Late, but then it’s Halloween and that’s a busy time 😉 I didn’t manage to get a new one written – I was invited to participate in a scientific review a short while back, and agreed before asking the deadline. It was yesterday. It’s done, skimming the very tartar off the teeth of the deadline. Just like the old days 🙂
Anyway, a story for Halloween. This one is from Mask-Querade.
“What’s in the bag, kid?”
The boy set down his heavy bag and stared into the eyes of the grinning man who towered over him. This man wasn’t on his list.
“The head of the last person who looked into the bag,” he said.
The man laughed. “Good one, kid.” He patted the boy’s head and walked on.
The boy picked up his bag and continued on his way. Day faded into night and still the boy walked.
As the darkness closed in, the Halloween revelries went into full swing. A man shambled past him, his grin lopsided. “Hey, kid, whass inna bag, eh?”
The boy looked into the man’s eyes. Another one who wasn’t on his list. “The head of the last person who looked into the bag.”
The man snorted. “Smartass kid. Fegoff.” He staggered away.
The boy hefted the bag onto his shoulder and headed for the place he needed to be.
Denny fiddled with his mask. It was a pain to wear it, but wear it he must, even alone in this alleyway. It had advantages in his line of work. He took out his knife, admired its stiletto gleam in the moonlight and quickly resheathed it. This was his earner, his path to riches. So far it had made him enough to be comfortable and, he had to admit, it had provided a lot of fun. One day he would strike the mother lode.
Or rather, one night. Denny smiled behind his mask. It wasn’t a great mask, it was a cheap surgical mask that Denny knew did nothing to protect him from anything. Except one thing. Identification. He chuckled at the thought that in less than a year, the police had moved from arresting someone in a mask to arresting anyone without one. Times change, and they change very fast these days.
He could have chosen one of the many colourful masks now on sale, he could have picked a mask from a film or TV character. He chose this one for a reason. Most people wore this type now, even though the younger ones had forgotten why. This was true anonymity, having the same face as everyone else. In his profession, that was an ace card.
Footsteps approached. Denny tensed and sank into the shadows, prepared to grasp the night’s earnings. He should have been working with Bob but Bob had not shown up for over a week and nobody knew where he was. So, for now, Denny worked alone.
A small figure, silhouetted in street lights, stood at the end of the alley. Denny watched through narrowed eyes. The figure had a large bag, there might be something of value in it. Would that little one risk the darkness of the alley or would they chicken out and take the long way around?
There was no motion for several minutes. Denny wasn’t even sure he was breathing, the anticipation was so great. The small figure sniffed the air and looked around. Maybe it was listening, gauging the alley as safe or risky.
It’s safe. Denny tried to push the thought into the small figure’s head. Oh, he had no belief in anything supernatural but hell, it couldn’t hurt to try.
The figure took a step forward. Its head moved from side to side. Denny kept his breathing shallow and silent. This could be a big one. The kid could be a money courier for a gang. They’d never know who took that bag of cash. Maybe it’s drugs. What the hell, I know enough junkies, I could sell them. Must be something valuable, nobody else would let a kid out with a bag that big this late.
The small figure let out a snort of breath and strode into the alley.
Denny tensed, his hand on his blade. This had to be quick. He watched the alley behind the kid in case he had a shadow, a guard or a watcher to make sure he delivered the goods. No sign of anyone. The kid was alone. Denny stayed perfectly still in the shadow of an alcove in the windowless wall.
The kid walked past him. Denny was sure the kid’s eyes flicked in his direction and he thought he saw a smile on the small face, but the kid didn’t break stride. It was a boy of about twelve, Denny guessed, and he can’t have seen anything or he’d be scared.
Ah, the old days, in the gang with Bob and Pete and Scabby Ted. We used to have so much fun with the little kids. Scabby Ted pissed off somewhere three years ago. Pete turned straight and scared, I wonder what he’s doing now?
Denny slid the long thin knife from its sheath, Just have to get rich all on my own, I suppose. He moved in silence, came up behind the boy. One hand over the mouth and a quick cut across the throat. The boy made no sound, he simply fell. Denny grabbed the bag, resheathed his knife – no time to clean it now – and ran along the alley.
At the street, he relaxed into a casual stroll, the bag over his shoulder. Just another man in a mask, carrying home a work bag. Just like everyone else. The mask hid his grin. This is just too damn easy.
Denny’s flat was small, but then there was only him and he didn’t need much space. A bigger place would just mean more cleaning. It was a decent flat, rented from the local council and, he always thought, it was pleasant enough.
He placed the bag on the kitchen table. It was really quite heavy and he wondered how that scrawny kid had managed to carry it so easily. His fingers itched to open it but… Patience. I have all night and I need a drink.
He poured a large vodka and added a splash of lemonade. His knife lay in the sink, it had moved so fast there was only a trace of blood on it from the kid’s throat. The leather sheath had gained an addition to its spreading collection of bloodstains but Denny saw that as a kind of scorecard. The staining darkened over time. Gave the sheath character.
