(published 3rd December 2018)
‘Those bastards never deserved a second chance,’ Bret said, talking to himself as usual. Though nothing was usual tonight. Three of his clients were dead, and he was on his way to a safe house outside of London, in the woody byroads surrounding some forgotten little town. Weygone. Weydon. Something like that anyway. The point was, no one ever looked for him here.
The road was narrow, twisting between colourless trees. If he drove fast enough it would tear, show itself to be a stage backdrop. The car felt real however. It was a beautiful Mitsubishi Lancer, a relic some would say, but the wheel in his hands, the titanium frame, the three litre engine purring, these were all totems to reality. Reality was an important thing to a man like Bret.
He checked his stash still sat in the passenger’s seat every few minutes, tried to hold the edge of the box in the corner of his eye, but it was like trying to focus on one of the filmy bits of flotsam that drifted across his vision when his eyes were tired, against the very design of the eye.
Design, evolution, whatever.
He settled for putting a hand on the box, feeling the cool tin, edging his index along the hinges at the back and the security lock at the front. He only removed his hand to change gear, which he hardly needed to do. These roads were empty, and there were no real speed limits on them; he howled down the asphalt at seventy miles per hour, taking the turns at the same speed. He knew it was a little reckless, but he didn’t feel safe. He wouldn’t until he was at the cabin.
A road-sign, showing three miles to a turning, popped up. He recognised it instantly because of the faded graffiti authorities hadn’t quite been able to scrub off. The graffiti was in the shape of a side-ways eight, infinity, but to Bret it looked like the spools of a cassette tape.
In one mile, it was his turning. He slowed.
There was a place where the barrier on the road was broken. Most people missed it. Even if they did see it, it didn’t look like there was a path beyond it, just a place where the foliage wasn’t so fierce or upright. Bret turned off onto the path, the trees scraping the roof of his car, showering him with needles; he disappeared beneath the tall pines.
At the end of the dark slip road, he killed the engine and lights, grabbed his stash, and got out of the car. He circled to the back, popped the boot, and fished out a large flashlight. He didn’t really need it. He knew this place like he knew the back of his father’s hand, the way the knuckles jutted like points, the way they felt against his cheek, but if things went wrong he wouldn’t be without a light source.
He crept his way, marking all the familiar anchors with his night-vision: the felled tree with its bloom of fungal discs, the twinned pines growing out of each other, finally the dark square shape of the cabin.
He smiled to himself, pushed open the door.
Turning on the light, he checked everything was in its proper place. In one corner sat a waist-high fridge. A bed lay against the opposite wall, the kind of tiny mattress an infantry grunt might get used to. A bookshelf had been nailed to another wall. A cassette player sat on the shelf, glinting like an artefact unearthed from an ancient burial ground. Bret would have liked to have worked with more modern MP3 or CD technology, but the fact of the matter was that the effect could not be downloaded or electronically transcribed. It could only be etched onto cassette reels.
That was his job, to manufacture the cassettes and sell them to those willing to pay the high price.
In more ways than one.
His flashlight trembled in his hand, creating the illusion of a will o’ the wisp on the wall. Something was out of place. The walls were hung with photos. One was of Edith Harland, black haired, chubby-faced, with medieval-looking acne. The second was Ramsay Dalton, a red-haired brute with too-big eyes and too-little lips. The last was Julian Merc, a beauty with sculpted muscles and cheekbones. All three stared into the photo-lens with entirely blackened eyes.
These were three of his clients. Dead. Bret never kept information about them in the cabin. It was too risky. If the masters got wind that he had leaked data, then prison would be the least of his worries. There was no place they would not be able to find him. Shit.
Bret went to remove the photographs, but then he paused. These were not standard photos, the kind that’d appeared on various online news sites. These looked like they had been taken at the moment of death. There was agony written all over their pale faces, as though a new face were trying to emerge beneath the real one, pushing it out of shape.
He ripped the pictures from the walls. He had a lighter back in the car boot, another emergency item. He’d burn them all. Someone was trying to seriously fuck with him. Maybe it was even the masters, sending him a warning, reminding him to be careful. He wouldn’t put it past them, it wasn’t beyond their methods.
