Short Fiction ~ Ashley Stokes
‘It’s started.’ An Americanised, film-trailer voice crackled behind her. Suki dropped the coffee grinder. It clunked on the floor. Ivo was slouched on a stool in the corner, half-hidden in yellow-grey shadow, skinny jeans splattered with mud, eyes black as a shark’s. She’d not heard him come home, even though she’d been awake all night, arms pressed to her sides in bed as she waited for the roof to evaporate.
‘Shit, shit, shit,’ she said. ‘What do you mean, it’s started?’
‘Electricity’s gone. I had to walk back from some stop somewhere I can’t remember. It all ground to a halt. Everyone, I mean everyone was off their tits. There were maskheads smashing windows and fucking up Waitrose, then Robocop-style dudes started shooting into the air, then into the crowd, shooting at literally everyone, it was wild. You know that old Talking Heads song, Life During Wartime? It wasn’t like that … there’s a bottle of Chateau Margaux somewhere. Glass?’
He staggered to the kitchen island, found a corkscrew in the mess, grabbed a bottle from the rack. He uncorked it and poured two glasses.
‘Have fun last night?’ he said.
‘Worked,’ she said.
‘Keep soldering on, eh? I appreciate the ethic, Suki, I really do, but this time tomorrow there’s going to be no one to sell your schmuck to apart from semi-sentient pizzas and two-headed rats.’
‘Ivo, what has started?’
‘See for yourself. Check out the Compound.’
From the kitchen window, from what Suki could make out, all of the remaining Peripatetics, the close-knit clique of long-term Coldstream Close supper clubbers and culture wonks had gathered in front of The Compound, what they called the house of Baxter Strang, the man without a face. Hilaire was obviously in charge. He didn’t need to do anything to prove that he was the eminence grise of Coldstream Close. His double bass case leant against Strang’s wall. Wren was repeatedly banging the gate’s knocker. A rather large rucksack made Lauren look like someone about to embark on a hiking holiday. Even when she was no doubt shitting herself empty, Allegra was trying to look as bored as possible.
Ivo’s head appeared alongside Suki’s. ‘Look at them all. They all believe it now. All trying to get in, save their sorry arses.’
‘And you don’t want to save yours?’ said Suki.
He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. She gently pressed her elbow into his chest and eased him backwards. She knew what he was thinking. He was thinking that they outnumbered Baxter Strang. Once they were in his bunker, they would overpower, lock up or do away with him, whatever was necessary. In Bunkerland, or Shelterville or Ivopolis, whatever the eventual name of the underworld dominion, Suki would be the only pre-menopausal woman left. She wouldn’t want old Hilaire with his wattles and his ears like giant puce bats to declare himself the Sperm Donor General and the Our Father who art in Heaven of the race of scuttling mole children they were going to have to breed down there if the human race was to have any kind of future, would she? This is how Ivo would finally outflank Hilaire in the leadership stakes.
Either this or Ivo was wondering whether in addition to the swimming pool and the shooting gallery, were there spa and sauna facilities under the Compound, and were they free to all members?
‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ said Ivo.
‘I doubt it,’ said Suki.
What she did know was that out there the Peripatetics must now believe the stories about Strang’s bunker.
Rumours of a bunker started to circulate at the weekend. Saturday night had been one of the Peripatetics’ monthly soirees, as per usual hosted by Hilaire and Wren at their mini-mansion. Hilaire was an architect who designed villas and palaces for sheiks and oil ministers and people even more fantastically minted than he was, and he played the double bass to a jazz orchestra standard but only as a hobby, to keep himself amused and nimble fingered in what he called the springtime of his senility. Wren was a world-famous jazz pianist, and talked a lot of jazz in a jive-speaky jazzish way.
After-dinner entertainment at the monthly meets was thus entirely predictable. To Suki, the Wren and Hilaire Show always sounded like up-itself gastropub background burble, all twang and plink. Their light chamber jazz routines were supposed to provide the rub-down after the world had been set to rights over cassoulet and Krug by the postcode’s leading art and antique dealers; its upscale estate agents and property developers; its gleaming unsnakelike lawyers; musicians from both the jazz and classical realms; music critics from the thick and pungent magazines you sometimes glimpse on the shelves of newsagents at larger railway stations and provincial airports; drug dealers masquerading as chefs or wine importers; painters and sculptors who worked only for the more enlightened banks and green corporations; rockstar disrupters (which was how Ivo described himself, in real life and on Tinder) and, since she’d been Ivo’s lodger, Suki.
