©Mad Books Publishing House, Ltd., 2019
The ground collapsed on them violently. Nobody had the chance to let out so much as a scream before an avalanche of clay and soil flooded the tunnels. The sheer force of it was enough to snap the neck of a soldier next to Tommy, and as Tommy tried to yell for help, a crushing stream of mud forced itself down his throat. A rush of adrenaline shocked his entire body, as he thrashed and coughed, digging his hands into the slick and suffocating mass of soil and rocks. He tried to dig his fingers into any part of the tunnel that would still be solid, waving his legs helplessly, until he finally reached something he could stand on. Not even thinking what this round point might have been, Tommy pushed his feet against it and tried to fight his way up. Lack of air made him light-headed, switching on all of the survival instincts. Tommy dug his way up desperately, choking and breaking his fingernails to the meat. Clay and rocks were still pouring down on the tunnel, as Tommy fought with the current. He felt his lungs sting and his hands going limp from lack of oxygen. Clay glued his eyes shut and was now pouring down his nose and mouth, mixing with spit and vomit.
This is how I die, Tommy thought pointlessly, before his mind and body gave up on him.
Slowly slipping into nothingness, he felt a sharp pull and then a numbing pain around his armpits. The cold air hit his face, as he fell limp into what must have been a puddle. Tommy coughed and tore the clay from his face, along with patches of eyebrows and eyelashes. He flailed his legs about, splashing helplessly in the murky trenches water. The ringing in his ears covered all the sounds, so he couldn’t hear the panicked soldiers running around, trying to save the rest of the tunnelers.
“I can’t see,” Tommy gasped, unable to even hear his own voice.
Snot mixed with blood ran down Tommy’s nose, and he felt like his insides were on fire. Someone grabbed him by the arms again and rolled him on his back.
“’ S just clay, ye twat,” the stranger barked, before pouring water on Tommy’s face.
Rough, big hands washed away most of the dirt from his eyes, and Tommy’s temporary blindness leveled off. He was pulled up to stand, though his legs gave way. The same strong hands saved him from falling again.
“Hmm.” The stranger’s growl was the first thing Tommy heard clearly before the world went black again. “No, don’t you die on me, soldier.” Tommy was lifted from the ground as if he weighed nothing. “There still might be some use for you.”
His nights mixed with the days, which to be quite honest made little difference since he was spending both in a regular state of drunken stupor. After trashing his bedroom for the second time this week, Tommy locked himself in his office, laid down on the ground and refused to come out, ignoring his housekeeper’s desperate pleads to let her in. An hour of restless apathy passed until the same intrusive thought of that damned beast of a dog laying beside its dead master crept up on Tommy again. Same as before, he decided to silence his head the only way he knew how.
He had finished the contents of the liquor cabinet on Monday, so he moved on to the desk. After rummaging through its contents in one of the drawers he found a forgotten and very familiar bottle of white rum. Memories came to Tommy before he could stop himself from dwelling on the origin of the bottle. The good stuff.
After what seemed like an hour of hugging the rum bottle as close to his chest as possible, he opened it and took a long swig. Then another. And another. It burned his throat and spread warmth around his stomach, helping him forget. Another large gulp and he laid back down on the floor looking at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, his vision blurry and eyelids heavy. His brain was finally quiet so he let his demons sleep, the bottle still clenched tightly to his side.
It was dark when Tommy woke up. He didn’t really know why he was awake until he rubbed his eyes and the memory of the nightmares returned with full force. He started looking for the rum and patted mindlessly around the carpet, unable to muster up enough energy to switch on the lights. Finally, he found the bottle tipped over on the floor, completely empty.
“Fuck.” Tommy lifted the bottle to his face, inspecting it further in the dim moonlight that was pouring inside the room through the open window.
The wind howled outside, swelling the curtains and shaping them into ghostly bogeymen. Tommy groaned and tried to stand up to close the shutters, but he was still too drunk to do anything besides staying on the floor on all fours.
“Is this not a convenient time for you, Mr. Shelby?”
Tommy nearly jumped out of his skin upon hearing this foreign voice in the room. The rum bottle shattered against the floor.
“Jesus!” Tommy looked around but saw no-one. “Who’s there?!”
