Today, He has yet to receive any calls. The faint grey of dawn was beginning to fade into the December sky, a crucial time for His clients, and consequentially a crucial time for Him. Today, The Artist sits in a leather armchair, smooth and black like the pip of a sapodilla fruit. His suit is pressed, his greying locks parted. He bends over his leather shoes with a rag, rubbing in the polish evenly with calm concentration. The wooden floorboards creak with every stroke, a metronome beating out the seconds in the stillness of the sparse flat.
Switzerland was conceptually more appealing that the United Kingdom ever was. The rain was still constant, but people were more open-minded here. Here, He had less chance of being harassed for his…lets call it a profession. By definition, a skilled practice that impacted society in exchange for payment is technically a profession. And there was no man more skilled. He was a master of his field.
It is 4:23 am when the red phone rings. The monochrome silence shatters.
The Artist ties a double knot in his laces, making sure the bow is even before answering.
“ Death Consultancy, how may I help?”
He is the cheery receptionist.
Her name was Emily Mordamme. She said she found His number at her therapist’s office, scrawled on the bathroom wall. Her voice was so husky on the phone that He had envisioned an older woman, but she was about 28 years old.
He found her sitting outside at the Peche, a seldom-frequented café by the church of St. Leodegar. A small figure in the rickety chair, hunched over in a grey wool coat that protected her petite frame from the wind. A purple sock rolled down her calf to her battered boot, peeking from beneath a swath of black filmy skirt.
“ Dumped girlfriend.” He thought, observing her from a distance. “ Typical dumped girlfriend probably spent all her youthful years with some manipulative self-absorbed waste of flesh only to be dropped in an instant. Probably for someone else, younger, prettier, looser. Poor girl.”
He slid a hand into his briefcase and nudged the contract to the side, reaching instead for his wallet. There will be no business today, just a commiseration coffee and another sob story he won’t accept.
“ What should I call you? Do you have a proper name?”
“ ‘Artist’ should do fine.”
“ I can’t refer to someone as ‘Artist’, its ridiculous. What does it say on your driver’s license?”
His moustache twitches into a smile.“ Men of my field of expertise very rarely carry identification on them. Refer to me with whatever name you wish, but first, tell me. Why have you called me?”
She clears her throat a few times, looks up from the foamy dregs of her coffee, right into His eyes.
“ In all honesty, I don’t know.”
“ I can’t accept you as a client if you don’t have a credible reason, Miss Mordamme, you understand that?”
He shifts in his seat. “ Was there a boy?”
Emily shuts her eyes briefly, her eyelids quivering like a cocoon of frail veiny skin, ready to explode with some new living entity that was neither dark nor bright but a blinding expanse of grey.
“ A while ago, yes there was a boy. He’s gone now. But that’s not the point. Or it is, I don’t know. Either way, it’s just very hard. Just to do everything I’m supposed to do, wake up at 8 and make sure I file my reports and remembering to buy milk and talking to people, it’s so difficult to talk to people. As if everything’s fine, as if I don’t want to crumble to the floor and cry. As if I don’t want to hide away in the smallest possible space and never turn my head to the sun ever again. But I can’t do that, I can’t do that because I’ve failed and I don’t want to fail but there’s nothing else I can do at this point and I’m so scared, so scared, and I just cant…”
She stops in her tracks, panting slightly, her eyes readjusting on His face.
“Oh God. Oh God, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry; I'm wasting your time. I’m fine. I really am. I’m just tired. Just really tired.”
Her head is in her hands, and she sobs.
“ I’m fine. I promise you, I’m fine. I’m just tired.” The words explode from her throat, teary bubbly cries for help.
The Artist watches in disbelief. Would comforting be a hindrance to a business deal? This is what it was, after all. Most of his clients gave him a reasonable enough reason, illness or a dysfunctional home life. He’d never had a client whom had no idea why they wanted to die, other than the fact that they knew they couldn’t live anymore.
Emily was gathering up her things now, muttering how she had to leave and how she was sorry for wasting his time. Her jumper slumped on her thin shoulders as she shakily foraged through her purse for a note or two.
“Wait. Sit down a moment.”
