Rick Markus first heard of the black market from Dennis, talking and drinking in his stained apartment. Dennis had recently gone kamikaze skydiving, and Rick had wasted no time in contacting him to get hold of the memory. There were few people willing to sell something so dangerously acquired: Kamikaze skydiving was the sport, if you could call it that, of throwing your parachute out of the plane before you jumped. ‘Hey, just gimme like a month to savour it, okay?’ Dennis said, but ten days later here he was, and his terrifying memory was in Rick’s head, waiting to be savoured. Dennis’s drug habit was the best thing that ever happened to Rick.
‘There’s a black market for this stuff?’ Rick said, taking a burning sip of scotch and turning down the music, some dark rap Dennis always insisted on playing – Kid Cudi or someone.
‘Hell yeah, man. There’s a black market for everything. You’ll end up there one way or another, believe me. Seriously, I don’t think I could handle anything more extreme than kamikaze skydiving. You’re gonna have to go someplace else if you want more.’
‘Why, what do they have on the black market that’s so hard core? How could memories be illegal?’
‘Think about it.’ Dennis sat up in his moth eaten couch and started rolling a joint with shaking hands. His skeletal fingers were always shaking, as though a lifetime of extreme sports had given him a never ending adrenaline rush. ‘A guy kills someone or rapes someone, then sells his memory on the market. When the cops come looking, he can’t give details, can’t even confess, and he passes a lie detector because he doesn’t even know he did anything. Just has this big blank spot in his memory. There’s a kicker, too. Whenever these guys sell, they also sell the memory of whoever their last customer was, as part of the deal, a free bonus. So even if the law does catch him, he can’t tell them who he sold the memory to. Wild, huh?’
Rick set his scotch glass down and made a sour face. ‘Why the hell would I want a memory of killing someone?’
‘Don’t knock it ‘till you try it. I met a guy who did it once, bought a rape murder? He said he lived it over in his head on the daily. Couldn’t get enough, the thrill never lost its edge, you know?’
‘Ugh. He liked it? That’s sick.’
‘Hey, maybe that’s not for you. But you can do other stuff, too. You can rob houses, do big scale heists, experience a riot. And plenty of stunts you couldn’t get from me, either. One dude makes cash climbing up on these skyscrapers and hanging off the edge, no parachute. Or guys who’ve gone poaching deadly animals in Africa and got mauled.’
‘Why would I want to get mauled?’
‘Nah, man, you don’t get it. Pain doesn’t translate well in memories, but fear does. You get all the heart beat without the hospital bill. It’s nuts.’ Dennis finally completed the joint and lit it, leaning back with a sigh. His greasy shoulder length hair soaked the smoke, making him smell permanently of weed.
‘If you say so. Where is this mysterious black market, anyway?’ Without waiting for him to answer, Rick closed his eyes and logged onto Mindnet to do a quick search. A bunch of blogs and newspapers came up, and he scrolled them as Dennis spoke, confirming everything about it except how to actually access it.
‘The black market is more about people than places. In the middle of the city, you find the right people and you ask them where to go. Each guy leads you to a different guy selling different stuff, but you gotta go through like three dudes before you even get anything serious. There’s some really messed up memories, but if you find the right people you can get hold of amazing ones. So I’m told. I never been there, myself.’
Rick logged out of Mnet and thought about what it would be like to have the memory of murdering someone. No guilt, because you knew it wasn’t really you, and it would sure be a rush. A sick rush, probably, but something not many people had. Besides, as far as legal memories went, he’d collected everything he wanted. Spending eighty hours a week as an advertising executive afforded you a lot of neat experiences. When he looked back over his life, he saw supermodels, gold medals, extreme sports and expensive holidays, all lived by other people. He’d seen the bright side of life, but maybe it was time to delve into the darkness. Humanity’s forbidden lives.
He held a mouthful of scotch in his mouth before swallowing, letting it numb his tongue. Then he said, ‘So who do you know?’
Rick looked the part as he walked Central with a black raincoat and unkempt stubble. It always amazed him that the middle of a first world city could look so primitive. Despite the invention of Mnet, the abolition of physical cash, and the disappearance of private transport, the city itself was still a network of dark grey buildings, angry suited mobs, and dumpsters in alleyways.
