|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
The Terrifyingly Mysterious Case of the Mysterious Phone Call of Mystery
"Don't answer it!"
"Why ever not, dear?"
"You know why," said Bob Skeleton darkly, as he reached for the receiver. "You're too annoying. You make us not get work."
"Slander!" declared his partner, grinning widely, and went back to his copy of Grave News.
"Goth Detective Agency, how can I help?" Bob said, trying to sound efficient and businesslike with just a hint of the crypt. He didn't want to betray the fact that, up until now, most of their cases had involved lost cats.
"Scccchhhhnoorrsplurkle," said the phone.
"Sorry," said Bob, "I didn't quite catch that."
"Hang on, I'm just gonna grab a pen. Right, sorry -- you couldn't just repeat that last bit, could you?"
"Mmmmmscchhdt -- Earwig Cottage, Hell Lane, Crippling St Mary, North Yorkshire," said the phone clearly. "Please help, if at all possible." Then it rang off.
"Right." Bob put the phone down. "Russell?"
"Pack some stuff, we're going on holiday. And could you at least make an effort to call me by my Goth name? Just because you couldn't be bothered to think of one -- some of us are professionals, you know."
"Oh yeah, sorry." Russell stood up and chucked his newspaper down on the chair. "So where we going, then, Bob Skeleton? Not somewhere nice and sunny, I hope?"
"Course not." Bob shot Russell a scornful look. "What do you take me for?"
"Good." Russell stalked over to the little mirror they'd hung by the door for hairstyle-checking purposes, and smirked at himself. "I got me delicate alabaster skin to think of, ain't I?"
"Well. I reckon this is it."
Russell had parked the official Goth Detectives hearse (with more flair than accuracy) outside the small heap of grey stones apparently masquerading as Earwig Cottage. It stood by itself at the end of a narrow, overgrown path and there were no other houses within sight. Actually, there was nothing at all within sight.
"Hell Lane?" the innkeeper at the Snorting Bull had said with surprise, when they'd stopped to ask directions. "You don't want to be going down thither, lads. Nobody does. There's an old, old legend that the Devil himself lies in wait there for unwary travellers, and when he gets one he eats all their skin off! Oh, tha doesn't want to be mucking about wi' that sort of thing. Besides, the weather always seems to be soddin' awful there, no matter what it's like anywhere else. We're not quite sure how that works."
He wasn't wrong. It was freezing, damp and overcast, and a howling gale was posing a challenge to even Russell's industrial-strength hairspray. Around them, featureless grey moorland stretched emptily in every direction.
Bob sighed. "It's lovely."
"Yeah," said Russell. "Sort of feels like home, don't it?"
"Do you think we ought to knock?" Bob asked doubtfully.
"Well, we could," said Russell. "But I fear that would involve puttin' the door back in the frame, and sadly I forgot to bring my handy set of travel screwdrivers. You feel free to give it a go, though." He folded his arms and raised his eyebrows at Bob.
"Yeah, you've got a point."
They stood for a while, observing the derelict hovel.
"We going in then?" said Russell eventually. "Or do you want me to carry you over the threshold?"
"Fuck off," said Bob mildly.
After scouring the cottage thoroughly for clues (Russell found a bent hairgrip, which they carefully labelled and put in a plastic bag) they decided they might as well make the cottage their base of operations, as there didn't seem to be anyone around to object. After an unpleasant interlude in the outside loo during which Bob discovered exactly why it was called Earwig Cottage, they set about making the place a bit more comfortable. Russell's lucky skull went up on the mantelpiece, and Bob filled the cracked medicine cabinet in the bathroom with all the essentials -- eyeliner, hairspray, sunblock. When that was done, they dug out their thermos of herbal tea and a packet of biscuits and sat down in front of a rather pathetic fire Bob had made out of a broken spice-rack.
"I hope that spice-rack wasn't evidence," said Russell.
"Nah," said Bob, who was feeding his pet bats, Esmeralda, Ivan and Commodore Stevens. "Spice-racks are almost never evidence, it's a well-known fact."
