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This ones pretty much the twin of my other story ‘Angel’, although I didn’t have that in mind when I started writing it. I think I’m just interested with the concept. It all happened very quickly, The idea occurred, I thought it was cool, came up with the ending, wrote it, scratch to story in two hours. Enjoy!

 

Demon

By Ben Pienaar

 

Doctors, if they even had a chance to interview me, would call me a sociopath, psychopath, or maybe pure evil. If, that is, I told them everything I’d done, the whole truth. I’m none of these things, but the Doctors would never know, because they’d only have the facts to look at, the actions I’ve taken. They are rational people, who don’t believe in Demons, which is unfortunate because the truth of the matter is that there is a demon inside me, living and breathing and real. If they cut me open, I think they’d find it sitting just above my brain stem, clinging with little red claws to the top of my spinal cord and grinning from ear to ear.

I was a good kid, and I’m a good guy now, inside and mostly out. This isn’t the exorcist: no one’s crawling on ceilings and vomiting all over the place. Mostly I’m even in control. But when no one’s around, and the time is right, and the Demon is hungry, he flexes his muscles and brings a little piece of hell up to earth.

The first time I was seven years old. The Demon came to me in my dream, it was that simple. I dreamed about hell and the Demon saw me there and grabbed hold of me, and when I woke up I’d brought him awake with me, into me. It was just after midnight, and the silence was like a blanket over the house, except for the sound of my father snoring in his bedroom down the hall. I got out of bed and went into the bathroom.

I was fully aware, not sleepwalking – a little groggy maybe, but that was it. I wasn’t thinking about my movements, the way it feels when you’ve done something so many times you don’t think about it. Sometimes I drive somewhere late at night and when I think about it later, I can’t remember the drive. I still stop at the red lights and watch my mirrors, but I’m daydreaming in my head, my body and mind acting automatically. This was like that.

I took a box of matches and a candle from the mirror cupboard (we keep them there for blackouts), and took them down into the television room. I lit the candle and stood in front of the fireplace for a while. I remember wax dripping onto my hand until it had pretty much covered it, but I didn’t once flinch. The pain was a normal, everyday feeling to me, like breathing in and out; it wasn’t important.

I lit a fire in the fireplace and waited for it to get going really good, used every bit of kindling we had, and when it was roaring nicely I started grabbing burning logs and rolling them around the carpet. I set one on the couch, one at the foot of the television, and kick rolled another all the way into the dining room so it could catch the table. We had a real fluffy carpet and it burned fast.

I stood there, terror tearing through me, thinking why did I do that? Just what did I do that for? At first with a mild curiosity when I grabbed the candle and match, then with growing horror as I watched my blistering hands grab logs and roll them across the room. Why am I doing this? I don’t understand.

            I heard the Demon laugh, somewhere deep inside my brain. He and I walked upstairs together and I lay down in bed and stared at the ceiling, watching the shadows dance across the hall and the smoke drift in through the open door.

Eventually the alarm went off and I heard my parents screaming, but not my little sister Maree, even when a section of the house fell in and buried the kitchen table. The demon was asleep by then, or else he didn’t care what happened, and all my movements (and all the pain) were my own. My parents managed to get to me and my mother climbed out of the window with me while the sirens wailed far away.

My father went to get my sister, and he was dragged out by the firemen a few minutes later with burns all over him, a scrap of Maree’s pajama top melted into his palm. She didn’t make it, and her lack of screaming, I think, was because she’d already choked in her sleep. Her room was closer to the stairs, so that is what I desperately hope happened.

I relate all this to Lara now, trying to keep my voice steady. I resist the urge to come forward and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder because I don’t want to see her flinch away. Plus, I’ve still got some of her cat’s blood on my hands. Literally. The rest of it we got rid of together, before coming back into her bedroom for this little talk.

‘I’ve done a few things like that since then,’ I’m telling her, looking honestly into her tear stained, incredulous face. ‘Nothing completely evil, you know. But pretty bad. That’s why I don’t sleep much. I mean, Jesus, poor Maree, that poor girl. I loved her so much.’

I’m crying, but I don’t think she believes me. I know she believes in ghosts, but I’ve never asked her about demonic possession.

‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ she asks, and her voice is still cold.

I nod. ‘Just one guy. A bad guy, though, some gangster who pulled a knife on me. The demon saw it and flipped out, he was threatening its… its home.’ I don’t mention that the mugger had also been interrupting our stalking of a potential other victim.

‘That’s all, huh?’

‘Yes. It wants to kill, but usually I can divert it, make it settle for small things like birds and rats and…’

‘Cats.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Jesus.’ She puts her hands over her eyes and breathes in deep, and then takes them away and looks at me again. I don’t say anything.

‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ she says, as if I’d be joking. Sure, your dead cat was all a joke, Lara, get it? Ha ha! My eyes are streaming with tears now, but I don’t mind, it probably lends credibility.

‘I just want it to end,’ I say, and in that instant, as if I had to say the words out loud for the thought to formulate clearly, I realise how simple it is. There is only one way to really and truly end, after all. Why have I never thought of suicide? And I realise the answer to that question, too: I never thought of it because the demon didn’t let me. He hid the notion from my mind, somehow, but he’s sleeping now and I’m awake and I’ve thought of it.

Holy Christ, it’s the only way. I have to go, and soon, or it’ll wake up. How long will it be before it makes me kill another family member or ,God forbid, Lara? Or some innocent small child, like the girl we followed for half a day before I gathered the will power to close my eyes until she was gone.

I can’t comprehend the finality of that – of suicide – there’s no time. There’s no time to say my goodbyes or gather my thoughts and prepare myself. I’m locked in a dungeon and the dungeon master is sleeping and left a window open. It’s jump or be trapped, now or never.

Lara is great at dressmaking. She has a sewing machine and all different kinds of materials and needles, but most importantly she has a giant pair of material cutting scissors lying on her desk. In the time it’s taken for me to have my epiphany, she’s drawn a breath, about to say something, but I’ll never hear what it is. I grab the scissors and take two steps back.

Staring at her, wide eyed, I begin to cut.

She’s fast, getting over her surprise like that. If we switched places I think I’d have been so shocked by the surprise of it all I’d have still been sitting and gaping long after she hit the ground with blood spurting from her throat. Not Lara though; she sees what I’m doing, screams, lunges, and pulls my arm so hard the scissors go flying into the wall paper and stick there.

We fall onto the bed together and she’s sticking sheets against my wound and kissing me and crying, although there wasn’t really time enough to make the cut that bad.

‘No matter what, that’s never the answer,’ she’s telling me. ‘Never do that again, you hear me? Never. God, it’s really true, isn’t it? There really is a demon inside you.’

It’s not really a question but I nod anyway. ‘I have to kill it,’ I whisper, trying not to wake it up. ‘We have to kill it, somehow.

She looks at me and a hot tear lands on my face. Her eyes are half full of sadness and half with rage, and I understand. ‘No matter what it takes,’ she says, ‘we’ll kill it, somehow.’

We talk for a while, and hug, and I apologise again for killing her cat. She rests her head on my shoulder and puts an arm around me and tells me it’s going to be alright, and we’ll kill the demon no matter what, and I don’t want to be afraid.

But I am afraid, I tell her. I’m terrified, and I still wish I’d killed myself. I tell her it’s going to be alright now, and she shouldn’t worry, but those words aren’t mine, now. She snuggles up close to me and starts talking, but I don’t hear what she’s saying. I’m watching my free hand lift up and work the scissors free from the wallpaper slowly, quietly.

I’m watching and outwardly there is no dread, no horror or sadness or remorse. I’m watching my hand grip the round black handle with white knuckles. Outwardly I’m calm and relaxed and happy. Inside, I scream. ‘It’s going to be alright,’ I say again.

It is what you do that defines you. I think Batman said that, and it is therefore beyond question. This is my way of agreeing with my black caped idol. I have to admit though, writing it made me wonder about people a lot. Remember the last person you met, who smiled and treated you nice and gave you compliments. I wonder what they were really thinking, under that cheerful mask? How many people you meet are sociopaths who just have yet to make their first kill? Or just have yet to be caught? Makes ya think… enjoy!

Angel

By Ben Pienaar

 

When I was a boy, I set my neighbour’s house on fire. Over the course of several months I killed half the pets in the surrounding areas of my neighbourhood. Fortunately, I was a very intelligent young boy, and no one ever found out it was me. No one knew it was me who disembowelled Hamish Donner either, because they never found his body.

 

If you see him on the street, he smiles. He’s always cheerful; tells jokes and laughs and makes delightfully intelligent conversation. In day to day life, he has the charisma of the most charming of politicians, but the real charm, people will tell you, is that he has no idea about it.

People who know him well say he’s a good person. They love him, and they think he loves them too. His tongue begins to wag and everyone leans in to listen, to see what funny or interesting or just plain nice thing he has to say.

He’s a talented diplomat, and rose high in the government. May be president one day, they say. He’s rich, but he gives his money away at every turn and his living standard is modest at best. Entire charities live off his income. No poor man can enter his line of sight and then leave it still poor. He attends church every Sunday, and has friends there too, and they talk about doing good and helping people.

And he despises it.

Every day, he wakes up and begins his perfect, disciplined and virtuous routine. It consists of healthy meals, quality time with his wife and kids, a day of good work, and a night of even more work, perhaps some socialising, and finally relaxing. He does nothing in excess, never speaks badly or behaves immorally in the slightest, and he has only one enemy in all the world: himself.

 

No one knew, and while then I was only a smart boy, I was growing into a genius killer. I had plans drawn up in a secret language in several notebooks, and they were going to deliver me great power, and I was going to do great things. Terrible things, most would say, but for me they would have been great. Death, blood, murder, and absolute power. Like a God.

I was so close, so close to beginning my Grand Plan For Everything when I turned twenty and became possessed. Some hideous thing, a creature of burning light and sickening warmth crawled, slimed its way through my ear and into my brain while I was asleep, and when I woke I was no longer in control of my body.

Some things, I was able to do myself, like get out of bed and shower and eat breakfast. The first thing happened when I was on the school bus and one of the others dared to make fun of me. It had happened twice before, and the first time I’d cornered the one who did it when he was alone and used my knife to scare him very, very badly. The second time was Hamish Donner.

I turned to flip him the bird and maybe yell something dirty at him, a part of me almost hoping to provoke him, so I’d have no choice but to get rid of him in that brilliant, exhilarating way of mine. My hand came up and… waved. I smiled pleasantly, and turned back around.

None of these motions were of my own doing. Mentally, I was screaming obscenities, rushing down the aisle to beat him to a pulp, anything. I sat there for a while, outwardly calm but searching my thoughts for this odd presence I felt. Now it had used its power I could really feel it, an actual weight on my brain, pressing against my skull, pulling wires and reconnecting them in disturbing ways.

What the fuck are you? I asked it.

Your happy saviour, it said, full of merriment, and I was filled with hatred.

 

He has an odd clumsiness about him, some say, though if anything it only serves to make him more endearing. Still, there have been a few near misses, and had it not been for his habit of surrounding himself with friends and loved ones most of his life, he might even have died.

One Gavin Smith recalls him almost falling from a fifth floor balcony, despite the sturdy railing, and only escaped death when Gavin reached out and grabbed his shirt as he went over. Another time his hands slipped on his steering wheel and he almost hit a wall if he hadn’t recovered his reflexes just in time.

 

I try to kill myself almost every day, but after the first few times the Angel was ready for it and now it’s nearly impossible. It has to be distracted somehow, or at least very tired, before I can even begin. Every now and again I get past him, though, and one day I hope I might get through, maybe. All it takes is a break in his concentration and I’ll be… Where? Hell? Shit, I’m already there; it can’t be worse than this.

 

Despite his success, there have been occasional rumours, and strange moments during the course of his career that have sometimes cast only the slightest of shadows on his impeccable reputation. In one bizarre interview, he responded to a question with an expression of what can only be described as utter hatred. A moment later his face went blank, and then he smiled and answered the question normally, later dismissing the expression by saying he had a bad taste in his mouth.

He often demonstrated his love of the people by having private talks to random citizens. One of these, Harry Cane, told his family of a strange and completely uncharacteristic occurrence. All was normal and pleasant, he said, until near the end of the encounter when he said goodbye and extended his hand. The vice president took it, but instead of shaking, he squeezed it so hard that Harry cried out in agony.

‘When I looked up I saw a face on him. Or not a face a – an expression. He was just as happy as a clam, not like anything was wrong but like he was really enjoying it. His eyes were wide open and his mouth was open in this big wide smile like he just won the lottery and couldn’t believe it. He raised his left hand up in a fist and then just shook his head and let go and apologised. Weirdest thing I ever saw.’

These instances, while incredibly rare and hard to find credible information about (as he is of course so well loved) nevertheless seem to be happening more and more as the vice president ages.

 

I try to kill people all the time. Oh, yes, not a day goes by when I don’t try to slice or dice something. Even with my bare hands, if I can cause some good pain in a day, I consider it a big win. If I’m not trying to kill myself, of course. Nowadays, I don’t do that as much as I used to.

The old bastard is starting to get weak. Funny thing about having no real control over my own body: I get to spend every last ounce of energy I have on the fight. Sometimes, I just let myself rest and doze while he’s occupying himself with the day, and then, right when he lies down to get some shuteye… bam! I’m there, fighting him for the chance to grab that letter opener and ram it in my eye.

