James Miller was born in London in 1976. He is a writer and an academic with a PhD in African-American literature and Civil Rights and has worked as a private tutor and a lecturer at King's College London. His short stories have been published in Neon Lit: The Time Out Book of New Writing Volume 1, Dark Terrors 2 and Dark Terrors 4 amongst others. His influences include William Burroughs, JG Ballard, Cormac MacCarthy, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, HP Lovecraft and Michael Moorcock. His second novel, Sunshine State, an apocalyptic literary thriller involving secret agents, insurgent armies and Christian extremists and set in the hurricane ravaged Florida of the near future will be published by Little, Brown next year.
To find out more, visit James at http://www.jamesmillerauthor.com.
Lost Boys is available on Amazon here.
After all those voices the office felt very quiet. A cold, striated silence: the subliminal drone of the air conditioning system, the static hum of neon lights, the steady whisper of massed computer systems. Normally, he only noticed these sounds in the late hours when the office was almost empty and the roar of his thoughts would cool, just enough… and so, with a shudder, he came back to himself, like a patient brought round after surgery, all too aware, the things around him looming in with oppressive force: the leather chair, the hard plastic desk marked with his fingerprints, the computer monitor, his screen-saver showing rolling Arabian sand dunes.
A security camera, discreetly positioned in the corner where wall became ceiling tilted a few degrees, electronic pupil contracting by a fraction. Maybe they watched him? Deep inside the skyscraper was the security-centre, a windowless, bombproof room lined with monitors. From there, it was said, one could see the entire building: every floor, each lobby, office and atrium via the mesh of camera and screen. And perhaps they were watching him, a tall man in a dark suit, slouched like a schoolboy behind his desk. They could scrutinise the follicle fall-back across the crown of his head and the disapproving lines that framed his thin, rather large face. They could follow the sad down-turn of his strong mouth and even his eyes – “such gentle eyes” – as his wife had said a long time before she was his wife, eyes now rimmed with fatigue, the whites yellowed and the blue of his irises faded, as if the sheer intensity of looking had sapped their colour.
The all-seeing orb contracted, adjusting itself by microscopic fraction. If they wanted to, they could have zoomed in closer, like a probe circling an alien planet, scanning the surface of his skin, checking every crease and canyon, scouring the rough blue reef of stubble on cheek and jaw, noting each scratch and nick of razor, every tiny mole and sun-spot blemish. And they could track his picked nails, the bitten-down cuticles, the nerve nibbled finger trim, the callous on his right hand fore-finger that came from holding his pen at a funny angle and even the dab of ink on his white shirt. And they would watch as he rose from his desk and walked to the window, slipping out of the camera’s radius to vanish into the single out-of-sight angle in his office.
But it was impossible to disappear for long. He took his jacket from the coat hanger, gathered up the cassettes and the tape player from the table and placed them in another box. The box went into a briefcase. Brass clasps snapped down. The man opened the door and stepped out.
To keep the man in sight was a simple matter of swapping cameras: they watched him pass through the open-plan office and nod, politely, at the cleaner. He often worked late and this habit – the little nod – was part of the routine. In the lift they saw him again, pressing the button for the ground floor and idly running one hand through his thinning hair. From the tiny camera above the lift console they watched him frown at his reflection in the mirrored interior. Thirty seconds later, thirty floors down and the lift doors opened. A tripod eye of cameras waited in the great lobby, an orb-nerve dangling between expensive sculptures whose twisted, abstract forms seem to suggest an inner, emotional torment beneath the corporate glitz of shiny marble and chrome. Cameras sensitive to the slightest movement, they saw him again, raising a tired arm to greet the security guard behind the desk and then out he went through the revolving doors. He was gone.
