Our fifth #SFSwap story is horror of a different kind – @jonesthescribe has used his prompt as the start of a black comedy with some commendable noir embellishments. There’s a little of the Sopranos to this, and a fair bit of cyberpunk too – too tastes that go surprisingly well together.
STORY NUMBER: 5
PROMPT PROVIDER: Anonymous
PROMPT: “You got a line of credit, I’ll make him talk. No, it doesn’t matter that he happens to be dead.”
TITLE: A Talking Head
Something about the screaming was bothering Richter, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
In his line of work you quickly learned to tune out the screaming, as a pilot tunes out the blare of a jet engine. Until the engine note changes, almost imperceptibly, signifying impending disaster. Richter sucked on his cigarette and listened. A layman wouldn’t have heard a difference, but Richter knew.
“Balls,” he muttered. By the time he’d ground the smouldering rump of the cig against mouldy brickwork, the screaming had stopped altogether. That couldn’t be good.
Sure enough, it was a shitshow. Cuthbert had bled out in spectacular fashion. Ames and Big Frank stood ashen-faced and crimson-spattered, like labradors caught snout-deep in the wreckage of a new settee.
“Five minutes,” Richter said. “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes.”
“Ames snagged an artery,” volunteered Frank. His colleague flushed maroon but Richter cut in before he could have his say.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he said. “Just tell me you got the name out of him first.”
Neither man could meet his eye.
“Sterling work, Ames,” Richter said at last. “You’ve just killed us all.”
“I was just trying to get him to talk,” said Ames.
“Well he can’t very well do that now, can he?”
“Actually,” said Frank, “there might still be a way…”
Richter regarded the buzzer for Flat 22/3 dubiously. What Big Frank had described sounded like cutting-edge science, and this tenement did not look the kind of place where that was done. He flattened his thumb against metal.
“You Frank’s mate?” said the intercom.
“Brought the other fella?”
Meaning not Ames, but the van’s gory cargo. “Yeah.”
“Best come in then. You got a line of credit, I’ll make him talk. No, it doesn’t matter that he happens to be dead.”
Up three flights of piss-stinking stairs to a plain black door. It was opened by a hatchet-faced woman of indeterminate age wrapped in a stained leopard-print dressing gown. She greeted Frank warmly and extended a nicotine-browned hand to Richter.
“Madame Desmonde,” she stated. “I’m the reanimatrix. Well, in you go. Ain’t got all night.”
She gestured her guests into a small, dimly-lit room cluttered with doilies, incense sticks and a stuffed barbary macaque in evening dress. Along one wall was a velvet curtain adorned with glittering stars and moons.
Richter looked around in dismay. “I think there may have been a misunderstanding. It’s not a medium we’re after. Our needs are more… practical.”
Madame Desmonde snorted. “I assure you, Mr Richter, it’s all strictly science behind the curtain. But most people find this more palatable.”
“We’re not most people.”
“Fair enough.” She flicked a switch and fluorescent lighting washed out the room. The curtain drew back, trebling the size of the parlour and revealing a rack of gleaming, incomprehensible machinery that looked like the bastard amalgamation of an industrial kitchen, a meth lab and a high-end home entertainment system.
Ames arrived, sweating and out of breath. Glowering, he decanted Cuthbert’s corpse onto the threadbare rug without ceremony.
Desmonde looked furious. “What’ve you dragged him all the way up here for?”
“You said to bring him!”
“I only need the head! Helps if you keep the larynx intact, but everything below that’s dead weight. Didn’t Frank tell you that?”
“Sorry,” said Frank, not particularly looking it. “Forgot.”
Richter ground his jaw. “You heard the woman, Ames. Fetch the saw.”
Cuthbert’s head, still dripping gore, was fixed to what looked worryingly like the doner kebab spike in a chippy. Wires and pipes led off into dark recesses of the surrounding equipment.
Frank said reanimation was basically extreme dialysis – the kit provided enough energy and nutrients to the brain to jump-start it back into sentience, albeit in short bursts.
Richter couldn’t believe Frank had hooked his late wife up to this. He wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy.
Except this once.
“Fire him up,” he said and Desmonde obliged.
Pumps, bellows and screens shuddered noisily into life, and so did Cuthbert.
Muscles across his head spasmed and an electric blue glow lit him from within, cheeks translucent like a serial killer’s night light. A terrible, gutteral sound erupted from his sundered oesophagus, blue-lit lips gasping for redundant air.
Cuthbert’s features gradually returned to the baffled, slightly panicked expression he had so often worn in life. He opened his eyes, sweeping unnatural blue light around the room from behind wasted cornea, clocked those present and groaned.
Richter met his neon gaze. “That’s right, shithead, we’re still here.”
Cuthbert frowned. “What’s going on?” he said. “Did I black out?”
“Ames got a bit carried away and killed you.”
Richter strode over to the headless corpse, dragged it into its late owner’s eyeline and gave Cuthbert a ghoulish wave with his own hand. The head cried out in alarm.
“But you’ll find death’s no escape from us, old son. In fact, now that line’s been crossed I can happily kill you all night.”
“Bullshit,” rasped the dead man.
“Turn him off,” said Richter.
Madame Desmonde looked ready to protest but flipped the switch. The light in Cuthbert’s eyes faded and his head became still again. Richter counted to ten before switching him back on.
Cuthbert gasped, horrified, back to life.
“Let me die,” he pleaded.
“Then tell me, because I can keep this up all night. Who was your contact inside the organisation?”
Cuthbert laughed, or tried to. The sound was like an accident in an accordion factory.
This was hopeless. Richter turned to berate Ames for getting them into this bloody mess, but Ames was in a bloody mess of his own on the floor.
“Sorry, chief,” said Big Frank. “But I needed the cash. My wife’s treatment, you know. This reanimatrix. She’s good, but she ain’t cheap.”
He shrugged an apology and unloaded his pistol into Richter’s gut.
“Don’t shoot him in the head,” Richter heard Desmonde cry as Frank came to finish him off.