Mike McNichols, On Turpin’s Head
On Turpin's Head
Publisher: Glass Darkly (Jan. 5, 2014)
Length: 260 pages
ISBN: 1935959549; 978-1935959540
Three hundred guineas on Turpin’s head; trap him alive or shoot him dead.
Caroline turned off the car’s engine, gathered her purse and a plastic bag containing food for her break, and exited the car. The night air was brisk, and she thought about how she would prefer being at home rather than starting her night shift at the airport. She set her sweater and other belongings on the roof of the car, shut the door, and straightened her uniform blouse. She scrunched down to see herself in the reflection of the window and made sure that the epaulets were properly adjusted at her shoulders. As she stood up, she dropped her keys, accidentally kicking them under her car. Cursing, she knelt on the blacktop and reached for the keys.
They had not been catapulted too far, and she was able to reach them without much effort. She froze as her gaze diverted to the other side of the car, where she saw the lower legs and feet of a man standing next to her passenger door. The trouser legs were ragged and filthy, and the shoes were worn, the leather dull and crusty with grunge. By the rocking movement of the legs, Caroline could tell that the man was weaving back and forth. She concluded that he must be homeless and drunk.
She raised slowly, her keys in her grasp, and calculated the time it would take to retrieve the pepper spray from her purse. She looked through her window across the interior of the car to the other side. The man’s clothing appeared to be a bundle of rags wrapped in a tattered topcoat and dusted with soil from a thousand roads. Caroline paused, watching to see which direction he would move.
The shift in his position was so swift that Caroline caught her breath. He dropped down from a standing position and pressed his face close to the glass of the window, a face was so absent of color and expression that Caroline took a few seconds to determine whether it was really human or not. The skin was white and waxy, the eyes burning with a bloody redness, and the countenance lacked any suggestion of intention other than that of a predator. When he opened his mouth to reveal yellow, rotted teeth that came close to approximating fangs, Caroline yelped involuntarily. She realized that she had seen that face before.
The sound of a car winding its way up the ramp in the parking structure caused Caroline to turn and look, realizing that she was no longer alone. As she prepared to run to the approaching vehicle, she turned again to mark the man’s position. He was gone. She stood up and looked around and saw no one. Crouching down, she searched the area under the car and saw no evidence of her visitor. The car pulled up behind hers and the window rolled down. A man’s voice called out.
“Caroline-are you okay?”
It was Stuart. Not Caroline’s first choice in rescuers, but she was grateful nonetheless.
“I’m-yeah, I’m okay. There was some guy here. Did you see him?”
“Didn’t see anyone. Just you. Hang on-I’ll park and walk in with you.”
Stuart negotiated his way into a parking space not far from Caroline’s. She looked around again, but saw no sign of the man. She gathered her purse and bag of food, and walked quickly to meet Stuart.
“I saw him again, Stu.”
Stuart glanced appreciatively at Caroline, straightening his tie as they walked through the terminal. “Listen, Love. You’ve only been here two weeks. I’ve been here three years and I’ve never seen him.” He winked at a young woman passing by.
“I’m telling you, it was the same person, or thing, or whatever. Then he just disappeared. I know you think I’m mental, but I saw him.”
“Look, Caroline. Heathrow is a huge airport and you’re probably still overwhelmed.” Stuart put his hand on her shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. “New security officers are usually disoriented for the first month or so. There are so many people coming and going, and you never see the same ones twice.”
Caroline shrugged Stuart’s hand away. They walked in silence as they approached the security checkpoint. “Don’t tell anyone about this, Stu,” said Caroline. “You’re probably right. That custodian’s story about Dick Turpin sort of freaked me out, I guess.”
“I’ve heard the stories, too,” said Stuart. “But I’ve haven’t seen a thing. And why the ghost of a criminal-dead three hundred years now-would haunt Heathrow when he was hanged in York is just wishful thinking on the part of ghost hunters. York Castle could use a good haunting. Old Turpin’s missed his calling if he’s here.” Stu patted Caroline on the shoulder again. “There’s no ghost, Caroline. Trust me on this.”
Stuart went to the front of the security queue while Caroline took her post at the scanner. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell him that it wasn’t just that she saw the same, skulking, white-faced man for the second time, not just moving rapidly through shadows and then vanishing from sight, but also peering into her car. It was something else: Yesterday, when she was washing her hands in the loo, she felt hot breath against her neck. She jumped in fright just as another woman walked in. When Caroline turned, only the two of them were there. Regardless of what Stuart said, something strange was going on at Heathrow.
September 20, 2014
Joey Birdwell exited the plane and walked through the tunnel toward the terminal, his head still groggy from the overnight flight. He had attempted to sleep during the flight but feared drooling or farting as he dozed. He wondered if he hadn’t done some of that anyway when he finally succumbed to sleep, since the woman in the next seat avoided speaking to him when he woke up.
