Foreword by techgnotic
As usual, the number of submissions of candidate stories and poems for a special competition far exceeded the wildest expectations of the depthRADIUS editors and Clive Barker’s associates. The Master Fantasist was presented with the almost overwhelming Herculean task of choosing the narrative explication he thought best captured his “Men of the City” painting.
Clive has chosen TJBrown’s “Rush Hour” as best complement for “Men of the City.”
Mark Miller, Vice President of Seraphim (Clive’s production company), was good enough to write up Clive’s notes concerning his thinking on the candidate pieces, and has sent us these “thoughts of the master” for Clive’s deviant fans’ perusal:
Special Mention from CliveBarker:
An astonishingly evocative poem in just three lines. This is the kind of work that reminds you of the power that the true artist-writer is capable of producing—a tightly perfectly compressed “image bomb” ready for detonation in the unsuspecting consciousness.
House restless souls.
Skyscrapers are their catacombs
Clive’s First Choice:
In a word: devastating. While art is in the eye of the beholder, each piece has a creator whose thesis was present for its creation. In what is perhaps the truest to that thesis, the writer has gone deep, reaching into the very marrow of Men of the City. What's more is that the story was carried off with style, grace, and a mournful voice that cuts through the reader. RUSH HOUR is a significant work told with an understanding of the tragic undercurrent that runs through too many human lives.
What an honour...
They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. Five years is not a long time, but it is long enough. It is long enough for weddings and funerals for those who cannot wait, for that walk down the beach, where he first holidayed with his family at St. Bees. It is long enough for work, long enough that the world still turns, for now at least. So he finds himself on a train platform each morning, stepping onto a carriage, staring through dirt-smeared windows as the world passes him by.
Sometimes he thinks he could sit there forever, watching the countryside slip past. Trees blur into fields, which seem to stretch, longer than any field should, until there are no boundaries, no roads, no thicket hedgerows, only a palette of greens and browns beneath blue shining skies. The carriage rocks beneath him, lulling him slowly in his seat, while far above cerulean clouds blossom with wind and rain. He has only eyes for their phosphorescence, their purple twilight tinge, and for the twenty minutes it takes him to reach the next station he is lost in their depths, rolling with them through the sky; a fish caught in their awesome ocean pull.
Then the train shudders, stops, expels its load, and he is back inside his business suit, black briefcase in his hand. His mouth sighs. His shoulders sag. The Underground drinks deeply of his soul.
People swarm up escalators, spilling out of the station into the road. Traffic screams after them; a chorus of sirens and sudden brakes. Women wobble past him on heels too high while men with faces shaven clean march briskly in their wake, and in between their legs dogs gambol, vagrants dance another day with life and children rush headlong into the roads. He wonders when it began; when things first showed signs of ending up this way, then remembers he need not wonder about anything anymore, ever again, for more than the minute it takes to type as much online.
The offices are tall, grey things overlooking a grey Thames. His room is on the fifth floor, next to administration. At eight-fifty he takes the lift, in the foyer beside the stairwell. His shirt is hot and wet beneath his arms. Inside his office, he closes the door, sits at his chair, which sinks beneath his weight, and stares at the face reflected in the blank computer screen. Drawing a deep breath, he begins to type.
While he types, thoughts tumble through his head. He does not know why administration is called administration, why it is singled out when they are all administrators; every man in his pin-stripe business skin, every woman with her pay-check pulse, record-keeping, number crunching, so that the world will keep on turning.
He thinks about love, and what it might feel like. He thinks about death, and when it was that they all died. Sometimes he turns in his chair and stares at the plant in the corner with its plastic fronds, its sterile soil, its bright, synthetic stem, until it is all he can do not to close his eyes, ball his fists and scream at the top of his voice.
He does not remember weeks in terms of days. He does not remember working weeks at all. There is only one day repeated, in which he wakes up, travels by train, pushes through crowds, through streets made black with rainwater to stinking, sweaty offices built of old brick the colour of dried blood, peopled by corporate puppets in black suits with empty eyes and long thin fingers twitching by their sides.
