Journal of an Elder
It’s mad when I think back to how all this started. Innocent, innocuous banter with someone I met down the pub. He was just sitting there, arms sprawled across the bar, pint in one hand, fag in the other. He looked helpless. Alone. Reminded me of me, I suppose. That’s why I sat down. “Hey! Anyone sitting here?” I asked smiling. It was fairly obvious there wasn’t: only one drink on the bar and his chair was angled away from the spare seat. It was obvious, but I was being polite. “What the hell does it look like?” he said, catching me off guard. I must have looked shaken since his face quickly relaxed. “Sorry,” he said, “I’ve had a bad day. You know: the one that got away.” “No worries,” I said. “You’re a fisherman?” He laughed. “Sort of.” “You want a drink?” I asked. “Not some sort of fag are you?” He carried a mischievous glint in his eye. “No, no,” I stammered. “Thursday’s my night off from family duties.” He grinned. “I’ll have a pint of Old Peculiar then.” The barman sidled over and asked me what we wanted. “Two pints of Old Peculiar,” I said without hesitation. It seemed the right thing to do. Appropriate to empathise with him, copying his choice, becoming his friend. “What’s you name?” the man asked. “Daniel,” I replied. Then I realise I was being too formal. “Danny. Danny Spencer.” I extended my hand. “Well, Daniel, Danny, Danny Spencer,” he laughed, “I’m Mike Harrow. Plain and simple. Two words.” His hand felt icy cold and his grip was like iron. He squeezed. “Pleased to meet you.” He certainly was an odd looking character. His floppy brown hair was a complete mess and his long fringe hung around his glasses like a set of curtains. In contrast to his beleaguered outward appearance, his mahogany eyes glinted cold beneath the facade. The barman brought our drinks and Harrow and I began to talk. We had quite a lot in common: he was married, just like me, and like me, he had two kids under five. Thursday nights had evolved into his night out; his wife, Anna, going out with her girlfriends on Fridays. “Where to next?” Harrow said. We’d supped five or six pints of Old Peculiar by this stage and my head was beginning to spin. “Next? I’m going home.” “You can’t,” Harrow said, brow furrowing and eyes narrowing. He was glaring at me like I'd slept with his missus or something. Suddenly I felt really exposed. “I can’t?” I asked. “Why?” I didn’t want to hear the answer. I’ve always hated confrontation, always managed to talk my way out of difficult situations. This felt like it was about to become difficult. “We’ve got business to discuss, but first another drink.” I could have excused myself then, heard no more, but this peculiar man had me curious. “I’ll get another round in here. Easier than walking across town to the Cricketers.” The Cricketers was the only other bar within trekking distance, but I really didn’t fancy tackling the footpaths with my head full of ale. “Come on,” Harrow said. “We’re outta here.” He got up, downing the last of his pint. I did the same and fell into step behind. Harrow spotted a taxi. It was bloody freezing, but luckily the cab was already there. The driver had been waiting for fifteen minutes for a guy named Godfrey. “Oh well”, I said, climbing inside, “hard luck Mr. Godfrey.” “Dixon Park crematorium,” Harrow announced. The driver nodded and the car pulled away from the pub. Harrow looked at me and grinned. “There’s a little club behind the crematorium. It’s quiet and we can talk business.” “What business?” I asked, but he remained quite, contemplating the night through the taxi window. Ten minutes later, we arrived at Dixon Park. The crematorium was around the back so it took another five minutes of bumpy country lanes to bring us to the deserted car park. “Nobody’s home,” I said. Harrow’s smile grew to a devilish grin. He handed a tenner to the driver. “Keep the change, Geordie.” “Thanks, Mr. Harrow,” the driver said. “See you next week.” Did they know each other? This should have roused some suspicion, but as I’ve already explained, I was half drunk and shell-shocked by the whole situation. The tail lights of the taxi disappeared from view, offering only an occasional flash through the trees as it passed along country lane. “What now?” Harrow shivered, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets. “Come on,” he said. “This way.” I followed him around the back of the Crematorium into the Garden of Remembrance. “Not far now,” he called. After