The Reluctant Torturer

by Andy Sparrow

The beaten-up Nissan Estate wound its way through the icy backstreets of London’s Kensington, as its driver scanned the grand, double-fronted houses for signs of life. Not signs of the opposite like usual, but life; and not just lights on and shadows moving against blinds, but real lively life: A party. He rounded a corner and there were many costumed people standing in the street, waving, and climbing into cars, not out, so the party was finishing and no good to him, and anyway it had been a kid’s party: An excited Disney Princess and a Sugar-rushed Fairy skipped down the path with their ugly sisters in tow, and piled into a big sedan; a Sleeping Beauty draped over her Frankenstein father’s shoulder as he waved goodbye to his hosts. A little Monster ran out in front of the Nissan and he braked, swearing under his breath. Kids could be so annoying; they were the worst thing about Halloween, and should’ve been confined to quarters, not allowed to roam the streets like packs of rabid dogs. Still, he was glad of them in a way – Halloween wouldn’t be half as fun if the children hadn’t continued to dress up as they grew into adults.

The car’s heater was bust, but he was still sweating; a fear-based sweat. Was he stupid to be gambling his life on such a far-fetched plan? He could be burgling right now and be raising the money he needed for tomorrow, but then he’d have to find a fence tonight and… no, he liked this idea. It was a gamble, but he loved a gamble. That’s what had got him into this nightmare in the first place, but as they say ‘you win some, you lose some’, or in his case ‘you lose some, you lose some’. Tonight though, he had a good chance of winning; of killing two birds with one stone

At the T-junction with the Old Brompton Road, he stopped to check his Nokia. Two texts from his crew needing supplies. He didn’t reply. He was saving all he had for his gamble.

Across the road he spied two cute girls walking west, dressed as cartoon characters, or superheroes? One had a skullcap with pointy ears, a black bodystocking and a wired tail which wagged in the wind; the other had a tiara and a cape which flew around her. He liked them and found himself licking his lips – something he was trying to avoid doing. Where were they going? Not home surely? They looked excited, like they were just starting their evening, not finishing it, and were going to a grown-up fancy-dress party; somewhere, where he could quickly make some serious cash. He decided to follow them so overtook them, parked his car and killed the engine. He took a deep breath while he watched them approach in the mirror.

He was already wearing most of his outfit, so he pulled on his mask and grabbed his hat, before remembering he’d forgotten his ‘First Aid Kit’. He leant forward and felt around the steering column and up inside the dashboard until he found the pouch jammed amongst the wiring. Opening it, he scanned the contents for something that might make him more charming, or less un-charming? He retrieved a blue pill from its brothers in a bulging baggie and swallowed it, then stuck a licked finger in another baggie full of white powder, which he then sucked on. Yeah, that might do it, along with a couple of shots of something warming in a pub nearby?

He pocketed the pouch, then, holding his hat for fear of losing it, he got out of the car into the biting wind, pulling his own cape tightly around him. He trotted to catch up the girls, who continued until they were stopped by a red light on the junction with the Earl’s Court Road, so he hung back and looked in Martian Parson’s window. There was a property for sale for a quarter million billed as a ‘Potentially Stylish Studio’ but to him it looked just like the garage he was living in, but his was free, albeit in Burnt Oak. The lights changed and the girls continued straight on for thirty paces, but then turned right into the gates of a red-brick Mansion Block. He wasn’t quite ready to follow them in so carried on walking, making sure he saw which bell they pressed, then crossed the road, heading for a functional looking pub. He was about to enter when the door opened and two moustachioed blokes exited, also dressed in costumes, but theirs were leather and bondage gear, which led him to believe they probably dressed like that every day. As the bar-door was swinging shut he noted that most of the occupants were in similar uniform, so thought better of entering. He leant against the wall and tried not to look at the sight before him: Their exposed buttocks, one pair tanned and taut, the other pair wan and woolly, shivered in the wind. He shuddered and averted his eyes to the mansion block.

He guessed the party was on the third floor. There, on the balcony, was a Batman laughing with a Banana Split, and a Snowflake snogging a Snoopy. He set off across the road and arrived at the door as a Supergirl and a Jack Sparrow were just entering. They smiled, holding the door for him and as the lift wasn’t available, they started walking up together. Supergirl’s bag was open and her wallet was on display, and as she bounced up the stairs various items fell out. In an uncharacteristic mood he called after her and handed them back.

“Hello Zorro, and thanks,” said Supergirl, “are you a friend of Hannah’s or Dasha’s?”

His answer was already prepared, as was the middle-class accent to match her own.

“Neither. I’m meeting my girlfriend here,” he said, in a voice an octave higher than usual, “what about you Supergirl?”

“Mainly Dash,” she said, “we both sing and dance in ‘A Forest’.”

“What’s that?” he said.

“The West End’s longest running animal-based musical.” she said, before the Pirate added,

“Except for Cats & the Lion King.”

The young couple skipped on up the stairs and he fell behind, unable to keep up their pace. He could hear the laughter and music floating down from above, but he was in no hurry so took his time. He checked himself in a mirror on the next floor, straightening his mask, making sure the glue on his facial hair was holding, and setting his hat at a jaunty angle; then climbed the last set of stairs. There was a chance they could all turn out to be Mormons, but the music told a different tale. Would Mormons be listening to House music?

The door was open, and he walked into exactly what he was looking for: Everyone was in costume and looked well-healed; plenty of money to be made here, and maybe he’d leave with a new friend? How could he fail? Tonight, he was Zorro! He felt the drugs kicking in. He smiled and twirled his waxed moustache around his finger while scanning the long, high-ceilinged room with the tall sash windows on the left and the open-plan kitchen on the right.

Before him, two sofas were packed with various characters from history and culture: An Einstein flirted with a Marilyn; A Nixon passed a bong to a Churchill, both ignoring the idiot who’d come as Hitler. Fuck! Even he wasn’t that stupid! Behind them was a table of canapés which were being devoured by a Dinosaur. Other characters stood around in groups drinking and passing joints. There seemed to be many men wearing shades, dressed in black suits, ties and undersized fedoras, but he wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be. Beyond them more seating, then at the far end a space had been cleared for dancing, and that was where most of the girls were, whooping and reaching for the ceiling in a synchronized routine. Among them, he caught a glimpse of the Pointy Ears and the Tiara which had brought him here in the first place.

