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A cautionary tale
He were a big man, the man that came into the shop that day. Jolly looking fella, thick around the waist, big cane. See, I bought it just the other week. The shop that is, not the cane.
Sorry, should have started at the start. Storytelling's not my thing you know?
So, the start.
My name's Cain, on account of my parents being a little bit biblical but not biblical enough to know Cain was a real piece of work. They just thought it sounded good. You know, Bible name, kinda holy like? Never mind he killed his brother and all, but I don't think they read that far. Mind you it's in chapter four or summat but, well, what can you do? I've read even less of it, can't blame 'em.
Anyway, I bought this shop, a pawn shop, an old one. Fella passed away, his estate was selling it, and I always wanted to go into business. Well, legitimate business. I had a little bit of money set aside dint I? Figured it would be a useful front for my real trade.
I’m a fence, only one in Chester. That's where I set up business, the old town of Chester. Good place, the peelers don't pay too much attention, not if you don't do nothing too crazy. Not too far from the big city, easy enough to get people coming down. You want to get rid of something, I can do that for you, you know? I can get rid of it, turn it into cold hard cash, something that nobody will be able to trace back to the thing, whatever it is. Legally acquired I'm sure, but I don't care. Not my business really, it fell off a cart somewhere dint it?
So, this bloke, big jolly bloke, he came into my new shop one day. It was the day the trouble all started, nothing to do with him, mind, don't want to get you off on the wrong track right at the start. I just remember because if I'd have listened to him, well you’ll see. He seemed like a wise fella, even if he was a bit chubby, and that silly moustache.
“What can I do for you guvna?” I said to him as the bell rang on above the door. He came over in that waddly way of his, leaning on the cane.
“Never mind that governor stuff,” he said, “just call me Gilbert.”
“All right Mr. Gilberts” says I.
“No… Oh, never mind” he said, hand looped over his waistcoat pocket, fancy gentleman this.
“Anything I can interest you in?”
“Yes I wondered if you had a copy of…”
I'll be honest here, I have no idea what the book was what he wanted, completely blanked it when he said.
“Well I'm afraid I don't know sir, just started. I bought the shop three days ago, not a chance to look through it all to be honest.”
I was standing near a dusty shelf of books and pulled one down at random.
"Like, look at this. It's all in some foreign speak on the cover, can't read a word of it. And there's a padlock on the top. Who padlocks a book? Maybe I'll bust it open and see what's inside."
"Hmmm. Dangerous to meddle in things you don't understand."
"Well, I can't much see a reason not to read it you know? Might learn summat. I mean, if I could read it in the first place, mind."
"I rather think it's the other way around." said Mr. Gilberts. "If you don't know why it's locked, perhaps you ought to leave it closed. There could be anything written in there. Magic, or worse."
Well, the mention of spooky stuff put me right off the gentleman, so I let him look around another few minutes and when he left I felt relieved. I said I'd keep an eye out for that book for him. Not that I remembered what it was he'd said, but it's good to be polite you know?
Anyway, it were two days after that before somebody else came into the shop. I kept busy myself, firing about, working out what was what, what I had. Some people dunt think about this stuff. But you gotta make it look like you understand what you're talking about. If the cops come out asking a question and you're like, some absolute addlepate, clearly doesn't actually know what's in his shop… Well, then they start asking other questions. Questions like 'where were you last night?', and 'do you have an alibi for the 25th of March?'. Bugger that, I'd rather just head it off at the pass, you know what I mean?
Well, two days of pretending to be a responsible shopkeeper, puttering about, and I were going stir crazy. The bell above the door rang and a familiar face popped his head around the door, round as a button, and about half as bright. It were fat fingered Chet, the world's worst pickpocket.
"Hey Chet," I called out. "How you doing, you fumbled any grabs lately?"
Funny thing about Chet is he thought he were actually pretty good at first. Bad luck he thought, people kept looking down, just as he happened to stick his fingers in their pocket. It's a wonder he didn't get arrested and put away for good, but I think the police figured he weren't a problem. Not if he went getting himself caught like that. But they made a mistake one weekend and locked him up in holding for a few days. Teach him a lesson or summat. Which it did, but not the right kind. See, that's where he met nimble fingered Nick, probably the world's best pickpocket who quickly realised Chet's potential for distraction. Big bumbling bloke like him, bumps into you, smiling, happy, shakes your hand, apologises profusely, wanders off. Seems like nothing until you get home and find out you've not got a wallet anymore. Nimble fingered Nick's got it in his pocket, and the pocket, along with Nick, is halfway across the town by then. Ain't nothing you can do about it neither, you didn't even see him. What are you gonna do? Report Chet? Well, he dint do nothing, bumping into people int a crime. They made a perfect pair of rogues those two, and they were the sorts that made most of my business. Most of what they picked up was cash obviously, but every now and then a bit of jewellery went missing from someone's neck, or a watch off somebody's wrist, the wallet itself looked fancy. That's when they came to me.
