By Stephen Thom
There was an ever-increasing flow of visitors to the stone house deep in the woods. Arrivals and departures were staggered. Arrivals usually appeared in the wee hours. There were always men on point at the edge of the woods, where the road turned off onto the dirt track. There were men stationed around Applecross. Men on the outskirts, the rural crofting towns: Ardheslaig, Ard Dubh.
The front and back rooms were full of stained mattresses, liquor bottles and used needles. The place reeked of weed and shit.
Turnbull ran the business. He brought in vast quantities of bulking agents. Dental anaesthetic, livestock wormers, rat poison. Drive up profits. They brought in something else at Sim's suggestion. Devil's breath, he called it. At first Turnbull was wary, but when he realised the potential there was no turning back.
Take what you want.
Sim was placed in charge of the couriers. They adapted cars, land rovers and vans. Floor concealments. Hidden compartments. False footwells. Dashboards. Side panels. Switch systems.
To a man, couriers were to shave and keep their hair conservatively short. Buttoned-up shirts and casual trousers: uniform that would attract as little attention as possible.
Sim told them: you drive. You adhere to speed limits. You book into your hotel rooms. You do not speak to anyone. You do not drink. You do not draw attention to yourselves.
He led by example. He took on plenty of runs himself. He liased with brokers and clients, forged relationships. He enjoyed the night drives, the freedom, the different destinations. For every big drop-off Turnbull closed off the hatch, loaded him with booze and opioids, and gave him free reign over the cells for the night. There were already two children. They had to spruce up the cells, which Turnbull hated.
I'm not running a fucking creche, he said.
Sim was still capricious. It amused Turnbull and scared the workers. Occasionally they found him down the hatch, crying in dark corners, asking to be taken home. He scrapped often; for arbitrary reasons, and often for no reason at all. He bit, gouged and scratched. Turnbull strung up two men who gave him a pasting one night. The workers took the digs after that.
He got too close to female clients. He stole underwear. They all knew he did weird things, out in the woods by himself. Turnbull kept him on a long leash.
Sim pushed for the tunnel extensions. He spraffed some bollocks about committing to an idea, giving yourself over to it wholly.
No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell, he said.
Turnbull remembered their maiden journey over the bleak north west Highland coast as the passageways spidered underground. He saw something unfolding and it scared and thrilled him. But as they found themselves retreating ever more into the subterranean paths, the cells, he found a safety in it. A world within a world.
Fucking savages, he remembered saying to Sim. Figures.
They weren't though, said Sim.
They dreamed of a new world.
A beginning. A foundation.
Early December, 1986. A thick white flurry filled the sky, and the woods and hills beyond were coated with snow. Bare trees lined the dirt track; skinny branches jutting out, as if someone had speared the trunks.
A single jeep twisted through the thin pathway amongst the woods, flakes swirling around them. Behind the vehicles, about a thousand yards past the turn-off from the road, three men lay dead in the white powder. They had been scalped.
In the front passenger seat, Paddy Reilly cracked the window. He flicked his fag. The jeep bumped. The doors shook. The wheels spritzed mud. He squinted out. It was dark. Sheet-black dark.
Tree-lines tore by. Crooked branches. The dirt track churned beneath. The view shifted. Trees thinned. A clearing ahead: a winding burn. Cars. A pathway. A large stone house.
He cracked the window down further. The jeep reeked. Six men. Six smokers. The trip crew/hatchet men: Jimmy Buchanan. Bobby Wright. Himself.
The Poles. He hadn't pinned the names down yet. They were vouched for and assigned at the Sighthill end. They'd been waiting in the Annabel's office. A fat, moustached guy drove: Kowalski. Two silent skinheads: Wójcik/Kowalczyk. Or the other way round.
They hit a rise and swung down. Reilly swigged from a bottle. He sweated. He leaned on the dashboard and scoped. Wipers scuzzed yellow-white slush. Something was unfolding in these woods. A small operation. Small, but expanding. News filtered back as they trailed Turnbull and Sim. Brutal stories. Weird tangents.
