? ? GUY ADAMS
? ? The World House ? ? ?
? ? ?
? To Diana Adams, with infinite thanks and love,for passing her passion for story onto her son
and being unwavering in her support.
They had threatened to break his legs if he didn't find them the money owed. It wasn't aninventive threat but the best never are. What's the point of intimidation if it's not easilyimagined? You want the recipient to get their head around the concepts on offer, to feel thesensation of bones splintering inside their legs like shattered lead in a dropped pencil. With
threat the pain starts the minute you finish talking.
??For Miles Caulfield it had done its job, his every thought filled by men with lump hammersand an eagerness to use them. Perhaps that's what had happened? He couldn't be sure. His bodyfelt distant, something important he owned but hadn't seen in a while, like a childhood mementostashed in the attic.
??It was dark, with a smell so familiar as to have been beneath his notice for a moment: themuskiness of old things. Was he in the shop then, rather than his flat above? Perhaps they haddragged him down here amongst the junk and cobwebs to check his till. To work their way throughhis shelves and display cabinets for something of worth. If so they needn't have bothered; thesign outside promised "the antique and collectable" but he would hardly be receiving leg-breakers at his door if any of it was valuable. It was a shop dedicated to the battered andbroken, the discarded and worthless. He now realised that included the owner. Probably italways had.
??So he was surrounded by the smell of old things but there was something not quite right aboutit. He had spent countless hours sitting amongst his own stock, flipping through a newspaper orcompleting a crossword. The sorts of pursuits one might involve oneself in when not distractedby the intrusion of customers. It didn't smell like this. This was real age, the sort of dustthat might contain fragments of God. He tried to move again but his body was so remote to himthat the simple act of twitching a limb was telekinesis. They must have done one hell of a jobon him.
"They'll kill you, you know," Jeremy had said as they sat on the wooden bench teasing the duckswith the steaming contents of their takeaway containers. "It won't be quick either, I've seenenough movies, they'll make an example of you. Probably cut your dick off and stick it in yourmouth."
??Miles, a hunk of meat and bread turning to mush in his mouth, put the rest of his burger downand swallowed reluctantly. "Thanks for that."
??"Just saying." Jeremy mixed a slurry of ketchup and mayonnaise with a pinch of fries andpopped them in his mouth. "That's the kind of thing these people do."
??"We're talking about Gordon Fry not Tony Soprano."
??"Just think of me when you're gagging on your own bell-end."
??"Fuck's sake…" Miles dumped his food in the bin and lit a cigarette to fumigate his mouth.
??Jeremy gave him a dirty look, wafting the smoke away from his face. "I'm eating here, do youmind?"
Miles felt a tickle in his nostrils. In the absence of any other physical sensation he fixatedon it. The feeling spread, like leaking oil, from his sinuses to his face. His cheek began toprickle against the wool of a carpet. That settled it, he definitely wasn't in the shop. Hisfloor was bare boards, all the better to wipe up after the tourists dripped their ice creamsand trailed their muddy footprints. The dust bristled in his nostrils like static. He sneezed.
"Bless you," Jeremy said, working his way through the contents of Miles' shelves. "We've knowneach other long enough for me to be honest, haven't we?"
??Miles shrugged. "Apparently."
??"This really is all crap, isn't it?" Jeremy picked up a tatty looking child's doll, one ofits eyelids fluttering at him while the other stayed in place over its sun-damaged blind eye."You have an entire shop filled with rubbish nobody wants."
"Some of it's collectable."
??"Jesus, Miles, but no, it really isn't. You'd have more chance learning how to shit moneythan make it from this stuff."
??"Remind me why we're friends again?" Miles asked.
??"Because I'll always tell you the truth." Jeremy smiled, making the doll wave its chippedhand at Miles.
??"Nobody's ever been friends for that. I know I haven't got any good stock, OK? If I did, Iwouldn't be in this situation. All the good stuff went ages ago."
