“Well, it depends on the organ, but £50,000 or so.”
“Agnes, that’s crazy. And risky.”
“No, it’s not. We only take those that won’t be missed, anyway. Abandoned, if you like.”
There was a pause, then Ralf said, “What would we do with the money?”
“Put it in the fund get this place done up.” Agnes gestured across the roof, with its missing tiles like a balding snake. “No one else is coming up with anything.”
Ralf scratched his chin. “I think it’d need more than that.”
“So we get some more from somewhere. It’s a start, right? This damn place is going to fall down around our ears, and there’s not a building in the city I like enough to move to.”
“All the decent ones already have gargoyles, anyway,” Gilbert said. “We can’t move. We’ve been here forever.”
“Not to mention Walter’s not moved for eighty-three years. We’re hardly going to be able to shift him now.”
“Cecily?” Ralf asked. “What do you think?”
The skinny gargoyle shrugged, shaking the damp mist off her wings. “Personally, I think our Aggie’s onto something. And if no one misses them, well – at least the money’ll be put to good use.”
Ralf ticked his claws off the tiles. “Alright,” he said finally, and Agnes gave an enormous, toothy grin. “But if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. Let’s round up a few. May as well make as much as we can.”
The man in the expensive jacket frowned at the woman. She was somehow unclear, as if he were looking at her through someone else’s glasses, and he took his own off, giving them a little polish on his shirtfront before putting them back on again. She still seemed a little out of focus, and he supposed it must be the cold. There were days he really wished he had his meetings in heated offices.
“Can you be more specific?” he said.
“Not as yet.” Her voice was rough – she sounded like she smoked a couple packs a day, but it could be just the flu or something. Jesus, it was cold enough out here to freeze the spit on your tongue.
“Then I can’t give you an exact price,” he said, thinking longingly of the deep seats of the car, and maybe a tipple to warm up with. “It’s going to depend on condition and quality. I’ll have medical staff examine them on pick-up.”
“Oh,” the woman said, and she sounded confused. Then she nodded and added, “Yes. Of course.” She was wearing some voluminous black dress that made the man in the jacket think of period dramas and bonnets, although she wasn’t actually wearing anything on her head – was she? He pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes watering in the hard night air. It was oddly difficult to look at her directly. His gaze just seemed to lose interest, wandering off again, choosing to focus instead on the brickwork beside her, or the stained tarmac at her feet.
“Fifteenth,” he said. “Two a.m., here. If you’re not here, I’m gone. Anyone else is here, I’m gone. And if you’ve been jerking me around with all this crap about ‘quality organs’ – well, there’s more than one way to get them, if you catch my meaning.” Behind him, the man who had been lounging against the side of the car with affected disinterest straightened up. The tone of the boss’s voice – that was what they had to call him, the boss, like some two-bit gangster drama – suggested he should at least look ready for action and stop thinking about getting home to watch GBBO.
“No,” the woman said. “I’ll be here.”
“Well. Good.” He wanted to say something more, to impress on her the seriousness of the situation, the seriousness of him, but it was too cold, and she was – well, weird. So he just nodded, a sharp, dismissive movement, and turned back to the car. The bodyguard had already opened it, and warmth swelled out towards him. He slid into the embrace of the seat and listened to the reassuringly heavy chunk of the door shutting, the hungry rumble of the engine. All was as it should be. So why did the woman seem so very much not as she should be? He watched her, rendered still more indistinct by the tinted windows, as they backed out of the alley, tyres hissing in an early frost. She didn’t move, just watched him go, and as they purred away down the shuttered high street he had the uneasy feeling that she was standing there still, the light of the headlights gone, leaving her in the deep shadows between the old buildings, immobile and silent and not quite real. He shivered, and took the whiskey from the well between the seats. Fricking weirdos you met in this business.
“Gilbert! Gods, don’t break it!”
“Sorry, sorry.” He lowered his corner of the box gingerly to the ground and looked around the abandoned church. It had become a bolthole for the homeless and the lost, abandoned bottles pocking the pews like the droppings of some heartbroken creature, stained glass windows long shattered and patched with soggy cardboard. It was cold, the wind slipping through the gaps in the walls and roof and playing with the dust and leaves. Not that the cold bothered the gargoyle, but he could have wept for the building. It had never been grand, but it had once been beautiful, with its vaulted ceilings and fine stonework on the columns. Now it was just another piece of rotting masonry, walls defaced with graffiti by the kids that came in on dares, smelling of rats and damp and filth.
“Gilbert.” Agnes kept her voice as level as she could. Him and his bloody romanticism! He’d never fully recovered from seeing Wordsworth visiting the graveyard once. And you could see it already – in a moment he was going to want to try and save this church as well as theirs, and this one was a lot less pleasant. It had the taste of gargoyle death on it – they’d slept too long and fallen as their roof rotted, perhaps, but more likely they’d been smashed by the ignorant in the name of progress. It had happened a lot – they fell out of fashion, and everyone forgot gargoyles were protectors, the fierce soul of a building. They called them ugly, broken, old-fashioned, and tore them down, smashed them on the earth then wondered why the building became something haunted and broken after. And it was rare you could save a building whose soul had been taken. You had to give it a new one. “Gilbert,” Agnes said again. “We’ve got a lot to do tonight. Can we move it along?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He sighed, then picked up his end of the box again. “It just upsets me, you know?”
