Monday, October 10, 2011

FICTION: Deviants by Gerard Lough

Extortion or assault was the reason that sprang to Frank’s mind as he wondered why the man had asked to meet in this desolate place. He waited in a makeshift car park that overlooked a beach in the early hours of a winter’s morning. When he first saw the location of this clandestine meeting it made perfect sense as nobody else in their right mind would want to be in that place at that time. Even the fish of the frozen Irish Sea were anywhere but here he though as he looked out over the waves that seemed to slowly turn from black to blue as the sun started to rise in earnest. Frank was half an hour early but already on the lookout while he prepared for what could happen next. In his left jacket pocket he hid a tape recorder, in his right a hunting knife he had sharpened the night before. He knew almost as much about the man as he did about him, which is to say his name (Gareth) and where he lived. The problem was he now had to assume that Gareth knew much more. Assume that he knew why he had broken into his house but didn’t steal anything. Assume that he knew that for the past two years Frank was what could be crudely described as a serial prowler. And now it was all over.

Frank grew ever more nervous as his vivid imagination conjured up various violent scenarios that may await him. He kept a loose gip on the handle of the knife as he tried to think as this Gareth did to predict the most likely outcome of their meeting. He had to be planning something, if not he would have gone straight to the Police and Frank would now be explaining his unique nightly routine in a interrogation room. He concluded that Gareth wasn’t the vengeful type, that he had a scheme in mind that Frank was to be part of. Nevertheless, the knife was coming with him.

As the remaining minutes dripped by, stretched thin by anticipation laced with dread, he though back to how he had come to find himself in this uncomfortable position. What was the fork in the road that had lead him down this path and would his life be the better for it if had made a different choice? He thought back to where it had all started for him, the inception of his nocturnal habit; a silly prank on a tricky customer. Frank’s day job was a painter and decorator, a task that suited his particular personality traits. It required some level of creativity and problem solving ingenuity but it didn’t require him to work alongside anyone else. He could graft alone in perfect isolation with nothing but his MP3 for company and would stop only to observe how the house he was working on would differ from the last. As he coloured in the walls of a kitchen he would imagine what kind of people lived there and how they functioned as a family or as individuals. As usual he was left to his own devices with human contact being limited to a handshake if that. This was Frank’s lonely routine, one that didn’t make room for real friends, a partner, a soul mate or siblings that he was still on speaking terms with. He would convince himself on a day off that he was content enough and should be grateful for what he had. As his Mother always told him, ‘There’s how it should be… and then there’s how it is.’ It was her way of encapsulating her cynical worldview, one where idealism was trumped by reality every time, where people were hopelessly flawed and life would never be perfect – even just for one day, as the Lou Reed song lied. Best you could do was keep your head down as ‘the dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity’ was her other mantra. Frank respected his Mother so therefore didn’t question her views when she was alive but the doubt had crept in as soon as she was gone.

A nagging doubt that seemed to say that she might not be right about everything, a doubt enforced by a cruel Will that left everything to his two siblings even though he was the one who stayed behind to be her live-in carer while the others left to pursue their careers in music and advertising. He had also started to suspect that their lives really were so much fuller and colourful than his and that his Mother’s constant disapproval and criticism of them was just another lie she perpetrated constantly to keep him close. So after she died he dared to think that the whole ‘There’s how it should be…’ line might be just as false and contradictory as the love she used to keep him right where she wanted him. He started to think along the lines that there was something more to life than his routine, something he could do at the weekend that would fill him with anticipation on a Monday to want to do it all over again. His prayer was about to be answered.

Money is a strange obsession for some. Especially those who always try to hoodwink everyone they meet while at the same time being paranoid about being done themselves. The kind of person who complains about lumpy pillows at check out in a Hotel and will him and haw about it until they talk their way to the ultimate prize – a ten percent discount. Early in 2006, Frank met such a tricky customer when he landed a contract to do the decorating on a brand new estate of homes. Despite speculation that there was not any real demand for new homes in this location, Frank like everyone else, followed the money and figured it would be somebody else’s problem if they couldn’t find asses to fill the units. A local developer who didn’t appreciate the slow pace that Frank’s meticulous working habits required, So he let him go, withheld his full pay and replaced him with those who were willing to sling the paint in a speedier fashion and turn a blind eye to a couple of spills along the way. He should have known but Frank felt particularly hard done by that year in the aftermath of his Mother’s passing.

