‘”Listen. I hear bad things about you,” he said.
“I’m afraid so. I’m told you attacked one of my boys.”
Gavin took six paces before he answered.
“Not me. You’ve got the wrong man.”
“He recognised you, trash. You did him some serious mischief.”
“I told you: not me.”
“You’re a lunatic, you know that? You should be put behind fucking bars.”
Preetorius was raising his voice. People were crossing the street to avoid the escalating argument.
Without thinking, Gavin turned off St Martin’s Lane into Long Acre, and rapidly realised he’d made a tactical error. The crowds thinned substantially here, and it was a long trek through the streets of Govent Garden before he reached another centre of activity. He should have turned right instead of left, and he’d have stepped onto Charing Cross Road. There would have been some safety there. Damn it, he couldn’t turn round, not and walk straight into them. All he could do was walk (not run; never run with a mad dog on your heels) and hope he could keep the conversation on an even keel.
Preetorius: “You’ve cost me a lot of money.”
“I don’t see.”
“You put some of my prime boy-meat out of commission. It’s going to be a long time ’til I get that kid back on the market. He’s shit scared, see?”
“Look… I didn’t do anything to anybody.”
“Why do you fucking lie to me, trash? What have I ever done to you, you treat me like this?”
Preetorius picked up his pace a little and came up level with Gavin, leaving his associates a few steps behind.
“Look…” he whispered to Gavin, “kids like that can be tempting, right? That’s cool. I can get into that. You put a little boy-pussy on my plate I’m not going to turn my nose up at it. But you hurt him: and when you hurt one of my kids, I bleed too.”
“If I’d done this like you say, you think I’d be walking the street?”
“Maybe you’re not a well man, you know? We’re not talking about a couple of bruises here, man. I’m talking about you taking a shower in a kid’s blood, that’s what I’m saying. Hanging him up and cutting him everywhere, then leaving him on my fuckin’ stairs wearing a pair of fucking’ socks. You getting my message now, white boy? You read my message?”
Genuine rage had flared as Preetorius described the alleged crimes, and Gavin wasn’t sure how to handle it. He kept his silence, and walked on.
“That kid idolised you, you know? Thought you were essential reading for an aspirant bum-boy. How’d you like that?”
“You should be fuckin’ flattered, man, ’cause that’s about as much as you’ll ever amount to.”
“You’ve had a good career. Pity it’s over.”
Gavin felt iced lead in his belly: he’d hoped Preetorius was going to be content with a warning. Apparently not. They were here to damage him: Jesus, they were going to hurt him, and for something he hadn’t done, didn’t even know anything about.
“We’re going to take you off the street, white boy. Permanently.”
“I did nothing.”
“The kid knew you, even with a stocking over your head he knew you. The voice was the same, the clothes were the same. Face it, you were recognised. Now take the consequences.”
Gavin broke into a run. As an eighteen year old he’d sprinted for his county: he needed that speed again now. Behind him Preetorius laughed (such sport!) and two sets of feet pounded the pavement in pursuit. They were close, closer-and Gavin was badly out of condition. His thighs were aching after a few dozen yards, and his jeans were too tight to run in easily. The chase was lost before it began.
“The man didn’t tell you to leave,” the white goon scolded, his bitten fingers digging into Gavin’s biceps.
“Nice try.” Preetorius smiled, sauntering towards the dogs and the panting hare. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, to the other goon.
“Christian?” he asked.
At the invitation Christian delivered a fist to Gavin’s kidneys. The blow doubled him up, spitting curses.
Christian said: “Over there.”
Preetorius said: “Make it snappy,” and suddenly they were dragging him out of the light into an alley. His shirt and his jacket tore, his expensive shoes were dragged through dirt, before he was pulled upright, groaning. The alley was dark and Preetorius’ eyes hung in the air in front of him, dislocated.
“Here we are again,” he said. “Happy as can be.”
“I… didn’t touch him,” Gavin gasped.
