Short Story: Mr. Cotter
Ian Phillips writes horror, science fiction and fantasy – in short story, novel and script formats.
His short short stories, ‘Monarch’ and ‘That which covers us’, were published in Brotherton’s Publishing e-magazine in January 2015 and eFiction magazine in February 2015, respectively, as well as being showcased on Popcorn Horror. Brotherton’s publishing will also be showing the continuation of ‘Monarch’, ‘Red Queen’. His brother, Dorian Phillips, is writing a TV script for ‘Mr Cotter”. Dragunov’s last performance’ was published this November in Heater magazine and is currently available on Amazon.
You can find out more about his work on Wattpad.
MARTA SOBOLEWSKA was buying her weekly bread from her local Polish bakery when she spotted the lines of police cars and crowds of onlookers gathered outside the opposite apartment block. She managed to pass through the crowd and reach the point of the police tape.
‘Jumper,’ said a large-chinned elderly lady. ‘When I saw him hit the sidewalk, I nearly dropped my groceries.’
‘They know why?’
‘No! I just got talking with his super. Crapping money and living like a wino.’
‘That’s not a reason, not to —’
‘Not to what?’ asked the old lady, too fixated with the body getting zipped up.
Marta caught the dead eyes of the man she remembered from the local writers’ group she attended several years ago. He was a tense, skinny guy who worked his ass off while living on beans and hope. She tried to recall his name. Bill? Chuck? Steve?
‘Super said he’d graffitied a load of looney-house stuff about payment all across his apartment walls. Hell of a shame,’ said the old lady.
The pool of blood, where the man had hit the sidewalk, formed a sharp nose and poured down a drain. Looking down at her open-toed sandals, Marta noticed she was standing near a couple of knocked-out teeth.
‘Say, you know him?’ asked the old lady.
‘No,’ said Marta, ‘I thought I did.’
Back at her apartment, two blocks away, she recited the ‘Eternal rest’ prayer she’d learnt at her Catholic school and drank a shot of vodka. She scooped up the letters on the doormat, opened them, and screwed her nose up at the numbers on her utility bills.
In the shower, she wished the bills would wash away down the plughole. Whilst drying herself, she noted that her dark, matted hair needed a trip to the salon. A flash of her coffee-stained teeth in the mirror signaled she needed a better brand of toothpaste.
‘Prosperity,’ she murmured to her reflection in the mirror.
Her mother’s opinion pecked away at Marta’s dream. ‘Whatever makes you happy, just such a shame that a woman of your age still needs handouts.’
Tyler, her last boyfriend, was supportive. With Tyler, Marta’s shaved, shapely legs presented themselves in a party dress. With Tyler, she was dined by candlelight, with fawning, handsome waiters at her beck and call. She felt loved, cared for, never feeling empty.
But Tyler neither understood the time nor the effort that went into writing. After finishing her first draft, Tyler would ask when Marta would be sending it to the publishers. Marta laughed too hard, pointing out that there would be several proof readings and redrafts before that stage would even occur; patient as he was, they lasted five months – her longest relationship, ever.
Her father had understood – far more than any other man had in her life. He knew her need, a need more powerful than the need for sex or food. He nurtured and respected it. She loved him for that, realizing, early in life, that no man could fill tato’s giant shoes.
She met ‘Sweaty’ Steve Haycrock of Gatehouse Publishing at a book signing of her favorite thriller writer, Vic Broadside. She never knew if it was curiosity or her tight dress that made him approach her. His body odor hit Marta hard in the nose, accompanied by a handshake that felt like a dead frog. Sweaty Steve’s publishing house had been doing well.
‘Shitting on the other publishers, even in the downturn,’ as Steve had put it.
He suggested that Marta post him a few chapters of her novel, House of Knives. She did so that week. Two days later, Marta received a one-sentence letter back: ‘We like it, Sweets.’
Normally, she would’ve kicked any man calling her ‘Sweets’ in the balls. But, that same night, she could have kissed him as she danced alone across her bean-stained carpet in torn socks.
The next six months meant the completion of the chapters. Steve’s emails had been up to five a day. Some changes were too hard for Marta: like deleting her favorite chapters.
You want your name on the billboards, don’t you, Sweets?