It’s taken thirty years or so, but I’m getting into my groove now. Conserve energy, strike when he’s weak. Any normal person would have given in after a week, but this guy no, this… thing is supernatural, obviously. I think it’s some kind of Angel. I mean, if Demons possess all the good guys, what else would it be? Supernatural or not, though… He’s getting weak. Every now and again, I catch him off guard, and every time it takes him a little longer to get back control.

Well, fuck him. There’s got to be a balance, doesn’t there? He’s had me, used me for his goddamn good. He took the best years of my life, too. Fine, the next thirty are mine then – if I even live that long. And I’m going to start my Grand Plan. Oh, I bet he won’t be laughing then. I bet he’ll get a spanking when the big guy upstairs realises that he spent thirty years putting me in a position of supreme power on earth only to weaken just in time for me to abuse it.

I bet he won’t be laughing then, hell no. But I will.

 

 

This one started off on a bizarre premise and then, halfway through, turned into something else entirely. Reading back over it, it almost looks like two separate stories, haphazardly melted together. Both of the characters in this are disturbed in their own ways, so don’t be too quick to pick sides… Enjoy

I’ve Seen the Ghost

By Ben Pienaar

 

She made a few mistakes that would have been innocent enough if he hadn’t already picked her out. As it stood, they would cost her dearly. She took the bus home, which was bad, and she got off a stop early to walk off the burger and fries she’d had for lunch, which was worse.

 He got ahead and waited at a payphone nearby, with his back to her and his eyes on his watch. He was an exact man, and he didn’t make many mistakes. Not that there were many to make: she was a woman of routine, and like all of his victims, she would become a victim of it, too.

 Her routine was flexible in some ways, but not all. Every morning, she took one of the bottled waters from her fridge and kept it unopened, until after her lunch break. Usually the salt from the fries left her thirsty and she’d drink the whole bottle in ten minutes, which meant she’d finished it at about one forty. It was now six twenty, and she was starting to stumble.

 She hadn’t felt sick all day, but suddenly her stomach wasn’t agreeing with her, and her mouth was numb. This was important in case she tried to call for help. He waited for her to pass him and then put the phone down. She’d stopped near the alley and put her arm out for balance. It rested on the trunk of an old brown car that looked like it had seen too many years. His car.

 He saw her sinking slowly to her knees and stepped up in time to catch her before she hit the ground. He eased her into the back, giving the area a quick check before he closed the door and got into the driver’s seat. The whole thing lasted about eight seconds. He’d set up a place close, but not too close. A fifteen minute drive out of the city, then into the parking lot of a factory scheduled for demolition. He dragged her into an empty office on the ground floor, where he’d left all the other equipment.

 She was going to wake up in about ten minutes, maybe more if he’d miscalculated her weight. But then, he was careful as well as exact, and within five minutes her hands were tied to one of the exposed rafters overhead and she was half standing in the corner of the room. He took another moment to blindfold her thoroughly, padding, duct taping, and then tying a cloth around her head.

 She began to wake, shifting uncomfortably in her position, her feet looking for purchase and finding it uncertainly on the rough carpet. She groaned. He ran off the check list in his mind: black clothes, gloves, tools? Check. Bag for disposal and place to dispose? Check. Woman immobilised? Check. It was time to have some fun.

 ‘Hello, Miss Hopkins,’ he said, adding an unnatural rasp in his voice. He’d seen in done in the new batman films and thought it would be perfect for him, too. It served to both inspire fear and disguise his voice. ‘How are you today?’     

 ‘Wha?’ She was still struggling to keep her position, her knees shaking. She was still groggy, probably hadn’t quite realised her situation yet. Her hands were straining against the binds and confusion began to register. He went to the old wooden table opposite her and sorted through his tools, excitement building. He wondered if she’d scream loud, or plead with him. At length, he picked up thin, curved blade that could cut through flesh like butter.

 ‘Where am I? What’s… What’s going on?’ Her voice was harsh with fear, and he saw a light sweat on her brow, hidden by the long dark hair.

 ‘Well, let’s analyse the facts, shall we? You are a woman of science, aren’t you?’

 She didn’t respond, but he noticed she’d stopped struggling and was standing up straighter. Terrified, but composed. That, he didn’t like so much – but never mind, they always screamed in the end.

 ‘You are restrained and heavily blindfolded in an isolated location. You are a woman between the ages of nineteen and thirty. Your kidnapper is speaking in an obscured voice, and sounds relatively intelligent… If I do say so myself.’ He chuckled. ‘You were taken on your way home from work, after nightfall. Does any of this ring a bell?’

 She stared in the direction of his voice, her face blank with shock. ‘Holy shit,’ she said. ‘You’re him? You’re the Ghost?’

 ‘Yes, that’s right. Though I wish they’d come up with something better. Ah well,’ he waved a hand dismissively. ‘Media.’

 Bizarrely, she began to laugh, tentatively at first, and then hysterically. She shook in her bondage, letting out shrieks of laughter, and when it died down at last she looked almost sick with herself. She stared blindly at the ground, suddenly deep in concentration.

 He watched all of this patiently, not knowing whether to be annoyed or amused, and when she was done he leaned forward and cut a line straight down her suit top, severing the buttons so it fell open but no touching her skin. She gasped, but otherwise gave no reaction.

 ‘What was the meaning of that outburst?’ he asked, honestly curious.

 ‘I… I guess I’m just relieved.’

 ‘Is that so?’

 ‘Well, you never kill, do you?’

 ‘Not yet. I fashion myself as more of a catch and release kind of person. Murder is messy, after all.’

 ‘Exactly. Besides, it’s all about causing pain for you, right, Mr. Ghost? You wouldn’t murder unless it was necessary. So no matter how bad this gets, I’ll still end up alive.’

 He nodded to himself, a small smile playing across his lips. ‘You do seem to understand me very well, Miss Hopkins, though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised considering your profession… But I think you’re dismissing the pain a little too easily.’

 She looked slightly worried at those words, and seemed on the brink of saying something, but a second before it reached her lips she shut them and shook her head. ‘You won’t believe until you see,’ she said, and at that cryptic remark, fell silent.

 He was certainly curious now, but above all else he was frustrated. Small electric pulses of anticipation set his hairs on end and had him licking his lips. To hell with this, he thought –time to play the game.

 He usually liked to start slow, but not tonight. He lashed out with the blade and cut a neat crescent out of her shoulder. She didn’t make a sound, but her head flicked up to look at him and she said, quite calmly: ‘you just cut me, didn’t you?’

 Irritated, he sliced again, and this time he made it a long one, from her left breast down to her right hip. That one was deeper, too, and blood descended from the gash like a red curtain.

 ‘Oh, that was big. I think I might faint.’

 He stared at her for a moment, but all he could see in her face was a kind of nervous fear, like someone waiting for a root canal, an unpleasant but necessary ordeal, to be over. Usually, they were desperately pleading with him by now, or at least screaming at the top of their lungs in agony.

 ‘What game are you playing, bitch?’ he said, and this time that rasp in his voice came naturally. ‘You think you can take away my joy by clamming up? Like you could possibly keep your mouth shut for ten minutes under this blade? Have you even seen some of my victims?’

 She nodded, and he saw with some satisfaction a sickly expression on her face. ‘I know all that. It’s just… You don’t know about my condition, do you?’

 ‘What?’

 ‘Of course, you’d never have picked me if you knew about it,’ she went on. ‘It’s a genetic disorder called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. I’ve had it since I was born.’

 He said nothing, and the silence hung over them like death. Her voice beginning to shake from fear, she hurried on. ‘I have to check myself for injuries daily, head to toe. When I was a kid I used to hurt myself all the time and the wounds would get infected because I didn’t know –’

 ‘Stop.’ He said. She closed her mouth, and the look on her face was almost apologetic.

 Slowly, quietly, he sank into a crouch in front of her and rested the point of his knife in the flesh of her thigh. He applied pressure and watched the point disappear under her skin and pierce the tissue beneath. He looked up at her face.

 ‘Why are you biting your lip?’ he said.

 ‘The blade… it’s so cold,’ she said.

 He drew it out and felt the base of it, which hadn’t entered her yet. It was cold.

 He stood up and threw it into the corner of the room with wild fury, and then let out a stream of the vilest curse words he knew at the top of his lungs. ‘What the fuck are the odds of that? What the fuck are the odds?’

 She cringed away from him. ‘I don’t know, like, I don’t know, one in a million or something. It’s really rare. I’m sorry.’

 ‘NO! Fuck that. You’re sorry. Bullshit! You better scream or you’ll be my first murder, you understand? Scream like you’re dying or believe me, that’s exactly what’s gonna happen.’

 With that, he ran to the table, picked up a pair of scissors and turned on her. The Ghost was an angry man tonight, that he was, but he was also a careful man, and though he tore her skin and sliced her in his rage, he kept away from the arteries.

 She screamed alright, but in her fear she overdid it, or at times forgot and then underdid it, and even when it seemed right it was still horrible, wrong, unsatisfying, because he knew it was all a lie. At last, he threw  down the scissors roared in pure fury.

 And then, a split second later, it was all gone. He looked at her hanging there, bleeding in a few places, terrified but also sickeningly, frustratingly, without pain. He looked at the floor and shook his head, before going over to equipment table and picking up a syringe. He pushed the plunger and flicked the needle. There wasn’t much in there – this mixture was of a very different order to the one he’d given her earlier that day. When he jabbed it into her neck, she didn’t react, but she was out in less than a minute, and in two he’d cut her down and taken off the blindfold.

 In twenty, the place was wiped clean of any trace of him, and in twenty five, he was gone.

 

Jenna Hopkins woke up after about half an hour and realised she could see again. The Ghost had left the light on and the fluorescents stung her shrinking pupils. That was the first of the pain to return to her, and the least of it. As it came, she crawled to one corner of the room and stayed there until she’d accounted for all of it and found she could take it, after all.

 Waves of it rolled over her and then settled into a dull ache. His cuts were numerous but shallow. Still, those last screams had been genuine, and she was sure he’d have known it if only he hadn’t already believed her lie. Oh, but it was close. The scream she’d turned into a gasp, the neutral face she kept while she squirmed with agony beneath the surface, each moment a hair’s breadth away from betraying herself. If she had, she’d surely have ended up like his other victims, alive but torn beyond recognition.

 There was something else, too: She knew his voice. In his moments of rage he’d screamed in his true voice, and she heard not only his tone but the slightest Dutch accent.

 The pain was becoming background noise now, except that hideous throbbing where he’d pierced her thigh… And how she’d wanted to scream then! Her mind had gone blank in that moment, but her face had remained a mask. She wiped the tears from her eyes and stared around the room, not looking for anything in particular and not missing anything, either.

 She found what she was looking for without even moving from her little corner, because it wasn’t in the room at all but on her. She remembered him screaming at her, feeling something wet land on her right foot, and there it was still, diminished but far from evaporated. His rotten saliva. She stood carefully and, supporting herself on her good leg, dragged the other along the floor, being careful not to let any of it slide off her skin.

 He’d left her bag undisturbed just outside the office door, and before tying her to the rafters he’d taken off her reading glasses and folded them neatly on top of it. She didn’t put them on now, but took the lenses from the frames. She scooped up as much saliva as she could on one and then pressed the other on top, like a blood slide.

 DNA and a Dutch accent. Was there anything else? She had to think now, while the

memories still burned fresh in her mind. She slid down in the doorway again to ease the pain in her leg. She closed her eyes and thought, long and hard, the lenses held tight in her hand. Yes, there was a smell, too. A faint cologne. She didn’t know the name, but she’d smelled it before and it wouldn’t take long to find it again. Like wood and almonds, very distinctive – and expensive, too; few people would be able to afford such a thing. Then there was his breath. He’d come very close to her at one point, and she’d felt his breath on her neck. She was tall for a woman, but he must be short for a man, somewhere between five seven and five nine.

She thought of these things for some time, and almost swore she could see him in her mind’s eye. A small, quiet man, probably well presented and conservative. By his voice she’d put him no older than forty and no younger than twenty five. The profiler studying the case had already filled in the other basics, but these details would narrow the search immensely. Then there was the saliva. It wasn’t quite as much as she’d been hoping for, but it was more than enough to go on.

 Clothes torn, covered in dried blood and shaking from cold and shock, Jenna Hopkins smiled to herself. She was mad – sure she knew she was mad in her own way, but look where it had gotten her. Look who it had gotten her!

 She got to her feet and picked up her purse, before staggering for the exit. Her stride, uncertain and pained at first, grew steadier as she went. She’d been expecting worse, after seeing the previous victims, but those same pictures had given her the strength she needed. The press wouldn’t need to hear any of that, of course, or that she’d been aware of him days before he attacked – not of who he was, but of his presence. They needed to see her as the sharp witted victim, not a woman obsessed to the point of madness as she really was. Not that she thought and planned and that she’d perfectly predicted his reaction to her ‘condition’. Who was going to believe it, anyway? No one would buy that book.

 She made it out of the factory and stumbled out towards the road, where someone would see her covered in blood and pale with shock, and take her to the hospital. She’d be mad at first, almost babbling with fear, and that wouldn’t be hard at all after what she’d just been through. She wouldn’t remember a thing at first, except the importance of the lenses. Then the other details would slowly come to her, and she’d tell her story reluctantly, embarrassed. Let the media talk of her bravery and clear thought under pressure – her own modesty would only serve to make it more plausible.

