Late Night Pick-Up

Hellraiser

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Author, editor, critic/essayist, poet and now -- with the multiple award-winning PS imprint -- publisher, Pete Crowther has edited more than 20 anthologies and produced almost 100 short stories and novellas (two of which have been adapted for British TV while two more are scheduled to begin filming for the big screen in 2006), plus ESCARDY GAP (in collaboration with James Lovegrove) and DARKNESS, DARKNESS. He's currently busy writing story notes for DARK TIMES, his fifth collection, while working on the second instalment of his FOREVER TWILIGHT SF/horror series, a mainstream novel, a couple of new anthologies and another TV project. Pete lives about 500 yards from the sea on the east coast of England with his wife, Nicky and an unfeasibly large collection of books, comics, DVDs, record albums and CDs.

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‘I couldn't see the sun because it was very dark in space.’

From Ozark Mountain farmer Buck Nelson's testimonial
following his alleged 1955 ride in a flying saucer

(1)

Ben opens his eyes and shakes his head. He must have nodded off.

Seeing he's awake, the fattest of the two cops (it's a close-run thing) slides his ample backside onto the tall seat behind the front desk and gives a big smile. ‘It'll be okay, just tell us the whole thing from the top,’ he says with a slight lisp, folding his hands calmly and carefully on the desk in front of him..

‘How'd you like your coffee?’ The cop over by the Vendarama machine beams a toothy grin as he adjusts his peaked cap. He hikes his belt up over his belly and rests his hands on his hips like he's just run over from the next-but-one county. The belt returns to its more comfortable position, looking like a smile in a face mostly obscured by an eyeless mask of shirt.

‘Like tea,’ Ben says. He's concerned to see that his hands are shaking but he puts that down to the accident -- he's not completely sure of the nature of the accident but he knows he's been in one. Something to do with the car. ‘White, no sugar,’ he says. ‘I don't see why I can't just go,’ he adds, turning to the cop on the seat beside him. The truth is, he can't completely understand why he's here... wherever 'here' is.

The cop at the machine either doesn't hear Ben or he's simply ignoring him. He turns away, frowning as he pushes his peaked cap back off his forehead. Scratching at the newly-exposed graying thatch of hair, he reads up and down the small menu inset into an illustration of steam billowing from a wide-brimmed cup, his extended pudgy finger stopping at each selection. Around and behind the cup a trio of smiling faces hover, their noses extended over the steam, their eyes closed in either orgasmic delight at what they're supposed to be drinking or extreme frustration at the cop's seeming inability to find the correct button.

Ben reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and, lifting out a pack of Marlboro Lights, he looks around the one-room office... first over to the double-doors -- a thick beam crossing them, resting in two curled metal cradles, one at either side fastened to the wall -- then at the windows, feeling a strange sense of alienation from the massed cloud of stars up in the night sky. Then he glances at the tall counter, festooned with yellow legal pads, piles of papers, and all manner of cardboard cups. After shaking out a cigarette, and looking across at the coffee machine, he begins checking his side pockets. ‘Damn,’ he says.

The cop behind the counter opens his eyes wide.

‘You got a light?’ Ben asks. ‘Must've left mine in the car.’

‘A light?’ The cop frowns and glances around the room as though he's looking for something. ‘You think it's-’

‘His cigarette, Frank,’ the second cop says as he sets a cardboard cup of swirling brown liquid in front of Ben. He nods to the ashtray and the matchbook over by a pile of papers. ‘He wants a light for his cigarette.’

Frank rolls his eyes and shakes his head. ‘Oh, sure,’ he says as he reaches across for the matchbook. He pulls out a match and attempts to strike it on the front of the matchbook but not on the brown stripe.

‘Just forget it,’ says the other cop. He looks across at Ben, sees the puzzled expression on Ben's face, and pulls his gun from his holster. ‘Sorry,’ he says to Ben.

* * *

(2)

Ben opens his eyes and shakes his head. He must have nodded off.

Two policemen -- Sheriff's men by the look of them, two fat boys... late forties, early fifties -- are leaning over him, beaming big shit-kicking grins. The fatter of the two stands back and sidles onto the tall seat behind the front desk and keeps that smile trained on him like a hunter's rifle. ‘Feel better?’ he says.

Ben nods and watches the other cop back over to a Vendarama machine by the side wall.

‘It'll be okay,’ the cop on the tall seat says in a gentle voice. ‘Whyn't you just tell us the whole thing from the top.’ The cop has trouble saying words with esses in them and, against his better judgment, Ben wants to smirk at the hissing noise he makes.

