Soul Scars©

Neil stepped out the front door, twisting quickly to lock it behind him. The Cat would dart out between his legs if he didn’t move like mercury, fetching up on the early-bustle road barely a hundred yards away, and that would be that. Not that he’d mind seeing its head splintered on the black, its snowy fur tyred. It had nearly made it out yesterday. He’d had to kick it back in – for its own good of course – and while he was safe in the knowledge Mariah was already at work. She’d eyeball him in that way of hers, if he so much as raised a brow at the white fur peppering his suit.

That she was his girlfriend, sharing the lease of what was originally her flat and the cat’s territory, made complaining all the trickier. He couldn’t very well ban the little brute from being inside, as out.

So even while his boot drove its cunning, questing nose back inside, there was a reluctant hangnail in the move.

It certainly made reaching his car – briefcase in one hand, keys chiming in the other – something of a morning party trick. He achieved it in bursts of motion, like ricocheting current. It was an image he liked – legs morphing to lightning bolts, body dialing down to something powerful, direct. It helped him focus when, for the rest of the day, he’d be staring blankly at one screen after another – windshield, computer, TV. Mariah’s face, from the opposite end of every table and couch, in a relationship going grey as his hair.

She’d ask about his ambitions – after pitching her own work in upswings, like she would stones – with that copper twist of a smile, a thin sheen of disgust behind her eyes. They were large and green, hyena eyes in the seething dark; mirroring those of the wretched feline, as it coiled its pure whiteness around her shoulders. Both would stare him out balefully. She’d lean into its purr, tracing a hand back over the arcing spine.
Neil always backed down first.

There on the step, he shuddered with the memory of what those hands could do when on him. But not for a long time now.

He found spasms of real life elsewhere, to sharpen up feelings blunted by adulthood. A petrol rainbow, slick-sliding down a rainy gutter in such gorgeously toxic skeins. The twin gold globes of a girl’s cleavage, peeping out at him with faux coyness, as she leaned forward to adjust her heel. Two dogs, all teeth and spine-ridged backs, tearing strips out of each other in the street as their dappy owners swore and got sprayed with blood.

Red to black. Plus to minus, and back again.

His chest would ache where his soul hibernated. But his feet knew their course, would begin the daily slide into familiar steps. He’d find his face folding an envelope’s privacy. The world went on, with or without him.

Front door secured, the Cat yowling harshly on the other side, Neil hustled to the car’s dingy driver’s side. The first challenge of the day was met. The next came with his carefully easing open the door. Peering down, he found them – all those vivid plastic tongues, some paler than others. Sweet wrappers and crisp packets, an artists’ dream of sugar-stoning, as Mariah would say (and had); they were stashed, balled, squeezed into every niche not holding vital parts.

Or a therapist’s nightmare. That was one of her zingers, too.

“Neil! Good morning! Off on the daily slog, eh?”
The fruity tones broke the morning’s stunned green haze. Neil froze. Bevingdom’s voice always drove a cold spot between his shoulder blades, left them aching. Raising his eyes to the leafless porch opposite his own, he found the stout frame of his neighbor, leaning on the rail with the nonchalant ease of the retired. From his hand hung the morning paper, smooth as the creamy dressing gown attempting to cover the big bastard’s modesty. Already close to 9am, but he was probably about to settle down to a cup of tea and fry-up, courtesy of the doily-haired wife, and the two pints of milk nestled at his feet.

Neil set his teeth. A pity boredom had already set in with that retirement. Bevingdom was one of the worst curtain-twitchers around.
Now, an iron smile carved out the distance between them. The older man’s round glasses slung white hooks of light, as he lowered his head to peer at Neil.

“Mind if I have a word?” Jowly, in the menacing way of bulldogs, Bevingdom’s face shone. “Well Neil, you know how much the missus and I adore animals -”
Yeah, because that’s why your garden hose stays plugged in. The thought bit deep in Neil’s head, with the five-point star of nails in his palm. You like your pot shots, don’t you? As much as your animals.

–“but … well, this is a bit awkward –” A small hard laugh, dropped between them. Bevingdom lowered his voice to normal speaking levels, for conspiracy. “You haven’t been, you know, letting that cat of yours near my back garden, have you? Only, the wife made rather a mess in the pruning the other day, around the roses, you take my meaning …” He spread his hands, gave an emphatic shrug that set the jowls wobbling. Neil blinked. The rate they went at was the ticking seconds off his commuting clock. Bevingdom wasn’t done yet.

“Wouldn’t want to have to give any warning shots over the bows now, eh? If it was yours?” The smile grew a trifle colder, as the old man winked.
Neil felt his face grind into its flat-line smile, the first of the day. He shook his head; poked a thumb back over his shoulder, to where Mariah’s presence made itself known in starchy perfumes and luxurious silks, if not her actual hot-blooded body. She always left with first light, sometimes returning when the hour had slid past late, into embarrassing. He never questioned her. Not aloud. Just silently scraped her dinner into the bin while her eyes stayed on him, frank and wide. The thinnest rise of her lip, a cat-hair curl.

“I’m under strict orders not to let the cat out. Not even to our garden, let alone anyone else’s.” He rolled his eyes; gave the knowing wink he harvested for times like this. “Mariah would kill me if anything happened to it.”

Not that Neil hadn’t been tempted. The Cat had had it in for him since he’d left his poky apartment back on the West side, to wrestle his way into Mariah’s uptown space. It was full of tall windows, cool shifting air, exquisite taste in simple lines. An Audrey Hepburn of a flat. That was almost a year ago, and he still hadn’t dared unpack the more unearthly brands of incense.

Whatever he did to the Cat – or at least daydreamed of doing – was passable. It was he, after all, who had to endure the clawings and leg-maulings; the presents left in his shoes, oily with fish guts, just before he set off for work. Bevingdom was lucky his wife’s garden-gloved fingers had been the only part of her to come into contact with its leavings.

Besides, whatever Mariah did with her cat, she sure as hell didn’t let it out. Theirs was a road that ran two cars per home, each one some soupy drive that made animal noises when peeling out. Unlike his hunk of junk. He was lucky if it made it off the forecourt in one smoky breath.

He needed to escape into his tatty refuge now. Spreading his hands in what he hoped was a hapless shrug, Neil forced warmth to his smile. “Can’t help you, I’m afraid. We’re a neighbourhood over-run with indiscreet cats, it seems.” The banging of the briefcase against his wristwatch made him glance down. Bevingdom’s curt snort jerked his head quickly back to the porch like a hand yanking his hair.

His answer was apparently too flippant for the old git, who’d settled himself against the door frame. Folded arms, his furrowed brow lowered like a ram’s, he epitomized middle-class frustration with every black line creasing its way through the smooth skin of his head …

And they were starting to grow.

Neil watched, silent and fascinated, as the black things crawled a widening spread over the folds of flesh. Thickened towards the middle, they tapered at the ends to make long slices across the old man’s brow and cheeks. No brains peeked, nothing oozed or bled. They were clean as knife trails, and as deep as the splits in summer soil. Neil counted at least seven of the things, with more stretching around from behind his neck.

It was over in seconds – their growth rate slowed down. Growth rate, Neil thought dully. It’d seemed like hours. They lay there on his face, glistening like leeches gone to feed. Neil half expected them to start wriggling, knew his stomach wouldn’t handle it. He swallowed with the husk in his throat that spelled trouble; felt the sweeping chill of nausea, and the slip-slide effort of his brain trying to re-establish equilibrium. He fought to rationalize. Just a hoax. He’s slapped his wife’s make up on. He’s making me out like a prat. Just scaring me, as he would the cat, only I’m too big for the hose, hah!

