The word seemed to be stuck in his mind like a splinter in flesh.
He repeated the word aloud to himself. There was still five minutes and the story he needed had yet to be phoned through to the office.
Roger Galloway looked at his watch then across at the office wall clock.
Another five minutes and he'd have lost the story. He gazed at the VDU screen before him.
The word was synonymous with Fleet Street. A cliché in itself. But Galloway was the editor of the biggest selling tabloid newspaper in the country. Cliché were his bread and butter. He reached for the phone.
The hand erupted from beneath the desk, punching its way through the wood, flailing fingers reaching for the editor's wrist and quickly closing around it.
Galloway screamed and fell backwards from his seat and, as he did, the arm came with him. It had been severed at the shoulder but still those bony fingers held him like a vice. He could see veins and arteries through the peeling skin, the blood vessels throbbing like engorged leeches, replete with corruption.
The stench filled his nostrils as he tried to pull loose, his other hand flapping uselessly at the VDU screen, touching the surface.
The screen opened like a mouth.
And, as the top and bottom slid open like lips he felt an unbearable heat envelope his hand and arm as the screen sucked him in., His fingers closed around something warm.
Something which moved.
Writhing insanely inside the mouth of the screen were thousands of maggots. They covered his hand and spilled onto the keyboard.
And woke up.
He was propelled from the nightmare by his own rapid breathing. The editor sat bolt upright in bed, his body drenched in sweat. He blinked myopically, looking around him in the darkness of his room, his breathing gradually slowing down. He looked at his wrist, as if expecting to see the marks left by the bony claw.
He'd had the same nightmare for the past two nights. It always came when he was under stress. Always the same images. He knew there was only one way to calm his nerves.
Just one whiskey he told himself, climbing out of bed and padding across the room towards the landing, towards the stairs.
He was about half way down when he heard the noise from below.
If sounded as if an ornament had been knocked over.
The crash was followed by silence.
The editor gripped the banister as if to reassure himself he wasn't still dreaming. The wood felt cold beneath his clammy grip. This was no dream. He was wide-awake.
And now he heard movement from below.
For long seconds he pondered what to do. If he went downstairs to investigate, there was no telling what he might find. There could be more than one burglar. They could be armed. But if Galloway went back upstairs and rang the police, what guarantee did he have that they'd arrive in time? What if the intruder decided to check out the upper storey of the house?
Overcome by a sudden attack of heroism he noticed that there was a particularly thick walking stick in the umbrella stand at the bottom of the stairs. It would make a useful weapon. He edged down the remaining stairs, listening for any other sounds. His eyes never leaving the sitting room door, expecting it to open at any second.
He could still hear muffled sounds of movement from inside, but more furtive now, as if the intruder realised he'd been discovered.
Galloway seized the walking stick and hefted it before him. It was reassuringly heavy.
He gritted his teeth, pushed open the sitting room door and stepped in, hand slapping at the light.
The figure had its back to him as he entered.
"Right, you," shouted Galloway, his fear having given way to anger.
The figure turned slowly and looked at him.
Galloway froze. His body seemed to stiffen but, as it did, he felt the massive, crushing pain in his chest, a pain which spread rapidly to his left arm. He dropped the walking stick, the pain spreading up one side of his neck, growing more intense.
White lights danced before his eyes and his mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
The figure moved towards him.
Vic Bradley lit up a cigarette and inhaled. He'd worked for the Daily Mercury for fifteen years and, for every one of those years he'd smoked two packets a day. It was almost a ritual with him, one which he know the man sitting opposite him disapproved of but one which he could not discard.
Frank Dean was in his early forties but looked ten years younger. He had bought the paper and also taken on the role of senior editor just over six months ago but, after initially good sales, The Mercury had been steadily losing readers. There was a circulation war on and, it seemed, The Mercury, was short of ammunition.
"I'm not going to beat about the bush," said Dean. "I'm not happy with these falling circulation figures.
We're now third and that's good enough. The other papers are coming up with exclusives."
"You mean they lie more convincingly than we do?" Bradley offered.
