Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Dan Simmons: Shave And A Haircut

Dan Simmons, Shave And A Haircut, Relatos de misterio, Tales of mystery, Relatos de terror, Horror stories, Ghost stories, Historias de fantasmas, Short stories, Science fiction stories, Anthology of horror, Antología de terror, Anthology of mystery, Antología de misterio, Scary stories, Scary Tales


Outside, the blood spirals down.
I pause at the entrance to the barbershop. There is nothing unique about it. Almost certainly there is one sim-ilar to it in your community; its function is proclaimed by the pole outside, the red spiralling down, and by the name painted on the broad window, the letters grown scabrous as the gold paint ages and flakes away. While the most ex-pensive hair salons now bear the names of their owners, and the shopping mall franchises offer sickening cutenessesт-Hairport, Hair Today: Gone Tomorrow, Hair We Are, Headlines, Shear Masters, The Head Hunter, In-Hair-itance, and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseumт-the name of this shop is eminently forgettable. It is meant to be so. This shop offers neither styling nor unisex cuts. If your hair is dirty when you enter, it will be cut dirty; there are no shampoos given here. While the franchises demand $15 to $30 for a basic haircut, the cost here has not changed for a decade or more. It occurs to the potential new customer immediately upon entering that no one could live on an income based upon such low rates. No one does. The potential customer usually beats a hasty re-treat, put off by the too-low prices, by the darkness of the place, by the air of dusty decrepitude exuded from both the establishment itself and from its few waiting custom-ers, invariably silent and staring, and by a strange sense of tension bordering upon threat which hangs in the stale air.
Before entering, I pause a final moment to stare in the window of the barbershop. For a second I can see only a reflection of the street and the silhouette of a man more shadow than substanceт-me. To see inside, one has to step closer to the glass and perhaps cup hands to one's temples to reduce the glare. The blinds are drawn but I find a crack in the slats. Even then there is not much to see. A dusty window ledge holds three desiccated cacti and an assort-ment of dead flies. Two barber chairs are just visible through the gloom; they are of a sort no longer made: black leather, white enamel, a high headrest. Along one wall, half a dozen uncomfortable-looking chairs sit empty and two low tables show a litter of magazines with covers torn or missing entirely. There are mirrors on two of the three interior walls, but rather than add light to the long, narrow room, the infinitely receding reflections seem to make the space appear as if the barbershop itself were a dark reflection in an age-dimmed glass.
A man is standing there in the gloom, his form hardly more substantial than my silhouette on the window. He stands next to the first barber chair as if he were waiting for me.
He is waiting for me.
I leave the sunlight of the street and enter the shop.

"Vampires," said Kevin. "They're both vampires."
"Who're vampires?" I asked between bites on my ap-ple. Kevin and I were twenty feet up in a tree in his back yard. We'd built a rough platform there which passed as a treehouse. Kevin was ten, I was nine.
"Mr. Innis and Mr. Denofrio," said Kevin. "They're both vampires."
I lowered the Superman comic I'd been reading. "They're not vampires," I said.
"They're barbers."
"Yeah," said Kevin, "but they're vampires too. I just figured it out."
I sighed and sat back against the bole of the tree. It was late autumn and the branches were almost empty of leaves. Another week or two and we wouldn't be using the treehouse again until next spring. Usually when Kevin an-nounced that he'd just figured something out, it meant trouble. Kevin O'toole was almost my age, but sometimes it seemed that he was five years older and five years youn-ger than me at the same time. He read a lot. And he had a weird imagination. "Tell me," I said.
"You know what the red means, Tommy?"
"What red?"

"On the barber pole. The red stripes that curl down."
I shrugged. "It means it's a barbershop."
It was Kevin's turn to sigh. "Yeah, sure, Tommy, but why red? And why have it
curling down like that for a barber?"
I didn't say anything. When Kevin was in one of his moods, it was better to wait him
out.
"Because it's blood," he said dramatically, almost whispering. "Blood spiralling
down. Blood dripping and spilling. That's been the sign for barbers for almost six
hundred years."
He'd caught my interest. I set the Superman comic aside on the platform. "OK," I
said, "I believe you. Why is it their sign?"