He only became aware of his frozen state when his mouth dried out. Closing it, he blinked and found his neighbour staring back in cocked-brow silence. Somewhere far back in Neil’s mind, a stern voice was calling about his being late for work.

But there’re bloody great holes in his head! Neil’s mind had a habit of whining when put out. It might crack open.

“Erm … Peter.” Neil broke his own ice with an effort, lurching towards his neighbour with one hand outstretched. He couldn’t take his eyes off the things, still gleaming comfortably on the old man’s face. Any second, it might deflate, fall into papyrus-skin and bone. Once all the meat’s sucked out. Neil wavered, gave a crooked grin that felt sick as his stomach.

“Would … would you like to sit down on the steps for a moment? Have a rest?” He set a foot on the bottom step leading to the Bevingdom house. “You’ve gone a bit … a bit …”

Bevingdom had backed up, seemingly averse to the idea of Neil’s closer proximity. “Rest? Whatever do you mean? I’m in permanent rest these days, boy!” He gave a little laugh, though Neil noticed him laying his unburdened hand on his chest. His voice got louder, stretched. “If anyone’s looking ill, it’s you – come over all peaky. Maybe get yourself inside, take the day off, like me.” Bevingdom stared with wide eyes down at Neil, who could only watch helplessly as the black lines creased deeper still, eating away at that frown.

He’ll lose his eyes soon, he thought grimly. I’ve got to get him to hospital. There wasn’t time for rationalizing. That was for chumps. He eyed the way the old man’s hand fluttered near his chest. He’s had some kind of heart trauma. Got to do this carefully.

Lowering his outstretched hand, Neil spoke as calmly as his ellipsis throat would allow.

“Peter, listen to me. There’re … things, on your face. Lines. Not normal age … I mean big, black …marks. I don’t know where they’ve come from. They –“

“Lines? What in God’s name are you talking about, Neil?” Bevingdom’s eyes were bulging now. The hand resting on his chest reached up, began running fingertips across his shining skull, pulling at the little wisps of white hair that gave him a monk’s crown. The fingers danced down over his temples, rubbing into the folds of his forehead. Neil winced.

I’m going to finally learn if Bevingdom has a brain.

A tight smile sketched its way across the old man’s face. It laced up two thick black lines in the process, making the expression a work of macabre art. He dropped his hand to his side.

“Well really! Neil, I’m an old man, I’ve worked hard … We all gain a few lines here and there, don’t we?” Bevingdom shook his head slightly, but Neil noticed the fruity tones had lost their round corners of confidence. “Worrying me like that first thing, when I’ve not even had my brew yet … You know I retired on the back of a dodgy ticker. Not my fault, enough to get me signed off – well, I can’t be doing with any sudden shocks, you know. Lines!” Bevingdom stared down at Neil, real anger riming his features now. “I’ve got more important things to worry about than lines, dear boy.”

You’ll do more than worry when you get a look at those things in your head. Despair was setting in. Maybe I should just leave it up to the paramedics.

Setting his briefcase down on the bottom step, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his mobile, all the while moving slowly up towards the older man. Once more, he put out his hand, to take Bevingdom by the sleeve, to ease him down into a sitting position. The thought of touching those things, of being anywhere near them, made his own flesh crawl. He could almost hear them quietly chomping inside his ear.
“Don’t worry, Peter, you’ll be fine. I’m calling an ambulance now -”

Bevingdom clearly had other ideas. Passive aggression thwarted for the day, he was backing up through his door and closing it in Neil’s face, all the while patting and stroking his head. Neil could hear him muttering to himself – “Calling an ambulance, pah! Over lines. Boy needs his own head looking at …”

It was only later that Neil would really wonder at Bevingdom’s haste to get away.

He stood half-on-half-off his neighbor’s porch, wondering whether to bother the ambulance service after all. They’ll break the door down before his head falls apart. Staring down at his hands emerging from their black cuffs, he saw they appeared as they always had – unwrinkled, certainly not liver-spotted, a light dusting of hairs marching their way down to his fingers.

No scars on me. He smiled dully at his own phrasing. But then, I only saw them on his head. What must the rest of his body look like? He grimaced. Too gruesome.

Turning away from the Bevingdom porch, he noticed the corner of the living room curtains twitching back in a rumpled cloud; wasn’t the least bit surprised to find the round red lump of Bevingdom’s nose pressed against the glass. Fine – so let the old git fall apart. One less challenge every day.

Fumbling with the keys, he eventually swung open the drivers’ door and was rewarded with the gleefully spurting confetti of several sweet wrappers. Sliding into the seat, he pulled the door to and reached up to adjust the rear-view mirror. Squinting at his own reflection, streamlined in the narrow strip of glass, he turned his head this way and that. Not a single line, other than the scratchy crows-feet recently digging their claws around his eyes. Certainly nothing to resemble the leech things that’d sprung up over Bevingdom’s head.

He slumped back with a heavy sigh, closed his eyes.
It’s been a long week.

Opening his eyes a slit, he stared at the unrepentant digits of the clock. Groaning, he twisted the key bunch; listened to the familiar hearty chug of the engine clearing its throat.
I’ll get into work, same shit. I’ll come home, same evening-in-with-takeaway while she works late. Maybe book an eye test. Simple.

With a resolute twist of his shoulders and hand, he put the car in gear and dove off the porch. The car slalomed him up the road.
He’d made it halfway to work before remembering his briefcase was still on the porch.

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.II.

“Neil! Still here, are you? You’ve become the office skiv.” The non sequitur droned between steel archives, rebounding off fat client files, to mingle with the humming copier. Green flares bracketed the machine. Neil laid his fingers down on its bulk, as much to shield the giveaway jags of light from view as send a soothing tingle through his nerves.

Twisting his head, he watched the brows of his superior, David Tyler, fetch a sky-high rise. The blue eyes were open and frank, always a bad sign. He was the kind of boss who’d shortchange your pension fund in favour of a lavish send-off you weren’t invited to; he’d download pictures of your mother from Facebook, posting them to porn sites on the tail of an office meme. All for workplace humour! He liked to keep employees on their toes, did David. It was common knowledge that he kept his PA on hers all right, while bent over his desk.

“I’m surprised you can get this hunk of junk to work. Maybe I should send you to the janitor’s department.” The low chuckle came, the approaching fox. David stood to his full height, for the maximum effect of living an inch or so above Neil’s head. His eyes creased, full of wonder, as they lit on the copy in Neil’s hand.

“Well, I’m all for diversity in the workplace – but pagan printouts?” He shook his head, where tiny blobs of unspent gel mirrored the world.
Carefully, Neil funneled the paper to a tight scroll of privacy. H flushed, listening to the blatter of the copier beside him, as it spewed out unashamed torrents of identical evidence.
“It’s a project … leaflet campaign …”

David’s face fell into the steely lines that probably won him this job, while lucking out on a doctor’s bedside manner. “Neil, since when did this company run paperwork for external means? It’s a customer-service only route, here. We’ve a whole range of clientele to choose from..” He swept a hand back at the silent archive rows, each stiff-backed volume bulging with company fleecing. Playing the middle man in company takeovers and mergers, turned a pretty penny. Neil could hardly remember how he’d landed the job in the first place; what skills he might have thrown like desperate darts, at the corporate board.

Swallowing, he pulled the paper – sticky with blood-warm ink symbols and runes – to his chest. He could feel the precious messages smearing on his thumb. Licking dry lips, he tasted the stale air as it circled softly through the wan light and dust. The smell was how he imagined pyramids to be, cracked open to let out their centuries of breath… sifting sand, scarab beetle dung.

“It’s OK, it’s … sort of a personal project –” He knew it was the wrong thing to say, as soon as the patient look was squeezed out of David’s eyes.

