By Julia August
Wednesday morning, eleven a.m. There’s an abstract depiction of hell splashed across the lobby. Nick looks once, sees immortal souls arrayed in burning torment, looks twice and realises it’s a tapestry, red blurring into yellow blurring into infernal murk. The symmetry is upsetting, like one screaming face flung endlessly between two fragmenting mirrors. “Can I take your coat?” the girl says. “I’ll show you down.”
He follows her down the spiral stairs. The lawyer’s waiting in a glassy boardroom set out with biscuits and grapes and a selection of different teabags. They exchange pleasantries. The safe deposit box sits square and grey and unassuming on the table. Nick moves towards it. “Oh, nice,” he says. He lifts out a gold mesh necklace strung with pearls. “Yes, I’d say Iraqi, quite old stuff… it’s family jewellery, you said?”
He’s not listening to the answer. It’s there. It’s the very first thing he laid eyes on. “Look at this,” he says, lifting out something that might look like a large animal’s incisor if you didn’t know any better. It’s mounted in silver; the chain is missing. The translucent tip is capped with silver too. An electric thrill quivers against Nick’s fingers. “It’s a tiger’s claw. Nineteenth century. They used to keep them as hunting trophies. You can’t sell it, of course. Endangered species.”
The lawyer’s just a bit too interested. Hurriedly Nick fishes out a thin black bracelet wound round with gold wire. “You can sell this, though. It’s elephant hair. In theory you can pluck it while the elephant’s still alive.”
He reaches for a pair of bright gold bangles with key-fastened catches. The hinges still work. He opens them and closes them, first one and then the other, then opens up his pad and makes a few notes. He hopes it looks convincing. He could be writing anything. “Yes, thank you,” he says, when someone offers him tea. He starts laying out the contents of the box across the table. “That would be very kind.”
“So how much do you think it’s worth?” the lawyer says. “All together.”
“Oh, not more than ten thousand. Fifteen at a push. There isn’t anything spectacular here. It’s only the family associations that make it interesting, I’m afraid. Although this might be diamond…” He gets out his loupe to inspect a ring. The lawyer all but holds his breath. Nick’s hand is as steady as his eye. “No,” he says, after a pregnant pause. “It’s zircon and garnet.”
The lawyer breathes again. Nick empties a knot of gold chains from a small red velvet bag and disentangles them with his pen. The girl puts a cup of tea by his elbow and waves the biscuits at him. “No, thanks,” Nick says.
He’s waiting for the lawyer to leave, as he does eventually, leaving the girl to sit by the glass door in profound boredom and peck at her phone. Nick glances around. A shallow chrome cabinet lined with pills dominates the wall in front of him. Light streams in through the two glazed sides of the boardroom that frame the red-eyed cranes peering over Lincoln’s Inn and in the distance the Shard vanishing into the clouds. All around, London’s concrete forests gleam.
Nick shakes his pen. He gets the box out of his satchel, opens it up, pulls out the replacement ink cartridge, swaps out the cartridges, and drops the box into his bag. The girl isn’t looking at all.
He makes notes on the contents of the safe deposit box as fast as possible, mostly without thinking about it. At twelve thirty precisely he leaves. On the way out he texts CU fri night and drops the phone in the nearest bin on his way to the South Bank for lunch.
Two nights ago. He’s in a bar. He’s not quite sober enough to be sure where and not quite drunk enough to leave. Whatever he’s drinking isn’t working. His hand stings where the frying pan spat fat at him earlier and the rest of him stings after talking to the latest divorce lawyer. Seize the moment! Dare to move on! Reach for the skies! Hah. Nick sucks at his burnt fingers. So much for real food. From now on it’s strictly ready meals and takeaway. He hasn’t had to cook in twenty years and he doesn’t aspire to start now.
A woman slides onto the stool beside him. “Can I get you another?”
Nick tips his empty glass from side to side. Fire fills up the monogrammed hollows like candlelight. “No,” he says.
He shifts on his stool, looks around for the barman. Behind the bar the mirror flashes unfamiliar eyes. Nick wants to hurl his glass at it. “Are you sure about that?” says the man on Nick’s other side. “What were you having?”
“Guinness,” Nick says, before he can think better of it. “Cheers.”
He leans on the bar. He’s trying to remember what his divorce lawyer said about the upcoming settlement, specifically how there is still no such thing as a no-fault divorce and Nick has already put himself very much at fault, but at the same time he feels the familiar flutter of wings inside his ribcage. He looks from the man to the woman. She must be his sister: same dark eyes, strong nose and down-curved mouth, same sturdy body, same accent. Her hair is tawnier; his moustache is lusher. Both coats cost far too much to be flung down in here.
