The Medusa Protocol, Book One, Wish You Were Her, Chapter One:
Her . . . Her . . . Consumed by thoughts of Her – skin, breath, carbon.
“You’ve been got by the ol’ curse,” he said.
He was Mark Macey.
Hadn’t been paying the Ray Zero loser the slightest bit of attention. Had just offered the odd grunt of acknowledgement here n’ there. Then he caught me with a sentence. Last word was the hook. Asked him to repeat it, gave him no choice. That was what he said. Suddenly wanted to know everything he knew and how. Would beat the living shit outta him if he refused to spill.
* * * * *
Had been drinking alone. Staring into the drink coolers behind the bar. Stared straight through. Into the inner abyss. Don’t know why I picked that bar to walk into. Just had. Something familiar in the name, perhaps. No windows. Black walls, low ceiling and a lack of lighting ensuring it’d always be soaked in something akin to deathly midnight despite the time outside.
Scent of fresh and old cigarettes mingled clingingly in dank air, slow-danced with the tang of stale beer. In cave-like recesses the sexually-charged high-odour of perspiring bodies previously there lurked like shadowy spectres in a crypt, ghostly scents reaching out like long tendril fingers to seep into the mix.
Glanced right, caught sight of the four panes of glass in the double doors I’d entered by. Almost ruined all the adjusting my eyes had done. Even the stingingly bright light of the hot summer’s day outside couldn’t penetrate the dark iniquity. Instead the windows hung like framed glazed paintings of an entirely different world long forgotten or never known.
Could’ve walked into any bar – didn’t know them from Adam. Walked into this one . . . Ordered a beer, drank alone; suited my mood perfectly . . . Then someone took the next stool along.
Jolly looking guy, red-faced from a concerted and long-term overindulgence in alcohol despite only being in his early to mid-twenties. Acknowledged me with a nod while ordering a drink. Wanted to put a hand on the back of his head, push his face down into the bar fast n’ hard. Didn’t rule it out.
Drink delivered, he addressed me verbally, asked if I was drinking alone. Crazy Ray Zero son of a bitch was playing with fire, too stupid to catch the look in my eye. Needed to back the fuck up before he got burnt.
“Yeah.” Wasn’t exactly true. Had enough misery inside to keep me company for months. “What the fuck of it?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing,” he said. “Fair play, fair play,” a terminology I was to discover to be synonymous with the locals.
“New in town?” he asked. “Cos I ain’t seen you roun’ ‘ere before, and in a town this size if you ain’t seen someone before it’s cos they be new.”
Looked again. This time to see if there was anyone else he could be talking to, cos I sure as Hell wasn’t giving him any indication I wanted him talking to me . . .
“Yeah . . . new in town.” Looked back across the bar.
“London?” he asked, guessing where I was from. “Your accent – sounds like you be from London. Fair play. I’m Mark – Mark Macey.”
Didn’t confirm his guess to be correct. He’d already come to that conclusion himself. Neither did I introduce myself in return. Growled instead. “Fucking pleasure – keep yourself busy having a crack at mine!” Stared with the intent of getting the fuck-off message across.
“John? . . . Barry? . . . Charlie? . . . ” Macey pursed his lips, shook his head at my lack of response.
Ordered another beer, lit a cigarette; in the process purposely overlooking the courtesy of offering him a smoke too. Normally I’d avoid talking to a Ray Zero loner like Mark Macey like the plague, but there and then didn’t give a damn either way considering the fucking catastrophe leading to me being sat in the bar next to him in the first place. Mind was elsewhere – for all I cared he could continue talking crap all he wanted.
Mind was in a dark place . . . the darkest place. Thinking about the infliction of pain to the point of murder. Hands round a neck. Applying pressure. Not enough. Quick release to tighten grip. Pleading blue eyes, see it in them, the thought it’s over, not gonna be choked anymore. See the relief. Split-second and gone. Split-second’s gasp used to squeeze out a begging, pitiful please . . . Choke . . . choke . . . choke . . . Revenge.