“Neil,” and now, David actually put out a hand, cupping the air like a bored pimp displaying his female wares. “Let me have a look. You know I can’t possibly allow any personal effect copy to do the rounds.”

Neil bit his lip, as the first of the thick black lines began creeping around the sides of David’s wide throat. It ran down his collarbone, flooding the top of the tight-buttoned shirt; inched across the smooth cheeks, a canvas for the aftershave he used to fill the office with status-stink. Around his eyes, over his forehead, the black things took over David’s skin in slow parody of life.

Neil couldn’t tell if they seeped from pores, slipped out of the ears… Maybe emerged from moles on the back, as a terrifying new strain of cancer. All he knew was, seeing them, he’d never felt so dulled and alone.

Neil wasn’t religious, hadn’t reached out to any kind of faith scripture since his pagan mother died. She’d left a lasting impression on his mind, of infinity and shadows, things not always being what they seemed. It was she who’d taught him to look for the petrol rainbows, their toxic beauty.
As he aged, he found himself thinking less of her, of her teachings. The world seemed too full of black and white, life and death, to bother worrying about the grey.

But now, he needed her more than ever. He needed to know at least one other person had seen these things, had sweated and chewed their nails, run to puke in drains and sinks. He needed to know that he wasn’t going mad; or if he was, there was some authority behind it.

Reams of paper, printouts, from Satanic cults to Gandhi, had been carelessly stuffed in every niche of his desk. Like much else in his life, they’d spill out when he yanked open a drawer for a pen; would curl gently to the gum-fractured carpet as he tried to juggle reading with long-distance phone calls. Desperation made his fingers quick, his mind slow. In trying to find the words that would leap out and connect him with someone else’s nightmare, he’d forgotten the everyday one.

The town librarian quit stamping his card after he checked out Black Magic and Me, three times. She also stopped offering him free coffee.

David’s frown caused several of the things to collect a temporary monobrow over his eyes, which had swung up to blister Neil in blue. The smile beneath was a wiry thing.

“Neil … I’ve sent you off on a simple copying duty, and I trust those have been seen to, since it was over an hour ago…” His gaze swung around to where the small laptop lay agape on a pile of boxes, thrust aside with the haste of a morning delivery. Its jaded little screen blinked mournfully. It could never seem to fall into a happy state of backlight or sleep, so paraded its desktop in dozy twilight. There was just enough glow to allow David a good view of the webpage, struggling to load its lurid images of dissection and hemp grass. The goat’s skull chimed a faint rictus of green.

David squashed a fingertip to his nose, squeezing shut his eyes. Neil had been on the receiving end more times than any employee. He knew it from the office meme that had done the rounds last Christmas; it’d somehow wound up in his Inbox, for all that little scrawled addendum at the bottom of the page, below the photo of David’s haggard features and Neil’s Photoshopped ID card:
Don’t let the dumb-arse see.

The dumb-arse had played it cool. No one owned up to either starting the meme or forwarding it on to him in some form of savage hospitality. He’d figured that whatever could be avoided, didn’t need words to make manifest. Deleting the meme felt good. He continued to make the tiniest talk at the cooler, dropped laughter in their pockets when the jokes fell out – daydreamed about throwing himself and the laptop from his office upper-storey window. Dumb-arses weren’t built to fly.

They weren’t meant to see soul scars, either. Surely that was up to someone more responsible, more… powerful.

David’s voice sliced through him again. Neil blinked. The copy wavered before his eyes in that large paw; he hadn’t even felt his boss take it. The precious information was slowly scrunched to a ball. He took some small satisfaction in the thought of all that ink spreading up David’s smooth palm, over the manicured nails.

David never bothered to raise his voice when real anger set in. The ice in his eyes was a slippery enough slope.
“I expect you back at your desk, in the time it takes me to walk to my office and decide not to call HQ.”
The grin was still in place.

Neil felt frayed, inside and out. Every time he turned his head, something clicked. He kept spotting things from the corner of his eye, cigarette burns in film reel. He knew that any moment, the soul scars could come to claim him too. It wasn’t like he hadn’t imagined how fine it’d feel to dangle David from –

A large hand rose and fell, slapping onto Neil’s shoulder. A friendly pat-cum-hacksaw.
“I’m not a bad boss, am I, Neil?”

David liked to keep repeating a name back to its owner. It won him support from all those repressed sycophants, desperate for the chance to hear Mummy’s voice calling them down the years for breakfast again.

Leaning down, David spoke into Neil’s face. “I know I’m not a bad boss. Because, despite your apparent lackadaisical time management – not to mention blatant misuse of company property – I keep you around. Do you want to know why I keep you around, Neil?” He spread his hands, smile glinting hard diamonds. “I keep you around because, even the lowliest amoeba has a purpose. It can become the founding father of a world-dominating race.” A laugh that splintered his eyes, revealing what lay beneath the ice. “Whether that amoeba ever gains the intelligence to recognize its use, remains to be seen.”

The room fell away by degrees of heat and light. Neil watched with a tightening throat, as the black things ate away at David’s face. It became so much writhing black, until only eyes stared out from a swarming sea.

Neil tried to back away. His hip caught the copier hard. Pain didn’t mesh well with the sight before him. Leaning over, he stuck his hands between his knees and panted. Sweat rimed his skin; he smelled his own fear, hated it.

The room dived down its own throat, vanished with the copier, the walls, boxes and peeling paint. Only that voice left, nailing down on his head.
“You’re still useful to me yet, Neil.”

The indifferent clock sketched a loud songbird note. Neil lifted his head, blinking. Lunch hour had sprung up on them, and he’d never felt closer to Death; never known such an ache in his head, pulsing out his eyes. His hand shook as it scraped back his hair. A miasma of sweat.

“Don’t forget your lunch date.” The laugh floated back through the door, even now swinging shut behind his boss. Twilight raced back in black and green strobes, as the bastard flipped the switch on the wall. “Wouldn’t want to keep the lady waiting.”

Keep the –

Neil groaned. Stumbling to the laptop, he flung it closed; barely felt it clip his leg when it tumbled off the box tower. The heat of overloading circuits seared his fingers as he plucked it up. It smelled brassy.

Mariah would be waiting outside the food court for him. She didn’t allow her pristine suits and expensive perfume to correspond with the ragged heat and cookery smells of the work canteen. It’d become their uneasy truce to dine together in open spaces, full of enough light that her red hair gleamed. She often chose the venue herself, always a welcome surprise to him. Surely a sign that she still cared.

But now, he saw the shark-tooth toe of her heel tapping, the hair-curl of her lip. The sensual trickle of hair about her shoulders. She always left it down for lunch, a strange habit, given that it spent its office life in elegant skyscraper weaves. He assumed this was to steal a march on air-conditioning.

She’d been moved up to David’s block a month ago. Apparently the PA had it in for her.

Which is fine by me, darling, Mariah had winked over the table only yesterday, in the outdoor diner several yards from the building they shared for employment. I’m after her job, anyway.

Neil stumbled in the semi-dark. He kicked over boxes, files, metal casings. Their flooding smells of metal and old paper made his eyes tear up. Just allergies.

This room was his seclusion zone, an escape route marbled up with all the office leavings, the spare parts no one wanted to chuck away. He’d felt at home here.

Not with that jungle stink, that musk, sprayed up the walls.

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.III.

Neil pocketed his change and, smiling at the checkout girl, gave her a verbal thumbs-up. Her punky-pierced lip lifted acknowledgement. As he picked up the two trays, loaded down with overpriced world cuisine, he saw them: skeins of black, creeping like lens around her eyes, which glanced on and off his face like she couldn’t decide if he was for real or not. Maybe she didn’t get compliments. This didn’t feel like the kind of place where they’d be used as currency.

