The phone rings at three o’clock in the morning. It’s on the coffee table, face down. Light leaks from underneath it. If I turn it over, it’ll be flashing Vince’s photo. At three o’clock in the morning, it’s always Vince.
At least it didn’t wake me up; one of the upsides of insomnia. There aren’t many, so I’ve learned to take what I can get.
I look at the phone and the familiar fear crawls out of my chest: does he know?
We’re good friends, that fear and I. It gnaws on my ribs, sticks icy claws into my heart. It’ll freeze it before too long, kill it completely. But maybe that would be a kindness. No heart, no capacity to love. My family aren’t built for love. It goes bad.
The phone is still buzzing. Does he know?
She wouldn’t have told him, I’m sure of that. We agreed. And we’re careful, so careful. But in this Age of Surveillance, who can be sure if it’s enough? Secrets always get out, like mould seeping through damp plaster. I know this. God help me, I know this.
I put the phone to my ear and Vince says, ‘Fuck’s sake, Nick, where have you been?’ He sounds angry, but no more than usual. Anger is my brother’s default state.
I think about telling him I was asleep, but he probably wouldn’t believe me and he definitely wouldn’t care. Instead I just ask him what he wants.
‘I want you to get over here and drive me to Islington. There’s someone I need to go and see.’
‘Yes, now. Why? You got something better to do?’
I could say yes. I could say I’m not doing this any more. I could say I’m leaving, going to South America, to Australia, to Iceland. I check the price of flights twice a day. Two seats, one way.
‘Nick? Did you hear me? I said, I’ve got somewhere to be.’ His voice is rough and at least one bottle’s worth of blurry.
I could say no. I could say I’m tired of being his chauffeur, his dogsbody. That I have a life, love and future of my own. On my own.
I could do that. I could.
‘I’ll be there in twenty minutes,’ I say.
I’m actually the eldest by five minutes, although Vince tells it the other way. But five minutes doesn’t give you much time to establish yourself, does it? And he’s clearly the original, the vibrant, full-colour version. I’m the copy, grey-scale and faded. Our mother took us to a tarot reader when we were kids, and she said that I had the older soul, a history of past lives that Vince never shared. Maybe that’s what makes the difference; I’m diluted, Vince is fresh. Or maybe the old woman was just a scam artist. That probably makes just as much sense. I’ve tried using tarot cards, but they never told me anything I didn’t know.
He’s outside waiting when I arrive, bundled up in a parka and stamping his feet. I pull up and he gets in the passenger side, filling the car with the smell of smoke, whisky and rage. He gives me a piece of paper, creased and dirty, with an address written on it in handwriting I don’t recognise. ‘This is where we’re going,’ he says.
During the day the journey across London would take forever, but at this time of night the roads are swift and empty. Vince has five cars and never gets behind the wheel of any of them, but I’ve always enjoyed driving. There’s a security, even if it’s false, in the metal skeleton and the interplay of limbs and machinery. Car and driver give each other purpose.
Vince is quiet, his head resting on the side window as we swish through the dark. I’ve practically forgotten he’s there when he says, ‘Gemma’s leaving me.’
My hand jerks on the wheel and we swerve slightly. ‘What have you done?’ I say. The words come out without thinking.
He stares at me. A muscle in his cheek jumps. ‘Well, that’s nice. So obviously, it has to be my fault? Thanks, Nick. Thanks for your sympathy. But for your information, I haven’t done anything. Not a fucking thing.’
He probably even believes it. For Vince there are so many things, so many people, that simply don’t count.
‘I don’t get it,’ he says. ‘Haven’t I done everything for that woman? That fucking Merc cost forty grand. But it’s not enough, now?’ His lips draw back from his teeth. He has them whitened, and in the dim light it seems like they glow.
He pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and lights one. Turns it around in his fingers and watches it burn. ‘She’s not happy, apparently. Did you know that?’
I get as far as ‘Vince—’ and stop, because the air has solidified in my lungs. He doesn’t seem to notice that I haven’t actually answered, and continues, ‘Happy. What the fuck is that supposed to mean, anyway? I’ve given her everything she ever asked for. And now I’m going to get all of it thrown back in my face.’