A shadow emerged from the corner of the room. Heavy boots stepped over the glass and crushed the shards as the unexpected guest reached the open window. He allowed Tommy to see him in the moonlight. As soon as he managed to make out the stranger’s face, Tommy opened his mouth in shock but no sound was made.
“You’re not here,” Tommy mumbled, his heart pounding and stomach clenched in fear. “You’re dead!”
Was this another nightmare or has he finally done himself in and was granted a meeting with the devil?
“I assure you, Mr. Shelby, I am very much alive.” The stranger took his top hat off and put it on the windowsill.
“Stop with the last names, Alfie,” Tommy growled, partially regaining confidence. “What’s with the accent? And what’s with the bloody hat?”
The stranger hesitated.
“What about it?”
Tommy snorted, slowly managing to stand up.
“Looks like a fuckin’ pissing bucket, Alfie.”
Both men grew silent, as Tommy slowly approached the window to face his uninvited guest. As he reached the man, however, his stomach clenched again.
“You’re not Alfie,” Tommy whispered, looking at the stranger closely, barely stopping himself from touching his face just to see if he was real.
“Hmm,” the stranger grunted deeply and took his gloves off. “Indeed, I am not. My name is James Delaney. I have a use for you, Mr. Shelby.”
Tommy’s heart was racing. He knew that voice intimately. It brought back the memories he was working very hard on forgetting, too. His vision grew blurry and a deafening rhythmic thumping filled his ears. Granted, the memory had been locked away for a long time, but he knew that man. The sound of the shovels came back for the first time in years. Tommy felt nauseous and was now looking for anything to lean on. His hands finally clasped the stranger’s thick coat and Tommy looked into his eyes, panicked and barely conscious.
“Why are you here?”
Delaney remained still, his features even more otherworldly in the silver moonlight.
“You will help me now, Mr. Shelby. In return for me having stopped the ground from swallowing you whole. Hm, how does that sound?” He watched Tommy closely until he saw what he wanted in his eyes and slowly pried Tommy’s hands from his coat.
“Let’s go, Mr. Shelby. We have work to do.”
Tommy shook his head.
“You’re not real. You look like Alfie and you’re not real. You’re not here. I’m fucking drunk and I’m hallucinating. I hit my head...”
“Your head is fuckin’ fine. As fine as one can expect, right, but it will have to do.” Delaney narrowed his eyes and smiled wickedly. “It’s time you paid your debt to me.”
A cold shiver went down Tommy’s spine. He was convinced that somehow a dead man has returned from the beyond and decided to haunt him. Never before had Tommy believed in ghosts as strongly as he believed now.
“Stop it,” he whispered and shut his eyes. “Stop it, whoever the fuck you are. Go away! Stay the fuck away, you’re not real… You’re not real, you’re not–”
Two strong hands landed on Tommy’s shoulders and pulled him back to where the moonlight glowed the strongest. It took a lot from Tommy to hold the other man’s gaze.
“It was you,” Tommy said, his words now barely audible. “In the trenches, it fucking was you, wasn’t it? But how are you here?”
“Aye. I pulled you from the ground, Mr. Shelby.”
“But why?” Tommy looked at the man closely, examining his otherworldly features. “Jesus, you look just like him. You could be fuckin’ twins…”
James grunted and fixed his gaze on Tommy. The longer Tommy looked at the other man, the more questions arose.
“How the fuck did you find me?”
“I did a little digging,” Delaney said as if this was reason enough.
“You should be older,” Tommy said, now leaning on the wall, not trusting his own legs. “After the war. You haven’t changed.”
“I should be long dead, is what I should be,” Delaney informed him. “But such is my curious predicament.” His crooked smile stretched the scar underneath his left eye. “I’m a dead man walking but… Nevertheless, you will grant me safe passage through the border. With your letter of intent.”
“Why do you look like him?” Tommy was still focused on the impossible resemblance to Alfie and had thoroughly ignored everything that the man had said.
Delaney considered this particular question since this was the one he did not have an answer to. He grunted, as if answering to the voices in his head, and decided to indulge Tommy.
“Who do I look like?”
Tommy went silent. He didn’t know what to say to that, exactly.