I would make it disappear, sell it to someone else, keep a cut and give them the cash. When it was Chet coming of course I ripped him off blind, he was an idiot. Had to be a little more careful with ol’ Nick himself, he was pretty nimble with his brain, and with a knife as well.
Chet came in and made himself at home, and I scratched my goatee, wondering what he was up to. A hair came away in my fingers. I looked at it carefully, no, still black, that was something. My ol' dad went grey at forty-two, completely grey. I was only thirty-one, but I still had a feeling it was going to happen any minute. I threw the hair on the floor and grabbed a couple of glasses off the shelf, plenty of those around an old pawn shop. Then I hooked a bottle of brandy from the bottom of a cupboard, plenty of those too. I poured ourselves a couple of measures. You know, being hospitable, greeting a friend. Besides, a couple of brandies in him and he'd be giving away the stuff for free. Good negotiation, that's what it was.
Chet took a big glug of the brandy, Philistine, he still didn't understand. You're meant to sip it, dunno how many times I tried to tell him, he just doesn't get it. There's really no helping some people, no helping them at all. He took a big glug of the brandy again, smacked his lips like he's just downed a beer. Then he hauled half a dozen watches and stuff out of his pockets.
There was a thunk and a roll. Something heavy fell out of his hand and onto the counter. A small ball and… I dint like the look of it. It sat there on the corner of the counter looking kind of dark. I know it sounds silly but when I say dark I don't mean like it was black, it wasn't, it was kind of tarnished brass I think. Dunt want to think about it too much. But it wasn't really that it looked dark, it was that it felt dark, smelt dark, almost. I dunt know how to explain it, but it was, it was dark.
"How much?" he asked. "For all of it."
"Well. For the watches, two bob apiece I think. Seems pretty fair.” It wasn’t, they’d fetch five bob minimum. Six or seven a pop if I polished them up. But Chet never knew better, and besides. I take the risk of getting caught with the goods, y’know?
“For that thing…” I continued, gesturing at the little brass ball. “Nobody's going to want that thing. Feels, wrong. Like it’s some sort of evil demon thing. And it’s all tattered. What even is it anyway?"
"I think it's some kind of box."
"A box? Who ever heard of a box that's a circle?"
"Nah, look, it's got a kind of hingey thing there. And there's some writing on the front."
"Writing? Oh yeah."
I peered at it closely through a glass I had in the desk for pretending to examine jewels before ripping someone off.
"Says do not open. And there's some more. Guess it's saying why not to open it, but I dunno because it's all been rubbed off. Where did you get it anyway?"
"Ah it's. You know that foreign lass? Works at a jewelry company."
"Yeah, Penny isn't it?"
"Ah no it's Dora I think."
"Are we thinking of the same person?"
"Dunno. Anyway, her. She had it. Bracelet or something. Nick managed to lift it and she never noticed nothing."
"Impressive, but I'm still not paying you a single copper for it."
"Okay, okay. Two bob you said? Each? And there's one-two-three-four-five-six watches. How much is that?"
"Alright, ten. Give us ten and you can keepa box. Nick lifted it for fun anyways but he didn’t wanna keep it."
The brandy was going to his head by this point and I kept a smile off my face as my profit margin jumped up a few points. Nick would be mad if he realised, but that was his fault for sending Chet to come bargain with me. Like sending a lamb to the slaughterhouse to negotiate on the price of wool.
It were two more days or thereabouts ‘til anything happened. I'd been watching that little box all that time. Hadn't touched it neither. It just lay there where Chet had dropped it. Kept seeing it out the corner of my eye, wondering if I should open it and see what was inside. Kept deciding against it though. Something was wrong about that thing. It bothered me.
The third day, I sat down at the desk and stared at it. I'd just had lunch and I had nothing much better to do. So I sat and stared at it, not wanting to touch it, not wanting to look away. Something deep inside me said throw it in the river, be done. Something deeper said open it up.
I reached out and opened it.