??Jeremy shoved the doll back on a shelf, causing a few items to tumble to the floor.
??"Careful!" Miles shouted. "It may be crap but it's all I've got."
??He walked over to pick the items up, ducking beneath the arms of a shop-window dummy whomodelled a German steel helmet on her flaking bald head.
??"Sorry." Jeremy, contrite at last, stooped down to help. "This is quite nice," he said,holding up a rectangular wooden box. "Where's it from?"
??Miles, still angry at his friend, pointed at the Chinese writing burned into the pale wood."Sweden, where do you think?"
??Jeremy rolled his eyes. "No need to be sarcastic. Knowing you it's from one of the takeawaysin town. How much do you want for it?"
??"I don't want your money," Miles snapped, snatching the box off him. "I still have some prideleft."
"That's all you'll have soon. Much use it'll be."
??Miles sat down on the floor, energy deflated, his arms filled with worthless junk. "About asmuch as the rest of this shite, I imagine."
??Jeremy sat down next to him. "I'd lend you the money if I had it, you know that."
??"Then you'd be an idiot." Miles dropped the stock, the box falling into his lap. "I'd onlygamble it away."
??"Really?" Jeremy looked at him. "Even now, with the threat of a pair of broken legs – orworse – you'd blow it all if I gave it to you?"
??Miles turned the box over in his hands. "In a heartbeat."
He promised himself it was the dust in his eyes making them water, not the memory of thatconversation. Inch by inch his nerves were reporting in. His left thumb twitched. A spasmtrickled along his arm. Immediately he tried duplicating the sensation. For a moment it wasbeyond him, but then he began to flex the muscle in the ball of his thumb. He would havegrinned were his mouth not so numb. Soon his whole hand was twitching at the end of the wrist.There was hope yet.
"You haven't given up?" Fry had asked as Miles stepped into the bar. He gestured to the barmaidto pour him another glass of wine but didn't offer Miles a drink. "I fucking hope not, there'sno fun – or profit for that matter – in my debtors just offering their necks up for thenoose. Where's the sport in that, eh?"
??"I need more time," Miles replied, inching towards the barstool next to Fry but not quitedaring to sit on it.
??"Oh Christ," Fry sighed, scooping peanuts from a ramekin on the bar, "you're going to be afucking cliché." He popped the nuts into his mouth, slapping his fingers together to knock awaythe salt. "Please, save me from the 'more time' conversation. I really haven't the energy forit. It's been a long day. I just want to work my way through this wine and then find someblonde cunt to treat like shit for a few hours. Is that so much to ask?"
??Miles opened his mouth to speak but Fry held up a finger to stop him. Miles watched the barlighting bounce off the grains of salt stuck to Fry's manicured nail. He had the ludicrousnotion of licking them off.
??"If you were about to say, 'I can get the money,'" Fry continued, "then you should be warnedthat my response would have been to smash the stem of this wine glass and put your fucking eyesout with it. It's an even bigger cliche than 'I need more time'. Jesus…" he took a sip of hiswine "…feel like I've wandered into an episode of fucking Minder
or something. You can't have any more time and I sincerely hope you can get me my money asI'll turn you into a spastic if you don't." He beckoned the waitress over. "Get this twat aten-quid chip for the tables," he told her before turning back to face Miles. "Take the tenner,piss it up against the wall – just to show I'm not an unfriendly sort of fucker – and thencome back tomorrow with my money or I'll smash your kneecaps, all right? It's perfectly simple:cause and effect, black and white, you pay or we hurt you."
??The barmaid returned with the gaming chip. Fry took it off her and tossed it to Miles. "Thereyou go. From small acorns great big pissing fortunes grow – you might even win me my fuckingmoney back."
??Miles stood there for a moment, wanting to fling the chip back at Fry and be the bigger man.He was still imagining what that might feel like when he handed it over to the croupier on theblackjack table and took the cards she dealt.
