Yesterday was just like tomorrow will be.
I am, therefore I think. Cue the feedback loop.
I’m listening to the rhythmic breathing of yet another Conduit. The goddamn things always sound like a dying emphysema victim – gurgling and choking to suck in another breath.
The room I’m in is just like every other room they keep these things in.
There really is only one word for these places.
I think they chose them on purpose – to be a certain temperature or something. I don’t really know. Don’t really care. I’m paid well, specifically so I don’t care. Paid in more than money.
But here I am. Sitting here with Tommy, next to this bald, pallid husk of a human being – sucking in air through nasogastric tubes buried in each nostril, having been buried there so long each tube has sort of fused to the rim of the nose with a layer of hardened mucus and pus.
This particular Conduit is strapped to a bare wire bed frame with strips of velcro, while a tangled mess of wires cover his bare chest and face. From electrocardiography to intravenous neurodes, this poor sap has it all.
Some are burrowed into flesh, stitched into skin. Thin copper wires dig into his tear ducts. Finger-thick cords of steel have been drilled through the skull. Pungent yellow scabs have formed around these rude entrances, often slightly green with infection and the remains of more dried pus.
The Conduit sweats. His skin is greasy, shining in the weak slats of dusty afternoon light spilling in through boarded windows. He stinks like old feet and onions, dappled with the sickly perfume of overcrowded hospital wings – the air clotted with illness.
Beside this bare wire frame are the various machines used to keep him sedated and connected. A drip to the right, fed into the thing’s strained veins, a respirator to the left that keeps him going on that sickly suck-suck-suck. There is a machine I’m not supposed to know the purpose of sat atop an old milk crate, routed directly into the brain. It’s a square gunmetal blue box around the size of an old laptop, except thicker. Grimy silver cords bulge from every damn side of the thing. On top of it, there is a small digital read-out displaying the numbers ‘0500’ in hot green neon.
This little box is positioned at the rear of the bed, just behind the Conduit. I imagine if you took all the cables out of the thing’s head, it would resemble a flesh colander, with gaping portholes to his brain.
He’s actually one of the healthier ones. Despite being barely skin on a skeleton. Some have been gangrenous, their skin speckled with mould and open sores weeping. Whatever it is they’re doing to these poor things, it really fucks with their immune system.
But the weird thing is, they just don’t die. No matter how sick I’ve seen them, I’m yet to have an assignment that involves replacing one. Maybe that’s just above my level of access. Once again – paid not to care.
But a man’s got to wonder.
You can’t have a job like this and not wonder. Just so long as you keep those ponderings to yourself, then you’re all good. And when you get right down to it – everything that was to come was a result of me ignoring this simple fact.
We’re sitting there, playing cards – waiting for the phone to ring. Just me and Tommy, and the Conduit, in what the locals would probably think is just another abandoned house in a shitty neighbourhood. Thing is – even squatters are scared of this place.
The smells coming out of it are pervasive enough to keep the junkies and the homeless at bay. If they weren’t, then we’d just kill ‘em.
As fucked up as it sounds, these Conduits are worth a thousand dead junkies.
Or maybe that isn’t fucked up. Depends on your perspective, I guess. I’m paid not to have a perspective – and maybe I don’t.
But then, everyone’s got a conscience – even if they don’t like to think they do. Easiest way most people do it is to cast themselves as the good guy in their own life’s story. Tricky thing about life: there is no good, and no evil – everyone believes they’re in the right. Even Hitler thought he had the right idea. Roasting people alive can somehow, in some fucked up way – seem like the right thing to do. The necessary thing to do.
So yeah, I got regrets. I got doubts.
But that’s not what’s on my mind right now.
Right now – all I want is for the goddamn phone to ring.
The table a is disc of weathered wood; maybe it was lacquered once, but now it’s scuffed to fuck. The floorboards look the same, but darker with age. The walls are bulging from water damage; the wallpaper is torn, flaking and peeling. The ceiling plaster is mottled from hundreds of repairs using different coloured putty. There are holes chewed in the skirting boards. You can hear rats scampering in the walls.
There is an empty light socket in the middle of the ceiling. The remains of the bulb are scattered underfoot. If we have to stay here after sundown it will be in pitch darkness, lit only by the tiny digital display on that mystery machine hooked into the Conduit’s brain.
We’re instructed to be discreet, so no flashlights.
The cards are an old deck I carry with me from place to place, for just such an occasion as this. Sometimes the job needs a fair bit of patience.
We’re betting on change, a few hands of lazy poker for paperclips and spare coins. Conversation is light, by necessity. Plus – Tommy isn’t one to waste words. Never has been. It’s admirable in today’s world, where everyone has an opinion on everything. We’re all experts on shit we know nothin’ about.
I have a shitty hand, complete nada, and can’t be bothered bluffing it. I call and give the table a gentle knock.
Tommy gives a grunt, and with a grin that twitches his long, silver moustache, he lays down a fucking superb royal flush. He’s cleaned house, but we have to split the winnings anyway so we can have another game. We don’t have enough shit lying around to keep upping the stakes.
As Tommy shuffles the deck, I take a good look at him. He’s a strange man – by anyone’s standard. I don’t know his age, but I’d be damned if he was a day younger than sixty. His hair is a mullet of thin silver, matched with a long handlebar moustache and eyebrows as thick as feathers.
His eyes are muddy, and humourless. He reminds me of the kind of face you see in old Westerns, some old bounty hunter or saloon barkeep. He wears a discrete black shirt and vest, with a leather belt and neat black dress trousers. His belt buckle is a gaudy Harley Davidson collectable. His top button is always left open, exposing the scar tissue on his chest, where he’d obviously had some grafts. I’ve never asked him about it. Didn’t seem important.
He sits back from the table, legs spread wide, ass on the edge of his chair and leaning back hard into the rickety antique we’d scavenged from a pile of old broken shit in the hallway.
My chair is just an upturned milk crate, the tail of my coat the only bit of comfort for my narrow ass.
In the middle of our table, slightly to the side of our poker game, is one of those old-school rotary telephones. A shiny black Bakelite one.
I don’t know why, but we keep ending up together. I try not to pay it much mind. But the question has been burning behind my lips for an hour. Finally, I can’t stand it any damn longer.
I break the silence.
He looks up from the cards. It’s not a friendly look.
“Why do we keep ending up together, you think?”
He stops shuffling, and squints – giving me a long, measured stare. After what seems like a full minute, he answers.
“I like you, Mike. So I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
His voice always gets me; its firm and measured. It has a sort of quiet power to it.
I nod and realise I’d fucked up.
Rule number one is no questions. I knew that. But I did it anyway. I thought maybe Tommy wasn’t in one of his hard-arse moods.
I don’t expect Tommy to say anything else after that, but as he resumes shuffling, he gives me a little piece of his mind.
“You’d do well to remember that we’re here because we were told to go here. Same as always. You don’t know me, so don’t try to know me – unless he tells you that you got to know me.”
I nod in silent agreement, not trusting myself to speak.
Despite how much of a cold bastard he is (or maybe because of it), I have a certain soft spot for him. Hard to please, but you’d do just about anything to have him on your side.
Like some kind of eternally disapproving uncle, I guess.
The phone rings.
It cuts in so suddenly I jump on reflex.
Tommy is smooth as a snake – he doesn’t even blink. Just calmly sets the cards down on the table, and picks up the receiver. He tilts his head and fixes me with a crooked stare, putting the phone to his ear.
I can’t hear any voice, but that’s not a surprise.
