By Stephen Thom
Damp stone walls. Steel bars. Pete’s eyes adjusted to the dark.
He moved down the corridor. He splashed through shallow puddles. A cigarette tip glowed in the distance. His hands shook. He broke a sweat. He clung to a steel bar for support. A wretched groan issued from the dark beyond it.
Pete leaned. He squinted. Spots danced across his vision. Cells. The corridor was lined with cells. There were men inside them. They hung upside down. Strapped to the ceiling. Blood dripped from lacerations on their faces and bodies. It ran into buckets underneath their suspended frames.
Pete hurled. He spat chunks, drew his sleeve over his mouth and moved forward. He willed some kind of tunnel-vision. Tried to block out the dangling men.
Heavy silence. Those awful drips.
The air cooled as he stepped into the chamber at the end of the corridor. Red sat on a wooden chair in the centre. He looked up. His face was full of hollows. His skin hugged his bones. Intravenous drips ran from rusty stands, feeding into his arms.
He dropped the cigarette and crushed it with his boot. His voice was hoarse.
“A visitor. A visitor to our squalid little kingdom.”
Pete ground his teeth. He said nothing. A shadow flicked nearby. Sounds: keys jangling, a heavy door screeching. Footsteps. Watery slushing.
A young man in a patched-up flannel suit appeared in the chamber. His hair was slicked to the side. He was holding a bucket of blood. Pete felt bile in his throat again. The man eyed him. Red waved a dismissive hand.
“I know him,” he whispered. “I believe we’ve met, somewhere in the circle of time.”
The man eyed Pete again. Red scratched his leg and bent to retrieve a tin mug near his feet. The man moved forward and tilted the bucket into the mug. Dregs sloshed over the floor.
Red raised the mug. His lips spread in a toothy grin.
“I think you’ve come from far away, haven’t you?” He choked and spat. “Our methods must seem very atavistic to you. But effective. Effective.”
The flannel-suited man fiddled with the drips. Pete glanced to the left. A large mirror hung on the wall. He thought he saw something unnatural pass through it.
Red downed the mug. He hissed and retched. Dark nooses hung from his lips. The flannel man slumped out. Pete spewed again.
The manager sipped his coffee. He fanned his sheets out on the desk. His fingers traced the TSB Bank letterheads. He looked at the clock. Two late arrivals blustered into the boardroom, all wheezes and apologetic hand gestures. The manager nodded. He clasped his wrinkled hands together.
“Now that everyone has deigned to join us – ”
The door rattled open. The employees at the table looked round as one. A man stood shivering in the doorway. His face was bruised and bloody. He was clutching two bottles of water. He was soaked from head to foot. His shoes squished as he paced round the table. The manager rose.
“What’s the meaning of this?”
The soaking man placed the bottles on the table. He shrugged off his backpack, rummaged, and removed a little bowl. He wiped his face and regained his breath.
“You’re in danger. You’re in terrible danger. Someone is coming, you – we have to be quick. You have to get out. If you don’t believe me, I can – I can try and do this… try and show you… ”
He unscrewed a water bottle and poured a quantity into the bowl. His hands shook violently. The employees glanced at each other. Someone chuckled. The manager banged the table.
“Now, you look here – I don’t know… I don’t know what kind of stunt this is, but we have a pressing morning schedule, and I – ”
He stopped dead. The wet man was shaking a tiny vial of fluid into the bowl. It was red. It looked like blood. The manager pressed a button under the desk.
Two uniformed men swept into the room. They clocked the soaking man and began wrestling him out. He screamed as he was forced through the door.
“It’s not safe! They know you covered your assets! They want your money! You have to get out!”
The manager’s face darkened. Around him, staff fidgeted and avoided eye contact. He smoothed his tie and reseated himself.
“Ludicrous behaviour,” he mumbled, sliding a sheet of paper before him. “Absolutely ludicrous.”
The door slid open again. The manager looked up, enraged. A man in a pig mask walked in. He raised a revolver and shot the manager in the face. Chairs volleyed back. Employees screamed. Coffee flew. Blood spray and bone chunks hit the wall.
Pete traipsed down the side-street, checking and re-checking numbers. Rain pittered in the gutters. He fiddled with his phone and pulled up Google maps. He watched wet streaks slur down the screen.