The first time she’d been introduced to the gang, Ivo had ushered her into Wren and Hilaire’s hanger-sized and piano-studded reception-lounge with its what looked like genuine Kandinskys and Modiglianis on the wall, and declared, ‘Everyone, this is Suki. She’s going to be staying with me for a while. She’s a jewellery designer, and before you ask we’re not—’
They’d all rushed forward, a wall of grins.
The atmosphere last Saturday had been entirely different, less Cezanne, more Blue Period. For a start, the turnout was abysmal. Apart from the hosts, and Ivo and Suki, the only shows were Lauren Salerno, the art dealer with the little concrete cube of a gallery opposite the Thai Surprise who, skittish and vigilant, reminded Suki of a tall wading bird, and Allegra Hacker, estate agent and frosted beaker of sharp lemon juice in human form.
Lauren was bent double on the chaise-longue, wracked by sobs. Wren and Allegra were trying to calm her down. Handing Suki and Ivo a martini each, Hilaire said, ‘I’m afraid they of little faith have fled the capital. Back soon, I wager. Tails between legs. This is just another Cuba, you mark my words.’
With her fingertip, Suki nudged a green olive around the side of her glass.
Lauren’s head burst between the other two women. ‘How can you do it, Suki, drink, at a time like this, just stand there, getting sloshed when—’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Ivo. ‘Wren and Stinky are going to tinkle the ivories in a minute.’
‘SHUT UP, Ivo. It’s gone on too long. Too long. It’s like the German timetables. It can’t be stopped.’
‘I know, dearie, I know,’ said Wren, ‘but it hasn’t happened yet, so until it does, we ought to carry on like we’ve always carried on, with hep and with pep, know what I mean.’
‘I don’t want to die,’ Lauren wailed.
Suki proved to herself that she didn’t want to die either by finishing her martini and holding her glass out for another.
‘Well, if it is going to happen,’ said Allegra, ‘we might as well have some of Wren’s shepherd’s pie. And some music, raise a toast to realized lives. You can’t do anything about it, can you?’
‘It’s easy for you to say we should be all vegan-bin-dipper about it,’ said Ivo. ‘I would have been a billionaire next year. Did I tell you I just secured some serious investment for iVo-Go?’
‘Can I remind everyone it might not happen,’ said Hilaire. ‘I mean, who am I—’
‘Liebling, we should take everyone through to the kitchen,’ said Wren. ‘More cosy, not half.’
In the kitchen, they all sat around the slab of a table and a steaming tray of pie ringed by high wine glasses. Into each glass, Hilaire poured two inches of what would be extortionately-priced and possibly rank wine.
‘You know who we should invite over?’ said Ivo. ‘Strang.’
‘After what he did to me?’ said Lauren. ‘You must be out of your tiny mind.’
‘Do you know what he has?’
‘That dastardly dog?’ said Wren. ‘I’ll see him on the flappety flip.’
‘Anyone know,’ said Ivo, ‘what’s under the Compound, allegedly?’
Tales of Strang had always amused Suki. It was not the tales themselves, but the way the Peripatetics told and reacted to them. Without the stories of the Strang Panic, the Strang Scare, the Summer of Strang as she liked to think of it, she would have given the Peripatetics a swerve months ago, despite the networking opportunities. Before her debut appearance, Ivo had explained that even though most of them were planks and muppets, spanners and goons, there were plenty of players at the jazz supper soul sap she could attract as investors or clients: after all, ladies like jewellery, expensive ladies like expensive jewellery, expensive men like to buy expensive jewellery for their expensive booty calls. Expensive booty calls can also double as fit-as-fuck jewellery designers.