As the taxi pulled away, Arthur closed his eyes. Before this had all started, back in that distant, golden age, he used to relish these moments, when the day’s work was behind him and an evening with his wife and family lay ahead. This once secure knowledge brought with it a sensation of being free from his commitments, a pleasure made all the more sweet for its transience, for the certainty that those very obligations would shortly be resumed. But it was not like that anymore. There was no release; there was no freedom; there was no pleasure. Since Timothy… since then … he shuddered, looked out, tried to look elsewhere… since Timothy had gone… nothing, only a static sort of horror, an aspic of the nerves, emotions sealed in amber. One day then the next. Sometimes he felt like a corpse, pulled from a deep freeze and plunged into a furnace. The pain was never any less.
Still, there was some remnant of relief to be salvaged on the journey home and, as they headed west across the city, he drank at it like a parched man. Yes. But still, his house was empty now, just one room and another, a place to pass the evenings and long, sleepless nights. He was like a vampire, sucking up the last traces of lost family love. So little was left. The taxi paused at a police checkpoint, but the officer just waved them through without even looking. And he remembered the taste of the hood and the sensation of his tongue, like a wad of cotton stuffed into his mouth, bloated with thirst and fear.Butthis was infinitely worse. There was another place, a hell of the mind and the nerves, a place locked deep within, flows of fire and ice. Sometimes – all the time - he felt paralysed, like one doomed to watch the same accident repeated, day after day and never able to cry out. A part of him had been strangled, a part of him had been dragged from his house at night and locked up, and part of him had been hooded and bound and taken to the outskirts of the city, a mangled corpse to be found by weeping women. The initial horror of Timothy’s loss, the agony of amputation had ebbed but a fraction, a diminution of suffering that testified to the severity of his sickness: for the wound was infected and would never heal. Blood poisoned, a tremendous, withered sorrow had taken root, his bitterness and guilt a bleak cloud engulfing the world. There were times in the office when he could not breathe and he would pace to and fro, muttering and swearing and mumbling… he would loosen his tie and try to concentrate, but how could he concentrate? The city seemed so far below. In these times, he felt as if all the air were being sucked from the building and then, head swimming, hands to the window, sky above, London bathed and sunken in the smoggy gloom, air sucked from his lungs… oh God, in these stifling seconds… and it was an edible world and they would devour the earth and the sky and the very stars… then the phone was ringing and maybe it was Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or Bahrain on the line… He would watch the changes in the sky, the shifting skyscape, the cascade of white against grey against blue and he would remember those other places, the smell of burning oil, the plumes of oily smoke that shut down the sky, the drone of helicopters and the faint undertone of menace, the low paranoia drone as continuous as the sweat pooling under his arms. He could not breathe, but no matter how little air was left, there always seemed to be enough to keep going. His family was falling apart and there was nothing he could do. His son had vanished and there was nothing he could do. At last, after so long, with the ropes burning his wrists, with a sickening numbness creeping through his body… moving, shifting, trying to find a place without that pain, a place within himself that was not himself, the stench of his own piss and shame like a salty wound and tears, the sodden cling of his pissy-trousers… and a voice, at last a voice, speaking English Yes i don’t know i will tell you i don’t know what are the names i don’t know the names yes please i have a family a father please. I am a father.
Then there was the issue of the tapes. Getting hold of them had been much harder than anticipated. But Arthur had to admit, the entire situation was so far out of his control that it seemed futile to have any expectations at all. Communication with Buxton had tailed off some weeks ago. Now that silence seemed to echo the gulf created by Timothy’s absence. It was a most alarming development. And it was not easy for him, after several weeks of unanswered e-mails and voice messages and inquires which led nowhere, to resolve to go down to Buxton’s house in order to try and find him, to see for himself, if he could, what had happened. The very necessity of this action was ominous. In the original contract, Arthur specified a weekly report from the detective. After several futile weeks it had become clear that there was not going to be any speedy resolution. Timothy, unbearable as it was to think of such things, might be one of those children who never came back… and so, although he could hardly admit to such a thought, Arthur revised the contract, leaving it up to Buxton to report any new information if and when he received it. Since then, the frequency of reports diminished substantially and he had begun to wonder if Buxton had been called away on other cases: the epidemic of vanishings was undeniable, and there must be hundreds of parents desperate to discover what had happened to their children.
