PayBack Week

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
Robert Bloch
The Robert Bloch quote above always makes me smile because so many people believe a fiction writer is indistinguishable from the content of their fiction. Many readers believe crime writers spend hours in autopsy rooms, poring over forensic evidence; romance writers compose their work at French windows overlooking impressionist gardens; and horror writers, when they’re not attending Satanic covens, live in an isolated house at the edge of a forgotten cemetery.
This, of course, is not true.
Admittedly, I’ve written a few stories whilst sitting in a cemetery, but this was done in broad daylight on the lunchbreak I had from a tedious office job. I found it quite relaxing to go there with a packet of sandwiches and a notebook and jot down the ideas that had been buzzing inside my head. There are very few distractions in a cemetery: no noisy children playing football and none of the nuisances you find in an office staffroom. My wife always said it was creepy for me to spend my lunchbreak in the cemetery but I argued it would only be creepy if I went there with a shovel and a condom.
All of which is my way of saying, below are the opening chapters from one of my novels: Payback Week.
I’ve included links to the title on Amazon so, if you fancy reading more, you can click directly through to the title page and download the full e-book or order a print copy. This books is available in print or as electronic downloads, so you shouldn’t have to wait for too long to find out how the story progresses.
If I was going to be artsy I’d cite my influences as Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, James Herbert and HP Lovecraft. However, whilst I do like those writers, and each of them has given me a reason to shudder, I think I’ve been more inspired by the Hammer Horror films that starred Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. These were the stories that kept me terrified as a child, trapped beneath my sheets and scared of every creak and whisper that came from the darkness. I hope this work reflects some of those influences and the positive associations they’ve always held for me.
If you’re a horror fan I genuinely hope there’s something in this material that works for you. And, if you do enjoy any (or all) of these titles, I know that a review from a genuine reader can often help others find stories that works for them.
Thank you. And enjoy.
 Ash
PayBack Week
At the end of each summer season, the staff at the Fun Park enjoy a private ritual called PayBack Week. Every customer who ever upset them, every boss who ever crossed their path, every person responsible for a grievance becomes eligible for payback. This year, PayBack Week will be special because there’s a homicidal killer clown with a meat cleaver patrolling the Fun Park and a lot of debts have come due.
One Year Ago
  
 “It’s the last week of summer,” Gary called. His ordinarily brash voice was, this time, raised to reach them all. “The last week of summer. D’you guys know what that means?”
No one responded.
David tended a bonfire that blazed merrily on the beach.
It was a clumsy construction, a combination of black logs and orange flames that licked skyward toward the slowly brightening stars. A lazy breeze from the oil-black sea urged fresh sparks to dance upward from the pyre. Bursting knots, and other imperfections in the wood, crackled and popped from the heart of the flames. The sounds were sharp and unpredictable. Those closest to the blaze shifted uneasily away from its warmth.
Mike and Maggie lay together, side by side, on a stretch of beach between the fire and the seashore. The couple enjoyed the sort of intimate embrace that, if left unchecked, would soon become pornographic. It was a clement evening. The heat from David’s fire was enough to leave Maggie comfortable in a loose, unbuttoned blouse and a micro-mini. Mike had one hand beneath the hem of Maggie’s short skirt. As they touched and caressed, the couple grew more involved in sharing a long and lingering kiss.
Andy, Nicky, Shaun and Chloe sat facing the fire with their back to the dunes. Behind them, beyond the dunes and a short walk inland, the brooding shadow of the Fun Park was etched onto the darkening night sky. The quartet exchanged drags on roll-ups and swigs from a bottle of JD. They laughed softly and secretively together in a babble that rivalled the whispering waves.
Nigel, as usual, sat away from the others, staring out toward the sea. His cheeks and throat were pale with the memory of white make-up. His eyes were as faraway and lifeless as the silver moon that shone on his face. He remained as still and motionless as the sinister shadow of the Fun Park.
“The last week of summer,” Gary repeated. “D’you remember what that means?”
“It’s September?” David suggested.
“It’s your time of the month?” tried Shaun.
Andy laughed raucously and high-fived Shaun. The sound of their slapping hands was harsh enough to be painful.
“Jesus,” Gary grunted.