He could just imagine what she thought of him, his natty suit and slight comb-over. The same as what she probably thought of every city-slicker who corrupted her indie presence of cheesecloth sleeves and purple hair, tied down with mandatory work apron. She saw them every hour of her need-money life. What she didn’t know, was that this suit was at least five years old, bought on a celebratory binge-shop after he’d landed the job. It’d been let out at the waist twice.

Carefully averting his eyes from the demon’s tongue appearing on her brow, he turned and walked with measured pace to the open air. Pausing beside a potted plant. he glanced about; inserted himself behind its trailing fronds. From here, he had an uninterrupted view of the counter. Through the haze of green, he watched as the girl slowly turned her head to scan the café’s seething interior. Commuters and businessmen, backpackers and students – all hid their faces and daily work-woes in seed sandwiches, dunking vegetables straws into dubious-smelling sauces. The air was thick with cuisine and chatter. No one paid the girl any more attention that she deserved, when not serving them.

Neil watched though, and with keen interest, as she moved her bird-bone body a little way from the till, to peer up and down the bar. Her coworkers were hard at work, flipping undercooked things and squeezing bottles. The coast apparently being clear – this insight gained by a quick glance and smile at the security camera, now out of range – she quickly pocketed the fiver he’d just handed over.

Neil huffed out a sigh. Thought as much. The way she’d grabbed it from him and held on tight, like a baby to its rattle… Shame and relief burned him with equal measure. At least the marks hadn’t all been down to his presence.

Over a month had passed since that morning with Bevingdom. The old man now kept a safe distance from Neil, with grounded eyes, as though this could conceal the dirty truth behind them. Neil almost wished it were true. At least he’d have someone to confide in, if only to bitch with. He used to think of himself, somewhat smugly, as a solitary dreamer. Now, he felt like a man cursed with morality’s sight.

He saw them everywhere. The human race was apparently a coiling mass of black marks, soul scars; infinity of wicked thoughts, most likely leading to wicked deeds. He made a habit of never sticking around long enough to find out. He knew the guilt would choke him forever, if he followed the two men lurid with black marks, who in turn tailed the girl up an unwatched alley… But it was bad enough seeing those marks creep and slide, feeding off their awful intentions.
He knew when to step away.

His eye-averting skills had been honed to a hangdog degree. Since the marks did nothing more than make a uniform tattoo of thoughts, he could ignore them. You didn’t stare at the skinhead in the street, with the double-sleeves of ripped hearts and jaguars, unless you wanted your head kicked in. He could afford to be objective.

The curious thing was that the marks would disappear. He’d seen them retrace, fading out like fever on the cheeks. They seemed to be drawn by complex impulses of the brain, emotional reactions. They were never aware of the marks. He’d learned to button his lip.

But there was Mariah to consider.

He’d feel his fingers twitch with the urge to let them slide across the black grooves on her. He’d managed it once, last week – tracing a finger down her arm, which was crooked into the sofa behind his head, in a rare moment of shared peace. He’d followed the deep black slice that seemed to unravel beneath his touch, at the exact point she’d told him she would be working late the next evening. The peace had been shattered.

He’d known for several weeks now that she was fucking someone at work; as if her life couldn’t get any more clichéd, in its social ascent. He’d known her for what she was when they first got together, after all; a simmering afternoon, when she’d borrowed his IT assistance in the office they once shared … which led to a rumpled bed, a white Cat that hated him from the off, and a relationship turned toxic with those petrol rainbows in the gutter.

He could’ve said no. Could’ve stayed in his cramped flat, with its ticking Deathwatch beetles and broken-rib beams. Could’ve eked out his days on the side of the city where he’d likely drown in soul scars.

That night, he’d followed the slow progression of the mark and felt nothing, within or without. No surprise; no ragged edges. Empty mind, empty warm space.

But he remembered how her skin had suddenly shivered with delight, like the back of the cat when petted; how his touch made her riddle up with goosebumps, and how she’d suddenly found deep wells of darkness for eyes. They’d stared at him, as surprised as he was. Her mouth had curled in that cute way it could, when not crimped in disgust.

He’d taken the shock further. Thrown her back, fiercely tugging down her pants; letting his hands roam over the body he’d coveted in that long-ago shared office of filing cabinets that had pinged like hot gunmetal.

Maybe she’d felt sorry for him then, as now. He’d never know, since he’d never ask.

He’d closed his ears to her excitement, his mind to the long scarlet nails dragging down his sides. He’d shut his eyes from hers, such savage black things, like the scars that went curling and contorting over her body. Even as she lay under him, she’d been thinking of someone else.

The cabinet beside the sofa had shook open and spilled out their books. She’d glanced down, laughed. He almost –

But he didn’t.

He bit down on the thought. The last thing he needed was to see those things wind a guilty mesh around his own body. Or for anyone else to see them – and he knew they would. It just seemed logical, when all else was slipping through his fingers. They couldn’t see the marks on themselves, against themselves. But surely, they’d know his for what they were. A mirror can’t know itself unless stood before another mirror, and so it goes.

He’d avoided all temptation of therapists, doctors and the like. They’d have him categorized, drugged up to the eyeballs; probably sectioned, for his own good. He could well imagine himself wound up in a straitjacket, leaning up against a wall like a Pharaoh finally undone by time. Unable to turn his head from the dark smears, overlapping the hot grins of staff. All their needle dreams and experiments. He wasn’t going to be some mad scientist’s lab rat.

He was no angel himself. He looked at other women, lingering on the delicious thoughts of how nice it’d be to wine, dine, sixty-nine them. He watched cop shows, wondered why the Hell they didn’t just put a round or twenty into the bastards being chased. The prison system, per global, was buckling.

When all this became too much like an internal argument, he’d dispose of the thoughts like a crumpled paper bag.

Now, as he plodded a balancing act of trays to where Mariah fogged the air with impatience, he reasoned with himself. His eyes were heavy, heart heavier. He was worn down. Exhausted, from keeping on his toes around David and whatever the week’s taunt would be. From waiting up in the long hours, for Mariah to come home…

He blinked. Funny how those two always seemed to show up together in his head.

Her dark swill of hair glistened beside marks seeping over her face. Such gorgeously carved cheeks. They reared now like a high tide, with her smile. It wasn’t so pleasant a sight as it should have been.

“Let me guess – the fat bastard in front wanted all the nuts removed from his sandwich, for allergy reasons.” She had a way of phrasing things on a pitch-perfect downturn; at least where anything involving Neil, was concerned. He lifted both shoulders as much as possible, with the burden of trays.

“That queue gets longer every day. This place is popular.”
“Mmm.” She scoped the eating area. Lines in her neck rippled, as the scarf knotted chicly about it dipped slightly. Neil caught sight of a purple blotch. His stomach cramped.

God, the things were gaining colour. Unless she’d been to the tattoo parlour herself. He grin-grimaced at the thought, just as Mariah flicked a glance at him.
“You look jaundiced. Everything OK?” Her eyes were flat silver dishes.

Leaning up against the wall, Neil rejigged the trays. He took a deep breath, and a long look around the bustling confectionery of people. It all felt too much today. He needed some quiet, some time alone with her. It just suddenly felt very important to have these things, right now.

His stomach was still tight as he said, “Let’s get out of here. Find somewhere more private.” Expectancy of failure brings a lead weight. He looked at her from under his lashes, waiting for her lip to curl.
She blinked. Pushed herself away from the trailing fronds of the stagnant fern; took one of the leaves in her hand, and ran a finger down it. She bit her lip. When she looked up, it wasn’t to speak directly to him, but at least she answered. Even if her eyes were slightly skewed.
“I can do that.”

