The Darkest Shade of Grey Table of Contents
The Darkest Shade of Grey
by Alan Baxter
Towering brownbricks shielded David Johanssen and the old man from the rain. The red and white neon of a Coca-Cola sign pulsed like a giant life-support machine behind them, coaxing hapless tourists and broken people into the plastic promises of an urban pseudo-Eden. ‘That’s where she was killed, Mr Curtis?’ David asked, clicking on his Dictaphone.
Curtis, a waif of an old man in striped cotton pyjamas, nodded. Pale, diaphanous colours shivered around the old timer, colours only David could see. The translucency of the shades around Curtis showed his fragility and age, but the pale blues and greens were all calm contentment.
‘That’s the blood, you can still see it.’ Curtis pointed to the stained bitumen. ‘I was up there, see, and I heard this shouting.’ He indicated a first floor window that looked out over the road, multiple lanes of traffic crawling through the downpour, going nowhere fast.
David looked up. ‘That’s your apartment?’
‘Yup. Lived there over thirty years. I heard this shouting and carry-on and I could see these two boys yelling and shoving. I couldn’t see the lady, but I could hear her, yelling and cursing back. I tell ya, the language of people these days!’
David laughed. ‘You can’t live in King’s Cross for thirty years without getting used to foul mouths, surely?’
‘But from people so young? And ladies? The world moves on without us, I suppose.’
‘I suppose. So you couldn’t see the girl? You didn’t see them cut her?’
‘Nah. But I saw the one lad pull a knife out and then there was scuffling and she was screaming and then it cut short into this sort of gurgling sound and the two boys ran off like scalded cats.’
‘You came downstairs then?’
The old man laughed, flapping a hand. ‘Fuck no! I don’t come out of my flat after eight o’clock at night any more. I called the police. When they pulled up I did come down and there she was, lying up against that wall with her throat wide open and blood all around her. Soaked in it, she was. I can’t believe they haven’t cleaned it up.’
David shrugged. ‘They have private contractors for that stuff nowadays. Like everything else, it gets outsourced and then it takes twice as long to happen. The company’s probably hoping the rain’ll do the work for them and they can get paid for fuck all.’ He studied the blood stain, sensing the terror and pain that floated around it, an echo of violence. ‘Anything else you want to tell me?’
Curtis’s old eyes, yellow and grey around faded irises, were sad and wet. ‘What else is there to tell?’
‘You hear the argument? What were they squabbling about?’
‘Something about drugs and she wouldn’t get away with not paying back what she owed. She must have fought back because they all started cursing and hollering and the boys were telling her to get off and stop being crazy. Then they killed her.’
David clicked off his Dictaphone. ‘Okay. Thanks.’
Curtis nodded and shuffled back around to the front of his building. ‘You gonna write a story about it?’
‘Sure. But it’ll only be a paragraph or two on page three or four I expect. This sort of thing isn’t really big news.’
The old man nodded again and turned inside without another word. The glass panel door clicked against the security lock as Curtis laboured his way up the stairs one at a time, resignation hanging off every step.
David returned to the blood stain, crouched, put a palm flat against the gritty road. Images and emotions flooded his mind, rocked him back on his heels. She was only young, the poor kid, a teenager. He felt her bravado, her fuck you attitude and her fear. She’d sobbed for her mother as she’d held her rent throat closed, hot life flooding through her fingers as the two men fled towards the city. She’d wondered why she wasn’t crying tears as she sobbed and called for her mother again, but only a muffled bubbling sound emerged, and then blackness.
David staggered to his feet, stumbling off the kerb. A car horn blared with shattering volume. He threw himself forward with howl of panic as a wing mirror spanked his hip like a piece of two by four.
‘Fucken drunken idiot!’
He didn’t look around for the voice and the car didn’t slow. Gasping quick breaths, hand pressed to his hip, he limped back to the building, leaned on the wall. ‘Fuck me.’
He rubbed a hand over his face. He found himself doing so more and more recently, like he was trying to wipe something off. Eventually he stepped from the shelter of the building’s porch back out into the rain. He headed up towards the red and white corporate god of consumption and the numerous bars in its shadows.
A shiver passed over him. In the shelter of the next building sat a homeless man, hair and beard knotted with grime. The hobo muttered frantically and stared at David with an intensity that froze him to the spot. ‘Can I help you, mate?’ David asked after a moment.
