By popular demand, another short story by author Michael Collins. Adult themes.
Talent Acquisition (The Association)
Ellie Duffy peered at the peeling wallpaper on the opposite wall and wondered for the thirteenth time just what the hell she was doing here.
There were two answers to that question, she thought – one short, and one long.
The short answer involved the words ‘IMMEDIATE START REQUIRED, NO PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE NEEDED, OUTDOOR/FIELD WORK and £20 PER HOUR’’; words she’d first read in large block type on page eight of the website.
Miskatonic Jobs was the site she’d been looking at; Ellie’s girlfriend Sasha had told her that Miskatonic was different to all the other recruitment sites out there and had recommended it to her a week ago. Miskatonic specialised in offbeat, interesting work, the polar opposite to what she’d done before as a finance assistant. Ellie wasn’t so deluded as to imagine that she was going to find a plumb career-making opportunity on this odd little backwater of the internet, but the long answer to her question mandated against using the traditional methods of job seeking – something that Sasha knew very well. She sent off her CV, and within two days received a phone call from a prim-voiced receptionist who told her told to report to the city, at an office off Marshall St the next day. That was the short answer.
The long answer involved her erstwhile boss, the two of them alone in the office working late one night, an unsought compliment, and an unprovoked touch. The rest of it – the full, frightening story that lay behind his whispered words and stubby, wandering fingers, the furtive glances sent her way by colleagues over the next few days, the frantic, tearful accusation she made to one of the senior managers (a woman, not that it mattered much in corporate-land), and finally the call into the corner office – all of this she wished she could forget.
The severance payment she had received for withdrawing her complaint – he was the FD, so an HR investigation was only going to end up with one result – helped with the anger. But nothing could wipe away the inexplicable shame she felt, how she felt somehow that the whole damn thing had been her fault. The bruised, accusatory looks from the others in the office. And the bright red fury she felt at these traitorous, bullshit impulses. There was only one person to blame for what had happened, and it wasn’t her. Yet like the taste of dirt in her mouth, the hurt and shame remained. Only a new start could wash that awful feeling away.
Ellie shrugged off her reverie to focus on her surroundings; this dingy reception area on the second floor of a shambolic old office block wedged in between a spit ‘n’ sawdust pub and a boarded-up shopfront. The wallpaper opposite looked to have been pasted on badly sometime in the 1970s. Ugly yellow sunflowers glared back at her. Behind a sturdy mahogany desk the prim-voiced receptionist sat rigidly, her fingers clattering away on the antique typewriter on her desk. The window behind her was veiled with a thin, grungy curtain. The faint light from the overhead fitting didn’t quite stretch into the corners of the room. The room was freezing, and hanging in the cold air was a faint smell of sighing resigned disappointment, that whatever money came into this business strode through the sad, sagging reception area without stopping; always did, always would. The whole place felt like that, in fact. Dead, or waiting to die. It gave Ellie the creeps.
Stop it, she admonished herself. Anything is better than going back to that place.
The secretary gave her a withering stare, as though Ellie had spoken aloud. Watery grey eyes lasered in on Ellie through steel-rimmed spectacles for a long moment, then returned to the typewriter (do people use those things anymore? Ellie wondered), steel keys rattling off letters and lines the only sound in the room. Ellie went back to her examination of the grim sunflowers, feeling oddly chastened.
She was prompted by the secretary’s prim, enquiring voice: ‘Miss? Miss? You can go in now. Miss?’
Ellie jolted out of her chair in surprise. She hadn’t heard a peep from the office beyond, nor the sound of a phone or intercom. How did the secretary know it was time for Ellie to enter? Was it prearranged, or was there some kind of signal that Ellie had missed? She shrugged off – or tried to – the foggy feeling of strangeness that had infiltrated her brain, moved to the office door, opened it and entered.
This tiny cubbyhole was even more dismal than the reception area, she thought. The floor was carpeted in a strange mural-like tapestry which depicted capering goblins with wide eyes and sharp grins. Pale aluminium shelves lined the walls, stacked with fat ring binders, stray sheets of paper fluttering out here and there like strands of white hair from a loosening ponytail. Dust congregated in the corners. Dominating the floorspace was a large desk, ornately engraved sturdy wooden legs with a thick, beaten steel surface. Behind it were seated two men.
On the right was a small white man, sickly-looking, a scrim of five o’clock shadow making him look dirty and shifty. A roll-up cigarette sat behind one grimy ear. This man was dressed in a shabby ill-fitting grey jacket with a white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, which bore faded stains of indeterminate provenance. The miasma of quiet despair and ill-repute which hung over the reception seemed to cling to this man also – so much so that Ellie felt she could almost see it in the air around him. This man smiled at her entry, showing her his small, yellowing teeth.
