Issue 118 brings you darkness: tales of strange murder, some noir, others naturally creepy. Turn the lights down and let the words of Gina Smith, Jessica Seymour, and GC veteran Richard Godwin raise your hair on end. If you dare, come back for seconds of this issue’s Editor’s Pick for “Must Read Twice” by new-to-fiction writer Gina Smith.
The hospice people have us well-prepared. There is an order to dying, they explained. The first thing you will notice — and this is actually on a handout I have tucked into a copy of Glamour beside me — is that her feet will turn blue.
I look and I notice. Her feet, once so petite and tan in high-heeled sandals, or so I have heard, are turning blue. She is dying. I am watching her die.
I look at her — she must be 70 pounds. Her hands look oddly full-sized and bejeweled. I decide I will give her the whole syringe of morphine. She can take it, I think. Consider the patient. I give her half. I save the other half for me.
As the high warms me, I feel her hand in mine, still warm, still manicured. But her feet are blue and her breath, as predicted on the printout, is growing labored. I grab another syringe and place it carefully under her tongue.
One for her, one for me. I am glad I have all the syringes right here.
I remember how she called me, five months ago, to tell me she was dying. When she asked to see me — the first time I’d heard her voice in decades — I was stunned silent. Then curiosity killed it. I asked why. She said she wanted to see me one last time.
Another syringe. Then another. Another, another, another. Half for her, half for me. One for her and one for me. I play with it. I vary the dose.
Then it starts — that thing they call the death rattle, what the handout calls a guttural struggle. This time I give her two whole syringes quick and race out stumbling, high, so wonderfully high, and knowing that in a minute or two she will be gone.
I was five when she abandoned me at that shopping mall. I will never know why. Twenty years later, after seeing her these last six days, the first time I’ve seen her since she left me in Macy’s to be someone else’s little grandchild, I realize this is right, this is exactly right. Collapsing onto the couch, I motion to her husband to sit by her.
Your turn, I mumble. And I fade to black.
Gina writes from San Francisco, where she’s a journalist and pens bestselling science and technology books.
It was getting light out, but the washed-out Sydney street lights were still on outside Benjamin Porter’s hotel room. He looked out of the window with a glass of twenty-dollar whiskey from the mini-bar as a prostitute limped down the street, her hair flying in the breeze, her long red boots shining with every step.
Porter turned his back on the site of her and swallowed the last of his drink. A cigarette smouldered in the ashtray on the bedside table with an empty condom wrapper and a spoon caked in wet yellow sugar. His overnight bag sat on the floor near the window.
The bed groaned. A girl laid there half-comatose with a needle poking out of the crook of her elbow and a glazed look on her face. She was coming out of it, he could tell. He wished that he’d had time for a shower.
He ran his eyes over the deep, suggestive valley where the blanket dipped between her legs. He stepped forward with his hand outstretched, meaning to touch her, put his hands on her and feel the pulse beneath her mottled, drug-riddled flesh. His mouth went dry; he drew his hand back and plucked the cigarette from the ashtray, taking a long, slow drag while he watched the girl’s chest rise and fall. His tie, hastily discarded, lay beneath her. Porter felt the bile rise in his throat.
Porter left his empty glass on the table and moved to the bathroom.
Leave it to me, he’d said. Leave it to me; I’ll take care of it. Porter was more disgusted with himself than he was with the girl. He crouched down in front of the filthy bathroom cabinet and felt his knees crack as he pulled a black case out from the darkness. Clutching the case, he straightened up and examined his reflection in the grimy mirror. He stared at the long white scar that cut through his right eyebrow. Benjamin Porter was a handsome man if you liked his type – and women usually did. The dabs of grey at his temples were, apparently, particularly appealing.