They say the apocalypse is coming. In five years, they estimate, a meteor will strike the earth and wipe it clean of life. He wonders if it has not come already. Not by fire and smoke but a commuter contagion; this, the human condition, made better for a few minutes each morning by the birds in the sky, the distant glimpse of a dream in the clouds.
1st Runner Up:
An interpretation so left of field that it's concept alone must be celebrated. The Men of the City as human stains is not a new notion, to be sure, but the idea that the very cities themselves are in revolt against them, doing what must be done in the name of peace, is at once hilarious and horrifying, as all great satire must be.
THE SUPPORT GROUP
New York arrived late, but New York was always late. He took his usual seat next to Los Angeles, who despite her caked-on makeup and hair extensions looked haggard and frail. Across the way, London nodded, sucking on his pipe so that an amorphous cloud of smoke enveloped his head. Paris was also in attendance, perched on the edge of one of the uncomfortable folding chairs that made up the circle, her pointy hat looking rather ridiculous. The group was packed today, almost all the seats taken.
“So what’d I miss?” New York asked then doubled over as a violent fit of coughing tore through him. He hacked up black sludge into a handkerchief.
Los Angeles had her chin tucked down against her chest, and she flicked her eyes toward him as if she hadn’t the strength to actually lift and turn her head. “I was telling everyone how I tried to shake the little buggers off again, but they just hold on for dear life and keep going like nothing happened.”
All around the circle, everyone nodded soberly. They were all inflicted with the same disease, the little parasites that had infested them and were slowly killing them. They came to the group for mutual support but also to hear stories of possible treatments and cures.
“I tried washing them away,” Miami said morosely, reaching up and scratching at her head. “I mean, I really doused the fuckers, got rid of some of them, but not enough, and it seems more just came to take the place of those I washed away.”
Next to Miami, New Orleans laughed, the sound deep and resonant. “Tell me about it. Several years back I really thought I’d managed to wash myself clean of the things, but now they’re all back. I can feel them just crawling all over my skin.”
New York squirmed in his seat. He too could feel the parasites all over him, polluting his body with their foul sickness. It had been so long since he had felt anything but tired and weak and contaminated. He didn’t even know what it was to be healthy anymore.
“What are we going to do?” he asked, his voice breaking. It was a question familiar to the group, one that summed up why they came back week after week. Just for the promise of an answer.
“You could do what I did.”
All eyes turned to Chernobyl, the only person any of them knew that had actually beat the disease. But the radiation treatment had taken a lot out of her, leaving her a withered husk of her former self. Her hair had fallen out except for a few matted clumps, and she seemed lost in her clothes, as if she were nothing more than a stick figure held together by twine and parchment.
Everyone was impressed by Chernobyl’s success at eradicating the parasites, but no one was quite willing to pay such a steep price to be free of them.
And yet, New York thought as he coughed up more black sludge mixed with his own blood, he just might be getting to the point that he’d try anything.
2nd Runner Up:
Now this is everything a short story should be: entertaining; mysterious; and a perfectly realized world that leaves you begging for more. From word one, the tale grabs hold of you and refuses to let go until the very last, where a twist ending - completely unforeseen, mind you - puts the perfect bow on an already brilliantly wrapped package.
MEN OF THE CITY
The Devil takes IOUs. Then there is Hell to pay.”
— The Damned
Darkness had enveloped the city. Its thick oppressive cloak was smothering. It threatened to extinguish life itself. Save for the few feeble streetlights that stood defiantly in the murky black night, there was no light here. That was why I had brought my own. My bright beam was cast downward to illuminate my footpath, but something made me not shine it carelessly about. The darkness or what lurked within silently warned not to be disturbed. I listened for the usual sounds of the city, and found none. No signs of life. A chill ran down my back, even though the air was thick, stagnant and hot. All of the storefronts and businesses on this block were closed. I wondered if they would ever open again after what happened to the city. The sanitation teams were avoiding the area as indicated by the foul smelling piles of trash. They obscured the security gates scrawled in graffiti and attracted dark things that slinked and scurried away as I approached. Beneath my dark suit jacket, my Walther felt solid and compact, insurance from any rabid beast that mistook me for prey. Sure, I had my Government Issue stun stick, but the scars on my leg showed just how well that protects against attack dogs. My leather shoes echoed on the empty streets splashing in the occasional puddle of stinky water or chemical. I adjusted my grey Fedora and straightened my simple black silk tie. I was absolutely not dressed for this environment, but this was the uniform of the ‘Order’, signifying my rank as a “Man of the City”. I rarely even had to show my badge anymore. People identified me at once for what I am.
