Copyright © 2019 by Aksel Studsgarth
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WARNING: May contain blood, gore, and lawyers.
I appreciate the coffee, the gesture.
It’s good; I feared a cup of toxic sludge, so it’s a pleasant surprise. I mean no offence, but this isn’t a place where you’d expect an Italian machine pushing 12 bars of pressure. I’ve never been able get the crema this smooth myself.
I’m sorry, I digress.
How did it all start for me?
With a few drops of blood.
I’d seen him on the platform before. Waiting for the 07.25 train that takes bleary-eyed commuters, clusters of school kids, and other souls travelling from the northern suburbs of Copenhagen into the city.
Some people just stand out from the crowd. The hulking security guard returning from a nightshift drinking a protein shake. Or the purple-haired student with the liquid movements and off-kilter outfit, heading to a session with his/her counsellor in town.
This guy, on the other hand, was completely forgettable.
But whenever I saw him, he was always hauling some flat parcel wrapped in thick brown butcher’s paper. Sometimes it was small enough that it fit under his arm, other times it was so large that he had trouble navigating down the crowded platform without nearly knocking somebody onto the tracks.
So what? People bring all kinds of crap on the train, you might think. And you’re right. What raised a flag that day?
The thing is, everyone slips up eventually.
I should know, right?
The parcel was leaking.
As we boarded the train it left a trail of small red droplets all the way down the carriage. It looked like blood. And there was an odour of something that had gone bad, like a small mammal left to rot in a ditch.
No one else seemed to notice. The mobile phones everyone is surgically attached to probably had something to do with it. Jesus himself could turn up in a train with half a dozen angels doing the Macarena and people wouldn’t look up.
But my senses are quite acute, always have been.
And, unlike everyone else, I was looking for a distraction.
Have you heard about Japanese men who lose their jobs? In a society where a job used to be for life, some of them are unable to adjust. They kiss their wife goodbye and take the train to town every morning, spending the day in public parks and libraries, like ghosts unable to pass on.
They do this five days a week right up until the pay checks finally stop coming in and reality catches up with them.
I wasn’t that different.
I was a lawyer, as you know. Mergers and Acquisitions mostly, and from time to time some litigation to keep the blood flowing. But, my life as a high-flying lawyer was over. I’d raced up the ladder at Flock & Flugel to become the youngest junior partner ever, until I made senior partner, happily burning my light at both ends ensuring my villa had a sea view and the Porsche Panamera in the driveway was never more than 12-months old.
Considering the shady deals that I’d been part of in my career, it’s ironic that what got me fired wasn’t really my fault. All the partners knew that our biggest client had skeletons in the closet but we agreed that the upside outweighed the risk. Then one day a whistle blower decided to dump an entire elephant’s boneyard worth of stuff onto the media. It exposed our client’s cosy ties to Oligarchs, dictators, and Albanian gangsters.
It was pretty ugly.
To distance Flock and Flugel from the fallout, someone had to be sacrificed.
That someone turned out to be me, even though I’d never even met the client.
After a few months of moping round the house drinking Château Pétrus while alphabetizing my vinyl collection, I figured the smoke had cleared. The severance package was generous but wouldn’t last forever and I was bored out of my mind. I called old colleagues to set up lunch meetings and explain to them what went down and how it wasn’t my fault, but they were all suddenly very busy.
The other side of the career ladder turned out to be a near vertical and well-oiled slide. The only law firm that would hire me in the end was small and scrappy. I fitted in like a parrot at a chicken farm.
So, I quit and became self-employed.
I rented a desk in a trendy co-working space full of bright young people with MacBooks they couldn’t afford. I had the odd client but – full disclosure – whether I did anything billable or played online poker all day made no real difference to anyone. Still, it beat bouncing off the walls of my house with no one for company but my Lithuanian cleaner, who pretended she didn’t speak Danish or English so that I couldn’t hit on her.
Not that I tried very hard.
Actually, let’s not go there.
So, blood was leaking from the parcel.I figured he was an artist. And artists will do just about anything to stand out. Like that frozen head made with four litres of blood that Charles Saatchi used to own. The one by Marc Quinn.
That’s right, I know about modern art.
I once represented a chain of very edgy German art galleries in a complicated financing round.
It ultimately led nowhere but I billed them almost 2000 hours while learning more about modern art than anyone should have to.
Someone with money and a notion to spend it on art might think that a piece done with blood was just hunky dory. But the smell coming from that parcel? No one in the world would put up with that.
Art patrons are happy to buy the most horrific abominations to certify their status, but paying for actual physical discomfort that isn’t linked to extreme sport or BDSM is another matter.
Something was going on and I wanted to know what.