As she killed her darlings, she felt her father’s smile in the photograph turn into disappointment. In Sweaty Steve’s words, ‘Show no mercy – keep it bleak, and keep it short.’ Transposing these principles to her manuscript, she finished her 80,000 words of prose that made Portrait of a Lady feel like a playful, lighthearted read.
The vodka came out of the locked cupboard as soon as the manuscript had been posted. After three, burning shots down her throat, her melancholy slipped away. Marta’s dreams that night consisted of her naked thighs wrapped around Tyler’s waist and his kisses gracing her naked body. She felt herself climaxing under his relentless thrusts.
When she woke in the morning, her lips were still moist with the word ‘Kohanie’.
The tension returned, though, as did further bills. Nothing had arrived from her publishers.
Two days later, Georgina McCabe, Sweaty Steve’s PA, phoned to tell her that the manuscript hadn’t arrived yet.
‘Email?’ Marta proposed.
‘Stevo likes a hard copy. That’s Gatehouse policy, you know?’
Marta promised Georgina that she’d catch the next post.
The envelope arrived through Marta’s letter box a week later. She opened it carefully, and spotted the folded front page of her manuscript. What she couldn’t believe was the slip of paper tucked in the folded page. She inspected it, but shook her head. She put in back in the envelope. She took a shower to wake herself up and looked at the slip of paper again.
It was there.
She made some breakfast with some sausages and eggs. She opened the envelope again.
It was still there.
She sat down and then read it again: a check for $10,000 made out to her. The signatory’s name, A Cotter, she didn’t recognize.
She phoned up Gatehouse. Georgina told Marta that Steve was out on business and would be for the remainder of the week.
‘Steve passed your manuscript to me while he’s away. Good job! The best I’ve read in a while. Good use of atmosphere,’ said Georgina.
‘I’d like to thank him for the check – very generous,’ said Marta.
‘Check? Marta, this is your first novel, so I understand why you don’t know our processes. It’s way too early for an advance on your novel.’
‘So when do I get an advance?’
‘Once we send you the contract and you sign and return it. The check most definitely isn’t from us. How big is it?’
‘Ten thousand dollars.’
Georgina took a sharp intake of breath. ‘What? Ten K? We’ve never paid out that much as an advance. You have a guardian angel, lady.’
‘The check came from an A. Cotter. He’s not based at your office?’
‘I’ll get the staff directory. There’s a Billy Chung in graphic design, nobody else. Sorry. That’s a big chunk of money, you lucky girl. You won’t need an advance from us.’
‘Could you have passed the manuscript to Cotter?’
‘What are you trying to imply, young lady? We don’t send out manuscripts to any Joe off the street. He’s doesn’t work here. We don’t know him. Is that all?’
‘Sorry, you’ve been a great help, Georgina. Send my regards to Steve.’ Marta put the phone down.
The check lay on her bedside table for several days. Unable to touch it, she became worried that it might disappear into a puff of smoke.
‘It’s just money’, she thought. She expected a letter, informing her of some hideous bureaucratic error. Even so, the cascade of final demand letters arrived with a heart-stopping smack on her doormat.
She paid in the check.
On the way back from the bank, she noticed the front-page spread at the newspaper stand. Vic Broadside had gassed himself in his car. The entry detailed his meteoric rise from a struggling writer on social security to a multi-millionaire within three years of publishing his first novel, then, the last couple of years of substance abuse, sleeping rough, and institutions.
‘Hell of a shame,’ said a voice.
Marta recognized the big-chinned old lady scrutinizing the newspaper article.
‘All that money and no marbles,’ said the woman talking to the stand owner.
Marta, reluctant to listen to the woman’s gloating, left the newspaper stand – fast.
‘Told you, even third-generation Poles get a break,’ said Marta’s mother over the phone. ‘Let’s face it, after all you’ve been through, you deserve it.’
‘Why do I deserve it? Someone I don’t know gave me a whole load of money,’ replied Marta.
‘Then it’s from a benefactor, wonderful. Some loaded guy took an interest in your work. Does it even matter? That check didn’t bounce, right?’
Marta let the sigh of disgust blow out over the phone. ‘It matters, and it cleared.’
‘Your father always said that you thought too much.’
‘And that you thought too little,’ said Marta, regretting the cheap shot almost immediately.
Her mother paused but didn’t retaliate. ‘I’ll let you think this one over. Call me tomorrow, OK?’
