h3=. Soul Price
Copyright 2005 Roderick Gladwish
Published by Roderick Gladwish at Shakespir
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In the shadows of a winter’s night Victoria leaned against an alley wall. Her last cigarette was twenty minutes ago, she wanted another but the flame of her lighter might draw attention. Finally the scullery maid, the last of the servants, left the London townhouse.
Victoria moved to the tradesman’s entrance and stalled. Her hand trembled as she went to knock. Ever since her accident the tremors were growing worse. Two faint taps was all she could achieve on the door of respectable Dr Mason, who helped girls in trouble.
It was February 1927, she was twenty-nine and her reputation was fixed. A striking debutante, Victoria Huntington-Swales seized the post war spirit. She smoked and drank like a man, but where most girls thought this was liberation, Victoria explored other avenues. Now every morning started with a stiff drink and needle bruises meant she avoided short sleeves. Fashionably thick makeup hid much.
A woman wearing a spotless nurse’s uniform opened the door. Of Victoria’s age she had a firm scrubbed face with judgment in her eyes.
They passed through a dark kitchen. The nurse led Victoria to an entrance under the stairs. Through that, a short flight of steps ended at a corridor. Dim gas lighting showed two open doors on the same side of the corridor, the nurse entered the first room.
Inside was a tall padded bench, a simple wooden chair and a bare desk. There was a vague smell of carbolic soap. Glancing through the connecting door, Victoria saw the end of a brightly lit operating table covered in a white sheet, stainless steel stirrups already in position. Stark white tiles covered the floor.
‘Change into that—’ the nurse pointed at a grey smock over the bench— ‘and then come through to the theatre.’
Victoria delved into her handbag to pull out a sheath of banknotes.
‘Afterwards,’ the nurse gave a faint smile and then moved through to the theatre.
Victoria pushed the notes back in and fished out a slim silver case extracted a cigarette and lighted it. Calming smoke tickled her lungs. She breathed deeply. Victoria had convinced herself that an unmarried mother was not a thing to be, no matter how rich her family was. Sure this was true she kept feeling that to go through with this act was wrong. For two tale-tail months Victoria had been on top of her emotions maintaining that the thing inside her was just that, a sexless, lifeless thing. All day without a drink was a long time to think about tonight. Whatever drugs Dr Mason gave her, Victoria was planning to flush them away with alcohol and keep drinking until today was a hazy memory. She might keep drinking until there was nothing left of her.
She slipped off her coat and laid it across the bench. Picking at the smock Victoria found it carried brown stains and wondered who was the previous wearer of this simplest of gowns: maid or her mistress?
This was the first one-way decision she had ever faced. Whether to take another drink or not, mattered little, there was always another bottle. Nothing was lost whether she visited her new friend in his London apartment or went home. There would be another time when his wife was out of town. Tonight, that minute, whatever path she chose Victoria’s life would be different. Something would end be it her cosseted life or a baby’s short one.
Damn. She had let the baby into her head.
Victoria stroked the fox-fur on the collar of her coat. Not her best coat, but she liked it. She liked the money and the lifestyle, but she had never loved anything. All those men, she smiled sourly, not even her parents who sent her from boarding to finishing school. No one loved her in return.
Victoria pulled on her coat and headed out.
‘Where are you going?’
Victoria turned at the door. The nurse stood at the theatre entrance. She had donned an apron.
‘I’ve decided to keep the baby.’
‘It’s not for the best.’
‘I know that, but I’ll keep it anyway,’ Victoria sighed.
‘You’ll be destitute. Your family will disown you.’
‘They’ve virtually done that already. It’s probably better if I vanish. Best if no one knows what happened to me. I’ve done some strange things in my life, creating a new life can’t be that difficult. Thank you for your time, goodbye.’
‘No Queeny, you’re not leaving here.’
Use of her old school nickname made her turn back. Only one person still used it. Victoria was stunned to see the nurse now had transformed into Abigail Carrington, her oldest friend. There was a revolver in her hand.
