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I KNOW, okay. But I had to do this one, even though it is now my third insane asylum related short story. Besides, I’d argue that the other two (Room for Thought and Scaredy Cat) were both pretty decent stories, and original despite the hackneyed setting. The nature of the asylum can be interpreted in one of two ways, as can Lucy herself. Either way is pretty horrifying, though, so believe what you want. Enjoy!

 

Asylum

By Ben Pienaar

 

Abandoned asylums were considered clichés in general, but Lucy Neil had found that in real life they were quite interesting. Each one was unique, and not just in terms of the layout – they all had their own personalities, their own moods. Some were places of peace, even years after they’d begun to crumble, places with comfortable old chairs and big windows and gardens with ponds. Others were dark and tense, full of twisting corridors and walls so white they seemed to scream at you. Rooms that were empty but dense with the memories of what had happened inside them.

This one was more the latter than the former. She told herself that it was in her head, nothing but a result of knowing exactly what had happened in here. This was one of the older ones – the worst ones were always old – and it had been operational far past time it should have been demolished. Back then, they’d thrown in as many sane people as mad, (at least, they were sane when they came in).

She walked slowly – Lucy was one of those that always did everything slowly, enjoying every moment. She’d come at noon instead of night, so the dark and ominous feel of the place didn’t have so much of a hold on her. She’d come again later in the week at midnight, but that would be with Jim. The front door opened on a long, narrow hallway with walls of heavy stone, and she made her way down, tempted to duck into one of the many rooms branching off on either side. She decided to make a full round of the place until she really got into it. You never knew, sometimes there were squatters or drug addicts, even in the day.

But it was all empty. Empty and safe – there was literally a main road right out at the front door. For some reason, she didn’t feel that good about it. All abandoned asylums were different, sure, but most of them were also the same in a lot of ways. They all had broken windows, there was always tons of graffiti throughout the building, and they were always strewn with trash. She was glad she hadn’t found any squatters here, but it sure seemed strange that there were no signs of squatters ever having been here.

But it was just the mood. The mood of the place always got into her, one way or another, and places like this were worst of all. She put on her business face, tied her hair back so it wouldn’t fall in front of the lens, and started unpacking her tripod.

She snapped a few pictures of the hall, trying to catch the way the shadows crouched in odd corners, as though the broken light hanging from the ceiling was still shining with head aching fluorescence. She found a large tiled room that looked like it had once been a communal shower and bathroom, although it was hard to tell because whatever flimsy concrete had made up the dividing walls had crumbled all over the place, now.

The further down the hall she went, venturing into this room and that one, missing none as she made her way, the less run down it seemed. The crumbled bathroom was the worst she saw, which was strange because she could have sworn she’d glanced into one or two rooms on her initial run through which had been half demolished.

She picked up her tripod at the end of the hall and went up a steep, twisting stairwell to the second of three stories. This one was in even better shape than the first. She turned into the first door on her left and set up in what looked like a patient’s room. For a while, she didn’t take any pictures, but stood and absorbed the mood of the room.

She didn’t like it. It suffocated her. For one thing, the walls were too heavy. They were made of some thick stone or something, barely covered by a thin coat of white paint, that made her wonder how the so many of the walls downstairs had crumbled so easily. These looked good for another hundred years. She knew what they were for, too: to muffle the patient’s screams – the same reason the walls around the place were so tall.

She took a few pictures of the bed and the little bedside table, making sure to zoom out the image so it took into account the door and revealed how cramped the room really was. The window had a large jagged hole in it as though someone had thrown a rock through it and she took a picture of that as well and then placed the camera in front of it so she could take a few of the back garden. It was a paltry, wilted garden. Full of weeds now, but she had a feeling it had looked just the same when the asylum was still running.

Lucy picked up the tripod and kept going, moving systematically through the building. The carpet up here was soft but whole and mostly unstained, while the one downstairs had been full of holes and black blotches of… who knew what. She found two little white switches at the end of the corridor and pressed one of them. To her surprise, the lights in four of the ten rooms came on. She clicked the second switch and the hallway light flickered once and then went off. Aren’t they supposed to cut electricity to these places? She flicked off the lights, folded up her tripod and started back down the hallway for the stairwell that led up to the third floor.

Just before she turned to start up the stairs, she glanced into the first room she’d photographed – the one directly opposite the stairwell, and saw that the door was shut. She hadn’t shut it, had she? No, no she was sure she hadn’t. Only she must have. She’d have heard it, otherwise. Squatter. Must be. Shit, I should have brought Jim.

            But it was better to be sure. If it was a squatter or drug addict or whoever, she’d just look in and get out before they could see the thousand dollar camera around her neck. Better to be sure.

The door opened easily, didn’t even creak, and there was no one inside. Now that she was looking into the room, she realised the closed door hadn’t been the only odd thing: the window wasn’t broken. She knew it had been – she’d taken a picture of the sunlight glinting off the jags in the glass. But it was solid now. And there was something else: the bed had been bare, nothing but a metal frame and a stained mattress when she was last there. Now it was fully made up, complete with a pillow and scratchy grey blanket.

‘Okay, this place is officially creeping me out,’ she spoke aloud. Usually, the sound of her own voice comforted her – it was why she tended to speak rapidly when she was scared, especially when she was by herself – but for some reason that wasn’t the case today. This time it just reminded her how alone she was.

She backed out of the room and closed the door. The sound of cars running by on the highway outside reassured her and she let out a sigh. It was noon, after all; the sun was streaming in from every window. One more floor and that was it, she promised herself. And maybe she wouldn’t come back after all.

She went up the stairs, trying to ignore the way her steps echoed against the concrete walls, and opened the door to the third floor.

The hallway was brightly lit, and when she stepped into it she saw that all of the doors were shut tight, save the one at the far end, which was slightly ajar. For some reason, she felt certain they were all locked, too. Someone coughed from inside one of them.

Lucy stood in the hallway, breathing in short gasps and trying to get herself under control. She’d already been up here, that was the thing. She’d come through here and looked in every room and seen the same kinds of things she’d seen on the first floor: holes in walls, worn carpets, broken windows. Some of these doors hadn’t even been here.

She turned to go back down the stairwell and saw that the door was closed, even though she’d been standing directly in front of it the entire time. She tried to open it, but it was locked. Oh God, what’s going on?

            She heard him before she saw him, a soft footstep on the carpet, and she spun around so fast she almost fell backwards. He put a hand up and took a step back down the hallway. ‘Hey now,’ he said, ‘it’s alright, Lucy.’

‘W… What? Who are you?’

‘My names, Gareth, remember? And she’s Lorraine.’ His eyes flicked over her shoulder and she looked around just long enough to see a woman, middle aged and squint eyed, standing with an overly enthusiastic smile in front of another door. Lucy backed up against the stairwell door. ‘Stop, just hang on. Who the hell are you?’

‘Don’t you remember?’ He looked genuinely hurt. ‘We take care of you. We’ve taken care of you for the last two years.’

‘What? Okay just… Hey, just get back!’ he’d been edging closer, but he stood straight now and put his hands up, as if in surrender. ‘Alright, alright. We just want to help.’

‘I don’t need help. You too!’ she snarled at the old woman, who also retreated a step. Her hands went behind her back but not before Lucy caught a glimpse of the syringe clasped in a well practiced grip between three fingers. ‘Hey! What’s that?’

‘Nothing, dear.’

She spun around and tried to wrench the stairwell door again – maybe it was just jammed – but it wouldn’t budge. The other two stood their ground, and when she turned back around the man was looking at her with something like pity in his eyes. ‘Lucy,’ he said. ‘Please.’

She moved to grab her camera, thinking only that she could throw it at one of them and make a break for the window at the end of the corridor – but when her fingers reached for the strap they closed on nothing. She looked down. Her camera was gone, and so was her tripod. Somehow they’d disappeared in the last few minutes.

‘Okay now, do you see? We don’t want to hurt you,’ he said.

‘What did you do with it? You took my camera! Jim! Jim!’ This last she screamed as the woman finally took her chance and ran for her, syringe brandished in one hand. Her expression was that of someone who was doing an unpleasant, but necessary job.

Lucy threw herself backwards in time to avoid it but the man caught her under the arms and held her up.

‘No! NO! Stop! I’m not from here, I don’t belong here! HELP! HELP MEEEE!’ She kicked and flailed and screamed, but somehow the old woman got the needle past her guard, and she felt something cold shoot along the veins in her arm.

She fought, she fought so hard, but her body betrayed her, her muscles slowed and relaxed. She rested on strong arms, staring at the too bright light on the ceiling, watching the shadows close in on the corners of her vision. ‘Jim…’ she whispered. ‘Help me, Jim.’

But he didn’t come, and soon she was fast asleep.

I had this idea crawling around my brain for ages, and even wrote sections of it and then deleted them on three separate occasions. Finally, I decided to do the thing and be done with it, bad or good. I think it actually turned out pretty good. The concept definitely worries me, that’s for sure. This will again be the last story for a little while, because I’m well on my way into a new novel. Enjoy!

Eraser

By Ben Pienaar

 

In the year 2045, a baby is born, wailing and screaming and flailing pudgy arms. The mother lets out a sigh and wipes the sweat from her face before promptly closing her eyes and going to sleep, while the doctor takes the baby into the next room. After cleaning and wrapping the squirming infant in a blanket and ensuring its health, the doctor, a middle aged man with a neutral expression, takes what appears to be a gun from his coat. He turns the baby onto its stomach and presses the wide, narrow barrel of the weapon to the baby’s head, at the point just where the brain stem meets the spinal cord. He pulls the trigger, and the baby falls dead silent mid scream. It will not scream again for another thirty two years.

 

Colin and Mike clock on at nine and start work beside each other. You’d think assembly work should have been a thing of the past since 2030 but in the end, nothing beats manual labour when you can get it so cheap. Not that either of them are complaining. Not that they’re doing anything besides standing next to each other and screwing the same bolts onto the same screws as they roll past over and over again. Neither has a concrete thought in mind, only a vague anticipation of what comes later.

After twelve hours (and no breaks) of uniform movement, neither so much as glancing up for a moment in that time, neither uttering a word or thinking anything more meaningful than a fleeting can’t wait! – they clock off and head straight for Reilly’s bar across the road.

First though, they stop off at Sina’s Taste Emporium, where Mike gets himself four beer chips and Colin gets two plus a chicken burger chip for dinner later. At the bar, they slide the first of their chips into one of the ten horizontal slots in the back of their necks and order the beers. They slide into a booth in the far corner, away from the music. When you don’t have the chip for it, music is just blaring noise.