The phone call lasts about a minute. Tommy hangs up. He grunts and glances over at the Conduit. For just a second, a slight furrow of concern seems to crease his brow. I might have imagined it.
“Okay Mike, time to move on.”
We left through the front door. The house was an old shingled Victorian, constricted by vines and wearing black mould. The door was hanging by a single hinge, but it locked firmly enough.
Tommy pulled the door shut, locked it, and slid the key back into his vest pocket. I smiled and shook my head at how well hidden all this shit actually wasn’t. Any old nut could stumble in and find these Conduits.
But somehow, they never did.
Perhaps they were just cleverly positioned. You had to be pretty good to find somewhere that no-one cared about. And in some distant way, I guess we were pretty good.
The front porch was a short, bare-board affair, split and splintered. To either side of the porch were shattered picture windows – long since boarded over – overlooking the mangy lawn.
The place nested in what I basically thought of as a ‘white ghetto.’ Overgrown kids walking around in tracksuit pants and wife-beaters, followed by meek, pregnant girlfriends sporting similar attire.
I checked my watch – it was only half past four.
The cracked concrete path from front door to sidewalk led through straw grass tall enough to reach my chest. Two massive fig trees leant back over the house, springing from either side of the path, shading the place from the road and almost all sunlight. Hanging vines and tangled thickets finished the camouflage, crowding it in and curtaining it off.
This place was just like most places – sometimes it was urban, sometimes suburban (and on other occasions there were more deserted country barns or run-down shacks, set up on massive plots of land running wild with blackberry thorns.)
The idea always seemed the same – put them somewhere nobody even wanted to look.
I followed Tommy along the front path to the street, past an old mailbox with the house number ‘654’ printed in aged lettering that might once have been gold. The number stuck to the inside of my head. I didn’t want it to – but it went right in and hit the wall of my mind like flypaper.
I looked up, checking to see if anyone had spotted us leaving.
The street was deserted.
Our car was a loan, an absolute write-off if I’d ever seen one – but clearly a necessity in this sort of locale. Anything nicer and it would have been looted within five minutes of parking.
It was a squat box sedan, scratches and dents everywhere. Once upon a time, it might have been white – but now it was a peeling grey. The front passenger side door had been replaced by a maroon one, a cheap panel beating job. One cracked headlight had been fixed with masking tape. Neither of the fucking side mirrors were intact. The blinkers didn’t work, and neither did the reverse lights.
It handled about as pretty as it looked; the clutch was sticky as shit, and every now and again the whole damn thing would just abruptly sputter and die. You could put money on it whenever we hit a red light, or had to idle for more than about twenty fucking seconds.
Just before we got to it, out on the nature strip, Tommy stopped again. He took out his mobile phone – an old disposable Nokia brick, practically a relic from before all this smart phone nonsense – and yet this was still our go-to piece of tech.
Funny how fast the times move.
Fumbling with the back, he removed the battery and the SIM card, and then swiftly tossed the battery into the tangled thicket of hedge outside 654. He snapped the SIM card and tossed that, too.
Following this, the rest of the phone was dropped to the footpath and stepped on.
Tommy ground it beneath the heel of his polished leather dress shoes – the tiny screen shattered, the buttons exploded everywhere, but he kept going until the whole damn thing was paste.
“Alright. Something has come up – someone fucked up their job. Somehow, this line is already two days old. Got tipped off by our old pal Frankie. Might have already been listed somewhere.”
I put my hands in the pockets of my overcoat, my sigh coming out in an icy cloud. The afternoon was chilly. June always started to get on top of me.
Frankie was, to my knowledge, someone who worked with the telephone directory, and could tell us right away if our number was listed. We had a small window to keep things completely hush-hush. The numbers weren’t supposed to be around long enough to make it onto any listings. But if the delivery of the phone was late...
“So where does that leave us?” I asked.
Tommy gave a wry grin.
“You’re not asking questions again, are you lad?”
I gave him a pained expression. Once the intensity was off, he wasn’t above a rusty quip now and again.
He smirked at his own joke and nodded towards the car.
“And apparently, some other poor sap is pussyfooting around on a rather serious job, involving a whole fucking family. The whole damn shebang could come tumbling down if we don’t sort it out, so we got put on assignment.”
My eyes went wide.
Tommy gave a grim nod.
“Jesus H. Christ.”
“Yeah, and that’s not the full lick of it either – we only have until tomorrow to sort it. I don’t think I have to tell you that means no favours. We do this ourselves or not at all. If we run into any problems, and it looks like the job might fall through – we’re supposed to whack the guy and just clean house. No bullshitting.”
I nodded, giving a sort of dumb grin at how Tommy suddenly slipped into gangster mode.
Gunna’ whack the sucka’ if he squeals bawss.
Maybe in another life that was where this filthy old wog would have ended up. He had just the right kinda heart for it, too: grey as gravel.
Maybe I did, too. But mob work, shit – it was too unreliable. And besides, when you worked for The Magician – hell, it made all other jobs look like shit, legal or not.
The way it works is simple – we get a call, we do the job. The usual job can be anything from delivering a box, moving a car from A to B (sometimes with precious cargo in the back) or even taking out a person of interest. The jobs were never really important.
What was important was discretion.
But assignment – that was a whole different story. That meant The Magician had a particular ‘interest’ in some poor sod. You don’t want that. Trust me. There are few things worse than hearing his voice, and one of those things – is having his attention.
Of course, we were all there at one point – all under the magnifying glass.
I wasn’t ever really too book smart, but I’m not sure there are words to describe what being brought into the fold is like. You call him, you’re his client. Tommy and I would probably be known among others of similar rank as ‘Executives,’ simply because we execute the commands of the man himself. But I think ‘Client’ is a misnomer. It gets things ass backwards.
We might have all our needs covered, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t admit our asses are bought and paid for.
He owns us, body and soul.
All this was on my mind, my grip tight on that sun-split steering wheel, as we cruised through this fucked-up neighbourhood. The houses to either side were crumbling, vandalized wrecks barely avoiding demolition. Each facade was tattooed with crude gang tags or tasteless graffiti.
I didn’t know the details at that point, but the long and short of it was this: we were to facilitate someone coming into the fold, from start to finish.
I don’t know if you’d call what we have a cult.
I’m paid not to care.
And I guess I don’t.
I like to think I don’t.
But maybe, at times like this – I really don’t know.
We passed a street sign: ‘Highgate Road’. With the street address, that’s two pieces of information that I really didn’t want.
We drove silently. The night was coming down like Armageddon, bringing bruise-purple storm clouds that don’t bother raining – they simply hung overhead, like monsters blotting out the stars.
We’d turned into a rather flashy suburban estate; the style of housing had changed. A new suburb, a new calibre of living.
Tommy gave me directions; take a left here, a right there. Slip lanes, U-turn into that little side street, etc. I didn’t have a clue how he knew where we were supposed to go, and even though I was burning with curiosity – I knew I’d be risking a split lip and maybe even a bullet if I asked. I had to keep a muzzle on it.
The streets lights zipped by; we were easily under the speed limit, but honestly, I was on edge.
Never been put on assignment before.
I got the feeling Tommy had. Obviously I couldn’t ask him about it.
I glanced in the rearview, seeing a red Ford directly behind us, some old dusty ute. It was an ancient model, barely roadworthy. Something about this ute seemed familiar. I thought I saw it parked on our way in, in some supermarket car park a few blocks down from that place on Highgate Road.
I hated that I remembered that.