Russell eyed the bats warily. "D'you reckon you're meant to feed them on Skittles?" he said. "It's not exactly a balanced diet, is it?"
Bob looked up. "Would you stop going on at me?"
"Sorry," said Bob, and sighed. "It's just I've been a bit stressed lately. What with, you know, falling in love and that."
"To be fair," said Russell. "I did say, didn't I, that was a bloody stupid idea."
"She was really nice!" protested Bob.
"She was dead, Noel."
"Bob!" said Bob. "And you're just prejudiced."
"I just think," declared Russell, "that instead of moonin' and swoonin' about the place over birds what aren't even alive, and then comin' into work and moanin' and whingin' on about it -- ooh, Russell, I can't tell if she likes me, what do you reckon? Well, I reckon you probably can't tell because she's not fuckin' alive, Noel, that's what I reckon -- I just think that what you really need at this point is an actual, proper, human shag."
Bob shifted uncomfortably on his mouldy armchair. "Yeah, cheers for that, Russell. Your sensitivity knows no bounds."
Russell shrugged expansively. "Only trying to help."
"Well, anyway," Bob said, turning the subject firmly back to bats. "I only give them Skittles for a treat -- they get bat-mix most of the time. The bloke I bought 'em off said it wouldn't do any harm as long as they don't get too much. Then they get aggressive."
He threw one of the sweets in the air for Commodore Stevens, and she flapped off her perch on Bob's shoulder to catch it in her mouth. "Look at that," he said. "Full of energy!"
"That's echolocation," said Russell, knowledgeably. "Sometimes, I wish I could do that."
"Yeah, I bet you do," muttered Bob. Russell smiled.
Bob laughed at him. "Was that meant to be a leer?" he said. "'Cos you know can't actually do them?"
Russell tried to look affronted, but discovered he couldn't do that either. Bob was in fits.
"I'm gonna fuckin' punch you in a minute," said Russell, but he was grinning.
"Yeah, go for your life," said Bob, wiping his eyes. Then they both jumped out of their skin, as the door -- which they'd carefully balanced back on its hinges -- collapsed inwards with a bang. A gust of freezing air entered the little room and blew out the fire.
"Shit!" said Bob, shakily pushing the door back into place, "I thought it was that devil for a minute. You know, the Devil." He looked uneasily over at Russell. "D'you reckon he's going to turn up or what?"
"Dunno." Russell shrugged and frowned. "Why's he want to eat people's skin off, anyway? I mean, why just the skin? Is it some sort of satanic delicacy or something?"
"Maybe human skin's got amazing nutritional properties as yet unknown to science?" Bob suggested.
"Frankly," said Russell. "I've always suspected as much."
Night fell, and they lit some candles out of Bob's Handy Travel Candle Kit. Nothing happened. Then nothing continued to happen. Bob let the bats out of the window for their evening fly-about and Russell, bored, embarked on a rambling and somewhat far-fetched story about sex in graveyards. Bob ignored him. He had that look on his face which meant he was thinking, and it was taking up all his powers of concentration. When he got no response, Russell decided it was probably time he climbed onto the roof.
He achieved this goal by squeezing out of the bedroom window and shinning up the rusty drainpipe. It did occur to him that this was probably quite a stupid thing to do in a gale, especially as there were a number of slates missing from the roof. But it wasn't like stupidity had ever stopped him before. And anyway, it was only a little cottage. It wouldn't be like falling off of a block of flats. No doubt falling off of a block of flats would hurt quite a lot, 'specially if you were quite a long way up it at the time and not, say, on the ground floor.
He settled himself against the chimney stack, where he was sheltered very slightly from the relentless wind, and looked up into the sky. Refreshing! There weren't any stars out, obviously, not with all those heavy storm clouds. But that was all right. He'd always thought stars were a bit overrated anyway. They blotted out all the lovely darkness.