He flopped heavily by the side of the fire, his shorts and sandals seeming, for once, like appropriate attire. A tattoo of the England crest decorated his calf. In daylight it looked badly drawn and poorly coloured. In the light of the bonfire it looked like an ugly bruise, vaguely masked by the dense hairs that covered his legs. Without ceremony, Gary produced his own bottle of cheap whisky and spun the cap loose. Chugging a mouthful of raw scotch, trying hard not to gasp as the tang bit his tongue and scrubbed the back of his throat, he said, “Are we all up for doing it again this year? Are we all ready for payback week?”
David cast a glance toward Nigel.
Gary followed David’s gaze.
The Toilet continued staring toward the moon. His posture was now stiff and attentive. Gary hid his excitement behind another mouthful of burning scotch. He wanted to warn David to stop looking at the Toilet, sure that such a lack of subtlety could spoil their plan. But it would have been impossible to make that sort of comment without giving the whole game away.
“Mike,” Gary called. “Mike. Can you take your mouth away from Mags long enough to answer the question? Are you in for payback week?”
Mike broke the kiss. Straining his neck, he glanced toward the Toilet’s back and then nodded for Gary. “Go on then,” he agreed. “I’m in.”
“Me too,” Maggie said quickly.
“Christ!” Gary feigned surprise. “Did Mags really speak then, or are you doing your ventriloquist act, Mike?”
Maggie flipped a finger for Gary.
He held his hands in a soothing gesture and said, “Chill, Mags. No need to take offence. I only asked because Mike’s got his hand up your frock and it looks like he’s making your lips move.”
Maggie threw a half-empty tin of beer at Gary. It missed and bounced harmlessly on the sand before rolling toward the Toilet. A froth of foam and piss-yellow lager splashed across Gary’s shirt. He snorted laughter at Maggie’s outrage, his ever-present grin growing broader. He called to David, Andy and Shaun, confirming that they were also in for payback week. Each time he said those words he resisted the urge to sneak a glance in the direction of the Toilet. The impulse was strong. But he knew the trick in carrying out a convincing deception was to make the whole thing appear subtle.
“What’s payback week?” the Toilet asked.
Gary tried not to show his shock. He had been deliberately not looking in the Toilet’s direction but he was still surprised by the stealth with which the guy had moved.
The Toilet now sat by the side of the camp fire. His pale face was lit by dancing orange flames. His shadowed eyes looked deeper and more haunted than ever. He stared solemnly at Gary and asked again, “What’s payback week?”
Gary grinned and offered his bottle of scotch.
The Toilet shook his head.
“This has been your first year working at the Fun Park, hasn’t it?”
The Toilet nodded.
“We’ve all done this gig before,” Gary admitted. With a nod of his head he included the whole group. “It’s an easy job for uni students. The Fun Park is open May to September. The time frame fits perfectly with the summer months between terms when there’s no student grant to pay for beer.”
The Toilet turned his head away. He glanced back toward the full moon. It was one of the Toilet’s many annoying habits. As soon as any of them started to talk about uni, lectures, course material or term times, the Toilet’s glassy-eyes would gaze into the distance and he acted as though they were speaking a foreign language.
“Payback week is the last week where the Fun Park’s open,” Gary said quickly. “On the last week of the summer season, the last week that the park is open to customers, we get to pay back some of the plebs for all the shite they’ve given us throughout the summer.”
“Plebs?”
“Customers,” David explained. “Punters. Tourists. The fuckwits who make our lives so miserable on a daily basis.”
Slowly, the Toilet nodded his understanding.
“Payback week!” Nicky cried giddily. Her platinum blonde hair shone orange in the glow of the flames. She raised a bottle of JD in a mock salute and then took a long swallow. Still drinking, laughing and gasping from the taste, she fell back into the sand between Andy and Shaun.
“Payback week,” Gary repeated. He glanced around the camp fire. Nicky’s exclamation had been loud and distracting but everyone – including the Toilet – now stared at Gary with fixed attention. He could feel the moment swell with the weight of its significance.
