Albert knocked on the door in his favourite, happy-to-be-here, non-threatening and cheery knock, then stepped back so anyone peering out the peephole wouldn’t get a close-up of his nose. He whistled, stopped, clasped his hands behind his back, then in front of him, and kept his happy little smile hiked high on his aching cheeks. Should he knock again? Someone was home – not only was there a shiny car in the drive, but the smell of coffee was drifting from inside. He straightened his hat, smoothed his tie. He was being observed, he could feel it, but there was no sound from behind the door.
He picked up his case – old, soft leather with heavy clasps – with an expression of regret, and started walking slowly back down the path. Behind him, he heard the latch turn.
“Can I help you?” a man asked.
Albert turned, smile blooming into a beam of delight. “Oh, you are here! I thought I’d missed you. What a shame, I thought. What a lost opportunity! But here you are. How wonderful. How marvellous.”
The man gave him a suspicious look that bordered on hostile. Not wary, though. Nothing about Albert suggested you should be wary. His suit had a well-used look to it, the cut almost-but-not-quite right, his shoes polished but worn, and there was a smear of brown sauce on his tie.
“I was in the neighbourhood,” Albert continued, before the man could respond. “I have clients on this street, you see. Or I did. And I thought, well, if I can help one household move on to bigger and better things, why not another? Why not let others here know of the opportunities, the wonderful opportunities, the last few opportunities I have available for interested parties? For those interested and motivated parties that want to take charge of their own destinies? That want to escape the mortal grind of the nine to five? Albert, I thought, Albert, let’s just knock on a few doors. Let’s just see if anyone wants to change their lives today. But everyone’s out, of course. Everyone’s punching the clock, hustling the hustle, shoulders to the wheel, everyone’s working, working, working to pay the man, am I right?”
The man in the door way looked more puzzled than disinterested, and he gave a non-committal grunt.
Albert pressed on. “All that money. All that time. All that living going to rent, and mortgages, and taxes, and electricity, and car payments, and still people are just getting by. Scraping by. Struggling. Scrimping. Hoping.” He shook his head sadly. “Don’t you think there must be a better way?”
The man rubbed his nose with the back of his hand and coughed, a nasty hacking sound. “So going door to door preaching at people is the way forward, is it?”
“Oh, I’m not talking about what I do,” Albert said. “Heavens, no! I’m small potatoes. A tiny fish in an enormous pond. A mere cog in a beautiful machine. A messenger. A middle man. A recruiter.” He paused to let that sink in. The man wasn’t smiling, but he hadn’t moved to shut the door. That was enough. Albert opened his arms wide, to take in the pale spring sunshine and washed-out sky. “But still – here I am, setting my own hours! No sitting in traffic for me! No buses or trains or crowded tubes! No clock watching! No interminable meetings or office politics or gossip, gossip, gossip! Just me. What would you prefer?”
The man coughed again, a wet, sick sound. “I’d prefer to be in bed, to be honest.”
Albert lowered his arms, instantly contrite. “Of course. How silly of me. I should have realised you must be ill, to be home on a weekday. It was inconsiderate, calling you out here. You don’t need to change your life today. You need Lemsip.”
The man didn’t respond, just watched Albert with red-rimmed eyes. He really didn’t look well, the salesman thought, and he took a step closer, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“You know the Lewises, just down the street?”
“They just sold,” the man said, glancing along the staggered curve of semi-detached houses, all with winding gravel paths to their front doors and gardens that ranged from nail-scissor neatness to abandoned-trike neglect.
Albert winked, tapped the brim of his hat. “Yes they did. On to bigger and better things.”
“They won the lottery.”
“In a manner of speaking, sir. In a manner of speaking.”
“What, you expect me to believe they were part of your Tupperware scheme or something?”
“Now, what would seem more likely? A lottery win, or a little hard work to take control of their lives and finances? Hmm?”
The man hesitated, looking down the street again. “It did seem kind of weird it wasn’t in the papers or anything.”
“And so, you see, we have a vacancy in the area. An opportunity for the adventurous. A representative needed. A vacuum to be filled, a need to be met, a life to be changed.” Albert paused again, composed his face into an expression of regret. “But you’re not well. I should move on, allow you to recuperate. You don’t want to use too many of your sick days. You may need them later in the year.” He touched the brim of his hat again, the gesture absurdly old-fashioned, picked up his case, and started down the path.
