Andrew's stories have appeared in a variety of genres and in a variety of outlets over the past ten years, with his genre stories being published in The Third Alternative, Fusing Horizons, and Roadworks amongst others. His book of slipstream fantasy stories, "The Virtual Menagerie", was nominated for a British Fantasy Award for best collection in 2003, his comic-satire novel, "Moon Beaver", was published in the States by ENC Press in 2004, and a new collection of fantasy/noir stories, "Beyond Each Blue Horizon", will appear from Crowswing Books in June 2005. He currently lives in Norwich with his 5yr old daughter and also runs Elastic Press in his spare time.
I knew who was ringing at two in the morning even before I picked up the phone.
And I still picked up the phone.
'Beaton,' he said, 'how're things?'
'I might have a job for you.'
'You know I don't do that shit any more.'
'So,' and then there was the pause that I'd known would be coming, 'all that stuff I got on you has washed away, has it?'I rubbed my eyes with my right hand and wished the telephone away from my left.
'At the track on Wednesday. Just in time for the three o'clock.'
'In broad daylight?'
'Make something up.'
The phone died and I returned to bed. Two hours later I was still awake. It didn't do to argue with Seymour, but my growing reputation as a bent cop was something I loathed to exaggerate. Still, the reed that bends survives longer than the oak. I found myself getting up and doing some housework as the dawn started to push its way into the room. God knows I needed something different to occupy my mind.
It was easy to find Seymour at the track. The people who weren't congregating around the horses were milling around him. Despite the strong autumnal heat, which made eating ice cream still a distinct pleasure, he was wearing a thick camel hair coat that hung down to his knees. Young women, those with an eye for money, vied to press themselves against him, and older women who should have known better fluttered long black eyelashes under ridiculous hats. He looked for all the world like the king of his particular castle, although I'd been in the business long enough to see crime moguls come and go and the ground he was standing on was just as apt to crumble as it was for the best of them.
I stood to one side, gum in my mouth, and waited for the race to begin. All eyes would be on the track and then, if Seymour wanted and the need was that desperate, he could come over and try to sell me whatever business he had. Not that I wanted it. Life had been quiet of late, and I preferred to keep it that way. But even inertia has a price. Stability comes no cheaper than war.
There was a tangible anticipation running through the crowd like a Mexican wave. The horses were backed into the stalls, and the thumping of the jockey's hearts might well have matched the music that was pumping through the sound system and then stopped. I'd taken a bet before I came down to the stand. Hotel Maid. It was something I felt like handling right now instead of the case.
Then an arm went up. I breathed out. And they were off.
'So what's the deal?'
'I got a job for you.'
'So I gathered. I didn't come here to watch midgets ride for the hell of it. You ever watch flat racing Seymour? I mean, really watch it? Take a look at it now. Look at those jockey's asses bobbing in the air like beckoning tarts. Feel the rush of those animals. They might as well be creatures from another planet when we step outside of the horsebox and really understand them for what they are. The whole thing's patently ridiculous.'
I spat my gum into the ground and rubbed the toe of my brogues over the dirt, covering it up.
'This is the last time. Understand. Otherwise I won't be in the position to help you out no more. Sometime, someone will trace me back to you or vice versa and I'll be off the force. I'm not sticking everything I got against that.'
'You've got nothing Beaton. You ain't even got a dime or a dame.'
'I've got what I want. A nice, clean house and a girl whenever I want one. I eat out. What more does a man need?'
'You eat out in late-nite diners, and I've seen some of the girls you've hung around with. Believe me, Beaton, you'll never have nothing to lose.'
I bit back on the double negative and said nothing. Ok, so he was right. But I did keep my apartment tidy. If a guy's gotta have a compulsive obsession then it might as well be cleanliness.
'This is the deal, and this doesn't go any further than ourselves; understand.'
I nodded. Hotel Maid was out in front, but few people seemed to be cheering for her. I had a hunch that she wasn't the favourite and would soon be eating turf.
Seymour continued, his voice dropping to such a low whisper that if it wasn't for the underlying growl I'd never have been able to hear him.
