Breathless

His wide eyes shadow my every move, veins throb in his neck. A look I’ve seen numerous times. Lying stomach-down, each limb bound to the table I bolted in place. He shakes, sweat plastering cropped hair to his skull. The acrid smell of urine and sweat fills my soundproofed basement. An odor I’ve learned to ignore. Can he? I’ve never asked them, not even the ones who lasted a while.

He struggled at first, like they all do, but the bonds are too tight. Any background noise will ruin what I need. The ball gag is slick with saliva but muffles the sounds. Situations like this remind me that humans are animals—base, instinctual creatures. We’ve grown arrogant because we have thumbs and big brains.

He started with questions. Like a dentist talking to a patient, I understood every word—and ignored him. Then he begged, pleaded. Cried. Screamed.

They’re all the same. Except for one thing. Everyone’s sound is unique. Pitch and timbre, guttural groan and rasping breath, final gasp and last exhalation.

I caress his salty hair. His body slouches. “Almost over,” I say. “I’m going to make you famous. Promise. I know talent when I hear it.”

With two more steps, I’m hunched over my laptop. It’s a simple workstation, but it does the job. A few keystrokes later, and I’m ready. I hit the record button. My thumb taps the mic mounted to the short boom base and levels jump to yellow. I set it on the ground, tilt the mic toward his face. I unstrap the ball gag and pull it free. A strand of spittle connects his lips to the ball in my fist, then falls. The carpeted floor darkens under each drop.

He chokes. Levels jump on my screen. They touch red. There will be some distortion, but I’m fine with that.

“Please.” It’s between a whisper and a rasp, his throat long ago rubbed raw. “Please.”  He’s said it countless times, at first a plea for freedom. Now that he’s accepted his fate, this solitary word is still a plea for freedom—just a different kind.

I glance at the mic. Still in position. I climb onto the table, planting one knee on either side of his rib cage. His shortened breaths register on the screen, levels in the yellow, dropping closer to green where they need to be.

I’ve taken almost everything I can from him These final moments are ones I can never go back and capture again. I let out a long breath. I wrap my hands around his neck. My fingers search, finding their targets. My muscles tense, all my attention on the screen. My grip tightens, squeezing. Little bursts of color in the levels mirror the sounds under me. My languid breaths contradict the staccato rhythm of his gasps. My body stills, except my fingers.

A meter on the screen measures time. Approaching one minute. Not long now. I hold my breath as he lets out his last exhalation.

Perfect.

I slide to the floor and return to the computer. I press the space bar to stop recording. I transfer the file to my flash drive. A smile twists my lips as I head upstairs, drive in hand.

In my studio, I make quick work of loading the files, manipulating them so they’re ready for use. I swivel and face my keyboard. Pressing the key, his last breath spills from the speakers. I hold the note, bending the pitch up then down, layering it into the nearly finished song.

Almost there. A few more tries and I have it.

To my left, three phonograph statues proclaim “Best New Age Album.”

This will give me number four.

∼ Mark Steinwachs

© Copyright Mark Steinwachs. All Rights Reserved.

 

Fetchling

Flash!

The light strobes; its flare blinding.

Flash!

The heat from the bulb dries the sweat from my face.

Flash!

My eyes slam shut; they flicker open to rivulets of blood running down my thighs.

Flash!

She screams for me to turn back to the camera. A line of spittle draws its way past the rag in my mouth; drips from my wet chin.

Flash!

An involuntary blink, I jerk and turn away; this enrages her.

Soothing darkness falls; I feel movement within the shadows.

The dog whip sounds its crack just beyond my right ear. Her intent to miss, I’m certain; we’ve been at this for hours.

Crack again, this time it strikes my bare shoulder. Another flick and the skin shreds, the blackness so acute I can hear her draw back for another strike. I scream through the gag, this pleases her; she returns to the camera.

Flash!

I jolt so hard the chair wobbles; blonde stands fall forward to block my vision.

Flash!

Crying hysterically, I scream and beg through the fabric tearing my mouth; I hear her mild sigh.

Flash!

Closer, hotter, brighter. My desperate pleas are met with silence. I can feel her standing over me; I will not look.

Flash!

As the bloom fades through my lids, the chair back makes contact with the floor; my head splits open. Tears streaming, one word is left to me – a stuttering please. She leans over, strokes my face, calms my shattered nerves. She strokes again, I relax a bit more. She hushes me as the final stroke cleaves my throat; I feel warmth.

Flash!