He found the place just as he was turning to go. It was a tiny blue door. It was wedged between a run of boarded-up windows and a grimy newsagent’s. A weathered, antique sign above the door proclaimed: ‘Hydrotherapy. Est. 1894. The Engineer.’
He shivered. He looked back down the street. A cat hissed at him. He sighed and thumped the brass door-knocker.
He heard rummaging and bumps. He straightened his back and dredged up enthusiasm. For Kate. For doing better. The door creaked open.
A little man leaned out. His face was a web of wrinkles. White hair was slicked in a side parting. His eyes were coal-black. Pete smiled, uneasily.
“Hey! Hi. I’m – I’m here about the water… thing. The therapy. My wife… my wife thought – ”
The old man peered down the street and ushered him in. Pete glanced one last time at the sign. The ‘Engineer’?
He followed the little figure down a dark corridor. Ancient florid wallpaper. The Engineer turned and waited at the door ahead. His black eyes bored into Pete.
“Are those contacts?” Pete asked, nodding. Trying to lift the atmosphere. “Nice look. Suppose it fits with the whole style, the – ”
The Engineer nudged the door open and pottered in. Light flooded the corridor. Pete followed.
A large room. A hall, almost. A chandelier. Rows of shelves. Stacks and stacks of water bottles. Thousands. Coloured ribbons on each. Slips of parchment attached. Slips of parchment littering the floor.
Pete tripped in. He gaped. Stone pillars were planted periodically in the centre of the room. Bowls of water were set atop them. An enormous flatscreen dominated the far wall.
The Engineer walked over to a pillar. His white lab coat rustled. His slippers schlepped. He bent down and fiddled with the array of wires and cables surrounding the stone base. He twisted. He yanked. He pinned little metal clamps to the edge of the bowl perched on top.
Pete nodded. He tapped his feet. The Engineer paid him no attention.
“Nice set up,” he whistled. “Nice decor. Never would’ve thought, outside… kinda Tardis thing going on… how long did it – ”
The Engineer scuttled over to the wall. He rummaged between shelves and flipped open a panel. Pete frowned. He glimpsed a weird switchboard. Flickering lights. Dials. Crank shafts. Buzzing. The Engineer hooked up more clamps. He prodded at buttons.
For fuck’s sake, thought Pete.
“I thought this was to do with bathing, to be honest… baths, or something… ”
The Engineer ignored him.
They’re very progressive, Kate had said. I think they could really help. They’re very interested in you; as a person, and as a potential client. The application form said –
Pete shut it out. The Engineer was walking over. He grasped Pete’s wrist and led him over to the pillar. His grip was surprisingly strong. He held a needle in his spare hand.
“This may sting a little,” he wheezed. Pete blinked.
The Engineer pricked him. Pete hissed. A tiny bulb of blood dribbled from the puncture. It landed in the bowl of water atop the pillar and fanned out. The Engineer pressed a cotton ball to Pete’s hand. Pete turned to protest. The Engineer guided his view back to the water.
Choppy drifts were rising in the bowl. Weird monochrome patterns shifted. They laced and solidified. Images. There were images in the water. Pete stared. His jaw hung open. He barely noticed the Engineer dispose of the spotted cotton ball and smooth a band aid onto his hand.
The water calmed. Clarified. The picture was unmistakable. A woman’s face, rendered in fuzzy, elastic rolls.
It was Kate. She was moving. He could see her moving, within the water. She was screaming. There were hands on her throat. The water rolled in little waves again. The image dispersed. Pete clenched the bowl.
“What the fuck… what the fuck is this? That’s my wife. That’s my wife!”
The Engineer raised a finger to his lips. He fiddled in his pockets. He removed a black remote and prodded at it. The large screen on the far wall fizzed into life. Images regrouped in the bowl of water. The wires around it hummed. The images were replicated in frosty, jittery movements on the screen.
It was Kate. Someone was strangling her. Strangling her. Pete looked up at the screen. Sweat sheened his forehead. He could hear her glottal screeches. He could hear snapping noises. He could see her dead eyes. He could see himself in the screen, rising, rubbing his wrists. Kicking the lifeless body. He shook. His mouth twitched. He clutched the bowl of water, veins straining.
