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The Client's Curse

Short story By: drStu
Literary fiction



.....as soon as he got his phone out and pressed her speed dial, he knew that there would be no signal. It happened in all the best horror movies. He was alone with a crazy old man in the middle of a wood in front of a haunted house; the sort of house that cannibals obviously lived in and lived on the occasional traveller lured to their death by the crazy old man in the over-sized herringbone overcoat.
'Shaun!'
'Er, hello!'
'You phoned me.'
'I didn't expect to get you,'
'Look, Shaun. I needed a lift this morning, that's all. It didn't mean anything.'
He was hurt by this. He had phoned to say that, 'he was in the middle of the woods with a crazy old man who gave him the creeps and that it was a little bit like last time.' For a moment he couldn't speak.


Submitted:May 22, 2012    Reads: 14    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


The Client's Curse

by Stuart Wilson

Discover other titles at http://www.drstuartwilson.com

Copyright 2012 Stuart Wilson

The car swung around the pretentious water feature complete with fountain that lay before the smoked glass windows of the Gerontec building. Once new and shiny and executive, the car had long-since been trashed by two kids and a dog.

'Thanks for dropping me off,' she already had her hand on the door handle. She was in a hurry to get out.

'I am still the father of your children,'

'Don't!' She didn't want a scene. Not now. Not in front of her work where colleagues might see. She pushed the door but it didn't budge. Two months ago he had reversed into a lamp post and it had scuffed the side of the car, making the passenger door stick.

'I keep meaning to get it fixed,' he told her as he got out and opened her door.

'You need a new car,' she said. 'Your clients can't be very impressed when you turn up in this.'

He grunted. 'They don't care. They are too intent on showing me how many ping pong balls they can shove up their bums or how many matchsticks they can get up their noses.'

She laughed despite herself. He could always make her laugh, even when she wanted to kill him. ''They don't!'

'No, really,' he had a pained expression. 'Last week one client tried to lift an anvil weighing forty kilograms with his nipples. I had to take him to the nearest casualty with nipple tears.'

'What an interesting job you have,' and it was true. 'What is it today?'

'God knows.'

You mean you don't know! After what happened last year, you promised to be careful.'

'You still care!' He looked at her with those blue eyes that had once been so intense but had been bleached-out by life.

'As you said, you are the father of our children.'

He shrugged. 'It's not likely to happen again. Anyway I like to keep each client as a pleasant surprise. Savour the moment. Probably someone who has been keeping toenail clippings in a jar for twenty years or a bloke with the longest hairs coming out of his ears.'

'You're making me feel sick''

'That's also part of the job. Who can stuff seven iced doughnuts down their gullets in three minutes without chucking them back up?'

'Someone's got to do it!'

'My job or the doughnuts?'

'Both. At least your record is safe.'

'Yes! Something to be proud of, the bogey flicking record. What can I say, I was young and naive.'

'Where is it you have to go?'

He looked bashful now. 'I have the details on my phone. I'll plug it into the Sat Nav.'

'That is what got you into trouble last time,' she told him sternly. 'Some people never learn!'

'I know, you kept saying!'

'I didn't mean...,' she blushed, realising she had dredged up painful memories.

'I know. It'll be okay,' he promised as he tried to lighten the mood. 'It's somewhere in the countryside. That place with green stuff that's eaten by white things. What do you call them? Oh yeh! Sheep!'

It worked. She laughed. She didn't really think that it could happen again either. 'Well, whatever and wherever it is, be careful and have a nice day, Agent Smith.'

'Thanks!'

'And don't be late to pick up the kids (again)!'

'I told you, I hit a lamp post. I'm not planning to hit another one today.'

Out of habit, she kissed him on the cheek leaving a faint smear of lipstick and then turned to the building.

He watched her go. She still had nice legs.

When she had gone, he looked at his phone and tapped the address into the Sat Nav. He knew it was south of the capital, just on the far side of the M25 but exactly where, he had no idea. Ide Hill. The Sat Nav came up with Kent, 18.1 miles and a forty-six minute drive. He bet that it would take longer. As it was still rush hour, he guessed that it would take fifty-five minutes. He was meeting the client on the village green. He set the timer on his watch.

He drove without urgency unlike the heavy rush hour traffic most of which was going in the opposite direction. On the backseat, wedged between the two child seats and shifting slightly each time he braked was the toolkit of his trade. A battered aluminium case containing six essential items, a ruler for short distances, a tape measure for longer distances, a speed gun for, well speed, a loudness meter for measuring loudness, a pair of scientific scales for accurately measuring weight and a camera stroke camcorder to record it all. As he reached the outskirts of civilisation, the road became quieter and untamed greenery began to appear

He drove under the M25 without really knowing it was there, through the old market town of Westerham with a gastro pub that he liked the look of and would once have thought about taking Emma. After Westerham, the lane became narrower and deeper as he drove along the ancient gouge of a prehistoric track that modern man had conveniently tarmacked over. He glanced at his watch and then put his foot down, not wishing to be late.

And he would have been on time, too if the Sat Nav had not been deliberately vague enough to take him on a couple of detours. As he arrived at Ide village green, he braked hard to s stop and looked at his watch sixty-one minutes. He thumped the steering wheel. That damn Sat Nav! Again!

He found that Ide Hill was, not surprisingly, on a hill. A small community clustered around the crown of the hill, England's answer to the ancient hill-top villages of Tuscany but with shit weather.

He pulled up to the village green which sloped down to a pub on one side and, claiming the high ground, up to a church on the other.

He looked around. There was an autumnal chill in the air and the clouds hung like a grey soiled duvet over the earth. The village green was empty, except for an old boy sitting on a bench admiring any view that the clouds had failed to obscure.

Normally, the client was obvious; jumping up and down with enthusiasm, sometimes literally jumping up and down with a small or even vast crowd of onlookers who wanted to be part of the making of history. But there were no crowds, no eager-faced client, just the old boy sitting on the bench.

He should really have written it off there and then but he had already driven for an hour which logically meant an hour to get back. Two wasted hours! On the other hand, he could go straight home and catch the midweek horse racing.