The guy Dennis had told him about was in one particular alley, between an anonymous factory and a Hammel’s Food Scraper, that forty story monstrosity home to every conceivable meal. It made sense that Rick would find an entrance into a world home to another kind of decadence. As he searched for it, he sang to himself, a strange nervous habit he’d had since he was a kid. ‘Nine, five, six, three, won’t you just remember me?’ It was always the same snatch of a song, but for the life of him he couldn’t find the original source. He supposed he’d go to his death not knowing.
The ‘entrance’ in question was leaning against a dry patch of concrete, hands deep in jacket pockets and the empty eyed look of one who’d sold too many memories. As Rick approached, the guy looked up, revealing an acne scarred face and a cross tattoo on one cheek. He smiled and stepped forward to shake his hand.
‘Hey, you’re him, aren’tcha? Dennis told me what you looked like. What’s your name?’
‘Captain Popeye,’ Rick said. The guy nodded. ‘Okay, good, good, and my name’s Alice. Dennis mentioned you were after a, uh, experience? What kinda thing you lookin for?’
The alleyway was hot and wet and smelled like fried rice and curry. There were no available dry areas, so Rick stood in the drizzle in silence, realising he hadn’t really decided on exactly what he wanted. The man watched him with crinkled blue eyes and a half smile. What had he done in his life that he couldn’t remember? What memories could he not bring himself to sell?
‘I’m looking for a murder,’ Rick said.
It was so much more than he’d expected. Rick was sure it had a lot to do with the state of the killer’s mind. Alice had taken him two blocks down the road and then underground to some bathrooms near the subway. They were hot enough to make Rick sweat and smelled of dirt and sewerage. The killer, a bearded troll twice Rick’s weight with eyes that could freeze lava, had lifted a gold crucifix to his lips and kissed it. Rick learned the depths of his sadism only much later, perusing the memory.
‘I have found God,’ the behemoth explained at the time. ‘It’s time to leave my past behind me for good.’
Why such a past had to be left behind became clear very quickly once Rick lay down on his bed, dimmed the lights, and thought back. It wasn’t the act of murder, though that was gruesome enough – it was the feelings that accompanied it. Christ, what a monster. Rick remembered every moment as clearly as yesterday. Good quality.
A dying house on a sunlit winter day. A familiar place – home to him for many years, and home to the parents who’d locked him away in a windowless room and let him starve, who’d extinguished cigarettes on his arms and fed him dogfood. Rick clutched a hammer in one enormous hand and strode up the cracked driveway, not bothering to check for witnesses. Get away, get convicted – it made no difference. They were inside, and he would have revenge. His heart pumped with the delicious anticipation of theme park goers on a roller coaster just before take-off.
Of the three hours that followed, Rick had received every minute he’d paid for, down to the tiniest detail. The man in the subway would have nothing left to recall but black space. God, what a rush. It began with kneecapping, and then Rick broke the two of them piece by screaming piece. Every joint shattered and twisted, every bone broken or fractured, every brown tooth knocked from bloody gums.
Rick could never have committed such carnage, but in the immense body of the man who’d called himself ‘Tigger’, he not only did it all, he loved it. The screams were sweet music to his ears. The memory was one of justice being done, and sweet satisfaction accompanied every injury perpetrated on the victims, along with the intoxicating joy of destruction inherent in violent men.
When he’d gone over every part of it – a meditative process that took nearly three hours by itself – Rick sat up in the sweat drenched bed with tears in his eyes. He massaged his forehead with cold hands and laughed aloud in the dark room. ‘Oh, man, that was wild.’
Rarely had he come across another person’s memory that was so clear and so full of strong emotions. He splashed water on his face and stared into the bathroom mirror for a long time. Just a lawyer, a nice guy. Played with toys as a kid, loving family, successful adult life. Friends, occasional girlfriends, a penchant for other people’s memories and apparently a total adrenaline junky. But not a six foot five ex-inmate with a crucifix necklace.
‘You are not a murderer,’ he told himself, reassured by the sound of his high, cultured voice. ‘You are not a murderer.’ Then he smiled.
‘But you gotta get some more of these bad boys.’
The sicker, the darker, the better. He couldn’t get enough. The only rule was that the men who’d committed the crimes had enjoyed them. Through their eyes and minds he experienced a whole world of horrors in ways he didn’t think possible. Alice became his guide, connecting him with a community of sick bastards, many of whom committed the acts solely to sell them. And sell them they did – Rick was the best customer any of them ever met.
