Thursday, October 29, 2009

Raven & Skull

By Ashley Lister

The following is an excerpt from an unpublished novel I’ve been working on. The scene is set in the prestigious offices of a company called RAVEN & SKULL. Hopefully it answers the question: What do I find scary?

“Mr Wade,” Moira began.
She had the sort of raspy voice that suggested 40 a day - minimum. Tony could hear every syllable struggling to make its way through layers of yellowing phlegm and tar blackened lung material as Moira gasped his name in her gravel-strewn death rattle.
“I’m glad I found you here alone, Mr Wade. I’ve been wanting to talk to someone from management.”
Tony pointed to a seat and waited for Moira to sit down. His heart pounded from the surprise of discovering he wasn’t alone in the building. He didn’t particularly want to talk with Moira – ideally he would have been happier finishing his work and going home – but there was no polite way to dismiss her from the office without causing offence. Telling himself that a break from the workload might not be such a bad idea he stretched his neck until it cracked and then he settled back in his chair.
“What’s the problem, Moira?”
Silence.
He could hear the sounds of the office around him as the building breathed. The heavy sigh of an expectant printer, the constant whisper of fluorescents above, and the tinny faraway crackle of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre building to its distant conclusion from his iPod speakers. He studied her eyes – the whites turned rheumy yellow and the pupils a black that was unnervingly deep – and waited for a response. Although Moira had been with the office since he began working there it was the first time he had sat in the same room with the woman and studied her at such close proximity. Her hair was a tangle of grey barbs. Her face was a relief map of porous flesh and ravine-deep wrinkles. There was a wart on her jaw line, a gnarled lump of discoloured flesh sprouting a dozen short black hairs. Tony thought the hairs looked like insect legs wriggling from beneath her skin. Previously he had thought Moira was another of the forgotten office drones; a dinosaur from accounts plodding toward extinction. But staring into her eyes, he got the impression that she might be far more than he had ever imagined. The thought trailed an icy finger down his spine.
“What’s the problem, Moira? What did you want to talk about?”
“I think I might have killed them.”
In her raspy, cancerous voice, Moira’s admission sounded gruesome. Tony’s smile faltered and he fumbled with the iPod for a moment to silence the nuisance of the whispered music.
“Killed them? Killed who?”
“Carole. Nicola. Shea. I think I killed them.”
“They weren’t murdered,” Tony reminded her. He wasn’t sure what he had expected when Moira appeared in his office but this confession was so far removed from his expectations he found himself doing mental gymnastics as he tried to understand what she was saying. “Carole had that unfortunate encounter with her boyfriend, Nicola had-”
“I know how they died, Mr Wade,” Moira rasped. She didn’t bother to hide her impatience. She sat close enough so Tony could smell the fetid scent of her breath when she spat the words. The pungent fragrance reminded him of sweat-stained sickbeds.
“I know that they died of supposedly natural causes,” Moira assured him. “But I still think I might have killed them. I think I might have killed all of them. And more besides. I think that’s what I do for Raven and Skull.”
“Why do you think that?”
“I’ve been knitting.”
This time Tony knew he was responsible for the protracted silence. He tried to work out if Moira’s comment was as absurd as it initially sounded, or if he could possibly be overlooking something obvious.
“You’ve been knitting?” The conversation had the surreal headiness of something from an art movie or a badly translated foreign language sitcom. He understood the words but the meaning behind those words was just a little bit beyond his grasp. Tony closed his eyes and rubbed the heel of one hand against his forehead. For a brief instant he expected Moira to have disappeared when he opened his eyes. To his disappointment, he found her still sitting there and facing him. Drawing a deep breath he said, “You’ve been knitting. And you think that killed Carole, Nicola and Shea?”
Moira nodded.
Forcing himself to appear patient Tony asked, “Why would you think that, Moira? You’ll have to explain it to me because I can’t quite see the connection.”
She graced him with a look of contempt that he had seen before. It was the same belligerent question he had seen in the eyes of too many lesser ranking employees who were either disgruntled or disappointed. It was a silent expression that asked, “How did you get to be in such a responsible position when you know so little?” Since moving up to management level Tony had become used to receiving the expression. It was most often shot at him during disciplinary hearings and assessment reviews.
“I knitted for each of them,” Moira began. She lowered her gaze to the file-cluttered surface of the boardroom table. Her creased and time-rumpled features looked painfully heavy. “I knitted for Carole, Nicola and Shea,” she murmured. “And now they’re all dead. It’s my fault.” She hitched a breath – the sound of an ugly animal in pain – and then raised her gaze to meet Tony’s. “Have you ever heard of the Fates?”
She was making no sense and jumping sporadically from one topic to another. Tony wondered if she was always like this or if this evening’s irrationality might be symptomatic of some condition. If he had known her a little better he would have felt qualified to judge. Because this was proving to be the longest conversation he’d ever had with Moira, he felt cruel deciding she was a fruitloop just because her way of speaking didn’t perfectly match his expectations.
“The Fates?” he repeated. He wondered if it might be a brand of knitting wool or maybe some pop group from a bygone era with which she was more familiar. Either seemed likely and promised to make as much sense as anything else in this abstract conversation. Glancing slyly at one of the open laptops on his desk, noting that the time was getting late, he fixed his smile into a rictus of forced politeness and said, “No, Moira. I don’t think I have heard of the Fates. What are they?”
“The Greeks called them the Fates. Clotho. Lachesis. Atropos.”
Tony said nothing. He was trying to think of a way to get Moira to leave the office so he could finish the remainder of his work and then puzzle about the new problem of Moira and her questionable sanity.
“The Fates controlled every destiny. Clotho span the thread of life. Lachesis measured the length of each thread. Atropos cut the thread with her abhorrèd shears.”
“One of us is fucking crazy, Moira,” Tony thought. He wondered if the crazy person in the room was the one spouting rubbish about Greek mythology or the one sat listening to her instead of getting on with a demanding workload of unpaid overtime.
“Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos,” Moira repeated.
Tony didn’t know why but those names conjured up images of three haggard crones bent over with age and the weight of their onerous tasks. It was easy to see them as the witches from Macbeth with their plotting, cursing and general doom prophecies. A rash of goosebumps tickled down his forearms.
“Greek Gods,” he said, nodding. “Is that who they were, yes?”
“No.” She regarded him with another sneer of contempt. “The Fates weren’t mere Gods.” She spat the final two words with a disgust that was palpable. “The Fates were so powerful that even the Gods feared them.”
