05 April 2009

In The Dark by Colin Meier

Rogan woke up to loud knocking on the door, and, despite a strong urge to roll over and go back to sleep, he forced himself out of bed.

Only one person knocked like that. Only one person in his life knew him well enough to know that regular knocking would go unheeded – it needed to be loud, and it needed to be irregular. Knock. Knock-knock-knock. Knock. Knock, knock.

He walked through the small apartment – it took him about five seconds – and opened the door.

And sure enough, Mike was there.

“Hey,” Rogan said. “It’s one-thirty in the afternoon. What the fuck are you doing waking me up? You want a beer?”

He turned and went into the kitchenette.

“When did you start buying that?” Mike asked, looking at the beers Rogan pulled out. Mike handed him a lit cigarette in exchange for the beer.

“I’m unemployed, as you might remember,” said Rogan. “And broke.”

“I thought being broke was precisely the job you needed to be a good actor.”

“It looks a lot more romantic in the movies,” Rogan said. “Where the unemployed actors are played by working actors.”

He moved into the living room and slumped down into the armchair.

“You should have become a cop, I keep saying,” Mike said. He sat down on the low table that served as the other chair, and swallowed a third of the beer. “I should know. Undercover work is all about acting. Wow, this beer is really bad.”

“Yeah, did you have a reason for coming around? Or are you just here for the bad beer?”

“Do I need a reason?” Mike took another swallow of the beer. “You’re my best friend.”

“Yeah, okay, drink your cheap beer. Tell me what’s up when you’re ready.”

Mike shifted a bit. He clenched his hands into fists and then gradually opened them, and then repeated the action. Then he seemed to realize he was doing it, and took another cigarette out of the box.

When he lit it the cigarette, the flame from the lighter trembled.

“I’m here because last night I saw someone called Screwdriver shoot a high school football player.” He looked up at Rogan. “Dude, you can’t tell anyone about this.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Rogan, thinking Jesus, but not saying it. He kept it light. “Who’m I gonna tell, anyway? All of those fans you had to fight your way through getting to the door?”

“No, Rogan, I’m serious,” said Mike. “These people think guns are, uh, point-and-click solutions.” He looked down at the top of his beer. “And I watched them solving this...human resources problem...last night.”

“I can see why you’re a little edgy today.” I would be too.

“By the river,” said Mike. “Near the Wheaton Street Bridge. There’s a cave.”

“I didn’t know we had any around here,” said Rogan.

Mike waved the beer bottle around at Rogan’s living room. “The people I’m working for decided that their houses and abandoned buildings and cheap apartments and such were not very secure.”

“We’re talking about drugs, I assume.”

Mike nodded. “They’ve set up two labs in there. A marijuana farm with sunlamps and irrigation. And a rolling meth lab.”

“Rolling?”

Mike nodded. “It means you’re working with the finished product in the same room as the starter chemicals. You know, there’s a reason these labs explode. Putting everything in the same room is basically a way to guarantee that.”

Rogan snorted. “I hope they don’t do quality control on the weed next to the meth lab.”

“Well, it’s not like they have safety regulations, and hard hats, and stuff. And these guys – well, the guy I know, a guy calls himself Screwdriver...I mean, that tells you all you need to know, fucking Screwdriver – this guy has broken the first rule of drug manufacture.”

“Which is?”

“He’s using his product. Not a rare problem amongst manufacturers, but when you’re making meth in a rolling lab...”

“Shit. So what’s your cover?”

“Security. What else? I’m on the night shift, with Screwdriver, his girlfriend, and his cousin.”

“Can he tell the difference?”

That got him a grin, at least. “He’s not trash – or at least, he didn’t start out that way. But he’s been inside a few times, and I think prison broke his already light grasp on reality. The dangerous part is, meth lets him think he still has that grip. And this is a guy with a gun.”

“So who did he shoot?”

“He shot one of our mules who’d come to pick up a batch for delivery. A high school student in a letter jacket. Quarterback. Kid told him he shouldn’t be using his own stuff when he was working. Smiled about it. Screwdriver shot him in his smiling mouth.”

Fuck. Mike, these people...one day you’ll say the wrong thing.

“When are you arresting him?”