The cigarette drips ash onto the floor mat. I say, ‘Vince,’ again, but although my voice works this time I realise I have no idea what I’m going to say. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
‘You talk to her, don’t you? What’s she said? And for fuck’s sake, watch where you’re going.’
I correct the car’s drifting course and ease off the accelerator. ‘Nothing. She hasn’t said anything. Not to me.’
He gives me a sharp look. ‘You sure? Because she says there’s no other bloke, but I don’t believe that for a second. There’s always another bloke. This hasn’t come out of nowhere.’
‘Yes. I’m sure.’
He leans back in the seat. ‘Well, I’ll find out. And when I do, he’ll be sorry he ever strayed over this particular fence. And if he thinks he’s going to be getting his hands on any of my money, he’s going to be sorely disappointed. She’s not walking out on me, making me look like a fucking prick, and taking what I’ve earned with her. That is not going to happen. She’s not going to get a single penny of my money. You understand me?’
‘Good. Because if I thought you knew something, if I thought you were covering something up, I’d be upset. You know that, don’t you, Nick? You know that if you were to stand by and let that kind of shit go on, it wouldn’t end well.’
I nod again. He looks at my hands, which are white on the steering wheel. I make an effort to relax them. His eyes are narrow and there’s an edge of suspicion in them, but he says nothing else. He’s not entirely satisfied, but I don’t think he can quite make himself believe that I would cross him. That I would dare.
Do I believe it myself? It’s a good question.
What did you think was going to happen? a voice in my head wants to know. When you started fucking your brother’s wife, how did you see that working out?
Another good question. I’m full of them.
We drive in silence for another fifteen minutes until he taps on the dashboard. ‘Here, this is it. Pull in over there.’
We’re in a mainly residential area, with a small parade of shops at the top of the street. Three of the five shops are boarded up and all are dark. I swing the car into one of the marked bays and kill the engine.
Vince scrubs his hands over his face. The skin looks grey and loose. Unhealthy. ‘Go in, will you, Nick. The one on the end. I’m supposed to see some woman called Alis. See if she’s there.’
I get out and take a big gulp of air. It’s not exactly fresh but it’s better than inside the car. My hands are shaking, and I shove them into my pockets. The nausea of adrenaline comedown floods my mouth with slimy, metallic-tasting saliva. I feel like I’ve narrowly avoided a car crash. No. I feel like I’m still having one.
The window of the shop is fogged with dirt and dust. I can just about make out a display of huge, boxy televisions that look like they should be in a museum. Hand-lettered signs, too faded to read, hang on wires above them.
I shoot a look at the car. Vince is leaning back, his eyes closed. I fumble my phone out of my pocket and call Gemma. A bad move, no doubt, but have I made any other kind?
It barely has a chance to ring before she answers. ‘Nick? Where are you? Are you all right? Is he with you?’
‘I’m fine. He’s in the car. We’re in Islington somewhere, I don’t know why.’ I never do.
Her voice trembles. ‘I’m sorry. I know we said we’d wait, but I can’t do it any more. I didn’t tell him about us, I didn’t tell him anything. But I can’t carry on living with him and pretending everything’s all right. I can’t.’
‘It’s okay. Don’t worry. We’ll sort it out.’
‘I don’t want to have to wait any more, Nick. I want to be with you.’
‘I know. I do, too. And we will. We just have to be careful. Not yet. Soon. I promise. But not yet.’
I wait for her to ask when, and what exactly it is that we’re waiting for, and what my plan is. So many good questions.
I listen to her breathe for a while. Then she says, ‘Okay. I love you,’ and hangs up.
Does Vince deserve this?
Do I deserve her?
Does anyone get what they deserve?
I knock on the shop door and a woman answers. She’s tiny, with cropped hair that looks white, but her face is unlined and she could be anywhere from a teenager to a grandmother. She nods when I ask if she’s Alis, so I go back over to the car and get Vince.
Inside, the shop looks just as old and disused as it does outside. The main retail area is empty, with a single workbench pushed against the far wall, covered with a dust sheet. Alis leads us to a room at the back, this one kitted out like an office with a desk and three chairs in moulded orange plastic. A scratched metal filing cabinet leans against one wall and a bare bulb dangles from the ceiling. There’s no other furniture and no computer on the desk. The room feels both dated and oddly timeless. It suits her.
