Alexander felt the wind tug frantically at his kilt, exposing his calves to its cold touch and raising the hairs on his legs to a bristling show of gooseflesh. He closed his eyes and ignored the playful caress of the hill air, letting the mournful wail of the bagpipes wash over his body and trying not to think of what he looked like. The heartbreakingly clear tones of the instruments seemed to take form in the palpable chill of the highland air. The kilt fluttered dangerously, bringing Alexander back to dreadful triviality. He squeezed his eyelids tight, so that all but the music was shut out.
When he opened them, his eyes were blurred with tears.
Through the haze of moisture, he saw Ian’s coffin lowered into the pit, the aroma of earth heavy. Up above, from the skies, the hole in the ground would look like a little freckle in the undulating skin of the hills. Ian was returning to the earth of his motherland. The air wept a bit, not too much, landing a few cold droplets on skin and cloth, pattering on the varnished coffin and leaving shining coins of moisture on the wood.
Along with the highland tears fell flowers, bunched together in bouquets. The music—they were playing—Ian had listened to it a lot. A tear (biological) rolled down Alexander’s cheek and fell off his chin. What was it called? Ubiquitous funeral bagpipes? No.
After the funeral service, Alexander walked away from the bunch of relatives and friends (there were very few of those, very few…just acquaintances, at that), clotted together like a bouquet of black roses. He walked off, to avoid their cutting gazes, some suspicious, some offended, some simply surprised. Most didn’t know him, and thought it in bad taste that a stranger should don a kilt for their funeral—word of mouth had already confirmed that he was a foreigner, despite a deceptively local accent. His gaze landed on two familiar faces: the mother and the sister. Both looked least bothered about gossip. Alexander quickly looked away walked off, wiping his eyes and lighting up a cigarette as his bright red and green kilt fluttered on. Through bloodshot eyes he surveyed the lands around the crest of the hill, the milky fog rolling across the green highlands.
Hushed words from the far off group floated on the wind, and the funeral was over. Ian was dead, and buried. Sucking on the cigarette, he remembered the name of the last tune the bagpipers had been playing: Amazing Grace.
Before he knew it, years went by and Alexander found himself in a
The restaurant was tiny, its name not quite known to Alexander. Far from funerals in the past, he was in India, running from two cults, home and business in Calcutta (Kolkata) destroyed. A little table, right under one of the bare electric bulbs so that they could see what they were eating; and three chairs; three friends. On both sides of Alexander were Jerusalem and Asha.
The smell of soy sauce became cloying as Jerus drowned his fried rice in it. He slammed the bottle down on the table and spoke suddenly.
“What?” he said to Alexander.
Alexander looked up from his hakka noodles, absently coiled around his fork. “What?” he responded, looking out of the front window of the restaurant at the rain slicked Darjeeling street and the hills beyond, corralled with the city’s buildings and enshrouded in light fog.
“What’s with you? Stop dreaming and eat,” growled Jerus.
“God, Jerus, let him eat when and how he wants to. Aren’t you hungry, Alexander?” asked Asha a little more gently, stopping the dissection of the garlic prawn on her plate, glistening like fat white maggots under the unhealthily dim bulb. Alexander looked at them both, a bit stupefied. Smoothening his white tie, he muttered sourly. “Both of you…what…I’m fine. Stop fussing, I’m just bloody looking at the hills.”
His companions stared at him for a while, Jerus examining the glistening gel in Alexander’s blond hair. Asha went back to eating her prawns, somewhat hesitantly. The lighting didn’t seem to deter her appetite when it came to the cooked arachnids on her plate. Recently, they had found out that the assassin’s full name was Ashapurna (if that was in fact her name), but they preferred Asha.
After a while, Alexander ate, and Jerus resumed as well.
“Jerus,” said Alexander suddenly, a strand of noodle hanging out of his mouth. “Remember,” the strand quickly disappeared as he lashed it in and irritably wiped his chin with the napkin. “Remember when you asked me where I got my Scottish accent from?” Jerus looked dumbfounded, and not quite sure why his friend would interrupt his ingestion with such and inane question.
“Back in Calcutta. The day we….you know…met—um, reunited. Yeah, at the club.”
Faint memories of a sanctuary, of sunburnt waiters and starched uniforms. A Sanctuary where the rules were no smoking in the terrace. Recognition sparkled, and with a “Yeah…yeah.”, Jerus continued to eat.
“Well, I never answered it, did I?”
“No, you blushed.”
Ashapurna found herself drifting further and further away from the conversation, and found it necessary to break in with some contribution to avoid being alienated with her prawns. She hated being alienated in a group of people she knew, at a table of friends. It was the worst possible kind of alienation, she assured herself, the most terrifying form of…
“Pass the soya sauce,” she said. Jerus did, while Alexander spoke.
“Well, now that I think of it, it’s quite a silly question. Where’d you think I got the accent, Jerus?”
Jerusalem looked up, steely grey eyes piercing, jaws pulsing in the process of mastication. “Scotland?”
Alexander smiled, just a hint of raised corners. “Right the first time.”
“What’s the point of this conversation?” ventured Asha, getting slightly irritated. She looked at Jerus, and then Alexander. “Isn’t Alexander from Scotland?”
“I’m sure he’d like to be.”
“I spent some time there, but no, I’m not. I’m…from North America. You could say that, but I’m not, really. Just born there, with, um. One American parent. I’m not really from any country in particular…it’s just that…”
“That’s one of the things we’ve got in common,” said Jerus, grinning. “That we’re both global citizens, not the born in America bit.” Looking slightly pleased at his usage of the term global citizens Jerus returned to his food, after adding “We don’t really belong anywhere.” Asha gave up trying to seriously involve herself in the matter of their nationalities. Jerus had none, and Alexander now…..had none, though he seemed to be stuck with a more or less Scottish accent. All three went back to eating. Alexander was trying to pick up the train of the conversation he had been planning while contemplating the hills outside. He gave up, put down his fork abruptly, and interrupted the short silence that had settled over the meal.
“On Scotland. I think I have to go back there.”
Outside, the rain started again, hesitant droplets that streaked across the grime stained panes of the restaurant windows, old tears.
He loved it, Scotland. While Alexander was looking at the hills, encrusted with what was known as Darjeeling, he was quite obviously thinking of none other than Scotland. He had been to many countries, many places. When he thought about it, he particularly liked India, though he complained no end about it. Especially Calcutta.
But Scotland, there was something about that place that just lingered with him, a petal of nostalgic longing that clung to his heart wherever he went. Downy velvet petal, sticky against the bloody beat of the organ. There was something suitably poetic about this nostalgia.
The highlands dipped upside down in the sky, the bleached towers of derelict castles perched on dark mounds against the low clouds—the biting cold and dirty tenements, cosy bars and bright supermarkets. The bagpipes, the kilts. What was it? He had spent some time growing up there—could be that. But perhaps it wasn’t the place itself as much as the bond that had once formed there, a very special relationship that had been forged amongst its concrete and slopes. He remembered Scotland, and with it, he remembered Ian.
Back to Darjeeling. “What? Why?” questioned Jerus in rapid-fire, one after the other. Alexander looked at his two friends. Jerus and Asha. He realised with a slight throb of his chest that they were, in fact, the only real friends he had now. And that before Jerus came along and rekindled their friendship, and before Asha came along and saved them from the clutches of men dressed as demons in the night and from the murderous intent of the very cult she was once a member of, he had had absolutely no friends for a long time. A long time. Acquaintances, many. Contacts, innumerable. Friends, none. Or very few, even fewer that he remembered. So, round it off to none.
“Alex, we’re not gonna let Conrad get us. We’re gonna get him, and take down his whole bloody insane cult and all its clubs! Don’t worry, man, we’ll make it. Us three, we’re together, and we’re gonna get through this shit
Alexander cringed at the use of Alex, it was painfully delicate coming from Jerus. He pondered. He’d finally made friends—them, The Triad running from Insane Cults. Friends, and he might just be leaving it all to—what? To get killed, perhaps. He didn’t even know. Jerus was talking. Asha too—“Don’t worry, Jerus is right. We’ll make it.” Gentle hand grasping his shoulder. Friends.
But before Jerus returned, before Asha became their saviour, there was Ian. A friend? More than a friend. A best friend. Alex, please reconsider. You can’t just go off to Scot
“No, its not that. Please, stop with the comfort talk. It’s not that. I’m not afraid of what we’re up against. I mean, of course I am, but I’m not just going to run away. They burned down my house, my home. My…my life in Calcutta. I’m not going to just run. I killed one of them, remember? Jerus?” Jerus averted his glance, very aware that it was Alexander who had discovered that the demons chasing him were actually human beings, servants of Conrad’s Cult. Not that that changed his belief about demons or Hell or anything else, but he felt somewhat humbled following the hasty assumption that Alexander was running off to Scotland to get away from the heat he, Jerus, had indirectly brought upon him. Alexander waited for red ears to cool off, and did not get angry.
“I’m…look. I’ve got to get out of this place.”
So they did, and paid for the meal, hastily eaten.
Alexander breathed in the fresh, moist air deeply, letting the drizzle streak his face before stepping under the concrete gazebo by the street, pink and yellow paint worn. From the little shelter, there was a view of the city on the slopes, stretching out downwards before vanishing into the mist.
The road was speckled with dark lumps of horse dung, an oft used path for the tourist attractions. A bunch of them pulling a carriage clattered complacently by, sending pungent odours wafting into the gazebo briefly. Alexander plucked a cigarette from the packet in his pocket and lit it, and Jerus mimicked. Asha pursed her lips with a frown.
“Okay, look. Guysh,” Alexander paused to take the cigarette from between his teeth. “Ah…look.”
“You’ve said that, Alexander. Quite a few times. What is it, man? Just get to it—what’s wrong?” snapped Jerus, coils of blue pushed from his nostrils in a sharp exhalation. Alexander raised his hands, nodding.
“A’ right, fine. Fine, look—sorry—there’s, there’s nothing wrong. I…just have to go back. There’s some unfinished business there, that. Ah, that in light of…recent events, I just have to get finished. It’s….I owe it to a friend. An old friend.”
Jerus gazed at him, tossing the barely whittled smoke into the trashcan by the gazebo. He said nothing. His eyes, Alexander saw, said it all. Veiled, but hurt.
“Jerus, Asha. Part of it’s you two. Don’t….I’m not leaving for good. I just have to finish something there, and I’m coming right back. Here, to Darjeeling. You…you’re my friends, you two. That’s something in my life, you know. I’ve had one that’s rather strange, one might say, and—ah, both of you will identify, I’m sure—friends aren’t one thing my lifestyle allows much for. Until….you know. All the shit that happened. Yeah, ironic. Well, you two reminded me of this friend, he was….special. I think. And I owe it to him to go back and…wrap up things.” Alexander wiped his forehead, being distinctly uncomfortable with incoherence.
Jerus nodded, the hurt slightly glazed over in what looked like tears, but were actually just films of moisture over his eyes. Demon son, cry? Never. Alexander smiled.
“I’m coming back, the both of you.”
“ Can…can you tell us. Why? Is it dangerous.”
Alexander shook his head, taking a drag on his own cigarette as if suddenly remembering it. “I’m sorry. This….it doesn’t involve either of you. And neither of you needs to get involved in anything else, if you know what I mean. You’ve…we’ve already got two cults hot on our heels, and that’s two more than most people get chased by in a lifetime.” Half-hearted laugh, more like a sigh. From all three of them, in varying degrees.
The rain pattered in the background, on the wet concrete.
Jerus looked up, jaw tight. “But maybe we can help? Maybe”
“No. No, I need to do this alone, Jerus. I’m not the little boy anymore, I have to do this alone. I need to finish it by myself. I’m sorry, but I’m going alone.” Jerus pursed his lips in sullen understanding, his eyes brutally gentle. He put his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket and nodded. “Alright, Alexander.” I understand, he said with his head. Of course he did. It was a quest.
And he, Jerus, demon son, would always understand a quest.
Silence reigned in the gazebo of abrupt announcements and uneasy thoughts.
“Alex, where are you going to get the money to go to Scotland, all of a sudden?” came a murmur from Asha. Come forth, all questions. Might as well smite them all while they were gathered here in this Gazebo of Questions. Rainwater fell in dirty drops from the pink stone edges of the gazebo roof.
“Please,” Alexander wrinkled his brow. “Alexander. I mean, no offence or anything. Its…no one calls me Alex.” Alex the Pink Pansy. Alexalexalex
“It’s alright…..um. Yeah, about the money. Don’t worry about that, really. I’ve more than one savings account in more than one country. It helps, you know. Built up quite a bit of cash to fall back on times of dire need, as in now. Even got one in Geneva, believe it or not.” He snickered humourlessly, and Asha and Jerus were satisfied in his explanation, though unsatisfied in every other way. But they understood. They were his friends. His only friends.
Alexander smoked on. Come forth questions come forth questions
“Is it dangerous?” rumbled Jerus.
“I’m afraid so.”
“Can you handle it?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“You’re afraid not, but you can?”
Jerus smiled ruefully.
The smile etched itself deeper into the lines around Jerusalem’s twisted mouth, blending into the scars on his face.
“Even if I can’t, I have to do this.”
His friends nodded. They understood. There was life, and there were quests. A demon son had gone out into the harsh, cruel world out of the holy city in search of a father who was most likely in a place impossible to reach until after death. If it existed. Many many years ago the demon son had vowed to undertake that quest, because he had to, branded with his mother’s spilt blood on his hands.
A woman who was an angel to some had set out of her home to break the shackles of tradition forever, in a country sealed in tradition. In a World bound in tradition. An angel cast out into the gloaming to find her own religion, she had vowed to find justice in the blades of her occupation. An angel became an assassin to chase an unnamed quest.
His friends understood.
It would be a perfect time to say So, I guess it’s goodbye now, but Alexander still had to pack. So he smoked his cigarette out into a little butt and littered the gazebo of unsaid premature goodbyes with ash. On the city encrusted hills of Darjeeling, it rained on relentlessly, but without fervour. With cold droplets stinging their skin and turning Alexander’s gleaming white suit to mottled grey the three set out to what was, for the moment, home.
