Scotty calls on my phone.
The fact that it rings surprises me.
I thought it had died yesterday.
Scotty says he’s sorry about the way that things have turned out –
He says it like he’s ticking something off a to-do list.
I ask him if he’s been able to contact anyone.
He doesn’t say anything –
He’s gone. The call’s over inside twenty seconds. Outside, another burst of gunfire, grooving on a firecracker snare. I open my phone. I try to call Christian.
There’s no signal.
On the streets, me and Christian and Mashup and Loulou, brand new summer, brand new sunset showing itself through the gaps in the highrises, brand new Sweet Home Alhambra, the brand new music venue where Rosa’s playing a brand new set, and we’re crawling in Christian’s brand new Beemer X3, carbon black paint with black Nevada leather, and I’m riding upfront with Christian and Loulou’s passing round a spliff and Mashup says you’ll have to stop I need a piss and Christian tells him he’ll just have to tie a knot in it and we all laugh ha ha ha and it’s funny as fuck because Mashup always needs a piss and Christian turns the music up, N*E*R*D, Rock Star, and it’s pumping, pumping, pumping and Loulou shouts what time’s the gig and I tell her it’s eight thirty but Rosa’s not on till around ten and I check my Cartier Pasha and it’s eight thirty-five and Christian says we’re nearly there it’s around here someplace and then love this track, god I love this track and the scent of the city drifts in through the open windows, all warm exhaust and dust and new tarmac mixing with the North African sweetness of Loulou’s cigarette and right now I love this place, love the city in summer, our city, my city, and I know that passers-by are looking at us because the music’s loud and the windows are down and Loulou’s dancing in the back and Christian’s like some nodding dog in Oakleys at the wheel and it’s like I just don’t fucking care cos this is our city, my city and I look straight out of the side window in my Raybans, hidden from the outside world seeing only the muted reds of the buses and the muted pinks and blues and yellows of a poster that says ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE and the muted browns and greys of the shopfronts reflecting us back in them and then them in us again, like some urban hall of mirrors and we’re in luck as Christian finds a space and parks the BMW and of course we’re in luck because tonight is our lucky night, my lucky night, and everything just feels so right and ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE –
It wasn’t meant to be like this –
Deliver the boy, Scotty had said.
Make sure he gets home safely.
Then we’re quits.
So Mashup and I caught the plane with the boy. London to Bulawayo, via Paris. An overnight in Bulawayo and then we were to be met by the boy’s uncle and driven forty clicks or so to where the rest of his family would meet him. Then back to the airport and home.
Fifteen years old. More man than boy, given what he’d seen, given what he said he’d done. He’d arrived on a false passport, claiming to be eighteen, looking to break into the business. Armed with a small hard drive and a couple of CDs, spitting fire and bullets over a hip-hop beat. Scotty said he’d help, said he was going to be the African Kanye West. Fuck sake. Scotty knew the truth. Scotty said it was a favour. He never said to whom.
It would all be cool. Scotty said.
Scotty’s the man to who I owe my own six figure salary, my own 911, my own wardrobe by Paul Smith and Nicole Farhi –
The man I owed a favour to.
And now the gunshots come in sporadic bursts, lulling me into a false sense of security before starting again as if on the offbeat. And now I’m hiding under the bed, clutching my phone, feeling the sweat carve tracks through the grease and grime on my face. And now Mashup’s dead, half his face blown away by a semi-automatic rifle.
Back at Christian’s riverside apartment with the lights from the barges on the water below staring up like fallen stars, the music’s playing one hundred BPM like it’s monitoring my heartbeat which is racing on account of the line I did an hour earlier that’s still giving me a residual clarity and a confidence that lets me go over to Rosa, who I’ve only really spoken to once before and that was just a hi, like your stuff, but this time I’m focussed, really fucking focussed and I’m going to talk to her like we’ve totally met before, really spoken before, like I know her more than just as a friend of a friend of Loulou’s, because ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, right, and as I walk over to her I feel myself thinking how fabulous she looks, how much I like her long black hair with the one strand dyed red and her big blue eyes and the way she tips her head to one side when she’s laughing and I put out my hand to her and say hi, Rosa, I’m Jamie and she takes my hand in hers and its like electricity and she smiles and I don’t give her a chance, just straight in with how great she was tonight and I’ve even remembered the names of a couple of her songs which I tell her were my favourites and since I’m Mr Fucking Confident and because ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE I gently steer her away from the people she was standing with and I top up her drink and as I do I catch Loulou’s eye and I ignore what may or may not have been an almost imperceptible shake of her head because my brain tells me that she’s just mock disapproving, just messing, like trust you Jamie to decide to chat up the star attraction, and I decide it’s time for some air and I ask Rosa whether she’s seen how great the city looks from Christian’s balcony and she says she hasn’t so I say that I’ll show her and we step outside and the night’s still warm, like the embers of the day are still smouldering out there somewhere in the city’s underbelly and two stars are shining brightly down upon us from far away in the cosmos and it feels like there’s one for each of us and I stand close to her and breathe in her perfume and then from behind us there’s the sound of other people coming out onto the balcony and a voice I recognise says here you are and I turn and it’s Scotty and he smiles his serpentine smile and says hello Jamie, I see you’ve met my wife –
The shooting’s stopped. Two, three minutes ago? An hour? I stay under the bed.