“We aren’t. We need to know who Screwdriver is working for,” said Mike. “According to the Captain. But – I’ll be honest — after seeing that kid get taken out like that, I’m tired of the whole thing. I mean, here we got fucking Screwdriver cold on murder two, at least. But the Captain’s not interested. Says it’ll be good to force a plea bargain down the line sometime, but they want Screwdriver’s boss, and his boss’s boss.”

There was a long pause. Rogan kept quiet, watching dark emotions flicker across his friend’s face.

Mike continued, “And in the end, no-one ever gets arrested except the guys at the top. They’ve got this whole thing backwards.” He hit himself in the head with the heel of his hand. “The guys killing high school kids are at the bottom. Got another crappy beer?”

“Yeah,” said Rogan. He got up and went to kitchenette and fetched two more.

Mike took a small sip. “I can feel this beer,” he said. “Here I am talking about guys using their own stuff, and I’m planning on walking into a meth lab drunk.”

“Are you, though?” asked Rogan. He could tell Mike was coming to some sort of conclusion in a typically Mikey way – laying out all the justifications ahead of time.

“There’s something I haven’t told you yet. I mean, yeah, I’m tired of the way we’ve been doing these ops. I’m sick of the political bullshit. I mean, I got this kid’s brains on my best pair of jeans at three am. And my boss says, not yet. Well, I say, brains don’t wash out easy, and I don’t want any more on my clothes.”

Rogan could tell it wasn't the dry-cleaning that Mike was upset about. He tried to picture a teenager being shot in the mouth in front of him, and he couldn't.

“You sound like you've reached a decision about something."

“So...while I was getting rid of the body, and the kid’s car – that’s part of what these guys are paying me for – I remembered that not all that green leafy stuff was grass. There’s a ton of money in there, in the back of the meth lab. At least three hundred K. Maybe four, five. All small, very unmarked bills from the street dealers.”

“Mikey, what are you thinking?”

Mike looked up at Rogan, and then away.

“Undercover guys go missing,” said Mike. “One guy I knew, about four months ago, just never came home. And you know what? No-one looked very hard for him. Everyone kinda assumed he was dead. That’s the thing, see?”

“What?” asked Rogan.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Mike. “You’ve never been stupid.”

“You’re gonna take the money and leave town?” Do I have to say goodbye to you? Is that what this is about?

Mike shook his head. “Would I do that to you? No.” He tilted the beer bottle at Rogan, and then at himself. “We're going to take the money and leave town. You and me.”

“Mike, that’s nuts.”

“Rogan, I’ve been thinking about it. If I see someone else get shot in front of me, I’ll do one of three things. I’ll learn to live with it and become an unfeeling, vicious cop like my father. You think that would be a good thing? For either of us to become like our fathers?”

Rogan remained silent.

“Yeah, exactly. The other thing I might do is I might shoot the guy who did it, which is just another way of doing the third thing, which is committing suicide, because I'll be so tired of waking up screaming every night.”

“So get another job.”

“That's the plan. But if I quit undercover, quit the force, I’m no longer protected by the badge. And there are people who would, quite frankly, take advantage of that. Some grim little tabloid tale of revenge.”

“As long as you stay here, you mean."

“Yeah. And you – you’re never going to get any decent work in this town. So why don’t we go? Just move out. Pick a big city. I can do security or private detective work. There’d be a lot more theatre or film work for you.”

“I’ve thought about that before,” Rogan said. “But it takes years to become established in a new place.”

“That’s what the money is for. If we’re careful with it.”

“So why are you telling me this ahead of time?"

“Because I can’t pull this off on my own.” Mike leaned back and looked out of the window.

Rogan knew already what his answer was going to be. Although it had more to do with the idea of being with Mike, in a new life, in a new town, than it did with any money, or acting work. Hell, he’d deliver pizzas if he had to.


Four hours later, as the sun was setting, Rogan and Mike drove across town, and over the river, to the parking lot of the Riverview hotel. The parking booth attendant gave Mike a friendly nod. Mike returned it with a wave as they drove past him.

“He’s one of ours,” Mike said to Rogan as they found an empty parking space. “Do you know why we park here? The whole crew parks here, because they’re afraid their cars are gonna get jacked during the night.”

