Authors: Shaun Jeffrey
Published by Deshca Press
Copyright © 2012 by Shaun Jeffrey
Edited by Stacey Turner
Kindle Edition License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
To Rhonda, Stacey, Lorraine, Patti, Ignite, Jud and Joo who helped with the proofing and offered general comments about the story. Thanks.
One good win. That’s all he needed.
Zen Barker stared at the list of runners and riders tacked to the wall of the betting shop. Picking a winner was a rare occurrence, but like the jockeys, he kept trying.
He shook his Medusa tangle of dreadlocks and pursed his lips as he studied the form, the deciphering of which required the services of Einstein.
Sweat coated his upper lip and he wiped it away. Then he fiddled with the ring through his eyebrow, his fingers brushing the small scar on his forehead, the result of an accident soon after his birth when his mother dropped him – at least she
it was an accident. He often thought she probably couldn't even remember the birth as she would have been too stoned.
With the next race about to start, Zen went up to the counter and handed across his slip and the money, the t-shirt he wore allowing him to proudly display his tattoos like armour.
With the bet placed he sat in one of the red, plastic chairs that lined the middle of the room and stared at the screen. As the race started he wrapped his fingers around the tobacco in his pocket; hated the fact he couldn’t light up in public any more.
No matter which screen he looked at, his horse ambled along as though out for a canter. Didn’t it realise he had money riding on it?
But then the lead horse fell and unable to avoid it as it tried to regain its feet, the next horse swerved too sharply and unseated the rider. The next horse collided with the now upright fallen horse and launched its jockey on an ungainly flight. More horses became tangled in the melee, but Zen’s horse was far enough back to avoid the fray. Zen jumped to his feet as his horse galloped past, continuing to the winning post.
Zen whooped and hollered. With ten pounds each-way on it at 20/1, he picked up two hundred and fifty pounds plus his stake.
After collecting his winnings, he headed towards the pub with a rare spring in his step. He wasn't even bothered when an old woman stopped and stared at him with a look of disgust and horror. The reassuring weight of the notes in his pocket acted like Valium. Nothing could ruin his day.
The Rod and Sceptre pub was virtually empty, the only patrons the unemployed and the dispossessed – unless trying to score various drugs or services of the night, the pub wasn't a popular drinking hole.
Zen walked to the bar and wafted a wad of ten-pound notes at the brassy, bleached blonde barmaid.
“Bottle of Bud. No, better make that three bottles, save me coming back to the bar.”
“I hope you aren't going to cause any trouble,” the barmaid said.
“Gloria, you know me. I don't cause trouble, it just has a way of finding me.”
“Well, if I have to throw you out again, you'll be barred.”
“You know it wasn't my fault.”
“It never is.”
Gloria uncapped three bottles of Budweiser and put them on the counter.
“Can you give me some change as well?” Zen asked, passing her a twenty-pound note.
Gloria held the note up to the light, eyeing it warily.
Zen grinned. “It’s kosher.”
After Gloria handed over his change, Zen gathered the bottles like a glass bouquet and walked to the fruit machine that summoned him with its bright lights and noise. Slipping coins into the slot, he lost ten pounds in less than five minutes.
Finally resigned to losing, he kicked the machine – an action that elicited a warning glare from Gloria – then he walked away and sat at a cigarette-scarred table in the corner of the room.
With a couple of gulps, he finished the first beer and reached for his second when the door opened and three men dressed in dark apparel walked in. Zen didn't recognise any of them and the pub’s territorial patrons stared at the newcomers as if they were an invading army.
Zen rolled a cigarette to smoke in the area set aside outside the back door; watched as the men bought drinks and sat at a table where one of them took out a pack of playing cards.
After watching them play a few hands, Zen stood up and walked across. “Can anyone play?” he asked.
“Sure,” said a large, dark haired man wearing a black shirt. “Pull up a stool.” He clenched his jaw, his square face like a puzzle box, expression indecipherable.
“No limit Texas Hold ‘em. You know how to play?” asked a skinny albino man with '
' and '
' tattooed across his knuckles. He had the most intense, red eyes Zen had ever seen and his dark suit made his white skin even more severe. The absence of pigment made him appear ice cold, like a ghost, his thin, drawn features as sharp as a knife.
Zen nodded. “Just tell me what the blinds are and deal the cards.”
“Small blind’s a pound, big blind two,” the large man said.
“Great.” Zen watched as the third man dealt the players their hole cards. Of average build, a criss-cross of scars lined his baldhead like a topographical map. One of his ears appeared to be missing a chunk, as though gnawed at by a rat and his eyes appeared black, pupils dilated. He looked foreign, perhaps Middle Eastern.