My eyes fly wide in panic. The bloom fades; identical icy-blue irises stare back into my own.

∼ Nina D’Arcangela

© Copyright Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.

Mental Anesthetic

Smoke swirling overhead, I lay on the cool filth covered ground, ashing in front of my face. A particularly crisp piece of dried wallpaper lights from the dropping embers. The night is nearing, the shadows cast upon the walls aren’t dancing nearly as much; I won’t be alone when the sun drops beneath the horizon. They are coming, as they always do.

I flick the butt of my cigarette and allow more pieces of detritus to smolder and pull my limbs in tighter to a fetal position. It’s easier this way, to just rest on the ground and wait rather than try with futility to hide; the past few weeks have taught me that.

The wind howls as thin branches scrape against the weakened glass, I shiver and light up another. Within minutes, the cherry of my cigarette is the only light left. A door opens a few floors below and hurried footsteps rush the stairs. I count each foot fall, there are more this time. Facing the wall and finishing my nicotine delight, the door behind me slowly slides open. My heart doesn’t quicken; the nerves I used to feel have all but been replaced by a mental anesthetic.

“Miss us?” One of the creatures questions; I don’t reply.

“Of course he did,” says the other, tapping my shoulder with its toe. My body rocks back and forth as they get into position.

I close my eyes as their teeth sink beneath the surface of my flesh. They lap from my open wounds, savoring the taste of a metallic iron liquid. The grotesque slurping and gargles wrap my stomach in knots but I know better than to fight back.

“What a shame, looks like this one’s tamed.” I hear, my head becoming fuzzy.

“Perhaps another? His daughter?” They’re taunting me, covered in my blood and snickering. My pulse quickens, not from fear but anger. “Definitely his daughter, his adrenaline is starting to rev.” These wicked beasts cackle and I stay silent, nothing I do will help me now.

“D-D-Daddy? I’m scared.” A faint cry from the hallway. It’s her.

“There we go!” Blood pressure springing through the roof, my lesions gushing while the freaks continue their feast.

I try to get up, to fight them off, but all I can do is mumble, “Youuu-bazztir…” As the silence and darkness consumes me.

∼ Lydia Prime

© Copyright Lydia Prime. All Rights Reserved.

Damned Words 42

DW_42

Awakening
R.J. Meldrum

The house had stood alone for years, shunned by the locals.  It was supposedly haunted, dangerous. They broke in, looking for something worth stealing. The first room was empty; the paint peeled away from damp walls, dust and cobwebs lay everywhere.

“There’s nothing here.”

“Let’s try another room.”

They opened the door to find a fully furnished drawing room. No dust or cobwebs. The furniture was polished.  A fire burned in the fireplace.

“What?”

They glanced back at the first room. It had transformed into a dining room, the table laden with sparkling crockery and glass.

“What’s happening?”

Piano music tinkled and they could hear the murmur of distant conversation. Above them, footsteps. Something was moving. After years of dormancy, the house had woken.


Forgotten
Nina D’Arcangela

Hell has laid claim to places on this earth, places that are lost, forgotten; for all intents and purposes, no longer exist. I woke in such a place.

For days I screamed for help, but none came. A failed attempt to reach the sill reminded me of shattered tibiae and why hope was a fool’s delight. Day would come, the glass above amplified the sun’s rays to the point of roasting me. My infected legs gleamed in the blinding light near filled with puss and putrefaction—they ached for the skin to crack, but no such salvation offered. An uttered prayer barely mumbled through cracked lips as ignored as the others; divinity’s attempt to further mock me.

I’m left to devour with eager greed what crawls my tomb; to lick dry the weep from the peeling walls. Now I wait. Death will find me, it’s the only thing my diseased mind is sure of.


Weeping
Lee Andrew Forman

The room immured my weak sack of flesh. I dreamed of limits in waking agony, a threshold which mortality cannot pass. But as my knees throbbed where blood of descent stained the floor, I knew this place existed outside the place it was in.

Ever-searching was that boy. He found something. My feet carried a slack frame—with grief holding both eyes blind—to places our kind weren’t meant to see.

Like father, like son. Like son, like father.

They say Jesus wept. And so did I.


Still Life With Window
Charles Gramlich

My life is lived between two walls of peeling paint. Nothing exists behind me except howling shadows. I do not turn my head to see them. There is enough howling within to hold my thoughts. When I’m tired, I lie upon the floor and let chips of fallen paint cradle my face. The chips are sweet when I nibble them. I must be half paint by now, and half flesh.

Of course, there is the window. I do not speak of that.

