The Larders – Andrew C. Ferguson

The bar in Edinburgh’s West End was wall to wall suits. It had been a couple of years since I’d been in, and I was shitting myself. And not because I wasn’t wearing a suit.

I had been good at my job in the bank. Not so much the boring facts and figures, but making the deals. In a negotiation, you have to decide what your best alternative to the deal is, how low you can go, and so on. But most of all you have to get your opponent to trust you, and persuade him that he’s happy with the deal he’s got from you. Then you seal it up fast before he gets cold feet.

I had this boss. Woman boss. Tall, dark-haired, power dresser. Susan the Shredder, they called her. The boys used to say, she’s come a long way from her Kelty Council Estate, but they meant it as a compliment. She’d given me a lot of breaks when I first started, and now I was starting to pay them back by making her team look good. And, to be fair, it was partly a team effort.

So we got on pretty well. There wasn’t anything going on between us at first – she was a couple of years older than me, and married – but after one deal in particular had been tied up, we went out for a drink to celebrate. And that’s when it happened.

I knew Susan read horror stories. We started talking about it after a few drinks and it turned out she was into the occult – Aleister Crowley, and all that. So I said to her, `You done a deal with the Devil yet?’

She looked at me. We were quite drunk by then, sort of falling towards each other in this wine bar we had ended up in. `Maybe,’ she said. `Maybe not.’ She paused, smiling at me in that way.

`Maybe I need you to negotiate the right deal,’ she said.

I laughed. We were nose to nose, staring at each other. I kissed her on the nose. `Well, if I was going to do a deal with the Devil, I’d want to optimise my return and minimise the risk element.’

`By doing what?’

`By not putting my own soul on the line.’ Funnily enough, this was something I’d thought about before. I felt a little uncomfortable talking about it, as if I was revealing too much. But I couldn’t help it.

`I mean, that’s the usual deal on offer, isn’t it? You sell your own soul in return for the usual package of benefits. A bit short-term, I always thought. Why put your own soul at risk if you can trade other people’s?’

She was smiling. `You mean, offer to get other people’s souls for the Devil, instead of your own?’ She kissed me full on the lips. She was a great kisser. `You’ve got a nasty mind. Let’s do it.’

`What, right here?’ I gave her a squeeze.

`Not that, stupid. Well, yes, okay, that as well. But I really meant the deal with the Devil.’

`Susan, I was kidding….’

`Let’s see…we need candles. And something to draw a pentacle on the boardroom table. And condoms for the other bit of business.’

I started to laugh, even though I saw she was serious. I was more than ready for sex with her – I’d always half-fancied her anyway, but the high from the deal, the champagne, and the kissing, had made her irresistible. If she wanted to make it kinkier by drawing symbols and lighting candles and doing it in the boardroom back at the office, well and good. It didn’t exactly turn me off. The bank’s offices are on the fifth floor of a modern building up Lothian Road, not far from here, in fact. Very grand, especially the reception area and the boardroom. We marched in past the security guard, and Susan gave him that look. People didn’t generally argue with her all that much. Except me. Curiously, I think that’s why she liked me.

Susan showed me how to set up the candles while she chalked out the pentacle on the boardroom table. Then I lit the candles, one by one.

We didn’t say any incantations or any of that crappy Hammer Horror stuff. We didn’t have to, not that Beelzebub jumped out of the drinks cabinet or anything. Just as soon as I lit the last candle, there was a change in the atmosphere in the room, like there was a storm about to break; in my ears I heard this sound that was somewhere between the humming of an engine and the growling of an animal. Little points of light began to wink at the edges of my vision.

We stripped naked, looking right in each other’s eyes, and Susan told me she was ready. She didn’t want any foreplay, she said. She got up and sat on the edge of the table. I tried to stand back and take her all in, to slow down whatever it was we were going into, but she wasn’t having any of it. `Now,’ she said, and drew me into her. She was soaking wet.

`The condoms…’ I said, but she kissed me to shut me up, then bit my shoulder so hard she broke my skin. I called out, and she fastened her teeth on my throat.

We ended up on all fours on the table. It was rough, and uncomfortable; there was also something bestial about it all. The growling in my ears got louder and louder, until I realised that some of it was coming from Susan. The blood from my shoulder started dripping on her back, faster and faster as my heart rate increased.

The lights at the edge of my vision started to blur together, and I started to see things. On the wall at the end of the table I saw a pair of dark eyes, watching us; just as I noticed them, they blinked and disappeared, and Susan and I came at the same time. I heard Susan start to speak in tongues. Then I did, too.

Afterwards we lay on the polished wood, recovering. The candles had blown out and it was very quiet apart from the sound of our breathing. There was blood and come on the boardroom table. I felt stone cold sober, and a little bit afraid. We dressed and cleared up the traces; we didn’t say much to each other, I remember. Then we went home in separate cabs.