a few minutes of picking our way through urns and memorial headstones, Harrow twisted around and pointed to a stone fronted crypt. “In here.” He leaned across the short iron fence and pushed. It was surreal. The slab of stone must have weighed a ton, but it easily glided open revealing a faint orange light within. Harrow rubbed his hand. “Good, the fire’s lit.” This was most unsettling. Here I was, standing in a deserted graveyard in the dead of night, about to step into a crypt with a stranger I’d met two hours previously in the local. Was I mad? I stepped over the fence and ducked inside. The warmth of the fire coming up the stairs hit me like a karate punch. I lost my balance and staggered back against the door. And it closed. Shit, I was trapped. “Danny?” Harrow’s voice drifted up the steps. I took a deep breath then answered. “The door's closed.” “No worries,” Harrow replied. “Come on down.” The chamber was surreal. Red and black drapes hung down over the walls and the room was lit by a small fire glowing in an alcove. To my left, the wooden bar had three bar stools standing sentinel out front and a large, bearded man - a cross between Grisly Adams and Lurch from the Adams Family – was pulling a pint. Harrow was sitting there on a stool, completely at home, smoking one of is Marlboros. “Welcome,” he said. “Whaddaya think?” “Is it legal?” I asked. The barman laughed. Harrow shifted on his stool making the legs creak. “Course it’s not legal,” he said. “But who’s gonna know?” He shrugged. “Drink?” I sat down. “OK,” I answered, sitting down. “This feels weird, Mike. I can’t believe an hour ago we were two strangers having a quiet beer in the local. Now we're in a crypt drinking brown ale by firelight.” “But we're not strangers, Danny.” Harrow twisted the Marlboro in the ashtray until it stopped smoking. Then he looked me right in the eye. “I know you very well Daniel Oliver Spencer. I know your wife, Gillian Elizabeth. I know your little girl: the lovely Isobel. How beautiful she looks with her long black hair and her big blue eyes. Her teachers say she’s doing so much better this year, now the dyslexia therapy is helping her reading. Oh yes, and we can’t forget young Jamie can we? He made the first team this year, didn’t he? A Borough fan like you must be so proud.” The breath froze in my lungs and my chest tightened as my heart thundered out a heavy metal tempo. “Who the hell are you?” Harrow reached out his hand and grabbed my arm. I felt dizzy, nauseous. The room began to spin and I nearly collapsed. “Hey, hey,” Harrow said. “Calm down Danny boy. Don’t panic. I’m not a psycho. All I need is a little assistance. That’s all.” “What assistance?” I snapped. “Who the hell are you? Are you with the government? I’d heard about this sort of thing happening. Threats to your family, then you’re recruited.” Harrow swallowed. Waited for me to calm down. “This is going to seem pretty unbelievable, but you have to let me show you something.” I took another swig of beer. “Uh huh.” “You’re thinking all this is some sort of setup, aren’t you? Thinking about running out.” It felt like he was reading my thoughts. Then Grisly Adams spoke. “Please, Mr. Spencer, you’ve got to listen. Wait until Mr. Harrow has explained before you make up your mind.” He started pulling me another pint. I checked my watch. “It past closing time,” I said. “My wife'll be expecting me. Please, I really have to go” Ignoring my plea, Harrow slipped off his coat. To my astonishment, hidden in shadows behind him was the most unimaginable thing I’d ever seen. As the long, slender tail, scaly like a reptile’s, snaked from the darkness, Harrow coiled it around my wrist, the moist tip searching for my pulse. “Hold still,” Harrow commanded. My heart missed a beat as the cold tip began to press into my flesh. As the indentation deepened, a burning pain shot along the length of my arm, the nerves under stress, my shoulders starting to ache. All I could do was to stare as this ghastly reptilian member continued to press, deeper and deeper. Then my skin gave in to the pressure. It split, allowing the tip of the tail its freedom to search deeper inside my arm. Blood oozed from the sides of the wound, but the hole was plugged by its expanding girth and it pushed still further inside. The pain began to fade. I looked at the barman, desperate for some kind of help. An explanation, maybe. But he stood there grinning, anticipation of whatever was to come