‘You won’t do anything stupid, will you?’
Marta caught a glimpse of her father’s photograph, his toothy grin smiling at her across grief and death. ‘Of course not.’
After putting the phone down, Marta didn’t do anything stupid – for at least two minutes. She rushed over to the week-old garbage. She sifted through snotty tissues, and orange rind. Her benefactor’s envelope was stuck against a teabag. She could just about read the ink-run return address: Fourth floor, Apartment 41, Crown Heights, South East. She kissed her father’s photograph, put on her nice, sensible shoes and summer jacket.
She was at the bus station just shy of ten minutes.
‘Number 24 is what you need, honey,’ said the seasoned ticket collector at the station. She pointed at the bus stop. ‘Carlos is your guy.’
When she reached the bus stop, the 24 bus was pulling in. She saw the Hispanic-looking driver, who she registered as Carlos, beam at her.
‘Crown Heights,’ she said. ‘The South Side.’
‘We go some of the way,’ said Carlos, looking down at Marta’s shoes.
Marta paid the fare and sat down. The bus waited for a few minutes. No one got on. She could see Carlos quick glance at her in the rear-view mirror. The bus left the depot and passed through the old-quarter, where they built the housing project, Redwall Village.
The local authority report deemed the Village ‘Not fit for human habitation’. The apartments soon filled up, though. There was a steady stream of people needing work, happy with minimum wage – and even a few dollars below that.
Her mother had called the place That Area, and it remained That Area, even when the nearby factories closed and moved to the cheaper part of the country. Social security wasn’t an option any more, but a necessity.
Marta recalled her old friend Sarah, whose policeman husband used to be on the night patrol down the Village. The night he got stabbed, Marta accompanied Sarah to the hospital. He recovered. But Sarah made him transfer out to another unit. No more units ever went in. The Village stayed an ulcer, bleeding its misery at anyone with enough chutzpah to prod it.
The bus stopped. Outside the bus was a closed bar called The Smiling Man.
Carlos looked at her with an apologetic smile. ‘You get off here, lady.’
‘It says on the timetable that you carry on for another two stops.’
‘The timetables don’t mean shit. The bus stops here.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Lady, we can go back to the depot or you can get off. There’ll be another one to pick you up in about three hours – I’ll be on it.’
Marta looked out of the bus window at the boarded-up buildings and the plastic bags blowing on the street outside.
Too far to chicken out, now.
She decided to get off. When she reached the bus doors, Carlos looked at her with a guilt-ridden smile. ‘The place you want is thirty minutes’ walk from here. Just keep going straight, and you’ll see signs directing you there.’
Marta nodded and felt a shiver as she stepped off the bus.
‘Lady, I lost two buddies out here – stabbings. I got family, you know? Sorry.’
Marta watched the bus doors close. Then, the bus turned around and drove off.
She studied the illustration on the sign that flapped in the wind above the Smiling Man bar, a grinning, obese creature. The creature’s large hands were out of proportion with rest of its grotesque frame. The detail of its gray hair, which partly covered its body, made it lifelike – and obscene.
She started walking.
In doorways of long-closed buildings, people slept in ammonia-reeking bundles of blankets. Outside a derelict cinema, a shifting black mass under plastic bags reminded Marta of a termite’s nest. She couldn’t resist a look. She moved the bags aside with her heel, revealing a hairless, dead dog. Its pulsating belly was giving birth to a greedy, white group of maggots.
She held in her scream.
Marta stopped a Polish woman for directions when she doubted herself. Speaking in Marta’s ancestral tongue, they managed to hold a conversation. The woman kept repeating the same noun ‘garbage dump’, but refused to take her there. Marta forced a smile and walked on.
A bum stopped and commented on how nice her shoes were. He introduced himself as Matchead. A little guy, overdressed in black. He smelt bad, not of the fecal-urine smell that Marta had been used to on the street – something worse. ‘Something sweet mixed with poison,’ as her mother once described. Matchead lived in one of the boarded-up houses, which had offended Marta’s eyes.
He claimed to know Cotter.
‘I’ll walk you there,’ said Matchead. ‘Follow the route you’re going on and they’ll find bits of you floating down-river.’
With no choice, she agreed. He led her onto a narrow street.