True food is rare, but I have enough. Ants and roaches and inchworms come across my walls and floor. Sometimes a bee or a butterfly appears mysteriously. Perhaps it arrives through the aperture that I do not discuss. I catch them with my blackened tongue; I crunch them between my teeth, which are mostly functional though they rattle in my jaws.

Once a bird came to me—flitting out of painful light into softest darkness. I caught it and held it for a long time before I fed. Over and over I shred those precious memories, of a warm thing, a thing that throbbed with heartbeats between my fingers.

And sometimes my memories reach further. Even though I fight them. They reach out through the white hole between my walls, out to where lives a beast called the sun. Today, I heard from that place, beneath that light, some wild, free language—a voice other than the one in my head.

It spoke of love, but I don’t know what that means


Charred
A.F. Stewart

The smell clung to the scorched room, buried in the blistered paint. I knew it well in my line of work.

The smell of death.

Three people died here a month ago, in a fire, trapped with no way out. A tragedy, the papers called it. The police called it an accident. I knew better.
Because I had an advantage over them.

But the reasons behind the fire weren’t why I was here, no my extracurricular abilities to commune with the dead led me here. I came to find restless spirits.

I was not disappointed.

I felt their presence the minute I entered the room. The echoes of terrified screams filled the space and their memories of pain lingered in the air, all bouncing off the blackened walls. The people who died here remained, caught in the agony of their last moments.

I smiled.

Every one of them deserved their manner of death. They deserved their pain. The fact they would live in that moment for eternity made me want to sing. I had jumped at the chance when offered the contract and rejoiced when I struck the match that sent them to this hell.

Sometimes I loved my job.


The Larder
Marge Simon

Just at twilight, the old woman hustled to the kitchen. It was time to prepare her son’s special meal, a duty she took particular pleasure in. The larder was cold and damp, even when stocked to capacity. It had once served as her son’s nursery, with Disney characters on the walls. Even the window had darling curtains to match. Of course, it no longer opened to let in fresh air and sunshine, which would likely cause dissention among the chattel. The panes were painted black and covered with solid iron bars. Some of the livestock were crawling around, searching for crumbs and mistaking them for strips of wallpaper. Deftly, she grasped one by the neck. Before he could bite her, she knocked it senseless with a rolling pin and dragged it down to the kitchen.

She settled in a chair to slowly massage the deep groove at the base of the skull. As she worked, she smiled, for this particular male looked a lot like the President. At last, the trembling eased and the head fell forward into her lap. It gave no sign of feeling the knife press deep into its jugular. The cut was neat, and she directed the gusher into her best brass pot.

Vlad appeared yawning. “Smells good, Mom. But I told you my cholesterol was over the top, remember? Just a salad for me tonight.”


Home
Mark Steinwachs

No one used the word abandoned, but that’s what happened. My life didn’t matter in their eyes. I wasn’t alone either. Many of us were left behind. And then our home, no it was a prison, was no longer used. We needed them to live. We fed off their fear, their hate, their worry, and so much more. Our numbers dwindled but some of us kept fighting, we believed we could make them return. Those few of us left grew up as those we were born of did the same somewhere out  in the world. Fight and belief are not enough though, and the last few began to perish. There was one thing the rest didn’t have that I did.

Hate.

I refused to disappear and it will all pay off today. I felt him coming to me. My hatred for him has kept me alive and more importantly kept the most tenuous bond between us. He could never be rid of me fully. Now he is here. Walking down the hallway, his memories flooding back. He knows where I am, drawn to me, but has no idea I exist. He opens the door staring into the broken, barren room. He is back, a full-grown man for me. I coalesce from the darkened corner, a perfect replica of him only in the form of shadowed smoke. He screams as I shoot forward, slamming into him.

This is my home and now it is time to repay those that left me here.


View From an Upstairs Window
Scarlett R. Algee

I can hear my parents downstairs; my mother chatters as dishes clink and pots rattle, my father’s muffled replies and heavy footsteps. I can’t smell what she’s cooking, haven’t smelled anything for days, but it doesn’t matter – there’s no food for me, not now.

I don’t remember anything between the bite and waking. Only opening my dry, stinging eyes and finding myself on a bed in this moldy room, this place that hasn’t been used in decades. My father apologized through the door. “We have to be patient.” he tells me. Either I die again, a proper death, or…something will have to be done.

It’s been a week inside these walls and that something hangs heavy in the air.