 She hit the road and her face became a mask of blank terror. She made sure to lean too much on her bad leg once in a while to make her slip a bit and wince. The good Samaritan would be interviewed extensively as well, so it was important to look as traumatized and wounded as possible.

In ten seconds a car skidded to a stop beside her and a man got out. He stared at her for a moment, unable to believe what he was seeing, and then he rushed forward with his arms outstretched. She stumbled again and let him catch her, at which point she broke down into tears which were, to her credit, mostly real.

 ‘Jesus lady, what happened to you?’

 ‘The Ghost,’ she said, her voice weak with terror. ‘I’ve Seen the Ghost.’ She wouldn’t remember this later, but when it was retold to her she would nod, looking thoughtful and a little disturbed, and it would eventually become the title of her tell all novel.

 She let her full weight rest on him as her body gave out, but she made sure she kept a solid grip on the lenses in her right hand. The man laid her down gently and called for help, even as he took a mobile from his pocket and dialled an ambulance.

 Not long now, she thought. Not long now.

   e sHekajdfs

 

I was reading an article about common concepts that come up repeatedly in popular movies. This one came from the ‘Ship of Theseus’ clone related one, obviously, with the main question being ‘if you cloned yourself, would you still be you?’ Or if you want to get deep, ‘what makes you you?’ Anyway, I didn’t want to just repeat old stories so I decided to present the concept in the most twisted and disturbing way possible. Enjoy!

 

Perpetual Suicide

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

‘Supress your nature all you want, you sick bastard. It’s still in there, waiting to come out. Not fighting, no, just waiting. Because it knows that if it just keeps hanging around in there, eventually you’ll have to let it out or go crazy. In the end they both come to the same thing, anyway.’

In truth, the man staring back at Anton Kave through the mirror and saying these words with him looked pretty damned crazy. His hair was messy, his eyes were so black around the sockets he looked like he was wearing two layers of eyeliner, and he hadn’t shaved or eaten in days. Not a good look, but then it was exactly fitting, considering the kind of things that were going through his head.

He looked down at the basin and saw a few drops of sweat fall onto the porcelain. When he looked up again, he thought he looked a bit more composed. Someone it was conceivable to do business with, maybe. He hoped so, but he was mainly relying on the fact that someone seedy enough to sell him a Cloner wasn’t used to dealing with trustworthy types, anyhow.

He cleared his throat.

‘At any rate,’ he went on, watching his reflection to make sure he maintained an air of respectability, ‘it’s none of your business what I want it for. You’re a seller, and I’m a buyer, and that’s all there is to it.’

He slammed his hands on the sides of the basin, stood up, and nodded at himself.

‘Now let’s do business.’

The central New York City business district was simply named B1. In a world where there were simply too many districts, streets and cities to name, everything was reduced to letters and numbers. There was still slang, though, and so B1 was also known as ‘Shark City’. That was the place where the high rollers and the big dealers and the real business tycoons went to build their empires, where the streets were squeaky clean and not a single begging hand could be seen extended from a dingy alley. That was not where Anton went this day.

Anton went to B9, ‘Dark Towers’. It was the kind of place you’d get if you condensed the whole of 21st century India into one city and then propelled it two hundred years into the future: better technology, same problems.

As he shuffled down B9-19th street, he found he was glad for his dishevelled appearance, because he fit right in with everyone else. Hell if anything, he was overdressed. People saw him, but a rough snarl and a wild look deterred anyone who gave him a second look. He was just another broke nutcase in the city to them, and that was good, because if anyone had so much as guessed that he had over sixteen million dollars under his tattered overcoat they’d have fallen on him like starved wolves.

He made it to the Ragman without any holdups, but he had an idea the journey back was going to be harder. He wished he’d thought of buying some piece of trash bike to ride in, so no one would bother stealing it. Then again, it would have made the whole crazy hobo act a little harder.

‘No shit. You got the money, huh?’ These were the Ragman’s first words as he brushed past the dirty curtain in the shop front.

‘That’s right, I got it.’

The room was small and cramped, but it was just a front, like the dirty curtain. To a casual eye the Ragman was just that, a poor bastard trying to make his way with a cramped little shop. Truth was, he owned most of the building this little room was in, and most of that was storage space.

‘Sure I got it,’ Anton said, pulling out the wad of cash from his inside pocket. He sat down in a splintery chair and laid it out on the table in front of him. It was all in ten thousand dollar bills, and as a result didn’t look like much. The Ragman raised a grey eyebrow at it and rolled his fat body forward in his wheelchair. He leaned right over the wad and brought his head in close, analysing it. After a few moments, he nodded, grinning.

‘That’s the real deal, alright,’ he said.

‘Okay, so where’s my Cloner?’ Anton said, leaning over his cash protectively, for all the good it would do.

The Ragman chuckled and winked, pushing away from the table and swivelling around to the door in the back. ‘Just gimme a second. No need to be on guard so much, buddy. I gotta do business, ya know. I’ll rip you off, but I won’t steal. I’m an honourable man.’ This last was called back to him from the next room, which Anton already knew was a place the size of a cathedral.

When he came back, he was holding a bundle of electronic parts and wires. He rolled over and dumped it on the table in a grey mess, which he began to separate into its various elements.

‘That’s it?’ Anton said, frowning.

‘That’s it? You a dumbass? You come askin for a Cloner, I give you a Cloner. You think this isn’t a Cloner?’

‘No, I’m sure that’s it. I mean… But how’s it work?’

The Ragman rolled his eyes. ‘Give me a minute, will you?’

Anton gave him a minute, though he wanted to get the hell out of this dingy, oily den as fast as he could. It smelled so strongly of petrol he swore he was getting high on the fumes.

Finally it was all separated into different components across the table. Anton noticed, to some dismay, that his money had vanished.

‘Okay. So you got the processor here,’ the Ragman said, pointing to a long rectangular compartment. He slid open the top and showed that the insides were clean and empty. ‘You stick a bit of yourself in this part,’ he said gleefully. ‘Could be anything, but the more matter it’s got, the quicker the clone. So, you stick in your baby toe, it’ll be a few months before you got a full clone. Put in your leg and you got one in a week. My advice, kill the first clone and freeze him so you got body parts for the next ones.’ He chuckled, ‘and they wonder why this shit was outlawed.’

He slid across the desk and pointed at a pile of four metallic cones.  They were dark silver, and not connected to any of the other pieces. ‘These are the makers. You stick em up around a room, any room. The one that has TOP engraved on it, goes highest up, and you gotta have the pointy part aiming at the middle of the room, where the compartment is. Next one says TOP MIDDLE, then BOTTOM MIDDLE, then BOTTOM. You get it?’

‘Yeah.’

He nodded and pointed at the final piece. It looked pretty unimpressive in Anton’s opinion: just a metal box with a few knobs and dials on it.

‘That’s the operator. See all those different knobs and dials and shit?’

‘Yes,’ Anton said, anticipating a headache.

‘Ignore that shit. I already set it up for you. Don’t touch it or your clones are gonna come out like fucking mutants. Same thing if you pass through the room where the cones are while it’s going on. See the green button on the side? That’s all you gotta press. It’s that simple, man. You set up the cones right, you dump the body part – the fresher the better – in the compartment and close the door, and you press the green button. The clone will come up in whatever room you set the cones up in. Leave the machine running until your clone moves away from the original spot, and I dunno, says something or gives you the finger or whatever. Then you press the green button again and it shuts off, and you got yourself a clone.’

‘Okay. That easy?’

The Ragman chuckled again. ‘Sure. He gives me sixteen million and then asks if it’s that easy. Yeah, sure. Listen, I’ll give you some advice because I feel sorry for you. Put the cones in a secure place. Don’t let your clone out for a while.’

This time it was Anton’s turn to chuckle. ‘Don’t worry, that won’t be a problem.’

‘Oh yeah? So what, you gonna talk to him for a bit? Explain to him why you so desperately need a clone army to take over the world?’ He gave that dry chuckle again. ‘I mean, shit, you wouldn’t believe the reasons I’ve heard. I had this one chick come in to buy a Cloner one time, no joke man, she was planning to put herself out on the streets as a whore. Use herself to make money. Oh, and she told me she was gonna make six. Six! You believe that shit?’

Anton smiled blandly. ‘Sure.’

‘Anyway. Nine times out of ten, dudes that clone more than once get arrested in about a month, so good luck. And don’t come crying to me, either, this baby is untraceable. Oh yeah, one final thing.’ The Ragman leaned forward so far across the desk that he would have touched noses with Anton if he hadn’t reeled back at the last moment, surprised. ‘You point so much as a finger at me if the law comes… I’ll kill you.’

He didn’t need to say more than that – didn’t need more detail. It was all there in his eyes. Anton nodded. He stood up and packed the three parts of the Cloner into a compact bag he’d brought with him, realizing for the first time that it was going to be much harder getting out of B9 than it was getting in.

‘Hey, by the way. What the hell do you want this for, anyway?’ Anton looked at him sharply, all his prepared answers and suave retorts disappearing in a moment. He was in a hole within a hole within a hole: It didn’t matter.

‘I’m going to satisfy the lifelong homicidal urges I’ve had by murdering my clones,’ he said. And then, because his mouth had already started running, he added: ‘I’ll probably torture them, too.’

Ragman stared at him with a look that was shocked but not totally surprised, and as always, there was a hint of s mile there. ‘Shit,’ he said after a moment’s silence. ‘You think you heard it all.’

Before he finished the last word Anton shoved aside the curtain and stepped back onto the street.

How he made it out of there alive he wasn’t sure, but he again he attributed his luck to his acting and attire. Whatever, it didn’t matter. He was home, and the Cloner was set up. The past eight years of fantasy had suddenly become reality, and now he didn’t think he could deal with it.

‘You sick bastard,’ he told the mirror. ‘Don’t even do it. Go back to the Ragman and get a refund, and if he won’t take it back then chuck it in the street.’ He said this with conviction and determination, but he didn’t believe his words. He didn’t believe that he was a sick bastard – in fact he knew he wasn’t. A sick bastard would have started killing as soon as he got those strange, compelling urges. But he hadn’t, he’d held out, fought them for eight years. He’d never so much as harmed a hair on the head of an innocent, and he wouldn’t for the rest of his life, either. It wouldn’t even be murder, what he was doing – just suicide. Perpetual suicide. He chuckled, didn’t like the look of the grin in the mirror and turned away.

The Cloner was exactly as easy as the Ragman had told him it would be, except for one part. The salesman had so nonchalantly mentioned putting a finger or a leg into the compartment, but he’d neglected to go into detail about the removal process. Anton spent about half an hour with a butcher’s blade poised a foot above his left hand and his teeth gritted. Try as he might he couldn’t bring himself to chop.

Eventually, he decided it would be enough to cut all his hair off and drop that, along with weekly nail clippings and daily drops of blood into the compartment. After a month he thought he had enough. The compartment was packed with these scraps of him, and as he looked down at them he couldn’t help but wonder if it hadn’t been a swindle after all.

But there was no going back, now. He’d spent too long on this project to stop – his whole life, it seemed. The clone room alone had taken an eternity, and not least of that was getting hold of the Halothane gas that waited to be pumped into the room from a large black container fitted into the wall like a perverted air conditioner.

He went into the darkened room, and put the compartment in the middle, laying it down as though it were made of glass. He couldn’t help but feel the prickle of the ‘makers’ as though they were loaded guns pointing at him from the corners of the room, and as soon as it was down he backed out of the room fast and shut the door.

He’d installed a thick window into the room (one way tinted – Halothane gas was sensitive to light and he couldn’t risk his clone waking up early) and he looked through it now. He could practically feel the potential for life radiating from the metal box, as though another version of himself could explode from it at any moment. He bent down and picked up the operator, and the sense of potential grew.

He moved his finger to the green button and let it hover there for a moment, running over the process in his mind. The clone would appear in the next room, which was locked from the outside. It was airtight, and there was no escape, and if he knew that then so would his clone. He’d flip the switch and the gas would pump into the room, knocking Anton 2.0 out long enough for Anton 1 to enter and set up the kill room. After that…

The thought of things to come turned his stomach to jelly with excitement and goose bumps rose on his forearms.  He closed his eyes and listened to his quick breaths, savouring the moment, the same way a sky diver might savour the moment before jumping off the plane. His eyes still closed, he placed his finger firmly on the button… and pressed.

There was a sensation of being pushed on the back, hard, and he fell forward with both arms out to protect his face. But instead of falling into the adjoining wall, he kept going until his forearms hit the cement floor.

He lay there for a moment, his eyes screwed closed. Something was wrong. The floor in the living room was carpeted. The only room in the house with a cement floor was…

He opened his eyes and saw nothing at all. The room was pitch black, which meant the door was still closed and locked from the outside, just as it was meant to be. He swore and then flinched at the loudness of his voice in the small room. As he struggled to his feet he knocked the compartment and froze. There was something wrong with it.

It took a few minutes of scrabbling on all fours before he realised that the metal box was no longer a box. It had unwrapped, opened up like a Christmas present with all sides flat on the floor. And it was empty. His hands should have touched the crusty mess of hair and nails and blood but they hadn’t.

