by Paul Tomlinson
“How much is her life worth to you?” That’s what the bastard asked me. The first time I set eyes on him. He sat down opposite me in the hospital cafeteria. Every other table was empty – it was just me and the humming of the vending machines. Past midnight. I just didn’t want to go back to the empty house again.
He could have been an addict hustling cash for a fix – pupils large, skin too glossy under the harsh fluorescent light. He looked like shit, but who was I to judge. I’d been crying before he came in. Crying for… Crying for three months at that point. That’s what it felt like.
“How much would you pay,” he said, “to have your wife well again?”
I should have told him to fuck off, but his words had sunk little hooks into my brain. He told me his name was Garvin. He had the eager insistence of an evangelist, and if I’d thought prayer could have saved Carla, I’d have gladly signed up to whatever cult he was peddling. But she was beyond even a divine intervention at that point.
I shook my head slowly.
“How much?” He leaned forward, eyes wide. There was something in the way he said it that made me answer him.
“Everything I have.”
He leaned back and after a moment nodded, seemingly satisfied.
I wondered if he was a scout for some dodgy pharmaceutical company, looking for someone desperate enough to try out an unlicensed treatment. But I think I knew even then that he was something much worse.
How much was my wife’s life worth to me? The woman who I’d spent the last eight years of my life with. The woman who’d miscarried twice trying to give me a son. The woman I would die for. Or so I believed.
Everything I have.
“Not everything, Mr. Tench.” I wasn’t surprised he knew my name. We were in that place where reality becomes fluid, where everything you see is too brightly lit and too sharply focused, and every sound too crisp and with a hint of echo.
The price he quoted wasn’t everything I had. Not quite everything. And it wasn’t an experimental drug he was selling. It was a different sort of snake oil. He smiled – the disappointment was so obvious on my face.
“I don’t expect you to believe me,” he said, his voice a deafening whisper, “not without proof.”
I wanted to get up from the sticky plastic table and turn my back on him. But his gaze held me there, and for just a second there was a spark of purple in his eyes. Trick of the light, perhaps? How long had we been sitting at that scarred cafeteria table? Ten minutes? Twenty? Could he really not have blinked in all that time?
“Pick someone on the children’s ward,” he said, “terminal case. Be there this time tomorrow.”
I blinked, and suddenly he was standing in the open doorway, looking over his shoulder at me.
“A word to the wise,” he said, “don’t hang around the kid’s ward looking like a sex offender.”
He winked, a pale eyelid flicking over the big, dark eye. And then he was gone, the door closing without a sound. I rubbed swollen eyes. Maybe he had never been there at all. On my way back upstairs I asked an orderly directions to the children’s ward.
Her name was Stacey. Stacy’s skin was yellow like an old bruise, and so were the whites of her eyes. Tubes snaked into her under the pale blue blanket. There was something growing in her stomach, leeching the life out of her. They’d found it too late to exorcise it.
Stacey’s father had been at her bedside when I passed through the ward earlier. He nodded a greeting as I went by. I recognised the expression on his face: part anger, part hollow desperation. Frustration at not being able to help someone you love. I’d seen that face in the mirror for months.
“She the one?” Garvin appeared at my left shoulder, startling me.
I nodded dumbly.
We were in the empty corridor outside the ward. Crayon drawings pinned to notice boards were filled with spiky yellow sunshine and monstrous red and purple flowers.
“Stay here and keep watch.” Garvin patted me on the arm. “I’ll only be a minute.”
He was through the doors into the ward before I could respond. I watched him tiptoe towards Stacey’s bed. He looked up, to make sure I was watching, then reached out and placed his palm on the sleeping child’s forehead.
I sighed. He was just another self-deluded faith healer. I half turned, disappointment bitter in my throat: I’d wanted to believe. But my attention snapped back to him as his body went rigid. He staggered back on his heels away from the girl’s bed. I though he’d collapse. I blinked, and he was pushing his way through the doors, almost falling into my arms. His forehead glistened and his face was sallow.
“Have to get out,” he gasped, “get a taxi … Be gone a couple of days. Takes time to recover. See how she does.” He staggered off down the corridor, melting into the greenish underwater light.