He pulled into a space, and shut down the engine. Then he looked over at Rogan. “If you’re gonna have that panicked look on your face, the parking attendant will call ahead to Screwdriver and tell him there’s trouble on the way. We’ll have three meth-heads with guns waiting for us. We can’t do this wrong. We only get the one chance. You have to look cool.”

“Sorry.”

“Relax, my friend. Oh, yeah...” Mike hunched over and pulled out a brown paper packet from under his seat. “Here, this is for you.” He put it on Rogan’s lap.

It was heavy. Rogan knew before he reached into the packet what it was. He pulled it out slowly.

“M9 tactical personal sidearm,” Mike said. "We call it a gun, but I don't want to get all technical on you."

“I don’t want a gun, Mike,” said Rogan, putting it back onto his lap. “I’m not going to shoot anyone.”

“No,” said Mike. “You’re not. But you do want a gun. You need to have it. It’s not much of a holdup if I’m the only one with a gun.”

“You’re worried about how we’ll look?” Rogan rolled his eyes.

“Yeah,” said Mike. “I am. I’ve told you how crazy fucking Screwdriver is. He definitely has a gun. I handed over a pair of jeans into evidence this morning that proves fucking Screwdriver has a gun and is happy to use it. And if he sees me with a gun and you looking scared with your dick in your hand, how do you think he's going to react? He needs to be convinced. Two guns do that better than one.”

He stared at Rogan.

“Okay, Mike, I’ll take the gun.” Rogan picked it up. The pistol was heavy and solid and cold in his hand. “You know,” he said, with a little smile, “It does help, actually. I'm not so scared, anymore.”

“Told you. We’d better get out,” said Mike. “That fucking parking attendant is gonna think we’re giving each other head or something.”

“Wouldn’t want that,” said Rogan. “Oh, no, sir.”

They got out.

“Put the gun in your jacket pocket,” said Mike.

“It’ll be pretty obvious,” said Rogan.

“No, what would be pretty obvious is if you were not carrying a gun. This isn’t a visit to the theatre. These people are dangerous.”

“You obviously haven’t been to any auditions lately,” said Rogan, tucking the gun into the big pocket on the right. He kept his hand on it. It had warmed since he first picked it up. It felt...friendlier.

They walked past the parking attendant, and set out down the street. Mike led Rogan into an alleyway to the side of the rundown hotel.

It was cool, and gusts of wind picked at the trash lying in the alley. Rogan could hear the sound of his boots very loudly, echoing back towards him.

“I smell rain,” said Mike.

“Yeah,” said Rogan. He looked up. Stars and a bright half-moon shone down. “But it’s still clear.” He lit a cigarette. “Maybe by midnight.”

Mike pulled out a torch. “Down there,” he said.

The alley dead-ended onto the riverbed. They clambered over a token metal barrier, and Mike picked out a path with the torch down the steep bank. A few dozen yards upriver, the black hulk of the Wheaton Street bridge loomed into the dark sky, charcoal-on-velvet.

Rogan was looking at the bridge when he walked into Mike.

“Easy!” said Mike. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Okay, the entrance is up ahead on the left, behind those bushes. There are two heavy curtains, like an airlock.”

“Keeps the light in,” Rogan guessed.

“Yeah. I’ll go through both, and then you follow me. We’ll come out in the marijuana chamber – it’s big, but there’s a lot of light, obviously. The meth lab is directly to your right. It’s a lot smaller. I’ll go in first there, too, just to make sure there are no surprises waiting there.”

“Surprises?”

“Make sure that douchy little parking attendant didn’t warn anyone.”

“You said he wouldn’t.”

“I’ll make sure,” said Mike.

“Yeah, okay, ” said Rogan.

“Okay, we’re going.” Mike turned toward the entrance, and drew his own gun from underneath his T-shirt. He then turned back. “Hey, listen, bro. Whatever happens–”

“Oh, Jesus, let’s keep the maudlin bullshit for my acting career." Rogan gave Mike a tight little grin. "Let’s just do this.”

Mike nodded, once.