Rented hotel rooms, that was.
In these neat rooms there were no cockroaches, giant variety or otherwise, to crush under boots—though Jerusalem sat on his bed and searched by the light of the table lamp out of habit and got his soles and socks pleasantly warmed by the little cherry red heater propped by the bedside table.
Three days later Alexander set out for Siliguri in a bus, and descending to the plains and their dull heat, boarded a train there for Calcutta. He sat and swayed in the slightly dirty sky blue train seats and watched the countryside rattle by.
From Calcutta, he went up again. This time in a plane, up and away to Scotland.
Before he left Darjeeling, he looked to his two friends Jerusalem and Ashapurna and said, “So, I guess its goodbye now.” They agreed that it was. They told him to be careful. It was an uncomplicated goodbye. Alexander realised how Jerus and him always uncomplicated Kodak moments in their friendship. How they trivialised their friendship, because people like them didn’t really have friends. It was like a weakness. And in that middle world of cartels and cults, madmen and demons, you couldn’t afford weaknesses. They had met after four years never hearing from each other, met in a Calcutta club, and acted as if they were meeting again after a month or so apart. Alexander decided not to ponder, and left with the uncomplicated goodbye weighing heavy on him.
While watching green fields and clustered huts slide by and dozing to the beat of train wheels clatter over the gaps in the tracks dhadhak dhadhakdhadhakadhak dhadhak, as the rotund man opposite bit pried the caps off orange soda bottles with his teeth and mixed the drink with alcohol, Alexander thought to himself. He continued to do so when watching the clouds breeze lazily by, past a warm window, the faraway earth with its speckled marks of civilisation spread out under a steel wing glistening in the sun. Why was he going to Scotland? Did he know himself? When the plane tilted and he felt himself float off his seat and clung desperately to the armrests till his knuckles were chalk white to keep himself from shooting straight up into the baggage compartments and out through the top of the aircraft and thump came relief and normal gravity. When the plane landed on British soil and wheels shrieked to an empty runway, Alexander still hadn’t got any concrete reasons to be on that soil. He still wasn’t sure.
But there it was. It was Ian, always Ian.
However unclear the rest was, there was Ian. To trace the root of his return to the land that had partially parented his strange and schizophrenic accent, Alexander would have to return to years past, to times gone.
In those times past, Alexander had sat at McDonalds.
The pleasant smell of ketchup and meat hung in the air, and you’d have to peel off the bun to get a whiff of the soggy lettuce. Alexander reached in his breast pocket and realised, wait, do they allow smoking at McDonald’s? Family place, after all. Although he didn’t see how smoking could scar the little children if they could survive the creepy clown up front. Bite into a burger, think of the clown. Whatever.
He decided not to risk it, and bit into his juicy Big Mac instead.
He looked at the man sitting opposite him. Hair cropped close everywhere except the front, greased up gently into a puff. Improvised crew cut. His eyes a grey as gentle as his puff stroke. His milky skin unblemished but painfully pale in the yellow McDonald’s glow, cherry red mouth and lips soft and curled round the straw protruding from his iced soda. Glance timidly averted to the fries on the tray. A late stubble spotted his smoothly chiselled chin, more reminiscent of a pubescent smattering than the growth of a man in his mid-twenties.
He was, Alexander thought, a pretty boy. Correction, man.
A man, if you looked at him, who would give off no aura of the depths he had penetrated. No hints of bejewelled daggers by firelight, blood on bricks, or chanting beneath the dereliction of smelting factories. Look, and you would see a student, maybe not—perhaps just getting a job, or on the dole. Timid, shy, coy, all the quiet little words. He was not a student.
Nor was Alexander, not then, not anymore.
But Alexander had been drawn to him because of the student in the man, the boyish shadow that swathed the late blossoming of his adulthood. Because in this man there was something, something familiar. Very familiar.
“So, tell me. You’re actually serious.”
Eyelids fluttered as the man swallowed a hastily ground bit of meat and dabbed lightly at his mouth with a napkin before removing his careful glance from the fries to Alexander’s white tie.
“About what?” soft voice, marked with the accent of his homeland. Ab’aoot wot? T’s slightly silent. Alexander smiled.
“You know exactly what, you sly little git,” he leaned forward and smoothed his gelled hair back with a mischievous wink.
“The devil worshipping. You’re a real un, then. A real devil worshipper. Right? You weren’t lying about that earlier, were you?”
The man quickly averted his glance back to the fries, ears turning a hot red. “Ay. I told you I am.” Even softer than before. He sipped his coke, the white plastic of the straw turning brown as the drink zipped up it. His companion nodded with genuine satisfaction.
“And you don’t lie. Do you, my boy?”
Jaw pulsing, this time the glance went as far as Alexander’s face. “I’m not a boy, Alexander.”
“I know that. Forget I said that. How about that devil worshipping? Tell me more…why do you do it?”
The crux…in that boy, in his dewdrop eyes lay the memories of bejewelled daggers by firelight. In that smooth face there was the familiarity. First, Alexander had seen something from far off days—a timid boy who was just a little bit different from the others. Pink Pansy. And then, behind scarce stubble and pink skin—the scarred face of a man who searched for Hell. One he had said goodbye to a while back, and shed a tear for. Alexander shed tears for no one.
And then, out of the blue he met this boy, correction, man, who worshipped the devil and looked like that little creature Alexander had conquered in his childhood. A paradox, who reminded him of a friend and of something else. He had to explore this one’s mind. His name was Ian. Devil worshipper. Why do you do it?
“Well, from what you’ve told me, you’re a proud man. Proud of your country. You value freedom above all things, you said. Freedom and your country. Freedom and Scotland. One might call you…a patriot.”
“They might well. So?”
“So…what’s with the Satan worshipping, Ian? Why does a Scottish patriot need the Devil?” Ian worked at a shopping mall, under the neon lights. Sometime the dry air-conditioned air gave him nosebleeds that startled customers.
Ian looked distinctly uncomfortable now, not eating his half-eaten burger, not drinking his coke. He formulated his answer, not looking at Alexander.
“I do it because Scotland is a free country and gives me the freedom to worship anything I wish to worship. My worship of Satan is an expression of my freedom.” He swallowed and rewarded his throat with cold fizz.
“Ian…do you know that the Scottish police would be down on your arse in ten minutes if they found out about this freedom of expression? I’m sure you do.”
“Why. We haven’t hurt anybody.” Mumbled with straw in between teeth.
Hastily shoved away memories of a bleeding mouth, teeth ridged with crimson in a horrid leer as fists came down on it, a motley grey cat lined down the gut with a glistening blade, coils bulging out from the slit. Naked bodies slit down the middle. Memories, shoved away.
“Alright. Tell me truthfully, why do you do it?” Alexander leaned over the table so that he was closer to the now shrunken-into-his-seat companion.
“My friends ‘r all…well. They do it.”
“So why do you have to join in? Why are they even your friends?” Ian looked up, finally. His rosy lips were getting a bit whiter. “Look, they’re my fucking friends. I can’t do anything about that. And I told you…its an expression of freedom. They exercise their freedom.”
“Oh, is that it? Do you think your friends give two shits about Scotland and freedom? Look, you might have guessed by now that I get around quite a bit, more than most people. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt by doing that, by associating with people, it’s devil worshippers don’t usually go in for patriotism.” No response.
“Hey, what…what is this? Why do I have to explain anything to you, of all people?” said Ian suddenly, as if just realising this. Having also realised that people were now aware of him at the other tables because of the slight increase in volume, he slouched back down and remained sullenly silent.
“Let me tell you a story, Ian,” Alexander paused to straighten his golden rimmed glasses. “I had….I have a friend. Basically, pretty recently, he had it all going for him. He had a beautiful girlfriend who loved him very much. He loved her, they were happy, and he’d never had it so good in his entire shitty life. Then, after a while, he just broke off and disappeared. He told me, and I couldn’t stop him. You know why? He went away because he was looking for Hell. That’s right, the Hell. He wasn’t a devil worshipper, but he’s devoted his entire life looking for a way into Hell, because he thinks his father is there. Now don’t ask for the details. The point is, he threw it all away for his pursuit. His love, his ‘normal’ life. Which I helped him to build up. He just tossed it away and went right back to his chasing after a gateway to Hell, because he’d already gone too far down that bloody road. He couldn’t turn away from it.”
Ian gazed at him, and Alexander couldn’t judge his reaction from his placid eyes.
“You see, the point is, this friend of mine abandoned his friends, his new life, everything for Hell. Because he’d ventured too deep into a place on the other side of most people’s lives. What everyone calls the underground, the underworld, whatever. Where there’s a lot of weird shit going on, like cult wars and guys like your friends do their shit. I try to live in between, but it’s hard. I manage, but I really hate to lose friends like that, because where I am, you don’t make many of ‘em.” He stopped abruptly and looked at Ian intently. His voice went a notch lower.
“Don’t throw your life away for these assholes, Ian. Don’t ruin it doing something you don’t want to do. You’re no devil worshipper.”
“Alexander, why do you care what I do?”
“Weren’t you listening to what I was just saying?”
No words, just burger meat smell and fried potato. Ian slurped on the coke, venturing towards the now empty bottom with the straw, without yield. He shoved it onto the tray with the crumpled napkins.
“You don’t want to lose friends to shit like devil worshipping.”
“So, are we friends then?” Ian asked without looking at the man opposite, chewing on the straw between his teeth. Alexander’s mouth twisted into a sly grin. He got up and pointed at the tray with the half-eaten burger and empty Coke container.
“It’s on me. Come on, let’s get out of here, I’m getting sick of this place.”
At that point, Ian and Alexander had known each other for two and a half weeks.
That point, Alexander thought as he stepped out of the plane, was many a year ago. But he remembered it like it were yesterday. That one conversation, under the yellow lights of McDonalds in Glasgow. The milestone, one might say with some small measure of corniness.
Another milestone, one might say, was on a hilltop under a drizzle similar to the one that speckled his face with moisture now. Also a while back, but not as far as the previous milestone, of course. On a hilltop, where the sound of Amazing Grace floated across the highland fog and Alexander stood in a kilt by the grave of a loved one, feeling like Christopher Lambert in Highlander. Kilt aflutter, trying to conquer his grief by the grave of his sweet Blossom. Only Alexander hadn’t felt so immortal, and the person in the grave wasn’t called Blossom. And Amazing Grace fluted in the background instead of Freddie Mercury singing Who wants to live forever? Certainly not him, if all his scarce friendships ran into milestones like that. Imagine, he would, going through funerals and their amazing grace for all eternity in his kilt. And shudder.
He’d always liked the movie, no matter what others said of it. But he’d never asked to live out that scene. He’d have liked to cut off the Kurgan’s head instead, or run along the foam lapped beach with Sean Connery to the heartbeat of a deer thudding in his veins.
But such was fate, alas.
Taxi cab, and Alexander watched the raindrops make little glossy streaks on the window, on which was imprinted the faint stain of some grubby toddler’s hand. The whorls of its fingers and palms lightly duplicated in sweat and something or the other.
He rolled down the window to welcome the cold touch of the raindrops, letting them hit his white jacket and face. Both were already spotted with moisture after the walk out of the airport. Alexander had many white suits.
He reached into his breast pocket and then quickly jerked his hand back out. No. Enough already, he was becoming like Jerus with his smoking. It wasn’t too long ago that he had been lecturing his friend about his habit in a Calcuttan taxi. Albeit while smoking himself.
He drifted backwards again.
Alexander had been working back then. Legitimately, that was. Of course, it was only a backing for other activities that few unlike him would ever venture into. He had been working for a company that specialised in aromatics. Shampoos and the lot, imbued with the scent of the lush hills of Scotland. He had enough notes in his wallet at the time.
Enough to treat the enigmatic Ian to all manner of food and drink.
It was three weeks after McDonald’s at Glasgow that Alexander realised that in Ian he was beginning to perceive something more than one of his contacts or acquaintances. In this timid young man he began to find a fascinating focus of interaction. He was becoming, perhaps. A friend? He had hinted at exactly that at McDonalds, but even then he’d scarcely believed it would actually turn out that way. Alexander looked back to that year and smiled.
He had still had his doubts. Him, Alexander, forming a genuine friendship? He had cast tentative glances further back. To the disappearance of one Jerusalem, and the void that followed. But yet, Ian beckoned. They talked. Like Alexander hadn’t done for a long time. Truly talked, about everything under the sun.
Everything. He smiled again. The cab driver spoke, jolting him out of his remembrance.
“What you smiling for?”
“You’re smiling pretty wide, ken? Got a joke? Got quite a lot of em up my sleeve, if ye want to hear.”
“Oh…no…thank you. It’s…nothing.”
“That’s fine then.”
Yet, always, there was always the shadow. The shadow of what had initially drawn Alexander to Ian. The words that had raised his ears, reminded him of Jerus. Words of Satan worship. Jerus. Ian. Hell.
Then, more than ever before, in those fleetingly pleasurable weeks following the rain drenched lunch at McDonalds, Alexander could not fathom why the boy, correction, young man, had immersed himself within the dark circles of Glasgow’s more secretive amateur Satanists. They had chatted for hours, sometimes sitting on the sunlit bed of Ian’s room as the noon melted into evening, sometimes in cafes, or libraries. Or strolling on the wet pavements on post-rain afternoons when the leaves were at their most vivid and flushed the streets with chilled scent. And as conversations passed, and the two found in each other a completely unexpected companionship, Alexander still couldn’t figure it out.
Ian was an intelligent man (boy), and a harmless, gentle, even unusually naďve patriot. Yet, he trod where blood spilled on pentagrams to wash the cloven feet of idols. Innocent blood. He confessed to Alexander a hopeless love for freedom, and yet he shackled himself.
Alexander knew that he wasn’t lying. He could see the shaky glimmer in his eyes when he talked of activities with the gang.
Ian shook his head, tracing the embroidery on his patchwork quilt, cosily stretched across his little single bed. He sat cross legged on it, while Alexander basked in the orange glow that washed across the windowsill.