The hobo still muttered, drilling holes through David’s soul with large, bright hazel eyes. A miasma of shivers in the air encased the man. The shades kept switching and morphing, yellows of fear, twisted purples and reds of anxiety and confusion, painting patterns of madness and a sense of desperation. David shook himself and walked past. Those hazel eyes followed him, dirty lips muttering, until David tore his gaze away, hurrying up the street.
Today was turning into a real son of a bitch and the sooner he got a few stiff drinks into him the better.
He got back to the office more than an hour later, nicely warmed inside from four rapid fire bourbons. He knew he was bitter and twisted, but at least now it was bitter and twisted with the edges filed off. As he turned into the front door of the building something made him look back. On the opposite side of the street stood the homeless man from the Cross. David’s heart hammered a quick tattoo of panic against his ribs. ‘What the fuck?’
Had this weirdo followed him? A ten minute cab ride? David yelled across the street. ‘You following me?’
The homeless man stared and muttered.
David stared back, unsure what to do. What could he do? He turned into the building and headed for the lifts.
As he stomped through the office past reception Mandy raised a hand at him, jabbering away into the headset mic of her switchboard. He stopped, waiting while she rambled about some guy and some bar and some stupid friend.
Mandy was nineteen, blonde and hot as hell. David wasn’t quite forty yet, but Mandy looked like a child to him. A child who made his cock heavy as he stared at the swell of her breasts through her white blouse. A child he had often pictured in his mind, naked, sweating and loving him as his hand took momentary care of his frustrations in his bedsit late at night. Or early in the morning. A child who represented everything he would never have again now that he was aging, divorced and broken by a bitch wife, saddled with two hateful kids. All of whom despised him for his “hoodoo shit”. And his drinking. He stared at the smooth, unblemished flesh of Mandy’s cleavage wishing she would hurry the fuck up and tell him whatever it was she had stopped him for.
She looked up, smiled apologetically, holding up one hand again. ‘Look, babe, I really have to go… I’m working! All right, bye, babe.’ She looked up, tapping a button on her switchboard without looking at it. ‘I’m so sorry, that was rude.’
David smiled back, half of him imagining her seeing him as a rugged, desirable older man, gritty and sexy. The other half called himself a fucking idiot. ‘No worries. What’s up?’
‘I just wanted to let you know that Miriam, from the post room, she’s retiring on Friday and we’re having a whip-round.’ Mandy held out a large manila envelope. ‘Could you afford a donation towards a present for her? We’ll pass a card around later.’
David forced a smile, cursing her for stopping him just to beg money for some old bat he didn’t even know. He pulled out his wallet and was greatly relieved to see a five dollar bill in there. Dropping the note into the envelope he noticed coins in the bottom. He could probably have got away with dropping two bucks in.
Mandy almost bounced in her chair. ‘Thanks!’
He walked into the office, glancing back from the door. She was already talking animatedly on the phone again, probably telling some other friend about the creepy reporter who was always ogling her cleavage. Well, if she didn’t like it she could button up her fucking blouse.
Waking his computer, he checked his email. He was soon grinding his teeth, hating Stella all over again. As if it wasn’t bad enough that she’d taken the kids and the house and even the fucking dog, now she had to email him shit like this.
You earn more than you’re letting on, her email said, and I’ll have a court force you to pay more child support if I have to.
He sighed heavily, rubbing a hand over his face. His life in the toilet. He angrily tapped out a response. I’m writing bullshit, hardly deserving of the crap wage I do get. If I earned more I’d move further away from you. See you in court. He stabbed at the mouse to click the send button like he was driving a finger into her brain through her eye.
Her accusation still rang in his ears, two years on: You ruined this family with your occult hoodoo shit! He probably should move away. Only the dog had ever shown an affinity for him. He was jealous as hell of that hound’s stupidity. He imagined selling up what little stuff he had, kidnapping the dog and hitting the road. He could wander the country like Dr David Banner, except he wouldn’t turn green and solve crimes. He’d turn corners and avoid everybody.
‘Johanssen, you listening to me?’
David looked up with a start. Terry, his editor, hung off the doorframe like a well fed, balding gorilla. He watched aura colours swim around the big man, various shades and translucency, dark blue as usual. Grumpy, bitter. ‘Sorry, what?’
‘I said stop daydreaming and get that story wrapped up. Ever heard of deadlines?’
He picked up the phone and dialled. A rough voice answered. ‘Yeah?’
‘No. Who’s this.’
There was silence and some scuffling for a second.
‘David Johanssen, fucken!’