I haven’t slept since waking. I pace, circle, throw myself against the door that won’t budge; gouge at the cracked walls. I howl invectives in a voice I don’t recognize; snarl from a mouth that can no longer form words.

I’m getting hungry. That’s the worst part. After feeling nothing for days, the sensation of hunger has come roaring back. I can hear them moving around downstairs, they sound so soft, so delicious.

Going to the window, I lean my face against the glass, leaving smears of black saliva behind. My stomach cramps with need and I scrabble at the sill. Putting my head through the opening, the air is damp against my eyes, dewy inside my gaping mouth. It’s such a long way down, but I’m so hungry. I lean further out, steadying myself.

Either I’ll die a proper death, or something will have to be done.


The Manor of Krystiahn Koryci
Lydia Prime

The twisted branches from the tree outside remind me of just how long I’ve been waiting here. Waiting in an empty home, no one to comfort me, no one to care. But still, I stay, and I watch as the outside world moves on. The day gives way to night just as the seasons flutter by.

I can almost see the faded memories as I stand inside my forgotten room. A smile, a giggle, a hug to be cherished – but no longer felt. The faces have left my mind, however, figures from the past still taunt me.

In another time this room’s decor was perky enough to make me gag. Now that the mauve and flowered wallpaper has almost completely flaked away, I sort of miss the sight. The floorboards creak with each step I take, I’m not sure if my dusty bones creak louder. Closing the flimsy door behind me, I shuffle across the room to the uncurtained window. I watch the sky; the white fluff quickly spinning – warping into a gray warning of sorts. The storm is coming.

I watch the tree, its limbs stretch far and taught, forever reaching for nothing. Perhaps we have something in common. I lean against the wood pane and watch a truck drive up the hidden driveway to the front. A man steps out and smiles, staring up as if he can see me. His wife climbs out of the passenger’s side and joins him, he slinks an arm around her shoulders. She rubs her engorged belly and they grin, taking it all in.

How ridiculous, that these stupid people think they can take my house from me! They must be insane. I’ve been here for longer than I can remember, this is my house. With that final thought, the window shatters and I leave the decrepit room to learn about these trespassers.


Each piece of fiction is the copyright of its respective author and may not be reproduced without prior consent. © Copyright 2020
Image © Copyright Lee Andrew Forman

Sleep Tight

You wake beneath the glow of a urine-yellow nightlight shaped like a crescent moon. From the hall outside your bedroom comes a susurration of sound, a crippled shuffle, like rotted feet dragging themselves to bone on a sandpaper carpet.

Your heartbeat speeds. Sticky mouth dries. You sit up in vomit-clotted sheets. You’ve been sick, but you’re better now. Much, much better. Thanks to Momma.

But that sound. It’s almost midnight, the dregs of the day. Who is coming? Who is coming to your room in the hollow of the dark?

Something wet slaps against the old porcelain doorknob. It turns, scritches open on hinges that are more rust than iron. A bulk leans its head within, dressed in a pale wrapper of cloth under which odd shapes pulse and squirm. You’re reminded of a grubworm you once dug up in the garden—when there was still a garden. It’s just Momma.

A sigh possesses you as, from the doorway, your mother says, “Sorry I’m late tonight, Sweety. I fell asleep. Are you OK? Do you need anything?”

You’d begun to think she wasn’t coming this night. That maybe…. But you don’t complete that thought. It’s not a kind one and Momma does not like unkind thoughts. You only say, as mother’s clothes twitch and rustle, “I’m fine, Momma. Just fine. Thank you.”

She smiles. Her mouth is black because she’s forgotten her teeth again. But that’s all right. Her teeth are big and broad and so white they sometimes make you uncomfortable. She whispers that she loves you and turns to go.

You wait. She’ll turn back again. As she always does. She has one last piece of sweet advice to offer her only son. She gives it with a catch of emotion in her throat: “Good night. Sleep tight. Let the bed bugs bite.”

“I will, Momma,” you hear yourself say.

The door snicks shut. Momma’s feet move away. She sounds light as a thistle now. As if she’s able to dance on limbs shed of heavy flesh.

Quickly, you lie back on your bed again and let the wet pillow fold up around your face. You press it down tight over your eyes and mouth. From the door where Momma was standing, a swift flow of movement passes like a ripple over the floor. It climbs the bed posts, the trailing sheets. Like a wave of goosebumps it flows onto the bed to nestle all around you. They, nestle all around you.

You bite your teeth together and pull the pillow more tightly across your face. It’s not the right thing to do to deny them a part of your body. But you hate the way they slip beneath your lids and scrape at your eyes. And if they crawl up your nose and down your throat, you know the vomit will come again. It’s so unpleasant to lie in when it’s still liquid and hot.

