Saturday, January 21, 2012

Interlude Stories: Gavin Bell


Barnaby lifted the padlock off the catch, prized open the front panel of the wooden crate stamped ‘FRAGILE’, and drew a critical breath through his teeth. Mr Pendergast had done one hell of a job on his girlfriend this time.

Susan was precisely five feet two inches tall, and weighed exactly ninety pounds. She was currently a brunette, and sported a black skirt, jacket and white blouse, as though on her way back home from the office. Around her neck, she wore a small silver cross on a chain. Barnaby bent down so he could examine the damage. A clean, deliberate cut had been made across the latex of her throat, and two smaller incisions had been made in the form of tears, advancing from the chestnut-on-pearl glass balls in her eye sockets to the bottom of her rouged cheeks.

Barnaby shook his head. He’d have liked to be able to say that this was the weirdest thing he’d encountered this year, but then again he’d have liked to be able to say he repaired computers for a living. Different strokes for different folks, he mused, recalling one of his late mother’s favourite sayings. He unbuckled the doll and carefully hefted it over his shoulder.

He was only a little out of breath by the time he’d carried Susan down to the workshop in his garage, which would have struck a casual observer as a cross between a small provincial mortuary and the back room in a shoe repair store. Barnaby flicked the switch for the overhead fluorescent lights, which blinked and flickered until the room was bathed in a slightly green-tinged light. The shelves lining the walls of the garage were piled high with tools and boxes of spare parts. The concrete floor was littered with the debris of past operations: a threadbare wig here, a four-fingered plastic hand there. In the centre of the workshop was a wooden table, about seven feet long and half as wide. The table had four steel rings fitted to the corners, to which were attached straps to restrain the dolls and prevent them slipping off the table during maintenance. At four thousand dollars a pop, you couldn’t be too careful with the merchandise.

Barnaby carefully laid the doll down on the table and removed its clothes and underwear before securing each of the straps around its limbs. As he prepared the patient, he began to mentally plan out the procedure.

Now that he’d gotten the clothes off, he could see that the face was the only area to have suffered severe damage. Standard wear and tear was evident in the usual areas, of course, but that would be addressed as a basic part of the maintenance routine. The cuts meant that the entire fascia would need to be replaced. It looked to be a D14, if Barnaby wasn’t mistaken. He ran his hand along the appropriate shelf until he came to the right box and confirmed his initial judgement. D14 was a fairly popular face: great cheekbones. There were only two left. Barnaby made a mental note to order another box from the company as he went to work.


Susan was back in her crate and making her way back to Virginia, good as new, as Barnaby settled down in front of America’s Next Top Model with a microwave macaroni and cheese and a cherry Coke. He took a lot of pride in his work; after all each time one of his clients sent him a doll to be repaired, they were entrusting him with one of their most prized possessions. In some cases, the men who sent Barnaby their dolls even thought of them as their partners.

The company that made them, Living Dolls Ltd., specialized in ultra-realism; using lifelike latex skin and real human hair so that from a distance they could almost be mistaken for real people. Not that many of the customers used their simulacra at a distance, of course. Living Dolls didn’t offer any real after-sales support, but they were happy to refer clients on to Barnaby and one or two other independent contractors for repairs.

As with any of his repair jobs, Barnaby had put a lot of effort into working on Susan this afternoon, so it was not unusual that he dropped into a contented snooze after finishing his dinner.


It was several weeks later when Susan returned.

Barnaby’s line of work was highly specialized, and therefore lucrative, but the workload wasn’t particularly intense. In fact, he’d only repaired one other Living Doll in the intervening weeks; an improbably large-breasted six footer with worn-out knee joints. Customers tended to go a couple of years in between getting their girls serviced, so Barnaby was surprised to see a familiar Virginia return address on the packing slip.

When he got Susan out of the crate and onto the operating table, it was clear that much more work would be required on this occasion.

Susan was blonde this time, and her throat was cut and the face mutilated in the same fashion as before. This time, however, the stomach had been sliced open, revealing the belly padding and parts of the silicon skeleton.

This was starting to get unusual.

Deterioration in Living Dolls was a natural consequence of their frequency of use, but intentional, repeated damage like this was unheard of. Quite apart from the high cost of repairs, Living Doll owners tended to treat their products as though they were real people. Barnaby shuddered as he imagined this kind of treatment applied to a real, living and breathing person. He ran his hand over the doll’s face, his fingers dipping into the scarred cheeks, and snapped them back as he encountered a tacky substance in one of the gashes. He examined the small rust-brown patch on his index and forefingers.

Makeup. Surely.