The coil eased out of Neil’s gut, with his breath. He hardly dared believe his ears, which curiously, were burning. He looked at her fully now, saw the wide-black filling her eyes to replace the indifferent sheen. He saw her bottom lip pucker under her tooth.
It didn’t matter that her ermine skin was crawling with marks. She was his.

*

The copying room was full of yellow light, sifting paper dust. He had to keep holding his breath to stop a sneeze creeping up. But that was the least of his worries.

They’d got inside easily enough. He knew the door code off by heart, could reset it to lock from inside. It blinked languidly at him now, that digital box on the wall with his fingerprints all over it. So let them call him out on work indiscretion. It’d be worth it. Worth the time, however small, that he’d slipped into his pocket with his girlfriend. At last, she wanted him back. Maybe she was remembering that fever-night of last week.

The first book he’d seen fall to the floor, had been the occult research. He’d been too busy grabbing at her shoulders to think on it then. He thought of it now. How some instances fall together through time, to mingle, to mesh; how there are always signs, impossible to ignore.

The trays lay untouched on a pile of boxes. Mariah sat atop the copier, where he’d put her, before turning to lock the door. The creamy swathes of her legs dangled idly, slip-slipping her heels on and off. She’d gone with petrol green today. The suit they matched clung to every vital curve. Her hair had never looked so red. Her skin had never writhed with such ivy-skein black.

She looked gorgeous, and heinous, all at once. And she smelled too good for him; a strange concoction of her usual perfume that split atoms, tempered with something else. Something dusky, vaguely familiar. Hyena twilight. Seething dark. It grew stronger as he approached her.

She lifted one foot, digging the stiletto into his gut. He stopped. They stared at each other, as her mouth twitched.
“You believe in signs, darling.” Not so much a statement, as a stone down a well. Cocking her head to the side, she regarded him. “I saw that book. Occult. Looking for a love potion?” Reaching up, she twirled a flame of hair around her finger. Neil felt everything below his waist take an elevator ride. His fingers twitched. He watched, fascinated, as a large black coil began to spread down her forehead, spraying over her cheeks. It met her lips, seemed to pour itself inside.

Poison within as without. The thought jumped into his head, so hard it hurt. He grabbed at his hair, what was left of it; gave a smart tug. The tears that arrived reassured him; at least until he realized what else had set them off.

That smell was stronger here. His nose burned with it, a hurricane of hot and cold, male and female. He knew it, his brain reluctantly accepted it, even as he gulped and tried to shove the thought away.
He saw them in his mind. Her cello-sweep back, pressed to the copier. His large hands, the ones that so often clapped in Neil’s face to wake him up, either side of her. Their hair coiling and curving together with their bodies.. like the scents that even now burned him alive.

Neil staggered back. She lifted her chin, staring him out.
“Signs.” She snorted. “You just never bothered to open your eyes.”
And for careful emphasis, she rolled to one side; hopped off the copier, to display a perfect print-out of her perfect, naked behind.
He’d even signed and dated it with customary flourish. David Tyler.

“Signs don’t get you anywhere near the top, or the bottom, for that matter.” In passing, she ruffled Neil’s sweaty hair. Her heels clicked out the tattoo of triumph. As she pressed for the Unlock code, nails ticking away, her voice trailed back to him. With it came the mingling of a secret he’d known all along, a fact hidden in plain sight. In a purple love-bite. In male musk, female fire. His boss, an ever-presence on her mind; caught in the loose hair of lunch times, when her eyes would always glance off Neil’s like sunshine off water, to where David no doubt watched them from a distance, amusement and lust riddling up whatever he had left for a soul.

And the scars, an intertwining story. Probably in Neil’s bed. Certainly in his last sanctuary, here, in the room full of wan yellow light and stale files; so many dreams and thoughts composed of excitement and planning, now dead as the pages that held them bound.

Neil sank to the floor. He watched, silent and numb, as Mariah’s nimbus of hair disappeared through the door, which fell back on itself with a resounding click.

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.IV.

Neil shivered in the dense shadows of the alley. They were messy with leaping lights from the road that bit and nibbled the dark edges. Out there, the sodium haven blazed orange, with the occasional red glint like a puckered wound. A lamp that hadn’t caught up to its fellows. He sympathized, even as he drew his collar up around his cheeks. The wind was a death song down this way. It narrowed his sleepless eyes, drew tears. It sat on his shoulders, whining and whistling cheerlessly as a demon.

He knew that in his other life, he wouldn’t be caught dead down here. The irony of it curled his lip. Death was a pale watcher in shadows like these; He favoured the lurkers, the shirkers and stumbling vagrants. He found the careless, took them by the hand and led them to colder places.

Neil wasn’t being careless. He’d positioned himself with the intention of being found by those he sought; the angle of the street lamp at the mouth of the alley, threw long shadows of his shoulders and head across the pitted walls. Their rounded corners couldn’t be missed, next to the sharp lines of the bins. But to avoid the skirling blue lights of a Bob cruiser, the prying eyes of passers-by, he kept his face averted. No sense in letting the vivid light lick off his features.

He’d been there for over an hour. The way to tell was by listening to the whoops and liqueur-blurred songs that fetched themselves along on that wind. The narrow walls bounded with payday spirits. Friday night, and a full moon gliding in creamy silk through the sky. It was a coy moon, he thought, constantly hiding itself behind the clouds scudding over. The early autumn wind carried memories of old leaves.

On that thought, a bluster of brown crackling went up. Bits of litter twirled with them, and it seemed as fitting an entrance as any to Neil, when the chequered young man swung around the corner and entered the alley.

His boots made strange shamble-tock sounds. They’d been good, once – real leather, maybe passed down by a relative long forgotten in the face of the City. He used their pointed toes to kick things out of the way. A can careened at Neil. It glanced off his boot with a telling ching. Neil sighed, even as he lifted his chin to eyeball the young man staring at him.

The feeling was mutual, really. Nothing Neil had seen on the skin of others could compare with the oil slick on this guy. His stomach cramped to think of what he’d done, this guy built of raw livewire and bones. He couldn’t be more than twenty.

“…The fuck d’you think you’re playing at?” The words hissed out between the boy-man’s teeth. His arm pistoned up, faster than Neil could follow. Gripped between the tattooed knuckles, an icicle blade flashed orange and silver. It was aimed at Neil’s eye. It stopped inches away. Neil felt his flesh crawl off his bones. He’d chosen his position well; the wall held his sagging body up.

The man’s hot, dry eyes were wide. Neil watched thoughts flick between them like sparks in a bad plug. He needed to move fast, before the guy opted for a Permanent Silence policy.
He opened his mouth, spilling the words he’d rehearsed.

*

He could smell it on her, the pale musk perfume he’d ordered especially for her birthday last year; it reminded them both of their first shared holiday, when she’d fallen in love with the clean cool silks and dusky heat of India. They’d stayed up late into the cicada-loud nights, counting stars. She’d seemed more alive, more herself then, and surprised by it; that she could live without hair straighteners and calorie-tight cuisine.

Now, warmed by her excited body that twitched impatiently in the bay window, the musk crept to him like a sickness.

He’d positioned himself by the sink – and her keys – knowing full well what he’d see when she came to get them. Sure enough, there were the black marks, tapering down the side of her neck and curling around her throat. He knew that she wouldn’t keep her phone turned on. There was no need for concealment anymore; pretext was out the window. They stared at each other, her face reflecting a pale moon in the glass. He knew his was haggard, could feel it in every sagging line.

With a loud sigh, Mariah went to the table and opened her handbag, to slip the keys inside and pull out her compact mirror. Holding it before her lips to apply a last-minute flare of scarlet, she flicked her eyes at him. “Check the window for me; see if the taxi’s arrived yet.”

