THE FRIEND CATCHER - PAUL D. BRAZILL
The morning after Charlotte killed her father, the air tasted like lead and the sky was gun metal grey. She spent the day just staring out of the window of her East London flat, barely focusing on the rows of concrete blocks being smudged by the Autumn rain.
The ensuing days of gloom collided with weeks and the weeks crashed into months.
And then it was Spring.
Charlotte put on her make-up, rubbed talcum powder on her thighs and pulled on her XL pink shell suit before heading off to cash her mother’s pension at the post office. As per usual, she slammed the door of the flat behind her and, as loud as possible, shouted:
‘Won’t be long, mum!’
Then, she took a deep breath and headed down the emergency staircase.
Charlotte had always been blessed - or maybe cursed - with an over-ripe imagination and, as she rushed down the stairs, she imagined all sorts of spectres, smack-heads and psychos lurking in the stairwell’s darkened nooks and crannies. Still, it was preferable to using the rickety lift, which broke down more often than not.
Sweating and wheezing, she reached the bottom floor and realised that she’d left her medication - her security blanket - at home. Not feeling able to climb the stairs to the twelfth floor, she reluctantly stepped into the lift. Just before the doors rattled to a close, The Friend Catcher pushed his way in.
Charlotte was finding it almost impossible to tear her eyes away from the pulsating boil on the side of The Friend Catcher’s neck since, despite its size and repulsive condition, it was a far preferable sight to the one dangling like a gigantic dewdrop from the end of the old man’s crooked nose.
Given the choice, of course, she would more than happily have looked at something more edifying but, unfortunately for her, there wasn’t much else to gaze upon in the piss-smelling, graffiti-stained, syringe-strewn lift where she and The Friend Catcher had found themselves trapped between floors.
The Friend Catcher didn’t seem perturbed at all. He just sighed and scrutinised the lewd and lurid graffiti that littered the wall.
The Friend Catcher had moved into a flat on the same floor as Charlotte’s parents in the 1980’s, at the time when all sorts of waifs and strays and odds and ends of society were being scattered across the capital as part of Mrs Thatcher’s misbegotten Care In The Community campaign.
The strange-looking new neighbour - with his stoop, hawked nose, black fedora and greatcoat, looking like a long black shadow - quickly fed the imagination of the local children, Charlotte in particular. A situation that was heightened by the fact that, in archetypal serial killer fashion, the man kept himself to himself.
According to some of the kids, he was a vampire - although the fact that he was regularly seen in daylight pretty much scuppered that idea - while others speculated that he was, in fact, Jack The Ripper. Although his advanced age wasn’t quite advanced enough to support that theory.
However, it was his resemblance to a scary character in the film ‘Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang’ that earned him the nickname The Friend Catcher, which, like most nicknames, stuck for years to come.
Eventually, he spoke.
‘Like flies in a web,’ he said, in what sounded like an Eastern European accent.
‘What?’ said Charlotte, whose legs were starting to ache.
‘We’re trapped like flies in a spiderweb,’ said The Friend Catcher as he rooted in one of his Iceland shopping bags.
Charlotte nodded. She was starting to sweat now and really wished she had the diazapam with her. She tried the deep breathing that the psychiatric nurse at the Mausley Hospital had taught her.
‘Here,’ said The Friend Catcher and he held out a bottle of some clear liquid with a label that Charlotte didn’t recognise.
Charlotte quickly remembered the stories had circulated of how he was actually a psychotic taxidermist who would snatch children from the street, drag them back to his flat and stuff them. She had visions of being drugged, filled with formaldehyde and being stuffed.
‘Relax,’ said the old man. ‘Polish vodka.’
Charlotte looked at the label and almost laughed with relief. She twisted off the cap and took a long gulp.
‘Your father used to drink it in the The Aversham Arms. I used to see your father in that pub a lot. Before his accident.’
Charlotte had a flashback to the night that Walter Hill had come home drunk from The Aversham Arms and, as usual, had started an an argument. An argument that had once again erupted into violence. Walter was an oak of a man who had no problems over powering his sick, stumpy wife and indeed this would have been the case had Charlotte not been there. She ran at her father, sobbing, and, with all of her weight, she slammed him against the wall. Falling on top of him, she held him down until he stopped breathing. The police accepted that he’d had a heart attack while drunk and left her to take care of her mother.
‘Yes, I was a pilot in the 303 Squadron. I flew in your Battle of Britain.’ said The Friend Catcher, pointing to a fading photograph on the wall of his musty-smelling flat.
‘Amazing,’ said Charlotte, who was admiring a picture of the then-handsome and young Tadeusz Koc as he stood beside a Spitfire Mk.Vb with Misia, the squadrons mascot. She was more than a little tipsy. Her mother had always said that she could get drunk on the sniff of a barmaid's apron but she was so relieved to get out of the lift that she couldn’t resist the offer of a sit down and a drink in Tadeusz’s flat.
‘My wife and I lived near Borough market, on the High Street, for almost forty years until your government decided to gentrify the area and sell it off to yuppies,’ said Tadeusz. ‘When they sent us the official letter the...’
‘Compulsory Purchase Order?’ said Charlotte.
‘Exactly! Well, my wife soon became depressed. She died on the night before we moved out.’ Tadeusz swayed a little.
Charlotte could feel herself becoming tearful and small red dots started to appear before her eyes and her head ached.
‘But...that is the past and we have to be strong, eh? We Poles are strong people. And you are a strong woman taking care of your mother for so long.’
And then Charlotte started to sob.
The words tumbled out of Charlotte’s mouth like a gang of drunks staggering out of a pub at closing time; disorderly and unruly. She told of how her mother’s cancer had spread and she had become more and more ill.
Again and again, she had begged for Charlotte to stop the pain and so, one cold dawn, as she saw the red splashes spreading in front of her eyes and the dull headache become a sharper pain in her forehead, she smothered her mother to death against her breast.
Tadeusz sighed and nodded.
‘An unhappy life is a vice with a powerful grip,’ he said. ‘I am alone now. And each day, I feel more and more pain...emptiness. Just...just waiting for...release.’
And then, breathing heavily, Charlotte saw the red splashes spreading like a Rorschach test and she felt the sharp pain in her forehead, as if a stiletto heel had been slammed between her eyes and so she rose to her feet and hugged The Friend Catcher with all her strength. She hugged him until his life faded away, just like hot breath on a cold window pane.
BIO: Paul D. Brazill was born in Hartlepool, England and is now on the lam in Bydgoszcz, Poland. He has had stories in (or coming up in) Shoots & Vines, Powder Burn Flash, Six Sentences, A Twist Of Noir, Thriller Killers n Chillers, Flashshots, Beat To A Pulp and the book 6S2V. He can be found stalking ‘you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ and Paul D. Brazill.