When Richard opened the door, Tak ignored the how are you, Silas Marner? and Feliz Navidad, and asked him straight if he’d seen that guy hanging around outside the Razor before.
‘He was staring at me, just now. Do you know him?’
‘African-looking, tall, fake-gregarious…’
‘…weird smile. Yeah. Standing by the stadium, the Razor.’
‘Okay, well…assuming you’re not drunk…he’s probably not a local. Don’t get many foreigners here in A Coruña, except yours truly. It’s a pretty sedate place. Not that much to do.’
‘The guy outside?’
‘For a provincial team…maybe.’
‘Or an English teacher.’
‘There is a small West African community over in Vigo, suppose he could be from there. It’s mostly Malians, I think, some Ghanaians too. But I never see them around here, so…’
‘Who, the Malians?’
Richard laughed, gesturing for some reason at the edge of the door that his left hand was still pegged onto. ‘Mate, haven’t seen you in ten years and this is what you lead with. You haven’t even asked about my wife.’
‘I know you got married. You posted it.’
Tak squinted at Rich’s left hand, the dry skin on the knuckles, then phased awkwardly into a smile. ‘Sorry, mate. I was just-…the guy was a bit weird, looking at me. Congratulations on the marriage. Well done.’
‘Is everyone here? Wife’s family?’
‘Can I have a look around?’
‘Of course, that’s why you’re here, come in. Take off your shoes though, the carpet’s just been done.’
Tak took off his shoes without bending down and followed Richard into the living room, where what he assumed to be his wife was playing with a little ginger-haired boy, maybe six, seven years old.
The two of them were chatting in Spanish and when Tak walked in, the boy stopped dead with a Lego wolf in his mouth and stared.
Richard clapped his hands together and introduced him and they both slurred, ‘hola, que tal,’ but it wasn’t enough to stop the soft thud inside Tak’s brain
the voice saying one of his, one of his, one of
in the wuthering heights part of Spain
directed by an outsider perhaps
a sub-wretch of Otius
pretending to be black and amiable downstairs?
Jabbing at the temples as discreet as he could, Tak took a direct line to the window and looked down onto the concrete space outside the Razor.
The potential Otius stan was still there, leaning against the stadium wall now, studying something in his hand. Could be a phone, could be a pocket Munich Manual. Could be a remote to control Rich’s kid.
Tak beckoned Richard over to the window, then pulled him in by the Xmas jumper sleeve when he got close and lethargic. ‘The guy I was talking about, look.’
‘Ah, not this again. He’s probably from Vigo, like I said.’
‘Why is he alone?’
‘I don’t know, I’m not his agent.’
‘Yeah, he’s not the only one.’ Richard put a hand on Tak’s shoulder and tried to guide him to the couch. ‘Come on, sit down, have a drink.’
‘Probably? Mate, are you hungover?’
‘Doing a pretty good impression of it. Here, just sit. I’ll go check on the lobster.’
‘Traditional A Coruña Christmas lunch, lobster, shrimp and roast potatoes.’
‘You eat lobster?’
‘It’s a bit weird, true, but we’ve had it the last few years, so I’m used to it. You will be too, if you stick around long enough. Maybe find a nice local girl and kick-start a family of your own.’
‘I’m leaving tomorrow.’
‘Yeah, it was a joke, mate. Sit down, relax.’ Richard walked halfway to the kitchen, almost tripping over his kid, then stopped and asked Tak if he’d said he wanted a drink or not.
‘That’s the first sane thing you’ve said since you got here.’
‘Not a Hungarian brand.’
Richard did a Bataille at the sacrifice tree whistle and went into the kitchen, coming back two minutes later with a Spanish brand Tak had never heard of.
‘It’s made local…not that far from here.’
‘What does it mean?’
‘The brand? Nah, it’s just a name.’ He turned to his wife. ‘The beer’s just a name, right?’
Tak looked at the wife with the side ponytail and overalls, then the kid with the Lego wolf back in his mouth and tried like the captain from Death Ship to block out the now beyond nascent stomping ritual ripping at the inside of his head. It was getting stronger, heavier
but maybe residual
from the last few days, lack of sleep, beach attack, ferry antics.
And it had happened before, in Italy, in Romania. Didn’t have to mean anything Otius-related.