Usually these things slipped in and out – on the job, you just go to one place and then the next. But I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Highgate Road, number 654. Fucking goddamn.
The old ute took a side street, peeling off the main road and out of sight.
I took a deep breath.
I’d never been tailed before, so I didn’t know what you were supposed to do if that happened. I’d only ever seen it in old black and white movies – they slip into some alley and try to lose ‘em. Don’t know if it works like that in real life.
I got the feeling Tommy might know. At least, I hoped so.
We didn’t have a phone – unless we got contacted by another Client, we were on our own once we got to the location. Only Tommy knew where we were going. I think I was grateful for that.
Knowledge is a dangerous thing; I can’t sleep some nights, knowing what I know. And I don’t know much.
Some days I wonder if I like it this way, but that’s not really my concern.
I don’t have a say.
Too far gone, man – all in with whatever hand you got.
Tommy told me to pull in, and my jaw actually dropped.
The house was beautiful.
It was one of those hyper-modern ones, lots of glass and sharp edges. Polished steel, meticulously trimmed and pampered gardens. All upper-class high life.
It’s a two-storey place, built of smoothed concrete render with a pastel, mauve tint. The two windows to the left of the door were huge, vertical picture windows, stretching up for several metres, like wide speed-stripes made of glass. I thought they must have served as both upstairs and downstairs windows, in some overpaid architect’s ambitious idea of post-modern design. They were decorated with tilted metal slats for privacy, obscuring the interior.
I could see the main living room on the ground floor, just barely, through a massive wall of tinted glass to the right of the front door. Above the glass-walled dining area of the bottom floor was a small balcony, a modern, polished chrome rail connected with threads of taut steel wire. On the little balcony was a set of wooden deck chairs with a box-shaped wicker coffee table between them. If I squinted, I could just make out a vase positioned artfully atop the wicker, like the star on a Christmas tree – a final fucking opulent touch.
The front lawn was immaculate, of course, and a crisp, hydrated green.
There were hedges at the front, just behind the neat slatted fence of polished steel – again hyper modern and screaming to be admired.
All of it was, really.
A meandering front path cut through the lawn in a winding ‘S’ of smooth concrete – bordered by trimmed Mondo grass and decorative solar garden lamps.
Tommy killed the engine, and we sat there in the silence.
The whole street seemed dead; not a soul in sight. Not a trace of movement. All these rich white folks were safely behind their mansion doors. Tucked up in bed. Nesting for the night.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel watched.
I glanced back at the house, noticing for the first time that there was a shining new ride-on lawn mower in the middle of the lawn.
Talk about overcompensating. You could clear the longest stretch of that yard in about twelve long strides. Yet this fucker needed a ride-on.
Oh, but he’s such a handyman, such a hands-on kinda guy.
The silence grew weighty, thick even. Something about this seemed to trigger a lurking suspicion.
I turned to look at Tommy. I didn’t want to ask, but I had to know. I couldn’t stifle the question.
I said it as a statement, but meant it as a question.
Tommy didn’t look in my direction, but managed a slight nod. I felt my hair stand on end, a tingle of fear.
He opened the glove box and pulled out a silenced Beretta 9mm, an old police issue pistol we’d been given a few jobs back. I don’t remember the circumstances. Not much about my life I’m permitted to remember.
“Follow my lead; don’t make a sound until we have the Client.”
I returned his nod, and without another word, we both opened the car doors simultaneously. The night cold came down pretty harsh, and I felt my skin break out into more gooseflesh. I ruffled my coat around myself, rubbing my arms to get a little blood flowing. Tommy didn’t even seem to notice the cold. Maybe he grew up in a different sorta climate and was used to it. I didn’t know.
I caught him tucking the pistol down the back of his trousers. He stepped through the low hedges, and onto the winding path.
The only lights on in the house appeared to be coming from the main dining area on the ground floor. The one behind the tinted glass wall. It was difficult to make out, but I thought I could see some people seated at the dinner table.
I tried not to think about what that could mean.
We made quick progress along the lawn, smelling potent earthy fertilizer in the rose beds under the windowsills. The shit overwhelmed any possible perfume we might have gotten from the flowers.
I saw a garden hose, coiled like a snake, just to the left of the door.
My eyes and my senses were strangely sharp – everything about this job suddenly seemed poignant and vital. Every detail; rich and vibrant.
Tommy approached the front door – a treated cedar thing, polished to perfection, with a gold handle, curled in a fine display of metalwork. With one leather-gloved hand, Tommy turned the handle – and found the door open. It swung inwards silently, and we were greeted by a dimly lit hallway.
To the immediate right was a wide archway leading into the dining room. Directly ahead, the hall continued into darkness. To the left, a closed door.
The walls were beige. The doors, doorframes, cornices and skirting boards all pristine white. There were no photos or pictures hanging on the walls.
Again – all the details seemed to just sink right in. My memory was latching onto things. I didn’t know why.
But I had a feeling.
Tommy walked through, not skipping a beat – straight into the dining room.
I expected to hear a gasp or some such thing, but only an eerie silence followed. I joined him, crossing the threshold onto treated timber flooring that creaked with every step.
There was a feeling about the place – a sort of electric current winding through the air.
I knew they were here; I could feel them.
The cold seemed more focused inside; it should have been warmer in there, out of the weather. My breath came out as steam, like I was wading through a walk-in meat fridge.
My ears were faintly ringing, hearing that ever-so-subtle frequency pitch that warbles away in the background whenever they appear.
My heart was pounding, and my armpits were soaked with cold sweat. But I had no choice – I had to follow Tommy. But I couldn’t get my goddamn feet to move. I was rooted in place. I felt nauseous; I started to panic.
I looked back out the front door, scrying the dark for any hint of an eye watching or a shimmer of movement.
I didn’t feel better; it only added to my unease.
My stomach filled with tangled knots of sour, wriggling dread. The whole house seemed to weigh down on me.
I closed my eyes and took another step inside.
Beside me, a warm gust of air filtered just past my right shoulder. The zesty tang of burnt electrical wires and bottled lightning seemed to waft by, and my heart skipped a beat. My chest felt encased in ice.
This can’t be happening.
I opened my eyes and saw nothing. I looked around, and still nothing. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I turned right and followed Tommy into the dining room.
My footsteps seemed too loud. Certainly much louder than Tommy’s, even though I was putting each foot down as carefully as I could. I think it was just fear distorting things.
But then again, maybe not.
In front of me was a massive rectangular dining table, set out with a fine lavender tablecloth, an immaculate set of shining cutlery, and fine white china. In the centre of the table was a roast chicken on a silver platter, with baked vegetables in glazed clay bowls to either side. The food had spoiled. Maggots boiled from the meat.
I wasn’t sure how long this meal had been sitting for, but it had well and truly gone to waste.
There were five places set at the table, and each one was occupied.
It looked like some kind of morbid wax sculpture; a bleak moment locked in time.
A mother and father sat at each end of the table, and two young boys sat along the left-hand side, looking out onto the lawn. Their younger sister was seated opposite, looking in.
They appeared dressed up for some occasion, the lads wearing formal, collared white shirts with black ties – sleeves rolled up. The mother and daughter were in fine silk dresses, strapless, revealing pale shoulders. Each a matching aquamarine, and both speckled with a hint of candy-sweet perfume. Their jewellery sparkled under dimmed halogens, set at an intimate level. Everyone looked like they just got back from a wedding.
Every single one was dead –head flopped over the backrest of their treated cedar chairs, eyes rolling in their sockets. Each mouth was wide, their tongues swollen, their expressions contorted in agony. They were just faintly starting to smell.