He had one good hand but the other still refused to move. That was OK. If he could get thefeeling back in one then logically it would return in the other. He scratched at the carpet. Itwas deep and expensive but matted with dust. Any money here was old and long undisturbed. Hisneck loosened and he found he was able to rub his face on the pile, a friction burn developingin his cheek. There was a noise from somewhere to his right and he clenched his hand,automatically preparing to defend himself. It came again: the rustling of feathers.
After he had played (and lost) his ten pound chip, he spent the last few quid in his pocket onrolling tobacco and cheap wine. He sat in the darkness of his shop, rolling thin cigarettes andquaffing the wine from the bottle. The amber sheen of the streetlights made everything in theshop look unfamiliar and two-dimensional. He shuffled his way through the stock, turning itover in his hands before hurling it across the room. A chipped decorative plate went first.Originally it had celebrated the Queen's Jubilee, now it rejoiced at nothing more than ventedanger, shattering against the wall and showering the floorboards with china fragments. Then thechild's doll that Jeremy had played with. Miles wrenched its limbs from its sockets, flingingthem over his shoulder before dropping the rattling plastic skull to the floor and crackingopen its smiling face with the heel of his shoe. Then a pewter tankard turned into a makeshifthammer to pound a selection of thimbles to dust in their wooden display case. He reached forthe Chinese box, meaning to reduce it to splinters, but stopped as its surface rippled in thelight of the streetlamps. He fumbled it in shock, dropping it to the floor. It must have been acombination of the cheap wine and lighting, but he could have sworn it had moved. He?stared atit, daring it to repeat its trick. It refused. He took a swig of wine and rolled anothercigarette, staring at the box, not trusting it enough to take his eyes off it.
That rustling again as something moved past him in the darkness. He managed to windmill his armacross the floor, ignoring the pins and needles. He tried to put his weight on it to turnhimself over but his palm beat uselessly at the floor, the nerves shot. He tried again,fighting against the elbow's inclination to bend uselessly. He placed his palm gently againstthe carpet and fought to stiffen his arm. Once convinced it would hold him, he pushed. A thinstrand of saliva pulled from the corner of his mouth as he flipped successfully on to his back.He wiped his lips with a tingling but functional hand. He still couldn't see anything so heflexed his fingers again and burrowed in his jeans pocket for a cigarette lighter. He snaggedhis fingers on the disposable lighter's flintwheel just as he sensed something draw close. Heheard footfalls on the carpet, felt the vibration of its weight through the boards. There was aslight displacement of air as something leaned over him. Pulling the lighter from a nest ofloose change and pocket fluff he spun the wheel and found himself staring into the black eyesof an ostrich.
The delusion, if that's what it had been, had taken all the energy out of Miles' anger so hetook the box upstairs to stare at in some degree of comfort. The wine was done but in a twistof good fortune he found half a bottle of cheap-shit calvados in the kitchen cupboard. He'dbought it when trying to impress a date by his ability to cook. It burned all the way down his
throat, whether with alcohol or regret was impossible to tell.
??He placed the box on the stained coffee table in the lounge, turned on all the lights and satdown on the carpet to roll another cigarette. While he packed strands of tobacco, tangled aspubic hair, into the centre of his cigarette paper he tried to remember where he had bought thebox. After a while the auctions and house clearances had a habit of blending together. Anendless parade of tatty banana-boxed "treasures", things once precious reduced to funky-smelling trinkets wrapped in decades-old newspaper. He had a vague memory of a house nearCoventry, the stink of a dying man's piss, and ticks in the upholstery. Hadn't there been awhole chest filled with decorative boxes? The spoils of a youth in the navy? He picked up theChinese box, meaning to open it. The lid wouldn't shift; possibly the wood was warped or thehinges rusted. Now the box was so close to his face he became aware of a noise, a gentleticking from inside it. He held it next to his ear and listened. It was a precise butunrhythmic clicking, not clockwork, more the sort of noise a beetle might make. He turned thebox over in his hands, shaking it and rubbing his thumbs along its edges. The ticking grewlouder. Suddenly, something sharp stung his palm and he dropped the box. Rubbing at the soreflesh on his hand he watched a red weal, like an insect bite, begin to develop.
