There was a vacant stool at the bar in the black dog. Eddie slid onto it and caught Dave the barman’s eye.
‘Glenmorangie, please. Double.’
Dave nodded and turned away to grab a glass. Eddie caught sight of himself in the mirror behind the spirit bottles. Grey-faced, hollow-eyed, gaunt. Not a great look. He saw how the other patrons at the bar were leaning away from him, edging their stools further along. He probably smelled bad, he thought. The company he was keeping, it was inevitable.
Dave brought the whisky and took his money without the slightest hint of revulsion — but he was a professional, and the Black Dog having the history that it did, there were probably stranger folk than Eddie turning up on a daily basis.
‘You’re looking tired, Eddie,’ he said.
‘Tired isn’t really the word,’ said Eddie with a twisted smile he saw reflected in the mirror.
Dave moved down the bar to serve someone else, and Eddie downed the whisky in one gulp, savouring the artificial heat that lit him up for a moment or two, easing the deep chill that lay next to his bones. The effect began to dissipate, and he felt the longing for some real warmth. He looked around the bar, but he knew he would get nothing unless he tried to look more like the living.
It was not a long walk home, back to the High street to his flat above the bakery. Stripping off his clothes, he got into the shower. The water was hot, but it only warmed his skin. They really pulled it out of you, and gave so little back.
He threw on some clean clothes, and thought he looked almost normal, maybe like someone who had been really ill, but that was normal these days, wasn’t it?
There was a club that opened at nine. He went there for some more alcohol and the possibility of contact with a warm body.
There was dancing. Eddie was a good dancer, and not pushy like so many men, so women liked to dance with him. Eventually there would be a slow number, and he would get to hold a partner, and suck in a little life. He only ever got one slow dance, though. They would start to feel unwell, blame the drink, and that would be it — but just that little top-up of vitality would be enough to keep him going.
A little before midnight he would climb up the hill, ready for another night without sleep. As he went uphill in the real world, he was fully aware that in every other way he was going downhill. If he had been able to take a bit of sleep in the daytime things might be better, but the dreams that crowded in on him when his eyes closed would not allow him that peace, being so vivid that he might as well be awake.
At the top of the hill was a house with no light in any window, but the side door was unlocked for him as usual. He stepped inside and found his way to the basement door by the light of his phone. The basement itself was lit by a multitude of ritual candles. In the middle of the space, the circle was set up for him, ready charged, tonight’s subject lying on the stone slab at its centre — a middle aged man, cold and still, looking quite peaceful. Well, that would not last.
A sheet of paper lay at the man’s feet. Eddie picked it up and read through the questions before beginning the ritual. As the incantations progressed the man began to twitch and moan. Eddie always hated this part. He tried to remember the warmth of his dancing partner’s body, even as that warmth was sucked out of him.
At last the man shuddered and sat up, puzzled, unhappy, with no control over his limbs, as if he had forgotten what they were for.
‘Hello, Arthur,’ said Eddie, ‘just a few questions and then you can go back again. Where did you hide the life insurance policy?’
Arthur scowled, his eyes swivelled in their sockets.
‘Don’t be awkward,’ said Eddie, ‘or you’ll be stuck here, and you wouldn’t want that.’
He uttered the few words that threw the body into an agonising spasm, then asked the question again.
‘Garage, toolbox,’ croaked Arthur through dry, barely usable vocal chords.
Eddie noted that and moved on.
‘Account number and passwords for your secret bank account?’
With the occasional nudge, Arthur provided all that was asked for, but with increasing reluctance and as much anger as he could muster.
‘Any other stashes?’
Arthur screamed his safety deposit box number.
‘Last one. Billy would like to know why you never loved him?’
‘Not my son,’ growled Arthur.
‘Okay, back you go, begone.’
He made the gestures of dismissal, and the body flopped back onto the slab. Next to the last question, Eddie wrote, ‘Emotional inadequacy.’
Once the final candle was extinguished he laid the paper in the niche at the back of the room and took his fee.
Dawn was breaking. He stepped out into the morning, drained, shivering, and longing again for some human warmth.