Dark Season Tales // "Messrs Corbin, Dullahan and Sluagh" by Matt Mook Mak.
The lobby of Corbin, Dullahan and Sluagh Recruitment Consultancy was unusual to say the least. An intimidating display of dark veneered wood panels, marble busts of long-bearded men with long-forgotten names, and huge paintings of sailing ships painted in sombre hues and framed in burnished brass. It was a gloomy and oppressive space that would have reeked of money if not for the smell of must and damp that seemed to ooze from the very walls.
It was far from the bright, modern, sterile space that Steve Dyson had been expecting from a recruitment office; and the heavy atmosphere was doing nothing to relieve his anxiety. He was sitting uncomfortably on one of several hard wooden chairs lined up along a whole wall of the room, feeling extremely awkward in his shirt and tie. Above his shorn head was a particularly large canvas depicting turbulent blue-black waves devouring a wooden sailing ship, her broken rigging grasping uselessly at the night sky.
Steve was alone in the room apart from a small, watery-eyed receptionist with pallid skin, maybe in her early fifties. She had a tag that read 'Janet' and was sitting behind a grandiose wooden desk, staring vacantly into the near distance. The desk itself was empty apart from an old-fashioned phone that was no less anachronistic to Steve's eyes than the marble busts and faded paintings.
Janet had acknowledged Steve when he arrived and asked him to sit and wait for her colleague. Her voice was weak and uncertain, almost a whisper, as if seldom used. Her fussy blue suit seemed coated in the same layer of fine grey dust that clung to every other visible surface.
This place is weird, Steve mused. Part of him wanted to get up and leave, and return to his small and lonely flat. But that was the same part of him which had never wanted him to come at all, the part that wanted to hide from the whole terrible world and quietly fade out of it. He wasn't listening to that part today.
Steve realised his palms were sweating. He wiped them on the tops of his trouser legs, leaving little damp patches on the cheap pale-grey polyester. Deep breaths, deep breaths, he intoned internally. Stay calm. Don't mess this up.
Today was important.
The lobby was silent apart from the steady thunk, thunk of a large antique clock mounted high on the wall, a spectacularly opulent and completely tasteless thing of carved brass that had clearly not been designed with discretion in mind. Each side of its large, blank face was surrounded by what looked like snakes, which tapered away into the wings of a severe-looking eagle at its base. The eagle's head was turned to its right side to display a single, unseeing eye that seemed to probe into the room proprietorially.
The clock's brass hands announced that it was quarter past one. Steve had been here for fifteen minutes, on time for once in his life. He couldn't afford to be late. Today was a big day, perhaps the start of a new life. He needed to make a good impression.
With that thought, he sniffed nervously at his shirt, hoping it didn't smell too much of the thick and pungent smoke that was his only company in the tiny flat.
Three weeks had passed since a small flyer had been delivered through his door, the names Corbin, Dullahan and Sluagh printed across the top in strange, calligraphic lettering. And underneath: Specialist recruitment consultancy for the long-term unemployed, good jobs with good pay – whatever your qualifications. Guaranteed!
It had been four years since Steve had last worked, and two long and terrible years since he had lost his mother. He was no longer the person he had been before. A headstrong and cocky boy had been replaced with a morose and heartbroken man.
I'm sick, she had said to him. But don't worry, everything will be okay. I promise.
He had known then that she would die soon. She had always been a terrible liar. Eighteen weeks later, Steve's mother was gone. And so too was he, or so it often felt. Sometimes Steve thought he had become just a husk, an empty shell left behind while his soul had gone to heaven with mother.
But something that day had made Steve pick the flyer out from the small (but ever growing) colony of junk mail that had permanent residence at the base of the front door. He had stood there mesmerised, reading every word on the leaflet carefully. The words were almost hypnotic, promising the chance to start again, find good work and build a decent, real life for himself. Maybe, just maybe, he could do it – maybe it wasn't too late for him. Despite himself, Steve started to feel some small hope for the future.
At the bottom of the leaflet, it said, It isn't too late to be a success. Contact us today.
You'll always be a loser, the girl with the red hair had said to him right before she walked away from him for the last time. A year ago now. The man in the car had kissed her when she climbed in. Then they had driven away with the boxes full of her shoes and knick-knacks, and the broken remains of a few stupid, childish dreams.
As Steve watched her go, he had realised with distaste how that old bastard Mr Wade had been right after all. The unpleasant maths teacher had said almost the exact same thing to him many, many times in school.
It's that teacher who's stupid, his mother had told him. You're a good boy, Steven. You'll make me proud, I know it.
But even Steve's friends called him “No Jobs” because they were hilarious like that. The few that had remained in his life during these bleak years had all now moved on into the rest of their lives – to a world of marriages, children and mortgages. Leaving Steve behind to wrestle his demons alone.