Just as he was beginning to relax and feel at one with the essential nothingness and eternal misery of the universe (Russell practiced a peculiar sort of existentialist gothic Zen nihilism that he'd invented himself) he was startled out of his reverie by an odd sound coming from the other side of the chimney.
"Scchhhhhspurkle," went the noise.
"Hello?" said Russell, after a second.
"Split spit splik spk," went the noise.
"Er..." said Russell.
"Please help, thank you." And that had sounded more like a voice. A tinny, expressionless sort of voice, but a voice nonetheless. Nervously, Russell stood up and poked his head around the chimney.
The sight that met his eyes was... somewhat difficult to process straight off. Hideous, though. Definitely hideous and horrific and other nasty 'h'-words. Russell thought perhaps he was going to be mentally scarred for life.
"What are you?" he squeaked. He didn't mean to squeak, it was just the horror of it all.
"Ssskkkkk..." said the thing. "Good question, really."
It was mechanical, Russell thought. Mostly. Except for the blood, oozing black in the faint moonlight. And all the other... bits of matter. He swallowed, trying to overcome his disgust.
"Are you hurt?" he asked it. "Are you -- are you the one what phoned us?"
"Klik-ik-ik," it clicked, weakly. "What, exactly, does it look like? Yes, obviously I am seriously wounded. And yes, I telephoned you. That's assuming you are a Goth Detective, are you?"
Russell assured the thing that he was.
"I am able to transmit information on a variety of frequencies," explained the thing. "I found your telephone number on a fragment of newspaper which floated, half-charred, out of the chimney pot. Tramps, you know. Security here has disintegrated somewhat."
"Right..." said Russell. "Yeah, that's... that's terrible."
"I'm rather sorry you took so long to arrive, though. Unfortunately, you are slightly too late. I will soon expire from the damage that has been caused. Any attempt at reboot will be useless. I believe the bastard has probably fried my motherboard."
"Again, that's... awful. What a bastard. Sorry about the, um... yeah."
Unusually for him, Russell found that he'd completely run out of words.
The creature gave a small wet splutter of static, and fell silent.
Bob looked up as Russell emerged through the little doorway enclosing the staircase, hastily shut the door behind him, and stood with his back to it.
"Where have you been?" Bob demanded. "You've got to stop running off all the time, you know -- it looks bad."
"Yeah..." said Russell. "See, the thing is -- thing is, is there's a thing. Up there. On the roof."
"What were you doing on the roof? What d'ya mean, thing?"
"Well," said Russell. "That's the interestin' thing, really. I mean, the thing itself is, as I say, interesting."
Bob stared blankly at him. "What are you on about?"
"Well," said Russell again. He folded and unfolded his arms. Then he refolded them again. "It's basically... a toaster."
"A toaster... with a difference!"
"And the difference is..."
"It's got various... fleshy characteristics. Sort of a bit human-like. Ish."
Bob looked at him suspiciously. "You didn't try and have sex with it, did you?"
"Noel! I am offended! No I bloody well didn't. Since when have I been into sort of cyborgy things what's robot bits are mainly made of toaster? Anyway, it's bleedin' all over the place. I thought it was best not to move it, so I've got it a blanket what I found in a cupboard -- tried to make it comfortable, like. Frankly..." He lowered his voice dramatically. "I don't think it's long for this world."
Bob held up his hands. "Hang on," he said. "Just -- let's go back to the beginning. Why, exactly, is there a semi-human toaster on the roof?"
"Apparently, right, the old bloke what lived here was some mad professor sort, inventing and all that. And this toaster was like his prodigy -- it was like a son to him. 'Cos, as we all know, what the world really needs at this point is, basically, a sentient toaster." He thought. "It's a little bit like Edward Scissorhands, only more stupid and disgusting."
"But, what happened to this bloke, then?"
"Well, apparently, he got his skin eaten off by the Devil."
"Right. I see. And the toaster..."
"Also got its skin eaten off by the Devil, yeah. But it managed to survive, barely, through the fact of bein' a toaster. And then it phoned us. For some reason."
