The Border Part Eight (3 page)

BOOK: The Border Part Eight
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“I…” She paused again. “Well, I mean…”

Turning back to look at her reflection in the mirror, she realized that Tom might have a point. After all, even though she found Bob utterly infuriating, and even though the incident with the hit-man had made her run a mile, she couldn’t deny that she missed having him around. The idea of loving Bob was crazy, it made no sense and it infuriated her, but her feelings for him were uncomfortably close to how she always imagined love would be, so it was impossible to discount the possibility entirely. She wished there was a simple swab test that would tell her the answer, one way or the other.

“I…”

Her voice trailed off.

“No,” she whispered, seeing the sense of shock in her own eyes. “I
can’t
love him, that’d be…”

“You’re making a classic mistake,” Tom called through. “You’re mistaking love for pity.”

She frowned. “I am?”

“You feel sorry for Bob. You wish his life wasn’t such a mess. You wish he wasn’t a complete moron. I get it, those are natural reactions that anyone would feel when faced with a man like Bob. But none of those things mean that you
love
him. Love’s something deeper, and I honestly believe that the vast majority of people never actually experience love at all. They aren’t loved, and they don’t love. They try, of course, and they pretend, and society coddles them and
tells
them they’re feeling actual love, but… There are, what, six billion people on the planet? Almost seven?” He cleared his throat. “Probably less than a thousand of them ever have a shot at real, true love. In fact… Hell, I don’t even believe love exists.”

“You don’t?”

“It’s a human construct. It’s a word that’s used to cover over other emotions like pity and sympathy and… I don’t know, dependance. Fear. All those things are real, but love? No way.”

“That’s…” She paused. “That’s horrible.”

“It’s true, so get used to it.”

She took a deep breath. “No,” she said finally. “No, I don’t believe that, not for one second. I think love is absolutely real. No-one goes through life without at least loving one time, and being loved. No-one. We all get… It’s like we all get a little credit in the love department when we’re born. All of us.” She felt a shiver pass through her body as she realized that Tom wasn’t as much fun as she’d expected. “You know what?” she called out, grabbing her shirt. “I think actually while you’re out, I’m going to -”

Suddenly the light over the bathroom mirror blinked off, and she realized there seemed to be no power in the house at all. The adjacent bedroom was dark too.

“Tom?” she called out.

Silence.

“Tom, there’s a power -”

Before she could finish, she spotted lights through the bathroom window. Making her way over, she peered out and saw that the neighbors’ houses were all lit up as normal.

“Huh,” she muttered, turning and fumbling across the bathroom, unable to see a thing until she reached Tom’s bedroom. At least here, there was just the faintest hint of moonlight showing through the window, which meant she could see the dark shapes of the bed and the wardrobe, as well as the door in the corner.

She waited.

The house seemed so completely silent. Even the air-conditioning system was off.

“Bob?”

No reply.

“Are you checking the fuses?”

She took a few steps forward, passing the bed.

“Bob, I really think -”

Stopping suddenly, she realized there was a figure at the far end of the corridor, framed in silhouette against the moonlit kitchen. She opened her mouth to call out, but instead she tilted her head slightly, squinting in an attempt to get a better view of the figure. Deep down, she could already feel a sense of panic slowly starting to creep up through her belly, but she told herself that nothing was wrong, that nothing could
possibly
be wrong.

“Candy,” she remembered Bob saying one day in bed, “no offense, but your instincts are always a little screwy.”

She
had
been offended when he’d said that, even though she hadn’t let it show. Now, however, she was hoping he was right, because her instincts were setting off all kinds of warnings.

“Tom?” she said cautiously.

“Candy,” the figure replied, in Tom’s voice.