“What are you doing? What’s going on here? That’s my wife… that’s… ”
The Engineer shooed him away. Pete stood, dumbstruck.
The Engineer dipped a tea spoon into a ramekin containing a yellow, jelly-like mixture. He swivelled it around for a while. Then, arching his back over the bowl, he held it under the surface of the water.
A bubble detached itself from the area around the spoon. It rose to the surface of the bowl. It slipped from a crest of fluid and popped into the air. From there it hung, drifting centimetres above the bowl.
The screen fuzzed spectral static. The bubble of water floated, bobbing and rotating.
The Engineer disposed of the spoon. He reached for an empty plastic bottle. Holding it in the space between the suspended droplet and the bowl, he caught the bubble in the bottle’s opening. It burst. It dribbled to the base of the container.
Pete watched, dazed. It felt like a dream state. The Engineer tied a red ribbon around the bottle. He scribbled on a slip of parchment, rolled it up, and tucked it under the ribbon.
“Tell me what the fuck that was?” Pete whispered.
The Engineer shook the bottle. The water expanded. It appeared full now. He placed it on the shelf. Thousands of bottles. Thousands of ribbons.
“The images you saw,” he croaked, “are of things that have not yet happened.”
Pete volleyed the bowl over. Water puddled on the floor. The Engineer looked down. He shook his head.
“Your session has come to an end,” he said, “Red will see you now.”
The Engineer splashed through the pooling water. He unclipped clamps and gathered wires. The screen on the far wall ran fevered electrical jibberish. A man appeared in the doorway behind them. He was thin, and extremely tall; he had to stoop to enter the room.
He proffered his hand to Pete. His voice sounded like he was chewing gravel.
Pete ignored the outstretched hand. Red’s eyes were coal-black too. They glistened.
“We thank you for your interest in our service. You have reached the end of your session. The singular nature of your experience is a vital, enlightening, and – unfortunately – expensive one. The ownership of your various assets will now transfer over to our company.”
Pete mumbled. He felt dizzy. He wanted to leave. He tugged at his trousers and swayed. Red moved closer. He placed his hand on Pete’s shoulder.
“We would dearly love to reduce our costs, but such is the nature of today’s market,” he said. His eyes reflected Pete’s pale face. Pete slapped the hand off.
“Bullshit. This is all… bullshit.”
Red tutted. He spread his arms.
“Most assuredly not. Our service provides a unique form of divination. A method passed down from generation to generation. A way of seeing – and affecting – that which has yet to occur. The extraction, processing, and mingling of your own personal experiences with those of other vessels.”
Pete cupped his head in his hands. ‘Vessels’ jangled. Red lifted a half-empty bottle of water from the floor. It was tied with a blue ribbon. He tugged the attached slip of parchment free and unfurled it.
“For instance, this bottle contains the experiences of a man… a man who murdered his wife.”
Stepping over wires, Red moved to a cluttered table. He cleared a space. He coughed.
He paused and peered at something on the parchment.
“My, this is a very old one. 1904?”
He looked at the Engineer, who nodded. Red grinned. His teeth were long and yellow.
“We are getting on, aren’t we! The contents of this bottle were in the bowl used for your own session.”
He lined up two bottles on the table. Blue ribbon. Pete’s red ribbon. His coal eyes sparkled.
“These two vessels are now bound, in terms of possibilities.”
Pete looked at the two strange figures. He snapped. He turned and made for the door.
“Shite. You’re fucking chancers. You’ve probably got some shite Youtube channel for shite stunts. Fuck cares. I need to get home. You two… you need to have a fucking look at yourselves.”
Red pushed a glass to the centre of the table. He opened both bottles. He poured a little from the blue-ribboned bottle into Pete’s.
“A little of each, if you are in need of proof. Go home. Go home and reflect on your experience. It is a unique one. You should count yourself a very lucky man. Your various assets will transfer over to us.”
The Engineer scuttled over to guide Pete out. Pete shoved him away.
“Get the fuck off me.”
He spilled out into the street, head thumping. An older man was waiting outside, eyeing the sign nervously. Pete watched the Engineer show the old guy in. A light rain fell as the door closed.
