ANDY REMIC claims to have a love of extreme sports, kickass bikes and happy nurses. Once a member of an elite Combat K squad, he has retired from military service and claims to be a cross between an alcoholic Indiana Jones and a bubbly Lara Croft, only without the breasts (–although he’d probably like some). Remic lives in Lincolnshire and enjoys listening to Ronan Keating whilst thinking lewdly about zombies.
You can find out more about ANDY REMIC at www.andyremic.com.
SLOWLY, I OPEN the skinning razor, marvelling at the craftsmanship of this delicate yet lethal antique blade. I smile. This is my brother, my soulmate, my working tool without which I cannot perform. Without which, indeed, I have no function. No purpose.
I place the shining crescent against reptilian flesh. I press to cut, to slice, my breath rising in pace with anticipation, but back away at the last moment.
No. Not yet. It’s not yet time.
I breathe deep, a low long hiss like a snake. I savour the moment, the long soothing ride like the instant before ejaculation when you hang in the balance, careering out of control, feeling barely human and feeling more alive than alive.
If only you people knew; if only you understood. But you’re mis–programmed, un–encoded, deviated and twisted from a perceived normality you no longer appreciate. Yeah. Fucking deviated. That's right.
Now... to work.
There is one I must find. He's out there, in the real world. In your real world, at least.
He is one of you. One of your... breed.
And his name?
His name is Callaghan.
I have three addictions in life. Whisky, adrenalin and sex.
Whisky is what kills bad memories. Adrenalin – well, I’ve always had a love of fast cars, killer bikes and snowboarding. And sex? Hell, sex is the evil that always kick–starts my pain.
And that’s why I’m here, standing on the eighteenth floor balcony of Glasgow’s Riviera 5–Star, staring down at the Clyde with my balls cupped protectively in both hands as the cold does its best to turn me into a corpse. I’m naked. Shit. That’s not good.
Let me introduce myself.
My name’s Callaghan, I’m a hard drinking, womanising, no good son–of–a–bitch. I live for today, take any designer drug in the world, fuck anything that moves and steal anything that doesn’t… and to hell with consequences! Baby, I’m the man who put head into hedonism. Sex into sexuality. The cunt into cuntinental. And... as I stand here, skin tinged blue, Glasgow lights fluttering like pearls scattered over velvet, the wind shrieks a surreal mocking laugh at my dangerous predicament in a rhythmical wail. A song for the condemned. Yeah. That’s me. Condemned.
I glance down at my own trembling, worthless carcass; can idly observe the wind has turned my fingers rigid, skin a network of disintegrating lace. My feet sit splayed on a plate of cracked ice and I’m vibrating so hard it hurts. I think my teeth will judder from my stupid, jack–hammer skull.
I squint miserably as short terriers of snow snap my face. I grimace, coughing ice–air, and wonder how long I’m going to have to wait, freezing, dying, and eventually I hear a noise inside the apartment and my thoughts drift back to Him. And Her.
Him. Vladimir. The bastard.
I half turn, scowl at the balcony doors with their delicate wooden shutters which, despite opulent triple–glazing, fail to muffle the sounds of grunting as Vlad mounts and ravages his beautiful wife. Only a few moments ago it was I – yes I – who brought her moaning and screaming and thrashing to a bed–thumping skin–tearing head–pounding teeth–grinding arching sweating heaving multiple fucking climax.
I try to close my ears to her mocking echoes of pleasure.
She better be faking it, I think sourly. But I know she isn't.
‘That son of a bitch.’
I press iced fingers over my flapping mouth in horror as staccato words leap unbidden from twitching lips. What are you doing? I scream silently at myself, an internal mockery. The brainless, contemptuous of the insane. Do you want to get caught? And of course I don’t, because as much as I like fucking Vladimir’s wife, and as much as she thoroughly enjoys being fucked by me, and yes, much as I hate Vladimir with a venom more deadly than any rattlesnake... well, I have to admit it, Vladimir Katchevsky, former Bucharest gang–lord running guns between Romania, the UK and the Middle East in a cleverly constructed triangulation of players, contraband and excessive finance, is one superbly evil and dangerous bastard of a bastard. Carrying twin Techrim 11mm pistols he’s killed thirty–four people to date. Thirty four that I know about... dangerous information – of which I’d rather be ignorant – and obtained through intimate drunken bedside chit–chat with the pretty and prettily voluptuous Sophie. Ahh Sophie! She of the velvet hair, opal eyes and wide, generous (yeah, very generous) mouth.
‘Shit, shit, shit,’ I mutter as I move to the balcony rail, burnished steel supporting square panels of toughened glass. The view below is sweeping, grand, a dark pastel vista stuttering beneath huge folding blankets of snow that whip first one way, then the other.
I lean against the rail, and it’s so cold it almost strips the skin from my fingers. I yelp and suck digits, injecting warmth. The muscles in my jaw tighten in anger. I glance back at the closed doors and the heat and love and sex – and death – within.
I am tempted to try and sneak through the room. Then I remember the 11mm Techrims.
Options? Well, arse–hole, in about three minutes you’re gonna freeze to death. Try and head through the hotel room and Vlad will beat you senseless – and, if you’re lucky – fill you full of 11mm rounds. But if you’re unlucky...
I shiver. I’d heard the stories.
So then. Avenues of insanity? Despite jumping, the only other option available to my skinny naked rump is to climb down.
The wind slaps me like an irate lover.
Savages me. Beats me. Rapes me.
Bare feet pad across marble and I glance down again, wishing this was all a bad dream and praying the horror would go away. I grit my teeth, try to be brave (but it’s hard, so hard!), grasp cold metal and lift my face to inhale fresh bright snow. I blink away tears and cock my leg over the steel bar, trying my best not to drag dangling vulnerable balls against liquid nitrogen. I wobble and shake for a few seconds, and my other leg manages the treacherous traverse.
And there’s me, stood on the bastard side of oblivion. I say to myself don’t look down, don’t look down because I know it’s the thing you’re supposed to say. But I look down anyway and whimper like a little girl as I realise, shit, I can’t do this. I just can’t do it. But I have to. I must. Or I’ll die.
I shuffle along the ledge. It feels like a 2mm concrete strip under fat stupid tip–toes. But hey, it’s 2mm I’m thankful for. Better 2mm than 11mm, right? I try to lick my lips but cracked skin brings an agony of burning.
Inside the hotel room Sophie wails a long, ululating song of pleasure. Yet more rhythmical thumping ensues.
Around me, the snowfall increases in density. Cold settles across my shoulders like a vellum shroud. My foot slips, toe–nails rasping harsh on concrete and sending sparks of pain igniting my shin. I struggle like a rape–victim, find my footing and grin like a masturbating baboon. Flurries of snow pulse across the sky, obscuring most of city. I’ve always loved Glasgow, but I never wanted to die there.
I slide my hands down the frozen rails and meticulously adopt a squatting position – like a Tibetan monk taking a shit over The Abyss. I fight my stubborn frozen knees onto the ledge and my penis, despite being horrifically retracted to resemble a limp worm in the snow–light, slaps painfully against a glass panel.
‘Yeah, thanks God,’ I mutter, tears freezing to my cheeks. I try so hard not to feel bitterness. I fail. ‘Thanks a shit–load, dickhead. Perhaps you’d like to make my life even harder, eh?’
I attempt to peer below me, below the balcony to which I cling. But the world is a shadow, zig–zagged with snow. I perform a strange backward shuffle, feel a momentary weightlessness as knees slide uncontrollably over the icy ridge and I emit a comedy squawk, funny to everyone except me, and then proceed to hang there, dangling, biceps and shoulders straining, rocked and buffeted by a merciless storm.
Fear is a fist of lead in my mouth. The balcony crushes my forearms and I feel numbed fingers sliding. My chin touches the balcony lip and I hang for a few moments, eyes at floor level, able at last to witness the luxury bedroom so recently vacated. I can see naked feet. Vladimir’s feet. They are joined by smaller feet, beautiful feet, Sophie’s feet. Feet which have lovingly caressed me, pampered me, stroked me towards moaning, groaning, beautiful ejaculation. Shit. And there they are: perfect, sculpted, the last damn thing I’ll see before I–
I blink. I kick my legs, but hey guess what, it’s not my lucky day and whaddya know? I can’t reach the fucking lower balcony. I just cannot believe this, cannot digest this damn basic bad luck. I kick around aimlessly for a while, thrashing like a hang–victim, just knowing I have to reach the lower balcony because there’s no way I can climb back up and nowhere else to go. Except maybe down. By the quickest and most direct route. Yeah. As the Cal flies, so to speak.
This chills me. Chills me more, anyway.
I stop kicking and hang limp, a butchered carcass in the slaughter house.
I hear Sophie’s laughter, a ghost–wail sent to taunt me, haunt me, and make mockery of my foolish bloody existence.
I look up, snow settling on my skin and making eyelashes flutter.
What did I do to deserve this, God? What? What? What? But I know the answer to that very bitter question. It’s a simple one. And the answer is: everything.
I’m an absolute bastard.
That’s the simple honest truth.
