“It takes on average five minutes to smoke one cigarette, ten puffs taking in the cloud of toxins and expelling them, most of them. But some get stuck in tissues, dispersed like a banker trying to hide his wealth. Your body will let you know how much you have saved. For every amount that you have set aside. The toxic debt.
We blame senescence, cell death, inaccurate rezipping and degradation of organic processes, protein coatings and mutations. Science can explain in thesis and papers, delicate instruments gathering data, counting cells and oxygen levels. It makes me grin, thinking about the way people catalogue all this information, as if it serves some purpose. End of the day, the devil will collect his due.
The men in long coats don’t know everything, they like to think they do. There are times that, by rights, a body should get up and move, no reason for the lack of it except that spark of life.”
There was a sound similar to a mechanical clock, the sound of something rewinding, high pitched and aggressive. Another click.
“Death is more than a natural process, it transcends,” the sound repeated.
“Don’t bother, it just fucking goes on like that.” A hand moved from the metal box containing the tape. It moved to a grimy cup, novelty of course claiming something about Monday’s in particular. The apostrophe was grammatically incorrect. Glasses, slightly tinted has hid the true colour of his eyes. His face was cleanly shaved, still that way after having been in this room for most of the day. “Nate, just leave the fucking thing alone.”
This should have been open and shut. He had done it, there was literally no question. He had been caught red handed, literally red handed.
“Right, look we can just process this,” Nate said, rubbing a tried hand under the ridges of bone outlining his sockets, not dissipating the tiredness. The heat began sweat trickling into places, the grit, the lack of rain all oppressive. No relenting from July weather even in the coolness of the station. “Look Graham just fuck off.” Nate lit a cigarette, even though he had just crushed one out. He smoked a lot, but now the smoke felt thick and clogged, the air was thinning, they had watched and listened. Listened too much to the man in the cell, the man in black with the familiar slash of white at his throat.
During the interview they had stayed silent, mesmerised by the man’s ramblings. It was incredible. This time it was Graham’s hand that pressed the button.
“…The devil’s going to come when the sun comes down,”
This had been a man who had been in that home, with the family, the family with the small children. Children who no longer played anything, would not, could not. There were things in that house that made no sense. They had initially missed him. The tall man in black, lean looking. Too tall, clothes fluttering around him, a carrion corvid in human form. Patient and intelligent looking. Looked like one of those preachers you saw in a movie at the advent of technicolour. Eyes flashing with something, hard to tell what, danger or benevolence.
Though they had not discussed it, neither man remembered how they had gotten here, relistening to the tapes. It was like one of those strobes, where someone moves, you know they must be moving normally but your brain swears they have flicked into erratic reality.
Graham heard the flutter of part of what Nathan was saying: “You cannot actually think for one God damn minute,” there were flashbacks of that bar, the one with the sticky floor and uneven pool table. The one with the barman who said too little and the girl saying too much. That was, well a lifetime ago, a time when Graham had made a life changing decision.
The same feeling of strobes, his mind wandered, eyes raw and thickening. Five o’clock and the heat as oppressive at it had been at anytime during the day. Thick strings of air were motionless, as if the world was holding its breath. Graham had seen things, done things not just the horrors of that house, he was no stranger to others suffering.
“The fuck did you go?” the voice of Nathan sidled over causing him to snap around so quickly he did not notice his reflection break into too wide of a grin. Yawning impossible before silently and wetly splitting, vanishing into grey and red. Graham blinked confusedly for a second, he was in the station’s bathroom.
“Sinner,” It was a voice that had seen the desserts, not just the ones of the Mojave, one that had seen far more desolation, the desert of humanity, there was no getting away from it. Graham shook his hand and ran fingers through his hair, dislodging skin and ash in seemingly equal measure. Had he imagined it? Nate clearly had not heard it.
A dry click, Nate had extracted another cigarette and was clicking a lighter that was belligerent in its lack of flame. The flickering snake tongue of fire remained unlit and unsatisfied and cold. Each click sending fragments of the recorded conversation with the guy in the cell. He had worryingly dirty fingernails.
Graham absently pulled at his shirt as he remembered. “You look troubled detective, guilty conscience.” It sounded hollow, like the recording. Hollow as it was it was not a question.
“This fucking cheap piece of…” Nate manipulated the lighter. Click.
“They say the devil is in the detail,” Graham imagined he was in the cell, smelling the heat of the room
“Swear to God,” said Nate, exasperated. Click.
The world went still. “See you finally made it.” Matter of factly, the priest cocked his head waiting for a response. Graham was transfixed, rooted to the spot. The man flicked closer, body moving at odds with reality. “Why are you afraid, you knew I was coming.”
“What, what are you?” The priest enquired. He spoke more words, but Graham did not hear the end of them. He had felt the floor through the shoes. The stickiness, the kind that is familiar to all who have been to that kind of establishment with sad faces and cheap liquor.
