Described by Stephen King as 'A treasure house of story' and by Clive Barker as 'A star', Neil Gaiman is the multi-award winning creator of the Sandman graphic novels and co-writer of Good Omens with Terry Pratchett. His novels include Stardust, Neverwhere, and American Gods. He has written countless short stories, some of which were gathered together in Smoke and Mirrors and Angels & Visitations (which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and won the International Horror Critics Guild Award for Best Collection). Recently he has ventured into films with his long-time collaborator Dave McKean and together they have come up with MirrorMask. Born in the UK he now lives in America with his family and his cats. Visit his website here and be sure to read his entertaining journal.
Peter Pinter had never heard of Aristippus of the Cyrenaics, a lesser-known follower of Socrates who maintained that the avoidance of trouble was the highest attainable good; however, he had lived his uneventful life according to this precept. In all respects except one (an inability to pass up a bargain, and which of us is entirely free from that?), he was a very moderate man. He did not go to extremes. His speech was proper and reserved; he rarely overate; he drank enough to be sociable and no more; he was far from rich and in no wise poor. He liked people and people liked him. Bearing all that in mind, Would you expect to find him in a lowlife pub on the seamier side of London's East End, taking out what is colloquially known as a 'contract' on someone he hardly knew? You would not. You would not even expect to find him in the pub.
And until a certain Friday afternoon, you would have been right. But the love of a woman can do strange things to a man, even one so colourless as Peter Pinter, and the discovery that Miss Gwendolyn Thorpe, twenty-three years of age, of 9, Oaktree Terrace, Purley, was messing about (as the vulgar would put it) with a smooth young gentleman from the accounting department - after, mark you, she had consented to wear an engagement ring, composed of real ruby chips, nine-carat gold, and something that might well have been a diamond (£37.50) that it had taken Peter almost an entire lunch hour to choose - can do very strange things to a man indeed.
After he had made this shocking discovery, Peter spent a sleepless Friday night, tossing and turning with visions of Gwendolyn and Archie Gibbons (the Don Juan of the Clamages accounting department) dancing and swimming before his eyes - performing acts that even Peter, if he were pressed, would have to admit were most improbable. But the bile of jealousy had risen up within him, and by the morning Peter had resolved that his rival should be done away with.
Saturday morning was spent wondering how one contacted an assassin, for, to the best of Peter's knowledge, none were employed by Clamages (the department store that employed all three of the members of our eternal triangle, and, incidentally, furnished the ring), and he was wary of asking anyone outright for fear of attracting attention to himself.
Thus it was that Saturday afternoon found him hunting through the Yellow Pages.
ASSASSINS, he found, was not between ASPHALT CONTRACTORS and ASSESSORS (QUANTITY); KILLERS was not between KENNELS and KINDERGARTENS; MURDERERS was not between MOWERS and MUSEUMS. PEST CONTROL looked promising; however closer investigation of the pest control advertisements showed them to be almost solely concerned with 'rats, mice, fleas, cockroaches, rabbits, moles and rats' (to quote from one that Peter felt was rather hard on rats) and not really what he had in mind. Even so, being of a careful nature, he dutifully inspected the entries in that category, and at the bottom of the second page, in small print, he found a firm that looked promising.
Complete discreet disposal of irksome and unwanted mammals, etc.'went the entry, 'Ketch, Hare, Burke and Ketch. The Old Firm.' It went on to give no address, but only a telephone number.
Peter dialled the number, surprising himself by so doing. His heart pounded in his chest, and he tried to look nonchalant. The telephone rang once, twice, three times. Peter was just starting to hope that it would not be answered and he could forget the whole thing when there was a click and a brisk young female voice said, 'Ketch Hare Burke and Ketch. Can I help you?'
Carefully not giving his name, Peter said, 'Er, how big - I mean, what size mammals do you go up to? To, uh, dispose of?'
'Well, that would all depend on what size sir requires.'
He plucked up all his courage. 'A person?'
Her voice remained brisk and unruffled. Of course, sir. Do you have a pen and paper handy? Good. Be at the Dirty Donkey pub, off Little Courtney Street, E3, tonight at eight o'clock. Carry a rolled-up copy of the Financial Times - that's the pink one, sir - and our operative will approach you there.' Then she put down the phone.
