So to set the ball rolling, the following piece was published on the Dark Tales website after winning the April 2018 competition.
The piece is titled Sympathy and The Devil and is around 5,000 words.
SYMPATHY AND THE DEVIL
by W R Daniel
George Shuttleworth had been angry before, but this time things were different. Very different.
This was not ‘left a tissue in your pocket and put a dark wash on’ angry, this was beyond ‘forgot to use the 50p-off margarine coupon and found it in your wallet the day after it expired’ angry, this even trumped ‘could have sworn you brought a reusable carrier bag with you but you didn’t and now have to shell out 5p for a plastic one that, if it doesn’t split on the way home, will end up in the already overflowing drawer of plastic bags that will never be used and are just taking up space because if you throw them away they will contribute to the single-use plastic problem that is blighting the environment’ angry. When George thought about how rude the parking attendant had been, and how he had grinned, yes grinned when he had handed George the £30 fine for being three minutes over his ticket time, George’s usual unflappable composure had faltered.
He looked at himself in the the rear view mirror as his Ford Mondeo cut through the familiar country lanes at a sensible twenty. He looked himself straight in the eyes and the mild-mannered accountant unleashed, for him, a torrent of profanity, ‘I’m bloody angry!’ he shouted to Mirror-George. And that’s when he felt the sickening and unmistakeable thud of flesh on polished-weekly, body-colour bumper.
He slammed his foot onto the anti-lock brakes which brought him to a sensible and well-controlled halt. He switched off the engine, unclipped his seatbelt, opened the door and shakily lifted himself from the posture-control cushion he had bought with a mail-order coupon from the Daily Mail.
He composed himself and walked round to the front of the car to see a large pheasant lying motionless in the road. Apart from a small amount of blood around its beak it could have been resting. A bit like some sketch about a parrot that he had seen on a ‘100 best comedy moments’ programme he had watched once, but thought was actually rather silly as he hadn’t really understood it at all.
He looked for a while at the luckless creature, wondering what he should do. If he just left it there then it would surely end up ground into the asphalt as tyre after tyre sped over it without a second thought. He could, of course, toss it into the verge where the foxes and carrion birds could tuck into it, perhaps even sparing the life of one of the newborn lambs which were appearing in the fields at the moment. However, he reasoned that the most noble thing he could do to honour the killing of another creature was to eat it. It’s what the Native Americans would have done, and who knew more about nature than them? Plus, his sister had bought him a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall book for Christmas which was still in its cellophane wrapper. Surely there was a chapter on roadkill. So, he braced himself (no pun intended) and gently placed the pheasant into his boot, making sure to use a good squeeze of moisturising alcohol-gel on his hands after the deed was done.
He continued his journey home, paying far more attention to the road this time, although he was now even angrier with that blasted parking attendant. Of course he was only doing his job but George had been on his first date with Cynthia, the new librarian and it was meant to have been a happy occasion. They had had a lovely time and she had even agreed to see him again, but the waiter had taken at least ten minutes verifying the 2-for-1 voucher he had printed off at work as the barcode wouldn’t scan properly. This had thrown his, usually impeccable, timing out of kilter. It hadn’t been his fault that he was late, but the jobsworth parking attendant hadn’t seen it quite the same way.
Without further incident, George made his way safely home. He noticed a large box-van in the driveway next door. So, the new neighbours were finally moving in. He made a note to pop round later to introduce himself and welcome them to the neighbourhood. Crunching to a stop on the short gravel driveway, George applied the handbrake and fitted the bulky steering wheel lock before stepping out of the vehicle. He leaned across and took his worn, brown leather briefcase from the passenger seat before making his way to the rear of the car. Locating the button hidden in a groove just below the Ford badge he pressed it and, with an electronic click, the boot opened and all hell broke loose.