I got the feeling that perhaps we were looking at dinner from a few nights ago.
The children were the hardest to look at.
It was so strange seeing kids sitting so completely and utterly still. Their eyes were bloodshot and panicked.
Whatever happened to these people constituted a favour for someone.
I felt ashamed.
All around me, the air seemed to tickle with friction, as though buzzing with static and waiting for something to earth the charge .
Still, my heart hammered away.
I was terrified.
Tommy absent-mindedly approached the family, and checked for a pulse on the father. He then systematically moved along to the daughter, and the mother, and the two sons. I watched him carefully, trying not to think.
Everything in me was on edge.
Then, Tommy frowned and moved back onto the wife, I noticed something that made me jump.
Her chest suddenly rose, as she took a long, shallow breath.
She was still alive.
Tommy moved quick. Approaching her from behind, he reached around and pinched her nostrils shut, then clamped his other hand over her mouth.
At first, there wasn’t any resistance. Her eyes were zoned out – barely conscious. She didn’t even seem to register that there was anyone else in the room.
Then – they went wide. I could hear her trying to scream behind Tommy’s hand, but she hadn’t taken enough air. All she could manage was a quiet moan.
She began to thrash, reaching up with her hands to try and claw away Tommy’s iron grip – but it was in vain. He held her tight as the firm branch of a tree, while her weakened fingers scratched desperately and eagerly for purchase.
I couldn’t turn away, though I was sick to my guts. I just stared. Tommy didn’t even seem to raise a sweat. The expression on his face never changed; just his lips pursed a little with the effort of holding her.
She struggled for what seemed like forever.
Her eyes were searching, frantic. They locked onto mine – but seemed to see right through me. That look of utter certainty: the bloodshot, darting eyes of someone in the grip of death. She could feel herself fading, and yet was powerless to stop it.
I was the only one who could help her, and I wasn’t going to.
Instead, fixated and utterly paralysed, I watched her die.
The choking started; her whole body started to shake.
She kicked back, thumping her knees against the table, pumping them up and down. Her eyes were so wide I felt like they were going to bulge from their sockets and skid down her cheeks all the way onto her untouched china dinner set.
She stared at me – pleading.
My fingers were slick with sweat. I curled them into fists and dug my nails into my palms.
I needed to focus – I needed to get myself under control. I’d been on jobs involving murder before. I couldn’t remember the details, but I knew for a fact that it’d happened.
My job was often violent. Why did this in particular bother me so damn much?
There was something a little off. No, way more than a little.
Everything was off.
I turned around and headed to the corner, feeling hot puke jumping right out the gate. There was a chest-high polished wooden dresser sitting right in my line of fire. The back of it had a vanity mirror – fuck knows why. But that’s where I blew my lunch, a steaming grey soup of hot chunky puke, all over the goddamn mirror.
I gagged once, twice, three times, then purged yet another load. I was bent over with my hands on my knees, spitting chunks and sticky saliva that tasted like bile. It hung in strings from my mouth, dangling like snot from a powerful sneeze.
I spat again, and looked back around in time to take a fist to the face.
Tommy rounded on me like a shadow – hammering his bony fist into my right eye. He could pack a mean punch, too. I’d felt it once before and had hoped not to ever have to sample it again.
But there it was – I dropped to the fucking floor, smacking against the dresser and splashing down in a puddle of sick. The dresser drawers slid open and toppled. One landed straight on the bridge of my nose – shattering it with such acute pain I screamed. The drawer clattered down on the floor, loud.
“Shut your fucking mouth!” Tommy managed to raise his voice without going over a threshold I’d still consider ‘inside voice.’ There was no shortage of venom hiding in there, though. I knew I was a dead man.
He bent down on one knee and snatched up a fistful of my hair. He ripped my head forwards, pulling me so close to his face I could feel the sweat on his brow.
When he opened his mouth to speak, I smelt alcohol and cigarettes.
“You just splattered this place with evidence. This is a fucking murder. And we’re not supposed to be here!”
I opened my mouth to respond – to say anything that might change his mind. But I saw it happen even before it did. His other hand was out of sight, shuffling around at the back of his waistband.
Like a magic trick, the pistol appeared – and was slammed into my Adam’s apple.
I coughed, and tried to struggle. He stared at me, cool and unfazed.
“I can’t kill you here. But God I want to, Mike. I want to. You’re fucking walking out of here. You snivelling piece of shit.”
Tommy threw me back to the floor.
“Please Tommy, listen – it’s not my fault, those things were messing with my guts!”
He ignored me and took a good long look at the dining room.
The wife was now just as slack and dead as the rest. There would be questions asked, though – they could tell exactly how you died with a good autopsy. A million thoughts ran through my mind.
I could tell Tommy was thinking of how the fuck we’d get out of this mess.
That was when we heard the sneeze.
I looked at Tommy, he looked at me.
I scrambled up off the floor, tossing the drawers aside. The puke was caked to my face, turning cold; I wiped it off with one sleeve, realising that I was going to be stinking up the car something proper. I’d probably have to burn the clothes I was in anyhow. I’d fucked up. Royally. And no get-out-of-jail-free card. No phone calls.
We were in this until the end, and we had to get this fucking newbie Client clear of the mess. Under a more typical job, we might have been able to buy off the coroner, or just pull a disappearing act on the place and burn it down. A house fire was a hell of a lot easier than the strangle-the-life-from-a-bitch kinda thing.
And now we had the Client, hiding somewhere, most likely in freak-out mode – ‘pussyfooting around,’ as Tommy had put it.
At the far end of the dining room was a narrow rectangular archway bordered in white trim, through which I could see a sunroom that most likely ran along the side of the house. The sneeze had come from in there.
Tommy didn’t waste time being quiet now; he just charged on in there, keeping his pistol drawn – just in case.
I followed, trying to ignore the smell coming off of me. Holy shit was I ever rank.
Tommy made a sharp left, heading out of my line of sight. I turned in after him.
Inside, plush red lounges were set against the outer wall, underneath a long, tinted picture window. On the inner wall to my left were a few low bookcases that only came up to my knee. These were arranged all the way along until the next doorway. Atop the bookcases were assorted china trinkets, little cats and dogs and finely detailed paintings on glazed plates.
At the very far end of the room was a single closed door – a storage cupboard, most likely.
The door wasn’t fully closed, however; it had been pulled almost shut.
Tommy saw it straight away, but even I could tell. How had anyone actually thought this was a good fucking hiding place? I mean, seriously? You try to poison your whole family and hide in the closet?
I had that same sinking feeling once again, and a tight knot of anxiety formed.
There was a lurking suspicion in my guts that I knew exactly what was going on. And it wasn’t good.
I glanced left, seeing family photos arranged along the inner wall, above the china collectables. There were wedding photos, the mother and father flashing their pearly whites at sunset on what appeared to be a clifftop – maybe even a golf course green, judging by the turf underfoot.
Next along were some pictures of the father and two sons, sitting on a log outside of a rustic looking cabin, constructed of weathered oak, splinters and all. The old man had an arm around his little guys. All three were grinning like they’d just ripped a fart.
Next, a series of three smaller photos, close-up shots framed in ornate circular frames.
Two smiling little girls, darling little blue-eyed brunettes like their mother.
Oh please God no.
Tommy reached the end of the room, gun outstretched – and ripped the storage cupboard open with his spare hand.
She was wearing a filthy chequered dress, baby blue and white. Her hair was tied back in cute little pigtails with red silk ribbons. They were loose however, no longer having her mother’s care.