Vince pulls over one of the chairs and makes a show of brushing off the seat before he sits down.
‘So you’re an assassin,’ he says. ‘I’ve got to say, you’re not exactly what I expected.’
Alis watches him with no expression. Her eyes are very pale, and she blinks slowly and infrequently. ‘That would be an advantage, no?’
I stare from her to my brother. ‘Excuse me. What?’
Both of them ignore me. ‘How do we do this, then?’ Vince says.
‘Half of the price is paid when the deal is agreed, the rest upon completion of the work.’
Vince pulls out his wallet and takes out four fifties. He holds them out. ‘Five hundred quid. Seems cheap.’
She gives him a small smile. ‘There are other compensations than money, Mr Rand, when you enjoy your work.’
He grins. ‘Well, good for you.’
‘Vince,’ I say. ‘What are you doing? What is this?’
Alis makes no move to take the money, so he throws it on her desk. Then he takes a photograph out of the wallet and drops it on top. Gemma, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her hand up to shade her eyes against the sun. She’s smiling.
‘How do you do it?’ Vince says. ‘Do you shoot her, run her over, what? Do you do the job yourself, or sub-contract?’
Alis glances down at the photo. ‘The method is immaterial. The work will be done.’
‘You have to make sure it can’t come back to me,’ he says. ‘I’ll be the first one they look at. The husband always is. Especially if they find out she was going to leave me.’
‘No suspicion will attach to you. That is guaranteed.’
‘Then we’ve got a deal.’
She inclines her head. ‘Agreed.’
I grab his arm. ‘Vince. What are you doing?’
‘Like I said, I’m going to be the first one they look at. So I can’t use any of our own people, can I? It’d be asking for trouble. But don’t panic, Alis here came highly recommended.’ He shakes my hand off without looking at me. ‘So there’s nothing to worry about, is there, love?’
Alis smiles. She has fine features but full, wide lips that make her mouth seem too large for her face.
‘I serve the God of Blood and Bone,’ she says. ‘I pray to my God, and I am never disappointed. Others must take it on faith that their prayers are heard, but I have no need of faith. I have death.’
‘If you say so,’ Vince says. ‘Well, we’ll leave you to it, then. Pleasure doing business, and all that. Come on, Nick.’ He gets up and walks out without a backwards glance.
Alis is still sitting behind the desk, hands in her lap. The bare bulb above us flickers. The money and the photograph of Gemma are lying where Vince dropped them. ‘Listen,’ I say, and reach out for the photo, ‘he’s not thinking straight. He doesn’t really—’
The photo curls up at the edges and smoke drifts upwards. A second later, a spike of white flame shoots up, blazing so brightly I have to close my eyes. Then it flashes out and disappears, leaving an after-image that dances behind my eyelids but no soot, residue or other marks on the metal surface of the desk. The photo and the money are gone.
‘The deal has been made,’ she says. ‘The work will be done.’
I step backwards. My feet tangle in the legs of the chair and I go down hard. My teeth click together and I taste blood.
Under the desk, a huge rat pauses to stare at me before scurrying into the shadows at the edge of the room. More shadows than there were before, I’m sure.
I get to my knees and have to wait for the room to stop spinning before I can make it the rest of the way. When I manage to stand up straight, Alis is gone.
The sun comes up as we turn off the North Circular, but the sky is so stuffed with cloud it hardly makes any difference. When we get back to the house, all the lights are on.
Vince doesn’t invite me in but I follow him anyway. Gemma is in the kitchen, fully dressed. She looks pale, but determined. A pot of coffee is brewing and a plate of toast lays untouched on the table. The news is playing on the TV, with the sound down. Not that it matters. The story never changes.
Vince ignores her and stomps upstairs. She gives me a wide-eyed look and gets up. I shake my head and she lets him go.
‘What happened?’ she says, her voice low.
I shake my head again. ‘Gem, this isn’t the right time. Tell him you didn’t mean it, you’ve changed your mind. Tell him you’ll stay.’
Her jaw flexes as she clenches her teeth. ‘No.’