David smiled at the strong Lebanese accent. ‘Hey, Amir.’
‘What is it now?’
‘Young hooker, teenager, killed last night near William Street. You know anything about it?’
‘You calling me a murderer, fucken?’
David laughed. ‘Don’t be a tit. You know you’re my go-to guy. Any details for my story?’
Amir made a sucking noise over his teeth. ‘Nah. I heard about it, but no details, brother. Somebody else’s business. Small time shit.’
‘Okay. Thanks mate.’
‘You come and see us sometime, ya fucken. Not always about business, eh?’
‘Sure man. I will. Thanks.’ He hung up and wrote a story about a teenager who got her throat cut for a pineapple-deal of smack. He wrote how she cried silently, her lips mouthing ‘Mother’ as her life flooded through her fingers. He could attribute the details to old Curtis if he had to. Who would ever check? It jazzed up the story. Besides, it was true. He emailed the piece to Terry and sat back in his chair, staring at post-it notes and coffee stains. The minutiae of his life.
After a couple of minutes of nothing he got up, went to Terry’s office. He knocked on the door and strode in without waiting for an answer. His editor glanced up, annoyed. David revelled in the tiny victory and hated himself for it immediately.
‘What’s this?’ Terry asked, one tiny white speck of spittle flying from a fat, livery lip.
David scowled. ‘What’s what?’
‘This article you’ve just sent me. This the best you can do?’
David raised his hands, palms up. ‘It’s the best I can do given what there is to work with.’
They stared at each for a moment. David watched nervous colours float through Terry’s aura. He could tell he had the upper hand. ‘I’m happy to make any changes you recommend.’ That is your fucking job, after all.
Terry shook his head and leaned back in his overworked swivel chair. A part of David wished fervently for a loud crack and Terry’s legs to fly backwards over his fat arse, his sweaty bald head to bounce into the plate glass behind him, shattering it, sending him like an air whale to explode on the pavement below in a modern artwork of blood, guts, and bone splinters. He sucked in a quick breath, dragging himself back to reality. ‘So that all right then?’
‘It’ll have to be. Nice bit of blood for page three, I suppose.’
‘Cool. See you tomorrow.’
David was heading back to his desk when Mandy’s shrill voice pulled him up short. ‘You can’t come in here! Sir! Errr, sir, please, can I help you?’
He took a step back. His heart did the panic two-step again and the thought of running away screaming like a little girl crossed his mind at the sight of those hazel eyes. The hobo stood motionless but for his mumbling lips. Mandy, Madonna mic held in one hand, wrinkled her nose in disgust. She saw David, her eyes pleading. He cursed under his breath.
Steeling himself he said, ‘Listen, mate, what’s the story, eh?’
‘You can tell my story.’
David stopped dead, surprised at the sudden clear statement from the muttering man. ‘What?’
‘You can tell my story.’
The hobo, the stink of piss, shit, vomit, and alcohol rising off him like a cloud, stepped forward. Involuntarily David took a pace backwards. ‘I’m watching,’ the hobo said. ‘And I’m waiting.’
David’s eyes narrowed. ‘Right. Is that the story?’
‘I don’t know the story, but I know there must be one. You can see things and you write stories. You can help me find it.’
David turned to Mandy. ‘This guy is obviously off his rocker. Call security, eh?’
Mandy nodded, her face horrified. She slipped on the headset mic and jabbed at buttons on her switchboard.
‘No, no. Don’t do that. Please, you can tell the story.’
David held up both hands. ‘Listen, mate, I don’t really know what you’re trying to say, but you’ll have to leave, okay? You can’t stay here. I can’t help you.’
The hobo looked from David to Mandy, then pushed open the fire exit door. David watched him disappear down the stairs.
‘Friend of yours?’ Terry’s voice was mocking.
David shot him a look of disdain. ‘Yeah. He wanted to tell me all about his date with your wife last night.’
Terry laughed and flipped the bird, disappearing back into his office. David grabbed his jacket. Those afternoon bourbons had long since worn off, and he planned to rectify that forthwith.
It took three more bourbons and a beer to level off the weirdness of the afternoon. After another three shots the melancholy set in. David couldn’t remove the image of the hooker’s pool of blood from his mind. He was supposed to be the rough, tough, take no shit reporter, getting to the bottom of everything. All he ever got to the bottom of lately was a bottle, and then he started right over at the top of the next one. Perhaps, if he was honest, he had never been a tough guy at all. He stared at the amber liquid in his glass. He thought he used to be a lot tougher and a lot less of an arsehole. Before the hoodoo shit. Before that dinner party with Bradley and Aileen.