The clouds darkened. They loosed a downpour. Pete ran up his driveway. His car was gone. His fucking car was gone. He twitched. His head felt hot. He clattered into the house. There was nothing in the hall. No jackets. No shoes. Bare. He leaned against the wallpaper. He felt its contours. He tried to breath.
Kate was in the living room. She was slumped against the wall. The furniture was gone. The TV was gone. Everything. He felt like he was moving in slow-motion.
“Men came,” she said. “Pete, I… they had the strangest eyes, I… ”
He moved towards her. He knelt. He pulled her close. She shivered against him.
“I don’t understand,” she sobbed. Pete cupped her face. Her features crumpled. He kissed her forehead. His hands moved down to her neck. He felt them tighten. He felt as if he were watching himself. Removed from himself. He saw her eyes widen.
“Pete… ” she choked.
Blue ribbons danced across his vision. Bowls. Water. Blood. He heard her splutter. His hands dropped.
She crawled away from him, gasping.
“I’m sorry… ” he whispered. “Kate, I’m sorry, something’s… I’m… ”
She was retching in the corner. Her eyes were wide with shock. Pete rose. He looked at his hands. He turned them over. He backed out the house. He grabbed his keys and backpack. He ran.
It’s not safe.
It’s not safe to go home.
It’s bullshit. They’ve fucked with your head.
These two vessels are now bound.
YOU STRANGLED HER.
Rain came down in sheets. Pete ducked into a newsagents. The cashier eyeballed him. He garbled his order. Vodka. Cigarettes. Douse it. Numb it.
He necked shots in a phone box. They burned his throat. He smoked and shook. Find a level. Find some sane spot. It’s not a dream. This is happening. These people have fucked with you. Some kind of bizarre headfuck. Hypnotism? Some kind of altered… did he drink any of the water? The needle?
He slugged another draught. He drew puffs and hacked. Strange shit. Weird, occult shit. He ditched the bottle and made for the library.
The foyer was spacious and bright. He rushed through. An old lady stared at him. Staff pushed book-laden trolleys past. He rattled through the aisles. He clocked white-card section markers. Self-help… nope. Religion. Paranormal. Occult.
He brushed his hand along the shelf. Voodoo. Witchcraft. Wicca. Pagan. He extracted dusty tomes. He lugged them to a table. The silence weighed heavy around. Someone coughed. He pulled the first book open and rifled through the index. Divination. Oracles. Psychic readings. Ritual waters. Water. Water-related. Water spirits.
He flicked the pages. He moved between tomes. Dust clouded as he flopped covers open.
Rituals dependent on water. The ability to absorb. The ability to transform. The ability to divine. Odd stuff; amulets, talismans. Strange concoctions; coloured stones, sieves, blood, bowls of black salt, pans of water…
Dusk smothered the sun outside. His throat felt dry. His head was splitting. He thought of Kate. He saw his hands on her neck again.
An employee nudged him and tapped his wrist. He left the books strewn across the table.
Rain drilled the tarmac. He sat by a wheely-bin in the street. He watched the sign swing in the wind.
Hydrotherapy. Est. 1894. The Engineer.
There had to be a way back to normal. Maybe he could ask. Maybe he could ask nicely. Maybe he could fuck them up.
Shadows bound. The side-street felt like a prison. He couldn’t go home. It wasn’t safe. He clambered up and walked to the the door. He looked left and right. Dead. He jiggered the handle. Locked. He stood back and sighed. He caught whirlwind images of blood and water. He knocked on the door.
Shuffling. Rustling. The door squeaked open. The Engineer’s wrinkled face peered out.
Pete wedged his foot in the gap. He grabbed and heaved. The little man tumbled out and landed face-down. Pete straddled his back. He seized a handful of thin hair. He banged the Engineer’s face off the pavement. He kept banging. He pulled himself up.
The stone beneath was smeared red. The Engineer groaned. His hands spasmed. A volley of wind knocked the wheely-bin over. Pete tripped backwards and edged through the door.
The corridor was a dark tunnel. He pawed the walls. He heard humming as he approached the large room; the session room. He heard electrical buzzing. He heard voices.
“… the old man reneged. Transferred his assets. Moved his material possessions. Untraceable location. Acted quick, like… typical. Typical Bank CEO. On it.”