But something that day had made him feel different, a little stronger. Perhaps it was the woman in the photo over the broken television with the raven-black hair and smiling eyes. “I'll make you proud, Mum,” he had said to her.
“You can go through now,” Janet croaked. Her voice was almost inaudible but seemed almost cacophonous in the near-silence of the lobby. It startled Steve from his thoughts. Janet gestured toward a side door and didn't smile.
“Thanks,” Steve replied timidly, trying to smile at her as warmly as he could. Always smile, his mother had told him a long time ago, when she was alive. Smile and you can't go wrong with people.
The sage advice was useless on this occasion as Janet had already resumed her glass-eyed reverie. As he hurried past the strange woman, Steve noticed that it wasn't only Janet's suit that was covered in the fine white dust, but also her hair and skin. That, combined with the fact that her phone on her desk didn't actually seem to be plugged in to anything, left Steve with a unsettled feeling as he pushed the inner door open and stepped into an even gloomier space beyond. It even creaked very softly as he did.
Boo! he remembered dimly, but his mother wasn't waiting to jump out at him on the other side with a big smile on her face.
Instead, it had been Lilith Smith who was waiting for him, dressed in an immaculate black trouser-suit (no dust on her), and with piercing blue eyes that were so pale they were almost white. She had introduced herself as the head of the recruitment team and led him through to her office.
Now she was sitting opposite Steve reading out questions from a form on a clipboard. After she had asked each question, her unsettling eyes would lift from the paper to peer intrusively into his, as if she was trying to see his thoughts.
“So you have no dependants, Mr Dyson...?”
The office was wood-panelled like the lobby but less opulently decorated. A small desk and two chairs, waste-paper bin (empty) and another archaic phone (also unplugged). Steve sat on one side of the desk with Lilith opposite. Dark and heavy-looking curtains were drawn across the one window in the small room, blocking out the daylight. The only light came from a small and rather ineffective electric candelabra on the ceiling.
“And you live alone?” Lilith continued.
“Yes.” In an empty little flat, cold to the skin and heart alike.
“No, just me.” Steve shifting uncomfortably in his chair. In another time or universe there had been the girl with the red hair. A whole other life. They had promised their hearts to one another but hers had eventually led her to someone else without the baggage.
Lilith made quick little scribbles on her form with a silver pen that looked to be worth more than everything he owned put together.
“What about your family?”
Steve hesitated. The dark shapes of the most unpleasant memories were now surging up through the deep water like sharks. He swallowed them back down into the pit of his stomach, where they burned and burned. “I don't have any family. My mother... died. I never had anyone else.”
“Any brothers and sisters?”
Vague, ancient memories, fragile like tissue-paper. Twisted vignettes of man that had perhaps been his father, hands balled into fists, a face flushed with drink and twisted in rage. A deep voice snarling, his mother sobbing. Blood on the carpet.
“No. Never,” he replied. And swallowed again, a little harder this time.
Lilith set down her clipboard and expensive pen, and turned the full force of her white-blue eyes onto his. He withered under the intensity of her gaze.
“Good, good,” she said finally. “The directors will be very pleased. You seem like an excellent candidate.”
Steve felt a dim flicker of relief. The feeling seemed far away, as if waving to him from some distant shore; but it was there. I've got a job? he asked himself, scarcely able to believe it. Happy and terrified in the same instant. The word “job” seemed like something huge and magnificent, like Jupiter. And there were other words that went with it, orbiting like satellites – life, future, hope.
“What sort of thing did you have in mind for me?” he dared to ask.
“We have a wide variety of roles for our clients,” the strange woman replied. “I think you would be excellently placed for something in the culinary sector.”
Steve was surprised. “I haven't really worked in that field before.”
“Relax, Mr Dyson,” Lilith replied. There was perhaps the faintest trace of a smile on her lips. It was not a pretty one. “You'll do just fine.”
The narrow, circular stairwell seemed to go on forever – down, down, down. It was dark aside from the weak glow from an occasional electric light pinned into the hard stone walls. Steve had the unnerving feeling of being in a medieval castle and headed for the dungeons.
“Where are we going?” Steve asked, trying not to look as scared as he was starting to feel. Fear was itching inside his chest. Stop being an idiot, Steve, he chided himself. Relax. Sort yourself out.
“As I said, Mr Dyson – to meet the directors,” Lilith replied. “I think they'll be very pleased with you. Very pleased indeed.”
Finally, the stairwell came to an end in a room that was dark except for subdued dusky red light. Steve couldn't see where it was coming from.
“This way, Mr Dyson”, Lilith said, leading the way into the gloom.
As Steve followed her, he became aware of a low, regular thrumming noise. It sounded as if the whole room was alive. And there was the same musty, dank smell that the whole building seemed saturated by, only much stronger; and something else. Something metallic.