He left the flashlight and stash-box on the cabin floor, walked to the Mitsubishi, and popped the boot again. He dug out the matches.
There was a crash and he ducked behind the car. The sound was of breaking glass. But what glass was there out in the forest?
He sucked in a breath. The windscreen of his Lancer was destroyed. There was a brick on the passenger seat with a note tied to it. This definitely wasn’t the way of the masters. You never met them in person, they didn’t throw bricks at you.
Steadily, he crept around to the front of the car. Someone was here. Fuck, someone was in the woods, had found his cabin. Could it be police? He dismissed the idea. His operations were entirely conducted on the Dark Net, where the police were hopelessly outmanoeuvred. No, it was someone else, and they were fucking with him. They probably didn’t even know what he was dealing, just picked three corpse-shots off the web and posted them on his wall to spook him. Well, Bret would fucking skin whoever it was alive if he got them. And if he didn’t, he’d get the masters on them.
The woods were silent. There were no more projectiles, no words or taunts. He had not heard anyone approach and he certainly did not hear anyone leave. The pines were still. There was no wind and no birdsong. Only night.
His mind churned in a way that made him feel seasick.
He thought, madly: I’m wrong. They want something. Everybody wants something. I know that better than anyone.
He knew exactly what it was they wanted too, but he could not conscience the thought. It was like trying to hold onto something slippery and still half-alive, something that he never should have plucked from the waters of his unconscious. Better to put it back where it came from and not really think about what it meant.
He reached through the broken windshield, scooped the brick off of the seat.
The note tied to it said: GIVE ME THE TAPES
Bret ran back to the cabin, slammed the door shut behind him and slid an almighty bolt across it. It was old fashioned, and wouldn’t hold off anyone determined for long, but it gave him temporary peace of mind. He needed to think. Handing over the tapes was out of the question. The stash he had with him was worth millions.
He looked at the pictures, crumpled on the floor. Half dissolved faces stared at him with their soulless eyes, incriminating. You did this, they said. Now this is karma, Bret. Not that he believed in karma or any of that bullshit, but he couldn’t help but think his luck was up.
He thought about the pain on their faces and wondered whether that was how he was going to die.
Then he realised something else. It was the killer out there. Their killer. He’d come for Bret now. And he wasn’t killing for vendetta. He was killing for the tapes. There was no mention of the cassettes in the police reports or news, and Bret had assumed it was because they had been mistaken for ordinary cassettes and left alone, but he realised it was because the killer had taken them.
Now the killer had come direct to source.
You weren’t supposed to watch more than one a month because the addiction was so powerful, the damage to the mind too irreparable, but Bret was guessing the killer had binged the whole fucking lot, ravaged his mind, and now he couldn’t live without the stuff.
Someone who wanted tapes was just about the most dangerous fucking human being alive. There were no limits, no vestigial morals. It would all be gone. Bret knew this because he had almost reached that point himself, listening to five hours a day, beginning to hear order in the inane language, patterns and beauty, and beginning to see his landlady as a filthy hag coming to steal his tapes away from him. He’d thought about killing her, making her body into language, the dripping blood-letters of the beautiful tape-language.
He remembered leaving his body sometimes, watching his thoughts cracking apart like dry leaves, his haggard limbs shrivelling through sleep and food deprivation. If the masters hadn’t found him, pulled him out of it, he would have been gone forever.
The code for the stash was 192. That was what the killer needed. So… he could empty the stash box, leave it outside with the code written on it and then hope to hell that they didn’t decide to open it until later. Somehow, he didn’t think that would work like it did in the movies.
The killer probably had a gun, or at least a weapon, and they were fucking sneaky to say the least, so Bret didn’t fancy his chances in an altercation.
Whilst giving up the tapes was not an option, he didn’t particularly fancy dying for them either. That meant he only had one choice.
He took out his phone, dialled a number he new from memory.