“Last year,” Gary went on, “David got his nose busted by a drunk on the rollercoaster. Nicky got felt up by a gang of skinheads. Shaun had kids puking on him when he worked the dodgems. All of us had some shit from the tourists and we were all getting pretty tired of the situation.” He took a sharp swig from his bottle of scotch and added, “So we decided payback week would be a good idea. We decided payback week would be a good way for us to give back some of the crap we’d had to take over the summer.”
“You still haven’t said what it is,” the Toilet pointed out. He stared expectantly at Gary. “What is payback week?”
“Jesus,” Gary sighed. He tried not to sound too impatient but, sometimes, it was difficult not to get angry with the Toilet. “It’s exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the week where we get our own back. It’s the week where we stop taking shit from the punters and the bosses. It’s the week where we get our revenge.”
There was a moment’s silence, broken only by the crackle of flames and the lull of waves breaking against the shore. The night was not cold but a tickle of gooseflesh prickled Gary’s bare forearms.
“What happens?”
Gary contemplated his bottle of scotch but resisted the urge to have another swig. He turned his gaze from the brightness of the flames and stared at the waxy shadows on the Toilet’s face. “Payback week is the last week of the summer for several reasons. No matter what we do, the bosses aren’t going to fire us because it’s too much hassle.”
“And,” David interrupted, “even if anyone did get fired, they’d have to be paid a week’s notice, so they’d get paid the same as if they worked the last week.”
“That’s right,” Gary agreed. “So we’re in a no lose situation.”
The Toilet stared at him with a glazed expression. His mouth hung slightly open. Shadows and the flickering flames made it impossible to read the thoughts that might be happening behind his vacant gaze.
“Last year,” Gary went on, “Chloe got payback on the customers in the café by serving half-and-half from the lemonade counter.”
“Half-and-half?”
“Half lemonade. Half piss.”
The Toilet chuckled. “Sweet.”
In the shadows, behind the Toilet, Gary could see Chloe glaring murderously in his direction. Andy had one hand over Chloe’s mouth, struggling to stop her from refuting Gary’s allegation and potentially spoiling the whole ruse. Andy silently pulled her away from the camp fire, toward the dunes and into the deepening shadows that surrounded them.
“Mike used to have your job in the ghost train,” Gary told the Toilet. “He locked three kids in there overnight.” Spitting a wet cackle toward the fire he said, “Those three little fuckers were so scared when the managers found them the next morning I thought I was going to shit my pants from laughing.” He shook his head and added, “I’ll bet they still have nightmares.”
“Sweet,” the Toilet said again.
David glanced in Gary’s direction. A knowing shine lit the smile in his eyes. The expression was made malevolent by the reflection of the dancing flames.
“David smacked a punter in the face,” Gary said quietly. “Put the poor bastard in hospital.”
“Double sweet,” the Toilet marvelled. He continued to stare at Gary as he asked, “What did you do?”
“Me?” Gary took another swig from his bottle. He shook his head and then studied the sand beneath his sandals. “I can’t talk about what I did. It’s probably safest that way.”
“But I won’t tell,” the Toilet promised. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“No,” Gary said firmly. He stood up and took his bottle of scotch. Walking toward the dunes he said, “I can’t talk about it.”
The silence around the camp fire grew as intense as the burgeoning heat. The flames crackled more loudly in the darkness. The moment seemed to drag out until Gary was nothing more than a silhouette ensconced in shadows.
And then he was gone.
David broke the silence by whispering, “Gary killed one of the bosses.”
The Toilet regarded him sceptically.
“One of the bosses had been giving Gary a hard time,” David explained. “He’d docked Gary’s wages. He’d bollocked him for turning up late. He’d warned him for being rude to the plebs. He’d given him a hard time for generally not giving a fuck about the job. If Gary made a date with one of the punters, this boss would put Gary on overtime, so he couldn’t make the date. And, when it came to paying him the proper rate for overtime, he always used to make mistakes with rates and bonuses. In short, he’d been making Gary’s life a misery from the first week of the season. But, as soon as payback week started, Gary got his revenge.”
“Gary killed him?”
The silence around the bonfire had grown more intense. It now seemed as though the sea was holding its breath, waiting for David’s reply. David shot his gaze in the direction where Gary had walked. Satisfied his friend was out of earshot, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, David said, “Gary was working maintenance on the main coaster.”