'Someone's been after my girls. The honeys I keep up at the shack. Each night when they go to bed I lock the door behind them, and each morning when I return I find their shoes are wet and soiled. They won't say anything. They don't even look scared and that worries me more. With my reputation they should be terrified if there were even a hint of something to hide. But they aren't, so I'm reckoning that whatever they're doing must be fucking failsafe.'
'Maybe they're doing each other.'
'I'm close enough to crack your skull, Beaton.'
'It was only a suggestion.'
'Well suggest something else. I've put three men in the room with them so far and all of those men reckon nothing has happened. The fuck it hasn't. Three bullets are now embedded in their heads and they're bolt upright in the foundations of the Seymour Apartments being built overlooking the docks. Unless you want to be inside the fourth pillar then you better come up with something.'
'And if I don't do it?'
'Then your chief and the media both get that file we know I got.'
I knew that file intimately. One slip seven years ago when the bullet from my gun had shot that kid instead of the gangster I was aiming at...the ramifications of that went far deeper than I'd expected. I wasn't young at the time, but on the road to promotion and getting greedy. The street was deserted anyway, but before I'd had time to work things through Seymour was there cleaning up and whispering suggestions in my ear. As it happens I never did get the promotion anyway. But I've been beholden to Seymour ever since.'Ok, I'll do it, but on one condition.'
'I don't do conditions.'
'You'll do this one. If I'm successful then I get to keep the file. No more cover-ups.'
'And if I don't agree.'
'Then the entire underworld and police force knows you're stupid enough to let someone diddle your girls.'
'And if you don't find out who's doing it?'
'Then I'm the fourth support at the docks, remember? Surely it's not hard to forget.'
I could hear Seymour clenching his teeth behind me. If there was anything he hated it was a compromise, and it would take several seconds for him to convince himself that he held all the cards.
'Ok,' he said; and I felt the smoke from his cigar on my neck. Then he said: Fuck; and I looked up to see Hotel Maid romping home.
What Seymour described as a shack was a veritable palace to the likes of the lowlife and coppers that I was used to hanging around with. The large white ornate façade reflected the sun to such an extent that it was like driving into pure light as one approached the entrance. You could imagine God living in a place like that. That is, if he was still at home. Inside the opulence continued, built on shady business deals and crack cocaine. But no one had ever been able to pin anything on Seymour. His lawyers might as well have been grease monkeys because nothing ever stuck. Some of that was down to me, and I wondered how many other cops were caught in his craw, yet it was only me that I was concerned about and making this deal for the last time that I'd have to.
It felt peculiar entering by the front entrance even though I'd done so many times before. Usually with a posse in tow and knowing that I'd already tipped off the house. I glanced at the butler who admitted me and wondered how easy it might be to buy him. Maybe even now a call could be going back to my superior at the station. But then if I had a choice then it was Hobson's - perhaps they should rename that Seymour's - and I'd only get an ulcer worrying much further than I already did.
I was shown in the library and clichéville didn't end there. Spread out over a table was a scale model of Seymour's Apartments overlooking the docks. I wondered which of his three henchmen were in which of the three pillars, and whether I'd face seaward come the time that I might happen to join them.
It was late already, ten o'clock, and Seymour was dressed in a silk dressing gown and wearing slippers, sucking on the tip of a mahogany pipe. I'd never seen him without a cigar, but the homely image figured somehow. Surely that's all any of us want at the end of the day. Somewhere to put our feet up and call our own?
'Beaton.' The way he said it sounded more like a dismissal than a welcome.
'Enough of the formalities,' I said, 'tell me more about these girls.'
He put the pipe down on a mantelpiece that wasn't completely free of dust. Then he motioned me towards a black leather sofa and sat down in the armchair opposite. I immediately sank into the material and knew it was a power thing. There was a real log fire burning in the grate. I looked up at him like a small boy caught up in circumstance.
'I've been collecting girls,' he said, 'voluntarily, of course. A harem of sorts, if you will. We all need our indulgences, don't you think?'