Inside the ball there was a bug. Bit anticlimactic, I know. But that was all it was. A bug, well, two bugs actually. If that makes it any better.
I turned it over, tipped them out, looked more closely. There was a little dark one, and some sort of blue thing. A butterfly or something, I think. The butterfly was dead, its wings were mostly shredded like summat had been chewing on it. I gave it a little poke and it fell apart even more. Definitely a goner. The other one, it was stone cold frozen there like it hadn't moved in a century or thirty. And there was something weird about it. It lay there on the table, not moving. But it was kind of looking at me. I didn't like it, so I reached down. Slowly. Slipped off my shoe and swiped it down on the little thing, hard. The thud echoed in the empty shop. Then I lifted the shoe.
There was nothing there.
Think I must have sat there for about three hours, it was dark by the time I got up. Something unnerved me about that little bug. Gone now, who knew where. I crossed the door, locked up, chain on the latch, put out the lights. I kipped in the back, save on rent, there was a small room at the back did alright for a bed and a cupboard or two. One of the reasons I bought the place, it's handy if you live nearby. Especially when your business can come at all hours.
I couldn't sleep that night. I didn't know why either. It was just too hot. Then it was too cold. Then it was too hot again. Nothing was changing. I tossed and turned for hours. Eventually I woke up this morning. Maybe slept an hour or two. Maybe less. I shook off the sleep. It felt like a nightmare, but at least in the grey light of dawn it was gone. Over. I sat down with a bit of bread and butter, bit of cheese.
And there it was.
The bug. No, there they were. There were two of them now. How was that even possible? We both sat there. All sat there. I eyed them cautiously. Little brown fly like things, with overly large black eyes. I watched them all through breakfast. And they watched me. And none of us moved. Except that I occasionally lifted my hand and took a small bite, chewing slowly. I didn't want to look away. I felt like if I looked away, I'd look back and there'd be three of them. And maybe more.
I made myself open the shop up, wouldn't do to have a boarded up shop, cops loved that stuff. Then I went right back to watching.
Three hours later the bell above the door dinged as it opened, and a chubby gentleman and his lady walked in. Fine piece of tail she was too, all long-legged and blonde, though the fashion had it all covered up. Shame. I gave her my full attention.
"Anything I can help you with, my lady?"
The gentleman she was with butted in.
"We're looking for a necklace. If you… have anything worth having."
The disdain in his voice practically dripped out of his beardless face. Posh old puffguts, his belly hanging out over his belt. Like he deserved a dish like this. Maybe I should sample it instead, I thought, my mind running away for a moment before I brought myself back.
"'course we do. Plenty of fine pieces for the beautiful lady."
I took out the best trays. The ones with the real stuff, not the glass and beads dressed up to look like the real stuff. That was for less discerning customers. Prices was all the same, mind. Like I said, for the less discerning. Man gotta make a living.
The beautiful lady smiled as I held up some pearls.
"Oh how delightful!"
"Let's try it on, shall we?" I said, reaching around her neck and breathing in the scent of roses. My mouth watered a little. If only old puff guts weren't around, who knows how much fun we’d have. Old fool never knew what he had, I'd treat her right. As the thought hit me I saw another of those bugs sitting watching me from the shelf behind her. How had it got there? I never saw it move. I glanced behind me and froze. The other two were still sitting on the desk. Still staring at me. Must've been standing there a while because the bloke coughed.
"Sorry, lost me train of thought for a moment there. How's that, eh? Fine piece for a fine lady."
I stepped back and let her admire herself in the mirror.
"Darling, it's perfect!" she gushed.
Well, he was never gonna say no after that, was he? So I tacked a little extra on his bill, then let him argue me down until he was only overpaying by about a fifth. Man’s gotta love it when a well-off gentleman like that comes in with a lady. Makes them easy marks.
They left, and I settled back in my chair and poured myself a brandy. I was feeling pretty good until my eye rested on the counter. One, two, three, four five six seven, eight, was that nine? No, another three on the shelf made twelve. Spooked, I lunged at the cluster on the desk, smashing the bottle down. It shattered, spilling brandy everywhere. Cut me up pretty good too.
But when I wrapped my hand up and counted them again there were still twelve. I got another bottle out and finished it. Didn't sleep much that night neither. Then I lay abed most of the morning. What was the point in doing much else? Might as well sleep, drink, and be merry. Or at least, lie there until the headache from last night's brandy drove me to find some more.