He unzipped the case and cocked his head to listen for any sounds from the girl. He’d only given her a small dose, so it wouldn’t take long. When he got into the business of killing people, Porter never thought that he’d end up having sex for money. He couldn’t say that he found the work particularly appealing – at least when he took life, he knew where he stood. He knew he’d earned a black mark on his soul that would never wash away. Sex was a grey area and Porter couldn’t stand that. He wondered if the girl’s father would appreciate the effort he’d made.
The Voice only contacted Porter at night.
“This better be good,” Porter had muttered into the receiver three evenings ago. He was naked from the waist down and leant against the wall with his eyes closed, rubbing his greying temple to hold-off the coming hangover.
“It is,” The Voice had answered. “You busy this week?”
The Voice first contacted him four years before with an offer to kill a man for twenty-thousand American dollars. That was the night Porter got the scar over his eyebrow – a gift from the mark, but it didn’t save his life. Clients hired Porter through The Voice; Porter found that he liked working with a middle-man. That way he never had to deal with clients. It left his mind free for the job.
“You know I’m not,” Porter had snapped, then rubbed his eyes and felt his brain flinch.
The Voice had chuckled, “Yes you are.”
The girl in the room behind him stirred. Porter heard her muffled, pained groans through the thin walls that separated the restroom from the bed room.
When he had met her earlier that evening he was surprised. He hadn’t realized his target would be young and beautiful.
“Tell me your name,” he had said, pushing a glass of champagne into her hands and dreading what he’d have to do to her.
She’d tossed a strand of black hair out of her eyes. “Tell me yours first.”
Porter had taken his time running his eyes over her body. He’d learned that when a woman puts on a black dress that hugs her breasts and thighs, then she’s not going to be insulted when a man takes the time to enjoy them.
“Hammett,” Porter had answered. “Now tell me yours,”
She’d raised a painted eyebrow at him and smiled, enjoying his attention. “Say please,”
“Do you want me to beg?” he’d asked, returning her smile.
“For starters,” she’d said, taking a deep breath and thrusting her breasts towards him. She’d reached out and ran a long finger over his black tie. “What do you do, Mr Hammett?”
“I’m a paralegal,” he’d said. “Up on the third floor.”
“Is that so?” she’d asked, quirking her eyebrow at him. “My Daddy owns this company.” She’d surveyed the people around them with her chin up like she smelled something bad.
“No kidding,” Porter had said. “I should have known. Bosses always have beautiful daughters.”
She had accepted the compliment as nothing less than her due.
“Will you tell me your name?” he’d asked again.
“You haven’t said please.”
Porter hated this sort of girl. “I already know your last-name,” Porter had said. “It’s Cain.”
She’d hummed and didn’t answer as Porter looked at her body again, fixing his face into an expression of obvious interest.
“I have a boyfriend,” she’d said.
Porter nodded. “A beautiful girl like you should have a man in her life.” He’d glanced around while she let his words sink in. “Is he here?”
“I’ll tell you my name,” she’d said quietly. “If you do something for me.”
He lowered his head and let his eyes wonder down to her breasts.
She’d moved closer so that her chest was almost touching his. Her blue eyes were wide and promising. “Say please.”
He took her back to the hotel room he’d hired for the night. Once he got her out of her dress and onto the filthy motel sheets she was sweet as a kitten and eager to please; it was easy after the Rohypnol kicked in.
The sex had been terrible but she was too high to notice. “Tell me you love me,” she’d slurred while he busied himself with the needle.
“I love you,” he’d said, then cooked the heroin while she stared at her hands. She pouted when he took one of them and held it out so he could find the vein.
“You don’t love me at all, do you?” she’d asked.
“No,” he’d replied, picking his spot and bringing the needle up.
She had tried to pull away. “No. I don’t do that – I don’t do needles.”
“Sure you do,” Porter had said, pulling her arm tight and holding it steady.
“No, I swear –”
His stomach had churned and her pathetic whining brought a deep, painful lump into his throat that he ignored.
Benjamin Porter was, above all things, a professional.