The bedbugs—that’s what Momma calls them anyway—have tiny mandibles that catch at flesh and hold. It feels like ten thousand staples being tucked into your skin as they begin to suckle. But it’s a good thing. Momma has told you: they draw the illness out of you with your fluids. That’s why you’re feeling so much better, why you’ll soon be able to leave your room again. She has promised.

In the morning, of course, the bugs will return to Momma and clothe her anew. They’ll give her all the sickness they’ve drawn out of you. It’s a powerful display of the mother-child bond. How she takes your disease unto herself. You know she loves you very, very much.

“I love you, too,” you whimper into the pillow. As the bugs burrow in and the pain becomes like fireworks exploding through your body. “I love you, Momma. Love you, Momma! MOMMA!”

∼ Charles Gramlich

© Copyright Charles Gramlich. All Rights Reserved.

 

Snuff Film Relic

“Sweetie, I’ve been into film production since I was a boy,” he said. Julian was his name and I was crazy about him. I couldn’t believe such a man of his looks and caliber would ever speak to me, much less invite me into his spacious home. But here I was, sitting in his living room.

He lit my cigarette and kissed my fingers. While I was taking it all in, he placed a snifter of brandy in my hand, his silky baritone like a lullaby. He showed me his father’s Kodak. “This model was made in 1965. Just look at this my dear!” Unrolling some film, he held it up to the light so I could see how each frame had clearly captured a part of the action. Then he loaded the projector and started it.

By that time, I was getting a weird buzz from the brandy. I say ‘weird’ because I was feeling very odd. It was like everything was slowing down. When I looked at the filmstrip, it seemed a great distance away. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

A lovely woman was sitting in the same chair as mine in the film. Julian held her in his arms. He began kissing her from her breasts down to her toes. A close-up of her eyelids fluttering. A line of drool escaped her lips. In the next set of frames, he was stabbing her with a screwdriver. He’d even added sound somehow — McCartney’s “Let It Be” full volume in the background.

Then he started in on me with a warm embrace, his lips on mine, sweet as that tainted brandy. Oh, yes, I was very much there, eyes wide open, unable to move, watching him remove the used film. He reloaded the Kodak, mounted it on a tripod, and aimed the lens straight at me.

∼ Marge Simon

© Copyright Marge Simon. All Rights Reserved.

Waiting for Flies

Her eight sexy legs crawl up my cheek.

Oh! It feels so sweet.

My eyes strain to see her. So beautiful, that red mark like hot lipstick waiting to be kissed. Flies buzz above and my heart races each time one gets near.

The apparatus holds my mouth open for beloved to build her web. She’s done a special job, as seen from the mirror on the ceiling.

It’s like she’s made it just for me.

We still haven’t had our first kiss; I wait for it with a warm tingling in my stomach.

She crawls onto her web which spans my open mouth. She sits, watching the flies as I do, waiting for one to get caught in her perfect creation. If she gets enough I know she’ll share with me.

Patient. Just be patient.

Eventually she’ll crawl in and I’ll embrace her in moist darkness where I can love her forever.

∼ Lee Andrew Forman

© Copyright Lee Andrew Forman. All Rights Reserved.

The Crack in the Sky

Moonlight whispers against the grey stone of the church, reverberating against the silence of the night. Blood drops onto the snow, staining the pristine white in taints of crimson. I stare at the contrasting colour and then reach towards the crack in the sky. More blood runs down my arm.

“Are you satisfied yet? Is this enough?”

No answer. The crack does not close. I go back inside the church.

The bodies are still there, but the blood is gone. Except for what remains on my hands. They never take that. I think it amuses them.

I hear a rustle, beyond the pews.

Did I miss one?

I move forward. A child crouches behind the altar and scuttles backward into the shadows when he sees me.

I smile, the sadness of inevitability behind the gesture. “You’re afraid, I understand. I must seem a monster to you. Were some of these people your family?”

I barely hear him reply, “Yes.”

“I’m sorry about that, but it was necessary. They were brave people, sacrificed to save the world.”

Another whisper, “You killed them. I saw you. I heard them scream.”

I sigh. How do I explain to a child I’m keeping demons at bay, monsters far more terrifying than me?

Doesn’t it even matter? I can’t spare the boy. I can feel them hunger for his blood already. 

