Over the next two weeks, in celebration of Halloween and the new anthology The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, Tachyon and editor Ellen Datlow present excerpts from a selection of the volume’s horrifying tales.
Today’s selection comes from “The Thousand Cuts” by Ian Watson.
The Petrushka restaurant was a large dim cellar, with theirs the only table occupied. Ballets Russes murals writhed dimly on the walls: exotic ghosts.
As the waiter unloaded the chilled glasses of vodka, Don Kavanagh observed, “I don’t think Russian restaurants are very popular these days.”
“That’s why we came,” Hugh Carpenter said. “Bound to get a table.”
“Don’t blame me,” said the waiter. “I’m a Londoner, born and bred.”
“Maybe there’s a good sketch there,” suggested Martha Vine, who was the ugly sister of the team. “You know, restaurants run by the wrong sort of people. Such as an Eskimo Curry House… . Or, wait a minute, how about a slaughterhouse for vegetables. Wait, I’ve got it, protests at vegetable vivisection!”
Hugh dismissed the notion, and the waiter, with the same toss of his head. The whole sparkle of their TV show relied on cultivating a blind spot for the obvious.
“Not quite mad enough, darling.” He cocked his head. “What’s that?”
“A car backfiring.”
“That many times?”
“More like gunfire,” said Alison Samuels, shaking her impeccably cornrowed red hair. She was beauty to Martha’s beast.
“So it’s somebody gunning their engine.” Hugh grinned triumphantly. “Okay, where were we?”
Soon after, sounds of crashing and breakages, a woman’s scream, and incoherent shouting came from the upstairs vestibule of the Petrushka …
“This isn’t one of your practical jokes, is it, Hugh?” asked Martha anxiously. “Tape recorder upstairs? Is it?”
“No, it damn well… .”
At that moment, two brawny men wearing lumber jackets crowded down the stairs, thrusting the waiter, who was bleeding from the mouth, and the manager and his beige-blonde receptionist ahead of them. A third man stayed up top. All three were armed with machine guns.
“Stay where you are!” The armed man’s accent was southern Irish. “You three, get to a table and sit down!”
The manager, cashier, and waiter did so, quickly.
The momentary silence that followed was broken by the approaching wail of a police siren.
“I take it,” said Hugh loudly, “that we are all hostages in yet another bungled terrorist escapade?”
Out of the corner of his mouth, Don murmured, “Hush. You’re most likely to get murdered in the first few minutes. Then rapport starts building up. Just … meditate. Do nothing.”
“Zen and the art of being a hostage, eh?” Hugh whispered. He sat still as a Buddhist monk.
A police loudspeaker spoke, close by… .
“Don’t come any nearer!” cried the upstairs man. “We have hostages in here! We’ll kill them!”
Lumber jacket number two ran to the kitchen door and kicked it open… .
Hugh’s tongue moved inside her mouth. His finger traced the curve of her hip.
He pulled away instantly. He was naked. So was Alison. They were on the bed in his Chelsea flat. Outside was bright with June sunlight.
Alison gazed at Hugh, wide-eyed.
“But,” she managed to say.
“But we’re in the Petrushka, Alison… . I mean, correct me if I’m crazy, but I wasn’t aware that I’m subject to bouts of amnesia! I mean … how the hell did we get here? I mean, you can tell me, can’t you?”
“Hugh. I … I can’t tell you anything. We’re in the restaurant. Those IRA men are … at least … I suppose that’s what they were. But we aren’t. We’re here.”
Hugh sat up. Dumbly he stared at a newspaper lying on the yellow shag-piled carpet.
The headline was: Petrushka Siege Ends Peacefully.
He read the story, hardly understanding it. But he understood the accompanying photograph of himself with his arm wrapped round Alison’s shoulders, both of them grinning and waving.
“Just look at the date! June, the ninth. This is next week’s newspaper.”
“So we’re in the middle of next week.” Alison began to laugh hysterically, then with deliberate irony she slapped her own cheek. “I must remember this trick next time I visit the dentist’s… . Why can’t either of us remember a bloody thing?”
“I wish I could remember us making love.”
Alison started to dress.
“I always wanted us to get into bed,” Hugh went on. “It was one of my big ambitions. I suppose it still is! We must have been celebrating our freedom. Our release… .
“Gas,” he decided suddenly. “That’s it. They must have used some new kind of psychochemical to knock everybody unconscious or confuse us. This is a side effect.”
He studied the newspaper more carefully.
“Doesn’t say a thing about gas. It says the police talked the gunmen out. I suppose you can muzzle the press a little … no, this was all too public. The story has to be true as written.”
His telephone rang.
Hugh hurried naked into the next room to take the call.
For information on The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover by Josh Beatman.