I admit it openly to myself and I nod (or would had done, if my chin wasn’t bearing my bodyweight). I fuck anything that moves. I drink myself stupid. I take any drug on offer – and hey, don’t I just enjoy that social kudos? I treat my friends and family like shit. In fact, worse than shit, because I don’t even pause to scrape my sole after a good stomping.
I abuse my money, my power, my job, and I (whisper it in horror) defraud the tax man. I am a perfection of narcissism. A child of capitalism. A whore of the contemporary world. But listen, man, I’m just the way the world made me, right? A product: of social deviation, mental deprivation, and psychological masturbation. Everyone’s fucking doing it. So that makes it OK. That makes it sane.
‘Cal?’ The voice belongs to Sophie and I snap out of my dying reverie. I remember the pain in my arms. And bizarrely, I feel suddenly vulnerable with my useless shrunken tackle dangling over the void. My legs swim around a little, as if treading treacle porridge. ‘Callaghan? Where the hell are you?’
‘Down here,’ I growl through a throbbing jaw.
Sophie steps onto the balcony wrapped in a silk gown. Her face registers shock when she is witness to my bungling attempt at non–escape. That look at least gives me a tiny moment of pleasure; seeing her panic. It’s her fault, after all! She damn–well promised me Vlad was out of the country.
Sophie moves forward, hands outstretched to help me climb back up... and I congratulate myself at rescue, thinking, Thank God, yes! Thank you God, I owe you a double whisky! Hey, maybe even a triple! However, The Big Man has his own sordid agenda.
‘Petal, what are you doing out here?’
Sophie alters her rescue trajectory – so that she leans against the rail, turning to smile at her husband. I watch thick–set boots step onto the balcony behind her elegant, smooth legs. I glance up. The boots are all the huge, scarred Romanian is wearing.
‘Just getting some fresh air, my love. You make me so... breathless with your wonderful love–making!’
Vladimir flexes powerful hairy shoulders, takes exaggerated gulping lungfuls of Scottish chill, and laughs a booming laugh from the cavernous cavity of his broad, bullet–pocked chest. ‘Ahh, you behave a little strange tonight, no? Come inside, you will freeze to death out here.’
‘I’m OK, my sweet little Vladdy (I want to be sick!), I just need a moment to regain my composure.’
Yes baby yes! I cheer.
‘Then I will stand out here with you, you crazy, horny, sexual wife creature,’ he nuzzles her, runs a hot tongue down her cheek, ‘and we will both enjoy a refreshing cigarette, no?’ Vladimir disappears to get his smokes.
Oh shit, I groan.
‘I’m going to fall!’ I hiss at Sophie through clenched teeth. ‘Keep the dumb bastard inside!’
Vlad reappears with a packet of Sobranie Blacks, taps one free and manages somehow to light the smoke against the wildness of the storm. I catch a tantalising whiff, and nicotine craving sends me mad. God, what I would give for a smoke right now! A dying man’s last request? You bet. As if we ever get that luxury.
Sophie guides Vlad back inside by taking hold of his cock and fluttering eyelash promises, and there is a distinctive click as doors shut. My arms are seriously numb and I curse a hedonistic lifestyle promoting muscular weakness as I struggle with slippery metal bars. I kick like crazy as I grunt and push and heave, and by some bastard miracle manage to get my elbows onto the balcony ledge. I take a moment to savour the irony of the situation, and acknowledge my grinding emulation of sex would have made quite a comical sight from below. Jackass? You bet.
Before the sweat can dry on my ice–rimed back I fight my way onto the balcony and hurl myself wearily over the rail to lie, shivering like a clubbed seal on the slick marble. I want to sob. So much pain! Instead, I curl into a foetal position, rock onto my knees, stagger to my feet and press myself against the door.
I’m coming in you bastards, whether you’re watching or not! I realise I have little option. I giggle to myself – in lunacy, and in idiocy. Now I’ll have to face the cobalt eyes of those Techrims. Shit and black death.
Slowly, my cumbersome sausage fingers fumble. I ease the patio door open and slide within accompanied by a gust of winter. But Vlad and Sophie don’t notice because they’re hard at it again, Sophie clawing her husband’s back and drawing blood, both of them wriggling and pounding like feeding thrashing eels in jelly.
I stand, allowing the welcome warmth to flood into iced limbs. It is an orgasm I never expected. I clench my jaw to stop teeth juddering. I totter forward a few steps and halt, shivering, wondering whether I have the time to search for my clothing... then I see the black gleam of a Techrim 11mm pistol on top of the TV and it brings me jarring back to reality. The gun has a terrible, worn look about it. Like it’s been used. A lot.
Despite everything (including stupidity) I don’t want to die.
I make a grab for where I think my clothing might be, then drop to my hands and knees and make for the door. I stand again, see the white oval of Sophie’s face peeking over Vlad’s shoulder. She is staring fixedly at me through the gloom, and suddenly starts to scream and claw in the throes of a covering ecstasy... as I open the door and ease free, closing it on well–oiled hinges.
I breathe... once more.
I stand in the corridor as the enormity of the last thirty minutes club me in the back of the head. Nausea swamps me and for a couple of minutes I lean against the wall, wheezing, debating whether or not to throw up. Then I realise my still highly dangerous location; I pull on DKNY jeans and my Dolce & Gabbana silk shirt with the black lace cuffs. I pat car keys in my pocket and head bare foot down the long corridor–
as the door at the far end opens to disgorge a muscular black–suited individual – could only be one of Vladimir’s bodyguards – bulky and struggling to hide sub–machine gun hardware beneath expensive Italian tailoring. He strides towards me purposefully and I consider urinating.
I keep my head down, mooch past the slab and risk a covert glance back but the man isn’t even looking at me. I’m just some rich drugged arse in jeans and slime heading for the bar. A stoner junkie dickhead worth not even a second glance. Threat? What threat? Not in the face of an Uzi!
I stumble through regulation fire–doors and into the lift; the journey nauseates and I shuffle like an armless leper into the hotel foyer. I locate the toilets and heave the remnants of a sautéed steak into a luxury basin. I spend a few minutes cleaning up, then stare at bloodshot eyes in the mirror. They are somebody else’s. Somebody who’s just crossed No Man’s Land. They stare back at me, accusing; as if to say you fucking idiot lunatic.
I head from the Riviera, pad down sweeping marble steps and locate my yellow Porsche 911 GT3. The blip of the alarm is a welcome friend and I sink into embracing leather, lock the doors – and breathe with release. My hand strokes yellow leather highlights by the handbrake. Ahhh. It’s good to be home, baby.
‘My God, that was close.’
I shiver, and for a while contemplate the concept of mortality.
I locate Malboros and ignite an evil smoke with shaking fingers. I inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. A rhythm of addiction. My head flutters with trapped butterflies. I feel sick again. Not in the fucking Porsche! I fire the motor and pull away, hands locked claws on the steering wheel as I contemplate and relive my close encounter with Mr Death. Then I laugh, a long hard yapping which seems to go on and on and on and has little to do with humour. It’s a brittle laugh. Like glass shattering.
‘Yeah.’ I nod like a nodding dog, and smoke like I’m on fire. ‘At least I got away with it!’
Snow dropped on surges of snapping wind and skittered like lace across black tarmac. A Mercedes CLK with tinted windows roared into life. Lights found ignition. Wheels cut economically through the slush as it accelerated discreetly after the dwindling tail–lights of the Porsche 911 GT3... away from the frozen banks of the Clyde and towards the beckoning M8 motorway beyond.
CALLAGHAN – CAL, TO his friends, although he had to admit he had no friends, only business acquaintances and persons with whom he ate, drank, exercised and fucked – one way or another – stepped into the welcome embrace of his London Marriott West India Key three–bedroom apartment. The penthouse level sat on floor thirty. He’d snapped it up at a cool £2.9 million three months earlier, an affluent reward for diligent and amoral career choices.
Cal paused on entry, listening for any rogue sounds which might betray the presence of Mia.
Mia Sanchez, Cal’s (girl)friend, half–Mexican, half–maniac, stripper (dancer, he corrected himself), 88lbs of dark–skinned hot–tempered sadistic sultry pouting sleazy classy high–strung woman who drove Cal wilder than wild, hornier than horn, and dropped in whenever she was in the mood, disappeared for days or weeks on end, and occasionally stole his Porsche. Cal knew not when she would arrive or depart; and often, idly, wondered if she would one day clear out his apartment, then his bank account, and head for Mexico with a toss of luxurious brown curls. Sometimes (when he was drunk) he thought about reclaiming her penthouse key. But then, only a suicide case would dare that; and anyway, she added spice to a sometimes flaccid life. With each passing day, more and more spice was something Cal craved.
‘You home, honey?’ he called.
No answer. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t actually there. It could mean she was sulking. Or hiding. Or stoned. Or masturbating. He had caught her a few times, and had sulked as she gesticulated wildly with her Rabbit – until that evening when she taught him that to watch could almost be as much fun as to do. An invigoration, one might say.
‘If you’re not here, darling,’ she would purr with that Latino hint which drove him so wild, ‘what is a lonely girl to do?’
Cal moved from room to room, methodically clearing his penthouse with more precision than any Special Force über–commando. Only when convinced he was alone did he drop the dead–bolt and strip off in the bathroom, analysing cuts and grazes and bruises from his recent escapade in Glasgow. He’d lost a lot of skin. Some pride. A little blood. And one toenail.