Ivo, eh? She hadn’t realised that a bespoke self-improvement and business mentoring plan would be included with the rent. Not that Ivo and his sex-pesky ways could help much with her long laundry-list of anxieties and calamities: the debts she owed various loan companies and institutions; that she’d had to sell her house to retrain and would never afford her own place again; the extortionate rent vs living back with disappointed psychoparents at aged twenty-eight; the stress and depression she’d fought off when her first-choice career was ruined by creeps and harassment, the same depression she could feel licking the nape of her neck now the jewellery game was proving a struggle; her stupid pride and desire for a clean break that made this uphill battle an even harder fight; that relationships were now impossible, or jump-cuts from cool, buzzy bars to harrowing moments of exposure and regret; the fires and floods, the descent, the shouting and the ranting and the rage of nations, the long march down just as she was trying to work her way back.
Nor had she known that she would be living a few doors away from a man without a face. She’d only seen him a few times, skulking in the distance, a tall figure wrapped up in a great big black anorak with a big black fur hood even on the hottest days. He was rarely seen without a great black dog that looked a cross between a bear and a lion, a Tibetan mastiff, according to some nifty bit of mansplaining from Hilaire.
Hilaire seemed almost personally insulted that Strang now owned or at least lived in the vast three-story house at the end of the close that once belonged to Milan Behallis, fine and outstanding publisher of scores and songbooks and a supper club soiree regular until he fled this mortal coil just before Suki moved to Coldstream Close. Strang was always prowling the streets and the alleys with his dangerous dog. He was seen where he shouldn’t be seen. He followed, snooped, watched as if he were keeping some sort of diabolical record. He stared in through the window of Lauren’s gallery during private views and scared the punters away. According to Allegra, he was driving down house prices just by living in the Close.
Wren told an odd story that sounded confused and confusing about giving Strang a lift and being forced to pull up outside a maisonette where Strang had shouted through the letterbox, ‘I love you, Biba, I love you, Biba’. Wren, after some internet digging, reckoned it was the home of Biba Vex, a pop star from one of those TV shows.
‘I listened to one of her songs once on Spotsimiflip,’ said Wren, ‘and I turned it off quick sharp. Voice of the machine, brrrr, the future, but it did seem that Strang had a serious jive with her.’
Suki felt she ought to keep quiet about Biba Vex. Fame Heart. He Thinks I’m Trouble. She’d loved those songs, even though they made her cringe now.
‘How far away were you, Wren?’ said Allegra. ‘I’m trying to reconstruct this in my head.’
‘Was his dog with him? Never seen him without his dog,’ said Ivo, ‘and what did you talk about on the way over? The stop-starty piano bollocks on Bitches Brew? That time you were on German TV with the Polka Dot Piss Whistles and Richard Clayderman’s jazz willy?’
Other Peripatetics at one time or another had told Suki that Strang was a drugs dealer who presided over a massive international gak distribution network. He was a Euromillions winner, some nobody handed a packet by brute and fickle luck. He was the shy and introspective rapper Chump Change, reportedly dead of an overdose during a drive-by-shooting five years back but sightings are regularly reported on subreddits and 4-Chan boards. Or Strang was the coder who created the C.R.E.E.P virus; he was responsible for the slogans that had appeared across the borough in the last eighteen months, ‘Blood Moon Last’ daubed in red across bridges and the fronts of shuttered-up shops; he was the Creature in the Hood, the Haunter on the Doorstep, the Dog Man Star, and according to Ivo, a knob-ended, mastiff-banging wankeur.
Last Saturday night, Ivo had leaned forward and spoke slowly, assuredly.
‘Have you not heard the rumours about his house? You must have? You know Patel? The builder? When he was doing my loft extension, he said that he and his old man, they did a lot of work on Strang’s house. Said it was weird. All done through letters or something and he was there and he wasn’t when they were, if that doesn’t sound fucked up. Said they built some kind of panic room underground. You not heard this?’
‘Oh I’ve heard it alright,’ said Allegra. ‘The word is that house is worth double its market value because it’s the same size again underground.’
‘I mean, who am I?’ said Hilaire,’ but it is peculiar, now you come to mention it, I was once asked, by an anonymous but very high-paying client, all done through a middleman, to design an underground bunker, I assumed for one of these Russian or Saudi types but for a house in our corner of Eden. It could sleep twelve to fifteen families. There was a swimming pool and a shooting gallery and water purification facilities, stockrooms, refrigeration, everything you would need to—’
‘Survive a nuclear war,’ said Wren
‘Survive a nuclear war,’ said Allegra.