"Because it was their guild sign." said Kevin. "Back in the Middle Ages, all the guys
who did important work be-longed to guilds, sort of like the union our dads belong
to down at the brewery, and..."
"Yeah, yeah," I said. "But why blood?" Guys as smart as Kevin had a hard time
sticking to the point.
"I was getting to that," said Kevin. "According to this stuff I read, way back in the
Middle Ages barbers used to be surgeons. About all they could do to help sick
people was to bleed them, and..."
"Bleed them?"
"Yeah. They didn't have any real medicines or any-thing, so if somebody got sick
with a disease or broke a leg or something, all the surgeon ... the barber ... could do
was bleed them. Sometimes they'd use the same razor they shaved people with.
Sometimes they'd bring bottles of leeches and let them suck some blood out of the
sick person."
"Gross."
"Yeah, but it sort of worked. Sometimes. I guess when you lose blood, your blood
pressure goes down and that can lower a fever and stuff. But most of the time, the
peo-ple they bled just died sooner. They probably needed a transfusion more than a
bunch of leeches stuck on them."
I sat and thought about this for a moment. Kevin knew some really weird stuff. I
used to think he was lying about a lot of it, but after I saw him correct the teachers in
fourth and fifth grade a few times ... and get away with it ... I realized he wasn't
making things up. Kevin was weird, but he wasn't a liar.
A breeze rustled the few remaining leaves. It was a sad and brittle sound to a kid
who loved summer. "All right," I said. "But what's all of this got to do with
vampires? You think 'cause barbers used to stick leeches on people a couple of
hundred years ago that Mr. Innis and Mr. Denofrio are vampires? Jeez, Kev, that's
nuts."
"The Middle Ages were more than five hundred years ago, Niles," said Kevin, calling
me by my last name in the voice that always made me want to punch him. "But the
guild sign was just what got me thinking about it all. I mean, what other business has
kept its guild sign?"
I shrugged and tied a broken shoelace. "Blood on their sign doesn't make them
vampires."
When Kevin was excited, his green eyes seemed to get even greener than usual. They
were really green now. He leaned forward. "Just think about it, Tommy," he said.
"When did vampires start to disappear?"
"Disappear? You mean you think they were real? Cripes, Kev, my mom says you're
the only gifted kid she's ever met, but sometimes I think you're just plain looney
tunes."
Kevin ignored me. He had a long, thin faceт-made even thinner looking by the
crewcut he woreт-and his skin was so pale that the freckles stood out like spots of
gold. He had the same full lips that people said made his two sisters look pretty, but
now those lips were quivering. "I read a lot about vampires," he said. "A lot. Most
of the serious stuff agrees that the vampire legends were fading in Europe by the
Seventeenth Century. People still believed in them, but they weren't so afraid of them
anymore. A few hundred years earlier, suspected vampires were being tracked down
and killed all the time. It's like they'd gone underground or something."
"Or people got smarter," I said.
"No, think," said Kevin and grabbed my arm. "Maybe the vampires were being
wiped out. People knew they were there and how to fight them."
"Like a stake through the heart?"
"Maybe. Anyway, they've got to hide, pretend they're gone, and still get blood.
What'd be the easiest way to do that?"
I thought of a wise-acre comment, but one look at Kevin made me realize that he was
dead serious about all this. And we were best friends. I shook my head.
"Join the barbers guild!" Kevin's voice was trium-phant. "Instead of having to break
into people's houses at night and then risk others finding the body all drained of
blood, they invite you in. They don't even struggle while you open their veins with a
knife or put the leeches on. Then they ... or the family of the dead guy ... pay you.
No wonder they're the only group to keep their guild sign. They're vampires,
Tommy!"
I licked my lips, tasted blood, and realized that I'd been chewing on my lower lip
while Kevin talked. "All of them?" I said. "Every barber?"
Kevin frowned and released my arm. "I'm not sure. Maybe not all."
"But you think Innis and Denofrio are?"
Kevin's eyes got greener again and he grinned. "There's one way to find out."
I closed my eyes a second before asking the fatal ques-tion. "How, Kev?"
"By watching them," said Kevin. "Following them. Checking them out. Seeing if
they're vampires."
"And if they are?"
Kevin shrugged. He was still grinning. "We'll think of something."

