Note: This isn’t my usual blog post. It’s not a review or even an opinion piece. What it is is a short story. The first original piece of fiction I’ve written in years. It came about due to a brief Twitter conversation with author Ben Aaronovitch on coffee, banjos, and zombies (don’t ask!). Anyway, it created a plot bunny, the result of which is below. Enjoy.
If you know the Soho/Bloomsbury area at all, you probably know the place. A dingy little dive tucked away up the sort of back alley no sane person goes down in daylight, let alone after dark.
Me, I’m not sane. Never have been, and certainly never will be again. Not after the events I’m about to relate.
It was spectacular autumn day, clear and crisp, with a whisper of wood smoke in the air, which was probably a combination of carbon monoxide and my imagination. I was looking for coffee, when a blackboard for a new café caught my eye. The blackboard had an arrow pointing down the alley, so off I trotted in search of coffee.
The café was a little weird. Dark and gloomy, and liberally decorated with what looked like the remnants of a macabre Victorian museum – stuffed ravens, bejeweled skulls. That sort of thing. Still the coffee was good. Rich and dark and bitter. I sat close to the door, sipping slowly.
I became aware of someone watching me. A tall dude, who looked a little like Lurch from the Addams Family. I watched him out of the corner of my eye and realized that he wasn’t so much watching me, as the instrument bag at my feet. I’d spent the last couple of hours in the park near the kid’s hospital busking for the staff and the few tourists lurking around.
I turned my head just enough to meet his gaze.
He gestured at the bag. “What do you play?” Jeez, the voice was the sort of dark rumble that had women falling over themselves to remove their knickers.
I took a sip of my coffee, stalling for time. People usually have one of two reactions when I mention what instrument I play: they’re either deeply embarrassed or they snigger.
“Banjo. I play the banjo.”
The big fella’s face contorted into a rictus that took me a moment to realize was a grin. “Banjo. We need a banjo player for the band.”
“Oh yes. Can’t play blues without a banjo, so the maestro says.”
“Mmmm. I think you should come and meet him. Now.” Why did that feel like an order rather than a suggestion?
I drank the last of my coffee, and got to my feet, hoisting my instrument bag over my shoulder. Lurch lead the way into the bowels of the place. I use the word advisedly. It was dark, fetid, and vaguely damp.
At the end of a long corridor, he stopped before a heavy, iron bound, oak door and knocked. From within came a murmur of assent. He pushed the door open as if it was as light as a feather and ushered me into the room.
A large, polished, oak desk dominated the furnishings. The rest of the room was dominated by the occupant. Nearly as tall as my escort, he had auburn curls, vaguely cat like grey eyes that glinted unpleasantly, and the sort of wide smile that made me want to find a very tall tree to climb.
“And who is this, Herbert?”
Herbert? Herbert? That couldn’t possibly be Lurch’s name!
“He’s a banjo player, Maestro.”
“Banjo, mmm?” Why did that sound like a purr? And why was I starting to sweat?
“What is your name, banjo player?”
“Just Benjamin will do.” There was no way on earth that I was given this guy my name. That felt like a really bad idea.
Well, Just Benjamin, how would you like to join our little blues band? It would be worth your while.”
“Why don’t you join us tonight for a try out? If we are mutually suited, you can join the regular line up?”
I really couldn’t find a reason not to agree, so I found myself shaking his rather cold hand, and agreeing to be back at the café at 10pm, ready to go on at 11.
Ten o’clock that night found me in a smallish room behind the little stage that I hadn’t noticed, due to the gloomy nature of the décor. There was the maestro on guitar, Herbert on drums, a tall lanky git named Tom who played the hammered dulcimer, a petite blonde chick named Mary who played the fiddle, and me on banjo.
We worked our way through a selection of blues standards: ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Catfish Blues’, ‘Dust My Broom’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Key to the Highway’, ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, finishing off with ‘The Thrill Has Gone’. The maestro and I even managed a pretty good bash at ‘Dueling Banjos’ for the cheering audience. Not a bad mix, and a pretty good gig for a group of musicians I hadn’t played with before.
Tom gave me a wide grin when we finished. “I hope you’re joining us. That was a blast.” Mary nodded her assent and winked at me.
After we’d packed up, the maestro gestured for me to accompany him back to his office. Herbert came along behind. I was starting to feel like dead man walking.
In the office, the maestro indicated I should sit in the chair in front of the desk. He sat on the other side of the desk and smiled at me. “Well, Benjamin, I would say that was very satisfactory. I think you should consider joining our little ensemble.”
I murmured something polite.
“There is only one drawback that I can see.”
“And what’s that?”
The smile grew hungry. “You’re human.”
I tried to laugh it off. “And you’re not?”
“None of us are. Tom is a fire demon, and Mary is a succubus. Herbert here…” he gestured to the hulk guarding the door, “…is a zombie.”
I blinked at him. Bonkers. Completely stark, raving, bonkers. He kept talking, never taking his eyes off me. “Herbert wants to turn you into a zombie. Contrary to popular opinion, however, banjo players do need their brains, so allowing him to lobotomize you for supper doesn’t suit my purpose.”
I managed a nervous laugh. It sounded more like a slightly hysterical squeak. “Where does that leave me then?”
The maestro’s smile suddenly grew fangs – literally. “My supper.” I shrank back in the chair in horror. Eyes wide with terror, unable to move, trapped like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming lorry. His face filled my vision. “This won’t take long.”
I screamed and the world went black.
I don’t drink coffee much these days. Type O, now, that’s my drink of choice.