‘Oh dear,’ Victoria said.
‘Oh dear,’ echoed the doctor with a genial smile. Mason appeared from the operating theatre and stood behind Abigail. A broad shouldered man in rolled shirtsleeves and apron.
‘That’s my baby and I’m going to have him.’
‘Abby, I didn’t mean to— ‘
‘You seduced Andrew with the promise of a baby I can’t give him. I stood by you no matter what you did and you betrayed me. You stinking whore, you are going to pay for your betrayal. Tonight I am going to have my baby. Now come here.’
Victoria felt the hate boiling in her friend. She slipped her hand into her bag, stirring its contents wondering what she could use to save her life.
‘Abby, what do you mean? You can’t have my baby.’
‘Stinking whore, it’s my baby! You stole it from me, I will have it back.’
‘You think you know so much. Poor ignorant Queeny,’ Abigail mocked, ‘you’ve travelled the world and done so, so much, but you know nothing about how this world works.’
With her thumb Victoria opened her cigarette case and worked the contents out. She popped the stopper on her perfume bottle and let fluid spill over the banknotes, hanky and other items.
‘How does it work Abby?’ Victoria asked quietly, shifting into the doorway to the corridor.
‘Daddy’s family has been working with Mason here for centuries. He has helped us remove problems in the past to our mutual benefit; tonight it’s you. He will take the child and give him to me then as payment he will have your soul. How you’ve soiled it will most likely make him gag. You make me gag looking at you.’
Mason showed no surprise at the insanity Abigail was spouting.
‘Abigail, let’s wait till morning, wait until things are clearer.’ Letting the shoulder strap slip free Victoria held her bag to her hip with hand inside.
‘It’s my baby. I’ll have him.’
‘Abby, you are very angry and I deserve your hate, but we must deal with this calmly.’
‘I am calm,’ Abigail answered. ‘Come here and let me have him.’
Flint sparked and the lighter flared. Alcohol and dried paper ignited explosively, Victoria tossed the flaming bag at Abigail and ducked through the door.
Behind her there was a shout. Victoria was already at the door out of the cellar. It was locked.
A memory flashed through her mind of being trapped in a Soho opium den when someone had decided to use her for entertainment.
Victoria sprinted back the way she had come to see Abigail coming out. Accelerating Victoria grabbed Abigail. Together they spun, Victoria turning her former friend around and around before pushing her hard against the wall. Stunned, Abigail dropped the weapon. It clattered on bare boards. Dizzy, but maintaining momentum, Victoria snatched it up as she stumbled and bounced off the corridor walls. Staggering into the operating theatre she planned to by-pass Abigail via the two rooms.
Mason blocked the connecting doorway. He was still smiling.
Clutching at one of the stirrups on the operating table, Victoria pointed the revolver at the doctor’s chest.
‘Out of my way.’
‘To survive, you will have to kill Abigail,’ Mason stated.
‘Oh no,’ Victoria replied, ‘out of my way.’
‘There must be a death, yours or hers, I don’t care which.’ Mason advanced on Victoria.
‘I will shoot.’ It was Soho all over again.
‘Yes, you will. I can tell what’s in a human’s soul. You won’t give up yours easily. You’ll fight to your last breath and beyond. Fighting me will achieve nothing for I cannot die.’
Mason was a pace away when she fired. A hole appeared in the apron. Mason wasn’t slowed.
Victoria fired again before Mason grabbed the wrist of her gun hand lifting her until only her toes made contact with the tiles. Coldness ran the length of her arm.
‘Guns cannot kill me. In fact nothing you can do can end my existence.’ Mason plunged his other hand into Victoria’s abdomen.
Victoria gasped at violent ice cutting into her and looked down. His solid limb passed through her. It felt like her bladder was releasing. Intimate contact broke the illusion. Victoria looked into a hairless milk-white face. Blue veins radiated from pits for eyes like an infection covering the face like a mask.
‘Kill her,’ Abigail commanded. She was at the doorway.