No, it really didn’t.
Didn’t have to be related at all.
Forget the window.
Beer. Lobster lunch. Spanish. The language part, chain yourself to that.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked the kid, saying it first in English then making an attempt at a Spanish version.
‘Ah, you’ve been studying,’ intercepted Richard, sitting down next to him.
Richard nodded and said something to his wife in Spanish and she gave a clipped monologue back. He laughed and the conversation continued. Tak gave up on the first two sentences and concentrated on the next, just like Jemba had told him, but it was no good, he couldn’t catch a single word. Were they using advanced vocab? Idioms?
Or was his brain doing its usual trick of analysing the idea of being able to translate instead of listening to the actual words and translating them.
‘Did you understand what we said?’ asked the wife, smiling in a way that he decided was accusatory.
‘Ah, you’re really good then.’
‘What did we say?’ asked Richard, leaning forward, pulling his wedding ring up and down his finger.
‘You don’t believe me?’
‘Nah, mate. I mean, some of the words weren’t that tough, you probably did catch them.’
‘Err…put, learn, improve…what else?’
‘You said learn?’
‘ Yeah. Lo aprendió antes. Past tense.’
‘Didn’t hear it.’
‘At least, I’m pretty sure we said it.’ He looked at his wife, pulling his ring all the way off. ‘Did we?’
‘I can’t remember.’
They sailed back into Spanish again, and Tak was too annoyed to try translating so he looked at the blank-faced kid, who’d dropped the Lego wolf and replaced it with a cop car.
Very normal for little boys to play with Lego, Tak thought, pushing knuckles into his head. A normal activity, most children have it, play with it. Cop cars, wolves, dragons, insurance agents…
He kept watching.
The boy was putting two Lego knights into a jail cell and hitting them with a little Gandalf staff.
It’s normal to put policemen in Lego jail, Tak thought. It’s imaginative, a form of corrective justice, a good way to-…
Tak closed his eyes, trying to block out the three sudden throbs inside the left side of his head. After the pain receded a little, he put his fingers up there and started grinding.
‘Are you okay?’ asked Richard, wedding ring back on.
‘You need a Panadol?’
‘Later. Maybe.’ Tak stood up and took his local-brand beer back over to the window. ‘The man, he’s still there.’
‘The African guy?’
‘Same place. Same posture.’
Richard got up and joined Tak by the rain-spotted glass. ‘He’s not doing anything. Just standing there.’
‘Mate, come on…what else is he supposed to be doing?’
‘It’s not right.’
‘What I just said, it’s not right.’
Richard looked at his wife, pulled a might need to get the rack out facethen went back to the street. ‘Like I said, he’s probably from Vigo, here on a day trip. I’ve seen others before, they come to the Razor to see one of the players…a Nigerian guy…I forget his name.’
‘But it’s not match day.’
‘They don’t know that.’
‘Why? Why would he not know that?’
‘I don’t know, he didn’t look at the schedule? Or, okay, maybe he knows it, that part’s possible, but…maybe he’s here for another reason. Maybe he just wanted to look at the stadium itself, or see the city, the lighthouse, some friends.’
Tak rubbed his head harder, the pain soaring back. ‘Doesn’t make sense, Rich.’
‘Makes enough not to stress out thinking about it.’
‘He doesn’t belong there, it’s not right.’
‘I told you, he’s probably-…’
‘It. Is. Not. Right. Stop making me repeat the same thing and listen, for fuck’s sake.’
‘Mate…’ Richard moved in close to Tak’s ear and put his arm cautiously around his shoulder. ‘This is not good. You’re scaring my wife and kid.’
‘They’re not scared.’
‘Talk to me. What’s wrong? What happened?’
Tak jabbed the window with his index finger. ‘That guy is wrong, I told you.’
‘Not him, you. All this head jabbing. What’s going on?’
‘I’m fine. A slight headache. Why are you interrogating me?’
‘Just a bit worried, mate. This is not the whirlwind Tak experience I remember.’
‘I mean, you’re acting weird. Paranoid.’
‘Like you’re being watched or something. How? Okay, first off, you come in and don’t ask me any questions about my life. Then you stare at my kid. Then you start pointing out the window at some random African guy, jabbering on and on like you’re being chased by the fucking Wish Master.’
