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eBook by Ramsey Campbell
eBook Category: Horror
eBook Description: The deal seemed too good to be true. Until it came time to pay. The letters said, "Whatever you most need, I do. The price is something that you do not value and which you may regain." To four teenagers, it seemed an offer too good to pass up. They filled out the enclosed forms. Indeed, they soon got what they needed most, but in shocking ways they never imagined. Twenty-five years later, they have never been able to forget the horror. But it's not over yet. In fact, it's about to get much worse. Now it's time to pay the price. This book has been previously published.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2011
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Twenty-five years later, when Peter realised at last what they had signed away, he had still not forgotten that afternoon: still remembered the waves flocking down from the horizon to sweep up the fishing boats, the glass of the classroom windows shivering with the wind, chalk dust drowsing in the September sunlight, his throat going dry as he realised that everyone was looking at him. "Well, Priest?" Mr Meldrum said.
Peter stood up quickly, the folding seat bruising his thighs. "Sir?"
The teacher tugged his black gown over his thin shoulders. "I said," he said with a hint of impatience, "you ought to be able to tell us about that."
Chalk dust clogged Peter's throat as he tried to think what that might be. The teacher's voice had jarred him out of reliving the day on the common, reliving it as though that could make him have failed to persuade the others, Steve grinning skeptically and scratching his dimpled chin where he was growing a beard for the summer, Robin biting her pale lips and looking doubtful, Jimmy's heavy-lidded eyes almost closing as he questioned him... "Courage," someone whispered behind him in the classroom, and Peter realised that the whisper wasn't meant to hearten him, only to remind him what Mr Meldrum wanted to hear.
The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled... Of course, they were discussing that today, having read it aloud round the classroom, Steve stumbling over the last line of his verse, and Mr Meldrum had said that Peter should be able to tell them about courage. Just now courage felt like one of Peter's headaches; it wasn't knowing you had to protect your grandmother because you were fifteen years old now, it was doing it though you wished you were somewhere else, anywhere at all. Mr Meldrum wouldn't want to hear that, or anything else; his stare made it clear that he hadn't been asking, only commenting. Peter held on to his chipped inky desk and felt trapped, betrayed by himself, and then he heard someone whistling in the corridor.
Peter reached behind him to make sure the seat didn't squeak as he sat down unobtrusively, but all at once he couldn't move. The whistler had begun singing "Luck Be a Lady", off-key. It was Jimmy.
Just because he was happy, that needn't mean-- Peter felt Steve's stare, but he wouldn't have responded even if he had been able to move his pounding head on his throbbing neck. Jimmy stopped singing in mid-phrase as he opened the door, as if he'd just remembered where he was. Mr Meldrum turned, chalk dust whirling as his gown flapped. "Good of you to drop in, Waters. I hope you've some reason to be cheerful other than having taken half my period for lunch."
Someone sniggered in case he'd meant to make a pun about falling in water. Jimmy looked as if he was trying to seem abashed, but his round good-humoured face with its small mouth wasn't made for it. "My dad's won first prize on the football pools," he said.
Both he and Peter heard Steve gasp. Jimmy glanced at Steve, then quickly at Peter, and the expression he'd been trying to suppress in front of Mr Meldrum--an incredulous grin at his good news--froze before it could quite take over his face. "God," Steve muttered, and Peter's headache spread down his neck into his shoulders. It was true, then. There was no more room for pretending. Peter had only one thought, so intense that it felt less like thinking than like part of the ache his head had become: he wondered how he would ever dare go home.
That spring of 1958 it had hardly seemed to stop raining, even in East Anglia. Peter spent the weekends in the shop, his mother shooing him from place to place as she dusted the buckets and spades and toy windmills, the postcards of Seaward and the comics and sixpenny remainders, the tins and packets of food on the shelves, until sometimes he wished he were still small enough to huddle under the counter, out of the way, and she would dust his face for grimacing. He liked helping in the shop, liked the smells of firelighters and soap powder, liked serving customers and carrying the morning papers, fattest on Sundays, down to the hotels on the East Promenade. Most of all he liked unpacking deliveries, especially of books or magazines.
That Saturday towards the end of March the carton was of remaindered American magazines. "Weird Tales for weirder people," his father said, twitching his nose to send his thick glasses back up to the bridge. "Here's one for you, Bernie: Curse of the Eyeless Heads," he called to Peter's mother, and pretended to read the rest of the contents page: "Eyes of the Headless Curse, Heads of the Curseless Eyes, Less of the Curse-Eyed Heads..."
"Less of the lot of them if I had my way." She looked up from arranging sweets in tiers on the counter and wiped her hands on the Queen's face on her apron. "I wouldn't give you sixpence for a hundredweight of them."
"Better than getting a fat bum and a fat head sitting in front of the telly, my dear."
"The day one of those machines comes into my house I go out the door. Go on, Peter," she growled, seeing him watching, "find something to read if you must, but don't show it to me."
He found a couple that were new to him and read out the advertisements to make her laugh: "Man! Be Big", "Throw Away That Truss", "I Need 500 Men"... His father found "Learn To Mount Birds", which had her holding her sides and trying to be solemn when a lady came in to buy rubbers. "Children's rubbers, for school," the lady said, staring as if she thought Peter's mother wasn't quite all there.