Pain throbbed everywhere, and he set a bath running and padded naked through the apartment, moving to the lace blinds and pulling the cord to allow more light from the massive room–wide span of floor–to–ceiling windows.
Outside, the Thames stretched away like a snake and Cal watched late Autumn rays of sunshine sparkle on dark waters lapping lazy against concrete quays. Beyond, Canary Wharf swept to the right and rose into the staggered tombstone teeth of Downtown Finance. Cal blinked, impressed as ever by his view, his homeland, his fathertown, his moneyworld – London! – with everything he could ever need or want or lust right there on his doorstep. But what about Glasgow? And the secret rendezvous?
He grinned. Well, he thought. Nearly everything.
Cal cut a line of coke on the marble bathroom worktop and inhaled greedily. He closed his eyes and massaged his ethmoid. Then shook his head, eyes watering as honey settled across his limbs. He grabbed the Glenmorangie Highland malt from a low crystal shelf and poured a generous dram, topping it up with the sacrilegious fizzy stuff. Whisky and Coke tasted good atop the white wizard; always had, always would. Then Cal slumped into the butterfly embrace of a leather settee as sunlight sparkled through high tinted windows. As he sank, Cal allowed his mind to swim for a while, lost in dreams of Mia, and Sophie, and then even more insanely spinning down and down down to other women on the fringes of his life... faces sliding neatly past a stroboscope of twisted and twisting memory.
He decked the whiskey–mix in one, poured himself a straight malt this time, drank that too. It had been too long; too much shit and too long a ride without stimulation.
Staggering a little, Cal climbed to his feet and made it drunkenly to the bathroom. He lowered himself into the spa with a moan. Bubbles caressed, but he was too wasted to allow any sort of arousal. He slipped into heavenly warmth and felt the chloroform of sleep sneaking over him like a kidnapper with a rag...
The phone rang.
‘Bitch.’ He tried to go back to sleep.
It rang. And rang. And rang... until it spiked his conscience worse than any affronted housewife. Cal stretched, dripping bubbles, grabbed the wireless terminal with a scowl and drawled, ‘Yeah?’
‘Cal, it’s Jimmy. We got a problem.’
‘The prints are fucked.’
‘Yeah Cal, prints. Is there an echo on the line? Or have you just once again crusted your snout with toxic shit? Look, the stiff you snapped yesterday has flown the nest. The body is missing and your 35 mil and digital shots are dead as a dead donkey. So get your arse over here now, because Eddie is pissed as a bear with no balls.’
‘But the prints... blank... they can’t be!’
‘There’s something else.’
‘Good news?’ Cal sounded hopeful.
‘No. There’s another one of those fucking messages. You know, from your secret neighbourhood Wacko Jacko. You remember? The one in the white envelope with your name in blood.’
‘Great. You’re such a good friend, Jimmy. Remind me to buy you a bunch of flowers – replete with razors sewn under petals.’
‘Get over here. Now!’
A click. A buzz of digital insect.
Cal and Jim made the perfect team. Jim did the words, Cal the pics. They’d had some scoops, hell no, some fucking scoops. Royalty, celebrities, royalty fucking celebrities, celebrities fucking royalty. And they’d made money. Bricks of money. Buckets of money. A year earlier they’d been headhunted by Black and White, a young upstart bastard of newsstand stardom backed by some of the richest of players; big and bold and full of spunk, Black and White had taken the nation by storm. Not afraid to tell the truth. Shit, not afraid to make it up. Political and politically incorrectible. A Goliath. A Titan. From ashes to Phoenix in 12 short months. And Cal/Jim were The A Team, The Platinum Riders, cruising On Top of the Damned World, Baby! Only now...
Cal frowned. Now there was a problem. A problem with his shots. And on top of that he’d received another death threat. Great. Hell. Bollocks. Shit.
The first message had arrived four months earlier. He’d taken it as a sick joke. The bloody envelope (written in pig’s blood, it was later confirmed by the pigs) had words typed using a traditional impact typewriter instead of lasered by friendly Hewlett Packard. The first message read:
they seek him here, they seek him there
It seemed almost funny at the time. Some dick–head he’d annoyed with his – admittedly – amoral and privacy–invading photography. Reluctantly, and only after Eddie shouted at him with neck–veins bulging, Cal handed the note to the police; who simply confirmed what he knew in the first place. They could do nothing. There were no finger–prints. The post–mark was a blurred London smudge – and London was a BIG place. The note was skimmed half–heartedly through forensics; no other clues were dredged except to clarify the typist had no sense of punctuation.
The second message came a week later.
come into my parlour
Cal became known around the staff–room as the ‘Pussy’s Poet’ – not just haunted by an insane poet, but by an insane and fucking shite poet, torn from the deviant loins of an undergrad creative writing class. Around the office, name–calling and sniggers began. Constant jibes and mocking from Cal’s merciless workmates. Hell, Cal had finally acknowledged to a staff–room full of half–drunk ex–friends one Saturday afternoon that he wished the poetry–writing bastard would just get it over with and kill him. At least he wouldn’t have to endure more terrible verse if he was safe in his grave!
Laughter. But Cal had nearly been serious. In an amber–coke sort of fluid way.
Cal sighed. It was a deep and meaningful one. He climbed from the bath and towelled himself, head still spinning from a narcotic narcolepsy as he swayed on the genuine marble floor (imported from Slovenia at no little expense). He padded to the long living space and stood for a while, lost in thought, contemplating what could have gone wrong with the prints.
The previous day, a 60 year old pensioner had been brutally murdered; stabbed six times, robbed of £33.20p. Receiving the scoop tip–off, Jim and Cal had met at the murder scene in Hastings, dropped the attending DI a bundle of cash and done their own private sniffing. Cal used his trusty Nikon D2X digital 12.4 megapixel, and Pentax MZ–S 35mm SLR to photograph the brutal stabbing. Both cameras had never – never – let him down. Now Jimmy was claiming both machines had failed.
With lethargy accelerating into annoyance, Cal dressed and drank a pint of water in one, dribbling a little unnoticed down his silk shirt. A dab of CK and he descended to the Marriott underground car park, sank back in his Porsche – feeling that special glow as he fired the awesome 380 bhp six–cylinder horizontally opposed flat – but cursing at the same time as recurrent toothache returned to haunt him, rhythmical stabs drumming along his jaw and radiating out into his head.
Too much whisky, he nodded.
Yeah, that and too much cocaine, dickhead.
Must get to a dentist.
He powered up the ramp from the park, stopped for a moment to chat to the jovial but still businesslike security guard – after the atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7, and subsequent terrorist presence, they couldn’t be too careful, even with a fat cat like Cal – then howled down the bypass with his jaw set to Grim and dark eyebrows almost touching, so severe was his coked scowl and the accelerating pounding in his skull.
I open the skinning razor, enjoying the resistance and the feeling of quality in this antique tool. The blade gleams. It gleams so bright it hurts my eyes. Slowly, I press the razor against my pale white palm. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? The blade is a mouth and creates a mouth, and my blood flows warm over frozen flesh as it runs between my fingers. I turn my hand over. Crimson stains my knuckles. I smile, pain pulsing with the slow beat of my reptile heart. I gaze at the blade. At my trade. My love, my life, my woman, my core, my blood–fuck. Blood has made love to the oiled steel. My blood. The Blood of the First.
‘Jimmy. What the hell’s going on?’
‘Bad news buddy. Eddie wants to see you.’
‘I can deal with Eddie.’
‘Ryan’s with him.’
Cal looked at Jimmy for the first time, then. Noticed the sympathy there, and the inherent genuine friendship. That display of caring slapped Callaghan in the face. It was something to which he was unused.
Cal nodded, feeling sick. How could vomit haunt him twice in such a short time span? Callaghan hated being sick. No, hated it. He was never sick. Never. He had internal switches, tiny stepper–motors which cut off his brain and his drinking hand when he was close to the event horizon of promised puke. But this, this was something different. And like a simple event only twelve hours earlier – Jesus, only twelve damn hours? Glasgow felt like a lifetime away, a million distant fuzzy years – it was something which took his belly in its fist and squeezed real hard. Gave him a kick in the guts. An epidural of titanic proportions.
And to make things just that little bit more uncomfortable, his toothache was growing.
Damn those Ibuprofen!
‘We going in together?’
Jimmy grinned his trademark grin and shook his head, short dark hair falling over his forehead. Which, noted Callaghan, was beaded in sweat. So much for the cool–as–cucumber tough–ass Glaswegian ex–boxer. Yeah, Jimmy had been brought up in the Gorbals, worked the markets, drank in its smoke–filled dens, fought in its pits – as tough as a sock full of engineering brick. But if he had to dick with Ryan? Sorry, Mrs Ryan? If he had to put his job (and bollocks) between the oak blocks of the Guillotine? Become another Pelletier? Shit no.
‘You’re on your own, buddy. She wants a big fat slice of Callaghan pie.’
‘My pleasure, mate.’
‘She’d better be careful I don’t sprinkle the pastry with poison.’
‘Cal, that bitch could imbibe a bong of strychnine and still walk the walk. You got your facts straight?’