At work, the initial cloud of sympathy that had followed Arthur around in the weeks after Timothy’s disappearance - the cautious way colleagues had stepped around him, the kind words and cards, the invitations to “chat” or “take the afternoon off” - had slowly begun to dissipate as the numbers of missing children grew. In their eyes, filled at first with a bewildering and appalled sort of pity, he began to sense all sorts of unspoken accusations, as if they suspected he was infected with a mysterious virus and feared his presence might spread the contagion, as if by just talking to him he might cause their own children to be spirited away. He was less of the victim now: he had become something else, something much less certain: the cursed man, the harbinger of a new and fearful phenomenon.
Last night, he decided to act. Leaving the office early, he caught a taxi south, giving the driver Buxton’s address in Balham. The detective lived in a typical inner London road of two storey Victorian terraces, a house no different from the others, save perhaps for the drawn curtains and the scraps of litter gathered about the gate. He raised his hand to knock, but the moment his fingers made contact with the door it swung open a fraction. Unlocked.
This too, was a most ominous sign.
He pushed a little further and peeped round, uncertain about entering. His first thought had been to shout “Buxton,” but something stopped his tongue. The door pushed against a cascade of unopened post and junk mail. Clearly, Buxton had been gone for some time.
Trying to quash his nerves, he entered the house, passing a closed door to his left and ignoring the staircase on his right. The air inside had felt sticky, as if he walked through spidery gauze. He found the tapes – as someone must have intended - stacked in a neat pile on the kitchen table at the back of the house. Arranged around the pile was a selection of prostitute calling cards – the sort he saw all the time stuck in phone boxes – and turning he saw a message daubed on the wall in red paint. HAVE YOU BEEN A BAD BOY? Beside this missive, a single palm print, fingers spread, in gaudy blue ink. The print was just a little too small for an adult hand to have made. Then he heard something – a brief thick thud – from upstairs, possibly, and then again a scraping noise, a flat, mean, dragging, shuffling sort of sound. Quickly, he bundled the tapes and the cards into his briefcase and, quick – quick – hurried back out. At once he’d seen two boys, perched on the wall outside the house. Both were white, one with short, dark hair, the other fair and blonde. Both had been a little older than Timothy, but not much. They seemed to be waiting.
Eyeballing them, he’d pushed past and started walking up the street, trying to keep calm. But the fear was in him, a slippery oil slick of the nerves - and when he did dare to glance back he’d seen that the two boys really were behind him. They were following at a distance, but with enough purpose to menace him. Behind their nonchalance, however, he had sensed something rather more potent, like a shadow shining beneath their skin. Then Buxton’s road had turned onto a much busier junction and from there he had been able to hail a passing taxi. He’d been sufficiently shaken to avoid a direct route home, telling the driver to take him to Victoria where he’d darted onto the tube, catching the Circle line to Gloucester Road and then another cab, getting off a block or so from his house.
Now, as he reflected on the previous night’s adventure, it struck him just what had been so disquieting about the presence of those two young white boys. Just to see them all alone was unusual, when everywhere panicked parents were keeping a jealous cage of constraints around their truculent offspring, terrified their precious sons would vanish at the slightest opportunity. What was it they were escaping from? The children - the boys, it was almost only the boys, the sons and not the daughters who ran away, who disappeared and no one knew why… what did they hate so about the world? Last night, when he made it back home, Arthur had been exasperated to discover he no longer owned an object as antiquated as a tape player. Even Harry had his own iPod.
Instead, he was forced to turn to the prostitutes’ cards. Each one bore the same message, HAVE YOU BEEN A BAD BOY? and a mobile phone number underneath, printed in bold red letters. Flicking through, he saw each card had a slightly different image: on one, a slim, stocking-sheathed leg arched up like the rising head of a shapely sea monster from a pair of dangerously high heels; on the next, a woman’s buttocks, twin globes spread by polar G-string; another, a chest clamped within a leather corset, conical breasts like plastic pyramids before the soft sweep of a tempting neck; on another, a black gloved hand grasping a jutting riding crop. No pictures of her face, but he was certain each image isolated a different part of the same woman. Whether this woman would be the same one reached by the number, he was much less sure. Last night he had been too exhausted and shaken to contemplate such a call.