A beam of sunlight’s coming in through the shutters, making dancing specks of dust into gold leaf before pooling onto the scarred wooden floor. An upturned cockroach lies in its showtime glare. My mouth’s dry but there’s a dampness around my eyes and I can feel snot on my top lip. My body’s too paralysed to do anything so rash as wipe it away.
I close my eyes.
My mind rewinds.
I press Play.
I remember –
The airport –
A battle-worn Mercedes –
The hotel, a white mirage on a street of sand, part former colonial grandeur, part just plain shithole –
Zuka talking music –
‘Mr Scott says my music is excellent, do you think my music is excellent, Mr Jamie?’ –
Zuka talking quiet stories of rebels and factions and gunfire –
‘In Zimbabwe, we learn to grow up quick’ –
Zuka’s uncle saying there’d been a change of plan –
Zuka’s uncle saying we weren’t going with them –
Zuka’s uncle driving away with the boy –
Jeeps, jeeps arriving full of militia –
Soldiers firing guns in the air –
Calling Scotty, getting his answerphone, telling him things were getting weird, telling him we needed help getting out, asking him to contact us, call someone –
Mashup and I holed up in a hotel room –
The door of our room having its lock shot out –
Three guys in combat fatigues taking Mashup away at gunpoint –
Darkness falling –
Searchlights performing a crazy lunar ballet –
I remember not knowing whether to stay put or get out. I remember leaving my room, going to find Mashup. I remember coming face to face with a guy in combats holding an automatic rifle. I remember the guy telling me ‘Watch. Watch, Mr Scott.’ I remember Mashup coming round the corner, hands behind his back, being pushed. I remember the guy with the semi-automatic just turning and pulling the trigger. I remember seeing part of Mashup’s face disappear in a wet, red mist. I remember I remember I remember I remember I remember I remember I remember I remember I remember –
It’s been two days since Rosa’s gig, two days since the party at Christian’s, two days since I see you’ve met my wife, and I’m at work in the monthly meeting talking through a raft of new bands that we may or may not want to sign like we’re a corporate Solomon and listening to marketing’s dull ideas about promotions and pushing the acts we have and it always strikes me as incongruous how a band harvests and harnesses all that creative energy only to be handed over to the marketing wankers who wouldn’t know creativity and imagination from a hole in the ground but still that’s their problem, so long as I can veto their humdrum little ideas before they apply them to my acts then fine, and Scotty’s chairing the meeting and it’s the first time I’ve seen him since the party which he left with Rosa pretty soon after arriving and I wonder if he noticed how close I was standing to her when he arrived, breathing in her perfume, and I wonder if he noticed the look she gave me when we said goodbye, at least I’m sure there was a certain look, sure that her hand touched mine for a nanosecond longer than it needed to before they left and I’m thinking about this and starting to imagine what Rosa might look like naked, starting to imagine her lithe, svelte body and my imagination’s falling away from the meeting and crash landing at Rosa’s feet and I’m sure her feet would be pretty, and then looking up, looking up and a phrase pops into my mind, pubic topiary, and I grin and at that moment something clicks and I hear Scotty say see, Jamie agrees with me, don’t you Jamie, and I realise that my involuntary grin couldn’t have been better timed because Scotty’s smiling like Voldemort and it looks as if I’m agreeing with him so I nod and say absolutely, and then Scotty turns back to the marketing guys and says looks like you’ve got your way, fellas, and I wonder what I’ve just agreed to but fuck it, whatever it was it was worth it for the vision of Rosa that’s downloaded itself on my brain’s hard drive and it seems I’m still on a roll and I think of a poster that says ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE and then Mashup’s standing and handing out sets of notes about the six bands that we’ve shortlisted together for the monthly review and I force myself to concentrate since we agreed to take three each and Mashup goes first, running his hands through his short cropped dreads and telling everyone how it’s just possible that we’ve found the new Muse and Scotty says Christ, does the world really need a new Muse and everyone laughs, including me even though I’m the one who first found this band and recognised their potential, and for the first time I feel a frisson, feel the tiniest element of doubt and I wonder where this has come from since I Can Do No Wrong and yet something tells me that maybe just maybe something just shifted –
He called me Scott –
What have you got me into, Scotty? A favour, you said. Then we’ll call it quits, you said.