Her hair shone roan. The soft amber glow of the overhead lights muted her skin, which jarred starkly with the long black scars of deception, of truth. Of knowing, passed between them like a handshake, sealing the deal. Neither of them talked about what went on. The only thing to have changed in the entire situation was Neil’s awareness.

The cat was asleep on the windowsill. He knew it’d get Mariah’s face thrust into his fur before she went out. She’d leave the smell of India, their India, on its thick-piled fur. It would torment him, as the cat sashayed from room to room, molting a white trail.

Neil walked into the hall. He smiled carefully down at the cat, as it lay curled on its cushion like a pale Danish pastry. The lambent green eyes flicked open, narrowed. The corner of its mouth lifted to reveal a needle-tooth, in the sneer of cats. Its ears flattened. A low rumble started down in its chest; rose up through its nose to a creeping whine –

“Oh leave off, Caspar.” Mariah’s perplexed face loomed between them like the full moon framed in the window. She cradled her cheek against the cat’s flank, and the menacing roll of sound softened to a throaty purr. Still, the cat stared up at him with fear-flecked eyes. Hers, when they were swung to him, held only contempt.

“He’s always been a good judge of character,” she told him. “That’s why he knows not to go near that nasty Bevingdom’s garden.” Something in the breath-space between these words – an odd catch – hit Neil in the throat. He recalled the old man’s words. He aligned the complaint, with what might’ve occurred the night before.

Mariah wouldn’t put her cat out. Neil had suffered its torments. But David didn’t seem the type to be understanding of a main road close by, nor a surly neighbour with a ready hand.
Not when he had more important things to attend to. Preferably without the furry ones’ interruption.
Neil sighed happily. The click of thoughts rang loose change through his head. Slowly but surely, it was all coming together.

A motor outpurred the cat.
“Jesus, the taxi’s here! Didn’t I ask you to watch for it?” Mariah gasped, rearing up from the cat and brushing a stray white hair from where it tickled her powdered cheek. Hurrying back into the kitchen, she grabbed her handbag and, flashing past him again in a whirl of dark coat and shining neck, put her hand on the door.

A last whirl of “don’t let him stay up to watch Crimestoppers with you, he hates the flashing lights; put him in our room,” and she was gone, trailing the white spice, the dusty old country. The taxi door slammed, and he saw its red tail-lights stream out into the night.

It was just him and the cat, staring at each other from across a small distance of enmity.

The white back was already starting to arch, fur prickling thick and angry. Its ears furled right back, lining the ridges of its skull. The mouth hung open, white-splintered; an undulating growl emerged.

Neil wasn’t in the mood. “You’ve had it in for me since I came here,” he whispered. He stood perfectly still, taking care not to lean in too close. The paws were, for now, tucked up beneath its body. But he knew from experience, the lightning pain that lived in them. Slowly, he reached under the window, for where he’d stashed the gauntlets. He never took his eyes from the narrow ones burning green hate at him.

“Never even gave me a chance. Was another male in the house too much for your ego?” A sad, high little laugh escaped him; he froze, as the cat lurched up, spitting. He shook his head; continued to ease on the stiff leather protection. “Hate to say it, pal, but we’re both redundant where he’s concerned.”
He considered the cat, head cocked to the side. The cat stared back, the rise and fall of its snarl matching the bob and weave of its back. It was hypnotic, a cobra’s dance.

He shrugged; half-turned, as though to walk back through the glass partition door separating hall from lounge… Behind him, he heard the confused cat’s bubbling wail. It pitched higher, as he laid his hands flat on the glass panes, gently pushed the door shut. Neil marvelled at the cat’s ability to continue the racket without pause for breath.

Turning again, he found the cat had become a white spitfire, filling the window. He creased his fingers thoughtfully, felt the wonderful tough flex of the treated material. With a nod, Neil moved quickly, back to the window, hands outstretched.

The cat leapt up and off the sill in a blurred arc. As he dove for it, it ran between his legs, swiping right through his trouser leg with unsheathed claws. It made the opposite wall even as he felt the savage fire in his skin, the warm seep of blood. He grunted, swung around to find the bastard animal. Space was limited. The cat was doing a Wall of Death off every surface. It dove into corners, claws click-scrabbling frantically. It defied gravity. Paint flecked the carpet like shattered teeth.

Neil became that charged current again; he lunged and sidestepped, swung and swatted. His breath came in sharp bursts from his nose. His eyes burned. The cat’s mouth hung agape. Spitting snarls erupted from it, guttural yowls. It was terrified, flanks heaving, but he couldn’t help admiring its concentration. They danced their deadly dance together. Blood flickered from his fingers, from its nose.

After an eternity of this, the cat was finally pinned in the tightest corner of all, between the umbrella stand and the front door. It changed then, from a white streak to a fizzing ball of sparks; eyes huge, the green lost in gaping black. Its mouth gasped and rasped. It pulled itself into the smallest shape possible, became the size of an innocuous envelope; but Neil was only after one target. He’d dodged and weaved and swung around with the cat, moving loosely to conserve energy. The cat had worn itself out.
“Come on, then. Up you come,” he murmured, reaching down. His hand faltered, despite the gloves. The forepaws swiped, all toes and claws spread, making white blurs through air that stank of piss and fear. Still, his hands lowered to its head.

The cat cowered. Its voice dropped with its body as the tail switched … he thought it was in surrender, offering itself as a white flag. Then it sprang, full of primal rage. Shrieking, it went for his arm; wrapped itself around the sleeve, tearing it loose in seconds, to hang its body weight off his flesh. Neil felt four sets of razors digging in, rending, ripping. Its teeth locked into the ball of his thumb. The gauntlet barely held back the gnawing.

With a loud gasp, he reached across with his left hand and grabbed the cat by its scruff – the original target. Pulling viciously on the loose skin, he was rewarded with a pained yowl. He grimaced himself as he twisted the cat off his arm; felt its claws take several inches of skin. Swarming warmth flooded his sleeve in red-black. The colour of Mariah’s hair.

The cat hung from his clenched fist. It twirled, legs pedaling madly, fur like fireworks. It opened its mouth wide and yowled.

Neil felt a moment’s fear at the noise. It split his ears, echoing harshly through the hall. It chimed off the glass plated partition door, rang in the bay window. Then he remembered Mariah’s last words. Friday night, Crimestoppers night. Bingo night. Bevingdom and his wife would be at the local council hall, holding forth. They’d be back in time for the finale.

Smiling down at the cat, he hefted its weight. It was trying to swing its body up, knotting itself in urgency to get at his arm again. Its eyes bulged. Leaning around its bristling head, he shoved on the glass panes. The door slung itself open smoothly, as it always had when the cat pushed its nose to the corner, ready to dart out the front door between his legs.

Listing slightly, he moved to the kitchen.

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.V.

Neil was at the kitchen table reading the paper, when he heard the front door scuff across the mat. He idly creased the pages flat with red-crescent nails, listening to the sigh that echoed up from wherever it was she dived down into to hide, once home. The hall light snapped on, bulb whirring faintly. A moment’s pause, which he held in his smile.

“What the… fuck?” Her breath jagged the air. She was sucking in great gasps of it, thick and coppery as an abattoir. Closing his eyes, he saw what she saw. Her steps made a broken clockwork trajectory around it all, towards him.

The splintered paintwork. The long claw marks, dragging whole catalogs to the carpet from atop the table, their pages frothy with spit. Ugly welts on every wooden surface. Fur ruffling the spot where they stowed the umbrellas.
His blood, a glistening smear across one wall, where the weight of the cat had made him lean up against it for balance. His hand print, a five-point red star, on the glass door.

He’d left a single light glowing to guide her way. Its soft peace was shattered by her gulping sob. She wasn’t stupid. She could smell Death on the air, even if she didn’t understand it, or why He had chosen to come to her home. Glancing up, Neil could almost see Him behind the kitchen door; a vague outline of patience.