‘I don’t know how you do it, man,’ Colin says these words, his first of the day, to his best friend after the beers arrive.

‘Do what?’

‘Only taste. And only drinks, too. I mean, doesn’t it get old by the time you hit beer number four?’

His friend takes a long draught and closes his eyes while the chip does its work. A small smile touches the corner of his dry lips. ‘The taste maybe,’ he says. ‘But I like to appreciate being drunk, too. Nothing worse than drinking beer after beer and feeling nothing until the hangover hits. Nah, if it’s taste you want, there’s only three ways to go: good wine, good scotch, and the sip of the first beer.’

‘So why you go the other three beers?’

‘For the sip of the last, just before the chip runs out and you’re good and buzzed. You should try it sometime.’

Colin shrugs and takes a swig himself. He has to admit, it feels good. Damn good. The past twelve hours are already blurring in his memory, another piece of his life he’ll never have to think about again. ‘One day, brother, I’m gonna save up five of the best and try em all at once.’

Mike laughs. ‘You’ll have a heart attack. And so will your bank account.’

He shakes his head, but it’s true. Thanks to popular demand touch alone is more expensive than all other four senses combined, and that’s only for the most basic pleasures. Taste, music, sight and smell follow in roughly that order. ‘I guess we’re living pretty good as it is,’ Colin says.

‘Besides, it’d be a waste. You plug in all five senses at once you won’t be able to concentrate on any of them, they’ll get in the way of each other. Nah, always better to try em one at a time. And you still gotta buy the product, don’t you? I’m gonna get myself a girl before I go anywhere near touch, and what the hell are we gonna look at, or listen to, in this city? I get one of those chips I wouldn’t even know where to start. That stuff’s for rich people, man.’

Colin nods and takes another drink. The chip makes sure he misses none of the rich hops or the smoothness or the way it slides down his throat. He sighs. A fight breaks out near the juke box and they turn in their seats to see a bony looking man with the build of a child on top of someone twice his size, pounding his face. A few others stare at them until security drags the maniac out and a medic goes over the other guy to make sure he’s not too badly hurt. He isn’t. He gets up with blood dripping from his nose and mouth and keeps drinking his beer, shaking his head.

‘Don’t see that every day,’ Colin says.

‘Yeah, guy must’ve taken some Rage.’

‘Weird. You’d think you go for Adrenaline at least, or Love, or hell, just raw endorphins.’

He turns back to see Mike staring at him like he’s mad. ‘Love?’ he says. ‘Man what planet you living on? You think that guy’s got the cash for that?’

Colin shrugs and orders them another two each with a hand signal. ‘True. Me, I’d rather save up for the good stuff than waste it on Rage.’

Mike chuckles and finishes his beer. ‘Yeah, you think it’s a waste, but wait till you’re twenty years older and still working in the factory. You go nuts to feel anything, my friend. Trust me.’

‘Oh yeah? So what do you take?’

‘You know me, I’m just a regular alcoholic. I like my fine wines and they can keep their fancy senses for themselves. But I’ll tell you one thing, I am saving up.’

‘Are you?’ Colin watches his friend over the brim of the glass and can’t help but feel one of the rare emotions not yet exploited: curiosity. He used to wonder why they hadn’t commercialised it yet, and then he realised that if no one was curious about what the senses were like, they’d never buy them.

‘Yes sir. I’m gonna buy myself some dreams. Really good ones, you know, like where I’m on a tropical island with some woman drinking mai thais and living it up. Long dreams.’

‘Why don’t you save up for the island and the woman instead?’

‘Because, man. Then I gotta afford the chips too, otherwise what’s the point. How am I gonna afford a week’s worth of chips running on all six cylinders? And they better be on all six, I’m not going on a holiday like that unless I enjoy every goddam second.’

‘Yeah, I guess. Dreams, though. I dunno.’

‘We all got dreams, my friend. I heard, you get a really good quality one it’s almost as good as the real thing. The way the guy explained it to me, the difference between drinking scotch and drinking watered down scotch. Still sounds alright.’

‘Maybe. I just don’t like the idea it’s not really… real. I sometimes feel like I’d rather have a beer without the beer chip, instead of the chip without the beer.’

Mike’s expression doesn’t surprise him. A beer without the chip is just water with a hangover. The chip is everything. Half the guys at the factory never even bought the product to go with it, would just buy a bunch of chips and load em up, one after the other, until their whole pay check was gone and it was time to get up and go to work. You still missed out on a lot that way but it was a hell of a lot cheaper.

‘It’s just at least it’s real, then. The beer…’ He’d just finished his second – and last – beer, so he picks up Mike’s glass and takes a long sip. ‘That’s the real deal. The taste,’ he taps his head, ‘is all in here.’

Mike snatches it back, looking offended. ‘If you say so, buddy. Me personally?’ He closes his eyes and downs the whole thing in one and wipes his mouth. ‘I’d be happy if they just gave me one chip and made it reusable.’

‘Guess which one?’ Colin says, and they laugh, both of them feeling more than anything grateful for the laughter, that they can still do that at least, without paying.

 

Colin leaves first, looking forward to that chicken burger, and chucks his used up chips in the can outside for recycling. The second beer and chip are gone, but the buzz he feels will continue until it wears out naturally. Usually the walk home is his favourite part of the night for that reason, that warmth in his head, but tonight it’s drizzling and he’s hungry. Hell, maybe he’ll save the dinner chip for tomorrow and just gorge himself on the tasteless stuff and fill his belly.

He’s a step from passing the alley between Fragrance and the Thriller bar when a hand reaches from the dark and grabs his arm, pulling him into the dark. He brushes it off, mildly annoyed. It was this kind of thing that made him think the Protesters for Free Adrenaline had a point. If this guy stabbed him, he would die. Fight or Flight was a thing of the past, though admittedly it had done wonders for the population problem.

The guy himself is short and wiry with a wild red beard, and almost immediately Colin recognizes him as the guy they’d thrown out of the bar for fighting earlier. His eyes are wide and mad, and Colin wonders what kind of chip he’s got in the back of his head right now. Probably adrenaline, or more rage.

‘Hey pal, wanna see something cool?’ He grins crookedly. Colin stares back, unsure what to say. He might not be afraid but he’s still got some survivor instinct, so he tries to pull away.

The guy wrenches him forward and brings his face close, breathing hard. Colin finds himself extremely glad he can’t register smells. ‘I gotta make someone else like me, man. I don’t think you’ll like it at first, but I gotta do it.’

‘You’re insane,’ Colin says.

The guy laughs and his throat sounds raw, like he’s been shouting a lot. ‘Oh yeah, baby, I’m insane alright! I’m drunk and high and I don’t got a chip to my name, son. It’s all free, all the time, every day. And it ain’t all good, believe me, but it’s all good. Know what I mean?’

His grip is so tight the circulation is cut off to Colin’s arm, and the guy’s practically hanging off it. No escape likely, unless he can talk him down somehow, or just wait it out. The guy stares into his eyes again and chuckles, shaking his head. ‘Oh boy it’s just like I was, just like I was. Tell you what, man.’ He whips out a square metal object about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It glistens in the rain, featureless and smooth. Colin has no idea what it is.

‘I got a whole stash of these just down this alley,’ he says. ‘There’s a door that goes into the back of Thriller. I used to work there, see, and I lived down in the basement only no one knew. Used to experiment, trying to make new chips and senses, and then I made a whole crate of these bastards once I found out what they could do.’ The hand holding the square is shaking as he talks, flecks of rain flying into Colin’s face, or maybe it’s spit.

‘I gotta get out of town before someone catches on, and I’m takin one with me just in case, but the others? You can have em.’

‘I really don’t want them, sir. Please let me go, I’ve got to get home to my wife and kids.’ He doesn’t have a wife and kids, but once someone had told him that some chips made people sympathetic to that stuff. It could work.

The guy moves his hand from Colin’s arm to his neck and pulls him roughly again, so that his lips are right up against his ear. ‘Some of those chips they give you, man, they’re fake. They’re not the real deal.’

It takes a moment for Colin to register what the words mean, but before he can react the guy slams the piece of metal into the back of his head and everything goes white. He drops to all fours and an electric shock rocks his whole body, starting in the ports at the back of his head and shooting through him. For those agonizing moments he feels as though his skeleton is burning red hot, writhing inside him like a separate entity and trying to peel off the coat of burning flesh.

Finally it’s over and he’s face down on wet asphalt, breathing but otherwise paralysed. He hears scratching noises and realises it’s his own hand twitching on the pavement. The guy is gone.

 

Colin makes it back to his apartment, locks the door and drops onto the couch. He’s breathing hard, his sweat as cold as the rain, and there’s something else: his heart is beating. Am I having a heart attack? No, he doesn’t think so. Actually, now he thinks about it, it doesn’t feel that different from the one and only time he bought himself an adrenaline chip – more intense, maybe.

The metal object is lying on the carpet and he stares at it. What the hell did you do to me? Oh shit, what if I’m dying? He considers calling the ambulance and then doesn’t. He lies where he is for a long time, calming down, breathing slower. It’s alright.

He gets up, a little unsteady on his feet, and feels the back of his head tenderly. There are mild burns on the skin surrounding the six ports but nothing serious. He wonders if the guy disabled his ports. Another stab of fear shoots through him as he imagines living the rest of his life unable to enjoy anything, and then shakes his head and gets up.

He gets the chicken burger he saved out of the fridge and puts it on the counter, and ruffles through his coat for the chip he bought earlier. Nothing. He reaches into his pockets and finds only his house keys, phone and wallet. Shit. It’ll have to wait. For now, hunger is burning a hole in the bottom of his stomach and an unchipped burger is still better than no burger, so he grabs it and takes the biggest bite he can manage.

He almost spits it out in his surprise. Within seconds flavour is flooding his mouth: delicious lettuce and tomato and Christ, what is that? It surely can’t be chicken – the chicken he knew was never this crispy, never so… rich! He chews the stuff a good ten times after he’s already made it into mulch and then takes another bite. Incredibly, all the tastes are still there, and so strong! He got pickles this time, and somehow he tastes the individual pickles over the other things. Usually every bite tastes the same, an equal measure of all chicken burger ingredients, regardless of which part of it he’s eaten.

He gropes the back of his head again, certain he must have put the chip in without realising it earlier, but there’s nothing there. How is this possible? He finishes the burger in minutes and stands up, looking around for another test, anything. His eyes settle on the open sliding door that leads to the balcony.