‘Survive a nuclear war,’ said Lauren, ‘but trapped underground with Baxter Strang.’
‘Sounds like a fate worse than death,’ said Hilaire. ‘I assume it’s all poppycock. It’s quite unfeasible to have constructed such a project here without us knowing it was being built.’
‘And no one saw the work going on,’ said Allegra. ‘And, being underground, with Baxter Strang?’
‘It’s not true, is it?’ said Lauren.
‘I’d rather take my chances up here,’ said Wren.
‘And it’s not true,’ said Allegra.
‘Are we sure it’s not true?’ said Ivo.
‘Ivo, you really are an arsehole, not just sometimes but all of the time.’
‘I thought I’d get that out into the open before the end of the world.’
Ivo drained his glass of wine. ‘So you’re not going over to Strang’s?’
‘No, never,’ said Lauren. ‘Not after everything he’s put me … us through.’
‘No, never …’
‘Not me …’
Outside, as Suki hurried up the street, the dirt-yellow sky felt low and close. Ivo was carrying a heavier bag than hers and struggled to keep up. The others still lurked outside the gate of the Compound, the first time ever in history that angry, scared aristocrats had surrounded a peasant’s castle. Wren was still banging that knocker. Back in the kitchen, that persistent crack had so grated on Suki that when Ivo unexpectedly started to stuff clothes into a rucksack, so did she. The thought of being left in the house alone with that abrupt thunk every ten seconds until Doomsday—actual Doomsday—was too much to bear.
Ivo grabbed her elbow. They paused in the middle of the close.
‘I think we should get married, Suki.'
‘I’ll pretend to think about it if you stop Madam Jazz from making that fucking sound.’
‘He’s not coming out, is he? Strang’s laughing at us, probably watching us from some observation centre under our feet. C’mon let’s go and take the piss out of Hilarious while we still can …Oi, Hilaire, you olive-scoffing, elastic band-twanging jizz limpet. Don’t believe a word of it, do you? No such structure, eh? Poppycock eh? And here you are, trying to grease your way into the love bunker.’
‘Ivo, Suki,’ said Hilaire. ‘Joining us yourselves, I see?’
The Strang house was a black crag silhouetted against a rotting sky. Wren smashed the knocker. Every time felt like a shotgun fired point-blank into the back of Suki’s head. Ivo was shouting something robustly sexist, ageist and probably jazzist to Wren for Suki’s benefit that seemed to work. The banging stopped. Or everything had stopped. Suki felt lit up with an anger that was alien to her. She burst into tears and shrugged off Allegra’s hand on her shoulder and then realised she’d set off Lauren, too. Lauren yowled like a starved cat. Elsewhere, the city was silent, no sirens, no gunfire. Hilaire said, ‘I believe in miracles,’ and Ivo said, ‘you sexy thing’. Suki’s breathing felt like it could be the last of her breath and she didn’t want to let it out. Lauren sat down on the pavement. Wren put her hand in Hilaire’s hand. The door to the Compound garden swung open.
Maybe they had been waiting for so long that when he did appear under the brick arch of the gateway, they didn’t see him. Or maybe this was down to the way the shadow of the house fuzzed his black hooded anorak so the coat seemed to bleed into the darkness of the garden.
Some kind of black cowl or balaclava was under the hood. His head moved side to side, from Suki to Ivo, through Lauren and Allegra to Wren and Hilaire. Everyone stiffened, stood to attention.
Suki frowned. If he had a bunker, he would surely be sitting in it and waiting to see if it held when the flash came and the air obliterated. By coming out, he risked being vaporised.
‘Mr Strang, good day to you and hail fellow,’ said Hilaire, ‘Let’s cut to the chase. Is there room at the inn?’
‘Put it this way,’ said Wren, ‘we can provide the entertainment. Nightly and on request.’
‘Or not at all,’ said Ivo. ‘Why on earth can’t either of you play the bassoon. You can do a shitload of cranial damage with a bassoon. We can’t exactly batter him with a double bass.’