 

HANNAH looked about her packed apartment and smiled as she danced. Her party was already a great success and it wasn’t even closing time. Almost everyone had made a great effort with their costumes, except for some of the guys who’d done the minimum and come as Blues Brothers. That included quite a few of her clients, but, as their Footsie 100 companies would be putting in enormous orders on Monday, they could be forgiven.

Among other colourfully costumed characters, she was dancing with her business partner, Ben, dressed as Liberace and her close friend (and new lodger) Dasha, a beautiful Russian clad as a blue mutant from the X-Men movies, appropriate for her athletic body. Hannah herself though, being less than five feet tall, was dressed as Minnie Mouse in signature red smock with white polka-dots. The costume though, had come from the child’s department and was meant for someone even smaller than her, so she was falling out the top, while it barely covered her bottom.

A new track mixed in and everyone cheered as they recognized an old classic: “There’s Nothing I Won’t do,” by JX.

Yeah, she thought, there’s nothing I won’t do. There was a joy in abandoning all boundaries, being open to anything. Alcohol was the great ‘opener’, brushing aside reason, and even fear. But that wasn’t always appropriate: A mix of other ingredients, sometimes was needed. A little grass could mellow her out and made her think ‘creatively’; an ‘E’ could made her way more loving, or just plain horny; and a few lines of coke could make her more sociable, if that was possible. A party obviously required all of these, and other ingredients: An experimental punch which was always needing tweaking to boost one feeling or counteract another; a balancing act which was working superbly in that very moment.

She had a flashback to last year when she dressed as Raquel Welch’s character in ‘2000 years BC’ wearing a suede bikini; they’d been dancing in the back bedroom and the whole room had been blacked out – no lights except a tiny spot on the DJ’s decks, thus anyone could do anything, and she had, sometimes without knowing who she was doing it with.

There’s nothing I won’t do.

Like another ‘E’ perhaps? But wait, didn’t she just judge the cocktail as working superbly? She did, but it could always work

extra superbly. But maybe she’d done a bit too much coke for the ‘E’ to work at all? She could do an ‘E’ and then take coke later and it almost complimented it, but not the other way around; there was just no point. That had never stopped her in the past though. She’d been looking out for Jerome, her dealer, who was coming as Toulouse Lautrec, but no sign thus far. Fuck it! She’d have another line while she waited. She grabbed Dash’s hand and dragged her to her bedroom.

 

ART sat at his drawing board, staring out the window of his eerie, while waiting for inspiration. Below, to his left was the junction with the Portobello Road and his old haunt the Black Cross pub, where it looked like they were having a hot and sweaty lock-in.

Art wasn’t hot or sweaty, even though he was still wearing his winter motor-cycling gear, as he’d got in and found the flat’s heating was not working. He had removed his helmet though, as keeping it on would’ve been silly (and would’ve made eating soup impossible). Instead, he wore a lumberjack hat, to guard against the icy wind swerving through the old sash windows, rattling in their frames. A fleck of snow flew past the window and Art stared enviously at the block opposite with its new double glazing.

On the ground floor, Joyce opened her window and called to her many, many cats; above her, Fran and Zoe’s windows were steaming up from their vigorous exchange of bodily fluids, whilst mostly naked; as was their neighbour Melvin, who was such a messy eater that it saved on laundry. Above them, Janine was packing her belongings into removal boxes, which was a shame; he’d enjoyed watching the unfolding tableau of her family’s life through these windows and in the community: The horrible kids; the un-house-trainable dog; the carousel of lovers/clients? But she and Art had never spoken in the street; never even acknowledged one another. In fact, she didn’t even know Art existed as she rarely took her eyes off the TV long enough to look out of the window, let alone into the flats opposite; and her name probably wasn’t Janine (unless for an uncanny coincidence). Art spent so many hours at his board, mulling over ideas; and was so easily distracted that he’d turn his imagination’s eye on to every passer-by and occupant, giving them names, jobs, quirky characteristics and even occasional deformities beneath their clothing. He scanned the rest of the windows, but nothing was stirring.

Down to the right of the block was a small playground where he’d used to take his daughter Aji when she’d been small. Since then it had been overtaken at night by a group of belligerent alcoholics called God, Piss, Alf and Amy (probably not their real names). At that moment they were picking Joyce’s many, many cats’ shits out of the sandpit, readying for bed.

The phone rang, then stopped and rang again, meaning it was Zal, his agent in Los Angeles. Zal didn’t really need to do the code anymore, as he was almost the only person to call Art on his landline, but it was reassuring. Art turned down the volume of his new favourite song, playing on repeat (‘Twist’ by Goldfrapp), then picked up.

“Artie-fartie-so-fartie! Fee-fi-fo-fartie! Bananna-fanna-fo-fartie! Artie!”

Zal was drunk.

“Artemis Grime! How’s the work coming?”

Art looked down at his drawing board and reviewed the rough pages he’d drawn for Zal, or more accurately, for his long-running serial: ‘Invasion of the Bobby Snatchers’ in Sex-Doll-Horror Monthly. His latest frame featured a semi-naked Japanese schoolgirl running from invading alien Octopoids.

“Five pages down, three to go.”

That was a lie. Why did he lie?

“So the roughs will all be done tonight?” asked Zal.

“Fingers crossed—”

“Tomorrow latest?”

“Fingers crossed—”

“Well, they’re very happy with you! They love your scripts and the evolution of your style over the past six months, and it’s popular with the readers. What’s your secret?”

“Going to less meetings? I find my mind works differently, less constrained maybe? More extreme?”

“But you’ve always extolled the virtues of Recovery to me—”

“Absolutely. Without it I’d be dead, and for the first few years I needed to be less extreme and more constrained.”