“Oh, thank God,” she said with a sigh. Making her way along the corridor, she felt genuine relief. “What the hell is going on, is there some kind of -”

She stopped a few feet from him, as she realized that he was wearing something that didn’t seem quite right. He seemed slightly taller, as if he was wearing boots with thicker soles, but the most striking different was his head: he was wearing some kind of head-dress or mask, with a series of broken twigs and branches poking up like a kind of crown. There was something extremely calm and peaceful about him, too, as if his heart was the only thing moving in his entire body.

Instinctively, she took a step back.

“Tom?” she said finally. “What are you wearing?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” he replied flatly.

“I…” She paused. “But what
is
it?”

“It’s not mine,” he continued. “I’m just the current occupant. Part of a tradition.”

“Huh.” Figuring that she really didn’t want to get into anything too kinky, she turned and made her way back toward the bedroom. “Well, I’m just gonna grab my bag,” she told him, hoping to keep things as normal as possible even though she felt that Tom was a little weirder than she’d realized. “You’re obviously very busy tonight, so I’ll let you get on with everything and I’ll give you a call in the next day or two, okay? Maybe after the weekend…”

Reaching the bedroom, she grabbed her bag and turned to go back out into the hallway, only to let out a gasp of surprise as she found that Tom had followed her and was now blocking the way.

“Hey,” she said, forcing a smile, “that’s a really neat costume. Did you get it for Halloween?”

He paused, before shaking his head.

“It makes you look like a… You know, what are they called again? Oh yeah, a moose!”

“A moose?” he asked, sounding a little puzzled.

“Or a deer.”

“A stag.”

“Or a stag,” she continued. “Yeah, that thing on your head is a bit like a stag. It’s cool, definitely, but…” She paused, before stepping toward him, hoping that he’d get out of the way. “I thought you said you had somewhere to be?”

“I do.”

“Well then -”

“And so do you.”

She paused again. “Uh… I actually was thinking of just going home, Tom. You really tired me out tonight and -”

“You’re not going home,” he replied. “I have a surprise for you. Turn around.”

She looked up at the broken pieces of wood poking up from the crown. “I don’t think I’m in the mood for a surprise,” she said cautiously.

“There’s no need to be scared,” he continued. “It won’t hurt, I promise. In fact, you’ll love it.” He waited for her to turn. “After that, I’ll drive you home.”

“Well, I…” Figuring that his offer wasn’t too bad, she turned her back to him. “I really appreciate you helping me out.” She waited, hoping that whatever the surprise turned out to be, he’d get it over with quickly. “I should definitely speak to Bob,” she added finally, hoping to keep up the small-talk and avoid letting things get too deep. “I know you think he’s pathetic, but I really think -”

“Look down at your chest,” Tom said suddenly, his voice sounding a little further away.

Turning, she saw that he’d backed over to the door.

“Tom…”

“Look down at your chest,” he said again, stopping as he reached the doorway. He was rubbing his right foot against the carpet now, which seemed a little odd.

“Okay,” Candy muttered, turning and looking at her own chest.

“What were you about to say?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” she said cautiously.

“Something about Bob?”

“Oh, right. Yeah, just that I think Bob -”

Suddenly she heard Tom running toward her from behind. She opened her mouth to ask what he was doing, but then she saw his shadow quickly falling over her, following by a heavy impact from behind that sent her stumbling forward until she put her hands out against the nearby wall, and then a sharp pain burst through her back. Gasping, she saw several of the broken pieces of wood bursting out through her chest, covered in blood, as if Tom had bowed his head and charged into her from behind.

She tried to ask what was happening, but as blood began to flow down her chest, she found she couldn’t get any air into her throat at all, which meant no words came out.

Turning, she saw her shadow on the farthest wall, with Tom’s shadow bent over behind her, his head pressed against the small of her back. Looking down again, she began to feel weak and dizzy as she saw the top of the crown still poking out through her chest.

“Behold,” Tom said finally. “The source of all life. The animal majestic, its prize finally claimed. I always wanted to try this, I thought it’d work. The others said it might be silly, but I knew it’d be fine so long as I got a good run-up and really threw myself into it all.”

