Richards arrived at the house about eight. The moon was full and it was a very bright night, in spite of occasional cloud cover; bright enough that he could get a good look at the place. It was just as the owner had described it. Run down. Old. And very ugly.
The style was sort of Gothic, sort of plantation, sort of cracker box. Like maybe the architect had been unable to decide on a game plan, or had been drunkenly in love with impossible angles.
Digging the key loaned him from his pocket, he hoped this would turn out worth the trip. More than once his search for antiques had turned into a wild goose chase. And this time, it was really a long shot. The owner, a sick old man named Klein, hadn’t been inside the house in twenty years. A lot of things could happen to antiques in that time, even if the place was locked and boarded up. Theft. Insects. Rats. Leaks. Any one of those, or a combination of them, could turn the finest of furniture into rubble and sawdust in no time. But it was worth the gamble. On occasion, his luck had been phenomenal.
As a thick, dark cloud rolled across the moon, Richards, guided by his flashlight, mounted the rickety porch, squeaked the screen, and groaned the door open.
Inside, he flashed the light around. Dust and darkness seemed to crawl in there until the cloud passed and the lunar light fell through the boarded windows in a speckled and slatted design akin to camouflaged netting. In places, Richards could see that the wallpaper had fallen from the wall in big sheets that dangled halfway down to the floor like the drooping branches of weeping willows.
To his left was a wide, spiraling staircase, and following its ascent with his light, he could see there were places where the railing hung brokenly askew.
Directly across from this was a door. A narrow, recessed one. As there was nothing in the present room to command his attention, he decided to begin his investigation there. It was as good a place as any.
Using his flashlight to bat his way through a skin of cobwebs, he went over to the door and opened it. Cold air embraced him, brought with it a sour smell, like a freezer full of ruined meat. It was almost enough to turn Richards’s stomach, and for a moment he started to close the door and forget it. But an image of wall-to-wall antiques clustered in the shadows came to mind, and he pushed forward, determined. If he were going to go to all the trouble to get the key and drive way out here in search of old furniture to buy, then he ought to make sure he had a good look, smell or no smell.
Using his flash, and helped by the moonlight, he could tell that he had discovered a basement. The steps leading down into it looked aged and precarious, and the floor appeared oddly glasslike in the beam of his light.
So he could examine every nook and cranny of the basement, Richards decided to descend the stairs. He put one foot carefully on the first step, and slowly settled his weight on it. Nothing collapsed. He went down three more steps, cautiously, and though they moaned and squeaked, they held.
When Richards reached the sixth step, for some reason he could not define, he felt oddly uncomfortable, had a chill. It was as if someone with ice-cold water in their kidneys had taken a piss down the back of his coat collar.
Now he could see that the floor was not glassy at all. In fact, the floor was not visible. The reason it had looked glassy from above was because it was flooded with water. From the overall size of the basement, Richards determined that the water was most likely six or seven feet deep. Maybe more.
There was movement at the edge of Richards’s flashlight beam, and he followed it. A huge rat was swimming away from him, pushing something before it; an old partially deflated volleyball perhaps. He could not tell for sure. Nor could he decide if the rat was trying to mount the object or bite it.
And he didn’t care. Two things that gave him the willies were rats and water, and here were both. To make it worse, the rats were the biggest he’d ever seen, and the water was the dirtiest imaginable. It looked to have a lot of oil and sludge mixed in with it, as well as being stagnant.
It grew darker, and Richards realized the moon had been hazed by a cloud again. He let that be his signal. There was nothing more to see here, so he turned and started up. Stopped. The very large shape of a man filled the doorway.
Richards jerked the light up, saw that the shadows had been playing tricks on him. The man was not as large as he’d first thought. And he wasn’t wearing a hat. He had been certain before that he was, but he could see now that he was mistaken. The fellow was bareheaded, and his features, though youthful, were undistinguished; any character he might have had seemed to retreat into the flesh of his face or find sanctuary within the dark folds of his shaggy hair. As he lowered the light, Richards thought he saw the wink of braces on the young man’s teeth.
“Basements aren’t worth a damn in this part of the country,” the young man said. “Must have been some Yankees come down here and built this. Someone who didn’t know about the water table, the weather and all.”
“I didn’t know anyone else was here,” Richards said. “Klein send you?”
“Don’t know a Klein.”
“He owns the place. Loaned me a key.”
The young man was silent a moment. “Did you know the moon is behind a cloud? A cloud across the moon can change the entire face of the night. Change it the way some people change their clothes, their moods, their expressions.”
Richards shifted uncomfortably.