Peter was elated. It had been far easier than he had imagined. He went down to the newsagent's and bought a copy of the Financial Times, found Little Courtney Street in his A-Z of London, and spent the rest of the afternoon watching football on the television and imagining the smooth young gentleman from accounting's funeral.
It took Peter a while to find the pub. Eventually he spotted the pub sign, which showed a donkey and was indeed remarkably dirty.
The Dirty Donkey was a small and more or less filthy pub, poorly lit, in which knots of unshaven people wearing dusty donkey jackets stood around eyeing each other suspiciously, eating crisps and drinking pints of Guinness, a drink that Peter had never cared for. Peter held his Financial Times under one arm as conspicuously as he could, but no one approached him, so he bought a half of shandy and retreated to a corner table. Unable to think of anything else to do while waiting, he tried to read the paper, but, lost and confused by a maze of grain futures and a rubber company that was selling something or other short (quite what the short somethings were he could not tell), he gave it up and stared at the door.
He had waited almost ten minutes when a small busy man hustled in, looked quickly around him, then came straight over to Peter's table and sat down.
He stuck out his hand. 'Kemble. Burton Kemble of Ketch Hare Burke Ketch. I hear you have a job for us.'
He didn't look like a killer. Peter said so.
'Oh, lor' bless us, no. I'm not actually a part of our workforce, sir. I'm in sales.'Peter nodded. That certainly made sense. 'Can we - er - talk freely here?'
'Sure. Nobody's interested. Now then, how many people would you like disposed of?'
'Only one. His name's Archibald Gibbons and he works in Clamages accounting department. His address is…'
Kemble interrupted. 'We can go into all that later, sir, if you don't mind. Let's just quickly go over the financial side. First of all, the contract will cost you five hundred pounds…'
Peter nodded. He could afford that and in fact had expected to have to pay a little more.
'…although there's always the special offer,' Kemble concluded smoothly.
Peter's eyes shone. As I mentioned earlier, he loved a bargain and often bought things he had no imaginable use for in sales or on special offers. Apart from this one failing (one that so many of us share), he was a most moderate young man. 'Special offer?'
'Two for the price of one, sir.'
Mmm. Peter thought about it. That worked out at only £250 each, which couldn't be bad no matter how you looked at it. There was only one snag. 'I'm afraid I don't have anyone else I want killed.'
Kemble looked disappointed. 'That's a pity, sir. For two we could probably have even knocked the price down to, well, say four hundred and fifty pounds for the both of them.'
'Well, it gives our operatives something to do, sir. If you must know' - and here he dropped his voice - 'there really isn't enough work in this particular line to keep them occupied. Not like the old days. Isn't there just one other person you'd like to see dead?'
Peter pondered. He hated to pass up a bargain, but couldn't for the life of him think of anyone else. He liked people. Still, a bargain was a bargain…
'Look,' said Peter. 'Could I think about it and see you here tomorrow night?'
The salesman looked pleased. 'Of course, sir,' he said. 'I'm sure you'll be able to think of someone.'
The answer - the obvious answer - came to Peter as he was drifting off to sleep that night. He sat straight up in bed, fumbled the bedside light on, and wrote a name down on the back of an envelope, in case he forgot it. To tell the truth, he didn't think that he could forget it, for it was painfully obvious, but you can never tell with these late-night thoughts.
The name that he had written down on the back of the envelope was this: Gwendolyn Thorpe.
He turned the light off, rolled over, and was soon asleep, dreaming peaceful and remarkably unmurderous dreams.
Kemble was waiting for him when he arrived in the Dirty Donkey on Sunday night. Peter bought a drink and sat down beside him.
'I'm taking you up on the special offer,' he said by way of greeting.
Kemble nodded vigorously. 'A very wise decision, if you don't mind me saying so, sir.'
Peter Pinter smiled modestly, in the manner of one who read the Financial Times and made wise business decisions. 'That will be four hundred and fifty pounds, I believe?'
'Did I say four hundred and fifty pounds, sir? Good gracious me, I do apologize. I beg your pardon, I was thinking of our bulk rate. It would be four hundred and seventy-five for two people.'
