Monday, August 22, 2011

"Penny Licker" by Chris Castle

Penny Licker

Jack Trump held his lucky penny in-between his thumb and forefinger as the ship moved into the dock. There was a thick mist covering London and looking out, it could have been anywhere. It suited Jack to look the way it did. Having no-one, he had no home. He was as shiftless as the fog. As the boat drew in he arched his back, the uniform cutting into his shoulders, his ribs. No-one said being a war hero would leave such an itch, he thought sadly and settled back into the folds of the cloth.  He looked around to the others, some of them straining their necks, searching for admirers, families, lovers. Jack almost felt sorry for them but not quite. We fought the war on foreign shores to be greeted with empty piers; he thought and shook his head. One of the others choked back a sob and Jack handed him a cigarette as a form of escape.
“Obliged,” he muttered, as Jack cupped the light around his palm. “So much for the soldier’s return, huh?” he said mildly. Like the rest of them, he was young but with age etched over every place, the eyes and the brow. It looked as if an old ghost hovered over his face, superimposing itself over the boyish skin. But Jack knew the haunting visage would not be lifted or expelled, not now. The war had left more scars on the inside than out on most of them, himself included.
“I never left anyone behind,” Jack replied, lighting his own cigarette. “You?”
“No-one who cared enough to put pen onto paper. I think I liked London better in my dreams,” he went on, blowing smoke in-between them.
“I think I recall it looking much the same in my nightmares,” Jack said and was surprised to see the other man smile. It returned him to a young lad and it was both a fine sight and a terrible wonder to see.
“Bill Bisbee,” he said, striking out a hand. Jack replied, accepting the grip. For a moment he wondered if the man had engineered this meeting. He knew of men in the trenches who went looking for others. It was an unspoken, barely accepted thing. Jack did not care for it but it did not trouble him either, the way it did others.
“Work?” Bill went on, flicking the stub over the side. The men around them began to shuffle by, eager to walk into the mists, either to be found or stay hidden and lost.
“I’ll look soon enough. I’m hoping the uniform might bring me something,” Jack said, joining the back of the queue. Bill nodded along, as if it was the answer he was expecting.
“If you need hand to mouth money, come by Wapping,” he said, as they disembarked. The ground underfoot crunched. Even though the filth was clear to see, a part of Jack’s mind still imagined it was discarded bones and teeth. “Its hard graft but simple. It’ll make you bone tired enough to sleep, if nothing else.”
“I’ll think on it,” Jack said, slowing enough to let the other man walk on. He tipped his cap and the other man smiled, mimicking the gesture; it was not spiteful but simply aware of the ridiculousness of it all.
“For queen and country,” he said and clicked his heels, before slipping into the mist and the corner buildings. Jack watched him go and adjusted the ruck sack on his shoulder. He walked on, ignoring the cheap women and the commotion of the gin mills and stepped into the darkness.
Jack found lodgings in the roughest part of town and paid the lowest prices. Though he was not poor, he was wary of running his commission down to nothing. He went without what was around him; the women, the booze, the poorly established card games that hovered on every corner. Instead, he busied himself with searching for work and keeping his fitness. On the hours he found himself idle he visited the libraries and bookshops and read the newspapers he could find. The news filled him with a slow, inevitable dread. Queen Victoria was in a constant show of mourning, her black veil drawn low on every occasion. It was as if her sadness pervaded the country, filling each face with a withdrawn, desperate sadness. It had reached the point where the society women wore imitation veils, ‘Widow’s Weeds,’ out of a mark of respect, or maybe in acknowledgement of the country’s desperate plight.
Each day he ploughed on, walking to and from workplaces, never letting his shoulders sag. Each rejection peppered him but did not weaken his resolve; instead, he took interest in the way he was rejected, from the polite to the terse. Back he went to the papers and the crime. He noted a report of another murder, a second in as many days; the signs as gruesome and as mystifying as the first and a sure sign something was afoot. The penny began to burn in his palm, as he knew it eventually would. At last, he gave way to temptation and crossed the threshold of the last book keepers, with his question set firmly in his throat.
“The occult,” he said simply and spoke of names. Jack watched as the salesman blanched. It was as he suspected; a combination of splutters and half-formed denials.