He ran his hands over the doll’s body, peeling back the slashed layers of latex skin. There were traces of rust-brown on the abdomen wounds too, as though the blade that had been used was still dirty from a previous job.

Barnaby sniffed the substance on his fingertips, gathered his thoughts for a few moments, and then wiped them on the chamois he kept nearby to buff the dolls’ eyeballs.


When one begins with a person’s last name, full address, and credit card number, it’s often possible to learn pretty much everything worth knowing about them within thirty minutes on the Internet.

Barnaby now had plenty of useful information on John James Pendergast, on his small hometown sixty miles outside Charlottesville, and on the two murdered and mutilated prostitutes that had been dragged out of the river there; one brunette, the other blonde. The website of the state police had a special section on the murders, and a number to call with information.

It was this number that Barnaby now dialled from the payphone outside Freddy’s diner. It rang three or four times before a woman’s bored voice answered at the other end.

Barnaby said, “I think I may have some information about the two women who were murdered.”

The woman’s voice immediately perked up. “Can I take your name, sir?”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Barnaby said. “Now before I go any further, I have to ask if there’s a reward for information.”

The woman’s voice took on a more cynical edge. “Well that would of course depend on the quality of the information.”

“I see.”

“Sir, are you still there?”

“Yes, yes, I’m sorry, I was just thinking. Tell me, the two women who were killed, how were they mutilated exactly? I’m sorry to be so blunt, but the newspaper reports were terribly vague, you see.”

“I’m afraid we can’t discuss details like that over the phone. If you’d like to come in and…”

“Were their faces cut?” Barnaby asked, a note of urgency creeping into his voice. “Did the wounds look like… like tears?”

Barnaby clearly heard the woman’s sharp breath on the other end. “Hold on a second, sir.” The line went very quiet, and Barnaby surmised that the woman had depressed the secrecy button. When her voice returned, she sounded professional and calm. “Sir, we’d like you to come in to talk to us.”

Barnaby hung up the phone. Dusk was beginning to fall, and he had to get the repairs completed on Susan as soon as possible if she was going to be shipped back to her owner tomorrow. It wouldn’t do for the letter to arrive too soon after the girl.


Sixteen weeks passed.

Susan returned to Barnaby twice over that period, each time with more extensive mutilations. Two more women were dragged out of the river, each with more extensive mutilations than the initial two bodies. And Barnaby’s post office box in a neighbouring state received three brown envelopes, each filled with two thousand dollars in tens and twenties.

The repairs alone paid well, but it was good to have a little extra income on the last day of every month; it took the edge off the bills. When Barnaby felt the vague stirrings of conscience, as he sometimes did in the moments before he dozed off in front of the T.V., he rationalized his new source of income as just one more personal service to a wealthy customer. Confidentiality was paramount in this line of work, of course, but that didn’t mean it had to come gratis.

The world don’t owe nobody a living, Barnaby, his dear departed mother had reminded him on many an occasion.

As for the unfortunate women… well. Virginia was a long, long way away.


Barnaby awoke from one of his post-operative slumbers and knew something was amiss even before his consciousness fully returned. There was no noise from the T.V., and the room seemed much colder. He could tell that his body was no longer enveloped in the comfort of his brown leather easy chair; in fact he was finding it difficult to move at all.

Barnaby opened his eyes and saw that he was in his garage, strapped to the operating table. His view was obstructed by one of the tall shelving units, but he could see that there was a figure hunched over his desk. Reasoning that, whatever was happening, he was clearly in an awkward situation, Barnaby decided to try communicating with his captor. He half-whispered out a tentative hello. There was no response. He cleared his throat and tried a more commanding tone.

“Who’s there? Why have you done this?” No response from the figure. Barnaby continued. “I want you to know that my wife is due home any moment now. If she sees something’s wrong, she’ll get the police down here faster than you can say ‘breaking and entering’.”

Still no response. Maybe whoever it was knew his wife had gone out for groceries a decade ago and hadn’t yet returned. Barnaby tugged at the leather restraints to no avail, cursing his own thoroughness in securing them with six-inch bolts. He strained his neck to try and get a better look at whoever the hell had tied him up in his own workshop. In his own goddamn workshop, for Christ’s sake. He managed to arrange his line of sight through a gap between two boxes of fingernails. He could just make out a woman’s blonde hair, sculpted in a too-perfect bob.


The lights went out. Barnaby began to panic. Insane thoughts danced across his mind. Suppose the doll itself had somehow come to life and kidnapped him? He began to visualise Susan jerking up from her chair, staggering towards him with the single-mindedness of a car crash victim struggling away from the scene, flashing a grin that revealed her realistic-looking rubber teeth...

With an effort of will, Barnaby managed to corral his imagination and think rationally about the situation.