“Hmmm,” hmmed Zal, for once sounding like the grown-up; a weird role-reversal that made Art feel like explaining himself,

“When I was using, we’d say ‘this is an all-or-nothing situation’ and of course it was always ‘all’. Then I was in Recovery and it was always ‘nothing’: No drugs; no dishonesty; no extremes, but I think I also muffled the extremities of my imagination—”

“The pervy extremity?” Zal suggested, “and the outlandish, the eccentric, the preposterous and the leftfield?”

“Or maybe I’ve just unleashed the obsessive-compulsive gland that drives those parts—”

“But you’re still clean right?” said Zal, “as your agent I want your work to be as popular as possible, but not at the expense of your sobriety. If you relapse, I won’t be making any money out of you—”

Art laughed.

“Plus, of course, I care for you as a friend, obviously…”

“Obviously…”

“So when you say less meetings, how many is that exactly? Thirty being one a day in the last month; zero being none ever.”

“Er… Four.”

“I know I don’t have a leg to stand on, but aren’t you skating on thin ice?”

“That’s the fun of it,” Art said, allowing that high-pitched hysterical laugh to escape from his throat for a moment.

“Shit,” said the hypocrite, taking another swig of booze.

“Oh! I have news!” said Zal, “your ‘Head’ book, sorry, I mean I’m Keeping my Head has gotten interest from a few movie studios! Someone – I shall remain nameless – started a rumour about Spike Jonze coming to London to track down the illusive Artemis Grime, when all he had to do was call me! The Zal Kleminson! And now they’re bidding on the option! We’re up to $10,000! Isn’t that exciting? We could make some serious money here!”

“For a year’s option?” asked Art, “that is exciting!”

He heard Zal glug something, then burp.

“And it’s I’m Keeping the Head,” corrected Art, “the Head.”

“Whatever,” said Zal, “I imagine they’ll probably want to change that anyway, not snappy enough. So, what do you think? It’ll make me stop hassling you about promoting it if you accept?”

“That would be nice,” chuckled Art.

He had hated doing readings at Book Festivals in the summer. Was it his pride? Did he think he was above such shameless promotion? Or was he too humble, and didn’t like reading his own words out loud or talking about himself so much? Probably both, or neither: Come to think of it maybe it was because he’d never before done any public speaking sober?

“Also,” Zal continued, “whoever buys it will fly you over here, all expenses—”

“Unfortunately, I’m banned remember? Over ten years ago?”

“Ah, yes, on your Anthology’s book tour, for faking your own death in front of a live audience—”

“I didn’t fake it, I accidentally overdosed—” ₍₁₎

“Don’t worry about that. We can do a conference call, or with video on this new thing? Skype is it? So what do you think?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s a great idea though. Films never do books justice do they?”

“Who gives a fuck? We could be talking six figures if it goes into production!”

Zal made a robust case. Art needed the money, but:

“Look at Trainspotting – it was a film about junkies, but they weren’t even pinned—”

“Pinned?”

“Heroin makes your pupils contract to the size of a pin—”

“Are you comparing your little book with Trainspotting?”

“No, but actors mimic accents, wear costumes and put on make-up to appear realistic, why wouldn’t they wear contact lenses or whatever to make themselves look pinned? It ruined the whole movie for me.”

“Do you want me to write that into the contract? That the actor who plays Tony must actually be on smack?”

“No…”

“Okay Artie, sleep on it okay? Seriously, this could be a chance for you to buy somewhere, to secure your future, and Aji’s.”

“You make a good point Zal. I will sleep on it.” They said goodbye.

Art walked three paces into the kitchen, turned the kettle on and put some bread in the toaster. While waiting he went back to staring out of the window, while envisioning his next page. He checked his script for speech bubbles and had an idea for a pleasing composition for the page: Big frame bottom right surrounded by smaller frames to the left and along the top.

After two cups of hot tea, four rounds of toast, and half-an-hour of browsing eBay for stuff he didn’t know he needed until he bought it, he started to sketch the bottom right frame, where the girl had been caught, and was being given a stiff talking to by the Octopoid.

The female form was his favourite thing to draw, followed by motorbikes, cars, guns and architecture. Men? They came near the bottom alongside trees and ponds and bicycles – didn’t mean he couldn’t draw them, just that he didn’t enjoy it as much – not that he was often required to draw a man throwing a bicycle into a pond surrounded by trees. No, he was more often required to draw porn, or hentai, as his Japanese clients called it; though he didn’t know why they insisted he draw every erect penis, when they always pixilated them in the magazine?

Sex-Doll-Horror arrived on his doorstep monthly, but he didn’t archive the magazines like he had with the mags at the height of his cult-status. He wasn’t proud of them – not very ‘recovery’ oriented – so he donated them to God, Piss, Alf and Amy, who couldn’t read Japanese but enjoyed the pictures (except Amy).

Was ‘not being proud’ the same as ‘being ashamed’? No. Surely if he was ashamed, he wouldn’t even give them to the homeless. But of course, they didn’t know he was drawing the stories.

Yes, it was shame; because he had also added a felt cover to his drawing board, which he could pull over when his daughter came home. 

He seemed to spend an inordinately large amount of his time sitting at his drawing board, even when he wasn’t drawing. Was this his life? Watching people passing by, watching his neighbours, watching Aji get older, watching from the side-lines.

When he’d come into Recovery a dear old friend had bet him fifty quid that he’d be a football fan within six months. He’d replied (rather pretentiously, in hindsight) “I’m a doer, not a watcher,” but then he had been. In his previous life as a Gonzo journalist he’d partaken in every experience, alongside anyone – drug smugglers, war lords, slavers, arms dealers, dungeon masters, and worst of all…

politicians.

He’d travelled the world looking for trouble and invariably caused it ₍₂₎ then got paid handsomely to write about it in a best-selling men’s magazine. But since he’d got clean most of those experiences were to be avoided if he didn’t want to return to the gutter from which he came. But was there regret? Life did seem a little monotonous without his career as an adventure journalist.

The ‘Head’ book (as people annoyingly called it) had been based on a series of events that had happened to him a few years earlier in 1999. It had been published in the spring, but its sales were disappointing and had alienated him from his old friends Mickey and Hannah, who had been featured heavily much to their embarrassment. Maybe he should have done more than just change their names?