Mark Macey made small talk, the kinda small talk lonely people in bars are so adept at making in an attempt not to be so lonely, while I drank my beer and smoked cigarettes, offering the occasional grunt in return (the kinda grunts people in bars who are in the darkest of dark places make). Didn’t really pay any attention to what I was grunting to . . . Until that sentence, or to be precise, the last word of it, managed to find a crack in the darkness of my mind, slip in-between the bleakness of my disposition.
Hadn’t heard what’d preceded it, but alone was enough for me to snap my stare from the smoke wafting lazily out the burning end of my cigarette to fix it firmly on Macey.
Seemed a total stranger knew a Hell of lot about why I was in Weston. Maybe more than me.
“What you just say?!” Macey was already into his next sentence, cut through it like an axe. Fought an almost insatiable urge to jump off the stool, grab him. Shake violently from him whatever the Hell he knew.
Mark Macey stared at me perplexed, gulped.
“About a curse,” added grittily.
“I, I asked if you’d ever been to Weston before, n’ you said you had, n’ I said, you’ve been got by the ol’ curse.”
Was a miracle I’d caught the word at all given the way his regional West Country dialect butchered almost everything he said beyond the recognition of anyone from anywhere else.
“The ol’ curse put on Weston.”
“On Weston?” The anger about to be unleashed was momentarily diverted.
“Gets everyone,” he replied, the ear-to-ear idiot’s grin returning fully to his face; Mark Macey had got exactly what he wanted – my attention. “Cast by the wizard that was run outta town. Now, anyone coming ‘ere ‘as to come back!”
“You don’t wanna be kidding round me. Especially today.”
“Kidding? Oh no, I most certainly not be kidding – you can be rest assured of that,” Mark Macey replied, genuineness bordering on offence overriding any fear.
Had been to Weston before . . . Many years ago. Wasn’t something I was gonna shout about. Had been brutal, horrific . . . Much like this time. Had I acknowledged with an absent minded nod it wasn’t my first time in town . . . or did Macey somehow have some serious inside knowledge about why I was back?
Any connection to the first time had fuck all to do with wizards . . . Though why I was back could be seen that way if someone wanted to be cryptic about it. Why else sidle up to a stranger in a bar to start telling them things like that?
Reason I’d returned was in a back pocket. Thin card folded in half. Knew it was there like it was a heavy bunch of keys crushed between me and the barstool. Was all down to Her; Her with the capital H, She with the uppercase S. Such was the role She’d played in the fucked up catastrophe that’d gone down, She more than warranted the emphasis I placed on Her.
A complete stranger being party to my predicament, the real reason I was in Weston, was certainly well within Her evil remit. Day’s events had already seen things go a million miles further in the direction of horrendous than they’d ever gone before. When I’d walked in the bar, hadn’t thought for a second there’d be another twist of the knife. Didn’t seem it could be twisted any further in a million years. Precisely why She’d try n’ make sure it could.
She’d made Weston the destination. That was entirely Her choice, no one else. She hadn’t known I had history with the place when She had . . . Least, I hadn’t told Her. Sure of that. Had to be when it came to Her. Had to know everything said. Remember like a National Archive. Too costly not to. She’d use it to Her advantage otherwise. An advantage big at my expense. As sure as I could be I’d never told Her about my previous with Weston. Where She was concerned, though, being as sure as I could was never enough.
Studied his face for a sign of the anticipated punch-line, the laughter he was about to erupt in on Her behalf . . . inbetween the lines of his idiot-grin could see none was coming. Total and utter belief in what he was telling me stamped across his face as clear as the health warnings on my cigarettes, like some kinda insane-by-date long since passed.
Stumbling along Weston seafront earlier in the day, dizzy, disoriented, in a numb daze . . . only thing that’d seemed simple and straight was being there cos of Her. But, no. Of all the bars I could’ve walked into, had walked into the one containing the Ray Zero village idiot loner Mark Macey. Or more accurately, given Weston is a town, the town clown. And he’d decided, for whatever motivation that made his mind tick, to spread his gospel unto me; a gospel he believed with such conviction, he wouldn’t have understood why I was really there even if I’d decided to tell him the entire story, no stone left unturned.