“Come on, Alex. I’ve told you a hundred times, it’s my”
“It’s not your choice, Ian. I can make that much out by now.”
“It’s not expressing the right of freedom of worship either. You know that perfectly well too.”
Ian looked up at the slanted ceiling and closed his eyes. “We’ve been through this topic so many times, Alex. Can we not drop it now? It’s my interest, let’s leave it at that.”
“No, Ian,” barely a whisper. “Why don’t you just tell me? You know….you know you can trust me. They’re making you do it, aren’t they? The gang.”
Ian jumped violently as the door opened, and Alexander suppressed a sudden leap of his heart as he saw the reaction. The door opened, and Ian’s rosy mother walked in bearing a tray of scones.
“Jesus, mum! Knock a bit, will ya?”
“Oh, bother that Ian. Here I am cooking up scones for you and all you can do is tell me to knock?”
“Ah…sorry mum. It’s…just…thanks. Come on, I’ll take that.”
“Alex, you see he eats some, a’ right?”
“Mum, thanks. I’ll bring the tray down. We don’t need anything else.”
“Of course, sweetie. How about some of that shortbread in the larder? Your sister never touches it.”
“No thanks mum.”
“Alright then, eat up.” She left.
Ian was flushed, and wiping his forehead. “Jesus,” he muttered.
“You’re real scared of her finding out, aren’t you?”
“Well, of course!”
Alexander gazed at him, golden hair aflame in the tilting rays of the sun. Ian brushed his fingers through his puff of hair, smoothening it back and massaging the rest of his scalp and its short growth. He looked back, still flushed.
“Don’t you trust me, Ian?” Alexander murmured.
“I….I think I do. Ay. I do.” He looked down, quickly averting his glance. He seemed genuinely surprised at the admittance.
“I’m relieved to hear that. Then…that’s all there is. You’ll tell me when you want to,” Alexander bent and shoved his hand into the case by the bed, fishing out a can of Guinness. He wrenched off the ring and began to drink, the sunlight crawling sluggishly along the tall can.
“A’ right, Alex.”
Alexander put the can on the windowsill, moving onto the bed, beside Ian. “Go on.”
Ian nodded. “Um….you were. Of course. Ay….you were right. I don’t give a shit about their fucking devil worshipping. They….they’re….it’s just. It’s just that, ah, they’re you know…they’re like my brars n’ all…I used to study with them. In school. I know them all….kind of, most of them. All caught up in this Satanism shit.”
“Really? Like brothers?”
“Ay. Well, no, but almost as if. Like I said. They know me, and if they’re afraid n’ all of me snitching to the cops, that would be no good. They’d….I dunno. Kill me off. Beat me up. I don’t want my mum to worry about…”
“You joined them so that they wouldn’t think it was you snitching if they got caught.”
“Ay. Kind of. More than that…I thought, maybe. If I joined, I’d be safe. From them messing about with my life because I know about their shit. From other gangs…we got caught up in these…wars. So bloody weird. All this gang shit, from when we were so young. So it was like protection…” he grunted ruefully.
He reached into the case and produced a beer for himself.
“Eat your scones, Ian.” Ian smiled vaguely.
“I screwed up big, didn’t I?” he whispered, contemplating the scones. “I should have left that lot the moment I left school. But I didn’t. Fucking stayed with em through thick and thin, with all that brar talk. Bull fucking shit. Now look at me…I’m a devil worshipper who doesn’t give a flying fuck about the devil. I can’t get out…”
Alexander reached out and grasped the man’s shoulder. Firm, but gentle. Ian looked into his companion’s grey eyes in surprise, seeing a vague reflection of himself in Alexander’s spectacle lenses. Saw beyond that. Beyond the glitter of steel rimmed expensive frames. Their gazes locked tight, the sunlight ageing into the ripest orange through the window. They looked at each other.
“You didn’t screw up, Ian. Didn’t want the bullies following you home to your family, so you hung out with them. You were looking out for your mum. And your sister.”
Ian grinned, a lopsided twist of his mouth that most people found utterly charming. If they bothered to look, of course. Alexander returned the favour with a smile of his own, patting the boy(man)’s cheek and taking a swig of his Guinness. Ian picked up one of the scones and began to eat, holding out the tray.
The taxi driver noticed Alexander still smiling, and was about to probe him about jokes again when he saw his customer wipe his eye. Could have been a raindrop through the window, but he didn’t venture, satisfying himself with telling his own jokes in his head.
Alexander saw a little kid skipping across the sidewalk in a glaring yellow raincoat. A toddler, pink cheeked and scrape kneed. His mind was beginning to whirl. He hadn’t done so much sitting and remembering in a while, for Alexander was a man of business. Of activity. Of wit.
At least, he used to be. Until he killed a certain man dressed as a demon in the placental fires of his burning house. Conqueror reborn.
He watched the toddler until the taxi overtook him and he vanished from Alexander’s line of sight.
He had been a toddler too, of course. Pale knees scabbed from being pushed to the ground too many times. Little nose always beetroot red when he came back home to the powdery smell of his mother’s bosom. Blonde hair inscrutably neat and combed back with hair oil, for Alexander wouldn’t learn of the wonders of hair gel till much later in his life. Little Alexander, with his meticulously pressed tot shirt soiled from the falls.
Alex the Pink Pansy.
Alex the Sissy.
Alex the Lilyput.
Toddler bullies never were very original, but one of them had been quite proud to come up with the flowery variation of lilliput, stoning both the tender little birds that were Alexander’s unimpressive height and timid and therefore girlish, and un-boyish demeanour. He remembered it all. Of course he did. The Pink Pansy. Like yesterday. His Mickey Mouse tiffin box flying from his hands amongst jeering laughter, the malicious hooting. Hands shoving him to the ground, the dread familiarity of the dark little droplets welling from his knee scabs.
The plastic box, yawning on the ground. His home-made pizza splattered across the concrete like ripe roadkill.
“Awww, Alex lost his lunch. Sissy boy needs to eat!”
“Come on, Pansy, you gotta eat!”
The cloying smell of tomato sauce and vomit stench of cheese too close, chopped olives squelching as his face was shoved into the roadkill. Eat, eat, eat! Grit under the tomato and ham mulch, warmed by the sun beating down on his back.
Hadn’t he shown them. Not them, of course. Some other bullies. Quite some time later, no longer a toddler. But a boy, cautiously treading the alien expanse of puberty. Still the Pink Pansy, chased across the stinging weeds and grass and tumbling down slopes as he ran from them with his heart thumping painfully in his throat, his ears. Running, Alex, ALEX! Hey, Sissy! Come back Pansy boy.
He’d shown them. The stone, glancing off the bigger one’s head with that distinct poc! Looking, and feasting on the disconnected shock in the big boy’s eyes, the red rivers trickling out of the split scalp. His companion gawping at his downed friend, only to be sent hurtling to the ground with small fingers locked around his scrotum in an agonising vice. It was vivid, seared into Alexander’s brain. The sudden rage, salty at his throat. Roaring in his ears. His fists flying against the two boys, the stones cracking their bones. Hammers of justice in his hands, coarse and hot, scraping his own skin with their rough edges. He conquered. Of course, it was only afterwards that he realised. Feeling their throats, and the horrifying stillness of no pulse, the clammy cold as death seeped in. And fingertips came away glistening with blood.
The rage had welled up as bitter vomit then, and the grasses wilted with Alexander’s stomach acids.
Two dead boys, and a pansy with bleeding palms. No, a Conqueror with bleeding palms.
Alexander stifled a vague sense of nausea and wiped his eyes again, spreading the raindrops over his face. The taxi moved on, the breeze rushing in through the window wonderfully cool.
The Pink Pansy.
In adolescence, the true implications of such remarks had become clearer to Alexander, and had terrified him. And so he had conquered, with fists and stones. The masculine warrior. Conquered too hard, but conquered nonetheless.
Alexander pushed his childhood away. It wouldn’t go, not with grubby handprint on the rolled down window. He pushed harder, and there he was, basking in Ian’s sunlit bed, eating scones and drinking Guinness.
It was, framed well enough, another milestone. The Conqueror had looked back at his days and accepted something. Looking into Ian’s eyes, he had realised he wasn’t afraid anymore. Wasn’t afraid of being the Lilyput.
His fingers, gentle on Ian’s cheek. Thumb bending the scant stubble on the man(boy)’s chin. Eyes locked. Ian had gazed, ever so innocent despite cat’s entrails and bloody leers on his memory. Alexander, bending to brush his lips against his cheek. A reassuring touch, from one companion to another. And then, against Ian’s lips. They had kissed, for Alexander wasn’t afraid anymore.
The Lilyput had beaten the giants to death, after all.
It was the first time they kissed. Alexander felt no passion or sexual kindling, nothing. Except love, intense and warm. So powerful that it made his throat ache as they embraced. It just seemed to be the right thing to do, in the waning sunlight. It happened, and they sealed their love, without saying a word about it after.
He knew it then. Alexander had made a friend. It was the last time they kissed. Alexander never found out what Ian truly felt about their brief embrace. Whether Ian was bisexual, confused, or homosexual. He never got the chance. Alexander never kissed another man in his life.
On his way out from Ian’s house (something his father had left behind for the family) Alexander had noticed for the first time, unusually enough since he visited all the time, really noticed that is, the sword over the fireplace in the living room. There was no fire in the fireplace, of course. Not in this day and age, when we’ve got ourselves all that deforesting, was Ian’s mum’s opinion on it. Although there was a little electronic heater that glowed orange in the fireplace like a real fire, and gave off some warmth.
All the same, there was a sword hung over the mantelpiece. Alexander stopped to stare at it for a few seconds, for it was very beautiful; its blade and hilt polished to a silver that gleamed in the mellow light that suffused in through the living room curtains.
After that, he left. And promised to ask Ian about the sword next time, but he forgot soon after, because he was thinking about that first and last kiss with Ian. His real friend.
The taxi had stopped. Alexander hastily wiped his cheek and looked up. “Ah, yes. Thank you,” he muttered, taking out his wallet and paying the driver. The driver left slightly disappointed that he had been unable to vent his wonderful jokes and anecdotes on his customer, but satisfied with a few more notes in his pocket.
Alexander had looked, pretty hard too. He found none in his new hotel room. Not a single cockroach to crush, as per Jerus’s habit. He actually found the big ones that flew quite frightening, and occasionally screamed helplessly when they flew into his field of vision without decent warning. He did, however, crush the little ones. But there were none. Not even any other bugs, sparse though it was. He couldn’t go on a spending spree now, not with no business to fall back on. Despite gemstones in Egyptian vaults and coins in Swiss accounts.
After his hot shower, room comfortably steamed and smelling gently of lilac soap and shampoo that couldn’t easily be associated with any flower, Alexander sat in his bath robe and let his eyes glaze over again.
He woke up the next morning with a headache that spiked his eyeballs with dull, rusty pain. His eyes, though he couldn’t see them, were bleary and red. The ceiling had no cracks in them, he noticed. A rectangle of sunlight lay stretched across the cream coloured paint.
He remembered something from yesterday. Boyd.
Cream coloured door had opened, paint slashed by age to reveal the old wood underneath. This was not in the hotel room, but before. Elsewhere, in the moodier neighbourhoods of Glasgow.
The door had groaned on hinges that had never been oiled. After all, who has time to oil hinges? Then, the strong smell of stale tobacco had gushed into Alexander’s waiting face like frosty air out of an open freezer. And there, out of the smoky darkness that would have been cold light if it were an open freezer, came a ruddy face mottled with uneven stubble and smelling of bacon. A cigarette stuck tight between cracked lips, and a black cap covering his head.
.Out had come a wide grin Alexander remembered so very clearly, teeth stained yellow with nicotine, chewing gum and bad brushing habits. Cigarette glowing as it was ground up between that smile.
“Jesus. Alex Ander. Alexander.”
“In the flesh, Boyd.”
Boyd had had no response then, grinning and gaping in shock and delight. Alexander could think of many responses from Boyd: what the fuck are you doing here?, it’s good to see you, jesus, how many years has it been, what brings you back to ol’ Scotland? Boyd didn’t say any of them, instead finding himself at a loss for words.
“Jesus…come on in.”
Alexander had entered.
Boyd, thought Alexander as he looked up at the ceiling, eyelids still heavy with sleep. And the morning creeping across his room. Had he actually gone to Boyd’s place? He wasn’t very sure. Had it been a dream? He’d definitely been planning to go see him. Had Boyd’s teeth been that yellow in real life? He seemed to remember going to a bar with him, and mixing drinks. Boyd’s favourite activity.
Had he mixed drinks? He didn’t often do that in real life.
He groaned and rolled over to reach out and feel the bedside table. He nearly knocked over the lamp, and stopped as his fingers felt cold metal. The gun, as solid as anything. He’d left the gun lying right there in the open on the bedside table. But it didn’t matter now anyway. There was a gun by his bed.
His visit to Boyd’s had been real, after all.
Medium sized briefcase and everything, wares displayed under cigarette smoke.
The alarm started trilling, and Alexander’s heart leapt. He cursed and slammed his palm against the infernal machine. The green digits said 8:00. It was eight in the morning and there was a colt glittering in the sunlight by the clock. Alexander was grudgingly pulled back into his reality and mustered the courage to get up and face the new day.
In the shower, he contemplated a vaguely remembered dream. In it, he was with Ian (he felt bad about this, though it didn’t surprise him that Ian was alive in the dream. All the same, a tear or two soaked into his pillow as he slept) in some dockside restaurant. They’d been sharing a joint. They’d never done that in real life. The joint was something exotic, and they’d discussed it over the table.
They’d left and gone to some disco underneath the restaurant, where everyone was dressed in bondage outfits. Only they weren’t bondage outfits, Alexander had realised. They were all dressed up as demons, in black leather and with horns propped on their heads. Some had goggles, glittering like beady eyes in the pulsing dark.
Ian had disappeared into the crowd, and Alexander remembered exploring public toilets with a cockroach the size of a small dog on the ceiling.