‘That’s your task,’ Mason said.
Victoria raked her free hand down Mason’s cheek. Her fingernails skidded on stone. Her concentration was seeping away as the coldness in her guts stole her strength until she hung limply.
‘Kill her,’ Mason shouted, ‘use my dagger. It must be the dagger.’
From the instrument tray Abigail took up an ornate sliver blade inlaid with gold. An artefact from a dead civilization the knife had finger-marks worn into the metal handle by generations of hands thrusting its hungry blade into countless victims.
Removing his hand Mason left not a mark on her clothes yet the tiles beneath Victoria were speckled with red. He grabbed Victoria’s waist and flung her onto the operating table. She flopped across it, the gun escaping her grip.
‘Strike now. To her heart. I have the child. Now end her,’ Mason ordered.
Inebriation was second nature to Victoria. Fading from reality was an experience she had savoured in so many ways it allowed her to detach from the unfolding tragedy. With no energy to move, she was aware of what was to happen, not scared, simply aware of the next step. Maybe she would fade away completely before the metal cut. It would be better to let the baby have a suitable mother, let this life of waste end.
At the limit of the fade Victoria listened to an argument and slowly strength returned to her.
‘She’s recovering, now kill her.’
‘Not yet,’ Abigail said, ‘I want the baby first.’
‘Not until payment.’
‘Daddy said you like to control people. He said I must show who the master is. It is I who have the power. You need me to kill Victoria.’
‘My dear Mrs. Carrington,’ Mason said, ‘I can kill Miss Huntington-Swales in a second, but to satisfy our contract you must do it.’
‘The baby first.’
‘This debate only increases the risk to you.’
‘My baby,’ Abigail stated. ‘I know you don’t get so much out of it if you end her. You need a human to get the full benefit.’
‘Miss Huntington-Swales is extremely…extremely vital. I advise you not to delay in dispatching her she will not give you a second chance.’
‘My baby first.’
Abigail slumped against the operating table with a groan as Mason transferred the foetus.
Victoria seized her chance and rolled off the table. She collapsed.
‘No,’ she moaned. Crawling against dead legs she tried for the door even though she knew the distance to safety was too far away.
By the time Mason was finished, Victoria was at the threshold. Desperately she pulled herself upright using the door frame, painted nails scoring the wood as Abigail, unstable on her feet, approached with the ancient blade in hand.
‘Please Abby, you have the baby, let me live.’ Victoria managed to stand, but the weakness held her to the wall.
‘You are a whore and you don’t deserve life.’
Something skidded across the tiles and struck Victoria’s foot.
Abigail looked surprised and angry.
‘What are you doing?’ Abigail demanded.
‘I am hungry,’ Mason stated. ‘Now one of you will have to make a decision.’
Victoria glanced down to see the revolver there. It was her turn to look at Mason.
‘Please Abby, we’re like sisters.’
‘Go to Hell!’ she snarled.
‘This will not end well, for either of us.’
‘Die!’ Abigail lunged.
Victoria had fought for her life before. She recognized the bolt of extra strength when all seemed spent and knew how to use it. She let the knife come before grabbing at the wrist behind and pulling hard. Abigail’s momentum swung her through the door. By the time she turned to strike again Victoria had scooped the revolver from the floor and aimed it shakily at the other woman.
‘Time to decide,’ Abigail said. She stepped closer.
‘Abby, don’t make me shoot you.’
‘Kill me; kill the baby. I can give it love, a home, a future. Your future is destitution. If you were any kind of friend, you’d let me kill you.’
Let death take her, damnation too. She had committed all of the deadly sins and knew the wages would have to be paid. Tonight was as good as any other. Let good, loving Abigail have the baby she and Andrew craved but couldn’t have. Die unloved and unmissed wasn’t it the right thing to do?
‘Let me pass, Abby, you have what you want. I’ll still disappear, you’ll hear nothing—’
Abigail struck. Victoria fired. On to her knees the cheated wife fell, toppling at Victoria’s feet. All the while Abigail’s lips framed the word ‘Hell’ repeatedly.