I enter the familiar shop, my eyes adjusting quickly to the dim light. The air smells of
talcum and rose oil and tonic. The floor is clean and instruments are laid out on
white linen atop the counter. Light glints dully from the surface of scissors and
shears and the pearl handles of more than one straight razor.
I approach the man who stands silently by his chair. He wears a white shirt and tie
under a white smock. "Good morning," I say.
"Good morning, Mr. Niles." He pulls a striped cloth from its shelf, snaps it open
with a practiced hand, and stands waiting like a toreador.
I take my place in the chair. He sweeps the cloth around me and snaps it shut behind
my neck in a single, fluid motion. "A trim this morning, perhaps?"
"I think not. Just a shave, please."
He nods and turns away to heat the towels and prepare the razor. Waiting, I look
into the mirrored depths and see multitudes.
Kevin and I had made our pact while sitting in our tree on Sunday. By Thursday
we'd done quite a bit of snoop-ing. Kev had followed Innis and I'd watched
Denofrio.
We met in Kevin's room after school. You could hardly see his bed for all the heaps
of books and comics and half-built Heath Kits and vacuum tubes and plastic models
and scattered clothes. Kevin's mother was still alive then, but she had been ill for
years and rarely paid at-tention to little things like her son's bedroom. Or her son.
Kevin shoved aside some junk and we sat on his bed, comparing notes. Mine were
scrawled on scraps of paper and the back of my paper route collection form.
"OK," said Kevin, "what'd you find out?"
"They're not vampires," I said. "At least my guy isn't."
Kevin frowned. "It's too early to tell, Tommy."
"Nuts. You gave me this list of ways to tell a vampire, and Denofrio flunks all of
them."
"Explain."
"OK. Look at Number One on your stupid list. 'Vam-pires are rarely seen in
daylight.' Heck, Denofrio and Innis ire both in the shop all day. We both checked,
right?"
Kevin sat on his knees and rubbed his chin. "Yeah, but the barbershop is dark,
Tommy. I told you that it's only in the movies that the vampires burst into flame or
something if the daylight hits them. According to the old books, they just don't like
it. They can get around in the daylight if they have to."
"Sure," I said, "but these guys work all day just like our dads. They close up at five
and walk home before it gets dark."
Kevin pawed through his own notes and interrupted. "They both live alone, Tommy.
That suggests something."
"Yeah. It suggests that neither one of them makes enough money to get married or
have a family. My dad says that their barbershop hasn't raised its prices in years."
"Exactly!" cried Kevin. "Then how come almost no :ne goes there?"
"They give lousy haircuts," I said. I looked back at my list, trying to decipher the
smeared lines of pencilled scrawl. "OK, Number Five on your list. 'Vampires will not
cross running water.' " Denofrio lives across the river, Kev. I watched him cross it
all three days I was following him."
Kevin was sitting up on his knees. Now he slumped slightly. "I told you that I wasn't
sure of that one. Stoker put it in Dracula, but I didn't find it too many other
places."
I went on quickly. "Number Threeт-'Vampires hate garlic.' I watched Mr. Denofrio
eat dinner at Luigi's Tues-day night, Kev. I could smell the garlic from twenty feet
away when he came out."
"Three wasn't an essential one."
"All right," I said, moving in for the kill, "tell me this one wasn't essential. Number
Eightт-'All vampires hate and fear crosses and will avoid them at all cost.' " I
paused dramatically. Kevin knew what was coming and slumped lower. "Kev, Mr.
Denofrio goes to St. Mary's. Your church, Kev. Every morning before he goes
down to open up the shop."
"Yeah. Innis goes to First Prez on Sundays. My dad told me about Denofrio being
in the parish. I never see him because he only goes to early Mass."
I tossed the notes on the bed. "How could a vampire go to your church? He not
only doesn't run away from a cross, he sits there and stares at about a hundred of them each day of the week for about an hour a day."
"Dad says he's never seem him take Communion," said Kevin, a hopeful note in his
voice.
I made a face. "Great. Next you'll be telling me that anyone who's not a priest has to
be a vampire. Brilliant, Kev."
He sat up and crumpled his own notes into a ball. I'd already seen them at school. I
knew that Innis didn't fol-low Kevin's Vampire Rules either. Kevin said, "The cross
thing doesn't prove ... or disprove ... anything, Tommy. I've been thinking about it.