‘How'd you like your coffee?’ the cop over by the Vendarama machine asks, adjusting his peaked cap. He hikes his belt up over his belly and rests his hands on his hips like he's just run over from the next-but-one county. The belt returns to its more comfortable position, looking like a smile in a face mostly obscured by an eyeless mask of shirt.

‘Huh?’ Ben says, staring at the belt. ‘Oh, like tea,’ he says, feeling a familiarity in the words... not just because that's what he always says when anyone asks him how he takes his coffee but because the whole thing seems a mite familiar. Like the belt. Deja vu, he figures.

He looks down at his hands and is concerned to see that they're shaking, but he puts that down to the accident -- he's not completely sure of the nature of the accident but he knows he's been in one. Something to do with the car. ‘White, no sugar,’ he says. ‘I don't see why I can't just go,’ he adds, turning to the cop on the seat beside him.

The truth is, he can't completely understand why he's here... wherever 'here' is. He looks across at the cop by the machine, trying to get away from those piercing eyes and straining to think what might have happened to the car. His mother's car.

He looks from one cop to the other, watching those dumb yokel grins

The cop at the machine either doesn't hear Ben or he's simply ignoring him. He turns away, frowning as he pushes his peaked cap back off his forehead. After reading up and down the menu of selections, the cop hits a button.

Ben reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and, lifting out a pack of Marlboro Lights, he looks around the one-room office... first over to the double-doors -- a thick beam crossing them, resting in two curled metal cradles, one at either side fastened to the wall -- then at the windows, feeling a strange sense of alienation from the massed cloud of stars up in the night sky, then at the tall counter, festooned with yellow legal pads, piles of papers, and all manner of cardboard cups. He slides a cigarette into his mouth and pats his jacket pocket. Maybe he's hurt somebody. Maybe he's even killed somebody. Jesus Christ. Now he pats his shirt pocket, pants pockets. ‘Damn,’ he says.

The cop behind the counter smiles like a cat that just got the cream. ‘You need a light?’ he says, shooting a quick smile across to his partner.

Ben nods and shrugs. ‘Must've left mine in the car.’

The second cop strolls over and sets a cardboard cup of swirling brown liquid in front of Ben. He nods to the ashtray and the matchbook over by a pile of papers.

Frank reaches across for the matchbook and strikes it, holding it out. Ben leans forward and lights his cigarette, pulling the smoke in and then breathing it out with a sigh. ‘Mmm,’ he says as he leans back, ‘that's better.’

He lifts the cardboard cup and takes a sniff. It doesn't look like tea -- doesn't look like coffee, either -- but he takes a sip anyway, carefully, so he doesn't burn his lips. It doesn't taste of anything at all, but it's warm.

The cop whose name is not Frank moves around and leans on the counter. ‘Okay?’

Ben nods. ‘It's warm.’ When the cop glances across at Frank, Ben says, ‘It's fine... really,’ and takes another sip to prove it.

‘Okay,’ Frank says. ‘So, you want to tell Ed and me the full story?’

‘The full story?’ Ben shrugs.

The full story. Ben frowns trying to think, watching the two faces in front of him. He was driving... driving somewhere: that much he can remember. In a car. Yes, a car. His mother's car. He was driving... where? Where was he driving to?

‘You okay?’ Frank asks.

Ben folds his hands around the cardboard cup, grateful for the heat. It's cold here in the cops' office. He looks around to see if he can see a heater but there doesn't seem to be one. ‘I already told you all I can remember,’ he says. ‘Didn't I?’

‘You told us you were driving.’

‘That's about it,’ Ben says. ‘And that isn't much. I'd just as soon get off and out of your hair.’

Frank looks across at his partner.

Ed pulls another stool across to the counter and hitches himself onto it. He removes his cap and sets it on the counter, moving the ashtray away. ‘You're not in our hair,’ he says. ‘Not at all.’

‘You want to pass that over here?’ Ben says through a cloud of exhaled smoke. ‘The ashtray?’ He smacks his lips. The smoke has left a bitter taste in his mouth, like the cigarette is stale.

Ed nods and slides it across, watching as Ben taps ash into it.

Ben leans back in his chair, takes another draw on the Marlboro and looks up at the ceiling, squinting at the glare from the overhead light.

That was it!

There was... there was a light. A light outside the car.

‘There was a light,’ he says dreamily.