‘Moisture. In the cameras. It’s the best I can think of...’
‘Yeah, Jimmy. Thanks.’
‘And here’s your little lover’s message.’
Cal sighed, taking the neat square envelope. Yes, there was his name in dried blood. Yes, the trademark smudged postmark – what did the guy do, smear grease on the envelope or something?
He opened it. Unfolded the precisely folded sheet.
The poem, if it could be called such, read:
ring–a ring–a roses
Jimmy peered over his shoulder. ‘Has he got any better?’
‘Ahh. I observe he at least hasn’t lost his ear for tone. Must have been top of the class on his creative writing course. You know, I think Shelley would be proud!’
‘Just get to fuck.’
‘Touchy, hey, Callaghan? It’s just not your day, is it mate?’
‘It’s not my fucking decade, buddy.’
Cal walked down a thickly carpeted corridor, past glass–walled offices where keyboards clattered, eyes fixed potently on LCD screens and men and women argued into phones. He stopped at the end, knocked on the one door which did not sport glass – it was a heavy, mahogany door which had, over the years, absorbed the very essence of intimidation. The wood grain itself seemed to be an enclave of trapped demonic mouths screaming. That portal was a personification of fear.
‘Come.’ The sound was muffled by depth.
Callaghan opened the door, stepped in, closed it with a precise click. The office was a paragon of luxury. Thick cream carpets. Mahogany furniture. One entire wall stood floor–to–ceiling glass, looking out over London’s West End. Ryan sat in a high–backed leather exec chair, writing slowly, leisurely, on a cream paper in a gold embossed pad. She did not look up as Cal staggered forward. She simply continued to write, with no break in her stride.
Callaghan glanced to the right where Eddie sat. Eddie, tough as a cockroach and about as handsome; lean and wiry, tattooed knuckles and furious grey bushed eyebrows. Their eyes met. Eddie’s face was cremated ash; his mouth a grim, iron barrier.
Callaghan waited, blood draining from his face, toothache receding a little as the double–dose of Ibuprofen finally kicked in. Then, after negative acknowledgement, Cal finally forced out the words. ‘You wanted to see me, Mrs Ryan?’
She looked up, pen poised above the page. Steel eyes met Cal’s, her wrinkled old face locked without expression as her pupils drilled his soul. ‘Yes, I did,’ she said, enunciating each word with care. Then her head lowered and she continued to write.
Callaghan chewed his lip. Shit, he thought. Shit!
He studied Ryan; she was aged somewhere between fifty five and sixty five, and the ageing process had not been kind. Her face and throat were heavily lined, wrinkled webs of flesh hung with pouches of loose skin; her hair was a yellow–streaked grey – a legacy of heavy nicotine abuse – and tied back into a tight bun, Headmistress–style. She was starting to look stooped, withered almost. And yet ironically, where age robbed many of their iron–will, their steel–resolve, their thunder and fire, the approach of old age – and the promise of death beyond – had done nothing more than harden Ryan. Like old leather she got tougher and tougher. Old Iron Cunt, they called her in the Black and White staff–room. That, and Von Ryan, Über Von Ryan, Obersturmführer Ryan and, when merry on smuggled wine and feeling like a jolly old sing song, Any old Ryan / Any old Ryan / Any any old old Ryan – referring to the comical moment during a desk editor job interview and subsequent appointment where Ryan had chosen from twelve possible candidates her own daughter for the post: Mrs Ryan, junior. Yeah. Right. Soon, the bitter and cynical staff of Black and White had cackled, Old Iron Cunt would contravene employment law and hand out jobs to her entire damned family if she thought she could get away with it. Then, they’d have to bus the entire fucking Ryan tribe to the London offices – on Von Ryan’s Express, no less. Boom boom.
Cal waited, hands crossed in supplication before his groin, feeling like a schoolboy (which, he was sure, was Von Ryan’s intention).
Finally, Ryan removed her scratching pen from the neat little pad and placed it down almost reverently. She sat back, fingers steepled, cold grey eyes on Cal. The colour of raging storm–clouds, he thought sourly. And he felt himself breaking down slowly, tantalisingly, into a sweat. His toothache roared through his jaw and up into his temple, crashing like surf on the shores of a bleached and pounding skull.
‘We’ve had to pull the lead story.’
‘You’ve had to... shit. Because of the photos?’
‘Yes, Callaghan, because of the fucking photos,’ she snapped. She glanced at Eddie, then back to a cringing Callaghan. ‘We’re running with Billy’s “Essex Teenage Car Smash”. I suggest...’
Ryan paused for a moment. She leant forward a little, wrinkled old lips pursing over steepled fingers. ‘I suggest, Callaghan, that you sort out your fucking cameras. Quickly. Before I employ somebody else to work with that jumped up little Jimmy Jock bastard. You clear, Mr Photo Man? I will not give you another warning.’
‘Clear as crystal, Mrs Ryan.’
As Cal turned to leave he caught the smirk on Eddie’s face, and tightened his jaw, stomping out of the office but closing the door carefully, with a gentle click.
Jimmy was outside. He winked. ‘Did she eat your balls?’
‘Just chewed one off,’ grinned Cal, letting out a deep sigh.
‘Come on. I’ll buy you lunch.’
‘Is it that time already?’
‘Callaghan, you need to learn to get out of bed earlier.’
‘Then you can check your cameras.’
They trotted down the medicinal–smelling steps and out into the building’s foyer, smiling at Andrea the receptionist (whose smile was just a little too friendly to Callaghan, probably due to the previous Office Christmas Party and their rampant, drunken, under–desk sex ) but he pretended not to notice.
Wintry sunlight cast white squares across the tiled floor. Somewhere high up, the wind mewled like a disowned kitten.
‘Look Jim, I’m sorry about the shoot. I really, really don’t know what went wrong. I checked the digital – the images were there. I saw them. I scrolled through them. They were on that damned memory card, I’d swear it. And the Pentax has never let me down before. I...’
‘It’s OK. We all make mistakes. Just don’t make a habit of it. You just lost us eight grand, each, my friend.’ Jimmy smiled to take the sting out of his words, and led the way into brittle cold sunlight.
The motorcycle was matt black, stocky, powerful, intimidating. No chrome showed; it had been uniformly plated with Dacromet: bolts, fasteners, bars, exhaust. There was no manufacturer’s mark. No insignia. No name. The machine sat on twin yellow lines, engine burbling with a torquey, deep–throated, V–twin rumble. Its rider wore a black helmet with black visor, was stocky under a heavy overcoat, and had unmarked knee–high boots. He sat easily, lithely on the powerful machine, leaning forward slightly towards the bars – as if waiting... watching.
From swing glass doors stepped Cal and Jimmy, laughing at the tail–end of a joke; they skipped down chipped, grime–ingrained steps, turned left, and headed across the uneven cracked pavements.
As they turned the corner at the end of the street, the biker revved his machine twice – hard – and leapt away from the kerb with a rumble of acceleration.
He did not follow the two men. Instead, he smashed between a narrow gap in a queue of cars to a cacophony of horn blares, and vanished amidst the bustling throng of West London traffic.
Cal rode the lift to his thirtieth floor apartment, toothache almost gone now, to be replaced by a substantial pounding of genuine alcohol abuse. After leaving the Black and White offices the two newsmen headed for a few local bars, pints of Guinness with Glenmorangie chasers, followed by a visit to the Taj Mahal (official business dinner, dontchaknow; you can offset that against tax) where they discussed possible story leads and a couple of upcoming features (is excessive violence in computer games leading to a future of zombie kids ambling the streets, or was it always that way?/ what are the effects of cocaine on our unborn professors of the future?/ how bureaucracy, pedantry and the naturally inherent anal attitude of school inspectors is destroying not just morale, but the entire teaching profession, subsequently forcing teachers to leave and thus creating a lack of role models and leaving so–called intelligent, unguided, non–game–playing children as zombie kids ambling the streets) and then they split, Cal weaving an unsteady gait back to the offices to check out his cameras, Jimmy headed home for a well deserved bath and bed (and one last whisky, obviously).
Cal stared at himself now in the bright silver mirror of the lift. His eyes were bloodshot, he desperately needed a shave, his hair was lank and lifeless and he could smell his own putrefying stink. I could definitely do with some TLC, he reasoned.
‘I just don’t get it.’ He shook his head as he spoke to himself, watching his reflection with a glimmer of inebriated amusement. ‘Just dun geddit.’ The cameras had both been fine. Worked perfectly. He’d taken ten digital shots, transferred them to the Black and White mainframe which they’d humorously named Mickey: because, as computer servers went, it was a disjointed bag of useless, whining, pointless shite. He’d watched the TIFF images decode neatly on the screen, thumbnails scrolling in a little row. Then, chewing his lip, he’d done a roll of 35mm and taken it to a one hour developer. Four coffees, three donuts and a glance through The Times later, 24 prints had emerged perfect. Not a blemish. Not a hint of intruding light. So what was the damn problem? Freak of nature? Freak attack? Freaky Friday?
Muttering in annoyance, Cal padded down the hall and pushed his key into the lock, opening the door onto–
Mia was home.
Oh yeah, baby.
