Maculate (i): Blood

The table across from them placed their orders – wagyū, well done. Both Lucas and Lucas Sr. sneered, the derisory curl of their lips almost identical.

“People shouldn’t be allowed in here if they’re going to ruin the product.” Growled the father.

“Well.” Said the son. “I expect you’re happy to take their money either way.”

Senior grunted and made the first incision into his own steak (rare, of course). Lucas sat and watched the old man chew. That had always been the rule. Father wins the bread, and so he gets to break it first. Senior swallowed with a coarse, disinterested motion that seemed entirely disrespectful of the exorbitant prices that his hotel charged for the cut. Everything’s free when you already own it.

With that little ritual observed, Lucas was free to start. He sliced into the meat, immediately releasing a juicy slick of myoglobin onto his sleeve. Swearing all the while, he made a series of hurried, futile attempts at applying a napkin to the stain.

“Two left hands.” Grunted Senior. “Same as ever.”

“Two right hands.” He quipped. His father looked momentarily confused. “I’m left handed.”

“It’s an expression, dipshit. Don’t get smart.”

Lucas took his bite, giving particular attention to the mouthfeel, the structure of the meat. It really was a good restaurant. Shame about the owner.

“That’s interesting.” He replied, eventually. “That’s pretty much all Henry does, and you don’t seem to mind.”

Henry was the younger son, Lucas’ brother.

“Henry’s a playboy. It’s his job to be disrespectful. You don’t have an excuse.”

“You say playboy, I say profligate.”

Senior plunged his next bite into the jus. “Profligacy.” He said, bringing the fork to his mouth. “Is good business.”

“That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard you say. And believe me, the competition is stiff.”

“Oh? You’re giving me business lessons now? I don’t think you know whose world you’re stepping into, kid.”

“Sure, dad. You’re the big-dick magnate, Henry’s the untouchable bon-vivant, and I’ve got more assets to my name than both of you combined. If we’re talking business sense, you’re both microbes compared to me.”

Senior laughed. A thick, nostalgic, malicious chuckle, like honeyed toast and poison.

“There’s your problem, my boy. You’re narrow minded. Only looking at one thing. You think I give a fuck about money?”

“I think almost every fuck you’ve ever given has been about money.”

“Then you’re wrong. And watch your mouth. Money’s a stepping stone, not a destination. I’m in it for greatness. For dynasty. You boys are extensions of that. And frankly, only one of you is pulling your weight. It ain’t you.”

That remark came dangerously close to getting a rise out of him. He squashed the urge. Pettiness and emotivity had always been the biggest constraints on the family empire. That would change, under his guidance.

“Henry’s a millstone. You’re a dinosaur. I fail to see how I’m the one failing to meet expectations. Fuck, any random handful of items in my portfolio is worth more than this hotel that you seem to think is such a big deal.”

“Uh-huh. Truth is, this hotel, or any of the others, has more value than you do. Wanna know why?”

“Oh, by all means. Please enlighten me.”

“Because people can actually see it. It’s real. It’s got my name on it – our name on it. They can look at it and think ‘gee, whoever owns that fucking matters’.”

“Sure. Or they can look at the numbers and realise what’s really going on.”

“They can. But they won’t. The hotels have presence, legacy. They mean something. Your little numbers games don’t mean shit outside of their own bubble. And hey, the people in that bubble think you’re hot stuff. Nobody else does. Henry, on the other hand…”

“The entire world thinks that Henry’s an incorrigible little prick!”

“And they’re not wrong. But they think that he’s a rich little prick. And they know he exists, and they know he has our surname. Dynasty, junior. By your standards, heck, even by mine, he’s throwing around chump change. But that’s pocket money that makes the world look, makes them think that this family is powerful, relevant, and can do whatever it wants. There are quite literally millions of people who read about him every week but couldn’t pick you out of a line-up. When it comes to respect, the kid’s doing his bit.”

“Respect? They hate him! I don’t know how much of a brain you had to begin with, but you must be running on scraps by now. There is no world where Henry draws more respect to the family, to the ‘dynasty’, than I do. I’m eminently respectable. He’s openly loathed.”

“No world? You’re sitting in it, asshat. Every time Henry cheats on his trophy wife, it’s worth more to us than your whole marriage, every time -”

“You mean my stable marriage, founded on ten years of mutual love and respect?”