That was when he heard the hissing of gas entering the room from a small hole in the wall near the tinted window. That was impossible – that had to be manually turned on with a dial that was outside the room and there was no one… He froze.

‘No.’ His instinct told him to back away from the gas, press up against the far wall and hold his breath, but his despair was far stronger, because it was born of everything he knew of himself. And everything he planned. Numb with horror, he could only wait for the gas to take effect and pray that he’d calculated the wrong amount and that he’d never wake up.

He woke, and God help him he woke exactly the way he expected to: tied fast to a steel chair in the middle of the kill room. Next to him was a fold out table decked out with over thirty different tools. The idea, he recalled, was to test out as many different things as possible on the first clone to see which were the most fun. The light was on, and so the next thing he laid eyes on was himself, standing in the open doorway.

Anton Kave was not used to feeling strong emotions of any kind, but he felt something at that moment, and it was pure and unadulterated terror. Terror because no sooner had he seen himself like a reflection come to life, he knew there was no hope. Still, he tried.

‘Stop, please. You don’t understand what’s going on. I am not the clone, you are! This should be the other way around.’

The clone stared at him, eyebrows raised, a mildly curious expression on his face.

‘I know you think you’re real, but just hang on a minute and try to remember the rest of the day. What were you doing this morning? Do you remember the rest of the week – or the rest of your life?’

The clone nodded slowly, fixing Anton with that bloodshot stare he’d seen just that morning in the mirror. ‘Yes, I can. I’m sorry, but I’m the real boy, it’s you who has the fake memories.’

Anton stared at himself, speechless at first. But as the clone chuckled and reached for the shears, a thought occurred to him and a thin, mad smile broke out on his face. Anton 2.0 hesitated. ‘What?’

‘Oh, nothing,’ he said in a shaking voice. ‘I just realised that whatever you do to me, you’re going to get worse yourself. Much worse.’

‘Really?’

‘Damn straight. You know why? Because I’m only the first one, remember? After me, you’re going to want to make another one, and when you use the machine, you’ll see exactly what I mean. You’ll be sitting in this chair yourself in a month or so, looking at Anton 3.0, and he won’t believe you either because he’ll have all your memories. And I’ll be laughing, alright – dead or not I’ll be laughing. Unless you stop this now. Let me go, who knows what we can achieve with two of us? We’re too smart to get caught out.’

The clone stared at him for a moment, his brow furrowed. He shook his head, slowly. Anton managed to hold his gaze, but he had an idea the other saw only the sick fear of death in his eyes.

‘You really believe you’re me, don’t you?’ the clone said. He put down the shears and reached for the pliers instead. Anton struggled, but his heart wasn’t in it even then, because he knew exactly how he’d planned to restrain himself and there was really no hope of escape. And now the clone had his index finger between the two blunt edges of the pliers, right at the second knuckle.

‘I’m kind of disappointed in myself, you know?’ he said. ‘I mean, of all people who should have known me better than to make stupid arguments, it would be you, right?’

Anton gave up and just sat, blinking cold sweat from his eyes.

‘I mean, what were you expecting? Hey, you’re right, you really sound like your memories are the real ones, and I’m the clone instead of you. I guess we should just switch places now, huh? I’ll strap myself into that chair there, and then you can have all the fun.’

He shook his head, chuckling, and Anton closed his eyes as he felt his own hot breath in his face and this time felt not just terror but revulsion. Only now did he realise what a monster he was – in a way worse than a serial killer who’d given in to his urges, because at least that man would have looked after himself.

‘God damn,’ said the clone, grinning as though he’d heard the best joke of his life. ‘I can be so dumb sometimes, huh?’

And then he gripped the pliers with both hands, and began to squeeze.

This is one of those unfortunately rare stories that just take control and write themselves. You sit down, expecting to write maybe a thousand words of story A and call it a day, and instead you end up writing two thousand of story B and finishing it. Unlike the other story I wrote this week, (which I deleted in disgust) I actually liked the way this turned out. Hope you do, too!

Dear Thief

By Ben Pienaar

 

The way in was straight through the front door. Why? Because no one was going to expect you to go for the front door and so there wouldn’t be much security. That wasn’t actually true in Randall’s experience, but it was certainly true now. Usually people put the heaviest security at the front door and left the back ways open, at most a couple of dead locks and a dog.

This guy was different, though, because he’d thought about it. He’d set himself a budget for security (A modest one, judging by the size of his house), and he’d realised it would be smarter to use most of it to protect all the back ways, the balconies and the windows. And so, Randall figured, the front door was the way in.

Now, standing in front of it, lock pick in hand, he wasn’t so sure. He’d got past barbed wire and motion sensors to get here, but in this area that was like stepping over a white picket fence in suburbia: the standard minimum. What if there was something on the other side, like an alarm that tripped as soon as the front door opened and had to be turned off with a password?

Randall chuckled to himself and the sound floated down the garden path behind him. Longpig, he thought. And if not that, then 1953, which was the day the man inside had been born. But it would probably be Longpig. In the three days he’d spent watching this place, he decided he’d never seen anyone so devoted to a dog before. It was a long, fat pug dog that acted like a human being. No, a human king, really, and the eccentric bastard only encouraged it. He fed it mountains of the best quality meat and even bought it a massive kennel to sleep in in the back garden. Like a house, it was. Nuts.

It took ten minutes to pick the front door, and when he was done he gritted his teeth, braced himself, and pushed it open. There was no sound. Usually there was at least a beep or something to indicate the alarm was primed, but there was nothing, and when he stepped into the front room, wrinkling his nose at the smell of dust, he saw no lit up panels or number dials. He waited another five minutes and nothing happened. He was in, just like that. He closed the door quietly behind him and exchanged the lock pick for a miniature torch.

The house was everything he’d expected it to be and more. The guy was a collector of antiques, and judging by the living room alone it was a hobby bordering on obsession. Most of it was typical, in Randall’s eyes: wooden furniture and funny jewelled ornaments and whatnot. He wasn’t interested in that junk – no one could sell that once it was reported, except as firewood. No, he was interested in the safe, because safes only held the small and the valuable, and hence the sellable. And this guy, he had one hell of a safe.

In the last three days, the security hadn’t been the hard part – it had been the safe. He’d watched and waited from every possible angle he could until at last he’d seen it: that golden moment when the creepy old man had come right into his field of view through the dining room window and turned aside a painting. He’d almost laughed aloud, then. A painting, of all the hackneyed places, and Randall the master thief had spent three days trying to figure out where it was. He’d emerged with a little brown bag, but Randall hadn’t stayed to see what it was. It was valuable, and beyond that who cared?
Now, it was just a case of careful manoeuvring around great piles of antique junk lining each room, and at last he was in the dining room. This was probably the only uncluttered place in the house, besides the bathroom. A long brown table dominated the place, though who was meant to fill the ornate chairs Randall had no clue – the guy was too weird for friends. Maybe he got Longpig to sit on a different chair each night. The table was covered in silverware plates and candlesticks. These alone might have been a rich bounty, but Randall didn’t care. He was looking at the paintings that lined the walls.

They were bizarre, those paintings. They weren’t any kind of Picasso artworks, that was for sure. They were almost like caricature sketches of things done by a twisted but skilled artist. Most of them were signed in the bottom corner by an H. Jorgeson. A woman with a colossal mouth full of razor teeth leered at him from one corner. A couple clinked glasses of red wine, grinning at each other but holding knives behind their backs. Another showed a hideous creature with moons for eyes and a drooling mouth. Randall shivered at these as he passed, and eventually came to stop at the other end of the hall.

The painting that guarded the safe showed a huge, growling dog that looked suspiciously like Longpig, or rather a more ferocious version of him. Randall lifted it from the wall and set it quietly against the table. He was about to turn back to the safe when he caught sight of something on the back of the canvas. It was writing, a long message in black ink. Leave it, he told himself, you’re not in a bloody museum. But he couldn’t leave it, of course, because the message was to him.

Dear Thief

You have come far. Are you proud? You found my safe at last. It is full of things beyond imagining, though I’m sure you’re giving it your best shot, aren’t you? See that dining set behind you? It is worth ten thousand pounds alone. A good night’s haul, surely? Take it, please. You will be happy, and I will be happy, because the contents of that safe are precious to me. So precious, actually, that if you open it, I will have to kill you. If you are not a greedy man, you should be more than happy with the plates. If you are a greedy man, than I despise you and will delight in your murder. YOU ARE NOT THE FIRST. Give up your greed, I’m sure you can live a very long time with the plates, and it is easy money, for even though I’m watching you steal from me right now

 

Randall looked up from the canvas, goose bumps erupting all over his arms. The dining room was empty. He shone the torch through the archway into the living room and saw no one, nor did he see any cameras fixed on the ceiling. He shuddered.

I will not call the police, as a sign of gratitude for your respecting my wishes. You need money, I have too much, I won’t begrudge you a little just this once. If you don’t get greedy. Now, it is time to make your decision. Remember, on one hand, your life and (easy to sell, hard to trace, I assure you) precious silverware. On the other, nothing but death. And one more thing, dear thief…

 

Beneath that there was a small sketch of a pug’s face and a message scrawled in large dripping letters. BEWARE THE DOG, it said.

Randall looked up from the canvas and shone the torch around the room again. He spent a lot of time looking at the plates, which, in his honest opinion, might very likely be worth what the man said they were. Maybe even more, and accurate appraisal of stealable goods was something Randall prided himself on.

But in the end, he knew he was never going to go for the plates, and the man should have known why. A message like that achieved only one thing, and that was to make Randall intensely more curious about the safe and now certain that it contained something very, very valuable. Things beyond imagining, the message said.

He crouched down in front of the safe and saw, to his relief, that it was not only of poor quality, it was a Lockup 100, a model he’d cracked uncountable times before. It was a big one, too, about half the size of an average doorway. He shook his head and got to work, twisting the combination lock this way and that with his ear pressed against the icy metal, listening for clicks. It was easy in the dead silence of the mansion. Interestingly, if he hadn’t been so intent on listening for the clicks, he might have heard the sound of soft padded feet creeping over the carpet behind him.

Instead, he heard only clicks, and the familiar and endlessly satisfying Clunk! That meant the safe was open. Randall gave another cursory glance behind him and flashed the torch around the dining room, missing the slender shadow crouched beneath the table. He turned back to the safe, gripped the handle, and pulled.

A gust of freezing cold air rushed into his face. It was accompanied by a smell Randall typically associated with a butchers shop, or the fresh meat section of a supermarket. A moment later he squinted into the darkness and saw why.

The safe was not really a safe at all but a small doorway that led into a large freezer room. There were four great meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, and on one of them was the frozen body of a man. The hook was pushed through his neck and so he hung with his head at a bizarre angle, and his eyes horrifically frozen open. Then Randall’s gaze dropped and he saw that most of the man’s lower body had been cut away, chunk by chunk. Only some of his left thigh and half his right leg were left.

Randall took a step back, his mouth falling open, and collided with something directly behind him. A gloved hand covered his mouth and an arm wrapped around his neck, and before he could even begin to struggle he felt a cold needle pierce the side of his neck. For a second, he was stuck like that, paralysed by terror and confusion, and it was enough for a voice to whisper almost sadly in his ear: ‘No one ever takes the plates.’

He brought his hands up to the arm on his neck and then felt them turn numb and fall by his sides. The torch clattered to the floor. The cold air from the freezer continued to blow into his face, but he felt it less and less, and the vision of the man on the hook began to recede from him, as though it were falling away. Eventually, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

***   ***   ***

Brandon Travis took his brown bag out of the safe the following morning, and stepped out into the backyard. He took a moment, basking in the bright sunshine and breathing the fresh air, as he always did. Mr. Collman, hearing the sliding door open, called out a greeting, as he always did, and Brandon called one back.

Finally, he began to shake the brown bag and call out at the top of his voice. ‘Lonngggpiggg!’ he shouted, ‘Longgggpiggg! Come on, Robber! come and get your Longpig!’

And, just as he always did, Robber came running up from his kennel at the bottom of the garden, tongue flapping from his mouth.

Brandon took out a handful of fresh meat and threw it out onto the grass and Robber demolished it in seconds. No matter, there was plenty in the bag, and even more besides.

Robber sat patiently and Brandon fed him to bursting.

‘There’s a good doggy, Robber,’ he said, smiling. ‘There’s a good dog.’

I’ve always been interested in hypnotism to some degree. Not in an eager way, but the same way some people are fascinated by ghost stories and serial killers. I just think it’s incredibly eerie, and its another demonstration of a theme I love so much: the power of the mind. Anyway, it was fun. Listen to the hypnotist and you might find his hidden message…

The Hypnotist

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

Through fog thick enough to conceal a person at ten feet, two men approached a cottage and stopped at the front door. Neither was afraid, because there was nothing to be afraid of, but they hesitated all the same.

The taller man was sergeant, and he spoke first. ‘In a minute, we’ll go in. He probably won’t be expecting us, but he might be. I don’t think he’ll be armed, either, but then again he got twenty women to kill themselves and that suggests he’s no stranger to violence.’

Gordon, the newbie (at least to Sergeant Jerry Raimes, who’d been on the force thirty years), glanced down the path that led through the front garden and out to the road. He couldn’t make out their car through the mist. ‘How are we going to get him?’ he said.