There had been no dreams during the flight, at least none that Joey could recall. They had started almost a year ago, dreams that bordered on nightmares, flashing images of unfamiliar rooms and houses, faces of people dead yet not dead, appearing like Halloween pop-up surprises that jolted him awake in the middle of the night. He saw living people who seemed to be suffering and in despair. Then the dreams would dissipate in his mind and return weeks or even months later.
He had only shared about these nightmares with his uncle Alec, who had arranged for his accommodations in England. Alec listened as only a trained clergyman can do, and Joey couldn’t shake the feeling that his adopted uncle knew more about these disturbing dreams than he was willing to disclose. Joey hoped that his journey away from his familiar home and increasingly distant father-a father who seemed to have given up on life since the death of Joey’s mother more than twelve years ago-would make the dreams go away.
He made his way through the expansive and relatively new terminal, stretching the arm and back muscles that had been hardened by several years of surfing back home in Harbor Beach, California, and now were feeling atrophied after an overnight plane flight. He kept a lookout for a restroom where he could freshen up sufficiently to meet his British hosts, and also to check his blood sugar levels and make sure his insulin pump was properly set. He saw the sign for MEN just before taking the turn toward baggage claim. Hitching his full backpack up on his shoulder, he went inside, used the toilet, and then washed his hands and face at one of many sinks lining the white-tiled wall. As he let the water drip from his face, he glanced at the lower corner of the mirror in front of him. Someone had written on the glass surface with some sort of indelible black ink:
Dick Turpin lives!
Joey turned from the mirror and looked for a paper towel dispenser. To his disappointment, the newly-constructed restroom had only high-tech air driers. He dried his hands in the mechanism and then, dismissing the idea of inserting his wet head into the drier, entered a stall and mopped his face with a large wad of toilet paper. He returned to the mirror over the sink and picked the bits of paper from his face, left the restroom and continued his trek toward baggage claim.
As he stepped off the escalator, a cadre of limo drivers and business executives were waiting, holding hand-drawn signs with the names of their arriving guests written on them. Toward the end of the mob was a tall but slight, bespectacled man with a shock of wiry blond hair holding a piece of lined notebook paper with the name “Joey B” written in bright red marker. He watched Joey approach, and then broke into a wide, toothy smile as the two made eye contact.
“You’re Joey Birdwell, right?”
Joey let the backpack drop from his shoulder and reached out a hand. “Yes. And you’re Simon?”
“I am indeed,” he said, giving Joey’s hand a vigorous shake. “Simon Doucet. So glad you’ve come. How was your flight?” He turned and walked with Joey, picking up the pack as they went.
“It was fine,” said Joey. “But not a great place to sleep, really.”
“No, they never are,” said Simon. “A few years ago I took Bridget and Lydia-Lydia, that’s my daughter-to Australia on one of my business trips. Even with two stops it took almost thirty hours. I don’t think any of us slept at all.”
They made their way to the baggage carousel and waited as pieces of luggage dropped onto the conveyor belt. Joey watched as numerous identical black bags rolled by, searching for the one with the Beatles sticker on the side. He turned as Simon cleared his throat.
“Uh, Joey. You might want to check under your chin. There are little bits of paper stuck underneath-right here. And then there.”
Joey brushed at his face, knocking the tiny scraps onto his sweater. “Thanks.”
The baggage area was clean and new, unlike the grimy, traffic-worn counterpart where Joey would retrieve his baggage a few months later in Los Angeles. Joey noted the contrast and felt suddenly invigorated at the idea that this adventure would mark the beginning of a new life for him. He reached for his bag as it crept along the belt and hoisted it over to the floor. He took his backpack from Simon and put it over his shoulder. Simon took the handle of Joey’s case and extended it, letting the wheels at the bottom do the work. He craned his neck to look back at the sticker.
“Beatles, eh? I see that you’ve been raised properly.”
“I guess so,” said Joey. “They’re sort of a family tradition.”
They made their way out of the terminal and found Simon’s van in the parking structure. Simon loaded the gear in the back as Joey went to the side of the car in get inside.
“Planning to drive, Joey?”
“We flip things around here, you know.” Simon pointed to the other side of the car. “You ride there, I drive here. It’ll take awhile, but you’ll get used to it.”
Joey blushed as he went to the other side of the car and got in.
As they pulled away from the airport, Joey watched the traffic, trying to get his mind to reverse its expectations about the way automobiles should behave on civilized roads. The morning was clear but with some clouds. The air was crisp and cool.
“So, how far away do you live?” Joey asked.
“We live in a town called Sutton, just about an hour’s drive from here,” said Simon. “You’ll like it, I think. Lots of history, some great stores, and close to the English countryside. We also have good rail connections, so travel will be easy for you. By the way-are you starved yet?”
“I am kind of hungry,” said Joey. “The food on the plane didn’t look so good, so I just had some coffee.”
“I’ll make a stop as soon as we get out of the heavier traffic,” said Simon. “You may as well start your visit with a good English breakfast.”
They rode quietly for a few minutes as Simon navigated his way out of the city. Joey felt the sadness of the last few years release its hold on him as he looked at the life all around him in this new place. There was so much that he wanted to experience and learn. As he looked out the car window at the new sights, questions about his new, temporary home began to surface in his mind.