After only a couple of hands, Zen’s winnings dwindled. He noticed the men cast furtive glances at each other and although he had no proof, he suspected they were fleecing him, a proverbial lamb to the fucking slaughter.
Twenty minutes and over a hundred pounds down, he decided to cut and run. “Okay fellas, that's me lot. I can't say it's been a pleasure.”
The large man stared at him and then pulled a knife out of his pocket and stabbed it into the wooden table. The handle swayed back and forth like a cobra, transfixing Zen.
“Whoa, easy fellas. You've had me money, let's just leave it at that.” Zen pushed his chair back to enable him to run. He didn't like the look of this at all and his heart thundered.
“What's your life worth?” the albino man asked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Want to gamble it?” The albino licked his lips and drank from his beer.
“Gamble what?” He looked at the man's hand wrapped around the bottle, sure that the tattooed word had changed. It now read '
“Are you mad?” Zen grimaced. What sick game were they playing?
The large man pulled a big, manila envelope out of the air like a magician. He opened it with equal flourish. “Twenty thousand pounds,” he said, fanning the fifty-pound notes.
Zen looked at the money, then at the man holding it, and wondered what the hell was going on. Where had the envelope come from?
“What's this all about?”
The seriousness of the situation kicked in, his face cooling as the blood drained from his cheeks.
“I'll ask the questions,” the albino man said. “What's your life worth?”
“More than you can afford, that's for sure.”
“What if I said this was just a down payment?”
“Down payment on what?”
“What if I asked you to gamble your life for, let's say, two hundred thousand, would you be interested?”
“Pounds. But make no mistake; we're talking about your life here. You lose ... you die. Are you a gambler or not? Want to take the ultimate gamble?”
Two hundred thousand pounds. Although scared shitless, Zen was intrigued. But they must be joking. Having a laugh at his expense, the apparent changing tattoos an elaborate trick.
“But what do I have to do? What's the bet?” He didn't believe they were being serious, but he’d play along. He narrowed his eyes, waiting for the punch line.
“Like I said, I'll ask the questions. Do you want to take the bet or not?”
“How can I take a bet when I don't know what it is?”
“Two hundred thousand pounds, that's what it is.”
“You're ‘avin’ a laugh?”
“Yes or no? Twenty thousand now, the rest if you win.”
“You're fuckin’ mad.”
He made to leave when the door to the bar opened and a thickset, Asian man entered, followed by two large sidekicks. They all sported short hair and wore large, gold sovereign rings like knuckle-dusters. The Asian man’s long pointed sideboards looked like two daggers aiming at his lips.
“Well, well, look who it is,” the Asian man said, grinning.
“Hasif, long time no see.” Zen forced a smile.
“Oh, but I've been lookin', my man, I've been lookin'.”
I don't doubt it
. “Let me get you a drink.”
“Just give me the money you owe and we’ll call it quits.”
“You know I ain't got that much money. I'll need time.”
“You've had time. Now time's up.”
“But I just ain't got it.”
“Then I feel sorry for you. Take him outside and cut off one finger for each thousand pounds he owes. When you run out of fingers, move on to his toes.”
The two sidekicks lumbered towards Zen, grinning in anticipation.
“Look, Hasif, you know I'm good for it. I've got a tip and when it comes in, I'll pay you it all back, with interest. You know that. Come on, don't be stupid.” Zen backed away, his hands held up in surrender.
“Too little, too late.” Hasif motioned to his men with a flick of the wrist.
Zen looked around for a way out. Then he saw the three men sitting around the table. The large man pushed the manila envelope towards him and grinned.
Zen felt the panic coursing through his body. What could he do? He knew Hasif and his men were serious about mutilating him. They would do it without a second thought, using him as a warning to other non-payers.
He glanced at the envelope, swallowed to wet his dry throat and reached for it. He felt as though this whole episode had been staged for his benefit.
The albino man grabbed his wrist. The tattoo across his knuckles read, '
'. “Do you accept the bet?”
“Yes, yes, just give me the fuckin’ money.”
The albino man smiled and let go.
“Here. It's all here. Take it.” He thrust the envelope into the hands of the nearest man who then passed it to Hasif. The loan shark slowly counted the money and eventually nodded his head.
“It's your lucky day,” Hasif said, motioning his men back.
Zen sighed with relief and his pulse slowed to something unlikely to give him a heart attack. He turned to look at the card players and his pulse raced back up.