Her skin was pale, and her eyes bloodshot. This one clearly hadn’t slept in days; dark circles under her eyes made that perfectly clear. In one hand was a pale blue comfort blanket, held up so she could chew on one corner.
She couldn’t have been more than five years old.
From the moment Tommy had (rather roughly) grabbed her hand and ripped her from her hiding place between the vacuum, mop and broom, to the backseat of our run-down, piece-of-shit car – the girl never said a word. Her eyes seemed fixed on a faraway place that neither Tommy or I (nor anyone else, for that matter) would ever visit. I don’t think we’d ever want to.
This was shock, if ever I’d seen it.
They say, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ and ain’t it the truth. Trouble is, you always wish before you know better. That’s how they get you. That’s how he gets you.
Matter of fact, that’s how we get you. I try hard to remove myself from what I do, but the truth of the matter is, I’m as bad as the shit around me. There’s no side-stepping that.
And this just takes the cake.
I could see how it all went down. The details would differ from how I imagined, but the initial spark that set things in motion, and the outcome – those two factors would always be the same.
They were the same for every job.
For every wish. For every favour.
Only this time, something was very different. This wasn’t just some poor sod down on his luck, or a suicidal junkie who’d suck shit through ten bricks if it meant he could get a gram.
The fucking Client was a child.
I didn’t know it worked like that, but again – I’m paid not to care.
Apparently, any old fucker could pick up the phone and dial. Maybe the Pleasure Palace card had belonged to her father, her mother, or hell, even a housemaid who’d left that shit lying around for some reason or another. They weren’t supposed to be transferable. But again – I didn’t know for sure. Maybe there were exceptions.
Maybe this little girl had it tough, or maybe she was just mad at her parents for grounding her. Kids don’t have the foresight to be able to see how bad things can get. They haven’t had life hit them hard enough; any old thing can seem like a big deal.
Hell, when you’re five years old – any even remotely negative experience is a fucking tragedy. It’s literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. So you might be tempted to call the number on that business card you found – the one promising to make all your wishes come true.
And then your family was dead, and you were being whisked off into the night by two strange men in a fucking write-off car that smelt of old farts, stale McDonald’s and cigarettes.
I sat in the passenger seat while Tommy fussed about inside the house. I didn’t know what he was up to, but I didn’t really care. Presumably cleaning up the mess, and making it more chronologically appealing. There were angles you could make a situation lean in. Though naturally, there would be complications – there always were.
I had to grind my teeth to stop them from shaking, I was sweating like I’d just run a triathlon through Hell.
I could still feel that horror-show tingling, like the air was somehow dry and electric; all moisture just vaporised. The radio in the front of the car was feeding back; the speakers seemed to pick up a faint haze of warbling white noise.
The fucking thing was turned off, but it still picked up that pervasive signal.
I leaned in and turned it on. Immediately, the volume exploded to life – an avalanche of static so loud it seemed to rip right through me. I spun the volume dial all the way to the left, my heart pounding in my chest. I hoped like fuck Tommy hadn’t heard anything from the house. Surely it hadn’t been that loud.
I turned to the back seat, where the young girl was sitting, buckled up in the middle seat with her blanket in her lap. She was still gnawing nervously on one corner. Her eyes looked through me – like a deer in the headlights right before it goes under a semi.
Everything seemed in order.
I turned my attention back to the radio.
Turning the volume ever so slightly up, the static wash came on hard and strong, even at such dim volume. I knew the car would contain it though. You’d need to be really thumping it for white noise to become a noise complaint.
Fiddling with the tuner, I started to pick up voices, whispering in the static. It sounded like garbled foreign languages, but the way each sentence was structured made me feel like I was hearing English. It was surreal. I kept turning the dial, trying to clear up whatever I was hearing, but I soon came across a talkback radio station.
“...you see, Jerry, it wasn’t just the Turkish Nationalist Movement – we’re talking about a total global shift on the ownership of the Ottoman empire, following the backlash of World War One. The collective social attitudes were all changing...”
I quickly shifted that shit right off. White noise was better.
There were more voices this side of that station as well, and I could swear there was slightly more clarity.
Some words were drowning in a sort of winding up-and-down through the static weave, like travellers on an invisible sea. I imagined tiny shipwrecked sailors flailing for dear life in a raging ocean of static-coloured water. The waves turned and boiled and pushed each voice under.
I didn’t expect to actually find a core frequency that focused in on these voices. I was fairly certain this was an ‘in-between’ phenomenon.
There was a word for them. A word that sounded flowery and elegant.
Naturally, I can’t remember it.
I’d started to notice, a few jobs back, whenever things got even a little bit weird. I’d begun to pick up on the clues. It was probably nothing at all to Tommy, or if he did notice, he didn’t seem to care. I often wondered how a guy like Tommy got through life – just head down, don’t ask questions, don’t even waste the brainpower to think of the questions.
I didn’t know how he did it.
I guess it was a problem that came from actually having a conscience.
Despite all my own bullshit and hang-ups, deep down, I wasn’t really cut out for this shit. But I wasn’t much good at anything else, either.
And like I said, I was all in – there was no turning back. With a pang of guilt, I realized how lucky I was that I hadn’t picked up the phone when I was five.
It wasn’t fair; she had her whole life ahead of her. She could have gone on to be a doctor, or a famous writer, or just done something good with her life. Some charity work, some missionary work, handing out Bibles in the Congo.
Now, any chances she had at a life were gone.
Bought and paid for, by The Magician.
It started to rain once we’d left the city limits.
We’d taken various back roads through industrial estates, full of worn-down warehouses and fibreglass plants, lumber yards, steel wholesalers, you name it.
All of it passed by without a word of notice. Each street light cast an aura into the rain, like a shining beacon of amber. The bitumen shone like a thin river, while the flooding gutter drains gulped down soggy leaf litter and tossed cigarette butts.
When the streets finally dissolved into a more remote highway, we discovered that not only were we the only car on the road – but that the highway didn’t even have the luxury of reflectors along its edge. Most modern roads had taken to using reflective paint, too, so that even if those little reflective light thingies were scuffed or broken, your headlights would still give you a fairly vivid outline of where the fuck you were actually going.
But this was an old road.
The lines were done in plain old white paint.
No reflectors, no streetlights, no fancy paint – and then you add the rain into the equation. Visibility was practically zero.
Tommy was cruising at a steady sixty, not daring to push it.
None of us had said a word since leaving the house. Tommy had just started the car up and gunned it. I presumed we were going to Pleasure Palace. I hated that place.
I think everyone did. The title was ironic. The whole fucking thing was ironic, and not in a good way.
The wipers squealed every time they scrubbed water from the windshield. Their thumping robot rhythm was the only thing I could focus on. The outside world was a wall of darkness, sparkling with rain. Our headlights cut through it, only showing a small palette of slick roadway, peeling off into more unknown bushland. The trees to either side of the road crowded in – their branches arching overhead like twisted fingers.
The radio was dead; I’d killed it completely the moment Tommy had come back to the car, knowing he’d still be pissed at me for fucking up the assignment, and likely looking for any excuse to blow my brains out. He wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be allowed to – not yet, anyhow. But that wouldn’t necessarily stop him. We’d have to finish the job before any decision was made on that. It could very likely still happen.
I tried not to think about it.
What bothered me was the voices. The noises I’d heard on the radio.
Curiosity – that was what would get me in the end, I was sure of it.
I was too fucking curious.
Tommy, he wasn’t curious. He wasn’t a thinker. He was a doer.