I made as if to nod, but then thought better of it. I wanted no more complicity than I was already up to my neck in.
'They get all they want here. They're not whores or second-class stock. Most of them are very well bred. You might find that they're on your missing files should you investigate their names, which obviously I'm not going to give you, but they all came here of their free will when they started out.'
'But not free to go...?' I knew the answer before I asked the question.
'That would be...as the dramatists say, inconvenient.'
He smiled and his teeth were yellow in the firelight. Not for the first time I wished I'd never pulled the trigger when I could see the kid cycling into the corner of my vision. Split-second decisions, who needs them when we have all the time left in the world?
'So they're going somewhere or someone is coming in? That's the gist of it, right?'
He nodded. As if voicing it would magnify the weakness.
'But then they come back?'
He nodded again.
I found myself scratching my head. 'I still don't get the deal here. I don't understand it.'
'You don't have to understand it. You just have to see where they go.'
'They're not fucking stupid. Any cunt can dismantle that!'
'Technology's pretty damn good these days...'
'I wouldn't have brought you here if it wasn't a last resort.' Thin lines were beginning to bulge on his forehead like tributaries unsure of their route towards the sea. It might have been the glow from the fire but I was sure his face was turning red. It struck me then: he really had tried everything in his power. What we were dealing with here was something out of the other.
'Come on then," I said wearily. "Take me to them.'
We moved out of the library and he led me upstairs. The carpets must have been an inch thick under my brogues, and the wooden banisters were so highly polished that my hands glided along them like the puck in a game of air hockey. Crime does pay, I thought, yet could Seymour sleep at night? With a voluntary harem of honeys I guess he didn't need to.
On the third floor he paused outside a pair of magnificently carved doors. Whorls of contorted shapes intertwined in a nonsense picture. I could see something was ticking over in his head, but I wasn't sure what. It unnerved me for a moment. I can read most situations. It was only when he turned to look at me that I knew what he intended to say.
'These girls are mine, you understand?' His voice was quiet, the menace understated. 'Under no circumstances - none at all - do you touch them.'
I nodded. My mouth hung open. Then he knocked three times, and a key was turned in reply.
The doors swung wide on a massive room that must have taken up an entire wing of the house. Twelve beds were lined up beside each other with pink-lacquered dressing tables facing the wall at the foot of each bed. It was like a beautified hospital ward. The carpet was pink too, as were the walls and even the ceiling. Pink also dripped from the girls as they stood combing each other's hair in a bizarre pre-sleep ritual that was as perfect as a daisy chain. Apart from the girl who had opened the door to us, each of their eyes was fixed on the task before them. Then Seymour clapped three times in quick succession and they stopped what they were doing and formed a line.
My eyes ran over them quickly. It was true they were extraordinarily beautiful. A flawlessness, perhaps, which people like me didn't deserve to see. There was an intentional mix that was obvious, from the white-skinned to the dark, from the blonde through to the redhead, and the differing colour and shapes of their eyes. Seymour must have hunted high and low for such excellence, and my fists clenched at the thought that they had enslaved themselves to him. I wondered how many of them had shared his bed.
Seymour knew I was staring, and I realised that he was giving me the time to do so. Like a reclusive art collector he was proud of his accumulated masterpieces. But I felt no gratification that he could appreciate beauty, only anger at the need to possess.
When he spoke his voice was devoid of its usual gruffness. There was an underlying fatherly nuance which increased my detest.
'Beaton will be your bodyguard for this evening. Treat him well and with respect.'
Before I knew it, the door was closed. Bolts were slammed across it from the outside. I was locked in with twelve beautiful women and my pulse should have been racing round the track of my body. But all I felt was an increasing panic and impending dread.
The room was silent.
The honeys resumed combing their hair. The girl who had let us into the room fetched a chair and placed it against the door. She motioned for me to sit down and in an instant I fell to desire. Her hair was a soft dark brown, and curled tantalisingly at the corners of her mouth. Her eyes were speckled turquoise like a chipping sparrow's eggs, polished until they shone. Her mouth, her lips...it was all I could do not to press myself against her and force my flesh against hers. Was this why the other bodyguards had died? Not because the girls were escaping into some other, hidden world, but because it was they themselves which were pulled into divine debauchery by the lustre that was before them?
