Trigger warning for violence and gore
The morning air was unseasonably warm as Haytham made his way toward the Pact House. He wore a long, thick and wool-lined coat, and, even though it made him sweat, he made no effort to remove it. The Pact House wasn’t the building’s official name, but nobody used the official name these days. There was no need for pretences, no need for a false name that was almost certainly some elaborate pun. Perhaps it was used in fancy reports by some bureaucrat somewhere, and perhaps those who worked for it used it as part of their grotesque pantomime, but all others just called it the Pact House.
Haytham’s appointment was at midday, but he arrived five minutes early. A mixture of nerves and a desire to get things over with propelled him forwards. Even so, had he allowed himself a moment’s thought, he could quite easily have made himself late standing outside the Pact House with one hand on the door. Every time had been the same. It was more than just fear, it was like the world itself was saying to keep that door shut. And, just like the previous two times he’d been there, he pushed himself forward and ignored it. What greeted him on the other side was an aesthetically pleasing, pleasantly cool reception area with easy listening music piped in through unseen speakers. A pleasant nightmare, if there ever was one. Haythem approached the reception, and a well-dressed young woman looked up from her computer. Ever the facade, ever the front.
“Hello, Mr Willard,” She said without ever asking for his name. No name badge on her front, no introduction. “Here to see Mr Ryman, I assume?” It was good. The polite smile on her face reached her eyes.
“I have an appointment,” Haytham said, tearing his eyes away from that smile. The first time he’d come here, he’d tried to feign comfort. After that, they’d made it very clear such efforts were not appreciated, and he’d never tried again.
“Of course,” the receptionist said, tapping the keyboard several times. Not nearly enough times to have actually gotten any information, but Haytham was fairly sure she didn’t need to. “To discuss the terms of your contract.” It could have been Haytham’s imagination, but her smile seemed to have turned slightly cruel, smug. “Have a seat. Mr Ryman will be with you shortly. Would you like something to drink?”
“No,” Haytham said. He’d spoken to a few people about this place, and not one of them had accepted anything but a contract. Haytham wasn’t going to be the one who broke tradition.
As always, Haytham wondered if they were going to make him wait. After all, that was the stereotype about these people. Lawyers, teachers, politicians. People with power, regardless of how they got it. They loved to make you wait. There was something incessant and maddening about the calm, relaxing music that cut through him, and the reception area wasn’t exactly bursting with conversation. Pale, nervous people sat, eyes either darting around without pause or remaining fixed to the floor. What few glimpses of eye contact Haytham made with others were fleeting and fearful. And so, when the receptionist materialised, as always, at exactly midday – the very instant the hour changed – Haytham was almost grateful.
“Mr Ryman will see you now,” she said, with that same genuine, cruel smile, “May I take your coat?”
“Of course, sir,” Was it Haytham’s imagination, or was there just a second of hesitation there? Victories were few and far between in this place, and so he was going to take that as one. He got to his feet, and the receptionist moved to direct him.
“I know the way,” Haytham said, pushing past her.
“Most people aren’t so eager to get there,” the receptionist said. “I hope you’ve got something good to bargain with.” The front had finally slipped. “Enjoy your appointment, Mr Willard.”
Ryman’s office was on the third floor. Haytham would never claim to be an expert in the inner workings of, well, whatever this place was, but he was fairly sure that wasn’t a sign of particular seniority in a building with many, many more floors. But, as much as he wanted to find amusement in that, he couldn’t: if Ryman was just a mid-level goon, he dreaded to think what the people in charge were like. The corridors he walked through were white, sterile and cool, with art on the walls that Haytham forgot even as he was looking at it. But, just between those three floors, there was a difference. The temperature increased – barely perceptibly, but it increased. The art was still forgettable, but there was something about it that turned his stomach uneasy if he looked too long. For just a second, he was tempted to keep going. To see what the building was like the further up he went, see how else it changed, see where it dropped the curtain of normalcy. But he didn’t. He took a right, and let himself into Ryman’s office.
The man behind the desk had introduced himself as Albert Ryman the first time he and Haytham met, and Haytham hadn’t believed it for a second. He was tall and thin, with white hair and black glasses that framed his face. He always wore impeccable suits. But it was all a little too perfect: the hair too well-maintained, the jacket and shirt too complimentary, and the tie knot always impossibly symmetrical. His glasses weren’t crooked in the slightest. Everything about him seemed cultivated, right down to the pretence of humanity.
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“Mr Willard!” Ryman said, a warm smile breaking out over his face, displaying perfect teeth. “Are you sure I can’t call you Haytham?” The same question every time. A recording. The inflection was the same on every occasion.