‘A light?’ one of the cops says -- Ben doesn't see which one because he's still looking at the light on the ceiling.

‘Go on,’ the other cop says, ‘in your own time.’

Ben looks at them. ‘I guess that's about it. I was driving along, minding my own business, and then there's this humming noise-’ he hums and wiggles his hand by way of demonstration ‘-and then a light -- a blinding light -- and then, voila, next thing I know, I wake up here in the station with you guys.’

‘Voila?’ says Frank.

‘You taking any drugs?’ Ed asks.

‘Do I look like I take drugs?’

Ed looks at Ben's clothes, his eyes traveling down the tweed jacket, shirt and necktie, off-white Chinos, tasseled moccasin loafers. ‘I don't know. How should you look if you take drugs?’

‘What's your full name?’ Frank interrupts.

‘Ben,’ Ben says. ‘Benedict Dussenberg, but everyone calls me Ben.’

Frank scribbles something on the paper in front of him. He scribbles for what seems like a long time... a long time to write 'Benedict Dussenberg'. Ben pulls on his cigarette and glances at the other man, the cop named Ed.

Ed smiles and nods an 'it'll be okay' smile-and-nod combo.

‘And when were you born?’ Ed asks without looking up from his notes.

‘Where was I born? Does that matter?’ Ben lets out a nervous laugh and looks from one cop to the other. There is no response.

‘Just for our records,’ Ed says, nodding and smiling again.

Ben sighs. ‘Kissimee, Florida.’ He stubs out the Marlboro. ‘I'm that rarity amongst men: someone who was actually born in Kissimee.’

‘A rarity?’ Frank looks up, his eyes wide.

Ben chuckles but the chuckle fades away as the two cops watch him. ‘It was a joke? You know? A funny?’

‘Funny,’ Ed says, rolling the word around like a candy someone has given him and he isn't too sure about the flavor.

‘Yes, funny.’ He shrugs and crosses his legs. ‘I'm sure there are lots of people who were born in Kissimee. I was being ironic.’

‘That's like funny, 'ironic'?’

‘Well, not funny exactly. I mean- Say, can we just get on with this so I can go? It's been a long night.’ Ben lifts his left arm and looks at his watch. ‘Four o'clock! Jesus Christ,’ he says, jumping to his feet, ‘I need to make a call.’

‘Sorry, you can't do that,’ Ed says, the smile still in place but the nod now replaced by a slow side-to-side shake of the head.

‘But I need to call my brother.’ That's where he was going. His brother's house. Out in... in... in Daytona. Daytona Beach. ‘Daytona Beach!’ Ben says excitedly. ‘That's where I was going -- to see my brother in Daytona.’

‘Good,’ says Frank.

Ben waits a few seconds, sitting as still as he can. ‘Look, if I'm being accused of-’

‘The phones are down,’ Frank says.

‘Lines,’ Ed says, a slight hiss of impatience in his voice.

Frank bites on his lower lip. ‘Lines?’

Ed smiles and nods some more. ‘The lines are down.’

Frank turns back to Ben and shrugs. ‘Lines and phones,’ he says, ‘they're all down.’

They sit in silence for a few seconds, each one of them looking at the others in turn until, at last, Ed slaps the counter with his hand. He turns to his partner and says something. Frank pulls back, as though physically hit by the words... if words they are. It sounds more like twigs breaking and water rushing over rocks... sounding something like... something like 'sherwantimum'.

Ed visibly cringes and clamps his mouth shut, turning to face Ben.

Sherwantimum?’ Ben says, looking at the two men.

They don't say anything.

‘What was that?’

‘What was what?’ Frank asks.

‘That... what he said.’ He points at Ed. ‘Sher-something. That some kind of official term? Some kind of acronym?’ How could it be an acronym? Ben thinks. It was a word, not individual letters. He suddenly wishes he hadn't mentioned it. The cop called Ed looks pissed. ‘I just didn't catch it,’ Ben says. ‘But then I probably wasn't meant-’

Ed reaches down to his side and produces a gun, points it at Ben. He's starting to say something -- it could be 'sorry': his eyes look like they're apologizing -- but Ben can't hear the words above the roar and the blinding flash of jagged light that stutters from the gun's barrel.

* * *

(3)

Ben opens his eyes and shakes his head. He must have nodded off.