The blast of fresh air from the opened boot must have revived the not-quite-dead-yet pheasant, which began squawking loudly, flapping its one unbroken wing and hopping about on the one leg which wasn’t flopping around on a shattered knee joint, all the while defecating in George’s impeccably hoovered boot. It was clear, however, that this avian Lazarus was still not long for this world as the extent of its injuries was now quite clear. Steeled by his concern for the suffering of the poor creature, George acted quickly in the only way he thought appropriate. He grabbed the distressed creature around its fat body and lifted it from the boot. He raised it high above his head and swung it quickly downwards. There was a rather wet sounding crack as the tiny head struck the edge of the boot; a sound which was heard twice more as George made sure that the poor creature was truly out of its misery.
He tucked the bird gently under his arm, closed the boot and picked up his dropped briefcase. Turning towards the sanctuary of his house he looked up to see his new neighbours nervously smiling at him as they struggled to haul a sofa from the back of the van, clearly having just witnessed him beat a defenceless creature to death. He smiled weakly in return before scurrying into the house. Maybe the introductions could wait. On a more positive note, after hanging in the conservatory for a couple of days, the pheasant was delicious.
A few weeks of successful neighbour-avoidance later, George was enjoying a late September burst of sun pottering in his garden when Mrs Granger, his other neighbour, poked her head over the fence, ‘Good Morning, George.’
‘Oh, good morning, Mrs Granger. And how are you today? Enjoying the sun?’
‘Well I’m trying to, but I’ve got a little bit of a problem. I was actually wondering if I may trouble you for a bit of help.’
George put down his trowel and stood up, ‘Oh dear, what is it? Of course I’ll help, if I can. Are you okay?’
‘Yes, yes I’m fine. It’s just… well, perhaps you’d better come and have a look. Come round the front and I’ll let you in.’
Leaving his gloves neatly folded next to his trowel, George dutifully went to see how he could help his elderly neighbour.
A couple of minutes later he was staring into Mrs Granger’s bush, trying not to gag at the sweet smell of rotting flesh.
‘I noticed it this morning. It was the smell, of course, which drew my attention. And the flies. I can’t see a collar but I didn’t want to get too close.’ Mrs Granger held an impossibly white, probably lavender scented, embroidered handkerchief to her nose and mouth to try to mask the stench wafting from the dead cat.
‘Well, it certainly isn’t subtle,’ he replied.
Apart from the smell, and lack of movement, the cat looked quite peaceful. A small trickle of blood from its mouth had dried to a dark brown, which complemented its ginger fur rather well. George was, however, in no fear of this creature surprising him by coming back from the dead.
‘So, can you help me to move it?’
This wasn’t the pleasant Sunday morning potter round the garden George was expecting, but Mrs Granger would be eighty-three this year, more than twice his thirty-nine years, and it was surely his duty as a good neighbour to help her, however unpleasant the task.
‘Of course, it should be easy enough, do you have a shovel?’
She pointed towards a tall thin, wooden tool shed.
George walked over to the shed, slid back the well-oiled bolt and opened the door. Inside were gardening tools of all kinds, all neatly cleaned and oiled and arranged on hooks and shelves. He took a large, shiny shovel and resumed his rather unpleasant task.
‘Yep, should be easy enough,’ he muttered to himself. However, it wasn’t. He slid the shovel beneath the cat but its legs had set solid in rigor mortis. As he lifted, all he succeeded in doing was to flip the cat over, exposing a large gaping hole crawling with maggots. He dropped the shovel and leapt back with a yelp.
‘What is it, George?’ asked Mrs Granger.
George wiped his hands on his trousers. ‘It’s erm… it’s nothing. I just dropped the shovel.’
Steeling himself he picked up the shovel and tried again. He flipped the cat back over to hide the gore and thrust the shovel beneath the corpse, taking a scoop of topsoil with it. As he lifted the shovel the cat’s head lolled over the side, its dead eyes scanning the ground as if it had lost something. He walked towards Mrs Granger as if he were the sole competitor in the world’s nastiest egg and spoon race.