“Yeah, that one. Nobody cares. Nobody even knows what your wife does.”

Martha is a professor of economics.”

“See! How dull is that? People don’t know who she is. They know Henry’s wife. They know every prostitute, every drug-fuelled misdemeanour, every ostentatious display of idiocy. And that shit’s practically free.”

“All you’re doing is reminding me of how much of an animal he is. No dignity whatsoever. If that’s the flag you want to fly, you’ve got less self-respect than I thought.”

There was that laugh again. Some people spent hours every day stoking their own resentment. Lucas only needed the memory of one sound.

“Oh, he’s an animal all right. Of course he is. But he’s an exotic one. A showpiece. The crown jewel of the family menagerie. Point is, the little peacock splashing money around in public does far more than you accruing it in private. Come on, now. You know it. You’re a dumbass, but you’re smart.”

They ate in silence for a while. Quietly and inexorably, Lucas’ emotions got the better of him. Powerless, frustrated anger rushed through his skin and muscles, easily overwhelming his inner stoicism but being mostly contained by its outer counterpart. His father smirked.

“Look.” Said the old man at last. “Let’s get down to business. As it stands, you ain’t getting shit when I’m gone.”

“What.” Lucas’ face contorted into the briefest of snarls, a microexpressive lapse. Regaining his composure, he still found himself with nothing more to say. “What.”

Lucas Senior laughed, once again – treacle, whiskey and thumbtacks.

“Thought that might put a little fire in your belly.”

“Then you were wrong.” He retorted, unconvincingly.

“Point is, there’s no point me leaving any assets to you. You’d just chew them up and shit them out as bonds and funds. You’re a fucking tardigrade, kid.”

“A tardigrade? That’s a… creative insult.”

“Who said I can’t innovate? Besides, the glove fits. In financial terms, you’re practically invincible. But nobody can see you and nobody’s ever heard of you. Henry’s like a… a panda or some shit. A pointless wreck of a lifeform that can’t survive on it’s own, but draws crowds like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“And you want to give your money to the philandering, criminal, piece-of-shit panda?”

“Correct.” Senior was plainly enjoying this. “The tardigrade does nothing for me, and doesn’t need any help to do it. The panda shows the world that my empire is capable of sustaining a panda. Pretty clear choice, if you ask me.”

“I’m the eldest.”

“Also correct. Always were the sharpest hammer on the rack.”

“That doesn’t mean anything to an old dragon like you? Primogeniture?”

“You learn that one at college? Anyway, it does mean something. If you were even a little bit less pointless, I’d reconsider. But, as it stands, you’re not.”

Lucas took a deep, growling breath. His father, in his own fundamentally wrong way, was right. He didn’t need the assets. He could generate equivalent wealth in a few short years. And if a self-indulgent desire for legacy was Senior’s concern (as it clearly was), then he was right to be cautious. Lucas didn’t know all the details, but he could be pretty sure that most of these flashy holdings would be better off dissolved.

“Sounds to me.” He said, with a mixture of feigned trepidation and genuine uncertainty as to how the situation would unfold. “That you’re willing to make a deal.”

“There’s my boy. Smartest ant in the farm.”

“Fine. Let’s get it over with. What do you want?”

“Haven’t you been listening? I want you to go out there and make a splash. Make the world know who you are. Show ‘em that our name does whatever the fuck it wants, consequences be damned. Stop being a tardigrade, start being a dancing bear.”

It would have been tempting to attribute that rather unflattering metaphor to Senior’s poor grasp of rhetoric, but Lucas knew that it was probably intentional. His father wanted a public display of bravado, but a private one of subservience. In the more rational corner of his brain, Lucas told his father where he could go and what he could do while he was there, then proceeded to walk away. In practical terms, he had nothing to gain from this arrangement. He had worked very hard, and very shrewdly, to become a tardigrade. He was immensely proud of it. Lucas was not currently residing in that rational corner. He had gone walkabouts. There was a throbbing pain in his hand, a result of having gripped his knife so hard that its handle had broken the skin on his palm. Images of Henry’s consumingly smug face filled his mind, the sound of his permanent and unmerited condescension forming a melody of call-and-response with his father’s  mulled, acidic chuckle.

“Fine.” He said. “Have it your way.”

Rubens saturn.jpg

The End (i)

Bretwalda

Seventeen cycles of revenge, seventeen chapters in the blood feud, and one man left on the throne. One man, old in years and aged beyond them, tired and victorious.

And so he sat, the king, in his court where nothing changes. Peace is stillness, conflict is motion. He had conquered the last attempt at motion. The kingdom lay in pale, breathless calm, not even a twitch or a whimper to disturb his triumph.

The flames of the hearth danced in his eyes, messengers of warmth and comfort wreathed in unfitting livery. His skin roiled at the sight. Memories of hot, pillaging fire came roaring through his mind. In the solitude of the hall, he saw an axe in every stray glint, heard the beating of shields in every creak.

Outside, the wind was picking up. Through the beams, it howled its sombre chants. He wondered briefly if they were those of the old Father or the new. Drums of thunder pealed in the distance. He recalled how, as a boy, he would fear that sound. Those memories had grown strange to him, milky and ephemeral – a fiction.  Those times had passed. He now sat upon the very object of his hopes. His fears had been lashed and scalded into numbness. A false king still feared betrayal. There was nobody left to betray a true one. His old heart would never again beat faster.

He had lived his life. He would die his death. All that remained was to bathe in the nothing in between.

His grey eyes watched, impassive, as a sparrow darted through the hall. From storm, through calm, to storm again, in the space of an eye’s swiftest repose. He sat, unmoved, in the epicentre of his regnal calm. He traced the bird’s path, now empty, from window to window. For a moment too brief to name, the oldest human fear stirred. In the next it was refused, and peace regained its dominion.

The Tomb of the Wrestlers, 1960 by Rene Magritte

The End

Lex Talionis

Apartment 17 – this was the place. There were disconcerting patches on the hallway carpet, with small, many-legged creatures running across them whose names Erin had never bothered to learn. These were one of the particularly ugly sorts. The door to her client’s home would have been utterly charmless even if it were pristine. It was not. The whole affair looked, in all honesty, like a bit of a shithole. The internet had done wonders for the pace of business, but the quality of clientele had taken a correspondingly drastic hit. Probably just another stray failure looking to feel a moment’s power. A sale is a sale, but she was planning on making it a quick one. No point in wasting too much effort on small-time buyers. She gripped her briefcase, straightened her tie, and knocked on the door.

It croaked open. Her initial impression of the client did little to assuage her doubts. About thirteen pounds underweight. Skin pallid, but oily – like a maggot, or one of the other baby many-legged things. Hair slicked in a poor approximation of a style she had seen elsewhere, the excess of product adding nauseous redundancy to the scalp’s own grease. Plastic-looking blazer over a t-shirt with some words on it that she couldn’t be bothered to read. Eyes small, nervous, sad, and feeble.

“Hi.” He said.

“Hello.” She replied. “Mr. Neumann?”

“Yes.” He shuffled awkwardly on his feet. She riposted by remaining almost completely motionless. She wasn’t coming in until invited. He was not obliging. “Erin?”

“You’ll need to invite me in.” She said, pitching her voice with just the desired level of mockery. “It’s a matter of professionalism.”

“Oh.” He seemed sheepish (bad) and resentful (good). “Come in, then.”

The apartment was small, dim, and generally much worse than expected. There was a mound of dirty clothes in one corner, and in the opposite a mound of what she supposed passed as their clean counterparts. Media of various kinds had been hastily ushered into irregular piles, their arrangement revealing that a vain attempt had clearly been made to conceal the more tawdry and disturbing elements of the collection. The air, and everything she touched, seemed to prickle uncomfortably on her skin. It stank. These sorts of living conditions were neither a good omen nor a bad one, business-wise. The specifics of the pornography would probably be elucidating, but she found that asking to look generally ruined the sale. People became either very shy or very excited, and neither was ideal. Neumann had cleared some room at his table, and they sat.

“You’re very pretty.” He said, apropos of nothing. “And you smell nice.”

“Thank you.” She replied. “You’re not, and you don’t.”

The ghost of a snarl played across his face – a hot, shameful twitch of anger before it resumed its default state of vaguely pathetic anxiety. Good. It always helped to identify some buttons to push, and this one was common, sore, and easy to reach.

“May I ask what you understand about my business, Mr. Neumann?” Again, she laced her approach with a calculated strain of condescension.

“You sell revenge, right?” He asked. “But, like…. weird stuff. Occult.”

His small, nervous, sad, feeble eyes looked at her with a mix of pleading and resignation, at once expecting her to laugh and begging her not to.

“Correct.” She said, with only the faintest, homeopathic trace of a smile. “Would you like to see some items?”

“Yes.” His breath caught.

She unclasped the briefcase and set it on the table, opening it such that the lid blocked Neumann’s view. She noted his greedy attempts to steal a glance. At a deliberate, theatrical pace, she began to extract a number of her curios. As she did, she ran through a variant of her standard preamble. It was important to cover the basics.

“There are three fundamental dimensions of payback, Mr. Neumann.” She purred. Here, it would pay to sexualise every word. “Intensity, longevity, and intimacy. We’re going to try and find the right mixture for your needs.”

“All three, please.” He practically vomited the words. Perhaps he would be a big spender after all.

“That can be arranged. Normally, you’d have to compromise. But it depends on how much you want it.”

“What will it cost me?” His lust for revenge was quite heady, pungent even over the stench of the room.

“We can discuss payment once we’ve found what you want.” His eyes were fondling the goods, at once confused and spellbound by the strange collection. “Anything stand out? Use your intuition.”

“What about this?” He pointed to a glass jar. Inside was a squirming mass of thick, long, soot-black limbs. It was not unlike a particularly frantic, particularly bulbous specimen of one of those many-legged things that everybody seemed to dislike more than the others.

“Living curse. You give it a name, and it attaches to them. It feeds on good luck, happiness, and so on. Not very intense, not very intimate, but lasts a lifetime.”

He looked disappointed. People normally underestimated that one.

“This?” A small phial of angry, crimson liquid.

“Bottled trauma. Manifests as something intensely painful – but you’ve got to get them to drink it somehow.”

The second part looked like a deal-breaker.

“This thing?”

“Assyrian ceremonial knife. You can stab somebody with it.”

That one was admittedly a bit entry-level. She only really carried it around because she liked the design.

“None of this is any good.” Cracks were forming. Ugly, petty, profitable rage was seeping through. “I need to really hurt people.”

Erin found that asking customers to pick blindly was an easy way to convince them to relinquish control of the transaction to her. Any feelings of ignorance or submission were a welcome bonus.

“Well, let’s try some more advanced items, then. May I ask who we’re shopping for?”

Neumann eye’s darkened, and shifted to avoid hers. “… them.”

“That’s not very specific.” She cooed.

“Them.” He reiterated, in way that seemed decidedly too plural to be a simple product of relationship woes or bullying.

“So, I expect you’d like something a little more intimate?”

“Yes.”

“A little more intense?”

“Yes.” His nostril flared in some mixture of agitation and arousal.

“Something that keeps going until you’ve had your fill?”

“Show me.”

She curled her finger through the hole of a keyring and jingled it enticingly.

“Keys to your private hell. Room for two. Bit of a double-edged sword, but it’s as nasty and as personal as they get.”

Neumann closed his eyes for a good few seconds, lost in imagination. This idea spoke to him, whispered his own fantasies straight back into his ears. Or at least, his interpretation of it did. People had a tendency to assume that they got to be Satan in this arrangement. They didn’t. Still, when you’re in the business of selling monkey’s paws, you don’t tend to go into the fine print. Whatever he was thinking about, he was clearly enjoying it. She could hear the blood rushing, the proverbial purse-strings loosening, the will becoming ever more pliable.

“It really works?” He asked. Not a particularly probing question, and so one that she was more than happy to answer.

“Oh, yes. Needless to say, nothing’s off the cards in hell.”

Just when it seemed that Neumann was about to take the plunge, one of many possible pennies dropped. She could see the sinking feeling all over his face. Regrettable.

“It’s just for two people?”

“That’s right. You and one guest, permanent or otherwise.”

“Then it’s not good enough.” He looked disheartened, frustrated. “I need to hurt them all.”

“Hmm.” The indecision was, of course, feigned. She extracted two sheets of paper (well, a paper-like substance, the specifics of which are more easily left unexplained). They were covered in a squirming, vermicular text that must have looked like utter gibberish to Neumann. “Contracts of enmity.”

“… what do they do?”

“Well, they’re a bit like cupid’s arrows, but the exact opposite. You choose two groups, I forge their signatures, and they are bound by fate into a bitter, tortuous conflict for the duration of the contract. These ones are drafted up for seventeen million years.”

“I don’t follow. Two groups?”

“Yes. It’s quite simple.” She said this tauntingly. Always room for another jab. “Two groups. Anything that you could reasonably delineate as a faction or category of some kind – I’ll sort the legalese out for you. Rich and poor. Old and young. Men and women. Dogs and woodlice.”

She felt a moment’s pride for having successfully remembered one of the little many-legged things. She was not at all concerned by the fact that their opposition to dogs would make no aesthetic sense to the client.

“And it hurts?”

“Oh, it’s quite literally atrocious.” She gave him her most carefully wrought knowing smirk. Not too knowing, not too smirky, but just enough of both to taste. “Remember the crusades?”

This idea clearly hadn’t appealed to Neumann’s more visceral instincts in the way that the previous one had, but it had certainly caught his attention. He sat back in thought. Erin couldn’t guess the specifics of his cogitation (too primitive), but the basic scent was easy enough to pick out. He was trying to find the right line of division among his hazily defined enemies. One problem with the contracts was that, by necessity, they forced the buyer to think. Neither of them wanted that.

She chose not to employ any of her usual interjections. Neumann didn’t strike her as particularly sharp. Best to let his mind go through its slow motions. Suddenly, and to Erin’s surprise, his small, feeble eyes sprung wide in fear.

“What…” He quivered. “What is that?”

He motioned to something that had not been there before (at least, not from his perspective). Erin turned to look. This particular item took on a different appearance every time she had the chance to sell it. To her left, there was now a huge, jet-black cuboid. It dwarfed both of them, looming from floor to ceiling, and was wrapped in a thick weave of chains, their material unidentifiable. The whole ominous structure rattled with a slight yet constant trembling.

“Oh.” She muttered darkly. “I don’t think you’re going to want that.”

“Try me.” He sounded a little feisty, in a petulant sort of way.

“Well, inside that thing is… I suppose I’d call it a pet. Something one of a kind, and very near to my heart.”

“Whatever. What does it do?”

“Ah… how do I put this in a way that you’ll understand? It’s a thing, an entity, I suppose, that gives exact, exacting retribution to everyone and everything.”

“How does that work?”

“Well, I couldn’t say for sure, and if I’m being honest, even the basics would be lost on you. ‘Weird stuff’, right? It takes something into itself, and then it delivers a precise facsimile of all the hurt that thing has ever caused. Physical, mental, whatever.”

Neumann’s eyes (and pores, and glands) lit up, flaring brighter and more repugnantly than ever before. That was the ideal response. This was her top-of-the-range, luxury item. It simply couldn’t be sold to somebody who was thinking straight.

“It gives everybody exactly what they deserve?”

“Correct.” She tried to put a touch of warmth into the response. “All of them.”

If Neumann stopped to think about how the entity would apply to him, he wouldn’t buy it. If he stopped to think that there wouldn’t be anything left for him to crow over, he wouldn’t buy it. Flawless, universal talion was an idea that required no small print. Its incompatibility with existence was plainly apparent – to somebody who was thinking. Many of her wares were ‘apocalyptic’, in the popular sense of the word. This was the only one that was worse. Time for the hard sell.

“Well, Mr. Neumann.” She said, producing a contract from her sleeve, locking eyes in a way that was both supportive and sultry. “It’s been a pleasure, let me tell you. This isn’t normally for sale – more of a showpiece – but for you, I think I’ll make an exception.”

Neumann was bewildered. Fortunately, it seemed that he was considerably more bewitched by the sum of her sales process than he was bothered by the specifics of the item.

“If you could just sign here.” She motioned, velvety, over the contract and the pen, never breaking eye contact.

“It really works?” He was reaching for the pen.

“Better than you could ever hope.”

“On everyone?”

“That’s right. All of them. Even me.” Well, that second part was an outright lie. Luckily, there wasn’t going to be anyone to call her on it.

With languid, yet plainly excited trepidation, Neumann signed. Erin indulged in a long blink and a warm, satisfied sigh.

“What will it cost me?” He asked.

“Oh, you’re not going to owe me anything.”

One by one, the chains began to snap.

Erin reclined, let her hair down, cracked her knuckles, and took a sip of tea. About fourteen billion of their little years, was it? Not bad, if she did say so herself. Slower than her record, but a decent clip faster than her target, and she’d hit a personal best for minor sales along the way. She had certainly earned herself a holiday, which was perfect – business was going to be slow for a very long time.

The collective invention, 1934 by Rene Magritte

The End