It was Halloween, and as usual Hannah was having what surely would be yet another legendary party, with Dash and all their glamorous friends (and this year also Aji); but he had not been invited. Hardly surprising, but annoying as he quite liked the idea at that moment.

At nine years clean and sober he didn’t feel so at risk in social situations. He didn’t mind being around wasters and found them quite amusing in their sloppiness, though since getting clean, he’d never tested his resolve by being around piles of heroin or bags of weed. It was weird that he was even thinking about it.

He wondered what Dasha was doing. Probably dancing; having fun; laughing; drinking… and he was drawing porn and staring out the window and waiting for her yet again.

They’d been getting closer and closer over the past few months and finally she’d left William, but the next step had still not happened; they hadn’t run into each other’s arms among the fruit stalls of the Portobello Road, and kissed passionately as the camera craned up to the blue skies…

Maybe they were already to entrenched in the Friend Zone? Shit.

 

HANNAH and Dasha sat at the dresser in the plush bedroom. Red velvet was Hannah’s latest theme. She watched their reflections as she expertly racked the lines of coke on the glass surface. Dash’s demonic contact lenses were freaking her out. She looked away and focussed on the coke.

“Coke always makes me horny.” she said, thinking aloud.

“Everything makes you horny.” said Dash laughing, which set off Hannah too.

“It’s true, though in fact I don’t really need anything to make me horny. It’s just my default setting now-days,” she shrugged, “and you’ve brought a lot of beautiful boys with you this year, from ‘A Forest’, I assume? They’re not all gay, are they?”

“No, quite a few have hit on me since they heard I’d split up with William—”

“So, have you taken advantage?” Hannah asked, “or are you as horny as me?”

“It’s only been a few weeks,” said Dash, “but it was great to know I could walk out on him and move straight in here. Thanks Sweetheart.”

Hannah smiled and looked around for something to snort through,

“Have you got a note on you?” she asked.

Dash unzipped her costume revealing her cleavage, which cradled a blue silk drawstring bag. She retrieved it and decanted the contents onto the dresser. Inside was her little Sanyo SCP-5300 flip-phone, her door keys and some notes.

“Now I understand why you wanted such a petite phone!” said Hannah, taking a twenty-pound-note.

Dash laughed and nodded,

“It is perfect!” she said, “it does everything I need, and is a quarter of the size of my last one.”

“Yup,” said Hannah, “small is good!” She rolled the twenty into a tube and snorted a line. The coke was zingy, and she felt her brain do a little dance which she nodded along to. She gave the note to Dash who half-heartedly snorted a third of a line then made a face. Hannah tried not to show her disapproval but failed:

“Come on, you can do better than that,” she implored.

“You just said ‘small is good’!” protested Dash, “I can feel it already thanks, that’s all I need.”

Hannah never understood people like Dash, the lightweights of the world. What was the point in having half a line? She took back the twenty and snorted the rest of Dash’s line, then one of the others.

“Hmm, I think it’s a toss-up between the Red Indian Chief and the Pirate?”

“As to who you want to have your way with?” said Dash, “well the Pirate came with Valerie? Supergirl? So I think she may have drawings on him.”

“Drawings?” enquired Hannah, quite used to Dash’s malapropisms, “you mean designs? Valerie has designs on him.”

Dash nodded,

“Designs; attraction; concupiscence; fancy; hunger; lust—”

“Very impressive, the Guardian Crossword is doing wonders for your vocabulary. Lust: That’s the one for me. Valerie’s probably more in the fancy ball-park.”

“Yes, she’s a lot more self-contained than you.”

“So she fancies the Pirate. Shame, but I guess that makes my decision easier. The Red Indian Chief it is.”

“I’m not sure we say ‘Red Indian’ anymore—”

“Oh-for-fuck’s-sake! This is P.C. gone mad!” hissed Hannah, “what do we say these days then?”

Dash thought for a moment then said,

“Why not call him the Big Chief?”

“Yup, that fits. Want to share this last line? No? Well then we don’t want it to go to waste do we?” she said, snorting the rest. Her nose went fizzy for a moment and she closed her eyes and shook her head,

“Come on, let’s go!” she said, jumping up and taking Dash’s hand.

Dash had looked like she was about to load everything back into its bag but, pulled along by Hannah, abandoned it all on the dresser.

 

ART thought about getting into bed, but the idea of taking off even his fleece-lined leathers was unthinkable. But a better idea occurred to him: As Aji was staying over at her friend Margot’s house after Hannah’s party, it meant he could borrow her electric blanket. He went to retrieve it. Aji had totally consumed his life for the past decade. She had been everything to him, his very reason to live. She still was, but at thirteen she didn’t seem to need him in the same way. She really just needed his money.

He thought back to his daily wait in the Primary School playground for the three-thirty bell to ring and the kids all flooding out in a wave of joy. It had been his favourite moment of the day and in retrospect he felt lucky he’d become unemployable, giving him the opportunity to experience Aji growing up. “Every Clown has a Silver Lining,” as the lovely Dasha would say. His ‘Clown’ had been his addictive tendencies from which he’d managed to make a good living by documenting his terrible behaviour. But as his addiction had taken grip, he’d found it harder to do the documenting, and was just left with his terrible behaviour. He would sit in front of his laptop staring at the blank Word doc with a fag hanging out his mouth (trying to recall the night before, or decipher his mumblings into his micro-cassette recorder), until his eyes slowly closed and, like Aji’s Drinking Bird toy, he would dip forward and another letter on the keypad had a hole burned into it.

 

DASHA was dancing again but suddenly felt exhausted and had to sit down. She’d done rehearsals and the show, then come straight to the party and had hardly stopped dancing until then, when she had to stop moving. That line had given her a momentary lift but since then it felt as if it had sucked away all her natural energy. She guessed that was why Hannah just continued to shovel the stuff up her nose, but really, wasn’t it better to just not start in the first place? She grabbed a bottle of water and flopped onto a free chair next to a man dressed as Zorro. He turned to her:

“You look all pooped out,” he said.

She drank as she tried to decipher the meaning of his words all pooped out. She didn’t want to ask – it sounded awful – she’d have to look that up in her little book of ‘Idiotic English Idioms’.