“You either have the texts or you do not. I would hope you would not have a soldier stoop to searching back alleys for what ails him.” Jack’s voice did not waver; it had the desired effect, that was, to shame the man into reaching below the till.
“I will trust in your discretion as a soldier then,” he said, almost bitterly.
“As much as I will on your word as an Englishman for my privacy,” Jack replied immediately. Again the loathsome little man blanched before agreeing to their pact. Jack left the money on the counter, not prepared to touch the fat fingers that oozed sweat. In deference, he tipped his hat and made his way out before the squalid little scene could play out any longer.
Jack lit the candle and sat as best he could on the broken bed. He drew open the book and began, a notebook by his side and a pen ready. The penny sat by the candle, as simple and as harmless looking as any other. The sound of the pages filled the small room, though Jack could only hear the dead man’s voice as he followed each word.
To say he was scared was to state that Jack breathed, so natural was it in those first few weeks. Each of the new recruits was referred to as ‘fodder’ by the men, their life expectancy gambled in toothpicks and crudely drawn graphs in the mud. Twice bullets had whistled by his ear, close enough to singe the skin and the knowledge he had not died by a feather’s breadth pulsed through his mind for nights on end. In the third week he shot and killed a man and was stunned by the wash of blankness that rode over him, a shocking numbness that felt, more or less, simply like another layer of cold. Jack was aware in that time he was either becoming a soldier or already dead, though neither idea scared him as it would have done in days gone by.
The man befriended him over night-watch. He was a senior man but did not lord it over the men. He had a calmness that drew others to him and a keen ear for names which meant even the fodder had someone to remind them of their own names when the panic and the fear blossomed to almost unbearable extremes. Over a course of a dozen midnights the man spoke to Jack, just enough to engage without overwhelming, to make him smile without being coarse. In such a manner, Jack found himself talking back, revealing secrets he had kept pinned close to his heart, sharing hopes that had seemed foolish to himself and watched as the man smiled but did not laugh. Jack marvelled at the friendship grew over the stacks of dead bodies; conversations begun and ended with bombs and bullets. It was another form of madness; he did not doubt it for a second, but a welcome one and something to give cause to live for.
He found the man dying at the end of the day, in amongst the stacks of corpses. They had gone over the top hours before and Jack, along with the rest of them, had witnessed Hell. He walked the battlefield in a kind of daze, his ears ringing and his face flecked with blood, aware he was not dead but not being able to come to terms with being alive. He found the man amongst two bodies, their arms around him as if they were celebrating and drew Jack close. The dying man spoke in such a calm voice; Jack had to crouch close to hear him. When it was over, the man pressed the coin into his palm. He died as soon as it had left his fingertips and for a long while Jack felt the man’s life-heat on the coin, like breath. He understood the coin for what it was, both a worthless penny and a magical weapon. Whether the dead man or Jack himself was mad mattered not; what was important was that they believed.
Jack finished the book by the end of the week. Each day he collected the papers and sighted the latest murder, marvelling at the lack of attention it was getting, and tearing out the article to lay alongside the others; five in five days. He returned to the necessary pages of the book, re-examining each word and connotation, biding his time and waiting for a sign. It came on the sixth day and the latest disappearance, located in the vicinity of Wapping, not far from the factories and the rough house bars.
“I’m looking for Bill Bisbee,” he said to the closest worker, an old dog with tattoos crawling up and down both forearms.
“You’ll be looking for the Penny Lickers,” he muttered, jagging his head down the far end of the street. Finished, he went back to his work. Jack thanked him quietly and went on his way. As he walked down the street, he saw the broken glass on the street shimmer like jewels in the dawn light and he wondered if anyone other than a soldier could see such beauty in such cheap and ugly sights.               
“There he is!” Bill Bisbee exclaimed as he stepped into the corner office. Around them, thick postal bags whirred through the air on hooks and winches, looking for all the world like doughy, out of condition apparitions. “Thank Christ you didn’t come wearing the uniform. How long did it take you to slip out of it?”
“A week, if that,” Jack said, smiling. He accepted a cigarette and the two of them watched the factory buzz around them.
“Two shifts, noon to midnight, midnight until dawn. One is for drinkers, the others for the haunted. Pays what it is, that’s why they call us the Penny Lickers.” He stubbed out the butt in the ashtray and looked over. “What will it be?”