A distant unease begins to percolate. “Do I know you?”
The brother grins. “Nick,” he says. “It is Nick, isn’t it? Let me get you that drink and then we’ll talk.”
Wednesday night. He’s asleep in the horrible flat near Clapham Junction that’s the only place he can afford these days. It smells of damp and dog hair and whatever downstairs made for dinner. There aren’t any blinds. He locked the cartridge box in the safe with his mother’s engagement ring and drank half a bottle of Co-Op whisky on his way to bed.
The tiger leaps out of the dark in a gush of rotting breath.
The bed judders and protests and Nick wakes up choking under half a tonne of undomesticated Panthera tigris tigris, a hot heartbeat drumming in his face. Beneath him the springs twist in his rented mattress like sprained sinews. He can’t breathe. His face is full of fur and muscle. A mountainous paw presses down on his shoulder, and flexes, and Nick lies very still. The fluorescent froth of the streetlit dark laps over him in unrelenting waves.
The tiger’s eyes blaze lamplike. What do you want, it says. Give me what you want, and the words bounce off Nick’s auditory ossicles and resonate from bone to trembling bone until his whole body shakes. He screws his hands up in his unpleasant polyester duvet cover. It’s all he can move. He’s terrified. He can’t even make his feet twitch.
He wants to shout. Already he sees the tiger opening up its jaws and feels the poisoned teeth crush his skull. It breathes on his face. Its breath burns. Give me what you want, it repeats. It digs its claws into Nick’s chest and he howls without sound and the feathers escaping upwards brush his bloody ribs as the tiger cracks him wide:
His whole stomach is an ache, a black aching hollow that deceives him into thinking it’s only ordinary hunger. He wants something more than he can describe. He wants to break free of the everyday where he goes the same way to the same work and sees the same people and comes back to the same man. It’s like being corralled by invisible walls. He’s trapped in a labyrinth he can’t even see and he can’t feel his way back to the exit because every turn only takes him deeper. There is no art to it. He’s running on preordained tracks like a train. The only way out is through.
Which is how he ended up alone, stuck in a squalid flat above a twenty-four-hour convenience store the cops raid twice a week for selling drugs. He used to be reckless. He used to think he could kick out for freedom and crawl home afterwards, sullied but satiated, until the next time the sense of being boxed in became too much. Now he’s used up all his second chances and he’s angry. He wants – the black ache says he wants – to burn the whole thing down.
The hot weight lessens. Nick lies gutted and gasping. He squeezes his eyes shut and presses his face into his pillows with a groan.
He must have fallen asleep. In the morning, in the shower, he checks gingerly for bruises. He’s brought more back from a night out, especially lately. Only his shoulder shows any signs of having been kneaded by a massive cat.
He feels lightheaded. His stomach spasms. All day he has to force himself to eat.
It takes Nick several pints to grasp why all this Guinness is being poured into him. He counts the hairs in the brother’s luxurious black moustache and in his head he’s taking someone’s clothes off, possibly his own. His brain’s a furnace. The condensed outline of his clasp blooms and gradually dissipates on each fresh glass.
There’s a dead aunt and an inheritance and a foundation. Somewhere there’s a safe deposit box. There’s an excruciatingly expensive law firm. Nick shares his opinion of lawyers. The brother agrees heartily: terrors, one and all. Nick presses his glass to his forehead and revels in how cool it feels. In the morning his hangover’s going to use his head as an anvil. He should cut back. He should stop picking up strangers in bars. That’s what Thabo said before he threw Nick out.
“So you’ll help us?” says the sister. “When you go to value what’s in the box this week?”
She starts talking about the foundation again. Nick doesn’t care about the foundation, or how the dead aunt left her millions and her thriving business and everything else she owned to it, or the truly sentimental value of the family jewellery in the box. He’s a bit unnerved, when he thinks about it, about how this pair identified him and tracked him down to this grotty bar, but he’s drunk enough by now not to think about it too much.
The brother leans on the bar. He’s rolled up his sleeves and his muscular brown forearms bring Michelangelo vividly to mind. “The thing is, Nick,” he says. “Everything in that box, my aunt’s lawyers are going to sell it for the foundation. Those are my grandmother’s necklaces in there. They weren’t my aunt’s to give away. They belonged to our family. I dread to think what my mother would have said.”
Nick tips his glass up. “You should talk to these lawyers. Might be sympathetic.”