Scrubbing himself thoroughly, letting the shower sear off the sickly sweat of the night, Alexander felt sick at the remembrance of the giant cockroach. Screwed up dreams: he had drunk too much, with Boyd. He massaged his stomach, and quite unexpectedly vomited into the drain. Shivering with shock, he watched the watery yellow stuff swirl away by his wet feet. He felt much better in a few minutes of letting the water pound his back, though the headache remained. The dream and the relaxant of the hot shower and steam (that fogged up the mirror) allowed him to remember the seed of this entire journey he’d shoved himself into. He’d managed to forget, in all the confusion. He remembered, quite unexpectedly (like the vomiting), why the whole mess in Calcutta had set him wandering back into his past. And the unfinished business.
Ian had once told him something about his gang’s activities and plans.
It had been in Ian’s room, with Alexander sitting on his favourite sill with the late noon sun warming his white suit. Empty beside him. No scones this time. Though a tray of unfinished shortbread lay on the bed instead.
Ian had said to Alexander: “I think….I think they’re trying to join some bigger group. Of Satanists. Supposedly an international group that’s set up shop right here in Glasgow now. Can you believe that? I didn’t even know there were fucking international cults. They’re trying to get money and buy some new shit….some newfangled drug that supposedly lets us of the right and faithful get in touch with the devil. It’s called Erebus or something. E.” Ian had stopped to chuckle humourlessly. Snort, rather.
“Ay, Erebus. And this big un they’re trying to get this drug from, they call themselves Minorites, or some such. I’ve had it with these assholes, Alex. It’s really getting to me. And the Lord only knows what plan they’re going to think up to get some money.”
Of course. Erebus Minor One. Jerusalem’s real nightmare in New York City. Bacchus inverted in ultraviolet steam, leaving permanent scars. Conrad’s cult. Alexander remembered it all too clearly now. No wonder he’d suddenly started obsessing about Scotland and Ian.
Just a few words, lingering in his memory like rotten cheese.
He shook his head, wrenching the shower knobs and failing to turn off the water. It nearly scalded him instead, and he managed to leap out with a hiss and turn it off quick. It took a hoarse curse and a half-hearted punch to the mirror to sooth himself. His knuckles left dark dimples on the fogged glass, dimples that dripped away the haze.
Alexander smoothened back his wet hair with his palms and closed his eyes. To think. Erebus Minor.
It didn’t matter. This little forgotten connection—and the unearthly coincidence (he stopped to shudder at how big Conrad’s bloody cult must be getting to get its own rumours in Glasgow underground worshipping, and then stretch all the way to India)—between the past and the present might have caused him to remember other unfinished business.
It might have made him return to Scotland.
But it didn’t change anything.
He had to tie up some loose ends, and if that meant finding something out about Jerus’s nemesis and his (Conrad’s, rather) cult, all the better. But deep down, closure was what he’d come back for. He knew it. That came first. He owed that much to Ian.
Alexander dried himself, dressed up and set out.
The pavement shone with fresh moisture, mirroring Alexander’s shoes as he walked over the slick stone. Pitter patter went the drizzle on the stone, little dots of white that lasted for brief seconds. The ground was worn. Staring at his blurry self on the wet ground, he felt harsh pangs of nostalgia that nearly made him pause. But he walked on. Just as he had done so many times. Down that very road, on that footpath.
It continued to rain incessantly over Glasgow, the clouds darkened like dirty cotton over its rooftops. The smell of damp soil and bright leaves heavy in the air. The only comfort that the weather offered to a pedestrian who couldn’t be bothered to carry an umbrella. With much irritation, Alexander had draped a raincoat over his white suit, as he was getting tired of changing it every time he returned indoors.
Drops clung to his stiff hair as he walked, strands carefully sculpted with gel. A glum faced teenager admired Alexander’s handiwork from afar.
Alexander stopped and looked up. Finally. He was there.
The dark green door with its ornate brass knocker (a ring hanging from the jaws of a little metal lion that lived in the wood) stared back at him angrily. He waited a while and tried to formulate some kind of greeting. Trying to figure out what he would say. After a while, when the water was beginning to drip from his puff and down his forehead, he gave up and cleared his mind. Perhaps spontaneity would be best.
He walked up the front steps. Very slowly.
And nearly used the knocker before realising there had been a doorbell. Indeed there was one. He gingerly pushed it, lowering his head and closing his eyes as he heard the chime echo within.
The door opened abruptly after about five seconds. He had expected at least ten to gather his thoughts (not prepare words). His eyes snapped open and his head flew up to stare into hazel eyes that made his stomach plummet for no particular reason.
There was silence as the woman who had opened the door stared at him, and Alexander accepted dutifully the scrutiny while fighting to decide what to say. He didn’t have to say anything. The woman’s face softened and relaxed into utter surprise, gentle shock replacing confused irritation. Her mouth fell open as she gazed at Alexander.
He took the plunge. “Hello. Sheryl.”
“Alex…” a hand went up to touch her mouth in hesitation. “Alex…oh, it is you.”
“Alexander.” He looked down at his feet quickly as he noticed her eyes were glittering with moisture. “My manners, jesus. Please…come in. You’re getting wet.” When he looked up again her eyes seemed normal. More or less. Alexander stepped into the threshold of the hallway, a dry gloom replacing the constant patter of cold raindrops on his shoulders and head.
“Um…how’ve you been?”
Sheryl looked up and suddenly smiled, dazzlingly genuine. He was startled by it. Pretty and genuine. It faded into a rueful expression of affection. “Come on into the living room, Alex. The hall is no place to talk.”
“Right.” She walked behind him and shut the front door, sealing off the sound of the rain. Dimming into a soft background whisper, rather. “Let me take that,” Sheryl muttered as she grasped Alexander’s shoulders and started to take off his wet raincoat. He struggled to help her and shrugged it off, letting her hang it on the rack by the door, dripping on the wooden floor. Tap…tap…tap.
They walked into the living room, looking cosy in the ruddy glow of the electric heater in the fireplace. The curtains were drawn over the windows, and the slits in them showed nothing but rain slashed grey. Sheryl bent and switched on a table lamp by one of the sofas, adding a little more light to the dim room.
“No need to brighten it up, it’s fine like this,” Alexander said as he sat down.
Sheryl suddenly clutched the black sweater she was wearing, pulling it over her chest. As she did so, he glimpsed a white t-shirt underneath, with bold black letters proclaiming: HANDS OFF. He smiled.
“It’s chilly today. You’re dripping…hold on, I’ll get you a towel,” she walked off, and abruptly turned back to him. “I was just making some tea. Do you want some?” She was talking fast, as if afraid of silence.
“Um. Sure. Thanks.”
“Two cups it is, then.”
He saw her vanish through a doorway, the thump of her bare feet (in socks) receding. He looked around, heart thumping hard for no particular reason. Or maybe because he didn’t quite know what to say. Why he had come here. Of course he did—perhaps he didn’t know how to tell her. He straightened out his white tie and sat back.
The living room was the same as it had always been, he observed. Cosy, warm, sparsely furnished. Now it was somewhat dark, the corners deeply shadowed. Because it was raining. He remembered the cheery sunlight that flooded it when the sun was out, and felt his chest throb again.
There was one thing missing. One thing.
A disembodied voice came out of the depths of the house. “Sugar and milk?”
“Both, thank you!” He cried out, and found himself starting at the volume. No need to shout, he told himself.
The one thing missing. The space above the fireplace mantelpiece was bare. Nothing but neat bricks.
She returned with two ceramic teacups on a tray, both steaming. “Here we are. Made just enough, I usually have about two at a go. I mean, today it’s just so gloomy and grey I thought I’d have a cup or two…I don’t usually have tea at this time, of course. I was just reading…” Her fast talking tapered off.
“Thank you,” said Alexander, picking up a cup and taking a sip. He clasped both hands around the cup, warming his cold palms.
“Oh,” she said, and flung the dark green towel draped over one shoulder into her hands with an embarrassed smile. “Here you go,” she handed it to Alexander. He set down the cup and dabbed his hair with it delicately. When he was done, he put the towel in his lap and produced a small white comb from his breast pocket. “Always be prepared,” he waved the comb and felt like an idiot for a moment, before running the thing through his hair a few times.
“Just toss it by the fireplace…um, the heater,” Sheryl said, indicating the towel. He did so, somewhat gingerly.
They both drank their tea, and the silence that Sheryl seemed to fear finally descended. Alexander felt his ears ringing in the absence of conversation, idle or not. He felt hot tea bite at his lips, and struggled to think of a way to begin. To tell her why he was here. He had no idea how to do so.
“It’s good to see you, Alex,” Sheryl said suddenly.
Alexander considered telling her that no one called him that anymore, but decided against it. He nodded slowly, looking at his feet.
“Same,” he murmured hoarsely. Cleared his throat, repeated. “Same here.”
The touch of a smile glanced across her lips as she stared into the fireplace. Alexander suddenly noticed how empty the house felt. The dank vibe of the rain outside seemed to have sunk into these walls and deepened the shadows of the place. The rooms were still cosy, but so very silent, vacuous. It clicked, then.
“Sheryl…where’s your mother?”
She looked up at him and swallowed. “Mum’s in the hospital, I’m afraid.”
“What?” Alexander sat up, genuine concern in his voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Gall stone…they just had it removed. Too much coffee,” she raised her eyebrows ruefully and held up the cup of tea. “Always tried to get her to stick to tea…she’s a bit of a diabetic, so the bleeding knocked her out somewhat during the operation. Ay, she’s fine now…nothing too serious. They’re just keeping here in the hospital in case something goes wrong…she needs her rest. She’ll be back home in a few days.”
“Oh…” Alexander settled back down, tapping the cup with one finger nervously. “I’m glad to hear that. I mean…that she’s okay now.”
“Ay…she gave me quite a bit of a fright. Or they did, when they told me about the bleeding and all. But it’s alright now.” She finished firmly, as if reassuring herself of the fact. She looked slightly ashen. Alexander wondered about the costs of an operation, but told himself they were insured.
“I suppose you are going to tell me why you decided to drop by,” Sheryl looked at him questioningly. “You’re not here on vacation, are you?” The question was more like a statement. He sensed the regret in her voice.
“No, I’m not. Ah…I…I just…” She waited patiently for him to form a sentence as he massaged the teacup. “Sheryl…I don’t…I don’t quite know how to start. Um…I’ll just come right out with it, a’ right? Things…have kind of taken a turnaround in my life recently. And, and…let’s just say I got a kind of wake up call,” he stopped with an exasperated grunt of laughter. “Jesus, isn’t that corny? Well, I did. And…I’ve thought about a few things…” He looked up and gazed at Sheryl sympathetically.
“It’s…it’s about your brother.” She nodded and looked into her teacup, pursing her lips slightly.
“Um…I just feel that I…left abruptly. After, you know…after his death, um. His funeral.” He gritted his teeth after the last word, feeling his mouth go dry. He quickly sipped his tea and let its aroma lighten his head.
Sheryl’s face was drawn, her eyes glistening as they stared into the fireplace. At the orange light of the electric fire.
Alexander put down the teacup, ignored a few drops sloshing over the side and pooling in the saucer. “I’m so sorry, Sheryl,” he whispered. He couldn’t help it, as if speaking loudly in the house would awaken strange ghosts that lurked in its shadowed corners. Ghosts that reeked of shortbread and Guinness. “For bringing this whole thing up again, I’m so sorry…”
“Alex, forgive me if I’m being rude…but, what is it you’ve come here for? Do you want to say something? About….about Ian. We both know there’s nothing left to say about the whole affair.” Sheryl’s voice was unwavering. Alexander swallowed and reached for the cigarette packet in his breast pocket.
No. Not here. He removed the hand.
“Look,” he took a deep breath, sitting up. “Ian and me, we…”
“Were best friends,” her voice dropped, expression softening. “Do you think I don’t know that, Alex? I lived here too, you know,” she leaned forward and placed a slim hand on Alexander’s thigh, brushing it gently before withdrawing. “I know you wouldn’t have left, if you didn’t have a good reason. You didn’t have to come all the way back here to tell me that.”
“No…of course not.” Alexander lapsed into silence, hesitating. He lifted his teacup and drank.
“You did come here to tell me that?” she questioned gingerly.
“No,” Alexander snapped up and put down the cup. “I…well, yes. There are some things you should know. I mean…I had to leave Scotland after his death, believe me I…”
“Alex, please. You don’t have to—”
“No, Sheryl, I do. I do have to explain. I need to do this…just let me tell you, alright? Please.”
Sheryl nodded, face softening for the first time since Alexander had mentioned her brother.
So Alexander told her. Just as he remembered it. The day he found out Ian was dead.
The phone call, from Sheryl. How he’d let it ring for a while, sipping sherry and smoking by the window. Watching the rain spatter on the glass and glaze it with little streams. Very comfortable. Let it ring. It’s nothing important. I’m comfortable here.
The nightmarish trill had continued.
Let it. The rain, gurgling on the sill. Sherry swishing in his glass. And the cursed phone. He’d gotten up and picked it up with a curse, deciding it was too much of a racket to enjoy his rainy moment.
The cigarette was between his teeth as he picked it up. And as he listened, it was on the floor. Ash hidden in the carpet as he listened with wide eyes. Ian’s dead, Alex. Somebody found him in the docks and called the police. He’d realised with a terrible, cold dread that his rainy moment of comfort had been a mockery, a farce. A setup for this moment, a backdrop for the death phone call. How perfect and fitting.
He’d rasped something to Sheryl over the phone. I’m so sorry. Or something of the sort.
But he barely understood what he was saying himself. All he could see was his life in Scotland spinning away. Normalcy shattering for the second time. Just like one Jerus had left, Ian had left too. Everything shattered in the blink of an eye.
He’d put down the phone after a few excruciating words and wondered when the realisation would come. When the tears would flow, and make him revert to Alex the Lilyput. Hadn’t he learnt with Ian that there was nothing wrong in that? In being himself?