Bob nodded and closed his eyes. "All right," he said. "Just let me think for a minute. We can sort this out. We need to get the... thing off the roof and to a hospital. Or a repair shop, whatever -- we can't just leave it here. And then we need to... we need to..."
He trailed off. There was an odd sound coming from outside. A strange sort of clipping, clopping sound, accompanied by a kind of crackling, like flames. Bob glanced at the fireplace. The fire was long out. The sound got louder: clip, clop, crackle. It was the sort of sound you might hear if a supernatural being from the netherworld were advancing up your front path, hungry for skin.
"I'll tell you what we need to do, Noel," said Russell. "We need to run."
He grabbed Bob by the hand and they made a dash for the kitchen, pushing the door shut behind them just as a loud, echoing 'boom' seemed to shake the cottage to its foundations.
"Was that him knocking on the front door?" whispered Russell. "That's very polite."
"Yeah," Bob whispered back. He looked at Russell. "Didn't you think that was a bit of a weird sound for a cheap plywood door to make when it's not even on its hinges properly?"
"Oh, that's just the devilish tricks of Beelzebub," said Russell airily. "Which they would be, I suppose."
"You're still holding my hand," Bob pointed out.
"Nah, I mean, that's cool." He shrugged. "I just wasn't sure if you realised."
"Yep," whispered Russell. "Anyway, shall we go?"
"Oh, yeah, okay." Bob reached hastily for the back door handle and turned it. Except that it wouldn't turn. "It's rusted fucking shut!" he said, in a sort of strangled squeak.
They could hear the Devil clip-clopping around the living room, apparently at a loss. It was surely only a matter of minutes before the frightful creature remembered about internal doors.
"Window!" said Bob, in a flash of inspiration.
"You're jokin', ain't you?" said Russell, looking at the tiny pane above the kitchen sink.
Bob leaned forward and looked into Russell's eyes. "Russell," he said firmly. "Focus. What are we?"
"Detectives?" suggested Russell.
"Yeah, but what else?"
"That's right! And what are the main characteristics of the Goth? Think, Russell, think!"
"Well... we wear really nice black clothes with the occasional bit of silver for interest... we hang around in graveyards... We, we're pale and interestin' and attractive... and, and we're--"
"Yes?" Bob's face was alive with excitement.
"We're thin, Noel!" A wide grin appeared on Russell's face. "We're so thin we're virtually see-through! We're wraith-like. We're snake-like. We can wriggle through whatever narrow passageway, dusty crevice or pitch-black tunnel you choose to confront us with, that's what!"
"Yes!" Bob laughed and hugged his partner. "You've got it, Russell!" Then he swung himself up onto the kitchen sink, tugged open the window, and started to squeeze through it.
Russell, watching Bob's slim hindquarters slowly disappear from view, raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth as if to say something. Then, abruptly, he shut it again, and climbed onto the draining board.
"Okay," said Bob when they had both detectives had emerged into the unkempt back garden. "Now what?"
"I dunno," said Russell. "I thought you'd know and then you'd, like, tell me."
"I'm not your boss!" said Bob. "We are meant to be partners, you know! God, you just can't be bothered, can you?"
"You're beautiful when you're angry," said Russell, smirking.
"All right, all right! Well then, I suggest we climb up that drainpipe, rescue the toaster thing, and scarper before Satan in there finally manages to wrench the kitchen door open."
"Right," said Bob. "Fine. See, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
"S'pose." Russell looked sheepish.
"After you, then."
Surprisingly, it was approximately twice as difficult for two people to climb a drainpipe up two floors as it had been for one person to climb it up one. Also, there were several occasions upon which Russell accidentally kicked Bob in the face with his rather pointy boots, which was not appreciated. Accordingly, tempers were a little bit frayed when, at last, they were both balanced rather precariously on the roof.
"Where is this thing then?" said Bob.
"Behind the chimney."