“Hang about,” the man said, and Albert turned back, holding his smile in. “You can’t just say stuff like that then leave. Are you serious? It wasn’t the lottery?”
“Deadly, deadly serious. Scout’s honour. Cross my heart and hope to die. Spit on my mother’s grave.”
“Yeah, okay, okay.” The look that man gave him still wasn’t wary – it was a little disdainful, perhaps even a little sceptical, but mostly it was hungry. Albert allowed himself a smile, a small and ingratiating one. The car in the drive was too new, the man’s sick-day clothes too branded, casual with a capital C. The tiny garden had the impersonal feel of a landscape designer, and he knew that inside the house would be a wilderness of high-end gadgets and unused appliances. Desperation dripped from the man’s pores along with the sick sweat, and Albert just managed not to lick his lips. Just.
“Come in,” the man said finally. “Why not. I can’t binge-watch any more Netflix anyway. I’m going crazy in here.”
The kitchen was as over-specced and under-used as Albert had guessed, an American breakfast bar with a black marble top opening onto a living area stuffed with two over-sized leather sofas, and an enormous flat screen television glowering down at them. It was paused on the image of an extremely dirty man running an equally dirty man through with a sword. Albert thought that the dirt looked about right, but that the rest of the scene seemed very tidy. Death, in his experience, wasn’t tidy at all. He smiled at his host. “Lovely place.”
“Yeah, well. Should be, the amount I put into it.” The man pulled a stool out from the counter and waved Albert onto it. “Coffee?”
“That would be wonderful.” The salesman drank in his surroundings while his host was occupied with a coffee machine that looked like it belonged in a Knightsbridge cafe – the shiny black kitchen, the unpleasant but undoubtedly expensive art on the walls, the store-bought vase and stick arrangement that seemed compulsory in all modern homes, the bills stuffed under the luxury travel magazines on the glass-topped coffee table.
“Sugar?” the man asked, placing a cup in front of Albert.
“Please.” He took the spoon the man offered him and tipped five heaping spoonfuls into the cup.
“Jesus. That’s a hell of a sweet tooth.”
“A terrible habit,” Albert agreed, taking a sip and smacking his lips appreciatively. “Now, Stuart -”
“Stu,” the man said, then looked puzzled, “When did I-”
“Stu,” Albert spoke over him as he pulled a brochure from his bag and laid it on the counter face-down. “I have to be honest, I’m not completely convinced you’re really interested. Not convinced you’re serious.”
“Well, I don’t know all the details,” Stu said indignantly.
“Details we can get to,” Albert said, and turned the brochure over. It was a matte silver-grey, subtly textured, and there was no text on it, just a red logo that looked, maybe, a little like a blazing comet. Stu stared at it, fascinated. “What do you want, Stu? What do you want more than anything in the world? What, one might say, is your heart’s desire?”
Stu looked away from the brochure reluctantly, and glanced around the kitchen. “More than this,” he said, sounding defiant. “More than some average semi on some average cul-de-sac.”
“Good,” Albert said. “More we can work with.” The ones that said peace, or contentment – well, they were a lost cause. But more – yes, that he could definitely work with.
“See – him.”
Steph focused her eyes with some difficulty on the man Abbie was pointing out. He was fake-tanned to the point of luminosity, and there was something repellent about the way he was standing. It was a Big Man, pose, a Hey Look At Me pose. “Why do I want to look at him?”
“He just inherited like a tonne of money. I know his ex – she said he was basically bankrupt and about to have his house repossessed when she left him like a month ago, and now he’s loaded. She’s kind of kicking herself.”
“Why? He looks like a knob.”
“Well, she liked him enough to put up with him for a couple of years.”
Abbie shook her drink at Steph. “He’s rich, not horribly bad-looking, and I know him enough to know he’s not a serial killer. Just go for it.”
“I don’t like him.”
“You’ve never even talked to him.”
“I can tell he’s a knob from here.”
“Steph. Just stop pining over Ben and go shag him out of your system, would you?”
“I’m not pining.”