I suppose it was inevitable that we would be found out. Not where we’d done it, thankfully, but Susan’s husband found the packet of morning after pills in the bin the next day, and put two and two together. Company policy was that one of us resigned; I did the decent thing and let Susan keep her job. I was used to doing the decent thing, even if I had come a long way from my Council estate.

The night I resigned, I dreamt of those eyes I’d seen in the boardroom. They spoke to me, and told me to keep to my side of the bargain. My soul was mortgaged, the eyes told me. I had to keep up with the payments.

You know how it is with dreams. They have a reality of their own, and it takes time after you first wake up to get rid of that belief system. If you ever can.

You see, I had been woken from the dream by the sound of someone breaking into my flat. I crept through the hall and a saw a young guy – he couldn’t have been much more than sixteen – in the living room, rummaging around. I went into the kitchen and got a carving knife out of the block. He had come in through the front door so I closed it, quietly.

I jumped him as he came out of the living room with my video recorder; tripped him up and sat on his shoulders. I showed him the knife and he started babbling.

`Let me go! Let me go! Ah’m only tryin’ tae get money fur drugs, eh. Ah goat a habit!’ As if that was an excuse, and he was the victim. He’d read too much Irvine Welsh.

`Shut up,’ I told him. I put the knife against his neck. I was trying to think straight, but the eyes in my dream kept appearing in front of me in the half-dark, telling me what to do. Believe it or not, it seemed like the logical thing to do. The wound from Susan’s bite mark pulsed, and I wondered if it was infected. Just another deal, I told myself.

`I’ll let you go on one condition,’ I said. `In fact, you can take the video with you if you want.’

His eyes widened. `That right, aye?’

And that’s how I made my first soul-deal. He was an easy touch, my burglar: he was a scrawny kid with a king-size smack habit, and he traded his soul for a video recorder and a promise of thirty quid. As soon as we’d agreed terms, I slit his throat with the knife.

I watched him drown in his own blood, with a look of surprise on his face. The eyes showed me how the boy’s soul was stuck inside his body, flash-frozen like a bag of prawns. I could see it clearly now.

The eyes – which were in my head now – also told me about the larders.

In every city, there are dead spaces, areas we don’t quite see when we walk past. Our eyes are selective, or rather the brain is selective in what information gets processed once it’s ported in down the optic nerve. Any blanks get filled in from the surrounding detail to make a complete picture.

But there are blanks; gaps in our reality, wedged between the buildings mostly, buildings we see as having mutual walls. The eyes in my head called them larders. That’s because they’re there to provide a ready meal for creatures you and I used to pray we never saw when we were kids. And that was where I had to put my victims.

Early that morning, I drove down to Muirhouse, near the kid’s home. Hauling the body in its bag out of the car, I lifted it up – strength being the least of my worries now – and headed for the larder I had been told about, in a crack between two blocks of maisonettes. The larder door yawned open briefly when I put the dead burglar in, but luckily it was empty. I saw full ones later, and I preferred the empty ones.

The contract was through the door when I got back. Quite a short one, for what seemed like a major deal to me, and drawn up in the small hours by one of the city legal firms. But then, I suppose it was relatively straightforward terms: I got unlimited reserves of cash in my bank account, health and strength, and other important fringe benefits. In return I had to carry out `acquisitions,’ and make regular `deposits.’ Everything had to be acceptable to the Devil, `acting reasonably.’

The next week, in the Scotsman’s Business Section, I saw my own face in the `Recent Appointments’ column. The blurb said I had recently joined Devil PLC from my previous merchant bank, and was working in a specially created role as a negotiator. Maybe everyone else who reads the Business Section saw it, or maybe it was just me. But it made up my mind for me.

I knew then I had to get out of the financial market, where the people are hard and cynical. To cut the deals I needed, I had to go out into the housing estates, Craigmillar, Muirhouse, where the poverty and the drug problems are. Where people are vulnerable and it’s a buyer’s market for souls like everything else.

It’s pretty easy to fake qualifications, or work on a voluntary basis until you become indispensable. Especially out there in the estates where the Establishment wants to ease its guilty conscience. They’re desperate to find people who say they care.

And the souls were easy pickings. I chose the young, single people, the ones with no ties and sometimes with no fixed abode. It’s easy for you to believe they just took off one night. Some of them were quite creative negotiators, mind you: it’s amazing what some people want to trade their souls for, even for just a couple of weeks of it. But most of them just wanted one last big score.

I moved around, changing names and identities. After a while, I began to believe no-one was watching me though, apart from the big boss. I was well in credit, sitting in that West End bar. Didn’t need to deal in souls for another month or so if I didn’t want to.