The day he met his first serial killer – Max the Mouth – Rick knew he was becoming warped by the memories he’d accumulated. They weren’t like the extreme sports Dennis had given him. These intruded when he was at work, forcing their way into his consciousness the moment he allowed himself a daydream. Sometimes he’d blink and twenty minutes had passed him by, and the document on his desk was spotted with icy sweat. A receptionist would greet him with a smile, and he’d make a light hearted joke while inwardly he was imagining in perfect detail what it would be like to rape and strangle her; he already had so many such memories, would it be any different if he did it for real?
But warped or not, Rick had morals, and as far as he was concerned the memories would always be enough to satisfy whatever tastes he might develop. Max the Mouth was the first appointment that cast doubt on this notion.
Max lived in a penthouse apartment in Central. He was doing very well for himself considering he’d spent the previous twenty years raping, slaughtering and then cannibalising prostitutes. Like Dennis, he would do the deed, savour it for a month or two, and then sell it on. Alice told him all about it on their walk uptown, munching on a rat dog he’d picked up at a shady stall along Hyde Street.
‘He makes big bucks, this guy. Made a business out of it. Real professional. Has a kill room in a warehouse somewhere.’ He took a bite of the dog and ignored the juice that streamed down his chin, kept talking. ‘Does all kinds of horrible shit. Then he eats them. Plus, he has this technique, he meditates for like an hour every morning to train his mind so when it goes down he really takes it in, right? It’s called mindfulness. You got the money, it’s the best you’ll get anywhere.’
The receptionist, a petite blonde with more makeup than skin, buzzed them up. Having finished the rat dog, Alice finally wiped his chin and then ran his fingers through greasy hair, shifting on his feet. He gave Rick a sideways grin, but Rick wasn’t fooled.
‘Are you nervous?’
‘Naaaaaaaah. Well, maybe a little.’
‘Jesus. I’ve never seen you nervous before, not even with that cage fighter in Gatesborough.’ One scary guy, that cage fighter, but the memories had been pure gold. He’d sold Rick ten fights – victories of course, since the losers were all dead – and after recalling them blow by blow a few times he’d developed cocaine-high levels of confidence.
‘Hey, I’m not used to this level, alright? If we were in the business of drugs instead of memories, I would be a crack dealer and Max the Mouth would be the goddamn godfather.’
‘It’ll be fine. He’s a businessman. I can pay what he wants, he’ll make sure I’m a return customer.’
And he was right about that, but while Max was a very able businessman, he’d also created that business around torturing and consuming human beings, and that kind of man was never going to have all his eggs in one basket. That was clear from the second he opened the door and welcomed the two of them in with a wide smile. Oh, so that’s why they call him The Mouth.
Big lips, wide smile, painfully white teeth filed to perfect points. He was bald and clean shaven and each expression he made caused every centimetre of rosy skin on his head to move. He held the door open for them and gestured for them to enter. He wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a single gold chain around a thick neck.
‘Rabbit and Alice, isn’t it? Come in, then.’ They entered and Max led them through an apartment like a spaceship: white surfaces, silver edges, minimalist. A table and chairs sat on a wooden deck outside, looking out over a colourful Japanese garden complete with a running stream, and beyond that the vast smog-drowned city.
A rare steak and mashed potato steamed on a plate, and Max sat down in front of it with his back to the garden, rubbing his hands. ‘Sorry, hope you don’t mind. I’d just finished making this when you arrived.’ He had an English accent – the kind with a conspicuous lack of Ts. Michael Caine came to mind.
‘Course, yeah, no problem,’ Alice said, shrugging at Rick. They pulled out chairs and sat opposite. Steak and Potatoes for breakfast? Sure, why not?
Max paused a second before cutting into the beef, squinting at Rick. ‘Have we met before, young Rabbit?’
‘I, uh, I think I would remember that,’ Rick said.
‘I suppose you would.’ He shrugged and cut a hefty chunk of meat, blood leaking in a moat around the mashed potatoes.
‘Anyway. Best get to business, yeah? Alice tells me you want a few of the good quality, eh, recollections?’
‘The best you got. Say, five?’
‘I don’t have five, I’m afraid. Not for you, anyway. Contrary to popular belief, it ain’t that easy to make these things.’