“I’m sorry.” I move forward and shut my ears against his shrieks until the church is once again silent. The new blood disappears quickly. The only drops left are the spatters on my clothes and the fresh stains on my hands.

I turn and make my way past the bodies, heading back outside. I look up at the sky again, hoping perhaps this time I’ll see a black night and stars, not a fissure in the fabric of space. I sigh. 

It’s still there.

No matter how many I sacrifice, it remains. No matter the gender, the age, the numbers, it never closes completely. But I know, if I stop, they’ll come through. Then the world dies. So I will continue.

Blood keeps the crack in the sky from widening. Blood keeps the hoards at bay.

For now…

~ A. F. Stewart

© Copyright 2020 A. F. Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

 

Countdown

Harry wakes to heat, and to silence.

He opens his eyes to a leak-stained ceiling, but everything feels too bright and he closes them again, trying to push past the cotton-wool thickness in his head to sort out exactly why the quiet is wrong. There’s a small stinging ache at the back of his neck and a sour iron taste in his throat, like he’s held a mouthful of old coins.

There’s no background noise.

That’s it. Harry opens his eyes another fraction. He’s lying on a bed in an unfamiliar room—in the Bonneheure Hotel, if the fleurs-du-lys stamped on the center ceiling tiles are any indication—but there’s no hotel ambiance, no voices or footsteps or air-conditioning hum. No air’s circulating at all: the room has a stifling musty smell that makes his nostrils burn. There’s just the rasp of his own breathing, and the corner of his smartphone digging into his hip inside his pocket.

And the weight of another body on the bed.

Harry turns his head, dizzy, frowning. The woman lying beside him, covered by a sheet pulled above her breasts, is bottle blonde, immaculately made up, her mouth a candyfloss shade of red and her eyelashes crisp with mascara.

Is she a hooker? He’s never seen her before.

Harry doesn’t remember coming here. Or bringing a woman, or anything that can tell him why he’s lying in his clothes on a bed in a silent hotel room with someone he doesn’t recognize; his last memory is of standing in front of his boss’ office door and feeling a sudden cold sting in his neck.

So that’s the pain above his collar; it’s starting to itch. He’s been…drugged? Kidnapped? But why—

This place closed last year, he thinks, and belated understanding brings him fully awake. Harry sits up and his right shoulder is jerked painfully: there’s a cable tie snugged around his wrist, attached to another, and another, a chain of cable ties that leads somewhere under the bed. He shifts on the mattress, heart picking up, sweat breaking out hot on his face; something shifts with him and rolls against his thigh.

The woman hasn’t stirred. Harry glances at her, then at the object, and pulls it into his lap with his left hand. It’s a roll of leather, and he fumbles it open to find a set of steak knives, gleaming blades of various widths, their serrated edges like broken sharks’ smiles.

“I don’t understand,” he says hoarsely. Harry looks back to the woman—his sitting up should have woken her, but she still hasn’t moved. Has she been drugged too? He reaches out with his free hand to shake her, clumsily.

She’s cold.

She’s not breathing.

His phone rings.

Harry shrieks, almost voiceless, and starts to his feet. His cable-tie tether jerks him down, and his knees bang painfully on the worn gray carpet, his head just missing the edge of the bedside table. He shuts his eyes again and exhales a ragged breath, heart stumbling against his ribs, sweat pouring beneath his shirt. The smartphone trills again, breaking a tiny sob from his parched lips, and with effort he wrests enough slack in his plastic restraint to pull the phone loose and thumb the screen. “H-hello.”

“Harry.” He knows the voice. It’s Conrad from work; Conrad, right hand of their boss, Kurtz, though Harry can never remember what the man actually does for the company. “I take it you found our present.”

“Conrad, God, Conrad, you have to help me—” Harry has almost no saliva, and when the words register, even that dries up. “…Present?”

“Do you like her, Harry?” Conrad is smiling, Harry can hear it in his voice. Can picture it, in fact: the perfect teeth, perfect tan, perfectly parted hair. “Lola. You wouldn’t have known her, she was down in HR,” Conrad purrs. “Shame, really, she’s a hell of a looker, but she was convenient.”

He sounds like a cat licking cream from its whiskers. Harry swallows, looking back over his shoulder at…Lola. “Conrad. What’s going on? Why’s this happening?”

“Oh, Harry, honey. You know.”