“So is that a costume?” asked Zorro, “or did you just spray yourself Mutant Blue?”

Dash smiled and said,

“I painted my hands and face and put in contact lenses – the rest is just a very skin-tight suit.”

Beneath his magnificent moustache, Zorro’s lecherous smile revealed an incomplete set of grey teeth. He scanned the dancefloor,

“There’s a lot of great dancers here,” he said, “are they from your show?”

Dash nodded,

“Yes, there’s quite a few here. See there’s a few giant inflatable heads on the dancefloor? They came straight from work.”

“A Forest? Named after the Cure song?”

“No, sadly. It would probably be a lot more interesting if it had been. It’s actually based on a Japanese video game called Animal Forest—”

They were interrupted by Morty, one of Hannah’s clients (dressed as a Blues Brother), who approached saying,

“Are you the man with the E? Snoopy says they’re great! Can I have two?”

Zorro nodded and got out a pouch containing zip-lock bags of various pills, powders, and vials.

“You’ve got quite the selection!” said Morty, as they did the exchange.

“Something for all tastes – uppers, downers, inside-outers,” Zorro said, turning to Dash, “you want anything Mystique?”

She waved away the suggestion, saying,

“Not for me, I’m—”

“Dash!” cried Hannah as she jumped on to her lap, “have you seen a black Toulouse Lautrec around?”

“Jerome? No, he’s not here yet, but Zorro here can help you—”

“Really?” said Hannah, turning the full power of her charm onto Zorro,

“Got any ‘E’, dear Zorro? That I can borrow? Until tomorrow?”

Dash had to cling on to Hannah to stop her from climbing all over the guy, who was opening his pouch.

“No problem, Minnie. It’s free to you cuz I know you and Mystique are the hostesses.”

Hannah was almost salivating at the selection:

“Ooh! What’s the purple stuff in the glass vial?”

“That’s to help you come down when you’ve done too much coke.”

“Ha! Excellent! Well maybe later – for now, just an ‘E’ please.”

Zorro placed a small pink pill in her hand which she immediately popped in her mouth, glugged some of Dash’s water then said,

“Maybe just one more?”

Zorro held another in front of her mouth between thumb and forefinger. Was he hoping she’d put her lips around them and pull the pill in with his tongue? It wouldn’t be out of character for her to, but Hannah stuck out her tongue, onto which he dropped the little pill. She smiled, took another swig of Dash’s water and went back to the dance floor.

Dash looked around the room and found Morty, downing his ‘E’ with a large Scotch. She pointed at him then said,

“He just said, ‘Quite the selection’, instead of ‘Quite a selection’.”

“Yeah, it might be a recent development, I think—”

“And what’s the difference?”

“Whether the speaker is a fucking gay, or not?”

Dash winced and tried to look beyond his mask to see if he was joking, but all she could see were black irises staring at the dance-floor, and even with the disco ball there was no lights reflected back; like black holes, no light escaped, and there was no smile curling his moustache this time. She was about to leave him when Zorro got up and said,

“Okay, I’m gonna do a little chemistry in the toilet but I’ll be here if you need me.”

Dash watched him as he bobbed through the crowd, occasionally stopping to dispense some fabulous pharmaceuticals.

Ben sat down beside her.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“Good, though I don’t like him,” she said, pointing at Zorro’s back.”

“Well Zorro and all your friends from ‘A Forest’ are very popular with our clients!”

He scanned the room,

“And how’s Hannah? She seems really on one tonight – bouncing like Tigger!”

Dash didn’t know who Tigger was but looked over at her pogoing on the dance floor.

“She’s been like this every night since I moved in!”

“Like Tigger? Oh shit!” he said, shaking his head, “you think she’s close?”

“I don’t know, she seems so happy, then I hear her crying in the night…”

Ben looked philosophical:

“I think she’s close. She’s not functioning properly anymore. She can’t do her job, except this part, the part that’ll kill her. She needs treatment…”

They nodded and watched as Hannah climbed the Big Chief.

 

ZORRO sprinkled some of the purple crystals among the tobacco then picked up the joint and licked its gummed edge. Expertly, he folded it over, rolled the paper and glued. He put the joints in his fag packet, unlocked the toilet door and peeked out. The plush red bedroom (which was supposedly out-of-bounds, according to the sign) was still empty, but would it have mattered if it hadn’t? Everyone here loved him! He was having a great time. He walked through and scanned the living room. There were so many good-looking girls at the party. Mainly gazelle-like, professional dancers apparently. He really was spoilt for choice. He’d liked the Middle Eastern Minnie Mouse a lot. She wasn’t the best looking, but she was the sexiest with her overt flirtiness and those awesome boobs sprouting from that tiny brown frame, he could’ve picked her up and popped her on right there. He’d also liked the Snowflake; the Marilyn and the Teddy Bear, and of course the blue mutant, who had just avoided him. Maybe it was his crack about the gays? But who gave a fuck? If he wanted her, he’d take her; she looked like she’d probably put up a good fight, which was always a bonus. But none of them perfectly fitted his requirements. His eye was always drawn back to the Pointy Ears and the Tiara, neither of which he’d had a chance to speak to yet.

The girl in the Catsuit was the first of the pair to break away from the herd, and he followed her first to the noisy kitchen, where she grabbed a bottle of water, then to the queue for the main toilet, behind a couple of horny looking penguins.

He wandered past her along the hall and opened the end door. It was a deep wardrobe packed with rails. He turned back and opened the door opposite the red bedroom. It was occupied with a number of his Ecstasy customers, who were disrobing each other, but when they saw him they paused to cheer. He bowed and backed out into the hall. A swift check revealed the red bedroom was not occupied and neither was its toilet. He went back to his quarry and stood behind her and she looked him over while opening her water.

“Zorro. Very nice.”

He smiled. She was perfect.

“Thank you – er – Kitty? Pussy-Willow? er…” he smirked.

She laughed and corrected him,

“Catwoman. Not as professional as yours but it was very last minute.”

She didn’t look like a woman to him. She looked… He felt his tongue emerging between his lips and quickly retracted it.