‘Where are you going to put it?’ she asked, stepping backwards as he approached.
‘Where do you want me to put it?’
‘I don’t care, I just don’t want it in my garden.’
‘Well I don’t really want it in mine either, to be honest.’
The neighbours found themselves in a polite yet grotesque stand off. Maggots were making their way from the carcass, dropping from the shovel onto the finely manicured lawn.
‘Please, just take it away, I’ll pay you.’ She turned away, hiding behind her handkerchief.
‘No, there’s no need for that, Mrs Granger, I’ll deal with it,’ conceded George.
‘Oh, thank you. You are a dear man.’ She scurried through the back door and into the conservatory as George carefully made his way from her property, carrying his grisly load.
He passed the wheelie bins, tucked away neatly in their wooden structure, at the front of his garden and an idea came to him. He figured that he could probably put the cat in the garden waste bin and maybe cover it with some grass cuttings. They were due to be emptied the following morning anyway.
However, as he turned, he slipped on a patch of moss. He managed to keep his footing but upturned the shovel, dropping its contents to the floor. Scattered maggots began to crawl away from their all-you-can-eat buffet. Panicking, George began to use the back of the shovel to whack the maggots, dispatching the vast majority with a few strokes. He then opened the brown garden-waste bin, scooped up the cat and dropped it in before quickly slamming the lid.
Wiping his brow, he looked up to see his new neighbours staring at him from the living room window. With a fence between him and them it must have looked like he had just stoved the poor moggie’s head in with a shovel before dumping it callously into the bin. Even the woman he had seen on the news had let the cat live when she put it in the bin, and she was getting death threats. He gave them a wave to try and lighten the situation but realised, as he turned and walked away, that he had probably just made things far more creepy. Maybe the introductions would have to wait a little longer.
The next day when George was leaving for work he heard a voice from behind him.
‘Well good morning, It’s nice to finally say hello, so hi, I’m Mike. Mike Mallory,’ said the man, reaching a hand over the fence.
George stared at the neighbour he had managed to avoid for so long.
‘Oh, hi. George. Nice to meet you. Look, about the… you know, the anim-.’
‘Excuse me, could you help me please?’
Both men turned to see a young girl standing there. She was holding a thin wad of printed A4 paper.
‘I’m sorry to bother you but my cat has gone missing,’ she handed George a sheet, ‘have you seen him?’
George looked guiltily at Mike, who looked closely at the picture of the large ginger tom cat.
‘I’m sorry, miss, haven’t seen him but I’ll definitely keep an eye out. I’m sure he can’t have gone far, eh, George?’ Mike gave George a rough slap on the shoulder.
‘Erm, no. I’m sure he’s not far away at all,’ replied George.
‘Thanks. He’s never run away before, if anything has happened to him I would be heartbroken. Can I leave you the poster, it has my number on it in case he turns up. Could you put it in your window or something?’
‘Yes, yes of course.’ George smiled weakly at the young girl.
‘Thank you,’ she replied, choking back a sob, before turning and carrying on down the road.
‘Mike, why did you-’
‘Nice to meet you, George, you should come round some time and meet Julie. Enjoy your day.’
It had been just over a month since the cat incident. October was coming to an end and the nights were drawing in. He had continued to hide from his neighbours, he thought that it was probably for the best.
George put the debris from his evening meal in the dishwasher and settled down in front of a freshly lit fire and the TV. He began to flick through the stations, eventually settling on a rerun of Countryfile which looked like it had only just started. As he learned some interesting facts about barn owls he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that there was more movement in the room than the flickering flames and TV glare could account for.
A huge house spider was slowly making its way across the bare wooden floor. Now, George was very much against killing spiders as he knew that they kept a lot of flies away, and despite all evidence to the contrary, he was deeply opposed to harming any living creature. However, he wasn’t overly keen on having them roaming around the living room, so he slowly got to his feet and went to get a glass tumbler from the kitchen, picking up a railway museum brochure from the side table as he passed.