Jerry smiled and pulled a little recorder from the pocket next to his holster. ‘Confession,’ he said.

Gordon raised his eyebrows. ‘He’s just going to tell us, then? He’ll see us and panic and just spill it all?’

‘Sure he will. We have everything but hard evidence on him, don’t we? He’s connected in every way that’s not crucial. He knows he did it, we know he did it, and he knows we know. Doesn’t take much from there to get him to say something. Most of the time, these people are just dying to talk about it.’

‘Really?’

Jerry tried to remember what it was like to be a newbie. To believe things about people and then have the beliefs beaten out of you day by day until you woke up and realised you’d seen it all. He saw Gordon’s unlined face and his wide, sceptical eyes and he found himself a little bit jealous and a lot scornful. Kid would learn, he thought. Today, definitely.

‘One thing to remember, when you talk to a guilty man,’ Jerry said, slipping the recorder back into his pocket. ‘Every silence is a guilty silence. They can’t bear it, so they talk, and every lie makes them feel better because it covers up their guilt. Eventually, though, they put one too many lies on the stack and the whole thing comes crumbling down.’

‘Give them enough rope and they hang themselves,’ Gordon said, nodding.

‘Whatever. Bottom line is, shut up and let him talk.’ With that, he raised his hand and rapped on the door three times.

A few seconds later, a cheerful looking man with wide eyes and misty glasses opened the door. He was spindly and intelligent looking, exactly the kind of guy Jerry had expected. The violence was in the murders, sure, but it wasn’t done directly by this weed of a person. Must have been contract kills – but hadn’t they ruled that out already? That part would be interesting to find out.

‘Hello, officers, how can I help you?’ Given his frame, his voice was oddly deep. Even in that short sentence, Jerry thought he could sense a slightly different emphasis on each word, as if the man was trying to make him hear some things and not others. It was unsettling.

‘Are you Mr. Geoffrey Dallum?’

‘I am indeed.’

‘We’d just like to come in and ask a few questions, if you don’t mind,’ Jerry said.

‘Of course,’ the man said, stepping back.

They entered the little cottage and followed him into a cosy living room area where a fire was crackling in the corner. Geoffrey picked up a small log, and while his back was turned Jerry stuck his hand in his pocket and switched on the recorder.

‘Would either of you like tea?’ Geoffrey said.

Jerry sensed Gordon about to say yes and he stood on his toe. ‘I – no, thank you,’ he said instead.

‘Alright, then. What are your names?’

‘This is officer Gale, and I’m Sergeant Raimes,’ Jerry said, and they shook his hand one at a time. Jerry marvelled at the strength in the scrawny arm, and he saw Gordon wince beneath the grip as well.

‘Gale and Raimes, nice to meet you. Well, take a seat.’ They sat down on the comfortable leather couch, and Geoffrey sat opposite, with a bemused smile on his face. He knows, Jerry thought. Smug bastard. Maybe it won’t be so easy.

‘So what’s the problem, officers? No one’s died, I hope.’ He said this with some concern, and Jerry had an idea that only he had heard the mocking in it.

‘Actually, I’m afraid someone has. Twenty someones, in fact,’ Jerry said. There was a silence, and Geoffrey looked – looked – shocked. .

‘Now,’ he said, ‘I thought those were all suicides.’

‘They were, strictly speaking, but they had a funny pattern that made us think differently.’ Gordon stayed quiet and serious. He was really just the backup in this one, just watching and learning, and it seemed he knew it, which was good. ‘For one thing, the first three were patients of yours. The following three were all in this area, and after that they were spread out but still pretty close. I’d have thought a guy like you would have been careful from the beginning.’ He saw Gordon’s look in the corner of his eye but he didn’t care. He’d made a split second decision: this guy was too smart to blurt anything out. He’d have to be scared into it.

‘You aren’t suggesting I had something to do with it?’ he said, again with that mocking voice. Jerry noticed he had a strange habit of pausing for a split second after the first word he spoke, as if he were calculating every syllable of the following sentence.

‘What is it you do for a living, Mr. Dallum?’

‘Are you suggesting it? Really?’ The half smile on his face was fading. Weren’t expecting me to come right out and say it, were you? Jerry thought. Figured I’d try to trick you. Bet you’re wondering what we have that makes me so sure, don’t you?  He said nothing, and waited for more words to spill out of the man. More rope for the hanging, as Gordon put it.

‘Both of you… you already… This is an arrest, isn’t it?’ At last, the fear, the dawning certainty of capture. It always amazed Jerry, no matter how many times he saw it, how ready every criminal was to be caught. It haunted them, he thought, every day. They never seemed that surprised when he came knocking, and when it was finally time to go he always swore that amidst the despair he caught a glimmer of relief.

‘We got you, buddy,’ said Jerry. ‘Everything but DNA.’ And suddenly he saw it – he knew how it went down and he knew what he could use to tip the guy over, get the full confession. He went for it. ‘We had recorders in here for the third girl, since you were already a suspect by then.’

It wasn’t true, but it worked: the man’s neat, calm demeanour shattered and he looked at the floor, broken.

‘You hypnotised them,’ Jerry said, making it sound like a statement instead of a question, which was really what it was. The look on Geoffrey’s face answered it.

‘Hypnotised,’ he said, dreamily.

The word hung in the air, and Jerry almost felt he had to say something to make it go away.

‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘You are a hypnotist, are you not?’

‘Yes,’ he said. Jerry thought he sounded very far away, now, distant from everything, and that wasn’t unusual – in fact it was a good sign. What wasn’t such a good sign was that the look on his face had changed. He didn’t look despairing, although the relief was still there.

‘It was so easy to do,’ he began. ‘And I have always been exceptional at it. I have a special talent, you see – I was made for it. My voice is just right, and so are my eyes.’ He took off his glasses and laid them on his lap, fixing them with a wide stare, as if to prove his point. ‘I had to start with patients, you see, because they were so willing. I started to wonder, if I could get them to quit smoking, to lose weight, could I get them to do things they didn’t want so much? Things they weren’t willing to do?’

‘And, what, suicide sounded like fun?’ Gordon said, and Jerry heard the anger in his voice. He shot him a warning glance. Stay cool, it said, and we’ll take him in.

‘It was a challenge, at first,’ Geoffrey went on. ‘But then it became easy. I wondered if I could do it on people who didn’t want to be hypnotised in the first place, and that was a challenge, too, for a while.’ He gave them a half smile, then, and Jerry got the impression he was recounting fond memories. He realised the man was very much insane, and he was glad both for the tape recorder still running in his pocket and the gun in the holster right next to it. There was something else, too: the hypnotist had stopped that strange habit of pausing after his first words. Jerry wasn’t sure what that meant, but he took note of it.

‘Only then did I realise how vulnerable I was to your investigation,’ he said, chuckling. ‘So I went for victims even further away. Too late, it seems. Ah, well. I will have to relocate somewhere else and start again.’

Jerry shook his head, and he and Gordon stood up together. He drew the recorder from his pocket and held it up, and now it was his turn to be smug. ‘Actually, you sick bastard, you aren’t going anywhere.’

Geoffrey stared at it, apparently unfazed. In that faraway voice, still staring at the recorder, he spoke: ‘Gale, shoot it.’

There was an explosion and the recorder exploded out of Jerry’s hands. For a second, bizarrely, he thought the man had destroyed it with his sheer gaze. Then he turned and saw Gordon pointing a smoking barrel his way. The look of shock on his face was almost comical. ‘Sarge!’ he said. ‘I’m so sorry!’

Jerry, his right hand still holding a shard of recorder and his ears ringing from the sound of the shot, had not quite recovered his mind when Geoffrey spoke again.

‘Gale, shoot yourself.’

As his right arm levelled the barrel with the side of his head, Gordon’s eyes widened. ‘Sarge. Help me,’ he said, his voice a choke of terror.

Jerry saw it, but did not understand, until Gordon pulled the trigger and spread brain and skull fragments all over the yellow and gold wallpaper. Then he understood.

He watched as Gordon dropped to the floor, the remainder of his face pouring blood onto the white carpet, and he tried to get himself to move. He was frozen with terror.

In an instant, it broke and he swivelled back to face Geoffrey, who was still standing in the same place, calm as ever. ‘Raimes, stop now,’ he said.

Jerry stopped, his hand on the handle of his gun.

‘You’ll die in a minute, sergeant, but first you’ll have to help me, alright?’ He spoke as assuring a child that if he ate his greens, he would get dessert.

Jerry thought about it, and found that helping this charming man was all of a sudden an excellent idea. It was so good, he thought, that he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it before. ‘Alright,’ he said.

Geoffrey beamed and clapped his hands. ‘Excellent. Now, before we get started, I’m going to go through everything you need to do. Do you think you can listen?’

Jerry didn’t really want to listen, but he felt his head go up and down and he felt his body lean forward, and he realised he was going to listen all the same.

Geoffrey began to talk.

Jerry listened, and when he was done, he got to work.

In case you wonder, the place described here is real, and does exist in Meteora, Greece. The Monks who used to live in the monasteries there used to climb up and down the cliffs via ropes. They wouldn’t replace these until God decided to let them break and plunge the unfortunate fellow to his death. Essentially, this story is just because I’ve always been curious about the idea of immortality and what it would be like to live for a very long time. I gave it a nasty twist cos that’s just my thing. How far would you go to become immortal?

The Ancient Man

An old man on a mountain. It was basically the oldest cliché in the book. On the other hand, it was intriguing as hell. It may end up a dead end story, but that didn’t mean that Sean White didn’t want to see his by-line under the title nevertheless. The Ancient Man, he’d call it.

He’d been sent to Greece to report on the current conflict, but it wasn’t as if that was going anywhere right now. Besides, if this ended up being as good as he thought it was, he didn’t think they’d complain much.

The mode of transport, he would have liked to change. When he’d seen the rickety wooden ‘elevator’ on the cliffside, he’d point blank refused to get on it.

‘Do not worry,’ one of the odd monks had told him. ‘The rope does not break until God wishes it.’ That wasn’t much hope for an atheist, but a story was a story, and up he went.

He wasn’t sure they really were monks, now he thought of it. The ones he’d seen on television always wore bright orange, yellow, or brown cloaks, but these had blue ones. He didn’t know what that meant, but he was pretty sure they weren’t the traditional kind of monk.

The rope dragged their rotten wood box up the side of the cliff, bumping on every outcrop and flailing round every edge, and before they were halfway up he wished he’d chosen another career, but at last it was over.

When he stepped out of the cage, he felt like he was on an island. Before him was a wide plateau, and at the peak of it was a large house in typical Greek style, pointed roofs, red tiles and all. Instead of an ocean, they were surrounded by the misty Meteora Mountains.

The plateau itself was pretty straightforward. There was grass up here, amazingly, but mostly it was just snow and rock. There was a pathway leading up to the house, and the two bald monks started up it without so much as a glance backward. He hesitated, took a notebook and a pen out of his jacket pocket, and went after them.

He felt foolish when he heard the rumour a week ago: the man who’d lived for millenniums. It was of course, ridiculous, but the man had a huge following. It was a marvel, really, the way he’d manipulated these people. He had them treating him like a God, now, as though he was really immortal, above everything.

He wasn’t completely decided on the angle his article would take, but Sean was certain it wouldn’t be in favour of the Ancient Man, as they called him. He’d portray him for what he was, an old con man. It would be a social commentary on the gullibility of human beings, but best of all, it would be controversial.

The front doors of the house were golden and heavy. The monks had to put their full weight on them before the massive slabs grated open. They revealed a long entrance hall, the floor made of stone, the walls and ceiling made of solid wood, and a gigantic fire burning at the far end. It was taller than any of them, and as wide as two men lying head to toe.

In front of the great fire was the Ancient Man. He sat cross legged on the stone floor. In front of him were two ceramic cups and a clay jug full of… something. Typical, thought Sean. He’s even got the long white beard and the saggy eyes. This guy is Gandalf in the flesh.

The two monks stood on either side of him. ‘Politeness is essential,’ one whispered. ‘If you want your questions asked, you must be polite. If he offers anything, take it. If he has an opinion, agree. If you ask too many, he will stop answering, and then you must leave.’

Sean nodded, his throat suddenly too dry to speak. He took a few steps forward and the monks shut the big doors behind him, sending out a deep thud that echoed throughout the great room. They stood in front of the doors, like guards.

Sean gathered his breath, gripped his notebook, and strode across the wide flagstones. He would be polite, but he didn’t intend to show fear – not to this scam artist.

He stopped five feet from the cross legged man, who still had shown no sign that he was aware of a visitor. His eyebrows were so thick it was hard to tell whether his eyes were open or closed.

Sean hesitated for a moment and then sat down opposite him, cross legged. Wordlessly, the man reached for the jug and filled up their cups. The liquid was thick and black. If he offers you anything, the monk had said, take it. Sean lifted the cup as if in toast and set it down in front of him. Politeness dictated, he was sure, that you didn’t drink or eat until your host did.

But the Ancient Man did nothing but sit. After a minute or so, when Sean was beginning to grow uncomfortable, he spoke. ‘What is your question?’

His English was perfect. Sean realised that he was Asian, as well, which was strange in itself. This was the very heart, the deepest depths of Greece and Greek culture. How was he such a part of it?

