A Story by A.S. Chambers
“You want me to do what?”
I was stood on the deck of my pride and joy, Icarus, fastidiously removing any trace of smear or smudge from the brass safety rail when Suzi dropped the question. I turned, unkinked the knots in my back that seemed to be growing more numerous with each passing winter, placed my hands on my hips and stared at the young woman who stood in front of me, fidgeting.
I’ve known Suzi Maloney since she was knee high. Her mum and dad were old friends of mine from way back. Jack’s been passed away some ten years now, so there’s just Suzi and her mum. Plus, Kendra, Suzi’s sweet little four-year-old bundle of energy and questions. You know the sort of stuff: “What you doing that for? How fast can your boat go? Have you fought pirates? Have you got any liquorice?”
Not the sort of thing that her mum had just asked.
The dark-haired twenty-something was worrying at the edge of the sleeve of her thick parka as I held her with my disapproving stare. I was hoping for an explanation. Instead, she just kept tugging away at a rogue thread that was trying to escape the frayed edge of her coat, her eyes studiously avoiding mine.
I eventually let out a deep sigh, my warm breath fogging in the frigid air. “Suzi?”
This time she indeed looked up and my heart ached as I saw the desperation in her dark eyes. “I said that I need to hire Icarus. Buster has a very important business deal. He needs somewhere private to carry it out.”
“I’ll bet he does,” I growled, and Suzi’s eyes suddenly shot away again. “What is it this time? Timeshares on the Algarve? Holiday homes in Mull?” Those were the usual things that darling Buster was usually pushing. Suzi’s latest paramour was one of those oily jerks who never quite stepped over the fine line of legality, but he definitely danced incredibly close, occasionally kicking a certain amount of sand on it to blur the edges. In the two months that he and Suzi had been dating, I had seen him leave a trail of disgruntled customers chewed up, spat out and empty of pocket with not a thing that they could do about it. He was certainly clever, I’d give him that, but he just stank of dishonesty and deceit.
I folded my arms and leant against my freshly polished safety rail, the cold harbour water lapping down below against the side of my yacht. “Tell me,” I asked, “why on earth do you go for these types? Is it the cars? The flash cash? Seriously, Suzi, didn’t you learn when Kendra’s dad skipped out on you when you were six months pregnant? Why can’t you get yourself a nice lad?”
“Buster is a nice lad,” she protested. “He looks after me. With this deal, he says we’ll be able to put thousands by for Kendra’s uni fund. Plus, we’ll be able to get her something sweet for Christmas, better than the usual tat that I can afford. Imagine the look on her face when she opens something worth having! Not like the battered second-hand garbage I got her last year.”
I shook my head. It was the same old story: the boys would let their eyes wander over Suzi, and they would like what they had seen, so they would get at her through her kid. Promising Kendra the world was guaranteed to make her mother more pliable than a ball of potter’s clay. “So, what’s he planning this time? What luxury property is he selling off now?”
Suzi’s young face suddenly brightened and she rummaged around in her handbag as Christmas shoppers wandered past on the quayside, chattering brightly about their seasonal purchases or other festive crap. “Oh, it’s nothing like that,” the young woman explained, handing over an envelope she pulled out the bottomless depths of her ridiculously large handbag. “Buster’s been able to sign a deal with a bank to let him sell bonds that they back.”
Even before I opened the envelope, Suzi could not have failed to see the utter disbelief on my face. I ripped the envelope open and yanked the piece of paper out from inside. “What the hell is this?” I breathed as my eyes scanned the most godawful piece of fraud that I had ever lain eyes upon. “Seriously, Suzi, have you even looked at this?”
And there, finally, was the flicker of doubt. It crossed her eyes like a gull skimming the prow of Icarus: brief, but definitely noticeable.
I pressed home my advantage.
“Banks don’t let other people sell their merchandise. They keep a very tight rein on those things. They’re not going to want to share the profits.”
“But Buster said…” Her voice drifted off.
“What? That it was a swell idea? That it would be the last scam he would have to pull?” I waved the A4 sheet in front of her. “Come on, Suzi. It’s time to wake up. He’s using you. You need to go to the police. There’s no way he’s doing anything remotely legal here.”
Suzi chewed her bottom lip and my heart sank.
It was a habit that I had seen before from her many times as a kid. Whenever she got caught doing something she knew to be wrong, the lip would get tugged and bitten as the guilt wormed away inside of her.
“Suzi, what is it?”
“Buster said that the bank needed an up-front payment to release the bonds into his business.” I groaned. “How much?”
“It… it was just fifty pounds. He said that it was a guarantee and would be paid back once we had sold the bonds for them. He said it was all above board.”
I turned the letter over in my hand. The thick paper and the cream, embossed envelope felt expensive. Obviously, Buster hadn’t wanted to stump up the cash himself this close to Christmas. Perhaps he was too busy saving up for a flash new car to park under his tree? “Did the money come direct from your bank account?”
There was no way that we could go to the police now.
“Okay, so this is what we do. We need to get him to back off. You tell him that everything should be fine here, but that I need to have a small chat with him over the fine details. Health and safety, you know? Can you do that, sweetie?”
Another silent nod.
“Good girl. Get him back here tonight at six. “I’ll sort this for you.”
I’ll sort this for you.
Those were the last words that I ever heard my old man say.
When I was still a kid of single digits, my Nana, Dad’s mum, lived with us. She was the oldest person that I knew. Her hair was pure white and incredibly thin, her skin wrinkled and she smelt funny. She stayed in bed all day, reading her bible and saying her rosary. I once asked her why she did this and she said that she had nothing else to do at her age, so she might as well make sure that she was right with God when he came for her.