When the lady had left with her packet of erasers Peter's father switched off the lights in the window. The rain had stopped, the sky was clearing. "I'll go and see granny, shall I?" Peter said. "She might want some shopping."
"That's a good boy. She'll be glad to see you." As Peter went out, toggling his duffel coat, he heard his mother saying "We ought to keep an eye on her just now."
Rain streamed down the gutters as he climbed the gentle slope, past shops on first-name terms--Tommy's Pets, Frank's Fish and Chips--and white pot-bellied terraced houses faced with stones from the beach. In the unexpected sunlight the red post-boxes with their spiky crowns and the street-corner benches with their memorial plaques looked freshly painted by the downpour. The slope grew steeper once he'd crossed a few streets. He climbed above the houses, scrambled up the clay steps to the common and stood panting.
Seen from here, the cape on which Seaward was built looked like a ship forever surging forward into the North Sea. The disused lighthouse on the tip was the figurehead to which the common rose. Grass lay flat as cat's fur on the common, a few trees leaned backwards with their branches outstretched, away from the almost constant wind.
Peter walked across the half-mile of common to the northern edge. Below him streets sloped to the lesser hotels. The cliff curved round to Seaward Forest, which stretched inland to the museum and the village that had grown up around the mansion the museum had once been. The road from the village forked at the far end of the common from the lighthouse and led down to opposite ends of the promenade. He held the handrail as he climbed down the stone steps to the first of the streets.
Most of the white Georgian houses were divided into apartments. More and more people were retiring to Seaward. At the foot of the slope, beyond several hairdressers and a poodles' beauty parlour, a band played a Viennese waltz under the iron and glass roof of one of the Victorian shopping arcades on the North Fork.
A stray dog was cocking its leg against a bubble car parked on the corner of the street where his mother's mother lived. A van that looked vaguely official except for cardboard number-plates stood outside the house whose ground floor she rented. Peter was looking forward to hearing stories of her Victorian childhood, eating her scones with a cup of hot sweet tea, listening to her old 78s, ballads that sounded like growing old: "Just a song at twilight..." The front door was ajar, and he walked in.
He took his comb out of the breast pocket of his blazer and stopped in front of the hall mirror to rake his hair back from his high forehead. His grey eyes stared back at him from his oval face. Apart from his protruding ears and his long chin that was almost the same shape as his forehead, he supposed he didn't look too bad. He knocked a phrase of an old song on his grandmother's door next to the mirror and went in.
The first thing he saw was his grandmother standing against the far wall, beyond the mahogany table with its folding leaves and matching straight-backed chairs whose seats made the room smell of leather; a hand over her mouth. The man whose hand it was glared back over his shoulder at Peter and brandished a knife in her face, a knife with a curved black blade that tapered to a sharp point. It was a fragment of one of her records, all of which lay broken beside the overturned gramophone. Her father's paintings had been pulled off the walls, leaving patches like plaques. So much Peter saw before someone flung him the length of the room.
He crashed into the rocking-chair and fell against the dresser. A willow-patterned plate fell from the top shelf, barely missing his temple, and smashed at his feet. He crouched off balance, his left elbow a blaze of pain where it had struck the chair, and wondered if his arm was broken. The man who'd stepped from behind the door had already followed him down the room in one quick movement. His face was pinched and mottled, his clothes were grubby; Peter could smell his sweat and shabbiness. There seemed to be no expression on his face.
"Do yourself a favour, son," said the other man, who was thin and shabby too, but older. "Pretend you never saw us and tell your old mum here to, for the good of her health."
Without warning she lashed out at him, buried her nails in the hand over her mouth, scratched his face with her other hand, just missing one eye. Peter was as shocked by her violence as by anything else that was happening, and terrified for her. He tried to regain his balance before the younger man could notice, though his heart was pumping so hard he was afraid he might faint instead.
The other man grabbed the old lady's mouth in his fist. Peter heard the back of her head smack the wall. At once she kicked the man in the shins with her heavy shoes and ducked out of his way. Before she reached the window and threw up the sash she was screaming at the top of her voice. "Help! Robbers! They're trying to kill me! Police!"
The younger man glared at Peter as if he wished he had time to finish him, and then he ran for the door, digging a set of car keys out of his pocket. "Stop them! Stop thief!" Peter's grandmother cried as the other man hobbled out, and Peter wondered why she sounded more terrified now they were leaving. Of course, she was afraid they would come back.
He had to stop them. He lunged at the open window, pushed her aside and clambered out. He almost lost his footing in the muddy flowerbed, but slithered onto the garden path and was out of the gate just ahead of them. He wrenched at the sliding door of the van with the cardboard number-plates and heaved himself into the driver's seat--a moment ahead of the thought, both panicky and ludicrous, that perhaps this wasn't the thieves' van at all.
But it was. He just had time to grab the door and hold it shut as the driver dragged at the outer handle, his face reddening. Peter had to wedge his body between the seat and the dashboard and hold on to the door with both hands. He could do nothing when the passenger door rattled open and the older man vaulted in.