“Simon, do you know who Dick Turpin is?”
“Dick Turpin? The old highwayman, do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Joey. “I just saw the name written on the mirror in the bathroom at the airport.”
“Well, it’s been years since I’ve read the stories, but Dick Turpin was a famous robber-kind of a Robin Hood character, I suppose-who terrorized the countryside back three hundred years ago. He was hanged for his crimes, at York if I remember correctly. What exactly did it say on the mirror?”
“It said, ‘Dick Turpin lives’.”
“Just someone messing about, probably,” said Simon. “Although, I’ve heard it said that Turpin’s ghost haunts Heathrow. What he would be doing clear over there when his bones are resting in a fine place like York is a mystery to me.”
Caroline Ruska thought that if she didn’t find shoes that wouldn’t ruin her feet, then both her limbs would have to be amputated and replaced with either wheels or hooves. She had been advised to buy shoes for the new job that would allow her to stay on her feet for long periods of time, but she had given more credit to her current collection of footwear than had been deserved. Once she left the airport, she planned to go shopping as soon as she got some sleep.
She looked over her shoulder as she made her way to the employee lounge where she would formally end her shift, pick up her belongings from her locker, and head for home. She hoped that Stuart wasn’t close behind, or he might renew his regular invitations to breakfast. Even though she appreciated his initial friendliness, Caroline suspected that he wanted much more from her than she was willing to deliver. He wasn’t her type, and, to be honest, was just a bit on the creepy side for her tastes.
No one was in the room when she entered, and she savored the quiet after the constant noise of the security area of the airport. After only two weeks on the new job she renewed her commitment to find a way back to the university so that she could have a proper career. Running people through full body scans and hearing them complain about having to remove shoes and belts was already wearing away at her nerves. She told herself that she was made for something better than this.
Caroline removed her cardigan and purse from the locker and slammed the metal door shut, spinning the combination lock. She put on the cardigan and felt for the buttons-she expected the morning to be a bit brisk. She looked down as her hand searched along the seam, finding no buttons anywhere on the garment. As she stared at the cardigan, trying to imagine what had happened, she heard the sound of things clattering on the tile floor behind her. She turned to look and saw the buttons from her cardigan scattered on the floor, one still rolling toward its final resting place under a plastic chair. She walked over to the mass of plastic disks and stood still, dumbstruck at the phenomenon.
When the ceiling tile above her head suddenly shifted, she looked up, shielding her eyes from the rain of mineral fibers from the movement of the tile. She squinted upward and saw only the dim outlines of ductwork, wires, and insulation. It was when the face appeared out of the darkness that her heart froze.
Before she could scream, two hands at the ends of ridiculously long arms reached down and took hold of her, one hand over her mouth and the other grasping the back of her clothing. Within a second she was pulled up into the ceiling and the tile was replaced.
Had anyone walked into the employee room at that time, they might have wondered at the pile of buttons on the floor, and the sound of rats scurrying across the ceiling.
“Wow. Cool townhouse.”
“We call them ‘semi-detached houses,’ Joey. It’s a very functional name, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Joey. “But it looks really nice.”
Simon’s house was one of many such structures on the street. The front door opened from a small front patio area that allowed for a parked car on one side and a bricked-in sitting area on the other. Unlike the Southern California homes to which Joey was accustomed, there was no grass lawn to be seen anywhere.
Joey stepped out of the car and inhaled deeply, wondering if by drawing British air into his lungs he might acculturate to his new surroundings more rapidly. He wanted to make the most of his brief six months in England, and he was excited to start exploring his new world. He felt a bit nervous about meeting the rest of Simon’s family, and was concerned about how long he would have to offer his hosts the pleasure of his presence. He desperately wanted to explore England on his own, and he hoped that Simon and his wife didn’t have any expectations about him being escorted around by their daughter. If the girl was anything like her father, then she would be a very nice, gangly geek with a slick British accent. Joey was sure that he could do without that kind of companionship.
They entered the front door and set Joey’s baggage in the entryway that opened to a living room straight ahead and a kitchen to the right. A staircase on the left led upstairs, presumably to the bedrooms. The house looked fairly new, at least in contrast to the seventy-year-old California bungalow in which Joey grew up. Simon called out to warn the occupants of the arrival of their new houseguest.
“Bridg! Lyd! Company’s here!”
Joey followed Simon into the long, narrow kitchen that ended in a small dining area surrounded by windows that looked out on a grassy back yard. A tidy vegetable garden could be seen at the far end of the grass area, separated from the back neighbors by a wooden fence. A woman sat at the round table, facing outward toward the garden. She didn’t stir, and Joey wondered if she had heard them come into the house.
“Hello, love,” said Simon. “We’re here, darling. I’ve got Alec’s young friend, Joey.”
