FICTION | HORROR
This is my return to the fringes of horror fiction, after a few months away writing a sci-fi tribute to Douglas Adams: This is not a love story. Like many of my short stories, it has subtle links to others but it still works on its own. This one is from The Unfinished Literary Agency as it gains more offices, and one which will form a part of my second anthology. Co-published here with the co-operation of Shlock webzine.
Image: Graeme Reynolds’s blog: Dark tales from a twisted mind.
THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE
I disappeared without warning and for no apparent reason. To the best of my knowledge, there were no witnesses. I wasn’t a well-known person, so few would miss me. It was perfect.
What made this apparent illusion possible was the difference engine: Quite a box of tricks in itself. The engine is a retro-futuristic, mechanical bolt-on device for my manual typewriter. It’s the steam punk equivalent of an app installed on a computer. The difference engine clamps onto the typewriter, between the type heads and the impression cylinder. It’s a translation device, so as I type out my thoughts on the keyboard, it produces edited fiction on the paper.
I was a beta tester for the engine, tasked with making the final tweaks to the switches, cogs and gears; the mechanical algorithms which made up the difference engine’s editorial code: Essentially, what’s permissible and what’s not. Where a newspaper might be governed by freedom of speech, but forbidden to express or incite hatred, the difference engine is concerned with fiction in a similar way. Specifically, I was testing the literary merit of the output, to see how well it translated my thoughts and actions into prose.
Like my typewriter, the difference engine wasn’t easily portable, but this actually suited me. I prefer to travel discretely as a writer, with just a notebook and a fountain pen for rough longhand notes. Then I return to my studio to copy my notes on the typewriter, usually self-editing as I transcribe. The difference engine would allow me to duplicate my hand-written notes verbatim, automatically editing for me as I worked. First I had to choose a protagonist for the story: a person chosen at random, who probably never thought they’d be the main character in a story. They’d never be famous, because this was just an experimental story, not destined for publication. Whoever it was would more likely languish in a drawer somewhere, or end up among the many potential but wasted words contained within screwed up sheets of paper in the waste paper bin: Rain which never fell, trapped inside coarse, jagged paper clouds. Stories which would never be told.
My fountain pen writes with blue ink. It’s not a cartridge pen, instead having a piston mechanism on the shaft, to draw ink from a well. I usually carry a bottle of blue ink with me. I use red ink too, but it never travels with me, for two reasons: Red ink is for editing, and I only edit longhand in my studio, where I can concentrate on cutting all the unnecessary narrative out. But red ink is also a very similar colour and viscosity to blood. If a red ink bottle were to break in my bag, I could find myself in all kinds of interesting situations.
I was in one of my favourite writing places in London’s West End: The Lamb and Flag in Rose Street, near to Covent Garden. It was a pleasant summer evening, and the pub was fairly busy with people leaving work. The first mention of a pub on this cobbled backstreet was in 1772, when it was known as The Coopers Arms. The name changed to The Lamb and Flag in 1833 and was a favourite watering hole of Charles Dickens. The pub acquired a reputation in the early nineteenth century for staging bare-knuckle prize fights, earning it the nickname ‘The Bucket of Blood.’ The alleyway beside the pub was the scene of an attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict. It’s a very small pub, so it’s almost impossible to retain a table to oneself. As such, I was almost invisible to a group of three men with whom I was seated. In a demonstration of my respect for the gentlemen’s privacy, I turned away from the table, whilst also erecting an invisible barrier for myself.
I might just as well have been in the 1980s as I was 2017, based solely on the conversation; one conducted at such volume that I could do nothing but be involved in it, at least as listener and note-taker. The eldest of the three was probably in his late forties, tall, slim, sharply dressed and well spoken. He ran a boiler room operation, and the other two, somewhere in their mid-20s, worked for him.
In business, a boiler room is an outbound call centre, selling questionable investments by telephone. A boiler room will typically be one where salesmen work using unfair, dishonest sales tactics, sometimes selling penny stocks, private placements or committing outright stock fraud. The term carries a negative connotation, and is often used to imply high-pressure sales tactics and, sometimes, poor working conditions. Usually, such an operation has an undisclosed relationship with the companies it promotes, or an invested interest in promoting those companies.