“You know,” the young man said, “I couldn’t shave this morning.”
“When I tried to put a blade in my razor, I saw that it had an eye on it, and it was blinking at me, very fast. Like this . . . oh, you can’t see from down there, can you? Well, it was very fast. I dropped it and it slid along the sink, dove off on the floor, crawled up the side of the bathtub and got in the soap dish. It closed its eye then, but it started mewing like a kitten wanting milk. Ooooowwwwaaa, oooowwwaa, was more the way it sounded really, but it reminded me of a kitten. I knew what it wanted, of course. What it always wants. What all the sharp things want.
“Knowing what it wanted made me sick and I threw up in the toilet. Vomited up a razor blade. It was so fat it might have been pregnant. Its eye was blinking at me as I flushed it. When it was gone the blade in the soap dish started to sing high and sillylike.
“The blade I vomited, I know how it got inside of me.” The young man raised his fingers to his throat. “There was a little red mark right here this morning, and it was starting to scab over. One or two of them always find a way in. Sometimes it’s nails that get in me. They used to come in through the soles of my feet while I slept, but I stopped that pretty good by wearing my shoes to bed.”
In spite of the cool of the basement, Richards had started to sweat. He considered the possibility of rushing the guy or just trying to push past him, but dismissed it. The stairs might be too weak for sudden movement, and maybe the fruitcake might just have his say and go on his way.
“It really doesn’t matter how hard I try to trick them,” the young man continued, “they always win out in the end. Always.”
“I think I’ll come up now,” Richards said, trying very hard to sound casual.
The young man flexed his legs. The stairs shook and squealed in protest. Richards nearly toppled backward into the water.
“Hey!” Richards yelled.
“Bad shape,” the young man said. “Need a lot of work. Rebuilt entirely would be the ticket.”
Richards regained both his balance and his composure. He couldn’t decide if he was angry or scared, but he wasn’t about to move. Going up he had rotten stairs and Mr. Looney Tunes. Behind him he had the rats and water. The proverbial rock and a hard place.
“Maybe it’s going to cloud up and rain,” the young man said. “What do you think? Will it rain tonight?”
“I don’t know,” Richards managed.
“Lot of dark clouds floating about. Maybe they’re rain clouds. Did I tell you about the God of the Razor? I really meant to. He rules the sharp things. He’s the god of those who live by the blade. He was my friend Donny’s god. Did you know he was Jack the Ripper’s god?”
The young man dipped his hand into his coat pocket, pulled it out quickly and whipped his arm across his body twice, very fast. Richards caught a glimpse of something long and metal in his hand. Even the cloud-veiled moonlight managed to give it a dull, silver spark.
Richards put the light on him again. The young man was holding the object in front of him, as if he wished it to be examined. It was an impossibly large straight razor.
“I got this from Donny,” the young man said. “He got it in an old shop somewhere. Gladewater, I think. It comes from a barber kit, and the kit originally came from England. Says so in the case. You should see the handle on this baby. Ivory. With a lot of little designs and symbols carved into it. Donny looked the symbols up. They’re geometric patterns used for calling up a demon. Know what else? Jack the Ripper was no surgeon. He was a barber. I know, because Donny got the razor and started having these visions where Jack the Ripper and the God of the Razor came to talk to him. They explained what the razor was for. Donny said the reason they could talk to him was because he tried to shave with the razor and cut himself. The blood on the blade, and those symbols on the handle, they opened the gate. Opened it so the God of the Razor could come and live inside Donny’s head. The Ripper told him that the metal in the blade goes all the way back to a sacrificial altar the Druids used.”
The young man stopped talking, dropped the blade to his side. He looked over his shoulder. “That cloud is very dark . . . slow moving. I sort of bet on rain.” He turned back to Richards. “Did I ask you if you thought it would rain tonight?”
Richards found he couldn’t say a word. It was as if his tongue had turned to cork in his mouth. The young man didn’t seem to notice or care.
“After Donny had the visions, he just talked and talked about this house. We used to play here when we were kids. Had the boards on the back window rigged so they’d slide like a trap door. They’re still that way. . . Donny used to say this house had angles that sharpened the dull edges of your mind. I know what he means now. It is comfortable, don’t you think?”
Richards, who was anything but comfortable, said nothing. Just stood very still, sweating, fearing, listening, aiming the light.
“Donny said the angles were honed best during the full moon. I didn’t know what he was talking about then. I didn’t understand about the sacrifices. Maybe you know about them? Been all over the papers and on the TV. The Decapitator, they called him.