You can’t settle anything with the dead but there is plenty you can do against the living he decided as he hatched a plan that was original but simple. Such was the sloppiness of the operation; he still had a master key that the prick of a developer had forgotten to ask him to return. He secretly used the master before one night when he wanted to be alone after putting a brave face on at his Mother’s wake and suffered through one hundred overly firm handshakes from relative strangers with unrelenting eye contact. But nobody could invade his private space as he sat in an empty house with neither furniture nor fixtures in a newborn neighbourhood that was yet be polluted by noisy families. It was so quiet and comfortably isolating that he might as well have propped up a seat at the centre of the Arctic Circle. However there was now one house that was occupied – by the developer. And Frank could come and go at any hour of the night and do something that he might never know about or never forget depending on the severity of his retribution. At 4 A.M. he entered the backyard after watching the house from a hundred feet away with a night vision scope. With him he brought the tools that would make up a list he would never leave home without as he became a more experienced night prowler. He used a torch when outside so as not to trip over anything but when inside he used a glow stick as you could use it for that extra bit of light when needed but not so bright as to attract attention from a passer by. His hands were covered by surgical gloves that filled up with sweat upon entry and his feet were wrapped up with three pairs of sock rendering his footsteps silent. The kitchen was the first room he entered by the back door. In the middle of the room there stood an expensive pool table. Upon it were the scattered balls that suggested a game that was abandoned in mid play. This stopped Frank in his tracks as it gave him an idea.

Truth is he didn’t really know what he was going to do that first night after he gained entry but now the prank was taking shape in the form of a mind game that would subtly unnerve his victim and plant a frightening idea in his mind that he would be aware of but could not prove to anyone else. Frank rearranged the pool balls back into the formation of a new game then moved to the fridge, removed a large carton of milk and emptied almost all of it down a sink. In the sitting room, he followed the same idea by rearranging books, turning a paper weight upside down and hiding the remote control. No matter how bad his attention to detail, he knew the developer would have to notice that something seemed out of place when he awoke the next day but with no physical evidence of a break-in he would be equally afraid to tell anyone encase they labelled him paranoid or worse. Frank sat down for a moment and flicked through a photo album while trying to think of one last stunt to pull. He would love to have left a more visible sign of his passing like a handprint on a wall but it ran the risk of identifying him and anyway it would spoil the fun. Before leaving, Frank photographed each of the downstairs rooms as a memento of his time there. He would be tempting fate to return a second time and if the developed had any sense he would have changed the locks by then. As he captured the images in a long exposure (so as not to set off a flash) he felt an excitement he never experienced before, the kind of thrill his over bearing Mother warned him about in her own petty way. What started out as a prank had turned into something much more profound. He knew what he had done was illegal but since he didn’t steal anything or had not hurt anyone – what was the harm? He didn’t think of what he had done as breaking and entry but as kind of an art. An artfrom so different it didn’t even have a name yet. As he made his way back to the kitchen he imagined future headlines about himself if he was discovered.

Off course a tabloid would just use words like ‘Freak’ and ‘Weirdo’ but a classy paper, a broadsheet might favourably describe him as a ‘social deviant with an artistic bent’. He muttered this to himself because he knew then that this was just too much fun to be a one off. Now anyone on this street could be fair game in the months to come… providing they were not insomniacs. Before leaving, Frank noticed a space where a dryer should be. He kneeled down to discover a hole in the wall for ventilation now covered up in strips of duck tape. Frank ripped the tape to shreds with a knife and then carved three deep cuts into the floor so as to make it look like a claw mark. Even someone with the dullest imagination would surely latch onto the idea upon seeing this that a small creature had made its way through the hole. Whether it was a rat or a gremlin would depend on just how superstitious Frank’s first victim was.