Impossible as it seemed, they’d disappeared.
Zen wasn't stupid and after the strange bet he stayed away from the Rod and Sceptre pub. The men didn’t know his name, never mind where he lived so he felt safe in the knowledge that he was on a winning streak.
Although out of his territory, The Ferret pub felt safe. Despite being a back street dive where your feet stuck to the ground, the drinks were cold. He couldn't ask for much more as he sipped his beer and twiddled the ring in his eyebrow. Things were looking up.
He’d paid Hasif off, wiped the slate clean, and the men who’d foolishly given him the money could go whistle. Christ, there were millions of people in the city. What were they thinking giving him twenty thousand pounds and then disappearing? He grinned to himself. Did they really think he would hang around and wait for them? There was a sucker born every minute.
He shook his head and laughed. How they managed to disappear from the pub without him seeing still vexed him, but what the hell. Out of sight, out of mind.
Across the bar room, he saw a young girl standing in the smoking area just outside the back door.
She looked about sixteen, but with the vacant, dispossessed look of a bored call girl waiting to venture out to find her next trick.
Dressed in a short, black leather skirt, high heeled shoes, and a pink boob tube top that barely covered her modesty, she looked provocative; even more so as she readjusted her position, making her braless boobs bounce.
With her brown hair tied back in a ponytail and her cheeks daubed with too much rouge, accentuating her paleness, she looked cheap. She pouted her sensuous, full lips and put a cigarette between them.
He watched as she searched her handbag for a light, shaking her head when she failed to find one, her gold, dangling earrings glinting in the meagre radiance. Zen strolled over and struck a match down the wall. The girl eyed him warily, the flame reflected in her sad, blue eyes before she lowered her head to light the cigarette.
“Thanks,” she muttered.
She exhaled a stream of smoke, her lips a sneer, left eye half closed as though afraid of getting smoke in it.
“I haven't seen you in here before,” she said, taking another draw on the cigarette, her hoarse voice an indicator that she smoked too much.
“Perhaps you haven't been looking hard enough.”
The girl snorted. “Don't flatter yourself.”
“What can I say, me mother told me to be careful because I'll break hearts.”
“Mirrors, more like.”
Zen feigned mock disappointment.
The girl stubbed her cigarette out with the toe of her shoe and shook her head. “Sorry, just had a shitty night.”
“Was that before or after you met me?”
She shrugged, noncommittal, and smiled.
Zen liked her smile. Fresh faced, he could tell that underneath the makeup, she was good looking. The makeup made her look like a tart. Perhaps that was the point. A cosmetic mask behind which to hide. He knew how she felt as his tattoos served the same purpose.
“My name’s, Chastity.”
She stared at him. “Cool name.”
The door to the bar burst open and Chastity visibly shrank, looking like the little girl she was as a tall, wiry man entered. He scowled and looked around the bar. When he spotted Chastity, he jerked a thumb towards the door as though hitching a lift.
“Sorry, I'm going to have to go.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
The wiry man at the door looked agitated.
Chastity wiped her eyes, smearing cheap mascara. Then she teetered across the room without looking back.
When she reached the door, the wiry man grabbed her wrist with one hand and slapped her face with the other, making her wince.
He dragged her towards the door, and her boob tube came down slightly and she pulled it back up, as though to maintain a sense of dignity.
Zen chewed at the skin around one of his fingers then stood and followed the pair outside in time to see the man dragging Chastity down an alley at the side of the pub.
A scream pierced the night and Zen flinched. The sound chilled him to the core. He didn't need to guess where it originated.
A single streetlamp with a flickering bulb created a subtle, stroboscopic effect. Chastity and the man stood underneath the light, struggling. The man slapped Chastity's face and she screamed again.
“Hey, leave her alone,” Zen shouted.
“This is none of your business,” the man replied, spittle flying from his lips.
“Well, I’m making it my business.”
“Then you’re dafter than you look.”
Zen started down the alley, his heart racing.
“Look, get the fuck out of here,” the man said.
“No can do. If you want to slap someone around, why not try it with me?” He stood in front of the man, fists clenched almost as tight as his sphincter.
“Zen, just leave it.” Chastity wiped her eyes.
“Zen, what stupid sort of name is that?”
Before Zen could reply, a police car screeched into the alley, its headlights scything the dark. He shielded his eyes. Heard a car door open.
“What’s going on here?” the figure that exited the vehicle asked.
“What’s it got to do with you?” the wiry man snarled.
“We had a report of a disturbance.”
