Read by Silas Hawkins
The hour on the retro digital clock ticks over and the intercom buzzes at the exact same moment. I steeple my fingers in delight. But there’s a pause before the nervous announcement that “Mr Prenderghast, your... 12 o’clock is here.” A sign of weakness that is as regrettable as my receptionist’s punctuality is admirable. I weigh this against the efficiency with which she performs and the unusual nature of my client, and decide to let it slide.
“Thank you Ms Travers. Please, show him in.”
As my 12 o’clock enters the life is sucked out of the room; the day, which had been one of those crisp autumn days you get towards the tail-end of the year, is suddenly gray and bleak.
“Can I get you a cup of tea? Or some other refreshment?”
There is a pause that feels like millennia have passed, before a hoarse croak of a voice with just a hint of annoyance replies “I don’t do... refreshments.”
“Of course not, silly me.” I say, as I lean back in my chair. “So; to what do I owe this... pleasure?”
A skeletal hand reaches beneath the black cloak and withdraws a rolled length of frayed parchment, which is then artlessly cast onto my desk. “I’m here... to check on progress.”
The vellum is darkened by a sketch in a mix of charcoal and an aged brown stain that I strongly suspect was once blood. There’s a signature in the same shade that looks like it might be Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s hard to tell: the edges are not only heavily scorched, they’re still smouldering. But it’s easy to see what the strong angular lines portray. Unmistakeably, it is the twisted form of The Pinnacle, formerly The Bishopsgate Tower, and - just as unmistakeably - it’s the redesigned but currently awaiting approval incarnation.
“Come, come. Have we let you down yet?” I say, with an easy smile, pressing my thumb to the top of the desk which swirls into a high definition map of the heart of London. My fingers dance across the touch-screen surface. “The Swiss Re, Heron Tower, 20 Fenchurch Street, and of course, The Shard, all on time and to exact specifications.”
There’s another pause during which ice ages advance and then retreat across Europe. “There were... issues... with twenty Fenchurch.”
I wave my hand dismissively. “Deliberate obfuscation, my demonic friend.” I tap on the blinking icon, pulling up the schematics. “The specifications you gave us were not immediately possible within the current building regulations. So we built something that does meet regulations, and then, when an unfortunate flaw is exposed – in the Walkie-Talkie’s case, it’s ability to melt top of the range sports cars – we simply fixed it and ended up with exactly what we – what you – wanted in the first place.”
I wait patiently as mountains are ground down to fine dust.
“It is all to naught if the last of the structures is not ready on time.”
I shrug. What is there to say? The Pinnacle’s seven story concrete core and the much more impressive iceberg like 66.6 metre deep foundations, are all the progress that can be seen while we subtly alter the original plans to achieve my client’s very particular requirements. “It will be ready.”
“Canary Wharf was not.”
I’d laugh, but to laugh in his presence is to hear that laugh splutter and die, choked of oxygen. I venture a wry smile instead. “That cannot in faith be laid at our door, since we were not given that contract.” I say, but I can’t resist a small dig at the same time. “And it was not our funds that dried up in the economic slump.”
Civilizations bloom and then decay, leaving no trace that they ever existed. I am weighed and minutely inspected, and – of course – found wanting. “We are not always convinced that your SOUL is fully behind our designs.”
“My soul is available to the highest bidder.” I say. “Which brings me to the small issue of payment?”
The hand reaches deep within the wispy folds of the cloak, and emerges with a black bag that is dropped to my state-of-the-art desk with a heavy clatter and an ominous creak. I wince, and wish – once again – that the forces of darkness moved with the times. Would it be so very much to ask for an electronic transfer of funds?
“Do not fail us, Oswald Prenderghast.” An inky black cloud fills the room, claws at my clothes, at my throat, and freezes the trickle of sweat at my collar. “My Master Is Coming. His arrival will be Heralded by a purging flame that will lay waste to this landscape of mortals. And He is Not as Forgiving As I.”
The cloud swirls and vanishes and my 12 o’clock is gone.
I crank up the AC, dial the windows for maximum transparency and with trembling legs cross to look out over the 100 million pound view. From here I can see each of the five buildings that we have been commissioned to – not build, or design, but to manage. My company’s legendary attention to detail brought to bear on bringing the projects in on time, and with millimetre precision. All to make sure that the debacle of Canary Wharf does not repeat; the buildings completed too late for their intended purpose, the steady precession of the Earth making them entirely redundant. Looked at from here, or on an A to Z, there is nothing special about the latest arrangement of skyscrapers. They share no common shape, are owned by different companies, will be occupied by different commercial concerns. And yet each contains vast expanses of carefully aligned steel and glass, and with a shift of an axis – a shift that will match that of the Earth’s on the last day of October – on the pagan festival of Samhain – on Hallowe’en – those five buildings will form a perfect pentagram, echoing ancient ley lines forgotten beneath the London streets, the points of the star concentrating the setting sun’s blood red rays onto a single point.