“And what does this have to do with-”
“The Fates had the perfect system,” Moira broke in. “Clotho span the thread of life. Clotho was responsible for the quality and colour of each person’s life. Lachesis used her measuring rod to decide how long each person’s allotted time would be. And Atropos ended each of those lives with her abhorrèd shears.”
“Abhorrèd shears,” Tony thought. “That’s twice she’s said that now.” He didn’t like the phrase – it made him want to shiver and shift in his seat. “I still don’t see what these three-”
“They were like the Holy Trinity,” she exclaimed. “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: one in essence.” Her low, raspy voice had increased in pitch and volume.
Listening to her, Tony had the lunatic idea that he was hearing something older than time. There was the mad thought at the back of his mind that, if he concentrated just a little harder, all her words would begin to make sense and he might stumble on truths he had never really wished to uncover. He rubbed his forehead again.
“It’s been a long day,” he began wearily. “And you must think I’m a real idiot for not getting this straight away. But I don’t know how your knitting and these three gods-”
“Fates!”
“-Fates,” he amended, “all tie together with Carole, Nicola and Shea’s deaths.” He flexed a grin that was meant to inspire sympathy and maybe some understanding.
Moira stared at him with dead black eyes.
“What am I missing?”
“I think I’m the Fates,” Moira told him. Her voice returned to its previous tone. She spoke in a low, coarse whisper. “I’m the essence of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos.”
Tony nodded and tried to present a façade that was solemn with sage understanding. “Nutty as a fucking fruitcake,” he decided. First thing in the morning he was going to send a memo to human resources and have them arrange a leave of absence for Moira. If there was any way of insisting on a psychiatric evaluation before she was allowed to return to the office then he was going to make that recommendation too.
“Last week I took it on myself to knit Carole a woolly jumper,” Moira said earnestly.
Tony glanced at the open laptops and realised his overtime was now a lost cause. It would take the best part of an hour after he was rid of Moira to get his thoughts back to the zone where they had been when he was reorganising schedules and remembering the technicalities of all the clients being dealt with by Carole, Nicola and Shea. The thought was disheartening and he had to make a physical effort not to show his anger to Moira.
“I’d thought she looked cold,” Moira continued. “I know it’s fashionable for young girls to wear short skirts and next to nothing in the way of clothes, but Carole always looked chilly because of it.”
“Carole died of extensive head trauma,” Tony said softly.
Moira wasn’t listening. “I remember cutting the final thread for her jumper at ten o’clock on Sunday night. Last Sunday night. The news had just come on the telly. When I close my eyes I can still hear the theme tune to the news. That and the rusted snipping sound of those abhorrèd shears.”
Tony studied her warily.
“When I came into the office on Monday, I had the jumper wrapped up in a parcel for her. Nicola was crying and she told me that Carole had died the previous night. She told me that Carole had died at ten o’clock – just when I was cutting her thread.” Moira stayed silent for a moment, allowing Tony to digest what she had said.
He shook his head. “No. That’s just coincidence.” The acoustics in the boardroom stopped his words from carrying any real conviction.
“Nicola asked me what was in the parcel,” Moira continued. Her low and raspy voice was now a flat monotone. There was no inflection of remorse or upset in the way she spoke. She was either mechanically reiterating facts. Or she had simply stopped caring. “Nicola thought the wool I’d used on Carole’s jumper was lovely. It was a lilac cashmere. She asked if I had any left and, when I said I had a little, she asked if I could knit a beret for her.”
Tony shifted uneasily in his chair.
Moira’s level gaze remained fixed on him. “I finished knitting that beret on the Monday night. Do you know what time I finished?”
“I really think you’re making-”
“Do you know what time I finished? Do you know what time I cut her thread with my abhorrèd shears?”
Tony thought, “Stop saying those words!” Aloud he said, “Nicola died at six o’clock. She was hit by a train and died instantly.”
“That’s when I finished her beret.”
Her lips parted and the corners twisted upward. Tony saw that she was attempting a hideous parody of a smile. The result made him nauseous.
“Are you starting to believe me, Mr Wade?”
He coughed and cleared his throat. “This is foolishness, Moira.” He tried to inject an appropriate note of authority into his voice but it refused to ring with any real conviction. “This is nothing more than coincidence and, if you sat down and thought about it, you’d realise that I’m right. You’re not these Greek Gods-”
“Fates!”
“-Fates. You’re not these Greek Fates. You’re just Moira from accounts who enjoys knitting in her spare time. You’ve obviously been upset by the death of your colleagues. We’ve all been upset and we’re all grieving. But I think you could use the help of a counsellor. I’m going to recommend to human resources that they arrange for-”
“I figured it out with Nicola,” Moira told him.
Her words killed everything Tony had been about to say.
“When Nicola died at six o’clock, the same time I was cutting her thread, I knew my knitting was responsible for her death. I found out about it on the Tuesday. I was sick to the stomach thinking that I’d done that to her and I wondered how I could prove it and how I could try to make amends. That was when I started to knit a scarf for Shea.”
Tony simply stared at her.
“You can write a reprimand for me if you like,” Moira went on. “But I didn’t bother doing any work for the office that morning. I simply picked up my needles and pulled out some black wool I’d brought with me. I thought about Shea because – well…” Her level gaze skewered Tony to his seat. “…I’m sure you can understand why I chose Shea.”
The smile had disappeared from her face. She now wore an expression of cold intensity. “I saw him smirking at the water cooler. He’d just made a crass remark about Nicola catching the train. He was talking to that nice girl Heather and she looked appalled by his insensitivity. That’s why I picked on him. I told him I was going to knit him a scarf to keep himself warm now winter was approaching. He said he wanted one as long as his cock, so he suggested I should go out and get some more wool. Then he laughed in that cruel and nasty way of his. It made me more anxious to knit the scarf for him. I’ve never done any knitting as industrious as that. If I had any sense for the fanciful I’d be telling you that sparks were flying from the tips of my needles as they clashed together. I really was working at a blistering speed but I think, if anyone had seen me, they would have just noticed an old woman with her knitting, making a rather formal scarf. I cut his thread exactly at noon. Do you remember what time Shea died, Mr Wade? I think you do remember because you were the one who spoke to the police about the incident, weren’t you?”
“The lift malfunctioned at noon,” Tony said quietly.
“Noon,” Moira repeated. “I cut his thread at noon and I killed him.”
“No.” Tony shook his head. “I refuse to accept that this is anything more than coincidence. You’re just-”
“Would you like me to knit you something, Mr Wade?”