‘How old are you?’ He asked. He hadn’t wanted to be unoriginal, but he figured it was best to get through the basics before he got to the interesting things.

‘I am a hundred centuries old. Maybe more, maybe less, that is the rough number.’

‘Where were you born?’

‘In Asia somewhere. I don’t know. It is not important. Stop wasting my time or I will waste yours. I will not speak unless I am of use. I want to enlighten the world, to be your God.’

‘Okay…’ He took a deep breath. ‘What is the meaning of life?’

The ancient man chuckled, a sound as dry and weak as leaves blowing over the road. ‘Why should life have meaning?’ he said.

‘I… Ok. Where did human beings come from? Do you believe in evolution or a religion?’

‘Neither. I believe only in life as it is now. These things do not matter to me.’

‘Right.’ There was silence for some time. This wasn’t as easy as he thought. He’d given plenty of interviews before, but then again he’d never done one where the interviewee threatened to stop as soon as you ceased to be interesting.

‘What is the secret to immortality?’ he said.

The ancient man smiled. ‘Interesting question,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately for you, there is no secret. I was born this way, but I may not be immortal. I have aged on the surface, after all: I may still die years from now. I am vulnerable to damage, too. One of the reasons I have locked myself away in this sanctuary, to avoid hurt so that I may live forever and enlighten the world.’

‘So you want to do good? In what way?’

‘I want to show the world what it is to appreciate life. To truly love every second of your life, no matter how long or short that may be.’

‘I see. And how do you plan to do that?’ He was on a roll now, his hand flying across the notepad. This stuff was gold, whether he was a fraud or not. The guy had a gift of the gab, anyway. No wonder he’d got such a following.

‘I lead by example, mostly. I demonstrate that no matter what the state of your life, time passes, and tragedy and beauty alike die. Time is what allows the phoenix to rise from the ashes. I show people that their lives are meaningless, and because of this they will be happy.’

Sean raised his eyebrows. ‘I see. So the fact that you live happily is proof of this? That it’s all about perspective?’

‘Yes. But also self-interest.’

‘I don’t follow.’

‘I can kill myself if I want. But here I am, after ten thousand years. I’m alive because of self-interest. I want to help the world, but that is self-interest also, you see. Because I will feel good about myself when I achieve that goal, I will feel even more like a God.’

Sean thought that fitted pretty well. It definitely would go well for his article. The Ancient Man is a selfish bastard. Cares only for himself, creates a cult to worship him, lies reflexively. He was like a textbook sociopath. He scribbled these notes in his notebook, keeping it angled away from the Ancient Man’s vision.

‘What is your name?’ he asked.

‘Do you have any comprehension of what it is like to exist for ten thousand years?’ The Ancient Man asked. ‘Do you have any idea what it entails?’

Sean stopped scribbling and looked into his eyes. His eyes, he realised, were incredible. They were infinite. It was like looking into an ocean that had no depth. This man did not see him: he saw a bag of bones and flesh and a beating heart, and every thought.

‘Have you ever met someone over the age of eighty?’ he went on.

‘Yes.’

‘And they knew you, didn’t they? They knew you because they’d met people just like you, over and over. Imagine a man of a thousand. He’s met every kind of person in the world at least once. Now think of me. I’ve met you a hundred times. Those monks standing by the door? They keep their faces neutral at all times, but I can always tell what they’re thinking. Because they are not conscious of the fact that their faces and bodies betray their thoughts every second. You? You aren’t even an open book, you’re a picture. I see you and I see what you are, and I see your thoughts.’

He stopped talking abruptly and took a long sip of the black stuff in his cup. Sean waited, his breath caught in his throat, but the Ancient Man said nothing more.

‘What am I thinking, then?’ He was suddenly aware of the emptiness of the place. It was ridiculous of course – what harm could come to him? This old man didn’t look like he could walk two steps.

‘You are going to write an article about me. It won’t be in my favour.’

‘Not at all. I think you serve a good cause.’

All the smile was gone from his face. ‘I only want to do good, you understand? Bad press is bad.’

Sean nodded seriously and looked down at the stone floor, as if ashamed. The man was a good actor, he thought, but he wasn’t getting out of it that easily. The man was expecting to trick him; well, he would play along.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just, it doesn’t make sense for someone to be like you. It defies science. It’s reasonable to assume fraud. If you’d rather have your own words… I can tape record the conversation?’

The Ancient Man made that horrible dry sound again. ‘That would be preferable.’ He took another sip of his drink, and this time Sean picked up his own cup, to be polite. He took a sip. It tasted like melted chocolate, cream, and honey. He drained the whole thing on his second gulp. He reached into his pocket and took out his recorder, switching it on and then resting it on the stone floor by his foot.

‘I lied earlier,’ the Ancient Man said, finishing the last of his own cup.

‘Oh?’

‘I am not ten thousand years old.’

This, Sean thought, was the real gold. He didn’t know what prompted the man to confess all of a sudden, but he’d be damned if he’d let it go. He started scribbling fiercely, in case the recorder didn’t get it all. The pen flew over the paper. The Ancient Man didn’t seem to care.

‘I am merely one thousand years of age.’ The pen stopped.

‘There is a secret of immorality, too, which I learned at the age you see me now, of ninety three.’

‘What?’ Whatever was in the cup, it was strong. His vision was already beginning to swim slightly, blurring the bearded face before him.

‘It is a magical thing, I think, but no doubt science would find some interesting explanation for it, too. It’s almost voodoo, but not quite. Simpler than you’d think.’

‘I don’t…’ Suddenly he felt very wrong. He had everything he needed, it was time to get out. I’ve had enough of this interview sir, and I am leaving.’ His words seemed to fall out of his mouth in an inaudible jumble. He stood up to go, but before he’d taken a step he felt his muscles weakening. He couldn’t have made it to the door if he sprinted.

A second later the Ancient Man grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back towards the fire. He laid him down, several feet from the crackling flames, as if setting baby to sleep, and looked into his eyes.

There was a hungry look in there now, Sean saw. It was a look of restraint, also. It was like watching an alcoholic prepare to start on his only beer of the night, because he was trying to cut down.

He struggled to get up, to fight, but his limbs were like sacks of sand that his torso was trying to drag around. It was impossible. He could barely lift his head.

‘Why?’ he managed, through numb lips.

The Ancient Man smiled with strange teeth. They were perfectly square, perfectly space and aligned, completely white. ‘How do you think I’ve lived for so long? Broccoli and jogging?’ He laughed then, a hearty, insane sound.

The Ancient Man lowered his mouth to Sean’s neck and began to eat his throat. When there was none left there, he moved on to the rest of him. Nothing went to waste, not even the bones, and when he was done he fell asleep by the fire, satisfied.

‘More,’ he whispered, feeling the years melt away. His hair browned, his nails shortened, his skin smoothed.

The two monks opened the great doors, left, and shut them again. The Ancient Man smiled with his odd teeth, and waited.

 I wrote this longhand, because it seemed like that kind of story. Also, I didn’t have my computer with me when I started. But I will say that I felt different because of it. Everything took longer, went slower, and I got into the story a lot more. Not entirely sure that’s a good thing, though, when it was done I felt really cold.

The Will

A born hermit, Samuel Frances was only interested in one thing when it came to other human beings: their money. That doesn’t necessarily mean he was a bad person – in fact he had a certain pride in the way he treated everyone with kindness and respect, no matter how much he loathed them. Not generosity, though, never that.

His desire for isolation came simply because he was so different from everyone else. They shied away from him and his eccentricities, and so he was unfriendly. They disliked him for that, and he hated them in return.

No matter where he was, or who he was with (on the rare occasions he was with anyone) he would have at least five pens with him and a notebook which he would scribble in constantly. This tended to put people off somewhat, because while you spoke to him he would continuously write while maintaining eye contact. You got the impression he was either writing down everything you said, or pretending to listen while he wrote about other things.

Then there was the bizarre contradiction he had, where he would compulsively hoard things, but at the same time throw out everything he deemed ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’. As a young man, his room had been packed full of objects of all kinds, as well as hundreds of notebooks. If you asked him what any of his possessions was for, he’d give you a quite reasonable explanation: either it was very valuable, very useful or very rare. Even stranger, ask him for an item and he’d find it in seconds regardless of how deep in his surprisingly neat stores it was.

These were his most notable characteristics, but Samuel had plenty more weirdness, and not all of it pleasant. That, and the fact that he did everything he could to avoid people meant that he never had any real friends. That was fine by him, but it also meant that the loads of cash he so desired were out of reach for him.

When he moved out of home, he lived in a crummy one room apartment and worked as a freelance writer, which made him enough to eat and pay rent, and little else.

As the years passed he grew bitter, and he resented the human race more and more. Attempt after attempt to make his fortune through honest means failed. His hatred deepened and his mind turned to darker plans.

One day, he began to write some of the plans down in his notebooks, and they grew. At first it was only a fantasy, distant dreams, like the bullied schoolboy who dreams of massacring his school.

But on he wrote, and the plans filled notebook after notebook. Some of them were impossible – some were merely ludicrous. Others, though…

One of these he toyed with, and the more details he wrote down, the more he realised how easy it would be. On his twenty ninth birthday, he did it, and it was just as easy as he thought. No – it was easier, frighteningly so.

Two months later, Samuel moved out of his dingy apartment and into his dream house. It was a sprawling, one story mansion made of heavy wood, and it was located as far away from anyone as he could get: Northern Russia, right on the coast above Archangel. It was ultimately a huge log cabin, battered most of the year by blizzards and snow, and entirely undesirable to most normal people.

Samuel didn’t waste those big empty spaces, though. He filled them up with his great hoardes, his collections of statues from Egypt and paintings from France; Shelves upon shelves of famous, rare and valuable books; even guns.

He spent his days chopping wood for his massive fireplace (kept burning all day and night), hunting red deer in the forest, reading and, of course, writing. For the six months or more before he had to replenish supplies, or go to buy some new desired object, he didn’t see a single human being. For the first time in his life, he was happy.

Until the letter came.

Dear Sammy,

It is good to hear that you’ve made such a nice life for yourself lately. I know I was sometimes greedy, a little obsessed with those pretty rectangles of paper so full of possibility. But I made all my riches honestly. Just remember that.

P.S. Don’t bother trying to reply. I’m still in Australia where you left me, staying under a church.

            Sincerely, Your Conscience.

 

Samuel read it over and over, trying to make sense of it. Actually, what he was really trying to make sense of was the manner of its arrival. While he slept, someone had pushed it through the tiny window in his study, where he did most of his writing. He liked to keep the window open a crack because he found the cold refreshing. What really got to him, though, what really chilled him to the marrow, was the first line: Dear Sammy. There was only one person in his life who’d called him Sammy, and that was his father. ‘Was’, being the operative word – Theodore Frances was nearly three years dead.

He watched the letter burn that night, and decided to forget about it. It was clearly an attempt at blackmail. The real guts of it would come with the next letter or two. It was also, he realised, probably one of his own family members – one of them surely suspected what he did, and now, in typical Frances style, they wanted to cash in.

There was nothing else for two weeks. His life went on, and he was soon lost in the many joys of living completely alone. Every day he woke he remembered the way he used to live, remembered how he’d come to live here instead, and found he had not a single regret. He did, however, get into the habit of locking the window in his study, but by the time the second letter came he had stopped doing this regularly, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d left it open or closed the night before.

Dear Sammy,

 I’m not trying to blackmail you, really. I have a sense of honour that demands that I treat family better than I would a mortal enemy, though that’s what you are. We’re not family in the strictest sense, but I think we should be much closer than we are. People who forget their consciences might do any number of evil things, and we can’t have that.

 P.S. Don’t try to run, I’m much faster than you. I’ve already made it to Indonesia and I can cross oceans easier than jumping puddles.

            Sincerely, Your Conscience

 

Sammy stared from the note to the open window. Had he closed it? He thought so, but for the life of him he couldn’t be sure. Well, he’d be sure next time – he wouldn’t open it for anything from now on.

Not that that made him feel much better. The temperature outside was below zero, and the nearest town was almost a hundred kilometres away. Not only that, but there was no mailman for his address. Anyone who wanted to communicate did it by email, these days, which meant that whoever was delivering these letters lived very close indeed.

Not blackmail? That didn’t convince him, but if they meant what they said then they were almost certainly after revenge instead. Well, he thought darkly, let them try. He burned the letter and locked every door and window and the house. Then, he paid a visit to his gun collection.

Rushing around the house in a fever of activity, he felt like one of those paranoid maniacs you heard about, preparing for judgement day. He looked it, too: now that he was truly free from civilisation he paid no attention to personal grooming or hygiene. His hair hung in long greasy tendrils from his head. His beard was long and ragged, and his teeth were broken and yellow. He smelled like a rat drowned in sewage, and had for so long he no could no longer smell it.

By the time he was done, he felt he could have held off a small army from his house. He had weapons and ammunition hidden in various rooms, pieces of furniture arranged strategically to provide the most cover, and he balanced an empty glass above his front door frame.

When it was all done he sat by the fire in the lounge and thought about it. It occurred to him that he’d gone a bit overboard, especially since he’d only received two letters, neither of which had actually threatened him. Then again, he did not like at all what they were implying. In fact just the strange use of his name meant they must know what he did, there was no other explanation. And there was nothing they could want from him except blackmail or revenge – he was sure of that, too. Either way, if they came here, he was determined they wouldn’t leave alive.