‘No. I can’t. I know this is a mess, and I’m not trying to push you. I’ll wait for you, Nick. I said I would and I will. But not here. Not with him.’
I look past her shoulder, out the window. The trees are all barren and stripped. A mess. Yes.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ she says, ‘but you haven’t done anything wrong. This isn’t a mistake.’ She reaches out and runs her thumb over my cheekbone. ‘But that’s why I love you—that you can think it. Vince wouldn’t be capable.’
I lean into her touch, but when I close my eyes all I can see is her face in the photo, curling and blackening.
Upstairs, Vince yells my name. Gemma and I both flinch.
Am I different from my brother? Yes.
Am I better?
I want the answer to be the same. But I don’t know. I don’t know.
I pull away from Gemma and head for the stairs. Vince is in the bedroom, and it looks like he got halfway through changing his clothes before giving up.
‘Phone Bill,’ he says. ‘Tell him to put the meeting with Heyward back to tomorrow. I can’t face listening to him whining, not today. I’m knackered. And while you’re about it, tell him to get me some of that Scotch from the club. The proper stuff. That blended shit gives you a rotten hangover.’ He scrubs his hand over his face and yawns.
‘Vince. Don’t do this.’
He looks at me blearily. ‘Heyward’ll manage for another day. Since when were you bothered about what happens to him, anyway?’
‘I’m not talking about Heyward.’
‘Oh. Right. Look, I told you. It’s fine. I know that Alis seems like a bit of a weirdo but I’ve got it on good authority that she knows what she’s doing.’
‘Don’t,’ I say again. ‘If Gemma wants to go, can’t you just—let her?’
He frowns. ‘Since when were you so squeamish, since when do you tell me what to do, and since when was this any of your fucking business? Huh? Since when, Nick?’
‘There something you want to tell me?’
I look away. ‘No. I just—’
Asking good questions runs in the family. I don’t give him an answer. I don’t have one.
He shakes his head, and something I can’t identify—contempt? Disappointment?—flashes in his eyes.
Maybe this whole thing was just a test, to see what I’d do. Maybe none of it was real. Maybe Alis is a plant, an actor. Maybe we still have time.
I try to believe this. I try very, very hard.
Vince sniffs and pulls a face. ‘Now what? She’s fucking burned something, hasn’t she? I tell you, I’m going to be better off without her. I’ll buy myself a cook and a prozzie and bang, straight away I’m better off on all fronts. Nick, go down and sort it out, will you? I feel like shit and I can’t be doing with any of this today.’
I’m halfway down the stairs when the fire alarm goes off. I run the rest of the way. The kitchen is swirling with greasy smoke, and the first thing I see is the frying pan on the stove, flames dancing on the glistening surface of the oil. The second thing is Gemma, stretched out on the floor. Her eyes are open and one arm is caught at an awkward angle underneath her. If there’s any blood, it isn’t visible against the black tiles.
I kneel beside her and shake her shoulder, call her name. Her head lolls, and she doesn’t respond. I thrust my fingers into the hollow under her jaw, but no pulse beats against my skin.
I scream for Vince, and when I look up he’s there, throwing a tea towel over the smouldering pan.
‘Call an ambulance,’ I say.
I wait on the floor with her, cradling her head, until the paramedics make me move. They perform rituals familiar from a dozen medical dramas with quiet, calm efficiency. They lift her gently, treat her with care. But I see one look at the other, and give a tiny shake of his head.
Vince gets Bill to drive us both to the funeral. Nobody offers me their sympathy or condolences. Why would they? I’m just the brother-in-law.
I think I see Alis at the back of the crowd, her white hair stark against the dark shapes of the trees and the cars, but when I try to find her again, she’s gone.
The kitchen’s been scrubbed out by a professional firm, but it still smells of smoke and death. Some stains can’t be disinfected away.
Vince opens a bottle of Scotch—the good stuff, from the club—and pours two generous measures into squat, thick-bottomed glasses. He holds one out to me, but I ignore it. He shrugs and puts it back on the table.
‘Congratulations,’ I say. ‘A good job, well done. You must be pleased.’
He lifts his glass and empties it in one go. ‘What are you talking about?’
He shakes his head and refills the glass to a higher level. ‘Gemma wasn’t murdered. She died of a brain haemorrhage, remember? Natural causes.’