Disappointment mingled with cupidity on Peter's bland and youthful face. That was an extra £25. However, something that Kemble had said caught his attention.
'Of course, but I doubt that sir would be interested in that.'
'No, no, I am. Tell me about it.'
'Very well, sir. Bulk rate, four hundred and fifty pounds, would be for a large job. Ten people.'
Peter wondered if he had heard correctly. 'Ten people? But that's only forty-five pounds each.'
'Yes, sir. It's the large order that makes it profitable.'
'I see,' said Peter, and 'Hmm,' said Peter, and 'Could you be here at the same time tomorrow night?'
'Of course, sir.'
Upon arriving home, Peter got out a scrap of paper and a pen. He wrote the numbers one to ten down one side and then filled it in as follows:
and so forth.
Having filled in the first two, he sat sucking his pen, hunting for wrongs done to him and people the world would be better off without.
He smoked a cigarette. He strolled around the room.
Aha! There was a physics teacher at a school he had attended who had delighted in making his life a misery. What was the man's name again? And for that matter, was he still alive? Peter wasn't sure, but he wrote The Physics Teacher, Abbot Street Secondary School next to the number three. The next came more easily - his department head had refused to raise his salary a couple of months back; that the raise had eventually come was immaterial. Mr Hunterson was number four.
When he was five, a boy named Simon Ellis had poured paint on his head while another boy name James somebody-or-other had held him down and a girl named Sharon Harsharpe had laughed. They were numbers five through seven, respectively.
There was the man on television with the annoying snicker who read the news. He went on the list. And what about the woman in the flat next door with the little yappy dog that shat in the hall? He put her and the dog down on nine. Ten was the hardest. He scratched his head and went into the kitchen for a cup of coffee, then dashed back and wrote My Great-Uncle Mervyn down in the tenth place. The old man was rumoured to be quite affluent, and there was a possibility (albeit rather slim) that he could leave Peter some money.
With the satisfaction of an evening's work well done, he went off to bed.
Monday at Clamages was routine; Peter was a senior sales assistant in the books department, a job that actually entailed very little. He clutched his list tightly in his hand, deep in his pocket, rejoicing in the feeling of power that it gave him. He spent a most enjoyable lunch hour in the canteen with young Gwendolyn (who did not know that he had seen her and Archie enter the stockroom together) and even smiled at the smooth young man from the accounting department when he passed him in the corridor.
He proudly displayed his list to Kemble that evening.
The little salesman's face fell.
'I'm afraid this isn't ten people, Mr Pinter,' he explained. 'You've counted the woman in the next-door flat and her dog as one person. That brings it to eleven, which would be an extra' - his pocket calculator was rapidly deployed - 'an extra seventy pounds. How about if we forget the dog?'
Peter shook his head. 'The dog's as bad as the woman. Or worse.'
'Then I'm afraid we have a slight problem. Unless…'
'Unless you'd like to take advantage of our wholesale rate. But of course sir wouldn't be…'
There are words that do things to people; words that make people's faces flush with joy, excitement, or passion. Environmental can be one; occult is another. Wholesale was Peter's. He leaned back in his chair. 'Tell me about it,' he said with the practised assurance of an experienced shopper.
'Well, sir,' said Kemble, allowing himself a little chuckle, 'we can, uh, get them for you wholesale, seventeen pounds fifty each, for every quarry after the first fifty, or a tenner each for every one over two hundred.'
'I suppose you'd go down to a fiver if I wanted a thousand people knocked off?'
'Oh no, sir,' Kemble looked shocked. 'If you're talking those sorts of figures, we can do them for a quid each.'
'That's right, sir. There's not a big profit margin on it, but the high turnover and productivity more than justifies it.'
Kemble got up. 'Same time tomorrow, sir?'
One thousand pounds. One thousand people. Peter Pinter didn't even know a thousand people. Even so…there were the Houses of Parliament. He didn't like politicians; they squabbled and argued and carried on so.