“Have you got a cigarette?” she asked.

He pulled out a packet, thumbed it open and, like a card sharp, forced her choice.

“Ooh, I’ll have one of your joints please,” she said, reaching out, but he pulled away, saying,

“I’m sorry, those aren’t for everyone; they’re ‘special’ ones; have a straight instead.”

“No, I like the sound of the ‘special’ ones, if you don’t mind.”

He shrugged and let her ‘choose’ for herself. It really was his lucky night.

While she lit up, he crossed the hallway,

“You know, there’s a free toilet in this bedroom here,” he said, opening the door while standing in front of the ‘No Entry!’ sign.

“Thank God! I’m bursting!” she cried, running over, joint in one hand, water in the other, as she tried to undo the poppers between her legs, turn on the light in the loo and lock the door. He followed her then sat on the red velvet, king-size bed and listened as she finally let out a very long sigh, then laughed,

“What is in this joint? I thought it was going to be grass… It’s got me all…”

He said nothing, just listened as she continued to talk, her speech getting more and more slurred.

 

ART had finished putting Aji’s electric blanket on his bed and was plucking up the courage to disrobe when his phone pinged. It was Aji texting:

 

“Cum get me dad NOW please X”

 

 

He texted

 

“coming x”

 

then put on his helmet and gloves while leaping down the stairs four at a time. His yellow squint-eyed BMW burst into life and he was away, through the back streets of Notting Hill and down towards South Kensington. The traffic was light and the whole journey to Hannah’s only took a few minutes, aided by the frantic tugging of his heart strings.

Outside Hannah’s he parked on the pavement and ran inside. The lift was busy, descending from a few floors above but he couldn’t wait so he ran up the stairs, scanning the costumed guests lounging on the carpeted steps. Inside, he scoured the packed room for Aji, examining every female as, shamefully, he couldn’t remember what she had planned on wearing. He tried calling her as he stomped through the apartment in his massive Wesco boots, but there was no reply. Maybe she was passed out somewhere, he thought, searching under the tables and behind the DJ’s station at the far end. Where were Hannah and Dash? He pushed his way into the kitchen, past a Harry Potter sharing slammers with a Victoria’s Secret Angel, who looked up at him and said,

“What’ve you come as? Judge Dredd?”

He looked back at her blankly before realizing he was still in his full biker gear, including helmet. More panicked, he continued the search; down the hall to the loo where a couple of Penguins were making out (with much difficulty). Then to the spare room, in which there seemed to be an orgy, but by shifting a few lithesome limbs (to much outraged objection) and shoving a hairy butt aside he was able to ascertain that Aji wasn’t partaking. For a moment he was confused: Was he relieved his jailbait daughter wasn’t having sex and thus still missing? Or if he’d found her under that hairy butt would he have been angry or just happy she was alive? He apologized and backed out the room. Next, he checked the end room – the one Hannah had turned over to her clothes. He pushed aside the coats as he advanced until he came to the clearing. Hanging rails, drawers, shelves, and boxes surrounded him. He heard a muffled cry from a corner and investigated. A couple were screwing on a pile of coats, but it wasn’t Aji. He left and closed the door behind him.

That only left Hannah’s door, decorated with a No Entry sign. He noticed his heart racing. He hadn’t seen Hannah in ages. He took a breath, trying to prepare himself for whatever debauchery he was bound to see inside, then knocked and entered.

Hannah, with a big red polka dotted bow in her hair and matching smock, sat at her dressing table with a Native American Chief, racking up a few lines of coke.

“Hi Hannah. Where’s Aji?”

Hannah turned and saw him and raised her eyebrows,

“Well, well, long time no see,” but then she seemed to clock the stress in his voice,

“Dunno, sorry. We were all dancing together only an hour ago? Maybe less?”

Art looked wistfully at Hannah and the drugs then shook the notion from his head, striding across the room to the en-suite and pushing on the door. A squeak came from inside, and there, sat on the loo was a naked Dash, with blue face and her one-piece costume around her knees. Art froze for a second (maybe more), before shaking his head and saying,

“Sorry Dash – I just got an S.O.S. text from Aji!”

Dash didn’t cover herself, just said,

“Did you call her, Arthur?”

“Yes, but no joy.”

“Shall I try Margot?” suggested Dash.

“You have her number?”

“Of course! If I can find my phone…”

Dash had babysat Aji since she was in primary school so knew all her friends better than ‘Arthur’ as she called him mistakenly. ₍₃₎

“Okay, and I’ll try Margot’s mum,” he said.

Art was closing the loo door when he noticed the lock was broken. There were splinters of wood on the floor. It looked like it had been forced.

 

ZORRO was ecstatic. Was that the ecstasy or his situation? He had almost sold out, but also the girl in the cat-suit was very pliable. Hadn’t the previous two put up much more of a fight than this? He’d told her he was going to a much better party and she was seemed happy to go along. Maybe he could put her in the car then come back for the other one? As he led her down the hall, he saw the Supergirl.

“Oh you found her then?”

“Yes, but she’s a little worse for wear, so…” he said, wrapping his cloak around her as she giggled and waved.

When he led her into the lift, all she’d asked was ‘Will there be cake?’

As they left the building, they passed a big yellow motorbike parked on the pavement, the engine clicking as it cooled down in the icy wind. It was the one like who’s-it had ridden around the world on? The dude from Trainspotting? He’d always wanted one of those. Maybe soon. She seemed to notice it too and opened her mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out. She shivered so he wrapped his cape tighter around her as they walked to his car, him almost carrying her by the end. At the car, he checked the surroundings for onlookers then opened the back door, saying,

“Now you can lie down in the back and sleep.”

He lifted her in and she lay down on a thick fleece blanket without realizing she was lying on the back of the folded down seats. She snuggled in.

“Thank you,” she said, then, “what’s your name?”

He thought for a moment. It didn’t matter anymore so said,

“It’s Grody. Now go to sleep.”

He got in the front and for a moment felt like sleeping too; or at least just shutting his eyes and listening to the dance music on Radio One. The ‘E’ was very good. Finally, he took the Motorola from the glove compartment while he waited for her breathing to settle.