See how she does. Stacey’s recovery was miraculous. That’s what the nurses said later. The consultant just muttered something about remission – didn’t like the idea there might be magic stronger than his.
“What are you?” I asked Garvin the next time he appeared. He grinned.
“I’m the Sin Eater.”
“Buy me a coffee, I’ll tell you.” He set off for the cafeteria, not waiting to see if I followed.
The coffee from the machine smelled faintly of tomato soup, but it gave us an excuse to be sitting at the table together.
“My grandmother was Welsh, she told me about him,” he said, “the Sin Eater.”
I sat at a table and sipped coffee, watching him pace. He didn’t need encouragement to continue: this was his sales pitch after all.
“The Sin Eaters was an outcast, people crossed the street to avoid him because he consorted with witches and knew The Devil to say hello to.” He made it sound like a Halloween story for kids. “But when someone in the village died, they invited him into their home. They placed bread and a bowl of ale on the dead person’s chest and paid the Sin Eater sixpence. He’d eat the bread and drink the ale, and at the same time consume the sins, ensuring the corpse wouldn’t rise to cause mischief.”
“That’s what you do? I pay you sixpence and you take on Carla’s cancer?”
He bowed, smiling and spreading his hands like the pied piper.
“I have to charge more because of the time it takes me to get the disease out of my system.”
I’d seen him stagger away after he’d healed the little girl, so I could believe what he said. I wanted to believe. But still…
“The healing is permanent,” he said, in answer to my scowl, “and one fee covers it. I don’t come back to bleed you for more cash.”
“And you have no designs on my immortal soul?” I think I was joking. He thought so too and grinned.
“You and I don’t believe in such things, do we Mr. Tench?”
His hand was cool and dry when I shook it, not what I’d expected. People say the same thing about snakes.
I had to sell the house. I never told Carla what I did with the money, but I think she knew. She claimed she was lost in a morphine haze when Garvin came to her bedside, but I think she knew.
For a while it was like we were newlyweds, living in the little rented flat. Carla had been given a second chance at life, and she seized it. I could barely keep up with her. It was exhausting and wonderful. And she was a beautiful as the day I met her.
But she was different somehow. At first I thought it was her experiences that were responsible, the months of illness and the treatment she had endured, and then to have been given a new life. But there was a niggling suspicion that I couldn’t Carla had been changed somehow. There was something about her that reminded me of – of him.
I think it was the way I looked at her that drove Carla away. That was part of it at least. That and the fact that I didn’t have her thirst for new experiences, her burning desire for new sensations. She seemed to thrive on the energy in a crowded bar or at a football match. And sometimes I think she provoked arguments, especially with me, just so she could enjoy her own anger.
Left alone in the dreary ground floor flat, I had time to think. Too much time. And I began to wonder if the bargain I’d struck with Garvin had been some kind of trick. That there’d been a darkly ironic moral lesson to be learned. I’d agreed to give up everything so that Carla could live: perhaps losing her love was part of the price I had to pay. If you mess with the natural order of things, that’s the kind of kick in the nuts you can expect. Ha ha, the joke’s on me.
The ‘phone call from the hospital came late one evening. I thought for a second that it was about Carla, that she’d been readmitted.
“Mr. Tench, we have your friend Randall here – he’s insisting on discharging himself. He said you’d come and pick him up?” From her tone of voice the nurse obviously disapproved of patient’s discharging themselves. Or perhaps she just disapproved of patients.
“Randall?” I said.
There were muffled voices and a scuffle on the other end of the ‘phone.
“Tench, it’s me, I need your help. Please.”
I stared at the ‘phone.
“I’ll be there.” I had some questions for Garvin.
“Get me out of here!” He gasped, struggling to his feet and wrapping his overcoat around him. “They thought they were helping me, keeping me in here. Idiots!”
His face was ghostly pale, speckled with sweat, and he was struggling to draw breath. He stumbled towards me, reaching out to clutch my arm for support. As his clammy palm closed on my wrist, he stared into my eyes, a half smile on his face, but his expression quickly changed to a frown and he looked down to where his cold flesh was pressed against mine.