The Toilet nodded eager encouragement. He glanced back, beyond the dunes, to where the silhouette of the roller coaster stood black against the navy sky. With the thin lines of its support structure and the steep, sloping curves of the track, it looked like the remnants of a reconstructed dinosaur skeleton.
“Gary told his boss that there was a problem on the peak before the first dip. You know how high that one is, don’t you?”
“That’s the highest one,” the Toilet agreed. He pointed beyond the dunes to the beacon at the summit of the rollercoaster’s highest peak. “You can see it from here.” The warning light at the top of the highest peak flashed a monotonous red, like a portent from the grim night sky.
“Gary got his boss up there,” David explained. His voice had fallen to a whisper above the crackling flames. “The old bastard was cursing him and telling him he was useless for needing help. And Gary just kept walking ahead of him. Taking all the insults. Biding his time. Waiting for his moment.”
David paused to take a swig from his bottle of beer. His cheeks were rouged with high spots of colour. He waited a beat before carrying on, as though he was trying to give the story its maximum impact. “They got to the top of the coaster and the boss says, ‘So what’s the problem you couldn’t handle on your own?’ And, instead of saying anything, Gary simply lurched at him.”
To emphasise his point, he lurched toward the Toilet.
The Toilet scrabbled backward as though he was under attack.
Andy and Shaun laughed but it was only a short sound that died as soon as David glared at them. When he turned again to address the Toilet, David’s smile was tight and humourless.
“The way you just moved backwards…” he started softly.
The Toilet nodded.
“…that’s just what Gary’s boss did,” David whispered. “The old bastard knew he deserved to have Gary try and hit him, and I think he’d been expecting it all summer. But he’d forgotten he was at the top of a rollercoaster and he jumped backwards. There was an expression of surprise on his face. Gary says he looked like Wile E Coyote in those Road Runner cartoons. And then he plummeted. He landed in the car park two hundred foot below. They say he spattered like a bag of vomit.”
“Sweet.”
“Christ, David,” Chloe muttered. She was wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and glaring at Andy. “That’s a disgusting story.”
David ignored Chloe. He fixed the Toilet with a gaze of solemn intensity. “Obviously questions were asked,” he went on. “But it had happened late enough at night so that no one had seen. When we were asked if we knew about it, we all said Gary was a straight guy and we backed up his story that it must have been an accident.”
“Double sweet.”
“But most of us knew it hadn’t been an accident,” Mike broke in. He glared across the fire at the Toilet and said, “It had been payback week.”
2
“Why do they call him the Toilet?” asked Nicky. “I mean, that’s not his real name is it? His parents didn’t call him baby Toilet when he was born, did they?”
The Spooksville Café boasted an elevated view of the Fun Park. Set above Spooksville Slots, one of the park’s many amusement arcades, the salt-spattered windows on the west side of the café stared out of the amusement park toward the neglected seashore and endless miles of unbroken sea. It was a desolate view that was only ever made remarkable during sunset. Throughout the rest of the day it was a vista of grey sands and grey sea beneath a grey, grey sky.
The east facing windows overlooked a quadrant of the park labelled Spooksville. Spooksville contained the ghost train and a haunted house, as well as a handful of traditional rides that had been redesigned with a supernatural theme. The tilt-a-whirl was called The Witch’s Hat, and had been fashioned with a fibreglass dome to look like a pointed, witch’s hat. The screaming swing was called The Pit and the Pendulum with carriages fashioned to look like swinging blades. From the windows of the Spooksville Café, Chloe could also see a selection of smaller rides, attractions and stalls that had all been reinvented around the idea of the supernatural and classic horror stories. Pictures of Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula adorned the walls of otherwise utilitarian buildings. Statues and mannequins, dressed and painted to look like vampires, zombies and werewolves, stood motionless beside the stretch of the park’s main walkway. The carriages on the nearby mini-coaster were painted black with grinning white skulls at their fronts. A PA system, hidden behind one of the park’s many pieces of plastic greenery, occasionally spat out a blood-curdling scream. And yet, in the morning light, Spooksville appeared more comical than scary.
Making herself a coffee, and preparing for another long day of graft and ingratitude as she worked behind the counter of Spooksville Café, Chloe stared incredulously at Nicky.