His captor was obviously behind him, having turned the lights off at the switch next to the doorway. From this angle, he couldn’t hope to get a look at him even if the lights were on. Frantically, his brain put two and two together.

Susan’s boyfriend had come to visit.

“Hello?” he asked again. The only answer was a low, raspy exhalation that sent tiny needles up and down the length of Barnaby’s spine. He swallowed and tried to figure out how J.J. Pendergast had tracked down his blackmailer.

The demand letters had been couched in anonymous terms, letting on only that the writer knew of Pendergast’s nocturnal activities and would withhold this information for a reasonable monthly fee. There was no mention of Susan. The letters had been typed and printed at a library, and mailed from out of state. But even if Pendergast had deduced Barnaby’s identity, how did he get this address? The dolls were shipped to the company, who forwarded them to Barnaby. Could someone at Living Dolls have passed on his details?

Barnaby nearly jumped out of his skin as a gnarled hand passed over his forehead, kneading the flesh of his face like it was warm pastry. The owner of the hand spoke then, in a raspy monotone. “Are you sorry for what you did?”

Barnaby didn’t waste any time on negotiation. “Yes. My God, yes, I’m sorry, I’ll make it right, you can have it all back, I didn’t mean...”

The hand jerked away from his face and a tall, stockily built man in a dirty brown leather jacket walked past him, Barnaby couldn’t see his face, but a miasma of body odour followed in the man’s wake. He smelled like an abandoned garbage truck in high summer. The man continued past the bottom of the table and past the shelving unit. Carefully, he lifted Susan from his chair and turned around so they were both facing Barnaby.

J.J. Pendergast was almost too ugly for a Living Doll. Unkempt, dirty, long grey hair framed a face that was pockmarked and scarred. An overbite revealed a top row of teeth with more absences than presences. At least he had a face, though. Susan’s blonde wig hung down around a blank oval with a round mouth and a rudimentary bump where the nose would be. Somehow the sight of the two lovers was even more terrible than Barnaby’s crazed fantasy of the walking doll.

Pendergast looked at Barnaby with disgust. “How you gon’ give us it back?”

This was good, Barnaby thought, the freak was open to negotiation. “I’ve still got all the money, every penny.” This was a lie, but if it would get him off the operating table, he’d find a way to get it back. “It’s all in my bank account, I can write you a check?” Pendergast looked back at him almost as impassively as Susan. Barnaby licked his lips. “Or we can go get it first thing in the morning, if you’d prefer.”

Pendergast mulled it over for a minute. When he spoke, he sounded confused: “You think this is... you think this is about money?”

Barnaby was taken aback. What else could it be about?

“I don’t care about money. I care about Susan.” Pendergast’s voice started to rise at the end of the sentence. He looked away from Barnaby’s prostrate form and scanned the board nailed to the wall, on which hung Barnaby’s tools.

Barnaby shuddered and tried to divert the man’s attention. “How did you find me?”

“The girl at the company. She told me I’d find you here,” he said, looking around the workshop with something like disappointment.

Just as he’d thought. Living Dolls had set this maniac on him, the spineless bastards.

“She wouldn’t tell me at first,” Pendergast continued. “I hadda persuade her.”

He reached into an inside pocket and pulled something fleshy and shapeless out. He dangled it from his fingertips, the way a ratcatcher would hold a dead rodent, and fixed Barnaby with a thousand yard stare. Barnaby focused on the object and realized it was the face from a Living Doll. Dear God... the face. That had to be it. He had run out of D14s, substituted an E12 on Susan’s last refit. The E12’s were almost indistinguishable from the D14s anyway, just the slightest shade of extra definition around the eyes. An improvement, if anything.

Pendergast gently placed Susan back down on the chair and selected a long blade from the tool board. He tested the point of the blade against his index finger and turned to Barnaby.

“Wait...” cried Barnaby, “what are you...”

“You took Susie’s face. So I’m gonna give her yours.”

Over the course of the final half hour of his life, Barnaby Reddin had ample time to reflect on the folly of cutting corners with his work. After all, as his late mother had been so fond of asserting, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

BIO: Gavin Bell was born in Glasgow in 1979. He has worked as a petrol station attendant, taxman, salesman, research manager and pizza delivery boy. His story ‘A Living’ was shortlisted for the Quick Reads 'Get Britain Reading' prize, and published in the Sun Book of Short Stories, and his other stories have been published in Scribble magazine and First Edition. His non-fiction commentary Shining in the Dark - Stephen King: Page to Screen is available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book. He currently lives in Glasgow with a wife and two daughters, and is currently putting the finishing touches to a novel, a thriller entitled Killing Season.