Strang stepped slightly to his left. The great black dog appeared alongside him, its white teeth bared and its mane of black hair twitching on the breeze.
‘Play fair, Strang,’ said Hilaire. ‘Is it true there’s a survival bunker of my design under your property? If so, if you check the contract, you’ll see you cannot legally deny entry to me or my chattels.’
‘Are the rumours true, Strang?’ said Allegra. ‘And are you going to let us in?’
The dog slinked forwards on his paws and let off three mighty bark.
‘Still thyself, Bastable,’ said Strang. Even though, in the dark of the hood, his mouth was a mere twitch, his voice sounded rich and forceful.
‘It is written that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will divide the sheep from the goats. The sheep he will place on the right and the goats to his left. To those on the right the Son of Man shall say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you. When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was parched, you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me and my angel. I was naked and you clothed me. I was imprisoned and you petitioned for me.” I am that son recovered. You are those sheep and those goats.’
‘Jesus’ tits,’ said Ivo. ‘He’s a religious nutjob. Of course, he’s a religious nutjob. He’s the fucking messiah. He thinks he’s the fucking messiah. Do something useful, fucking messiah, and stop the fucking war.’
‘SHUT UP, Ivo.’
‘Listen here, Strang, if I get the gist of the hand you’re playing,’ said Hilaire, ‘let me remind you that my wife once gave you a lift and we come as a double act, we insist on that.’
‘Hilaire of Jacobi,’ said Strang, ‘when you did see me as a stranger in a strange land and uncomforted and newly born among you, did you rejoice in my birth, did you offer me gifts and hospitality, gold, frankincense and myrrh, or did you stand on your own land pointing and jeering and wishing me elsewhere?’
‘No,’ said Hilaire. ‘I did … I mean … who am I?’
Strang struck out his arm and jabbed his forefinger at Wren.
‘And, you, Wife of Jacobi, the tinkerer and tamperer, did you not, when I needed transport, when I needed carriage, deny me that carriage and then afterwards spread lies about my conduct—’
‘I most certainly did not,’ said Wren. ‘I took you to town—’
‘Cease, bird of prattle.’ He stepped sideways to address the others.
‘And you, usurer and temple thief, did you not once cast aspersions about me, accuse me of stealing the wealth of others? And did you, Weeping Woman of Woe not deny me shelter in the storm, bar me from your rooms, and insist to your cohorts that I meant them harm when I only bring redemption and eternity? And you, twitching lech, slave to the whip of desire, metropolis of evil, did you not when I asked for belief in me deny me, deny and denigrate?’
‘You didn’t exactly network, did you?’ said Ivo. ‘And fuck you anyway. You’re not who you say you are. You’re some crack dealer high on his own supply who doesn’t even know how to wear a fucking coat. Take your hood off, let’s see the face of God.’
Bastable crept forward, growled until everyone took a step back.
‘When I was starving,’ said Strang, ‘you gave me no food. When I was a stranger, you gave me no welcome. When I was right, you said I was wrong. And this oncoming conflagration of the air, this war between Ignorance and Ignorance, this great purge of my Father’s world, this feast of fire, this I made for you, for you and because of you, this I did, moved the pieces, the nations and mechanisms against you, and you must all look deep into yourselves because it is there that your destruction resides.’
Strang swung his arm between Ivo and Suki, separating her from the group and urging the others to one side.
‘To those on the right, you are sheep,’ he said, ‘and those on the left, you are goats. The eternal fire is for the goats. Get thee gone.’
‘Now hang on—’ Hilaire, probably
A wail and a whimper. Scuffle of feet. Someone tugged Suki by the hand. As she was pulled towards the gate, Strang’s black anorak swirled like a cloak ahead. Bastable circled behind her. When she looked back, the dog was poking his snout forwards as he rounded up the Peripatetics. As soon as he’d scared them into a bunch he followed up behind Suki and nudged her through the gate. Strang slammed it shut.
Overhead, the sky was the colour of bile. All was dim in the garden. A pale light glimmered from inside the house, a faint oblong around the front door. Outside in the street, screams, shouts, her name called, his name cursed. Hands slapped the gate. He mounted his front steps and opened the door with a key. She followed him into the house. The dog came up behind her, its paws clicking on a marble floor. The door thumped shut behind them all.