Graham shook his head not wanting to acknowledge what the truth is or what it was. Like a child who refuses to tell the truth over some kind of infraction. What Grahams mind was going through made him pray, agnostic as he was for the light of dawn.
In the back of his mind Graham heard a click. The sound of a cheap lighter. If only he could follow it back to what he knew. “Daniel,” this caused him to stop. “Daniel, I know.” Immediately he shut his eyes, no one knew that name, Graham’s old name. Squeezing his eyes more Graham thought of his family. The girl and the boy that would be forever his, little and precious. His wife, caring and loving. Graham’s mind reached out to that memory, that joy to fight back at the panic rising from him, from this situation.
A gigantic sound of noise, an arthritic ticking, as if the second hand of a great clock were chattering. The ambient light was fading as even the wavelengths of red fled leaving a sceptic bruised purple.
Graham focussed, he heard the soft click of the lighter, a pinprick of hope widened, just a little, his body released a flood of hormones from his adrenal glands in preparation. Muscles hummed as he moved towards the sound. He heard a voice mumbling, distorted but with the cadence of Nate in mild frustration. Lengths and distances closed. He was honing in. “You deserve this,” the voice of the preacher, of the thing entered into his mind. Was it a memory from earlier in the day?
“God please…” an open invitation from Graham’s suddenly dry mouth.
Hope was still alive the dry click of the lighter roaring into a petroleum flame. The light for that brief encounter would not last. He had less than the few seconds it would take until the diesel hiss of yellow flame would ignite the smoky passions at the tip of the paper tube.
Seconds, seconds, only seconds. In the panic and desperation his prayer to the deity he did not believe in remained unfinished and forgotten.
The preacher was there. He clenched his fist, extinguishing the light, the escape. All that effort was for nothing. Graham was alone with this… man.
“I am what you asked for.”
“What d’ye mean?” laboured and panicked breathing.
“I am here to please your God.” The preacher smiled widely opening his arms in the motion of a swimmer or Moses parting the Red Sea. “I am here for you.” Another erratic movement, an impossibly large hand held Graham fast by the chin, he felt a pressure on his neck, a heat as he was raised off the ground and his head turned, almost gently, left and right. Being inspected. “I know you,” the simple repeated phrase.
The tilting of the head meant he had seen where he was and it wasn’t the station.. It was a home, simple wooden think but only its bones remined. Black and not even smoking now. The last rays of the sun hitting fragments of glass, giving it the appearance of creatures hiding in the ash and the ruin. Graham was reminded of his dry mouth. He scrambled for air, he knew this place, he knew what was on the left.
As his head was returned to the centre, he firmly closed his eyes. He felt his head turn inexorable to that side of the vista. A fingernail, long and sharp filleted the skin covering his eyes, no blood came. His vision was perfectly unencumbered.
The Oak had two thick and strong limbs. Two ropes dangled from each, the perfect spacing for two sets of swings. A family was there, using them. On a closer inspection there was something odd about the silhouette. A gentle gust of wind brought a sickly-sweet smell on the dry harsh desert air and it was gone. That gust left a horrific legacy. It stirred the silhouettes. Graham knew the scene “I had no choice.” The ropes did not terminate in planks, well one did but only on one side. Of the three remaining, they stopped when intersected with the figure’s necks, you could see the rays of sunshine between their feet and the parched ground.
No sound except for one, the dry flap of wings and croak of a raven. It would wait, just a little while, just to make sure before it commenced its business with the trio of figures hanging like fruit on the branches below.
The preacher stayed silent “I had no…” fingers tightened to cut off the voice. Graham could not look away, his eyes throbbed, he was hanging, the last roper.
The preacher watched “And my God have…” he stopped, laughed and grinned wickedly. “Well he won’t.” Graham hurt, pain and pressure threatened to blur his vision, but it didn’t. he saw the three there, his three, the three he was supposed to protect but had done the exact opposite. No, he still couldn’t face what he had done. Still, the end would be soon.
“No, no it won’t,” the preacher had drawn a cigarette clicked a lighter first time and lit it. “It takes on average,” a deep inhale, “ five minutes to smoke a cigarette. I plan to keep you here for a long time yet. You owe me at least three lifetimes.”
“Who are you?” Choked out Graham pleadingly, realising that even through the pain, he was not dying. He wanted to as the raven commenced its business with the other three. Graham heard the whispers of their pain and accusations. Their hatred.
“you know me, y’all do,” he exhaled smoke, so much smoke. “I only come direct to some of you and you, well you got my attention.”
The preacher had changed, his whole demeanour and attitude had changed. He was terrible to behold. Wreathed in smoke and shadow. Graham realised; he had known what this was the whole time.
More ravens arrived. One landed on Graham’s shoulder, bobbing too and fro. It lunged, swiftly blinding one of his eyes. Graham could have cried with joy, one more and he would have one less sense.
“That’s enough now, leave him with one.” The preacher quietly commanded.