Jonathan Barnes

The Domino Men

Chapter 1

I’m horribly aware, as I sit at the desk in this room that you’ve lent me, that time is now very short for me indeed. Outside, the light of day is fading fast; in here, the ticking of the clock sounds close to deafening.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I won’t have time to write everything that I’d hoped — my definitive history of the war, from its origins in the dreams of the nineteenth century to the grisly skirmishes of my granddad’s day to the recent, catastrophic battle in which you and I played modest parts. No, I simply have to hope that there’ll be time enough for me to set down my own story, or at least as much of it as I can remember before the thing which sleeps inside me wakes, stirs, flexes its muscles and, with a lazy flick of its gargantuan tail, gives me no alternative but to forget.

I know where I have to start. Of course, I wasn’t present in person — wasn’t even born then — but I’m sure that it was there, for all intents and purposes, that it began. I can picture it so clearly, as though these events are calling to me across the years, pleading with me to set them down on paper.

It’s probably no coincidence that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the old flat, the place in Tooting Bec where I lived with Abbey in happier times and which, in a strange sort of way, although I didn’t realize it back then), was always at the heart of the business. Our house was built at some point late in the 1860s. I had other things on my mind whilst I lived there and I never looked into its history, but Abbey did once, in an offhand, mildly curious sort of way, spurred on, I think, by some TV show or other. Her findings were faintly disquieting, although she never discovered what I know now about the place. But then, how could she? The Directorate kept those records locked up safe and everyone who was present or who knew anything about them is long dead.

It happened late one night toward the end of April 6, 1967. Years before the house was divided up into flats and a decade or so before I came into the world, a long, dark sedan motored to a stop outside the flat in Tooting Bec. Although spring should have been in full bloom, it had felt more like winter for almost a week and everyone had started wearing thick coats, hats and scarves again, shouldering their way to the backs of their wardrobes to tug out winter outfits that they’d hoped not to see again until October.

It had been raining for hours and the streets, lit up by the unforgiving yellow of the lamps, seemed to shine and dully glisten as though they’d been smeared with some grease or unguent. No one was abroad and the only sounds were the distant wail of a baby and the plaintive whinnies of urban foxes, padding through the darkened city, foraging for anything that might prove edible amongst the junk and wreckage so carelessly abandoned by humanity.

The car door opened and a tall man unfolded himself from the driver’s seat — middle-aged; sharply, almost dandyishly dressed in a dark blue, single-breasted suit and still handsome, albeit with a cruelly vulpine quality to his features. With him was a woman, about the same age, but already moving like someone much older, a brittle spinster decades before her time. Both wore expressions of stoic professionalism mingled (and I suppose we must consider this to be to their credit) with a kind of distasteful disbelief at the unconscionable demands of their jobs.

They had a passenger with them, lolling in the back seat, apparently drunk almost to the point of insensibility. It was a woman, very young and even then, after all that had been done to her, still extremely beautiful. Most of her hair had been shaved away, although a few scattered, tufty islets remained. Her scalp was marked out with scorings, scars and half-healed incisions, and she seemed only dimly aware of what was happening t her, clinging to the man in the same way in which a child clutches at her father’s hand on the way to her first day at school. He pulled her out onto the street and helped her stagger toward the front door of the house, letting her slump and flop against him, an arrangement which lent him the appearance of a shop boy grappling (not a little salaciously) with a storefront dummy.

When they got to the door, the older woman reached into her handbag, first for a key and then for a pair of torches. Once the door was open and the torches were switched on, the man steered the girl over the threshold, whispering declarations of love into her ear, honeyed fictions designed with the sole purpose of keeping her moving, saccharine lies told only to propel her onwards. Inside, the house was stripped and empty. The man dragged the girl down the corridor toward the dining room, the bobbing light of his torch picking out their way. His companion, after surveying the street with baleful eyes, busied herself in locking and bolting the door and ensuring, with the painstaking paranoia of the career professional, that the place was completely free of all listening devices, surveillance equipment and sundry bugs.

In the dining room there was an old white wooden chair, a few unlit candles and a brand-new television set. The floorboards were bare and seemed to have been daubed with strange signs and symbols in what I can only hope and pray was red paint. There was a strange quality of power in the room, of energy crackling in the air, its presence understood in the same distant way in which one might sense the throb of an engine or the humming whine of a generator.

The man helped the girl into the chair. She was moaning a little now, grizzling like a baby in the grip of a bad dream. He patted her head before producing a length of rope and binding her to the chair, winding it so tightly around he wrists and ankles that he drew blood. At this, she started to whimper and complain but the man cooed softly, stroked her lips and ran his fingers along the bridge of her nose in the kind of intimately soothing gesture which only a lover can perform, until she fell silent once again.

They had a moment alone together then. He could have begged for her forgiveness, he could have wept tears of shame and regret, he could, at the very least, have said something to try to make amends. But he didn’t. She stared up at him with dull accusation in her eyes and he found himself unable to return her gaze. Head bowed, he walked across to the other side of the room and began, with sacerdotal reverence and intensity, to light the candles. A few minutes later, the woman came into the room, closed the door behind her and suggested, with only the barest tremble in her voice, that they begin.

What they did next sickens me to think about, no matter how many times I’ve been vociferously assured of its necessity.

The handsome man stood over the chair and, reaching down to a leather pouch that he kept out of sight and strapped to his flank, produced a knife. Its blade gleamed in the candlelight.

There may have been a ritual of some kind. Who can say? I never understood the specifics. But I feel certain that the older woman would have said a few words, that, in that clear, precise schoolmarm’s voice of hers, she would have issued an invitation into the dark.

Once she had finished speaking, the man moved closer to the girl and, in a few swift motions, lifted the knife into the air and brought it slicing down. Just before the blade bit into her flesh, he told her the same thing that, four decades later, he would say to me.

“Trust the process,” he said.

Then again, as though repeating a lie somehow makes it true: “Trust the Process.”

I don’t want to imagine what came next but I find it almost impossible not to — the cutting of her wrists, the animal screams of pain, the awful, unstaunchable flow of blood.

Once the bleeding had stopped, once the poor girl ought, according to any biological law, to have slid gratefully into death or unconsciousness, she sat up quite straight in her seat with a sticky, fleshy popping sound, like the noise one hears on pulling the heads off shrimp.

Whatever it was which stared out at them from behind that girl’s eyes, it wasn’t remotely human. When it spoke, it was no longer in the voice of the girl at all. It would have been impatient, I think, a little peevish and annoyed, as it asked why it had been called to this place before it was time, before the city was ripe.

Then — the springing of the trap. Realizing too late what had happened, the thing that wore the girl’s skin screeched in rage and fury. It hissed and thrashed and struggled in its chair as, quite impossibly, the cuts on its wrists began to knit themselves together, the skin miraculously reconstituting itself over the slaughterhouse confusion of flesh and blood until, at last, it came to understand the parameters of its entrapment.

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