"Well, let's just get it and fuck off home."
"I hope you know, this is the last time I go on holiday with you," muttered Russell, as Bob clambered across the roof to the chimney stack.
"Who said I was gonna ask you?" Bob called back.
The toaster-thing was exactly where Russell had left it, propped up on a pillow and covered with a flowery bedspread, neither of which did much to mitigate the truly horrible horror of the scene.
"Oh my God..." said Bob, and put a hand to his mouth. "Who -- what kind of a mind would create this sort of... monster?"
"I reckon it probably wasn't quite as bad when it still had all its skin on," said Russell, coming up behind him. The thing appeared to be asleep, or possibly on standby. From its mouth (or grill, or something) faint wheezing static could be heard.
"God, I think I'm gonna be sick." Bob turned to his partner. "Look at it, Russell -- it's awful! The poor thing's in pain!"
Russell quietly slipped his hand into Bob's and gave it a squeeze. "Come on," he said. "Let's pick it up and get out of here, eh?"
Using the bedspread as a kind of sling and taking one end each, they managed to heave the unconscious creature to the edge of the roof, where they laid it gently down on the slates.
"I reckon," said Russell. "If I go first and then you slowly lower it down, I might be able to catch it. I think. Maybe?"
Bob looked doubtful. It didn't matter much, though. At that moment, a horrible, booming, rasping, crackling voice started booming and rasping up at them.
"You sodding little bastards," it rasped, "Stop running away!" It sounded slightly out of breath.
"Shit!" said Bob, rather unnecessarily. "It's the Devil!"
"Come on!" said the Devil. "Come down... I'm really in the mood for some lovely fried skin. Mmm, crispy!"
"That don't sound very healthy," said Russell to Bob. He wrinkled his nose. A sort of charring, burning smell wafted up to them. He hoped it was just a personal odour, and not the scent of some sort of appetiser.
"Quiet," said Bob. "I'm gonna try and reason with it."
He leaned precariously over the edge of the roof and looked down. In the gloom, he could just make out the terrifying figure of the Devil. He looked back at Russell. "I thought it'd be bigger, somehow," he said.
"Ah, well," said Russell. "That's always the way with famous people."
"Um... You there! Devil!" called Bob down to the surprisingly diminutive cloven-hoofed entity.
"What?" said the Devil.
"We're not coming down, because we don't want our skins eaten. So why don't you just go back where you came from--"
"Yeah, go to Hell!" put in Russell.
"That's right, and stop eating people's skin. Because that's just horrible."
"And it's probably unhygienic!"
Bob and Russell looked at each other and nodded. If that didn't work, nothing would. There was a small pause.
"No," said the Devil.
"Oh, bugger!" said Bob. He looked aghast. Russell could kind of understand how he felt.
Bob sat down on the slates. "Well," he said. "I suppose this means we're going to die from the Devil eating our skins off."
Russell considered the situation, and winced. "Yeah, Noel," he said. "I'm afraid that probably is, basically, what is about to happen to us."
Bob nodded. "At least I'm wearing my favourite jacket," he said.
"Yeah," said Russell, sitting down next to him. "There is that."
They stared dejectedly up at the dark clouds.
"Do you think," Russell said, "he'll mess with me hair? 'Cos skin's one thing, but I don't like the thought of that."
"How d'you think he'll do it?" Russell said. "I mean, do you reckon he removes it first, or does he go for you straight away with the teeth, or what?"
"I suppose it will hurt," Russell went on after a while. "There's no gettin' around that, really, is there? Skin removal, generally... a painful business..."
"I wouldn't mind," Russell continued, "but--"
"Oh shut up, you tart," interrupted Bob, and kissed him on the mouth. Then there was a short interval, during which nobody said anything. Even the Devil was quiet.
"Yeah... I didn't actually mean to do that," Bob said eventually. "It's just you were being pretty annoying, and..."
Russell smiled and looked away. "Nah, that's all right," he said. "These things happen."
There was another small silence.