Two policemen -- Sheriff's men by the look of them, two fat boys... late forties, early fifties -- are leaning over him, beaming big shit-kicking grins. The fatter of the two -- though there isn't much in it -- stands back and sidles onto the tall seat behind the front desk and keeps that smile trained on him like a hunter's rifle. ‘Feel better?’ he says.

Ben half nods. The truth is he feels pretty sick. His face stings, his gut feel like it's been kicked by a mule and his arms hurt. But the cop asked if he's. feeling better: maybe he felt worse before... though he can't remember any before. He makes to look at his watch but it isn't there.

‘It'll be okay, you just wait and see,’ the cop on the tall seat says in a gentle voice. ‘Whyn't you just tell us the whole thing from the top.’ The cop has trouble saying words with esses in them. Even though he feels so bad and it's against his better judgment, Ben wants to smirk at the hissing thuh noise the cop makes -- juthuh-t... thuh-ee... uh-thuh.

‘How'd you say you liked your coffee?’ The other cop is over by the Vendarama machine, adjusting his peaked cap. Ben smiles -- this guy has a lisp, too. ‘I didn't,’ he says.

The cop hikes his belt up over his belly and rests his hands on his hips like he's just run over from the next-but-one county. The belt returns to its more comfortable position, looking like a smile in a face mostly obscured by an eyeless mask of shirt.

‘Like tea,’ he says, loving the line as he always did. ‘I never drink coffee.’

The cop turns around and crouches down so his face is inches away from the menu on the front of the machine.

Ben can't understand why he's here... wherever 'here' is. He looks across at the cop by the machine, trying to get away from those piercing eyes and straining to think what might have happened to the car. His mother's car. He tries to move in his chair but his back sends a stabbing pain to his brain and he slams out his right hand to hold onto to something... anything. He hears a clunk. When he looks at his right wrist, he sees his wristwatch.

Ben reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and, lifting out a pack of Marlboro Lights. He slides a cigarette into his mouth and pats his jacket pocket. Maybe he's hurt somebody. Maybe he's even killed somebody. Jesus Christ. Now he pats his shirt pocket, pants pockets. ‘Damn,’ he says.

The cop behind the counter smiles like a cat that just got the cream. ‘You need a light?’ he says, shooting a quick smile across to his partner.

Ben nods and shrugs. ‘Must've left mine in the car.’

The second cop strolls over and sets a cardboard cup of swirling brown liquid in front of Ben. He nods to the ashtray and the matchbook over by a pile of papers.

Frank reaches across for the matchbook and strikes it, holding it out. Ben leans forward and lights his cigarette, pulling the smoke in and then breathing it out with a sigh. ‘Mmm,’ he says as he leans back.’

‘Feel better?’ Frank asks.

Ben folds his hands around the cardboard cup, grateful for the heat. It's cold here in the cops' office. He looks around to see if he can see a heater but there doesn't seem to be one. ‘I already told you all I can remember,’ he says. ‘Didn't I?’

‘You told us you were driving.’

‘That's about it,’ Ben says. ‘And that isn't much. I'd just as soon get off and out of your hair.’

Frank looks across at his partner.

Ed pulls another stool across to the counter and hitches himself onto it. He removes his cap and sets it on the counter, moving the ashtray away. ‘You're not in our hair,’ he says. ‘Not at all.’

‘You want to pass that over here?’ Ben says through a cloud of exhaled smoke. ‘The ashtray?’ He smacks his lips. The smoke tastes like bad medicine, leaves his mouth feeling furry.

‘So you were born in-’ Ed looks down at a pad ‘-in... Kiss me?’

‘Kissimmee. It's in Florida.’ Ben frowned. Of course it was in Florida. He was in Florida, for crissakes. ‘How'd you know that?’

Frank says, ‘You already told us?’

‘I did?’ Ben tries to think back to telling these guys anything at all... tries to think back to... The Accident, wondering when they're going to get around to telling him about that but not really in any rush. It's going to be bad, a small voice whispers in the back of his head. No, not rushing to hear that news at all. ‘I'm that rarity amongst men,’ he says, picking up the thread and letting rip with another favorite line. ‘Someone who was actually born in Kissimee.’

‘A rarity?’ Frank looks up, his eyes wide.

Ben chuckles but the chuckle fades away as the two cops watch him. Here it comes, the small back-of-the-head-voice confides, 'Nope, a rarity is someone who turns a little old granny into roadkill'. The voice does a pretty good impersonation of the two cops... and just as Ben thinks that, isn't it strange that both cops sound exactly the same? even down to the lisp?, the voice says, You've done it now, hotshot.