There was no turning back after that night. From then on his suburban excursions escalated from once a month to once a week. His modus operandi would begin with him making a copy of the spare key given to him by the owner of whatever house he was working on. He would simply have a copy cut for himself during his lunch break at a different locksmith each time so as to avoid any suspicion. Poor exits and dogs were the only no-go areas when it came to choosing a house. Security alarms weren’t a problem because most of the time he was handed the pass code to that too by a careless customer who wouldn’t think to change it after the job was done. In time his confidence grew and his skills developed to the point where he would venture upstairs as well. Some nights he would sit on the middle step of a stairway and listen to the occupants snore or talk in their sleep. It not only made him feel at peace but was a constant source of amusement. Off course there were some close calls like the time he went into a house that had been left empty for so long that squatters had now moved in. He entered the sitting room to find at least four of them asleep on the floor in a heap of their own rubbish. Unfortunately for Frank, one of them cracked an eye open and for a brief moment they just stared at each other in silence before it was broken by a scream to alert the others. Numb with fear, Frank’s only idea was to shine his flashlight in all their faces and shout out ‘Stop! You’re all under arrest!’ Inexplicably it worked and when the squatters all disappeared head first out an open window like rats leaving a burning zeppelin, Frank turned and ran in the opposite direction and didn’t stop until he got to his car parked a mile away. But the worst one was in May 2009, the one he should have known to pass on. The lady who stayed in the house was a neurotic who lived on her own and had complained to him many times what a light sleeper she was. But what she also did was criticize his edging – unfairly as Frank saw it – and it was this that motivated him to pay her a visit when he should have heeded the warning signs instead such the central heating on full blast despite it being in the middle of clammy summer night. After tying her dream catcher in a knot and rearranging her record collection from chronological to alphabetical order, he made his way out. But the incessant heat of the house caused him to itch with sweat so he rubbed his face with his hands. But what he realized too late was that he had rubbed the black grease paint off his face (which he used for camouflage) and left a trail of black handprints behind him from one end of the house to the other. As panic kicked it he broke one his own rules by switching on the flashlight and using it to search for marks. When he would find one he would wipe them off with the tail end of his coat but it still left behind an unsightly smear that would be hard to explain in the cold light of day. He painstakingly retraced his steps until he finally ended up at the origin of his mishap. As he rubbed furiously at the last handprint, a large set of keys fell out of his pocket and made a slight crash as they landed on the wooded floor. Another of his rules had just been broken and he froze to see if the sound had alerted the woman to his presence. He would wait absolutely still for five whole minutes to make sure but his answer came much sooner than that as he heard the woman dash out of the room and switch on every light she passed on her way down. He ran under the stairs and hid there. Despite the lights switched on, Frank was still hidden in shadows under the stairs with only the whites of his eyes visible. He watched the woman from behind who moved from room to room holding what looked like a small samurai sword – the kind meant for hanging over a posh mantle piece rather than hand to hand combat. Nevertheless it looked sharp enough from where Frank was standing and his heart raced at the though of it piercing his flesh as he made a run for it and spilling his DNA all over the hallway. The woman was now no more that two feet away with her back turned to Frank. He held his breath as to not make any detectable sound and prepared to charge at her if she spotted him. He studied the back of her head the way a sniper would look a target as it moved into the scopes’ crosshairs. She stood dead still and listened in an uncanny replay of what Frank had done earlier. She listened for a sound for what seemed likes ages to Frank but to his relief her shoulders slumped and she sighed as she concluded that there was nobody in the house but her. She moved away but stopped within a few steps when something else caught her attention. On the wall was the slightest trace of a black smear that Frank had left behind. His eyes widened when he saw her discover this and he prayed she would go away within the next 20 seconds as he would have ran out of breath by then.

The woman touched the stain and rubbed the substance between her fingers as she tried to figure out what it was. Whether she recognized it or not is unknown but she did deduct that someone was in her house and the most likely hiding place was right behind her. As she slowly turned around, Frank exhaled as they made direct eye contact with each other. It was all over, he though, the simplest error about to be the cause of his downfall. They looked at each other for a few seconds, her mouth wide open, him ready to charge at her to get the sword out of her hand. But typically unpredictable, the strange woman simply turned around and slowly walked back up the stairs, turned off the lights and went back to bed. Struggling to make sense of it all, Frank didn’t move a muscle even though he should have taken flight by now. For reasons he will never understand he did the same by calmly walking back out where he came in. He did however break into a full sprint when he got outside and hid in a nearby forest for another hour where he kept watch on the house to see if the police would arrive but of course they didn’t. He replayed the events of that night over and over in his head the next day to try and decipher the odd encounter he had. Did she think he was a ghost? A drug induced hallucination? Whatever the explanation, he once again had got away scot free and no one knocked on his door asking question about his whereabouts the night before. But what did happen after that night was that he became an urban myth. A rumour had started somehow about a guy dressed in black that would enter your home when you were asleep and leave behind a sign of his passing. Each time the story was told it had an extra embellishment added on. It got to the point where it became a local joke that if you couldn’t find your keys in the morning, chances are the night prowler had just paid you a visit and was letting you know in his own twisted way.

