On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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It had been a long day already, and it was barely the middle of the afternoon.
His name was Kevin, he was nineteen years old, and at this particular moment in time, he was employed as what was optimistically known as a charity outreach agent. His job was to patrol the streets of the town centre during the day, stopping passers-by and soliciting them to make donations to specific good causes, for which he obtained a very, very small commission.
It was awful work, but Kevin was in his second year of an undergraduate degree in facilities management and hospitality, and it was either this, answering phones, or delivering food. Kevin had no means of transport, and at least this way he’d be outside.
Given the gradual disappearance of the retail high street due to online shopping, Kevin’s bosses has recently promoted him to door-to-door work. This was not, in fact, a promotion, but rather just a way of making his job harder. People were unpleasant enough when you got in their way while they were trying to go somewhere or do something, but they were doubly so when you approached them in their own homes. He’d had many a curt response, a curse, and a door-slam. But it was a job.
This house looked the same as all the others in this affluent neighbourhood, though maybe even more tidy on the outside than usual. Everything was in a good state of repair, the driveway he’d just walked up was clean and clear, and the whole front area was paved, with no grass or even a plant pot in view. Kevin assumed it was a rich single man’s house, because even the windows had blinds mostly drawn, with nothing on the sills. There was a number but no name on the wall just beside the door, and there was also one of those video doorbells.
His heart sank a little. People with video doorbells tended not to answer at all, and honestly he couldn’t blame them — but he was behind on his quota for the day, and there weren’t many hours left before dark. The last thing he wanted was to still be traipsing around here after dinner time, so he plastered on a smile and approached the anonymous-looking house. Kevin was just about to press the button below the camera lens when he heard the nearby garage door begin to rumble upwards. A moment later, a man appeared.
He was of medium height, with short dark hair, and nondescript dark-coloured clothes, and he didn’t seem at all surprised to see Kevin at his front door.
“I’m just heading out,” the man said. “I expect you hear that a lot, but it’s true in this case.”
Kevin nodded and smiled, grateful at least for the acknowledgement, and he was about to turn and leave when he saw that the man was holding a small and technical-looking bag which he recognised immediately.
“Photographer?” Kevin said, with a nod towards the bag and another small smile, and the man gave him a thoughtful look that wasn’t quite a confirmation, but nor was it a denial.
“A hobby of yours too?” the man asked instead, and Kevin shook his head quickly.
“My dad,” he replied. “I just recognised the kind of bag. Loads of compartments.”
The thoughtful look came back, and then the man did actually smile — but there was something in it that Kevin didn’t entirely like; a certain detachment, or something like that.
“It’s fair to say I don’t often talk about my work,” the man said, “but I can’t see how it could possibly have any consequences here. People don’t really listen to the young, do they? And you’re still young, given you’re doing this sort of job.”
The man set his bag down, then folded his arms.
“You’re one of these people who wants me to donate every month to the dog shelter, or cystic fibrosis research, or to sponsor an African child or some such thing, yes?”
Kevin nodded mutely, uneasy now, and already thinking that he should perhaps have just left instead of remarking on the man’s camera bag. But the man was speaking again.
“A modern-day highwayman of pseudo-altruism. A privilege-offsetter. A charity mugger. A chugger, if you will.”
Kevin decided to just leave after all, and he turned to do so, but he stopped when the man pulled a small but serious-looking handgun from his bag.
“The thing is, young master chugger, my work doesn’t involve as much photography as you think.” He hid the gun away again almost immediately, but Kevin remained rooted to the spot.
“You’re paid a pittance whenever someone gives a few banknotes per month to a women’s shelter, or to fund new schools in rural India, or to keep safe what few lemurs we have left. I, on the other hand, am paid a great deal of money whenever someone wants someone else to no longer be alive.”
Kevin was silently sweating now, and he very much wanted to glance around for a source of help, but a part of him that been asleep for his entire life up until this moment pointed out that the man wouldn’t have shown the gun if there was anyone else around to see or hear. Kevin also knew instinctively that drawing any attention to oneself was likely to be a fatal mistake when confronted with a predator.
“Don’t misunderstand me, young chugger-my-lad,” the man continued, now with a bright and almost fatherly smile that made Kevin instantly feel sick to his stomach, “I’m not going to harm you one bit. Because we both know you’re not going to say anything to anyone. If you did, I’d find you very quickly and easily. And no-one really does listen to the young, isn’t that right?”
Kevin just nodded, not knowing which part he was agreeing with, but more than willing to agree with all of it simultaneously. “Yes, sir,” he said, and the man looked like he might laugh for a moment.
“I’m afraid I won’t be supporting the orphans of Ethiopia today, or AIDS relief efforts, or rebuilding homes destroyed by hurricanes,” the man said, dark humour visible in his eyes and clear in his voice. “But you can go on your way knowing one thing with certainty, my chugger friend.”
The man leaned in slightly, and Kevin’s pulse quickened even further, but the man’s face was earnest and even kindly now.
“You and I are both doing good in this world,” he said.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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