Zen relaxed his stance and put his hand in his pocket, nervously fingering the hashish he scored earlier. “There’s no problem here.”
The police officer stepped in front of the car headlights, a silhouette whose shadow bled across the ground. “It doesn’t look like nothing to me. Miss, are you okay?”
The car engine ticked over like a purring lion. “Well can you step over here.” It wasn’t a question.
The wiry man grabbed Chastity’s arm. “What do you want her for?”
“Let the girl go, sir.”
“Look, she’s my daughter. I’m just looking out for her. What do you want her for?”
The police officer stepped away from the vehicle. No longer a silhouette, he became a physical presence. “Sir, let the girl go.”
“Because I said so.”
The wiry man chewed his lip.
“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. I’d prefer the hard way, but I don’t think you would.”
“You can’t threaten me.”
“Who said anything about threats?”
Zen didn’t like the look of this. Something wasn’t quite right, the copper too bolshy.
“The girl isn’t going anywhere with you. Now just fuck off and leave us alone.”
The police officer pulled his baton out. “So you’ve picked the hard way. Good.” He smiled, his teeth luminous and predatory, then without warning, he charged towards the wiry man.
A syringe full of fear injected Zen’s system.
The wiry man let go of Chastity’s arm and tried to protect himself as the police officer attacked, raining down blows with the baton.
Unsure what to do, Zen heard the police car door open and another man stepped out.
This didn’t look good at all. Zen grabbed Chastity from behind. She struggled, squirmed, and tried to stamp on his foot.
“Hey,” Zen hissed. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“I can’t leave him.”
Chastity’s father lay unconscious on the ground, curled up in a ball as the police officer continued his onslaught.
“Yes, you can.”
The police officer looked at Zen. “Now it’s your turn,” he snarled, his face awash with shadows.
Zen heard the other police officer running up behind him. He released Chastity’s waist, grabbed her hand and tried to pull her along.
“Run goddamn it,” Zen said.
Finally realising the seriousness of the situation, Chastity stopped struggling and with one hand holding up her boob tube and the other gripped by Zen, she ran.
Zen had no idea where the dark, dismal alley led. He was in strange territory, the buildings drab and decaying. His heart pounded as though about to burst. Footfalls echoed like hard slaps, prompting him to run faster. The aroma of Chinese food filled the air and a pile of rubbish from the Chinese restaurant blocked the alley: bin bags and cardboard boxes in various stages of decay. Zen charged through the rotten containers, disturbing a couple of rats that scurried along the wall. Half-chewed spare ribs scattered across the ground – at least he hoped they were spare ribs.
Behind him, the police officer growled like a rabid dog and Zen ran faster. At his side, Chastity wheezed.
The alley twisted and turned like a maze. He ran down a short flight of well-worn steps that looked like a giant thumb had pressed down on them, and followed the alley to the right. At a T-junction, Zen took the left path. A streetlamp at his rear cast his shadow before him. As he approached the next light, his shadow shortened until the light sat directly overhead. The bulb flickered, bathing Zen in a baleful orange radiance.
He felt strangely buoyant and giddy. Then the curious orange light flashed over him again and he saw a weird, intermittent light in the distance – for one ridiculous moment, it looked like a lighthouse. Strange as it seemed, the buildings now seemed different, almost predatory as they leaned over. He didn’t know why, but he thought he’d been here before; he remembered it like a bad dream, but he didn’t have time to stand and stare.
Decaying metal drainpipes flanked the mouldy walls, putrescent liquid spurting from rusty cracks. Another flight of steps led up and turned to the left, causing Zen’s thighs to ache with the exertion. Then the alley came to a dead-end, a brick wall daubed with two luminous red, spray-painted words:
Zen wanted to scream.
He quickly scanned the area and noticed a barely discernible door to the side. With no handle visible, he pushed, relieved when it swung open. He turned back to grab Chastity, startled to find she was no longer there. He looked along the alley, but couldn’t see her.
He scratched his head and shivered as he remembered the albino man and his cohorts disappearing in a similar fashion.
Footsteps echoed in the distance.
Chastity? He opened his mouth to shout, but the two police officers ran around the corner. In the gloom, they looked unnatural, composed of darkness. Visibly shaking, Zen tumbled through the door and slammed it shut. He scratched around the frame, found a bolt and threw it across, relieved that he could shut them out.
He leaned against the door, wheezing. Sweat coated his body, making him feel uncomfortable. On the other side, he heard the police officers. Although hard to discern, it sounded as though they were sniffing the door. Zen frowned.