Rich turned to his wife. ‘Sorry…’
‘Maybe the two of you should go outside for a bit. I’ll take care of the lobster.’
‘You think so?’
‘Come back in half an hour, when you’ve caught up a bit more.’
‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’
Richard turned back to Tak expecting his forehead to be pressed against the window, but it wasn’t. Instead he was staring sharp and zealot-like into the middle of the living room, diagonally down, at the thing pretending to be a human child.
It isn’t the guy outside, he warned himself, it’s here, this tiny creature. It has to be. This is where the headache really got going.
Unless it was a delayed reaction? But why would it be? The pain was worse now, ever since he’d come in. Which meant it was either Rich, his wife, or the child. But it couldn’t be Rich, he’d known him back in the UK, and his wife didn’t give him the right feeling, didn’t seem abstract enough, too contained in those overalls, so it had to be the other. It made sense. 57% of demons were shaped like children anyway, or had the ability to assume that form.
‘Tak, you’re flat-lining again…’
Another one, two in three days, Jesus fucking Christ. They were swarming him like locusts. It wasn’t fair. This was supposed to be a safe spot, he knew Rich, knew him well, they couldn’t come here too, it wasn’t fair. Was it really the kid? Weren’t his calculations wrong? It could be the guy outside. Could be someone else lurking nearby. Could be someone in this building. Could just be a normal headache. Fuck, it wasn’t fair, wasn’t right. He had to move. Had to get out of there, get some air.
He coughed, covertly checking his throat to see if it could still function as a speech giver.
‘Sorry, I was just remembering something…’
‘While staring creepily at my wife and kid.’ Richard added a laugh at the end to try and soften it but it wasn’t convincing. ‘How about we duck out for a bit, walk around the stadium?’
‘I’ll get my jacket.’
Tak looked at the kid and said what he thought was, ‘sorry, I am not a monster,’ in Spanish.
The kid started to cry.
‘Fuck, I didn’t…’
‘It’s okay, mate.’
‘Was my Spanish bad? Did I say it wrong?’
‘Let’s just go.’
The wife took the boy’s hand and led him out of the living room, some of the Lego trampled on in the process.
Meanwhile, Richard got on his grey stripe jacket and guided Tak back towards the front door, then down the painting-less stairwell and outside.
‘Sorry about that,’ Tak tried as he stepped around some shit on a leaflet.
‘Don’t worry, he cries a lot. Quite a sensitive kid.’
‘My Spanish is pretty weak…’
‘Nah, it wasn’t the speaking, it was the staring before it, I think.’
‘Maybe. I get caught up sometimes. In a bubble. This headache, it’s…’
‘Forget it, mate. He’s five years old, it’ll pass.’ Richard looked around the area, but not upwards at the grey sky. ‘You wanna do a lap of the stadium? Go say hello to your African friend?’
‘If it works out well enough, maybe you can stay with him in Vigo.’
‘Don’t stretch it, Rich.’
‘Ha, like Jemba…’
‘The thing Jemba used to do, going on and on, same topic, until he ended up talking about moon farming or something equally oddball.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Huh? You short circuiting? Jemba…he used to stretch jokes out for hours, all his crazy scenarios. And the arguments. Wah, they were even worse…remember?’
‘Mate, the never lost an argument thing was his trademark, how can you not remember? That one time, what was it? The thing about the Philip K Dick movies…how many books got turned into movies. You pulled out some obscure French adap, he said it didn’t count, then wouldn’t shut up about it for days. God, it was annoying sometimes. Where is he now anyway? London still?’
Tak nodded even though a nod was not required and looked at the African guy seemingly glued to the stadium wall. He had noticed the guy looking up when they’d come out of the building, but now he was staring at his own hand again.
‘Last I heard he was doing that on-call defendant gig. Don’t know if that’s still going though. It’s been a pretty long time since we talked.’
Tak rubbed his head, the temples pulsating. He looked around the stadium. There was no one else except the African, no other people, no parked taxis, not even rogue pigeons or cats.
‘Sorry, mate, do you not see him anymore?’
‘Your old best friend.’