He clicked on ‘Messages’, then on the only text saying,

‘wrong number’

He started to type a reply:

30 mins…” when he heard the girl in the back start to snore. He smiled then leant through and tipped up the seats, neatly rolling her into the boot. It was TOO easy. Fuck yeah! He would go back for the other one. Without sending the text, he dropped the phone on the passenger seat and started the engine.

 

HANNAH’s buzz was ruined. She just felt drunk, and however much she resented him, drunk was no good to Art, who had frozen in panic and was staring at the broken lock on the loo door. Hannah snorted a line, then the other meant for her Big Chief, who looked miffed. She glanced at him wistfully and handed him the packet, before she felt the coke kick in and give her a moment of anger about her splintered door, then, an idea,

“Art, did you see Margot outside?”

Art shook his head.

“So don’t you think she left with her?” Hannah asked, “they’ve probably gone to Margot’s and then had a stupid argument and Aji just texted you in a huff.”

“Maybe,” said Art, “I hadn’t considered that, though I thought she’d grown out of that sort of behaviour years ago—”

“Where’s my phone?” Dash said, emerging from the loo in full costume, “Oh, Hi Nigel!” she said to the Chief. She spotted her phone on the dresser, grabbed it and called.

“Margot’s is going straight to voicemail. Did you call her mother?”

“Shit!” Art said, while finding the number and pressing ‘Call’.

He stood in silence waiting, but the landline just rang out.

“You get down there Art, and set your mind at rest,” said Hannah, trying to sound confident, “you’ll probably find them all tucked up in bed; but we’ll keep trying the phones, and call you if need be.”

Art thanked them and ran out. Dash looked at Hannah and the Big Chief, who’d just snorted a line, making his headdress shake like a peacock’s tail and said,

“When you said ‘we’, you meant ‘me’ right?”

Hannah kissed her, pushed her out, then locked the door and leant against it. She looked the Big Chief up and down, and he in return, eyed her in her tiny Minnie Mouse costume. From the look in his eyes, the Big Chief wanted to do to Minnie, what Hollywood had been doing to Native Americans for a century. She smiled.

 

DASHA followed Art as he picked his way through the apartment.

“Don’t forget to plug your headphones in Arthur.”

He paused on the landing to take off his helmet and find the wire. She could see the fear in his face, and it made it more real to her. Until that moment she’d believed Aji was with Margot in Battersea, but maybe something had happened to her. She felt a pain behind her eyes as tears began to well up and she feared it would be even worse for Art if he saw. But he didn’t notice and was gone. It was relatively quiet on the landing so she tried Margot again, but it went straight to voicemail. She decided to go to her room and call again.

 

HANNAH wedged a chair under the door handle, just to be sure of no interruptions. The Big Chief sat on the side of the bed and loosened the drawstring on his nubuck pants. She stood before him, only a little taller than he was sitting.

“As we have a houseful of guests, and we’re both characters from the Silent Era of cinema,” she said, “we have to express ourselves without words.” He smiled and nodded, his headdress doing all the talking. She pushed him back and bent forward, exposing even more cleavage. Putting her hands on his thighs, she leant her weight on him and squeezed her boobs together. He jiggled his thighs, causing her breasts to do the same, until her nipples peeked into view. He smiled and brought his mouth up to meet them; his lips were soft; his tongue was swivelly. She hugged the back of his head and shut her eyes, as she felt his hands move inside her knickers and slowly push between her buttocks.

 

ART jumped on his bike and started it up. He was about to drop off the pavement between two parked cars when another car pulled into the space, blocking his exit. A swashbuckling dude jumped out and said,

“Cool bike man!” then disappeared into Hannah’s mansion block. Art swore under his breath then found another exit. He took the Earl’s Court Road and sped towards Margot’s, south of the river. He made an illegal right on to Albert Bridge and was at Margot’s in moments. The house was dark, but when he thumped on the door a light went on in a bedroom. When Margot’s mother opened the door and saw Art she burst into tears. Then he did too.

 

DASHA had found her room to be full of naked sweaty bodies, and though they offered to make room for her on the bed she declined and left.

Hannah’s door was closed. She knew what was going on but she couldn’t hear any of the usual screaming, just the sound of the headboard damaging the expensive wallpaper.

Then she kept getting accosted by friends saying goodbye, bar-staff needing advice, and neighbours complaining who she reassured it’d all be over in an hour as she led them back to the landing. As promised, the party was beginning to wind down, with dishevelled characters making their way out. Dash tried Margot once more and this time it rang.

“Hullo?” said Margot.

“Margot, it’s Dash, where are you? We’ve been worried.”

“At the party – sorry, our phones died and there was a queue for the charger.”

“Where at the party. I don’t see you.”

“Not at your party. We left an hour ago and went to another on High Street Ken—”

“And is Aji okay?”

“Yeah, but she’s making out with some boy in a room and he’s locked the door—”

“What’s the address Margot?” Dash asked as she raced down the stairs.

“I can’t Dash, Aji made—”

“Aji sent an S.O.S. text to her dad! Tell me now!”

“We’re at Wendy’s.”

By then, Dash was hailing a cab in the Old Brompton Road.

 

HANNAH’s Minnie Mouse ears were becoming askew as she bounced up and down. The Big Chief lay on his back, miming the action of a mechanical bull; Hannah mimed a cowgirl, one arm clinging to his shirt, the other waving in the air above her. Her thighs gripping just enough not to be flung across the room, but not enough to stop the delicious slidey action going on inside her. My, he was a ‘Big Chief’. Her polka dot costume was gathering around her waist as she was bucked up and down. ‘Buck me Big Chief, buck me!” she mouthed, in a Silent Era style. He seemed mesmerized by her boobs as they bounced so perkily, never losing their ‘C’ cup perfection (maybe he’d never seen the artistry of Doctor Nina Van Horn of the Maddox clinic before. They had a lifetime guarantee).

Oh! There! That was it! That! Oh! There! Her mouth formed a big ‘Oh’ as her thighs gripped him to keep him in that spot while she came; a big shuddering glowing orgasm that went on and on… and on.