‘Hello.’ Their voices were like the voices on the tape. Clipped, squirming, not quite right, as though more than one mouth were making the sounds, or a mouth that was the wrong shape.
‘Hi, it’s Bret.’
‘Hello, Bret. Why are you calling us?’
‘I’ve got a problem. There’s a killer out there. Killed three of my clients, now coming after me.’
‘We suggest you lie low, Bret.’
‘I went to the safe place, but he’s here, outside.’ Bret could hear his desperation and it made him even more anxious knowing how much the masters hated weakness. He had never been forgiven for lapsing on his own supply.
A pause. No breath. No sigh. Dead silence.
‘We suggest you terminate yourself and the stash, Bret.’
‘What?’ It was like he’d been thrown out of an aeroplane without a parachute check first.
The line went dead.
‘Fuck,’ he whispered. ‘Fuck.’
He guessed there were no second chances.
He wished he’d gotten in the car as soon as the brick went through it. That would have been the smart option, but instead he’d trapped himself.
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.’
If the killer had a gun, there was no way he could make it to the car now. But then, maybe he could make a run for it, get up the slip road, then back onto the main A-road. It was unlikely the killer would be able to follow him there. There were people going past, even at this hour, every few seconds, it was a main commuter route for those living outside of London. Bret reckoned he’d be able to hitchhike after a while. He’d have to leave the Lancer, but it was a small loss in the grand scheme.
Fuck the masters.
He’d been making tapes for them for ten years. He was, some would say, an artist. He brought his clients ecstatic changes. Of course, the changes never lasted. That was the beauty of them. New limbs receded, dropped off, like dead flower shoots. New eyes closed, were soldered back into regular flesh. And the craving was strong. Other tape-makers couldn’t create the urge that Bret could. He wondered whether it was because Bret himself was an addict, that he could instil that hunger into his work.
Fuck. His very talent had tripped him up. He’d made a monster, a killer addicted to listening. Bret remembered, in a kind of telescopic whorl, the final days of his lapse, where he’d hugged his knees to his chest, sat crouched on the couch as a pair of sticky, membranous wings burst from his back, and his teeth grew so long they cut into his lower lip. He remembered that he’d been able to hear the tapes, drowning out all other sound. But when the masters came, his cassette player was just running static. He’d been listening to that hiss for days, imagining the words, still changing.
Sooner or later, the killer was going to get tired of waiting and come to the cabin. The killer probably thought Bret had a weapon in here, but he didn’t, for fear that if the police had ever found it, they would have had something to put him down with.
The killer’s caution would soon be overwhelmed by the urge to hear those tapes.
The only option was to make a break for it on foot. He had a choice between trying it stealthy or just gunning. He assumed the killer had good eyes on the cabin, considering they’d put a brick from the windshield from an indeterminate distance, so stealth wasn’t going to hack it, especially considering the cabin had only one exit.
He took a deep breath. Carefully, he slid the bolt to one side, gripped the stash.
He burst through the door and ran.
Five feet from the door he heard a shriick and then felt agony as metal teeth bit deep into his calf. He screamed, hit the deck howling. The point of a metal tooth was embedded in the bone, teasing its way inward to the marrow.
‘Oh god, oh god!’ He squealed, whimpered.
Blood drained out of the wound, soaked into his trousers. Warm.
A bear-trap. The killer had laid a fucking bear-trap.
The trees swayed. He heard soft, soft footsteps, so soft they might have been nightmares padding towards him in the dark just before sleep. He often dreamed the tapes were burning, or that his hands were melting with acid – so he’d never be able to make them again.
Someone was stood over him, a woman. He expected her eyes to be entirely black, the hallmark of an addict, the one thing that never changed, but he saw her whites as clearly as the stars through the canopy.
‘Look…’ he said, not sure what his play was.
‘Shut up, Bret.’
His eyes widened. She knew fucking everything. It was worse than he could have imagined.
She crouched down. She was youngish, maybe thirties, and looked like her face had been made up of different faces, because nothing quite fit together. The mouth as too big, the nose too small, the eyes too round. Each feature individually might have fit another face, but hers looked like a jigsaw with pieces from other sets.