8 comments:

  1. Oh, Ash!

    This is great! Really in the tradition of Poe. But quite a departure for you, isn't it?

    I can't wait to see the whole thing. Do you have plans for the book?

    Happy Halloween!

    Hugs,
    Lisabet

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  2. Hi Lisabet,

    I need to tweak a couple of the final chapters. This is one of the opening scenes, setting up the atmosphere for working at Raven & Skull, and I'm pleased with the way it works.

    And, once it's finished, I shall be throwing it at every agent and publisher who smiles in my direction.

    In some ways it's a variation from my usual style and genre. However, I do like pushing myself to meet different challenges, so in that regard it's simply another case of my trying to write a book that I've always wanted to read.

    Thanks for reading and responding,

    Ash

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  3. It the whole book is this good, you'll have a big winner!

    Secretia

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  4. Thanks Secretia,

    As Lisabet noted, it's a departure from my usual erotic style, but I'm quite pleased with the way it's developing.

    Thanks for reading & responding,

    Ash

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  5. I love this. I can hear Moira's voice very clearly, and that last line, "Would you like me to knit something for you, Mr. Wade." Very chilling. You did a great job of building this one up.

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  6. Ashley!

    Thanks for showing this excerpt. Its really good. About half way through I was thinking - man, I wonder if she's knitting him some baby booties or something with one thread hanging down. I know someone will pick this up. Its a really good premise.

    I was thinking just now of this story by Ray Bradbury, back in his pulp magazine days when he was really scary, called "The Scythe". There's this family in the dustbowl depression days traveling in a car and they break down at an abandoned farm house with a huge field of wheat and a scythe by the door. When the man accidentally kills his family he discovers he's The Grim Reaper and goes berserk in the field and WWII begins.

    Thanks for this post.

    Garce

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  7. Helen,

    I'm glad you enjoyed it. I was quite pleased with that last line and it always makes me wonder how I would respond to Moira's offer.

    Thanks for reading & responding,

    Ash

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  8. Garce,

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm delighted the story tickled the intended funny bones :-)

    The Ray Bradbury story sounds like clever, intelligent horror: the way Stephen King used to write with titles like The Dead Zone, The Stand and his stories from Night Shift.

    I'm going to have reacquaint myself with some of these modern classic authors.

    Thanks for reading & responding,

    Ash

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