Originally, Colin bought one of the rooms with a view thinking that an occasional sight chip and a rest on the balcony would help to relax him, but he’d never got around to it. Now, the view isn’t enough: all he sees are dark streets and an overcast night sky. The rain is still falling fast.

He goes right to the railing and looks ten stories straight down and sees a few parked cars. He puts one leg over and his heart starts going faster again. He puts the other over and stands right on the edge, leaning back with his hands on the railing and staring up at the sky. His whole body is going mad with it, the fear, excitement, utter exhileration. He can see the building stretching up another ten stories of empty balconies and then the sky above that, pouring rain into his face. He laughs genuinely for the first time he can remember and then imagines what it would be like to slip now and fall. He realises he’s scared, no – terrified.

He screams for the first time in thirty two years and feels it run through him as powerfully as the electric shock from the metal device. It is his first real emotion. ‘I don’t want to die! I want to live!’ He shouts.

A light goes on in one of the apartments above him but before anyone can come out he’s heaved himself back over the balcony and gone back inside. His heart beating madly, he goes straight for the fridge and opens it. There are some onions and bacon, and he throws them onto a pan. He grabs three eggs and throws them on, too, and then grabs the half eaten pizza and eats it all, cold. There’s a block of cheese, the same cheese he buys every time but never has the chips to taste it, and he shoves a chunk of it into his mouth and eats it.

‘Tastes like shit!’ he says, and laughs again. The bacon and eggs and onions are much better, and he licks the plate and is out the door before he’s finished chewing his last bite. The smell of the street hits him for the first time: of gutter and exhaust and rain on the asphalt. He breathes the acidic stench deep into his lungs and relishes it. It’s not good, not a good smell at all, but boy is it good to taste it like that – the pure, unadulterated real thing.

He walks through the doors of Reilly’s and stops for a minute to appreciate the smoky glow of the place. It makes him feel warm inside, somehow, a familiar place, and when he sees Mike still sitting there in one of the back booths with a beer in his hand he feels glad to see him. He’s never felt glad to see Mike before; Mike was always just there. He just was.

As he approaches, Mike looks up, surprised. ‘Hey, wasn’t expecting to see you for at least…’ He looks up at the time displayed on the television over the bar, ‘eight hours.’

Instead of replying, Colin signals for two beers and slides into the booth. He breathes deep, trying to slow himself down. He’s not sure exactly what he’s going to do with his new ability, but getting noticed is not high on the list.

‘You alright, man? You look pale. You get some new beer chips?’ he adds as the barman drops the brews on the table and walks away. Colin immediately takes a long draught. Yep, the taste is still there. No, in fact it’s better. It’s far better than having a beer chip. What had the guy said? Half the stuff they give you ain’t even the real deal.

‘I got unplugged,’ Colin says, still looking at his beer like it’s made of solid gold.

‘What?’

‘I don’t know what else to call it. Erased, deactivated, realised.’ The last word catches him and he looks up and repeats it, a half smile on his lips. ‘Realised. I’m real now, Mike.’

Mike looks like he’s about to call the crazy house so Colin talks quickly, telling him everything that happened and, most of all, how it feels, how it tastes to be real. When he’s finished, Mike’s expression has returned to neutral. Of course, he can’t feel fear or excitement unless he buys it.

‘Colin, get your face in order, you’re drawing stares.’ He’s right. People don’t usually have expressions unless they’re on something, and if anyone caught a glimpse of the manic smile on his face and saw that he had no chips in the back of his head… He sees one of Mike’s used up beer chips lying discarded on the table and he picks it up and jams it in one of his ports. ‘There, now if I slip up they’ll just think I’m on something.’ Still, he forces his features to relax. It’s a strange feeling. He’s not used to being aware of his facial features at all, let alone using them to have expressions.

‘Let me get this straight,’ Mike begins slowly. ‘A guy pulls you into a dark alley and erases all your limits with some machine, and then runs for it… why?’

‘Why what? Of course he runs. This shit ain’t exactly legal, Mike. It’s stealing from the government.’

He nods. ‘But why do it at all? Why not just keep it a secret and stay hidden?’

‘Because. He must be some kind of revolutionary. What he said was he needed to share what he was feeling with someone else. He said he was going crazy.’ Looking at Mike’s blank face now, Colin can understand. He imagines walking around day in, day out, trying to look normal, seeing everyone else’s blank dead faces all the time.

They fall silent for a long time. Dread settles in Colin’s stomach as it occurs to him that the government might have put something else in them all, like some kind of loyalty chip, that would make Mike want to turn him in. If it was possible, he was certain they did it. But when Mike finally speaks, all he says is: ‘What’s it like?’

Colin lets out a sigh. ‘Oh, man. The chips we been buying? Not even close to the real thing. I mean, from what I’ve experienced. God, there’s still so much to do. How the hell am I gonna get through work tomorrow?’

‘You gotta be careful. Real careful. Are you going to get that guy’s stash? Can’t you use the same device over and over?’

‘I don’t know. But if we could, we could distribute the others, get them out to people. It would be a revolution, a real revolution. The government couldn’t replug us all.’

Mike’s nodding, and Colin takes another swig of delicious beer – the glass is almost gone already – and glances around the bar. No one’s looking their way, so why does he feel so self conscious?

‘We can’t stay here, okay?’ Mike says. ‘Listen, tomorrow, we work like normal, then I’ll come over yours and you try to use the thing on me.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. What can I say, I’m curious. Look at you, you can’t stop smiling, and it’s a real smile. Too real, it’s kinda freaking me out, man.’ Colin hadn’t realised his expression had changed and he makes it neutral again. Damn this was going to be hard.

‘Anyway,’ Mike goes on, ‘Whether it works or not, we wait till late at night and go to this alleyway, and check the place out.’

‘And? If we find the stash? If it all works?’

Mike smiles. ‘We deliver to the masses, baby, but not for free.’

‘What, like a black market? Make people pay?’

‘Yeah, why not? Not too much, and we’ll make it cheaper once we learn how to make them. The hard part will be distribution, do it some way we can’t be traced.’

Colin thinks about it, but not for long. He finishes his second beer in three long gulps and puts it down, his head spinning in more ways than one, and he’s never felt like this before, ever. ‘Okay,’ he says at last. ‘Let’s get out of this hole. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright.’

‘Alright.’

 

I’m living in hell, Colin thinks as he stands next to Mike eight hours later with a pounding hangover, staring at the endless conveyor belt. Mike doesn’t say a word, as per usual, just sifts through the screws, picking one up now and again, throwing it away or putting it back. His face is totally blank. Is this what I was like? He knows it was. He hadn’t realised how numb he was until now, and now he finds himself wishing he was numb again. I’ll go insane before my shift ends.

In the end, he can’t take it. He mutters ‘See you later’ to Mike and leaves without notifying the foreman. It could cost him his job, but if he cited sickness they’d send him straight to the infirmary where they’d find out nothing was wrong. What other reason for leaving was there? Besides, without the need to buy a chip for everything, the savings he had now could last him years.

The sky is grey and everything is still wet and humid from last night’s rain. He tries to walk like he normally does: slow but purposeful, looking straight ahead, disinterested. In fact his mind is going wild with everything – the smell of delicious sizzling beef wafting from a street stand (which also happens to sell taste chips), the way the suns rays are creeping around a dark cloud, a violinist playing something so beautiful it almost brings a tear to his eye; how long has it been since he could afford a decent music chip? And here it was, all free. All he wanted to do was stand there in the street and listen to it, but that was dangerous, so he kept walking, his face as featureless as stone.

There were just six hours left in his shift, so all he has to do is wait it out in his apartment until Mike shows up. He wonders what it’ll feel like to have a hot shower, or if anyone’s ever wasted such an expensive chip on such a basic thing. No factory worker has, anyway.

He doesn’t find out. His apartment is empty when he opens the door, empty when he closes it. When he locks it, though, two cops step out from the adjoining room and level pistols at his face. He backs against the door, hands up, and if they had any doubts as to what he was doing before they couldn’t now because the terror is written all over his face.

They keep coming at him fast, as if they’re just going to walk right on through him and out the door, but they stop when the barrel of the pistol is pressed right up against his face and the other guy is cuffing his hands in front of him. All this happens in silence, no one saying a word. The guy who cuffed him, a tall lanky blond, pulls him forward just like the guy in the alleyway, only he lets him keep going until he’s face first on the carpet.

‘Where’s the eraser?’ It’s the other guy talking, the one with the gun who was heavyset but in a tight suit. He’s sitting on his back now, pressing the barrel of the gun against his head. Colin’s breaths come in gasps and wheezes.

‘What’s an eraser?’

The butt of the pistol comes down on his ear – the ear, of all places! He doesn’t cry out but grinds his teeth against the pain. He realises that in that same weird way, he’s enjoying it. Like the guy in the alley said, it’s all good. He’s alive, alright. He chuckles, and then regrets it as the cop hits the exact same place again, hard.

‘Ow! Shit!’

‘Ha. It’s funny, you know, cos they always work people over in the movies, doing all these fancy things, but the best is to just get the same place over and over. Doesn’t matter where you go for, just as long as it’s the same. You can kill someone like that, just being relentless.’ He hits him again and now Colin decides he’s definitely not enjoying it anymore. Not even a little. The carpet is warm next to his head where the blood is pooling.

‘It should be right there, next to the coffee table in front of the couch I’m lying next to right now,’ he says.

The lanky guy goes around pauses, and picks up the metal object. ‘Got it,’ he says.

‘Chuck it here.’

‘Fuck you, I got it.’

‘What?’

‘What, just cos I’m the new guy you get all the credit? Eat it.’

The heavy guy pulls something out of his pocket, cursing under his breath, and Colin has a short lived fantasy in which he draws a handgun and blows the other guy to hell. Short lived, because what he draws is something small and metal and when he plugs it into the first of Colin’s ports the world turns to static, like the kind you get on televisions with no signal. Hissing, white noise.

 

When he wakes up he’s still on the carpet in his own dried blood, and he knows they’ve re plugged him because he feels fine. Not bad, not good, no hangover, just fine. There’s an official looking note beside him.

Dear Citizen.

            This note serves as your first and only warning in regards to the crime of erasing. Thanks to your co operation and information supplied, no further action will be necessary. If, however, you are found to be erased again in the future you will be summoned to court and possibly sentenced to the following:

  • A depression chip lasting up to six months.
  • A mild to moderate pain chip.
  • Imprisonment and sensory deprivation of up to three days.