He looked at the old boy again and supposed that he should ask. Perhaps everyone was in the pub or the church. Perhaps it was a candle thing.

He stepped out into the countryside air. It really did smell different and walked towards the old boy. As he got nearer, he wished that he hadn't bothered. The old boy looked more like a tramp close up. The herringbone overcoat was slightly too long in the sleeve, the trousers ended above the ankles and the shoes were much too black and shiny to be appropriate for the damp grass. He had been making a beeline directly towards the tramp and he couldn't very well change course now without a good reason that failed to materialise in that desert of grassland. The tramp was watching him intently.

He was just about to begin with, 'excuse me', when the tramp stood up and said, 'Agent Smith I presume.'

Work liked to call them that, 'Agents'. And his surname really was Smith just as somewhere in the world there was surely a John Doe.

The tramp, or client as he now knew, had caught him by surprise. 'You can call me Shaun.'

'Agent Shaun Smith?' the client raised an eyebrow.

Yes. How many times. It did spell ASS. Even without the agent bit, which he was prepared to take the blame of as choice of profession, it was a bit of an embarrassment. His parents had obviously not given his initials any thought at all, which he blamed them for. Did the client look old enough to have been in the war? He decided not. The client looked to be in his early sixties.

'Good day for it!' Shaun had a whole repertoire of practised small talk. But a good day for what?

'Yes!' the client agreed. 'It is a good day for it.'

No clue there then.

They looked at each other for a moment. Was it candles? Or balancing bibles or something?

'We'll have to take your car.'

'Uh. My car? I don't really do that. I don't think that I am insured or something.'

'Then how can we get there?' the client gave him a quizzical look.

'Um,' Shaun rubbed the stubble on his chin that he had not had time to shave but preferred to call designer. 'I suppose it is too far to walk.'

'Too far to walk, but not far.'

'It's just that the last time I drove a client, it was, um, it was, um,' the time that he preferred to forget about; the time that he was supposed to have learned a lesson about.

'It really is not very far at all. Just down the hill. What could happen in such a short journey?'

Shaun hesitated; quite a lot actually.

'I promise that I won't sue you if we have a blow out and end up in the river.'

Shaun bet that wouldn't happen but it crossed his mind that the day wasn't unfolding exactly as planned. It was probably best to indulge the client, as long as it wasn't too far.

'The car is a bit of a mess,' he apologised as he tugged the passenger door open. The kids and the dog had left their mark; another reason that he didn't allow clients in the car.

'Take the Edenbridge road,' the client told him as he settled into the passenger seat, 'on the right here!'

They drove south, down the hill and into the patchwork of fields and small woodlands. The tress were already turning with yellows and oranges and the occasional splash of red.

'Automobiles, a wonderful invention don't you think? A personal carriage for the masses.'

'I haven't really given it much thought.'

'Left at the fork. They used to have a man walk in front of them with a red flag, you know. Quite a spectacle! Now we are able to whizz merrily along as fast as we please.'

'Do you drive?'

'I did, for a while; until they took my license away.'

'Oh?' Shaun turned his washed-out blue eyes on his passenger. The man was sitting stiffly with his hands resting on his knees. Why did 'they' take peoples licenses away, Shaun pondered? Drink driving? A serious accident, perhaps even killing someone?

'They said that I was too old to drive.'

'Too old,' Shaun repeated with a relieved laugh. 'I have an aunt who is still driving at seventy-five!'

'Exactly!' the client was not smiling.

'Right here, down that small lane. People used to get more exercise before cars. And they wonder why everyone suddenly got fat! Horses and steam trains, much more romantic.'

Shaun smiled indulgently.

'See the gate, turn in there!'

The gate was broken, lying on its side at the edge of a muddy track which led into a coppice of trees.

Shaun hesitated for a moment. The mud would get everywhere. He hadn't bargained on finding the money for a car wash. He turned up the track anyway. The car bounced in and out of water-filled pot-holes for fifty yards before they found a small cottage wedged among the trees, it was almost subsumed by them.

'There didn't use to be so many trees.'

Shaun looked at the trees. Their branches hung over the cottage and in some cases brushed right up against it. The trees had been there for quite some time, likely more than a hundred years. So had the cottage. There were more than a handful of slates missing from the roof which sagged in the middle as if its back was broken. It had also outlived its paint which had long since degraded and peeled off the window frames and door.

Shaun looked at the door. 'I bet it used to be green,' he thought to himself.

'My childhood home,' the client said it almost sadly as they pulled up between tree roots that bulged from the ground.

'I just need to call my wife,' Shaun said quickly. 'But as soon as he got his phone out and pressed her speed dial, he knew that there would be no signal. It happened in all the best horror movies. He was alone with a crazy old man, well crazy older man, at least, in the middle of a wood in front of a haunted house; the sort of house that cannibals obviously lived in and lived on the occasional traveller lured to their death by the crazy old man in the over-sized herringbone overcoat.

'Shaun!'

'Er, hello!'

'You phoned me.'

'I didn't expect to get you,'

'Look, Shaun. I needed a lift this morning, that's all. It didn't mean anything.'

He was hurt by this. He had phoned to say that, 'he was in the middle of the woods with a crazy old man who gave him the creeps and that it was a little bit like last time.' For a moment he couldn't speak.

'Shaun! Where are you?'

'Um,' he dragged his thoughts back to his predicament. 'Somewhere in the woods near Ide Hill'

'What woods?' At least she sounded concerned; perhaps concerned that he had taken up dogging on top of everything else.

'I don't know but there is a cottage.'

'Look Shaun, I'm in the middle of an experiment.'

'Wait!' He turned back to the client who was waiting patiently. 'Where are we?'

'Astragalus Cottage.'

Shaun gave him a brief thumbs up. 'Emma, I'm at Astragalus Cottage,' he said in a louder voice than was necessary.

'Okay, Shaun, I heard you, no need to deafen me. I have to go. Don't forget to pick the kids up. Bye.'

Shaun turned back to the client with a smile that was at least genuine now. Emma knew where he was and his phone actually had a signal. He wasn't a dispensable actor in a horror move after all.