These things joined the bar-ber's guild to get some protective coloration. It makes
sense that they'd try to blend into the religious community too. Maybe they can train
themselves to build up a toler-ance to crosses, the way we take shots to build up a
tol-erance to things like smallpox and polio."
I didn't sneer, but I was tempted. "Do they build up a tolerance to mirrors, too?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I know something about vampires too, Kev, and even though it wasn't in
your stupid list of rules, it's a fact that vampires don't like mirrors. They don't throw
a reflection."
"That's not right," said Kevin in that rushy, teacherish voice he used. "In the movies
they don't throw a reflec-tion. The old books say that they avoided mirrors because
they saw their true reflection there ... what they looked like being old or undead or
whatever."
"Yeah, whatever," I said. "But whatever spooks them, there isn't any place worse
for mirrors than a barbershop. Unless they hang out in one of those carnival
funhouse mirror places. Do they have guild signs, too, Kev?"
Kevin threw himself backward on the bed as if I'd shot him. A second later he was
pawing through his notes and back up on his knees. "There was one weird thing," he
said.
"Yeah, what?"
"They were closed on Monday."
"Real weird. Of course, every darn barbershop in the entire universe is closed on
Mondays, but I guess you're right. They're closed on Mondays. They've got to be
vam-pires. QED, as Mrs. Double Butt likes to say in geometry class. Gosh, I wish I
was smart like you, Kevin."
"Mrs. Doubet," he said, still looking at his notes. He was the only kid in our class
who liked her. "It's not that tney're closed on Monday that's weird, Tommy. It's
what they do. Or at least Innis."
"How do you know? You were home sick on Mon-day."
Kevin smiled. "No, I wasn't. I typed the excuse and signed Mom's name. They never
check. I followed Innis around. Lucky he has that old car and drives slow, I was
able to keep up with him on my bike. Or at least catch up."
I rolled to the floor and looked at some kit Kevin'd given up on before finishing. It
looked like some sort of radio crossed with an adding machine. I managed to fake
disinterest in what he was saying even though he'd hooked me again, just as he
always did. "So where did he go?" I said.
"The Mear place. Old Man Everett's estate. Miss Plankmen's house out on 28. That
mansion on the main road, the one the rich guy from New York bought last year."
"So?" I said. "They're all rich. Innis probably cuts their hair at home." I was proud
that I had seen a connec-tion that Kevin had missed.
"Uh-huh," said Kevin, "the richest people in the county and the one thing they have
in common is that they get their haircuts from the lousiest barber in the state.
Lousiest barbers, I should say. I saw Denofrio drive off, too. They met at the shop
before they went on their rounds. I'm pretty sure Denofrio was at the Wilkes estate
along the river that day. I asked Rudy, the caretaker, and he said either Denofrio or
Innis comes there most Mon-days."
I shrugged. "So rich people stay rich by paying the least they can for haircuts."
"Sure," said Kevin. "But that's not the weird part. The weird part was that both of
the old guys loaded their car trunks with small bottles. When Innis came out of Mear
and Everett's and Plankmen's places, he was carrying big bottles, two-gallon jars at
least, and they were heavy, Tommy. Filled with liquid. I'm pretty sure the smaller jars
that they'd loaded at the shop were full too."
"Full of what?" I said. "Blood?"
"Why not?" said Kevin.
"Vampires are supposed to take blood away," I said, laughing. "Not deliver it."
"Maybe it was blood in the big bottles," said Kevin. "And they brought something to
trade from the barber-shop."
"Sure," I said, still laughing, "hair tonic!"
"It's not funny, Tom."
"The heck it isn't!" I made myself laugh even harder. "The best part is that your
barber vampires are biting just the rich folks. They only drink premium!" I rolled on
the floor, scattering comic books and trying not to crush any vacuum tubes.
Kevin walked to the window and looked out at the fad-ing light. We both hated it
when the days got shorter. "Well, I'm not convinced," he said. "But it'll be decided
tonight."
"Tonight?" I said, lying on my side and no longer laughing. "What happens
tonight?"