As he caught his breath, he looked around, but it was too dark to see anything. He wasn’t going to venture back through the door, not while the police were on the other side, so he took a few tentative steps into the room, hoping to find another way out, his hands feeling for obstructions.
He noticed a faint light in the distance, and he headed towards it. The ground felt slippery so he proceeded with caution. He took a breath, coughed; the air smelled fetid, like rotting vegetation or meat. Thick enough to chew, the aroma made him feel slightly sick. The ground didn’t help. Unreliable, it swayed as he stepped on it, like uneven flagstones.
The light grew brighter, flickering and dancing across walls that seemed to twist and turn.
“So you’ve made it.”
The voice made Zen jump and he spun around to trace the source. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a flame and he turned towards it, mesmerised as it grew brighter, seeming to hover unnaturally in the air.
The flame flickered like a serpent’s tongue. “Have you forgotten so soon?”
“Forgotten what? What is this? Who are you?”
“The bet.” The albino man stepped into the light and grinned.
Zen swirled around, his heart pumping, fingers tingling. Not waiting around to find out what was going on, he ran in the opposite direction, but another light flared in his path and the albino man’s large partner appeared, his face bathed in the flame’s glow. Zen skidded to a halt and changed direction, but another flame flared and the bald headed man with the scars appeared. The odds didn’t look good.
Zen clenched his fists, breath hitched in his throat.
He couldn’t believe it. The card players had found him, although he had the gut feeling that he’d never been lost.
“Okay, what the fuck’s going on? What the hell is this place?” Zen tried to make his voice sound calmer than he felt but his heart was racing and a spear of ice penetrated his abdomen.
“We want to lay out the rules of the bet,” the albino man said.
“Bet. Are you stupid? You don’t really expect me to put my life up as a stake. And where the hell am I?”
The albino man glared at Zen. “This is the place of dreams and nightmares. If people are willing to pay the price, they find us, or we find them. You accepted the bet. There’s no going back.”
“You didn’t think I really meant it. Whatever it is, you can forget it. I’ll pay you the money back.”
“Do you like pain?”
Zen spat on the ground. “You can’t scare me. Bigger men than you have tried.”
The albino man laughed. “I see you like having your body pierced. Perhaps if I show you some of the body modifications we’ve performed.” He clicked his fingers, creating a dry sound like snapping bone, and a figure materialised out of the dark.
Zen bit his tongue and strained his eyes to make anything out. He didn’t know how they’d found him, but whatever they threatened him with, they couldn’t force him to do anything he didn’t want to.
The figure stepped into the wan light of the candle and Zen almost choked.
Naked, hideous stapled wounds were all that remained of the woman’s breasts, the flesh stretched taut between the fastenings. Her torso appeared equally revolting; the skin sliced to leave angry scars like visible ribs. However, most grotesque was her face. Cheeks removed, hinged metal filaments replaced the skin, a cage for her teeth that gleamed behind the bars. She smiled – or at least attempted to – the metal rods bending to accommodate the facial expression.
Bile rose in Zen’s throat and he gagged.
The figure raised an arm skewered by metal rods. Where the rods entered, the flesh puckered.
“We did this to her because it’s what she wanted. Now imagine what we could do to you,” the albino said
Zen swallowed, fought not to be sick. His legs shook. “You’re all fuckin’ crazy, but you can’t scare me.”
“The terms of the bet are as follows. To win, you have to kill someone.” He grinned.
Zen went cold. He shook his head. “Look, forget it.”
The albino man shrugged. “By taking the money, you’ve already accepted. Now certain people will try to stop you ... to kill you, but if you succeed, you win.”
Zen snorted loudly. This was crazy. “And just for one moment suppose I accepted. What happens if I don’t succeed?”
“Then we’ll kill you.” The three men laughed and the disfigured woman formed the semblance of what might have been a salacious grin.
Zen felt as though he’d taken a wrong turn on the reality highway.
“Now you need to head for a village called Trinity,” the fat man barked. “That’s where we see how lucky you really are.” He extended his arm to indicate Zen should leave. Zen didn’t need telling twice.
After a few steps, the dark devoured him and his foot caught on something lurking in the gloom. He raised his hands to cushion the fall but still managed to hit his head on the ground. Bright lights flashed before his eyes and he felt dizzy.
Zen sat up and rubbed his head, wincing at the resultant pain. His fingers came away slick with blood; he’d hurt himself more than he realised.
“Bloody drunken bum.”
Zen looked up and frowned.
“Haven’t you got any respect, you bloody freak?”