“It was Donny doing it, and from the way he started acting, talking about the God of the Razor, Jack the Ripper, this old house and its angles, I got suspicious. He got so he wouldn’t even come around near or during a full moon, and when the moon started waning, he was different. Peaceful. I followed him a few times but didn’t have any luck. He drove to the Safeway, left his car there and walked. He was as quick and sneaky as a cat. He’d lose me right off. But then I got to figuring . . . him talking about this old house and all . . . and one full moon I came here and waited for him, and he showed up. You know what he was doing? He was bringing the heads here, tossing them down there in the water like those South American Indians used to toss bodies and stuff in sacrificial pools . . . It’s the angles in the house, you see.”
Richards had that sensation like ice-cold piss down his collar again, and suddenly he knew what that swimming rat had been pursuing and what it was trying to do.
“He threw all seven heads down there, I figure,” the young man said. “I saw him toss one.” He pointed with the razor. “He was standing about where you are now when he did it. When he turned and saw me, he ran up after me. I froze, couldn’t move a muscle. Every step he took, closer he got to me, the stranger he looked . . . he slashed me with the razor, across the chest, real deep. I fell down and he stood over me, the razor cocked,” the young man cocked the razor to show Richards. “I think I screamed. But he didn’t cut me again. It was like the rest of him was warring with the razor in his hand. He stood up, and walking stiff as one of those wind-up toy soldiers, he went back down the stairs, stood about where you are now, looked up at me, and drew that razor straight across his throat so hard and deep he damn near cut his head off. He fell back in the water there, sunk like an anvil. The razor landed on the last step.
“Wasn’t any use; I tried to get him out of there, but he was gone, like he’d never been. I couldn’t see a ripple. But the razor was lying there and I could hear it. Hear it sucking up Donny’s blood like a kid sucking the sweet out of a sucker. Pretty soon there wasn’t a drop of blood on it. I picked it up . . . so shiny, so damned shiny. I came upstairs, passed out on the floor from the loss of blood.
“At first I thought I was dreaming, or maybe delirious, because I was lying at the end of this dark alley between these trash cans with my back against the wall. There were legs sticking out of the trash cans, like tossed mannequins. Only they weren’t mannequins. There were razor blades and nails sticking out of the soles of the feet and blood was running down the ankles and legs, swirling so that they looked like giant peppermint sticks. Then I heard a noise like someone trying to dribble a medicine ball across a hardwood floor. Plop, plop, plop. And then I saw the God of the Razor.
“First there’s nothing in front of me but stewing shadows, and the next instant he’s there. Tall and black . . . not Negro . . . but black like obsidian rock. Had eyes like smashed windshield glass and teeth like polished stickpins. Was wearing a top hat with this shiny band made out of chrome razor blades. His coat and pants looked like they were made out of human flesh, and sticking out of the pockets of his coat were gnawed fingers, like after-dinner treats. And he had this big old turnip pocket watch dangling out of his pants pocket on a strand of gut. The watch swung between his legs as he walked. And that plopping sound, know what that was? His shoes. He had these tiny, tiny feet and they were fitted right into the mouths of these human heads. One of the heads was a woman’s and it dragged long black hair behind it when the God walked.
“Kept telling myself to wake up. But I couldn’t. The God pulled this chair out of nowhere—it was made out of leg bones and the seat looked like scraps of flesh and hunks of hair—and he sat down, crossed his legs and dangled one of those ragged-head shoes in my face. Next thing he does is whip this ventriloquist dummy out of the air, and it looked like Donny, and was dressed like Donny had been last time I’d seen him, down there on the stair. The God put the dummy on his knee and Donny opened his eyes and spoke. ‘Hey, buddy boy,’ he said, ‘how goes it? What do you think of the razor’s bite? You see, pal, if you don’t die from it, it’s like a vampire’s bite. Get my drift? You got to keep passing it on. The sharp things will tell you when, and if you don’t want to do it, they’ll bother you until you do, or you slice yourself bad enough to come over here on the Darkside with me and Jack and the others. Well, got to go back now, join the gang. Be talking with you real soon, moving into your head.’
“Then he just sort of went limp on the God’s knee, and the God took off his hat and he had this zipper running along the middle of his bald head. A goddamned zipper! He pulled it open. Smoke and fire and noises like screaming and car wrecks happening came out of there. He picked up the Donny dummy, which was real small now, and tossed him into the hole in his head way you’d toss a treat into a Great Dane’s mouth. Then he zipped up again and put on his hat. Never said a word. But he leaned forward and held his turnip watch so I could see it. The watch hands were skeleton fingers, and there was a face in there, pressing its nose in little smudged circles against the glass, and though I couldn’t hear it, the face had its mouth open and it was screaming, and that face was mine. Then the God and the alley and the legs in the trash cans were gone. And so was the cut on my chest. Healed completely. Not even a mark.