A dank vestibule: Suki didn’t know whether it was safe to breathe or not, or whether she should be here or not. She was shaking. Her arms and chin vibrated. They didn’t. She wasn’t shaking. She was paralysed, fused with the air. Whatever had happened felt like it happened a long time ago, before the sleepless night, before the overtures of war. Part of her felt she should go back, to open the gate and let the others through. The dog’s collar glinted. Strang was a faint outline ahead.
He could not be who he said he was. He was someone else. So was she. So is everyone.
‘I’ve been rehearsing that speech for months,’ he said. His voice sounded higher-pitched than it had outside. ‘Any second now. Follow me. Hurry.’
His coat swished and the dog’s paws slapped on the floor after him. She scooted up behind them in the gloom.
‘Strang, Baxter, why am I here? ‘Why me? … Baxter, the others were mean to you, yes, I get that, but … you hardly made things easy for them … slow down. Can you hear me? … I did not give you shelter, I did not give you food, I did not visit you, and why do you need food and shelter anyway, you live in a big fuck-off house. I live in a grand-a-month hutch fighting off Randy McSpray every night. How could I help you?’
Strang stopped. She almost ran into him. The dog’s breathing hissed around the walls. Ahead of Strang: a door.
‘You can’t leave them out there to die,’ she said.
‘We haven’t long,’ he said.
‘Can I go? Will you stop me?’
He pushed the door. It opened onto a flight of stairs down.
‘Is this the bunker?’ She shifted her weight between her feet, as if both were burnt and she could only give each of them momentary relief.
Bastable scampered down first. Strang’s hood sunk and merged with the dark. Sweat webbed Suki’s head. She bit her lip. The corridor back to the vestibule was black and long. The front door was a feint yellow rectangle. She could run and, if they were still there, let them in. She could sprint back, be Supergirl, save the day, but then she saw herself obliterated in an instant, the ash of her mixed with the ash of the house as it whooshed up into the airless sky to rain down on the rubble along with the bone grit and showered molecules of the Peripatetics. She would finally be one of them.
Something clicked, metallic. She wasn’t sure if she had heard it, or it had only tapped inside her head. She was halfway down the stairs before she had time to decide ifhad it come from out there or inside her.
She was expecting a staircase that would take her deep underground. The number of steps turned out to be no more than in any old wine cellar.
At the foot of the stairs, she couldn’t see anything, crept forward on her toes. This must be an ante-chamber. Somewhere here was a bank-vault-style door that opened onto a ladder or even the sort of elevator you saw in mines. Strang hadn’t said anything. Maybe he’d already gone down. Perhaps the door had been left open for her. All she had to do was find it. The dog was there, though. The dog’s smell wafted from somewhere.
Her phone was in the back pocket of her jeans. She took it out, turned on the torch.
In the circle of light, a wall hung with dozens and dozens of images: Polaroids, Internet print-outs, pages cut from magazines and tabloids, line drawings and sketches, some connected by strands of twine held tight by drawing pins, some with little handwritten notes tucked into them.
The pictures in the top few ranks were of the former pop singer and reality show winner, Biba Vex. The lower ones were of Suki Caxton taken unawares, captured by telephoto lens, Suki Caxton weighed down by heavy bags in various malls and supermarkets, sat alone in the windows of franchise coffee shops, in one in tears in the street, phone pressed to the side of her face.
His breathing behind her now.
Rustling and the thwip of material unravelling.
She turned, shone the light in his face.
He’d pulled his hood down, taken off his mask.
‘I told you I’d save you, Biba, I love you, Biba.’
Up somewhere, a dull thud, far off. The second one exploded overhead. Grim relief fell through her. The ceiling flashed yellow. The dog, the walls, Baxter Strang lit yellow. Her outstretched hands swirled into a yellow haze.
Ashley Stokes is a writer based in the east of England. He is the author of The Syllabus of Errors (Unthank Books, 2013), and editor of The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, and the Unthology series. His short fiction has appeared in The Shadow Booth, London Magazine, Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd and The Warwick Review. His novel GIGANTIC will be published by Unsung Stories in 2021. @AshleyJStokes ashleystokes.net