“You’re not unwell?” I asked. Couldn’t resist. The irony was lost on him.
“Emphysema,” he gasped, “worse than I thought. Collapsed and woke up in a hospital bed.” His laugh lapsed into a coughing fit.
I managed to bundle him into my car and pulled out of the hospital car park.
“Where do you want me to take you?”
“You know where Callandish Grove is?”
I frowned. “Nothing there but industrial units.”
“Take me there,” he insisted. “There’s someone there can help me.”
He closed his eyes while I drove, breath rasping through his open mouth. I thought he was asleep.
“How’s your wife?” He asked. I was startled to find him staring at me.
“Very well, the last I heard.” I didn’t want to tell him how long we’d been separated. Eight weeks and four days. But I didn’t need to. He nodded and closed his eyes again.
“That happens sometimes,” he said.
I’d expected the industrial estate to be deserted at that time of night, but there were a few expensive cars driving around, though they didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get anywhere.
“Busy night,” Garvin muttered. “Turn off at the next left, the girls stay off the narrower streets.”
I turned where he said, a service road between two walls of ribbed steel
“Pull over here.”
I braked to a gentle stop.
“You want me to just leave you here?”
“I’ll be fine,” he wheezed, “no one here but whores, husbands and the homeless.”
I pulled on the handle and pushed the door open. He almost fell into the street. Drawing breath into tortured lungs, he drew himself upright and took a few unsteady steps away from the car. He’d lost weight since I first saw him, his coat sagging from his shoulders. And his hair was thinning, where it had been thick and dark. I watched him stumble away into the shadows.
I found myself standing beside the car. I had to go after him. Not because I was afraid for his safety – I didn’t care about that. But I had questions. Questions I knew he’d never willingly answer.
I almost missed it. I could see his hunched form ahead of me in the darkness, could hear his wretched coughing. But I almost missed happened next. He stumbled, falling forward, and someone reached out of the darkness to catch him. An old tramp in mismatched woollen mittens. Garvin thanked him, reached into his pocket and pulled out money, and as the old man reached out to take it, Garvin grabbed his skinny wrist. The tramp seemed to freeze in shock, then staggered backwards. Dazed, he looked at the bank note in his hand. He thanked Garvin, but backed away quickly.
Garvin walked off, his back straighter now, and his step more confident. In the darkness behind the warehouse I heard the tramp coughing and gasping for breath. I didn’t need to follow Garvin any further: the tramp was who he’d come to meet. I knew Garvin‘s secret. And I knew what crime he had committed at my request.
The whisky burned my throat, but the bottle hadn’t brought me the oblivion I had hoped for. I didn’t feel even slightly drunk.
“What are we celebrating?” Garvin said, appearing suddenly and sitting beside me on the park bench.
He leaned back and sighed. He looked stronger now, but he was still only a shadow of the man I’d met those few months ago.
“I know what you are,” I said.
“And what am I? A monster?” He turned to face me. “If you’d known what I do, would you have refused my help? Let your wife die?”
He turned away, knowing I wouldn’t answer. We watched a couple of homeless men stagger across the grass, arguing over the dregs in their sherry bottle.
“Life is wasted on some people, Mr. Tench. Yet there are others, like your wife, who are robbed of life before their time. I just – redress the balance occasionally.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t argue with him. I’d known there’d be something like this in the shadows behind him. I just hadn’t wanted to think too much about it.
“It doesn’t always work, does it?” I asked.
“Offloading whatever disease you’ve picked up, there are some people you can’t pass it on to. Like me, back at the hospital.”
He glanced across at me, smiled guiltily.
“I was desperate, I shouldn’t have tried that.” It was almost an apology.
His knees cracked as he got to his feet.
“If what I’ve done offends you,” he said, “then you might take some comfort from the fact that there is a kind of poetic justice after all.”
“It’s killing me.” He hobbled away like a man twice his age.
I swallowed what was left of the whisky and tossed the bottle away. Still not drunk. Should have bought a litre. I stretched out on the park bench and closed my eyes.