‘So why are you seeing Cotter?’ asked Matchead.
‘He gave me money,’ replied Marta.
‘He’s always giving out money,’ said Matchead. ‘Why are you seeing him?’
‘To thank him.’
Matchead glared at her and he started to laugh. ‘Like it’s for free?’
Marta was too frightened to reply. Matchead guided her through the network of alleyways. Cats ate from bins, and rats, not much smaller than the cats, darted in front of her through puddles. She now understood why such a world would not let buses through or why shaky graffiti would replace road signs. This Village’s borders were formed from its suffering, derelict housing and rotting human waste.
After a while, Matchead stopped. He pointed to a tower block, which Marta registered as Crown Heights, standing defiant amid a cluster of demolished buildings. It reminded Marta of a single hair on a bald pate. Marta guessed it to be at least 20 stories high. There was a brown tinge to the paintwork, which Marta thought was due to pollution. To the left of the tower block, stood a large garbage dump, itself as high as the first two stories, where ravens swooped in for a free meal.
‘All I wanted to do was write poetry,’ said Matchead. ‘He offered prosperity and who would refuse? Nice house, nice life – what more could you want?’
Matchead unbuttoned his shirt, unleashing scarred skin. She noticed the tattoo on his top-left shoulder.
‘Matchead is what the doctors and the nurses called me behind my back – after all the efforts to purge myself with flames. But, all I wanted is to have peace when I close my eyes.’
Marta tried to hide her shaking. ‘Can I get you help?’
‘Help is for those who haven’t promised.’ Matchead pointed towards Crown Heights. ‘Better go to him,’ said Matchead. ‘He might be waiting.’
There was a tiny park just outside Crown Heights, which Marta entered. The grass was well kept, with an abundance of garbage decorating the trees and swirling in the pond. A young kid, about ten, was carving some lettering on a stumpy tree. He noticed Marta, a strange creature out of her normal habitat.
‘You need the super?’ asked the kid. ‘That’s my mom. She’s in the back of the office, through the main doors,’ he pointed.
Before entering the main double doors, Marta noted someone had carved Non timete quid furto. Paveatis de donum. in the wood of the door. There was no sign of anyone at the reception desk.
‘Hello?’ called Marta.
A middle-aged woman arrived from the back room chewing on a sandwich. ‘Sorry, bit busy back there.’
‘Yes, your son said.’
‘Is he still outside? I told him to finish up on his homework.’
Marta nodded. ‘I’m here for ─’
‘Cotter? It’s always for Cotter. Fourth floor, Number 41,’ she said. ‘You family?’
‘No. Do I look anything like him?’
‘Don’t know, never seen him. You might, though.’
‘Might,’ echoed the super and returned to the back room of the office.
Marta tackled the first flight of stairs with vigor, the second less so and, by the time she reached the fourth, she coughed and spluttered. At the top of the fourth-floor stairwell, sat a man, proud as a king, whiskey bottle in hand, blocking the staircase.
‘Seeing Cotter?’ he asked.
She nodded, breathing heavily.
‘Number 41,’ said the man. The man stood, allowing her entry. He attempted to suppress a burp, but still gave her a blast of whiskey fumes as she passed.
‘Long journey?’ asked the man, seeing the tiredness in Marta’s eyes.
‘Difficult to find this place,’ said Marta managing a smile.
The man shook his head. ‘This place finds you.’
Marta turned and saw, at the far end of the corridor, the faded lettering of apartment Number 41. Above the Number 41 was the same Latin sentence scratched into the woodwork as on the main entrance. She reached the door and knocked. She waited ten seconds and tried again, this time more boldly. An adjacent apartment door opened. A woman, with eyes like a scared rabbit, peered at Marta through a chained doorway.
‘Sometimes, he don’t answer. He’s always busy-busy and lots of people in and out,’ said the woman shaking.
Marta caught sight of an obese, grotesque creature tattooed on the left, needle-marked arm of the woman. She recognized the same creature depicted on the sign of the Grinning Man bar.
‘Just need a few minutes – to thank him,’ said Marta, unable to hide her disgust.
‘A few minutes can last a lifetime,’ said the frightened woman, slamming the door shut in Marta’s face.
Marta wanted to leave. There was an aching feeling in her legs. There was also an urgent need to pee. But she kept hearing her father say, ‘Give it a shot.’