The other figure…. The other figure was different. He dominated his companion, and the room. A huge black man sat leaned back in the other chair, his large stomach billowing out from underneath a shirt the colour of blood. Over the shirt he wore a navy suit jacket. A violet fedora hat with a feather snuck into its brim was atop the man’s head. His large ebony-skinned face was wreathed in a great open grin, his huge teeth shining like mini tombstones in the room’s gloom. The expression on his face exuded mirth and menace in equal measure. Ellie found herself looking at his hands, which were interlaced on the tabletop. They looked like giant black spiders. She didn’t want to shake hands with him, she thought. If she enclosed one of her tiny hands in there it might not come back. Yet she astonished herself when she found herself stepping forward into the room with her hand extended towards the huge black man.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I’m Ellie Duffy.’
Another surprising thing: although she’d directed her words and her hand at the black guy (clearly the boss here, she surmised) it was the sallow white guy who stood and took it, introducing himself.
‘Thanks for coming in,’ the man said, in a voice which matched his face – thin and whiny. ‘Call me Carlos.’
Like the jackal, Ellie’s mind whispered to her. Nevertheless, she shook his clammy hand and sat down in one of the two plastic chairs wedged in the small space between the desk and the door.
Carlos, resuming his seat, waved a hand at the man sitting next to him. ‘So, my partner Tommy and I, we’re looking to bring someone in to help us out a bit whilst we work on expanding our business. We’re looking for somebody young, somebody talented, someone who’s not afraid of hard work. There’s quite a lot of fetching and carrying, so you’ll need to be physically fit. We’re often on the move, so you’ll need to be someone who likes the outdoors. And you’ll need to be someone who can, let’s say, deal with the unexpected.’
Tommy laughed, a silent explosive guffaw.
‘We mostly work for ourselves, but we take on sub-contracts from time to time, when they’re lucrative enough and they… arouse our interest. We’re engaged in a very interesting partnership right now, as it goes. Not enough people take any enjoyment from their work, and that’s very important to us. You gotta be happy in your work, right?’
Ellie shifted uneasily, producing a loud (and mortifying) squeak from the cheap plastic seat. She forced herself to look at the black man – Tommy – as Carlos droned on. His eyes seemed to contain the world, and they conveyed to her an infinite depth of amusement at everything they saw – the whole world a great cosmic joke for him to enjoy. But she couldn’t look away.
Carlos abruptly stopped speaking and looked at Tommy, as if he had by some wordless, motionless signal captured his attention. They looked at each other for a moment, clearly communicating in some way Ellie couldn’t decipher. Then Carlos turned back to Ellie, his pale watery eyes alight.
‘Actually, we’re off on a little run right now. Care to join us? Think of it as a field interview if you like.’
Carlos smirked, and next to him the black man’s grin widened again. There seemed too many teeth in that man’s mouth, she thought.
Fear and a growing tingle of curiosity warred inside Ellie’s brain. A thin trickle of sweat made its way down between her shoulder blades. Part of her wanted to run screaming out into the light – everything about this setup seemed wrong and dangerous. Yet she pushed this nascent fear away, hearing Sasha’s sardonic voice whispering to her from under the duvet: ‘And now for something completely different, right?’
She nodded, trying to inject some enthusiasm into the gesture. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Let’s do it.’
‘Nice one,’ Carlos said. The two of them stood in unison, Tommy towering over his partner. They squeezed past Ellie. Carlos took the door and opened it, ushering Ellie through into the reception area. The secretary was nowhere to be seen, and the desk looked old, dusty and somehow faded, as if it hadn’t been occupied or used for decades, aeons… the two men piled past her towards the exit door. Tommy looked pumped, excited. The gleam in his eyes was unsettling. And he still hadn’t said a single word.
As they pounded down the stairs, Ellie asked Carlos where they were going.
‘There’s an item we’ve been commissioned to collect, an item of rare value. Something special, the customer said. We’re going to go pick it up now.’
They hustled Ellie through the front door into a rising breeze which tousled her blonde hair about her ears. The sky threatened rain. Tommy took the lead, bounding puppyishly down the pavement. Carlos and Ellie followed in his wake.
Ellie asked what the item was. Neither man responded. She tried again as she followed them across the road, narrowly missing a bus which blared its displeasure at their backs. ‘What is it?’
Carlos laughed over his shoulder as a chill rain began to fall. ‘Think of it as a top-class door opener,’ he said. Before she could begin to make sense of this rather gnomic response they turned a sharp corner.