With insider investors in place, a boiler room promotes (via telephone calls to brokerage clients or spam email) these thinly traded stocks where there is no actual market. The brokers of the boiler room create a market by attracting buyers, whose demand for the stock drives up the price. This gives the owners of the company enough volume to sell their shares at a profit, a form of pump and dump operation, where the original investors profit at the expense of the investors taken in by the boiler room operation. A brokerage of this type will typically prey on the naivety and vulnerability of wealthy targets. It was just such a sting which the boss of the firm was bragging about to his subordinates:
“Old girl. Recently widowed. Husband left some money, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. So I tell her to invest it with me. I show her a few spreadsheets, blind her with bullshit, and I’ve got her hooked. I do a few good trades, to show her some decent returns, then I gradually suck more and more out of her. She phones up every now and then to ask how her money’s doing, and I just tell her it’s going brilliantly. Little does she know, she won’t be leaving anything for the grand kids. Unlike her old man, she won’t leave a legacy of unfinished business, know what I mean?” This was hilarious of course.
The boss offered to get more drinks. Leaving three empty glasses on the table, he stood and strode slowly to the bar, stretching as he went: His elbows punched out behind him, as he thrust first his chest forwards, then his crotch. As he arrived at the bar, he continued to stretch and twitch his limbs: An almost sure sign of a man on cocaine. His two seemingly besotted underlings were still chuckling together about the old lady. But it got better, as their boss returned:
“It’s funny how people confide in you when they’re grieving. I’m that old girl’s best mate at the moment. And her financial advisor, of course. She says she’ll use the money I make to gradually tick off her bucket list, depending how it goes of course. Her words. Give me a couple of months, and I reckon I can have her house. I’m doing her a favour really. I mean, she won’t have the money to go through the bucket list, so she’ll get all down. She’ll probably die pretty soon after she learns it’s all gone, saving her a load of money. Her kids won’t have to pay for her care, which they couldn’t afford anyway with the house sold. It’s really that simple guys. You’ve just gotta have the balls!” He grabbed his crotch and thrust it forward into his hand under the table.
He spoke briefly of his wife: A woman he kept. And their daughter, who at 14, was almost old enough, as he stroked his fly. He spoke disparagingly, condescendingly, and sanctimoniously, about everyone else in the bar whom he saw fit to judge. He was perfect: The kind of individual the difference engine could probably turn into someone who readers could sympathise and empathise with.
“Excuse me,” I said. “What’s your name?” In typical salesman parlance, he answered: “Rupert. Rupert Koch-Rinehart” – surely a nom de plume? – and presented me with a business card. It was a fine piece of business stationery actually: a thick, non-calendared pulp board, and soft to the touch. His contact details were die-stamped in black, lifting the Helvetica typeface in relief from the card. It was so pristine that unless handled gently with cotton gloves, his card would be instantly marred by an imperfection: Perhaps some sort of capitalist statement. I was grateful for his details, as I’d run out of blue ink in my pen. But the story I was going to use to configure the difference engine now had a central character. As Rupert and his colleagues continued to talk, I loaded some more ink into my pen with the pump action of the piston on the barrel.
A narcissist is the easiest person to extract information from, because their favourite topic of conversation is themselves. Anyone within earshot would have known where he lived. Someone within wireless range of his mobile phone would be able to access his personal information. Some narcissists are so in love with themselves, they silently broadcast it, so that anyone listening can hear more about them, their ego, their contacts, social media circles and personal finances. Anyone so inclined could impersonate them, even taking over their life, and perhaps make them a better person; a bit like the difference engine.
A psychopath is not necessarily someone afflicted with all the usual negative associations of the word. Psychopathy is simply an ability to focus one’s mind on a specific task, in the pursuit of perfection, and to the exclusion of all outside interference. A psychopath might be an eminent neurosurgeon for example, able to perform high-risk operations which others might not. The psychopath surgeon might be able to remove a deeply embedded brain tumour, which others consider inoperable because of its close proximity to nerves and other crucial areas of the brain. Psychopathy detaches the surgeon from everything else, so that their mind can concentrate on a knife-edge, life-or-death situation, without emotion or outside distractions. There are psychopaths in many professions. A psychopath writer would be one who aims to perfect their prose, without the distraction of other thoughts. The psychopath writer would do all that they could, at any cost, just to ensure their stories seem as real as possible, using words alone. Psychopathy is detachment. It was this possibility which the difference engine represented. To make Rupert’s story more real, I needed to introduce him to the engine.