The chair was on a swivel and the woman turned slowly. Joey was taken aback by the woman’s stark beauty-deep set, dark eyes, and flowing hair that was such a shade of brown that it was almost black in its intensity. Her features were finely chiseled, with skin that was pale and smooth. When she smiled, her full lips revealed fine teeth that were so white that Joey wondered if they were real. She rose from the chair, moving her tall, willowy form slowly. In her fashionable jeans and black, long-sleeved smock, she looked like the perfect catalog model. The youthfulness of her face surprised Joey, and he wondered if he was about to meet the wife or the daughter. She reached out her hand in greeting, and Joey took it, the coolness of her skin causing a chill that was not unpleasant to run up Joey’s arm.
“Hello, Joey,” said the woman. “I’m Bridget. We’re so pleased to have you visiting with us. Alec has been our friend for many years, and he speaks very highly of you.” She continued gripping Joey’s hand and staring unblinkingly into his eyes. Her voice was airy and resonant, deep in a feminine way. Joey was drawn to her beauty but, at the same time, wished that she would let go of him.
Joey couldn’t help but wonder how a goofy-looking guy like Simon, with his crazy hair and slightly bucked teeth, could end up marrying a woman so strangely gorgeous and who must have been at least ten years younger than her husband. On the other hand, he remembered his own father describing himself as a first-class nerd all through high school, and then maturing into the kind of person that Joey’s mother would come to love. A flicker of sadness flashed inside Joey as he thought of the mother who had died when he was so young.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Joey. “Thanks for letting me stay awhile. Alec has been like an uncle to me-sometimes he was even like a dad. It was great of him to help me with this trip.” Joey caught his breath as Bridget released his hand.
“Would you like something to eat, Joey?” asked Bridget. “You must be starving after that dreadfully long flight.”
“We stopped for breakfast along the way, darling,” said Simon. “But I’ll put on the kettle and we can have tea.” Simon filled a plastic pot with water and connected it to an electrical cord plugged into the wall over the kitchen counter. “Water will be hot in just a couple of minutes. By the way-where’s Lydia?”
“She stayed the night with Cassandra, remember, dear?” Bridget returned to her chair and resumed her gaze out the window. “She said that she would come home this morning.”
Joey watched as Bridget seemed to lose interest in having a foreign visitor and became the statue-like presence that he had seen when he first entered the room. It appeared to him that she had somehow left the kitchen, separating herself into her own invisible, private cave.
His observations were disturbed by the bubbling of the water boiling in the pot, and the abrupt opening of the front door with the yell that accompanied it.
“Mum, Dad! I’m home!”
The front door slammed and Joey turned, expecting his preconception of this odd family’s only child to match reality. The young woman flew into the kitchen, plopping her leather purse on the counter.
“Hi. I’m Lydia. And you’re Joey.”
As Joey stared at her, he found it difficult to breathe.
Joey’s mind shot back to a time in junior high school when he met a boy who had something wrong with his face. To be clear, the face appeared to be the normal face of a boy of twelve, yet there was something not quite right with it. The boys sat together in a science class, and during each conversation Joey would search the other boy’s face, scanning for the irregularity that would explain the eerie sense of misalignment or deformity. After several weeks, Joey discovered the abnormality.
The boy had no eyelashes.
As it turned out, Joey’s classmate had an obsessive habit of pulling out the short, fine hairs that grew from the ends of his eyelids. The result was a nudity to the boy’s eyes, a lack of framing that would have come with the lashes had the boy not systematically extracted them.
Joey got the same kind of unexplainable feeling as he looked at Lydia.
She was lovely, as lovely as her mother, yet lacking any expression of distance or disconnection. Lydia entered the room bigger than life, smiling with perfectly aligned, pure white teeth that illuminated a high-cheeked, ivory-skinned face that was, in Joey’s estimation, the most beautiful he had ever seen. Her hair was thick and dark brown, matched by the finely lined eyebrows that hovered over her glowing . . .
Eyes. That was it. Her eyes.
The eye on the right was a brilliant, icy blue. The iris of the other eye was a pale brown, shades lighter than Joey’s dark brown, matching irises. He couldn’t help but continue to stare as he shook her cool, strong, hand.
“It’s called heterochromia iridis,” said Lydia, leaning close to Joey and opening her eyes wide. “Less than one percent of humans have it. Don’t turn so red, Joey-everyone’s afraid to ask. My eyesight is perfectly normal, except that I now have x-ray vision.” Lydia’s face went blank and her eyes bulged as she stared hard at Joey’s forehead. “Nope,” she said, pulling away suddenly. “Nothing in there. Typical boy.”
“Come on, Lyd,” said Simon, pouring water into cups, the tagged strings of the teabags hanging over the sides, “don’t torment our guest. He’s a weary traveler and needs some time to acclimate to our eccentric family.”
“Just teasing, Joey,” said Lydia. “So do you want me to take you around, see some sights, drink a Guinness at the pub, all that?”
Simon brought Joey his tea and handed one of the cups to Lydia. “Please take this to your mother, Lydia. And just so you know, Joey, while the drinking age here in the UK is eighteen, you can’t order a drink by yourself in a pub or restaurant until you are twenty-one. Don’t let my daughter corrupt you on your first day here.”