The jeep spluttered. The burn glistened between a white blanket below. Skeletal branches clawed at the windows. Kowalski pulled over. He killed the engine. They rustled in the dark. The Poles whispered. Reilly cracked the door and swung out. He rapped the window.
The men pulled ski masks over their heads and clambered down. Their feet punctured powdery clumps. Reilly rummaged in the back. He slid cloth from a stacked pile. Pistols. M14s. Pumps. He selected. He divvied up. His ski mask swung between them.
'Flank the house. Poles round the back. You all know the route. You all know the markers. The scouts have been over this. You should have the layout fucking memorised. Clean them out. Take them out. Been hunting these fucks for two years. Don't let me down now.'
Snow swirled. The Poles whispered. Reilly's ski mask swung.
'Shut it. Any pish and I cut your balls off.'
The Poles shut it. They shouldered their backpacks and guns. They descended, separating from the group, threading between trunks to move behind the broken stone building. They hugged the walls. Reilly scanned the clearing. The thatched roof of branches overhead expired and gave way to a curtain of flakes, a million stars in the sky. His own group pressed forward.
Three ski masks in line. Three figures cutting the night. They slid down a muddy incline and ducked down low behind the parked cars.
Reilly craned his neck and scoped the building. They heard movement: muddy schlepps, cracked twigs. Vague shadows. They heard the muffled thwumps of a silencer. Kowalski's masked face gestated from the dark. He urged them on. They hit the pathway, passed two skinny bodies. Stone fencing sprayed red.
Reilly felt tremors in his hands. Everything was quiet. The ski masks edged forward. It was a dream. It was an insidious dream that bled and bound their six disparate selves. Brought them to this ungodly plateau.
He stopped. Buchanan had paused in front of him. The trees rustled. Sounds: hissing. Scuffling.
Wright and Kowalski appeared. Masks turned. They dragged two scruffy men in tanktops. Their hands were clamped over the men's mouths. The men cried. Their eyes were wide. Wright groped. He twisted his gun round. The men thrashed. The silencer dull-popped twice.
Reilly gestured. They hit the ground en-masse. They elbow-crawled through snow. Stone walls loomed. Boarded windows. Toxic smells: a makeshift lab. Pass. A window further along. A shaft of light escaping through slats scored the undergrowth beneath. Reilly's face was drenched inside the mask.
Yammering inside. Bottle clinks. Guttural laughs. So close. Their gloved hands scraped at mushy dirt. Wójcik/Kowalczyk/whoever the fuck coughed. Reilly hissed. Chairs screeched inside. Bottles smashed. Buchanan swore. Reilly twisted round. He flapped a signal.
The entrance door flew open. Reilly aimed up. He rattled off rounds. A face exploded. Buchanan and Wright rushed the door. Shots drilled. The Poles spilled in after. Reilly followed. He shook. He struggled to control his bladder.
Horror scene: four tank-topped men on the floor. Heads caved in. Bone chips. Wild red spatter. Reilly tore his mask off. He dripped sweat. He sucked air, bent double, dry-heaved, and swore. He pulled himself up and shot Wójcik and Kowalczyk. Kowalski reeled. Reilly spat.
'I said shut it. I said no pish.'
Buchanan nudged the door. His mask dipped in the gap. Torch lights strafed the field. Shouting. Dogs barking. Buchanan wobbled.
'Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck... '
Reilly shrugged his backpack off. His slid crowbars over the floor. He pointed.
'Jimmy. The crates. Quick. Bobby. Snap the fuck out of it. You, fat fuck - the door.'
Kowalski hit the door. Buchanan and Wright hit the stacked wooden crates. Nailed planks. They worked quick. They wedged. Snapped. Heaved. Bingo.
Bundles. Bricks. Wax bags, folded and taped. Stamped.
Skag. Smack. Heroin.
They bagged up. They crammed. They shook out fresh bags and crammed more. They weighed themselves down. Buchanan floundered over a compartment rack full of glass vials.