The three figures standing over him were faceless shadows. Above them, he saw the sign for The Ferret public house.
“How did I get back here?” Zen mumbled.
“If you didn’t drink so much, you’d remember.” The men laughed cruelly, kicking him to punctuate the words.
Zen tried to gain his feet to fight back, but the men kicked him back down. He hugged himself against more attacks, felt each blow like a spear driven through his body.
After what seemed an age, one of the men said, “Fuck it, I could do with a drink. Leave the bastard.” A final boot connected with Zen’s head and then he heard their footsteps retreating along the street.
He sat up and winced at the pain that assailed his body. Felt as if he’d been in a car crash.
The memory of the mutilated girl impinged behind his eyes and he coughed, spitting out a wad of bloody phlegm. Had he imagined it all?
His stomach relinquished its hold on its contents. When he’d finished vomiting, Zen wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve and stood up. His head spun, the world turning too fast.
He wasn’t a murderer. They couldn’t make him kill someone. He would think of something. He had to.
The library door crashed open, rattling books on the floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
Startled, Fraser Crowe dropped his copy of The Odyssey and looked up. Framed in the doorway, his new bride Melantha resembled a living painting. With her long, black hair tied back, her defined cheekbones appeared more severe than usual, and her green eyes flashed with eagerness.
“What's the matter?” Fraser asked.
Melantha flicked a stray hair from her face and curled it behind her ear. “I think it’s time we consummated our marriage.” Her accent seemed to flow and change with each syllable, as though wandering through dialects without adopting one.
“It is!” Fraser felt himself go red in the face.
. Come on.”
“Really?” He studied his beautiful young bride to see if she was joking. Could she finally be serious?
Melantha smiled and cocked a finger towards him. She curled the digit, beckoning him like a mysterious Pied Piper.
And Fraser followed.
They walked out of the library and into the parquet hall. The smell of old wood and polish filled the air. Fraser wrinkled his nose.
always irritated his sinuses. At the end of the hallway, a wooden banister spiralled to the upper floors of the rambling, sixteenth century mansion. Landscape paintings and portraits lined the stairway. Fraser noticed a bright patch on the wall where the painting of his first dearly departed wife, Maude, used to hang before his new bride took it down.
He didn't feel any sense of loss for either the painting or his wife, which was strange considering that for over forty years she had been the love of his life.
Melantha strode ahead, and he eyed her curvaceous posterior. Dressed in a short black skirt, a black jacket and a tight, white, diaphanous top, she oozed style. Three days into a marriage conducted in an unorthodox gypsy ceremony, he hadn’t even seen her naked yet. He knew some people might call him a dirty old man for marrying someone so young, and that she only married him for his money, but he didn’t care. Until now, she’d rebuffed any attempt he made at intimacy. But this was it. He shivered in anticipation. To hell with what anyone else thought.
Fraser hesitated when Melantha walked past the stairs. “I thought we were going to bed.”
“Oh, this’ll be much more fun.”
Too excited to argue, Fraser followed.
Once outside, he hurried to keep up. The bright daylight stung his tired old eyes and he blinked rapidly as he watched Melantha cross the drive towards the stable block.
“Wait,” Fraser shouted, but his call went unanswered. What was she up to, the little minx?
Fraser increased his pace, and the arthritic pain in his legs flared up. He winced but didn't slow down. No way was he going to slow down now.
A mild spring day, the garden would soon be a wash of colour as the flowers that hibernated during the long winter reappeared. In the tall oak trees at the foot of the garden, crows squawked and squabbled.
Glimpsed in the window of a darkened room, Fraser's grey hair looked almost incandescent. His first wife used to say his benevolent face would let him charm birds from trees. His blue eyes weren’t as bright as they used to be, but he still saw well enough, which was more than could be said for some of the corpulent captains of industry with whom he associated. He put some of his longevity down to the glass of malt whisky he consumed every day, the rest dogged determination to live forever.
On the far side of the driveway, Melantha unfastened the padlock and heavy chain that she’d fixed on the garage when she moved into the house. Was it really only a few days ago? Having known her less than a week, it already felt as though he had known her all his life. With nothing of importance in the garage, and as he never used it to park his Mercedes or Bentley as it took too long to get them out, he hadn’t objected to her using it. Not that he would have anyway.
By the time Fraser reached the garage, Melantha had already opened the door and he spied her brightly painted Romany caravan in the gloom. The last time he’d seen the garish vehicle, it had been in his parking space at work. Symbols decorated the exterior wooden panels, but there were also faces, almost indiscernible, visible only when glimpsed from the corner of an eye; the rest of the time they remained hidden within a riot of colour.