And the package I got in return was great. Unlimited money, sex with whoever I wanted, perfect health. The previous night, I had had a session with two novice nuns who had been secretly killed in the fifteenth century for having a three-in-a-bed with a cardinal. Let me tell you, those girls were so grateful for even a short respite from the eternal flames of hell! We covered each other in extra virgin olive oil and went at it till dawn.

But now here I was, meeting Susan again. I don’t know how she found me. I thought I’d covered my tracks well; but obviously not well enough. A courier had arrived at my house in Ravelston Dykes with a letter from her at the bank. It gave the time and place for our meeting, and one further line of information:

We Need To Renegotiate.

Which was why I was shitting myself. I was more than happy with the way things were turning out. I didn’t want to renegotiate anything. But Susan obviously did. And if anyone could persuade me to do something I didn’t want to do, it was Susan. She was a hell of a negotiator, and that’s a hell of a compliment from me.

She arrived wearing a suit.

`Just got finished up the road,’ she said apologetically. `You know, you did the right thing, moving out to the housing estates when you did. These guys in the corporate sector are real tough bastards. It takes ages to close on them. And even then, it’s slim pickings with some of them. Soulless bastards.’ She reached for a cigarette from her handbag, and waved away my offer of a drink.

`Stick to coffin nails these days anyway. Keeps a clear head.’

She looked fantastic. Charcoal suit with a pinstripe to die for; cream blouse that she’d opened just enough at the neck to keep me glancing. Great, big, hair.

`Is that why you want to renegotiate, then?’ Why did I feel so nervous? We had had sex together once, pretty good sex. Plus she owed me for resigning instead of her. Maybe it was that isosceles triangle of pearly white skin at her neck that was making me sweat. I couldn’t be sure.

She laughed. `Yeah, something like that. You see, I’ve been watching your progress, and you’ve been doing pretty well. Maybe you’ve got something I want.’

I laughed too, but it didn’t come out properly. It was a strangled, choking noise. `You mean, you want to make a takeover bid.’

`Got it in one. You’re a smart boy, but then I always knew that. If I take over the credit of your account, I can get a breathing space in my current difficulties. Change marketplaces. Take over your patch, effectively.’

The bar began to spin around me. I stood up.

`You can’t be serious,’ I said, backing away. `Besides, why should I give them up? I’m far more in credit than you; I’ve got more strength if I decide not to outrun you.’

`True,’ she said, taking three paces towards me round the table. I tried to back away, but the bar was so full I couldn’t move any further. Suits, their owners turned away from our little drama, stood shoulder to shoulder behind me.

`But strength and speed isn’t everything. You see, the Devil doesn’t like people to be too much in credit to their account. Just like a bank, he gets more interest when someone’s struggling to keep up. So he’ll back me this time, in the hope I fail later on.’

I turned round, but all I saw was a wall of suits, blocking every direction. I turned back towards Susan.

`Do your worst,’ I said.

Which was when she brought the pint glass round from behind her back and hit me across the face with it.

I was dazed as she threw me across her shoulder and hurried me out of the bar, parting the suits. The cold night air helped to revive me, but I knew the nearest larder wasn’t far away. I fought a desperate rearguard action outside Jenner’s, but she was too strong for me. I felt the larder door open behind me, and made the mistake of looking in.

The larder-keepers had been working hard. In each half-dismembered body I saw a soul, flash-frozen like a bag of prawns, waiting for the creatures who came to claim them. Yet still the men and women I had put in the larder reached out their hands for me.

I imagined myself in there when the door had shut and the light went off. The prospect inspired me.

`Wait,’ I said. `Wait. I have a counter offer.’

She put her head to one side and smiled. `I rather hoped you would. I’m listening.’

`How about a joint venture?’

Takeovers are greatly overrated. Mergers, where the skills of both partners can be pooled properly, are generally much more successful. Susan and I had always worked better as a team; now we were able to corner both markets in Edinburgh.

Everything’s great at the moment. Business is booming; we really must take a holiday some time, but there’s so much to do.

The larders are full to bursting in Edinburgh, so we’re going to open in London. There’s always the danger of a takeover, of course, but who could take us over? We’re going global. The world’s our oyster.

Or rather, you all are.


Afterword

The Larders is a good example of the strong workshopping ethic of Writers’ Bloc. Originally called something else and with an extra introductory scene set in the Jekyll & Hyde Tavern, the story underwent a medium to brutal session in one of the group’s regular monthly meetings. The extraneous scene-setting went, and the concept of the larders for souls was shaped up more than it had been in the first draft.

A subsequent version was sold to Planet Prozak (Issue 3, October/November 1998) and was read at the Dead by Dawn horror film festival.

Needless to say none of the story is autobiographical and none of its scenes should be tried at home except amongst two consenting adults. I suspect olive oil would make a hell of a mess of the sheets, extra virgin or otherwise.

- ACF.