'So, what is it that you want to do?'

'Didn't the office tell you?'

'Er, not exactly.' It had been in an email that he had not read. He had lifted the details of the mission, should he have wished to accept it, from his online calendar. He had known the date, time and place but not much else. If he needed to know more he could always access his email from his phone.

'Well, I don't know.'

'You don't know what?'

'I don't know what I want to do, I just want to set a record; any record.'

But that's not how it works,' Shaun frowned. 'You have to know what you want to do before you call us.'

'I'll think of something.'

'You can't just think of something. People train for days, weeks, months to set a record. You can't just think of something on the spot.'

'I could give it a go.'

'Look, I am afraid that you have wasted both our time,' Shaun was annoyed now. 'There is nothing that you can do here,' he turned back to his car. As he had anticipated, it was splashed from axle to roof with mud.

'I don't want to hurt you.'

Shaun froze with his hand on the car door.

'But I will have a record next to my name. I insist.'

Shaun turned slowly to see that the nightmare had indeed begun. The client was pointing a gun at him. He must have had it in his frigging overcoat, Shaun thought. He would never let a client in his car ever again. That rule was now utterly cast in stone.

'I bet that thing isn't even loaded?' He tried to sound casual as if he wasn't terrified.

'Let's find out shall we?'

'I'd rather not. I only asked.'

'I am assuming that you have a tape measure as part of your tool kit. And I have the apple,' he pulled an apple from his overcoat pocket. 'I am afraid that it is quite a small one. The other was larger but I was hungry.'

'I don't suppose that I could call my wife again,' Shaun asked.

'Not yet, a little later perhaps. Would you please measure a distance of twenty feet from that tree!' He waved the gun to indicate a fat tree trunk.

Shaun had no choice. He would have to play along with the mad man. As he took the tape measure from the metal case, he cursed the fact that it did not also conceal a gun. That's what happened when work called them agents and didn't supply them with agent's tools.

'Twenty feet from that tree?'

The client nodded.

Shaun sighed, but measured the distance and marked it with a branch.

'Now stand against the tree and put this apple on your head,' he held out the apple.

'You're kidding, right?'

'No! I am going to set the record for shooting an apple off a head at a distance of twenty feet. I am assuming that this has not been done before?'

'It hasn't been done before because it is bloody dangerous. And we don't encourage people to take risks.'

'A mere glance at your website persuades me that that is not true. For example, the longest time surviving trapped underground.'

'The eighty-nine days of the San José thirty-three miners; the clue is in the word 'trapped', we didn't encourage them to do it themselves. It was an accident'

'And yet, if someone wanted to break that record, they might be tempted.'

'They would have to be insane.'

'Which immediately brings us back to our current predicament.'

Shaun looked from the small apple to the gun and back again. 'You can't really be serious.'

'I am very serious; I will have my record today.'

'Look there are lots of other records that you can set. It doesn't have to be this one.'

The client cocked his head as if interested.

'For example, you could,' Shaun desperately thought of the pointless records that people had claimed. What record could a man in an oversized overcoat achieve in the middle of a wood? How many sticks snapped in five minutes, how many leaves stuffed in a pocket? Mobile phones! Shaun had a mobile phone. The fastest text message; 'The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human,' set by Melissa Thompson in 25.94 seconds. 'How are you at texting?'

The client shook his head sadly.

'Throwing?' The furthest distance a mobile phone has been thrown!' Wait! That was no good. His phone was his lifeline to rescue, he couldn't have it broken. 'No scrub that, I'll think of something else.'

The client waved the gun at the tree and offered the apple to Shaun. He took it gingerly as if it might be a hot potato.

'You are a good shot, right?'

'We will find out soon enough.'

'Oh God!' Shaun stood with his back against the tree and thought about making a run for it but he knew that in all the records that had been set, no-one had outrun a bullet. A bullet could travel at 720 miles per hour or 350 yards per second whereas the record for the fastest man was only 28 miles per hour or 13.6 yards per second. But being only twenty feet from the gun, the bullet would reach him in 0.02 seconds, before he had even thought about taking a step.

He placed the apple on his head and closed his eyes. If the bullet missed the apple, what were the chances of him living? Shaun imagined the apple at the centre of a pie suspended in the air. What slice of that pie was occupied by his head? Shaun estimated that his head occupied one eighth of the pie. If the shot missed, and missed randomly, he only had a one in eight chance of dying; not bad odds at all! His ears stuck out a bit though, what were the chances of losing an ear? Shaun tried to suck in his ears.

Nothing happened.

'It is hard to aim with you pulling a face like that!'

Shaun grit his teeth, took a deep breath and held it.

There was a loud bang in the woodland, Shaun jumped as he felt a splinter sting his cheek. The smell of the shot drifted up through the dying leaves.

'I missed!'

The client was standing with the gun at his side looking disappointed.

The apple rolled off Shaun's head and bruised itself on the ground.

'No second chance I'm afraid,' Shaun said quickly. 'Those are the rules.'

He looked up at the tree and saw a hole had been punched in the tree trunk a foot above where the apple had sat. The client was a rotten shot but luckily for Shaun, he was a rotten shot in the right direction.

'Perhaps we should have a cup of tea,' the client said, 'to calm our nerves.'

'We could find a cafe,' Shaun said hopefully, the last thing he wanted was to enter that house.

The client smiled. 'I have a kettle and teapot inside.'

'You are a teapot,' Shaun thought as he allowed himself to be ushered through the front door that retained enough remnant of paint for Shaun to realise that he had been wrong, it had once been red. He placed the index finger of his right hand in his mouth and bit down hard enough to bring tears to his eyes without drawing blood.

The door opened into a narrow, dark hallway that smelled of mould. It was more like a tunnel than a hall, with doors to rooms firmly closed. There was a light at the end of the tunnel which turned out to be a kitchen area. The kitchen was small and grubby. The windows were half-covered in a green growth that blocked out some of the light. On the floor were a thin mattress and a sleeping bag. The whole house felt cold and damp.