It didn’t make sense any longer. Nothing but a dry cliché. The hours he’d spent with Ian, their friendship—it was all a cliché. Ian didn’t exist any longer. He was a milestone in the life of the miserable Alexander, Conqueror (Of Nothing) and Pansy. Alexander the Ambivalent. He could accept nothing. Everything had shattered, and no tears came. The fragments flew, and stung him like bees. But still no tears.
It took him a while to realise that the shattering was real. That the glittering fragments were actually biting. That his window was broken, and rain soaking his carpet. A stone lay there, glossy and dark. Someone had shattered his window.
He walked over to the window, letting the mist of water through the jagged hole in the glass cool his hot skin, his shoes crunching on the broken glass. He felt feverish, hollow. He looked down through the window at the rain slicked street, at the man in the hooded red windcheater holding out his dripping hand and showing Alexander his middle finger.
Before he knew it, Alexander was downstairs, running out in the rain. Towards the man in the red jacket. He could see nothing, hear nothing. Just a haze, and the man in the jacket in the centre. Alexander thought he would kill the man as he ran towards him, oblivious of the drops hammering on his expensive white suit, or the people gaping at him on the sidewalk.
It all ended with a flash of red, red pain as someone came up from the side and hit his head with a crowbar, not too hard. The man in the jacket had friends, something Alexander had not considered. Sprawled on the wet street with his skull throbbing, Alexander saw through the water in his eyes the man who’d flipped him the finger. A red hood and shadowed face, only a chin greenish with stubble visible. There were two other standing by him, and they’d surrounded Alexander.
One held a tuft of Alexander’s blond hair and pulled him to his knees. Dissolving hair gel squirted through the man’s fingers and ran down Alexander’s forehead.
“Yeah, he’s heard. He’s crying.” Alexander was miserable, empty, and in pain. But he was not crying. He blinked against the rain and gurgled before speaking.
“I’m…I’m not crying. It’s the r…the rain in my eyes.”
The man holding his hair frowned and slammed his free fist into Alexander’s face. He felt the other kick him in the gut. He lay gasping, looking at the vague reflection of his face in the puddle under him, blood dribbling down with rainwater from his face. The crowbar came down again and Alexander heard it connect. Clunk! And the fireworks, sparkling under his eyelids as they gained three tons of weight and came slamming down like shutters. Blackness.
The road was hard and cold, like coarse ice against his face. The water turned red, and Alexander felt himself slip away into unconsciousness.
He woke to a numbness in his cheek, and realised he’d been slapped. Hard enough for the sting to last a while.
The blurs formed into the interior of a car, and people sitting all around. He was soaked to the bone, and quite sure a lot of the moisture on his face wasn’t water. His brilliant white as cream suit (no loner, for sure) was grievously marred with the grey hue of mud and water, and blotches of crimson on the lapels.
His nose was stuffy, and Alexander feared it might be broken. His entire body hurt tremendously. The back of his head felt like it was on fire, uproarious and dry.
“I’m awake,” he had slurred hurriedly, to keep any itching hands from striking again. He wondered in a despair that was completely pure why in Hell’s name these men had beaten him up. Then the memory that was nagging him, distracting him from the urgency of his situation, kicked in like a wave of nausea. Ian, his close friend, was dead.
He swooned, upright form slumping against the window of the car. He felt sick, dizzy.
“Oi! I said, wake the fuck up!”
Feeling the loud voice itch at his eardrums, Alexander gazed at the man sitting by him. He realised with a tired resilience for his own survival that he was not cuffed or bound. Just battered and seated by the locked door. He let the features of the captor sitting beside him swim into detail.
The man was lean, features sharp. Alexander noticed the white scar running from the upper lip to his chin, interrupted by his thin mouth. And his heart suddenly plummeted in his chest. He’d never seen him before, but he recognised the pale man. Platinum white hair, cut down to the bristles. Dyed, of course.
Ian had told Alexander about the man. McGowan. Gave himself a scar down the mouth to make himself look menacing. Ended up dropping the razor blade in the toilet and screaming for an hour before calming down, while his friends rubbed whiskey on his bleeding face and took a few blows to their groins.
Ian had known this man.
“McGowan,” Alexander whispered. McGowan grimaced.
“I knew it, I bloody knew it. Get him out.” Without warning, he swung a firm punch into Alexander’s gut, leaving him unable to breathe and looking at his shoes while McGowan reached over and opened the door by him. Alexander barely realised it as he was shoved out of the car and found himself sprawled on wet concrete, sucking at the cold air and clutching his throbbing stomach.
Everything was a blur as he was grabbed by the arms and shoulders, hands like tweezers clawing at his ruined suit. His shoes rustled as he was dragged roughly across the ground, vision jumping and lungs aching, and abruptly released and tossed to the ground again. A Lesson in Manhandling, thought Alexander, and almost smiled at the repetition of the treatment they were inflicting on him. But that wasn’t all. The butt of a gun (he saw the shape distinctly in one of the hands, leaping out of the confusion) came soaring out of the blue and struck his forehead mercilessly.
No more blows came, only the breathing of his captors as they surrounded him. Their legs a prison encircling his crumpled form. The trickle of blood down his forehead had corroded a permanent scar in his memory—the warm, sickly flow down his face as he blubbered and blinked on the ground. Reduced to incoherence by the blinding pain that had his head in a vicelike halo of fire, not quite able to believe the extent of suffering that one blow was making him go through. That was Alexander. Lilyput.
His palm had come away a horrific red, a devil’s hand shining reptile-like at him. He crawled and spit, and spluttered.
God. My God.
They gave him about a minute to recover, and pulled him up. His lips were white, his golden hair matted and crimson. The blood vivid against his white motif. He realised why everything seemed blurrier than usual. His spectacles were gone, his face naked. He would later find them, the lenses smashed and golden frame twisted, in the breast pocket of his jacket.
There he was, surrounded by members of Ian’s little cult of devil worshippers. McGowan, cold faced, handgun clutched in one gloved hand. Curls of steaming breath emerged from between cracked lips. Alexander felt the blood on his face cool rapidly into an uncomfortable coating. He hugged himself, shivering violently.
It was cold. The sky white as ice.
The docks around him grey as the rainclouds that had formed above the city as his friend died. They had surrounded him. Behind him lay the sharp drop, and beyond that, the foreboding sheet of the sea stretching out into the misted horizon. Everything was so cold, and his head hurt like a dead dog. No, not dead.
“A’ right. Now we can talk, no interruptions. We’re alone here.”
“Y-you killed Ian.”
McGowan looked curiously subdued, considering the violence of his attacks on Alexander.
“I’m not goin’ ta bother answering that, if y’ already know the answer.”
Swooning like a drunkard, Alexander turned around and faced the sea, muddy (once spit-polished) shoes inches away from the drop. The end of the concrete, and the plummet to the dark waters. Why the docks?
Memories came rushing, again. Walking with Ian by the frozen rails, waiting for the ferry to the Isle of Arran. Shivering and watching it appear bit by bit over the horizon like a snail, ever so slowly growing in size.
“You’re going to kill me now?” more a statement than a question.
“Of all the things, ye know…we’d never thought Ian would turn out to be queer,” came the voice of McGowan. The barrel of the gun was firm against the groove of Alexander’s back. Pushing through the wet cloth of the suit and shirt.
Alexander pondered, dizziness beginning to tug at his feet.
“You…you killed him, because…”
“What the fuck do you think, you faggot fuck?” A higher voice than McGowan’s. Bitter to the bone. McGowan snapped loud enough to send a tremor through Alexander’s frame as the muzzle of the pistol bit into his back.
“Shut the fuck up, you doss cunt!”
Silence. Whoever had made the remark was subdued.
McGowan again. “We’re not gonna kill you, whoever you are. Now you just remember that, a’ right? You just remember in the future that we gave you a fucking chance, right? You’d better remember. Your boyfriend’s dead, and that’s it. Yeah, we were following him for a while, you know? Always hanging around him, you were. Not fucking healthy. Well, Ian’s gone now. And I’ll tell you something, it was for a good cause. He died for our cause, ay. He was with us, whether or no he liked it in the end, and he died for what he took the bloody oaths for in the end. As for you, you forget everything, and I mean every fucking thing he’s ever told you about what he did, or what we did. Everything. We’re giving you a chance,” the gun drilled into his spine, making him teeter precariously on the edge of the drop. The wind pasted his wet clothes against his flushed skin.
“You’d better remember that. Get the fuck outta Scotland. Leave, and don’t come back ever again. You mess around, we hunt you down and kill you. You come back, same thing. Just remember Ian died for a good cause, and then forget you ever knew him.”
The gun was removed from his back.
“Get out of Scotland. Don’t look back.” Whispered behind him, breath on his neck. Their footsteps faded, terminating in the unified slamming of doors and whine of an old car engine. The hum of the car vanished too, in time. He stood on the threshold, looking down at the sea, waiting for the final bullet to shatter his spine and end it all.
It didn’t come.
They’d killed Ian, transformed him into a milestone. And here he was, alive and bleeding. They’d let him live. Given the bleeding Lilyput a chance. He looked down at the sea, the languorous waves licking the man-made shoreline. Just one more step, and he would fall. The waves beckoned, sensuous in their undulations.
Alexander sat down and wept like a small child. The tears, finally. The drops of his grief fell to the salt waters of the sea to make their mark, small and insignificant, but bearing the weight of the world in their pearly little forms.
Alexander left Scotland. It was an unwieldy exit: try as he might, he could not run away like a fugitive, being grounded to the soil of the country by necessities such as returning home and packing, and suffering stitches on his head. He remained until Ian was buried on highland soil, by the ruins of a castle that his ancestors had supposedly owned. He attended the funeral, wearing the traditional dress of the Scots, to pay tribute to his friend’s innocent patriotism and ending up severely regretting it and viciously abusing himself for being a fool.
He left the next week, without a word to his friend’s family. He didn’t look back. He went to America, where, after some time, he met up with a man called Jerusalem again. They entered certain complications together, delving into strange matters and arguing fiercely about leading normal lives. Alexander parted ways with the man once again, deciding to travel the world. He told Jerusalem he was going to Calcutta, India, and Jerusalem dropped out of Alexander’s life once again, this time for four years.
Throughout, Alexander never once looked back at Scotland. Not once.
Sheryl’s hand was cold on his own, and Alexander jumped out of retrospection. His tea had probably gone cold by now too. Strands of brown hair hung over her face, glowing in the light of the heater (firelight).
“I ran. Because I was scared,” Alexander coughed to clear a suddenly broken throat. “Scared. I didn’t even have the guts to stay till the funeral…I stayed in a hotel until it happened, in the hope that they wouldn’t find me.”
Sheryl looked at the windows, towards the dull thrum of the unending rain behind the curtains. “But you still showed up, didn’t you.” Yes, in my tribute kilt, thought Alexander. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Alexander. You didn’t owe anyone anything here…you were Ian’s friend, not mine, or mum’s. We barely got to know you. You were his friend, and he’s dead.”
Alexander raised his head, breaking his stare away from his stagnant teacup.
“No, don’t say anything more. There’s nothing left to say about it, Alex. All you got here is your friend shot to bits, and the shit beaten out of yourself. I wouldn’t blame you for leaving.”
Alexander laughed dryly, for no apparent reason. After that, they both settled into a silence that was, this time, comfortable. Alexander was the one to break it.
“They didn’t kill me…because they were afraid. The bastards were afraid, you know? I could tell. Killing someone is risky, difficult, messy. And they’d done it too many times already, albeit…always a bit high, a bit drunk. They didn’t want to get into a spree, you know? Become serial killers in the tabloids. That’s why they stopped. They were afraid, and I ran away.”
“That’s…that’s it, I guess. I’m…Sheryl, I think I’m here to take revenge,” Alexander seemed almost to be asking himself if he was in fact here to take revenge, but he said it all the same.
“What?” Sheryl stared at him.
“Take revenge. Find…find his killers, and teach them a lesson. You know, Charles Bronson style,” he laughed with difficulty, making it sound like a sob. “Revenge, I’m here…for revenge, Sheryl. I think I came here to tell you that as well. I will avenge your brother.”
“Alexander, are you fucking crazy? Find his killers? I know who they were, Alexander! The bloody gang he always hung around since school, that bunch of doped out fucking pricks killed him. You just told me they beat you up! We already know that! D’you think I haven’t thought of calling the police? And then what? No evidence? No proof, and then they’d come and fuck up what’s left here…my mum and this house, and me! They’d kill her, Alex! And I’m not prepared to lose anything more, I’m not! There’ve been blank phonecalls, you know. I’ve been so scared, but never told the police anything. Never! I’m not losing mum!”
“Sheryl…please calm down, I’m not calling the police…”
“I know that, Alex! Charles Bronson style, ay? Well, fuck, Alex! Ian wasn’t your brother, he was mine!”
“Alex…” Sheryl stopped suddenly, looking exhausted. She looked at the fireplace, away from Alexander. A single crystalline tear rolled down her cheek and fell silently off her chin. She grasped her forehead and sniffed.
Alexander sat silently, not knowing quite what to say once again, feeling his throat constrict.
“Alexander, I just…” she looked at him again, eyes shining with a film of tears. “I don’t want them to kill anyone else. Not mum, not me, not any of my friends. Not…not you. Alright? You can’t just go and take revenge, they’ll tear you apart. You’re not an idiot, Alex. What the fuck’s gotten into you?”
Alexander shifted and placed a hand on her shoulder, holding her reassuringly. “Sheryl, once again…I’m so sorry. But you don’t know me at all, and…and you don’t know the things I’ve gotten involved in over the years. I think I can do this…I’m not sure. But one thing is for sure, Sheryl…whatever I do, I am going to take every precaution I can possibly think up to make sure they don’t come anywhere near you, your mum, your friends or this house. I promise, I really do.” Sheryl stared at him.
“You really loved him.”
“Yes.” They listened to the thrum of raindrops on the windowpanes, and the tick of the heater in the fireplace.
“I can’t believe you’re going to do this. You’re serious.”