It’s not difficult to get someone to return home with you. It requires a concentrated effort on one very specific aim, but once all outside distractions are removed, words alone can persuade a person. I almost regretted Rupert’s faults being so obvious as to hasten his story. I’d perhaps liked to have got to know him better. But I was his caretaker, while he was drunk and a danger to himself or others. I’d just concentrated on the essential details: His current account PIN, when I’d helped him at a cash point. Then his address, when he gave it to a cab driver, before I suggested he might be better off spending the night with me. London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw a couple, if he saw anything at all.
My studio is in Islington, just off Holloway Road, between Highbury Fields and Paradise Park. I lay Rupert on the couch, arranging him and the cushions around him, so that it pleased my eye. I thrive on order, hence my willingness to help with the difference engine, so that I could feed in my raw material, and the prose I desired would appear on the final typed page. My studio is small and eclectic, some would say cluttered. But I know the position and function of everything within. I have insufficient ink to write of my surroundings in detail, but they are irrelevant so long as they’re unknown.
I sat in my swivel chair at the desk and laid out my notebook, pen and ink well. The bottle I’d travelled with was almost dry and for reasons only known to my past, I didn’t have any more. There was a bottle of red ink on my desk, but it was ink to be used only for editing. Editing only ever took place at the desk in my studio. I hadn’t had to edit copy longhand for some time, instead relying on the automatic editing process of reading longhand, thinking, then transforming the thoughts into words on the keyboard; the very process the difference engine was designed to make redundant. The red ink had congealed and dried out in the bottle, so I had an unfinished story written longhand, with no ink to continue writing, nor edit if I were able to. The conditions were perfect for a working test of the difference engine: I would have to finish the story on the keyboard, relinquishing more control to the engine in finishing my work.
I wasn’t ready to be made entirely redundant, as humans had been by machines in the industrial age and now, by computers in the technological age. The difference engine could assist and replace writers up to a certain level, but there will always be that which only a human can do: Produce works which have the human touch. Like the finest paintings and sculptures, it requires human soul to produce art which is striking and open to interpretation, even if it’s the flaws of the human creator which make it unique.
Rupert was stirring, disturbing the cushions on the couch as he slipped between wakefulness and slumber.
Generally speaking, we are never aware of that moment when we drift off to sleep. As autonomous, self-determining beings, we are aware that we were awake before we slept. And when we awake, we remember being awake before sleep. Dreams aside, we don’t remember the part in between. Even when we do, we can never recall the moment of actually passing from one state to another.
There is a little-practised discipline of lucid dreaming, where the mind can be trained to recognise that it is conscious, yet not physically awake. With training, the lucid dreamer can recognise that they are in a dream and take control of it. It’s a technique which takes much practice to master and maintain. To begin with, the trainee will repeat to themselves a mantra, like ‘I am falling asleep…’. For many months of nightly practice thereafter, the trainee will simply pass into sleep and wake again, unaware of the moment of transition.
Next comes choosing a focus point: In my case, a clock. My sleep patterns are regular, so there are certain combinations of digits on a digital 24-hour clock which I never see in my wakeful state: say, 03.41. The numbers are arbitrary, but that was my focus, and the thought which I took with me as I fell asleep each night. After several weeks of practice, it suddenly worked one night: I rose, needing the bathroom. I checked the time and it was 04.38: A time I wasn’t used to, so on the clock, a sight I wasn’t accustomed to. I was dreaming, and as soon as I realised, I grew excited and woke with a start. It felt like being woken from a sleep walk.