It wasn’t something I’d planned.
But, when he got off the train at the 5th circle of hell that is Nørreport Station, I decided to follow him.
It wasn’t like I had anything better to do.
I had never followed a person before but it wasn’t difficult; he was hard to miss as he struggled with the large canvas in the crosswind. I kept 10 metres behind him as he walked down Gothersgade past the Botanical gardens.
Again, no one noticed something was off with the guy, except a pregnant woman whose expression suddenly changed to one of mild disgust as he passed her, like he was dragging a small but toxic cloud behind him.
He stopped by a large red-brick building on the corner of Rømersgade and disappeared through a cellar door, which was almost hidden behind a rat-king of tangled up bicycles. As the door slammed shut behind him, I figured this was the end of the line for my little investigation.
But I went to try the handle anyway, just to be sure. The stairwell had not been swept in months and I found myself ankle deep in dry leaves, and those free newspapers that litter the city.
One of them had wedged itself in the door, keeping it open.
I took that as a sign I should proceed.
It wasn’t very sensible perhaps, following a stranger into a basement but, to be honest, I figured the mystery didn’t involve anything truly unpleasant or dangerous, and besides, I was having fun being a detective for a day.
The basement was a maze of narrow corridors with small storage rooms closed off with padlocks, wire mesh and plywood.
The building had to be full of artists because most of the rooms were an unholy mix of dusty sculptures and paintings along with old bicycles, stacks of books, and the odd pram.
I followed the trail of red spots on the floor and it eventually led me to an unlocked room. Hidden behind a stack of large paintings that looked like bad Basquiat knock-offs, there was a narrow wooden staircase leading to a sub-basement.
At this point, I admit that I hesitated. I got out my mobile to send a message about where I was.
I needn’t have bothered because there was no signal. Besides, who would I have sent it to? I’m embarrassed to say that no one sprang to mind.
It was madness, I had no plan, not at all. But it was like something invisible pushed me forwards, a sense that it was important, so I proceeded.
The stairs led to a large low-ceilinged room, much older than the rest of the building. Rows of canvases on wooden pallets stood facing rough stone walls. The air was different down there, it felt thick and heavy, and the smell from before was much stronger.
The man had taken off his coat exposing a cheap fleece jacket and was stretching with both hands, pushing against the small of his back. I guess he’d pulled something manhandling the large painting, which was lying still wrapped up on a large wooden table.
The staircase creaked.
He turned around and looked at me.
“Can I help you?” His voice was high, almost childlike.
Luckily, I still dressed like someone with money. That day, I wore a good Italian suit and a long woollen coat that was practically handmade.
And I was used to thinking on my feet.
“Yes, I’m looking to buy some art. I’m told this is the place to go.”
“Who told you that?”
“What was his name again…he lives upstairs,” I said, gesturing vaguely.
“Was it Torben P, on third?” he said, with more than a tinge of excitement in his voice. He was eyeing a possible sale and greed outweighed anything else.
“Yes. It was him. He said you had some stuff that would be right up my street. I need something for my villa in Tuscany, something edgy.”
“Well, that was mighty nice of him.”
We both laughed about how Torben P. had finally sent a customer his way and how much free booze he’d always drink whenever there was a gallery opening. I declined the man’s offer of a cup of coffee.
Nescafe and creamer in one of those plastic cups that melt, no thanks.
“You look familiar, have we met?”
“Maybe at a gallery,” I offered and he seemed to accept the answer. I was relieved that he didn’t recognize me from the train but I was also a bit offended.
I’d never considered myself invisible.
He grabbed a couple of canvases and placed them side by side for me to examine.
“Let me know if you see anything you like.”
I wanted to look away. They were hideous, I mean truly. Portraits of men, women and children with long skinny limbs, swollen joints and grotesque genitals that looked like cauliflower. Made with tiny obsessive paint strokes.
I felt oddly deflated as he kept lining up horror after horror.
The paintings were brutal and vicious but they were just paintings, nothing more.
I pretended to consider each of them carefully as he stood next to me almost hyperventilating like an eager dog while I tried to think of a way to extract myself from the situation without actually having to buy anything.
But there was still the matter of the parcel on the table, which had brought me down there in the first place. I needed to perform due diligence.
“How about the one that’s still wrapped up?”
“Oh, that’s not ready for sale yet. It’s a work in progress, but how about that one?” he pointed at a particularly vile portrait of a naked court jester lying squashed inside a child-sized coffin.
“It’s one of my better pieces I think.”
“Hmmmm. It is intriguing. Can I have a closer look?”
While he jumped to fetch it for me I carefully stepped over to the table.