Shaun wondered if the client hadn't just broken in to the empty house and was squatting.

'It's the only room that doesn't leak when it rains,' the client explained.

There was a table and two chairs wedged up against a door which led out the back. Shaun glanced at one of the chairs; it appeared sturdy enough. He sat on it heavily. He felt oddly weary and put it down to the shock of cheating death by seven-eighths.

The client, meanwhile, set about making tea. There was a gas camping stove sat on the warped Formica worktop next to a rusty old cooker. He placed the gun next to the camping stove, rattled a box of matches and lit the stove.

'They turned the gas off in 1997,' he said as he placed an old-style kettle on the stove. 'The electricity soon after. The water is the only thing that still works. I think that they may have forgotten about the water.'

All along the warped Formica worktop were framed photographs; they looked old. Most were faded, some were even black and white, but all had blotches of green mould. Shaun recalled the advice he had heard in the films, 'make them like you. Give them a reason to keep you alive!'

'Your family?' he pointed at the photographs.

The flames of the camping stove licked around the base of the kettle.

'My wife,' the client picked up one photograph and showed it to Shaun.

It was a professional sepia portrait of a young woman. Shaun remembered that the sepia effect had enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the 1980s. The photograph had been taken in the old style too; his parents had a similar photograph of his great great grandmother. She was sitting rigidly upright in a chair, the body turned slightly away from the camera, the face turned towards it. In those days, the cameras had photographic plates and had needed several seconds of exposure.

'She died in 1947. Back then tuberculosis still killed a lot of people.'

Shaun looked at the client but the man's face gave nothing away. Either he really believed that his wife had died in 1947 or he was a good liar, but if he was lying, what was the point. 'When did you marry?' Shaun asked casually.

The client's eyes had a misted look and Shaun knew that they were cast back into the past, replaying the images.

'We were married in 1910.'

Shaun took a deep breath. Even if the woman in the photograph had been a cradle snatcher and the client had been sixteen when they had married, he would have to be at least one-hundred and eighteen years old now. The man standing before Shaun was not even close to eighty. The man was crazy after all. He was stuck in a derelict cottage with a crazy man with a gun.

'Do you know what it is like, Shaun, to watch your family die? Not suddenly in a car crash but slowly, year by year. My wife died of tuberculosis but my children died of the biggest killer of all; a terrible disease that gets us in the end when all else fails.'

Shaun briefly contemplated making a lunge for the gun which the client had laid on the worktop next to the teapot but it was just out of reach.

'Interesting gun,' he said, still looking at it. 'It looks old.'

The client frowned as his train of thought was interrupted. 'The gun. Yes! I picked it up in the war.'

Shaun thought of all the wars that his client could have been involved in. Too old for the Gulf Wars. The Falklands or perhaps Yugoslavia; that was a bad one but not many Brits had been involved in that and the man had no trace of a foreign accent. Shaun settled on the Falklands.

'Which war was that then?'

The man looked at him, almost with anger. 'The War. The big one, The Great War, of course!'

'Ah!' Shaun nodded. 'That war!' The man was deluded, but consistent with it.

'It is a terrible thing to outlive ones children, don't you think? It is not the natural order of things.'

At that moment, Shaun doubted that he would out-live his own children; he would be lucky enough to outlive the day.

'Do you have children?'

Shaun shook his head. 'No!'

'Yet you have two car seats in the back of your car. You do not trust me, Shaun.'

The kettle began to whistle. It began as a forlorn whimper but began to scream in agony as it picked up a head of steam.

'Milk? Sugar?'

Not normally, but today? 'Both!' Perhaps the sugar could ward off the feeling of dread that was building up inside him.

He made the tea very carefully; pouring a little of the hot water into a little silver teapot to warm it before adding tea leaves and boiling water.

'The photographs, are they all of your family?'

The client turned from swirling the teapot and selected a photograph in a silver frame and handed it to Shaun. It was a wedding photograph but the colouring seemed a little off with too much yellow. The photo was obviously old. Shaun didn't know why but he thought it might be from the early years of colour photography.

'Recognise anyone?'

Shaun scanned the assembled family, the bride and groom, centre-stage, standing outside a church. He saw a familiar face. The man standing next to who Shaun assumed was the bride's father had a strong family resemblance to the client.

Shaun tapped the thin glass. 'He looks a bit like you; a lot like you actually.'

The client snorted a laugh. 'That's because it is me, taken at my grand-daughter's wedding sometime in the sixties. I don't remember exactly when.'

Shaun peered at the man in the picture; it was an amazing resemblance; at about the same age too. Perhaps it was the client's grandfather.

'And the bride's father was my son. I'm standing next to him.'

If anything, the man whom the client claimed was his son was older than the doppelganger.

'He died in 1989 at the age of ninety-one. His daughter, the bride, died two years ago. By then, for obvious reasons, I had lost touch but I saw her name in the paper. They are all gone now and I am alone. Of course, the family germ line continues but they have no knowledge of me now. They have moved on and left me behind.'

He took two badly chipped teacups from a cupboard and poured the tea through an old-fashioned tea strainer.

'You have said nothing. You don't believe me.'

Shaun realised that if things were to go badly wrong; that this would be the moment. He had to be careful.

'I don't understand,' he said, 'what is it that you are trying to tell me?'

'I am trying to tell you that I am an old man that has been abandoned by his family and the state. I have been left to rot but unfortunately, that rot has not yet set in. That is me in that photograph but you don't believe it.' He poured milk into the cups and stirred a spoonful of sugar into one. He slipped the gun into a pocket of his overcoat and then brought the tea cups over to the table.

'At the risk of being shot, I could say that, using a computer, it is easy to change a face in an old photo.'

'I won't shoot you for arguing with me Shaun. I need to convince you,' He took the gun out of his pocket and placed it on the table.

'Convince me of what? I still don't understand.'

The client sipped from his teacup, eyeing Shaun from above the cup. He placed the cup carefully down on the table.

Shaun waited, resisting the urge to grab for the gun which was tantalisingly close.

'You know, Shaun. Today is my birthday.'

'If I had known, I would have bought a cake. Many happy returns.'