He heard the whinny of Melantha's horse. It had been tethered to the front of the caravan when he'd first seen it. Fraser turned and looked towards the house, its turrets and portcullises a jagged shadow against the bright sky, but he saw no sign of the dapple-grey horse.
He walked into the garage, and a pang of doubt crept over him. Why would she bring him out here?
Bright motes of dust floated in the air, illuminated by sunlight streaming through the high windows.
Melantha sat on the rear stoop of the caravan stroking the ear of what appeared to be a large, grey dog of indeterminable breed; it looked vicious and it sat next to her as though on guard, its eyes quick and alert. Fraser disliked her companion, but as she kept it locked in the garage with her caravan, he could live with it. He saw its beady eyes devouring him like a juicy slab of meat and he looked away. The damn thing resembled some form of genetic mutant, probably the mixed offspring of feral beasts.
“What have you brought me out here for when there’s a perfectly good bed in the house?” Fraser asked.
“You remember when we first met, how you moaned about me parking in your space.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? It was early in the morning. I didn't know you.”
“And do you know me now?”
Fraser licked his lips. In truth, he hardly knew anything about her, but he nodded.
Melantha smiled. “You’d painted your name on the car park wall and expected to own it.”
“It was my parking space, that's—”
“Oh Fraser. Stop being so petulant.” She rolled her sleeve up to reveal Fraser's name scrawled in black ink on her arm. “You’re a
. Crazy foreigner.” She shook her head and laughed, the sound trickling from her mouth like spring water. “So by rights, this means you’re mine.”
“You know I’m yours, heart and soul.”
Melantha parted her legs, revealing she was naked underneath. “But this is what you really want.”
Fraser's throat felt dry. He tried to swallow. “You know damn well it is.”
Melantha stood, climbed the three steps and opened the caravan door. Fraser stood at the bottom and looked up. He watched Melantha walk farther into the caravan until she disappeared in the shadows. The dog sat on the ground outside.
Fraser heard the soft whisper of material as she removed her clothes and he stepped closer, literally rubbing his hands with glee.
Something black extricated itself from the darkness and flew towards him, flapping and fluttering. Fraser clutched his chest, trying to steady his heart as the object came to rest at his feet. Melantha's black jacket. Fraser felt a stirring in his groin and he licked his lips. There was life in the old dog yet.
. Come quickly” she whispered. “
Fraser climbed the three steps and peered in. Pots and pans hung from the ceiling like percussion instruments in a strange band. A purple, padded bench ran along one wall, with a small table beside it. He absently noticed the hand delivered letter she’d received this morning lying on the table. Ever since its arrival, she’d been acting peculiarly. But if this was the result, what did he care. The room smelt musty, but another aroma lingered, one he couldn't quite place. But he forgot all about that when he saw Melantha.
She stood in the middle of the caravan. The lack of light made it hard to see clearly, but she was touching herself, rubbing her breasts with one hand and rubbing her other hand up and down her thigh. Her movements offered a tantalising glimpse of pubic hair through the split in the skirt.
Fraser felt the bulge in his trousers grow, the snake charmed by the charmer. He licked his lips and entered the caravan. His heart hammered in his chest, but this time it wasn’t through fright.
,” she said, lowering the strap from her shoulder.
Fraser stood with his mouth open, hardly daring to breathe in case he broke the spell. He watched as she slid the flimsy fabric down to reveal a large, erect nipple. She covered her bare breast with her hand and parted her fingers slightly so the nipple peeked through, teasing him. Finally, she removed her hand and pulled down the other strap so the top fell around her waist. When she moved, her large breasts swayed and Fraser ached to touch them.
Although dark in the caravan, it seemed to grow darker. Fraser found himself afraid to take his eyes off Melantha in case it was all a dream. Eventually he blinked. The split second that he lost sight of her made his heart yearn. His legs went weak and he staggered slightly. He felt the blood pump through his body, could feel it pound at his temples almost as much as in his trousers. He’d never felt like this before.
“But why ... why now?” he asked.
Melantha smiled and backed away, towards the rear of the caravan where the darker shadows became an almost physical presence.
Somewhere close by, the crows cawed, the sound as shrill as a witch’s cackle.
Fraser staggered towards Melantha, making the caravan rock, the pots and pans suspended from the ceiling tinkling against one another like melodic bells. Fraser took a step. Then another. But strangely, Melantha seemed farther away. He couldn't understand it. From the outside, the caravan appeared small, but inside it appeared cavernous. With each step he took, his footfalls echoed.