"If you can't get facts, make them up. The public don't care about truth they just want a good story. After all, you're journalists not writers."
"Perhaps we're pitching our stories too high," Bradley said. "After all, who wants to read about a hijack when they read about how much taxpayers money Lady Di spends on manicures and facials."
"You're trivialising things, Mr Bradley," Dean told him. "I'll tell you what's missing from this paper. The incentive to buy it. The man on the street looks at The Mercury and then at our rivals and he wonders why he should buy our paper instead of theirs. He needs an incentive."
"Like what?" asked Bradley.
"Other newspapers offer millions of pounds in bingo prizes," Dean began. "What we need is a competition with a difference. A prize money can't buy."
"You accuse me of trivialising matters and then tell me that the way to make this paper top again is with competitions? What kind of prize did you have in mind, Frank?" Bradley enquired.
"We start with something simple, then work our way up to the big one," Dean informed him. "I said a prize that money can't buy. What about life itself? Our first competition will be to send the winner to Lourdes. We scour childrens hospitals around the country, find a couple of kids who are dying, preferably from cancer because it's more emotive. Then, we send them to Lourdes. They come back cured. The Mercury is then looked upon as both generous and caring."
"How the hell can we be sure they come back cured?"
"Because they won't have the disease before they go. We pay a doctor to examine two kids and tell everyone they're terminally ill then, when they return, we get an independent doctor to examine the and he can tell the waiting masses that the little darlings are now completely cured."
"But what's the competition?" Bradley asked. "What's in it for the ordinary punter?"
"Whoever wins the competition gets a free trip to Lourdes followed by a week in Paris and £50,000 in prize money. Not only do they get the chance to witness a miracle, they also get a holiday and more money than they'd earn in their wildest dreams. It's a hell of an angle."
"What's next? Win your own kidney transplant?" said Bradley.
"Well, we've got nothing to lose I suppose, except our self-respect and our integrity."
"If you had either of those attributes, Mr Bradley, you wouldn't be working in the newspaper business would you? I want that competition announced in tomorrows edition. The first of many, the like of which no one has ever seen before." "I wonder what the other papers will think of it?" said Bradley. "Not that we'll ever know what poor old Roger Galloway reckoned to it. I hear they found him dead at his house last night. Heart attack, apparently."
"Oh well," Dean mused. "One less competitor."
Bradley got the phone call moments after leaving Dean's office. He recognised the voice immediately. It belonged to Phillip Baker. A morgue attendant at Guy's hospital. Bradley had known him for years.
"I was here when they brought in Galloway last night," said the morgue attendant, excitedly.
"Heart attack, wasn't it?" Bradley said.
"They did the autopsy this morning," Baker told him. "Galloway died of fright."
The children were both girls. Beautiful children. Both were dying of brain tumours.
At least as far as the readers of The Mercury and the watching world at large was concerned.
The winner of the trip to Lourdes was a man called Austin. He and his wife were flown out to the shrine along with a photographer who took pictures from every a available angle of the two girls who were duly flown back to London, examined and pronounced cured.
Miracle of miracles.
By the end of the week the circulation figures on The Mercury had risen sixteen percent.
Edward Wickes read the story, skimming over the salient details with a mixture of disgust and anger. He finally threw the paper to one side and started his engine, guiding the car out into the traffic. How much lower could The Mercury sink? He disliked the fact that his own newspaper had to resort to petty games of chance to attract readers but this latest competition launched by The Mercury was beneath contempt.
What made it even more annoying was the fact that it was working.
Wickes had met with his own managing editor that morning to discuss some kind of riposte but they'd drawn blanks, handicapped it seems, by their insistence on adhering to those two massive handicaps newspapers grappled with, namely morality and standards of decency. Wickes refuses to sacrifice either.
The car behind him seemed to draw rather close and he shielded his eyes as its headlights shone in his rear-view mirror.
Despite his efforts to pull away, the car behind stayed no more than five feet away.
Wickes was beginning to think he was being followed.