“I’m nineteen, Joey,” said Lydia, returning for her own cup. “How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” said Joey. “But I don’t drink, really.”
“I don’t either,” said Lydia. “It doesn’t agree with me and I don’t like the way it slows you down.”
“And how would you know about that if you don’t drink, my dear?” said Simon.
“Um, I meant to say, ‘it slows you down, so I’ve been told.’ Don’t fret, Dad. I’m clean.”
As Lydia stirred her tea, Joey stole glances at her. She was just slightly shorter than he, and her tight jeans and form-fitting blue sweater suggested a body that was not only physically attractive but also strong and agile. Lydia looked up suddenly as though she could feel Joey’s eyes on her, startling Joey and causing him to turn red again. Lydia smiled and turned her attention back to her tea.
“Joey may want to clean up and rest awhile, Lyd,” said Simon. “It’s a long, all-night trip here from the States.”
“I’m fine, really,” said Joey. “Maybe a shower would be good, but I’d really like to go out for awhile. If it’s not too much trouble, that is.”
“No trouble at all,” said Lydia. “Cassandra and I stayed up pretty late, but . . .
“Clubbing again?” said Simon, his look of disapproval only mildly intrusive.
“Just one, Dad,” said Lydia. “Okay, two. But we just danced a little and hung out with some friends, and then were home by two.”
“Really?” said Simon. “Two?”
“Okay, two-thirty. Might have been three. But I’m fine, really. Maybe I’ll catch a little nap later.”
“Alright,” said Simon. “So you two will probably have lunch out. I suspect we’ll have tea at four, then dinner around seven-thirty.”
“Joey, you’ll soon learn that my parents are very traditional when it comes to mealtimes,” said Lydia.
“Does that sound fine to you, darling?” said Simon, craning his neck to look over at his wife. “Darling?”
The chair where Bridget had been sitting was empty, and the door to the backyard was open. Lydia stepped to the window and looked out. “Mum’s in the garden. I think she’s captured something.”
Simon and Joey joined her at the window. Bridget was at the far end of the garden, holding a hairy, writhing creature at arm’s length. The animal was the size of a large cat and had light brown fur. Bridget stared at her prey, giving no hint of revulsion or fear at what she gripped in her hands.
“It’s the fox, Dad,” said Lydia. “Mum caught the fox.”
Simon stepped out the door and jogged over to his wife. He spoke to her and she shook her head several times. Simon seemed to be pleading with her, trying to get her to do something she didn’t want to do. Joey jumped as the animal suddenly squealed and then went limp. Lydia sighed loudly, turned from the window, and went to the sink to wash out her cup.
“What’s going on?” said Joey. “Is everything alright?”
“It’s fine, Joey,” said Lydia. “My mother just killed the fox.”
“She . . . why?”
“It’s been raiding our garden, so Mum has been watching for it. Dad has a bleeding heart for animals-he even sorts out the earthworms before he digs up the garden so he won’t chop them in half. I think he tried to rescue the fox, maybe take it out to the countryside and dump it out. Mum favors capital punishment when it comes to garden raiders. Poor thing never even got a fair trial.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Joey. It occurred to him that Bridget had gotten up, opened the back door, and made her way to the garden without any of them hearing her. He had never seen such a stealthy person in his life. It was no wonder that she could sneak up on a fox.
“Joey, why don’t you have a shower and get settled into your room-it’s the second door on the right upstairs. The loo is right next to it. Then meet back here at, say, half eleven?”
Joey looked at his watch. It was just eleven now, so a half hour would be plenty of time for him to clean up and get ready for a tour. “Sure. That sounds great.”
He grabbed his case and his backpack and made his way upstairs. As he disappeared from view, Lydia returned to the window and watched her parents. Her mother was not in sight, and Simon was returning to the house. He stepped inside and shut the door behind him.
“Is Mum okay?” asked Lydia.
“Yeah, yeah, she’s fine,” said Simon. “She’s just . . . taking care of the fox. She’ll be in presently.”
Simon retrieved his cup of tea and drank it in one draught. He set the cup down and turned to Lydia. “Look out for Joey, Lyd. He’s a stranger in a strange land, and I don’t want to have to deliver any reports of mayhem or disaster to Alec.”
“I’ll take good care of him, Dad,” said Lydia. “I doubt that he’ll encounter anything much stranger than his arrival in our home.”
Joey shut the bedroom door behind him. It was a simple room, with a single bed, a low chest of drawers that served as a nightstand, and a small desk with an armless Windsor chair. The window looked out over the garden where Bridget had apparently just executed the invading fox. He put his few belongings in the chest, gathered his toiletries, and looked around.
It was just as he remembered.
Caroline strained to open her eyes, the lids feeling heavier than what would result from a three-day drinking binge. Her body ached as though she had taken a fall down a flight of stairs, the pain throbbing and radiating from her neck down through her extremities. She shifted her weight to her right elbow and pushed herself up into a sitting position, moaning as her muscles protested against the movement. She put her hand to her throat, shuddering as the moist raggedness of the wound met her fingers.