There’s a hint of laughter in Conrad’s voice, one that becomes more than a hint when Harry whimpers. “Look. Okay, look. If this is about the money, I—”

“Of course it’s about the money.” Conrad’s friendliness gives abrupt way to a hard edge. “You don’t skim off the top, Harry, not with Kurtz. You knew better. You may be swimming in the accounting pool, but you’re not one of the sharks yet.” The laugh comes out, a short sharp bark. “It’s the assumption that hurts, you know? Mr. Kurtz doesn’t appreciate people thinking he’s stupid.”

“I—” Harry’s heart is tapping painful double-time against his sternum. He’d assumed just that thing, had assumed his wide-bodied, pig-eyed boss was the idiot he resembled; it had been a correct assumption before, with some of the others. He works his jaws, trying to think fast as whatever he’d been doped with burns off. “So what happens now? The cops show up, they find me, they find…Lola”—he chokes on her name—”and they assume the worst?”

“That’s a neat convenient package,” Conrad muses. “And Mr. Kurtz wants to make an example of you. Only…not like that.” He sucks his teeth audibly. “Nobody’s going to look for you there, Harry. That hotel’s been closed fifteen months. It’s scheduled for demolition tomorrow.”

Harry’s chest constricts.

“And there’s Lola.” Conrad must be grinning. “Isn’t she a beauty? Kurtz got a clever idea. There’s a bomb in her.”

The blood drains from Harry’s face with a palpable loss of heat. “…What.”

“A bomb, Harry. Goes boom? One of the IT guys rigged it.” Conrad’s friendliness is back. “That’s why you have the knives, Harry. Nice knives. Japanese carbon steel. Got ’em at Sears. You cut her open and find it, you might have a chance. Kurtz believes in fairness, Harry, even if you don’t.”

The façade drops again. “You have five minutes. Goodbye, Harry.”

The call disconnects. Harry stares at his phone, aghast, but slowly gets to his feet, sits on the bed.

Stiffly, he pulls the sheet from Lola’s cold body.

She’s naked, flawless. Aside from a tiny blue pinprick wound on her throat, there’s not a mark on her. How many times had he passed this woman in the hallway and never picked her out from the others?

It’s a joke, right? It’s a sick joke, it has to be, he can’t—

Within the dead woman’s abdomen, something begins to beep.

∼ Scarlett R. Algee

© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.

Skin Trade

It was rush hour. As they weaved through the throng of commuters Peter noticed a group of people standing near an intersection. He was reminded of a recent headline.

“I wonder where they all come from.”

“Who?” asked John.

Peter pointed. There were about ten of them, all clearly vagrants.

“Those guys. I saw an article that said the number of homeless people in the city had increased three-fold in the last two years. I was just wondering where they all come from.”

“No idea. I don’t think about them.”

“I’m going to contact Sarah at Channel 6, she might be interested in commissioning a piece.”

“What’s your angle?”

“What the city is doing to help. The article didn’t say.”

They carried on walking.

A week later Peter emerged after dinner wearing a coat. John glanced up from his laptop.

“Off out?”

“I’m going to a homeless shelter tonight. Channel 6 commissioned the story. I’ve done some background research and now I’m off to talk to the people who run the shelters.”

“Do you want me to come?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, but don’t forget your phone.”

Peter started with the largest of the city’s shelters, Harmony Hill. He asked the man at the reception if he could speak to a manager. After ten minutes a young woman arrived. She introduced herself as Susan, night supervisor. Peter explained his mission.

“Sounds like good exposure for us. Numbers are increasing to the point where we’re turning people away. If you could publicise this issue, it might drum up some interest. City hall doesn’t seem to care. Come back tomorrow night, I’ll have more time to talk.”

The next night, as Peter headed to Harmony Hill again, he noticed a truck parked on the street. It caught his attention because the tailgate was open and a man was addressing the homeless who had gathered around. The man pointed at various people, who climbed into the back of the truck. The man jumped down, closed the tailgate and drove off. Peter asked Susan if she knew anything about it.

“No, but I can guess. It’ll be some farmer or factory owner picking up cheap labour. We’ve heard reports of that happening.”

“That’s a dimension to being homeless I didn’t realise existed. I think I’ll investigate.”

Peter asked Susan if she could let him know when the truck appeared again. It was three weeks before she phoned.

“It arrived ten minutes ago. You better be quick; it’s half full already.”

Peter jumped into his car and sped to Harmony Hill. The truck was still there, but it was clearly about to leave. He decided to see where it was going.

The truck drove through the city, stopping at a scruffy industrial unit. Peter parked on the far side of the lot and walked over. The driver had backed the truck up to the loading dock. A tall, broad man and a smaller, younger man stepped out from the factory and opened the tailgate of the truck.