'Exactly! Very many as it turns out,' the client smiled ruefully. 'Can I ask you a question? I am sure that you will know the answer.'

'Okay!' Shaun sat back, the urge to make a grab for the gun passed. He would have to be smart and wait for the right moment, when the odds of success were higher.

'Who holds the record for the longest living person?'

'Hmm. That depends what you mean. The oldest person still living whose age can be verified is a Japanese gentleman called Jiroemon Kimura. He is now one hundred and fifteen. But if you mean the oldest person to have lived ever, again with verification and excluding the bible as a reliable source, is Jeanne Calment who died at the age of one hundred and twenty-two.'

'Well done, Shaun. You certainly know your records.'

'It is my job.'

'But it is the verification that is the key, isn't it Shaun? Many people claim to be older than Kimura or to have lived longer than Jeanne but they cannot prove it. It is hard to delve back over one hundred years, back into history and say 'Look! That was me!'

'Let me show you something!' The client stood up, with the gun in one hand. For a moment, there was a chance but then the client moved away from the table and the chance was gone. He went over to a drawer in the kitchen unit and removed a wad of paper, sheathed in a plastic folder.

'Take a look at this!' he handed Shaun a yellowed piece of paper.

It was a birth certificate. 'Charles Denby, born 1889.' It was probably the oldest piece of paper that Shaun had ever held, a personal record.

'That is me. I am Charles Denby.'

'Do I call you Charles or Charlie or Chuck as our American allies would say?'

'Charles, please. It is hard enough holding on to my identity without the complications of abbreviation.'

'What else do you have?'

'A marriage certificate.'

Shaun looked at the piece of paper which was not quite as old. It stated that Charles Denby married Victoria Brown in 1910.

'And my wife's death certificate.'

'Victoria Denby, died of tuberculosis, 1947.'

'It is amazing that you have kept these documents safe, for so long; especially the birth certificate.'

'My parents were careful people. We all were back then. We had so little, that what we had was precious.'

'Well, Charles, I am astounded. Utterly astonished! You have a lot of evidence here. It should be relatively easy to verify a claim for both the oldest living person and the oldest person ever.'

'Really? Because that is all I want.'

'Of course. As soon as I get back to the office, I can get it all arranged. It should cause quite a splash. The publicity will be huge. You will be a rich man.'

'I don't care about the money. I just want the world to know that I am still on this planet. I just want them to know that Charles Denby is not dead.'

'That must be very upsetting. We can set the record straight!'

'You think so?'

'I know so,' Shaun smiled. 'I will go straight to the office and get on to it. Quite a feather in my cap too you know.' He got up from the table and walked to the kitchen door. 'I'll be in touch!' He turned and began walking away.

There was a loud 'bang' and the dark hallway lit up for a fraction of a second. Plaster drifted down from the ceiling like snow and landed on Shaun's shoulders.

'Come back, Shaun!'

Shaun sighed, turned, walked back into the kitchen and sat back down at the table.

'It is not that simple,' Charles was still pointing the gun at him. 'And you know it. Of course you don't believe that I am one hundred and twenty-three years old. As you said yourself, anyone can alter a photograph. How easy is it then to fake a birth certificate?'

'I do believe you,' Shaun said but without any real conviction.

'No you don't!'

Shaun brushed bits of plaster off the shoulders of his blue jacket. The jacket had been given to him by Emma for his birthday, many birthdays ago. ''Look, Charles!' I am sorry but how can I believe you when you say that you are one hundred and twenty-three years old but look like you do? Who would believe you?'

Charles pulled some more papers from the plastic folder and handed them to Shaun.

'This is a letter from my bank, back in 1996, saying that since I was obviously dead and as I had left no will to bequeath my estate to my heirs, my account has been frozen. And this, an eviction notice from the council saying that since the death of Charles Denby, the owner of this house, I am living here illegally. The bailiffs are coming tomorrow to forcibly evict me. And this is a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions saying that I have been illegally claiming the state pension for the aforementioned Charles Denby and they request my attendance at a court hearing on the 19th November.'

Shaun looked at the letters.

'They are robbing me of my life. They are killing me even though I am not dead.'

Shaun looked at the man and scratched his head. The man obviously believed it. He really believed that he was one hundred and twenty-three years old and the strength of this conviction was making him point a gun at Shaun.

'Okay, Charles,' Shaun leaned towards him, 'let's play it your way for a moment. Tell me how?'

'How?'

'How you managed to reach the age of one hundred and twenty-three whilst looking like a sprightly sixty year old, albeit wearing poorly fitting clothes.'

'Where does your wife work, Shaun?'

Shaun sat back a little; he didn't want Emma involved in this. 'I don't see what that has to do with anything.'

'See, you still don't trust me, Shaun! She works at Gerontec and her name is Emma.'

For once Shaun's fear was replaced by anger. 'How do you know that?'

'You called her Emma on the phone.'

'I didn't mean her name.'

'I know a lot of things about Emma. I know that she works at Gerontec and I know what she is working on. Why do you think that I picked you?'

'Picked me for what?'

'To be my champion.'

'But I don't believe you.'

'I am working on that.' He sipped the dregs of his tea. 'You know, I used to work for the company that was the forerunner of Gerontec.'

Shaun digested this latest revelation.

'That can be verified,' Shaun said. Let me phone Emma, she can check whether a Charles Denby worked for Gerontec.'

'Why not! But it wasn't called Gerontec back then. I was working for the MOD, the Ministry of Defence. Later my section was privatised and Gerontec was created from some of the bits and pieces. Get her to check if there are any publications in my name.'

Shaun dialled her number. She would think that he was stalking her again.

'Hi, Em!'

'You remember my name this time.'

'Sorry, yeh!'

'Let me guess, you can't pick the kids up.'

'No! Nothing like that. A bit bizarre actually. I'm with a client and I want to check if he worked for Gerontec.'

'That would be bizarre.'

'Can you check if he has had any publications?'

'If it gets you off the phone.'

'The name is Charles Denby.'

'Charles Denby. Let me see. Yep. I see publications.'