I was trying to remember if any of the sounds I’d heard resembled words, or if I was even remembering the noises properly, when the girl in the back of the car suddenly spoke.
“I’m never going home again, am I?”
Her voice was hollow, and yet you could tell, if things had been under more pleasant circumstances, she would have been a real sweetie. It had that real ‘bubble-gum kid’ sort of vibe – a high-pitched innocence.
I turned to face her, and her eyes seemed wider and rounder than before. She didn’t look at me, but through me – just staring ahead into the lashing rain.
I didn’t know what to say. I slowly turned back to face the front. I felt so empty.
Tommy didn’t even glance in the rearview. He just kept his eyes on the road. I couldn’t just let it go. I knew he’d get pissy about it, but I had to say something. I turned back to face her again.
“You’re going to meet the man you called on the phone.”
“He sounded sick. Is he sick?”
A shiver wriggled through me. I didn’t want to remember his voice. It was the stuff of fucking nightmares.
“No, he’s not sick. He’s just – not like regular people.”
Tommy’s face had twisted into a sneer; he snorted a laugh. Some dark part of me hated him then. Even though I knew I was in his debt. I didn’t care. I fucking hated him.
“How come?” she asked.
Her attention was now fixed on me, and I felt a little better. Her eyes no longer had that glossy, no-one-home thing going on. I knew what she’d got herself into was beyond fucked up, and if I could make things even just a little bit better, I would.
I had no obligation to; I had no real reason to.
But fuck, she was just a kid.
Something about that just really got me. I couldn’t just let it go.
I didn’t remember much about my own childhood, except that it was miserable. Maybe it was my mind’s way of protecting me or some shit? I don’t know.
And yet, here was another childhood – cut short and tossed into the meat grinder of life. She wasn’t going to get a regular life in the hands of The Magician. This might be the last regular conversation she ever had.
With a heavy heart, every minute passing all too quickly – I realised that for the first time since picking up the phone, I honestly didn’t want to finish the job.
“Maybe you can ask him when we get where we’re going.”
She didn’t look satisfied with this answer, and I couldn’t blame her. She ruffled her blanket, scrunching it into a tight ball that she held to her chest in a desperate hug.
Now that I’d gotten her talking, it seemed like I’d invited her trust. It made me nauseous. Her eyes were searching me, looking for a sign that I might hurt her. Maybe what had happened leading up to tonight wasn’t the thing that had wounded her – but the culmination of something that had been building for some time.
Shit, I’m sure I often made the bold statement that I wanted my parents dead. You say all sorts of crazy shit when you’re five. Nowadays, of course, I can’t even remember them – so I guess I got my wish.
“My sister and the boys were always so mean to me. I didn’t want them to be mean to me anymore, and take away the keys for the dollhouse Mama has from when she was a little girl.”
I listened, careful not to let my breaking heart show. Hearing a five-year-old try to justify something this big was not on my bucket list.
“Mama always locked me in my room, every day. I didn’t like that. Dad never spoke to me. Mama said it was because I was the problem child. The mistake.”
I swallowed a lump in my throat and turned back to the front.
“I’m glad they’re dead,” her voice seemed to cut through the storm. For as long as I live, I’ll probably never forget those words.
The rain hammered down. The windscreen wipers churned away.
It appeared without much warning.
Once again, I had no idea how Tommy knew what to look for – or why. It was just protocol, seemingly hardwired.
Maybe it was.
Shit, I’d seen weirder things. Wouldn’t surprise me to find out Tommy had a map of all the ways into Pleasure Palace tattooed on the surface of his brain.
He slowed the car, coming to a crunching halt in the gravel beside the road.
It was an old, run-down, country church – painted hallelujah-white. Everything was stained with silt and black mould. The paint had peeled off in places. The steeple was at the far end, crowded in by the noisy canopy of surrounding gumtrees. The windows were boarded from the inside, and barred on the outside with security rails. These were well rusted, as ancient as the rest of the place. Tangled thickets of blackberry and lantana had curled around it like floral razor-wire or leg-snares.
The entire place seemed on a lean slightly to the right. The arched double doors (also painted a peeling white) sat at the top of a short flight of crumbling concrete steps. The doors were just about the only thing untouched by the elements; and even they hadn’t been left entirely unmarked. A large black ‘X’ had been spray-painted across them.
A condemned church. How poetic.
Tommy put the park break on and got out of the car without a word. I watched him stride through the rain, stepping under the leaky tin awning above the arched entrance. He began ripping some old rotting boards out of the way, and pulling free some lantana that had covered the stairs.
I didn’t want to linger for too long, but curiosity had me. I turned to our young friend in the back.
“What’s your name?”
“Lily. My Mama called me Lillian, but I like Lily better.”
“Lily is better,” I agreed. I gave her a cautious smile. She didn’t exactly return the gesture, but she wasn’t holding her blanket quite so tight. In what was to come, I hoped like hell she could find some peace.
But I knew the idea was bullshit.
“My name is Mike. We might not be seeing each other again after today, but I hope we can still be friends.”
Lily looked quizzical, her little brow furrowed in thought.
“How come we can’t?”
“We just can’t, Lily. The man on the phone won’t let us.”
“It’s not up to me...”
I stopped, wondering if it was worth the trouble. I was digging myself a hole here. The more I talked, the more I’d open a can of worms that couldn’t be put back. But that fucking lingering urge remained. This wasn’t just another job, another package to be delivered or another mysterious object of interest. This was a human being.
“Listen, I gotta go help my buddy open up this old church. You stay here, okay?”
Lily didn’t respond; she just bit down on the corner of her blanket again. I opened the passenger side door and was immediately drenched with rain.
I slammed the car door behind me and bolted through the muddy gravel, which was quickly turning to a boot-snatching slurry.
Tommy was beside the double doors, peeling away some strangling vines. I stepped under the awning, taking a break from the rain, and shook my coat a little, trying to get as much of it off of me as possible.
“Glad you finally decided to lend a hand,” Tommy said slowly.
I watched him reach into a pocket of his vest and withdraw a ring of old keys. Without hesitation, he selected one and jammed it into the weathered lock, flecked with fiery orange spots of rust.
The tumblers clanked loud enough to hear even over the rain drumming on the tin. The doors swung open, spilling the ancient stench of old mothballs, dust, and hardwood left to swell and rot at the mercy of the elements.
There were pews arranged to either side of the central aisle, which was filled with a carpet of dust and assorted scraps of paper. On second glance, I realized they were wafer-thin pages from old scattered Bibles. Beyond that, the place was pitch black.
“Shit.” Tommy swore, and quickly headed back into the rain. Rounding our beaten-up sedan, he popped open the boot and pulled out a pair of waterproof flashlights, the long black kind you saw police using in movies.
I didn’t think we’d packed anything in the back of the car. I was glad to be wrong.
Tommy clomped back up the steps, now fully soaked and looking quite miserable – his moustache and hair clumped together, sticking to his face. He handed me my flashlight and stepped over the threshold.
With a twist, Tommy turned the flashlight on, and began to make his way deeper into the church.
Chewed-up hymn books and rat shit decorated the pews. I could smell something dead in the rafters. After a few steps, Tommy stopped and turned to face me.
“Bring the girl.”
I nodded quickly, not wanting to have his attention for too long. I was still on his shit list. I’d still have to wait and see on that one.
Returning to the rain, I lifted up the collar of my jacket and dragged it over my head, trying to keep myself at least somewhat protected. I jogged to the car, my flashlight beam wagging side-to-side.