‘It was a joke?’ he says, weakly. ‘You know? A funny?’

‘Funny,’ Ed says, rolling the word around like a candy someone has given him and he isn't too sure about the flavor.

‘Yes, funny.’ He shrugs and crosses his legs, fighting off the urge to tell them he was being ironic -- These suckers wouldn't know anything at all about ironic, the voice whispers.

‘I'm sure there are lots of people who were born in Kissimee.’ Ben smiles, raises his hands palm up. ‘Hey, and why not?’

‘Why not what?’ Ed asks.

Ben shakes his head and watches as the cop scribbles some more.

‘I think I should make a call.’ He looks for his watch and then remembers it's on the other wrist. He looks anyway. ‘Shit,’ he says. ‘It's stopped.’ He shakes his wrist, listens to the watch and doesn't hear anything. ‘Batteries,’ he says.

Frank nods and makes another note.

‘You guys got the time?’ He looks at them, allows his eyes to move to their wrists. He cannot see any watch, not on either of them.

As Ben looks around the office for one of those big old schoolhouse clocks, Ed says, ‘We got all the time in the world.’

Now here it com-, the head-voice begins but Ben shakes it silent.

‘Sorry, you can't make a call,’ Ed says, the smile still in place but the nod now replaced by a slow side-to-side shake of the head.

‘But I need to call my brother.’ That's where he was going. His brother's house. Out in... in... in Sherwantimum! Ben lets out a short guffaw. Where the hell was Sherwantimum? His brother lived in Daytona. Daytona Beach. ‘He lives in Daytona Beach!’ Ben says excitedly. ‘That's where I was going -- to see my brother in Daytona.’

‘Good,’ says Frank.

Ben waits a few seconds, sitting as still as he can. ‘Look, if I'm being accused of-’

‘The lines are down.’

Frank turns back to Ben and shrugs. ‘That's why you can't make the call.’

Ben watches as Frank writes more notes. He looks across at Ed and squints. ‘There something you not telling me?’

‘Not telling you?’ Frank says.

‘Like what?’ Ed asks.

‘Like...’

Ben thinks carefully about what he's going to say.

Here he is in some hick town... some yellow-headed boil on the backside of Americana, a Norman Rockwell flipside not found in the pages of old issues of The Post, where he's dealing with a couple of local yokel Sidney Greenstreet-lookalike cops for whom the only Miranda in their cerebral databank is probably the girl with the overbite and the big tits who serves Sears Tower-sized stacks of pancakes down at the obligatory 24-hour Diner, where the ashtrays never get cleared, the jukebox still plays 78s and the indigenous youth population are able to look left and right at the same time while they play banjo at the speed of light. They could just lock him up and throw away the key forever... sweep out his bones next spring with a big brush made out of hawthorn twigs and bound in twine... muttering Latin prayers as they scatter his ashes on the fields to promote crop-growth. Hell, the head-voice adds, looking at those bellies, maybe they're gonna eat you.

Ben doesn't like the sound of that idea.

‘I don't believe you about the phones,’ he says, filling the suddenly uneasy silence, ‘that's like what.’

Frank looks genuinely puzzled. ‘Why should we tell you that you don't believe us?’ He turns to his friend. ‘Can we do that? I mean-’

‘Go try them,’ Ed says. He points to the telephone alongside Frank on the counter. ‘Go ahead,’ he says, nodding again. And smiling.

Ben walks across and lifts the receiver, listening. The line is dead. He looks across at Frank and at the paper in front of him. The lardbucket isn't taking notes at all: he's doodling. A series of small shapes and squiggles already cover half of the sheet.

Replacing the receiver, Ben says, ‘You want to tell me what all this is about?’

‘Storm,’ Ed says. ‘Took all the lines down. That's what you saw. Lightning.’

‘I didn't say anything about seeing anything,’ Ben says. Did I? he thinks. Then he remembers that he did see something... some kind of light... a light over the car, following him along the road... no other cars around-

‘That's what he saw,’ Frank agrees in a Howdy Doody voice, interrupting Ben's train of thought.

‘You said you saw a light,’ Ed says, sounding for all the world like Sylvester the cat. Thufferin' thuccatash! the head-voice whispers. ‘It was lightning.’

‘Lightning?’ Ben sniggers. ‘That was not lightning. I have seen lightning, let me tell you that. Back home, I've seen electrical storms that lit up the world for miles around. And this thing tonight -- this light -- that was not lightning.’