“Alfie, my… my business partner.” he decided finally. “I killed him.”
“A week ago.”
“Hm. That’s why you’ve been drinking yourself stupid?”
Tommy clenched his jaw, now alert and ready to strike.
“Were you watching me?”
“Yes. For a long time now, Mr. Shelby. You will help me get my property back,” he explained slowly, as if to a particularly daft child.
“Your property?” Tommy snorted. “How the fuck could I help you?”
“Your letter, Mr. Shelby,” Delaney hissed, obviously losing his patience. “I need to get back to America without my shipment being searched.”
Tommy considered his words for a moment, then turned around. He honestly just felt like drinking, and then maybe drinking some more. Delaney hummed, not at all pleased with being ignored, and said something in a language Tommy couldn’t understand.
“What if I were to grant you another favor?” Delaney decided, after some deliberation.
“Fuck off,” Tommy barked, waving his hand dismissively. “Whoever the fuck you are, wherever you came from, fuck all the way off, eh?”
For the second time this evening the deafening sounds from Tommy’s nightmares came back to haunt him. Tommy’s throat was once more full of thick, sticky clay, his eyes watery and unseeing. His back arched as the weight of the collapsing waves of mud pushed him to the floor. Tommy wheezed as his body ached to the very core. He tried to take a breath but couldn’t. He swallowed the clay and the mud and the dirt once more, and it just kept coming, until he felt the familiar weakness taking over. Then, it stopped as suddenly as it began. Tommy convulsed on the floor among the shards of glass, puking his guts out. Actual dirt and blood landed on the very expensive carpet and for a moment he thought he just might be dead and this was his personal hell.
“Had enough, hm?”
Delaney was standing over him, taking in his doing. Tommy whined and clenched his fists, reliving his worst nightmare. His stomach clenched once more and the rest of the clay mixed with mucus left his body. Tommy supported his weight on his hands and knees, too weak to stand up. He was panting and fighting to stay conscious.
“Enough,” he managed to say, his throat scratchy and painful.
“Good.” Delaney pulled him up and wiped Tommy’s face with a handkerchief of dubious cleanliness and origin.
Tommy’s nose was bleeding so James tilted Tommy’s head back and held the handkerchief in place until the blood flow stopped.
“I’m going to help you help yourself, and then I’m going to collect your debt. Is that acceptable, Mr. Shelby?” Delaney asked, taking Tommy’s face in his rough hands and looking at him with wild, unsympathetic eyes.
“Yes,” Tommy whispered, scared out of his mind.
He might not be dead, Tommy decided, but the man standing before him certainly was the devil.
Tommy didn’t want to hear the sound of shovels ever again, and yet there it was on the very same night – the familiar terrible sound, over and over. Delaney, who was now digging his way into Alfie Solomons’ grave, seemed very confident in his dirty work. Tommy could tell the strange man had done this before. Alfie’s burial was recent so the soil remained fresh and easy to move. James dug fast until he reached six feet under and the shovel banged on the coffin. Tommy felt that sound deep inside his bones.
“Hold the lamp,” Delaney instructed and jumped into the grave.
“Fuck,” Tommy muttered under his breath and lit a cigarette with the lamp’s flame.
The cigarette stopped his hands from shaking and made his vision clearer. Tommy finished that one quickly and lit another as James fidgeted with the coffin nails. Then, Tommy winced as he heard the horrible creaking sound of the wooden lid being pried open. A nauseating stench reached him and he coughed uncontrollably. He dropped the cigarette on slippery cemetery ground and immediately regretted every single fucking dumb decision that had led him to this very moment.
“Hold the fucking lamp!” James growled from the grave.
Tommy had managed to catch his breath and held the lamp back up so that Delaney could see what he was doing – whatever the fuck that was.
The disgusting smell of decay made Tommy’s stomach turn. Granted, he had seen more death than most and had personally contributed to sending countless men to the other side, but never before had he revisited his handiwork after the burial. The idea of looking at Alfie Solomons in such state was, for reasons Tommy did not want to explore, turning his bowels inside out. He did not dare to look, remembering all too well the events that had led him to fire his gun, and then... Alfie, dead on the beach, the enormous dog licking his master’s bloody face, the seagulls screeching, the waves heating the shore, the–
“Thomas!” Drenched in mud and soil, James was trying to get the body out of the grave.