“You’ve got a long drive ahead of you, so we’ve prepared some food. Fill up before we head out again. Line up, we want to get your names before you eat.”

The driver joined the two men on the dock. The homeless men left the truck and stepped onto the loading dock. They were lined up before being beckoned inside. The dock was closed.

Peter pushed a nearby dumpster underneath a high window and climbed up. He could see into the factory. It was divided into three parts. The first area, where the homeless men were standing, was empty of furniture and equipment. There was a partition dividing this section from the next, a smaller room that contained a desk. The third area, much bigger than the other two, was a processing area. There were conveyors, chains hanging from the ceiling, long stainless steel benches and large plastic bins.

The driver addressed the line of men.

“We’re limited in space here, so I’ll ask you to go through this door one at a time. We’ll take your details, then you’ll be fed. It won’t take long.”

The broad man opened the door and gestured for the first man to enter. The door was closed. The homeless man was instructed to sign a form on the desk. As he bent to sign, the broad man reached into his pocket and brought out what looked like a gun. He placed it against the head of the vagrant. There was a soft pop and the man dropped like a stone. There was no blood. The broad man lifted the corpse and pulled it through to the processing area. He then returned to the office and instructed the second man to enter. The same process happened again and again, until there was no-one left.

The next stage of the operation started. The young man stripped each body. The broad man tied the feet together and hung them upside down on a hook. He sprayed them with a hose, then drew a knife across each throat, stepping back to avoid the gush of blood. Each abdomen was slit open and the intestines and organs pulled out. These were dumped into a nearby bin. The heads were then removed and thrown into a bucket. The slaughterman carefully removed the skin to leave a red, glistening slab of meat. He neatly folded each skin and placed it onto a trolley. The cadavers were then pushed towards a white door at the side of the room.

Peter tumbled off the dumpster and phoned the police.

“There’s murder taking place! Homeless people are being slaughtered. Send as many cars as possible.”

He gave his name and the address and hung up.

It took fifteen minutes for one solitary patrol car to turn up. A bored looking officer stepped out. Peter, standing next to the dumpster, beckoned him over.

“Where’s your backup? There’s at least three of them in there!”

“Sir, we aren’t going to dispatch multiple units without evidence. Now, can you please explain to me what you told the dispatcher?”

Peter gave an account of what he had witnessed. The officer couldn’t disguise a look of disbelief.

“All you have to do is kick down that door and you’ll see, officer!”

“Let’s start by talking to them.”

The officer knocked on the door, while Peter stood behind. The door was opened. It was man from the truck.

“Constable McCready. Good to see you.”

He glanced behind the police officer.

“And who do we have here? Ah yes. Mr. Peter Jones, freelance investigative reporter, currently working for Channel 6. I wondered when you’d turn up.”

The officer spoke.

“Mr. Jones must have followed you, Inspector. Thought you might want to deal with him yourself.”

“That’s very kind of you, Constable McCready. There’ll be something extra in your pay packet this month.”

“Thank you, much appreciated.”

Peter stared at the two policemen as the truth of the situation hit home, then passed out.

He wasn’t out for long. He woke to find the Inspector squatting and staring at him. They were in the processing area, the floor sticky with blood.

“So, now you know, Mr. Jones. It’s the city’s way of reducing the homeless population. They just kept coming and coming. Fighting, drinking and making the city look like shit. City hall doesn’t want to waste money on shelters and soup kitchens. The mayor asked us to come up with a solution and we have. The homeless have finally become of use.”

He glanced around the room.

“It’s all too easy. To them I’m Father Murdoch of the Souls Full of Hope Mission. They can come and work on our farm. We promise we’ll feed them and pray for them. They fall for it every time.”

He stood and stretched.

“I’m going to leave you now. Mac is a good slaughterman; he gets paid in the meat he produces. What he does with it is his business, not ours. The less we know the better.”

He nodded to the slaughterman and left. Peter felt the Mac’s legs straddle him. Mac pulled Peter’s hair, lifting his head.

“Just so you know. Meat goes to piggies. Piggies eat the meat. Piggies get fat and go to slaughter. But we don’t send the skin we collect, we keep the skin for something special. We make leather. Sell it to fancy stores in the city for shoes and handbags. Get more money that way.”

“Please, let me go.”

“You ain’t the first to come snooping. Inspector says to kill ‘em all, can’t risk it. Nothing personal, but no choice.”

The slaughterman glanced down, with an expression that was almost sympathy. He lifted his knife. Peter closed his eyes.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.