Keith left the community centre early, since his talk on the history of housing development in East Anglia had attracted an audience of just two people — and they turned out to have got lost on their way to the Mature Ladies’ Erotica Reading Group.
Arriving home to find Chet waiting on the doorstep did not make him feel any better.
Chet Fortune was everything Keith loathed in a person, and particularly in a next-door neighbour: big, loud, uncouth, and possessed of a huge Irish Wolfhound that was on a mission to fertilise every square inch of grass, patio, and flowerbed in Essex. Even his name was irritating; it made him sound like a film star when he was really a window fitter from Basildon.
‘What do you want?’ Keith said. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve come to apologise for that wretched animal of yours, have you? Did you see what it did to my garden gnomes? It took me half an hour to clean off all the—’
‘I’m not here to apologise to you, Jenkins,’ Chet said. ‘In fact, I’m not here to see you at all.’ He lounged against the wall, folded his vulgarly over-muscled arms, and smiled.
A cold gust of wind raised the hairs on the back of Keith’s neck. He knew that look. It was the look that said Chet had got his hands on something that belonged to Keith and taken great pleasure in doing something unspeakable to it.
Chet nodded at Keith’s front door, which opened to reveal Marian standing on the welcome mat with her coat on and a suitcase in each hand. She saw Keith and her eyes widened.
Chet smiled some more.
Keith looked from his neighbour to his wife. ‘What’s happening?’ he said. His voice squeaked.
She put the cases on the floor and took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry it’s come to this, Keith, I really am. But I honestly don’t know how else to get through to you. It’s as if you don’t even know I’m here half the time. You don’t listen to me, you never pay attention when—’
‘You can’t do this,’ Keith said. ‘You can’t leave me.’ He pointed a trembling finger at Chet. ‘Not for him, Marian. Not for him.’
‘What? No, that’s not—’
Keith whirled to face Chet. This was intolerable. It was time to make a stand. ‘You can’t have her,’ he said. ‘I won’t allow it.’
Marian pulled at Keith’s sleeve. ‘Keith, no, Chet’s only — I just wanted to borrow his van, to—’
Chet grinned. ‘Calm down, old man. We don’t want you having another hernia, do we?’
Keith stepped closer. Fury vibrated through his bones. ‘How dare you? Who do you think you are?’
‘I think I’m someone doing a favour for a friend.’ Chet pushed himself off the wall. ‘Come on, Mrs J, let’s go.’ He held out his hand to her.
Keith slapped it away. ‘Get away from my wife, you lout.’
‘Keith,’ Marian said, ‘please, not again, let’s just—’
Chet shook his head. ‘You’ve lost the plot, Jenkins.’
Keith drew himself up to his full height, which brought his eye line level with Chet’s shoulder. He poked it. Hard. ‘I’ve lost my patience, that’s what I’ve lost. You’ve tried to ruin my life for the last time, you oversized, undereducated brute. But that’s your lot, now. I’m not going to stand for it anymore.’
Marian sighed heavily. ‘I’ll get a cab,’ she said, and picked up her suitcases.
‘Come on,’ Keith said, and raised his fists. ‘This is what you want, isn’t it?’
He lashed out, and it felt like his fist bounced off a wall. Then he was grabbed and spun, and he found out what it felt like to have his face bounce off a wall. It felt like it hurt. Quite a bit.
Keith’s local never got busy, even on a weekend, and on a Wednesday evening it was practically empty. Arthur was polishing glasses behind the bar and the only other customer stood feeding coins into the fruit machine by the Gents.
Good. Empty suited Keith fine. He didn’t feel like socialising.
He slid onto one of the stools at the bar. ‘Whiskey,’ he said, ‘straight up. Make it a double.’
Saying it made him feel better. The hero, temporarily bested by the gloating black-hatted villain, licks his wounds and marshals his resources, planning how to achieve his ultimate victory with all guns blazing.
Then he remembered that spirits always gave him a migraine and changed his order to a pint of mild, instead.
Arthur put the drink on a coaster in front of him. ‘What happened to your face?’
Keith raised his pint and pressed the cold glass against his grazed cheek. It still throbbed. ‘Chet Fortune happened.’
‘People like that, you’ve got to talk to them in the only language they understand.’ Arthur leaned on the bar and smacked a fist into his palm. It made a dull, meaty sound. ‘Give ’em a good hiding.’
‘I don’t even know what a hiding is, Arthur, let alone how to give one.’
‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. If you know what I mean.’
Keith took another long swallow and considered this. ‘No. I have no idea.’
‘Christ, you’re hard work, you are, Guv.’ Arthur rubbed his forefinger and thumb together. ‘I’m saying that for the right price, you can buy anything. A friendly word, a not so friendly word…’
Light dawned. ‘Oh, you mean I could pay someone to beat Chet up?’
‘Keep it down, keep it down.’ Arthur made a show of looking around the empty pub. ‘Walls have ears, and all that. But yeah, a bit of a roughing up, a kneecap, something spiky up the unmentionables, you name it. All the way to the top.’
Arthur nodded solemnly and drew a finger across his throat. ‘You want another pint?’
Keith nodded and pushed his glass across the bar. He drank this one slower, imagining Chet on the ground, a series of steel-capped boots swinging into his ribs. Chet rolling around in the gutter, vomiting in pain. Then himself dressed all in black, sombre and dignified at a green graveside. And Marian clinging to his arm, red-eyed and remorseful.
‘How much would something like that cost?’ he asked. ‘Hypothetically.’
‘Ten large. And that’s mates’ rates.’
Keith spluttered, spilling dark beer down his shirt. ‘Ten thousand pounds, on Chet? I could build a conservatory for that.’
Arthur shrugged and went back to polishing glasses. ‘Then there’s only one other way that I know of, to sort someone like that out.’
‘A deal with the Devil. Takes a bit more work, but it don’t fillet the bank account as much.’
‘The Devil?’ Keith said. ‘The actual Devil?’
‘I know a bloke who knows a bloke who did it last year,’ Arthur said. ‘Worked a treat. Made a bit of a mess of his garage, what with all the incense and the toenails and the symbols in goat shit and everything, but he was pretty chuffed with the results.’
Keith put his drink down. ‘Goat shit?’
‘Oh, yeah. Organic materials, you know. Very important. Of course, your real old-school, traditional ritual calls for goat’s blood, but that gets you in trouble with the RSPCA these days. They don’t take all that kindly to animal sacrifice.’
‘And what have toenails got to do with it?’
Arthur tapped his nose. ‘I can’t be telling you everything for nothing, can I? If you want the ritual, it’s yours for a grand. Course, you could try and work it out for yourself. All you have to do is fly to Tibet, track down this Enochian magus who lives in a cave on Mount Shishapangma, apprentice with him for seven years, undertake a vision quest to find your spirit guide, commune with it for another three years and pass the Eternal Test of Agonising Fire, and you get the ritual free of charge. Then you just have to translate it — you can read runes, can’t you, Guv? — and away you go.’ He sniffed. ‘Or, I suppose you could just forget the whole thing and let the bastard get away with it.’
Keith drained the rest of his beer and opened his wallet.
Keith’s chest burned from inhaling all the incense, he had a terrible headache from drinking Arthur’s ritual wine, and he’d been banned for life from three petting zoos, but finally he was ready.
The doorbell startled him out of his preparatory meditation. If it was Chet come to gloat, he was just going to stab him with the pointed end of his goat-shit-encrusted paintbrush and be done with it.
But when he opened the door, he found Marian there instead.
‘Hello, Keith,’ she said. ‘How are you? I’ve left you a few messages, but you’ve obviously been busy, and — heavens, what’s that smell?’
‘Drains,’ Keith said.
‘Really? You should probably get someone to come and have a look at them. But, anyway, what I wanted to say was—’
‘I’ve rung Dynorod,’ Keith said. ‘They’re on their way. I’d better go and wait for them.’
He shut the door and went back to his meditation. Then he took his place in the centre of the pentagram, put his glasses on and read aloud from the notebook that Arthur had sold him.
The Devil, when he appeared, was a bit of a disappointment. He was short, balding, and looked remarkably like the planning officer at Basildon Council who’d rejected Keith’s application for a double-storey rear extension.
Keith bowed low, trying to bring back a sense of occasion to the proceedings. ‘I bid thee welcome, Master, and I humbly ask that you hear my supplication. I—’
The Devil glanced at his watch. ‘Yes, yes, let’s skip the formalities, shall we? I’ve still got eight torturings, three possessions, and a pitch meeting for a new reality show to get through this afternoon.’
Keith blinked. ‘Right,’ he said. He licked his finger, flipped forward a dozen pages and cleared his throat. ‘O Dark One, your servant has suffered a grievous wrong. I ask that your vengeance be visited upon mine enemies and—’
The Devil nodded. ‘Vengeance, right, got it. No problem. Name?’