Tommy, capering, led them down a narrow alleyway cluttered with black bags filled to bursting with rotten fruit which were slowly dripping congealed gloopy substances onto the pavement. They squeezed through a rusty gate at the end of the alley and into a narrow, crooked street with leering overhanging buildings that seemed on the verge of collapsing on top of their heads. Gaunt, pale children stared silently at them from dark corners as they passed. The pavement beneath Ellie’s feet was cobbled, the pebbles worn smooth and dull from thousands of years of stumbling, staggering feet. She felt a little like she’d stepped out London’s solid reality and into a dark fantasy land.
‘Nearly there,’ said Carlos cheerfully. ‘Now keep your wits about you. This could get a little wet.’
Ellie looked at him through the drizzle. I’m already wet, she thought.
They ceased their weird little journey in front of a shop. A tatty yellow awning waved about in the breeze above its bay display window. Various little ceramic statues and figurines stood on sentry duty in the window – soldiers, samurai, kings and animals from antiquity. Surmounting the windowframe was a thick curtain, vivid red with curious symbols and images embroidered in golden thread.
The two men entered the shop. Ellie followed.
The shop’s interior felt just as the street outside had to Ellie: an ancient, forgotten part of some other kind of reality. The room was warm, vaguely lit by lanterns with low-energy bulbs swinging gently from the low ceiling. Shelves lined the walls, rickety shaky things that seemed in places unable to bear the weight of the objects they stored – intricate little doll’s houses, jars stacked with odd little sweets and shiny trinkets, stuffed animals (a deer’s head, sitting unsteadily on the edge of one shelf, its black shiny eyes glaring ominously at Ellie, sent another delicate shiver down her back), clocks endlessly ticking, spindly little iron candleholders. Leaning precariously against a pile of hardback books in a corner was a miniature penny-farthing, dark and dusty with rust.
If the fella who runs this place doesn’t have a beard, a bun, a beret and a vape, I’m going to be seriously disappointed, Ellie thought.
The person who greeted Ellie and her strange companions wasn’t a Shoreditch hipster. It was a woman. She was the caricature of age – scrawny, with bird-like limbs, dark skin stretched thin and tight against her bones. A yellow shawl enveloped her upper body and a yellow handkerchief was tied about her forehead, hiding what little wisps of hair remained on her head. Yet the woman’s eyes were sharp and alive and wary at the sight of those who had invaded her sanctum. She stood behind the small counter at the back of the room in a posture simultaneously defensive and rebellious.
‘Ye’re three days early,’ she said in a broad Jamaican accent.
Carlos shrugged, arms outstretched. His mouth widened in an ugly sneer. ‘Three days, four days, weeks, months. The thing doesn’t belong to you.’ He leaned over the counter towards the old woman. ‘Now give it back.’
The old woman sucked her teeth. ‘Why you want it so bad?’ she asked.
‘That’s not for you to know, gran’ma.’ Carlos held out a hand. ‘Now give.’ Tommy stood to one side, arms crossed over his chest, watching the back and forth with that unsettling, ever-present grin.
The woman called back over her shoulder, something in a language incomprehensible to Ellie, and three young men strode through the open doorway to the back of the shop. All three were large, over six feet tall, and built like rugby forwards. Obviously related – brothers, or cousins, they shared the same hooked nose, sharp raised cheekbones and caramel-coloured skin. They all carried something – one had a cricket bat, another a thick lead pipe. However, it was what the third lad carried that stole Ellie’s eyes.
In his arms was a squirming, wriggling lizard-like creature. It was about two feet long, had mottled, scaly skin in bands of green and gold, and legs which ended in sharp-clawed limbs that wrapped around the boy’s forearms. Its long tail likewise slithered its way around one upper bicep. Two tiny black eyes peered out from either side of its vaguely triangular head. As Ellie watched a forked yellow tongue poked out of its mouth (a mouth which appeared to have lots of sharp teeth, she saw). The sense Ellie had that she had somehow landed herself in something dangerous and inexplicable thickened, became tangible.
The old woman pointed a wavery, skeletal arm at Ellie’s new employers. ‘It’s valuable, and I’m keepin’ it,’ she said. The guy with the cricket bat moved up beside her. ‘Now fuck off,’ he said, raising the bat.