I woke with a start and groaned. The birds seemed convinced it was morning, even though the light barely washed the sky. A low mist rolled across the grass. The cold had seeped into my bones and fused my spine. Two ice picks had been jammed into the back of my skull skewering my eyeballs: the whisky hadn’t managed the get drunk bit, but it had come up trumps with the hangover.
“Have you got a light?”
I opened one eye and looked up. It was one of the girls, skinny legs and a short fake fur jacket; her eye make-up made her look like a startled panda. There were droplets of mist in her straw-blonde hair.
I sat up and searched my pockets, coming up empty.
“Sorry, I don’t smoke,” I said.
She put her cigarette back in the tiny handbag she carried.
“I should quit anyway,” she said. She sat down on the bench next to me. “I’m Millie.”
“Brian Tench,” I croaked.
“Did he save your life too?” She asked.
“My wife’s,” I said.
She nodded again, looking like she really needed that cigarette. I felt somehow inadequate, a man without the means to create fire for her.
“I got pneumonia, the double kind: I was going to die. But he took it away. It was like one of those miracles my mum believed in. She’d have said he was an angel. But he’s not, is he?”
“No, he’s not,” I said. I winced. “Hangover,” I said, in answer to her look.
She reached out and placed a cool palm on my forehead. It felt nice, and I forgot about the headache. She looked at me and smiled, and there was a flash of something in her eyes — the purple I’d seen before. When she took her hand away, the pain was gone.
“Whatever he is, I don’t think he’s evil,” she said. She stood, pulling her jacket closer to her. “At least I hope not, because whatever he is, he gives part of it to all of us.”
That’s what I’d seen in Carla, I was sure of it now.
Garvin turned up on my doorstep about a month later. I didn’t even try and prevent him coming in, even though he looked worse than before, and was staggering drunk. It seemed inevitable that he’d find me again.
“Need a place to shtay,” he slurred. “Had a bit of a falling out with my neighboursh: they think I had something to do with those kids.” He headed down the hall, caroming off each wall like a sozzled pinball.
“You look like shit,” I said.
“Still dying then?” I asked brightly.
“I thought I was,” he said. “What I was doing had – what’s the word? Conshequences!” He nodded, mouth slack. “Each time I passed on my… burden, I also passed on – ”
“– you passed on something of yourself,” I said.
Yesss!” Nodding his whole body.
“So all your charitable deeds will bring about your own death. Ironic isn’t it?”
“No,” he breathed, “not death. I found a way to cheat death! Need to rest.” He went backwards, sat down heavily when his legs came up against the sofa. “Oops.” He giggled. “You got anything to drink?”
“Haven’t you had enough?”
He shook his head, movements exaggerated.
“You think I’m drunk!” He laughed. “Haven’t touched a drop. Something stronger than liquor.” He leaned forward, his face suddenly serious. “I am drunk – on life!”
I felt an icy hook snag my heart and pull. I knew. It wasn’t alcohol in his veins. I found out that night – not all vampires drink blood. The parents had been on the news all week, tearfully pleading for news of their missing daughters.
“I got careless,” Garvin muttered.
I didn’t think font water or garlic would stop him. A stake through the heart would probably do the trick, but I knew that wouldn’t be as simple as it looked in the movies – particularly if the vampire won’t lie still.
Garvin stretched out on my sofa and closed his eyes. I could wait until he fell asleep, smother him with a pillow. Would that work? How strong was he? How often could he cheat death? And more to the point, even knowing what he was, could I kill him?
I pulled on my coat, couldn’t bear being in the tiny flat with him. There was a smell clinging to him, like hospital disinfectant with the smell of death under it. I needed to walk, clear my head, and try to come up with a way of dealing with him. I couldn’t go to the police – what could I tell them? No one could help me.
I walked, hands in pockets and head down. Not aimlessly though – my subconscious must have been directing me.
Someone stepped out of the shadows and grabbed my arm. I cried out, pulled my arm free of the grip. He tried to apologise, but a coughing fit overtook him. It was the old man with the mismatched mittens. The one Garvin had given emphysema to.