Kevin looked over his shoulder at me. "The back en-trance to the barbershop has
one of those old-style locks that I can get past in about two seconds with my
Houdini Kit. After dinner, I'm going down to check the place out."
I said, "It's dark after dinner."
Kevin shrugged and looked outside.
"Are you going alone?"
Kevin paused and then stared at me over his shoulder. "That's up to you."
I stared back.

There is no sound quite the same as a straight razor being sharpened on a leather
strop. I relax under the wrap of hot towels on my face, hearing but not seeing the
barber prepare his blade. Receiving a professional shave is a plea-sure which
modern man has all but abandoned, but one in which I indulge every day.
The barber pulls away the towels, dries my upper cheeks and temples with a dab of
a dry cloth, and turns back to the strop for a few final strokes of the razor. I feel my
cheeks and throat tingling from the hot towels, the blood pulsing in my neck. "When
I was a boy," I say, "a friend of mine convinced me that barbers were vampires."
The barber smiles but says nothing. He has heard my story before.
"He was wrong," I say, too relaxed to keep talking.
The barber's smile fades slightly as he leans forward, his face a study in
concentration. Using a brush and lather whipped in a cup, he quickly applies the
shaving soap. Then he sets aside the cup, lifts the straight razor, and with a delicate
touch of only his thumb and little finger, tilts my head so that my throat is arched and
exposed to the blade.
I close my eyes as the cold steel rasps across the warmed flesh.
"You said two seconds!" I whispered urgently. "You've been messing with that
darned lock for five mi-nutes!" Kevin and I were crouched in the alley behind Fourth
Street, huddled in the back doorway of the barber-shop. The night air was cold and
smelled of garbage. Street sounds seemed to come to us from a million miles away.
"Come on!" I whispered.
The lock clunked, clicked, and the door swung open into blackness. "Voila," said
Kevin. He stuck his wires, picks, and other tools back into his imitation-leather
Houdini Kit bag. Grinning, he reached over and rapped 'Shave and a Haircut' on the
door.
"Shut up," I hissed, but Kevin was gone, feeling his way into the darkness. I shook
my head and followed him in.
Once inside with the door closed, Kevin clicked on a penlight and held it between his
teeth the way we'd seen a spy do in a movie. I grabbed onto the tail of his
windbreaker and followed him down a short hallway into the single, long room of the
barbershop.
It didn't take long to look around. The blinds were closed on both the large window
and the smaller one on the front door, so Kevin figured it was safe to use the
pen-light. It was weird moving across that dark space with Kevin, the penlight
throwing images of itself into the mir-rors and illuminating one thing at a timeт-a
counter here, the two chairs in the center of the room, a few chairs and magazines
for customers, two sinks, a tiny little lavatory, no bigger than a closet, its door right
inside the short hall-way. All the clippers and things had been put away in drawers.
Kevin opened the drawers, peered into the shelves. There were bottles of hair tonic,
towels, all the barber tools set neatly into top drawers, both sets arranged the same.
Kevin took out a razor and opened it, holding the blade up so it reflected the light
into the mirrors.
"Cut it out," I whispered. "Let's get out of here."
Kevin set the thing away, making sure it was lined up exactly the way it had been,
and we turned to go. His pen-light beam moved across the back wall, illuminating a
raincoat we'd already seen, and something else.
"There's a door here," whispered Kevin, moving the coat to show a doorknob. He
tried it. "Drat. It's locked."
"Let's go!" I whispered. I hadn't heard a car pass in what felt like hours. It was like
the whole town was hold-ing its breath.
Kevin began opening drawers again. "There has to be a key," he said too loudly. "It
must lead to a basement, there's no second floor on this place."
I grabbed him by his jacket. "Come on," I hissed. "Let's get out of here. We're
going to get arrested."
"Just another minute..." began Kevin and froze. I felt my heart stop at the same
instant.
A key rasped in the lock of the front door. There was a tall shadow thrown against
the blind.
I turned to run, to escape, anything to get out of there, but Kevin clicked off the
penlight, grabbed my sweatshirt, and pulled me with him as he crawled under one of
the sinks. There was just enough room for both of us there. A dark curtain hung
down over the space and Kevin pulled it shut just as the door creaked open and
footsteps entered the room.