Callaghan grinned, dropping his padded Nikon camera bag to the settee and kicking free his shoes. ‘Mia? Mia, my little psychopathic, blood–drinking dove? Where are you?’ He found her naked on his bed, face down, ass firm and proud and tanned, snoring gently. His eyes flicked to the neatly and lovingly sculpted lines of coke on the dresser... and to his diminished stock of Glenmorangie.
‘Hmm. You’re a greedy little vixen, hey?’ He sat next to her on the bed, shook her gently, her skin almost feverishly hot under his hands – but she did not respond. He shook her again, and she murmured, turned slightly, luxurious curls tumbling across one shoulder. He placed his mouth close to her ear. ‘Mia,’ he whispered. ‘Mia, wake up, it’s Cal.’
His hand stroked her flank. She crooned, and her delicate, feminine snoring abated. Her breathing now came in deep, regular sighs. His hand traced patterns across her back, then stroked down over her buttocks and soothed circles towards the top of her legs and the honey beyond. He felt himself growing hard.
‘Mia. Wake up. I’ve got something for you.’
She turned slightly, and he eased his hand between her legs. Her cunt was wet, soft, and incredibly hot around his fingers; a moist fruit, a pouch which absorbed his probing with a welcoming ease. He glided in and out, gently, leisurely, teasingly, and she murmured again, purring like a cat as her eyes half–opened and she groaned, buttocks lifting a little and wiggling as she forced him deeper, harder now, his own cock rock in his pants and threatening to burst the seams of his DKNYs. Mia’s hand crept down his crotch, tugged at his buttons, curled around him, squeezed him, crushed him, taunted him, working on him with a threatening, dangerous pressure.
‘Come to bed,’ she said, her voice, as always, driving him mad with its sultry sexiness.
‘So... you’re awake then?’
Her brown eyes fixed on his. There was need there. An urgency. She licked her lips, pink tongue caressing even, white teeth stark against her olive skin. ‘Come to bed, Cal.’ It was an order. There was pain behind her smile. ‘I need to fuck.’
It was late. Or early. Depending how you viewed it. Callaghan lay awake, confused, wondering what had woken him. Cramp speared his left arm and he glanced at Mia, at the mass of curls, and gently eased his limb from beneath her head. She murmured and rolled away, presenting her back and absently pulling the duvet around her shoulders in sleep–driven selfishness.
He could still smell their sex. Taste her. On his fingers. On his tongue.
Callaghan turned away, gathering his own clump of duvet and then he remembered the dream, a dream he’d experienced intermittently over the previous few months. Every time, it would always take a different pathway, a different tributary, but retained the same constant core.
The dream would start with blinding white light, so bright it was painful but he was forced to look: as if somebody, or something, was holding his head... or maybe his skull was locked in the vice–grip of some horrible torture machine.
Machine? Had it been a machine?
The images danced away. Teasing.
Callaghan reached for his whisky glass, which he knew was half full, but knocked it with a thud to the carpet. ‘Damn.’ He made no move to retrieve it; partly because he felt too snug, but partly because the dream was seeping back into his conscious, waking mind, drawing with it a widening net of creeping, crawling horror.
White. Bright white.
And then swirls, spirals of ink–black darkness which exploded outwards into a static image. Black and white – with a myriad of shades. But no colour. There was never colour.
The image showed a young girl, about nine or ten years old. She had very pale skin, jet–black hair, and a long, lace–edged dress which reached her ankles. She was beautiful – stunningly beautiful. Her head was lowered, eyes hooded. In her hands she carried a long, curved sword, nearly as long as she was tall and completely at odds with the scene. The sword blade was corrupted with blood. Several drops had formed a small pool beneath the blade’s tip.
Something about this girl always filled Cal with an unspeakable terror. Nausea shook him like a terrier with a rancid bone. Because he felt, deep inside, for some reason, that one day she would kill him…
He got up, found the whisky bottle, unscrewed the cap and took several long swallows. It burned his throat, but killed the fear. It also warmed his belly and made senses swim but then, yeah, that’s what he wanted. Wanted – needed. An immediate oblivion. The ability to take him away from that nightmare scene of–
A little girl with a sword?
Don’t be such a pussy.
He climbed back into bed but couldn’t bring himself to hold Mia despite desperately needing the company, the warmth, the simple basic human contact. Because, strangely, almost superstitiously, he didn’t want to infect her with his dirt. With his implied impurity.
And Callaghan realised with a great, settling sadness, like drifting snow settling on his head and shoulders and life, here, now, right now in this miserable world this tawdry existence filled with nothing but false smiles and hollow gestures: now, now, he was utterly and totally alone.
Sleep came quickly. Thankfully, there were no more dreams.
I love the cold air. Enjoy the chill. It seeps into me as I sit here, still, silent, patient, leaning slightly forward: a gargoyle watching black lapping waters.
Slowly, I ease up and lift the motorbike helmet from my head, feeling the release of compression, a freedom and sudden awareness of vulnerability. Not just because of the removal of a physical protection; but because I am visible for all to see.
I hang the helmet on the bike’s mirror, then reach back, gathering my long, jet–black hair, and tie it into a compact pony–tail. I sigh, return to my static pose, gazing over the waters of the wharf towards the Marriott Hotel; and the luxurious penthouse apartments nestling at the summit in a preposterous superiority.
He’s up there. I watched him go in. Watched the lights of the lift rise to the top. Watched the lights in his apartment appear, ignited by the dimmer switch to the left of the doorway – at my exact shoulder–height.
I know this fact because I was there, tonight. I watched the woman sleeping for a while. Listened to her whimpers, admired her smooth skin, her thick hair, her full lips.
I think about Callaghan.
And I realise with a start: I like him. I like him a lot.
I smile at that, aware my needle teeth would frighten small children. Indeed, would terrify large men. And to complement the image, I pull free my skinning razor and unfold it leisurely, marvelling at that simple sliver of honed steel, and at the black metal handle with its archaic etchings. I twist it, this way and that, so it catches the light of the moon… and glance up again at the high apartment and realise that soon – yes soon – we will meet. We have a lot to talk about, and a lot to think about. And finally: a lot to do.
First, I must teach Callaghan a lesson.
CALLAGHAN HAD A plan, and it was a damned good one. It had worked before, and it would work again. It required one slow cooker, two jars of medium chilli, fresh peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, red chilli peppers, a couple of garlic bulbs, a kilo of fresh steak mince (from a real butcher, not the chemical filled crap from the supermarket), tortillas, rice, an hour, a sharp knife, a bit of patience, and three bottles of Chardonnay. Mission A: cook. Mission B: invite Mia inside. Mission C: pour wine, drink quick, fuck like rabbits for three languorous hours, serve and... feast on bubbling Mexican chilli sprinkled with crumbled cheese.
Cal was carefully chopping the garlic when his mobile chirped. He placed the knife reverently to one side, having been a victim of many a drunken finger–slicing incident, and damn lucky to retain all his own fingers and thumbs. The text was from Sophie. Cal went cold, and a small shiver tickled his spine.
»from Sophie SexGoddess
»Vladimir gone to Odessa on deal. I free tomorrow. We need to meet.xx I can make it to Stratford upon Avon if u like? Will wear short black dress and sussies. I will love u long time.Xxx.
Cal chewed his lip, frowned, then picked up the knife and finished chopping the garlic into slivers as he thought about his reply, and considered the implied comedy promise of hardcore sexual activity. With garlic–juice fingers, he typed:
»to Sophie SexGoddess
»Is meeting so soon such a good idea? After what happened on hotel balcony? I get the idea GOD trying to tell us something! Or tell ME something, anyway!!! x.
He sent the message, scraped garlic into the slow cooker atop the vegetables, opened the Chardonnay (breaking his own unwritten rule of never drinking whilst chopping and cooking – he had to think about those valuable fingers, after all!), and downed a large glass in one.
Something sat bad inside him.
Drilled the back of his brain with unease.
After all, how long could one man’s luck hold out?
Cal got an uneasy feeling he was coming to the end of his nine lives...
He drank more wine. It kicked a marble around his skull, and he was just about to start frying the steak when his mobile warbled. He stared at it for a long, long time before picking it up and clicking OK.
»from Sophie SexGoddess
»I think Vlad might suspect. We REALLYneed to meet. I am scared, Callaghan. I need to see u again! I need to hold u! I need to be with u! I need u!Xxxxx.
Five kisses? ‘Shit, shit, bastard, shit. Vladimir might fucking suspect?’ Cal grinned but the grin had nothing to do with humour. He pictured once more those gleaming Techrim 11mm pistols. He remembered cuddling Sophie, ample breasts pressed eager against his chest, soft hair in his face, inhaling her scent, her hair, the musk of her skin. He remembered painfully the taste of her lips, the salt of her flesh, the honey inside her hot and welcoming dark places. His mind spun a little with the wine and the heady intoxication of memories; memories of love, sex, intimacy; walking hand in hand by the Avon in Stratford, watching the ducks, laughing, kissing, trailing hands in dark waters; then, kissing for hours in front of Sophie’s open roaring fire at her Edinburgh flat, the heat prickling faces, tongues entwined long and languid and soft and teasing and biting and holding...
Cal took another greedy gulp of wine. Shit. How do you dump a Sex Goddess?
In fact – can you dump a Sex Goddess?