If you offend again in the next three months, these punishments may be incurred without trial. If you have any queries or complaints, contact your local Government Citizen Liason branch.

Signed, S. Manfried, NYPD.

 

Colin reads it twice, rubs his eyes and reads it again. ‘Thanks to my co operation and information supplied?’ He says out loud, and shakes his head.

He cleans the carpet and grabs a few hunks of old bread for calories. It tastes, as usual, like nothing. When he’s finished, he looks out the window and realises the sun has just risen – he must have slept for twelve hours. They’d be expecting him at work soon. He gets ready, showers, washes the blood from his head, and stares vacantly out of a window. He thinks of the guy from the alley, and wonders why Mike never showed up.

He leaves early, and this time he doesn’t have to pretend to be normal. His thoughts are vague and disconnected, but he’s thinking about that shower he never got to have. Still, he’s got some savings, and after today maybe he could buy a touch chip and try it for real? Yeah, that’d be nice.

He stops in the alleyway. It’s dark and empty, the small door with the rusty hinges is still there. He looks at it for a while, and then shakes his head and walks on.

No one says anything to him about leaving early the day before, which strikes him as strange, but he doesn’t think about it for too long. His mind soon becomes absorbed in the comforting routine of a familiar job. He picks up a screw, puts it down, picks up a screw, throws it away. Picks up a screw.

‘Hey.’ He’s been working three hours already and yet it’s only now he realises it isn’t Mike working beside him but one of the other full timers, a short wiry guy with bright eyes called Keiran. They’ve worked in the same area of the factory for two years, and this is the first time they’ve made eye contact, let alone spoken. Colin just looks at him.

Keiran begins a smile, but falters at Colin’s expression. ‘Hey,’ Colin says. For some reason Kieran only shakes his head and turns back to the conveyor belt, and a minute later so does Colin, although a while later something occurs to him and he looks up again. ‘Where’s Mike?’ He knows the two of them spoke sometimes, but doesn’t know how well they got on. Still, worth a try.

Kieran shakes his head again. ‘Don’t know,’ he says. ‘Just didn’t turn up for work, I guess.’

It’s a strange shift. Besides Kieran’s attempt at small talk, Colin swears he catches one or two of the other guys glance his way and just look at him. He wonders how he’d be feeling if he were still erased. If he’d be bored or scared or worried or depressed. In truth, none of those emotions seem desirable at all and he finds he’s glad he’s not feeling them. Plus, time moves quicker this way, and before long his twelve hour shift is over and he’s out the door, heading for Sina’s Taste Emporium. Touch could wait for another day – he needed a beer. Maybe Mike will be at the bar, taking work off sick.

Mike isn’t at the bar, and he doesn’t answer his phone. At work the next day, no one Colin cares to ask seems to know where he is or what happened, and those strange looks just keep coming. Colin keeps getting the feeling they’re supposed to be meaningful, those looks, but he can’t for the life of him decipher them. And he doesn’t really care.

But he is curious. Just a little bit. He walks past the alley way every day, and every time he does he pauses and looks down it, expecting to see a guy, Mike, maybe, standing there with a little metal device and a smile. He wonders if the cops are watching him.

It’s almost a week after Mike’s disappearance, and he steps into the alleyway. He makes the transition into darkness smoothly, his overalls blending totally with the darkness. He waits there, invisible, for almost an hour, staring at the brick wall opposite, thinking nothing in particular. No one follows him.

Eventually, he turns down the alley, pulls open the door, and steps inside. Smells come to him with the stale air that he can’t discern. He knows they’re dusty, old smells and can identify some of them: soil, rusted metal, stone. But he gets nothing from them, feels nothing as a result of them.

He goes down a short flight of stairs and enters a dingy, basement room where the crazy guy must have been living for a while. There’s a hole ridden mattress in one corner with a few thin blankets on it. A rotted wooden desk with a mug of something black which has round pools of fungus floating in it. Everything else has been cleared out, except… A piece of paper full of scrawled writing, and a paperweight. A square, metal paperweight.

Colin has never seen Mike’s handwriting before, but the note is signed Mike, and once he reads it he’s sure it was him.

 

C.

            I couldn’t afford to leave any of the others, but even if the bastards get this one I got a feeling it’ll still only be a matter of time for you. I had to get rid of a bunch to lighten my load, and guess where I started? Heh heh.

            Anyway, let me explain: I walked in on you, bleeding on your floor with the metal thing, (Eraser), missing. I have to admit I felt kind of mildly disappointed that I wasn’t going to see what it was like, but then I remembered you telling me about the guy in the alley. And the fact that the cops beat you so bad made me even more curious. So I came down here, and guess what? Turns out these things do work more than once! That’s right, I’ve been busy.

            I had to run pretty much straight away though, and I have a feeling I’m going to be running for a long time, man, a long time. I know we never really got to know each other, but you’re the only person I could ever really call my friend. You won’t have any idea what I’m talking about until you erase yourself and please, for the love of god, erase yourself. Friends seem to be few and far between in this world, but I’m going to change all that. As long as I’ve got my mind to myself, as long as I’m free, I’m going to change everything, and you can help.

            There’s a revolution starting, C, and it’s going to be big. Step one is erase. Don’t worry about step two. It was good knowing you, man, I hope we meet again someday in another world.

–          M.

 

Colin drops the letter back onto the desk and shakes his head. It seems bizarre, too strange to be true. A revolution? Maybe the ‘eraser’ as Mike called it, messed with his head, made him crazy like the guy from the alley. Maybe all the stuff Colin thought he experienced after he got erased was all an illusion, hallucinations?

What if it isn’t? A quiet voice in the back of his mind asks him. And what was life like before senses and feelings became things that had to be bought and sold? Someone like him, who’d lived almost his entire life this way, would surely be shocked by the change. What if all that was how human beings were really supposed to live?

Colin picks up the eraser and holds it up by his head. He feels nothing, of course, no elevated heartbeat or excitement or anticipation. It would be so easy for him to put the eraser back on the desk and walk out of this dingy basement place and go back to work. It would be like slipping into a comfortable old pair of shoes. No, better, it would be like curling up in his blankets on a cold morning and going back to sleep. But there is that curiosity.

He puts the eraser against the ports on the back of his head and the world turns white again.

 

He’s not sure how much later it is when he picks himself off the floor, wiping a trail of drool from the corner of his mouth. He has a hell of a headache and he wonders how bad the side effects might be from too many erasings and re pluggings. He decides if the cops re plug him again, he won’t erase, just in case.

But this feels good. He’s unsteady on his feet, and his hearts going mad, now. The full force of what he’s done – of what Mike has done – hits him and he lets out a dry laugh which quickly turns into a cough. It’s dusty in here, and now he takes a deep breath and really smells it, the mustiness that reminds him of the old beach house he used to visit as a kid.

The feelings and senses bombard him in waves, but he closes his eyes and stays in control. He lets it wash over him and breathes slow, and after a while it gets easier to filter some of it out and steady himself.

Now what? He wonders, and almost immediately the words from Mike’s letter jump out at him: Don’t worry about step two. Well, he’s trusted Mike this far, after all.

He slips the eraser into his pocket and tears up and scrunches the letter before doing the same. He’ll find somewhere to dump them later, but it would be too risky to leave them here. He slides the door shut behind him on the way out and hurries down the alleyway and into the bright sunlight. It feels so warm and pleasant on his skin, but he doesn’t smile. Instead, he turns the corner, stares straight ahead, and walks at a slow and steady pace to work.

He’s almost an hour late, but he doesn’t see any of the foremen and no one pulls him aside to give him a warning or fire him or anything. He walks right in and takes his place by the conveyor belt, where Kieran is already hard at work, methodically sorting the screws.

Just like before, a feeling creeps up on Colin, a sense that something is wrong. The cautious, searching glances out of the corners of eyes, the silence of the place broken only by the sound of relentless machinery. He picks up a screw, analyses it, puts it back. He picks up a screw, throws it away. He looks up.

Kieran has stopped work. He’s looking at Colin with a strange expression on his face and the beginning of what may be either a smile or a leer. ‘Hey,’ he says.

Colin looks at him for a moment, his face still neutral, his heart and mind racing. And then he smiles. ‘Hey,’ he says. He extends his hand. ‘I’m Colin.’

‘Kieran,’ Kieran says, and breaks out in a genuine smile of his own, no leer in sight.

Colin drops his screw on the factory ground, and twenty faces turn to look at him. He meets their eyes, one by one, and they all grin back at him. Everyone excited, geared up, ready to go. He realises he was the last one, and by the time he turns back to Kieran the silence is total: the conveyor belt has stopped, and only a few distant clunks sound from deeper in the factory.

‘So what now?’ Colin says.

‘Follow me.’

One of my rare non supernatural stories, which in a lot of ways I think makes it more horrific. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions… Enjoy the trip!

 

Lost Cause

By Ben Pienaar

 

It was good to be home after so many hospital stays, but Toby Morrow’s relief was short lived. In the days following his last visit, his parents been increasingly depressed, and when they thought he was asleep they’d argue in hushed voices downstairs. He’d caught both of them wiping tears away at the last minute and then denying it when he asked. As if they were guilty.

‘Your father and I need to talk to you,’ his mother said after breakfast the following Sunday. Janine Morrow had never not looked tired and depressed in her whole life – even her kindergarten pictures were of pudgy, sad eyed little girl – but today she looked worn down solid. His father was the same, only for him it was a little more uncharacteristic – he was usually just expressionless.

Victor Morrow was waiting for them in the study, and when they entered he didn’t turn around from the window. He had one hand on the chair and stared out at the rainy day, as if deep in thought. Toby might have been only thirteen, but he knew his father better than to think that was the case.

‘Your test results came back last night, Toby,’ he said. His voice was choked, and Toby realised with a stab of worry that it was genuine. ‘It… Wasn’t what we hoped.’

‘Oh.’ Toby wiped his perpetually runny nose and sat down on one of the soft chairs. He’d been feeling tired a lot lately – it was one of the reasons they’d taken him to the hospital in the first place. Janine went to stand behind him and rested an ice cold hand on his shoulder.

His father finally turned around and Toby saw tears brimming in the corners of his eyes. The worry deepened and turned to fright, but it was nothing compared to what he felt at the next words. ‘They say you’re dying, Toby.’

There was a long silence. Toby’s mother squeezed his shoulder and let out a choked sob, also genuine.

‘It’s not a hundred per cent but, well… Ninety nine is the same thing, isn’t it? They’re all sure of it. We’re sure of it. We think, deep down, you’re sure of it, too.’ His bottom lip trembled. ‘There’s a surgery that might delay the onset of it, but not for very long. And it would cost a lot of money – more than we have.’