The door slowly crept open. Her head poked around it.
“Neil? Are you… What happened?” Mariah’s face was a crumpled rag used to mop up someone else’s makeup. She smelled of wine and cigarettes, intimacy. She smelled of him, of unspeakable truths, an origami future. It could shift and warp any which way, blink of an eye, ripple of fingers.
She stared at him, wide-eyed.

Neil beckoned her in, laying the paper flat on the table. It rippled up slightly on one side.
Like an animal aware of her territory’s invasion, Mariah eased herself around the door. She took care not to touch anything. She was probably thinking of Crimestoppers, of SOCO and fingerprinting. He admired her for that, if not much else.

Putting her handbag on the floor, she started at the sight of a single bloody pawprint on the lino. Neil covered his grin with his hand. He’d almost dropped the Cat when it’d lunged upward, sudden as a salmon, in a last desperate spurt for freedom. He’d gone for the spot between its ears, a smart tap – the Cat had hung limp as a rag. But not before it’d set one foot to the agonizing floor. He imagined how wild and dark its fleeting hope must have been; its yawning terror, before it sparked out.

“What the hell… who did this? Where’s Caspar?” She kept swallowing, no doubt against some ache in her throat. Shadows blurred under her wide eyes, which went jumping about the kitchen into every corner, as her feline had in the hall. He almost felt sorry for her. Those lambent green eyes, creasing up with shiny-shine tears. Always too late.

When she pulled off her coat, letting it slide to the floor, he saw the thick swing of her hair hang ragged with frayed ends and bedhead knots. Her thin shoulders shook, though the air was warm and pulpy in here. There was the thickly purple pucker of another bite on her neck. Black etchings of guilt trailed across her hands and face. He sneered. Imagine what the rest of her looked like.

She turned back to him. “Neil?” Apparently, for once, his silence was a weight on her mind. He shrugged.
“Like you said, he didn’t like watching TV with me. I shut him upstairs for a bit.” He let his eyes wander past her, to the door. “There might’ve been a break-in. I had the sound turned up. Maybe he just went berserk, ran out with them.”

As she shook her head, he lifted the tumbler that stood beside his elbow. Oaky fire rimed the kitchen as he took whisky down, letting it spray out to fill his head, and silence the sound of the cat’s screams still ringing there.
She was staring at him now, something awful and twisting in her face. The air was heavy as a blanket between them, stained with silence. She swallowed.

“You smell soapy,” she said carefully. Greatly daring, she slid down into the chair opposite. She eased off first one heel, then the other. He watched her idly, as she weighed the second one in her hand, staring at the spike of stiletto. He saw the intent in her bloodshot eyes as they quivered, glancing at him from under her lashes. “Hope there’s some hot water left.”

Dropping the heel, she leaned over to pluck up the tumbler, taking care not to brush any part of him. She took a sniff of the crystal, grimacing. “Can’t remember the last time you had this gut-rot. So what’s the… what’s the occasion?” Anger flared bright in her voice. “If we’ve been burgled, surely the police would be a better option?” Her eyes reflected up at him from the tumbler, before she whammed it down. Her throat bobbed, full of fear. She gave off the same rank smell as her cat.

When he wouldn’t answer – just continued to stare at her, smiling – she snorted. Some of the old fire flashed back inside the green. “I might take a wash myself. The office was… sticky.” How simply the cruelty flowed from her. He could almost see the chandelier lights on her hair, David’s mouth on hers, which was crooked at both corners for a change. She hadn’t smiled so broadly in ages, or looked so untamed. She stood and leaned over the table, hands down on its glossy surface, to look him in the eye. He marveled again at how the feline purr resonates as much with pain as with pleasure.

Under the table, he heard her foot nudged the stiletto heel along the lino. He fiddled with the tumbler. “I felt a bit sticky, myself.” He considered her. “And yes, there’s hot water left. Neither of us has to be up early.” Setting the crystal down, he reached across to trail a finger over the top of her hand.

She quickly twitched it away, rose from the table. Glancing down, Neil saw two fan-shapes of damp left on the shining wood.
She said, “It’s a bit late for that now, isn’t it?” and he felt the words in a way he’d hoped never to feel again. A primal spear, right through his heart. She turned for the door.

“You wouldn’t want me as I am now, trust me. I smell like a tart’s boudoir. The bar was… interesting.” A shrill little laugh, which told him more than her wide eyes and unsteady legs could. She was more than a little drunk. It made things easier.

He shrugged again. Twisting upright, one hand flashed out to grab her wrist and pull her forward, over the table. The other scooted under the paper. She fell with a shriek, arms flurrying to catch herself. One hand swiped the tumbler to the floor, where it rolled in a sweep of gold whisky dregs, the promise of solid crystal. He’d made a wise investment there, at least.

Savagely, he yanked Mariah all the way over the table. She sprawled on her front, mouth gaping, and he saw the purple wine of her tongue, the vampire trace of it around her lips. She saw the bloody crescents of his nails, the gossamer-fine gloves for the first time, and screamed.

He surprised himself with his speed. One arm hooked a wiry rope beneath her chin, pulling it up tight to his chest until she choked off the sound. Holding her in this way – trembling, pinned to the table and his heart – he slid his other hand around to the paper. Flipping up the pages, he found the stiletto. Not a silly leather-embossed thing either, but the blade he’d bought from that chequered bastard in the alley. It’d cost him several ounces of Mariah’s quality coke, and a few ATM withdrawals. He knew that to enter the bank itself for withdrawals, was likely to bring the truth crawling up over his skin at last. He couldn’t take the chance.

Not like he had with the youth, who – after being spoken to softly, like the feral thing he was – had finally calmed down enough to hand over the weapon. His bewilderment was only fetched away when the recompense got pressed into his hand.

“Just remember, dude, you never saw me,” he’d giggled nervously. To which Neil had replied, tonelessly, that No, he hadn’t. All he’d seen were the crawling black scars of the man’s wicked soul, begging to be set free. He’d obliged, as soon as the git turned his back for an eager snuff of the coke.
Practice makes perfect, after all. No one but the guy’s dealer was going to miss his wretched face.

With a flick, Neil angled the thin blade up under her nose, hovering it before her eyes. They reflected in the metal. Her chest heaved on brambly breaths. He watched the white throat bob with veins, black marks.

“Sssh, that’s it,” Neil murmured. “Just keep still for me, ‘Ria. It won’t get messy, then.” The use of her long-abandoned pet name was warm on his tongue, with the whisky. He felt her stiffen, the lines of her jaw rippling in the crook of his elbow, as she gasped for breath.

“Cas .. Caspar?” Her eyes strained around the room. “Where.. ? What’ve … done to him?” Her chest hitched; he felt the tapping-pop of her tears as warm rain on his arm, the one the Cat had mauled earlier. It felt good. Like Jesus’ feet being bathed… Only I’m not some religious twat. He chuckled aloud over her head. The sound made her freeze. Her legs sagged along the floor, body buckling against him; he only tightened his grip beneath her chin until, choking, she was forced upright. Her neck was angled weirdly; he imagined it hurt like hell.

Not as much as the next bit, darling. He’d paid close attention to Crimestoppers, among other things. He knew how to maximize control over pressure points. But the real break-through had come with the innocuous print-off he’d made last week. Riffling through page after page with ink-stained fingers, tearing eyes, he’d found the simple line that would finally pull him up sharp, setting him down on a road to truth.

Poison let with a corrupted blade; like to like. Part of a spell, meaningless jumble of pagan words and symbols. But that line alone, was a mantra.