'That was quick!'

'That's the internet for you.'

'Can you see where he worked?'

'The publications are old, very old but he appeared to work for the MOD.'

'Thanks Emma, that is great. I'll drop the kids off later.' She hung up. Once upon a time she would have said, 'love you,' but not anymore.

'So what is the story?' Shaun asked the man with the gun who called himself Charles Denby. 'How do you explain your age or apparent lack of it?'

Charles smiled; the first time that Shaun had seen the man properly smile.

'During the Great War, I worked on biological warfare. It was a dirty business, plague, botulism, that sort of thing. It was also crude; fill a mortar with the stuff and lob it over enemy lines. Of course, it didn't work; the bugs were incinerated on impact.'

'Of course,' Shaun glanced at the gun which was on the table again.

'After the war, I continued to work for the MOD. It was exciting times, especially when the structure of DNA, our genetic material was confirmed.'

'Yeh! I know,' Shaun said, 'Watson and Crick in 1953, They got a Nobel Prize for it.'

Charles shook his head. 'No! Terrence Higginsbottom in 1940. But no Nobel Prize for him. Working for the MOD, we were years ahead of the academics. But it was secret. That was part of the problem. We began cloning stuff but we didn't really know what we were doing.'

'You have lost me there.'

'Cloning. Chopping up our genetic material and inserting it into a virus that could be grown in the test tube. Later, cloning would be associated with producing Dolly the sheep; an exact copy of her mother. Technically though, cloning just means the copying of genetic material.'

'Okay, so you were cloning.'

'Yes! Cloning in 1970.'

'Hang on! In 1970 you were already more than eighty years old.'

'Exactly. In those days there was no pressure to retire; as long as you could put on your white coat, you could enter the laboratory. That was part of the problem; part of what went wrong.'

Charles leaned back in his chair, his memories far away.

The gun remained on the table, teasing Shaun.

'Okay, Charles, you have me on the hook; what went wrong?'

'It was one of the post-docs. He was cloning the human genome in an adenovirus vector. He had just placed his samples in a centrifuge, a machine that spins round and round very fast.'

'I may have dropped science at school but I do know what a centrifuge is,' Shaun interrupted. 'Rogue states use them to enrich uranium.'

'Except, those rogue states are probably more careful than our post-doc. I still remember the noise. There was a terrible clanging and the whole machine began to jump up and down on the floor before it blew apart. We all started running for the door but I was the last one out.'

'Well, you were eighty years old at the time,' Shaun played along

'Yes. I was eighty years old and 'running' does not really describe my exit.'

'So you were the last one out from the exploding room. Were you injured?'

'Not a scratch. But I was infected by the virus released from the centrifuge; the one that was used to clone the genetic material.'

'Couldn't they do something about it? Give you something?'

'I was infected but I didn't even know it; nothing could be seen. I didn't mutate or grow another head or anything like that. There were no signs of infection to be seen; no sores or ulcers. The first I knew of it was when my hair started to grow back. I had been pretty much bald for thirty years and all of a sudden it started to grow back.'

Shaun looked at his hair which was thick and had very little grey.

'So what did you do?'

'Nothing. At first I didn't know what was going on. All I knew was that my hair was coming back and I felt great. Before the accident, it had been a struggle just to get out of a chair. I guess I was only a few years from death. My body had degraded and was giving up the struggle for life. But after the accident, I couldn't believe it. I began waking up with erections. It was amazing. Every day I would look in to the mirror and very day there would be more hair and fewer lines on my face. I was actually getting younger!'

'So what happened next?'

'They sacked me!'

'I don't understand.'

'I was eighty-one in 1970. In 1980, I was ninety-one. The problem was that I looked younger. I did not look ninety, or even eighty. I looked not much older than I do now. The change was so gradual that, at first, no one noticed but then it occurred to some bright spark. They looked at ID photos of me in the 1970s and compared those to ten years later.'

'They realised then that you had become infected.'

'No! They realised that they had been infiltrated by a Russian spy who had taken over the identity of Charles Denby, though they couldn't understand when and how it had been done. They just knew that the Charles Denby of 1970 was not the Charles Denby of 1980.'

'Surely, if they thought that you were a spy, you would have been arrested.'

'They thought about that but they didn't want the embarrassment of admitting that a spy had been working for them for a number of years, the exact number of which they could not even determine. So they just kicked me out and told me to go back to Russia.'

They looked at each other. Charles looked saddened and Shaun looked confused.

'Do you believe me now?'

Shaun thought about it. He realised that, for the first time he wanted the story to be true. 'I suppose, there is a one in ten chance that there might be something in your story.'

Charles nodded. 'We are making progress then. Would you like another cup of tea?' He got up and went over to the stove.

Shaun looked at the gun that was still lying on the table. He could just take it now, easy peasy. No struggle, no fight, just take the gun and get the hell out of there.

'So, what are you saying,' he asked as Charles lit the stove. 'That the infection caused your biological time to reverse or something like that? If so, where and when will it end?'

Charles laughed as he put the kettle on. 'You have watched too many films, Shaun. This is not science fiction. Do you imagine that one day I will become a teenager and then a child, a baby and a foetus after that. Perhaps you think that the sperm will separate from the egg that was fertilised to make the human that was called Charle Denby. No, biological time has not reversed. It is quite simple to explain actually, if we understand what causes aging.'

'Go on, then! Explain it to me!'

Charles took two more cups from the cupboard that were just a chipped as the first and placed them on the counter.

'I will try to explain it. There are three causes of aging and they are interconnected. The first cause is that our mitochondria become damaged over time. Mitochondria are the tiny powerhouses that sit in our cells and burn sugar to make energy. The problem is that they also produce toxic reactive oxygen as a by-product and this toxic, reactive oxygen damages them over time so that they no longer work as efficiently. To make matters worse, these damaged mitochondria produce even more toxic reactive oxygen. It is a vicious cycle.'

'So we age because we run out of energy.'

'Exactly. We run out of energy and fill up with toxic reactive oxygen which brings me to my second cause of aging. This toxic reactive oxygen also attacks the building blocks of our cells and tissues; it attacks our protein, fats and DNA.'