‘How long then?’

‘I… what do you mean?’ he was taken aback at Toby’s abruptness, but Tony hadn’t even begun to comprehend the truth of it all. For now there was only the electrifying terror and speed of thought that came with it.

‘In the movies the doctors usually tell people how long they have,’ he said. ‘So I want to know. Usually it’s six months.’

‘I…’ He looked up at Janine, and she squeezed his shoulder again.

‘We’re not completely sure, dear,’ she said in a shaking voice. ‘The doctor did tell us, though, that for boys around your age, with this particular condition… it’s usually between about two and six mon… two and six mon…’ she let out an especially hard sob.

Toby was speechless. The thought that he’d be dead, gone, zippo – in as little as two months was just too much. How could it be possible? He felt fine! Well, not really, he felt terrible, but definitely not that! Definitely not dying. It was impossible. He was shaking his head.

‘I don’t want to,’ he said eventually. ‘I won’t do it.’

‘I’m sorry, son,’ his father said. ‘It’s just the way it is. You’ll see, in time. Janine and I thought that maybe – ‘

‘We’d go on holiday!’ she cut him off sharply and he looked up, surprised. Toby spun around to look at her but whatever look she’d shot him was off her face and she was smiling down at him. ‘We decided we’d go to… to Hawaii. I was going to book the plane tickets tonight, in fact.’

‘I don’t feel like a holiday,’ Toby said. He stared down at his thin hands in his lap and wondered what they would look like in two months. Would they turn yellow first or would they look completely fine, right up until the end?’

‘Don’t worry, it’ll be brilliant,’ she babbled on. ‘We’ll go swimming and eat all the delicious American food and do whatever you want.’ Toby nodded almost imperceptibly, and both of his parents moved in to drown him in watery hugs, which he accepted, his mind a whirlwind of doubt and horror and morbid curiosity.

When he fell asleep that night, he wondered if he’d ever wake up.

 

While he was around, both of Toby’s parents made an effort to be happy. They took him snorkelling and hiking (though he felt so tired and sick they had to stop early and turn around), and all the while they wore smiles so stretched he thought it was that and not the hot summer sun that was making them sweat so much.

In their luxurious hotel suite the rooms were closer together and Toby could hear them argue more clearly, though he could only make out a few of the words. For some reason, several of their arguments were about the youth in Asia, and he couldn’t figure out why until he realised it was probably they who were researching the cure for his condition. He hoped they worked quickly; the daily expeditions only seemed to be making him weaker – soon he’d be too sick to leave the hotel.

He seemed to sleep a little longer each day, or at least he wanted to, but more often than not his parents would wake him up so they could take him to some exotic place or do something ever more (they hoped) uplifting: scuba diving, fishing, parasailing, whatever crossed their minds. There was one night in particular, about a week after their arrival in Honolulu, that cured Toby of his habit of sleeping in – and almost entirely of sleeping.

It was past midnight, and though the sickness made him muggy and drowsy at all hours, this night was especially humid and Toby was only half asleep, tossing and turning every twenty minutes to get a cool breeze on his leg, then snatching it back when it was too cold. The images he remembered later came to him as if in a dream, and that was what he thought they were at the time – a draft on his face, a door creaking open and closed; a presence in the room.

A mosquito landed on his arm and tried to sting him but he rolled over and it went away. He drifted between consciousness and dreaming and when it stung again he slapped it away irritably and sat up, and that was when he saw his mother on her knees at his bedside, crying.

‘What’s going on?’ He said, rubbing his eyes.

‘Nothing honey, nothing. I’m sorry I woke you. I was… I was just praying.’

‘Praying?’ He’d never seen either of his parents praying in his life before.

‘Yes. I’ll go back to sleep now, you need your rest, okay? I’ll wait here until you sleep.’

‘Okay.’

He lay back on his bed and closed his eyes, but not all the way. After ten minutes or so, he slowed his breathing and made it sound like he was fast asleep. For a while, his mother did nothing but rock in place and cry silently, but every now and again she would look at something in her lap and shake her head. After a long time, she got up and walked to the door, and in the few moments her form was silhouetted by the hallway light he caught a glimpse of something in her right hand: a long syringe. Mosquito bites? He thought, as the door clicked closed behind her. Poison? A hysterical voice asked in his mind. Medicine, he answered, and then remembered the way she kept looking down at the needle and shaking her head.

The next morning he told them he needed some time alone, and wanted some money to explore the city. They exchanged significant glances. ‘Why, what’s going to happen?’ he said. ‘Someone gonna kill me?’

His father shook his head. ‘Son, there are worse things that could happen to you than that, you know. It’s not that simple.’

‘It’s ten in the morning,’ he said, and looked up at them with his most helpless, pleading look. They gave him three hours and a hundred dollars. ‘Don’t go too far!’ they called after him.

He ate an enormous lunch at the Hard Rock, if for no other reason than he was worried he wouldn’t be able to stomach much food in future, the way he was going these days. Feeling queasy, he went to the internet café and surfed the net, but after a few minutes he typed the inevitable phrase into the Google search bar: ‘Youth in Asia.’ The first link was clearly irrelevant, but the second got his attention. A Wikipedia article about something called ‘Euthanasia’. It didn’t take him long to read it.

They were trying to kill him. It was mostly mentioned in relation to old people, but that didn’t fool him – it was about dying people. They were trying to kill him… why? So he wouldn’t have to die? It didn’t make sense, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought about their arguments and the needle in the night, he knew it was true.

He stayed out far longer than the agreed three hours, walking along Waikiki beach, wondering if it was possible to swim to America. He didn’t think so. Maybe you should just let them do it. The thought came unbidden and for a moment he found himself wanting it. An end to the constant terror, to the waiting. He was going to die anyway, wasn’t he? Maybe you will. Probably. It would be so easy. He wouldn’t even have to say anything. Just go to sleep and never wake up.

‘There! That’s him!’ He spun away from the sunset and saw his parents running towards him, an overweight and somewhat relieved policeman trotting in their wake. He didn’t run to them, but watched the sun and let the fresh air cool. He hoped it would be a cooler night.

 

For a while, he couldn’t get himself to sleep because he was so terrified of death, but eventually he convinced himself it had all been a false alarm anyway and he drifted off just after midnight.

And woke up. They hadn’t come for him after all. There had been no repercussions for his excursion the day before, and most of the meaningful looks and hissed words had been between his parents. He had a feeling he’d find out what was going on today, one way or another.

He made an orange juice and stepped out onto their little balcony to watch the surfers catch the morning waves. There weren’t many, but they looked like they were having fun all the same, floating in the water. He found he was enjoying himself, and when he took a long sip of juice and felt the first of the sun’s heat on his arm he decided he wanted to live. He wouldn’t let his parents kill him, and he wouldn’t let the disease kill him, either. What had the doctor said? He still had a small chance. He didn’t feel too good today, though. He’d woken up with a fever and the world rocked around him with each step. It wasn’t pleasant. Still worth living for, though, even if it lasts forever.

His parents waited until after lunch to have another talk, and this time it was his father who sat beside him on the couch and his mother who stood by the scenic view with a broken expression and explained it all.

‘We should have talked to you about it first,’ she began. ‘And I’m – we’re sorry we didn’t. But we did it in your best interest. We thought maybe if you didn’t know… It would be easier on you.’

‘Didn’t know what?’

‘What we were doing. Or trying to do – to help you, see? It’s just.’ She put a hand on her forehead and looked down, shaking her head.

‘I think the best way to put it is to remember Wellington,’ Victor began, but she put a hand up and he stopped.

‘Wellington?’ Toby said, dimly remembering a big fluffy husky from his childhood.

‘Your father means, I mean never mind about that,’ Janine said, casting her husband a look. ‘It’s just. Your condition is… It gets a lot worse, before you, you know.’ She paused to sob for a few minutes and Toby waited quietly. He had been feeling worse.

‘How much worse?’ he asked.

She shook her head and fluttered a hand in front of her face, unable to speak.

‘Horrible, son,’ his father said. ‘It gets worse than you can imagine. The doctor said it’s not uncommon for people to try to kill themselves because of the pain.’

Toby’s heart, which had been sitting in the back of his throat for the past few weeks, fell into the pit of his stomach and rolled over. He gulped. He didn’t think he could imagine that kind of pain.

Finally, his mother regained herself. ‘So we just thought, before it got too bad, we might hurry up the process a bit.’ She finished.

‘So you didn’t have to feel too much pain.’ His father added.

Holy shit. All of a sudden, another memory, partially forgotten, flashed bright in his mind: His father three nights ago, trying to persuade him to drink a foul smelling cocktail which he called a nightcap; his adamant refusal because of his nausea; his mother’s tears moments later.

He stood up, knocking his father’s hand away. ‘NO!’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with you? You were trying to kill me!’

He was half expecting shocked faces and stern denials, but he saw only sympathetic, sad eyes. He felt sick. ‘I might live, still – I might!’ His parents exchanged a look with each other that seemed to say: the poor child, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. ‘I don’t feel that bad yet – just wait till I feel worse!’

His father stood up, tears spilling down his face. ‘Toby, please, you don’t understand. You don’t realise how bad it gets, how… horrific. And by then, you’ll be trapped in the hospital – even if you want it to end there’ll be no way for us to help you. I’m sorry but we agreed to talk to you.’

‘We don’t want you to feel like you don’t have a say, dear,’ his mother said. ‘We’ll do it just how you want, and when you want, okay? You can go in your sleep, or – or lying down in a hot bath eating pizza. Whatever you want.’ She smiled, but the expression was offset by her thickly running mascara and shaking hands.

‘Okay,’ he said. It felt as though every thought had to be pushed through swirling lakes before it could surface with any clarity in his mind. He hated being sick. ‘I choose three days then. And I want to be asleep.’

They exchanged another look, and this one was mostly grief, sure, but there was no shortage of relief there, either. They didn’t want to force me, he thought. If I’d refused, they would have forced me, somehow – killed me. ‘We’re so glad you accept it,’ Janine said, maintaining that painful smile. ‘And it is such a nice, calm way to go. Isn’t it, Victor?’

‘Yes it is. Very sensible. There’s no need for you to suffer anymore, Toby. And until that time, you can have absolutely anything you want, you name it! Okay?’

‘Okay,’ he said.

‘Good. Now there’s no need for us to talk about this again, is there?’ his mother said. She spread her arms. ‘Hug?’

