Book: Black River (2016)

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Next: 8.





Hardy kicked through bottles strewn across the floor as he made his way to the lamp beside his bed. Fumbling in the darkness, first he fingered the bottle—the whiskey that would be his other torch—and then he felt the switch. He clicked it and the room was illuminated.

In the dim light the rubbish of his room was not only profane, it was mysterious—a hodgepodge of miscellaneous clutter, unprocessed waste that had settled where it fell like the rising bricks of his tomb. He sat down on the bed, wheezing, and then reached for the bottle. Fire water stung the inside of his throat and seared away the rawer bite of his disease. After a time, he reached down and untied his bootlaces. The pants came off, the jumper, and then he was swinging his legs up onto the damp mattress. Above him on the wall, a dank cloud of black mould had spread over the past weeks like some foul acheiropoieton, a dark Madonna come to mourn above the altar of his bed. It was like a shadow that loomed behind him, almost humanoid, alive in its own way. The world kept turning, every end was a new beginning. Would the mould reach down to him and take his body too before they found him? For a moment he felt guilty for Murphy, it was more than a cheeky prank he was leaving him. What would remain of Hardy was a little more shocking than a flaming bag of dogshit on the porch.

Leaning back against the headboard, Hardy brought the bottle to his mouth and drank greedily. With a guttural sigh, he wiped the droplets from his bearded lips and then slowly lowered his head to the pillow. He closed his eyes.

Outside the office, he’d received another transmission from the mystery caller. It had to be Ward’s boys. They were persistent in their intimidation and certainly they had the muscle to back it up—Hardy might have been concerned if he thought he would actually be around to see it all pan out. He smiled at the thought of being jumped by a pack of plainclothes thugs, even the slightest beating would do him in in this wasted state. He could see their faces now, shocked and suddenly guilty, wishing to take it all back for the first time in their lives—all that unchecked power and authority finally crumbling like the body of Hardy beneath them. Fuck ‘em. It would be too good a fate. And another big scoop for some other reporter to take up the mantle.

But no, they wouldn’t go that far, at least not for this transgression. Whatever came next would be politics purely and Downey would suffer the brunt of it. This little prank with the phone was merely child’s play.

Of course there was the other possibility that it was someone else, maybe someone from the phone store as he’d considered earlier, but that didn’t seem likely—a person whose very trade was phones would surely know how to use one, so why would they subject him to this? No, it had to be Ward. Nothing else made sense.

Another few mouthfuls of the devil’s brew and Hardy was ready to pass. He opened his eyes just long enough to set the bottle down beside the lamp on the bedside table and then he drifted off, first through the organic chaos of hypnagogia and then fully into the realm of dream.

He was walking through tunnels of sand-coloured brick, an endless catacomb, amber-lit from some unknown source, the light emanating from everywhere and nowhere at once. The corridors carried forward into darkness, the darkness always ahead and moving further away the further he went. He turned corners, square circuits surely, for around each corner each corridor was the same. The sand beneath his feet glittered, warm on his bare soles. He had to press forward, he had to see. These were the hallways he had always longed to walk.

One moment the darkness was ahead of him, the passageway stretching off in a spiral of ever-diminishing squares until just the one remained, just the black one, and then he was standing at the threshold of a broad rectangle courtyard, open to the sky and the firmament above. It was night, or perhaps that was not quite right—it was dark—in this place he felt that it was always dark, the void above not of any living atmosphere, just formless infinite empty black space. The walls here too were lit with that same syrupy golden glow, the bricks illuminated but not candescent, as though the light was diffusing from some other place far beyond the dimensions of the universe that reflected it. There were plants and vines crawling the walls, trembling with life, shuddering gently in the windless dead like alveoli and he could not discern the sand of the courtyard below for the blood and viscera, the butchery of all mankind against itself, that strew the way before him.