'That is why people take antioxidants,' Shaun made the connection. Emma used to take them; he wondered if she still did?

'Yes! And our bodies also have a whole arsenal of antioxidants but with time they just become overwhelmed. When the toxic reactive oxygen attacks our proteins it can cause them to cross-link, stick to each other. It is like scrambling an egg. At first the egg is soft and runny but as it heats up the proteins literally scramble, stick to each other and the egg becomes solid. This happens in our bodies but, in this case, it is not caused by heat it is caused by the toxic reactive oxygen. The effect is most apparent in skin which loses its elasticity with age.'

The kettle began to sing its song of pain.

Charles took it from the stove and poured a little hot water into the teapot.

'You said that there three causes, what is the third?'

Charles smiled. 'The most interesting one.'

'And why is that?'

'Because it is the one that no longer affects me. In order for our bodies to remain healthy, they must constantly repair damage and replace lost cells; the cells we shed from the surface of our skin, for example. Skin cells are constantly dividing to replace those that are lost. Well, it may interest you to know that our cells cannot continue to divide forever. At our birth, each cell is born with the ability to divide only a finite number of times. As we age our cells begin to reach this limit and we begin to degrade. Our bodies cannot repair damage, wounds heal slowly and our skin becomes thin. We limp along for a few more years but the end is inevitable.'

'And this no longer happens to you?'

Charles poured the tea into the teacups. 'Sugar?'

'Not this time. I think the shock is wearing off.'

Charles put the cups on the table and sat down. 'Don't misunderstand, Shaun. I am still aging. The virus just gave my body a bit of a boost. It infected every single one of my cells and it carried a cloned gene that allows my cells to divide without limit. My cells can happily divide to replace my worn out bits and that is what happened when I became infected; my hair began to return. However, the other aging processes are still continuing. The toxic reactive oxygen is still slowly killing me and one day, thank God, I will die. I may even start aging again as that damage continues to build up.'

'You don't want to live forever, then?'

'You have heard my story. Shaun. Would you? Perhaps if everyone were the same; if my family had not left me. Or perhaps if people can accept that I am Charles Denby and that Charles Denby is not dead but is a healthy centenarian.'

'That is why you want the record for the oldest person. You want your identity restored?'

'Partly. It would be nice if everyone stopped accusing me of being an imposter. But it would also be rather nice to hold that record, don't you think? So, Shaun, how is the belief coming along?'

'Your story is plausible and I never expected to be saying that. Perhaps there is a one in three chance that you are telling the truth.'

'So it has gone up. A moment ago, you were nine-tenths sure that I was lying.'

'As I said, your story is extraordinary but persuasive but even if I did believe you, and we are a long way from that, there is still no verifiable evidence.'

'I am the evidence,' Charles held out his arms, 'the verifiable evidence is here!'

'You have lost me again.'

'Your wife, what is she working on?'

'I really have no idea.'

'Well I do, Shaun. I have read her scientific papers.'

'She has scientific papers?'

'Many. But the one that caught my attention was one describing her work on mice and the changes that occur in the mouse's body as it ages.'

'I can see why you would be interested in that. I had no idea that my wife was working on aging.'

'A very specific area of aging. She has found a way to estimate the age of an animal from a tissue sample. She has found the biological clock. Tick tock.'

'So what are you saying?'

'I am saying that if you gave your wife a sample of my tissue, she would be able to determine my age, give or take a few months.'

'But you said that your cells had changed, wouldn't that interfere with any analysis?'

'The method she has developed doesn't look at the cells themselves. As we age it appears that there is a gradual change in the structure of our protein; the older we are, the more the protein has changed.'

'So, you are saying that if you give her a sample, like they do in the films, a scraping from the inside of your cheek, she can estimate your age?'

'You are partly correct.' Charles stood and went over to the kitchen unit. He opened a drawer and removed something that he brought back to the table.

He placed a cigar cutter and a hammer, with a large metal head on the table.

'Unfortunately, life is often not that simple. I bought these today.'

Shaun looked at the cigar cutter. It was square with a round hole into which the end of the cigar was placed. When the cutter was squeezed, a sharp blade sliced off the tip of the cigar. A horrible thought was dawning.

'A cheek scraping, will not do, I'm afraid. For the test to work properly the sample has to be from a part of the body that has been around since birth. My little finger, or to be more precise, the bone in my little finger has been with me since birth.'

'You have to be kidding.'

'I wish I was.'

'I can't do that?'

'I shot at your head. Take your revenge.'

'I can't do it!'

'You don't want to know the truth? You don't want to know for sure? Remember, you said that there was a one in three chance that I was telling the truth. Don't you want to be the man who has uncovered one of the greatest truths in history?'

'I hate the sight of blood.'

'One quick hard blow and it will all be over. You can even faint afterwards if you want.'

'I tell you, I can't do it.'

'Then you leave me no choice,' Charles picked up the gun.

Shaun, cursed that he had not taken the gun away from him when he had the chance. 'I thought that we were past all that.'

'Forgive me, Shaun, but you have the wrong idea. I am not going to coerce you. I am going to shoot my finger off. Then I will put it into this little zip lock bag,' he pulled a plastic bag out of his overcoat pocket, 'and you can take it to your wife for testing.'

'You are likely to blow your finger to Kingdom Come if you use that gun. I am not sure that there will be anything left for me to give to my wife.'

'I agree, it will be one hell of a mess, not as clean as the cigar cutter but you leave me no choice.'

Charles placed his left hand on the table and pressed the barrel of the gun to the first joint of his little finger.

'Whoa!' Shaun leapt back and knocked his chair over. 'You're likely to blow your knee cap off doing it like that.'

'Thanks for pointing that out! Charles moved his knees from under the table. He closed his eyes.

'Okay! Okay! I'll do it. Let's use the cutter. Jesus!'

'Thank you, Shaun. A gunshot wound is difficult to heal as we found that out in the war. A clean cut would be much better. Are you ready?'

'Let's just get it over with!'