I have idly wondered what would happen if that day is overcast, but I doubt the weather will have been left to chance. Nothing else has been, after all. I’ve had some pet boffins go over the numbers. That single point twenty feet above a building site will be heated to a temperature hotter than the surface of the sun, hot enough to form a plasma, to rip through the fabric of reality like a cigarette through tissue paper, and to let something long imprisoned in its realm of fire and flames force a way through. The flames that will consume London, the fire that will seek out its sinners - and who has not sinned? - condemning them to eternal punishment.
Or so hopes my 12 o’clock.
The book case behind my desk creaks and the hidden door opens. I turn and, for the second time that day, bow. “Monsignor.”
The ruddy faced priest bends his hand to mine, and I kiss the emerald ring. “Would you like to view the recording?” I ask.
He smiles indulgently. I have the feeling he knows more about me than I know about him, and I make it my business to know everything about my clients. “That won’t be necessary, I have my own sources.” he says. This despite my certain knowledge that my office is not bugged, and that the ante-room behind my bookshelf is completely soundproofed. He glances towards the untouched black sack on my desk. “May I?”
“Be my guest.”
He takes a golden coin from the bag, runs it between his fingers, shudders, and drops it back with a loud clink. “Blood money.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Isn’t all money?”
“The average human body contains 0.2 milligrams of gold, Oswald.” the priest says. “I’m sure you can work out how many lives it takes to make just one of these coins.”
I echo his shudder as he hefts the sack and carefully lowers it into his briefcase, sprinkling it with holy water. As he snaps the case shut the last of the gloom that had lingered finally evaporates and I’m glad he will be taking it away with him, glad too for the Vatican’s prompt transfer of twice the midday spot price set by the London metal exchange. In truth, it is not simply the Church’s generous doubling of the cursed fee that swayed my company to their side; it is in the potential repeat business that thwarting Satan’s world-ending plan presents.
“Now. Our little part of the project?” he asks.
I pull up a satellite map on my desk, ignoring the webbed crack where the heavy sack of blood money had lain. I zoom in, and then again.
“He suspects nothing?” the priest asks.
“No.” I agree. “It’s just another mothballed building site, as far as he is concerned.”
“Good, good. He knows it was once a church?”
“Yes, of course. But he thinks it was deconsecrated a long time back. He thinks it is due to be turned into a retail shop – an altar to Mammon.” The dark one thinks that the battle that has raged so long, that has swallowed cities, entire civilizations, that doomed the Tower of Babel, destroyed the library at Alexandria, before the fault line moved North, through Europe, across the Channel, and there lingered, causing the great fire of London, the Blitz, and more recently the economic downturn that delayed Canary Wharf, he thinks that all this has been forgotten by the Church; that they have dropped the ball, and are blind and powerless to prevent the construction of the soulless and soul-eating structures that will surely bring about the end of this world. If it weren’t for the Church having a hold over the void at the pentagram’s epicentre.
“And the cross?” the priest asks, as my eyes are drawn to the crucifix he wears around his neck, as I visualise what will be waiting at the exact spot of the seething, scorched wound that the devourer of worlds intends to slash his way through.
“Twenty-eight feet tall, silver clad, tungsten core.” I say. “It will be mounted shortly before sunset. Copper wires suspended in tanks of holy water should absorb most of the heat as well as the evil that is generated. The rest – well, we expect the entire cross will glow white hot and be visible for miles around. It should be quite the sight. Might even convince a few sinners to repent.”
“Excellent. Until next time then, Oswald.” And the priest takes his leave by the secret doorway, to the secret elevator, to his secret organization deep in the catacombs beneath St Paul's, and I am once again alone.
I press the intercom button. “Ms Travers? My 12 o’clock has just left. Could you... join me in my office?”
After a visit from the forces of darkness, I feel an irrepressible desire to do something life-affirming. I’m hoping Ms Travers feels the same, and though there’s only 10 minutes before my next appointment, she is – as I may have already mentioned – quite remarkably efficient.
(c) Liam Hogan, 2014
Liam Hogan's recent publications include "The Icy Breath of Enceladus" for "The Martian Wave", and "Horse" for "Steampunk Trails II", along with the forthcoming story "Elevenses" in "Zombified II". All of which TOTALLY fails to excuse his dire lack of progress on "The Novel"...
Silas Hawkins (left) is continuing the family voiceover tradition (he is the son of Peter 'Dalek' Hawkins and Rosemary 'Emergency Ward 10' Miller). Favourite voice credits: Summerton Mill, Latin Music USA and podcasts for The Register. For countless voice clips see links on website www.silashawkins.com. Voice agent email@example.com, acting agent firstname.lastname@example.org