“That’s not likely. You know lawyers. You’re our last hope.”
His voice is so rich it takes several minutes for the words to sink in. Nick unfocuses, confused. Already he feels the hammer taking aim at his temples. It’s going to be deadly. He might have to call in sick again. “What?”
“There’s one thing in there no one will miss. It’s very small. It’s worthless. They’ll probably have to destroy it anyway, but it means a lot to us. You could get that back, couldn’t you? Just for us, Nick?”
Nick blinks. Everything is swaying. “You want me to steal something for you?”
“It should never have been in that box,” the sister says sharply. “It’s not stealing if it’s ours anyway.”
“Nick, Nick,” says the brother, “Nick… let me get you another drink. Then we’ll talk money.”
Thursday night. Nick drinks the rest of the Co-Op whisky and waters the last tenant’s spider plant and sits up in the flat’s IKEA armchair until the wrong side of midnight’s come and gone. Sometimes he paces. He’s thinking about opening up the safe, and then he’s thinking about throwing the cartridge box down off Battersea Bridge, and then he’s thinking about paying off a couple of his most pressing credit card bills, although he didn’t really do it for the money. It wasn’t the Guinness or the brother’s moustache, either. It was one more kick at the rotten remnants of Nick’s life. He doesn’t know how he feels about that now. Mostly he feels numb and hollow and more than a little confused.
He closes his eyes, and opens them, and there it is: the tiger, lying like a monstrous housecat in Nick’s tiny sitting room, twitching its tail over its massive paws. The overhead spotlights fleck white around its eyes and dripping jaw. Nick grips his armchair until his hands cramp. He might be dreaming. He should be dreaming. Transfixed, he meets the tiger’s headlamp glare full on.
It yawns. Its teeth are yellow spears. Nick says, strained, “You again?”
It’s eyeing up his throat. He feels as tender as a newborn lamb. Maybe he’s hallucinating. Maybe Thabo’s right and delirium tremens is just around the corner. Maybe he shouldn’t have drunk all that whisky. He knows he shouldn’t have got involved in this to start with. If anyone finds out… if the lawyers for the aunt’s foundation ever realise what Nick took, his divorce will abruptly become the least of his problems.
He was mad to agree. He’s been mad for months. Maybe it’s the baneful influence of the frenzied stars, except they’re not stars, those scarlet pinpricks glittering through the unblinded glass, but lights strung up to ward the helicopters away from the building site across the street. The cranes crawl into heaven like Jacob’s ladder. Tonight they have an acid glare.
Nick tears his eyes away. Maybe this is what the tiger’s come for. Maybe it’s come to tell him to stop drinking and screwing up and proving Thabo should have listened to his mother. Maybe it’s here to teach Nick a lesson.
The tiger heaves itself up off the hairy carpet and digs its claws into the arms of Nick’s IKEA chair. Madly he tries to count how many claws there are. Fur brushes Nick’s white knuckles. He flinches. Deep in his bones, the tiger rumbles, What do you fear?
It swipes at him. The claws catch Nick’s jaw and drive him sideways, exploding pain across half his face. His skull splits open. He opens his mouth to yell:
That this is it. That he’s going to be stuck in this horrible flat on this horrible street forever. That he tore up his life and kicked down every door he could and it was all for nothing, because he will never find the way out. All he found was the centre of the maze. And now here he is, alone and angry and trapped more thoroughly than ever. He should have settled for what he had. At least that box was comfortable.
He’s dazed. He knows there’s blood running down his face, though he can’t see any of it on his hands or shirt cuffs. It might just be his heartbeat pounding in his ears, but he thinks he hears the tiger pad away.
Friday night. Nick hurries out of Waterloo and checks twice over his shoulder before ducking into the graffiti tunnel leading to the Vaults. Acetone lingers in the air. Two youths are spraying neon letters over a striped feline frame; they glance incuriously as Nick passes. He sees the tiger’s eye vanish with a shudder. It wasn’t there. He imagined it. And he’s early: he should have time for a drink.
Drinks in the Vaults come in plastic cups and the floor is sticky. Even these days it’s not Nick’s natural environment. Last time he came for something orgiastic with Thabo and the walls were bright with tulips. Today it’s done up for some science fiction festival, all flattened baubles and floating metallic nets, and a spatter of greyish white stains the high arched ceiling. It could be the night sky or mould or it could be a giant alien jerked off across it. The suspended cage with the cocktail bar isn’t open yet. Nick makes do.