Rogan flicked the cigarette onto the ground, and followed Mike until they got to the entrance, which was flanked with dark thorny bushes. Then Mike patted Rogan twice on the leg, and disappeared into the black hole in the steep bank.

A lifetime passed in the next thirty seconds. Then Mike was back. “Okay. It’s clear. The main lights are off in the growing chamber – they must have changed the cycle. Doesn’t matter. It’ll be dark, but you can still see. There’s enough light from the meth lab. We go straight into the growing chamber. Then stop. I’ll go ahead and peek into the meth lab, and then come back. Don’t say anything.” He looked at Rogan for a moment. Then he gestured. “Let’s see your gun.”

Rogan pulled the M9 from his pocket. It came willingly.

Mike handed his gun to Rogan, took the M9 from him, flipped the safety off and pulled the slide back to chamber a round. It was all very mechanical, precise, quiet. He handed it back to Rogan and took his own gun back.

“Ready?” ask Mike.

“Yeah. This feels like stage fright. It’s exciting.”

“Act tough.”


As they passed the second heavy felt curtain, Rogan could smell fertilizer — bat droppings — and old, ancient rock. The floor was smooth and level underfoot. Something about that bothered him.

They crossed into the growing chamber. Rogan couldn’t see much, but he could feel the space around him. It was like a cathedral.

A temple.

The floor was still level, and that was still bugging him.

Concentrate!

Mike tapped his leg twice, and he stopped.

Waited.

The entrance to the meth lab was to the right, and hard white light bounced off the rocks beyond. The entrance was ragged, but it still seemed too regular to be natural. It looked hacked.

Mike moved up to the entrance. The passage turned left slightly, and he disappeared from sight as he moved forward.

The whole place,thought Rogan,is like a...cheap movie set. We couldn’t do a real cave, so we put up these cave-like walls. It’ll work fine as long as the camera doesn’t see the floor.

Or maybe the cave was here first, and then the floor got made. How...old...is this place?

He could hear the leaves of the growing plants rustle.

Air-conditioning. Or at least some sort of air-exchange system.

So why can’t I feel —?

“Fuck!” Mike. “Rogan! In here!”

Rogan ran for the meth lab.


The meth lab was a study in gray rock, white powder, chrome-finished machinery, and wet, red blood.

Three things lay writhing on the floor, amongst overturned barrels. They looked roughly human, but there was something missing. Something that normally wouldn't let Rogan see all the anatomical details – red-flecked white tendons, fibered muscle...insane, staring eyeballs in hollow sockets...

Oh, yeah. Their skin.

“Where’s their skin?” he asked Mike. Did I just say that?

"Over there," said Mike. Flaps and shreds of skin lay littered over the far corner of the lab, as though something had gotten really frustrated in the middle of a craft project.

“Fuck,” said Mike. “Fuck. Fuck. Oh, Jesus, what’s that?”

Something else was happening to the bodies.

Dark blobs detached themselves from the shadows and flowed towards each body, forming a spiderweb centered around each body.

Shadows everywhere. Where are they coming from?

Blood flowed from the corpses along those dark webs into the thick shadows beyond the lights.

Rogan could smell vinegar.

Mike vomited, and passed out.

Rogan thought It's only special effects, reached down, and grabbed Mike by the collar and dragged him backward.

Someone was going “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck...”

Oh, that’s me, thought Rogan. Damn, Mike, you're heavy. All those hours in the gym are actually counting against you here, bro.

He got them back into the growing chamber, and was wondering how to wake Mike up when his stomach decided those were not special effects. He puked onto Mike's face, which brought him around.

“This was a bad fucking idea,” Mike whispered. He was crying. “I’m sorry.”

They weren't alone. Rogan could feel it. All around him, like oil. It touched him, intimately.

Then the pressure increased as it tensed.

Mike disappeared with a single yelp. Upwards. Into darkness. Rogan was thrown off his feet onto his back.

A sudden short rain of thick, warm drops covered Rogan. He could taste blood on his tongue and smell it in his nose.

“Mike!”

Screw this.

Rogan raised the M9 to his head and moved the barrel into his mouth, angled upwards.

He thought about everything he’d just seen.

He pulled the trigger.

The gun didn’t fire.