“Last Friday you were so drunk you were talking about your cat like he’s a person. You’re too young for me to let you descend into cat ladyness.”
“Alex is a person. A furry one.”
“And this is why you need to get out more.” Abbie pushed her towards the bar. “At least talk to him. He can afford to buy you a drink that isn’t tap water.”
Steph was a little foggy about how they’d ended up here, snogging enthusiastically in the back of some fancy car with a suited driver. Well, he was snogging enthusiastically. She wasn’t as keen – his technique left a lot to be desired, unless you were really into those dogs that drooled all the time. What were they? French bulldogs? Or was it English? Did dogs really have nationalities? Did they have accents? Would –
“Ow,” she said, as their teeth clashed.
“Sorry,” he said. He looked breathless, red spots hectic on his cheeks. He leaned in for more, and she put a hand on his chest.
“Shall we wait till we get there?”
“Oh, okay. Sure.” He looked crestfallen, then perked up as he opened the fridge behind the driver’s seat. “D’you want something? I’ve got champagne.”
Steph sighed. “Sure. Why not.”
The apartment was huge, top floor and sprawling, divided into pockets of furniture rather than rooms, and the city spread out below the glass walls in a way that made Steph’s head spin. Stu scampered about the place, adjusting the lighting, putting music on, prattling like a pre-schooler showing off his new toys. Steph rubbed her forehead, wishing she were home in wonderful cat lady isolation. If this was how she was meant to get over Ben, she wasn’t sure she could be bothered.
“Are you alright?” Stu asked. “Do you – I mean, I can call you a cab or something if you’d – you know – rather not.”
So maybe he wasn’t a complete knob. “I’d love a cuppa, to be honest,” she said.
“Can do,” he said, and scurried towards the kitchen. Steph sat down in an expensively uncomfortable chair and poked at the magazines on the coffee table. There was a matte grey cover mixed in with the palm trees and expensive watches, drawing her eye oddly.
“So, you’re doing alright for yourself,” she said, sliding the other magazines away.
“I inherited just recently – an uncle, or a cousin of some sort. Didn’t even know about them. I keep thinking it’s all some mistake and someone’s going to turn up wanting the money back any moment.”
Steph frowned at the brochure. The cover looked like sharkskin, like it had teeth of its own. “Lucky you.”
“Yeah, the timing was amazing. I really needed it.” There was the splash of water into mugs. “Sugar?”
The predatory cover stared blankly at her. “One. Not too much milk.”
“Your wish is my command.”
Okay, so first impressions were right, after all. But he seemed pretty harmless. The brochure was bothering her, though. She wanted to turn it over, see if there was anything on the front, but she didn’t want to touch it. She glared at it as Stu set the mugs on the table and offered her a packet of digestives.
“Perfect.” She took the packet, nodding at the brochure as she teased a biscuit out. “What’s that?”
“Oh. Yeah. That.” He gave her an odd, evaluating look, then picked it up, giving her a glimpse of the front cover. There was a glossy red logo on it that made her shiver. “You wouldn’t be interested in it.”
“I might. That’s an odd logo.”
He examined it. “It is, isn’t it? It looks like a comet.”
Steph didn’t think so. She thought it looked hungrier than that. She also thought it felt familiar, like an old product re-branded but still recognisable. “Go on then. Tell me about it.”
“It’s an investment thing. I really don’t think you’d be interested.”
Steph took a sip of tea. It was too milky. Why did people always do that? Maybe if she said loads of milk they’d put less in. She put the cup down with a sigh. “I think I know that logo.”
Stu gave a disbelieving bark of a laugh. “I doubt it.”
“Well, it’s – it’s for people like me. Up and comers, you know.”
Steph smiled. “How do you know I’m not?”
“Well, look at you. Where’d you get those shoes – New Look?”
“Primark, actually.” Yes, he was most definitely a knob. And she was quite sure now that she knew what the brochure was.
“Well, there you go, then.”
She sighed. “Look, I think I really do know that logo-”
“I’m going to Saint Barth’s on Monday. Saint Barth’s. You must be thinking of something else. A charity shop, maybe.”
Well, she had been going to warn him, but now she wasn’t. “I want you to give my address to the salesman you got into the scheme with,” she said. “Tell him I’m interested, and he needs to visit me.”