But that was last night. And now, he had listened to the tapes. Too many questions were left without answers. Had Buxton called the number? Was that the reason for his disappearance? He had gone so long without answers that it was hard to accept the possibility of something - a clue, a lead, a false hope - he didn’t know.
He was home, the taxi pulling up outside his house. Arthur paid the driver and checked the street. All clear: the palatial stucco townhouses shone in the twilight with an eerie immensity, like relics from a lost civilisation brought to the surface and scrubbed clean for some vast, future museum. There were no children anywhere, an observation that filled him, as always, with a strange mixture of relief and despair.
He did not expect to find Susan at home. She had shed her old roles – the beautiful wife, the doting mother – reluctantly and slowly and with the sorrow of a debtor forced to abandon her assets. She seemed a stranger to him now, and on the occasions when they did encounter each other, in the sombre evenings, he had little left to say to her. The twist of emotions was too much. As he went inside, he couldn’t help but sigh at the abandoned shopping bags she had left scattered around the hall. She was getting worse, losing each day among the boutiques of Knightsbridge and Bond Street, buying expensive couture she would never wear. The glossy bags were forgotten the moment she got home, discarded for a day or two, the bright brand logos like unanswered pleas, replaced every few days by others, Versace with Ghost, Fendi with Chanel, Dolce and Gabana with Joseph, an Italianate dance of extravagant titles. The old ones she took back and swapped, exchanged, refunded – he had no idea, not really - the whole spectacle such a ghastly parody of the compulsions and pleasures of her past life that he could scarcely bear to think about it.
The first thing he did was to check the security system and make sure all the locks and alarms were activated, all the windows closed. He’d had the elaborate system installed a few weeks ago, the idea being to make sure Harry would not be able to get out. Now, what he had heard on Buxton’s tape gave the precaution an extra necessity.
Arthur walked into the kitchen, all the while turning on lights. He hardly noticed the dirty plates discarded here and there, the half-drunk glasses and empty dishwasher.
Muffy, too, was gone. The dog had slipped out of the house one day, shortly after he’d called Buxton in to investigate. He had no idea where the wretched creature might be. He didn’t like dogs and hadn’t approved of such an indulgence to the children. All the same, there were lonely moments when he would have welcomed such simple companionship. Muffy’s bed hadn’t yet been thrown away – a basket with a rug in the utility room where it was always warm. There were times when he thought he might try to sleep there, like a dog, curl up and try to forget everything.
Instead, he took a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet and poured himself a large measure. Glass in hand, he drifted through the house. Susan had left the morning post on the dining table. He sifted through the predictable motley of junk mailings and credit-card bills - all addressed to Susan. A single, padded envelope caught his attention. He saw his own name written in a script that seemed, the instant his eyes set upon it, a perfect imitation of his son’s hand. Looking closer, a thousand doubts came between eye and envelope: had Timothy ever really written his “e,” his “o,” or his “a” with such swollen bodies? Had the angular uprights of his “d” and “l” and “g” been quite so stiff? Impatience made him clumsy, and he tore the envelope open, mutilating the script. The contents fell into his hands. An unmarked CD in a plain white slip and another card: HAVE YOU BEEN A BAD BOY? Same number, different image: a pair of legs arched and triumphantly open, a single black strip hiding from the eye more intimate disclosures.