“You know, I think I would like that coffee after all,” I said, trying to buy myself some time as I noticed a battered yellow Stanley box cutter with a shiny new blade lying next to the parcel.
I’d just slice a small hole and peek inside.
The moment my fingers closed around that rusty handle…
I struggle to put it into words. I had somehow become connected with a force so strong that it made a power station seem like an AA battery.
It surged through me like a high-pressure hose, reaching every single cell.
I looked down at my hand. The knife was no longer a simple box cutter.
It was now a blade made from a material that had no place on earth and with detailing so complex and subtle my brain struggled to process it.
It seemed to guide my hand as I cut the paper and lifted the flaps.
I nearly fainted. For a moment, everything really went black.
I wanted to turn around, run up those stairs, breathe in fresh air and then puke my guts out until there was nothing left.
You must forgive me. I’m sure you’ve seen so much worse but for me to realise that something like that was even possible?
Such skill and dedication coupled with a level of depravity way beyond my worst nightmare.
“No, no, no, that’s not something you should see….” he shouted, but of course it was too late by then.
Because as I held the knife the scales had fallen from my eyes. I could now see his teeth were long and sharp, his skin the colour of a piss-stained toilet seat and what looked like large worms writhing obscenely beneath the epidermis, as if looking for a way out.
At that point, I didn’t know he was just a common Succubus.
All I knew was that he shouldn’t exist and that since I was holding the knife it was now my sacred duty to kill him.
Or something like that, it all happened very fast.
As he reached for me with sharp crooked talons, I leaned back with a grace and speed I never knew I was capable of.
The arc and timing was perfect; like a fencer with a foil I lanced his neck at the collarbone and sliced upwards at a straight angle across his snarling mouth splitting his nose in half. It was like cutting through an oilskin bag full of stew.
If a stew was yellow and full of worms.
My arm then moved sideways and with one more movement I took out both his eyes while quartering his nose.
He fell forwards and bled yellow pus out all over the table, yet I stood there without as much as a drop on me.
I’ve been around the block. I’ve done the sniffing-cocaine-off-a-porn-star thing, I’ve eaten at more 3-star Michelin restaurants than most heads of state, done heli-skiing on 3 continents.
All of it billable.
But the pleasure I got from slicing up that demon. I’m not going to lie to you. It was infinitely better than anything I’d ever experienced.
I still felt the most wonderful afterglow as I turned off the lights, making sure the doors were locked and that I’d left no fingerprints. I somehow knew I was protected, chosen even, but that didn’t mean I should be careless.
That evening, I sat in my kitchen drinking my last bottle of Château Pétrus. The Stanley box cutter was lying in front of me looking like nothing at all.
I knew that knife was a lightning rod to something divine.
My life would never be the same, I mean, I’d killed a demon.
The world now seemed like a magic show and, when I held the knife, it was as if I knew which secret pocket the magician kept the King of Hearts in and where he stashed the pigeons.
Demons were hiding amongst us and by picking up that knife it had become my mission to rid the world of them, one at a time.
The feeling of having a noble purpose was great, of course it was. But, to be honest, it was the promise of that rush, the incredible high I got when I exterminated that first Succubus that got me really excited. I was already addicted.
A few days later, I made my second kill.
So, now it’s been ten years. Time flies.
Ten years of hunting demons and dispatching them by whatever means necessary.
It’s been tough and not very glamorous, living off the grid, sleeping in cheap hotels all over Europe, driving a tiny anonymous car and eating shitty autobahn food. Waiting for days at a time for a demon to show its face in the crowd.
And then there’s the actual slaying.
I admit it’s been messy at times and, for the ones on the receiving end, it might have even seemed cruel. I never expected demons to have families and that they would cry, plead, and try to protect their young.
It gets to you.
Ultimately though, I don’t think the job has made the most of my abilities.
And as for management – did I have a single performance appraisal in all that time?
A promotion? A note of thanks? No, of course not.
And that wonderful rush I got from killing my first Succubus? It never felt that good again, not even close.
I got sloppy I guess. Made too many mistakes.
And here we are. I never expected you to reach out in this way. That such a thing was even possible.
I feared retribution, an agonizingly slow death over smouldering coals, or worse.
But you seem very reasonable and I like what you have to say. How I should be using my entire skillset. And, as a lawyer, your moral compass must remain flexible.
The terms seem attractive and I really, really appreciate that you made the effort to meet me in person. Unlike the other guy.
So how do we proceed from here?
Another coffee you ask? I’d rather have something stronger, if you have it.
A 2002 Bollinger? Why not?
Then we can go over the papers together, before we both sign. I want to make sure all the fine print is in order.
So it’s legally binding.