She was in a space that was thick with darkness. It was cold and the surface of the floor where she sat felt like cement, gritty to the touch. She knew there was plenty of air, but the blackness in front of her face felt suffocating to her. She ran her hand against the wall behind her, another cement slab, and felt terror rise at the prospect that she had been entombed in some forgotten graveyard. Her breath came faster and faster as the panic found its way into her stomach and moved toward her mouth.
The scraping of something alive stopped her before she could scream. It was a human movement, dry but fleshy, shifting slowly and with a stiffness Caroline was feeling in her own body. The sound of her breathing came and went as her companion in the darkness seemed to come to life.
“Are you awake?” The voice was raspy, weary, hopeless.
“Yes.” Caroline was stunned at the sound of her own voice, rising and then dying in the blackness. “Who are you? Where is this?”
“It’s his place,” said the voice, the voice now of a woman, a voice hardened and filed down to a nub by pain.
Caroline’s breathing slowed and she inhaled deeply in an attempt to normalize herself. The smell of the place assaulted her, the reek of human waste and sweat, the weighted aroma of unwashed flesh pressing against her mouth and nose. Underneath it all there was something rotten, the cloying sweetness causing her saliva glands to hyperactivate. She resisted the urge to throw up.
A scrape and a spark brought a flame that made Caroline feel as though there was more air in the room. A stub of a candle, waxed to the concrete floor, was lit by a wooden match and illuminated the space as the flame rose. The matchbox lay nearby, a precious treasure in this midnight cave. A woman sat there, her bare legs drawn underneath her, stubbles of hair revealing limbs that had once been shaved. The clothes, if they could be called such, were now but dirty rags holding onto her bony frame like damp toilet paper. The woman’s face was drawn and haggard, her neck a quilt of bruises and gashes. She looked at Caroline with eyes that were black stones set in putty.
“What do you mean?” said Caroline, her throat dry as sand.
“Him. He’s the one who took me. And you.”
“I don’t know what you mean. Who are you?”
“Dawn is what they called me,” said the woman. “But my real name is Marjorie. He picked me up on Coventry Street, by Her Majesty’s Theatre. I thought he was just another trick, but then . . .”
“My god,” said Caroline, putting her hand over her face, “what’s that smell?”
Marjorie-Dawn looked over her shoulder and then back at Caroline, her face impassive. She reached for the candle and tipped it, disconnecting it from the floor. She lifted it up to her face.
“It’s her,” she said, turning with the candle.
Caroline could see the larger expanse of the space, a long room that stretched out about twenty-five or thirty feet, with a width that was half that. There was a rough wooden shelf or counter running the length of the space to her right, and she could see old industrial-type light fixtures on the ceilings, some with twisted wires hanging down. Toward the end of the space was something that Caroline couldn’t quite make out at first, something sprawled out and becoming horribly familiar.
It was a human body, naked and stiff, female and long dead. The mouth was open, the lips retracted and teeth dry from the effects of death framing the dark hole that had once breathed life. The woman’s raisin eyes stared blackly and the rags of flesh around her neck exposed dry tendons and muscle glistening with decomposition. Caroline recoiled and pressed her back against the cold wall.
“He used her up, I guess,” said Marjorie-Dawn. “He’ll do it to us, too.”
“No!” shouted Caroline. “What is he-some serial killer mental case? There’s two of us. Why can’t we stop him?”
“You haven’t really seen him, have you?”
“I . . .” Caroline froze, pulling up the images in her mind from the last few hours. “I . . . don’t remember.”
“I didn’t either. I turned to walk away from him, to see if he would follow. The next I could remember, I was here, feeling like you look right now.”
“What . . . what does he do to you?” Caroline curled up against the wall as though she could push herself through it.
Marjorie-Dawn set the candle back in its place and watched the flame until it settled into a yellow spire. “He drinks.”
“Drinks? What do you mean?”
“He drinks me. My blood. Here.” She pointed to her ravaged neck. “I faint or fall asleep or something when he does it, then there are the dreams. Nightmares, really. He doesn’t come back for days.”
Caroline suddenly found it difficult to breathe. “How long have you been here?” she asked, but didn’t want to know.
“I don’t know. Two, maybe three weeks. He brings food sometimes-vegetables, candy bars, cold crap from take-away places. There’s always a jug of water somewhere here. He has to keep us alive, at least for awhile.”
“What is he?” asked Caroline, tears finding their salty way out of her eyes and down her face. “Doesn’t he want sex or anything?”
“No, only blood,” said Marjorie-Dawn. “Only our blood.”
“My dad tells me that you’re diabetic.” Lydia glanced at Joey from her right hand driver’s seat. Joey still felt displaced as he sat in the passenger seat where he felt the unsettling absence of a steering wheel and pedals.
“Yeah, I am,” said Joey. “Since I was about three.”
“Is it hard to manage?”
“Not really. I mean, I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I’ve been dealing with it since I can remember, so it’s just a part of my life now.”
“So do you give yourself shots?”