Upon returning to the living room he found his new arachnid friend engrossed in a rather interesting piece about dry stone walls. George slowly crept up to the creature and hovered the glass inches above it. He lowered it slowly, expecting at any moment for the spider to make a break for it. He came to within an inch of it, now fearing that if the spider decided to run and he was to bring the glass down that it would act as a makeshift guillotine. However, despite a bit of a twitch, Georgecompleted the operation without incident. He slid the brochure underneath the glass, imprisoning the unwanted guest. There was, George observed, very little space between the edge of the glass and the spider’s outstretched limbs. It was one of the biggest he had seen in a while. Keeping the brochure firmly pressed against the lip of the glass he made his way to the front door, marvelling at the size of the beast.
Using his elbow to open the door he drew back his arm and removed the brochure. Time then seemed to slow down. As he brought his arm forward to fling the creature to freedom he heard a young girl’s voice. His eyes followed the spider as it span through the air and his gaze shifted to the tiny witch who was stood, poised to ring the door bell.
‘Trick or treeaaarrrgghhh!’
The young girl fell to her knees, clutching at her throat and scraping at her tongue with her false black nails before finally throwing up on his doorstep. In the middle of the candy puke was the flailing spider he had inadvertently thrown straight into the little witch’s mouth.
The mini mummy and diminutive Dracula who stood either side of her also began to scream, before dragging their young friend to her feet and running away, still screaming and crying.
‘Oh my god, it was real, he’s crazy!’
‘You just ate a spider, a real spider. Gross!’
‘I want my mummy!’
George was dumbstruck as he watched the tiny trio retreat down the street. The little witch’s upturned bucket had scattered sweets across his front step. He began to pick them up, putting them back in the bucket in case she came back for them, probably with her angry parents in tow.
‘That is one of the cruellest things I have ever seen. Hi, I’m Julie.’
George looked up to see Julie leaning over the fence. She held a long piezoelectric kitchen lighter in the shape of a giant match, which she had obviously been using to light the pumpkin lanterns which were glowing in their front garden.
‘Hi, erm, George. Exactly how much of that did you see?’
‘All of it. And beautifully done, I might add. I hate the little brats too. Forcing one of them to eat a live spider though, that is next level stuff. Nice.’
‘No, no, I didn’t, I mean, I did but it was an accident. I wouldn’t do that.’
‘Sure. Look, I was actually just on my way round to invite you to ours for drinks tonight. Mike and I are having a few friends round and it seems like a good opportunity for us to actually get to know each other.’
‘Oh, no, I really don’t think…’
Julie grinned, ‘I’m afraid we shan’t accept no for an answer. Oh, and bring a friend.’ Before George could protest further she turned and walked back into the house.
George looked down to see that the spider had now stopped struggling. Its legs had curled up beneath it as it lay in its final resting place, in a warm pool of sugar and bile. He went to get the mop.
Once he had cleaned up the mess on the doorstep, George tried several times to call Cynthia, but each time it went straight through to voicemail. Things were going well between them. They had talked on the phone a few times, since their trip to the restaurant, and had had coffee once or twice, and now he desperately wanted her to be his plus-one. As well as her being there for moral support, it could possibly count as their second proper date. However, after the seventeenth time of hearing, ‘This is the voice mail of Cynthia Sidebottom…’ he had to admit defeat. So, freshly showered, and in his best cardigan, George approached his neighbours’ house clutching a bottle of Co-op White Wine he had found at the back of the cupboard. The Mallorys’ driveway, and a large portion of the road, was now lined with expensive cars.
He rang the doorbell and Julie answered. ‘George, so glad you could make it. Is it just you? That’s a shame. Never mind, come through, what can I get you?’
‘Just a small white wine please.’ He handed her his gift.