‘So it can’t come back on you, right? Just like she promised. Alis. And the God of Blood and Bone. You paid for it, they delivered.’
He rolls his eyes. ‘What part of natural causes don’t you understand? She wasn’t killed, she just died. Sometimes that happens. People just die.’
‘Fuck’s sake, Nick. Let it go. It’s finished.’
‘Not quite,’ says a voice from the doorway. ‘The work has been done, now the payment is due.’
Vince jumps, slopping amber liquid over the rim of his glass. ‘Jesus, how did you get in here?’
Alis is dressed as she was before, in dark jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt. She looks at Vince impassively. ‘The payment is due.’
‘You at it as well? Listen, my darling wife up and died of her own accord, so I don’t owe you anything. Actually, I should get a refund. How about that, eh? Give me my two hundred and fifty back, since you didn’t earn it.’
‘I prayed to my God and He answered. Now you will pay.’
The smell of rotten, greasy smoke is getting worse. ‘Do it,’ I say. ‘Pay her, Vince.’ The words sit thick and unpleasant in my mouth.
‘Are you kidding? What’s the matter with you—the pair of you? Am I the only one who understands what a fucking brain haemorrhage is?’
‘It is the visitation of my God,’ Alis says.
‘Yeah, nice try,’ Vince says. ‘Now get out.’
He turns his attention back to the whisky bottle. Alis doesn’t move. The last sliver of late afternoon sun sinks below the roofline and the room dims immediately. Next door’s dog, which has been barking constantly, falls silent. The TV playing softly in the lounge clicks off. The wall clock stops.
The only sound I can hear is my own breathing echoing in my ears. The rest of the world has been muffled, wrapped in soft fog. It’s in my ears, my nostrils, my throat. I can’t breathe.
‘Pay her,’ I say again. ‘Just pay her, Vince.’ But I don’t know if he hears me.
Full dark seems to have fallen in less than two minutes. Panic claws at me and I want to get out of here but Alis is shaking her head, and I understand that there’s nowhere to go. It’s gone, all of it, drifted away like a waking dream. There’s nothing outside. There’s just this house, this room where Gemma died, and the God of Blood and Bone.
‘The transaction is incomplete,’ Alis says. ‘The agreement is broken. The work will be undone.’
Vince laughs. It’s an ugly, braying sound. Everything about my brother is ugly. How did I not see this before?
‘Undone?’ he says. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? You going to bring her back, are you? That’ll be a good one, I’d like to see that.’
Someone moans. I think it might be me. ‘Don’t,’ I say, but Vince ignores me. When has he ever done anything else?
‘Your wish is my command,’ Alis says, and gives him a tight little smile. The air in the room feels overheated, the hairs inside my nostrils crisping. We’re going to burn, all of us.
‘Look, if you don’t—’ Vince starts, then breaks off. ‘Now where the fuck’s she gone?’
My ears are still ringing, but the pressure’s lifted and normal sounds—the dog, the ticking of the clock, the distant whoosh of traffic—have resumed. ‘Back to hell,’ I say.
He snorts, as if I’ve said something funny.
Vince takes the bottle of Scotch into his office and shuts the door. I lay on the floor, where my love died, and wait.
The work will be undone.
She can do it, I have no doubt about that. Alis and her God can do anything. They took her, they can bring her back.
There’s a knock on the door, and Vince shouts for me to answer it.
Maybe when I do, I’ll find Gemma there, smiling. She’ll hug me and tell me that she loves me, that everything is going to be okay. That there’s been a terrible mistake, or perhaps a miraculous recovery, but now it’s over and we can forget about it and get on with our lives. And Vince will be so relieved that he’ll forgive us both, and give us his blessing. And we’ll all live happily ever after.
I get up and go to the door. There’s a dark shape through the glass.
Vince shouts again for me to answer it. I close my eyes, offer a prayer to the God of Blood and Bone, and do what I’m told.
BIO: Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. She loves zombies, Las Vegas, and good Scotch whisky, not necessarily in that order. Her short stories, which have appeared at Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Podcastle, are being collected in the Transient Tales series, available in all ebook formats. Find more details at www.transientcactus.co.uk