“You’re asking me if the Toilet is his real name?”
“Yeah.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “There are some days when you give blonde a bad name.”
Nicky frowned. “It’s not his real name then?”
“It’s just a nickname,” Chloe said stiffly. “Who would really call their child ‘the Toilet?’” She didn’t wait for Nicky’s response. “I think it was either David or Gary who first called him that. Most likely Gary. He said the guy was gullible and he took everything in: like a toilet.”
Nicky digested this with a nod. She was an attractive blonde and it was obvious she knew she was attractive. Her hair was a baby-soft yellow and her skin was tanned to a colour that she described as ‘Florida Sunburst.’ She wore skin-tight short-shorts and a bright white T that emphasised her buxom chest. When she grinned at Chloe her smile was so white it was almost fluorescent.
Chloe fired up the espresso machine. There was a moment of deafening silence as the café was filled with the reverberating hiss of steam from chrome pipes. The room’s acoustics made the noise unbearable and overwhelming. For Chloe, still recovering from too much alcohol at the previous evening’s impromptu beachside party, the noise was like dental surgery without anaesthetic.
When silence again descended, Nicky asked, “So what’s his real name?”
Chloe opened her mouth to answer and then closed it quickly.
“I don’t know.”
Pointing through the window, Nicola aimed her finger at the familiar figure of a menacing clown stamping along the main strip that ran through Spooksville. Six foot tall, dressed in a garish rainbow coloured romper suit, the clown had a chalk-white bald head surrounded by tufts of eccentric green hair. His face was as ashen as a corpse, save for the lips which were blood red and painted into a grimace of pained anguish. In his left hand he held a blood-besmeared meat cleaver. His big floppy boots flapped against the asphalt of the main strip in a comical, yet determined fashion.
“There he is,” Nicky sounded excited. She stood on her tiptoes and clapped her hands. “We could go and ask him.”
Chloe closed her eyes. “Cool idea, Nicks. We could go down there and say, ‘Hi, Toilet. We’ve worked alongside you for the past four months and we don’t know your real name yet. We only ever refer to you by the insulting and unflattering nickname Toilet. What’s your real name?’ That would sound lovely, wouldn’t it?”
“It would show we’re taking an interest.” Nicky sounded defensive.
“Somehow,” Chloe said, watching the clown stamp away from the ghost train, “I think he’d be a lot better off without our interest.”
“I’m not so sure,” Nicky argued. “I think he could use someone’s help.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, right now, he’s heading away from the ghost train, even though the park is two minutes away from opening. That’s not right, is it?”
Chloe considered this and realised, maddeningly, Nicky was right. Instead of assuming his usual position, standing inside the dark shadows of the covered ghost train, and waiting to leap out and frighten passengers on the sharpest bends in the ride, the clown was walking toward the ticket booth at the main entrance.
“Where’s he going?”
Nicky giggled. “Maybe the Toilet is going to the toilet?” Her giggles developed into a stream of shrill laughter that jarred against the remnants of Chloe’s hangover. If Chloe had been asked to make a choice she would have said the sound of cappuccino machine was preferable to the manic timbre of Nicky’s giggling.
“Toilet, going to the toilet. Do you get it?”
Watching the clown march through Spooksville, Chloe said nothing. She had taken little interest in the Toilet since the start of the holiday season and, even though she didn’t really know him, she thought he had made a change to his costume or his make-up. There was something different about his appearance today that she tried to pinpoint.
If pushed, she would have said it was something to do with the meat cleaver but Chloe felt fairly sure she had seen the Toilet holding the implement previously. What self-respecting murderous caricature of a psychotic clown, she wondered, would be caught without a meat cleaver?
Dismissing him from her thoughts, she decided it was probably something to do with his determined step and his obvious sense of purpose as he marched toward the ticket booth.
3
Spooksville Slots was a nightmare of noise and flashing lights. The slot machines and video games were a constant flash of sirens, shrieks, cheerfully overloud tunes and ringing alarm bells. A fragrance of furniture polish over dirt and sweat made every breath taste like grimy plastic. Two east facing doors, designed to look like the entranceway to a haunted mansion, opened up to overlook the heart of Spooksville. The open doorways allowed the arcade its only glimpse of natural light. Against the brilliance of flashing neon, the natural light looked somehow inferior and jaded.