 

He went to bed early, but although he was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open, he didn’t sleep. Instead, he waited until his mother came to check on him and pretended to be asleep, and as soon as she was gone he crawled over to the door and pressed his ear against it.

It took almost half an hour of listening to the droning television, and he almost fell asleep for real, but at last it flicked off and he heard his father say: ‘You think he’s asleep yet?’

‘He was when I checked on him.’

‘Poor kid, must be exhausted.’

‘Yes. Oh, Victor, it’s so sad.’

‘I know. The worst thing of all must be the dread of it. Just knowing it’s coming…’

Toby shivered and the feeling of nausea rose again. He was sweating, but the air felt bitterly cold around him. It was true, he thought: the dread was the worst.

‘I just wish there was some way to take that away from him – the fear.’

‘Me too, honey. Maybe there is, only…’

‘What?’

‘Ah, I don’t know. Never mind.’

They fell silent after that, and a few minutes later the television clicked on. Toby stayed by the door until his eyes were drifting closed of their own accord, and then he managed to crawl half into the bed before he passed out from exhaustion. His last thoughts were of wild plans to run away or hide somewhere until he was sure he’d survived, but in the end they came to nothing but fantasy.

Lately he’d been moving a lot in his sleep, but this night he practically went into a coma. It was only when a fresh draft chilled him that he tried to get under the blankets and found he couldn’t. His arms and legs were stretched out on either side of him, tied down with what felt like thin sheets. He couldn’t move an inch.

One of his eyes half opened but he was still so sunk in his previous dream in which he’d floated on his back in the ocean that he didn’t register what he saw: his father standing over him with the same long syringe he’d seen his mother holding.

He tried to sit up and couldn’t, and then he felt a weight on his legs and saw his mother sitting on the end of the bed, looking at him with a mixture of sadness and warmth. Then it came to him. No, no, they said three days they said three days. His father put a hand on his forehead, not too hard, but there was weight behind it. He glanced over at Janine and shook his head. ‘His forehead’s so hot,’ he whispered.

‘No, stop. I’b awage.’ He said groggily through a sinus full of phlegm. ‘I’b awage please.’ He felt so weak. He tried to sit up but it was impossible.

‘Ssssh, honey,’ his mother said in a soothing voice. ‘Go back to sleep now.’

His father lowered the needle to his neck and panic fell over him like a blanket. He struggled madly with every ounce of strength in his body, wrenching at the ties on his wrists and shaking his head back and forth to get away from the cold prick of the needle.

Victor Morrow was a man driven by love, and no amount of struggling could convince him that he wasn’t doing the right thing: his grip was steady as iron. It was only a few moments before he had a hand pressed over Toby’s mouth and turned his head to one side to expose his neck. ‘Ssssh,’ he said, struggling not to burst into tears, ‘ssssh now son, it’ll just put you to sleep, that’s all. Just something to help you sleep easier.’

Toby felt the sting as the needle entered his neck. He tried to fix pleading eyes on his mother but she was standing just out of his line of sight, sobbing. There was another clear thought that struck him with its absurdity: the last thing I’ll ever see is a lamp.

There was a pressure, and he felt it, actually felt the poison entering his veins, pumping in as if through an external heart, circling his whole body and settling in his heart and brain. He sucked in a breath and the world shrank. He let it out and it shrank again, to a pinhead now, and all the black around the edges held nothing but terror. He took his last breath.

And the phone rang.

Victor paused with his thumb on the plunger and turned to look at his wife. Two more rings went by. She shrugged and shook her head. ‘I don’t know… it’s after midnight!’

There was a horribly long pause and then Victor said, ‘better check just in case, honey.’

She went over to the little stand in the corner of the room and picked up the receiver, and in the silence Victor clearly heard the voice on the other end. It was familiar, but he didn’t place it until the caller introduced himself.

‘Hello? Is this Mrs. Morrow?’ He sounded out of breath, rushed, panicked even.

‘Yes, who is this?’

‘It’s Doctor Truman. You remember me?’

Victor certainly did: he was the doctor who’d done all of his tests. His mother only nodded dumbly and the doctor continued as if she’d spoken. ‘I don’t know how… I’m so sorry about this, I don’t even know where to begin. This is going to cost me my job and god knows what you’ve been going through. I would have… I’ve been trying to get hold of you but they said you’d left the country and no one seemed to know where you’d gone.’

‘Doctor Truman, please get to the point.’

‘God, yes, I’m sorry. I… screw it, I’ll just come out and say it. I mixed your son’s diagnosis up with another patient. I’m sorry. It happens, and yes it was all my fault. My first call was to the other guy who’s been walking around for two weeks thinking he just had a fever. Ah, Jesus.’

There was a long silence. Janine Morrow’s voice shook badly when she next spoke. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’

Doctor Truman uttered a loud, weary sigh. ‘Mrs. Morrow. Toby isn’t dying. In fact, if you just give him a week or two of good rest and plenty of fluids he should be perfectly fine. I… again I’m so sorry I can’t even begin…’ she took the receiver from her ear and lowered it into the cradle, the doctors voice babbling on the other end until it clicked home.

As one, they turned their heads to the small boy laid out on the bed. He seemed relaxed in the way only the dead can, and cliché or not, he looked peaceful. There was no pain where he was, none at all.

In the silence broken now only by two heartbeats, Mrs. Morrow began to cry.

 

I’m sure I’m not the first one to make this observation, but doesn’t it just freak anyone else out how much trust we put in strangers on a day to day basis. Hell, even walking down the street, in a way you’re trusting everyone you pass to not just flip out and kill you. You’re trusting the people who serve you food not to poison it, the people driving on the road not to collide with you at 100 miles an hour. Crazy ain’t it? Enjoy

Playtime

By Ben Pienaar

 

When he started, the kids were colourful and interesting and funny; they made him see the world a different way. It was one of the reasons he decided to become a kindergarten teacher – that and it was easy, and he was good with kids. At first.

After two years he realised that all the kids were essentially the same. They weren’t individual and interesting – the kids in his second year were just like the kids in his first year: they said the same kinds of things, laughed at the same things, acted the same. The ones with dumbass or abusive parents beat up the others, or were teased by them – sometimes both, but even that stopped being interesting after a while.

As far as teaching went, there were only so many times that you could teach the alphabet and finger paint before you started to get bored. He wasn’t teaching them anyway – he was supervising them, end of story: making sure the parents didn’t have to deal for eight hours, and if something happened to them it wouldn’t be their fault, for once.

It was only a matter of time before he started conducting a few experiments. It began innocently enough: he’d leave the grounds for a while and watch from a distance, see what developed. The kind of things kids got up to when they thought no one was watching was incredible. He managed to avoid serious mishaps by turning up at the right time – although he only did that if it was a kid whose parents would actually care. If it was one of the others…

The Kindergarten was across the road from the primary school, on its own in a little park. There was a sandpit and miniature jungle gym surrounded by tall green bars, adjoining a large classroom full of art equipment and worksheets. He would sneak around into the surrounding park and watch them from behind a tree.

The longer he left them, the wilder they got; the more like animals. They’d exclude a few, and those few would gang up and fight the others, for land: the sandpit or jungle gym or the corner with the hopscotch. Everything escalated. One kicked sand in the other’s eyes; the other retaliated with a plastic spade. The first got his friends and threw sticks; the other got her friends and threw rocks.

The colours drained from them like a pencil sketch doused in water. They were not cute and innocent. Just black and white, mean spirited animals. Rats.

They were his rats, though, and they never disobeyed him. Everything he asked them to do was fun – like the time he brought in a batch of acid and gave them each a tab with their lunch. That was wild. He spent a couple months giving them a different drug every Monday. LSD, Marijuana, cocaine. He could have killed any one of them, and any cop with two brain cells would have seen who was to blame… but they were resilient little bastards.

That was back in his six or seventh year teaching. After that surge of creativity, he’d fallen into a black slump and hadn’t recovered. He started bringing a gun to school. None of the kids or parents ever saw it, of course, and it wasn’t loaded. He’d take it with him when he went out to the park and hide in the trees, pointing it at the kids and pulling the trigger. Hearing that frustrating, dry click.

It got more interesting when he put bullets in it and did the same thing, taking aim and seeing how far he dared to squeeze the trigger. That was a rush, that was almost real, and it kept him going a little while longer.

He had grown to hate them, in his long years. His view of them as bright, capricious children had changed to one of hateful malevolent rats, and his view of himself and his life had changed just as dramatically. The world had lost its colour and become bleak. He’d never got on with people, but now he despised them, and he despised himself too.

When it was time for arts and crafts he sat with the gun in his desk drawer, loaded with the safety off. He thought about how incredibly easy it would be to completely change the course of his own life and countless others. Hell, with a few swift movements and a keen eye he could change the history of the country. Make worldwide news, even. There’d be memorials and candlelit vigils, and why? All because one man moved his arm, stood up, and pulled a little lever a few times.

He’d seen them playing with guns, too. Not real ones, but sticks that looked like guns in their mind’s eye. They’d pull an imaginary trigger and scream Pow! At each other and the victims would dutifully fall down – or, more usually, they’d instigate an intense argument about who shot first and whether or not they should really die.

They didn’t have a clue. They should see real killing; real death and war. See what happened to their goddamned innocence then! See if they were so damned cute then! They should get a good shot of real life, about what the real world was like. God damn! now that would be teaching them. Keep a bullet for himself and who cared what happened afterwards?

Sometimes he opened his drawer and pulled out his gun and thought about it, hard. He was discreet, but a few times he thought he caught a couple of the boys looking at him when he did it, thinking something. Did they know what he was thinking?

‘Alright! Playtime!’ He shouted, because the sight of them scribbling mindlessly on messy scraps of paper was already too much to bear. He considered getting hold of some heroin for next week. The classroom erupted in noise and cheers and they abandoned papers and crayons in favour of flying projectiles and wild screaming.

He left them that way for a while and went out into the park, though for once he didn’t spy on them or conduct an experiment. Even that had lost its charm for him. He stood in bright sunlight, but his mind was overcast and stormy. He saw his life failing, spiralling down, becoming blacker and blacker.

He remembered himself as a rat – child, just like them, and realised they would all become him. He was them, and they were him, and just like that he decided suicide wasn’t enough. This despair was bigger than one person. This darkness was worldwide. He nodded and went inside.

The kids were all over the place, playing with their miniature stick/guns and falling down, not realising they were about to see just what real murder was like. At last he’d be able to show them that, teach them something for once. He sat down behind his desk and watched them jump and crawl and run and shout POW at each other. He smiled, imagining what would happen if he fired his gun at one of them and it just went POW. That would be funny.