Especially one married to a Romanian gun–runner slash hit–man?
With shaking fingers, Cal compiled his reply. Now was the time to be a Big Man. To stop this insanity – before it got him, or probably both of them, killed. Killed dead.
»to Sophie SexGoddess
He sent the message before he had time (or the good sense) to delete the last bit, and cursing to himself even as he sent the loaded message. ‘You’re your own worst enemy, Callaghan, you dickhead,’ he muttered, and punched in the numbers for Sullivan’s home. Getting no reply, he tried his best friend’s mobile – and it rang for a while before being answered.
‘Yeah?’ The gravel of a smoker’s drawl.
‘Want to meet for a drink, old buddy?’
‘What’s up this time Callaghan?’
‘You’re too cynical, my friend. What makes you think there’s something up?’
Sullivan laughed. ‘There always is. It just so happens I have a slot in half an hour. See you in the Gunmaker’s?’
‘You’re on.’ Relief flooded Cal like a drug.
‘Just one proviso.’
‘All the drinks are on you, fucker.’
I open my skinning razor and take the amputated leg in my hands. The flesh is cold, hard almost, the limb severed below the knee. The flesh is puckered around the yellow of bone, and a deeper yellow of chilled fat shows in the cross–section. I cut deep, and the blade performs immaculately, its fine edge parting flesh with ease and stripping it in lengths until the freezer–chilled skin and muscle lie like shavings at my boots. As I get closer to the bone I take an infinity of care, making sure I don’t mark the bone itself and using the fine edge of the skinning razor to remove the last peelings of muscle and tendon. I struggle around the ankle joint, but there is no foot so I am spared the fiddly necessity of skinning toes.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m a lunatic, right? A madman. A beast. Maybe even The Beast. Disgusting, perverted, despicable, life unworthy of life, another deviant mental case in need of locking up, beheading, death by lethal injection. And ha, maybe by your terms, in your context, you could be right. But then you live your lives in the shadows... the shadows of the real world, the true world, the cold world. You live in the Other State.
You see, I have not come here for fun, or personal gain. I follow no religion or moral obligation; I have no code of conduct, am not answerable to any deity or abhorred perception of evil which you summon from tarnished souls. Your laws mean nothing to me; nor does your policing, or the joke that is your twisted and decadent legal system.
I have come to do a job.
It is that pure. That simple.
I finish removing flesh from the leg, discard the fibula and admire in my hands the freshly prepared tibia. It is thin and chilled; almost brittle. Carefully, I mark three etchings in the bone, the razor slicing with precision, love, caring, nudging out bone chips until I have the necessary sculpted shapes.
I smile. Nod. I lift my head, eyes narrowing in the darkness of the threadbare room; then turn and grin at the woman lying on the bed – from whom I removed the leg a day earlier. She is shaking uncontrollably, eyes wide and white, gagged mouth silent as she stares at me with those outsized orbs.
‘You scared, my lovely?’ I whisper.
She nods. I can see the pleading in her eyes, in her submissive body language; smell it in her sweat and her leaked piss. Don’t kill me, she is thinking. Please God, don’t let him kill me!
I stand, stretch languorously, my hair tumbling down my back. I still carry the skinning razor, and it is on this delightful tool that the woman – the amputee – is focused. I move forward and gaze at her, at her distended – pregnant – abdomen. I tap the bulging pale flesh with the skinning razor. She flinches, trembling increasing exponentially at my proximity.
‘Twins?’ I ask.
She nods, making moaning noises behind the duct tape. She struggles a little, but feebly. She has lost a lot of blood from the amputated leg. But then, that’s just the way it is. She should be thankful – my stitching is neat, precise, and the painkillers were sourced from an ambulance. Genuine Dia–morphine.
I spit, baring needle teeth. ‘Your twins are little bastards who contain your taint, your darkness, your poison, your seed,’ I say.
She shakes her head. I change tack.
‘Were the little ones frightened, Catherine?’ I watch, amused, as she starts to squirm against her bonds, head thrashing, dark strands of hair trailing messily over her narrow ferret face and in her eyes. I climb onto the bed, mounting her almost as a lover would. A dark lover. A lover of the blade. And in a way we are lovers; we are here, now, locked together for this: the most intimate of exchanges.
The exchange between killer, and victim.
Between sane, and insane.
However, it is I who carry the seed of sanity. Catherine carries the deviant gene.
My voice drops to a terrible whisper as I move close, so close we could kiss and mate and share and fuck and I stare into her eyes which have grown so wide, so terrified, locked to mine in an ultimate horror with an umbilical of total understanding. She is at the peak of her terror; perched precariously on a ridge of tangible fear.
I savour the moment.
It tastes good. Tastes… like it should.
‘Were they as scared as this?’ I breathe, lifting the killing blade between our faces to reflect in the tears in her eyes.
Callaghan arrived at the Gunmaker’s Arms first; it was probably a symbol of desperation. He had a pint of Greene King in front of him, half empty, as Sullivan pushed through the doors carrying his motorbike helmet with gloves tucked inside. Cal stood, moving to intersect Sullivan at the bar.
‘Aye, brother. Mines a Bombardier.’
‘It’s this bloody weather! I always need decent sustenance when the damn cold kicks in.’ Sullivan stared at his oldest friend, then suddenly grinned his old warm grin and slapped Cal on the back. ‘How’s life in the organic puke–soup of your back–stabbing gutter–press feeding–trough, eh?’
Cal pouted. ‘Gutter press? Moi? Black and White is the current news, man. We’ve got the fastest growing sales in the business; and Jimmy is one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with. Period. The things he can do with a fucking metaphor!’
‘I didn’t realise metaphors could fuck.’
‘When Jimmy has his finger on the pulse, he can make a damn corpse tap–dance.’
They thanked the barman and returned to the dark corner table which Callaghan had commandeered. Cal always sat in the corner; always sat with his back to the wall. After all, he would smile laconically, you never know when an angry, abused, fucked–up celebrity housewife is going to put a knife in it.
‘So, Cal,’ said Sullivan with a beer moustache, ‘what can I do you for?’
‘I need some advice.’
‘The last time I gave you advice, I believe your reply was a hearty drunken “piss off ye bastart!”’
‘I was drunk,’ protested Cal, staring into his Greene King sheepishly.
‘So then. Did you?’
‘Did I what?’
Sullivan rolled his eyes. ‘I seem to remember she was slim, sexy, had huge breasts, baby blue eyes, and was all of sixteen years old. She came on to you like a virus and you dribbled over her revealing red PVC pants.’
‘She was older than sixteen!’
‘How old, then?’
‘Hell Cal, that’s practically statutory rape.’
‘Hey, I didn’t give her one. Well, OK, I did give her one, but she begged me for it. I was providing a valuable service. And as my old mentor used to say, “if there’s grass on the pitch...”’
‘Hmm?’ He met Sullivan’s eyes, and saw a great sadness in their dark depths.
‘You’re an animal.’
Callaghan grinned, but the grin dissolved as he saw the look on Sullivan’s face.
‘That ain’t a compliment, dickweed.’
There was a minute of uneasy silence as they both drank beer, and Sullivan went to get another round. Cal sat, staring at his distorted face in a platter of spilt ale. His pale skin reflected, shimmering like a ghost. You’re a worm, acknowledged his inner demon. You’re a man of weak moral fibre. A predator and a charlatan. You deserve everything you get... and that includes a perfectly aimed 11mm round in the back of your solid skull.
Sullivan slumped down, slapping two beers on the dark–oak. He lit a Marlboro and Cal accepted a smoke, drawing deep and squinting as lazy trails stung his eyes.
‘How’s life in motorbike journalism?’
‘Good,’ said Sullivan, and part of the tension dissolved. ‘We’ve got a new Honda for testing, it’s rumoured to be taking over from the top–end Fireblade. And BMW have really sorted their act out after last year’s tourer disaster. They had to recall a thousand bikes.’
‘You still doing the New Rides section?’
‘Yeah. And I’ve been promoted – Features Editor – I get to ride abroad. You know? Take an MV down to Morocco, or a Harley to Tibet. That sort of back–breaking dogshit. And all dreamt up by the hardcore psychological pervert who is my boss.’
‘That’s the pre–requisite for promotion, Sully. You have to be a decadent lunatic. Goes with the territory.’
They smoked and drank. Sullivan laughed, and Cal laughed as well – acknowledging his twitchy behaviour must make for humorous evening viewing.
‘You still got that lock–up full of bikes?’
Cal nodded. ‘Aye. My babies.’
‘You’re a hedonist. Anyway, come on Cal, get to the point. I know you too well to prolong the banter. I’m on a deadline, so spill the beans. You got another sixteen year old needs sexually abusing?’
‘I’m in the shit.’
‘This time it could be real bad.’
‘Like I said – again?’
‘I’ve made mistakes in the past,’ acknowledge Cal, glancing up, meeting Sullivan’s fixed stare. ‘And I know you don’t always approve of the things I do; of the life choices I make. But I’m... I’m trying, Sully. I feel – I don’t know, like somehow I’ve been tainted.’
‘Tainted? Well then, we finally agree on one thing! Callaghan – there’s more honour in a fucking judge. More truth in a lawyer. More integrity in a striking rattlesnake.’