When I finally got up it was after noon. Well after. And there were more bugs waiting. Lots more. Maybe forty? Fifty? I lost count. They still never moved. Just sat there with beady, unblinking eyes fixed on me like, like, I dunno what it was like. There was one on every surface in the shop. One perched on the light, dozen on the table, on the shelves, everywhere.
I left the closed sign hanging and went back to bed. Got up that evening.
I dint even try and count but there was more. Two in every spot I'd seen one that morning. Like they were multiplying. And fast, just dividing and dividing and dividing and more and I couldn't do nothing about it except toss and turn in another sleepless night and stagger awake in the morning and endure another day.
Evening fell and found me sitting in my old chair not much wanting to move. There were hundreds of the beady-eyed blighters now, staring me down. Even when I closed my eyes I could see them.
The bell dinged and I was halfway across the room before the door fully opened. I’d forgotten to lock it the night before, and I was just ready to yell at the idiot who couldn’t read a closed sign when Nick sidled into the room. I watched him close. What did he want?
"'ullo, Cain. You don’t look so good."
"I’m fine. You got more stuff for me to have a look at?"
"Naw," he sneered. "Not so sure I want to be bringin' stuff 'ere no more. Not ifn you're figurin' six twos make ten and underpricin' the goods even afore that."
“Dunt know what you mean, Nick.”
“I’m meanin’ we shoulda least got twenty bob for those watches and you’d still turn a tidy sum when you sold ‘em on. ‘Stead I find out I’m short ten, fifteen bob because you though you was cleverer than ol’ Chet. Which you is, but not cleverer than ol’ Nick, right?”
"I offered a price, Nick. Nobody forced nobody to do nothing. If you dunt like the deals your partner makes, dunt send him to deal. Int my fault if he makes a bad one."
"Sure is ifn you're sloshing brandy down 'is throat and offerin' bad advice. Takin' advantage is what it is."
"Well, deal's done. If you dunt like it, go somewhere else next time."
Nick pulled his knife out his jacket, tossed it hand to hand. The lamplight caught the metal of the handle as it smacked into his hand each time, hypnotic. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it as he spoke.
"Mebbe I'm thinkin' deals can be reopened, mate. Renegotiated."
"Are you threatening me? Not a chance you get a coin outta me with that."
"Just warnin', is all."
I looked up. I didn't like the look in Nick's eye when it met mine. There was a gleam that was never normally there. A brightness as he stepped toward me. Then he snapped the blade out and I looked around for something to defend myself with. There was a heavy statuette, big brass thing, on a shelf near my desk. I backed up against the desk. Nick sneered as he came close. He was faster than I thought and before I knew it, the knife was up against my throat. My hand found the statuette but I didn't dare move. The thin edge of the knife pressed into my throat, a hot line beneath my chin. Nick’s hand was cold and I could smell his breath as he spoke. Stale brandy and cigarette smoke.
"Me and this knife 'ave an 'istory, y'know. Lotta problems we solved together, eh? Like the gordium knot thing we learnt at school. Some fings are just better cut away, eh mate?"
I swallowed, carefully, the knife pressing right into my throat.
"Pretty sure that would cause you more problems, Nick. Bet someone saw you come in here."
"Naw, made sure of that. Chet's keepin' a lookie. See nuffink goes amiss. But look, mate. We been like brothers in the past. We're mates. Don't want nuffink to come between that like a little misunderstandin', see? This ‘ere is just a warnin' is all. Settin' things straight. Next time Chet come in here with goods for sale, you remember this. And you don't get the brandy out, and you put away that oily smile, and you don't figure up the amounts wrong. You deal straight, and we don't have no problem, alright?"
"Alright." I squeaked, too scared to nod. Inside, I was a raging storm of fury. How dare he? In my own place. He were just a lowly pickpocket. Scum of the earth and nothing more and he was here, threatening me, calling me 'mate' like we was equals.
Nick slipped the blade back into his pocket. I could still feel where it had rested on my skin. He turned away..
"See ya later, mate."
I brought the statuette crashing down on his head. Something cracked as it hit and his body slumped to the floor. I sank to my knees and hit it again and again. Then I fished around in his pocket for the knife and slit his throat just to be sure, and for the poetry of it. Disrespecting me in my own shop like that, he had it coming.
My breath came quick and I crouched there in the dimness, frozen at the thought of what had just happened, exulting in it too. My blood pumped round my body far too fast. My head pounded.
Too late, I remembered what he'd said about Chet being outside. The bell above the door dinged as it opened and he walked in.
"Uh, Nick? Cain? You there?"