“Where is he?” The old man wheezed.
There were other figures in the shadows. The hospital smell was strong in the air, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that Garvin had touched all of their lives. A slim figure stepped out of the darkness. Millie in her fake fur jacket. Her face looked like mine probably did.
“We know what he’s done,” she whispered.
“You must. Bring him to us,” the old man gasped.
That sounded right. I wasn’t sure what they’d do to him, but it would be fitting, I was sure. And I wouldn’t have to dirty my own hands. All I had to do was deliver him to them.
“How?” I asked.
Millie held out a brown glass bottle.
“Ether,” she said, “I have a friend works in a lab.” She glanced away embarrassed, knowing I’d seen the marks on her arms.
I slipped the bottle in a pocket and glanced at my watch: it was after eleven.
“I’ll be back by two at the latest,” I said. “Look out for my car.”
“Bring him. To the Back. Of unit twelve,” the old man said. That was where I’d seen Garvin pass on his gift.
As I turned to go, Millie hurried forward and wrapped her arms around me in an awkward hug.
“Good luck.” She looked away shyly.
The flat was dark when I got back. I waited in the hallway, getting my breath back, then let myself in as quietly as I could.
Garvin lay on the sofa, snoring softly, his overcoat across him like a blanket. I needed something to pour the ether onto, went into the kitchen for a tea towel. When I came back into the sitting room, the sofa was empty.
“Bit late to be doing the dishes, isn’t it?” He was standing in the darkness by the door, his purple eyes visible in the shadows. “How’s Millie?”
“I can smell her awful perfume on you.” He sniffed and then spat. “Did she tell you what I did to her?”
“She told me you were an angel who saved her life.”
Garvin laughed. “Perhaps she doesn’t know yet. I took her pneumonia, but gave her something worse in return. She’ll think she got it from one of her johns.” He seemed to think this was funny.
The fumes from the cloth were making my feel woozy. If he could smell Millie’s perfume on my coat, he could smell the ether: either he’d mistake it for petrol or turps, or he’d know what I intended to do to him.
Garvin moved forward and I saw light flash on something in his hand. A half-empty whisky bottle: he was holding it by the neck. His hand moved suddenly, and the bottom of the bottle crashed against the doorframe. Whiskey splashed across the floor. He held up the broken bottle and grinned.
“You thought I was going to lie still and let you kill me in my sleep.”
“I called the police,” I said, “told them about the girls.”
“No you didn’t.”
It was only a small room and he was moving slowly towards me. He was between me and the only door out of the flat, and the only weapon I had was a damp tea towel. I had to improvise. I tied a knot in one end of the tea towel. The ether trickled over my skin, icy cold as it evaporated. I swung the knotted tea towel, trying to make it look a better weapon than it was. Garvin grinned.
I whirled the tea towel, making it look like I was going to swing at him, and then flicked it to his right, aiming the knot at the light switch by the door. The overhead light came on, momentarily blinding us both.
I lunged towards him. He slashed blindly with the bottle, and I felt it cut through my shirt and across my stomach. I caught his wrist, still moving forward, using my weight to carry him back into the doorframe. The bottle smashed against the doorframe, leaving only the neck in his hand. His other fist punched me in the temple, and for a moment my vision clouded and I could see bright specks, like the stars in a cartoon. If I lost consciousness, I was dead. I shook my head, trying to clear it: they did that in the cartoons. He pushed me away from him and swung at me with the remains of the bottle, slashing my cheek as I tried to turn away from the blow and protect my eyes. His whole body weight was against me, pinning me against the door frame.
He pulled the tea towel from my fingers and jammed it up against my face. The ether stung my cut cheek, and I could feel its coldness on my lips, and then in my nose and throat. The fog started to come down again, and the jagged bottleneck was pressed against my throat.
“I can’t pass a disease on to you,” he hissed in my ear, “but I can still take your life away.”
I felt blood trickle warmly down my neck into my shirt.
My hands clawed the air, trying to find something, anything I could use to defend myself. They came up against the door, smooth under its layers of white gloss paint. I gripped the edge of the door, even as I felt consciousness slipping away. I had to judge this right, only one chance.