Pete huddled beside the door and squinted. He could see Red, seated at a desk. Another suited man stood above him. Red toyed with the green ribbon of a bottle as he spoke.
“Reneged on a deal? How dishonourable. Where is his place of business?”
“TSB Bank on Clerk Street. Head honcho there.”
Red pulled the parchment out from underneath the bottle’s ribbon. He smoothed it out.
“This man shot his employer. In a fit of pique. Quite a character… he wore a pig mask whilst he did it. I think he was making some kind of point.”
He reached for a second bottle. He twisted the lids off and mixed them together.
“Combined with this morning’s unreliable client. These vessels collide… ”
Pete strained to see. He nudged a shelf. A small glass vial rolled and tinkled onto the floor. The man standing at the desk spun round. Red stood up.
“Where is our Engineer?”
Pete braced himself. He rushed into the suited man. He bowled him over. The man’s face cracked off a pillar; he slumped to the floor. Red paced from behind the desk. He loomed over Pete. His coal eyes sparkled. He swung a fist.
Pete careered into the pillar. It cracked. It toppled. The bowl overturned, soaking him. He slipped and scrabbled in pools of water. Wires sparked and fizzled. Red lunged at him.
Pete rolled. He twisted. He reached for a broken slab of pillar. Red slipped. Red’s arms whirled. He backpedaled in a manic, flailing dance. Pete swung the slab at his face. He heard bones crack.
Red collapsed. He spluttered and coughed teeth. He crawled forward. His head slumped.
Pete’s mind whirred. The old man. The old man he saw when he was leaving. They were doing the same thing to him. He grabbed the bottles at the desk. He turned to go. Something niggled at him. Some possibility. Some oversight. He could hear Red stirring. His leg was twitching.
He recalled movements and placements. He rummaged shelves. He tore at ribbons and parchment.
His name on a slip. His own bottle. He grabbed it. He grabbed others. He stuffed his bag. Work the odds. Balance it. Maybe you can play them at their own game.
Rushing back to the doorway, Pete retrieved the small vial he’d knocked from the shelf above. He ran over to Red, water bottles joshing in his backpack. He kneeled. Angling the vial, he scooped up a sliver of Red’s blood from the slab of pillar. Play them at their own game.
He cast around. It was a horror scene. Red was spluttering and elbow-crawling towards the desk. Clumps leaked from a gash in the suited man’s head. Pete made for the doorway. He ran down the corridor. He ran into the street and past the Engineer. He ran until he got to Clerk Street. A warning. There might be a way to warn the old man.
TSB Bank. He found a bench across the road. He huddled up and waited for the sun to rise.
The security guards dumped Pete at bottom of the bank’s steps. They lobbed his bottles of water after him. He scrambled after them as they rolled around. He suddenly felt totally insane. He stopped and pulled himself up.
He heard the gunshots. They made it real again. His hands vibrated. He chewed his lip. His eyes welled up. He walked away. He walked away as slowly as he could.
He returned to the street as night fell. He sat beside the same wheely-bin and watched the antique sign. A sharp breeze sent leaves eddying. His head slipped. No food or sleep in two days. He thought of Kate. He thought of everything good that had ever happened to him. He tried to parcel out these thoughts. Spread them. Make them sustaining.
If I make it through, he thought, I’ll live in the present. I’ll enjoy moments. I won’t wonder what’s around the corner. There’s too much weight in that.
The sign creaked. He toyed with his own bottle of water. His own ‘session’. He removed the ribbon. He discarded the slip of parchment. He put the bottle to one side. The wind stung his cheeks. He lifted a second bottle. A purple ribbon. The parchment: a name and date.
- Serendipity. Of all the bottles he could have taken.
Aquatic Therapy. Est. 1894. The Engineer.
Cut them off. Cut them off at the source.
Pete shivered and sighed. This might be bullshit. This might never work.
He bit his finger. His eyes watered. He bit until he drew blood. He held each bottle under his finger and squeezed a droplet into both. He looked down the street and back at the swinging sign. He checked the little vial in his pocket. His head pushed those closest needs:
I want to go home. I want to see Kate.