His eyes took a moment to adjust to the gloom. Then they widened. I couldn't let him go, couldn't have him talking. I snarled and leapt, hauling him into the shop and letting the door slam behind. He stumbled forward. I still had Nick's knife in my hand and I slashed it across his throat, snarling. The hot blood sprayed across my face, the shocked look in his eyes burning into mine. The body fell to the ground. I stumbled back, slumping into a chair. My breath came faster. My heart beat harder. Those bugs watched with their beady eyes. Always watching. There were more than there were when Nick arrived, I was sure of it. Lots more. They covered every spare inch of the shop now. Covered Nick. Chet was the only thing they weren't covering, Chet and me. But I could feel them close around me.
It took two hours to haul Chet out back. There was a small garden there. I dug a deep hole in the moonlight, eight feet deep at least, and heaved him in. Then I went back for Nick.
He was gone.
There were just more of those infernal bugs, thousands of them, thicker where the body had lain. But Nick was gone.
I sat on the floor surrounded by bugs, staring blankly at the thick carpet of them covering the space the body had lain. How could he be gone? I drew my knees up and wrapped my arms around them, rocking gently back and forth. How had it all gone so wrong?
I never much moved after that. I mean, every time I did involved stepping on those foul things, not that anything happened to them when I did. I'd lift up a foot and there'd be a space under it, only for them to fill it in again. But nothing killed them, and believe me I tried. Knife did nothing. Smashing them did nothing, no matter what I used. Books, statues, nuffink. I beat at them with my fists until they was bruised and the skin started to split. Even set fire to a few that were sitting on a stool, doused them in brandy and set it alight before I realised it was only going to burn me whole shop down. Threw it out the window at the back sharpish. I couldn’t tell if they was the same ones but pretty sure they were back soon enough. And I never once saw them move neither.
Can't tell a lie here, those were dark days. First day passed, nobody came into the shop. Nobody came near it. Second day I saw a shadow at the door and someone started to turn the handle, then they turned and walked away. Maybe they sensed it. Maybe they knew. The place had the feel of death, the chill of the grave about it. Or maybe that was I hadn't been out for coal. Summat told me it weren't making any difference anyways even if I lit the whole place up it would still feel cold.
Dint sleep much. Dint eat much. Weren't much left to eat neither.
Thought about leaving, get bread, get coal. Maybe just get running and not stop until I was across an ocean or two. But summat stopped me. Held me there. Like walking out the door would open the world up to a whole host of evil things. I knew I dint want that, dint wish this on nobody. So I was trapped. Just me and the host. Me and my demons.
Morning of the third day I had had enough. I was sitting behind the desk where it had all started. The brass bulb they’d come from was still on the corner of the desk where I’d left it after opening it. The blue butterfly thing had long disintegrated into dust.
I had a large glass of brandy by my side. Had a larger one inside me already. And I held Nick's knife in my hand. I was nervously drumming the flat of the blade against my thigh, just above the knee. Feeling the tap tappity tap of it through the wool. Contemplating. Couldn’t end them. But I could end me. I hadn't left the shop in a week. Was it only a week? It felt like eternity there in the gloom and the darkness, the press of infernal insects all around. The cold bleakness of my own soul as my only company.
I was bracing myself for courage, when the bell dinged a final time and I looked up with bloodshot eyes.
The door opened and the jolly man, that Mr. Gilberts, stepped into the shop. He didn't seem to see the bugs, nobody had but me, but he took about four steps in and frowned like something was wrong. Like a chill had settled on him.
He frowned again, like he could see them. Even if he couldn't see, you know?
"I was coming to see if you'd found that book… but… Look, something tells me I'd better leave one instead."
He took two quick steps toward me, drew a book out his pocket, threw it down on the bug-covered counter. Then he spun on his heel and stumbled out pretty fast for a fat man with a cane.
I looked at the book. The leather cover was embossed, and it was small and black with a faded title. Something in me loved it, but something hated it too. I picked it up with trembling hands. Three bugs lay squashed under it. The first I'd seen them harmed. I brushed them off onto the desk, read the faded letters and frowned. What on earth would I want with a Bible?
I nearly put it down right then, but as I reached for the counter the bugs shrank away. I looked at the dead bugs on the table and brought the book back toward me. The thousands of living ones seemed to almost draw closer, like the last thing they wanted me to do was read. Honestly, the last thing I wanted to do was read, the very thought of it made me feel sick.
I held the book for an hour or so. Dead still.
Then I cracked it open.
And I started to read.
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