Gradually, I taught myself to suppress my feelings when I witnessed a nocturnal hour on the clock. In doing so, I remained in control of my dream without breaking out of it. As my confidence grew, I found I could literally do as I pleased. I could fly, to anywhere. I could be invisible and eavesdrop, on anyone. It was all in my dream scape, but when I’d truly mastered the technique, so that waking dreams were part of the normal day, I found that strange things started to happen. Every day, I would retire for the night, then be unaware of the moment I fell asleep. As far as I was concerned, I’d just lain awake, rising and noting the time as 03.18, or whatever as being normal, no longer associated with the dreaming. This would go on and I’d rise for the day, with memories from the day before unbroken in my mind. Life had become one long day.
But in the dark day, my term for the one lived asleep, I was free. No computer or AI could claim that. Do androids dream of electric sheep?
I cradled Rupert’s head as his mind slipped between those waking and sleeping states, while I tilted coffee into his mouth. The caffeine would increase his awareness of his surroundings, but not a sobering up as such. The flunitrazepam would help him fall into a deep sleep, so that he could allow himself to be transported through his dream scape. He’d be physically paralysed, but with a heightened mental awareness of the dream. I was gifting lucidity, which had taken me so long to master. Flunitrazepam is a drug known as a hypnotic. It won’t give the same lucid fluidity which much practice had taught me, and the subject would be without clarity in memory, unlike that which burdened me. But he would be guided by me, an invisible hand-holder while he was trapped in his thoughts.
I cooked a rump steak while Rupert drifted: onto a smoking hot pan, for just two minutes on each side, without disturbing it as it tightened and tried to retreat from the searing heat. I lifted the cooked steak onto a warm plate and set it aside to rest. The fresh, red meat was crossed with sear marks, as if from a branding iron. The thick layer of outer fat was caramelised on the edges, but otherwise, white, soft, supple, and oozing juices, which mixed with the blood from the cooling meat. I left it to relax and chill slightly for five minutes, like a drugged teenager before penetration.
I tested a theory while I waited. The blood which flows through our bodies is only red when it’s oxygenated by the heart and travels through the arteries. Blood passing through the veins is de-oxygenated, and therefore blue. Unless the subject is in a vacuum, cutting a vein will produce red blood, as the blood cells come into contact with the oxygen in the air. I wondered if my fountain pen’s loading mechanism would maintain a vacuum.
The nib of my pen was sufficiently sharp to penetrate his skin and only rouse him slightly, like a conscious person being aware of an itch: Not in a place which can’t be reached, but somewhere indeterminate. Like all fountain pens, mine has a split nib. The aperture between the splayed teeth allows ink to flow through the nib, to be absorbed into the paper. The ink is stored in the barrel of the pen, and it’s drawn from an ink well through an aperture above the split tongue which delivers it. The piston mechanism drew blood from the vein, but any which came into contact with the air instantly turned red. Only if the reservoir was air tight would I collect blue blood. My fascination then, was whether his blood would remain blue in the reservoir. Of course, I’d created a paradox, like some sort of Schrödinger’s ink. Assuming the blood had been pumped into the pen, above the penetrating points of the nib, without coming into contact with the air, then the ink stored in the pen would be blue. I had no way of knowing, because the intake was hidden from my view during the pumping process. The simple act of writing with the pen would produce red ink, as it emerged from the barrel and came into contact with the air before being absorbed into the paper. Aside from dismantling the pen, the act of writing would be the catalyst which brought the words into being. The paradox was whether the words began their journey as blue or red ink: Original prose, or edited. I withdrew the nib of the pen and pressed on the wound to stem the blood.
The steak had cooled, as confirmed by a prod of my finger which registered only a little heat: Slightly above room temperature. Ambient body temperature, but slightly warmer, like the inside of a penetrable orifice. A gentle push of the finger into the flesh gives a clue to the inside: If the meat feels like a person’s cheek, or the base of the thumb on the palm of their hand, then it is too rare. It will be too tight to yield to gentle chewing, and it will bleed too much. If the flesh feels like pressing upon a forehead, or a knuckle, then the meat is too well-done, too resistant. Perfect ripeness lies in between, where the flesh of the beef is like the chin of a child’s face, or the fleshy back of the hand, between the thumb and forefinger, where one grasps a child’s hand with one’s thumb to lead them somewhere.