He remembered how she’d once smiled at him. How she;d make him feel, as though gods were competing for the chance to elevate him… And how her smile had stiffened over time, becoming dark with thoughts of another.
He knew where her poison stemmed from, all right. It was just a case of tracing the mark back far enough.

He slid his mouth down to her ear; saw her eyes roll in her head. “We’re going to take a little peek upstairs. See how Caspar’s doing.” The name slid like raw meat off the bone. He’d never bothered to use it before. What point in naming an animal that you cursed daily?

They took little shuffling steps together, the most intimate of dances. He held her pressed into him, the backs of her knees whapping his legs; kept the knife slanted up before her eyes, as a horizontal reminder of what he could do. It was important to him that she know the method of his practice, and her salvation.

“We’ll go see where Caspar is,” he whispered, and she shuddered as his breath crept down her throat with the blade’s tickle. “We’ll have some Friday night fun. Because I think I deserve that much, don’t you?”

*

It didn’t take long for her choking to fade. The room sifted back in shadows of red and black, candlelight on the walls, on his skin. Neil lay on his side across the bed, chin propped on a fist as he contemplated his handiwork. She really did look a whole lot better, now all the mattes had been combed from her hair with the blade.

The smell had reached them long before she saw the liquid-heavy darkness spooling out from under the bedroom door. She’d moaned, gulping against the blade. When he’d nudged the door open, the sticky sweetness welled out around them. He’d breathed in deeply, relishing the raw tang that curled around his eyes, made them hot all over again.

Mariah had stiffened, hardly registering the thin ream of blood that flowed from her nicked jaw. As the door threw its shadow gleefully on the wall, setting the candles a-flicker, her eyes fastened on what remained of her Cat. He felt breath lock up in her chest. A tiny whimper had escaped her nose.

Neil stretched languidly, much as the Cat had once done in its repose; even extended his toes, in salute of how it had spread its claws to final agony. They would stay retracted forever, those bitter white thorns that had rent his skin. The Cat appeared to be taking flight, trying to, out the window. The long curtain drapes he and Mariah had chosen together when she’d decided to share this room, had come in handy. Blood made a red-rock gorge of the the pale lemon cotton, all sopping and slack.

Mariah’s legs went from under her. He’d hefted her up to avoid ending the party early; carried her to the bed, just as he used to, when sex meant more than hot skin and shadows within as without.

Laying her gently down – taking care not to disturb the head of the Cat, propped on a pillow – he’d stroked her hair out in a fan. The beautiful tresses ran free with the blood, staining darker, sticking to his fingers. He’d dragged them out with the blade, until they resembled the black filigree of scars.

Pressing the tip of the stiletto to her chin, he’d whispered commands that fell on her upturned face. She’d got to work on her clothes with stiff fingers, eyes large and dark as mirrors, lips white as the Cat’s fur had been. It didn’t take other colours so well.

When she lay naked before him, he’d raised his empty hand. Her eyes made tiny points of light, breath hissing beneath. But he’d only laid his fingertips lightly on the scoring over her body, outlining her soul. He’d traced them up and down until her skin twitched. He knew that, in order to help her – to make her perfect again, forgivable – he’d need to take it upon himself to let the poison out. A last act of love. He almost welcomed the burden, as a rejection of his flat-line existence. At last, he could be direct.

He’d moved fast. Twisting the knife around, he’d struck her throat so hard that it jarred bone. The blood didn’t all spurt, as he’d assumed it would, in sweeping scarlet. It welled out thick black envelopes of warmth across his hands, pulsing from the line of her throat, in rhythm with her shocked, dying heart.

She’d never know how he’d cut along the truest mark of all, coiling its way across her throat like a tailor’s chalk marks.

The tip of his tongue poking out, Neil had carefully parted the flesh beneath every soul scar. The keen blade found no resistance in her skin, the delicate flesh and seashell bones all exposed beneath. He reveled in making them clean, a work of art again.

Now he lay beside her, watching the black marks begin to fade, as her skin became purest marble again between the red. She’d died gracefully at least; no dramatic grasping at the throat. Curled onto her side, her hands had made crisp little fists. They became stiffer still as rigor mortis lay down beside her, over her.

He drew out the signed print-off, picked from the copier with shaking hands. He’d sliced off the part connecting his fingertips to the action; left behind a flourish of true poison.
David Tyler.

“You’re still of use to me,” Neil whispered, laying it gently across her chest. He took a moment to admire the red poppies that began their wavering dance over the white. The cat looked on from the pillow, eyes dull and mouth shut at last.

Very carefully, he peeled off the gloves. They were dusky at the tips, where he’d dug his fingers into the cat’s scruff so hard as to indent latex under each nail. He examined them now thoughtfully.
No trace of a mark.

 photo d62855c9-f6e5-4b54-9410-1b7a17976fab_zps077f28ba.jpg

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8 Comments

  1. Jessica West said,

    I just finished reading the first part, will have to come back again for the rest. I was enthralled. That’s not a word I use often, but it’s the best one in this case. A brilliant bit of writing.

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Wow. Now that’s a comment to get my spirits right up on a wet Wednesday morning! I admire your own style, so will say now – anything you pick up on here, which doesn’t sit well with you as reader/writer, do please call me out on it. I’m open to all criticism, as it’s going to help when I try this story out on Kindle. Likewise, I’ll only ever be honest with your own work, as constructive as I can be.

      Take care, and thanks again, Jessica. It’s the darkest piece if fiction I’ve written thus far, back in 2011, and sat on it all this time because I figured it’d leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. You’ve encouraged me no end 🙂 Hopefully I can repay the favour.

  2. Jessica West said,

    I will offer my honest opinion, but I really think you’re ahead of me as far as writing goes. You have a solid, steady voice, which is a good writer’s best quality. If I think I have some advice to offer that would benefit you, I’ll happily share it as I greatly appreciate it when others do the same for me. Writer to writer, we both know how helpful the constructive criticism can be. It only helps us improve.

    I’m glad you decided to share this piece. Dark though it may be, it’s right up my alley. I may not have much in common with your narrator, but you have created a character, as well as a setting, that I can believe is real and lose myself in.

    This piece may not be for everyone, but that doesn’t make it bad. Some people like green, others say pink is their favorite color. I think that when you do release it on Kindle, you’ll find that there are plenty of people in the world who favor darker hues. Don’t write for any of them, write for you. People who like your writing, like me, will find it.

    I’m thrilled to know I’ve helped to encourage you. Write on!

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Best response, ever. You’re spot on. I prefer to walk in the dark, like you, and a fair few others, because it helps me see the light for what it is. This story was a projection of that.

      Thanks again 🙂 Very glad to meet a kindred spirit.

  3. Jessica West said,

    😀

  4. Jessica West said,

    Okay, I just finished and … oh my wow! Though the guy is seriously disturbed, I feel like he was kind of justified. What does that say about me? Seriously though, it takes a brilliant writer to make you identify with a character such as Neil, in my opinion. I am truly impressed. You and Drew Chial are top notch. When this does come out on Kindle, I am definitely buying a copy.

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Mind if I tell him that? He’ll be as stoked as I am 😉 This is just the reaction I was aiming for. Neil is deeply flawed inside but still an emotive character; I totally feel sorry for him, so whatever it says about you, applies to me too!

      You’re really good for finishing this. I honestly look forward to seeing more of your work and retuning the favour. Your style stands out.

  5. Jessica West said,

    Not at all. And I’m glad I’m not the only one. 🙂

    I couldn’t not finish it. I intended to read a single part at a time, but I simply couldn’t stop.

    Thanks, I hope to put out some short stories eventually. I’ve got several WIPs, which is the problem, I think. I have writer’s ADD. Thanks for the vote of confidence, it does help to encourage me.

    I’ll be back to read more of your work as well. You’ve got a new fan. 😀

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