Another day, another deadbeat to investigate. I am Cornelius Morse, an Investigator for the Order. I am one of many, but like none other. My job has been carried out by many in the past: Taxman, Revenuer, Repo man, Treasury Agent; now we are simply called Investigators. A fraternity of loyal government men that form a unique netting of order in a world that day by day descends decaying into entropy. We are not military; we are not police; we are not secret service; we are not spies. We are the strong arm of the Treasury. Many consider us administrators, the unfriendly face of Government. Since the coming of the Dark Times, and the subsequent collapse of the economy, the State has had need of men like me. I investigate problems. Then I attempt to solve them. Sometimes they are problems for the state, sometimes they are problems for you. But always they are problems for me, and I hate problems. So I take care of them. My brothers in the Order and I act as Assessor, Judge, Jury and… well I hate that part of the job. If the State had not outlawed all religion, I would have followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and entered the Ministry. I still keep his silver crucifix hidden under my Kevlar vest. I never completely lost my faith, but now I and the rest of my kind have to keep it secret.
The stout door was tightly sealed and kept any light from escaping from within just as it strove to keep anything unwanted out. Natural light was a rare commodity amid the towering canyons of concrete, glass and steel. It was always dark here even during the day; the buildings always cast their shadow. The sky burns from the fire of Industry and to the State, the people are part of the fuel.
I turned my head and looked skyward. My protective dark glasses reflected the fiery plumes of noxious gases as they twisted their way skyward. Oblivious to the downtrodden citizens below, the factories pumped filth and death into the air. I clicked a button on the frames to activate the night vision feature. Instantly I could see shapes and objects well enough in the greenish tinged glow that I turned off my flashlight to save its battery.
I find the address on my handheld. “1080 West 13th St. Apt 2B. Unpaid city taxes. $2000. Overdue 90 days. Red Flag.” This means that someone was here before to collect, and was unsuccessful. Odd, no incident notes. No notes of any kind. The previously assigned agent did not do his job. I hate that. We have procedures for a reason. I will have to note this to my supervisor. Now I have questions, and I want answers. Normally an amount this low would not warrant a Red Flag. What was up?
“I’ll get to the bottom of this,” as I approached my destination. The iron barred security gate squeaked on its hinges as I crossed the debris strew pathway that lead up to the door. I pressed the ringer. Far off a doorbell rang inside the building. The door buzzed open. I walked inside and was immediately hit with a stench that made me want to gag. The trash outside was pleasant compared to this. I leave the door open to bring in the polluted, albeit fresher air.
Leaving only one hand free I grab my handkerchief from my breast pocket and cover my nose and mouth. The white cloth is usually reserved for weeping women to stifle their accompanied imploring. ”I need the money to feed my baby.” “I need the money for light to read to my child.” “I need the money for heat to warm my aging mother.” The State does not care; it just wants its due. My handkerchief is my little reminder that I still have a shred of humanity. But I also have a job to do, I collect the money or I collect something in kind. I always pray that they have the money.
As I proceed deeper into the building I hear the door slowly close behind me. I turn to look, but there is no one there.
“It must be the foul wind.” I turn back to my destination, an apartment door on the second floor. The rest of the foyer is strewn with litter and empty bottles. I see movement out of the corner of my eye, but my night vision glasses read nothing. The barren staircase before me leads up to a landing with 4 doors. A chittering noise starts behind the thick brown door before me as I approach. Knocking on the door, the booming raps echo in the empty hallway and silence the chittering. Ignoring the stench, I remove the handkerchief and place it back in my pocket. I can’t talk with it, and I want my hands free. There is no reply. Something is not right here; I can feel in in my gut.