‘Jemba? Yeah, he’s around. I see him.’ Tak looked at his own hands, scrubbing off imaginary dirt. ‘I need the toilet.’
‘You can just use mine.’
‘Mate, those are football toilets, I don’t think you wanna…’
‘Okay, I guess you do. Fine. I’ll stay here and do my lamppost impression.’
Tak walked quickly to the entrance of the toilets at the corner end of the stadium and, as he moved inside, slowed and turned, glancing at the African.
As expected, the outsider, the vassal, looked up from his hands and glanced back.
‘Okay…’ Tak muttered and continued inside, positioning himself behind the wall next to the entrance. Making sure his form wasn’t visible in the long mirror opposite, he pulled out the knife and waited.
Waiting was tough, semi-Hungarian, and he focused on small details, like keeping his heart beat steady, counting out seconds, translating the wall graffiti, holding one arm out front defensively and the knife low with the other. Block and stab, block and stab. The Hungarian had never used an African vassal before, but it had worked on the white ones so, unless they had a Magyarchat group warning of his block/stab routine then it would work here too.
There were footsteps outside, followed by something heavy and metal dropping onto the ground.
Tak looked at the mirror, which was grubby and reflection-less and had a red painted dick with devil horns on the helmet. No one coming in.
Not possible, not from the sounds he was picking up.
He edged left and looked far enough into the mirror to see three quarters of the outside entrance, but still there was no one there.
Was he waiting outside?
Tying his shoelace?
He started to shift himself round the wall, craning his neck to see the farthest end of the mirror, when something flickered into existence right in front of him, a face, a black face, sparkling yellow eyes.
Tak didn’t know what it was at first, but instinct kicked in fast and he pushed the knife forward, low down, aiming for the thing’s thigh.
It didn’t stick
cos he was floating
then crashing hard into the mirror, cracking the painted devil dick, but not making any noise at all. Were his ears out? Was this a trick? A hallucination?
He felt around for the knife, but it was gone. Probably on the floor he’d started from, way too far to get to, and blocked anyway.
‘Quiet now,’ said the African, phasing back into view, lips completely still-life.
Tak pulled himself up, stepping on broken glass, and looked down, at his shoes silently crunching the shards of mirror into tinier shards. It was real, no sound at all, as if the whole place had been muted or sealed in a bubble and flown up and out past the heliosphere.
‘Nice and quiet, brother…’
Tak looked up, about to say you’re not my fucking brother, when he caught sight of what was in front of him.
It wasn’t an African man anymore
it was a grey man
with tentacles where his arms had been
next to his arms
the limbs were still there, tucked under
and his jeans
they were sliding off, not pulled, coming off of their own free will and the man
the grey thing with seven-foot-long tentacles floated an inch off the floor and drifted towards him
one of the tentacles hooking onto his neck
picking him clean up like Count Otius had, like he was nothing but a hamster, a featherweight hamster, no, smaller than that, lighter, like he was a
Before Tak could think of another suitable animal, the vassal of Otius had pushed him all the way up to the ceiling, scraping his head against the light casing, then bringing him back down and flinging his body into what was left of the mirror.
Tak hit both tile and glass, face first, and slumped down into the dirtiest of the eight sinks.
He fake-dozed a little, muttering zaum nonsense, hoping to lure the demon in close. It worked. He heard a couple steps, waited for another then lashed out backwards with his fist. No good. It bounced off rough skin, dragon-type, that scraped along his knuckles like a brillo pad.
‘… … … … …’
Tak rubbed his hand. The fucker’s skin was impenetrable, better to aim for the eyes, with nails or glass, but there was no chance to grip anything or swing again as the demon was already on top of him, its arms, tentacles and body weight pinning him down tight.
‘Dark enough now,’ the grey thing whispered, its breath nebula-like, ‘dark enough now, dark enough now…’
Tak struggled for a few seconds, but quickly realised the demon was way too strong to wriggle away from, so, when it pushed his head up and smashed it into the wall, he changed tack and drooled blood into the sink, pretending to be out.