Across this bleeding, gruesome carpet—the fallen armour and weaponry of ages, sinewy and red-raw skulls, eyeballs glaring naked and insane from their meaty sockets—some great king reposed on a golden throne. Seven foot, eight foot, his bulging muscular body covered from head to toe with shining gold—the craftsmanship of the armour a testament to the flesh itself, so detailed in its design that even the muscles were veined. This great and regal beast sat slumped in his throne, golden visor nodding forward against his breast, as though finally exhausted by the excesses of whatever terrible feast had satiated him. Barefoot, Hardy stepped out towards him.

No path across the flesh parted for him through this red sea. The ground was uneven and wet beneath his naked toes, still warm with the recently-departed life, metallic steam rising up from the bodies like the very spirts of the fallen escaping. Warriors of all eras filled this agony garden, broken flesh-wrapped bones, orange and red with torn musculature and sinew, severed hands, skinned of meat and still clutching at the handles of their broken pikes and swords. Mongols, Paladins, Zulus, Trenchmen from the Somme, all impossibly transported from one hell to the next before falling here in the ancient tradition of their forebears. Hardy walked amongst them like some naked messiah, up to his calves in viscera, the gooey flesh slipping and sliding to accommodate him as he moved towards the king.

Stone steps rose up from the devastation to the throne that loomed like a tower above him. Closer now the triumphant warrior in gold was even bigger and broader than he’d seemed from the threshold. Beside the arm of his throne a great double-headed mace, this not golden but silver, leaned just within reach of the king’s gold-clasped fingers. How many skulls had this weapon grafted to, crushing the bone like wafer, liquefying the brains beneath and mocking any boundaries of a self-directed soul?

Hardy climbed the steps and reached out to wake the king. What was the judgement that awaited him? What was the final answer before even inquisition itself evaporated? He raised his hand up against the golden plate, up between the gold-muscled sternum. The metal was cold to the touch of his open palm, there was no resistance. The head lolled to the side and the visor fell open. Only dust poured out.

Now the armour was crumbling in on itself, powdery grain glittering in that every-light and streaming out from every aperture like sand from a broken hourglass. In rivers it came forth, the form and shape of the king shrinking with every second, the dust warm and cleansing as it poured over Hardy’s feet and legs and onto the bloodfield beneath. Now the armour too was melting, dissolving in golden pools that were more energy than liquid as it merged with the dust, flowing forever forward. The throne too dissolved and the bricks of the walls beyond. Hardy turned back to look over the courtyard and saw that all was melting, flowing together in thick, transparent beams of red and gold, amber and rose. The sky above now erupted with cosmic epiphanies, galaxies and stars of impossible brightness, searing life-giving electricity exploding like fireworks over Olympus. All beneath was golden-red, merging together, liquescent no longer, now transparent, nourishing—energetic and essential. It surrounded Hardy, flowed through him, dissolving his flesh and bone until he too was transparent and formless. Above, a great black hole ripped open the darkness, its quavering borders deep electric-purple and its centre somehow blacker than the endless void it inhabited. Hardy watched as it grew wider and wider, a terrible black vastness that threatened to engulf everything below as it descended, closer and closer…

Hardy was lying beneath water, the surface overhead rippling with the cleansing sunlight of a blue sky above. He could see the ovate underbodies of ducks paddling over him on the water, their little duck flippers kicking left and right against the water. All was tranquil. All fear removed, all doubt, every thought and pretence, every idea, cleansed and removed. This is the end, he whispered to himself, and no water filled his open mouth. No air bubble rose with the words. This is how it ends.

Beneath his body there was only emptiness, lightness, nothing. He let himself fall softly, drifting downwards, away from the light above. As he sank, the water grew cool, the world overhead now distant, the white shimmering globe of the sun small and amorphous like the face of an infant yet to be born and the ducks like tiny trembling water-insects flitting to and fro across the shimmering aqueous ceiling. It was cold now, cold and comforting. It was getting dark. The sun disappeared and Hardy saw nothing at all.




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