‘You think I’m that bad?’
‘Yeah, you're that bad,’ said Sullivan.
‘I used to be one of the good guys. I used to have a modicum of honour. But – hey, you remember my first girlfriend – my first real girlfriend?’
‘Hell Cal, you’re going back a bit.’
‘Hear me out. You remember her?’
‘I remember. Long strawberry blonde hair, pretty face; always hanging onto you as if you’d run away or something. Shy as a badger. Yeah, Callaghan. I remember her well.’ Sullivan’s eyes were shining. ‘She was called Bethany; Beth, yeah. What happened with her? You clammed up about that one – after it was over. I never liked to push you for answers. You always looked like a kicked puppy. And then? Well, we drifted our separate ways, didn't we? Allowed the friendship to slide.’
‘It was a dark night. Winter. We’d gone out with a few friends, Billy and Tracy, Roberta, Jocasta, Mike Mendel, Stoppie and a few others from Uni. It was pouring with rain, and we all split up – me and Beth went back to the car, she’d left something there. We made love on the back seat, for the first time. It was magic.’ Cal glanced up, then looked down into his beer. ‘A real experience, slow and warm and loving. It moved me, it truly did. I was like a starry eyed newly wed! We walked, laughing, arm in arm back through the rain, met up with the others at the Waggoner’s Arms. I was starving, cheeks glowing, hair slick from the downpour. Beth clung to me, just wouldn’t let go, and I revelled in it, revelled in her adoration, in her intimacy. In her love.’
‘Is this a long story, Cal?’
‘She told me she loved me, whispered it in my ear. I could smell her on my skin, on my hands, smell her perfume and her sex as we sat there clinging to each other like children.’
Sullivan was staring hard at Cal, but Cal could read nothing in his friend’s eyes.
He sighed. ‘I had an essay deadline for the day after; a bastard of a thing on fucking Sylvia Plath. Well, not actually fucking Sylvia Plath – God, the feminists on my course would eat my balls, right? But you know what I mean. I left early, Beth gave me a long lingering kiss at the door and I headed off into the rain. She went back inside. Within ten minutes she was on Stoppie’s knee, and an hour later she went back to his place and fucked his brains out. All night. I must have given her a taste for it. Or something. So much for our true love, eh?’
‘You dump her?’
‘Aye. And I scratched all her Placebo CDs. She pleaded, the usual shit. But she didn’t realise – just didn’t get it. I offered her everything; my soul on a plate. She took it, ate it up, spat it out like a piece of gristle. The bitch spat me out.’
‘Not all women are like that.’
‘I know that,’ snapped Callaghan. ‘But she fucked me up, mate. Made me bitter, twisted and resentful. I curled up inside myself. Inside my shell. I died a little, that day. Part of my soul became necrotic – and she didn’t even realise it. God, that girl never knew the pain she caused me. Like Frankenstein, she never truly understood the monster she created.’
‘So you wreak vengeance on the rest of womankind?’
‘No.’ Cal shook his head, took a hefty gulp of beer. ‘But I swore I would never get close again. Swore I would never let anybody into my shell; and I’m a happy man, see?’ He gave a rictus grin, exaggerated teeth and no humour. ‘You see that smile?’ he said through clenched teeth. ‘That’s a smile of self preservation.’
‘I think you need to take a good hard look at yourself, mate.’
‘Ha. I do that every morning, Sully. I look in the mirror, into eyes that have seen too much – and you know what I really see? I see the reflection of a depraved and decadent society; I see the flickering fires of arson, the screams of rape and murder, the unbelievable atrocities of war. And there’s me, standing in the middle like fucking Happy Snappy Harry with my camera round my neck and I tell myself, Cal, you’re just reporting what you see, just reporting the news. But sometimes – sometimes I feel that with every single photograph I snap I lose a little part of myself. Give myself to evil; shed a part of my humanity. An ironic reversal, you might say... Like the indigenous tribes, the Melanesians and Africans who used to believe a picture stole a part of your soul. Well, those fuckers on the street, the deviants, the freaks, they steal a slice of my soul all the time.’
‘And this time? What’s happened?’
‘I’m seeing a married woman.’
‘Jesus! On the scale of Gary Glitter atrocities that’s not quite as bad as I’d anticipated...’
‘She’s married to a Romanian gun–runner who’s killed thirty–four people. And we think he’s found out.’ Cal corrected himself. ‘She thinks he’s found out.’
‘Oh.’ Sullivan lit another cigarette. It glowed as he inhaled, and smoke trailed from his nostrils as he considered this information. He offered Cal a Marlboro.
‘Should quit really.’ He took one all the same.
‘Where does she live, this bird?’
‘Edinburgh, most of the time. Sometimes we meet in Glasgow – her husband rents the entire floor of a hotel. Sometimes we meet in London. And we have a rented, cosy little nest in Stratford upon Avon, a quaint cottage with a sofa, TV and kettle. And a bed – yeah, a big bed. It’s all we need.’
‘Her husband out of the country a lot?’ ‘Yeah.’ Cal nodded, sipping his Greene King. ‘Look, Sully, I’m a bit twitched about this. Couldn’t think who to tell. What would you do? In this situation?’
‘You need to cut her off.’
‘You mean... never see her again?’
‘Yeah, buddy. You’re juggling with fire. With a live grenade. You’ve got your dick on the edge of a mincing machine. What the hell is this guy going to do if he catches you? Shoot you? Torture you?’
‘There’s no probably about it, Cal. You’re dicking with the Big Boys. With a Player. He’s not just gonna slap you around a bit if he finds you porking his missus. If he’s bringing weapons into the country, you can guarantee he’s got serious connections – with the Glasgow and London gangs, for a start. And God only knows who else. You’ve got to kill this, Cal. You hear me? Before it kills you. I’m serious.’
‘Yeah, I know... I’m supposed to meet her tomorrow. In Stratford. I was thinking it should be for the last time.’
‘For Christ’s sake,’ muttered Sullivan. ‘Look. Text her. Phone her. Cancel it. Then change your mobile number. Does she know where you live?’
‘Don’t you think that’s a bit excessive?’
Sullivan shrugged, finishing his beer and standing. He pulled on his armoured biker jacket and lifted his helmet and gloves. He looked down at his old friend. They had shared a lot – suffered childhood together, for a start – but he could feel the gulf between them, ever widening with the passing of years. They had different lives. Walked different paths. Lived in different worlds. And for the first time realisation hit Sullivan harder than a poleaxe. It saddened him. Saddened him greatly.
‘It’s either that, mate – or one day you’ll be found face down in the Thames. I’ve got to go. Give me a call next time you want my fatherly advice; only don’t pull a sour face when you don’t like what I have to say. If you don’t want bad news, don’t ask the fucking questions.’
‘Hey... Sullivan? The sad thing is – I know you’re right.’
‘Then sort it.’
Cal nodded. ‘I’ll try my best, grandad.’
‘Glad to see impending death at the hands of a vodka–swilling Romanian mobster hasn’t ruined your sense of humour. Catch you later, mate. And Callaghan?’
‘Man, you stink of garlic. What the hell have you been doing?’
It was late.
Cal lay exhausted, satisfied, wearing just his boxer shorts and flicking idly through the movie channels on TV. He always did this, and it drove Mia crazy: he'd dive into the middle of a film, watch ten minutes, dive into the middle of another film, watch five minutes. Click click click. Why the hell do you think monkeys were given opposable thumbs? Cal justified this regular metacarpal exercise by claiming his rough and tumble hectic lifestyle didn’t give him time, baby, the bloody time to watch an entire movie. In reality, it was simply Mr Terminal Boredom Threshold charged with being Prime Suspect No 1.
Mia wore a red silk dressing gown and was curled beside him on the wide leather sofa, her breathing deep and regular. She still wore her little devil horns which, funnily enough, made Cal horny. However, on this evening he would be the first to admit that his performance had been far from perfect. Had been something of a... a flop. There. He'd admitted it. Shit.
The phone rang.
Cal clicked his terrifyingly huge screen to mute and answered quickly, so as not to disturb Mia.
‘Callaghan, we got a lead.’
Cal groaned. ‘What? Now?’ He checked his watch. ‘It’s one in the bloody AM, Jimmy. And I’ve been drinking. A lot.’
‘This ain’t up for negotiation, buddy. You already owe me a bag of cash, remember? Now grab your cameras and meet me over Covent Garden. You know the phone box on Drury Lane? North side, near McDonalds?’
‘He’s gonna call us.’
‘That mad bastard. Mr Volos. Gave us that lead a month ago, we paid him five hundred. Got the photos before the police arrived. Bronagh went ape–shit, said he’d arrest us, lock us up, throw away the key. Remember, dickhead?’
‘Yeah, sorry Jim. I’m just – just feeling a bit – you know – mashed.’
‘Get with the programme, mate. We’ve got work to do. Get there as fast as you can.’
The line died.
Amazingly, Callaghan arrived first.
He parked on double–yellows, stood by the car stamping his feet and blowing heat into chilled hands. He cursed not bringing gloves or a heavier jacket. Autumn was definitely giving way to winter and Callaghan was not the sort of rough and tumble outdoor type to stand around on the cold London streets just for the hell of it.