He’d held her steady and thrust the needle into her elbow. She’d thrashed and pushed him with her other hand but he hadn’t let go until he’d emptied the needle into her, then he’d watched as her eyes slowly glazed over.
Porter then put his clothes on and lit a cigarette. This, he’d decided, was worse than killing. He had begun the meticulous clean-up that made the whole event a little easier to digest: going around the room with a damp cloth and wiping his fingerprints off every surface. He’d looked out the window while a prostitute limped past the hotel then went into the bathroom and found his camera, remembering how he got here.
Now he stood watching at the foot of the bed as she slowly opened her eyes and closed them again. He raised the camera and quickly took the picture. The sound of the shutter brought her back to Earth. “What –” She tried to push herself up and wheezed when she caught the needle, still poking out of her arm like an obscene growth, on the bed sheets. She tried to pull it out. “What’s –”
Camera in hand, Porter walked back to the bathroom and replaced it in its black case. When he came back she had the sheets bunched up over her breasts, her pupils dilated with fear and heroin. “Mr Hammett?” she asked.
He looked away and slipped the black case into his overnight bag. Inside, beside the unused heroin and Rohypnol pills, was a Berretta with a loaded cartridge and a small envelope. He pulled out the letter and handed it to the girl without a word. Her hands shook while she opened the letter. He’d already read it; he couldn’t help himself. Most jobs were straight-forward but in this case, the motive wasn’t clear and he’d wanted to know that there was a reason for what he was doing.
‘My Dearest Daughter,’ the letter said.
‘Either that idiot boyfriend of yours is out of the house by tomorrow or I’ll have this gentleman kill him. Keep your nose clean or these pictures go to the tabloids.
Porter thought the photograph went a little too far, but who was he to tell a man how to raise his child? The closest Porter had gotten to being a father was the puppy he’d owned when he was seven. He’d only had the animal a year before his stepfather beat it to death in a drunken rage.
The girl’s pupils filled her eyes; her breath came out in a thin, ragged hiss. The blanket had fallen down, revealing her shapely breasts.
“You bastard,” she said.
Her fingers clutched the tie that Porter had left in the bed beside her. He turned his back on her and headed for the door. He heard her frantic scrambling and the soft thump as she fell out of bed. She would put the dress back on, Porter predicted; and then she would call her father.
Porter thought the scrambling got louder as his fingers touched the doorknob. He thought he heard footsteps behind him. He felt something soft and light curl its way around his neck and pull hard. It pulled so hard it jerked him back. A silky, warm body pressed against his back and the hissing grew louder and filled his ears as he felt the tie tighten and fill his chest with white-hot fear.
He shouted – the sound was strangled. He kicked at the door and lost his balance, falling backward and landing hard on his back. Every breath was an effort. He felt the blood pooling in his face; he scratched and clawed at the noose biting into his flesh but it was too smooth and he couldn’t get his fingers on it. Thoughts of the gun in his bag darted through his mind but he couldn’t make sense of them. He felt knees on his shoulders and, without realising how, he was on his stomach and the knees were being pressed into his back and the tie was getting tighter.
“You bastard!” the girl shrieked in his ear.
He tried to push himself up but his arms wouldn’t do what he asked of them. They needed air, and he didn’t have any. The world went dark behind his eyes.
Jessica writes from Australia, where she studies Creative Writing at Southern Cross University in New South Wales.
We were sitting outside on some rocks when he began his strange narrative.
“Do you want me to tell you about murder?” he asked. “Do you want to know what resident shapes dwell within a man’s soul, or a woman’s for that matter?”
I looked at The Baptist, as he was known, my eyes tracing the line of the deep scar that worked its way down his furrowed forehead to where it sat neatly like a comma on his collar.
“What is it you wish to impart?”
He let his gaze wander momentarily across the landscape that cared nothing for us, the killer in nature rippling in shadows as the vast indifferent sun sank without promise on the mesa.