I crawl out from under the bed, hauling my legs behind me like some wounded dog. I use the bed to drag myself upright. I stand, stock still, listening. Somewhere, a tap drips every three, four seconds, its percussive plink, plink sounding like someone’s flicked the reverb switch. I can hear the faint rumble of an engine. I walk three paces to the window. I flatten myself against the wall. I move the shutter, just a fraction. I wince against the marauding sunshine. I peer through the crack –
– and then he says tell you what, why not take Mashup with you, bit of a boys’ outing, and I say but I thought and he says, oh you owe me, matey, but I’m not a total bastard and I reckon we can spare the two of you for, what, three or four days, I’ll make it easy for you and I say and then we’re square and he says that’s what I said, I’d go myself but a few things have come up, it would be a favour to me if you’d do it and then we’ll forget about all that other business and so I say, yeah, ok, you’re on, and I think I mean, how hard could it be, might be a bit of an adventure, and he says right, I’ll get the tickets sorted, just make sure you dig your passport out and tell Mash to do the same and I say, yeah, ok, and he says clear your diary for the next few days and we’ll firm it up in the morning, and I say, sure Scotty and thanks and he says no problem, like I said, quits, and I turn to leave and then he says oh, Jamie, and I say yeah and he says if I catch you leering over my lady again like you were the other night, we just might not be quite so quits, know what I mean and I smile all bravado still and say you’re a lucky man, Scotty, and he doesn’t smile and he says and for now, so are you and don’t forget it –
There are three military-looking jeeps parked outside. A few guys, four, five, are standing around the vehicles, smoking, a couple of them cradling guns. It’s quiet. There’s no one else on the street. I take my phone from my pocket. Some time between then and now the battery’s died.
The battery’s dead.
He called me Mr Scott.
I can’t stay here –
I can’t stay here. I go into the bathroom and turn on the dripping tap. A thin trickle of brown water gurgles into the cracked, stained basin. I wait until the water’s running clearer. I cup water in my hands and splash my face, my neck. I walk back into the room and start to throw my things into my bag, spare shirt, paperback, washbag. I pick up the bag and walk purposefully to the door. I can’t stay here, can’t stay here like some caged animal.
I can’t move. I have to move.
He called me Mr Scott –
– I was dealing, of course I was dealing, not big time, but a little Charlie here, a few Es there, got them easy from a rich kid mate of Christian’s and when I realised that there was plenty of money splashing around and that the people after gigs didn’t particularly care how much they paid just so long as they got their little fix, their little buzz, well, it was easy to make some sweetie money on the side, good old Jamie, he’ll sort us out, no questions asked, and it was good, I was trusted, I trusted them, my acts mainly, until the time when a couple of kids in the media liaison department got a bit flash, got a bit full of themselves and I got a bit stupid and sold them some stuff and then they started shooting their mouths off to the extent that the wheels came off and I get hauled in to see the department head and get told I can clear my desk and that they’ll be reporting me to the cops and fuck, it looked like I was really deep in the crap, really up the good old creek of shit with no fucking paddle in sight, until Scotty rides to my rescue like some white fucking knight on his charger, or rather in his charger that just happened to be a fuck-off DB9, cos it turns out that he knew my boss of old and he told him that it hadn’t been me, that the kids were just a couple of lary lying toerags and that he’d seen me that night and it couldn’t have been me and so I was still sacked but there was no longer any question of getting the law involved which was something of a result and then Scotty offers me the chance to work for him on the proviso that I can bring one of my acts over with me and of course I said yeah, what choice did I have and anyway, I was never one to look a gift horse in the gob, and Scotty tells me not to worry, that he’ll look after me if I keep up my track record of bringing in new talent and he upped my salary by twenty-five per cent and replaced my old GTi with the Porsche, but he let it be known, he let it be fucking known, that I owed him now, that I owed him which I suppose was unarguable, I did, I owed him –
I realise that I’m standing at the door to my room, the door with its bullet holes and its splintered wood, and my arm’s outstretched as if I’m going to open the door but I’ve been stood like this in some sort of suspended animation, listening to the sound of my heart beating for long enough that whether I’m going to open it or not is now a Decision. And the back of my mind begins to hear the chuck-chuck-chuck of a helicopter and as I recognise what this sound is I put my bag back onto the bed and move back over to the shuttered window.