‘Oh thank you, George, you are a dear. We love a drop of erm…,’ she scanned the label, ‘white wine. Now, I’ll fetch you that drink while you chat to Mike, he’s just through there.’ She pointed into the living room. ‘Mike, dear, George is here.’
Mike looked across and beamed. ‘George, good to see you, come and meet Carl and Johannes, they work with me at the bank. Chaps, this is George from next door, the one I was telling you about.’
‘Good things I hope,’ blurted George.
‘Of course, of course. They’ve been eager to meet you.’
Hands were shook and pleasantries exchanged. George, however, couldn’t help feeling that they knew something he didn’t. Over the next half hour he was introduced to the rest of the party and, as he finished his small white wine, realisation finally dawned. They were all successful, middle-aged and the women had all been rather touchy-feely with him. He was at a swingers party.
He’d seen a documentary about these people and he knew he was in well over his head. He was suddenly very glad that he had not managed to get through to Cynthia, maybe an orgy would be coming on a bit strong for a second date.
Julie refilled his glass before he could protest and winked at him. George forced a smile and scanned the room for the nearest exit.
‘Julie, could you tell me where the little boys’ roo-’
Ting ting ting ting!
Mike tapped his wine glass with an expensive looking pen, cutting George’s question short. ‘Thank you all for coming here on our annual get together. So good to see so many familiar faces. Now I know you aren’t just here to drink all of my vintage wine so let’s get down to the main event.’ A cheer rose from the small crowd. ‘Now I know we had to move house but we hope you like what we’ve done with the new place. But before we go down, we have a newcomer, George, who hopefully you have all met by now. I hope you show him a good time. Now, shall we move this party on to the fun bit?’
Julie turned a chunky key in the lock of a large heavy-looking door and opened it, revealing a staircase leading downward.
Before George could make good his escape he was caught up in the crowd and was jostled towards the opening. He managed to keep his footing as he was swept along with the crowd, descending into the room beyond.
The room itself was beautifully decked out in red velvet. Candles lit the room with a dim glow and in the centre of the room was a huge bed. All around him, people began to remove their own and each others’ clothes. Two stunning, impressively bosomed, blonde women pinned George down, stripping him of his cardigan, his polyester shirt, his Hush Puppies and his beige chinos, leaving him in his white cotton-rich socks and beige Y-fronts. Mike, naked and proud, stood on a small raised platform. The crowd grew silent.
‘George, we are so happy to have you with us tonight. Julie and I have been watching you and we like what we see. We clearly have similar tastes and desires.’
‘Erm, I think we may have a few crossed wires.’
‘Nonsense, George, you belong with us. You are vicious. You take life without a second thought and your cruelty to your fellow human is admirable. We want you to join us. Here, take this.’ Mike handed George a vicious looking dagger. This was getting seriously kinky. George much preferred a cuddle and a Horlick’s.
Mike stepped from the platform and walked over to the bed. He threw back the covers to reveal Cynthia lying there, tied with rope. She was barely struggling, she was either drugged or in a trance. George gasped, ‘Cynthia!’
‘We didn’t become so successful by accident, George. We need to give a life to the Dark One in order that we may live ours to the full. We will say the sacred words and, when I tell you, you must plunge this into her heart.’
‘No, no, I won’t do it. You’re all bonkers. Cynthia, wake up Cynthia!’
‘Nonsense, George, we believe in you. It’s either her who dies, or both of you will. I know you are truly evil deep down. I’ve seen you beat a pheasant to death with your bare hands, murder a child’s pet and force a young girl to eat a live spider. Do it, George, this is who you really are.’
The crowd began to chant. There was an odd, hypnotic rhythm to the strange words which George did not understand. Their heads were bowed, their bodies writhing in ecstasy. George knew he had to act now. As the chanting grew to its crescendo, George attacked the ropes with the knife. Its razor sharp blade making short work of them.
Mike opened his eyes and screamed, ‘Now, George, kill her now!’