“I held a lady under the water once during baptism and could feel it in her,” he said.
In the dying light, his face looked like someone had scored it with a razor.
“Her spirit stirring. Deep within her. She’d come to me for counsel. She’d been, shall we say, promiscuous. She had a certain charm about her and she needed men. She needed to be filled by them in some way as a riverbed waits for the water that loosens the cracked dry mud.”
“So what happened to her?”
“I could feel her spirit as I ducked her head down; she knew only how to appeal. I knew she hated men — despised them — for they could not know her; she could not be known through sex and I licensed her and set her free and unleashed a killer.”
“The very same.”
“She killed a few.”
“Married men who wanted to fuck her, wanted to taste her. She’d lure them into a hotel room somewhere and once they were naked, she’d peel their skin away like some trophy and let them bleed. She said the bleeding was the important thing and why should it only be women who suffered that indignity and that this was the way to reach the hidden meaning of the Bible, undefiled conception and you see she just carried on doing it cause no one ever suspected it was a woman.”
“What happened to her?”
“Well, here’s a thing. She used to come and see me. I liked her real well. She had charm and was most appealing. It was a religious matter.”
“What, killing men?”
“You see that?” he asked.
Briefly flickering at the edge of the horizon where the sun bled into the hills something stirred, some force primeval and watchful as ever of us and our lost way and I felt a thousand years of wilderness and all its knowing wash over us and leave us there as though we didn’t exist.
“You saw it,” he said. “That wasn’t no animal, nothing we know or understand. She was a religious woman, and she believed she was the Virgin Mary doing God’s work.”
“These were her love offerings.”
“They hanged her didn’t they?”
“They sure did. And you know what she said to me?”
“I won’t even hazard a guess.”
“That it was the only time she regretted not having a dick but at least she would get to piss all over the gallows.”
“I bet she did.”
The shadows were deepening and it was getting black and shapes moved there which we had no place being among and so we rode back, the horses nervous and edgy.
A sun bleached carcass traced the shape of transience into the settling darkness. And as it fell, so fell with it the attendant forms of nature’s feasting.
A wild animal passed across our way and hissed some strange tongue at us as if it knew what cargo we were carrying and what our commissioned task was.
We stopped at the small hotel and unsaddled then sat inside drinking.
“The last thing she said to me was that she’d been penetrated so many times, she could read a man through his dick and that there had only been one who had truly entered her, and that was when the truth of what she had to do became a living part of her and the spirit stirred deeply within her womb and brought forth the strange fruit that was her bleeding time.”
“You’re saying it was a religious act?”
“She believed that the bleeding of those men was a purification of them.”
“Yeah. She said because men’s organs are so much more visible than women’s there’s an innate conflict between the sexes and a reversal of fortunes needs to take place before Christ’s next visitation and that was why she stripped them.”
We knocked a few more back and went and got the bags and counted up the body parts.
The night air was thickening with its occlusion of shapes familiar to man and the horses’ eyes stared back at us with the blind insouciance of animals, the bruised and mutilated forms of our trade refracted in the wild heart of their eyes.
“Slasher Purity had a knack with a knife,” he said.
“That I can believe.”
I watched darkness settle and fill the air with its ambient menace.
Shapes that moved within the light the hotel bore were the forms of hunger and insatiable being, relentless and implacable as the savaging of one prey by its attacker.
And maybe it was the whiskey, but I thought I saw him move across his room with the silk hem of a dress in his hand, knotted with the map of scars his lifetime bore. His face glowed in some emollient light, but we sat by candles that guttered and removed the edges of the room.
The next morning we rode down into the small town and The Baptist took them into the water.
He held their heads under and I could tell which ones were ready. They walked out still dripping and sat on the bank and waited for us to finish. And when he was we told them what to do and when to do it and they rode down into the town and butchered them up and left it a wasteland and brought us more parts.
Richard writes from London, where his first novel will be published later this year by Pegasus Publishing.