For a second I could hear nothing but the pounding of blood in my ears, but then I realized that there were two people walking in the room, men by the sounds of the
heavy tread. My mouth hung open and I panted, but I was unable to get a breath of
air. I was sure that any sound at all would give us away.
One set of footsteps stopped at the first chair while the other went to the rear wall. A
second door rasped shut, water ran, and there came the sound of the toilet flushing.
Kevin nudged me, and I could have belted him then, but we were so crowded
together in fetal positions that any movement by me would have made a noise. I held
my breath and waited while the second set of footsteps re-turned from the lavatory
and moved toward the front door. They hadn't even turned on the lights. There'd
been no gleam of a flashlight beam through our curtain, so I didn't think it was the
cops checking things out. Kevin nudged me again and I knew he was telling me that
it had to be Innis and Denofrio.
Both pairs of footsteps moved toward the front, there was the sound of the door
opening and slamming, and I tried to breathe again before I passed out.
A rush of noise. A hand reached down and parted the curtain. Other hands grabbed
me and pulled me up and out, into the dark. Kevin shouted as another figure dragged
him to his feet.
I was on my tiptoes, being held by my shirtfront. The man holding me seemed eight
feet tall in the blackness, his fist the size of my head. I could smell garlic on his
breath and assumed it was Denofrio.
"Let us go!" shouted Kevin. There was the sound of a slap, flat and clear as a rifle
shot, and Kevin was silent.
I was shoved into a barber chair. I heard Kevin being pushed into the other one. My
eyes were so well adjusted to the darkness now that I could make out the features of
the two men. Innis and Denofrio. Dark suits blended into black, but I could see the
pale, angular faces that I'd been sure had made Kevin think they were vampires. Eyes
too deep and dark, cheekbones too sharp, mouths too cruel, and something about
them that said old despite their middle-aged looks.
"What are you doing here?" Innis asked Kevin. The man spoke softly, without
evident emotion, but his voice made me shiver in the dark.
"Scavenger hunt!" cried Kevin. "We have to steal a barber's clippers to get in the big
kids' club. We're sorry. Honest!"
There came the rifle shot of a slap again. "You're ly-ing," said Innis. "You followed
me on Monday. Your friend here followed Mr. Denofrio in the evening. Both of you
have been watching the shop. Tell me the truth. Now."
"We think you're vampires," said Kevin. "Tommy and I came to find out."
My mouth dropped open in shock at what Kevin had said. The two men took a half
step-back and looked at each other. I couldn't tell if they were smiling in the dark.
"Mr. Denofrio?" said Innis.
"Mr. Innis?" said Denofrio.
"Can we go now?" said Kevin.
Innis stepped forward and did something to the barber chair Kevin was in. The
leather armrests flipped up and out, making sort of white gutters. The leather strops
on ei-ther side went up and over, attaching to something out of sight to make
restraining straps around Kevin's arms. The headrest split apart, came down and
around, and encircled Kevin's neck. It looked like one of those trays the dentist puts
near you to spit into.
Kevin made no noise. I expected Denofrio to do the same thing to my chair, but he
only laid a large hand on my shoulder.
"We're not vampires, boy," said Mr. Innis. He went to the counter, opened a drawer,
and returned with the straight razor Kevin had been fooling around with earlier. He
opened it carefully. "Mr. Denofrio?"
The shadow by my chair grabbed me, lifted me out of the chair, and dragged me to
the basement door. He held me easily with one hand while he unlocked it. As he
pulled me into the darkness, I looked back and caught a glimpse of my friend staring
in silent horror as Innis drew the edge of the straight razor slowly across Kevin's
inner arm. Blood welled, flowed, and gurgled into the white enamel gutter of the
armrest.
Denofrio dragged me downstairs.

The barber finishes the shave, trims my sideburns, and turns the chair so that I can
look into the closer mirror.
I run my hand across my cheeks and chin. The shave is perfect, very close but with
not a single nick. Because of the sharpness of the blade and the skill of the barber,
my skin tingles but feels no irritation whatsoever.
I nod. The barber smiles ever so slightly and removes the striped protective apron.
I stand and remove my suitcoat. The barber hangs it on a hook while I take my seat
again and roll up my left sleeve. While he is near the rear of the shop, the barber
turns on a small radio. The music of Mozart fills the room.