Then, one winter, she fell ill. Seriously ill.
Her skin turned a pale grey and her jaw became slack, dribble running from the edge of her lips. She could hardly talk and obviously my dad was worried.
It was the day before Christmas and there had been a hell of a snow storm the night before. We lived out in the countryside, miles from nowhere. It was one of the perks of Dad being the senior partner in the town’s largest legal practice. However, it meant that our nearest neighbour was only vaguely visible over on the next hill. The phone was out due to the heavy snow having brought down the lines, so we could not call for a doctor or an ambulance. Dad decided that he had to go into town and get help for his mother, so he pulled on his warmest clothes and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Bending over, kissing her softly on the forehead, he whispered the same words that I would say to a desperate young mother sixty years later.
Then he turned, left the house, drove off in the car and I never saw him again.
He was found dead in a frozen ditch the next day. Christmas Day.
Not only that, but an hour or so after he left the house, there was an almighty scream from Nana’s room. Mum and I hurried up the stairs. I was smaller, faster, so I got their first. What I saw would haunt me for the rest of my life. The elderly woman who had been quietly making peace with her maker was sat upright against the quilted headboard of the bed, her arm stretched out with her fingers splayed wide. Her dead face was set in an horrific, contorted scream of terror.
So, no, I’m not a big fan of the festive season. Whether it brings credit card debt or family anguish, Christmas sucks.
Six o’clock and Suzi arrived dead on the dot with dear old Buster. Suzi’s latest is one of those who has a wide, insincere smile permanently fixed to his orange face. The guy is just awash with teeth, bronzer and expensive cologne. Hell, it was almost Christmas and he looked like he was partying in Bermuda!
“Well, hi there, Harry!” he grinned, his snake eyes not once leaving me. “I believe you’ve agreed to host my little shindig.”
I stroked my rough beard with my gnarled fingers. “About that. Not happening.”
There was the slight hint of surprise in the corner of his eyes, but still that damned smile did not flicker. “Oh? And why would that be? It’ll be a great evening, so much fun.”
“No, Buster,” even saying the stupid name made me feel nauseous, “what will be fun is if you get all your shit together and just get the hell out of here. You’re a fraud and this time you’ve gone too far. How dare you use Suzi like this?”
He chuckled to himself. “Well now, Harry, I don’t see why I should follow you up on your advice.”
“You know who I am. You know who my father was. People respect me, people who matter. You may be able to twist and manipulate the facts to keep you out of legal trouble, but I can make it so that life here is extremely uncomfortable for you.”
There was a pause, then Buster took one step closer to me, his bright blue eyes fixed on my face. “Do you know what’s uncomfortable, Harry? I’ll tell you what’s uncomfortable. Feeling me chowing down on your soul, that’s what.”
Well, this conversation had just taken an unexpected twist.
Buster nodded. “Mmmm… yes, there we go. That sense of unexpected doubt and fear. Delicious. Now, for the last few years I’ve been dining mainly on greed. The modern society are so hard to scare these days, what with their precious internet and darling television. They just don’t get me and my old kind anymore. No, but they get greed and, once it’s been stoked up in them, I’ll quite happily slurp away all that bitter brew.
“But fear… Now fear is something else. It slips off the plate in waves, so sweet, so moist.” His tongue slid across his thick lips which seemed more engorged than they had been just a moment ago. “Yesss… so sweet. It really hits the spot. Just like it did when I appeared to your dear old Nana. I walked up to the side of her bed and peered deep into her frail eyes. Do you know what she saw in mine?
“All that reading. All those prayers as those stupid beads clicked away. All for nothing.”
He licked his lips once more and this time there was no mistaking just how plump his fat lips had become. What’s more, his tongue had changed colour from pink to a dark purple. It seemed to snake around his bright, white teeth.
Buster chuckled again, but this time it was more of a sibilant hiss. “Oh, yes. There’s the good stuff. I can smell it all over you. You reek of it. It makes me so hungry…” And, with that, his tongue shot out of his mouth and lashed itself around my neck. I gagged and fell to my knees, my old hands trying desperately to unwrap the muscular noose, but it was wet and slippery so my fingers could gain no purchase. Buster continued to chuckle in his weird sibilant hiss. His eyes faded from blue to orange and I was aware of a green mist beginning to permeate from his tanned skin.
I was also aware of Suzi behind him. She had reached into that abyssal handbag of hers and damn me for lying if she didn’t draw out a knife. I couldn’t tell what sort it was as my vision began to blur, but I could see the sharp blade glint against the twinkling fairy lights of the festively decorated quay.
I reached out towards her as she drew the weapon up and tried to cry out that this was not a good idea, but my words failed as the blade arced down into the meaty shoulder of boyfriend Buster, or whatever the hell he was.
There was a blinding flash and I was aware of a powerful force crumpling me down onto the deck as the tongue released its grip around my neck. I was also aware of a woman’s scream and the sound of Suzi careering over the safety rail into the frigid wintry waters.
I forced my old body to take control of itself and dragged myself past where Buster had once stood. I hauled myself up against the railings and peered down into the black depths. I could not see her. She must have fallen like a stone and plummeted downwards, taking in water as she fell.
I thought about her four-year-old daughter sat at home waiting for her mother to return and I cursed Christmas even more.
Lancaster’s master of the macabre is well known for marking his home town’s place on the horror map of the United Kingdom. His Sam Spallucci books, with their quirky blend of urban fantasy, film noir and dry humour, have gained a cult following over the last few years with fans journeying from around the country to see where reality meets an ever expanding universe of vampires, werewolves, angels and a plethora of other supernatural characters.