I sat with Rupert while I carved the steak, and talked about his daughter and how she was with us. He was awake only subconsciously, receptive to my hypnotic suggestion. His daughter was small, blonde and pretty, if one were that way inclined. He had a photo of her in a bikini on his phone, which I described in detail, using imagination for the unseen parts. Blood and fat oozed from the meat as I pierced it, then splayed the steak open to reveal a tender pink; the perfect medium-rare. I relished a few mouthfuls of perfectly aged and cooked meat, then I fashioned the remainder into a vagina. The fatty edge was the one which would be penetrated, like the soft, fatty white flesh of a labia. It gave way to folds of pink, slightly bloody, warm, soft and yielding meat inside.
My hypnotic description of his naked daughter had clearly worked, as he was aroused. Not wanting to actually touch any skin, I placed the steak in the palm of one hand, while I pulled his trousers and shorts down with the other. Then I gripped the steak around his hardened cock and started to masturbate him, while describing his daughter allowing him to enter her, then gradually getting comfortable with him inside her, before starting to move up and down on him. I gripped tighter as his little girl squeezed his shaft with her vagina and drew his foreskin down further and more firmly, deeper into her. I felt him twitch, so I slowed down. Whether he really wanted to or not, in his lucid state he was fucking his 14-year-old daughter, and I wanted it to last. I wanted him to know how a little boy would feel as he fucked his daughter. As I felt him unload in his daughter’s vagina, I gripped as though I was trying to pop a rodent like a tube of congealed glue. I pulled his foreskin down, hard and fast, then harder and further, until his frenulum snapped. A globule of blood bulged from the severed end, so I rolled his foreskin back over the glans of his penis and gripped it closed, so that his cock began to swell like a pink balloon. I’m sure his daughter would love a pink balloon, like the kind she’d get at a fairground from a traveller, before opening her legs for him round the back of a ride or a stall. I tied daddy’s cock off with fishing line around his foreskin, so as not to stain his expensive underwear.
Given that the rectum was practically staring me in the face, I evened things out a bit, in terms of Rupert’s daughter. I penetrated his anally, for what may or may not have been his first time. I started with a household candle, its wax composition giving it lubricant properties. His sphincter yielded easily to the wick end, then gradually relaxed as I pushed the candle in deeper. Not wishing to touch him directly, I again used the steak as protection. I turned it over, so that the side coated in his spunk was outermost. Then I gradually manipulated his anus, so that the steak started to enter it in such a way as to produce an internal funnel; an extra layer of thick flesh, both penetrating and lining his rectum. Once it was almost fully inserted, I artfully splayed out the protruding edge which hung from his sphincter. A special effects artist on a budget would be proud of such a prolapsed colon.
I re-dressed Rupert and enjoyed a fine bourbon as I surveyed a job well done, to make a story worth telling. He would remember little of the night, perhaps causing him a little embarrassment with his subordinates. But he’d wake up at his own home and assume he got there directly from the Lamb and Flag. Quite when he addressed the issues in his pants depended on many things, but none were my problem. I helped him outside and propped him up while I hailed a cab. I knew his address of course.
London cabbies are a mine of information, both given and received. In the rear view mirror, this cabby perhaps saw an incapable man being helped home by a friend, if he saw anything at all.
I had yet to write it all up, so the paradox of the blue / red ink remained. Or I could just type it, directly from memory, to test the difference engine and see what it made of things. Difference engine or not, the words which anyone reads will be the ones which were produced by my typewriter. If the resulting story were to be read, I was confident the difference engine would write it in prose which would only improve the story, by making it more thought provoking. It might add unwritten subtexts, prompting questions. It may make the story seem as though it actually happened, other than in someone’s imagination.
So the whole story was entrusted to the difference engine. It was up to the engine how much was revealed in the final story, like how I’d acquired it and who had given it to me. It might skip over such details, if it feels that the story itself is good enough to be a distraction and carry the reader through without them feeling the need to question. It may be that people get to the end of this story and not even know who I am, what my name is, or even my gender, because it didn’t occur to them.
I was truly invisible.
© Steve Laker, 2017
My first collection of short stories is available now, and the Douglas Adams tribute novel will be out soon.