She yanked the stash box from his fingers.
‘No! You don’t want to do that. We can cut a deal. It’ll make it easier for you.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Okay,’ she said.
She stood and walked into the cabin. She returned a few moments later with the flashlight, which she trained blindingly on him, and his cassette player. That last detail made his heart beat sluggish in his chest.
‘What’s that?’ he said, though he already knew.
‘The deal is…’ she said. ‘… if you can listen to one of your own tapes, you can keep the rest.’
She grinned. Her teeth were like a rodent’s: pointy, sharp, yellow.
‘I can’t,’ he said.
‘Cool,’ she said.
She pulled out a glock from the back of her jeans and put it to his temple. The metal was icy.
His mind raced, as though it were a reel he’d put into fast-forward, the language squiggly and muted. He’d done that once, listened to a batch on forward-wind to see if the effect came out different, and it did: his toes started elongating, the nails turning into talons.
‘Wait!’ he said. ‘I don’t know the code to the stash box, the masters send it to me whenever I get authorisation to deal.’
‘It’s true. I swear. I… I went into the stash once. They’ve never trusted me with that shit again.’
He could see her eyes reading his face, trying to discern the lie. The half-truth he’d inserted was working its magic, she lowered her gun.
‘So, you get the code.’
‘Okay, okay I’m getting it…’ Bret slowly reached into his pocket, drew out his mobile phone. He needed to play for time. ‘I’ve got to ask, why are you doing this, what did…’
She smacked his around the mouth with her gun. He tasted the dual metal of his own blood and the gun. A tooth felt loose as he probed it with his tongue. Fucking bitch. But he had to stay cool, it was the only way he was making it out of this alive.
‘Other people don’t matter to shits like you,’ she said. Her voice was shaking. ‘You fucking pedal your shit and make your money and no one else matters.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, putting on his best emotion. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to hurt people, I just try to give people what they…’
She smacked him again.
‘I don’t care about the fucking addicts,’ she spat. ‘It’s the other people. You ever thought that someone could hear your tape who wasn’t an addict?’
‘I… I did something to you? I’m sorry…’
She pushed the glock into his leg wound and he howled. Please let a wild animal be drawn to the sound and kill this bitch, he thought. But it wasn’t likely.
She leaned in close.
‘How about to a ten year old boy?’
Bret stared into her eyes. He had never seen eyes like hers, without blemish, it was like staring into a painting, feeling his own deep inadequacy against the perfect forms depicted by oils and colour. As he stared, he felt parts of himself being stripped away. Maybe it was the pain too, eating up his leg, like a worm inside him. He was being shriven.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, but this time he meant it.
Perhaps she heard the truth, because she sat back.
‘Call them,’ she said.
‘Hello, Bret. Why is it that you are calling again?’
He tried to think of something clever, some way to send a coded message, but in the end he just said: ‘I need the code to the stash box.’
There was a pause, perhaps impatient, perhaps confusion.
‘Give it here,’ the woman said, taking the phone from Bret. ‘I’ve got your dealer at gunpoint. You give me the codes or I’ll blow his fucking brains out.’
‘Fire away,’ they hissed. The line went dead.
The woman had an expression as though she had just drunk off-milk. She tossed him the phone back.
‘Well, looks like you’re going to have to think of something now,’ she said.
‘Torture me all you like, I don’t know it.’
The woman’s eyes glinted. ‘We’ll see.’
She pulled a cassette out of her back pocket. Through its two serrated-teeth holes, he could see her eyes again, eyes living in a nest of teeth.
‘Don’t,’ he said.
She put the cassette into the player, snapped it shut. Then she drew out cotton buds, put them into her ears, and turned it on.
At first just a hissing sound, but then from it, a growing murmuring. Bret knew its notes because he had written it, though that did not change its hold on him. The masters had pushed something deep into his brain, the keys to the language, but they had not given him the tools to access those keys. He could channel it, in semi-conscious states, as he worked late into the night grafting the strange characters onto the reels, but he could not think up the words.