Still impaled on the crown’s broken pieces of wood, Candy stared lifelessly at the wall. Just before the moment of death, a few tears had begun to roll down her cheek. A moment later her body began to shudder as, behind her, Tom started trying to wiggle the crown free from her back. The process took a few minutes, during which he let out a few choice curse words, but finally he stood up straight just as Candy’s corpse slumped to the ground.

III

 

Without saying a word, Ben opened the passenger-side door and stepped out of the car, immediately feeling a cold night breeze fluttering against his shirt. He slammed the door shut and turned to Jane, and for a moment he simply watched as she looked over at the office building. The same breeze was rippling her hair, but as she slung a rifle over her shoulder it was clear that she barely even noticed the world around her. Only the building held her attention, and the promise of what lay beneath.

“There’s still time to back out,” Ben told her. “You have two kids at home who -”

“Don’t keep saying that,” she replied, stepping past the car and making her way up the steps. “My kids need a safe world. They won’t get that if the Border is still here.”

Taking a deep breath, Ben double-checked that his shot-gun was ready to fire, before following Jane into the building. The door had been left unlocked, so they had no trouble getting to the corridor and then making their way toward the door at the far end. They both knew the way, of course, albeit for very different reasons: Jane, many years ago, had turned up one night for an audition, and then she’d spent several months working at the Border; Ben, on the other hand, had been a hired hand, carting boxes inside and generally working as a dogsbody. Now, as they reached the door, they stopped and glanced at one another.

“Okay?” Jane mouthed silently.

Ben nodded.

They both paused.

Suddenly Jane turned the handle and pushed the door open, aiming her rifle straight ahead as she saw a startled Simon sitting at his desk, speaking to someone on the phone.

“Police!” Jane shouted. “Put your hands where I can see them!”

“Wait!” Simon stammered, with the phone still in one hand. “Sir, can I call you back? There’s a situation.”

“Who are you talking to?” Jane asked.

“I’ll be sure to do that, Sir,” Simon continued, before setting the phone back onto its cradle.

“Who was that?” Jane shouted, stepping toward him.

“That was my boss,” he replied, watching the barrel of the gun with caution. “I really don’t think he’s going to take too kindly to -”

“Call him back!” she barked.

“I can’t possibly do that right now.”

“Call him,” she said firmly. “I want to know who’s behind this place.”

Simon shook his head.

“You know I can find out,” she continued. “I can get hold of your phone records, your emails, everything. I’ll get the information I want. You just need to think very quickly, Simon, about whether you want to annoy me while that happens.”

“Jane…”

“Call him back!”

“No!”

She took another step forward, with the barrel of her rifle aimed straight at Simon’s face.

“Easy, tiger,” Ben whispered to her, glancing around and spotting just one camera in the room, high up on the far wall. Raising his shotgun, he fired a single blast and the camera exploded along with a decent chunk of the wall and ceiling.

“You could have just unplugged it!” Jane hissed, turning to him.

“I didn’t know it’d cause so much damage,” he replied, staring in shocked amazement at the smoking hole where the camera had been mounted. “I’m not really a gun kinda guy.” He turned to her. “Sorry, I -” Suddenly he froze as he saw what Simon was doing. “No!” he shouted. “Get the -”

Before he could say another word, Simon smiled and pulled the trigger, shooting himself through the mouth and spraying a mix of blood and brain matter across the white wall as his body slumped down.

***

“Please!” Ruth shouted as the paramedics started working on Alex’s trembling body. “You have to save him!”

***

“Sweet Jesus,” Ben said, wincing as he stepped around the desk and looked down at Simon’s fallen body. “That is the single most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And let me tell you, I’ve been around the block a few times.”

“What the hell did he do that for?” Jane stammered, her hands shaking as she held her rifle. She was rooted to the spot, with the sound of Simon’s gunshot still ringing in her ears.