“No!” He jumped up, spilling tea on the rug, which only improved the pattern, as far as Steph was concerned. “No way! If I recruit you, it goes through me! You’re not going to cut me out!”
She squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Look-”
“No! You don’t even know what this is! You just see all this-” he waved wildly, splashing tea across the table “-and want some of it. You have to go through me!”
“Fine. But I want to talk to the original salesman. I can tell him I’ll only buy through you, but I want to talk to him in person.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think you’re the right sort for this.”
“If you don’t tell him to come visit me, I’m going to suggest HMRC take a really close look at your income,” she said mildly.
He stared at her, mouth open. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would. I mean, maybe you’ve got nothing to hide, but you won’t be going to Saint Barth’s any time soon.”
He started to say something, stopped, waved vaguely, then slumped sulkily back into his chair. “Fine. But I bet he won’t even sign you up.”
“We’ll see.” She dictated her address to him, watching him write it in the back of that unpleasant brochure, then got up and headed for the door.
“No shag either, then?” he asked hopefully.
“No shag,” she confirmed. “And don’t spend too much. It’s more expensive than you think.”
Steph slopped more vodka into her glass, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor with her back against the door. “You want some?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alex snapped. “And stop drinking, for the gods’ sakes. The salesman could turn up any minute.”
“We’ve been waiting three days. We’re out of milk, the bread’s mouldy, and I’m bored.”
“Well, that’s just a perfect reason to get sozzled.”
She rolled her eyes and took a mouthful of vodka. She really was bored, and sick of sitting here waiting, surrounded by memories of Ben. Alex had bollocked her for giving their address out, but it didn’t seem that it mattered. Stu obviously hadn’t passed it on, and the salesman wasn’t coming. She wasn’t even sure why she’d bothered trying. Habit, she supposed. But it was no fun without Ben. He’d made even waiting fun, even when he didn’t understand what they were waiting for, but then he’d just up and left, gone, no warning, no explanation, just a text a few days later. I’m sorry. This isn’t working for me anymore. And no reply when she texted back, begging to talk. Just gone. And now here she was, acting like she could carry on without him, but what was the point-
The doorbell rang. She froze with the glass halfway to her lips, and Alex ran back into the room.
“Answer it,” he hissed at her, tail whipping furiously.
Albert stepped back from the door, adjusted his hat minutely, and put his best, most harmless smile on. It happened sometimes, these nervous Neds and Nellies wanting to meet someone a little further up the food chain, wanting to be assured it wasn’t all too good to be true. Which it was, of course, but no one ever wanted to believe that.
Stu had seemed aggrieved, as if it was a personal affront, but, diddums. It wasn’t as if he gave the best impression of someone in a stable position of wealth, splashing cash in nightclubs and buying ridiculous art. An ideal recruit, yes, but not an ideal recruiter. Never mind, he’d have his uses.
Albert plucked a minute piece of fluff off his jacket, inhaling the mingled scents of cleaning products and alcohol. A drinker. That could be good, if his timing was right. Hopefully she’d be just the right side of tipsy – trusting and suggestible.
He heard the latch turn, and his smile widened, ingratiating and delighted-to-meet-you.
Steph pressed her hand against the door, swaying, and for a horrible moment thought she might have misjudged exactly how much vodka she needed to mask her particular scent. The world slowly straightened around her, but she still felt wobbly.
“Get it together,” Alex hissed.
“I am, I am, you horrible cat,” she said, and opened the door. She grabbed a handful of the salesman’s shirtfront before his smile could even falter, hauled him inside and slammed the door with barely a stagger.
“You can’t do this!” the salesman squawked as he fell across the threshold, his hat tumbling off to reveal snapping tentacles flailing in alarm. “You’ve no right!”
“Oh?” Steph asked, shoving him away from her. “You weren’t recruiting?”
He sprawled onto his back and scuttled away from her, not stopping until he fetched up against the fridge with a little scream. “I’m not breaking any laws!”
“So you were completely open with the human? I can go ask him if he understands the conditions of sale, and he’ll be able to tell me all about it?”
“It’s all in the small print.” His suit was wriggling wildly – he either had more limbs or more tentacles in there. It always amazed her that no one ever saw this stuff.