Ellie registered Tommy’s wide, happy grin. There followed a moment of pregnant stillness. Then, a lot of things seemed to happen at once, too quickly for her mind to comprehend. Perhaps it was better that way, she thought later, perhaps it was healthier to experience this horror remotely, dispassionately.
the tall lad with the cricket bat was slumped over the shop counter, the tear in his throat a wide, gaping black maw, his blood pooling on the dark wood, and Tommy, grinning fiendishly, was at the second guy, driving him with vicious, feral force against the wall, there was a soft, sickening thud as the back of his head cracked hard against the doorframe, she saw the light fade from his eyes as he fell, saw Tommy twirling a large, serrated knife, thick arterial blood trickling down its blade, as he advanced towards the boy holding the lizard creature, saw that Carlos had produced a handgun from somewhere and held it against the old woman’s paper-tissue thin temple, saw Tommy, smiling happily, extend both arms in a game-show host gesture, saw the boy had two options – give me the creature, or I give you the knife, saw the guy, shaking, hand the creature over, heard its mousy bleat as it wrapped itself around the grinning man’s arms, saw it lean towards the knife and start licking the blood off the blade, making a deep purring sound of satisfaction as it did, saw Carlos nod at some silent command from his partner and pull the trigger, once to the temple of the old woman – who went down in a crumpled heap – and once to the forehead of the boy, who fell also, saw Carlos bundle her towards the door, Tommy right behind them, saw the door open and the three of them tumble out into the rain-slicked alley, saw Tommy, still grinning, arms extended, thrust the creature into her arms and felt its sharp claws dig through her suede jacket and cotton jumper into her skin, saw its eyes widen in recognition as they locked with hers and its long tongue extend from the great maw of shark’s teeth in its mouth to swipe across her wet, rain slicked cheek in a curiously gentle gesture, saw the redness on the tongue as it withdrew and realised with dull terror that her cheek was wet not with rainwater but with blood.
All of this occurring before she had the chance to take a single breath, which only now escaped her lungs with a sigh that sounded like a quiet scream.
Carlos laughed. ‘Told you it might get a little wet,’ he said. Tommy clapped his hands and laughed along in noiseless feverish glee.
Ellie stood there, shaking, in the rain, the creature entwining itself around her forearms. It was purring in contentment.
‘Come along,’ said Carlos, turning to go. ‘Where there’s three of ‘em, there’s always more. Best get going.’
Ellie’s feet moved of their own accord, following Carlos down the alley. The grinning man took the rear, jumping in and out of puddles.
Finally, Ellie recovered the ability of speech. ‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
Carlos looked over his shoulder as they reached the end of the alley. ‘Well, my partner and I are gonna go pay a little visit to the friends of those clowns back there. We’ll be… reminding them of their responsibilities.’
‘What about me?’ Ellie asked.
Carlos stopped in front of an old, shuttered shopfront, underneath a huge purple canvas awning. His partner stood out in the rain, grinning.
‘You’re going to take that thing- ‘he pointed a fat, dirty thumb at the creature snuggling in Ellie’s arms – ‘back where it belongs. Get that done and the job’s yours. Get it?’
‘But I don’t even know where to go!’ Ellie wailed.
‘Of course you do, girl. It knows where it needs to go, and now, so do you. Don’t you?’
Ellie looked down at the thing, into its tiny black eyes, and felt the knowledge seep unbidden into her mind, the destination clear as blood on a white duvet. One moment there was nothing; the next, there it was. With an effort, she lifted her head to Carlos again. Tommy was dancing in the rain, skipping from puddle to puddle.
‘How?’ she asked. ‘What is this thing?’
Carlos shrugged. ‘What it is ain’t important to you,’ he said. ‘It’s something they want, that’s all.’
‘They? Who’s they?’
The smirk that appeared on Carlos’ face was ugly and unsettling, almost as disturbing as the hyper-violence she’d witnessed inside the shop. But the creature stirred and purred in her arms again, and the moment passed.
Carlos said, ‘They’re your new employers,’ he said, that smirk widening. ‘Welcome to the Association.’
At another indecipherable signal from Tommy he turned and the two of them wandered back up the alley together, leaving Ellie alone with the purring thing in her arms. The knowledge of where to go and what to do next lay in her mind like an alien artefact stumbled across in a desert valley, silent, inexplicable and malign. She wondered how it could be. She wondered at how irrevocably her life had tumbled off its safe, predictable platform. Then she remembered the phantom hands of her boss on her breasts and her ass, and the rage and fear and shame welled up again. The creature mewled and shifted in her arms again, and she straightened, finding a weird comfort in its clawed embrace.
Whatever the Association was, she wondered as she started walking, head down against the strengthening rain, it couldn’t be worse, more frightening and degrading than what she’d already suffered. She smiled, thinking of what Tommy’s knife might do to those fat crawling hands. This new job was dangerous, criminal and amoral. But perhaps there were fringe benefits available.