She looks at Him through the greasy black fronds of her hair, but sits back down.
It’s beginning to snow.
The Artist rolls a thin cigarette in black licorice paper, but leaves it unlit.
“ Do you really want to do this? “
She sits in silence. He lights his cigarette.
A family walks past, a mother decked in furs, screeching furiously into her cellphone, while a child badgers his tired-looking nanny, laden with shopping bags full of festively wrapped gifts.
“ No. I want you to do this. I’m too afraid of f**king it up.”
He looks at her once again, the tears still fresh on her sunken in face, her malnutritioned unloved body, the nicotine stains on her fingers.
He slides over the contract.
They part ways, the girl relieved and her pocket 20000 francs lighter. The Artist walks home in contemplation.
The snow beats down heavily, glinting in his thick eyebrows. He crosses the bridge and leans forward to look at the icy water of the Ruess.
About a year ago, a client of his drowned in this river. Jacques, his name was. He showed up to him, covered in bruises, a wide angry scar yellowing above his left eye. His father wouldn’t let up since he found out he was gay. He had sachets of ink sewn into his jacket. In the morning, his body lay within a murky, but distinguishable rainbow.
Three years ago, Richard came to The Artist’s office in Henley-on-Thames. He was a pub manager at The Little Angel, 55 years old. He was shot in the head using The Artist’s trigger pulley system. He said he wanted to turn his tumour into something beautiful. Through a stencil, the blood on the garage wall spelt out the word ‘Marian.’ She was his wife.
At 10 years old, he saw his mother sneak into the downstairs bathroom. His father said he was working late, and he was old enough to know what that meant. She asked the boy to run up and get his father’s razor blades from under the sink. She said she was going to a very beautiful place. His mother was his first job.
There is no evil in his heart. Sometimes people needed help to die, needed a way out of a situation they couldn’t control. It wasn’t cowardice, no. It was one of the bravest things anyone could do. The Artist provided a service, just a simple case of supply and demand.
But maybe it was time. Maybe he couldn’t look at another corpse again. Death was a musk too heavy to wear about your ears.
A letter waits at the door. He almost never received any mail other than junk ads and takeaway menus. The brown manila envelope was emblazoned with a red stamp of ‘Urgent.’
His forehead furrows over the content of the letter, scanning it once, twice, three times.
He stokes the fireplace as the wind grows stronger, rattling the windows, reverberating through the apartment.
As the flames take to the paper and wood, he rolls a cigarette with shaky hands.
The letter lay in his lap, and he promptly drops it into the roaring fire.
Back in his leather chair, he lights his cigarette and take a deep inhale, the words ‘murder’ and ‘Richard Davies’ ringing in his ears.
This is the last day of the year.
She is listening to ‘The only living boy in New York.’ And whilst on her fluffy duvet, staring at the vague cloud patterns painted on the ceiling, she is gently being lowered into the grave, a nice little tourniquet dangling from the hand of God. They promised to meet at 8. She begins packing up at 5. All of her belongings are shoved in garbage bags. The only thing she keeps is her mother’s wristwatch. At 7 she buys a bouquet of lilies from the florist down the road, a rare find on New Year’s Eve.
“It must be your lucky day! Going to a party tonight?” The plump man at the counter beams at her expectantly over his white apron, while his young assistant wraps up her flowers in sullen silence, seething at the fact that he had to work tonight.
Emily fumbles in her rucksack, trying to find loose change. “I was thinking of heading down to the church tonight, actually.”
The man purses his lips and utters a ‘pfft’. “That’s not my thing to be honest to you. It’s so crowded on New Year’s, you can barely breathe!“
Emily drops her change on the countertop and accepts the lilies from the surly boy, who turns back to his phone in search of a party to crash. The flowers curl at her like bleached tongues, thick and waxy.
“I’m sure I’ll find a space for myself.”
The plump man guffaws at her determination, and she leaves the store, the chimes jingling at she shuts the door.
The tower at St. Leodegar was all set up for the night’s festivities. A huge digital clock was erected a few days ago, counting down the hours to the New Year. They met at the top, at one of the dressing rooms used for special ceremonies. Like two secret agents about to embark on a mission, they set about arranging the scene in silence. At 11:00 pm, she turned to him as the sat watching the crowds gathering around the tower.