Sagging Victoria watched Abigail’s final act unable to do anything, even plea.
‘Go to Hell!’ Abigail coughed before stabbing the dagger into her already open chest.
Something more speed than substance fell onto Abigail. The room chilled. Over the body like a feeding dog was a creature. Victoria blinked at the scene to find Mason standing, human again, across the corpse. She struggled to hold onto an image of talons and curves of unnaturally muscled arms white and oily. Already it was fading into a dream.
‘Congratulations, you survived and my hunger is slaked.’
Victoria shot Mason three times and continued to pull the trigger, the gun striking spent cases repetitively until the doctor pulled it from her hands.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘I am Dr Mason, demon of this parish, consumer of unwanted souls.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Of course you don’t, you didn’t believe demons existed until tonight, if you believe it now. Mind you, you didn’t believe Mrs. Carrington knew what you had done. I suspect you didn’t believe she’d kill you either.’
Victoria felt like she could walk, but waited, remembering the last time she tried.
‘What happens now?’
‘You are free to go. There are nuns watching this place night and day, they’ll see to your needs. I often wonder whether they watch my home because of the abortions or because I’m a demon.’ Mason looked at her sideways. ‘I see you are lost. This is all too much for your little mind, isn’t it?’
‘You won’t let me go, because you’ll swing for this.’
‘My dear Miss Huntington-Swales, I won’t, as you quaintly put it, swing because I did not fire the fatal shot. Do not fear, neither will you, I do not wish you to die before your time. I shall see that poor Abigail Carrington is found as the victim of a tragic accident.’
‘You’ll let me go?’ Despite being unsure if she would be able to stand again, Victoria got down beside her friend. She had always thought her lifestyle would ensure no one would mourn her death except Abigail.
Abigail’s face was free of hate, her eyes closed.
‘She cursed you, you know. Not interested? You should be she spent your unborn child’s life to see it happen.’
Victoria looked up. ‘It was hers, I stole it. I have a penance to pay for my life. I should have let her kill me, good God, what am I worth compared to her?’
‘She consorted with demons. Not that I consider consorting with demons evil. For all your notorious deeds, you have never done an evil deed in your life, of course that won’t save you.’
‘I drove her too it.’
‘Yes, you did and then you killed her and the child and I consumed their souls.’
‘Why do you keep saying that? You’re some kind of monster, but not that kind.’
‘Ah, the human mind’s power to delude itself is great. Despite all you have seen, you do not believe. You will have time to realize what has happened, but not much time.’ From behind his apron Mason pulled out a pocket watch. ‘Now, I would like you out of my house because my servants are due back and I have things to do.’
Victoria bent over and kissed Abigail’s forehead. ‘Forgive me,’ she whispered.
Mason pulled Victoria upright with a single hand then impelled her into the corridor. At the kitchen door, Mason paused.
‘Mrs. Carrington cursed you. She promised your soul to me, leaving the time I collect free for me to choose. I like sevens. They are supposed to be lucky. We shall meet when I come to collect in seven years time.’
He opened the door.
‘Enjoy your life and don’t have too many nightmares.’
Mason propelled Victoria out of the house. She staggered into the cold night air. Dizziness came and Victoria crumpled.
Black shapes billowed from the shadows of the alley.
Victoria pushed off the cobbles. Standing was once more impossible. She kept moving, crawling.
For all her efforts the nuns caught her.
Roderick is an aerospace engineer whose day job is designing spacecraft structures. When he loses self-control he writes stories. In 2008 he won the British Science Fiction Association 50th Anniversary Short Story Competition. He also illustrates his own work.
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In 1920's London Victoria's hedonistic lifestyle has caught up with her. Abortion is illegal and Dr Mason offers a special service to the wealthy with problems to solve. Victoria no only has a problem, but is a problem and she doesn't know it. Lives will be lost, souls destroyed and surviving maybe the worst things she's ever done.