??He pulled his mobile out of his pocket and called Jeremy. The phone rang out a few timesbefore his friend's voice groaned into the receiver. "Miles? Bloody hell… do you know whattime it is?"
??When his friend spoke, the box stopped its noise, as if shy.
??"No," Miles admitted, glancing at his watch. He'd lost a few hours somewhere along the line:it was nearly two in the morning. "Sorry… didn't realise it
had got so late. Listen, that box…"
"Are you drinking?"
??"Of course I am, what else is there to do in my current situation? I'd be eating heroin liketoffee if I had any. You know the box you were looking at? The Chinese one?"
??"Please tell me you didn't wake me up to sell me antiques."
??"Don't be stupid, there's something…" How to pin it down without sounding mad? "There'ssomething weird about it. When I was looking at it I thought it changed shape. Now it'sticking."
??"You really have been drinking, haven't you?"
??"Jesus!" Miles' exasperation made him clench his teeth "It's not the bloody wine, all right?I'm pissed but I'm not hallucinating… There's something seriously weird going on."
??"I'll tell you what's weird," Jeremy replied. Miles could hear him getting out of bed andturning on a light. "That's the fact that you've got a bunch of thugs waiting to pay you avisit and you're just sat in your flat messing about with stock. If you can't find the money –and of course you can't – then get out of there, for fuck's sake. Come round here, or evenbetter get yourself to a train station and bugger off somewhere. What about that friend ofyours in London? Gary something… go and kip on his floor for a few weeks."
??"And then what?"
??"I don't bloody know!" Jeremy's voice distorted in Miles' ear. "Stay there, I suppose!Anything's better than just sitting around waiting for them to come knocking on your door."
??"Don't worry about it," Miles muttered, hanging up. A few seconds later Jeremy rang back butMiles ignored it.
??He wouldn't run, though he couldn't have told Jeremy why, not without sounding pathetic. Hehad just sunk too low. Movement, thought, self-preservation… they all required energy, theyneeded him to care. Right now, the only thing he could sum up any enthusiasm for was thisdamned box. It began ticking again.
??"What are you about?" he muttered. A throbbing pulse of drunkenness surged through his headas he moved, his brain bobbing like a boat in a storm. He nudged the box with his foot,nervousness vanishing alongside the last few crumbs of his giving a shit. He rubbed at the markon his palm but it didn't hurt. He sat down on the floor, his back against the nicotinestainedpaintwork that he had promised himself he would touch up for the last three years.
??The box flipped over and landed on its base. Miles stared at it, unsure how to respond. Theticking continued to grow in volume, an angry jazz rimshot that made his left eyelid twitch.