George grabbed Cynthia and pulled her from the bed. He half dragged her through the forest of spherical boobs and hairy chests. He kicked out at Johannes who grabbed Cynthia by the ankle. Johannes stumbled backwards and toppled over a candelabra which ignited a velvet throw. Cynthia, who was starting to come round a bit, scrambled up the stairs, pushed from behind by George who kicked out at grasping hands.
Once through the door at the top he turned the key which was still in the lock of the thick wooden door. The Mallorys had soundproofed their little dungeon well, it seemed, for the escaped couple could barely hear the pounding fists and screams of agony beyond. They lay, panting, with their backs against the door. Cynthia slipped once more into unconsciousness. He took an expensive looking throw from a nearby chair and draped it over her.
‘Well, this has been quite a profitable night,’ said the Devil.
George span round to see a huge, fiery demon stretched out on the cream leather sofa. The flames did not appear to affect the objects around them. Even the champagne he was swigging from the bottle still had beads of condensation running down the side. On his lap was the ginger cat from Mrs Granger’s bush. The Devil stroked it gently like a fiery Bond villain. By his feet, the pheasant playfully chased the spider in a haphazard figure of eight.
‘Oh, c’mon,’ muttered George, shaking his head.
‘Don’t worry, Georgie Boy, you’re in my good books. Every year this sorry bunch offer me one measly soul and expect me to pamper them all for the rest of the year. I’m rather sick of their miserly ways but, you know, trade has died off a bit since the middle ages so I take what I can get. Now, there’s forty-two of them down there and…’ he rifled through a notebook, ‘…by some strange twist of fate it seems you have forty-two years left to live, so looks like you’re sorted for life.’
Cynthia groaned and began to stir as George tried to make sense of the situation. ‘Sorry, tell me again, what is going on?’
‘The sacred words have been spoken. For every soul offered to me tonight, the remaining living souls who gaze upon me will be granted a year to live as cruelly as they please with the punishment being struck upon the sacrificial soul.’
‘Well, that sounds plausible,’ mused George. ‘So, I can live however I want for the rest of my life but I will die in forty-two years. That will make me… eighty one. That’s a fair innings I suppose. So how does this work?’
‘Well, everything you do will be successful, your woman here will do whatever you want in the bedroom, and you will be able to get away with whatever crimes you wish to commit without fear of reprisal. You have to accept my deal before the final soul dies, which gives you about ten seconds, and you can live how you wish, owing me nothing when you die. However, if you do not agree to my terms, you both join the other forty-two in Hell.’
George glanced at Cynthia, then at the pheasant, the cat, the spider and then finally back to the demon.
‘Throw in those three, and it’s a deal.’
The Devil vanished as Cynthia opened her eyes.
The next day, after George had given his statement to the police, he watched the pheasant scratching away at the dirt in the garden as he drank. George placed the purring cat into a box with an old jumper and took it out to his car. He waved to the spider as he passed and it scuttled under the sofa. He placed the box on the back seat, next to the bucket of sweets, and set off to the address that the excited voice had given him over the phone earlier.
The girl cried with joy to get her cat back, it was one of the most touching sights he had seen. Half an hour later, the angry father of the tiny witch had accepted his version of events and thanked him for returning the bucket of sweets.
A few weeks later, George sat in his new office, mulling over his new life as deputy head accountant. The Devil had been right, Cynthia was everything in the bedroom he could possibly have wished for. She brought him breakfast in bed every Sunday, changed the linen weekly and plumped up the pillows the way he liked it. Plus, her Horlick’s was the best he had ever tasted.
He also never again had to pay for a parking ticket as the machine was always mysteriously out of order. His parking fine was refunded and the parking attendant who had so badly wronged him had been forced into desk duties after complications with an ingrowing toenail. Well, thought George, what’s the point in being a mass murderer with the Devil in your pocket if you can’t exploit it now and then.
Copyright (c) W R Daniel 2018