"Look, I just want to say," started Bob, but he was interrupted by a sort of rasping, crackling scream from below.
"Hang about," said Russell. "That sounded a lot like our mate the Devil."
Bob jumped up and went to look over the edge of the roof. When he turned back to Russell he was grinning with delight.
"I told you!" he said. "Didn't I tell you they'd make good pets?"
Russell clambered over the slates to join him. Down in the little back garden, he could see the shadowy form of the Devil, standing in a patch of nettles and beating furiously at the air around his head.
"Sodding bats," he bellowed. "I sodding hate sodding bats."
"They must have got into the Skittles packet," said Bob, as they peered down together at the beleaguered beast. "It's the sugar -- it sends 'em crazy-mad."
"Oh, blimey!" said Russell. "Look at that -- he's disappearing in a... would you say that was a billowing, reddish-black, sulphurous cloud, Noel?"
"I'd say, yeah."
They waited a few minutes to see what would happen. Esmeralda, Ivan and Commodore Stevens flapped around the garden squeaking, wondering where their prey had gone. The Devil did not reappear, however, so eventually they returned to Bob and hung themselves upside down from the zips on his jacket.
"Aw, they've worn themselves out," Bob said. "Did you see that, though? It was brilliant!"
"Yeah," said Russell. "Yeah, it was. Suppose this means we're not gonna die, then?"
"S'pose so, yeah."
"Right." Russell poked at a bit of moss on the guttering with the toe of his boot, pushing it off and into the night. "Well. Shall we go home, then?"
They laid the toaster-thing in a nest of blankets in the back of the hearse.
"Don't it look peaceful?" said Russell. "Well, to be honest, it looks dead, but that is, technically, peaceful."
"Oi!" said Bob. "Be quiet, it might hear you. Poor little thing..."
They observed the hideous object for a while.
"You can't keep it," said Russell.
Bob looked at him resentfully.
"It wants specialist care!" said Russell. "We don't know how to give it the sort of attention it needs. We don't know anything about it. Bats is one thing, Noel, but there ain't gonna be no books in the library called Half-Human Toaster Care for Beginners."
Bob carefully shut the patient in and went round to the hearse's passenger door. He pointed at Russell accusingly over the top of the vehicle.
"You," he said, "wanna start being more grateful. If it weren't for them bats, you'd be a skinless wonder too, just like Fred in there."
"Fred?" said Russell incredulously. "Fred?"
"Oh, just get in the car."
"Well." Russell started the engine and they took a last look at the little cottage, more depressing than ever in the first grey light of dawn. "That weren't the most relaxin' holiday what I've ever had."
"Yeah, well it wasn't really a holiday, was it? It was a job. I just said that about going on holiday 'cos I thought it'd be a nice, snappy way to round off the scene. Sort of a throwaway line, you know. All the best detectives have 'em."
Bob rolled his eyes. "The scene that set the scene, Russell. Where we got the phone call that sent us off on our adventure. And then the next scene would have been us arriving outside the cottage."
"What about that whole long bit in between those two scenes, then, where we missed the exit off the M1 'cos you was so busy starin' out the window, and then we ended up driving for miles in the wrong direction? And what about that bit where you accused me of embarrassing you at that vegan roadside eatery, and then you went into this massive sulk for about two hours? Weren't they scenes, then?"
"Yeah, but those would have been edited out, obviously. They weren't pertinent to the narrative."
Russell adjusted the rear-view mirror to the best angle for hair-checking. Bob was examining his fingernails.
"About what happened," he began. "You know, before."
Russell looked away. "Yeah, look, Noel -- Bob -- it don't matter..."
"Call me Noel if you want," said Bob. "I don't mind. Anyway, listen, I--"
He broke off. Russell watched as realisation dawned gradually on his face, and thought it was a bit like watching early-morning sunlight break across a snow-capped mountain ridge. Kind of.
Bob stared at his partner.
"Russell," he said in a low voice. "I just thought. Are we getting paid?"