“I know.” She wished she’d paired up with Cecily instead, or even Ralf. Lectures on the history of each building, including architects, builders, techniques and materials used were still preferable to listening to Gilbert and his dramatic sighs. If he started crying she was going to drop the damn box on his tail. Just see if she didn’t.
Dusk was undecided, heavy clouds pressing the light out of the sky so that dark grey afternoon slid unmarked into darker grey evening. The streetlights were swaddled in mist, and the streets were filled with people who walked with their heads bent and their coats pulled tight at the collar. On the roof of the church, a winged gargoyle with an ridged spine shook herself, then yawned and stretched. It was still early, but unless there was a service they didn’t bother about the people passing by. No one ever saw them. Well, no one noticed them, was more accurate. The odd kid might, of course, but adults are so keen to rub the magic out of young minds that the gargoyles would just wave at them, or pull faces. It kept both parties amused.
Agnes groomed herself while she waited for the others to wake up, dislodging the day’s grime and pigeon droppings. Foul birds. Her mind wasn’t really on the job, however. Tonight was the night of the deal. She thought of the boxes stacked in the crypt, and felt a little worm of unease. It wasn’t right, selling organs. But then, neither was allowing this beautiful old church, one of the last in the city, to fall still further into disrepair. She’d heard the vicar praying for money to fix the leaking roof as often as she prayed for more attendees. And it wasn’t like the owners of the organs had any use for them any more. She just hoped they were in good enough condition for the small man in his big car.
The small man got out of his big car while a bored-looking man in a well-cut suit held the door, and frowned at the woman in the strange black dress. The van had pulled in behind them, and the two sets of lights lit the alley like a stage set.
“Good evening,” the woman said in her rasping voice.
“Good -” he stopped, shook his head. “What the hell are those?” He pointed to the boxes stacked next to her, rough packing crates that looked splintery and scratched.
She inclined her head slightly. “The organs, of course.”
“What?” They certainly weren’t refrigerated, although he supposed they could be insulated, and they were the roughest bloody things he’d ever seen. Even that nutter in the early days that had turned up with his own kidney, chopped out by his cousin, had at least put it in a proper ice box. He strode forward, shadowed by the bodyguard, and rapped on top of one of the boxes, unconsciously choosing the one furthest from the woman. It sounded hollow. “What is this?” he demanded, of no one in particular. The woman tipped her head again. It was odd how she still seemed unclear, even close up, and with the two sets of headlights on her. “Open it,” he snapped at the man next to him. “Hurry up!” Some of the bigger ones – could there be whole bodies in them? Drugged bodies? There could even be kids in the smaller ones. That was messed up. That was – well, he’d take the adult ones. Let her do what she wanted with the kids. Freak. He glanced sideways at her, but she just stood there, arms hanging loose at her sides as the bodyguard hurried back from the car with a tyre iron in one hand and the medical guys in tow. He waved at the boxes imperiously and took a step back.
The bodyguard had the tire iron raised, ready to smash in the top of one of the boxes, when he found it seized and pulled from his grip, as effortlessly as a parent takes a toy from a toddler. “No,” the woman said. “You might damage them.”
He made some wordless sound as she gripped his shoulder and turned him away, giving him back the tire iron before taking hold of the top of the box and pulling it off in a screech of nails. The bodyguard stared at the tire iron as if he’d never seen one before.
The man in the expensive coat opened his mouth, trying to find words to put him back in charge of the situation, but he couldn’t find any. He had a horrible feeling that there weren’t any. Instead he stepped forward and peered into the box, bracing himself for the sight of a corpse, or a comatose body, or even – god knows – a jumble of bloody organs just sloshed in there. But what looked back at him were pipes packed in loose leaves and old newspapers, discoloured with age but still solid. He reached out and poked one with a hand that trembled just slightly. It was cold to the touch, a little rough, and very, very un-organ-like.
“What the hell is this?” he whispered, looking at the woman finally.
“Organs,” she said. “We found four, all complete, all in good condition. They just need a bit of a clean.”
“Organs,” he repeated, looking back in the box. “Organs?”
“Or-gans,” she said, drawing the word out. “For music? In churches? Yes?”
“Yes.” He straightened up, suddenly understanding. It was a scam, some madness set up by the bloody Southerners most like, to distract him from – from what? They must have a massive deal going down, damn them. “Organs,” he hissed at the woman. “Hearts and lungs and livers and kidneys, you stupid bitch. But you know that, don’t you? Bloody Danny set this up, didn’t he?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, and the rasp in her voice was more pronounced. “Hearts and lungs?”