The unnamed cohort, Not-Christian, put a ham hand in the middle of Gavin’s chest, and pushed him back against the end wall of the alley. His heel slid in muck, and though he tried to stay upright his legs had turned to water. His ego too: this was no time to be courageous. He’d beg, he fall down on his knees and lick their soles if need be, anything to stop them doing a job on him. Anything to stop them spoiling his face.
That was Preetorius’ favourite pastime, or so the street talk went: the spoiling of beauty. He had a rare way with him, could maim beyond hope of redemption in three strokes of his razor, and have the victim pocket his lips as a keepsake.
Gavin stumbled forward, palms slapping the wet ground. Something rotten-soft slid out of its skin beneath his hand.
Not-Christian exchanged a grin with Preetorius.
“Doesn’t he look delightful?” he said.
Preetorius was crunching a nut. “Seems to me,” he said, “the man’s finally found his place in life.”
“I didn’t touch him,” Gavin begged. There was nothing to do but deny and deny: and even then it was a lost cause.
“You’re guilty as hell,” said Not-Christian.
“I’d really like to get this over with as soon as possible,” said Preetorius, glancing at his watch, “I’ve got appointments to keep, people to pleasure.”
Gavin looked up at his tormentors. The sodium-lit street was a twenty-five-yard dash away, if he could break through the cordon of their bodies.
“Allow me to rearrange your face for you. A little crime of fashion.”
Preetorius had a knife in his hand. Not-Christian had taken a rope from his pocket, with a ball on it. The ball goes in the mouth, the rope goes round the head—you couldn’t scream if your life depended on it. This was it.
Gavin broke from his grovelling position like a sprinter from his block, but the slops greased his heels, and threw him off balance. Instead of making a clean dash for safety he stumbled sideways and fell against Christian, who in turn fell back.
There was a breathless scrambling before Preetorius stepped in, dirtying his hands on the white trash, and hauling him to his feet.
“No way out, fucker,” he said, pressing the point of the blade against Gavin’s chin. The jut of the bone was clearest there, and he began the cut without further debate-tracing the jawline, too hot for the act to care if the trash was gagged or not. Gavin howled as blood washed down his neck, but his cries were cut short as somebody’s fat fingers grappled with his tongue, and held it fast.
His pulse began to thud in his temples, and windows, one behind the other, opened and opened in front of him, and he was falling through them into unconsciousness.
Better to die. Better to die. They’d destroy his face: better to die.
Then he was screaming again, except that he wasn’t aware of making the sound in his throat. Through the slush in his ears he tried to focus on the voice, and realised it was Preetorius’ scream he was hearing, not his own.
His tongue was released; and he was spontaneously sick. He staggered back, puking, from a mess of struggling figures in front of him. A person, or persons, unknown had stepped in, and prevented the completion of his spoiling. There was a body sprawled on the floor, face up. Not-Christian, eyes open, life shut. God: someone had killed for him. For him.
Gingerly, he put his hand up to his face to feel the damage. The flesh was deeply lacerated along his jawbone, from the middle of his chin to within an inch of his ear. It was bad, but Preetorius, ever organised, had left the best delights to the last, and had been interrupted before he’d slit Gavin’s nostrils or taken off his lips. A scar along his jawbone wouldn’t be pretty, but it wasn’t disastrous.
Somebody was staggering out of the melee towards him-Preetorius, tears on his face, eyes like golf-balls.
Beyond him Christian, his arms useless, was staggering towards the street.
Preetorius wasn’t following: why?
His mouth opened; an elastic filament of saliva, strung with pearls, depended from his lower lip.
“Help me,” he appealed, as though his life was in Gavin’s power. One large hand was raised to squeeze a drop of mercy out of the air, but instead came the swoop of another arm, reaching over his shoulder and thrusting a weapon, a crude blade, into the black’s mouth. He gargled it a moment, his throat trying to accommodate its edge, its width, before his attacker dragged the blade up and back, holding Preetorius’ neck to steady him against the force of the stroke. The startled face divided, and heat bloomed from Preetorius’ interior, warming Gavin in a cloud.
The weapon hit the alley floor, a dull clank. Gavin glanced at it. A short, wide-bladed sword. He looked back at the dead man.