‘No problem. How many do you have?’
‘Three. But I don’t know you that well, so you can have one.’ His jaws made short juicy work of the first mouthful and he followed it with another, not pausing for breath. He had the thick biceps of a bodybuilder. Lots of protein. Rick decided not to stay longer than he needed.
‘Fine by me. If it’s good, I’ll be back.’
‘Ahhh, mate.’ He swallowed and looked up from his plate, shark’s teeth gleaming. ‘Don’t you worry about that my friend. They’re aaaaallll good.’
Never had Rick been so glad to arrive home safe. From the moment he’d seen that smile, he’d known he was truly in the company of an animal. Were it not for the money in his pocket and the promise of future business, Max the Mouth would have pulled him across the table and bitten his neck open. None of them had had any doubt who were the deer and who was the lion, and as soon as he’d showered and calmed himself, Rick found he was looking forward to feeling that kind of power very much.
He’d planned to leave it until the following night after work, but midnight came and went and he could not sleep. The fresh memory was settled in the back of his brain, waiting to be called upon. As he drifted, it flashed across his mind’s eye and his heart revved him awake again. He thought of the transferral machine Max had used – a state of the art piece of technology with about a hundred sensors more than any other Rick had encountered; he was used to tangled wires and dusty helmets. Imagine the clarity.
Nothing for it. He sank back into his pillow with his eyes closed and let it wash over him, a river the size of the amazon, polluted, corrupted.
Rick had believed himself to be beyond horror. He was wrong.
The memory began with the girl, so close he could see the cracks in her screaming lips. Rick leaned in and took an enormous bite out of her face with a cavernous mouth, chewing it inches away from her. The image was so intense, complete with the rusty smell of fresh blood, that Rick pulled out mid recall and barely made it to the bathroom before he vomited.
He held off for a day, his insides squirming whenever he thought of her missing cheek and shredded tongue. Oh God, it was so rich. Max experienced life on another level. The taste of her lingered in Rick’s mouth for the rest of the day. He gathered himself before the next attempt, and it was a ride, alright, the sickest he’d had yet – but at the end of it, something was different. He didn’t notice at first because once the girl was dead and Max performed an elaborate bow in front of a mirror there was no reason to keep remembering. He took a shower, let the high ebb, poured himself a drink. It’d been an expensive memory, but worth it.
When the glass was half empty and his mind wandered over his past – or rather the past he’d bought and paid for – it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen everything. There was more to the memory Max had given him, an extra minute or two.
He ran through until he reached the part where Max had left the corpse in pieces on his kill room floor and bowed for Rick’s benefit. Everything grew fuzzy here, and Rick realised that this part hadn’t really happened at all. It was an imagined event, something Max must have added on at the last second, perhaps even while they’d been transferring. In the imagination, he straightened from the bow, scowled into the mirror, and spoke.
‘Sorry to intrude on you like this. I hope you enjoyed the show as much as I enjoyed making it. I didn’t want to say anything while you were here, because I know all about your friend, Alice. I got a call about you today. Someone tracked you down once they heard you were buying from me. I’m not happy about this, believe me, but I’ll let it go because you’re a high paying customer. Still, the next time anyone tries to use me as a messenger, mate, I’ll have you for my next meal.’ He smiled, the lower half of his face smeared with blood and not a trace of humour in his eyes.
‘Anyway. Here’s the message: 459 April Avenue, Haverbrook. I’ve got the memories you’re looking for. Don’t tell Alice, he’s a rat.’
‘So there you go. No hard feelings, Rick, I’m sure you didn’t know. Feel free to come back when you get hungry again.’ He winked. As hard as Rick searched, he couldn’t find anything else. As far as he could remember, that was when he’d blinked awake on the transferral chair.
Rick came back to the present with a sourness in his belly and a bitter taste on his tongue. He finished his glass of scotch and regarded his pale reflection in the dark glass of his television set.
Quitting had been on his mind for some time, and after that scare, Rick gave it the best he had. Three days after he’d purchased the memory from Max the Mouth, he was browsing Mnet and came across Alice’s scowling face, featured in a recent news article titled: Another missing during Central’s worst crime wave.He didn’t read it.
Fear was enough to keep him away from the Black Market. And after all, he had his memories. He’d always been in such a hurry to collect new ones, he’d never taken the time to peruse the ones he already had. Extreme sports, women, drugs, and of course the best ones: the murders and gun fights and even some war memories he’d bought from a homeless veteran.