The basement was lighted with candles set in small jars. The dancing red light
reminded me of the time Kevin took me to his church. He said the small, red flames
were votive candles. You paid money, lit one, and said a prayer. He wasn't sure if
the money was necessary for the prayer to be heard.
The basement was narrow and unfinished and almost filled by the twelve-foot slab of
stone in its center. The thing on the stone was almost as long as the slab. The thing
must have weighed a thousand pounds, easy. I could see folds of slick, gray flesh
rising and falling as it breathed.
If there were arms, I couldn't see them. The legs were suggested by folds in slick fat.
The tubes and pipes and rusting funnel led my gaze to the head.
Imagine a thousand-pound leech, nine or ten feet long and five or six feet thick
through the middle as it lies on its back, no surface really, just layers of gray-green
slime and wattles of what might be skin. Things, organs maybe, could be seen
moving and sloshing through flesh as transparent as dirty plastic. The room was
filled with the sound of its breathing and the stench of its breath. Imagine a huge sea
creature, a small whale, maybe, dead and rotting on the beach for a week, and you've
got an idea of what the thing itself smelled like.
The mass of flesh made a noise and the small eyes turned in my direction. Its eyes
were covered with layers of yellow film or mucus and I was sure it was blind. The
thing's head was no more defined than the end of a leech, but in the folds of slick fat
were lines which showed a face which might once have been human. Its mouth was
very large. Imagine a lamprey smiling.
"No, it was never human," said Mr. Denofrio. His hand was still firm on my
shoulder. "By the time they came to our guild, they had already passed beyond hope
of hiding amongst us. But they brought an offer which we could not refuse. Nor can
our customers. Have you ever heard of symbiosis, boy? Hush!"
Upstairs, Kevin screamed. There was a gurgle, as of old pipes being tried.
The creature on the slab turned its blind gaze back to the ceiling. Its mouth pulsed
hungrily. Pipes, rattled and the funnel overflowed.
Blood spiralled down.
The barber returns and taps at my arm as I make a fist. There is a broad welt across
the inner crook of my arm, as of an old scar poorly healed. It is an old scar.
The barber unlocks the lowest drawer and withdraws a razor. The handle is made of
gold and is set about with small gems. He raises the object in both hands, holds it
above his head, and the blade catches the dim light.
He takes three steps closer and draws the blade across my arm, opening the scar
tissues like a puparium hatching. There is no pain. I watch as the barber rinses the
blade and returns it to its special place. He goes down the basement stairs and I can
hear the gurgling in the small drain tubes of the armrest as his footsteps recede. I
close my eyes.
I remember Kevin's screams from upstairs and the red flicker of candlelight on the
stone walls. I remember the red flow through the funnel and the gurgle of the thing
feeding, lamprey mouth extended wide and reaching high, trying to encompass the
funnel the way an infant seeks its mother's nipple.
I remember Mr. Denofrio taking a large hammer from its place at the base of the
slab, then a thing part spike and part spigot. I remember standing alone and watching
as he pounded it in, realizing even as I watched that the flesh beneath the gray-green
slime was a mass of old scars.
I remember watching as the red liquid flowed from the spigot into the crystal glass,
the chalice. There is no red in the universe as deeply red, as purely red as what I saw
that night.
I remember drinking. I remember carrying the chaliceт-carefully, so
carefullyт-upstairs to Kevin. I re-member sitting in the chair myself.

The barber returns with the chalice. I check that the scar has closed, fold down my
sleeve, and drink deeply.
By the time I have donned my own white smock and returned, the barber is sitting in
the chair.
"A trim this morning, perhaps?" I ask.
"I think not," he says. "Just a shave, please."
I shave him carefully. When I am finished, he runs his hands across his cheeks and
chin and nods his approval. I perform the ritual and go below.
In the candlelit hush of the Master's vault, I wait for the Purification and think about
immortality. Not about the true eon-spanning immortality of the Master ... of all the
Mas-ters ... but of the portion He deigns to share with us. It is enough.
After my colleague drinks and I have returned the chalice to its place, I come up to
find the blinds raised, the shop open for business.
Kevin has taken his place beside his chair. I take my place beside mine. The music
has ended and silence fills the room.
Outside, the blood spirals down.

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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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