The ostrich cricked its neck, startled by the fire from the lighter, and there was a dry,tearing noise like a baguette being broken in half. A cloud of dust sprinkled from its throatand it opened its beak with the creak of a pair of rusted garden shears. The heat from theflame singed Miles' thumb and he let the light go out. Panicking in darkness all the more densefor the flame's absence, he blew on his thumb and spun the flint wheel, desperate to reigniteit, sparks leaping into the dark and vanishing quickly. Finally, the flame lit and the ancientbird gave a startled squawk. It reared its head back and, with another cry, thrust it forward,stabbing at Miles' hand. Now, without thinking about it, Miles found he was able to move alittle more, the upper part of his body rolling to one side as he tried to avoid the angrypecking. The beak punched the small of his back as he pulled himself out of the way, his legsdragging uselessly behind him. He lashed back with his right arm, catching the bird on the sideof its head with his fist. The bird gave another squawk and retreated in a rustle of feathers.Miles kept pulling himself along the carpet, clouds of dust stinging his eyes. A dull throbpulsed in his lower back from where the bird had hit him. His hand smacked against a woodenpole. He ran his fingers up and down it, feeling its bulges and contours. It was a table leg,stout enough to be Regency (the absurdity of his trying to date the thing by touch, given hiscurrent situation, was not lost on him but it was hard to break the habit of a lifetime). Hepulled himself past it, rolling on to his back and feeling the underside of the table above.Hopefully it might offer some protection. The ostrich was trotting to and fro some distanceaway; he could hear its scaly feet pounding the old carpet. It wasn't alone – the whole roomseemed to be coming to life: there was creaking and hissing; a sound like someone tapping on awindow; a shuffling of something large pulling itself along the floor; a low growl… The scentof age was growing stronger too, sweet and dusty, making him want to sneeze or vomit, perhapsboth. Something jumped on to the table he could hear its claws tapping as it walked along thewood. Tap…tap… tap…
He woke to a knocking on the door and, for a second, thought the sound must be coming from thebox. He was still sat in the corner of his room, unaware of the moment when he had lostconsciousness. Daylight shone through the windows, making him squint. The knocking came again,
echoing along the stairwell that led from his flat to street-level. His door wasn't used tovisitors and there was only one man he could imagine eager for his company (or, more precisely,his wallet). Surely he still had a few hours to find the money? He checked his watch as theknocking came a third time, staring at its hostile face and the late afternoon it swore he hadwoken into. The person at his door ran out of patience and started rattling at the lock.
??Now that the threat was solidifying, becoming an actuality rather than an abstract, he
realised he hadn't been scared at all. Fear, real
fear, was the surge of nausea he felt right now, curdling the cheap red wine in his stomachand turning his lower jaw to jelly. How could he have imagined that he could just sit here andtake what had been promised to him? Getting to his feet he slammed a hand to the wall to steadyhimself as his legs buckled and his stomach ejected the previous night's self-pitying booze inan arc across the paintwork. There was no time for cleanliness and he ran through to thekitchen and his back door. The rear of the flat boasted a wooden balcony with a row of stepsthat would see him in the delivery area behind the building; from there it was a short jog tothe street.
??The person at the front door was working the lock. Miles could hear the careful investigationof metal on metal as the tumblers were forced to roll over and let the intruder in. He pulledat the handle of the back door, spitting some of the filth from his mouth in anger as herealised it was locked. He yanked the kitchen drawers open, hunting for the key. He found it,still wearing the rental agency address tag on a length of old, thick string. He shoved it intothe lock. He heard the front door open behind him as the key turned, heavy feet beginning toascend the stairs. The back door was stiff and the wood cried out as he wrenched it open. If hecould just get on to the street he had some hope of giving his pursuers the slip. Surely theywould be wary of attacking him in plain sight?
??"Don't be a dickhead," Gordon Fry said, standing on the balcony just outside Miles' door."Give us a bit of fucking credit, yeah?"
The feeling of safety offered by the table began to wane. Miles couldn't begin to imagine whatwas pacing up and down above him but the sound of its claws, tapping and scratching on thepolished wood, was all he needed to know to be afraid. The growling was getting closer too,though the animal must surely be sick as the noise was too harsh to come from a healthy throat.Perhaps it was also lame; certainly it was dragging itself rather than walking towards him.There were more birds, tuneless whistles and squawks and the occasional whoosh of air as theyflew past the table, stirring the dust with the beating of their wings. Sometimes the noisewould stop with a dull thud as they found the perimeter of the room, beaks pounding into wood-panelling like inaccurately thrown pub darts. There was a dry rattle, a maraca shaken in thedark.