He rubbed his eyes and blinked; felt dizzy and hot. Sweat prickled his forehead. He tugged at his tie, fumbled with the buttons on his shirt, but his fingers felt clumsy, like sausages. He couldn't breathe.
Fraser gasped. He muttered Melantha's name, but she didn't answer. He could still see her, as though viewed from afar as she reclined on a white mattress that framed her dark skin. She fingered herself with one hand while the index finger of her other hand circled her mouth, her tongue flicking out from between her lips like a moray eel in search of prey.
Fraser gave up on the buttons and tore his shirt open. He heard a couple of buttons ping on the ground and roll away, but he didn't care. Face flushed, he struggled to undo his trousers, the belt as slippery as a snake.
Trousers around his ankles, he hurried to reach her, but in his haste, he stumbled and fell onto the ground where a sliver of wood pierced his palm. He looked at his hand. A splinter protruded from his lifeline. He pulled the wood out and a spot of blood formed.
Ignoring the pain, he stood back up. Rapid little breaths burst from his mouth. Maude would never have done this. Never openly sexy, they even turned the light out when they made love, and it always seemed more like an obligation than a pleasure. But Melantha ... she wanted him, the little minx. All this time, she’d just been toying with him. A sharp, lancing pain exploded in his chest, but he staggered on, willing to oblige.
“I'm here, I'm here,” he replied, struggling to tug off his trousers. His face and palms grew sweaty, and he felt clammy.
He looked across at Melantha and froze on the spot, his mouth hanging open.
Outside, the dog growled.
Fraser rubbed his eyes and clutched his chest. Instead of Melantha, a hideously scarred harridan lay on the mattress. Ugly white scars covered the whole of its body, appearing to knit the flesh together. Wounds on its face smiled independent of its mouth. Eyelids and lips bulged with scars; the lesions on its lips gave it an abnormal fish pout.
Strangely, the mutilation seemed to have some sort of order to it, almost like hieroglyphics. No longer a woman, this was a cicatrised monster.
The disfigured creature cocked a finger at Fraser and grinned, the facial scars realigning to accommodate the ugly expression.
Fraser gagged. Every breath he took hurt his chest. He coughed. Choked; felt as though fingers squeezed his heart, wringing the blood from it. He staggered back, clutched at his upper body.
The last sound he ever heard was that of Melantha, laughing.
A circle of prestigious cars blocked the driveway and the windows needed a lick of paint, but the large mansion appeared as Verity Crowe remembered it. She stood and stared at the building for a moment, allowing previously buried memories to claw their way to the surface.
After a moment, she started walking; tried to swallow the lump in her throat. Ruffled by the wind, her purple taffeta skirt billowed around her legs. The multicoloured, raindrop bindi glued in-between her eyebrows glinted in the sunlight, enhancing her blue eyes. With each step she took, the bangles and bracelets up her arm tinkled melodically.
A noise caught her attention and she turned to see a man hammering a stake into the lawn by the road.
Verity read the sign attached to the stake.
She frowned, couldn’t believe it. Biting her lower lip, she stormed towards the house. The front door stood open, and she heard voices inside. Perhaps they were holding a dinner party, but whatever it was, she wasn't going to let it stop her now that she'd plucked up the courage to come this far.
She entered the hall and saw the sitting room curtains were drawn. Puzzled, she looked at her watch: 11.30 a.m. Why hadn't they opened the curtains?
A long black box sat in the middle of the darkened room
Verity bit her tongue and rotated one of the bangles on her wrist like a rosary bead.
She recognised the box before she reached it, but it looked so out of place in the sitting room that she didn't want to believe what her eyes told her.
A cold chill tiptoed up her spine and she shivered.
What was a coffin doing here? Morbid curiosity drew her towards it like a voyeur at a road traffic accident. Then she saw the body lying in the white linen and she felt strangely detached.
She stared wide eyed, tears bristling behind her lids. He couldn’t be dead. Not now. Not now she had returned home to make amends.
She distantly registered the sound of footfalls along the hall, felt someone grab her, and heard a voice as if from a long way away.
Verity turned and saw her brother, Peter, standing beside her.
“He's dead,” she said.
Peter nodded, expressionless. Dressed in a dark suit, he avoided looking her straight in the eye. His short black hair made him look a lot like their father – the same rugged, charismatic features.
“How? When? I don't understand.” Her mind whirled with questions.
“Come on, let’s go outside.”
Verity followed her brother out of the house where she sat on the step and took a deep breath.