He didn’t sleep and he’s been on fire all day. The tiger’s claw is burning a hole in his pocket. He can’t wait to get rid of it. When he inched it out of the cartridge box he saw several black seams had developed in the keratin; he sellotaped it into a tissue cocoon and decided not to think about it. The thing was only in Nick’s safe for two days. It couldn’t possibly have been affected by Nick’s rising damp so fast after all those years in the aunt’s defiantly non-temperature-controlled deposit box.
A hollow voice calls to a non-existent audience over the PA system. Nick empties his plastic cup and staggers away from the bar. He has an uncertain feeling he used to be steadier on his feet. He straightens his tie. He doesn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression.
But it’s only the woman waiting around the corner for him. “Oh,” Nick says blankly. He leans against the vivid arches and looks around. A train thunders overhead; the wall shakes beneath his shoulder. “Isn’t your brother coming?”
“No. Have you got it?”
Nick feels in his pockets. “Did you transfer the money? Let me check that first.”
The app takes forever to load. The internet is terrible down here. Nick almost gives up, because he wants to get rid of the claw more than he wants the money, but he planned this out in advance and if he deviates now he’ll lose it totally. Already he feels his grip on reality slipping. The sister clutches her huge black bag and glares at Nick until he says, “All right then,” and puts his phone away. “Pleasure doing business with you. Here you are.”
He drops the claw into the sister’s plump hand. He wants to back away, but it might look like he was fearful. He waits for her to dig through the tissue layers. “Are we done?”
She holds the claw up to what little light there is. Nick never wielded his loupe so fiercely. “What happened to it?” she says. She sounds outraged. “What did you do?”
The tiger came to me in my sleep. I gave it all I had left. “Nothing!”
“Then what is this? It wasn’t like this before! You’ve damaged it!”
“No, I haven’t! Don’t shout at me, madam. It’s not my fault.”
“If you knew,” she said, “if you had the slightest idea… Did it speak to you? Did you listen?”
“Did you feed it? Is that what happened?”
“Nothing you’re saying makes any sense,” Nick says, while the heat surges and subsides in the long hollows of his cheeks. “I gave you what you wanted. I think we’re done now. Goodnight!”
He shoves past her. He’s going to stride off in disgust, except the dangling tag of her bag catches his cufflinks and then something else catches the soft inside of his wrist. He swears and sucks his skin. The sister’s eyes are wide with horror. “That shouldn’t have happened,” she says in a low voice. “That really shouldn’t have happened. Of all the stupid things—”
Blood blossoms on Nick’s sleeve and salts his teeth. His head is lightening. “I should sue you for that. That’s assault.”
The sister rubs frantically at the claw. “What have you done?”
Nick sags against the graffitied wall. The dark develops crimson depths. He peers at his hands. For a moment there he thought he might have paws.
He can’t account for everything he’s feeling. He feels a tremor, and a rush, and an all-encompassing tidal roar of something like rage and something closer to liberation. It howls up through his central nervous system and seizes control of every sense and thought and trembling limb, and if he could do anything at all he’d tug his cheeks to check for fur. It’s filling up his skin. He feels bloated. Unfamiliar urges flash through his head, accompanied by emotions that were never his. The one thing he recognises is the ache he gave the tiger. Everything else is stolen. Everything else is a bright piece of someone else’s life.
His teeth are lengthening. “No,” he hears the sister say, “no, don’t–” but then the howl in his ears cuts off her mounting alarm. He’s moving. He’s shaking and pounding and tearing, over and over, until the wall runs red. He can’t remember anything except how hungry he is. When he last prowled the mangrove swamps, he battered boats from stem to stern and laughed at all the backwards-facing masks worn to confuse him. Dakshin Rai, the fishermen would pray, from the tiger save us, Dakshin Rai, and he would snap their necks between his jaws and gulp down salt blood instead of salt water. O save us, Dakshin Rai! And then the men and the beaters and the guns had come, inshallah, and cornered him and locked him away in a box in the hungry dark. Now at long last the box has broken open. Finally, he’s free.
The perfect clarity of that thought recalls Nick to himself for one crystalline moment. His chest heaves. He’s dripping. Inside him, the immortal tiger-shaped thing rubs against his bones and starves under his mottled skin.
The brother. His face occurs to Nick and the tiger simultaneously. I want him, Nick says.
The tiger agrees. Together, they set off into the concrete forest.
Julia August’s work has appeared in F&SF, Fantasy Magazine, The Dark, Unlikely Story’s The Journal of Unlikely Academia, the anthology Places We Fear To Tread and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter, j-august on Tumblr and j_august7 on Instagram. Find out more at juliaaugust.com.