??Miles, terrified of snakes, found a cold sweat beginning to form on his forehead as heimagined its dry belly curling its way along the greasy carpet. He held the lighter in his handand wondered whether to strike it. He couldn't decide whether it might attract the creatures orscare them off. He rubbed his thumb indecisively along the flint wheel as the noises drewnearer…
After so long insisting he wasn't going to run, it now seemed he couldn't stop. It wascompletely pointless, of course; he could hardly lose them in a one-bedroom flat. Fry knew thisand took his time stepping into the kitchen, closing and locking the door behind him, casuallypoking through a couple of the cupboards out of sheer nosiness. The two men that he had broughtwith him – who had proven so adept at forcing locked doors – also knew their quarry was goingnowhere. They followed Miles into the lounge as casually as if they had been invited, perhapsto discuss Our Beneficent Lord or the benefits of solar panelling as an alternative energysource. Miles wasn't fooled by their nonchalance, nor did he think for one minute that the
heavy-looking canvas bag that one of the men dropped on to the sofa contained promotionalliterature. There was the chink of metal against metal as the objects inside the bag tumbledtogether. It was a deceptively prim noise, like the tapping of champagne glasses during awedding toast.
??The men had the sort of bland appearance that was only found in the true professional: longwool overcoats, pink muscular heads razored baby-arse smooth. They showed no sense of eagernessfor the task ahead but no concern either. Miles, on the other hand, was so concerned that hewas close to losing all physical control. He was shaking violently as he watched Fry enter theroom nibbling on a chocolate biscuit he'd found in the kitchen. His legs desperately wanted himto run and he didn't altogether disagree, just had no idea where or how. Fry, noticing thepurple spray of wine-laced vomit that bruised the wall in the corner of the room, grimaced andthrew what was left of the biscuit on the floor.
??"Heavy night, was it?" he asked. "If it weren't for the fact that you were trying to fuck offover the back wall I'd hope it was in celebration of getting me my money."
??Accepting there was no way he would walk out of the room, Miles started trying to talk hisway out instead. His jaw was shaking so much with nerves that he couldn't get his words outstraight. Fry punching him in the face didn't help.
??"Think how I feel," Fry said, the small amount of feigned civility he had offered gone,"coming all the way over here, only to hear the bad – if not altogether surprising – newsthat I'm deeply out of pocket." His cheeks were reddening as he got angrier, pounding his shinyleather shoes into Miles' legs and belly. "Hardly fucking fair, is it? I lend you some money,you don't pay it back and now I'm supposed to be the bad man for taking it out on you. Well,fuck you!
" He gave him one more kick to the arse, sending a wave of pain through the base of Miles'spine. "Thieving fucker."
??Miles was hunched, foetal, trying to protect himself from Fry's kicks – though, Lord knows,in a few moments he would likely look back on them as the gentlest of kisses. Despite the fear,despite the sight of one of the bald men unzipping the canvas bag and pulling out a pair ofwooden blocks, despite Fry wiping at his spittle-covered chin with his coat sleeve and lookingsorely tempted to resume his attack, despite all that… Miles became aware that the wooden boxwas ticking again. He twisted his head to look at it, his interest, once again, somewhatinappropriate to his circumstances.
??Fry certainly felt snubbed, stepping over Miles to snatch the box from the floor. "Worthsomething, is it?" he asked, shaking the box in his hands, maybe to silence the ticking. Milesfound himself scared to see the box manhandled in such a fashion, though he knew he was due forheavier treatment.
" Fry shouted, verbose as ever, slamming his hand to his mouth as if to shove the words backdown his throat. Miles glimpsed a trickle of blood on the man's lips and realised he'd caughthimself on the box. "Cunting thing," Fry mumbled, sucking his wound. He threw the box at Miles,who instinctively grabbed it.
??And promptly vanished.
Miles gritted his teeth, waiting to feel the gentle curl of the rattlesnake against the solesof his feet. The floor vibrated with the pounding of the ostrich, and he heard a whistle of airand a rattle from the snake that suddenly went distant as it was snatched in the bird's mouth.