Alexander realised they were sitting side by side now, his thigh pressed against hers. She was looking away from him again. He imagined her, sitting alone in this damp house, drinking tea and reading. Waiting for her mother to come home from the hospital. And he knew that he had meant every word when he said that he would not allow her or her mother to come to harm.
“I know things about that gang, Sheryl. They’re not that big,”
“I don’t want to know.”
“I’m so very sorry, Sheryl. But I do have to do this. I have to try,”
“The sword…that used to be over the fireplace. The family sword. It’s gone now.”
“It disappeared the day he died. I think they took it,” Alexander barely heard her.
“I think he’d like it back, don’t you think?”
She turned and looked at him. Her eyes were glossy. “Ay, I think he would,” a faint smile adorned her face, lightening Alexander’s chest. “He loved that sword so much…he’d sit up in his room and polish it every day,” she wiped her cheek and continued. “He…he named it Freddie, can you believe that? Frederick. For freedom. He’d watch Braveheart and get all fired up about freedom and Scotland, you know? He was always crying in the end. And then he’d pretend that was Wallace’s sword, or that the sword was used to fight the English.” Alexander smiled, nodding. He’d seen Highlander with Ian, but never Braveheart. He could imagine. “Always the little patriot.” Sheryl whispered.
Alexander squeezed her hand softly, cold within his grasp.
“I think I should leave now,” he said with what he hoped was reassuring confidence. Sheryl nodded slowly. He let go of her hand and got up, brushing his suit out of ingrained habit. They walked to the hall without words, Alexander stopping to take his raincoat off the hook. He wore it, and faced her.
“Goodbye, Sheryl. Hope your mother gets better real quick.”
Sheryl looked at the floor and shrugged. “Ay. Um…Alex.” She gazed straight into his eyes with a fierce determination. “Listen, please, please don’t get killed. Alright?” He looked into her eyes, and saw the pleading there. She was desperate not to have the carcass of the past dragged into the present, not to have blood stain her life again. And he was cruel enough to threaten her with exactly that. He fought back tears.
“I’ll do my very best, Sheryl.”
She gave him her dazzling smile again, and leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you for coming over, Alex. Goodbye.” His cheek tingled. He nodded and smiled. “Bye, Sheryl. Take care.” With that, he opened the door and walked out.
Back in the temporary home of his hotel room, Alexander flipped through the frayed pages of an old phonebook. He rolled it over, smoothened its pages, massaged its brown jacket in his palms as if trying to feel something within it.
It had been Ian’s phonebook.
Alexander had taken it a few days before Ian had been murdered. He wasn’t proud of that. He had, of course, planned to give it back. The reason he’d taken it was to jot down the numbers and addresses of Ian’s pals. The little league of cultists. He had wanted to find out a bit about them, maybe hassle them with a few of his contacts. It had all been very vague, and Alexander remembered his overconfidence. He never even vaguely expected Ian to end up with eight bullets in him.
So he’d kept it. Ian didn’t need it anymore.
It was a memento.
Alexander felt the pebbly texture of the jacket, examined the dull light of the rain smeared day fall on the paper and the little grey lines on them. All the numbers were right there. Quite convenient for Charles Bronson types, thought Alexander, and laughed. It was a bitter laugh, but he actually felt better. At his feet was a case of Guinness. He knelt down and picked up a can, opening it up and drinking deep.
The morning of the next day, one McGowan received a phone call. It was anonymous.
“Mr. McGowan,” the voice on the line had been smooth and unfamiliar to McGowan, who sat on his couch stroking his white scar, smoking a cheap cigarette. He was busy getting bored watching reruns on his battered old TV when the phone call had come.
“Ay, this is McGowan. Who’s this?”
“I’m afraid my name’ll have to remain unavailable to you, Mr. McGowan.” The accent on the other side had a tinge of Scottish, but McGowan couldn’t quite place it. It didn’t seem right.
“What? Who the fuck are you, and what do you want? How’d you know my name?”
“I do believe you wouldn’t want to raise your voice to me.”
“Is that fucking right? You do believe that, do you? You listen, Mr. Whoever you are, is this your idea of a bloody joke? When I find out who ye blood well are, I’ll have you believe you don’t fucking mess with McGowan, ken?”
“Mr. McGowan, are you quite done?”
“You bastard, you tell me what this is about right now or you’ll regret this phone call for the rest of your fucking life!”
“Very well. Let me give you the key words. Erebus Minor. Does that mean anything to you, Mr. McGowan?”
Silence on McGowan’s side of the line.
The voice waited.
“Yes, Mr. McGowan.”
“It…ay, it could well mean something to me. What’s that got to do with…with this?” McGowan’s voice had gone through a sharp change now. From defiant to not quite very sure anymore what stance to take. An undertone of very palpable fear.
“Well, Mr. McGowan, I’m afraid it means very much to me. In fact, I happen to represent one Lord Conrad. Does that mean anything to you?”
A brief space of silence again, as McGowan swallowed and cleared his throat of smoke. “Ahh…ay. Are…y’are…ah, one of Conrad’s brars? How’d…how’d you get my phone?”
“It matters little. Lord Conrad has contacts, as do I. Now, Mr. McGowan, are you willing to believe the fact that one should not raise one’s voice to me?”
“Eh, look…I don’t mean no offence, ken? I just, just don’t know what ye want, and…and, ay, I’m listening.”
“Indeed. Mr. McGowan, I believe you have attempted to contact Lord Conrad’s organisation before, in regard to a certain chemical stimulant patented under the Lord’s gateways?”
“Um…is this a trick or something? Am I being bugged by the polis or something?”
“If you deign to believe that Lord Conrad allows the police to know about his organisation, I don’t think I should waste my time talking to you, Mr. McGowan.”
“Eh? No! I…nothing like that, it’s just strange that…what’s this all about, ken? I don’t understand…”
“I did ask if you, along with your close circle of peers who we believe have formed a cult of sorts by yourselves delving in…activities of Satanic worship, have attempted to acquire Lord Conrad’s chemical stimulant for purposes of achieving ultimate truth in your ritualistic efforts to contact none other than the King of the realm Lord Conrad…has established links to? Please answer right now.”
“Ah…ay, we have. I don’t know how anyone could know that…it’s, it’s…we’ve been, you know, trying to raise money. Getting in touch with contacts of our own, ken? Like, to reach your…uh, his honour Lord Conrad’s drug. Ah…the Erebus Minor in Glasgow, we tried to get in, ah, to get the drug…but it, your people said it was only for penance. We’ve been trying to find some way….ah, but…you heard somehow? I mean…this is quite the thing, ken? I’m honoured to be talking to a representative of the Minorites, sir.” McGowan’s words were achingly forced and fearful. He was not used to speaking in such a fashion.
“Well. Yes, then. Very good. Then, know now that the Erebus Minorites wish to further talk with representatives of your cult. This is about matters of…collaboration, you could say. We have been observing your activities from afar, and find ourselves somewhat interested. I have been told to arrange a meeting with two, no more, no less of your cult’s members at a specific location. The supply of Lord Conrad’s drug may also be discussed. You will obviously be one of the members present, being leader of your cult. You will bring whomsoever you wish to bring, and no one else. You will both come unarmed, and knowledgeable that disobeying this mandate will leave you under threat of death as it shows a breach of trust. We will be in control of this meeting, know this now.”
“Ah…sir, but we usually carry a few weapons, to make sure…I can’t be guaranteed that you are definitely one of Lord Conrad’s men, ay? Ken? We have to take our own precaution, like”
“If you are unsure, do not attend the meeting. I said no weapons, and it is an unchangeable rule. You will be searched at the location, and should you be found armed, possibly be killed. You have been warned. Is that clear, Mr. McGowan? Are you willing to do this on our terms?”
“Ah…ay, ay of course. I’m…honoured that your organisation has chosen us for…for this. It’s just that…”
“You will come unarmed, with one other member.”
“You will receive another call in a few minutes detailing the location of the meeting. Wait for it, and listen carefully. The meeting will be held tomorrow afternoon, at exactly three o’ clock. Be punctual, we are not willing to wait or pursue this any further if you show disinterest or complacency. Goodbye, Mr. McGowan.”
McGowan waited alright. He sat in his couch and smoked, heart pounding with a mixture of fear and excitement. The words Erebus Minor held more power than was imaginable in the world of the amateur Satan worshipper. He wasn’t into penance and knew very little about the religious tenets of the real Lord Conrad and his dukedoms of penance starting from New York City. But everyone amateur knew his name, and assumed he was one of the biggest devil worshippers ever. So he waited. Another call came, another voice told him the location. He listened, wrote it down and thanked the caller profusely. He hung up with his mouth salty with terror and joy. They were on the verge of the professional scene.
That night, McGowan’s gang (cult) celebrated in their gathering place with pizzas and beer, and cut open a cat for good luck. Its shrill screams were drowned out by their uproarious singing, and those awakened by that assumed it to be the joviality of drunkards and cursed silently into their pillows. The sun dawned on coiled guts in the gutter, and the scream of an old lady who slipped on the bloody pavement.
It could be considered fortunate then, for Alexander, that ‘Razorlip’ McGowan, who had most likely shot Ian himself and beaten Alexander bloody and left him crying on the docks, was quite gullible.
Charles Bronson Style (the William Wallace Way)
Alexander breathed deeply, the highland air making his lungs ache pleasurably. He smiled, and propped a cigarette between his lips. It was a beautifully grey day, the chill stretches of mist draping the hunched hills all around. The last time he’d come here he’d been wearing a kilt. He hadn’t been smiling.
The roses on Ian’s grave were dotted with drops of condensation, like jewels on the white petals. He had pricked one of his fingers on the thorns that decorated their slim stems, warning to the swayed hearts of romantics. The blood on the thorn, and the cut, now scabbed and hidden beneath a glove. It seemed appropriate, to bleed on this day. Blood on Ian’s grave. Wish me luck, boy.
He flicked his thumb against the lighter, and held the dancing flame to the cigarette. The smoke curling and whipping out into the winds, Alexander replaced the lighter in his overcoat pocket. Underneath the overcoat was, of course, a white suit.
Alexander smoked, and gazed at the stone slab marking Ian’s resting place. Waiting. The hair gel seemed to have frozen in the cold, his meticulously combed hair like a statue rooted to his scalp. Quite convenient. Somewhere beneath his feet, six feet under if the common knowledge was correct, lay the aged body of Ian. Now aged beyond recognition, he supposed. Alexander liked to imagine that his friend’s body had returned to the earth, flesh turned to dust and absorbed into the skin of the world leaving only chalk-white bones fossilised in its embrace. But he knew that Ian (what once held Ian, anyway) was sealed in a box that kept the cold hands of Scottish soil from touching him.
He shook his head as he sucked on the cigarette. What was he thinking? It was no point, pondering on such things. It was a beautiful steely day, and he was on the threshold of doing something big. For Ian, for himself. His heart raced to the call of his sparking nerves, and his feet were cold as ice in his polished shoes and warm white winter socks. He was nervous, of course. But he didn’t allow himself to notice.
Behind him, the mossy ruins of Ian’s ancestors’ castle loomed (not too high) over the hilltop, watching the undulating lands around it like some ancient sentinel. Strangely enough, it was not raining. Not drizzling like the day of Ian’s funeral, where the sky wept just a little for a lost life. Not pouring like the day he got the phone call from Sheryl informing him of his friend’s most unfortunate death, and got a stone through the window that led him to the path of cautionary assault. Above the tooth-like remnants of the castle jutting out of the green gums of the hills, the sky was grey as ever. He blew out smoke, and thought about the sky. He said to himself, they were clotted with clouds that blotted out the sun. Clotted. Blotted. Internal rhyme?
He looked around, at the castle that Ian’s remote ancestors had supposedly built. Not that there was much left to look at. The teeth of the highlands. It was still beautiful—decrepit, ruined, and empty. But beautiful. There was a more famous castle some miles away, a tourist spot. He wondered why this one wasn’t a tourist spot. He wondered why Ian’s family couldn’t make some money off the place. What did it take to become an official Scottish Heritage historical building, complete with car parking and visiting times? A license? He shrugged. If he got out of this whole affair, he thought he might suggest something to the little family. As an afterthought, he wondered if it was legal to bury the family’s dead on this hilltop. Too late, anyway.
He chewed the end of his cigarette quietly.
They were coming.
He squinted at the two figures coming up the path, obviously straining from the walk. Alexander looked at his silver-plated watch. 3:08 PM. Just eight minutes late. Not bad. He patted his hair and brushed off his overcoat, taking one last drag off the cigarette butt and tossing it into the grass. The figures approached, plodding along like hesitant schoolchildren. Alexander’s stomach churned. Had it really worked? That simple trick? Was it actually them? Or just some stray tourists? He couldn’t quite believe what he was doing yet. Or the fact that it had gone so smoothly. His teeth ground together, clicking and creaking. Here he was. Charles Bronson wannabe.
His heart leapt. It was them. Out of the distance, the face out of memory materialised. Pale and gaunt. The thin scar across the mouth. A bright yellow windcheater marked him out like a beacon. ‘Razorlip’ McGowan. His friend was dressed in more sombre black, suitable for the occasion, thought Alexander. They approached, and Alexander’s hand slipped into the warmth behind the overcoat. Fingers sliding over the hard shape of the handgun. In the other pocket was the lighter and a roll of duct tape. In his breast pocket was a small tin flask, filled and heavy.
He couldn’t believe it.
Right there, walking towards him. The same man who had shot Ian, and smacked his own head open on the docks. Completely unaware of what he strolling into. His jaw jumped in knots. Ten…nine…eight…seven…seven feet away, standing on the wet grass. McGowan stopped, with his friend. A hesitant silence. Alexander’s stomach was coiled tight enough to make him buckle. His legs were trembling. McGowan spoke, frost leaping out of his self-mutilated lips. “Hello?”
Alexander licked his own dry, cracked lips. A drop of dew materialised on one of the lenses of his spectacles, or was it a tear? “McGowan?” he barked loudly, so as to cover the tremor in his throat. McGowan didn’t come any closer.