Bradley and Aileen’s fifth wedding anniversary, with the added celebration of a new pregnancy. ‘We have to go, David. We never go out any more and Aileen’s finally pregnant. Let’s get a babysitter.’
He was fine with it. He loved his wife, he loved his boys, they all still loved him. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Bradley can be a funny bastard.’
They laughed and joked and talked about all kinds of stuff. They shared opinions and could disagree without rancour. Just like real grown-ups. They all drank wine, except Aileen. ‘Have to consider the little one now!’
After the meal Stella pulled out a parcel wrapped in silver and white paper. ‘Congratulations, you two!’
The happy couple oohed and aahed and unwrapped a little towelling jumpsuit with a bear embroidered on the front. ‘Yellow, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl,’ Stella enthused.
‘You don’t get presents for yourself any more.’ David raised his wine glass in a toast. ‘Your lives are now over. It’s all about the kids!’
Stella punched his arm, and everybody laughed.
‘Hey, check this out.’ Bradley retrieved a wooden board and a little velvet covered box.
‘Oh, Bradley, don’t be ridiculous.’ Aileen’s face twisted in mock disapproval.
Bradley laughed. ‘Come on, let’s give it a go.’
The board was light wood with darker wood inlaid. The inlays were the alphabet in an arc, numbers underneath, a circle in each bottom corner, one with Yes, the other No.
‘A Ouija board?’ David asked.
‘The boys at the office got it for me. They said I could use it to figure out if it was going to be a boy or a girl. And when they’re a teenager, to try to understand what the hell the kid is doing!’
Aileen shook her head. ‘It’s bloody silly really.’
‘I’ve never done this before,’ David said, intrigued. ‘How does it work?’
Bradley opened the box, took out a carved wooden arrow head. It had a semi-circle dome on top and another underneath. ‘It’s simple. We all sit around the table, put one finger each on here and ask questions.’
‘Then what?’ Stella looked uncertain.
‘Then the spirits answer us!’
David laughed. ‘Excellent! Come on then, let’s have a go.’
That was the point. That was the very moment his life had turned to shit. He stood on a precipice and Bradley’s Ouija board was the edge. He could have turned around and walked away, but he didn’t. He threw himself over.
They cleared the table and turned down the lights. Each of them put a finger on the domed arrow. ‘Will my baby be a boy or a girl?’ Bradley asked suddenly.
‘Brad!’ Aileen’s voice was hushed and annoyed. ‘I don’t want to know!’
‘I really don’t think it can tell us, love.’
There was a moment of silence. David looked around the room. The other three were jolly and happy but he suddenly felt heavy, burdened with a weight of some kind, a sense of expectation. Like something had focussed on him. ‘Is anybody there?’ he asked.
The wooden arrow trembled and skidded across the board. All four people gasped in surprise. ‘Did you do that?’ Bradley asked.
David shook his head. ‘Look.’ The arrow rested in the Yes circle.
Stella took her hand away, her face angry. ‘David, stop it. What are you doing?’
‘Really, I didn’t do that. Put your finger back on.’
‘Come on, Stella, this is exciting!’ Aileen’s eyes held a dare. Slowly Stella reached out her hand and put one finger back on the arrow.
‘Ask something else,’ Bradley said quietly.
David took a slow breath. ‘Who’s there?’
The arrow trembled then began sliding back and forth across the board. The four of them stiffened.The arrow moved smoothly, unnaturally. David read aloud. ‘L-A-M-A-S-H-T-U. Lamashtu?’ The lights blinked, everything black for half a second. Both women screamed. In the blackness David saw a darker silhouette, a human shape.
Stella, Aileen, and Bradley all whipped their hands away, looking accusingly at David. ‘Fuck, mate, how did you do that?’
‘It’s not me, Bradley, I promise.’ David still had his finger on the arrow.
Bradley pushed his chair back a fraction. ‘David, don’t.’
‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
‘Dude, seriously, do not ask a question like that. Have you never seen a horror film?’
David was still looking at the board, the silhouette in his mind. ‘Where are you?’
The arrow slid quickly around the board again. ‘I-N-T-H-E-S-E-C-O-N-D-C-I-R-C-L-E-A-N-D—I-T-B-U-R-N-S.’