Ed unfastens some of the buttons on his jacket and shakes his head. ‘Well, that's what it was. A storm. Took all the lines down-’

‘Yeah, so you said. And I said-’

‘And you crashed your vehicle.’

‘I crashed it?’ Now they were getting down to it. The routine... good cop, bad cop. Only thing was, Ben couldn't figure out which one was which. ‘That's my mother's-’ Ben lifts his hands and feels his chest and his legs. ‘I crashed the car? So how come I'm not hurt?’

‘You were unconscious. Car went off the side of the road.’

‘And I was in it?’

Ed nods. No smile.

‘I don't remember it. I don't remember any of it.’

‘That's not unusual,’ Ed says.

Ben looks at him and then glances across at the man's partner. Then he looks at his watch again. ‘How long have I been here?’

‘A while,’ Ed says. ‘You been here a while.’

‘Yeah, but how long's a while?’

‘He pats his body exaggeratedly, feels his head. ‘And, whaddya know... no injuries. I've been out cold and I don't even have a lump on the head. Something's going on here-’

‘Who said you'd-’

Ed reaches across to Frank and takes a hold of his jacket sleeve, but Frank isn't having any of it. He shakes his arm free and continues.

‘Who said you'd been out in the cold?’ The smile beams across his face.

Ben leans across the counter. ‘You did, that's who.’

‘Me?’

‘It was me,’ Ed says. ‘It was me said you'd been unconscious.’

Ben straightens up. ‘Well, it was one of-’

‘Unconscious? That's 'out in the cold'?’ Frank whispers.

Ed pulls a gun from his holster, places it on his fat lap, shaking his head, smoothing the side of his face with his free hand. ‘Out cold,’ he says tiredly, ‘not out in the cold.’ He looks across at Ben.

Just for a second or two, Ben thinks he can see regret in those piggy eyes.

‘Okay, okay... that's it. I'm out of here, cold or not.’ Ben walks across to the doors and takes hold of the beam: it doesn't move. He makes to turn the handle, figuring that maybe that'll dislodge the beam. That doesn't move, either. He kicks at the doors -- not even a shudder of wood in the frame.

Then the office seems to go brilliantly white... as white as the massed stars outside the window, glimmering at him in his hour of need.

* * *

(4)

Ben opens his eyes and shakes his head. He must have nodded off.

Two policemen -- two fat Sheriff's men... late forties, early fifties -- are leaning over him, beaming big shit-kicking grins. The fatter of the two sets a cardboard cup of swirling brown liquid in front of Ben. He nods to the ashtray and the matchbook over by a pile of papers. ‘Smoke?’ he says, pronouncing it thu-moke.

Ben nods, closes his eyes and tries to straighten himself up in his chair. ‘Sorry about that,’ he says. ‘Tired.’ No, not just tired, he realizes: he's sick. His body feels like it's on fire, his breath is rasping and he can hear wheezing from his chest. And his head feels tight. If he could only move his hands...

One of the cops reaches across for the matchbook and strikes it, holding it out. Ben says, ‘Can't move my han-’

‘That's okay,’ the other cop says. He reaches over and shakes a sorry-looking cigarette out of the pack, spilling tobacco on Ben's pants. My but those pants look in a sorry state, a small voice in Ben's head whispers as the cop jams the cigarette into Ben's mouth.

As the first cop holds out the lighted match, the cigarette drops from Ben's mouth. He tries to say 'sorry', but can't. Instead he watches as the match flame suddenly find new life, first licking at the skin on the cop's fingers and then taking hold, growing bigger. His eyes wide, Ben looks up at the cop's face, watching the big man watching the flames, seemingly ignorant of any pain.

‘Jesus Christ!’ Ben says, trying to shuffle himself back, feeling the pressure on his head... trying to get away from the flames... which have now reached the cop's shirt cuff. And, hey... the other cop has pulled a gun from somewhere. Big barrel, Ben thinks. Doesn't look like any-

* * *

(5)

Ben opens his eyes and shakes his head. He must have nodded off.

Two pairs of legs are standing at either side of him. One pair steps back as Ben struggles to move and sidles over to what must be a seat behind the desk in front of him. ‘Feel better?’ the legs' voice says.

Ben sends out sensory feelers before he attempts to answer that. It doesn't take long: he feels like shit. Every single part of his body feels like it has been kicked for hours. He's bent over in a chair, his head almost between his knees. He looks down and sees that his off-white Chinos are now very off-white indeed. At first glance, they look like they've been splattered with mud... and then Ben recognizes the marks as dried blood. The sides of the trousers have been ripped up the seams, only one of his tasseled moccasin loafers -- the left one -- is still there; the other foot is bare, bare and swollen.