And suddenly there’s a flash like a distant angel combusting against a sky full of corrupted innocence and one of the jeeps simply isn’t there anymore and four people are reduced to flying pieces and the air is compressed into a sonic boom that’s almost spherical and my mind says RPG –
– I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him I owed him –
– and people are running in the street sending clouds of dust like billowing aftershocks and the chopper’s getting lower and guns are firing either from the ground into the sky or from the sky into the ground, I can’t tell which, and I’m on my knees and one of the jeeps is scrabbling away in a whine of reverse gear and the remaining one’s on fire –
Loulou says don’t trust him, Jamie, Loulou says you’re a fucking idiot, Jamie, Loulou says when are you going to grow up, Jamie, Loulou says didn’t you see me trying to warn you, Jamie, Loulou says Rosa of all people, Jamie, and I try and tell her that I didn’t realise but that nothing happened anyway and that I owe Scotty a favour and I’m doing this so that then we’ll be even and that fuck, he’s my boss, Lou, and he saved my skin when I really fucked up and Loulou shakes her head and Loulou says you don’t know the half of it, Jamie, Loulou says I’ve tried to tell you, Jamie, and I say tried to tell me what and Loulou says when are you going to listen, Jamie, and she sighs and she looks down into her glass of Pinot Grigio and then she looks away and then she pushes her sunglasses back up off her face and onto her head and she looks at me with her lovely laser eyes and Loulou says, Jamie, you know I love you and that I’m only telling you this because I’m worried about you and I say telling me what, Lou, and Loulou says be careful, Jamie, I hear things, hear things about Scotty and I say who from, Kat, and Loulou says yes, from Kat, she’s worried about Rosa, Jamie, and I say in what way and Loulou says in the way that she thinks that Rosa’s husband’s a fucking psycho, that’s what way and I say what do you mean, Scotty and she says well she’s only got one husband, Jamie, yes of course Scotty and suddenly I’m vividly conscious of the scent of the jasmine that climbs around a trellis in the garden where we’re sitting and somewhere deep inside I feel a flash of emotion explode in a silent kaboom and I hear Loulou say just be careful, Jamie, and open your eyes, huh, and I squeeze her hand and say I will, Lou, promise, and she squeezes my hand back and smiles and then Loulou says what time are you off and I say got a cab coming to pick me up at seven tomorrow morning to take me to the airport, I’m picking Mashup up on the way, and Loulou says well you can buy me one more drink and then you’d better call it a night –
The helicopter’s landed. The street’s strewn with body parts and debris. I watch as two guys in olive green and sunglasses emerge from the chopper. They’re scanning the surroundings, one looking from side to side, the other looking up at the hotel. They’re both holding guns. I wonder if they’ve seen me. I wonder whose side they’re on. I realise that as I’ve been kneeling watching a cast of Bruce Willises attacking a group of Will Smiths that I’ve pissed myself. Tie a knot in it, Mash, ha ha ha we’re nearly there. They cross the street, cautiously, sweeping the air in front of them with their guns. I hear heavy footsteps on bare boards. I can smell my sweat, smell the ammonia-scent of my own urine, smell my own fear. My fingers clutch at the window sill, my knuckles white as bones. Outside the chopper sits like a great brooding bird, its shadow like some bulbous black windmill crashed to earth.
I hear one of the men shout, ‘We’ve got a fatality here.’
An accent, Scottish. He called me Mr Scott.
It’s almost over now.
It’s almost over –
And I know what I have become.
A spectre, a flower from seed sown by events that were not of my making. I am a conduit between the here and the there, the pretence and the hell, a shaman. A victim, a soul possessed, a roaring monster and a floating breeze, a practical joke and an innocent abused, an outsider, a lover, a castaway, a philosopher, wise beyond time and ignorant of everything, for we see everything and we miss what’s there, a star, a flame, a drop, a pulse, though not driven by the heart. I am earth, dirt, water, sky, mountain, valley, ocean, cloud, concrete, iron and gas, temptation, redemption, seduction, a beast, a beat, a chime and the song of a bird, a ghost –
I am a ghost.
And I know what I have become and how I became it.
I must call Loulou. I miss her –
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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