Old Debts

Posted: March 13, 2014 in Fiction, horror
Tags: , , ,

This week’s Chuck Wendig challenge. It’s actually shorter than the word limit accounted for. For my challenge, I needed to incorporate a faceless corpse and an infernal pact. Jeb Johnson previously appeared in my short story Deal with a Devil, which was a decidedly Weird West kind of tale. This is a bit different from that, but I liked the character enough to bring him back. Deal with a Devil can be found in the outstanding anthology Midnight Abyss.

Martin woke in a cold sweat, sheets plastered to his body. He tried to remember the nightmare, but all that remained was a sense of vague foreboding, of impending menace. Alicia, his wife, was sleeping soundly beside him, snoring softly, her straw yellow hair framing her face.

Martin ran a hand over his face, placed his feet down on the deep shag carpet of the bedroom. He made his way to the bathroom, the ambient light from the city giving him more than enough to see by. A piss and a cold glass of water later, and he was feeling better. He tried grasping the fleeting strands of dream stuff, but if it was ephemeral before, it was non-existent now.

“Get a hold of yourself,” he said to the image in the mirror. “Too old to be having nightmares, aren’t you?”

He smiled, a knife slash of a grin. Fourteen years living this life, fourteen years of wearing this face. Martin. Investment banker. Devoted husband. No children. No friends outside of work. It was a good life, as far as it went. A tad pedestrian for his tastes, but then that was what extended weekends away from the wife was for, and the business trips out of state. No reason she should be troubled by his extracurricular activities. Martin wasn’t the sort to be troubled by nightmares, he was the sort to cause them.

Walking through the darkened apartment, he hummed softly, some bit of pop nonsense wriggling its way through his cerebral cortex. He made his way to the private office, the one Alicia not only wasn’t allowed into, but the one she didn’t even know existed. A minor bit of Art concealed it from more mundane folk.  He spoke words of opening, spitting them through clenched teeth. The door cracked along a seam, and a portion of wall swung open.

Inside was a black basalt altar, long unused but discolored by dark, rust red stains. A gleaming dagger, its blade a shining steel wave, rested on top of it. Martin’s hands itched to grasp it again. A tall narrow bookshelf stood against one wall, each volume on it bound in leather, but otherwise devoid of external marking. A plush reading chair was next to the bookcase, a small table next to it. Martin opened a cabinet, produced a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue and a glass. After pouring a stiff measure, he sank into the chair, sighing peacefully. He sipped, sighed again, and closed his eyes.

A knock on the door broke him from his reverie. Not just a knock on the apartment door, but on the door. His sanctum’s door. The door no one knew about but him.

Setting the glass down, he stood, grasped the dagger where it lay. He paused, ears straining to catch any hint or sound, any breathing. Maybe Alicia, pounding on the walls? Maybe it wasn’t the door at all, but a pair of neighbors being overly exuberant in their sexual proclivities, banging against the wall. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The knock came again. Three sharp raps, a pause, and then two more. Martin took a long drink of whisky, swallowed it down. Sweat beaded on his body, made his hands slick and the knife hard to hold. Was this still part of the dreamscape? Had the nightmare not ended?

The door opened inward, but Martin didn’t think to brace his body against it as it swung open. Standing outside was a tall figure, his features shrouded in darkness. Martin could make out a broad-brimmed hat and a long coat or cape.

“Who are you?” he asked, his tongue leaden in his mouth.

“Is that anyway to greet an old friend?” the figure asked. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember?”

“Jeb Johnson,” Martin said, stepping back, keeping the dagger in front of him. He felt even more exposed, given he was wearing just his boxers.

“That’s right.” The figure stepped forward, doffing his hat, as the door swung closed behind him. His face wasn’t his face, having been sliced off the skull of someone else and nailed in place. Bits of horn from Jeb’s real face poked through the pale leather, and his eyes were like the Sun in Death Valley. “Gonna offer me a drink? Never mind, I see you’ve got a bottle out already.”

“Jeb, it’s been a while. Please help yourself,” Martin said, stepping to the side.

Jeb sat down, red dust billowing up from his clothes as he sat down. He worked the stopper out with his teeth, spat it to the floor. He tipped it up, guzzled it down, a long, snake like tongue working into the bottle to lick the inside.

“Not bad,” Jeb said. “Ain’t like what I’m used to, but not bad.”

“So, ah, what brings you here tonight?” Martin asked. “It’s been a long time.”

Jeb nodded. “Fourteen years,” he replied, jabbing a yellowed claw in Martin’s direction. “Ain’t heard from you in fourteen years. No phone calls. No postcards. Nada. Makes a man think he ain’t appreciated.”

“You’re not a man,” Martin said.

Jeb smiled, revealing teeth that didn’t belong to any creature God saw fit to create. “You’re right, I’m not. Still, you dealt with me anyway, and that means red in my ledger. I dislike outstanding debts. Do you understand?”

Martin swallowed hard and nodded once.

“Good, that’s good,” Jeb said. “Know what’s even worse than outstanding debts, Oliver? People who think they can renege on them. Skip town. Get a new face, a new name, and a new life, and it’s like they never incurred the debt in the first place.”

“My name’s Martin,” he said, his voice hoarse.

“Oh, it may be Martin now,” Jeb replied, his grin growing larger. “But when we first met, it was Oliver, and you’ll always be Oliver to me. You know, you smell exactly the same as you did when I met you fourteen years ago. Maybe a bit more blood on your hands and other parts then there was then. ‘Teach me a bit of magic,’ you said. ‘The blacker the better.’ I said I’d give you fourteen years. Well, tonight’s the anniversary. Time to collect.”

Martin/Oliver brought the knife down, but Jeb’s hand was around his wrist, claws digging in and drawing blood. Martin/Oliver dropped the knife, tears running down his face. “I thought I had more time,” he sobbed.

Jeb stood up, patted Oliver on the head like he would a dog. “That’s what a lot of them think,” Jeb said. “Go on and open the door. There’s someone there to see you.”

Sobbing, Oliver stumbled to the door. Grasping it, he pulled it open. Standing there, flies buzzing around the skinless ruin of his face, stood Martin.

“Got something here for you,” Martin said, maggots creeping out of his mouth with every word, his voice a dry death rattle.

Oliver never saw the knife coming.

  1. mercutio01 says:

    Nice. I’ll confess it’s been so long since I’ve had a dram of Blue Label that I had to go and look up whether it had a screw cap or a cork.

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