But like an alcoholic with a swollen liver, he had a tolerance for thrills that had grown beyond his capacity to enjoy them. It was no longer about the rush. It was about the sickness in a deep place in his heart, the mild nausea, the filling of a hole inside of him that grew larger the more he fed it. His recollections lost their intensity with each viewing. Even Max’s cherished abomination became almost boring with repetition, the same things being done over and over, the same screams, the same blood with the same taste.
He needed freshness.
More importantly, he needed something more.
I’ve got the memories you’re looking for. Who was it? A seller even more extreme than Max the Mouth? The thought gave him chills. Did he even want to meet someone like that? At what was probably a secluded location, without Alice?
Think of that rush, though. And the fact that Max hadn’t eaten the messenger alive was telling, too, considering what he’d probably done to Alice. Max obviously trusted whoever it was, and respected them enough to actually pass on the message.
Rick’s mind turned and turned, but he was not making a decision – he was convincing himself to do what he already knew he was going to do. He was working himself up to it.
Two weeks later, he called in sick and headed for 459 April Avenue, Haverbrook.
So this is the suburbs. Cramped houses and weedy gardens, pot holed asphalt roads winding through hills and valleys, old playgrounds, empty lots and construction sites. A wall of grey cloud cover cast everything in shade, but besides the occasional flurry of drizzle, the rain didn’t fall. The streets were empty.
The house at the end of April Avenue did not look like the home of a successful memory dealer. It was a modest brick construction with a weedy driveway and barred windows. A weathervane in the shape of an owl creaked on the roof. Who had weathervanes anymore? The house must have been built a century ago. Rick idled in the car for twenty minutes, eyeing the place. He checked Mnet three times to make sure he was at the right address.
The door had once been gleaming white, but it hadn’t been painted in a long time and what peeling strips remained were dusty yellow. He was hesitant to use the knocker, a lion’s head so rusty and disused it would crumble in his hand. He knocked three times.
Fuck it. No turning back now. If the guy’s a creep just leave. He can’t be any worse than Max the Mouth. When he heard steps approaching from the other side – uneven clunks, someone limping – he called up everything he had from the cage fighter. He’d broken faces, he’d stomped on heads and watched teeth roll along the floor like marbles. He’d taken blows that would kill normal people. He could handle this.
Two locks clicked and the door swung inwards. A yellow skinned zombie blinked at Rick. He was short, soft and flabby. His unfocused eyes had dark circles around them and his unwashed hair hung in pasty strands from his head. He regarded Rick for a long time, swaying on his feet, and when he spoke Rick smelt the overly sweet stench of bourbon breath. ‘Hey, Rick. You look well.’
‘Who the hell are you?’
The guy smiled, his sparse black teeth a far cry from Max’s hungry grin. ‘What, you don’t remember little old Fred, Rick buddy? Didya sell me off too, you sick fuck?’
The cage fighter fresh in his mind, Rick stepped in, nudging the zombie aside, and looked around. Christ, and he thought Dennis lived rough. No carpets, holes in the walls, dust and spider webs everywhere. The only furniture was cheap and ancient: wooden chairs with cracked legs in the kitchen, a dusty television set and a couch with stained yellow cushions in the living room. An empty hallway stretched the length of the house, and Fred pushed past him and started down it, hands trailing along the walls for balance.
‘Where are you going?’ Rick called after him. Either the guy was crazy or Rick had really done business with him in the past. Possible, he supposed. Maybe he’d bought a bad quality memory and decided to sell it on to this nutcase.
‘I’d like to see you in my office, Rick,’ Fred said without looking around. ‘Be a doll and bring the six pack from the fridge, huh?’ He pushed open a door at the end of the dim hallway and staggered in.
Rick shook his head and went into the kitchen. The smell of mould and yeast choked him and he put a hand over his mouth. What a mess. Empty beer bottles and fast food boxes covered the floor. Cockroaches crawled over pizza crusts and broken glass, and one of the walls had a long brown stain that could have been blood. The only thing in good shape was the unopened six pack of Guinness in the fridge, and Rick immediately peeled the lid from one with his teeth and took a long draft.