I opened the back door, and found Lily waiting patiently.
“We have to go inside here. There’s a secret place.”
Again, there was no response. She just unbuckled her belt and shuffled over from the middle seat, slipping out into the mud. She wasn’t wearing any shoes. I felt it was a dick move for Tommy to not even think to grab her some if he’d known we were headed out to such a remote place. But then, clearly, he hadn’t the heart to care.
I grabbed her hand, slamming the car door behind her. We squelched through the muddied gravel, and I had to lift her over the blackberry bushes. She was so small, so frail.
Oh God, what the hell am I doing?
I set her down on the old, weathered boards under the awning. She wiped off the mud on the edge of the top step.
“Hurry up – let’s get moving,” Tommy hollered from inside.
I didn’t want to keep him waiting.
Gently, I pulled on Lily’s hand and guided her inside the old church. We walked down the aisle, the rain pounding down on the old tin. The musty air was choking and ripe.
At the far end, upon a raised circular dais, there was an access hatch just in front of the altar proper. Tommy had made a beeline for it, and was in the process of slipping the latch. There was an old padlock, but once again – after a brief appearance of Tommy’s keyring – the lock was open.
He peeled aside the hatch, revealing – to my great surprise – a sudden wash of yellow, flickering light. It was an extremely eerie sight. An old, bare-bones wooden ladder led down into a basement of sorts. I couldn’t really make out any details from where I was standing, roughly halfway down the aisle.
I had a brief moment where I realised I could escape. The door was open, Tommy was busy. We could just run like fuck into the night. I’d throw Lily in the back and just gun that old fucking sedan right off into the storm, never to be seen again.
Except that last part wasn’t true, was it?
It never was.
You couldn’t run or hide, not from the Magician. Someone would see you, and someone would talk. Resigned to deliver Lily to her fate, I led her down that dreaded aisle.
We reached the edge of the hatch, and I could smell the nauseous tang of rat poison mixed with some other kind of strange chemicals. Who knew what was down there? Probably a whole lot of ‘Don’t want to know, so don’t have to ask.’
Tommy stood beside the hatch, but upon our approach he bent down, putting his hands on his knees so he could talk to Lily on her level.
“Hey there, little sugar plum. Gotta head down this here little ladder with Uncle Tommy now. Don’t you be kickin’ up a fuss.”
There was a mad glint in his eye. As far as I knew, that was the first time he’d spoken to her, and it wasn’t a friendly tone. I felt something in my guts start to ferment.
Tommy’s eyes drifted up to lock with mine. They went from glimmering with false charm to oozing malice.
“You stay up here. Keep watch over the front door.”
I knew there was something incredibly, impossibly wrong. The whole fucking thing was impossibly wrong. The look in his eye – I knew that look. I don’t know how, but I did. There was something else on Tommy’s mind right then, other than merely getting the job done.
Fear silenced me. I couldn’t believe what my gut was telling me.
So I tried to ignore it. I tried to reason with it.
I nodded obediently at Tommy’s request, and gave a brief smile to Lily as I turned to go.
“Everything is going to be fine, Lily, I promise.”
I wish I could have chewed out my own filthy lying tongue.
Making my way back up the aisle, I heard the clatter of feet rattling down the ladder behind me. I tried to ignore the terror in my gut, the nauseous, cloying clamp of anxiety. I kept telling myself, surely not. No way. No way!
Surely. She’s just a kid – she’s just a kid goddammit!
But regardless, she was here in this dark, mad world at her own blundering choice. The problem is, you never learn until it’s too late. That’s the problem with every little bargain, every little favour.
I had just made it to the front of the church, pushing one of the double doors aside with my flashlight – when I heard the scream.
Ice filled my chest and stomach. My feet were locked to the floorboards. I kept ungodly still for what felt like long enough to paint my portrait to completion. I was listening for any other sound – any other. But beyond the scream, there was only rain.
Turning back into the building, I stepped forwards – slowly. One foot in front of the other, creaking ever so slightly as each boot came down on antique floorboards. The wind picked up the church door and banged it against its frame, sending a flurry of hymnbook pages scattering like startled birds. I edged down towards the flickering light. There were sounds coming from the open hatch now – at first, I couldn’t really make out what I was hearing.
A few steps closer, and I could hear whimpers and heavy breathing echoing off tight walls. I felt sick to my stomach. I stood there, just at the lip of the hatch, in total and utter revulsion. My mind was racing, my heart beating a mile a minute.
You owe Tommy. You can’t go down there.
You don’t owe Tommy that much.
No-one owes Tommy that much.
Hell, no-one owes ANYONE that much.
You HAVE to go down.
If you don’t go down, you’re still probably screwed for what happened at the house. Tommy is going to be pissed either way.
Just fucking go.
I don’t want to see what’s down there. I don’t want to.
What about Lily – do you think she wants to?
That did it.
I snapped into action. Not bothered with the ladder, I stepped onto the first rung and then pivoted down in through the hatch, leaping straight down onto a bare earth floor. I landed on hard-packed mud that sent a shiver of pain through my shins.
I looked up from the earthen floor to see a roughly hewn basement, with stark, age-mottled concrete walls, decorated with dusty cobwebs.
The room was lit by dozens of thick candles that had been set down into the mud of the floor and drooled white wax around themselves in little volcanoes.
The centrepiece of horror, and most prominent item of interest in the basement, was the rotting couch in the middle of the room – that was where my attention was drawn. I guess it served as a kind of waiting room. Ordinarily.
But not today.
Lily was pressed face-first into the mouldy brown cushions, almost suffocated by a gloved hand on her back.
Her pale little legs were hanging over the edge of the couch, her dress lifted up, exposing her tiny cotton panties. Tommy was positioned between her little legs. He had his trousers and jocks down around his ankles, his stiff cock poised just shy of her tender little thighs. His hairy arse was clenched tight in anticipation.
He snapped up, seeing me and skipping any pretence of normality.
“WHAT THE FUCK DID I TELL YOU?”
That was when I noticed what he held in his other hand – the pistol. He had it aimed at the back of Lily’s head, pushing her deeper into the couch with the cold, silenced barrel. His hair hung off his face in mad, curly strings, giving him the look of a cornered rat, sneering and barring its teeth. Even his moustache; turned from a silver handlebar into a sagging reed of drain hair.
Lily moaned into the lounge, obviously hearing what was happening – and dreading the outcome.
I didn’t blame her.
Once again, I was frozen, stopped in my tracks just a step out from the ladder. I hadn’t a plan – this was just all reactionary.
“Tommy she’s a kid. That is a five-year-old girl.” I stated this last part slowly and firmly, as though explaining it might somehow make a difference. As though trying to make him come to some pivotal realization. But there was none to be had; he’d known going in exactly what he was doing. Guilt wasn’t something he wasted time on.
Instead he looked incredulous. He turned the gun on me.
“I SAID TO WAIT UPSTAIRS! GET THE FUCK BACK UP THERE!”
Lily hadn’t dared to move; he still pressed her down with his other hand, leaning over her with knobbly knees bent and at the ready. He had to crane around to aim at me, since I was behind him a little. But he managed.
For one thing, he was literally caught with his pants down. He wouldn’t be able to get around too fast if his first shot missed...but if it didn’t? Well, if it didn’t – that would be all she wrote.
I decided to try a new angle.
“Tommy, I’m telling you – the boss won’t be too happy if he finds out about this.”
“HE DOESN’T HAVE TO KNOW SHIT, BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TELL HIM.”