'Fuck is this?' He hissed. Reilly turned from the window, clipped over and seized a vial, scanning the label.
'Scopolamine,' he breathed. 'Devil's breath. Fuck this shit. Stay away from it.'
Buchanan held his eyes as he stuffed bricks into his bag.
'A drug for motion sickness,' Reilly said, replacing the vial. 'But these amounts... once you get into amounts well over the therapeutic level, this is twisted stuff. Hallucinations. Trances. Removes a person's will. Makes them open to suggestion... receptive to doing anything. Fuck knows what's going on here. I knew it. I knew that wee fuck was sick.'
Buchanan's eyes widened. Dogs barked in the distance. Reilly paced off through the rooms, hugging the walls.
Layers of dust. Detritus, shit everywhere. Branches. Clothes. Bottles. Generators. Heaters. Portable stoves. Tools. He hit a back room full of filthy mattresses and drowsy, emaciated, feral-looking men. The floor was littered with candles, hypodermic needles, blackened spoons, bottle caps, foil, tie-offs and bloody cotton balls.
Another doorway at the far end. Branches and moonlight visible through the window boards. He walked between the rows of mattresses, aiming. The men looked up dozily at him with flushed, scabby faces and the silencer dull-popped repeatedly.
He paced back through to the front room, ignoring the tank-topped bodies. The dogs were closer. Torch light cut through the slats. The crew were swaying under heaving bags.
'Round the back,' Reilly growled. 'Spread out. Pick them off. Watch for Turnbull. Sim. They're mine.'
Crashes from the entrance. Three slavering rottweilers skidded into the room. Reilly seized a pump from Buchanan, paced forward and unloaded a chamber through the doorway. The crew backed out through the skag-pit, the bags cutting into their shoulders as they pounded past bloody mattresses, wraith-like bodies.
Reilly staggered out the front door over a mound of corpses, cursing. Snow moved in dense flurries and amongst the trees and darkness he saw glimpses of men in deer masks and then they were gone. Fear hit him. He rattled off wild, erratic shots, clung to the walls and made for the rear of the house.
Shadows moved amongst trunks and he caught a glimpse of a wooden visage. Antlers. He heard hurried footsteps. He pulled away from the stone wall and raced for the cover of the trees. More movement around: shifting shapes, a wild net of snow. He felt something explode in his right shoulder and stumbled.
Spots danced across his vision. His left hand slapped a trunk. His fingers gouged wet bark. He saw red puddles, red spray in the white blanket at his feet. His right arm would not move. The pain was excruciating. Strange lights dipped through the trees around him.
He rose, tripped and vomited. He spat and clung to a branch. His legs wobbled, his head pounded and his right arm flapped uselessly. Torchlight cut through the trees.
He ducked down and scrabbled through undergrowth. His shoulder felt like it was on fire. He pawed through muck and mush, hit a track, and ran.
Trees pressed close. The lights faded. Branches drew skewered calligraphy through the night. He lurched. His chest stung and his joints ached. He kicked through heavy foliage and waded through slushy snow, ankle-deep mud. He spat and shivered and swore. He wondered where Buchanan was. Where Wright was.
The trees thinned. He hit a steep slope and descended, swaying and skittering, loosening mini-rockslides. He fell. He scraped and gouged his arms. He pressed on. Ahead of him a slash of branches separated from the body of a trunk, ghostly and chimeric, and then he saw they were antlers. He saw the eye-holes and the fitted silencer and Sim shot him in the heart.
Snow whirled. Within a circle of trees Sim folded his lean frame over Reilly's own crumpled form and removed his deer mask. He pressed his face close to Reilly's lips as they bubbled blood and whispered it. has. my. whole. heart.
Turnbull appeared at the top of the slope. He removed his own deer mask and lifted Buchanan's scalp triumphantly. Sim watched him trip down the incline. He was shouting excitedly but his voice was whipped away in the wind and snow. Sim stood and shot him in the face.