“ I didn’t expect so many people.”
“ Its New Year’s eve my dear, not the recital of your death.”
She startled at his harsh words.
“ It feels like it is to me.”
The Artist sighs, turns to face her. She was dressed all in white, a silky dress with a hem that trailed long, like a child’s christening gown. Having grown even skinnier since their first meeting, the high cheekbones were highlighted with the shine from the moon; her big brown eyes round and shiny like that of a seal pup.
“ I apologize my dear, that was unprofessional of me. And I must say, you look wonderful.”
She shifts shyly back to the window.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
The music begins to play, obnoxious dance music favoured by this generation, people with more hair product than sense.
“I’m very sure. But still, thank you for giving me a choice.”
“ You’re in control of your own destiny, my dear. As my last client, I thought I’d leave you with some control.” He ties a red ribbon on the rope around her waist.
“ Are you ready to fly?” he grins.
The clock dings at half past 11, and they make motions to get ready. At a quarter to, The Artist leaves to join the crowds downstairs, giving Emily a final wink and mouths the words ‘goodbye.’
She stands at the window and doesn’t turn her back, like a queen about to meet her subjects for the very first time.
The town is at an all time high of excitement. Couples, families, groups of friends are all gather to see in the New Year together, adorned with silly hats and whistles and an indescribable amount of booze. The Artist takes his place within the crowd, and everyone is too drunk to care that he is completely alone; the rope burns folded into his hands. Children mill around his ankles, and he almost wants to shovel them away, back to their homes, so they wouldn’t have to witness it. It could ruin them forever. It ruined him forever.
He can see her dark head emerge from the tops of the tower. No one can see her yet, but her shape emerges, a glowing white swan in the darkness and the children are the first to notice.
“ Look at the pretty lady! Is she a bride? Mummy, is she a bride?”
The adults put their champagne glasses away and strain their eyes, nod in agreement and watch eagerly.
“Its some kind of New year’s stunt, I guess?”
“ This is fun, she might do a bungee jump or a tightrope act of something!”
All faces turn to her in anticipation, the crowd echoes with cheers and whoops.
At the countdown, Emily steps to the edge, so pale and beautiful it almost hurt your eyes to look at her.
A sharp knife severs the rope.
The Artist walks away, just as the crowd, the huge living entity of the crowd, wails like a recently widowed woman.
She really was very beautiful. For the first time in the entirety of his career, The Artist’s only thought is “ What a shame.”
He returns home, exhausted. The rope burns were stinging in the cold wind, and all that drunken jostling and elbowing was supremely annoying. He is at the door, reaching for his keys from the pockets of his suit jacket, and he is aware of a shuffling noise inside.
Heavy shoes. Regulation shoes.
“ There’s not much here, is there? Are we sure this is the right guy?” English accent, slightly northern. The Artist pauses outside the door, his breath caught in his throat.
“We have to wait and see, don’t we? I swear, some f**king job, working on New Year’s, what a f**king misery.” Second voice. Deeper, posher accent.
They were here about Richard.
The Artist looks down at his hands. The red welts on palms glistened under the one light bulb in the hallway.
He could run.
They hadn’t heard him yet. He could run. He’d already done it once.
He could jump. He could run to the top of his building right now, and he could end his career in the most appropriate manner.
Every single one of his clients would have told him to do it. The ultimate act of bravery. He shifts to the stairwell, willing his feet to charge up and run, run as fast as they can.
He pauses to roll a cigarette; the aniseed residue of his black paper lingers on his moustache.
Some men aren’t meant to die. Some men are meant to spread the stories of the dead.
He walks in to the apartment. The leather of his armchair is torn, which he found a bit inconsiderate.
The two men are startled; turn to face him, reaching into their coats for their guns.
The Artist strolls to the leather armchair, shoving some of the stuffing back into the crevasses before sitting down.
He lights his cigarette and breathes out the smoke, the smoke of the dead whom he’d helped, and they gave him a bit of themselves in return.
“ This is the Death Consultancy. How may I help?”
He is the exposed vigilante.