One of them dove over a table and crawled around his desk, using it for cover. He was laughing hysterically and calling out taunts. ‘No fair, no fair!’ one of the others called out. ‘You can’t use the teacher’s desk!’

‘Yes I can!’ he yelled back. ‘I can use your desk, Mr. Gallby?’

‘Yes,’ he said, without looking down.

‘SEE?’

He pulled open his top desk drawer, his eye on little Mary, who was pulling another girl’s hair and giggling. She’d be the first to go. He reached into the drawer, felt only a few papers and pencils. Reached a bit deeper and felt the back. The gun was gone.

‘Hey mister Gillby, wanna play?’ The rat hiding beside his desk stuck his head around and looked at him. ‘I found your gun, but if you play I get to use it, okay?’

He stared at the boy, expressionless. He tried to think of the best response. Give it back! No, that would never work. Please let me use it? No. In fact, he didn’t know that there was anything he could to do –

‘Mr. Gilby’s playing now!’ the rat shouted, standing up and raising the gun. He turned to face Mr. Gilby, grinning mischievously, some cruel trick playing behind his eyes. He raised the gun.

‘Not quick enough, Mr. Gilby! I win!’

POW!

 

 

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.

I originally had a note here explaining exactly how I came up with the idea for this story, but I realised that it was impossible to talk about it without actually giving away the plot line and the inevitable ending. Instead of trying to guess how it comes out, I’d suggest you just read this one, try to imagine yourself in Danny’s shoes, and absorb the horror as though you lived it. You’ll enjoy it more that way.

Remember

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

He woke up in his room, and at first all he could do was stare at the ceiling and try to figure out what was so wrong about everything.

In the end, it was nothing specific, it was just that everything felt, in some general way, completely, terribly, wrong. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to remember what happened. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours ago that he’d been primed at the top of what Danny Rogers called DEATH HILL, in a voice dripping with evil and foreboding.

Danny hadn’t been there, he recalled. He’d taken his skateboard out alone, headed to the top of the hill, and then come down. He remembered the scream of wheels on gravel, followed by the panic that struck him as the back of the board began to veer wildly left and right, until at last the whole thing flipped over and he’d gone crashing into the asphalt. He remembered that he hadn’t been wearing his helmet, either.

‘Idiot,’ he said, slapping the side of his head with his hand. For a moment he froze, shocked at the sound of his voice. It was horribly scratched and weak, he thought. And why was his heart beating so fast all of a sudden? He swallowed and found his mouth was dry.

He wondered how long he’d been out. The sun was bright outside, like morning, and that was strange because he was sure it had been afternoon when he’d fallen. Must be a trick of the light, he thought. His mother must have taken him straight up here, to bed. In fact, wasn’t that a note from her, there by his bedside? It looked like her handwriting.

He rolled into a sitting position and felt his heart rate jump. Whatever had happened to him, he must have been badly hurt. All of his bones ached painfully and he felt so weak. He gave a dry cough and picked up the note. For some reason, he couldn’t make out the letters until he brought it right up to his face.

Kyle

REMEMBER: Please do not panic. I am in the next room and if you need me just call my name (Kathy) and I’ll come as soon as possible. I’m just looking after you while your mother is away. You hit your head quite badly when you fell off that skateboard, you see, and it has affected your memory, and your heart: (Your heart medication is on your bedside table in the orange capsule, take two only if you feel striking pains in your heart or you can’t breathe, and then call me (Kathy). So please, if you look at your reflection in the window try not to panic, everything is alright. If you are still worried, please turn this page over.

But Kyle was beginning to panic, alright. That feeling of wrongness was growing by the second, and his hands were shaking. Why would he panic just from looking at his reflection? That was when it hit him. He’d been injured alright – and probably horribly deformed. Maybe his skull had caved in or he’d skinned his face off on the road. That was surely why he felt like he could shatter into a hundred pieces at the slightest gust of wind. That must be why he had to squint and bring the paper right up to his face just to read.

He turned it over in his hands, which didn’t seem to work properly (they must have been numb with fear), and began to read.

REMEMBER: I am in the next room and here to help. My name is Kathy.

Beside this there was a photograph of a kindly looking woman in her twenties. He almost rolled his eyes. A babysitter, mom? he thought. I’m almost thirteen, come on.

When you were thirteen you crashed your skateboard coming down the hill just outside the house. As I mentioned, you hit your head very hard. It has affected your memory quite badly. Your memory span is approximately five minutes long, and has been for the past sixty years.

Your name is Kyle Haimes:

Beside that there was a photograph of an old, confused looking man. Kyle stared at it. He tried to comprehend everything – an entire life squeezed into a paragraph. The past sixty years, the note said, and not a hint of what had happened in those years, besides this… He was panicking now, his heart thudding through him, horror slowly replacing his confusion.

REMEMBER: Everything is alright, I am here to help. Those white pills on your bedside table are heart medication. Take two only if you have striking pains in your heart or you can’t breathe, and then call me (Kathy).

And that was the end of it. He dropped the note, and brought his hands up to his face. He did not feel the smooth skin of a boy’s face, nor did he feel horrible injuries or bandages: there was only age. Wrinkles, loose skin, rough on his fingers.

He stood up and walked over to the window, letting the sunshine pour over his face while he tried to catch his breath. He resisted the urge to scream, tried to get himself under control. He wanted his mother.

Sixty years. Why was he only waking up now? No, that wasn’t right. He must have been asleep. But what would happen five minutes from now? Would he remember this? Surely he would, he felt fine now. Not physically fine – he felt like he’d been rolled under a truck – but mentally. He closed his eyes for a minute and tried to get himself under control, but it wasn’t working. Every thought brought fresh horrors.

If he was seventy three, his parents must both be dead. All of his friends were either dead or his age, and had forgotten him.

His heart was hammering in his chest now, and suddenly a knife of pure pain pierced him. He gritted his teeth and tried to think – to remember. There was something he was supposed to do, now. A name came floating out at him from the past.

‘KATHY!’ he screamed.

It was a warm, sunny day. Usually Danny would have loved to ride out with him, but he was doing homework. On a Sunday. Kyle rolled his eyes as he stomped on his board and caught it in the air. He hit the bottom of the driveway and realised he’d forgotten his helmet, but it was already too late, he was rolling down to DEATH HILL and the day was so warm and fresh.

‘I like to live on the edge,’ he whispered to himself in his best cowboy drawl.

The best part, he always thought, was just before you went. He stood at the top of the hill with one foot on the board, staring down the curving road and feeling warm sunlight on his face. He prepared himself to push off and felt that first rush of anticipation. He savoured it for as long as he could – any longer and he’d turn chicken – and then he went.

At first, it was easy, just cruising down the slope, enjoying the feeling of sweat cooling in the breeze. Then the speed picked up and he lowered himself on the board a little for balance, his eyes narrowed. Soon, the sounds of the birds and the highway were lost in the roar of rough wheels on gravel, and his thoughts vanished as he concentrated on staying aboard.

Everything went wrong when he levelled out on the bottom. A stray stone, a loose wheel, and in the space of half a second his exhilaration turned to terror. For a few moments, he maintained balance, weaving crazily as the back end of the board fishtailed. Then he hit the curb at the foot of the hill and all vision dissolved into millisecond images of spinning grass, then sky, then road; finally cement rushing towards his face, and then black.

When he regained consciousness, his heart was still beating madly, but he was suddenly back in his bedroom, standing in front of the window. He reeled back, shocked, and looked around. His bed was messed up and he thought he was still in his pyjamas. Of course – it had all been a dream.

He breathed out heavily, but there was something wrong: the breath didn’t come back when he tried to breathe in. There was a weight pressing in on his chest, as though someone was sitting on him. He opened his mouth to call out and then closed it again as a fierce pain crushed his heart.

He dropped to his knees.

‘Kyle?’ A woman’s voice from down the hall, but it wasn’t one he recognized. Where was he?

Desperately, he tried to pull himself up with the windowsill, and it was then that he caught sight of his reflection. The only thing he recognized was the tiny white scar on his forehead where he’d once knocked it on the cupboard door, but it was obscured with wrinkles, and the skin around his eyes was loose and dark. It couldn’t be him, but when he opened his mouth to scream for his mother, so did the old man.

Kyle’s whole body turned weak and he collapsed, clutching his chest with his left hand and staring at the ceiling. He heard footsteps outside the door, a distant thumping that was quickly drowned by the pumping of his heart in his ears.

‘Oh God,’ someone said, but he couldn’t see who, because his eyes could only make out two shrinking circles of the ceiling.

He tried to remember the feel of air on his face and of summer sunshine on his skin, and he found he could, because after all it had only happened a moment ago.

He went deaf and blind and numb, but he could still feel the vibrating board under his feet, and hear the gravel scattering in his wake. He could still see the grass, twisting below him, and then the sky, and then the hard road, and then…

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 can’t actually tell you the inspiration for this story without giving too much about it away, or even tell you about which scene in ‘Total Recall’ (the one with Arnie, not the remake) made me want to write it. So instead, I’ll just give you the story. This was the one I named ‘The Patient’ but I thought this title was much more clever.

Keeping in Mind

By Ben Pienaar

 

Randall was unaware of the crazy man and his spying eyes until he actually showed up at his front door. Then he remembered the times he’d seen him all at once: begging on a corner in Paris while he was on his way to meet a friend – yelling gibberish on 31st street in New York – watching from across the road while he ate lunch in England. And now here he was, somehow standing on the front porch of his Florida mansion. He looked wild, dishevelled, but composed. He wasn’t railing about or shouting as Randall remembered him; he simply stood and smiled politely.

‘How did you get past security?’ Randall asked.

The man put out his hand, which was somehow clean unlike the rest of him. ‘My name is Dr. Pence, and there was no security.’

Randall didn’t shake the madman’s hand, and eventually he dropped it.

‘I hate to barge in like this, but you and I have some important things to discuss. It’s about your health.’

‘My health?’ Randall said, wondering whether the man would wonder away or get agitated if he slammed the door in his face. Where the hell was security, anyway?

‘Yes. I’m afraid it’s quite serious, and you might need to be sitting down. Is it alright if I come in?’ He stepped forward, as if to push his way inside, and Randall swung the door shut in his face. He realised his heart was beating fast, as fast as if he’d just been in a fight, and he didn’t know why. He went into the kitchen and picked up the phone, dialling 001. There was no answer. That was not good. What had he done to the security? They had guns, for god’s sake, what could he possibly have done? He dialled 911, and this time there was an answer.