‘It’s Keith, O Scourge of the Nameless Dark. Keith Jenkins.’
‘Just call me Bob, it’s quicker. And I didn’t mean you, I meant the proposed recipient of the vengeance.’ He paused. ‘The vengeance-ee? Vengeance-or? I can never remember which way round that goes.’
‘Oh. It’s Chet Fortune, my Lord of — uh, Bob. He lives next door.’
‘Okay, let’s see.’ He reached into his jacket, came out with what looked like a smartphone and thumbed the screen. ‘Here we go. Chet Fortune, 29, Scorpio. Hmm. Are you sure about this?’
‘Oh, yes. Very. I want you to help me kill him.’
The Devil scratched his chin. ‘Bit of a problem there.’
‘But you have to do whatever I ask.’ Keith brandished Arthur’s notebook. ‘It says so right here. And I went through considerable personal trauma to make sure everything in that ritual was done right, so—’
‘No, no, don’t get me wrong, this was a lovely piece of work. It would just be a bit of a waste of time.’
‘Waste of time? You mean having Chet killed wouldn’t be adequate compensation for five years of physical and mental torment?’
‘No, I mean he’s scheduled to snuff it anyway. In about—’ he checked the phone again. ‘Two minutes. He’s going to slip in the shower while using a novelty bar of soap shaped like a microphone, and break his neck. You’d be surprised how often that happens. Terribly dangerous places, showers. Either that or it’s something to do with singing a certain cursed Eighties power ballad. I should probably look into the causality ratios.’ He tapped out a note into the phone with a pointed fingernail.
There was silence. Then, ‘Yep, there he goes,’ the Devil said. ‘Your wife actually gave him the soap last Christmas, if that helps at all? I know it’s not exactly like driving a red-hot pitchfork into his still-beating heart, but at least you did have some input, in an indirect way.’
Keith stared at him. ‘Chet’s dead?’
‘So this, everything I’ve done — it was all for nothing?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that. Your wife’s still outside, you know. She heard that Arthur down at The Bell conned you out of a small fortune for a magic spell to get her back, and she was quite impressed. It was just the kind of mad, romantic thing she’s been hoping you’d do for years.’ He clapped his hands. ‘So all’s well that ends well, eh?’
‘Hang on,’ Keith said. ‘I still get a wish, don’t I? I didn’t have to use it on Chet, after all.’
‘True. Can I interest you in a media career? I do a very nice line in those.’
‘No, thank you, I like being a Housing Officer. But I was wondering, what happens now? To Chet, I mean. Has he gone, you know—’ Keith broke off and pointed downwards.
‘Oh, he’ll be in the queue for a while yet. The Eternal Judgement Sub-Committee have only just got to June 1547. There was a lot of debate over Henry VIII, it held them up a bit.’
‘Right. Then… could he wait somewhere else? Somewhere up here?’
‘I suppose so. Did you have somewhere in mind?’
Marian leaned down and stroked the Wolfhound’s nose. It whuffed, licked her hand and bounded off over the lawn.
She smiled. ‘It was good of you to look after Chet’s dog, Keith. I know you didn’t — oh. I think he — oh, your new gnome—’
Keith sat back. ‘Dogs will be dogs, eh?’
‘That’s very — I’m glad that you — oh, my goodness, I don’t know what he’s been eating, but that’s—’
‘It’s fine. I’m not very fond of that particular gnome, anyway.’
Marian pulled her cardigan closed. ‘No, me neither. Its eyes — it’s as if it’s looking at you. As if it’s alive, somehow. I know that sounds silly, but—’
‘No, I know what you mean.’ Keith walked over to the gnome. ‘You could almost imagine that there’s someone’s soul stuck inside there.’
Marian shivered. ‘I’m going inside. Are you coming?’
‘Soon,’ Keith said. ‘I’m just going to run through a rehearsal of my next talk: Redevelopment and Suburban Expansion in the Post-War Era.’ He smiled. ‘The gnome makes a very good practice audience.’
‘Okay, I—’ she paused. ‘Keith? Did you hear that?’
‘It sounded like — almost like someone screaming.’ She shook her head. ‘Never mind. I must be hearing things.’
She went inside and closed the door. Keith looked down at the gnome and smiled. ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ he said. ‘No? Good. Then I’ll begin.’