I almost fell into the chair my legs were so weak. And when she brought over black coffee and a slice of angel food cake my hands were shaking as I took it. I mouthed my thanks but no sound came out, and she mouthed something in reply which I couldn't hear. It was then that I realised the room was silent because of something that I hadn't had the wherewithal to consider up to that point. The girls were mute. Or rather, their tongues had been cut out.
I awoke in total darkness. My face and neck were swollen and it was difficult to breathe. Gradually my eyes accustomed to the dark, and I made out the massed outline of the girls, crowded into one corner of the room. I knew I'd been drugged - the coffee, probably, or the cake - and just wondered how long it was that I'd been out. If I hadn't anticipated it then I would have woken at morning only to find a gun at my head and the fourth pillar my likely destination. But the litre of milk that lined my stomach on top of the hamburgers at Lou's Diner had the desired effect. Sopping up anything else in my system and nullifying the sedative.
From my position I couldn't quite see what was happening, but I figured on staying put until it became obvious. Seymour hadn't told me the whole story, that was evident, but I hadn't yet determined why. It was plain that the girls couldn't speak, and he must have known I'd work that one out. He'd also have known that was some heavy shit to keep from the authorities, so either he'd expected to waste me or there was some other reason for bringing me here. There was an itch at the back of my mind. I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to scrub the stainless steel taps in my bathroom, or wipe clean the kitchen's linoleum floor. The realisation that I didn't need to be here, that I came to Seymour's place by choice, grated on my nerves.
It was then that a square foot of floor opened around the girls as a simultaneous reflected square of rippled light hit the ceiling. Their surprisingly naked bodies were illuminated by the glow. I watched as they each slipped into the water and disappeared.
I made my way across the room, holding onto the bedsteads for guidance. A piece of chalk lay next to a pile of clothes and shoes, and whilst I struggled with the knowledge that some kind of portal had obviously been opened I couldn't doubt my eyes and refused to believe I'd been duped by dreams. Even as I watched, the water held in the square fanned out a little, touched my brogues as the surrounding floor turned to dirt. Tiny flowers pushed their way through the soil: brilliant reds and yellows. Water lilies bobbed to the surface, as though helium balloons floating to the uppermost reaches of the sky. The scene transformed itself before me, and as I squinted into the distance I saw the fall and rise of fishtails, heard the high-pitched mermaid calls. Slowly I removed my shoes and then I stopped.
The door unbolted behind me and Seymour entered the room.
He stood behind me and I could smell the pipe tobacco coil into my nostrils. It seemed so incongruous against the gentle wind that blew across the lagoon.
'I had to show someone,' he said. 'Someone I could trust.'
I imagined how difficult it must be to admit that the only person in that category was me.
'You knew then?'
'Of course I knew. I had to have a ruse to get you here. I was going crazy keeping this to myself.'
'The other bodyguards...?'
'Never came in here. Can you imagine showing those idiots this?'
'I don't understand...'
'You don't have to understand, but you value perfection. You appreciate the finer things in life even if you've never had the cash to explore them. Your apartment is a damn showcase for Christ's sake! Show this to any of my cronies and they wouldn't know what to do with it. But you, you can see the beauty in all of this. Can't you? Beaton?'
I faced the open water that looked so inviting, and my eyes took in the view. Far out, in deeper water perhaps, the twelve mermaids had found their mermen. They were coupling with an intensity that went beyond the grimy instincts that I succumbed to in motel rooms or dark back alleys. More rapturously, I knew for certain, than Seymour ever did. Immediately I was jealous, then just as quickly the feeling abated. Human emotion just didn't cut with this scenario.
When I turned to face Seymour I saw he had my file in his hands. There were photographs in there, together with the marked bullet that I had shot from my gun and which had ripped into the flesh of the boy. I took it from him and we never spoke again.
When it came down to it, all you needed was the nerve to disbelieve.
(C)Andrew Hook 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.