‘My God,’ Ben says. ‘Have I been in an accident?’ His voice sounds like that guy in the wheelchair... the one who wrote about the history of time.

Hands pull him upright and he sees he's in an office. It's night outside the window... lots of stars. There are two cops in here with him... cops who never heard of the word 'diet'.

‘That's what we want to know,’ one of the cops says.

The other cop sets a cardboard cup of swirling brown liquid in front of Ben. He nods to the ashtray and the matchbook over by a pile of papers.

‘Smoke?’ he asks.

Ben struggles forward, feeling sharp pains shoot down each arm. ‘You bet,’ he says. The cop reaches into Ben's jacket pocket, pulls out a pack of Marlboro Lights. Ben stares at the ragged sleeves of his own jacket. ‘Good God,’ Ben says. He looks up at the cops and sees them both watching him. For a second, he wants to cry... wants to tell them enough... no more -- but... enough? Enough what? No more what?

The cop shakes a cigarette out of the pack. It's the last one. Boy, you got through those fast, a small voice in Ben's head says. Wasn't it full when you set out?

Set out? Ben says to himself silently. Set out where?

Sherwantimum, the head-voice whispers with a chuckle. Where else?

The cop places the pack on the counter and Ben frowns at the faded packaging. Must be the light in here... or maybe he's damaged his eyes in... in what? In the accident, that's what. There's no way he's going to look like this -- his pant-legs looking like he's been through a swamp, his jacket in tatters -- unless he's been in an accident. He looks at the two cops. The thing is, has he hurt anyone?

Placing the cigarette in Ben's mouth, the cop strikes a match and holds it under the end. It tastes bad... stale and old. Maybe he's had some kind of medicine... some kind of pain-killer... making the cigarette taste so-

Without realizing, he's managed to raise his right hand, reaching with it for his cigarette to remove it from his mouth so that he can breathe. The hand comes into view, his jacket, his shirt-cuff... and something else... something faintly-white and plastic-looking... like a membrane glove covering the hand... and the hand looks... looks lumpy underneath that glove. As he reaches for the cigarette, the glove splits open at the wrist and something gelatinous

that's you, amigo, the head-voice chuckles, that's you leaking all over the damned floor

pouring out in thick rivulets, hanging down like cuckoo-spit.

Then there's a muttering sound... like twigs breaking and water rushing... and then there's a flash from somewhere in the office.

* * *

(6)

Ben opens his eyes and shakes his head. He must have nodded off.

Two fat faces are leaning over him. Cops. Their eyes are steely cold, their mouths unsmiling.

‘How'd you feel?’ one of them asks.

Ben tries to speak but the words won't come. His body feels like it's in a vice and his ass feels like it's got something inside it -- something long and cold: he tries to clench his buttock muscles but it hurts.

He closes his eyes and tries to gather his thoughts.

Where am I? What has happened? He can smell shit. Smells bad, like some kind of crop nutrient... fish manure.

He opens his eyes again, slowly this time.

It's an office... a police station, Sheriff's office... something like that. Outside the window it's dark. Ben can see stars... lots of stars... clusters of them looking so close they could be scratching the window.

‘I got you a Like Tea,’ a voice says.

Ben grunts acknowledgment and tries to lift his right arm, give a wave of thanks, but it won't move. He tries the left one -- same thing.

He closes his eyes again, retreating into the safe darkness again. ‘Can't... can't move my arms,’ he says.

‘Yes you can,’ the voice says.

Ben feels hands on his head, hears a soft scraping noise. The pressure on his head eases a little and he feels a wave of pins and needles start in his upper arms, moving slowly -- slowly but surely -- down to his forearms and his wrists, then his fingers. His fingers feel like they're about to explode out of the ends and, for a few seconds, he wants to cry out... and then the sensation goes.

‘Try now,’ the voice says.

‘I got you a Like-’

‘He knows about the Like Tea,’ the voice snaps.

Ben lifts his right arm slowly, lifts it to his head and feels around gently. His fingers scratch at his head like crab-claws... like they don't have any skin on them. But the crab-claws feel something... he's wearing some kind of metallic head brace. He drops the hand to his side without trying to look at it

Sherwantimum -- maybe that's what the thing on his head is called...

and he starts to sob.