“Fear, I guess,” Ben muttered, turning to look toward the door in the corner before reloading his shotgun. “He knew the game was up, and he also knew his boss on the other end of the line wouldn’t be too happy.”

“I need to call this in,” Jane replied, pulling her phone from her pocket.

“And waste this opportunity?”

She turned to him. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t
need
to call it in,” he continued, “you just want to back out. Calling it in is your way of taking things out of your own hands, when we both know perfectly well that we have to keep going.”

“A man just died!”

“So?” He shrugged. “It’s not like he was a decent man, or a good man, or a man with any redeeming qualities at all. He died? Good. That shows we’re on the right track.” Making his way over to the corner, he pulled open the door and looked down the steps as he heard loud music thumping from the level below. “Maybe you should turn back, Jane,” he added. “This isn’t for you.”

Stepping around the desk and taking care not to look at Simon’s corpse, Jane had already slipped her phone away.

“I’m coming down there with you,” she said firmly.

“Well, don’t say I didn’t give you a chance to quit.”

Taking the lead, with his shotgun aimed straight ahead, Ben made his way down the steps until, finally, he reached the bottom and look out across the red-walled room. The scene was filled with a kind of dull haze, as bright lights burned in the corners and naked women led naked men from doorway to doorway. At first, no-one even noticed Ben and Jane as they stood at the bottom of the steps, but finally one of the women stopped and stared, as if she couldn’t quite process what she was saying.

“You might want to get out!” Ben shouted. “Things are gonna get real ugly!” Reaching over to a box on the wall, he flicked a couple of switches and the red lights were immediately replaced by bright, unforgiving white lights, while the music came to an abrupt halt.

“What the hell is this?” one of the men shouted, stumbling to his feet.

“This is your late night wake-up call,” Ben replied, aiming the gun at him, “and you’d do well to take notice. Sorry, gentlemen, but the Border is shutting down tonight. You’ve all got about five minutes to get out of here before my police officer friend here starts taking names.”

“We’re not doing anything wrong!” the man shouted, stepping toward him.

“Then by all means stay and test that theory,” Ben said darkly.

***

“It’s going to be okay!” Ruth sobbed, hurrying alongside Alex as he was wheeled out to a waiting ambulance. Reaching down, she squeezed his hand, even as his body continued to tremble. “You’re going to be just fine!”

“It’s some kind of seizure, M’am,” one of the paramedics said. “We need to get him to hospital as quickly as possible. Whatever’s wrong with him, it’s only getting worse.”

***

“Well that was relatively easy,” Ben said with a frown, looking around at the bare, brightly-lit room once the last of the customers had fled semi-clothed up the steps. “I thought at least one of them would put up a fight.”

“This is just the first level,” Jane replied, her eyes fixed on the door in the corner. “Something tells me it’ll get harder the further down we go.”

“They’ll also be more prepared.”

“That guy was right, though,” she continued, turning to him. “Technically, the Border complied with every law. What they were doing might have been wrong, it might have been repulsive, but from a legal standpoint -”

“Let’s check out a few more levels,” Ben replied, “and then see where we stand on that, okay? I’ve got a feeling that the further we get from the surface, the further we get from anything decent and true.”

***

“You’re so lucky,” Tom Lanegan said, holding Katie’s hand tight as he led her along the dark, red-lit corridor. “You’re going to get to be part of the Border’s most sacred ritual.”

“I’m really not sure about that,” she replied, glancing over her shoulder and seeing that several other customers were following at a safe distance. “Sir, I actually think -”

“In here,” he continued, tightening his grip as he led her through an archway and into a large, high-ceiling room with a set of steps leading up to a rostrum at the far end. “You have no idea how privileged you are to witness this moment, girl. What’s your name again?”

Staring at the rostrum, she couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be a hunched figure with a set of twisted, broken antlers jutting up from the top of its head.

