LONELY HEARTS by Jeff Jewson-Fleming
Harley leaned into the wet shop doorway and sifted what he knew about the creature he was hunting. It had hit town in spring.
‘Nightstalker,’ the news called it. It killed solitary night-time walkers, killed them in ways Harley refused to think about, burying the husks of bloodless empty corpses in the woods. It took losers, singletons, people living alone without family, friends or lovers.
The disappearances went unreported until one morning a fallen tree exposed twelve corpses. Harley had worked every nightshift since, carrying a gun. Tonight however, work had become personal.
Tonight Sergeant Grimes had briefed everyone, spelling out each victim’s profile. There were two prostitutes, one spinster librarian, two depressives, a thief, a boyfriendless hairdresser, two jobless men, a failed catholic priest; two unknowns. Grimes paused so the words sank in. Hopeless people; TV dinners, cheap booze, cheaper bedsits, dead end jobs defined them. Harley reddened, knowing he fitted that profile himself - perfectly.
‘Maybe going out late was a form of suicide...’ Grimes ground on.
‘You make it sound like a public service, Sarge,’ someone called. Everyone laughed including Harley though inwardly he squirmed. When Grimes finished with ‘...ultra-careful tonight, folks!’ Harley asked himself why, and had no answer.
That was then.
And this was now.
‘Jesus, sweet Jesus! I’ve cornered the bloody thing.’
Rain poured inside Harley’s collar un-noticed, for Harley had chased the thing into a dead end alley. First he’d seen it stalk a girl, had seen her expression change as he raced to save her, from fear to something strangely peaceful as she slid, already lifeless onto the wet pavement.
Harley was almost on it when its features morphed into those of the girl. It stepped forward, long blond hair quiescent in the blustery wind, its face softening even in the streetlight glare. Harley had hesitated, mourning the loss of that pretty face. The creature had taken its chance and fled.
Harley fired once - into its back; then chased. Night squalls battered his face; wet tarmac sliding his feet at every turn. At the shopping centre the creature paused, uncertain, before plunging into the alley. Now Harley in his doorway could gasp, regain control of his lungs and smile, knowing the thing was cornered.
He spoke into his radio. Gave his location. Got nothing back. Stopped smiling. The radio was dead.
Awkwardly, gun in hand, heart pounding he opened the battery compartment. Rain poured out. He dried the battery as best he could and replaced it. When the cover stuck, he hammered it closed. The tell-tale remained blank.
‘Why does nothing work?’
But the mute radio only emphasised Harley’s aloneness, his vulnerability.
Harley approached the entrance, peered into utter darkness, knowing he was outlined by streetlights, shouted,
‘I don’t care if you can see me.’
He had hoped to startle the creature into moving but nothing happened. Harley forced himself to take a long sniff, a good lungful of alley. Stale beer and urine; unwashed tramp? Rotting food? Something else? He half-stepped forward and stopped as a new thought jabbed his mind. Shooting the creature in the back hadn’t even slowed its pace. So why had it run? He played his Maglite round the alley walls while he worked on an answer. The walls were cement, sheer - the roof line high, un-scaleable. Okay, the creature wasn’t superhuman, couldn’t even outrun Harley in sodden police boots. Therefore, it must be trapped. He took another pace forward and stopped again.
‘So, why did you run you bastard?’
No reply. Harley, wiping ever more rain from his eyes stared forward, ignored the impossible problem, shone his torch at the few hiding places available in the alley. An overflowing rubbish skip, a dustbin, two cardboard boxes - home on better nights to some tramp. Finally he shone the torch at ground level. There he found something. He found a corpse.
It looked like the girl’s white blouse and black jeans and a mass of blond hair, but it was a smaller, slighter figure. The gunshot wound showed stark black against her blouse. Harley drew a breath, half sigh - half sob, realising just how dead she was. Both he and the creature had killed her. Solemnly, he knelt at her side.
Close up she looked curiously empty; the bullet hole in her back - bloodless. Gingerly he pushed a finger through the wound and recoiled. The stuff felt like leather. A closer look showed the blouse to be grown into the jeans and the skull resembled nothing so much as a deflated ball. He gagged, put a hand to his mouth and sat down, his back to the alley wall. Water streamed from a broken drain pipe into his jacket, and a voice beside him said,
‘Looks like it shed its skin.’
Harley panicked, spun onto his knees, half slipped, half screamed. He raised the gun, not knowing where to point it.
‘Easy, easy, easy lad.’