Through the pounding in his ears, the haze over all his senses, Alexander smiled. His gut was throbbing like a madman now. “This is it,” he muttered to himself. Something was coming over McGowan’s friend now, his face crumpling in a frown.
“I’m not Conrad,” said Alexander. “But you’ve come to the right place.”
“This…this is it?” questioned McGowan, hunched in his windcheater. He stepped forward. Seven…six…five feet away. “Is…there no one else?” McGowan’s friend remained quiet. “This is it,” said Alexander, his fingers convulsively clasping the butt of the Colt in his overcoat pocket. McGowan’s friend was not pleased. “What’s going on?” McGowan was frowning in confusion. “This is it, ay? What…are you? From Conrad?”
“Indeed,” breathed Alexander. “You see this grave? Come forth, and look at it.”
“What?” asked McGowan, genuinely surprised.
“Why?” said his friend. Alexander stifled a grimace. His abdomen seemed to contract beyond all possibility. He fought to keep standing, his legs shuddering. The cold on his skin was exquisite. He stepped sideways from the grave. “Are you questioning me?” he squeezed out the question with difficulty. McGowan was looking very hesitant now. “But…no, it’s just that. Could we know what—”
“No!” shouted Alexander with all the strength he could muster. “No! Look at the grave now! This is important!” He saw the Adam’s apple on McGowan’s neck bob up and down, and watched incredulously as McGowan walked to the grave in stilted steps. His friend was obviously not convinced, but not exactly sure either. “McGowan…”
McGowan looked at the name on the stone slab, and the rose beside it.
“McGowan…I’ve seen him before,”
“What?” said Alexander, who could feel his heart thundering like a bass drum in his skull.
“You’re…who are you? This…is not. You’re not from Conrad….McGowan…”
McGowan’s eyes had widened, all colour seeping from his face. The scar looked gruesomely white. “Ian…”
“Fuck…” McGowan looked up. Two…“Who…”
Three…Alexander’s hand snapped around the gun in his pocket like a vice. McGowan’s friend staggered back as Alexander whipped the gun out of his pocket. The gunshot was deafening, the crack echoing across the hilltop and jarring Alexander’s teeth. A brief, barely discernable flash glinted like lightning on the green of Ian’s ancestral hill. The cultist’s shoulder popped open and the man flew back and landed sprawling on the damp earth. McGowan was petrified to Ian’s grave. “Fuck!” The muzzle of Alexander’s gun was pointed at him now.
“Don’t. Don’t! Run, and I shoot,” said Alexander, voice openly shaking now. McGowan was in two minds, dry lip bleeding slightly from an especially powerful grimace that had snapped open his dehydrated skin like cellophane wrapping. His body was doing a slow dance, deciding whether or not to run. His friend was lying on the grass, trying to say something but crying instead.
“I’ll shoot,” said Alexander, holding the gun in both hands now. McGowan shook his head, raising his hands. “Don’t, man…jesus,”
“Down! On your knees,” snapped Alexander. McGowan stumbled down, kneeling on Ian’s grave. Very appropriate. Alexander walked up to McGowan, gun held up high, pointed straight at McGowan’s head. “Please, man…don’t shoot, please,”
“Do you know who I am?”
McGowan swallowed hard. “You…Ian’s…the friend,” a hoarse little croak. Alexander felt an energy course through his shivering hands. He was vengeance. McGowan was at his mercy, and he feared Alexander.
“That’s right,” Alexander walked even closer. McGowan’s eyes were watery and red now. The gun came down in a silvery streak, connecting with McGowan’s bristled scalp. The man went down with no hesitation, emitting a slight whimper as he did so. Alexander stared at him, curled into a ball in front of Ian’s grave, clutching his head and moaning. “Remember that, McGowan?” he whispered. The other cultist was staggering up. Alexander jerkily walked up to him and grabbed him, hugging him like a long lost friend. The man spluttered, “You…cunt…” The smell of strawberry bubblegum gushed into Alexander’s face, mixing with the metallic odour of the blood that soaked the man’s black jacket and pasted it to his t-shirt. Alexander wrapped one arm round his neck and dragged him in front of Ian’s grave, shoving him down beside McGowan.
McGowan looked out from behind his fingers, through bloodshot eyes. Alexander clenched his jaw against the pangs of tight nausea that swept through his flushed body and raised his gun over the cultist with the shot shoulder. The man tried to get up desperately. Alexander pulled the trigger, letting the gun fly up with the retort. The cultist jerked violently as the bullet hit his stomach and expelled a spray of blood that drenched his black jacket. McGowan ran on unsteady legs, collapsing a few feet from the grave and staring at his friend. Alexander aimed the gun again, averting his eyes from the man’s face, mouth coloured lipstick red by the blood he was coughing up. He fired again, twice. This time into the man’s chest. The body danced on the ground with each crack of the weapon, the smoke from the muzzle obscuring Alexander’s vision and blurring the red mist of the cultist’s exploding chest.
There were four bullets in him. Alexander did not fire again. The gun was warm in his hand. McGowan was staggering backwards, short hair matted with blood from the wound on his head, ignored now. “You killed…him. Dan…Dan! Dan!” McGowan was shouting, flecks of spit flying from his lips, veins leaping off his neck. “Shut up, McGowan. You were right the first time, he’s dead.”
McGowan was silenced quickly. Tears were streaming down his face, glistening in the dull light of the sunless afternoon. Rivers of Dan’s blood were soaking into the grass of the hilltop. “Dan…oh fuck. O fucking jesus. Dan…” McGowan’s scarred face was crumpling slowly, tears spurting from squinting eyes as copiously as blood from the holes in Dan’s chest.
McGowan looked to Alexander, face frozen in a rictus of horror and sorrow. “Y-you…cunt. Fucking…cunt. Y-yeh…you killed Dan,” Alexander stopped to think. Dan was probably McGowan’s lifelong friend. Since high school. There it was.
“Yes…how does it feel, McGowan? How does it fucking feel?”
McGowan shambled like a zombie to Ian’s grave, now drinking deep the blood of another corpse. It was the grave of two now. He leaned over the body of his friend, shaking with sobs. “Dan…”
“How does it feel?” Alexander’s own voice was brutally calm now, though his hands were quivering so much he could barely aim the gun at McGowan.
“Y-you’re going to kill me now, ay? Huh?” McGowan asked, hunched over Dan.
“No. Get up. We need to have long talk…I’ve got many questions,” said Alexander. McGowan looked at Alexander, face dripping with tears and blood, hands stained from Dan’s wounds.
“Fuck…you. I’m, I’m n-not gonna tell you shit…cunt. Y-you can shoot, I’m not…” Alexander lunged and struck him on the head again with the butt of the gun.
McGowan woke up surrounded by the damp walls of the castle, the bleak sky the only roof over his head. He could feel a cold crust of blood stuck to his head like a second skin, and his arms and legs would tied together with silver duct tape. Alexander stood over him, overcoat swaying like a cloak along the draughts that sifted through the ruins like ghosts. Beside McGowan lay the body of his closest friend and partner in the cult they had created so many years ago in a schoolyard. Eventually, it was what killed Dan, indirectly—though this did not occur to McGowan. Dan’s black clothes glistened, soaked through from the bullet holes. “You slept a long time, McGowan.”
Alexander was smoking a cigarette. The sky had grown slightly darker, and the glow of the cigarette shone weakly off the glossy golden hair that adorned Alexander’s head. Barely a strand had fallen out of place. “By the way,” Alexander muttered, looking up at the sky and blowing smoke. “My name’s Alexander. And we really need to talk, McGowan. I have many questions to ask.”
McGowan shook with blossoming anger and grief. “You…bastard. Go to Hell, fucking cunt.”
“Yes…I can’t blame you, McGowan. Seeing as how I felt the same fucking thing!” Alexander stepped away, fiercely sucking on the cigarette. “Ian was barely even…Ian was a boy, McGowan. A stupid, innocent boy. Dan…well. Dan was the same as you.” Alexander laughed humourlessly. “You know, one of my friends…hm. One of my…friends…would find what you said to me quite inviting. Go to Hell. He wishes. Come to think of it, don’t you want to go there too? You worship Satan, therefore…hm. I guess go to Heaven doesn’t quite cut it. Or maybe you realise I, unlike you, would take Hell negatively.” There was silence, as McGowan stared into space without meaning or purpose, blinded by shock, sorrow, and rage.
“Alright. McGowan…please. Answer my questions without protest.”
“Look…let me give you one question. What happened to Ian’s sword? You sold it, didn’t you? That’s one of the reasons you killed off Ian. He refused to part with that sword, so you got rid of him. You knew that sword was an antique, worth quite a bit, and you guys were desperate for the new drug. So you took it yourself, after wiping Ian out of the picture. Your cult sold it off to get money for the Erebus drug. Only…the Erebus Minorites didn’t sell it to you. Right? They only give it to members. But you got the money, all the same. Probably spent it on the conventional stuff, right? Am I right? Who did you sell the sword to?”
McGowan only stared blankly, tears rolling down his face.
“Don’t do this, McGowan.”
“No. No! I don’t think you have the right to say that to me, McGowan!” Alexander crouched and grabbed McGowan by the collar of his t-shirt, tugging him close. “Have you completely forgotten what you did? Huh? Ian? You listen to me, you bloody bastard,” Alexander teeth squeaked as he gritted them, almost growling as he held his face inches from McGowan’s. “You think I like doing this? Huh? To tell you the truth, Mr. McGowan, I nearly piss my fucking pants every time I fire this stupid gun! I hate doing this! You killed my friend first, asshole. Now you take what you had coming,” he let McGowan go. “You are going to talk, McGowan. I’m sorry, but I’m going to make you talk,” Alexander took out his silver plated and engraved lighter, glinting in the light of early evening. With a flick of his thumb, the flame danced like a miniscule beacon in the shadows of the ruined castle. Alexander already had a lit cigarette between his teeth.
Alexander vomited convulsively, the remnants of his lunch splattering on the grass. He wiped his mouth, face ashen. He was still shivering, partly from the cold, but mostly from the excess of adrenaline rushing through his bloodstream. And what he had just done. The bile literally coated his tongue, bitter and sickening. He looked at McGowan, one half of his face crawling with flames, the other half contorted in a pale etching of agony. In the light of the dusk, it was a surreal sight: the flickering glow of the mask of fire that outlined the man’s face, weaving trails of smoke that drifted like worms from his head. Crawling up the air and dissipating. Alexander tossed the tin brandy flask away. It was empty now, having once been filled with whiskey. Whiskey that was fast disappearing on McGowan’s face.
“God, McGowan,” Alexander muttered, stumbling to his knees in front of his quarry’s limp form. “Look at this. Look at what you’ve made me do. If only you could see yourself now…was it worth it? Gutting cats and dogs? A few humans here and there? For…for something you probably didn’t even believe in, in the first place,” Alexander looked away. “I’m sorry, McGowan. I really am. But I had to choose, you know. You’re a risk to Sheryl, and her mother. I barely know all of you…but I’d choose them over you any day, McGowan. Any day…shit. You really screwed yourself, didn’t you?”
He had gotten all the answers he could possibly get from McGowan. He knew where to go after this. The sun was beginning to set behind the hills, the mists absorbing the gloom enveloping the landscape in a vacuous grey darkness. Over the hill, the light of a torch glittered. It was Boyd, come with no questions asked. Just like he’d phoned up McGowan and given directions to the fateful hilltop, no questions asked. Thank the Lord for Boyd. And for cell phones. He’d had to walk quite a way to get a signal, of course. And all the way back. While McGowan slept off his two head wounds. And then back to get his answers.
He massaged his stomach, finally beginning to uncoil. He waved to Boyd, toiling up the path. He looked at his watch, and walked back into the darkening ruins. McGowan lay on the ground by his friend, very softly moaning. The air was thick with a horrible stench that made Alexander keep his jaw shut tight to keep from puking again. McGowan had vented more than words during their talk. Alexander thought suddenly of Braveheart. Ian’s favourite. That too, he realised, was the Charles Bronson way. Wallace galloping out to seek vengeance. Always vengeance. His wife dead, he threw away restraint. Butchering soldiers and slitting the throat of the fellow who slit his wife’s. He shook his head with a rueful smile. What was he doing? The Charles Bronson way? The William Wallace way? Or sheer madness? Probably the latter.
He took out the gun, and shot McGowan through the head. And what he’d come to Scotland for was almost done.
Alexander took out his lighter, and looked at it. The packet of cigarettes was in the breast pocket of his shirt, a slight depression against his nipple. He realised he couldn’t. He’d have to throw his beloved lighter away. Get a new one. McGowan’s half glowing face had to be exorcised. The tool of vengeance tossed. It was too vivid, the white leer of his teeth shining from under what was left of one side of his mouth, his lips. He’d ended up looking like Two-Face, only with a huge hole in his head. Boyd had been frightened. No questions asked as they dragged the heavy body bag back to his car. But frightened, all the same. Down the hill, like ants carrying a dead leaf. They’d had to make two more trips for the other guy. Dan. The blood on the hilltop, by Ian’s ancestral castle, would disappear in time. The earth would drink it up. Alexander had dipped one finger in it and smeared it, vivid crimson, across Ian’s name on the grave. A little gift for the boy (man) in his afterlife.
Yesterday was the first time he’d seen Boyd looking frightened. Though, to be truthful, he hadn’t really seen Boyd that many times anyway.
Thank goodness for Boyd.
Alexander put the lighter back in his pocket.
He looked around the room. It was spacious and dim, a little sunlight filtering in through gaps in the drapes covering the huge windows on one side and gleaming off the varnish on the oak-panelled walls. And the weapons. Alexander had never seen so many medieval weapons in a living room. They covered the walls like gigantic insects frozen in mid-crawl, shining menacingly in the half-light. Swords of all varieties—long, short, broad. Claymores, long swords, bastard swords. Flails hung like worms on hooks, cudgels framed on the wooden walls. Spears crossed each other over ornate shields.