And then the dark closed on his wrist, and pulled the gun away. He let go of the gun and it whipped away through the mass of plants in front of him to clatter loudly against the rock walls. Traitor bitch gun.

Apart from meat, and blood, he could only smell chemicals.

Gas?

Lying on his back, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter.

Flicked it once. No flame – no spark, even.

Flicked it a second time.

It was a bit damp. With blood, probably.

Then the dark took the lighter like it had taken the gun.

He could see the lighter, hovering a few feet from his nose. The wheel turned a little, as if by accident.

Well, if the dark wanted to play with his lighter in a gas-filled meth lab...


He rolled to his left and got to his feet and ran to the first curtain before something huge pulled him and all the air back

— and then, in a sudden growing white light, pushed him forward

— through the curtains into the night.


He landed face-down. Yellow tongues of flame flickered above him, scalding the jacket.

How did everything go wrong so quickly?

There was a lot of pain.

He could hear a growing roar as the plants inside the first chamber crackled.

A dull thump and vibration as something chemical further inside detonated.

He managed to get to his knees.

It’s dead, at least. Whatever it was.

Next to him, in the flickering, fitful glare, his shadow turned and looked at him and giggled.

Or not.

Whatever it was, it was free.

The dark wrapped unseen, fingerless, hands over his mouth and nose; it wound itself around his body and pressed close to him.

And then, slowly enough so that he had time enough to feel that it wanted him to appreciate the attention, it took off his clothes, and then his skin, and threw the rest of him to the ground.

He looked up. Under the bright moon, he watched through unblinking eyeballs as the night stitched together the kites and darts it had made of his flesh. As it reassembled them into a...suit. And then watched the dark climb into the Rogan-suit it had made.

His own skin turned and looked at him. It was the face he saw in the mirror every day, except for the eyes. They were pitch-black, wells of emptiness.

And then the night leapt back to him, thirsty, and hungry.

Mike.



In The Dark was written by Colin Meier.


Copyright Colin Meier 2009.



I'm a writer living in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. I am currently writing my first novel, and I am keeping a journal of that journey here so that, at least, others may learn from my mistakes.

Apart from writing and reading, I also write music. I have scored a short film and written backing music for a live stage production, and rehearsal tracks for a band. I also enjoy photography, painting and creating digital artworks - although I'm not ready to inflict any of those on the world, yet...




8 comments:

Ivor W. Hartmann said...

Colin Meier welcomes StoryTime to his World! and a what lovely blood curdling start.

In The Dark is a furious descent into the black depths of tweakerville. A world of hard core methamphetamine users, those who keep them high, and those who use the keepers to catch bigger fish. And just when it all seems to be spiralling into a tense Cormac Mcarthy type showdown, things start getting really strange.

In all In The Dark is a fantastic story and most promising debut, in what I feel certain will be an awesome literary career.

Masimba Musodza said...

First part got me wondering, Why the hell is Mike sharing stuff about an undercover operation? I like the way Colin then shows how the two men are connected by history and circumstances, and that answers all the questions. I like how in the end it's not really a gangster tale a la Pulp Fiction, but grits down to the issue of drugs. Fantastic!!!

Colin said...

Thanks for the nice comments, Ivor & Masimba. The story is not without its flaws (particularly in the third act), but overall I'm happy with it - it was an experiment (genre-shift + using futility as a theme), and I think it works as well as an experiment can.

If anyone wants to point out flaws or stylistic or structural defects, please feel free. As my first "official" short story, I'm treating everything as a learning experience.

Chris said...

Loved it!!

So, who's Mike based on? ;-)

AndreA said...

Burp

Colin said...

Andrea - LOL.

Chris - thanks, and : no-one. You're welcome to argue the point...unless you see yourself in Mike? Which would be fairly revealing :)

Colin said...

I've reworked this several times, but what's up here now is the final version. Yes, there are still changes I could make (particularly some awkward sentences), but at some point I have to let go...

Colin said...

Andrea - LOL.

Chris - thanks, and : no-one. You're welcome to argue the point...unless you see yourself in Mike? Which would be fairly revealing :)

 
StoryTime: Weekly Fiction by African Writers.
All works published in StoryTime are
Copyrighted ©.
All rights reserved.