A few years back, I submitted a short story, Lips, to Fringeworks for their Dead Men's Tales anthology. The anthology submission call explained what contributors could get in terms of royalties. My story was accepted and I was over the moon as this was right back at the start of my 'proper' writing career, ie when I took those first hesitant steps to get published. Then I waited, and waited and waited. No contract, nothing ever happened. Eventually I chased up the editor and was told it would be published. Silence. Then I discovered it for sale on amazon and not one of the contributors had been informed or sent a contract. Today I ordered a copy of the book, purely for my 'shelf' and also to serve as a reminder of the pitfalls of a writer's life. However, I do resent the fact someone else has effectively stolen my work. I know other contributors were not happy ... but what can you do in the world of the small presses? Another contributor, K R Smith, has outlined the fiasco here www.theworldofkrsmith.com/2015/09/and-yet-another-update-on-my.html, if you want to know more.
I still like my little story (despite my experience now showing me where I should edit it a little more!) and almost put it in my collection which is currently in progress but it didn't fit with those I had chosen so I am publishing it here for you to read gratis.
Lips smile, lips kiss, lips laugh. Lips curl, lips sneer, lips kill. What other use can lips be put to? Perhaps I might think of something and let you know, for the moment though I am busy. I have company and I must not neglect my guest.
Already the sweat is running in rivulets down his face. His eyes are full of anger and … something more. Yes, there is definitely more there … aah, I see it flitting about, a glimmer, a sliver, a shiver of fear.
He sits alone, the terrible Captain Ned Lowe, abandoned by his crew and left to the fate that I, judge, jury and probably executioner, decide. But … I forget my manners. It is only polite to introduce oneself. I know enough of society to know that. My name is Captain Luis Alvares. My ship is, or rather was, the Nostra Signoria de Victoria, one of the finest schooners in the Portuguese fleet. Her captaincy has been my reward for the many successful voyages that I had made. Whether for trade, transport or exploration, I performed my duties diligently and efficiently. Until I ran into the path of Ned Lowe I had never had much of a problem with pirates either.
Of course I had heard the stories, how he tortured his prisoners on a whim; decapitation, disembowelment, you name it, he did it. A particularly nasty trick of his was to bind a prisoner’s hands and weave the rope between the fingers. The rope would then be lit and allowed to burn through the skin, eating away at the flesh until it reached bone. Their screams, it was said, drove Lowe into an even greater frenzy. By the time it was my misfortune to cross his path even his crew had begun to doubt his sanity.
The events of that day have been seared into my memory, literally. You’re probably thinking that I too had my hands bound and burned but my suffering was to be more extreme, only a few of my crew lost their hands. Should I take pride in that? I don’t know.
It had been such a good voyage up to that point. The skies were clear, we had a fair wind and we were on our way home with 11,000 gold moidores in my safe. The hands were in high spirits, eagerly looking forward to their wages and the women and grog that that would buy on reaching port. Their dreams were of a safe harbour and a warm bed. Then came the cry from above.
I was not too concerned at that point, not until my first mate Rodrigues came running up to me; even beneath the tan of his weather-beaten face I could see his face had paled alarmingly. I frowned, he was not a man to scare easily and that worried me.
“Captain. The flag sir!” he said.
“You’ve identified her?”
“Aye. She’s a buccaneer sir. Red skeleton on black.”
He didn’t say any more. He didn’t need to. I could see the word had spread amongst the men; already they were making preparations to outrun the ship. I lifted my telescope to my eye and fixed on our would-be assailant. I was under no illusion as to our fate should we be caught.
It was The Fancy without a doubt. Two men stood on the quarter-deck, one of whom I immediately recognised as the infamous Lowe. Whilst I had never seen the man before, his description had been widely circulated. One look at his face, at the mockery of a mouth scarred by some accident and I knew it was him. If we could outrun him we would be safe.
Our luck, which had held for so long, chose that moment to fail us. The wind dropped and we became sitting ducks. The devil himself must have been steering his ship for still it came on, bearing down on us with terrifying speed. It was then I decided that whilst Lowe might take my ship, he would not get my gold.
“Mister Lopes!” I called.
“With me to my cabin.”
We made our way below decks to my cabin where I had stored the gold in my safe. Lopes found a canvas bag, sturdy enough to hold the coins. Together we filled the bag and then Lopes tied it to a rope so that it was able to hang safely outside my cabin window. Should need arise I would be able to cut the rope and send it down into the deeps; should we be successful, I would be able to haul it back in.
The battle, which I will not describe here, for the memory is too painful to a man of such pride as myself, was soon over. The decks were slick with blood and my men, what remained of them were crammed into the hold. I had been taken to what had previously been my cabin to await his pleasure. It was with some satisfaction, even at that time when I thought my death was imminent, to see the frayed rope that dangled from an open window.
When he looked up from my desk, the extent of his disfigurement shocked me. I do not think I remember the exact moment that the pirate discovered my subterfuge. One of his men had approached him, somewhat hesitantly I felt and said something in a low voice.
Lowe initially said nothing but it was as if the atmosphere in the room had suddenly become charged, just like before a storm you could sense that something was building. The crew avoided looking at each other, avoided looking at their captain. Then he exploded. His fist sent the poor messenger flying across the room and then he turned his blazing eyes on me, glowering with a rage that only confirmed my growing dread.
“You denied me my prize,” he roared. “The gold is mine by right of conquest!”
Terrified I somehow managed to look him in the eye. Whatever I said would not change what I knew was to come. If I had known how he intended to finish me perhaps I would have kept quiet.
