if everyone inside were fish being slowly smoked. To left and right the kippers were kipping, stretched out on their opium-den stained mattresses, stained with the life force of all who’d rested there as it had been sucked out of them, never to be returned. Saul sucked in the thick chocolaty air. He was back amongst his people.

He found his personal corner, decorated with the posters of all his ego’s past triumphs. A small crystal screen was embedded in the ceiling of the four-poster bed, surrounded by plush Bedouin drapes peeling out from the centre  like petals from a rose. The screen intermittently showed flight departures to places he wanted to visit, interspersed with pornographic movies of people he dreamt of laying. He lay back on the cool silken pillow and reached for the tube containing the dark juice. It hung from one of the posts of the bed at eye level like an emergency oxygen mask on a doomed flight, Saul pulled down on the plastic tubing to start the flow of the thick molasses liquid, bringing the suction cup end to his lips he began to gulp down the yoghurty silt directly into his brain stem. He lay back on the soft mattress and released a belch into the sunken world lit by candlelight, as the medicine took its effect, the room felt almost religious but instead of the cold stone draft of his childhood religion this was some priestess cult and her temple was warm and womb-like, pulsating with living tissue. This was the place he really wanted to get to each time he took a sip or gulped a slug. This was always his end game and ultimate destination with everything stripped from him, pared away like the layers of an onion. Here he was at the most basic level, uncluttered, not responsible, just being, uninterrupted by the external demands of a world he couldn’t quite figure out. His right hand slipped off the bed and trailed on the floor. His knuckles felt cold rock there at the bottom.

The plasma screen sparked into life and She appeared on the screen, but not as before, now she seemed perfect to him, like a memory remade as he wanted her to be.

‘There is a silence at the heart of all great things’ he said to himself.   Through the membrane walls that separated each cubicle thin veins containing the juice crisscrossed pumping it into individual areas. From the next chamber a voice could be heard. Saul came back into focus to realise it was addressing him.

What brings you here then, you’ve still got a bit of fight left in you haven’t you?’

Saul answered as if from a warm dream, ‘’I’m like a Faberge egg, see? I spent years making my outside as intricate and shiny as possible, but I neglected my inside and when the hammer blow came the shell shattered and there was fuck all in there.’

A mellow laugh that seemed to contain all the understanding in the world came through the leathery membrane back at him.

‘You and everyone else here I’d guess’, the voice said in mellifluous tones, ‘Don’t sweat it. We all paid the entrance fee one way or another. How long you in for?’

Saul took another long pull on the juice before answering.

‘The night only, my bag will be packed somewhere, ready for the morning.’

Saul turned his head to look through the membrane on his other side, the walls seemed more yellow and stained, the face was a blur but he could still register a spastic movement from within. He felt it was his turn to do the asking,

‘And what brings you here..?’

The voice came back shrill and with an uncomfortable edge that immediately bristled the hairs on the back of Saul’s neck.

‘Hard to remember now, this junksuck kinda blue-rinses the brain after a while, don’t it? I recall it was something to do with not being able to be myself. I was so soft inside like last harvest’s cotton, but I could always hide that and put up a killer front, boy could I sell it to ‘em. Mr. Humpty-Dump, but it was all painted shell, inside there was an empty cold wind blowing round a small, scared kid. The real me, huh? Someone took a sledgehammer to the shell one day and the kid inside wasn’t ready for it. The shell didn’t count for shit.’

Saul sucked on the tube starting to feel absent-minded. The story sounded familiar somehow but he couldn’t place it. The pages of colourful comic books from childhood flapped through his brain. Perhaps that was where he’d heard the story? The rice-paper pages flew from the comic and flapped away like tropical butterflies. Saul reached out with his hand and tried to catch one.

‘I’m sorry for you mister. That sounds a real bummer in the summer.’ Saul caught an escaping butterfly and squeezed its stamen between thumb and forefinger releasing a yellow viscous liquid. He tasted it, all sugar and spice.

‘Bah, it’s just another tale of the bottle. We’ve all got one here.’

Saul brushed the dead butterfly from his fingers, ‘How long you here for?’ he asked.

‘Same as you… according to your medical notes… for all time!

Saul was unsettled by this.

‘I can leave anytime I want, pal. I choose to come down here.’

‘Sure you do. How many drinks has it been today so far? You’ve got to commit to get this deep in my friend, they don’t just give a key to anyone.’

‘Bullshit! I’m the fucking landlord of this place! Look at the walls, this is all my stuff, look what I’ve been over the years, you can’t talk to me like this..!’

The laughter from the next cell was so vile that the membrane itself reverberated like the albumen of a rotten egg, releasing a foul stench into the room. He felt like he was inside the stomach of some unspeakable creature being slowly digested.

Saul ripped the tube from his mouth causing it to hiss and spit the remaining globules of juice from his mouth where it landed at the foot of the bed like congealed pork fat. He got up and attempted to shake the dream from his unresponsive body, moving tortuously as if suspended in glue. He stumbled back to where he knew the elevator to be. But all he found was a smooth keyhole. He reached for his cell phone to see no signal, both he and the phone were out of range tonight, not possible to be connected at this time.

He banged on the smooth metal teeth until a small slit opened horizontally in the mouth of the shut bear trap. He recognised the sneaky eyes of the elevator attendant.

‘Hey Jack, thank the lord it’s you! Let me in won’t ya? It’s time to go.’

But the bloodshot eyes of the attendant just stared back at him.

‘You can only visit here so many times, sir, before you can’t return.’

Saul shoved his fingers into the slot and tried to open the door himself.  The attendant pushed the metal slit against the chubby reaching fingers like a guillotine.

‘I must insist sir. There’s nothing I can do… it’s the rules.’

Saul retracted his fingers sensing the futility of this tactic. The attendant relaxed a little and stopped his finger execution.

‘Of course sir, you can always buy your way out, but it takes time… forms have to be approved and signed off, payment’s made, you understand? It’s a long old crawl back up otherwise I’m afraid.’

Saul gave himself a near fatal headrush as he leapt in the air,  ‘I have money!’’

He began jumping up and down on the spot, the sound of jangling coming from his trouser pockets. With a new found confidence he reached in and grabbed a rich handful from both left and right, thrusting them proudly into the slit for the attendant to inspect. But again that awful mocking laugh that he’d heard before came from the cubicle way back where he’d come from. The membranes rattled like the glottal of a fat businessman.

Saul looked down at his hands to see nothing but old beer caps, corks and damp cigarette papers falling to the ground in a jumbled incoherent mess.

The attendant slammed shut the slit and Saul could hear the elevator ascending, the un-oiled cage squeaking above the sound of croaking frogs.