Midnight until dawn,” Jack said, ignoring the implications. Bill nodded and pointed out to the floor.
“It doesn’t need much explaining. Be here tonight.” They stepped to the door. Jack looked back to the man, who seemed hollowed but alert, like he was still on foreign shores.
“You don’t work the late shift?” Jack said, listening to the bags as they whistled by.
“I’m both,” he said and smiled joylessly, all signs of the boy gone for good from him now.
Jack slept the day and dressed out in the evening. The clothes were rough and sturdy, with enough space to slip the book inside without any noticeable bulk. He smiled to himself, aware he was trying to smuggle in a book to a dead-end shift, while every other man there would be trying to slip in something inside a bottle. For a solid hour he looked to the wall, the articles pinned beside the makeshift map he had drawn up of the capital. The factory was perfect for the crime, central to all the scenes, a maze of back alleys and side streets. Finally, Jack drew breath and scooped the coin from his table, flipping it once for luck, before jamming it into his pocket.
The routine was as lack-lustre as he’d hoped; as the night grew dark, men boozed, slept and tended to whatever was necessary in the laziest, most perfunctory way possible. Bill was nowhere to be found, although Jack had an idea if he opened the office door and looked on the floor he’d be in the right kind of spot. While they waited for the next batch to tumble in, Jack walked away, waving a cigarette box in the vaguest of ways for anyone who cared to look in his direction. Within seconds he slipped into the darkness and the thickening mists.
He followed the streets, dismissing the whoring and the dice and trying to centre on other, sharper sounds; the skim-snap of heels being dragged across cobbles, the jangling chaos of cheap pearls hitting bricks. He plunged further into the fog, isolating shadows and dismissing them accordingly as the drunks, the rutting customers and the dope fiends.
Something hovered on the fringes of things and then an acute shadow launched into the air, too arched to be intoxicated and too trim to be a bloated local. Another shape, prone and listless prickled on the edge of his sight and Jack tumbled into life. As he reached for it, he became aware of the woman’s perfume and another, ancient stench behind it. His fist reached through the haze and shucked the girl to the concrete. In the next moment he gripped the creature and dragged it closer, into the poorly lit beam of a streetlamp.
It should have horrified him, what was in his hands but Jack Trump felt nothing. It was a monster, certainly, an un-worldly, godless thing, but no more than that. Since his days on the Hellish battlefields, other dimensions did not trouble him. Horror was man and any other sort of monster was something of an odd, welcome respite. The creature squirmed under his hands but put up no real fight. It was pathetic more than anything and as Jack began to recite the recantation, he had the feeling he was performing something of a kindness as well as a duty. Once a soldier, always a soldier, he thought bitterly.
The spell finished, he removed the coin from his pocket and thrust it into the creature’s forehead. It burned briefly and then puffed with smoke, the death of the skin snuffing out its unnatural heat. The creature slumped to the ground; swiftly slipping into dust and then nothingness, until it was but ash under his fingertips. Jack reached over and steadied the girl, gently slapping her back into consciousness. Immediately she reached for him, his belt and he recoiled, sighing as his senses returned to the familiar squalor of the putrid streets of the capital. He set her down on the concrete and walked away, leaving her to the night and her next customer.
Bill found him as they emptied the last delivery into the crates. He was bleary eyed but aware and patted Jack jovially on the shoulder. They talked for a few minutes and then went their separate ways. Jack felt his limbs ache from the work but did not regret it. His mind tingled with his memory of the night and he picked up a newspaper, aware his fingertips were buzzing from where he had pressed the coin down onto the misbegotten flesh. Around the corner he found a table and bought himself a fresh pot of coffee. As he unfolded the paper, he saw a mass of columns, reporting each crime, each murder. He sifted through each, grimly marvelling at the rate of such terrible excesses and isolating the stranger, more fiendish acts from common thuggery. As he poured his coffee he pushed the penny onto his knuckles and let it climb up and down his hand. It began to glow as Jack returned to a headline on the second page, an unspeakable death with no witness or clue. The penny burned as he read it over and over and satisfied, Jack Trump tore the article from the paper and folded it into his pocket.

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