This time he didn’t relax his vigilance at all. He had to take down the glass whenever he went out to hunt or chop wood, but he replaced it as soon as he came in, and always checked the lock on the window in the study.

On the eighth day since the second letter, he stayed in to write. He was working on his autobiography, and after finding disturbingly little to put in it had begun to embellish. He was just recounting his time living in the Siberian wilderness when he noticed the pages of his thick black book were moving slightly. An icy wind blew against his cheek.

He turned to see the window, the same one he’d checked that day, open a tiny crack. A new letter sat in the top corner of the desk, as if it had blown in soundlessly while he wrote. He reached for it with shaking hands.

Dear Sammy

I hope this letter finds you, the post is increasingly unreliable these days. I just wanted to let you know that you are wrong on both counts: It isn’t blackmail OR revenge that I come for – it is justice. As your conscience, I’ve done some thinking and I’ve decided that a man like you should not be allowed to live in this world. A drastic decision, but I am certain it’s the right one. I hope you can see my side of it, but I doubt you will.

 P.S. I’m navigating through Northern China now. It’s confusing, but as they say, where there’s a WILL, there’s a way. Isn’t that what your dear father always used to say?

 Sincerely, Your Conscience

 

No, Samuel thought, that was not what he always used to say. In fact, he’d only said it once that he knew of. It was the image that stuck in his mind when his other nightmares faded, the one that came to him only on those nights when he couldn’t sleep until the early hours. His father, chuckling through his own blood, somehow managing to make that bitter joke his last words.

It’s him, a voice in the back of his mind whispered. He’s come crawling from his grave to take his revenge. In his opinion, the letter couldn’t make it to the fire fast enough.

When it was ashes, he poured himself a whiskey and drank it by the fire, staring through the big window into the blizzard.

It was out there, he thought. An undead thing – no not that, it had to be a ghost. Of course, that was how he travelled so fast, even over oceans, and it was how he stayed invisible. No one was going to miss some rotting thing stagger around Beijing, after all. He laughed, and the sound shocked him in the silence of the big room. He hadn’t heard the sound of his own voice for months.

A ghost. Ridiculous. But it was also true – he knew that as surely as he knew he’d locked that window earlier, and he didn’t want to think about either thing for long. He wouldn’t have to, though. If it was coming, it was coming, and he was ready for it. He’d done it before, and he’d do it again, even if he had to torch this place.

He didn’t think he’d have to, though, because he was sure that ghosts only lived on belief and fear. All he had to do was confront it, face it down. Then, diminished by his fearlessness, he only had to believe that a bullet would end it and it would. That was just how they worked.

Over the next three days, he almost relaxed in the knowledge that he knew how to defeat whatever was coming. Be it a ghost, zombie or avenging family member, he was ready. Then the next letter arrived. He found it neatly placed on the front page of his autobiography.

Dear Sammy,

I’m somewhere North East of Siberia now, and it’s very cold. I think the wind’s picking up – is it this bad where you are? I don’t have guns or fire, and yours won’t work on me, either. I’m hoping you’ll make the right decision before I get there – it’ll be infinitely better that way, believe me. All this cold is making me hungry, and you’re the only meal for miles around.

 P.S. I wonder what YOUR will is going to say? Who will you leave it all to? Better get writing!

            Sincerely, Your Father.

 

That last bit was new, he thought dumbly. It was almost like it was making fun of him. Or perhaps it was meant to hint that it really was his father, in case he hadn’t worked it out yet.

His sense of calm completely shattered, he went back to the lounge and poured himself another tall drink. His hands were shaking so much that the ice blocks rattled in the glass as he lifted it to his mouth. He emptied it and poured another, and then forced himself to stop. Something or someone was coming, and he had to be ready for it. He needed to make more preparations.

First, he moved the telephone into his study. That way, if things got serious he could call the police. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to save him but at least they could catch who did it, and give him a proper burial instead of rotting in this place. For that reason he put the letter in the top drawer of his desk, in case it helped them catch whoever it was. He retrieved every last one of the guns he’d hidden and put them up in the study, so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Finally, he raided the pantry and dragged up enough canned soup and dry meat to last him another three days, although he doubted he’d need that much. At the current rate, his father would arrive before the end of the second day. Where there’s WILL, there’s a way, he thought madly, and he believed it.

This kind of waiting was torturous. He wasn’t used to being holed up at all, and he grew madder by the second. He whiled away the hours by writing in his rapidly growing autobiography, about his brave deeds during the second world war, and the time he fought off a family of bears single handed with a broken whiskey bottle.

He was so lost in the story that he didn’t notice the next letter fly in through the window and land beside him, until he heard a glass shatter downstairs. It was surely the one he’d balanced on his front door.

He reached for the phone and dialled the police immediately. ‘I’d like to report a murder,’ he said, making himself as clear through his broken Russian as he could. He’d never taken the time to learn the language properly, since he almost never used it. Before the person on the other end could reply, he said his address twice and then hung up. It would take them a while, but maybe Theodore wouldn’t be so keen to come storming in after a few bullets went his way.

Chuckling, Samuel snatched up one of his handguns and flicked off the safety. He took up a position behind his desk and within easy view of the door. Only then did he reach for the letter on the desk. He dropped it and picked it up again, every breath seeming to force its way out of him like it was trying to escape.

Dear Sammy,

 I’m here. Your house is quite something – I never knew you were one for extravagances. I don’t know how you can stand to walk around this place without being reminded of what you did. I don’t know how you can fall asleep at night, either. It’s a good thing I came to sort you out, isn’t it?. Well I’ll see you very soon, although it’ll be hard to find the study in this mess.

 P.S. It isn’t too late to do the right thing. Just remember, if you haven’t done it by the time I walk through that door, I’ll have to do it for you.

            SINCERELY, Your Father

 

He let the letter fall to the floor and put both hands on his gun. He stared down the barrel and tried to keep it steady, aiming for a spot just to the left of the doorknob. Every beat of his heart seemed to set the barrel too high or too low, and it was impossible to aim straight.

For a long time, the only sounds were the howling wind and the hiss of his own breath. Then he heard footsteps moving down the hallway. They were slow, careful steps, but every now and then they made the floorboards creak.

So, he thought, it was a corpse. Or a person, maybe, but he thought it was a corpse. A ghost couldn’t make steps like that, and it would have come straight through the walls, never mind the front door. He imaged his father’s ragged body staggering unevenly towards the study. Mostly bone, with shreds of green skin hanging from him like moth eaten curtains. Empty eye sockets staring at the locked door.

The creaking steps drew closer and closer until they stopped right outside the door. He saw a shadow move in the crack of light beneath the threshold.

‘GO AWAY!’ Samuel shouted. Somehow, his voice didn’t rise above a whisper, and he felt like he was suffocating. Tears ran down his face, but he didn’t notice.

The doorhandle rattled, and began to turn, slowly. His father was taking his time, he knew, to give him his last chance. To let him do what was right, and redeem himself.

Screaming in that terrible whisper, he fired five rounds into the door and watched chunks of it splinter out into the hallway. He couldn’t make out anything through the holes, and everything was dead still.

The doorknob began to turn again, and then stopped. The door began to open.

His ears ringing loud in his head, he put the barrel of the gun into his mouth, his eyes wide with terror. He was still screaming when he pulled the trigger.

The door swung open to reveal a cramped study ankle deep in scattered papers and pens. The open window above Samuel’s bleeding corpse rattled loudly, and the house creaked with the constant gale winds.

On the desk, amidst hundreds of ink covered sheets, sat a half written autobiography. Rather, it wasn’t written at all, though the four hundred page exercise book was certainly half full. Over and over, Samuel had written an account of his father’s murder, followed by a copy of Theodore Frances’s original will and testament.

Only upon close inspection would the police later detect the connection between the author of this strange confession, and the one who wrote the blood spattered letter now lying on the floor: Their handwriting was exactly the same.

Personally, I’d have said my writing went downhill this week, but as someone famous once said, a good idea saves bad writing way better than good writing saves a bad idea. I was unsure whether I pulled it off, but I think I must have because when I finished editing it I had an evil smile on my face that would make small children cry… Enjoy

The Start of Something Special

The rose garden by the back fence didn’t really need to be weeded, but John Terrence was weeding it anyway. Eve would be back any minute, and he didn’t want to be around when she did, at least for a while.

That wasn’t a good sign, he thought, kicking the spade in under a particularly stubborn weed. It was a very bad sign actually, and he found himself thinking that divorce may be in the cards after all. Until now, he thought it would be better to have a wife, if for nothing else than to maintain a certain image, but to have a marriage as dysfunctional as this could only cause harm.

He gave the spade another hard kick and then leaned on it, bringing the weed out of the ground in a heap of roots and dirt. He threw it over his shoulder so hard it almost hit the shed. It was dusk, and getting quite cool already, but he was sweating hard. He took a moment to wipe his forehead before getting to work on the next weed. He lifted the spade, and then froze. He squinted down at the small crater he’d just made. Was that…

He lowered the spade and bent down to scrutinise it closer. It was. A nose. He could even make out the nostrils, packed with soil.

He took up the spade again and began to dig, more carefully now, around the sides of the crater. After about ten minutes, he’d uncovered the rest of the face.

Once he’d revealed enough to be sure, he dropped the spade and stood back, staring down at it. He was sure he recognized it… Yes, the man from Ingleton, who’d gone missing just a week ago. He didn’t look more than a week decomposed, either.

Only then did the truth begin to dawn on him. His breath caught in his throat. Eve, he thought. It had to be Eve’s doing. Who else? No one else had access to their back garden – and the surrounding walls were ten feet tall and lined with electric wire.

The sound of a car pulling into the front driveway came to him over the soft wind and he turned around. She was back. He glanced back, thoughtful, and then used the spade to turn a few clumps of soil back onto the face.

This, he thought, was incredible. He wasn’t sure he could believe it, but there was only one way to find out. He’d have to confront her about it. He considered bringing the spade with him, but dismissed it as cowardice and strode into the house empty handed.

He waited for her in the kitchen, leaning up against the counter, near the cutlery drawer.

She entered the same way she did every day. Tossed her jacket onto the couch, hung her keys on the hook by the front door, and called out: ‘John! I’m home. Terrible day for me, what about you?’

She’d entered that same way for the last two years, since they bought the house, but today it sounded so wrong. How many of those times had she driven past her office at the dealership and hunted some new victim. Where were the others buried? There had to be more, after all – you didn’t just kill a stranger for no reason and then stop.

‘John? Where are –’ she stopped in the doorway to the kitchen. ‘What’s wrong?’ she said, her eyes darting down to his dirty hands. ‘Have you been out in the garden?’

‘I was weeding the rose garden,’ he said.

‘Oh.’

‘I found something interesting.’

She said nothing, but he saw her shift her weight to one leg, and her hand drop almost casually into her pocket. What did she keep in there, he wondered, in case of emergencies?

‘I think his name was Sheldon… something or other. I was wondering what he was doing there?’

She narrowed her eyes. Her hand moved and found whatever it was in her pocket, but she didn’t take it out.

He stepped to one side and pulled the cutlery drawer open.

‘I put him there,’ she said quietly.

‘What was that?’ he said.

‘I put him there. What, are you deaf as well as stupid?’

‘Oh I heard. I just couldn’t believe you were. How shallow did you have to bury him? One spadeful of dirt, one, and there he was.’

She gaped at him, and then that little smirk crept onto her face, the one that always set his blood boiling whenever they argued. His right hand felt something and he glanced down. A butterknife. Not good enough. He grabbed the paring knife instead, but didn’t take it out just yet.

‘Oh, I see how it is,’ she said. ‘First you’ll have your big monologue, about how much smarter you are than me. You could do it better, of course, because you know so much about murdering. Then, when I’m just wide eyed with admiration, you’ll call the police and that’s the end of me. Is that about right?’

He shook his head. ‘Unbelievable,’ he said. ‘You don’t even know, do you?’

‘What?’

‘Maybe,’ he said, drawing out the paring knife and slamming the cutlery drawer shut, ‘you would have noticed all the other bodies back there, the ones conveniently chopped up and buried more than three inches below the surface, if you’d dug a bit deeper. But I suppose you were too busy thinking about how dark and mysterious you were being, how evil and clever.’

The smirk disappeared from her face, replaced with total surprise.

‘Oh, what’s that? Who’s the clever one now? Just so you know, that rose garden has been my body dump for the last two years, and I’ll be damned if you’re going to start crowding it up.’

The surprise turned into a scowl, and now she drew the thing from her pocket at last. Inwardly, he cursed. It was a syringe. She flipped the cap off the needle, but kept it by her side.

‘Are you mad?’ he said. ‘You just carry that around with you?’

‘Concealed pocket,’ she said. ‘Not that you’d ever notice, anyway. Did you even glance at the candles and silverware I set out today?’

He had noticed, actually, but hadn’t known quite what to think of it.

‘I didn’t think so,’ she said. ‘Just like you didn’t notice my haircut, or the people I’ve been burying under our shed since we bought this place.’ Her voice was beginning to rise to that horrible whine he hated so much. The tears wouldn’t be far away. For the first time he saw the bag she’d set down by the front door. It had two bottles of wine in it.