Tommy realized that he must have lost time and Delaney must have been calling out his name for quite some time. Instead of annoyed, the strange gravedigger looked concerned. Trying not to look, Tommy grabbed Alfie’s corpse and, as gently as he could, laid him down on the ground. Then he grabbed James’ forearm and helped him up.
“Give me that,” Delaney grunted and took the lamp away from Tommy. “Fill the hole back up,” he commanded, before shifting back his attention to the dead man.
Otherworldly, frightening words were spoken over Alfie as Tommy took the shovel shift and started filling the grave with wet, slimy soil. However much he hated those sounds, he feared the feeling of clay shutting his throat up once more. So he dug in the pile and threw the soil back in the hole repeatedly, mindlessly, in a steady automated motion.
“Let’s go.” Delaney’s heavy hand finally grabbed Tommy’s shoulder and pulled him towards the dim light of the lamp.
The previously white sheet that Delaney used to cover Alfie’s body was now sprinkled in red and blue powders, and Tommy honestly did not want to ask why or what for. He grabbed the arms as Delaney took the legs, and together they carried Alfie to Tommy’s car. They drove back to Tommy’s house in complete silence, surrounded by the overwhelming stench of death. Tommy smoked one cigarette after another, unable to stop his mind from racing. James sat at the back seat and was having what sounded like a one-sided conversation with the body. Tommy parked the car at the back and turned in his seat to look at Delaney, for the first time this night feeling cocky enough to state any demands:
“We’re not taking him to the house,” he said firmly, trying to take command over the bizarre situation.
“Hm.” Delaney considered his words for a while. “The stables, then.” He pointed towards the building. “They will do fine.”
Tommy was about to open his mouth and protest but Delaney seemed to have read his mind:
“I won’t harm your bloody horses, calm the fuck down.”
That was settled, then. They took Alfie to the stables and put him in an empty stall, where the only witnesses would be Tommy’s prized stallions.
“You wanted me to see him like this?” Tommy finally looked at Alfie, unable to stop focusing on the horrible gash in his face that he himself had made.
“And what purpose would just looking serve, hm?” Delaney snorted, quite unexpectedly setting to remove his coat and boots, and apparently everything else.
Tommy raised his eyebrows as the man undressed before him. Unable to take his eyes away from the sight, Tommy watched the curious collection of scars, marks, and tattoos with keen interest. The toned muscles and curious markings made it very hard to take eyes off of, so as James hummed to himself, gently pressing random spots on Alfie’s decomposing body, Tommy looked.
“I need chalk. Or something white. To write with.” Delaney finally spoke, forcing Tommy back to reality. Tommy stood up to look around the stables, gladly accepting an opportunity to shift his gaze from the naked man beside him. In the far corner, he found a can of white paint and brought it back to the stall.
“Good.” Delaney opened the can with the knife he was previously using to cut Alfie’s shirt open.
He dipped one finger in the paint and drew strange symbols all over Alfie’s chest.
“Are you… going to wake him up?” Tommy finally asked.
“The dead are dead, not sleeping.” James kept drawing on the greyish skin until he deemed the design complete.
Then, h put his hand over Alfie’s eyes and murmured the same strange words he had said at the cemetery. Tommy took a step back, watching closely. His heart was pounding and, even worse, now he was all out of cigarettes. Delaney’s voice turned to soft whispers as if he was romancing Alfie back to life. Tommy was still transfixed on the naked devil, at this point not even trying to pretend he was not looking. Without warning, a harrowing sound escaped Delaney’s lips, as every muscle in his body contracted in what looked like one painful spasm.
A powerful gust of wind burst the stable door open. The horses whinnied in panic, as all the lights in the stables shattered one by one. Darkness coated them tightly and Tommy reminded himself to breathe. There were no shadows in sight. Tommy outstretched his hand before him and couldn’t even make out the shape. He tried to listen through the noise his startled horses made but heard nothing besides his own heavy breathing. Then, he felt something shuffling in the stall.
“Fuckin’ hell, Tommy… Fuck off with the headache you gave me, mate!”