And for that matter…
An idea, shocking in its audacity. Bold. Daring. Still, the idea was there and it wouldn't go away. A distant cousin of his had married the younger brother of an earl or a baron or something…
On the way home from work that afternoon, he stopped off at a little shop that he had passed a thousand times without entering. It had a large sign in the window - guaranteeing to trace your lineage for you and even draw up a coat of arms if you happened to have mislaid your own - and an impressive heraldic map. Maybe now that the darkness had lifted from her mind all she wanted was to be with her family again.
They were very helpful and phoned him up just after seven to give him their news.
If approximately fourteen million, seventy-two thousand, eight hundred and eleven people died, he, Peter Pinter, would be King of England.
He didn't have fourteen million, seventy-two thousand, eight hundred and eleven pounds: but he suspected that when you were talking in those figures, Mr Kemble would have one of his special discounts.
Mr Kemble did.
He didn't even raise an eyebrow.
'Actually,' he explained, 'it works out quite cheaply; you see, we wouldn't have to do them all individually. Small-scale nuclear weapons, some judicious bombing, gassing, plague, dropping radios in swimming pools, and then mopping up the stragglers. Say four thousand pounds.'
'Four thou-?' That's incredible!'
The salesman looked pleased with himself. 'Our operatives will be glad of the work, sir.' He grinned. 'We pride ourselves on servicing our wholesale customers.'
The wind blew cold as Peter left the pub, setting the old sign swinging. It didn't look much like a dirty donkey, thought Peter. More like a pale horse.
Peter was drifting off to sleep that night, mentally rehearsing his coronation speech, when a thought drifted into his head and hung around. It would not go away. Could he - could he possibly be passing up an even larger saving than he already had? Could he be missing out on a bargain?
Peter climbed out of bed and walked over to the phone. It was almost 3 A.M., but even so…
His Yellow Pages lay open where he had left it the previous Saturday, and he dialled the number.
The phone seemed to ring forever. There was a click and a bored voice said, 'Burke Hare Ketch. Can I help you?'
'I hope I'm not phoning too late…' he began.
'Of course not, sir.'
'I was wondering if I could speak to Mr Kemble.'
'Can you hold? I'll see if he's available.'
Peter waited for a couple of minutes, listening to the ghostly crackles and whispers that always echo down empty phone lines.
'Are you there, caller?'
'Yes, I'm here.'
'Putting you through.' There was a buzz, then 'Kemble speaking.'
'Ah, Mr Kemble. Hello. Sorry if I got you out of bed or anything. This is, um, Peter Pinter.'
'Yes, Mr Pinter?'
'Well, I'm sorry it's so late, only I was wondering…How much would it cost to kill everybody? Everybody in the world?'
'Everybody? All the people?'
'Yes. How much? I mean, for an order like that, you'd have to have some kind of a big discount. How much would it be? For everyone?'
'Nothing at all, Mr Pinter.'
'You mean you wouldn't do it?'
'I mean we'd do it for nothing, Mr Pinter. We only have to be asked, you see. We always have to be asked.'
Peter was puzzled. 'But - when would you start?'
'Start? Right away. Now. We've been ready for a long time. But we had to be asked, Mr Pinter. Good night. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.'
The line went dead.
Peter felt strange. Everything seemed very distant. He wanted to sit down. What on earth had the man meant? 'We always have to be asked.' It was definitely strange. Nobody does anything for nothing in this world; he had a good mind to phone Kemble back and call the whole thing off. Perhaps he had overreacted, perhaps there was a perfectly innocent reason why Archie and Gwendolyn had entered the stockroom together. He would talk to her, that's what he'd do. He'd talk to Gwennie first thing tomorrow morning…
That was when the noises started.
Odd cries from across the street. A catfight? Foxes probably. He hoped someone would throw a shoe at them. Then, from the corridor outside his flat, he heard a muffled clumping, as if someone were dragging something very heavy along the floor. It stopped. Someone knocked on his door, twice, very softly.
Outside his window the cries were getting louder. Peter sat in his chair, knowing that somehow, somewhere, he had missed something. Something important. The knocking redoubled. He was thankful that he always locked and chained his door at night.
They'd been ready for a long time, but they had to be asked…
When the thing came through the door, Peter started screaming, but he really didn't scream for very long.
(C) Neil Gaiman
© Paul Kane 2003-2016. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.