“Incredibly, no,” came the reply, and Ryman just laughed.
“A consistent man, that’s what I like to see. Take a seat. Would you care to remove your coat?”
“I’d rather keep it on, thanks,” Haytham said.
“Of course, of course,” Ryman said. “Whatever you wish.” Haytham knew what Ryman thought he was doing. Acquiescing to his little demands, the name, the coat, just because he could. Because he was sure he was going to win in the long run. “So I understand you’re here to discuss your contract?”
Ryman’s friendly smile turned politely confused. “Well, please enlighten me on what there is to discuss.”
“Oh, the terms you agreed to?” That voice was still so pleasant. “I’ll indulge you: what do you dislike about the terms? I seem to recall you’ve benefited quite nicely from them. How’s your career going?”
“Fine,” Haytham said after a pause. “It’s going well. But the price is too much.”
Ryman blinked, a crafted frown dipping over his face. “Too much? Too much? Surely, Mr Willard, you knew what you were willing to give when you signed it? What’s changed?”
“I re-evaluated some things.”
“Well, I’m afraid one of those things wasn’t the contract, Mr Willard. And that’s the problem with contracts. Once they’re signed, they’re rather binding.” A chuckle. “It’s sort of the point.”
“Then how about you change that?” Haytham asked. “Get out that pen of yours and change a few words. Make the price something less barbaric.”
Ryman’s performance had to be credited. He looked genuinely remorseful as he shook his head. “But why for you, when we haven’t for so many others? I really am sorry, Mr Willard, truly I am, but a deal is a deal. There is no escape clause. There is no loophole. There isn’t even any fine print. You signed it, and you really must stick to it.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I think you would find the requirements of our deal to be a blessing compared to the consequences of breaking it, Haytham.”
“I didn’t say you could call me that,” Haytham said, and leaned over the desk. “Find a reason to change it.”
“I can’t, not like that.” Ryman paused before he spoke again. “But maybe there’s something we can do.”
“Another deal,” Ryman said, and then, from somewhere above them in the building, there came a shriek. An agonised scream. Faint, but painfully audible. An animal howl, caught in a steel trap.
“Nasty business,” Ryman chuckled, an almost embarrassed look on his face, “but justified, I’m quite sure. Where were we? Oh yes, another deal. One mitigating your responsibilities for this particular contract. But of course, it won’t come free. There will be–”
The gunshot rang out across the room and Ryman stiffened. His uniformly green eyes dropped to his chest, where crimson soaked through his shirt, and then he went limp. The smoking gun was in Haytham’s hand, his coat undone.
It was ridiculous, after how deafening the gunshot had been in the confined space, but in the sudden silence that seemed to fall over the entire building afterwards, Haytham’s own laboured breathing sounded like a gale to his ears. To say the act had been uncalculated, impassioned, would be a lie. He’d brought the gun with him, he’d kept it concealed. Surely, at some point, he’d had some plan for what to do after killing Ryman, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember it. And it could well be for the life of him. Was he to run? Shoot the next person who came in through the door? Set the office on fire? Or just listen to the rapid drip of scarlet copper and contemplate the murder he had just committed?
An eternity passed in the mere moments before the door opened and Albert Ryman walked through. Dressed in the same perfect suit, with the same perfect hair and teeth as the corpse in the chair, but with noticeably fewer viscera on display.
“Now that was quite impolite,” Ryman said, making his way towards the desk. His tone suggested nothing more serious than a raised voice had occurred. “Luckily, I’m willing to look past it. You wouldn’t believe how many clients have tried that over these little disputes.” A small chuckle, a little professional humour.
Haytham wanted to be sick as he looked at the impossibility before him, but even moving those involuntary muscles was more than his body could manage. His breath had frozen in his lungs. Ryman reached his chair, and moved his own corpse out of it before looking at the sheer volume of ichor that had soaked into the seat, and the unidentifiable pieces of biology that adorned it.
“I think I might stand, actually,” he mused aloud, before turning back to Haytham. “Now, we were discussing a new contract?”
Finally, a muscle in Haytham’s body moved, and it was to drop the gun at his feet. There was no other choice. Numbly, he nodded his agreement, and Ryman smiled.
About The Author
Isaac D. Williams has been writing from the age of four years old, when he wrote the sci-fi epic ‘Star Wars vs. Doctor Who’. Somewhat more sophisticated now, he writes horror and dark fantasy whilst studying an MA in Mobile and Multiplatform Journalism.
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