growing in his wide eyes. The tail was now so far inside my arm I felt it was no longer my own. I noticed Harrow shifting to allow the probe to extent even further. Then my heart sank as I felt a redoubled nausea strike with force. “You’ll be OK,” Harrow said calmly. “Just go with it. Soon you’ll understand.” I tried to cry out but found I couldn’t speak. I was frozen. Paralysed. A helpless fly trapped in this terrible spider’s web. Then the light show started. The tangible images in front of me: the barman, Harrow; all dissolved into a rainbow of colour, swirling around until all they all melded into a kaleidoscopic view of reality, nauseating, yet stimulating more than any adrenalin rush or roller coaster ride. My stomach churned, and the last few pints of ale made their way back up into my throat, erupting from my mouth like a geyser. A trail of colour washed across the visual collage as vomit spewed forth. I felt amazing. The rush was absolutely incredible. As quickly as it started, the swirling slowed. The colours began to merge, describing something more real, something with meaning: a playground. At first I thought it was the school my children attended. But no. It was my old school, when I was a lad. Holbrook. Old Mrs. McNulty, my English teacher, was shouting at a group of children. Then I remembered. She was telling me off for beating up Nelson, that stick insect bully. Christ, that was a long time ago. Then the image flickered, changed to a small room. A large open fire burned in the corner, and a man, about my age, stared into the flames. I don’t know why, but I knew it was Nelson. He’d changed immeasurably, no longer a skinny waif. The unruly ginger mop was completely gone, replaced with a number 1 all over, and a tattoo of a spider’s web now completely covered his face. He looked ghastly. Terrifying. Then I heard the noise. A faint whimper. Someone else was there, hidden in the shadows behind the fireplace. A woman. She must have been gagged as the sound was muffled. Nelson stood up, stretched his arms over his head then yawned. He interlocked his fingers, bent them back, cracking his knuckles the way you do when you’re about to start doing some DIY. Then he walked to the fire. “Are you ready for some fun, darling,’ he grunted, chucking another log into the flames. As the fire grew brighter my heart started pounding again. “What was all this? What was Nelson doing here?” Suddenly he glanced around to where I stood. The look in his eyes was that of pure malice. Of evil. That spider’s web tattoo dressed him up to look like some sort of stylised psychotic. The big man thrust his hand into the shadows, arm stiffening before he yanked it back. I tried to cry out, but no sound came. In his hand, Nelson was gripping Gillian by the throat. His fingers were squeezing her windpipe, her struggles lessening as unconsciousness began to take her. “Stop,” I yelled, but it was useless. He couldn’t hear me. He couldn’t see me. All I could do was watch as she fell to the floor. The monster placed one foot on her throat and pressed down, waiting for her to become still. When she passed out, he walked to a tall cupboard, yanked open the door. He reached inside, casting a cursory look back at my wife. “Chop Suey time,” he said. Then he laughed and kicked the cupboard shut. In his hand he gripped the long wooden shaft of a fire axe. I felt my knees give way as my world caved in. Everything slowed down as Nelson strode the three meters back to my prone wife. He towered over her helpless body. Then he raised the axe high over his head, biceps straining against the weight before the downward stroke would slice into Gillian’s head. Nelson grinned. Licked his lips. Then the axe began its terrible downward swing. I flinched, feeling something move inside my arm. Then I remembered where I was. In the crypt with Harrow. Before the awful event could complete, before the axe cleaved my beautiful girl’s skull wide open, the scene dissolved. Harrow was staring at me. “Horrible, isn’t it?” “I…I don’t understand,” I said. “Was it real?” “It will be,” he answered. “That incident in the schoolyard was the turning point. The birth of a monster. Nelson’s mental state deteriorated, and a term in prison hardened him into the psychopath you’ve just seen. He wants revenge on the world and all those who ever touched him. He’s coming for you, Dabby.” “For me?” I asked, stunned. “You need to be strong. For yourself. For your family. I