“Did you end up with Nicky last night?” Shaun asked.
Andy was propped against a one-armed bandit and rolling a cigarette. His eyes were rimmed with the red circles of the morning-after-the-night-before. His cheeks and chin were stubbled as though he had missed the chance to shave that morning. On him, because he was annoyingly good-looking, the designer stubble made him appear ruggedly handsome. Having checked his own reflection that morning, Shaun knew his own razor stubble made his chubby features look unwashed and seedy.
“Yeah. Well, no. Yeah.” Andy frowned and puzzled for a moment. “Does a wrist-job count?”
Shaun grunted grudging admiration. “She gave you a wrist-job?”
“She’s on the blob this week,” Andy shrugged. “And I couldn’t talk her into giving me a BJ.”
“So she just tugged you off?”
“She’s trying to keep me sweet,” Andy murmured. He paused to lick the gummed paper on his cigarette. The silence between them was washed in the gaudy noise of Spooksville Slots.
“What was that crap Gary was spouting last night?” Shaun asked.
 “Gary’s always spouting crap,” Andy said eventually. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Payback week,” Shaun said. “You remember. Gary started on about payback week and suddenly Mike and Dave were singing the same dumb song. What was that about?”
“Oh! That.” Andy tucked the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and patted his pockets in search of a lighter. Glaring sullenly at the NO SMOKING signs that decorated the walls of the arcade, he started toward the doorway. “That’s a bet between Dave and Gary. Bastards.”
Intrigued, Shaun followed him.
“A bet?”
“Gary reckons he can get the Toilet fired before the park closes for the year. Dave’s said he’ll give him two hundred notes if he can do it.”
“Fired? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?”
Andy shrugged. “It’s the last week of the season. The park closes in six days. This time next week the Toilet is going to be out of a job regardless of who wins the bet.” He stepped outside the arcade and, seeing the clown march through the centre of Spooksville, motioned for Shaun to be silent. Lighting his cigarette, blowing a plume of smoke into the air, he stared at the clown’s back for a moment without saying a word. His eyes narrowed.
The mechanical scream from the Spooksville PA system cackled loudly. The sound was enough to make Shaun and Andy start with surprise.
“Where’s he going?” Shaun whispered.
“Have you got Gary’s mobile number in your phone?”
“Yeah. Why?”
“Give him a call.”
Obedient, Shaun was already fumbling for his mobile. As soon as he had it in his hand he started scrolling through the contacts in search of Gary’s number. It was only after he’d pressed the button to make the call that he thought to ask, “Why am I phoning him?”
“Tell him to get his arse down here,” Andy said quietly. “Tell him to get his arse down here quick, because it looks like he’s about to win his bet. I think the Toilet is about to hand in his notice.”
4
“I liked Gary’s idea last night,” Maggie decided.
She always found her mood lifted after a night’s drinking. Whilst most of her friends – especially those she worked with at the Fun Park – groaned their way through hangovers, Maggie was invariably smiling and whistling and still touched with the previous evening’s sense of fun. Her mother described it as a fortuitous disposition. Her father said she shouldn’t be drinking. Her friends said it was the most hateful facet of her personality and every one of them, at some point, had told her that it did not make her an easy person to like.
“I think we really should have a payback week.”
“Gary’s a wanker,” Mike grunted.
Mike, Maggie knew, did not share her ability to bounce back on a morning. He looked tired. His eyes were bloodshot and he smelled like he’d slept on the floor of a distillery. His dark hair, naturally curly, looked unkempt and dishevelled.
“Yes,” Maggie agreed. “Gary is a wanker. But his idea was sound.”
They sat side-by-side in the ticket booth at the park’s main entrance. The threat of a sunny day blossomed from behind slowly separating clouds. A crowd of noisy and bustling tourists – thinner than usual but still large enough to be daunting – stood outside the slatted glass windows of the ticket booth. Maggie served another grim-faced holidaymaker, inwardly noting that the transaction was completed without the woman saying please or thank you. It was not the first time she had suffered the brunt of such rudeness but she never found it easy to tolerate such an absence of manners.
“Would you like a Ride-All-Day-Wristband?” Maggie asked cheerfully.