‘You want to try sit up?’ the voice asks.

Ben lifts his head and looks at the voice's owner. It's one of the fat cops -- poor guy, got some kind of skin complaint: flesh all bunched up on either side of his head.

The face nods, the flaps moving around. ‘You're going to be-’

‘Hey,’ the other voice interrupts, ‘your face.’

Ben watches two hands come up into view... watches the hands take hold of the two skin-flaps and pull them tight, back to the ears. As this takes place, a thin tear appears down the man's forehead, snaking to the bridge of his stubby nose.

The man closes his eyes for an instant and then seems to fall on top of Ben.

Ben grunts, the air knocked from his lungs. When he opens his eyes he sees the man's face right in front of his own... the forehead ripped right down past the nose now. There's something glistening behind there... something greenish and yellowish, moving side to side, a thin, translucent film flicking up over it and then disappearing. When the man speaks, fumbling with his hand -- Ben can't see what he's doing -- Ben smells something old and rancid.

‘Sorry,’ the man says, pushing something hard into Ben's stomach.

Ben frowns. Sorry? he thinks. What fo-

* * *

(7)

Ben opens his eyes. He must have nodded off.

Wherever he is, it is silent. Not so much as the sound of a breath.

He instinctively tries to shake his head but nothing seems to happen... no sense of movement. He can't even turn his head. Can't seem to move anything... can't even feel anything.

He's in an office. A sheriff's office, looks like... or some kind of police station. Two cops are sitting in front of him, lounging back on a couple of low-backed summer-chairs, their heads only a foot or so above the ground... and yet, directly in front of Ben. Ben thinks that's a little strange perspective-wise but he lets it go. Behind the cops, behind the counter, is a high window: outside it's night... lots of stars... whole bunches of them, like clouds. He can't see the moon. Right in front of him is the edge of a table -- he's on the table, he suddenly realizes... actually on the damned table.

One of the cops -- both of them are really fat... huge... and they've got some kind of skin problem -- one of them stands up, moving with difficulty, and comes over to Ben. The cop is holding something in his hand, something shiny looks like... something catching the glare of the stars outside in the night, making their light dance across the office.

The cop bends down in front of Ben.

He looks sad, this cop. And tired.

The cop holds up his hand and Ben sees a glass jar.

On top of the jar are two eyes, secured in gauze-like material attached to a wooden board. There are tiny lights on the board, recessed back from the eyes themselves, twinkling like the stars outside the window.

Running from the board into the jar -- which is attached to a whole clutter of wires and springs and pipettes and which appears to contain a dull-looking gray fibrous lump -- are two spindly, glistening wires. These two wires lead, like umbilical cords, back behind the jar to a glass tank surrounded by a lot of flashing lights.

In the tank -- submerged in the water or whatever it is -- somebody has dumped a whole carcass-worth of entrails and organs... Ben can see a heart pumping silently. And outside the tank, attached to another wooden board is a pair of ears held in place by an elaborate system of wires and clamps which, in turn, connect up with the apparatus attached to the side of the tank and to a tall speaker standing by itself.

Ben tries to frown. But can't.

He tries to blink. But can't.

He tries to speak. But can't.

The thing in the man's hand is a mirror -- Ben sees that now. But if it's a mirror, why can't he see himself when he's looking at it?

The cop puts the mirror down out of sight and lifts a small box with a switch on it. He places this on the table in front of Ben and flicks the switch.

Sound fills the silence... the sound of distant engines humming, the sound of muted voices... strange voices babbling from somewhere in a metallic tone... sounding for all the world like twigs breaking and water rushing.

Into this comes a voice. The voice of the cop, Ben realizes as he sees the man's lips moving.

‘It'll be okay, just tell us the whole thing from the top,’ the cop is saying with a slight lisp. He folds his hands calmly and carefully on the desk in front of him.

Ben hears a loud screaming noise, building and building and building... it seems to be coming from somewhere behind him... just behind him, where the tall speaker sat on the table-top.

And then the cop shakes his head and flicks off the switch, stopping the screaming. Stopping everything... returning the office to silence.

The cop reaches down to his holster, starts to draw his gun and then stops. He lifts his hands to his head and begins to pull his face open. His lips are moving again -- briefly, until they come off in the cop's hands amidst folds of wrinkled skin -- but Ben can't hear anything... except maybe the memory of a scream. Hoarse now. Tired.

If only he didn't have to look...

 

(C) Peter Crowther

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.