Preetorius stood upright in front of him, supported now only by his executioner’s arm. His gushing head fell forward, and the executioner took the bow as a sign, neatly dropping Preetorius’ body at Gavin’s feet. No longer eclipsed by the corpse, Gavin met his saviour face to face.
It took him only a moment to place those crude features: the startled, lifeless eyes, the gash of a mouth, the jug-handle ears. It was Reynolds’ statue. It grinned, its teeth too small for its head. Milk-teeth, still to be shed before the adult form. There was, however, some improvement in its appearance, he could see that even in the gloom. The brow seemed to have swelled; the face was altogether better proportioned. It remained a painted doll, but it was a doll with aspirations.
The statue gave a stiff bow, its joints unmistakably creaking, and the absurdity, the sheer absurdity of this situation welled up in Gavin. It bowed, damn it, it smiled, it murdered: and yet it couldn’t possibly be alive, could it? Later, he would disbelieve, he promised himself. Later he’d find a thousand reasons not to accept the reality in front of him: blame his blood-starved brain, his confusion, his panic. One way or another he’d argue himself out of this fantastic vision, and it would be as though it had never happened.
If he could just live with it a few minutes longer.
The vision reached across and touched Gavin’s jaw, lightly, running its crudely carved fingers along the lips of the wound Preetorius had made. A ring on its smallest finger caught the light: a ring identical to his own.
“We’re going to have a scar,” it said.
Gavin knew its voice.
“Dear me: pity,” it said. It was speaking with his voice. “Still, it could be worse.”
His voice. God, his, his, his.
Gavin shook his head.
“Yes,” it said, understanding that he’d understood.
It transferred its touch from Gavin’s jawbone to its own, marking out the place where the wound should be, and even as it made the gesture its surface opened, and it grew a scar on the spot. No blood welled up: it had no blood.
Yet wasn’t that his own, even brow it was emulating, and the piercing eyes, weren’t they becoming his, and the wonderful mouth?
“The boy?” said Gavin, fitting the pieces together.
“Oh the boy…” It threw its unfinished glance to Heaven. “What a treasure he was. And how he snarled.”
“You washed in his blood?”
“I need it.” It knelt to the body of Preetorius and put its fingers in the split head. “This blood’s old, but it’ll do. The boy was better.”
It daubed Preetorius’ blood on its cheek, like war-paint. Gavin couldn’t hide his disgust.
“Is he such a loss?” the effigy demanded.
The answer was no, of course. It was no loss at all that Preetorius was dead, no loss that some drugged, cocksucking kid had given up some blood and sleep because this painted miracle needed to feed its growth. There were worse things than this every day, somewhere; huge horrors. And yet—
“You can’t condone me,” it prompted, “it’s not in your nature is it? Soon it won’t be in mine either. I’ll reject my life as a tormentor of children, because I’ll see through your eyes, share your humanity…”
It stood up, its movements still lacking flexibility.
“Meanwhile, I must behave as I think fit.”
On its cheek, where Preetorius’ blood had been smeared, the skin was already waxier, less like painted wood.
“I am a thing without a proper name,” it pronounced. “I am a wound in the flank of the world. But I am also that perfect stranger you always prayed for as a child, to come and take you, call you beauty, lift you naked out of the street and through Heaven’s window. Aren’t I? Aren’t I?”
How did it know the dreams of his childhood? How could it have guessed that particular emblem, of being hoisted out of a street full of plague into a house that was Heaven?
“Because I am yourself,” it said, in reply to the unspoken question, “made perfectable.”
Gavin gestured towards the corpses.
“You can’t be me. I’d never have done this.”
It seemed ungracious to condemn it for its intervention, but the point stood.
“Wouldn’t you?” said the other….
Gavin heard Preetorius’ voice in his ear. “A crime of fashion.” Felt again the knife at his chin, the nausea, the helplessness. Of course he’d have done it, a dozen times over he’d have done it, and called it justice.’
– Clive Barker, from “Human Remains” (Books of Blood, Vol. 3)
(Opening image: Pinterest. Comic art from Clive Barker’s Tapping the Vein, a graphic representation of Barker’s stories)