‘Where the fuck am I?’ He considered leaving, walking away from this place and the Black Market altogether for good. Maybe he’d take a holiday, meet a girl, make some memories of his own. But they’d never compare.
Then the zombie called out to him in a harsh croak, ‘Riiiiiiiiiiiccccckkkkk,’ before breaking down in a bout of coughing and spluttering. No, he couldn’t leave yet – not until he found out who the hell this guy was and what memories he had. Rick had heard stories of people who sold their whole lives away so they could start fresh, and if anyone needed a fresh start, it was this guy.
He took another long swig of Guinness and snatched the pack off the counter. He headed down to the end of the hall, hesitated in the doorway, and entered.
Fred’s ‘office’ was in fact a transferral room. Two reclining chairs not unlike the kind at a dentists sat back to back, and above each hung a dusty helmet. The wires that connected them to the power point in the far corner were a coiled mess so ancient and tangled that touching it would be enough to fry you into a pile of ashy bones. There was no other furniture in the room, and Fred was lying back on one chair, looking up at the ceiling. He reached out for a bottle, and Rick gave him one and set the rest on the floor beside him.
‘Ahh, that hits the spot. Bourbon helps, you know, with the nightmares, but nothing fills you up like a stout. Meal in a bottle.’
Rick didn’t reply. Soon as he found out what he needed to know, he was gone. Fred really was nuts if he thought Rick was going to get in that goddamn electric chair.
‘So you don’t remember me, huh?’ Fred asked him.
Fred chuckled. ‘Nah, I guess not. You didn’t want anything to do with me once you paid me.’
‘I bought memories off you? Is that what this is? I took your cherished memories and now you’re a broken man and you want ‘em back? Hate to break it to you, Fred, but I don’t have a single memory with you in it. Whatever it was I must’ve sold it on and forgotten. Sorry.’
He finished his stout and tossed it into a corner, ready to go, but then Fred started laughing. ‘No, man. I’m not buying, I’m selling, remember? I got the memories you want? That was the message.’
‘Yeah, well, I don’t wanna buy what you’re selling.’
‘Sure about that? I’ve been watching you for a while, Rick. I got a lot of things you probably didn’t want to give me. You vomited all that shit right into my brain, so I know a lot more about you than you realise. I had to keep an eye on you, see, cos I started to get it pretty quick, you know – I started to understand why you were so fucked up. And I understood something else about you, too. A fresh slate wasn’t going to last with you. You’re just you, Rick, you can’t run away from that.’
‘Hold on a second here,’ Rick said. He got a fresh Guinness, knowing he shouldn’t but doing it anyway, his mind working. ‘I paid you money… and I gave you memories?’
Fred clapped his hands and pointed two fingers at Rick. ‘We have a winner. Yes you did, Rick, and in fact you actually paid me to take your memories away.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense, dumbass. Why would I pay someone to take my memories? There’s a whole Black Market for that shit. There’s only one kind of memory no one’s willing to buy, and those are the boring ones. So what did I give you, a trip to the dentist?’
Fred shook his head, his bloodshot eyes swivelling around. ‘Oh, no Rick. No, no, you’re wrong about that. See, there is one very specific set of memories that couldn’t find a buyer for a long time until I came along. You were desperate by then, offering a lot of money to have that shit taken before the cops zeroed in, but the funny part was, in the whole Black Market full of people buying murders and tortures and all that, no one wanted to touch these babies.’
Rick wanted to believe the guy was crazy, but the longer they spoke the less he truly believed it. But the things he was saying… ‘I’m no criminal. Besides, people buy that stuff all the time, cops or not. It’s too hard to track sold memories and you know it.’
‘Jesus Rick, are you hearing what I’m telling you? You’re so fucked up inside that even the most hard core slaughter fiends didn’t want your life. You had to find a sucker at the end of his rope like me to take it. Well I’m done, okay? I can’t handle this anymore. The nightmares. Those kids. Why’d you do that to those kids, Rick? Do you have any idea how many drugs I have to take to make it all go away? You gave me five million. Your life savings. You know how much is left? I’ll be lucky if I don’t fucking starve after this. So you’re gonna get in that chair, plug in, and take it all back. Your life, your memories, you.’
Fred sucked in a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. Tears were welled up under his lids, on the brink of spilling down his face.