“Which you pointed out, right? Got him to initial the terms? Explained the going rate – what is it, these days? Twenty years of hard labour and eternal torment for every year of luxury, or has it gone up?”
“Twenty-five,” Albert admitted. “But it’s heart’s desire, not luxury.”
Heart’s desire. Ben’s face flashed before her, and she pushed it away, trying to think of what to say next, the room too hot around her.
“And recruiting other souls for the torture pyramid scheme? How many lifetimes does that cost him?” Alex demanded from a kitchen chair, peering down at the salesman.
“Get away!” Albert wailed, a ruffle of spines bursting through the collar of his suit to protect his neck. “I’m just doing my job!”
“So are we,” Alex said, and swatted a panicked tentacle away with his paw, making the salesman scream. “Steph?”
“Um, yeah.” She felt dizzy, and she couldn’t stop thinking of Ben. She’d drunk too much. Way, way too much.
She wished Alex would stop shouting at her. He was always shouting at her. Ben never shouted. Ben was gentle, and kind, and loving, and what was this if not eternal torment? What were a few centuries of filling out endless tax forms, or cleaning demonic toilets, against this?
“I can make it happen,” Albert said, his voice low and confidential. “Whatever you want. Whoever you want.”
“Steph. Don’t listen to him. You know better than this.”
“Al-ex.” She hated the whine in her own voice. “I can’t stand this.”
“Heart’s desire. Bring him back. Make him love you forever.”
“You’re a gods-damned sorcerer, Steph! Put a bloody love spell on the silly human, you want him that much! You don’t need a damn demon for that!”
“But it wouldn’t be the same, would it, Stephanie? It wouldn’t be him choosing to be with you. I can make him choose to be with you.”
Stephanie. He used to call her that. He used to whisper it to her late at night, breathe it across her skin.
“Steph. He’s a demon. You are not drunk enough to listen to him.”
“Heart’s desire. Yours forever. Just say yes, and we’ll work out the details later.”
Steph was crying. She wasn’t sure when she’d started, but her cheeks were wet, and her eyes stung, and Alex was biting a tentacle, and the demon was squalling indignantly, and yes, he was very much a demon, all tentacles and scales and horns and too many eyes and teeth scattered all about the place like raisins in scone dough. “Gods dammit,” she said. “Gods dammit.”
“Heart’s desire!” the demon shrieked. “Heart’s desire! I promise! I swear! I – you horrible cat!” Because Alex was bounding between his tentacles now, biting one here, clawing another there. “Call off your damn cat!”
“Dammit,” Steph said again, and sighed. “Demon, you are henceforth banned from this earth. All contracts are nullified due to transgressions of the Fair Trading Act 1603, Council By-law 7625/23B Subsection 276Q.”
“Begone, foul demon,” Alex added cheerfully.
“This is so unfair,” the demon wailed. “And that last bit was totally unnecessary. And prejudiced. I could have you done for that. I could-”
“Bye-bye,” Alex said, as a large red sphere popped into being, swallowed the demon, then vanished again, leaving behind it a smell of burnt marshmallows.
Steph slid down the door, tears coming in earnest now, great snuffling sobs. The cat sighed, and ambled across to press his face against her damp cheek.
“We’ll find you another silly human to play with.”
“I want that silly human,” she managed.
“Yeah, well. I want opposable thumbs, but it looks like we’ll have to put up with our situations a little longer. Now how about we get fish’n’chips and try to ignore the fact you almost made a deal with a soul-salesman?”
She looked at him dubiously, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Gods. I was really thinking about it.”
“I noticed. More food, less vodka, little sorcerer.”
“Are all familiars as self-righteous as you?”
“You’re just lucky,” he said, and head-butted her hand until she scratched behind his ears.
“I do really miss him, though.”
“Pfft. He wore cheap cologne and had silly hair. You can do better.”
She opened her mouth to argue, then shut it again. “You might have a point,” she admitted finally.
“Cats always have a point,” he said. “Now how about those fish’n’chips?”
I hope you enjoyed this month’s story – let me know your thoughts in the comments or on social media! And if you think others might enjoy it, share the newsletter with them and tell them to sign up – they’ll get a story link straightaway, and the link to the next one will be in February’s newsletter.