No other reason on Earth was gonna sway Mark Macey along another path: simply, I was there cos I’d been there before – some curse casting wizard was responsible and there was nothing more or less to it than that.
Where She was involved nothing was ever simple and straight, was always some kinda angle. She turned all the stones, always looking for a new hiding place from which to strike. Mark Macey, though, was nothing more than a harmless insignificant coincidence as opposed to anything She’d ever conspire to conjure from Her cauldron.
Given Her track record, how thorough She was, Mark Macey was nothing short of a miracle; a miracle giving me an opportunity to think about something other than the whirlwind of unwanted thoughts tearing destructive through my mind. Humour the Ray Zero. Hear him out. Why not? There’d been no going back n’ I’d gone. My choice. My gamble to take. All or nothing. Knew there was a risk. Knew who I was taking on, what they were capable of . . . Just hadn’t known it enough. Had lost in the biggest way, had nothing left to lose. What else was I gonna do?
Gave him another look up n’ down. Just cos he wasn’t working for Her, didn’t mean he didn’t have another motive, another angle, that he was coming from beyond simply being a Ray Zero village idiot/town clown loner; he believed what he was saying, absolutely no doubt, but why was he telling me . . .
Scuffed, greying white trainers, blue jeans, plain white t-shirt, gaudy gold chain worn over the top, couple of tacky rings. Cheap watch. Digital. By the numbers, bog standard, nondescript.
Wasn’t gonna find the answers I was looking for in what he wore. Or what his hair was like, the colour of his eyes, how high on his head his ears sat, how his nose was set and where. For what it’s worth, Macey’s face was best described by the summary of its attributes; one of those faces that always makes its owner appear happy-go-lucky semi-drunk, regardless of whether they’re sober, actually semi-drunk or totally sloshed outta their trees. But don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m doing him a disservice, given that, despite his appearance—the lush-idiot-grin that somehow retained a presence even when he was under threat—I’d been quick enough to take him seriously when I’d thought he knew why I was really there. That belief had nothing to do with Macey. Take it as testimony to how well I have the misfortune of knowing Her.
The answers I wanted were on the bar. Looked at my beer; half a bottle. Looked at his; half a mouthful at best languishing at the bottom of a pint glass. Offered to buy Mark Macey a drink. He very politely declined . . . He was the village idiot/town clown incarnate if he was prepared to sit there telling me all that nonsense just for the sake of telling me, not with any angle of personal gain. Looked at him for a moment more; all I got was his grinning face in return.
“Well . . . seeing as I’m back here, guess you’d better tell me all about this wizard of yours.”
While once again managing to somehow combine his idiot-grin with the serious look of a person imparting some great and worldly piece of information onto someone else—information the someone else will want to know, need to know and be eternally grateful for hearing—Mark Macey told me that many years prior a wizard (or perhaps a druid – Mark Macey wasn’t exactly sure himself) had fallen foul of the populace of Weston and had been run out of town.
The wizard hadn’t actually done anything to warrant the wrath of his fellow locals – they were merely reacting to a fever holding the country firmly in its grip; the fever being that of great suspicion towards those of a magical persuasion.
The locals had banded together in an attempt to hound the wizard out of town; it was an attempt that had its desired effect, as the wizard was left with no choice but to leave or be lynched. His route of escape was one which took him over a hill at a place coincidentally named ‘Uphill’ (just on the outskirts of town, according to Mark Macey) and onward, appropriately for his profession, towards Glastonbury.
The wizard felt a great deal of injustice at the turn of events leading to his having to leave, so when he reached the top of the hill he turned back towards the town of Weston and ironically cast a ‘returning curse’ upon it; a ‘returning curse’ being one that causes anyone who visits a place to be destined to return there again at some later point in their life. According to Mark Macey, given I’d been to Weston before (Weston-super-Mare to give the place its full name; the once glorious Victorian seaside resort located on the west coast of England, twenty-two miles from Bristol), I’d fallen foul of that curse and it was the reason I was now sat next to him in the bar.
Took a drag, exhaled . . . “I suppose this information is something only you’re party to?”
“Oh, no,” Mark Macey replied eagerly. “Pretty much common knowledge roun’ these parts.”