 

DASHA called Art from the back of the cab. He was consoling Margot’s mother.

“I found them. I’m on my way to get them—”

“Where. We want to—”

“No! You’re both too emotional – I’ll deal with this. Got to go, I’m here.”

Dash told the taxi to wait, ran up the steps to the front door just as it was being opened by a boy with his cheeks puffed out. She neatly pirouetted around him as he puked on the porch’s mosaic, adding an interesting second mosaic on top. She felt like kicking some butt, mainly her own, for letting Aji out of her sight.

The flat was packed with a bunch of drunken teenagers, including many she recognized as she weaved between them. Wendy, in what was left of her ‘Alice in Wonderland’ outfit, sat in a corner sobbing. Margot was on the phone to her mum and pointed Dash towards a closed door at the end of a hall. Dash ran and karate-kicked the door by the handle. It gave way and inside she found Aji on the bed, fending off an aggressive, drunken boy. Dash grabbed him by his hair and pulled him onto the floor, pinning him down with a knee on his chest.

“Mystique,” the boy whimpered.

“Marcus Taylor, from two years above,” sneered Dash.

“I didn’t do it.”

She looked him over and noted his pants were pulled down and his shrivelling willy flopped against his leg. She grabbed it by its wrinkly foreskin and stretched it out, examining it for signs of usage, but it was clean and dry.

“But you tried, you little cun—”

“Dash?” Aji said, as she re-laced her bodice, “can we go please?”

Dash pulled on the foreskin until it wouldn’t stretch any further, making him scream.

“Maybe I should tie a knot in it, like you do when you’ve blown up a balloon,” she said, exaggerating her Russian accent for effect, “or castrate you so you never try tha—”

“Dash!” Aji shouted.

Dash turned her mutant lenses on Aji and said,

“I’ll deal with you later! Go!”

Aji fled, grabbing Margot, who had entered and was documenting the event with her camera.

Dash gave the foreskin one final tug and the boy screamed again, then she let go and it snapped back, spattering tiny droplets of blood on his Dracula T-shirt.

 

ART was in bed, luxuriating in the warmth from the electric blanket, when he heard the door, and chatting and the voices of Aji and Dash. Aji poked her head around his door and said,

“Sorry Dad.”

He steeled himself to stay calm then peeked at her over the duvet.

“You’re okay?”

She nodded.

“Yeah, bit drunk, another lesson learnt, sorry to scare you all,” she said, hugging herself, “God, it’s freezing in here. Has the heating shut down again?”

“Yes, and I’ve taken your electric blanket as penance for your deceit—”

“What!”

“Mmm, I’m toasty and all snuggl—”

“It’s probably the water pressure again,” she said as walked away, “it shuts off automatically if the gauge gets too low.”

Art heard the broom cupboard open, the turning of the two squeaky taps, then a gurgling from the radiator and moments later the whoof of the boiler as it fired up. However angry he was in that moment, he was also very proud of her. Dash entered with a cup of tea and sat in the armchair next to his bed. Art noticed she’d taken out the fiery contact lenses.

“Did you kick butt?” Art asked.

“Butt, of course!” she answered, offering him a sip.

He nodded and as she came closer, he whispered,

“So what happened?”

Hearing Aji in the hall, she looked at the door, then moved closer and whispered,

“A boy might have got her drunk. Or she did it herself, then she was out of her depth—”

“Who?”

“No, I’m not telling you. I’ve dealt with it.”

“Is she hurt?”

“Not physically.”

Their faces were so close he could feel her breath on his cheek.

“I like you in blue,” he said, “it makes your eyes even more intense.”

“Thank you.”

“And I noticed earlier, when I burst into Hannah’s loo, that you didn’t cover yourself up?”

“I’m not shy,” she said, “around you.”

“Then kiss me.”

She looked at the door, then at him,

“Here?”

“No, here,” he said, pointing at his mouth, “you’re single now. Nothing left to stop you.”

“I guess that is true,” she said, moving towards him, looking at his mouth. Their faces were so close he could feel her breath. He pushed his lips towards hers and they touched. So soft. He could smell her. She smelt of home. Aji shouted,

“Goodnight!” from the hall and Dash was on her feet immediately and opening the door. She looked at Aji, then at Art, then at Aji, then she was gone.

Art heard the front door slam, and Aji stood there smiling at him.

“Awwww,” is all she said before swaying away to wash her teeth.

 

HANNAH sat on the loo, looking at the broken door. The one bit of damage from one hundred people partying in her apartment. Not bad really, she reckoned. One good thing about having friends in their thirties. The caterers and bar staff had done a great job cleaning up after everyone, and the DJ had just finished taking his equipment downstairs and said goodbye, so she was alone; which she didn’t much like. Where was Dash? And what happened to her Big Chief? She spied a half-smoked joint on the floor and picked it up. It looked clean, but who was she kidding? She would’ve smoked it even if it had been lying in a puddle of wee. She lit it up and dragged on it, expansively.

 

DASHA had fallen asleep in the back of the cab. She awoke when the cabbie stopped outside her mansion block and announced his fare over the speaker. She unzipped her costume but only found her phon.

“My money’s upstairs. Be five minutes okay?”

The door downstairs was ajar, so she took the lift then realized she’d also forgotten her keys. She rang the bell but there was no answer. Maybe Hannah and her new boy were still at it? She opened the window on the landing and got out on to the ledge while hanging on to the security grill, then shimmied around it and jumped on to their balcony.  She tried the sash windows in turn, but they were all locked. If she couldn’t get in, she thought, she could get the cab back up to Art’s and snuggle in with Aji; or maybe this might be the perfect moment to—

The door at the far end was ajar, dammit! Inside, everything was back in place and there was no evidence of a wild party, though she did wonder if anyone had thought to change her sheets. Hannah’s door was open and she peeked in. The lights were on and she could see the bed was empty, so she took her money and keys and put them back in their bag.

“Hannah!” she called, “where are you?” She pushed on the broken loo door. That’s when she saw Hannah lying still on the floor, a purple-tinged joint between her blue lips.

 

"The Reluctant Torturer" by Andy Sparrow

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