Bradley jumped up, grabbing the board out from under David’s hand. ‘Fuck this, what are you doing?’ He snatched the arrow away, stuffed it back into its box.
David felt different, enlivened, exhilarated, opened somehow. Something inside him had changed, static coursed through his veins. Everyone else looked terrified. ‘What are you going to do with it?’
‘I’m throwing it away. It’s a bloody stupid thing to have around.’
‘Let me have it then. I’ll take it if you don’t want it.’
‘You shouldn’t muck about with this stuff,’ Stella said. ‘Just let him throw it away.’
‘I’ll keep it in my study, don’t worry about it. I’m just fascinated by it, that’s all.’ He was scared, but his curiousity burned.
That was the night his life had turned to shit, sure enough. David stared at his empty shot glass. He should have listened to Stella, to Bradley. He held up his glass. ‘Give me another.’
The barman nodded once. ‘With a beer?’
‘Fuck it, why not?’
David staggered from the bar a little after midnight. ‘Responsible service of alcohol my arse,’ he grumbled. The summer night was hot and humid after the air conditioned comfort of the pub. He felt like he’d taken a deep breath of wet sponge. He stood, gathering himself, taking a few more breaths until the sponge was just a hot mist in his lungs. At least the rain had stopped.
He walked, thinking about nothing, staring at the pavement sliding under his feet, not caring where he was going. He ended up walking through a park, down sandstone steps, and eventually looked up. The chattering of fruit bats in the fig trees of Hyde Park surrounded him. William Street stretched away in front of him, a scallop of tarmac and traffic lights, rising up to the red and white flashing neon of the Cross at the other end. Do I really wanna be here again? He considered a titty bar. He could barely stand up straight, so it was unlikely he’d be let in anywhere.
‘You can see, so you can find the story.’
David barked a shout of surprise and anger. The stench of the man floated into his nostrils as he focussed on hazel eyes and a grimy beard. ‘Why won’t the world just fuck off!’ he yelled.
The hobo’s aroma wafted in a rank breeze. ‘The world goes on regardless.’ He began muttering again, frantic whispers.
David tried to hold his breath. ‘You a philosopher all of a sudden?’
‘You look differently, you can see. And you tell stories for people. I’m sure I have a story.’ The muttering resumed, his eyes wet and glittering.
‘Mate, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Why are you following me? How do you keep finding me?’
‘I watch. I see you. Where you are, I go.’ Mutter mutter.
David shook his head. ‘Listen, buddy, I’m really sorry, okay, but I have problems of my own. It must be shit to live like you do, but I can’t help you. Here, you want some money?’ He dug in his pocket, pulled out his wallet. ‘Fuck knows I have precious little myself, but if it’ll help I can give you a few bucks.’
The man shook his head, pushing David’s wallet away. ‘We’re not all the same. Some are like you, only worse, but some are like me.’
David’s head spun, the booze soaking his brain. His eyes were heavy and he needed to switch it all off. An image of waking up in a shop doorway somewhere swam across his mind and he turned, swaying and stepping randomly. Among the cars sailing along William Street he could see a yellow light, a beacon of safety. He half fell to the edge of the road and waved a hand. He looked back at the homeless man. ‘I’m sorry, mate. I can’t help you.’
The taxi pulled up to the kerb. The hobo stepped forward, taking hold of David’s shoulder. He was repulsed by the touch and brushed at the filthy hand.
‘You have to help. You will. I’m watching.’ Mutter mutter mutter.
David held his breath, trapped in the cloud of the man’s putrid fug. Unable to help himself, he leaned closer, watching those undulating lips. The words were so fast and whispered they were incoherent at first, but after a moment it became clear. ‘…thine is the kingdom the power and the glory forever and ever amen our father which art in heaven hallowed be thy name thy kingdom come thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven…’
David pulled away, eyes wide. ‘Sorry.’ He turned and pulled open the taxi door, falling onto the back seat.
‘You better not puke in here, mate.’ The taxi driver’s tanned face was hard, angry.
‘S’alright. I’m drunk, but I’m fine. Get me outta here.’
‘That guy hitting you up for money, was he? Fucking junkie.’
Through the window David met intense hazel eyes. A cold breeze drifted through his guts, down into his balls.
Well, you know these things always happen for a reason. David’s in the middle of something big, obviously — come back next Friday to see him get a little closer to finding out just how big. (Here’s a hint: it doesn’t get much bigger.)
Copypright © 2012 by Alan Baxter