set this up, Danny, so I could help you.” “But how could you… what are you?” “Unimportant,” Harrow said. “All you need to know is I’ve been asked to get Nelson. But I need your help.” “My help.” “I’m not allowed to kill your kind. I need you to do it for me.” “You want me to kill Nelson?” “He’ll kill Gillian. Then he’ll come for the rest of you. Strike first. Kill him. Give him to me and set yourself free.” I shook my head in disbelief. “This is impossible.” “Nelson is coming.” “So, I’ll tell the police. I’ll tell them I’ve been threatened.” “And they’ll listen?” Harrow said sarcastically. “What else can I do?” Harrow’s tail made a sucking sound as he withdrew it from my arm, until a final pop and it was free. I looked down. The wound was gone. Not a mark. “What can I do?” I asked again. The barman smiled. “Go home. We’ll be in touch.” When I arrived home, Gillian was still up. “Where the hell have you been,” she snapped. “It’s way past midnight.” “Don’t ask,” I said. “I’m home now, OK?” “I’m knackered,” she said. “I’m off to bed. You coming?” “I’ll be up in a minute,” I answered. But I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping. Not tonight. When she’d gone I called work. Left a voicemail for my boss saying I was ill and wouldn’t be in for a few days, then settled down on the sofa. Next morning, a package arrived. Harrow had told me to expect it so I wasn’t surprised. When Gillian went to collect the kids from school, I opened the parcel. Inside was an ornate golden dagger. Its blade glinted under my study light as I dragged it across a piece of card. It was sharp as a recently honed razor. Around its handle was a piece of paper secured with an elastic band. On it, an address was written in neat handwriting: 34 Bulwark Drive Langston The house was less than half a mile away. Christ. Nelson had been there all along. Plotting his revenge. The thought of it made me shiver. I opened a street map and worked out the best route. I’d go today. When it was dark. As night arrived and darkness fell, I slipped on my coat, walked to the door. “Where do you think you’re going,” Gillian called. But I was far too consumed for a reply. The door clicked shut and I heard Gillian call after me. “We really need to have a talk, Danny. You’ve been really weird recently.” Forty minutes later I was standing out the front of the house. I knew immediately this was right. The garden was overgrown with ragged thorny bushes. I smelt fresh animal excrement ripe in the air, coupled with another smell, older, corruption and decay. The windows were filthy where the broken guttering was spewing filth from the roof down over the glass. On the door, a large vertical gouge ran its full length. It looked like it could well have been Nelson’s first victim. I shivered. I knew what I had to do. I walked down the path, unbuttoning my coat. With my right hand, I opened my coat, reached into my inside pocket and grasped the knife. I closed my fist, drew the blade and moved my arm behind my back. With my left hand, I knocked on the door. Once. Twice. Then I waited. A few seconds passed, then footsteps. “Who is it?” called a voice. Jesus, I thought. Who the hell do I say it is? Nelson was supposed to open the door. That was how I’d planned it. I would stick the knife in his head and run away. Before I could respond, the door cracked open and an eye appeared. “Spencer?” the voice asked. “Is that you?” “Uh, yeah. Nelson?” “Hey, what are you doing?” “Looked you up. Thought I’d come and see what my old buddy Nelson’s been up to.” The door swung open revealing Nelson’s beaming face. His ginger hair was still floppy, and there was no spider’s web tattoo. What the hell? “Come on in, Danny.” He turned his head and called into the house. “Cynthia, come and see who’s here.” “Cynthia?” I asked. “Not Cynthia Granger?” “Hitched last year,” Nelson said, beaming. “Come in, please.” Cynthia Granger appeared at the door, her smile welcoming me like a long lost friend. “Cynthia Nelson,” she corrected. Then she put her arm around Nelson’s shoulders. “You’ve gotta excuse the mess,” Nelson said. “We’ve only moved here. Vacant repossession. The old guy who lived here before just pegged it, so we got it for a bargain basement price.” I relaxed my grip on the knife, swivelled the blade in my hand and concealed it up my sleeve. When Nelson turned his back, I slid it back inside my jacket, followed him into the house. What a mess. Chaos everywhere. But Nelson