It was just a matter of time before even Frank heard this urban myth told back to him with uncomfortable accuracy by the guys at the paint suppliers. There was even talk that a local film-maker was going to use it as the basis for a Horror movie. Things came to a head in early 2010 when a guy was actually arrested coming out of a house dressed in the same get up as Frank and carrying some of the same items he would use. One item he was carrying that let him down though was a Blue Ray player. He was nothing as grand or original as he was, Frank though to himself, he was just a common thief. Still, a copy cat could have its uses he nodded to himself as he quietly listened to what would be the last of these rumours for now.

After a brief cooling off period, Frank went back to his sinister side project with gusto. At the start he tried to be extra careful, even making a new rule about skipping a house with the heating switched on but when he got back into the swing of things he faced a new problem – boredom. It just wasn’t as exciting as it used to be so he gradually started taking greater risks. One night he masturbated in the living room while watching a porno movie on TV with the sound turned off, another time he actually entered the bedroom of a couple and photographed them while they slept. The truth was he needed a new challenge and yearned for the thrill of almost being caught like the time he was discovered under the stairs. It was this behaviour that led to the mess he was now in. He acknowledged that by thumping the steering wheel of his car while he waited for Gareth with growing impatience. It was a night like any other when he got into his house. He sat in his kitchen and read a magazine while eating a leg of chicken. For the first time ever he fell asleep on the job and awoke two hours later to see the sun coming up and hear someone upstairs running a bath.

Embarrassed by his lack of professionalism and still half asleep, he made a silent, speedy exit but forgot to take his torch with him. He realised his mistake when he woke up the next day and went to work downloading the new photographs. Beside the computer sat the empty box of the torch. Upon seeing this he went mad by trashing his office and then flying into a panic by deleting all the hundreds of photos he had taken over the years of all the houses he’d visited. It killed him to do it but this and any other mementos he had gathered had to be destroyed immediately. The problem was that the torch he left behind was the one he used for his day job. The battery went dead on the one he used for his night shift and he hadn’t bothered to replace it. Cello taped to the side of the torch that could soon become wrapped in a bag marked ‘evidence’ was his business card that displayed his name, landline phone number and e mail. He had little choice but to stay and face the music and use the cover story that he had been recently broken into and had had some of his tools stolen. He even smashed in the window of his back door and then went straight to work repairing it. But the police never came. For two weeks he heard nothing until an anonymous e mail arrived from someone who could only be the guy whose house he visited. It just told him to meet at the beach which he now looked out over. As the meeting time approached, Frank wondered what his Mother would say and whether a 39 year old man should really worry all that much anyway. Would she have chastised him for wanting to do something different and agree with whatever punishment society would decree for his deviation? But more than likely she would have just uttered her usual spiel of ‘There’s how it should be…’ Whether he agreed with that sentiment anymore, he simply didn’t know. But what he now wanted to believe was that he wasn’t cut out of the Will in an act of spite, instead his Mother was saying in her own way that he didn’t need any help as he was always the strongest of the three children. The other two losers would need the money more than him.

Finally on the horizon he saw the tiny figure of Gareth walking across the beach towards him. Frank hit ‘record’ on the tape recorder and set out on foot to meet him. By the time he had got down there he knew they were alone and recognized Gareth from the family photos he saw on a mantelpiece a fortnight ago. He looked as smug in the flesh as he did in those photographs with designer stubble so ridiculous he looked almost clean shaven except for a hairy throat. He threw a shopping bag over to Frank without warning which he caught and shot a dirty look back at him before checking its contents. Inside was his torch, the object that was the source of all his troubles.

‘What’s this?’ asked Frank, trying to play innocent.

‘Let’s call it an act of good faith’ replied Gareth, grinning back at him like someone who knew he had the upper hand and was more than happy to remind you.

‘When I first heard those tall tales about the serial prowler who’ll raid your fridge and chuck you car keys in the fish tank, I though it was just the same as those stories about Snuff films or the kid finding a razor blade in his apple at Halloween. But then I thought to myself maybe those things do actually exist for a while at the beginning for them to end up becoming an urban myth. Just like you’.