Alexander admired it all with open mouth. The room practically stank of history and metal polish. He wondered if they were replicas, or real. Many of them looked old enough to be real relics. Then the sound of claws clicking on the floor disturbed his thoughts, and a soft panting gave enough warning for Alexander to leap off his chair in alarm. The two Labradors came running, one black and another creamy white. “Whoa…hey, hey…good dogs. That’s it, stay there,” said Alexander hesitantly as they leaped and pranced around him with outstretched tongues flapping, huffing and snuffling in excitement.
“Leon! Andy! Here boys. Sit!” The two dogs responded immediately to the new voice in the room, leaving Alexander to seat themselves on the carpeted floor with soft grunts. Alexander looked at the man who had entered the room, now standing by the fireplace. In his sixties, clean shaven, white hair still thick on his head.
“Do sit down, Mr…ah…your name?”
“For reasons that need not be elaborated, I’d prefer it if you just called me Alexander.”
The man nodded, walking over to Alexander and sitting down on one of the leather armchairs. “Do sit, Mr. Alexander,”
“Um. Thank you,” he sat back down, keeping an eye on the dogs. “It’s just Alexander. My first name.”
“Oh…I do apologise. Ah…”
“It’s just…I’m not too comfortable around dogs. Could they? Go out?”
“Ah, ha. Of course…Leon! Andy, out! Come on,”
The dogs raised their eyebrows, and remained firmly seated on the floor, their tails momentarily twitching. “Hm…sorry. They are stubborn sometimes.”
“Ah, well. That’s fine,” Alexander looked around. “Quite a castle you’ve got here. Must be quite a kick…living here. Looks like you do well…do you get that many tourists every day? I saw quite a few down in the pavilion out front.”
“Oh yes. Quite a few…they do tend to get surprised sometimes. Many expect a medieval castle, complete with towers and dungeons. This one is, as you can see, more of a mansion. But it’s still good business.”
“Could I perhaps ask…what you want, sir? How exactly did you get an appointment with me?”
“Ahem…please, no Sir. You’re older than me by far. Just Alexander. And it’s easier than you think to get an appointment with you, Mr. Arlington. I’ve got contacts here and there.”
“I see. And what do you want?” Arlington’s voice was subtly shifting now, becoming colder and retreating behind a slightly defensive stance. Alexander observed, always keeping an eye on the two dogs, who watched him eagerly.
“Of course. I’ll get right to it, Mr. Arlington. I’ve come for a sword. A…very special sword, one could say. Supposed to be worth a bit of a packet, though nothing outstanding. Anyways, I want that sword,”
Arlington’s face sagged, the creases around his forehead pronouncing themselves as he frowned. He began to wipe the spectacles on his chest, hanging from his neck by a chain. He used his beige sweater to do it. He averted his eyes from Alexander.
“So…you’re here to rob me. Quite efficiently, too. I am impressed. Quiet, and…well, just take what you want, then. I’m too old to resist, and security’s two floors down. You’ll have a wonderful head start…Alexander,”
Alexander smiled. “You’ve got it quite wrong, Mr. Arlington. I’m not here to rob you of your precious weapons. I just want one back…a certain blade you bought a while back, without questions. From a man called McGowan. A long sword, I believe, in very good condition—but quite old. You purchased it for a sum of five thousand pounds.”
Arlington looked up, recognition dawning in his blue eyes.
“You remember. I want it back…it was a friend’s. He’s dead now, and I think his family would like it back. It’s theirs’ as well. It was stolen,”
Arlington gazed into space, pursing his lips. “It is…it is of more worth than they realised, I think. Or the person you speak of,” he shook his head slowly. “There was a reason I paid five thousand pounds for it. I am a collector…and believe me, this piece was an antique worth keeping. Worth adding to any collection. Almost perfect condition…even after centuries. Remarkably kept—a museum could have scarcely done better.”
Alexander nodded. “Exactly. This man’s family took it seriously…father, grandparents. Great great grandparents too, I expect. I honestly don’t know anything about it. But I need it back.” Arlington looked hesitantly to Alexander.
“I paid five thousand pounds for it…that is no small sum, even for me,”
“Irrelevant, Mr. Arlington. I need the sword back, valuable or not. It belongs with the family whose ancestors forged it,” Arlington raised his bushy white eyebrows, face flushing scarlet.
“Alexander, if I may, I would doubt this family knows even vaguely the worth of this blade, to let it slip from their hands,”
“Arlington…you would not want to go down that path. That family has more burdens on their head than putting a price on antiques. Its only worth to them is as an heirloom. A person died because of that sword. Yes. Perhaps you should have asked a few questions before buying it…You don’t want blood on your hands, Arlington. Believe me. Give it to me, and forget you ever bought it. Forget your five thousand pounds. And it’s not as if you’ve got a shortage of weapons in your collection here.”
Arlington did not say anything.
“A gun can do things words cannot. Don’t make me resort to that,”
“There’s no need for threats,” whispered Arlington. “I get the picture.” He winced and got up, walking towards the grand fireplace in the centre of the room. “It’s right here,” said Arlington. There were three swords right above the mantelpiece. In the middle was Freddie.
Alexander smiled, feeling suddenly weighted down by an immense sense of nostalgia and sadness. The sunlit windowsill, the walks, the long talks in libraries and restaurants, the afternoons on that patchwork quilt in Ian’s little attic like room, the glinting blade above the fireplace…All gone, forever.
Here it was. Freddie. Unchanged, still shining. And it couldn’t change the fact that all that was gone. He had to say goodbye, finally.
“That’s it,” he whispered.
Arlington took the blade down, holding it carefully, as if it were made of porcelain instead of metal. “Do take care of it…whoever you are. It is precious. I found out much about it—this is a genuine remnant of ages gone past. I know the period it came from, the type of sword it is…”
“Mr. Arlington. I don’t want to know. No offence.”
Arlington nodded, and walked up to Alexander with the sword. “None taken. Here it is.” Alexander held the sword in his hands, icy cold, gently gleaming in the rays of light peeping in through the windows.
Arlington nodded, clearly pained by the separation. Alexander wondered whether it was the elderly man’s passion for medieval weaponry, or the fact that he was in a sense losing five thousand pounds, or both, that caused the discomfort so evident in his face. It didn’t matter. The sword belonged over another mantelpiece.
“I’ll…get a case for it,” said Arlington, turning to leave the room. “Wait here. Come,” he slapped his hands, and the two dogs followed.
“How do I know you’re not calling security, Mr. Arlington?”
Arlington turned with a rueful smile. “And what would I tell them? That a man’s taking one of my swords away through forceful conversation? And that this robber’s waiting upstairs in good faith?”
“Right.” Alexander watched him walk out of the room with the dogs at his side. He considered shouting out and saying Arlington, you’re all alone in this big castle, and all you do is surround yourself with weapons. Believe me, you don’t want to lose your soul to this. Get out, do something else. Don’t lose your soul.
He didn’t say it, because it was the kind of thing you said to a person when you were leaving definitively, not when the person was coming back with a case for your sword. And Alexander was too tired, and sick of saying believe me. And he didn’t know a thing about Mr. R. Arlington, and why he found it fascinating to live in the embrace of weapons from the past. So he let it be, sat down on one of the leather armchairs and waited with the sword that was called Freddie in his lap.
On his way out, Alexander paused to look at the tourists sitting on white plastic chairs under big white beach umbrellas, curiously incongruous with the splendidly sprawling pink stone façade of the castle behind them. The case with the sword was heavy. Walking up to a dustbin, he threw his lighter in. It hurt him to do so, to disengage himself from the little tool he had so faithfully used for so many years. But you had to let go sometimes. It landed softly on an empty packet of garlic potato chips. With one last glance at its shining surface amongst the other rubbish like a diamond in the rough, Alexander walked away.
The next day, a corner of a major Glasgow newspaper told of two bodies found in the docks because of an anonymous phonecall to the police. One of them had his face half burnt off, and had been shot in the head. The other had a few bullets in his torso. The police suspected that they were gangland murders of some sort, and speculated that one of them had been tortured before execution.
A certain apartment in the city, where one late McGowan’s fellow cultists often gathered in (they paid the rent together, boozed in it, and had killed a few creatures in it on occasion), was visited. When the cultists next arrived to meet, fraught with worry at the disappearance of two of their friends following what seemed to be an enquiry by none other than the Erebus Minorites. They found a letter shoved under the door, typed out and neatly folded. It said:
You’re in our space now. Get out of Scotland, or end up like your leader and his friend.
Keep the clipping, a memory of your friends, and a warning of things to come.
Stapled to the letter was a newspaper clipping that detailed the discovery of two corpses. Scrawled on the clipping in green felt pen was Razorlip McGowan.
Not another animal or human was gutted by the McGowan cult, which disappeared from the streets of Glasgow like it had never existed, and certain cloven hoofed idols gathered dust. The name Conrad, after all, was power.
The moment Sheryl looked at the newspaper article about the two corpses found in the docks, she thought: Alexander. He’d gotten himself killed by Ian’s ragtag gang.
Then, the doorbell rang, and her heart began to race.
Was it the police? Come to tell her to identify Alexander’s body? She didn’t stop to realise that there was no way to associate her with Alexander. Perhaps it was Ian’s old so-called friends. The murderers, finally arrived to wipe out the rest of the family.
Her mouth and throat dry with fear, she padded over to the hallway. The floor was cold, shocking the soles of her feet through her socks.
“Who is it?” she asked in what she hope was a confident voice, standing a foot away from the suddenly ominous green doorway.
It’s me, came a ghost’s voice, barely audible through the door.
She cautiously opened the door, unable to stop herself. It was him. Alexander. White suit, black shirt, white tie, and polished white shoes told her all before she even looked at the clean shaven face and gelled hair. She hugged him before he could say a word, chin firmly locked against his shoulder, the minty smell of his hair-gel strong. You’re not dead, she said in her mind.
“Alex,” she said, disengaging and staring at him in shock. He straightened his spectacles.
“You did it, didn’t you?” she whispered hoarsely. “The bodies?”
“I did. You don’t want to read that article. And…let’s not talk about what I did, alright? I just think, I think it’ll be okay now. You won’t get any more calls or any shit. I think.”
Sheryl shook her head. “I’m…Alex. Thank you. For not getting yourself killed.”
“I’m pretty happy about that myself, you know. Look…forget about all that now, okay? Um…is your mum back home?”
“She’s coming back a few days later. The doctors say she’s improving real good,” said Sheryl, smiling.
“Ah, that’s too bad. That she’s coming later, that is. Tell her I came over, okay?”
“Alex? I’m so sorry…jesus. Come in, please…aren’t you going to come in?”
Alexander pursed his lips as he gazed at her. A strand of his gelled hair fell out of place, hanging over his white forehead.
“No, Sheryl. I don’t think I should.” Sheryl looked at him, the smile melting away.
“Why not, Alex?”
“Sheryl, you knew I wasn’t coming back here for good. It’s not a good idea because I’m leaving. For India. Darjeeling. Don’t ask…that’s where I am now. For the moment. I’ve done what I came here to do. I made a promise to…to some friends. That I would return. I’ve got to go back…and, and. I don’t think it would be a good idea if I came in.”
Sheryl’s eyes sparkled, so beautiful that Alexander found himself breathless for a fleeting second. They seemed just like Ian’s eyes. Sheryl nodded.
“I understand. I…would have liked for you to stay a while. It would be nice…for mum, too…”
“I would have loved that too. But I don’t think…”
“It’s a good idea,” Sheryl completed the sentence for him. “I know,” she whispered, letting a hesitant smile touch her lips. Alexander nodded.
“I…just came to return this,” he lifted up the case he’d been holding. “I do believe it belongs to your family. And Ian would have loved it back, like you said,”
Sheryl held the case gingerly, hefting it up with some effort. She looked at Alexander questioningly. “Is it…Freddie?”
Alexander felt his face break out into a smile. “Yes…yes, it is.”
“Oh my god…”
“Don’t thank me. Just take care of it, and…see that it goes back over the fireplace, alright? I think Ian liked it there.” A droplet rolled inconspicuously down Sheryl’s cheek and landed with a soft plop on the dark blue grained surface of the case holding the sword. She nodded, holding the case like a newborn baby. Inside, lying against the cool blade of the ancient sword, was an envelope filled with neatly folded pounds. A substantial amount of money, that Alexander had gleaned from various sources. He was short of one of his expensive suits, along with a shirt, tie, and a pair of shoes. His old gold-plated watch was also gone, sold off as well. He had tapped into some of his bank accounts to add to the wad a cheque. He did not tell Sheryl about the envelope.
“I have to go now,” murmured Alexander. Sniffing, Sheryl put down the case and embraced him without inhibition. Alexander pressed himself against her, breathing in the faintly sweet smell of shampoo in her hair, letting her warmth seep into the cold white fabric of his suit, the crisp black cloth of his shirt. He closed his eyes and surrendered himself to her tight embrace. After about a minute, breathing against each other, they separated. Alexander stepped back. “Just…be happy, Sheryl.”
Through the gloom of the cloudy pallor that hung over the street, her dazzling smile broke through again, though her eyes shone with tears. “You too, Alex.” Alexander waved, and turned away with immense effort. Alex. He walked away, down the street. A car passed, playing a song by U2. Everlasting Love.
Alexander left Scotland the next day. On his way back to India, he decided it was time to let his friends waiting in Darjeeling call him Alex.
“Closure” is the sequel to “Demon Son,” which appeared in issue 62. Click on the link to view the story.
© 2003-2004 by Indrapramit Das. I'm 19 years old, and am currently taking a year off to pursue my creative urges (writing and drawing), having graduated from high school in June. At the moment, I'm preparing for undergraduate studies, either here in India or abroad (waiting for decisions from colleges right now). Recent work published on Aphelion includes my novella 'The Trench Crawler' and short stories 'Connections' and 'Giorxon and The Slaughterer'. I love to write, draw, read, watch (films/TV), and play computer games (yes). Am currently obsessed with the brilliant literature out there in comics and graphic novels. If you haven't already, read Hellblazer, Sandman, and Preacher! You won't regret it.