and Cynthia seemed oblivious to it. They breezed past mounds of clothes, paperwork and boxes, taking me into the living room. “Please, sit down,” Cynthia said. “Do you two guys want a beer?” “Uh, yes please,” I said. Nelson nodded. “That’d be lovely.” We chatted for what seemed hours, catching up on everything that had happened since high school. It was very pleasant. “I must be going,” I said. “My wife will be wondering where I’ve got to.” Nelson grinned. “You came here to kill me, didn’t you?” he said. I felt like I’d been punched in the solar plexus. “What…what do you mean?” I stammered. “Did that toerag Harrow send you here with a knife?” The question was clear. But how could he know? “He’s a demon you know,” Cynthia added. “What?” I said startled. “This is his third attempt in the last eighteen months,” Nelson said. “Each visitor came under a different pretext. He recruited you, Danny. To do his dirty work.” “Recruited me?” This was getting a bit too much to grasp. “You see,” Cynthia said, “he’s got a quota to fill. I was on his list, but I’m cleverer than him. And he hates it.” “He’s the Devil?” I asked. “Actually, he’s a Black Guardian,” Nelson answered. “Six years ago I made a pact. Doesn’t matter what for, but needless to say, I don’t feel like keeping my end of the bargain. To cut a long story short, Harrow is their bounty hunter.” “Why doesn’t he come and get you himself?” “They can’t harm humans. It’s in their rules.” “I’m not really following this.” I must have looked so dumb. Cynthia started laughing. “Basically they can’t touch us under their own rules. They collect souls in the traditional way, but they can’t kill us. They use these subversive techniques to convince others to do their dirty work for them.” I shook my head. “What should I do now?” “Go home and forget them,” he said. “They’ll give up on you now since you know the truth.” “Are you sure?” I felt uneasy. “Sure,” Cynthia chirped. “Absolutely,” Nelson said. He slapped me on the back and led me to the front door. “See ya again,” he said. “Oh, and, Danny...” “Yeah?” “Don’t be a stranger.” That was the last I heard of the matter until tonight. Three years had passed since those unfathomable events, and to be honest, they’d slipped so far from my consciousness mind they only perplexed me in the depths of troubled sleep. The phone had rung an hour ago and the policeman introduced himself as PC Walker. “Are you Daniel Spencer?” “Speaking,” I said. “Two hours ago we found your wife’s car, abandoned in a car park in Langston.” My heart sank. Langston, Christ. “The problem is, sir, there seems to be no trace of your wife.” Walker took a deep breath. Paused. “The problem is,” he continued, “there are complications.” “Complications?” I asked. “What complications. Where is she?” “So far we’ve keep this from the press. But there’s a high probability your wife’s been taken.” “Taken?” I screamed. “By who?” “We believe we’re looking for an old friend of yours.” Oh no, not… “Do you remember Colin Nelson?” I dropped the phone. It had been Nelson all along. “Sir, sir.” Walker’s voice was shallow, muffled, spewing from the end of the receiver dangling at my feet. I sank to my knees and sobbed. I lost control of my sanity for seemed hours, only stopping when the incessant beeping of the phone clawed me back to reality. Shakily, I replaced the handset. As the receiver clattered onto the cradle, it immediately rang again. I lifted it, pressing it to my ear. “You wouldn’t listen,” the voice barked. “You wouldn’t bloody listen. And now look what’s happened.” “Harrow?” “Of course it’s me,” he snapped. “Who’d you expect? Santa Clause?” “Harrow, you’ve got to help me,” I shouted. “I’ll do anything…” “Anything?” the voice said. “Are you sure?” “Yes I’m sure. Anything at all.” “I want your soul,” the voice said calmly. “Whatever, just bring back my baby.” “Then it’s a deal. Expect to hear from me in a few years.” Just then, the door opened. Gillian walked in carrying two shopping bags. One had Marks and Spencer written on it, and the other said Thomas Cook. “Gillian,” I shouted. “Jesus, are you OK?” “Got us some brochures for the holidays,” she said. “Who were you talking to?” I put the received back against my ear. “Harrow?” PC Walker spoke. “How’d you like my accent, Danny?” Then the voice changed back to Harrow’s. “I should have though if that in the first place,” he said. “You tricked me,” I yelled. “See you soon, Mr. Spencer.” And the line went dead.