She knocked again.
‘Yes,’ came a distant, croaked reply.
‘Mr. Cotter,’ said Marta. ‘You sent me a check.’
She heard heavy footsteps coming closer to the other side of the door. There was a coughing noise accompanied by the sound of fingernails scratching on hardwood.
Marta continued, ‘Your gift will help me so much. I don’t know why you did it, but I’m so grateful.’
There was no sound.
‘Could you open the door? I just wanted to thank you.’
There was a small, low-pitched chuckle. ‘I’m sure you’ll thank me one day, kohanie, they always do. At the moment, I have a visitor. Oh, by the way it’s in my mailbox.’
Marta took a step back and viewed Cotter’s mailbox. She opened the top flap and stuck her hand inside. Marta felt a damp wad of paper. She pulled it out, recognizing her manuscript’s title, House of Knives.
‘Your main strength is your description, particularly the vivid death of a Polish patriarch,’ wheezed Cotter. ‘I foresee a long career, blessed with success.’
She heard the same heavy footsteps walk away from the door and a different, muffled voice from deep inside the apartment; it sounded like a woman.
‘There, there,’ said Cotter in a voice trying very hard to be soothing.
Marta then heard a sharp, feminine scream.
She wanted to knock again but thought better of it, making her way back to the stairwell.
‘Talkative guy, ain’t he?’ said the man, letting Marta pass.
Marta started climbing down the stairs but turned in frustration at the man. She wanted to speak, but words were wiped from her tongue.
The man studied Marta’s face. ‘The question you need to ask yourself is: do I deserve it?’
‘Who are you?’
The man shrugged his shoulders. ‘I just monitor who goes in and who goes out – when they do come out.’
Marta noticed drops of blood on her manuscript and realized that her nose was bleeding. She pulled out an old tissue from her coat and wiped her nose.
‘It’s official then,’ said the man pointing at the manuscript. ‘Prosperity.’
She managed, holding onto the handrail, to reach the bottom floor.
‘Safe journey,’ hollered the man down the stairwell. ‘Congratulations.’
She couldn’t look up. She couldn’t breathe. She pushed her way out of the main entrance, gasping for air. The kid was still carving on the tree in the park. Marta recognized the lettering from Cotter’s door and in the main entrance. There was an aching feeling in her left arm as if someone had dug a blade in her shoulder. Her legs felt weak, and she rested on a park bench, watching the kid carve his inscription.
The kid took a sideways’ glance at Marta. ‘Won’t tell my mom, will you?’
Marta shook her head. ‘She’s looking for you.’
‘I’m finishing up. You know, ever since my mom got a job here, I just want to scratch the Latin everywhere, just can’t help it.’
‘What does that mean?’ asked Marta, pointing at the inscription.
‘We learnt it in class. Got a good teacher, now that mom’s got more money.’
The kid could see the anxiety build in Marta’s eyes. ‘It’s ‘‘No fear from what he takes. Fear for what he gives.’’’
Marta heard tapping on glass. The kid pointed to a window four floors up. She viewed a large hand with enormous fingernails tapping on the windowpane. The digits covered the entire height of the window. She was grateful that no face was visible as the hand slid back behind a curtain.
‘Been visiting him?’ asked the kid.
‘Thought so, he always waves his visitors goodbye.’
Out of the same window, Marta saw several large objects fall out, hitting the mound of trash. Ravens swooped down, tearing red strips out of the tasty offering.
‘What are they feeding on?’ asked Marta.
‘Whatever he’s finished with,’ replied the kid.
The ravens glared back at Marta, red beaks glistening in the dying sunlight, creatures driven by base needs, not ambition. For a brief moment, Marta felt envy.
Her aching shoulder made her prize aside her jacket and T-shirt. She saw the fresh, new Cotter-tattoo etched in her skin smiling back at her.
The manuscript looked soiled and smelt of sulfur. Her grip on the wad of paper loosened, slipping out of her fingers and onto the grass.
‘Can I use your phone?’ asked Marta.
‘Sure, are you OK?’ asked the kid.
‘Don’t know. I’m kind of tired. I need to call a taxi.’
‘It’ll be expensive, better off with the bus.’
‘It’s OK,’ she said to the kid, with a sick laugh. ‘I’ve just been paid.’