“I can hardly see a thing,” Steve called out. “Is it much further?”
“Just here,” Lilith replied. They stopped.
Steve's eyes were becoming better accustomed to the darkness. As he stood there, he slowly began to make out a large dark central mass in the room; and then, as his eyes adjusted further, he saw them.
Three of them. Like Caterpillars, or maybe slugs. Huge horrible things with gleaming black backs, coiled up into balls and hanging from the ceiling in slimy web-like cradles. At first they didn't look real but Steve realised from the slow rise and fall of their thick, slimy skin that they were breathing.
“What are they?” The words were small and piteous. Steve felt as though all the blood had run from his body to his feet and out onto the cold, rough hewn floor.
“May I introduce Messrs Corbin, Dullahan and Sluagh?” Lilith asked primly and without humour. “Our venerable directors.”
Steve was backing away toward the stairwell. Ancient instincts were stirring in him. His blood was screaming in his ears. His heart was pumping. Get away, get away! The voice of his ancestors, urging him to safety.
Run, darling, said his mother.
“What are those things?” he gasped, his voice catching as it came out.
“The deathless ones,” Lilith replied, her voice reverential. “Ancient gods from the oldest of times. They have been here forever on the banks of this river. It is the privilege of us chosen few to serve them.”
She cleared her throat softly. And slowly, horribly slowly, the nearest of the three strange creatures uncoiled itself. A large, slime-covered head reared up and glistened for an instant in the half-light. Two horrible, fleshy stalk-like eyes extruded from the top and peered down toward them. Shining, irregular teeth revealed themselves from beneath a slavering, beak-like mouth.
“Ah, Mr Dullahan,” Lilith cooed out obsequiously, “good afternoon sir.”
Steve would have run if he could. In his mind, he was already at the top of the stairwell, running down the long damp corridor, bursting past Janet in the lobby, unsettling the layers of time and dust in his haste, and out into the safe daylight. But his legs weren't moving. It was as if they'd been filled up with sand, heavy, heavy, heavy.
Don't be afraid, she had said. I love you, Steven. His mother's voice again. This time it was so quiet, barely escaping her lips. The last thing she had ever said. On the very worst day of his life.
The thing moved a little closer.
Steeee-ven, it sang inside his head. Don't be afraid. We love you, Steeee-ven.
His heart was pumping harder than it ever had. Steve could barely breathe with the fear. “Please.....” he gasped uselessly.
“You should feel very honoured,” Lilith continued. “Only a very select few candidates are selected for this prestigious role. You have all the right qualities we've been looking for.”
No family, no friends. I won't be missed, Steve realised. “No one will come looking for me...” He said it as a cold, hard fact, which it was.
“More than that,” Lilith replied, her voice quivering with excitement. “Far more than that. Your thoughts … oh, they are full of such delicious pain and terrible anger,” Lilith was saying. “Their favourite.”
Be brave, sweetie, his mother had said through cracked and desiccated lips.
Be brave, Steee-ven, said the thing. It moved a little closer again.
And the two other creatures were moving now. Like 'Mr Dullahan' before them, they uncoiled in the gloom. And slowly, ponderously, they slid down from their slimy cradles to the ground.
“What will they do to me?” Steve asked piteously. The blue-black waves were reaching up. The sharks were circling. His heart grasped uselessly at the night sky.
Don't be afraid, baby, said the memory.
Don't be afraid, Steee-ven, said the monsters.
“They will eat you,” Lilith answered coldly. “Every last bit.”
When the crunching and grinding and horrible splashing were over, all that was left of Steve “No Jobs” Dyson was a greasy-looking stain on the rocky basement floor. Pale-eyed Lilith returned to her office to wait out the days or weeks until the next assessment. Dusty Janet continued her silent vigil over the empty lobby. Thunk, thunk, said the snakes on the clock.
As for Messrs Corbin, Dullahan and Sluagh themselves, they sank into a deep and contented sleep with full stomachs and full minds. And they dreamed.
Dreamed of the woman with the raven-black hair and smiling eyes.
Here she was, tender fingers wrapped in soft hair or wiping hot tears, her soothing voice crooning out a lullaby.
And here, standing at the school gate. Safe arms open in welcome.
And here again, grey-skinned, eyes staring and empty and cold.
And they dreamed of all the other things, all the moments of light and shade that made up a life.
Now, here was the man with the big fists and whiskey-sodden heart.
And there was the girl who betrayed.
And here was the sunlight, and there was the rain.
A real feast, it had been; better than they had enjoyed in such a long time.
Almost forever, in fact.
The ancient ones slept on and dreamed. And when the dreaming finished, they would awake. And then they would feed again.
Written by Matt Mook Mak. Illustrated by Mick Flaherty.