“K… Katie,” she stammered, “but really, I just want to -”

“Katie,” Tom repeated with a smile, leading her forward. “Have you heard the legend of the stag-headed man, Katie? Have you heard the stories that are told all around this little town?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Every club needs a ritual,” he continued. “The Border is no different. It’s rare for new members to be admitted, and when they are, they have to pass an initiation test.” He paused, his eyes alive with anticipation as he stared at the silhouetted figure. “Blood has to be a part of that test, of course,” he added. “Blood must be part of any test, really. Sure, the members who join the upper levels know nothing of this, but the deeper you get, the closer you come to the beating heart of the Border, and such a prize requires sacrifice.” He turned to her. “Do you know what we sacrifice here, Katie?”

She shook her head, while trying to twist her arm free from his grip.

“Innocence,” he continued. “Our own innocence, of course. We force ourselves across the threshold, and in so doing we reveal what kind of souls we have. I myself only recently was granted that opportunity. I became the latest in a long line of figures to have worn the crown of the stag-headed men. In fact, I believe I’m only the fifth or six person to be given that honor in the past two decades. And what did I do?” he paused. “I chose to break with tradition. I killed not a girl, like the rest had done before me, but a man. A dangerous man, a man who I deemed to be a threat to the Border. It’s okay, though. I quickly put that right.”

Turning, Katie saw a large glass jar standing on a nearby table, half-full with what appeared to be several fist-sized objects.

Instinctively, she took a step back.

“No!” Tom hissed, shoving her forward with such force that she fell against the table and had to steady herself. “Take a look!”

Staring down at the jar, she realized that it contained some kind of meat.

“Hearts,” Tom said.

She turned to him, her eyes wide with horror.

“Every candidate for the lower levels of the Border is required to place a heart in that jar. Some of them are many decades old, others are more recent.”

“Why…” Pausing, Katie told herself that the whole thing had to be some kind of sick joke. “Why are you doing all this?” she asked cautiously. “Is it a test? Is it something…” She turned back to look at the hearts. “Is it some kind of fantasy? Those are pig hearts, right?” She winced a little, before turning to Tom again. “I think maybe you should find someone else for this,” she told him. “I mean, I’m pretty open-minded and I’m definitely not a prude, but there are some kinks -”

“I need to add another heart,” he replied, interrupting her. “I made a mistake. I added the heart of Jack Freeman to the jar of hearts, so I had to add a woman to balance that out. I managed that tonight, but now I’m back to where I started, so I need to add another woman, and then I’m ahead.” He stepped toward her. “Do you get it now?”

She stepped back, horrified as she saw him slipping a knife from his pocket.

“This is more than I signed up for,” she stammered. “I’m out of here. I think maybe I’m going to quit a few hours early.”

She watched as Tom took the crown of the stag-headed man from its stand and placed it on his head.

“That’s enough for me,” Katie said, turning and hurrying toward the door before feeling a hand on her bare shoulder, yanking her back. “Please, you have to stop!”

She tried to slip away.

Suddenly she felt an intense, sharp pain in her shoulder, and she looked down just in time to see the tip of the knife’s blade poking out through the top of her right arm. Filled with a sense of adrenalin-fueled panic, she stumbled forward with the knife still embedded in her flesh, before turning and seeing that Tom was already following her. Sobbing as the pain intensified, she turned and staggered out into the corridor, almost tripping as warm blood flowed down her arm and dribbled onto the floor.

“You shouldn’t have struggled,” Tom told her. “If you’d stayed still, I’d have aimed right the first time and you’d be free of pain by now.”

Ignoring him, she staggered along the corridor, forcing herself onward even as she began to feel increasingly weak. Turning, she saw a trail of blood leading back toward Tom, who was already following with the stag mask covering his face.

“Get away from me!” she screamed, before turning and running through to the next room. “Someone help! Someone call the police!”

“Hello, there,” Mac Crutchlow grinned, looking over at her from one of the booths in the corner. “Why don’t you come and sit down?”

BOOK: The Border Part Eight
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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