‘Operator, what is your emergency?’

‘I’d like police, please. A man has broken into my property and somehow incapacitated my security. Please hurry.’

‘What is your address, sir?’

‘I’m Randall Gaits, you know my address, and if you want there to be a Born Wild 2, you better hurry.’ He hung up.

He realised that he’d been overly dramatic just for an odd man at his front door, but something in him knew he was in danger. That man’s eyes… He shook his head. Better embarrassed than dead, anyway.

He left the kitchen, meaning to go up to his second floor office where he kept his magnum, and froze at the foot of the stairs. The man who called himself a doctor was standing halfway up, his hands behind his back and a polite smile on his face. If his looks weren’t clean cut, his manner certainly was.

‘H… How did you get here?’ The man was doing nothing but standing, yet Randall felt as though he were in extreme danger. This man, he thought madly to himself, was death. And how in God’s name had he done that? Just how had he got from the front door to the stairway in perfect silence in under a minute?

‘That too, I shall explain if you’d only give me half a chance. Please, Mr. Gaits, I only want to talk.’

There was real pleading in that voice, and something like sympathy also. Randall knew the police would be here soon, but would it be soon enough?

‘In my office,’ he said, relieved to hear that scratchy quality leaving his voice.

The man nodded and walked up the stairs. Randall followed him several paces behind, and found that the man – the ‘doctor’ – knew his way to the office just fine. He’d had his stalkers before, but this one was exceptionally more dangerous. This guy wasn’t going to settle for a shrine of photographs in his bedroom and a collection of autographs. This was the kind of crazy that might just kill them both rather than suffer rejection. He decided to humour him for a while.

There was only one chair in the office, and so the man stood a few feet back from the desk while Randall moved to sit behind it, keeping his eyes on the ‘doctor’ every step of the way. When he sat down in his familiar, comfortable brown chair, he pulled out his top desk drawer. He didn’t reach into it, but the magnum was there, fully loaded and ready if he needed it. While he spoke to the other man, he kept it in the corner of his eye.

‘So, Doctor. What is it you need to talk to me about? Are we meant to be together? Is my health going to suffer if I don’t dedicate a movie to you or something?’ Now that he was near his gun, he was confident again, but he still heard a shake in his voice that he didn’t like. It almost sounded hysterical.

The doctor was no longer smiling, but he wasn’t angry or shocked, either – he just looked concerned. Randall had a terrible urge to grab his gun and jump out of the window just to escape that look.

‘I don’t know how quite to begin this…’ Dr. Pence said. ‘It’s never been done before, and now that I’m here myself I can see how… real it all is. Convincing you will be difficult. All I can say, Mr. Gaits, is that your life depends on your understanding me. When I’m done, you can do anything you like and I won’t stop you. I urge only that you listen. Will you listen, Randall?’

‘Sure I’ll listen,’ Randall said, resting his right hand on his desk, near the top drawer. ‘I’ll listen to how you got in here, first.’

‘That…’ Dr. Pence said, chuckling, ‘is actually quite a difficult thing to explain by itself. But I will do my best. Alright.’ He took a deep breath, seemed to gather himself for some effort, and then went on. ‘You are not here in this room with me. You are actually somewhere else, in the ‘real’ world, though I admit you’ve done an incredible job on this one.’

‘Sure. Hey, thanks.’ Randall said. He looked at his watch. Now the Doctor did look shocked, and he realised the man had actually expected him to believe him.

He shook himself and continued. ‘To be exact, Randall, you spend most of your time in a padded room because your insane delusions have resulted in serious injuries. Both to yourself and to the staff at North Point Asylum.’

‘Uh, huh.’ He should have relaxed, now – this was just one of the rambling loonies and boy, he’d encountered them plenty of times – but somehow he couldn’t shake the idea that this one was different.

‘I am your primary psychologist, and I’ve been trying to bring you back to reality for quite some time. So far, no medication or treatment of any kind has worked.’

‘I see. Back to reality, huh? And where I am now…’

‘Is in your mind. This is simply the fantasy you are living out mentally. I can tell you everything about it if you like. You believe you are a famous movie star, and travel the world signing autographs for adoring fans. Occasionally these fans get violent and you have an… incident.’

‘Like right now, huh?’

The doctor nodded, sadly. ‘Yes. In fact, once you were imprisoned by a mad fan for nearly two days, isn’t that right? And he tied you to a table and shouted madness at you before you attacked him and broke free.’

That made Randall’s blood run cold. He remembered that, alright. It haunted his nightmares even now, the things that nutcase had said. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep at all, thinking of what might have happened if he hadn’t got out.

‘That man was a good friend of mine, and you broke his arm and bit off his right ear,’ the doctor said, and now there was a trace of anger in his voice, though he tried hard to conceal it. Randall’s hand tensed and moved closer to the top drawer.

‘He was trying to help you, and was the closest anyone’s come until now. You actually became aware of your surroundings, including the table you were bound to, and might have made further progress if you hadn’t escaped.’

‘You knew that nutcase? That explains a lot.’

‘Yes, well, I hope it does. Currently, Randall, you are strapped to that same table and I am in the room with you, speaking to you. When I came up to this office, I simply turned my back and walked to the corner of the room and that is where I am now. I cannot see your mansion, but I know all about it, because you’ve spoken many times, and my colleagues have all played parts in it. The police operator you spoke to a moment ago, for example, was the warden of this asylum, Mary Woollins. We discovered that the more familiar you became with us in the real world, the more we tended to appear in your hallucinations, and so we’ve been infiltrating your mind this way, for want of a better phrase.’

Randall smiled without an ounce of humour and looked down at his desk. He could smell the varnish on it, still. He rapped his knuckles on it and heard it, loud and clear. ‘That’s not real?’ he said. He took a deep breath of air, savouring it. ‘That’s not real?’

Dr. Pence watched him with that concerned look on his face and said nothing. Randall stared at him, and now he thought he did feel a little crazy. But not in the way the doctor suggested. Not in the same way the doctor was, either.

He took the gun out of the drawer and laid it on the desk. The doctor continued to stare at him, as if he didn’t care. It was entirely possible that he didn’t – it was possible that the man honestly believed what he was saying – probable, even. Randall had had loonies sincerely believe they were his soul mates, too, but that didn’t make it true.

‘So if this is all just happening in my head, and you’re not really in this house with me, then if I aim this here…’ he lifted the gun and pointed it at the doctor’s head, and he could have sworn the man flinched, then. ‘And pull the trigger, you’ll… what?’ Just keep standing there?’

‘What will happen to me is exactly what you’ll expect to happen,’ the doctor said. He still wasn’t certain, but Randall thought he could detect the fear in his voice now. Maybe he didn’t believe after all. ‘You’ll see me get shot, and I’ll drop to the floor and die, and you’ll be able to go on with your life.’

‘Oh? Okay, well doc, I’d have to say that sounds pretty good. Is there a reason I shouldn’t do this?’ He was sure he had the bastard then. He rested his finger on the trigger and paused, deliberately. Then the doctor said something he hadn’t expected.

‘If you pull that trigger, Mr. Gaits, you end your own life.’

‘What?’

‘You’re scheduled for a lobotomy in a month’s time. You’ve simply been too violent for the asylum to hold you for much longer. I’m your last chance, Randall.’ The doctor, Randall realised, had broken out into a cold sweat. He was holding his hands up, and they were shaking. He did not look, Randall thought, like someone who was totally sure that he couldn’t be harmed. He didn’t believe his own lies.

There was silence. The doctor, moving slowly and keeping his eyes fixed on Randall, reached into his jacket pocket with one hand and brought out a syringe. ‘This will help,’ he said.

‘Oh, really? How so, doc? And let me ask you one other thing. If I’m strapped to a bed, how come you don’t just step right up and inject me with it?’

‘It wouldn’t work if I did it. It’s a symbol, more than anything else. Essentially a placebo. You take it, and you’re admitting that this is all false and you want to escape, to come back to reality. That admission, that decision, is all you will need to make the first steps. After that we can help you. I’m here to lead you to the water, but I can’t make you drink, if you see what I mean.’

‘You calling me a horse?’ Randall smiled, but he found his mouth was dry. And why was he so terrified, he wondered? What was in the syringe?

The doctor stepped forward and he raised his gun, but he only leaned forward and laid the syringe on the desk. It was full of clear liquid. The doctor retreated back to the corner of his room. ‘The decision is yours,’ he said.

Randall looked from the syringe on his left to the gun on his right and shook his head. Somewhere far away he heard the first police sirens, and thought it was about goddam time, but still he didn’t feel safe. He was threatened by this man, deeply threatened. It occurred to him that the only crime he’d committed was breaking and entering, and that no one but him could possibly see how dangerous he was. This man wasn’t going to give up – he’d be back. Maybe next time he’d be a little more… persuasive.

‘Tell me something, doctor Pence,’ he said. ‘What am I in your “real world”?’

‘You’re a good man,’ the doctor said. ‘You used to work as a teacher. You had a wife.’

‘A good man,’ Randall repeated, nodding. Then he raised his gun, saw the doctor’s eyes widen in terror in the moment of hesitation, and fired.

The bang was loud and satisfying and Randall thought later that no one was ever going to tell him that wasn’t real. No one was ever going to tell him the blood he saw pouring out of the madman’s throat wasn’t real, or the choking sounds he made when he went down. No one was going to tell him the smell of gun smoke wasn’t goddamned real.

He took the time to put the syringe back in the man’s hand. Bingo, he thought, self defence. And who cared if there was nothing harmful in the thing – anyone could see how you’d want to shoot a madman waving a syringe at you, after all.

The sirens were right in his front drive, now, right on time. He kicked his chair over to make it look like he’d rushed behind the desk, and then he went to crouch in the corner with the gun. He conjured the best expression of remorse and terror that he could (and he was a good actor, after all).

Not that any of it would matter, in the end. He was Randall Gaits, famous movie star, multi-millionaire and philanthropist. He’d given twenty million to various charities and entertained the world with his movies – who was going to look too close?

The front door opened and Randall assumed his position. Behind the yelling of the swat teams and media helicopter outside, he thought he heard someone laughing. A very unstable laugh, that sounded, and it was accompanied by other voices, crying for assistance.

He shook his head and the voices disappeared. There was going to be a movie in this, he thought. Maybe a book, too, if he played it right. People were going to talk about him for months after this. He was going to make money, be famous. Randall smiled to himself and waited for the police to arrive.

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.

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