“Strange then, that no one’s made me aware of the fact already. Surely someone’s obliged to let people know about a ‘returning curse’ before it’s too late for them to avoid it. Surely it would warrant at least a couple of warning signs on the roads in – guess I must’ve missed them.”
Mark Macey was undeterred. “That’s the local council for you – couldn’t organise a piss-up in a cider factory! Besides, suits their purposes ‘aving no signs up – wouldn’t do much good for the ol’ tourist industry if they did, now would it? Tourists driving in would just turn back for fear of being cursed – where would the town be then? And considering what the curse is, it keeps what tourists that do come, coming right on back – local council wouldn’t wanna be letting on ‘bout sommat doing that.”
Shit, Mark Macey wasn’t just a Ray Zero village idiot/town clown loner – he was a conspiracy theorist too, albeit with a small town mentality.
“So . . . if they—the ones the curse benefits most, the ones who would be obliged to inform people, but don’t—are keeping it so top-secret and confidential, how come you know?”
“My mate Mark tol’ me.”
“Your mate ‘Mark’? . . . Who told him?”
“Mark’s dad Mark tol’ ‘im.”
“Your mate Mark’s dad . . . is also called Mark?”
“Yup,” said Mark Macey smiling, before adding almost as a flippant afterthought, as though the process should’ve been blisteringly obvious to me, “Story of the curse is sommat passed down generation to generation roun’ these parts.”
“Is everyone in Weston called Mark?”
“Pretty much – though there be quite a few Petes too . . . any names other than those be pretty rare though.”
“What about the women – are they called Mark and Pete too?”
“Course not – that’d be daft.”
“What are the women called?”
Had had as much fun as I was gonna get from Mark Macey. Downed my beer, told him that while my being there had fuck all to do with any hocus-pocus a long ago wizard who’d been run out of town had cast upon the place, it most definitely had plenty to do with some black magic conjured up by a certain Goddamn witch I knew.
Suddenly Mark Macey’s interest in what I had to say, as opposed to what he was telling me, jumped up a notch or three. Last thing I needed was the Ray Zero small town conspiracy theorist village idiot/town clown loner latching onto me. Quickly added that I was sure he had better things to do than hear about all my problems. On the contrary, he wanted nothing more than to hear of all my ‘woes’; according to Mark Macey, I really didn’t know Weston if I thought complete strangers didn’t want to hear of all my troubles and strife – apparently Westonians enjoyed nothing more; in fact, Mark Macey was surprised complete strangers didn’t walk up to you after you left a phone booth to ask who you’d been talking to and why.
Bizarrely, when I‘d earlier stepped out of a phone booth on the seafront, a complete stranger had approached me, asked those very questions.
The fact didn’t entice me to go into any further details with Mark Macey, though. Instead, jumped off the stool, headed towards the door.
“Where you going?” Macey called out after me.
“Somewhere Goddamn else.”
“But you ain’t even tol’ me your name . . .” Said it all pitiful, like my not doing so had done him some great injustice.
Realised I’d spent a lot longer musing over beer than I’d thought. Outside night had fallen. Was the only conclusion to come to given the bar now appeared lit like any other low-lit shit-hole, despite the lighting inside remaining the same. Jukebox was now alive, more people too – standing in the long open space between the end of the bar and doors. Talking, laughing, raised voices, glass-clinking groups. Dodged through them swiftly, putting hands on shoulders to keep people in place. Slipping past fast as I could. Intended losing Macey if he’d decided to follow. Doors confirmed my conclusion – the dark backdrop of outside causing the once glazed portraits of another world to now reflect the scene in the bar like a pair of fading antique mirrors.
Through the cigarette smoke, swirling like a mist between the last few steps and exit, caught a fleeting glimpse of myself – ghost-like, half-reflected . . . Was reminded of Him, the mission He had for me.
Didn’t have time to dwell. Instead, pushed on through the doors. Was met by a welcome hit of hot summer’s night air.
~ ~ ~
Also in this series:
- All Along the Watchtowers: an introduction to The Medusa Protocol
- Welcome to Weston: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Quicksand and Curses
- For purchase information please click here