Charles put the tip of his little finger in the cigar cutter so that the blade was above the first joint.

'Remember,' he told Shaun. 'As hard as you can or the cut won't be clean and we will have to do it again.'

'I am only doing this once.' Shaun picked up the hammer and felt the weight of it in his hand. 'I will warn you, I am not very good at DIY. Anytime I try to bang a nail in, it always goes in squint.'

'As long as you hit the top of the cigar cutter.'

'Perhaps I should have a few practise swings first?'

'Just do it, Shaun.' Charles placed the cigar cutter with the end of his little finger poking out, on the table.

'What if I miss and hit your hand?'

'You won't.'

'What if you bleed to death?'

'I won't, I have gauze and a bandage.'

'What if....?'

'Shaun, do it now!'

Shaun stared at the little bit of finger poking out of the end of the cigar cutter.

'Don't think, just do it! Now!' Charles shouted.

Shaun closed his mind, and the next moment he was swinging the hammer. He brought it down on the cigar cutter with a force that almost lifted him off his feet. He was definitely not going to have to do this again!

There was a loud 'bang' and the blade on the cigar cutter sliced through the cartilage of the finger joint. The tip of Charles's finger shot off across the room leaving a trail of blood in its wake like a little blood-propelled rocket.

Charles whipped his hand away and squeezed the stump of his little finger tightly in his other hand.

Shaun sat down heavily watching blood ooze from between Charles's fingers.

'If you wouldn't mind fetching the bandage from the drawer,' Charles nodded to the drawer from which he had fetched the hammer and cutter.

Shaun did what he was asked but his knees were shaking. He handed the bandage to Charles.

'I hardly felt a thing,' Charles said. 'It must be the adrenaline. It will probably hurt like bugger later.' He looked around. 'Did you see where my finger went?'

Shaun looked in the direction the end of the finger had taken. It was lying on the dirty kitchen floor in a little pool of blood.

'Could you be kind enough to bag it up for me?'

Shaun took a deep breath. When he had woken up that morning, if he had tried to guess how his day was going to go, he would certainly not have laid odds that he would have been picking up a severed finger. He took the plastic bag and fetched a fork from the kitchen drawer. He could not bring himself to touch the finger so he used the fork to prod it into the plastic bag. He felt a little less queasy once the bag had been zipped shut, though he could still see the finger nestling in the corner of the bag, oozing blood,.

'You going to be alright?' he asked. Charles had gone very pale.

'The bleeding is easing off already.'

'Even so, you should probably go to the hospital and get them to stitch it up.'

'I probably should.'

'Want a lift?'

'That is very kind of you.'

Outside, a weak sun was shining and beginning to dry up the mud. There was the smell of wood smoke in the air.

Shaun tossed the bag with the finger in the glove compartment of his car.

'So which is the nearest hospital?'

'I believe that Tonbridge Wells has a casualty department.'

Shaun entered it in the Sat Nav. Twenty-six minutes, but Shaun bet they would do it in nineteen.

As they drove back passed the broken gate, Charles said, 'I will tell them that I trapped it in a car door.'

'Sounds plausible enough,' Shaun agreed.

'They drove back through Ide village and along the narrow lane

'What will you do now?' Shaun asked. Remembering that Charles was about to be forcibly evicted.

'I think that I deserve a holiday; somewhere hot. After all, if I am going to be homeless, it is better to be homeless under a hot sun and a blue sky. There is nothing to keep me here now.'

'But how will I contact you? How will I let you know the result of the test?'

'Shaun, my dear fellow, I already know the result. I know that I am not lying. It is you that requires convincing. You need the verification.'

Shaun nodded. 'Right! I need to know!'

It took them nineteen minutes to reach the hospital.

As Charles undid his seatbelt, a thought occurred to Shaun.

'Why did you shoot at the apple on my head, Charles?'

'I apologise for that little charade but I had to get your attention. I would say that it worked, wouldn't you? Don't worry, though, I did aim high.'

'Good to know,' Shaun could still picture the bullet hole in the trunk of the tree.

After he had dropped Charles off, Shaun drove to Gerontec in fifty-one minutes exactly and asked for Emma at the reception. As he waited, he sifted through old science-related magazines on a glass coffee table.

'Shaun! Is everything alright? The kids?' She was hurrying over to him still in her white coat.

He held up his hands. 'They're fine. I'm just on my way to pick them up.'

'So why are you here?'

'I have something for you.'

'Look Shaun, we've been through this. I don't want...'

He held up the little bag, which swung under her nose.

She frowned. 'What the hell is that?'

'It is a finger or the end of a finger, at any rate.'

'What a romantic gesture.'

Shaun remembered that she was used to dissecting mice and was not fazed by a little blood and gore.

'Van Gogh cut off his ear.'

'It's not mine.'

'You surprise me,' she said looking at his hands with his fingers still intact.

'I need a favour.'

Shaun explained the rather bizarre events of the day.

'And you said that I would do it.'

'I didn't really have a choice Em, he had a gun and he knows where you work,' Shaun felt a little flush of shame. He was sure that Charles was no threat to her. 'Can you do it?'

'And what exactly do you expect me to find? You can't possibly believe him.'

Shaun thought about that. 'I almost did. I believed him more when I was with him. But now? Now I don't know.'

'And you are sure that we can't go to the police?'

'I cut a man's finger off, Em!'

She sighed. 'I suppose that I should do it then.'

'Thanks!'

'And the virus, the one that he says he was infected with, do you want me to look for that too?'

Shaun stared. 'You can do that?'

'Shaun, I am a molecular biologist. It is what I do. If the virus is there, I can isolate it from this finger and if by some miracle, he does turn out to be one hundred and twenty-three, we will have the virus that caused that miracle.'

'Er, okay. Thanks again!'

She took the bag with the finger and put it into the pocket of her lab coat.

'So how long will it take?'

'How long is a piece of string? Months, a year, I don't know.'

'That long!'

'Do you want me to do it or not?'

Shaun nodded. 'Sorry!'

She tuned to go.

'Em!' He called after her. 'Be careful! Don't break any centrifuges!'

# # #

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