“There you are wrong sir” I replied. “That gold was the result of honest trade, of the toil and sweat of my men. I will not allow it to be soiled by your hands. Better it be sent to Davey Jones.”
It was then my turn to feel his fist and I was sent sprawling to the ground. I did not remain there for very long as rough hands seized my person. I was somewhat dazed as they dragged me back up on deck to be paraded in front of the rest of his men.
But just as swiftly as the storm had come so did it pass. Lowe was surveying me, calm once more, much as one gentleman does another when introduced for the first time. I did not see the nervous glances of those of his crew who now stood by him, nor did I notice how those on the edges of my vision had surreptitiously moved themselves a bit further into the background. The small time I had been allowed to observe him had given me a chance to recognise that that sudden calmness was the first sign of the madness that followed.
Yet still I felt merely apprehensive when in fact I should have been terrified.
“So Captain, you will not hand over the gold,” he said, amiably enough I thought. “Sometimes I find that good food, good wine, can be more persuasive to bringing about a certain meeting of minds – don’t you think?”
Still that smile but I had my standards. “That depends on the circumstances sir. Amongst gentlemen such an outcome can be envisaged; however, I do not believe that I am amongst honourable men therefore I am afraid I must decline your offer.”
Lowe’s smile remained, fixed into that terrible rictus grin of his, a smile that did not reach his eyes. “Oh, but I insist that you dine Captain. The law of hospitality demands it. In fact I take great pleasure in offering you the choicest cuts; I doubt you will find that you have ever tasted better.”
He called his cook forward, a burly sweaty man who did not seem to care for the niceties of personal cleanliness.
“Your knife,” Lowe demanded of the man. Reluctantly the implement was handed over.
The pirate approached me, still smiling, the knife gleaming in his hand. A chair had been brought into which I was rudely forced. A small table was placed in front of me. Another order was given to the cook and a small makeshift stove was prepared. A greasy looking broth was soon simmering nearby. By now I was somewhat bewildered. Lowe towered over me.
“You will not allow your lips to talk,” he said. “Lips that do not talk are useless. I think a little food for thought may encourage you.”
The knife gleamed in front of me. Then came the pain, such pain as I have never experienced. He took his time, cutting slowly, carefully, the agony becoming even more unbearable with each incision. My vision had blurred and I could feel the warm rivers of blood flowing freely from my mouth. My screams seemed to come from some place far away. Through the film that misted my eyes I watched in horror as the pirate threw my flesh into the pot, wishing that unconsciousness would claim me. My face burnt with pain as I waited for whatever other torture he had in store for me.
By now I was expecting to be carved up, a feast for his men; there had been rumours of cannibalism in some of the stories that had reached my ears. Instead he took a bowl and ladled the disgusting concoction into it, slamming it down in front of me so that its greasy droplets sprayed my face. He filled a spoon and thrust it into my hand.
“Eat,” he ordered.
I stared down at what had once been a part of me. Those lips of mine which had once commanded, had tasted, had kissed and finally, had defied, swam in front of me.
“Eat” ordered Lowe again, this time holding the point of a dagger to my throat.
My hand trembled violently as I guided the spoon towards the remnants of my poor mouth. The bile was rising in my throat and I had to fight to prevent myself from gagging.
“Eat,” roared Lowe, losing all patience and forcing the spoon between my jaws. He clamped my mouth shut to prevent me spitting out its contents.
I could not chew. This was unclean, ungodly. I began to choke. Struggling and gasping I found another mouthful was being forced on me. And another, and another. I could not breathe, I could not see. I prayed that my ordeal would soon be over and that death would claim me. And so the darkness came, took me to another world where spirits walked, seeking their revenge.
Now the Captain is my guest, at my table. A table for one. I have kept the broth simmering for a long time. I have seasoned it with the suffering that he has inflicted, the pain he has caused. The salt comes from the tears of the innocent, spiced with the anger of the murdered, peppered with cries for justice. The stock that is the blood of his victims now boils with their anger.
“Cook,” he bellows into the darkness, furious that his meal is late. He does not know that I have driven the servants from his house although I think that he senses that he is – almost – alone.
I conjure up a fire in the hearth, its light explodes across the rooms, fiery tendrils writhing around Lowe’s seated figure. He turns towards the source of the heat, its intensity making him sweat. I watch as he notices the cauldron. Still he sits, he does not run.
I pick up the knife, its movement hypnotizing him as it floats ever nearer, its sharpness reflected tenfold by the fire. Still he sits, he does not run.
Then he speaks. “They say I am mad and so I must be if I see a knife before me but no hand to hold it. If I am mad then this is not real, just pretty illusion – that is all.” He smiles.
I pour him a cup of wine which he drinks without comment. The knife I move closer, closer, until it is kissing his lips. Now it is I who smile as I carve his flesh, laugh as I toss the extra ingredient into the pot. He is screaming now.
I put a bowl beneath him to catch the blood that drips down, the fear he sweats out. All this I will add to the pot. Now he tries to run but I do not let him. I? I should say we, all those he has wronged in life now place their hands on him, forcing him down. So still he sits, he cannot run.
I fill a bowl, a generous portion, and place it in front of him. Solicitously I select one of the choicest cuts and spear it with a fork. I let him savour the aroma, that heady smell of revenge … of death. Then I invite him to taste, ignore his aversion, push the meat between his teeth. He chokes. Other ghostly hands join in.
We feed him forkful after forkful, spoonful after spoonful, until even the bitter dregs have been swallowed and the pot lies empty. He sits quietly now, no breath, no movement. He has eaten his last meal and dined well. We clear the table, as all good hosts do and leave our guest, appetites sated.
Lips smile, lips kiss … lips kill.
A writer - I think that says it all.