I pulled the door sharply towards us and it slammed into Garvin‘s head with a satisfying thud. He staggered, going down on one knee. I slammed the door into his head again. He slumped forward onto his face. I slammed the door into him again as he lay there.
I was on my knees on the floor, head sagging onto my chest. I’d passed out, but wasn’t sure how long for. Garvin lay unmoving in the doorway, blood on his temple and at the corner of his mouth, but he was still breathing.
I pulled the cord from the telephone and tied his wrists and ankles. I dragged him out to the car, thinking that if anyone challenged me, I’d tell them what he’d done, and they’d probably help me.
It was after three when I finally drove into Callandish Grove. The girls and the cars were gone and there didn’t seem to be any sign of life at all. I drove past unit 12 and turned down the dark road at the side of it. The car park behind the warehouse was empty.
My head sagged and my chin bumped my chest. The taste of blood was in my mouth from the slashed cheek, and the smell of ether was still in my nose, though I’d driven all the way with the car windows open to try and stay awake.
“Hey.” A cool hand reached in and soothed my forehead. Millie.
“Hey,” I said.
Her expression told me how bad I looked.
“It’s not as bad as it seems,” I said, “just a couple of cuts.” I resisted the urge to poke my tongue out at her through the cut in my cheek.
“Where is he?” The old man appeared behind her.
“In the boot.” I turned off the engine and passed him the keys. I was too weak to get out and help them drag him out.
“Tench!” Garvin‘s voice shrill with fear. “Please.”
I reached for the door handle. Millie stood blocking my door.
“You’ve done your part. You don’t have to see this,” she said.
“I have to,” I said. She opened the car door and helped me out, catching me when I staggered.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” I said.
Millie pressed a finger to my lips.
“I know what he did,” she said, “don’t say it.”
“I’m sorry, Millie.”
“I’ve already had more than my allotted time,” she said, “and I even got to meet one of mum’s angels.” She smiled and kissed my undamaged cheek.
“Tench, stop them. Please!” Garvin wailed.
They’d dragged Garvin out and he was leaning back against the closed car boot, hands still bound behind his back. Around the back of the car, three and four deep, was a crowd of shadowy figures. Diseased and crippled, and all with that hint of purple in their eyes. They stood a silent yet angry mob of villagers waiting for the signal to storm Frankenstein’s castle. Alone they had been too weak to defend themselves against Garvin, but together…
“No need. For introductions,” the old man in the woollen mittens said. “I think you know. Everybody. We wanted to. Throw you a little. Going away party.”
“We all have gifts for you,” the old man said. He pulled off one of his mittens and reached to touch Garvin‘s forehead.
Garvin tried to back away, to climb up over the back of the car, but his ankles were still bound: no escape. His body spasmed as the palm touched his skin, and the old man shuddered, his eyes rolling and showing white.
“To die: to sleep,” the old man said, “No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.”
“Hamlet,” Millie said, pulling me more tightly to her side.
“Had to say something,” the old man said, breathing more easily now, “and Bible words didn’t seem right somehow.”
“Help. Me,” Garvin gasped.
Another of the crowd limped forward, baring his palm and reaching towards Garvin in unholy benediction. There was no violence, but Garvin began to scream as one after another they passed back to him the burden he had placed on them. His body began to tremble as his blood pressure rose, as arteries clogged. Limbs twisted and joints swelled. Skin erupted as lesions appeared like raindrops spattering on suede. Teeth became loose in his gums and were pushed out of his mouth by the writhing black tongue.
“Help me!” Voice thick with foul mucus.
Dazed, the street people staggered away, seemingly unaware of what was taking place, though perhaps deep in their primitive subconscious they knew.
“To die, to sleep; to sleep perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,” the old man quoted, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.”
Millie handed me a spike of wood from a broken pallet. I gripped the stake in my fist, and saw the mixture of horror and relief in Garvin‘s face as I brought his suffering to an end.
© Paul Tomlinson, May & October 2007
(Length 5,200 words)