The murmurs became a crescendo of guttural utterances, a-rhythmic, poly-syncopated, a blend of keening voices and something else shuddering beneath. Bret didn’t know if the brain created the other sounds or if they, too, were embedded into the tape, but either way he heard them now. A squelch, like flesh perforated. The flap of torn wings. The gag of a worm in the process of swallowing something whole.
Bret looked down, saw his fingers breaking back on themselves.
‘No, please stop it.’
He began to cry. Something in his skull lit up, a struck match. His tongue tingled. His ears felt as though they had been jet-washed. He heard everything. A cloud descended over his eyes.
Then his eyes popped from his skull, waving on stalk-like antenna as the sockets offered blood to the soil.
‘Oh god, oh god, please.’
She turned off the cassette, and that was worse, she’d left him half finished, a mess of disjointed being. He could not cry tears, so he wept blood.
‘The code, or this keeps going,’ she said, pulling the cotton buds out of her ears.
‘1-9-2,’ he said.
She entered it into the security system and the locks popped. There were thirty cassettes stacked up in the box. She sighed, satisfied.
‘You’ll be rich,’ Bret said. His tongue wasn’t right in his mouth. It was too fat. He gingerly tried to feel his eyes, but he had no fingers left.
She walked away, returned a few moments later with oil, a rucksack, and Bret’s matches. She poured the oil over the cassettes and then lit a match. She dropped it into the box and the cassettes went up in flames.
Bret screamed. In his current condition, it was like watching someone set fire to the last food on Earth. Through the mess of his mind, he thought: You’ll make more. That’s all. You’ll make more. It’s going to be okay.
The voice that answered back, that said he needed to fight through the addiction, was so weak it was barely audible.
‘Look at me, Bret.’
Bret tried, but his stalk-eyes were difficult to control. He was a horror, a mewling wretch. If he’d seen something that looked like himself, he would have killed it on sight. That was part of the power of the tapes, the addiction to feeling wretched. He’d been called worthless his whole life, by his father, by the masters. Only his clients appreciated his art.
‘You can keep your life, Bret,’ she said. ‘I’m giving you another shot. Because I’m not you. But you have to prove to me you’re better than this…’ She held aloft the final tape. ‘I’m going to put this in the car and play it.’ She reached into his pockets and pulled out his car keys. Then she opened her rucksack and revealed what could only be plastic explosives. There was a digital screen with a three-minute timer set into the brown-paper coloured brick. ‘I’m putting this right here.’ She laid it on the ground next to the bear trap. ‘If you have the strength, you’ll crawl away from the tape. The radius of the explosion isn’t that wide.’ She crouched down, peering into his bug-like eyes, unfazed. ‘But I suspect you’ll fail.’ She was grinning now. ‘I suspect when it comes to it, you’ll keep listening, because you love the taste of your own medicine. It’ll take a hold of you, and you’ll crawl towards your own death, because that’s the kind of pathetic fuck you are.’ She spat into his eye. There was no way for him to blink the sting of it away.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Please.’ But it was useless and he knew it.
She inserted the tape back into the cassette player, the cotton buds into her ears, and turned it on. She walked over to the Lancer and placed the cassette player on the passenger seat through the shattered windscreen.
‘Fuck,’ Bret said, as the sound washed over him, gripped him. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’
The woman pressed a small button on the side of the digital explosives clock, and the counter started running down: 2:59, 2:58, 2:57…
With her foot, she touched a mechanism and the bear trap flopped open.
‘You choose,’ she said, walking away.
Bret lay there, the dark language rising around him, crawling into him through the wounds that it had made. The wings were coming, bubbling through his shoulder blades.
It’s okay, he thought, I’m becoming something beautiful.
He began to crawl, like the insect that he was.
Joseph Sale is a novelist, writing coach, and student of Japanese. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. Since, he has authored Seven Dark Stars, Across the Bitter Sea, Orifice, The Meaning of the Dark, Nekyia and more.
He writes for GameSpew, and has an enduring love of video-games. His short fiction has appeared most recently in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. In 2017 he was nominated for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize.