From the author: Chapter 1 of Alan's genre-bending crime/horror novel, Devouring Dark. (Available wherever books are sold.)
DEVOURING DARK by Alan Baxter – Except. Full details here.
Matt McLeod knew the old adage, that light is supposed to push away the darkness. But he also knew it wasn’t true. Light sits on top, like a film of oil on water. The dark is still there underneath, deep, permanent, waiting. And usually it’s enough, that surface skein of brightness, to keep a soul from the yawning black abyss below. But once the cracks appear, the fall is inevitable. And the darkness devours.
Knowing this truth, Matt often wondered how long he had left. Though he was convinced time was largely irrelevant. He was already falling, had been for years. How much damage he could do on the way down, who he could take with him, those were better concerns.
He killed the engine of his battered old car and silence descended. The dashboard glow winked out leaving him in inky shadow, just the streetlights refracting through raindrops on the windscreen for company. Cold and wet, a classic London night. The alley across the quiet road glistened, like a throat ready to swallow. Sullivan would be along any time now.
Matt rolled a short, thin joint, just a sprinkling of weed to take the edge off. He didn’t particularly enjoy being stoned any more, but the process hurt a little less if he was buzzing. Not really high, that would dull his reactions too much. It was a balancing act, like everything in life. Just enough self-medication, but not so much as to cease being what they call a fully functioning adult. Whatever the fuck that really meant.
The bluish smoke drifted lazily around Matt’s head as he watched the alley, and then there Sullivan was, entering from the other end, parkland gloomy and dripping behind the silhouette of his bulk. Shit, but he was a big bastard. Not that size really mattered, muscles being no match for the dark.
Matt drew deeply of the spliff and it singed his fingers as it crackled away to almost nothing. Pressing the tiny roach into the car’s ashtray, he readied himself, then opened the door and stepped out. The cold and persistent drizzle bit instantly through his warm comfort and only on leaving did he realise how safe and embracing the car had been. Another metaphor for life right there. He headed across the street for the alley, aiming to meet his target halfway down.
John Sullivan, thirty-nine, single, worked by day as a used car salesman—which made him a scumbag already—but his extracurricular activity was of far more interest to Matt. And why Matt was here. Sullivan paid no attention to anything as he trudged through the rain, hiding under a flat cap, hunched in a trench coat. Large industrial bins lined one side of the alley, various detritus, rubbish bags, broken bottles, littered and glistened among the puddles on the rough asphalt underfoot. Sullivan tramped through it all. When Sullivan was in the shadows just over halfway along, Matt stepped from the eyes of the street into the privacy of this ignored corner of the city.
“Mr. John Sullivan.” Matt’s voice was strong, not showing the nerves that rippled through him.
The man paused, looked up quickly, a moment of shock passing over his face before he settled back to his default of belligerent bastard. “What? Who are you?”
“I’m your comeuppance, old son.”
The big man’s eyes narrowed and he tipped his head to one side. A slight smile started and Matt could not stand for that. He began the litany. “Jeremy Roberts, aged eight, violated in the change room at the football field at Edgware.” The man’s smile faded. “Tony Small, aged seven, same location. Justin O’Leary, aged eight, ran into you in the public toilets at the Argyll shopping centre and was never the same again.”
“Who the fuck are you, ya short-arsed Jock?” Sullivan’s demeanour wavered between horror and anger, his East London accent heightened. “What are you talking about?” He was confused by Matt’s confidence in a frame only five feet nine and thinner than some lengths of rope. He must be sure he could shatter such a skinny body, but the things Matt was saying were discomfiting to him. As they were intended to be.
“Aye, you know exactly what I’m talking about,” Matt said, letting his Scottish accent out more as it seemed to annoy the guy. “Shall I go on? Stuart Glenn, aged nine, your nephew’s birthday party at your own brother’s house.”
Sullivan roared and rushed forward, anger winning. Matt braced and let the man grab him by the lapels of his thick, black donkey jacket. Matt’s shaggy hair, soaked now with rain, fell across his eyes as he was slammed into the grimy wall, his scuffed black combat boots swinging a good two feet off the ground. The air rushed out of him and his vision crossed, but his hands found the big bastard’s wrists and wrapped around them, skin to skin. It was all he needed.
The cracks opened, like Matt’s bones were splitting and his flesh peeling off, and the dark came through. Even stoned it was agony. Matt grimaced, wondered why he never seemed to get used to it, but instead it hurt more every time. Short-term agony for long-term relief. But how long until he couldn’t bear it?
“Dark attracts itself like iron filings to a magnet, mate,” Matt said through clenched teeth.
Sullivan stared at his hands curled into Matt’s jacket, trying to make sense of the blackness that swirled like ink in water through his skin. His forearms were exposed a few inches and the dark went that way, swimming up his arms, snaking towards his heart. “The fuck is this?” he managed.
“Ah, but it hurts, does it not?” Matt asked him.
Sullivan shook, his legs weakening. He staggered back, dropped to his knees, hands losing their hold on the coat, but Matt kept his grip on the thick wrists. Matt’s breath was ragged as he let the darkness through, let it reach up from whatever nether region it inhabited. When his vision started to fail from the pain of the transfer he let go and stumbled away. The pain didn’t ease.
The dark stretched between them, palms to arms, like tar. Matt backed off far enough to sever it and it writhed in the air like cut worms before it soaked back in. He forced it down, closed the connection, denied it the further release for which it yearned, his teeth gritted against the agony in his bones. He would have peace from it for a few months again now, assuming he could get it back under control.
Sullivan sat back on his heels, staring at his withered, blackened hands, like a crone’s claws. He tore open his shirt to see the stain spreading across his chest as the skin sank tight over his ribs, up his neck, to engulf his face. His eyes filled up like empty vessels accepting oil, and those sightless black orbs turned briefly towards Matt before he shivered and collapsed face-first into the rain. His clothes, soaked, settled around him and clung to a suddenly wasted, skeletal frame. He twitched once, then stilled.
Matt sank to his knees, desperate to breathe away the pain through his body. The cost of his ability was getting higher, the hurt more intense and long-lasting. He needed to drag the body away to his car, take it somewhere and hide it. It was easy enough to break up those brittle remains, smash them into unrecognisable dust, but his hands shook, his legs trembled. He couldn’t lift a kitten, let alone a man, even one withered by the darkness. For several minutes Matt gasped for air, wishing the pain to ease, and it finally began to settle just a little.
He couldn’t stay long, someone might come any moment. Already he had pushed his luck too far. One of the large industrial waste bins stood nearby, half-open, and he knew there were no cameras here. He had done his homework, not only on the man himself, but on the chosen location of his comeuppance. The idea of hauling the corpse out to his car was too much, but Matt dredged up the strength to shoulder it off the ground. Though it was only bones in blackened skin, wrapped in sodden clothes, its weight was almost too much for him to bear. He had never been this weak after a delivery before. He managed to tip it over the edge into the skip. He snapped up the long limbs, folded the whole mess in on itself, then dragged cardboard and other detritus over the top to conceal it. Finally, he slid the cover fully closed, gasping for breath, and collapsed back to his knees, vision swirling and swimming. It would have to do. With any luck the body wouldn’t be noticed until it went up into a garbage truck and got dumped to rot at the local tip. Hopefully it would never be seen again.
Tears streaked Matt’s cheeks, lost in the rain. He looked to the black, rain-filled clouds and whispered, “Another one for you, Tommy. I’m so sorry.”
He staggered to his car, turned the heater up full and drove for home. His hands shook like he had a palsy as he weakly gripped the wheel, willing the hurting to ease, his bones to close together again. Surely he would not be able to do this for much longer. The next one, maybe the one after that, must certainly kill him too. He drove slowly and carefully, in need of a large scotch and a hot bath.
* * *
Clancy Turner stood in shadows at the end of the alley, his tall, wiry frame easy to conceal in the dim corner, and watched the small Scotsman drive away. He realised his mouth was hanging wide open, and snapped it shut, wiped a hand over his dark face to brush the rain away. What the holy hell had he just witnessed?
He replayed the video he had shot on his phone, cursing the weather that soaked his track suit and stuck it to his skin. It was all there. He thought he would be videoing a fight, something funny for YouTube, but had got so much more. He tapped up the notepad app and quickly wrote down the licence plate of the Scotsman’s car before he forgot it. Then he cautiously approached the broken-up corpse lying in the bin and dragged aside the rubbish concealing it. Wincing, shaking his head in pointless denial, he nudged it with an empty glass Coke bottle. It shifted and settled back, like so many old branches wrapped in a trench coat. The head was still obvious, black, old leather stretched tight across the bone. It reminded Clancy of photos he’d seen of mummies in sarcophagi, ancient and desiccated. But he had watched this man walking just minutes ago, followed him through the park wondering if he might be a good mark for a mugging. The guy had been big and strong-looking, Clancy was reluctant to chance it, even with the good knife he carried. Then, still undecided, he’d stopped at the sight of the small man’s appearance. And everything he had seen after that still seemed dreamlike. Impossible. But right there in the dumpster was proof that he wasn’t crazy.
Clancy smiled, and snapped a few photos. This was some proper horrorshow shit. The Boss would be very interested in it, he was certain of that.
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This story originally appeared in Novel excerpt..