“Not anymore. I’ve been using a pump for quite a while.” Joey lifted up his sweater and undershirt and exposed the microtube that was attached to his abdomen. “See, it connects to the pump that I keep in my pocket.” Joey showed her the cell phone-sized instrument that kept his insulin levels under control. “I just program it when I eat or when my blood sugar gets out of whack, and it takes care of it for me.”
Lydia glanced back and forth from Joey to the road in front of her. “Brilliant. So it’s like a bionic pancreas.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Joey liked Lydia right away, even though he suspected that she saw him as the goofy out-of-town cousin that had to be entertained. The irony of the relationship was not lost on him.
“So, God smites your pancreas and medical technology comes to the rescue.”
Joey turned his face to the window and watched the shops go by, still slightly off balance, as the car seemed to be on the wrong side of the road. “I used to ask my Uncle Alec about that. You know him, right?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Lydia. “He pops in now and again. I really like him. But he’s not your true uncle, right?”
“Right,” said Joey. “He just seems like an uncle to me. Anyway, I remember asking him once why God did this to me-why he gave me diabetes. I asked him if God had meant for me to die.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me that God is like a king who rules over the world, but he’s not the kind of king who controls things like an air traffic controller or a computer programmer. The world is broken and messed up, and sickness and disease are part of that. So God is there and he cares about the world, but it’s a world that is beautiful in one sense but a train wreck in another. He said that the day-to-day miracles come because we care for one another in our sicknesses and pain and whatever, and that’s like being the hands and feet of God.”
“So if God is so good, then why doesn’t he just fix you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he will yet.”
“Do you really believe that stuff?” The look on Lydia’s face suggested that she did not.
“Well,” said Joey, “I trust Uncle Alec and my grandpa, too. They both have told me that no matter what, no matter how bad things get, we can trust God.”
“Even if it means that a person dies?”
“They say that even when we die, we can trust that God will take care of us.”
“I don’t know,” said Lydia. “I’m just not very religious so all this sounds strange to me. But I do like Alec, and he seems really smart. So maybe he’s right about some of that. Who knows?”
Joey shrugged. “So, what are we going to do today?”
“I thought I would just take you around so you can see our town. Dad said I could drive us to London tomorrow and we can spend the day there. You probably didn’t see much from Heathrow.”
“No, not really. I was pretty fuzzy in the head this morning.”
“So, we’ll have some lunch in a while and then go back and maybe catch a nap at home. Then, tonight, we’ll meet up with some of my friends at a club. But we won’t stay out late.”
“Sounds great. Thanks for doing this, Lydia. I hope I’m not wrecking any of your plans.”
“I’m happy to spend some time with you,” said Lydia. “I don’t get to hang out with many Americans, so you can be my trophy friend. Nice earring, by the way.”
“Thanks.” Joey allowed his gaze to linger briefly on Lydia’s face, admiring how the pale brown of her left eye seemed to bring out the highlights of her hair.
The two-hour afternoon nap after lunch didn’t heal Joey’s jet lag, but it did make him feel more up to a night out on the town with Lydia. He double-checked his supply of insulin that he brought from home, and then reread the authorization letter that would allow him to get more in the UK if he needed it.
After having “tea” (it took Lydia three explanations before Joey understood that this was actually a light meal) at 4:00 with the family, which consisted of Indian food from a nearby fast-food restaurant (“take-away,” as they called it), Lydia whisked Joey away in her car, a red Mini Cooper with a black top. Joey wondered about this beautiful woman-girl, with her nice car and odd parents who didn’t seem to care if she partied away at clubs all night. He really liked her already, but couldn’t help but feel just a bit outclassed.
“We can get coffee, meet a couple of my friends, and then get to Hangman when it opens at nine,” said Lydia.
“Hangman,” said Joey. “Weird name for a club.”
“It’s named after a 1960’s underground rock album called The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. I’ve heard it-it’s pretty cool. The Archbishop of Canterbury actually blessed it when it came out. I guess it sounded like something God would like.”
“Isn’t nine a little early for a dance club to open?” said Joey. “I thought they opened, like, at ten or eleven and then stayed open all night.”
“Not this one,” said Lydia. “Besides, the whole British club scene is dying. Drugs like Ecstasy and Ketamine wrecked the mood of the places. I don’t really care about those kinds of clubs anyway. This one is truly unique.”
Joey knew about Ecstasy, but had never heard of Ketamine. “Like how is it unique?”
“It’s really more of a music club than a dance club,” said Lydia. “Sometimes people dance, and every so often there’s a live band that covers the music. Hangman specializes in old underground rock. People mostly come just to listen and hang out. Usually there are some older folks who remember the bands from the sixties, trying to recapture their youth or something.”
Joey remembered sorting through his grandfather’s old vinyl album collection, asking questions about the bands and playing some of the music on an old turntable. “Underground. You mean like Traffic and Spirit and Jefferson Airplane?”