Frank watched his every move while also keeping a lookout for that ambush he imagined just ten minutes ago.

‘Look, I don’t know what you’re getting at. I was broken into recently and...’

‘Come through the backdoor, did they?’ enquired Gareth, his smile getting even wider if anything. ‘You see I considered that possibility too so that’s why I watched your house after I sent the e mail. I knew your reaction would tell me all I needed to know and seeing you fire a nail gun six times through the window in your backdoor told me I’d found the right man for the job. So let’s not stand about here any longer than we need to, right Frankie? The sun will be up soon.’ Frank was now certain he was face to face with a worthy adversary and that the stakes had just gone up but instead of fear he started to feel an excitement like the kind he felt when he almost got caught. But he concealed his true feelings with a forced frown.

‘What bloody job?’

Gareth started pacing back and forth in what looked like either giddiness or paranoia, Frank couldn’t tell for sure as the creep spat out his pitch.

‘You know what a Ghost Estate is, don’t you? Course you do, man in your line of work. Well Frankie boy, when the Celtic Tiger lost its roar and all its fur fell off, it left behind whole neighbourhoods half finished and completely fucking empty. And with no more cheap credit sloshing around and every middle class prick tightening their belt, its left to people like me to clean up the mess left behind. And there are 600 estates in this country just like the one I described. 300,000 brand new homes starting rot out from the inside while falling prey to either vandals or the elements unless we get arses in there fast. So… that’s where your… unusual skillet comes it. The government had decreed in all its wisdom that we are gonna go the direction of social housing. This means we will have to full our units with wasters who under normal circumstances would be denied a mortgage on a shanty shack. Where you come in, is when as soon as we have the house filled, you go straight to work by scaring the fuck out of them. They clear off, forfeit their security deposit and we get they next shit heads on the waiting list and start the process all over again in a month’s time.’

‘What’s in it for me?’ asked Frank, this plan making perfect but horrible sense to him.

‘You get twenty percent of their deposit’.

‘You are gonna pay me to do what I do?’

‘Well I’m not going to pay you to paint, Frank, I’ve seen your work.’ Gareth put his hands up in a ‘just joking’ fashion and finally stood still as he had now said all he wanted.

‘What if I can’t scare them out?’

For the only time during the conversation, Gareth’s smile disappeared and his gaze hardened on Frank so as to give no illusion that he was serious about what he was about to say.

‘Get your dick out and get creative.’

When Frank realized what he said wasn’t a bad joke he felt disgust mixed with a strange kind of comfort that came from now knowing what kind of a man Gareth was and what he could be capable of. However he figured out how to double cross this son of a bitch, at least he wouldn’t feel guilty thinking about how nasty his comeuppance might be.

‘What guarantee do I have you won’t shop me?’

‘You have your guarantee after day 1 of this scam. We’d be in a conspiracy together after that. If I were to tell on you, I’d be blowing the whistle on myself and that’s not gonna happen. So, what’s it gonna be?’

Frank made his way back to the car. The meeting now definitely over. He switched off the tape recorder before giving his answer.

‘I’m in… asshole!’

The smile returned to Gareth’s face as he walked off in the opposite direction and shouted back at him.

‘You start on the 1st of next month, Ill e mail you all the details.’

December 29th. 2010. 3.26 PM.

Frank stood on the hill that overlooked the ghost estate, another place just as cold and unwelcoming as that cursed beach from earlier that day. It looked liked any other suburban sprawl from a distance away but as you got closer it seemed more like a movie set or one of those fake neighbourhoods they would use to test atom bombs on in the desert back in the 50’s. Each house was an empty shell that had never been lived in or felt the touch of anyone who would care to call it a home. They were only inviting to thieves and vandals, or someone just like him. Building houses that there was no real need for was an act of hubris that no good could come from, as least that’s what Frank concluded as he cased the area in broad daylight. He could continue his habit but it would now mean having the baggage of a partner in crime. Before he did what he did for his own pleasure and didn’t hurt anyone but now he would have to become a player in a property scam that could go nationwide. He resigned to the fact that this was the price he would have to pay for his alternative lifestyle; right and wrong had little to do with it anymore. As he looked at the gardens, each of them overgrown and smothered in weeds, he said aloud to himself, ‘There’s how it should be… and then there’s how it is’.


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