He downed the two bottles. Water snaked down his chin. He combined the two vessels: his own; random purple ribbon, 1894. It might never work. It might be bullshit. His eyes clouded. He felt dizzy. He felt weightless.
Pete was face down in the gutter. It stank.
He heaved himself up. The street felt too close. The air was muggy. The buildings seemed to sag overhead. Gothic windows. Chimney pots. Street lamps. Rubbish littered the pavements. A cat hissed on a broken wooden cart.
The sign was gone. The door opposite hung open. A man sat outside. He wore a coarse flannel suit and a ragged neckerchief. His boots were worn through. Pete walked over. The man looked up with coal-black eyes.
They stared at each other for a long time. The man spat and gurned. Pete swallowed. He eased past and through the doorway.
The corridor was dark. It smelled rancid. He fumbled for the walls. He veered into a living room. A dirty man in patched-up rags sat in a rocking chair. His eyes were dark stones. He drooled and laughed. Pete backed out. He groped the walls. He could hear shuffling upstairs. He felt a door. It creaked as he opened it.
A long stairway. Pitch black. He descended. His hands trailed damp stone.
A rat scurried across the chamber floor. Slow drip noises filled the air.
Pete coughed and wiped his mouth. Red grinned. Blood seeped from his teeth.
Black traces spidered across the mirror. Red’s neck swivelled. The drips by his arm bubbled. He spat bloody mucus.
“Vessels are bound. Divination. Manipulation. The right to see and to mould.”
The traces hardened within the mirror. A crooked stick-man formed. Black scrawls lanced across the image. Angular strokes whipped the mirror. The corridor behind them filled with screams.
Red looked back at Pete. His eyes were sunken pebbles.
“Still in its early form, granted.”
Pete shrugged his backpack off. He removed six bottles of water and lined them up on the floor. Red smiled.
“What’s this? A business competitor?”
Six bottles. Six ribbons. Six vessels. Six men – check the parchment slips – six dead men. Pete unscrewed the bottle caps. He removed the tiny vial from his pocket. Red’s blood. Taken from the Hydrotherapy session room. Play them at their own game.
“An amateur craftsman,” Red croaked. His eyes shifted and he moved in his chair. The IV drips strained.
Pete cracked the vial and portioned its contents amongst the six bottles.
“A top-up for you,” he said.
Red’s lips curled. He made to rise. Drips snagged. Drips snapped and leaked. Pete swung up.
He jammed a bottle into Red’s mouth. He wedged. He forced it in. The plastic base stuck between Red’s lips. Water sprayed from the edges of his mouth. Pete jammed a second bottle over his left eye. Water hissed on contact. Smoke sifted. The black eyeball bubbled. It popped. It leaked down Red’s face. Pete pulled the bottle from his mouth. Red gasped and hurled. Pete wedged another bottle in.
The chamber flickered. The mirror flickered. Black lines skewered rapidly over it. Pete caught shapes around them in the claps of light. Men in ragged clothes. Men with black eyes. They gathered. They pressed close. They flared in and out of existence.
Pete force-fed Red the final bottle. He gurgled and hacked. His empty sockets spurted black oil. He vanished. Pete floundered over the empty chair. He gripped the seat and balanced himself. He looked round.
Red’s lanky image was encased in the mirror. His hands were folded across his chest. Jagged black scrawls marked his eyes.
Pete found the keys. He opened the cell doors. He cut the men down. It was all he could do. All he had left. He heard them lurching up the stairs as he departed, slipping and clawing at corridor walls.
His head pounded. His hands were slick with black goo, blood and water. Snow dusted the street. It seemed like ash. It seemed like falling death. He dropped down beside the wooden cart. He shivered.
I don’t know how to get home.
Frames cut across his vision. Bottles. Black oil. Mirrors. Spidering scrawls.
The singular nature of your experience is a vital and enlightening one.
He pawed at the fresh snow. He wept.
These vessels are now bound.
About the Author
Stephen Thom is a musician from Carrbridge in the Highlands of Scotland. He enjoys reading and writing fiction with interpretive elements. His pieces have appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Holdfast Magazine, Bracken Magazine, Occulum Magazine, Fur-Lined Ghettos, The Grind, High Flight, Don’t Do It, Words Paint Pictures, Thought Collection and Puffin Review amongst others.