“Did I ask for a fucking wristband?”
“No. But I-”
“Then I obviously don’t fucking want one, do I?”
Maggie’s smile turned into a grimace of civility. Her good mood curdled. For the first time since waking that morning, she felt weary and nauseous. “Have a nice day,” she said with brittle stiffness.
The tourist considered her with a sour smile of triumph. She sauntered slowly away from the ticket booth and into the Fun Park, walking backwards and glaring at Maggie as she went.
The small consolation at the back of Maggie’s thoughts was that the woman couldn’t see she was backing towards the Toilet in his rainbow-coloured clown suit. Maggie’s smile was touched with sadistic amusement as the clown raised his meat cleaver ready to surprise the tourist when she did turn around and noticed him. The fact that the Toilet was going to exact a revenge that she had hoped to see happen made Maggie wonder why she had bothered to participate in the prank that Gary and David were hatching for him. For an instant she thought of rushing out of the booth to tell him that it had all been a cruel hoax.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
Reluctantly, Maggie turned away from the anticipated pleasure of watching the rude tourist being startled. She flashed her fake smile for another of the plebs – a fat man wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt – and went through the hatefully familiar process of taking money and serving tickets.
It wasn’t even five past nine and, already, she was filled with loathing for the tourists visiting the park. Her good mood had been effectively murdered and a long day of misery loomed ahead.
“How much shit do we have to take from these plebs?” she asked Mike. “How much rudeness and ignorance are we supposed to tolerate for minimum wage and all the salmonella we can eat at the Spooksville Café?”
The customer outside the booth took his tickets. His words of thanks were either unspoken or unheard. He started to enter the Fun Park, and then stopped abruptly.
“Means to an end,” Mike said absently. He spoke as he punched buttons on the console in front of him and served a customer at his own window. A metal slit on the counter spewed out a stream of tickets. “The job is shit. The people are shit. But it’s a way of earning money in the summer. It’s also a way of getting a semi-decent reference at the end of the year.” He lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “It also means, whatever career I get after I’ve finished uni, it’s going to be a vast improvement on this shit.”
Maggie realised the customer she had just served was simply standing and gawping at the park. Taking advantage of the unexpected reprieve from the morning rush, she turned in her seat and spoke to the back of Mike’s head.
“I still think payback week would be a good idea,” she told him. The concept held a genuine appeal and she thought, if she could get Mike onside, it might be possible to have everyone in the park doing the same thing. “If we had payback week I could tell some of these bastards to go and fuck themselves. You could back me up and say you were listening to the whole exchange and you never heard any such thing.”
“Gary was just saying that because he’s trying to set up the Toilet for a fall.”
“I know that,” Maggie admitted.
“From what Andy tells me,” Mike went on, “Gary’s also trying to milk two hundred notes out of Dave as blood money.” Mike spoke quickly and with undisguised impatience. He briefly changed his tone to cheesy insincerity for the benefit of a customer. “Have a nice day.” Then he was speaking with his regular cynical disgust. “I’ve got enough to be thinking about with starting back at uni next week. I don’t have time to mess with people’s heads as part of payback week. I’d have thought you were in the same situation since this is your final year.”
The light in the booth seemed to have been coloured dark pink.
Maggie turned around as a hand thumped on her counter. She was momentarily puzzled to see that a film of thin red liquid now covered the glass slats of their shared booth.
“What the-?”
She tried to work out if someone was playing a practical joke. At the same time she tried to decide if the liquid was paint, which would mean she had to get someone from maintenance and janitorial to clean it up, or if it was simply some sort of cherry drink or ketchup, which would mean she would have to clean it herself with the small collection of rags and spray-cleaners she kept in the booth.
“What’s wrong?” Mike asked.
She ignored him.
Staring at the hand that had thumped on the counter, Maggie tried to work out why something struck her as horribly wrong about the image she was seeing. Every day that she worked in the booth, customers slapped their hands down on the counter of the ticket booth. They were either passing her money, or coupons from newspapers and magazines, or debit cards. And it happened so often she considered herself something of an expert on hands in all their varying shapes, sizes and conditions.
But this hand was different.
This hand was severed at the wrist.
Maggie screamed.

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