Taking the CD and his whiskey, Arthur moved into his study. He closed the door and turned on his computer. He slid the disc into the whirring machine and waited. After a few anxious moments a grainy, flickering image appeared on the screen. The film was of such poor quality that it took him a moment or two before he realised it must have been recorded on a phone camera. At first, all he could make out was a single orange pyramid surrounded by a much darker swirl of vibrating pixels. And then, in pieces, three figures became visible and Arthur realised what he was looking at: a man, clad in an orange jump suit sat on a bare floor, his face obscured by a dark and lumpy headdress. For a moment, Arthur thought he was wearing something made to make him look like an insect, and then he recognised the bug-eyes and shrunken mouth to be the visor and filter of a gas mask. His jerky movements resulted from his arms being tied behind his back, and the two men who stood over him, holding him down. The hostage – that was what he surely was - flailed beneath them like a fly in the spider’s web. The two figures standing over also had their faces hidden with a hood or a scarf or balaclava, but again the poor quality of the film made it impossible to tell. For a few minutes this was all that happened except the picture would flicker so badly that the figures disintegrated and reformed over and over in jerky, split second shudders. He was unable to decide how old anyone was, while the hunched position of the hostage in relation to the guards made it equally difficult to assess their height. But as the video continued, all the while flickering, shaking and jumping, he found it harder and harder to shake his conviction that the guards were not nearly as old as he had first assumed. So it continued, this ghastly fixed nothing but the standing over and the struggling beneath, the low-fi aura of menace and disquiet. And then one of the guards bent down and fiddled with something at the back of the hostage’s head. For a moment, watching as the guard lifted up a round, black object, Arthur thought the hostage’s head had been severed. Then, he realised that was just the gasmask being removed, and now, for the first time the camera moved forward, zooming up to the face of the hostage. All of a sudden and loud enough to make him spill a little whiskey, a voice – or voices – started chanting, a dread concatenation of guttural babble which, as he listened harder to the girlish, but throaty sounds, seemed like a gruesome pastiche of Arabic, a linguistic insult, a sort of nasty hysterical parody as mouthed by someone with no understanding at all of the language. The camera lingered on the face of the hostage, and Arthur could see that he was a man; in fact, the longish face and short flop of brown hair reminded him of Buxton, too much like Buxton, but then how could he be sure? There was no improvement in the clarity of the picture either, just an impending sense of awfulness about the proceedings. From the timer he could see that the film was coming to an end. Then, the two guards closed in on the hostage, joined by other figures, all of them moving too fast to be clear, a frenzy of activity, arms moving up and down and slashing back and forth. The other figures moved away, apart from one guard who bent down, reaching for something on the ground. He came up holding something, a fleshy, pink sphere, the camera moving closer and now, with a horrible, sickening jolt, Arthur was certain: he was staring at the head of the detective. Suddenly, blank, the film finished.
For a minute he was too appalled to think: a stunned nauseous horror swept everything away. He wanted to run from the room, to scream, to claw at his face and hair and scream again and again. Instead, breathing in deep and aware of the sweat across his forehead and the tension tight in his chest, he took another drink – a good hard slug of whiskey - pouring more into the glass as the first mouthful warmed its way through him. Get a fucking grip. He had to stay calm.
After a moment or so, he started the film again, determined to watch it through as many times as it would take until some certainty, however precarious, could harden his impressions. This time he kept pausing the screen, although it brought no more clarity to the picture, merely exaggerating the digital disruption to the image. But by watching the execution a second and then a third time, by stopping and pausing from frame to shaky frame, he felt much less certain that what he really saw was the ritual execution of the detective. The poor quality of the film seemed designed to obscure the scene and add an otherwise absent veneer of terroristic authority to the performance. Of course, he had seen videos like this before, from Iraq, but this film, despite superficial similarities, was not like those. Where were the speeches? The flags or banners on the walls? More important still, why had the disc been sent to him and not a news agency? And why that lurid, demented chanting instead of a real language? This film, the cards – and even the tapes left in such an obvious place in Buxton’s house… someone knew… someone was watching him, feeding him these bewildering scraps, leading him on…
With a start, like a man shaking himself from a nightmare, he got up and turned off all the lights in the house and then went back and poured another drink and sat in the dark study, the curtains open just enough to afford a view of the road. He sipped his whiskey and sat quite still. His hand kept shaking. But the night – the night was but young.
(C) James Miller 2009
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.