Sergeant Grimes’ face hove into the cone of Harley’s Maglite. When Harley just stared Grimes continued.
‘Heard your transmission - close by. Ran all the way.’
He sat beside Harley and pulled a glowing cigarette from somewhere in his uniform, dragging it into easy life.
‘Nasty business.’ said Grimes. ‘You sure it’s trapped?’
He offered Harley the cigarette, which Harley shrugged away. Grimes looked comfortable sitting in a puddle, as if endless years of bad weather nights had inured him to anything. Maybe they had.
‘It’s here, Sarge. I know it. It killed a girl.’
‘You think it mimics them?’
Grimes indicated the discarded skin. Harley - glad someone understood, glad of company, glad Grimes was here - nodded.
Grimes stuffed a handful of dry tissues into Harley’s hand. Harley - even more grateful, wiped his face and pocketed the sodden mess.
‘How to find it, Harley?’
Grimes, as always, was short on words and strong on point. He pulled out another cigarette and puffed away leaving Harley mesmerised by the match flame, un-flickering in the wind driven rain. Fear became a dead weight inside him. Instead of playing his torch around the alley he stood and illuminated his boss.
‘How did you find me, Sarge?’
‘Heard your transmission.’
‘So your radio works?’
‘Not anymore,’ though the light flashed steadily on the radio on Grimes’ belt.
‘It looks okay, Sarge.’
Harley pondered a second and nodded, opened his own radio.
‘Try my battery in yours…Oh…’
He held the opened radio for Grimes to see. He had replaced the battery upside down. No wonder it hadn’t worked. But Sergeant Grimes just nodded and held out a hand for the proffered battery. The hand, like the rest of him looked bone dry.
‘Why aren’t you wet, Sarge? How do your cigarettes stay alight?’
Grimes didn’t even pause.
‘Ah…that’s a mistake isn’t it. Erm.. My appearance isn’t real. The cells of my
body bend photons. More important, Harley… we aren’t lonely.’
Harley was confused by the change of tack. He backed away as Grimes climbed to his feet.
‘It’s not like the papers say. Killing spree? No. We’re all still alive in here.’ Grimes tapped his head. ‘Let me show you.’
Harley stared as the sergeant’s face and body started to change. Soon Grimes’ craggy features became softer; long blond hair, kindly shy eyes.
‘We…’ She stuttered the word… then more strongly, ‘We’re all happy here together. Like a family.’
‘But it killed you…your body is on the road.’
‘I’m glad!’ The words were defiant. ‘I never had friends… companionship...’
The word troubled her like she’d never used it before.
‘I hated everyone. I envied them, and I hated myself for being too stupid to get a man. Now I like me. I’m happy here.’
The dead girl pointed a finger at herself.
‘Me too,’ said a more mature voice as the creature morphed again. ‘I was a librarian for forty years, helping other peoples’ kids to read. Do you know what a librarian is after she retires? Not even a librarian. I need the life I never had, not the life I did have.’
What had been Grimes morphed again and again, each new personality saying the same sorts of things, while Harley almost began to understand.
When Grimes returned, it was a relief, until he proffered his hand to Harley.
‘Take my hand kid. Join us. You don’t need to be alone. Join us - please. All you have to do is want to.’
Harley gazed at Grimes’ hand, needing to grasp it. But he gripped the gun so tightly and shook so much... and the gun fired, and the creature fell. Far too late, Harley dropped the pistol. Sirens wailed, getting closer. He held his hands to his ears, not to keep the sirens out, but his own voice.
‘Shedding its skin made it vulnerable. Shedding its skin…’ Over and over again like a mantra.
Harley was a hero for six days. Afterwards, TV and press and adulation and new friends drifted away. Harley was free again, free of cameras, free of questions, free of everything. By the seventh day he was that solitary figure once more.
And he knew, when he died - he would die alone.
Bio: Jeff was born in the Moss Side slums of Manchester. A dead father and mentally unstable mother didn’t allow for a childhood. He concentrated on schooling and avoiding authority. Destined to be what prisons are for he escaped to the south, made a new life, new friends, and has never looked back. His philosophy - Life is what you make it, grab every day and run!’
He has been known to ride motorbikes too fast, attend rock shows, get drunk, play cricket in the park, and will even dance – if it’s a good heavy metal number. He has been thrown out of some really class places, like the museum of the Acropolis, an Egyptian tomb; Ephesus got a bit awkward too, but won’t tell anyone why! He loves old movies, noir and spooky horror, anything monochrome.