The worst thing you could do was constant attack
or constant struggle,
that’s what the last two and a half years had taught him, and none of these Otius wretches ever killed their prey with one strike anyway
they liked to take their time
act out rituals
like the Ye Cha in Bucharest
so he stayed down and waited
gargled blood and eyed a holdable shard of glass and waited and
even when he could feel the thing ripping at his shirt
shifted his left hand towards the glass, wrapped his fingers around it, pulled it back under his body and
waited as five or six or seven different strands of nightmarish brillo pad grated against his skin and
it was hard to muffle the screams
felt like his skin was being slowly scrubbed off but
then it was different
it felt like the skin was being lifted, peeled clean off his body, a slippery metal trowel inserted underneath and
what about the scars
the scars from Otius
would they open up again
A picture from the castle came into his head, the room with the bath dug into the floor, and he told himself to attack, hit now, stab the fucker, and
with his hand already starting to feel numb
he clutched the glass shard as much as he could and edged out from under the creature’s body, raising his left side a little to make it look like he was trying to pull himself up and the best way was to do it fast, right arm up, left arm low
block with the right
stab with the left
just like he’d seen in Donnie Yen films
when he was a kid
before he found out Yen was a fascist.
‘See you moving, brother,’ the demon purred, jabbing the small of Tak’s back. ‘See you squirming down there.’
Tak brought his left hand out from under his body, spinning round and up out of the sink in one movement, raised his right arm up to block the tentacle and stabbed low with his left, hitting the fucker in the thigh. The demon made a guttural noise, but Tak didn’t care, he stabbed again, in the other thigh, then the stomach, then higher, the chest, the chest again, the neck, the arms, the sinew, he didn’t stop until the thing was on the floor and he could see blood pouring out in more than just a token stream.
Tak closed his eyes, bent down and stabbed into void greyness again, seven, eight more times, all in the centre, then placed the edge of the knife against the fucker’s neck and ran it all the way across.
When he stood back up and opened his eyes, the body beneath was a red-pocked star chart and
it wasn’t grey anymore,
not one piece of it
and there weren’t any tentacles either.
It was the African again.
‘Knew it was you.’
The African’s eyes were open, pleading, confused.
‘Fucking knew it.’
Tak went to the sink and washed the blood off the knife. Splashed water on his face, on his back. It stung, just like before, and his shirt was shredded, but it was okay, his jacket would get him as far as the xenophobe’s hotel without anyone spotting blood and calling the cops.
Luckily, the mirror was too cracked for him to look at himself, so there would be no repeat of the scene in the Czech hostel, the what have I become face, not that he would go that way again, he knew what he had become and it was fine, just a few extra pieces added onto the previously existing core
no wholesale change
no penance required
how could there be, it was self-defence, the grey thing had tried to flay him with its tentacles and luckily he had a knife, or a shard of glass, and knew how to hurt it, and so what if it had changed back to human form,
it was fine
anyone would’ve done the same, dealt with it this way
even Bret the Hitman Hart
hiding petrified as a twelve-year-old child.
The sky outside the stadium had somehow turned dark within the space of seven minutes, and the air felt around ten degrees colder, and, due to a combination of both, Richard was half tempted to ditch Tak and go back upstairs,
say sorry, honey, Tak had to go
said he wasn’t feeling well
but he didn’t do that, cos even friends you hadn’t seen for ten years deserved some leeway, even if they had freaked out your kid and gone nuts over some chilling by the Razor African guy.
Richard passed the time by counting the people walking past. In the now nine minutes since Tak had disappeared into the toilets, only one had passed. The African guy. With a wave and a smile.
He’d gone into the toilets too.
Maybe that’s what Tak was doing in there, talking to that guy, asking him what he was doing in A Coruña.
Or maybe they were both taking a dump.
Or maybe something sexier.
It wouldn’t be the-
Richard paused and waved a hand at Tak, who’d just appeared outside the toilets, then started walking back towards the flat.
When he got to the road, he turned to see if Tak had caught up, but there was no sign of him.
He looked further down the concrete stretch, towards the other end of the stadium and
wah, there he was
walking completely the wrong way.
‘Tak…’ Richard shouted, moving a few steps after him. ‘Tak…this way.’
The second shout got a response, Tak adjusting position and staring back at his old friend.
‘Where you going? It’s over here, mate.’
Tak pulled his jacket tight around his body, spat out some blood he’d missed during the clean-up, then turned back towards the grey line of the sea and continued walking.