Suddenly, it all made sense. The wine, the syringe, her weekend ‘meetings’. He hadn’t been the only one thinking of divorce, it seemed, but hers was a different kind.

‘You were going to murder me!’ he said, and winced at the sound of his own voice. The front door was still open halfway – it wouldn’t do to be overheard at all.

She looked genuinely offended. ‘I was not!’

‘You were! That’s how you do it, isn’t it? You flirt a bit, get invited for a nice personal dinner. Out comes the wine and then…’ he nodded down at the syringe.

She said nothing, but he read it in her face.

‘I wasn’t going to do that to you,’ she said.

‘Oh, really?’

‘No. Maybe if you stopped to think for one second you might realise I was trying to grow a spark or two in our marriage, which is plenty more than I could say for you.’ She glanced down at his blade and the smirk came back. ‘How do you do it, anyway? Butchery? So original. I’ll bet no one’s ever thought of that before.’

He came forward, knuckles whitening on the handle, but she stepped back and raised the point of her syringe and he hesitated.

‘What’s your count, then?’ he said.

She raised her eyebrows. ‘You want to play that game?’

He spread his arms. ‘I’ll go first then. Thirty five.’

She snorted and shook her head. ‘Amateur.’

‘Go on then.’

She looked him in the eye, still smirking, and said: ‘Seventy three.’

He couldn’t hide his surprise quickly enough, and she laughed.

‘Liar,’ he said.

‘What was that?’ she raised her syringe higher and took a step forward. They were almost within reach of each other now. Both of them tense.

All of a sudden the fight seemed to drain out of her and almost deflated. If there was a time to strike, he thought, this was it.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and now at last the tears began to stream from her face. ‘It’s just. We never get to do anything together anymore. I would get so lonely, with that need. You know how it is.’ She looked up at him, and he felt his grip on the knife loosening. He did know.

In the brief silence that followed, they both heard it: a sharp intake of breath. He didn’t look, but out of the corner of his eye he saw something move near the front door. He noticed her hand tighten around the syringe, but he gave his head a slight shake and saw her hesitate.

‘Well, there is one last thing you should know,’ he said slowly. He let the knife drop so that he was holding it by the blade. He kept his eyes trained on hers. ‘I can’t abide… Eavesdroppers!’ At the last word he stepped forward and flung the knife straight for the door.

Mrs. Gaven, their next door neighbour, had been standing poised on the front porch. She was carrying a homemade chocolate cake, but it began to slip from her arms when the blade of the paring knife sunk into her neck.

Moving with speed and grace that John would never have thought possible in all the years he knew her, Eve spun around, caught the cake in one hand and curled the other around Mrs. Gaven’s neck. John didn’t know what was in that syringe, but a second later the whole lot of it was in Mrs. Gaven. While the old lady died, he moved around them and closed the door, avoiding the urge to slam it.

Eve lowered Mrs. Gaven to the floor and then stood up and put the cake on the counter.

For a moment there was total silence except for their breathing and the beat of their hearts.

‘Witnesses?’ Eve said.

He’d got a brief look outside before he shut the door, but he’d have bet his life that no one had been within shouting distance. ‘None,’ he said.

They both relaxed. Eve took a step towards him to avoid the spreading pool of blood beneath Mrs. Gaven. While they stood, staring at the body, her hand found his and clenched it tightly.

‘I think I need a drink,’ she said.

A few minutes later, the two of them were sitting side by side at the dining table, two fresh glasses of wine poured, the lights off, the candles lit. Dinner could wait.

‘That was amazing,’ Eve said, so quietly it was almost to herself. He glanced at her, sensing sarcasm, but for once, he didn’t see a smirk but a shy smile.

‘It was, wasn’t it?’ he said. ‘The way you got to her so quickly? I bet she doesn’t even know she’s dead yet. I’ve never seen you move that way before.’

She looked away and he realised she was blushing. ‘I could say the same about you,’ she said. ‘When did you learn to throw a knife like that? Ten feet, a ten inch gap, and you get her in the neck. Incredible.’

He couldn’t help but grin and shrug modestly. ‘Practice, that’s all,’ he said.

She grabbed the wine bottle and refilled both of their glasses. ‘I’m sorry about those things I said.’

‘So am I,’ he said, and he meant it. ‘I don’t think we should separate, after all.’

‘Me either. And… Can we bury her in the rose garden together?’

He nodded. ‘Of course. A little deeper, though, and in pieces. I find they decompose quicker that way.’

‘Yes. I don’t know why I never thought of it. It’s much better that way.’

She raised the glass up to her lips, but he raised a hand to stop her.

‘Wait. I just want you to know. I love you.’

‘I love you too,’ she said.

They clinked glasses. As he raised the wine to his lips, John sat back in his chair and watched the prone body of Mrs. Gavens. Their first kill together.

Yes, he thought, this was the start of something special.

This was one of those ones where, I had to rewrite it cos the first one sucked. I think in future if that happens I’m just going to chuck it and write something new, because even though it’s much improved, its still… not quite right. Then again, maybe I’m being harsh – it has it’s moments… and there were times when I felt kind of wrong for writing it, and that has to be a good sign.

Real Murder

Gary Mathers was woken first by the cold, and second by the tight clamps on his wrists and ankles. As his disorientation began to clear, he realised he was horizontal, but elevated: he was eye level with the open window to his right. The panes were being blown open and shut by a chaotic wind. The sky outside was grey, and the view revealed nothing for miles around but rolling green hills.

He watched the scene for a while, mesmerised, letting the haze hang over him for as long as it wanted to. He was in a bad place, he thought distantly. He didn’t want to be there, but soon this dope would wear out and he’d have to be. So he watched the window and waited.

The first stab of fear came after a few minutes, when he felt an itch on his shoulder and was unable to scratch it. Only then did he dare lift his head and take a look at where he was. After a few seconds, he let it drop back down again. This was not good.

He was lying on a table in a long, narrow room at the top of what must be a very rickety wooden house. Two or three stories tall, judging from the view. The more the haze wore off, the more he felt the sway and creak of the place beneath him, as if a strong enough wind could blow it all over. He was to a table which, while also made of wood, was much thicker and sturdier than the rest of the house. Oak, maybe. It was smooth under his back, maybe reinforced.

None of these things were what really grabbed his attention, though – they were all background noise. No, what really got him when he lifted his head had been the opposite wall. It was like one of those walls in a tool shed, full of hooks and shelves. Only this wall didn’t have tools hanging from the hooks – or if it did, they weren’t the kind a carpenter might use, but more the kind a surgeon would. Then again, was that a saw? Was that a bone saw?

He groaned and struggled weakly, but it was no good.

‘Hello,’ a voice said.

Gary’s head sprung up again and he saw a man standing by the wall of weapons. He hadn’t heard the door open, hadn’t seen anyone a second before, but there he was. The man was slim and tall, and he was wearing a neat suit. Just by the way he’d said ‘hello’, Gary could tell he was Russian.

‘H… Hi?’ Gary said. ‘Listen, I don’t… I don’t think I want to do this anymore.’

Why had he said that? That was ridiculous. He had a brief flash of two words, but he couldn’t remember where he’d seen them: real murder. Was that it? There was much more, but he couldn’t recall. He swore.

‘Shall we begin?’ The Russian said, turning to look at the wall behind him. Gary watched him with wide eyes, hypnotised. The man would reach for something, then shake his head and take it away again, all the while muttering to himself.

The drug haze was all gone now. Now everything was too real, right up in his face. He could smell the varnish of the table he lay on. The cold sweat cooling in the wind on his forehead. His heart was beating so hard his vision was shaking.

The Russian reached for the bone saw, hesitated… and selected a steak knife. He looked at it, smiling. It was rusted but sturdy.

‘Oooooh no. Oooooh NO. I’m gonna need a tetanus shot for that one,’ Gary said, giggling madly. His body was electrified with fear, now. He struggled against the bonds with fresh energy, even felt the table move a few inches over the floor boards. Maybe that was the way, he thought. What if he could get over to the window and tip himself through it? But no, the table was nowhere near big enough.

The Russian approached him, and now his excitement was evident. His eyes had an almost Mongolian squint to them, and they glinted. Lightning flashed off them, and a moment later the thunder followed, drowning out Gary’s scream.

The Russian took the steak knife and placed it right over his solar plexus, the point poking into his skin. ‘I think I like this game, don’t you?’ The Russian said. ‘It is very exciting.’

‘No. Nooooo please don’t, please don’t! NOOOO –’

But his cries were cut short as the Russian put all his weight on the handle of the knife and it plunged into him. Grimacing, he twisted the blade and then ripped it out, and only then did Gary find the breath to scream.

For a moment he could only stare at the ceiling and watch fountains of blood fly up with every pump of his thundering heart.

‘JESUS!’ he shouted, half out of surprise. ‘Stop!’

But the Russian had no intention of stopping. He climbed onto the table so that he was straddling Gary, the knife held in both hands. He brought his face close, oblivious of the warm blood spurting up and soaking into his new suit.

‘How does it feel?’ he asked. ‘Is it really bad? I am the murderer, but maybe one day I’ll be the victim, what do you think?’

He lifted the knife and brought it down again, this one landing in Gary’s shoulder. That was a nasty one, but somehow it wasn’t as bad as it should have been. He was losing too much blood, going into shock.

The Russian wrinkled his face as more blood sprayed onto him, but then he was grinning.

Only then, seeing the look on his face, did Gary truly believe he was going to die. In that instant, there was no going back, and the stomach dropped out of him the way it did on the world’s scariest roller coaster.

The Russian grinned at him, showing blood spattered teeth, as he tore the blade form Gary’s shoulder. The pain rushed through him again, sending goose bumps all over his skin. He watched the blade rise higher and higher, the slit eyes open wider and wider, and there was a second when the fear disappeared and he was almost calm.

Then everything was chaos. The Russian brought the knife down again and again, screaming with joy, severing the arteries in his neck, destroying his right eye, widening his smile, digging a hole in his chest.

To Gary, it felt like being punched over and over, but with each stab he felt his heart rate weaken, his skin run cold. His arms and legs relaxed.

As his vision began to fade, he was only aware of the patter of rain on the window sill, and the distant rustling of the trees in the field. Then everything went black.

The black lasted a very long time. At some point, he realised he was still thinking. For a minute, he was struck with a horrible idea: what if this was death? An eternity of blackness, nothing but your own consciousness, floating in the void forever? But then, something unplugged his ears and he heard his own breathing.

A voice spoke to him from the void: ‘How we feeling, Mr. Mathers? Heart still beating there?’

With the voice came a name – Doctor Hagman, and then something else unplugged and there he was, the stocky bald doctor, smiling down at him and fiddling with something above his head.

‘Don’t panic, now, the memory should come back by the minute. All is well, no injuries. You’re not dead, my friend.’

He was in a kind of hospital room, but as the doctor himself had told him when he entered, it wasn’t so much a real hospital as an arcade. Real Murder, inc. Or Limited, or whatever. He was beginning to remember.

Hagman took out another two needles and placed them on a tray beside Gary’s head, followed by a third and a fourth. At last, the odd numbness he’d been feeling receded, leaving all the skin on his body tingling. His heart was still beating like crazy, though, and he turned to the doctor with wide eyes. ‘That was incredible,’ he said.

Hagman beamed and extended his hand. ‘Glad to be of service.’

Gary shook it vigorously, for the first time truly glad to be alive.

‘Now, a couple of things, just mandatory questions seeing as how this was a test run.’

‘Shoot.’

‘Pain?’

‘Really good. Dial it down a little, maybe, but not too much – otherwise it wouldn’t be as real, you know?’

‘Excellent,’ he whipped out a clipboard and pen and began to scribble notes.

‘I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with heart problems.’

‘Right, right,’ Hagman said, nodding. ‘No one over say, fifty, or younger than eighteen, of course. –’

‘Because that was damned scary.’

Hagman laughed. ‘How’d you like the setting?’

‘Brilliant. A little cliché, maybe, but man, I wasn’t thinking of any of that stuff at the time. I was just like, where am I, whose that guy, what are those…’

‘Ah, yes, about that. We gave you something to confuse you temporarily, how did that work? Obviously, the thrill isn’t as good if you remember me.’

‘Sure, yeah. Worked fine. Listen, I gotta tell you, Doctor. I’ve been skydiving, bungee jumping, you name it. Nothing, I mean nothing, has ever given me a rush like that. Look at my hand, it’s still shaking.’

Hagman laughed again, clearly pleased. ‘Well I’m glad, Mr. Mathers. We were worried about how the victims would experience it, even if they had volunteered. Was there anything else?’

Gary thought for a minute. ‘Yeah, who was that guy? Did you pull him from a mental institution? Prison?’

But Hagman shook his head, bemused. ‘No, actually he was playing you from the adjoining room. Just your average Joe. Physicist, I think.’

‘Oh. Wow.’

Gary got up off the chair, which was very much like one you’d find in a dentistry. Except for the odd contraption hanging above it, which looked like some kind of robotic octopus.

‘We’ll need you to answer a few questions for review in the next room,’ Hagman was saying. ‘It’ll help us get it up to standard before the official release.’

‘Sure, no problem. Oh, yeah, just one more thing, doc,’ he said, hand on the doorknob.

‘Yes?’

‘Can I be the killer next time?’

Hagman laughed and winked. ‘Sure, why not?’

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