Lydia looked over at him and smiled. “Yes, but you’ve only scratched the surface. Wait until you hear the German and Brazilian stuff. I mean, Traffic is cool and all, but the other music is brilliant. Some of those people must have been completely mental. But I still like it.”
“So does Hangman stay open all night?” Joey still felt like he was floating just outside his own body, and hoped that sleep would not be put off until the next day.
“No. It really does cater to an older crowd, and they don’t stay up late like they did when they were young. It’s done by midnight.”
“But the other clubs you go to run late, right?”
Lydia laughed. “You mean what I told my dad? I was just pissing around with him. He knows I don’t really do clubbing. Cassie and I were watching a movie at her flat, and we both fell asleep around one this morning. Didn’t even finish the movie.”
Joey had to search his internal British lexicon in order to recall that “pissing” meant joking around. “So, do they serve alcohol at the club?”
“No, it’s pretty much bottled water and nibbles. Very dull, I’m afraid. As I said, alcohol doesn’t agree with me, so I’m fine with it.”
Lydia’s hands held the steering wheel easily, as though she was perfectly confident in her ability to guide the car through the curving roads without mishap. Her long, smooth fingers were free of jewelry, save for one finely sculptured ring on the little finger of her right hand. Her fingernails were nicely manicured but not showy or painted. Joey sensed that she was comfortable with herself and lacked any indication of tension or anxiety. He was glad to be with her, even if the companionship proved to be temporary.
“So, are you in school, like, in the university, right now?” Joey asked.
“I did college until last year,” said Lydia. “I told Mum and Dad that I needed a bit of a break before starting university, and they were okay with it.”
“Me, too,” said Joey. Except I haven’t done any college at all yet.”
“You came here instead.”
“Right. So what will you do now, before you go back to school?”
Lydia turned to him and smiled. “What else? It’s all about self-discovery now, isn’t it? I’m going to find who I really am.”
The flickering light from the candle did not help Caroline’s dizziness as she rose to her feet. She felt like she had the flu and a high fever, even though her flesh was cold. Marjorie-Dawn didn’t look up from the floor as Caroline stood.
“There has to be a way out of here,” said Caroline, mostly to herself. She looked at the dirty, barren space, which was lacking windows of any kind. She could see vents in the ceiling, presumably to supply fresh air to the room. At the far end of the room, just past the woman’s corpse, was a dark area that suggested an exit.
“What the hell is this place?” Caroline stood over Marjorie-Dawn, waiting for some kind of answer. The woman only shrugged her bony shoulders.
“I don’t know. Something at the bottom of the world. Maybe in Hell. Somewhere where no one will ever help us.”
Caroline moved slowly across the room, stepping carefully around the dead body that lay on the floor, the sputtery candlelight creating the illusion that the corpse was attempting to reanimate. She moved to the end of the room and peered into the dark space. She could see the rungs of a rusty ladder bolted to the inside wall, a brick-lined shaft that went upward into complete blackness. She stepped back to where Marjorie-Dawn remained immobile, reached down, and took the candle.
As she made her way back, her bare foot touched the leg of the dead woman, causing Caroline to shudder at the feel of the stiff, lifeless limb. She continued moving, stopping at the end of the room and holding the candle upward at arm’s length.
The shaft was ten or twelve feet in height from the floor of the room to the top. Caroline assumed that there was some kind of door up there, and that this was an underground vault of some type. Holding the candle high above her head, Caroline could see a square shape at the top that looked to be an exit hatch. She turned back to Marjorie-Dawn.
“I’m going up this ladder to see if we can get out of here.” There was no response.
Caroline reached out and gripped one of the rungs of the ladder, feeling the crunch of old rust under her hand. As she slowly climbed upward she felt as though the narrow, brick-lined shaft was constricting her lungs and stealing away her breath. Her legs trembled with each step, the weakness in her body making her progress slow and unsteady. She made her way upward, her body shaking as she stopped every few minutes to rest.
At the top of the shaft the space opened up and extended to Caroline’s right, creating a kind of elongated shelf that disappeared into the darkness. She could feel the coolness coming from that area, and hoped that an air vent might be found there. Her attention was now focused on the metal door above her head, which she could see was secured by a large padlock. She climbed up another step and pushed against the door, its weight resisting any pressure from her weak effort. She struck it several times with her fist, creating only a series of dull thuds.
The padlock was old and required a key to open it. Attempting to escape through that exit would be hopeless unless the lock could be removed. She held herself steady for a few minutes, allowing the cool air to wash over her, willing her knees and legs to remain steady on the ladder. She thought that if there was an air vent in that space to her right, then it might be old enough to kick out and maybe even crawl through. If she could do that, then both she and Marjorie-Dawn could be saved. She stepped down one rung and leaned into the dark space, holding up the candle to illuminate the area.
The flame of the candle scattered its flickering light on a body that lay on the concrete shelf of the space to her right. It seemed to have been inserted feet first and was on its back. The fact that the white, waxy face was immediately below her hand was sufficient reason to cause her to scream. When it opened its blood-rimmed eyes and looked at her, she dropped the candle and fell.
Copyright © 2014 by Mike McNichols