He took a swig of vodka and stared at the bag. It was well used, worn and wrinkled. There was a splash of blood down one side. Denny smiled. Seems nobody had noticed on his way home but then it was Halloween, it was dark, and everyone was too busy having fun.
What could be in there? It felt too heavy for cash. Maybe too heavy for drugs. Stolen jewellery perhaps? Denny took another swig. Maybe the kid was homeless and it was all just worthless shit. He shook his head. That kid was clean and healthy, he hadn’t been sleeping rough. Finally setting down his glass, Denny reached for the bag’s drawstring and pulled the top open.
“I’m supposed to give you one chance.”
Denny started at the voice. He looked around but saw nobody.
“I don’t want to. Look in the bag.”
The boy stood opposite him, on the other side of the table, between Denny and the sink where his work knife lay.
“How the hell did you get in here?” How the hell are you alive? And why do you look familiar?
“It doesn’t matter. Soon it will be over, or maybe I should say it will begin.” The boy smiled. “Do you remember me?” He lifted his head. Scars criss-crossed his neck, one of them recently healed.
“It can’t be. That was seven years ago.” Denny ran his tongue over his dry lips. That kid died, and if he had lived he’d be an adult now.
“I won’t tell you my name. You and your friends never asked for it. After the things you did, I have no reason to give you the one last chance I’m supposed to but those are the rules. So, I’m supposed to tell you not to look in the bag.” The boy leaned forward. “I have to tell you what’s inside.”
Denny swallowed, the vodka buzz in his head making this whole thing feel unreal. “Well? What’s inside?”
The boy grinned. “Your darkest dream. Your wildest imaginings. A thing beyond mere money and human materialism. Eternity. A thing whose value can never be counted. Whether you look inside is up to you. I cannot force you either way. It is entirely your decision.” The boy sniffed. “If you don’t want to look then I take the bag and go. Then you’ll never know.”
Denny took a breath and regretted it. The alcohol surged in his veins. “If I open it, do I get to keep what’s inside?”
“Yes, I suppose that’s one way of putting it.” The boy smiled at the floor. “If you look inside, the bag becomes yours. If not, I take it and leave.”
I should have added less vodka and more lemonade. The alcohol fuzzed Denny’s thoughts. He narrowed his eyes. “There’s a trick here, isn’t there?”
“Yes.” The boy answered at once. “I don’t want you to know in advance what’s in the bag. It is a thing of great value to me. So yes, I am trying to trick you.” The boy’s smile never wavered. “Even so, the choice is always yours. You can look in the bag or I take it away. Make your choice.”
It had been rather a large glass of vodka. Denny struggled to make sense of the conflicting thoughts in his head. The boy could not be here. He could not be who he claimed to be, that boy was dead. If he had somehow survived, he’d be close to twenty now. If it was him he had no reason to reward Denny for the horrors they had inflicted on him. If he was a ghost, how could the bag be real? It was real, solid and heavy. It contained something important and the boy didn’t want him to know what it was. That last thought beat out the others. The bag had something of value in it and Denny wanted it.
Denny reached for the bag. He pulled the top open wide and looked inside.
Bob stared up at him
Denny wanted to recoil, to close the bag, to forget the severed head he had seen, with its moving eyes and silent mouthings of horror but he could not look away. He had to watch as the head decayed at a frightening speed until it became a skull, then drop into an abyss of flame. It’s like the bag is a portal to Hell.
“It is.” The boy’s voice seemed far away. “You stay in the bag until I get the next one. Then your head goes to Hell.”
Denny wanted to answer but the cracking in his neck prevented it. Vertebrae separated, muscles tore, tendons turned to jelly. Then he was looking up, out of the bag, at a headless body that slid out of his line of sight. All he could see was his ceiling.
The boy’s face smiled down at him. “You won’t be in there too long. I have one more to find. Once that’s done, I get to rest.” He sniffed. “You see, I didn’t completely hate what you did, even though I was terrified and forced into it, so I was condemned to Hell anyway. I despised you and your friends for that more than anything. It turns out my hate was strong enough to do a deal. If I deliver your four souls before you have a chance to redeem yourselves – not that any of you are likely to try – then I get released.”
Denny moved his mouth but no sound came out.
“Oh forget it, you have no lungs and no larynx now. You’ll never speak again.” The boy gathered the drawstrings. “In Hell you will be a silent head and nothing more. Only the demons will hear the music of your screams.”
Denny moved his jaw. What about Pete? He was the one who went back to normal life. This kid can’t get him now.
“The last one is Edward Scabrous. The one you called Scabby Ted.” The kid’s face disappeared as he pulled on the drawstring. “Your friend Pete was the first I caught. He’d become a scoutmaster. He liked small boys.”
Darkness enveloped the interior of the bag. All that was left was the feeling of the bag being lifted and the boy’s last words.
“As did you.”