“Council Business! Open the door!” Still nothing, for thoroughness, I try the doorknob. It turns easily, and the door swings open. I find myself standing at the threshold. There before me is a darkened room, illuminated solely by a television that is tuned to nothing but static. A low chittering starts again and then stops. The room is Spartan, and there is nothing remarkable about it, save for the lone figure sitting with his back to me. “Mr. Jones. I am here for the overdue taxes.” The figure did not move. “Mr. Jones. Ignoring the Council is what has brought me here. They’re not to be ignored.” Still nothing. Is he asleep? Floorboards creaking as I approach, and still no movement? When I can see his face I realized why there is no response. This man has been dead for a long time. His burned out eye sockets were black, scorched and soulless. I looked at his clothing and concluded that this was unlikely Mr. Jones, unless Mr. Jones was a Man of the City. His suit was discolored and stained. Putrefaction had set in and the stench was nauseating. His dark skin that was exposed to the air was wrinkled, purple and paper-like. It did not look like plague, still I did not want to touch anything. I put on a set of gloves. I glance around the room, which while in need of cleaning; showed no sign of a struggle. Reluctantly, I reach into his breast pocket of his suit for his ID. I find his badge, #8467. The same one as on my ill-documented file.
“Well, Agent Peters, now I know why you didn’t annotate this case.” The last entry indicates he probably has been dead a few weeks.
The chitterling starts up and grows louder. This time it is moving toward me from another room. I back away and head for the door. I see a large humanoid shape appear from the back room. I don’t bother to warn, I pull the Walther and fire center mass. The powerful compact automatic erupts with a spitfire of bullets, three shots in rapid succession. The first brightens the room and causes my glasses to compensate, shutting off so I am not blinded by the flare of hot gasses that blaze forth from my barrel. In that light, I see Mr. Jones, or at least what he had become. What a horror. His skin was ocher, mottled and wrinkled. His eyes were black, wide and sightless. He seemed to be sensing me by smell or sound for his head was cocked oddly to one side. His open mouth drooled saliva through black lips. My bullets fly straight and true, hammering home just beneath the inhuman head.
“Yrrrghh!” It shrieks as viscous black goo splatters from its wounds. It falls backward from the blows and out of view. I continue to back away, not daring to turn my back on that monstrosity. From the doorway, my ears ringing, I can see that it is still moving.
“What the Hell are you.”
It turned toward the sound of my voice, gurgling something, it struggled to rise. I fired again this time into the top of its head, causing it to splatter into an unrecognizable mess. The humanoid thing stopped moving. I heard more movement from the down the hallway. Other doors on the floor opened and more horrid creatures issued forth, cutting off my exit to the stairs. I ran back into Mr. Jones apartment and slammed the door closed, locking it. I heard banging and scratching at the door. Turning, I sprinted past the bodies toward the window with the fire escape. I threw open the window and climbed out just as the door was beaten down. The last thing I saw were two more creatures coming toward me before I descended the ladder. When I looked up, I was about to flee, when I realized the pursuit had halted. The creatures had stopped at the window, and were looking off into the darkness. Whatever they saw, they turned back inside, away from view.
Confused but grateful, I glanced at where they had been looking. There in a swirling mist was a figure that haunts me more than the encounter with the creatures like Mr. Jones. I saw It, not a man, not anything I have ever seen in this world. But I had seen him in my Grandfather’s book. Great horns grew from its head, bony black antlers. It had large black lidless eyes, and a mouth that bared sharp needle like teeth. It was bare-chested with long misshapen limbs covered in dense black fur. It moved quickly with jerky insect like movements, chittering with its cruel claw like hands. It was some sort of Hell spawn, a Demon. It had been awakened and now evil incarnate was walking the Earth. It looked straight at me and nodded a knowing acknowledgement, unfurling large bat like wings it flapped strongly and sailed into the night. I marveled that he did not harm me. I shuddered when I considered why. Perhaps it was professional courtesy; He was a debt collector just like me.
Clive and the editors of depthRADIUS thank those who submitted entries and who have been so patient waiting for the final results.