“You and I both know it won’t matter if I talk or not – do you really think she won’t?”
I gestured at Lily. He stopped for a moment, the mad glint in his eyes fading. His cock had started to deflate. I’d taken him well out of the mood, which was very much a good thing for Lily, but a fucking terrible thing for me.
When he was on his game, Tommy was a darkly calculating man. Incredibly so. I watched him stand up, straightening as best he could with pants still down around his ankles. It should have been comedic, but it was anything but. He turned to face me. Even without his hand, Lily didn’t dare move except to turn her head for a breath of fresh air. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy from crying. She looked directly at me. And that horrible, awful lie reflected right back at me.
What had you told her? Everything will be fine. Tommy held the gun casually, but his face had that familiar, business-like coldness. When he spoke next, his voice was eerily level. Drained of any emotion.
“You have to the count of ten to get back upstairs, or I’m going to shoot you. Then I’m going to shoot her.”
“Have you lost your fucking mind, Tommy?”
He didn’t respond; he just gave me one his trademark thousand-yard looks.
Incredibly – just to add more to this already entirely fucked-up situation – a phone started to ring. I looked past Tommy, suddenly aware of what lay at the far end of the room.
I spotted an unassuming white four-panel door, built into the centre of the concrete wall, with a shining diamond of glass for a doorknob. To the right of this, on an antique wooden pedestal, was another shiny black rotary telephone. As with all our hardlinks, there were no connecting power cables or signal wires. Something about that gave me the creeps.
Tommy didn’t look at it; he didn’t move except to smirk knowingly.
“We have to answer that, Tommy – you know we do.”
He shrugged. And started counting.
I looked down at Lily. Her cheeks were flushed and rosy red, stained by streaks of tears.
If I turned around, I could almost guarantee Tommy would keep counting as I made my way up the ladder.
It would take about four seconds to get up the ladder completely. The phone was still fucking ringing. It kept going, again and again.
I’d passed the point of no return; I couldn’t make it now, even if I wanted to.
Lily moved. She rolled over onto her back and launched a swift kick straight for Tommy’s balls.
In a perfect world, she would have landed a magnificent blow and sent Tommy to his knees. But alas, she’d missed – and only clapped the side of his thigh with her dirty little foot.
He barely staggered, but his attention was off me for just a second – he turned to see what she was up to. I moved in, crossing the gap in a heartbeat, and tackled Tommy, reaching for the gun.
I connected with him and felt what was left of his erection jab into my hip. We tumbled over the arm of the couch and into the mud, crushing several candles as we went.
The phone kept ringing.
I heard Tommy yelp as a candle burnt his bare arse. The look of pain in his eyes was somehow even more frightening than his trademark numb. He brought the butt of the gun down on my shoulder, really digging into the meat. The next blow connected with the back of my skull. I roared, staggered by blinding white pain.
Tommy hammered down a third time before I managed to wrestle his hands from around me and pin them beside him. I head-butted his nose, splattering it. Blood exploded from his nostrils with a chicken-bone crack. His eyes went wide with pain and shock. I’d never seen such an expression on his face.
It was surreal.
I didn’t let it stop me, though, and went further – I moved one hand down to choke him, pinning him by the neck. With my other hand I grabbed the tightly squeezed fist gripping the handle of the gun, and managed to slip the weapon from between his rain-slick fingers.
All his effort was focused on trying to pry me off of his throat.
His face was puffed-up and red; I could see veins standing out on his temples and the tendons of his neck straining hard.
With the gun in my hand, I released my grip on his throat and tried to stand, feeling the fight was over.
Tommy held one hand to his nose, but the other was forming a fist.
He wasn’t done. His face twisted into a cruel snarl. He locked his legs around mine and twisted them to the side, throwing me off balance. I was totally unprepared.
I flew sideways. My head connected with the hardpan inches shy of the doorway at the far end. I felt all the wind squeeze from my lungs. I tried in vain to suck in something, anything – but only gasped like a fish on land.
Tommy, spying an opportunity, reached down to lift his mud-smeared trousers back up. I watched him get up, stuffing his shirt rudely back down into the waistband of his trousers.
I tried to move – but I was too slow. I got onto my back and lifted up the gun, just in time for Tommy to pluck it smoothly from my grip. I tried to sit up – still not able to get any air, but trying nonetheless.
With a swift and vicious kick – as though my face were a soccer ball and he was the key striker in a world cup game – he sent me straight back to the floor.
I crunched two teeth apart as my jaw locked. I landed right on the sore spot at the back of my head where he’d slammed me with the pistol butt, and it sent a new flare of agony right through me. My eyes began to water, blurring my vision.
I heard the gun go off. Pain, brilliant and sharp – ripped through my left thigh. I felt the bullet clip the bone, and exhaled a breathless croak. On reflex, I sat up. Tommy’s knee put me straight back down. He hit me in the forehead, almost square on.
I went back to the ground, gasping, feeling my cheeks flushing hot in my struggle to breathe.
He shot me again, this time in the kneecap of my right leg. I watched the flash of gunfire; I heard Lily scream.
My knee seemed to fill with fire. The nerve beneath the wound was molten, glowing with a pain so fierce it seemed alive. I drew in my first wheezing breath and spent it screaming.
He aimed the gun at my face.
That moment seemed to stretch out for an eternity.
He held it there, relishing that complete control.
“I could kill you right here and right now, Mike. And God knows I want to. I said I’d shoot you. Not that I’d kill you. You don’t get off that easy. I just wanted to take a little bit for myself. She would have grown up a dumb slut, anyway – they all do! Just like that worthless zipper whore... just like –”
He leaned in and stepped on my shattered knee. I screamed anew.
“You listening to me, Mike? Huh?”
“YES, PLEASE GOD! STOP! STOP!” I was screaming, my throat red raw. I tasted blood.
With a satisfied smile, he nodded.
He tucked the pistol back into the waistband of his jeans.
The phone was still ringing.
“Don’t you forget all that I’ve done for you, Mikey boy, all the favours you got that you never should have.”
Tommy stepped to my left, circling casually around me and lifting up the receiver. His bloody nose was turning his moustache a burning red. Mud and blood were smeared all over his once-neat trousers and vest. Dirt and chunks of clay were caught in his hair. He looked utterly ragged. But he was resilient – too resilient. After that broken nose, he’d just stood right the fuck back up.
I didn’t have a hope in hell up against him in a square fight. I should have known that going in.
As Tommy listened to the voice on the phone, I heard Lily crying, her voice shaking and wavering. That was real terror. What did I know about that kind of fear? What did anyone?
I coughed up fragments of tooth, spitting them in the dirt beside me. Just now, the whole nerve of my lower jaw was starting to throb. The knee, thigh and jaw pulsed in time with my heartbeat – alternating between incredible pain and even more incredible pain. Each throb made me dizzy; the support beams running across the ceiling of the basement seemed to grow and shrink, my vision distorting.
I looked over at Tommy. I think I started to slip from consciousness. My recollection is fuzzy.
I saw darkness.
Then I saw them standing in front of me, Lily holding Tommy’s hand. They stood like a freshly married couple, looming large in front of me – awash in intense red light blasting in from beyond the doorway. It was positioned behind me. I couldn’t see what the source of the light was, or what else lay beyond the doorway.
Tommy stood, muddied and bleeding. Lily was completely zoned out – her expression a portrait of perfect misery. Her eyes were downcast – her body limp as Tommy dragged her along.
The two stepped over me, going by me on either side.
That is all I can remember. They were gone. Through the doorway and into the light.