“And livers and kidneys and eyes and all the rest.” He pointed at her, a vein throbbing in his forehead. “But that’s okay. Yours’ll do just fine.”
“Bodily organs. Human organs.”
Stupid, stupid bitch – didn’t she realise he was going to gut her right here, in front of her bloody boxes? “Grab her,” he ordered the bodyguard. The big man took a tentative step forward, tightening his grip on the tire iron.
“Humans need those,” the woman said, and shrugged the bodyguard off as he grabbed her shoulder, sending him spilling to the ground, a look of panic on his face. “You nasty little man.” She addressed the last to the small man in the expensive suit, and another rasping voice called from above her.
“Told you it was too good to be true, Ags.”
The small man looked up, feeling the whole situation see-sawing away from him again, and saw three – three things climbing – no, climbing suggested effort – they seemed to be walking down the walls on all fours, tails curling and whipping behind them like cats in a mood, wings casting shadows on the stone behind them.
“Dammit, Ralf,” the woman replied, and pulled the dress over her head, dropping to all fours and unfurling her wings in a snap that knocked over the nearest man. His buddy from the medical van retreated rapidly. “How was I to know? What kind of degenerate goes around buying bodily organs from strangers in a dark alley?”
“Maybe you should have thought of that first,” the creature replied, and took an easy leap over the heads of the men, landing on top of the car. An astonishingly high-pitched scream came from the driver’s seat as the suspension creaked, and the sunroof gave way with a crunching of broken glass and bent metal. “Oops.”
Agnes growled at the back of her throat, and eyed up the man in front of her. He was motionless, mouth half-open, hands frozen in supplication, and she could smell urine. “He’s wee’d himself,” she informed the others. The bodyguard scrambled to his feet behind her and ran for the medical van as the driver revved the engine and slammed it into reverse.
There was a solid sounding crunch, followed by the belch of an exploding tire, and Gilbert said, somewhat indistinctly, “Ouch.”
Cecily prowled up to Agnes and sniffed the man the gargoyle had knocked over with her wings. He hadn’t tried to get up, but just lay there with both hands pressed over his eyes, muttering to himself in a panicked monologue. “He’s praying,” she said.
“Ha. Good luck to him.” Agnes looked at the small man and said, “Human organs? Why?”
“People need them,” he whispered. “Supply and demand.”
She nodded. “I rather had the impression they did that sort of things through hospitals.”
“Too many people need them. Not enough people give them.” He was shaking so badly she was surprised he didn’t just fall over right there.
“And you don’t ask too many questions about where they come from.”
“It’s – it’s just business. That’s not – not my problem.” He cowered as he spoke, as if expecting a blow.
“Isn’t it, now.” Agnes looked at Ralf. “What d’you reckon?”
The big gargoyle had fished a fancy decanter out of the car and was sampling the contents with happy little growls. He looked up at Agnes. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Hey, George! Check this out.”
“What?” It was warm behind the duty desk, and George had no desire to go and peer out into the night time streets.
“Just come here.”
He groaned, got up and let himself out of the office, joining Marilyn in the police station door. On the curb, sitting cross-legged and looking both terrified and sorry for themselves, were six shivering men in underwear of varying degrees of cleanliness. Their hands and legs were bound to each other so that they sat in a little circle, facing outwards, a lamp post sprouting in the centre as if they’d been playing some adults-only form of ring-a-rosy around it. There were scratches on their shoulders, but otherwise they seemed unharmed. Someone had written in sharpie on the chest of the man facing them, “I am an organ trafficker. Please prosecute me fully. PS I wee’d myself.” Another had, “Our vehicles are in Newbury lane,” printed in straggly capitals. They all had “BAD!!!” scrawled on their foreheads. It looked like the work of a kindergartener.
George rubbed the back of his head. “Batman?” he suggested.
“Damned if I know.” Marilyn turned to go inside. “But I’m getting the camera.”
In the cold chill of early morning, Reverend Viola Scott unlocked the heavy church doors, feeling the drafts from the cracked windows and unsealed walls even through her thermals and heavy boots. She opened one to peer out and make sure no poor soul had been sleeping in the vestibule, and spotted a box in the corner. She frowned at it, then poked it with the toe of her boot. It didn’t scream or explode, so she picked it up and carried it into the kitchen while she put the kettle on.
Casually opening the top while she waited for her bread to toast, she spat tea over £200,000 in neatly stacked, unmarked bills, then had to go and lie down for a bit.
I absolutely love gargoyles – I think all buildings should have them. And there is, of course, the added attraction of the legends and urban myths that surround them. Did you know that the first gargoyle is said to be La Gargouille, a dragon-like creature that terrorised the countryside around Rouen, France, in the 7th Century AD? He was killed by St. Romanus, the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II, and when they attempted to destroy the body they found the head and neck wouldn’t burn – they had been tempered by the beast’s own fire. They decided instead to mount the head on the church to ward off evil spirits (as you do), and so the first gargoyle was created.History lesson over. Let me know what you thought!