A few leaves crackled around the gutter, swirling in a circular dance. Cal glanced at the phone cubicle. It was empty. In fact, the whole street was empty. Cal stared up, then down, neon lights reflecting bright strips in his eyes. He stamped his feet again and was just considering getting back into the Porsche and curling foetal beneath the heater when Jimmy’s ancient and ponderous Mercedes turned at the end of the street and rumbled towards him belching ominous black fumes. Callaghan tutted; to a man obsessed with cutting edge cars and bikes, with BHP and torque and refined close–ratio gearing, with fun and speed and adrenaline, Jimmy’s 20 year old diesel Merc was a travesty. Car sacrilege. Petrol–head heresy.
‘Callaghan. You made it.’
‘What time’s he gonna phone?’
The phone started to ring, and Jimmy raised his eyebrows in comedy fashion. ‘Seems like I was just in time. Would you like to talk to The Big Man?’
‘Hey, this is your gig,’ said Callaghan, knocking free a Marlboro and lighting the cigarette with iced fingers. Smoke plumed about his chilled face as he watched Jimmy move to the phone and lift the handset, killing its shrill call. Cal checked his camera bag which swung around his neck housing his Nikon digital. The Pentax was on the passenger seat of the Porsche.
Cal smoked. He glanced around, and with a waved hand Jimmy caught his attention. He moved forward a few steps. Jimmy covered the mouthpiece.
‘He wants to talk to you.’
‘To... me?’ Surprise.
Jimmy thrust the handset. ‘Just speak to him.’
Cal took the receiver, frowning. ‘Hello?’
The voice was soft, lilting, almost asexual in tenderness of delivery. ‘Mr Callaghan?’
‘Yeah. Who’s this?’
‘Mr Volos, Mr Callaghan. It’s so nice to finally hear your voice.’
Cal frowned harder, turned, and looked at Jimmy who gave him a gloved thumbs–up; then made frantic gestures as if writing on a pad. Get an address, he mouthed.
‘I believe you’ve some information for us?’
‘Of course. Is there any other reason for contacting a reporter and his faithful puppy?’
Cal paused. Something seemed – just wrong. He took a deep toke on his Marlboro and blew smoke into the fouled mouthpiece of the public receiver, saliva collecting–pot of a diseased generation.
‘What is it?’
‘There has been a murder. A most gruesome epilogue.’
‘Have the police been notified?’
‘I believe they have. You’d better move quickly Mr Callaghan, or that malevolent DI Bronagh might deny you the right of journalistic freedom. He might sever your opportunity of snapping those oh–so–important uncensored photographs. After all, this is the scoop you’ve been waiting for.’
‘How much do you want?’
‘Same as before. I will contact you shortly with regards payment.’
‘Where do we find this... murder?’
Mr Volos spoke delicately, and Cal gave a small shiver as the address was revealed like a losing hand in a game of poker. Volos killed the call with abruptness. Cal’s face hardened. The address was extremely close to where Cal himself lived.
‘Where we going?’
‘The Wharf. Just down the damn road from where I live.’
‘Did he tell you the score?’
Their tired eyes met. Cal rubbed his forehead, and touched his upper lip with his forefinger – as if considering something, an unbidden voice from the depths of his darkened soul.
‘A murder,’ Callaghan said, finally, ‘there’s been a murder.’ His voice was cold. Emotionless.
‘Come on.’ Jimmy slapped Cal’s back. ‘We’ve got a job to do.’
Jimmy led the way through the deserted London streets. They parked up and killed the engines on both cars. Rendezvousing on the pavement, Jimmy said, ‘This it?’
Callaghan nodded. The building towered above them in a neat, contemporary red brick. The upper levels were offices sporting TO LET signs, the lower level vacant shop premises, boarded window fronts taken up by illegal fly–posting.
Jimmy moved forward, looking left and right. Rogue wrappers swirled in the street; London felt like a ghost–town. Cold and empty. The brutal victim of a holocaust.
‘Eerie,’ said Cal, coming up close behind Jim.
‘You bastard! You made me jump!’
‘Sorry man. But according to your lunatic source, there’s a dead body in there. Doesn’t that give you the heebie jeebies?’
Jimmy snorted laughter. ‘Heebie jeebies? You been watching Scooby Doo again?’
Cal shrugged, shivering in the chill. ‘A man has to do something to avert the banality of daytime TV.’
Jimmy pushed the door, and it creaked open a couple of inches. He glanced back at Cal. ‘Well, it’s open. I don’t know if that’s a good sign, or a bad sign.’
Cal said nothing. The hairs were erect on the back of his neck, and he felt utterly uncomfortable; wary, senses screaming, as if his life depended on his actions in the next few moments. He glanced around, feeling the urgent need for a weapon. Primeval instinct kicked him in the heart with a Size 11.
Jimmy opened the door fully, peering inside and producing a small Maglite which cut a neat beam through the black. The light was narrow, intense, and lit them a path to a chaos of packed boxes, crates crammed with anonymous items wrapped in yellowing newspaper, a series of old battered suitcases in the corner. The room smelt musty and unused. It was still. And very cold.
They waded through debris, between the kipple of abandonment. Cal stayed close to Jimmy, mouth dry, his bad feeling growing more and more pronounced in staggered increments with every passing second.
Cal’s hand touched Jimmy’s shoulder, and his partner–in–crime halted. ‘What is it?’ he whispered. Somehow, it just felt right to whisper.
‘Let’s go outside, Jim. Wait for the police.’
‘It’s not like you to get spooked.’
‘This feels wrong, Jimmy.’
‘I don’t know. It feels like somebody is... watching us. Waiting for us. It feels like a set–up, man. A fucking trap.’
Jimmy’s jaw tightened. ‘If you’re thinking the murderer might still be here, don’t worry pal. They don’t call me the Gorbal Grappler for nothing.’ He gave a lifeless smile, features fearsome but bleached in ambient rays from the torch. ‘We need this story, Cal. We need these pictures. Come on, get your camera ready.’
Cal nodded, clamping his mouth shut and fumbling with his bag. For some reason his fingers didn’t want to work.
Jimmy pushed forward, down a corridor where ribbons of wallpaper hung torn and damp in limp strips from above, near the ceiling. Then he stopped at the foot of the stairs, Maglite picking out a huge red stain on the wall – as if something organic had been flung with incredible force and detonating impact. His eyes narrowed. ‘Looks like a car crash splatter.’
‘Let’s get out of here, Jim,’ Cal repeated through gritted teeth, hackles raised, face pale, skin corpse–cold.
Jimmy turned. ‘I told you, we need this,’ he said again, voice calm and strangely quiet; yet filled with urgency. A professional need to get the job done. To discover. To report.
The Maglite moved up the staircase and both men became aware of something hanging there in the vacant still air above; it was swinging, ever so gently, as if nudged by the breeze of their disturbance and Callaghan wanted to shout out, to scream ‘put the fucking torch away I don’t want to see it, don’t want to see it!’ but his lips were glued shut and eyes forced open and a sour viscous treacle spread in his throat and mouth and nose gagging him and choking him and he could not breathe, he could not scream, he was gasping for air...
Survival instinct took his brain in its fist and shook it.
His senses flooded back in a rush and he gasped and could smell the blood. The narrow torch beam illuminated a body hanging over the stairs dripping crimson pearls into a long, staggered smear, but the body didn’t look quite right for an instant and it took a few moments of adjustment to visually acclimatise, to actually understand and decode because the skin had been peeled free leaving raw flesh and shaved muscles, protruding bulges of tendon and peeping blue worms of severed, puckered veins in a rich thick sauce gravy of congealed blood.
Cal’s eyes moved downwards, an involuntary tracking, from a peeled face, open mouth a small round black silently screaming hole, across a slim torso showing patches of remaindered skin where the breasts had been cut neatly free – and across the strings and bulges of visible abdominal muscle, stretched taut across a–
‘Holy shit,’ breathed Callaghan on droplets of spit.
‘She was pregnant,’ hissed Jimmy, through clenched teeth. ‘That sick motherfucker. That sick sick twisted son of a bitch.’ He breathed deeply, like a fish tossed from the pond and gulping for air. ‘She’s had one of her legs amputated! You got your camera ready? Callaghan – hey, Callaghan? Snap out of it man – come on, take some pictures, all right? The police will be here any moment... and this story needs to be run. This bastard scumbag shithead needs to be caught.’
‘Jimmy... I can’t...’
‘Cal, look, she’s holding something.’ Jimmy moved closer, apparently oblivious to Callaghan’s distress. One of his boots nudged the edge of the jagged puddle of blood which had crept thickly down the stairs and pooled like crimson honey near the bottom step. ‘It’s an envelope. It’s got a word on it.’ He leant close.
‘What does it say?’ croaked Callaghan, weakly.
‘It’s a name.’ Jimmy swivelled, gloss eyes filled with unshed tears. His face registered sledgehammer shock. ‘Jesus,’ he breathed, running a hand through his sweat–soaked hair. ‘Jesus!’
‘What does it say?’
‘It says “Callaghan”,’ Jim whispered.
Cal turned, sprinted for the door. He just made it outside before he was violently sick.
(C) Andy Remic 2011
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.