When the pursuing vehicle went through a red light to keep up with him, is suspicions were confirmed.
Who the hell was driving?
He couldn't make out the drivers' face in the darkness.
Wickes swung the car right.
The vehicle behind passed by.
It hadn't been following.
His imagination had been getting the better of him.
He sat in the dimly lit side street, engine idling, about to pull away when he heard a thump from behind him.
The movement came from the boot.
Wickes switched off his engine and clambered out of the car, the dull thud from the boot a little more insistent now.
He selected the appropriate key, inserted it into the lock and turned it.
The boot sprang open.
Wickes looked inside, eyes bulging.
He didn't even have time to scream.
Bradley glanced at the alarm clock as he snatched up the phone.
He croaked his name into the receiver.
"Vic, it's Baker. I'm calling form the morgue," said the voice.
"What the hell is so important at this time of the morning?" the reporter wanted to know.
"They just brought in the body of Edward Wickes. He had a heart attack too. It looks like he died of fright, just like Galloway."
Frank Dean held up the computer printout, smiling broadly.
"It's official," he said. "We are now number one. Circulation figure is close to five million. I'm sure that last competition to win a penis or breast enlargement operation finally did it."
"Top newspaper and both our main rivals die within days of each other, die of fright I might add. Don't you think that's a little strange?"
"Perhaps they were frightened by our success," said Dean, chuckling. "And now, to cement our position as number one newspaper in the country, we will unveil the greatest competition of all to win the greatest prize of all. We will launch a competition where the prize is eternal life. I want it announced in tomorrows edition."
"You're crazy," Bradley told him. "Immortality? How do you propose to do that? The public might be gullible but they're not completely bloody stupid. And what do you offer after that? Time travel? Win a day out at the Circus Maximus? Bring all the family along to watch the Christians versus the Lions? A slightly one sided contest maybe. Or how about a day on Mars? Bring back your own E.T. A great way to spend a day, all courtesy of your marvellous Mercury."
"You seem to doubt my sincerity, Bradley."
"Eternal life is pushing credibility a bit far and, besides, I want to know what's going on. I want to know what you really think about our two main rivals dying within days of each other, frightened to death. Doesn't that interest you? We are in the business of stories aren't we? Even if we do make most of them up. So, tell me, what's the trick with the immortality competition?"
"It's no trick believe me," said Dean, taking a step closer.
"Don't mock what you don't understand, Bradley. When I say immortality I know what I'm talking about. I'd include you in the prize too but, of course, the competition isn't open to employees of the paper. Too bad."
Dean smiled and, as he did, his lips slid back to reveal two abnormally long canine teeth.
Bradley froze, his gaze rivetted to the face of the editor.
Dean's face seemed to split open, his skin peeling from reddened, pulsing muscle beneath. Muscle that throbbed and seemed to expand, swelling like his finger tips which suddenly sprouted nails that grew longer, pushing through the skin.
He shot out a hand and gripped Bradley by the throat, the reporters legs dangling uselessly below him, kicking helplessly as Dean carried him towards the window.
They were eight floors up.
"You shouldn't have resisted the idea," Dean said, thick mucus now hanging from his canine teeth like glutinous tears. A tendril of skin peeled away from his forehead, unravelling, finally hanging like a piece of bloodied wallpaper.
"Galloway and Wickes resisted me and they died. They were weak. Their hearts. So sad."
Bradley could see the street a hundred feet below him.
He tried to shake loose, his eyes almost bursting in their sockets as he stared at the monstrosity which held him, dangled him out of the window.
"A shame you didn't win the competition, Bradley," Dean told him. "Some lucky soul will. One bite and they'll live forever. Better than winning a car isn't it?"
Dean opened his hand.
Bradley plummeted towards the street, the concrete rushing up to meet him.
As he struck the road his head seemed to burst.
Dean smiled down at the battered corpse, blood spreading rapidly around it.
"You wanted a story, Bradley," Dean said, smiling. "I gave you one. Still, who would have believed it?"
In the distance he heard sirens.
© Shaun Hutson 1994