Rick didn’t move or speak; he was stuck. The right thing to do would be to turn and walk away from Fred, the Market, this whole life, and forget it ever happened. Only, you’ve done that before, haven’t you? Fred refused to look at him, but Rick stared him up and down, from his twitching restless feet to his yellow, drug wasted face. The dark appetite stirred, and rather than sympathy Rick felt only curiosity.
These were the memories he’d been looking for, as promised. Didn’t it seem so right that they were his own? Whose life had he been living? Had he murdered the lawyer who owned the things he had now – the happy childhood, the stern parents who’d ultimately died in a car crash – and wasn’t that convenient? ‘I know who I am,’ he said quietly.
‘No you don’t,’ Fred said. ‘But I do.’
His mouth was dry. He swallowed the rest of his bottle and set it down on the floor without picking up another one. The liquid was heavy in his stomach, slow burning, intensifying his hunger. For what? For whatever Fred’s got in that sick head of his. His visions, his evil, his nightmares. They belong to me.
Rick stepped around and slid into the empty chair. He pulled the helmet down over his head and lay back, eyes closed. Fred connected the necessary wires, clicked things into place. The last thing he said to Rick, his voice hoarse with gratitude: ‘Thank you.’
His phone was ringing when he woke up. Work. Disoriented, eyes gummed shut, he answered.
‘Rick? Where the hell are you? If you’re sick you’re sick but if you don’t give notice again you’re done, understand? And don’t be sick in the first place. You had a meeting with Redman today, I had to blow him off. Where the hell are you, anyway?’
Rick struggled into a sitting position, gasping as his hand landed on a pile of broken glass. He wiped his eyes and looked around. Some bedroom, a stained mattress in one corner, the floor as littered with bottles and junk as the kitchen had been. He was naked and covered from head to toe in dried blood.
Fred’s head rolled out of his lap and onto a pizza box beside him, neck roughly severed by a broken stout bottle. That explained the bloody rag tied around his right hand. Oh. Hi, Fred. It was good to remember things.
‘I, ah… I don’t think I’m gonna be coming in to work, Phillip.’
‘What? Listen, Rick, I like you, but if you keep this bullshit up another day – ’
‘No, asshole. I said I’m Not Coming In To Work. Understand?’
‘Rick? Are you okay?’
He staggered to his feet, kicking Fred’s head aside and wincing at the sharp pain in his big toe. Who knew such a flabby mess would have such a hard head? Damn, he had to find his clothes. Hopefully the house had running water, too.
‘My name isn’t Rick, Phil, okay? Rick’s dead. Rick quits. I’m Harold. Rick didn’t know how to have any fun, so I killed him.’
‘What the fuck? Okay, I’m coming over, like now.’
‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ Harold said. The grin on his face would have looked at home on Max the Mouth. ‘You do that.’ He dropped the phone.
The house had a hot water shower, after all, though the tiles were thick with mould. It was like standing on moss, under a hot waterfall. After, Harold got dressed, feeling refreshed – alive. The grin was still on his face – he just couldn’t get rid of it.
Everything had come out okay, in the end. He hadn’t lost any of Rick’s memories, so he could look back over the news reports from all that time ago, the ones relating to the man they’d called The Central Sicko, the most prolific violent killer in the City’s history. Attributed with kick starting Central’s biggest crime wave ever. Worked with the mob, they said. Involved in memory trafficking and drugs and weapons. They were wrong about that, though – he wouldn’t sell his memories for the world. Never again.
He returned to the city, but didn’t bother stopping by Rick’s apartment. Everything he needed was in a bank account Rick had known nothing about, except the password, an eight digit pin that had stuck in his head like a catchy song. Turned out five million wasn’t his life savings, after all.
He laid low until the smog brought on an early nightfall and the sun disappeared for good, and then he put on a hat and a dark pair of sunglasses and headed out.
The city was a jungle. Lights hanging from tall trees made of metal. Growling beasts stampeded the valleys between skyscraper mountains. Caves and dungeons and basements were everywhere, a million cracks through which a man could disappear. A thousand underworlds through which he could move. He was the panther, the lion, the killer, and they were the monkeys.
He let his mind roll over some of the better memories, and the dark thing inside him stirred, hungry. But that was okay, because now he understood what it was. And he understood something far more important, something that Rick hadn’t.
You couldn’t run away from yourself.
He turned a corner, down a dark and familiar street, and the city swallowed him.