“I left out of there and didn’t tell a soul. And Donny, just like he said, came to live in my head, and the razor started singing to me nights, probably a song sort of like those sirens sang for that Ulysses fellow. And come near and on the full moon, the blades act up, mew and get inside of me. Then I know what I need to do . . . I did it tonight. Maybe if it had rained I wouldn’t have had to do it . . . but it was clear enough for me to be busy.”
The young man stopped talking, turned, stepped inside the house, out of sight. Richards sighed, but his relief was short-lived. The young man returned and came down a couple of steps. In one hand, by the long blond hair, he was holding a teenage girl’s head. The other clutched the razor.
The cloud veil fell away from the moon, and it became quite bright.
The young man, with a flick of his wrist, tossed the head at Richards, striking him in the chest, causing him to drop the light. The head bounced between Richards’s legs and into the water with a flat splash.
“Listen . . .” Richards started, but anything he might have said aged, died, and turned to dust in his mouth.
Fully outlined in the moonlight, the young man started down the steps, holding the razor before him like a battle flag.
Richards blinked. For a moment it looked as if the guy were wearing a . . . He was wearing a hat. A tall, black one with a shiny metal band. And he was much larger now, and between his lips was a shimmer of wet, silver teeth like thirty-two polished stickpins.
Plop, plop came the sound of his feet on the steps, and in the lower and deeper shadows of the stairs, it looked as if the young man had not only grown in size and found a hat, but had darkened his face and stomped his feet into pumpkins . . . But one of the pumpkins streamed long, dark hair.
Plop, plop . . . Richards screamed and the sound of it rebounded against the basement walls like a superball.
Shattered starlight eyes beneath the hat. A Cheshire smile of shiny needles in a carbon face. A big dark hand holding the razor, whipping it back and forth like a lion’s talon snatching at warm, soft prey.
Swish, swish, swish.
Richards’s scream was dying in his throat, if not in the echoing basement, when the razor flashed for him. He avoided it by stepping briskly backward. His foot went underwater, but found a step there. Momentarily. The rotting wood gave way, twisted his ankle, sent him plunging into the cold, foul wetness.
Just before his eyes, like portholes on a sinking ship, were covered by the liquid darkness, he saw the God of the Razor—now manifest in all his horrid form—lift a splitting head shoe and step into the water after him.
Richards torqued his body, swam long, hard strokes, coasted bottom; his hand touched something cold and clammy down there and a piece of it came away in his fingers.
Flipping it from him with a fan of his hand, he fought his way to the surface and broke water as the blonde girl’s head bobbed in front of him, two rat passengers aboard, gnawing viciously at the eye sockets.
Suddenly, the girl’s head rose, perched on the crown of the tall hat of the God of the Razor, then it tumbled off, rats and all, into the greasy water.
Now there was the jet face of the God of the Razor and his mouth was open and the teeth blinked briefly before the lips drew tight, and the other hand, like an eggplant sprouting fingers, clutched Richards’s coat collar and plucked him forward and Richards—the charnel breath of the God in his face, the sight of the lips slashing wide to once again reveal brilliant dental grill work—went limp as a pelt. And the God raised the razor to strike.
And the moon tumbled behind a thick, dark cloud.
White face, shaggy hair, no hat, a fading glint of silver teeth . . . the young man holding the razor, clutching Richards’s coat collar.
The juice back in his heart, Richards knocked the man’s hand free, and the guy went under. Came up thrashing. Went under again. And when he rose this time, the razor was frantically flaying the air.
“Can’t swim,” he bellowed, “can’t—” Under he went, and this time he did not come up. But Richards felt something touch his foot from below. He kicked out savagely, dog paddling wildly all the while. Then the touch was gone and the sloshing water went immediately calm.
Richards swam toward the broken stairway, tried to ignore the blond head that lurched by, now manned by a four-rat crew. He got hold of the loose, dangling stair rail and began to pull himself up. The old board screeched on its loosening nail, but held until Richards gained a hand on the door ledge, then it gave way with a groan and went to join the rest of the rotting lumber, the heads, the bodies, the faded stigmata of the God of the Razor.
Pulling himself up, Richards crawled into the room on his hands and knees, rolled over on his back . . . and something flashed between his legs . . . It was the razor. It was stuck to the bottom of his shoe . . . That had been the touch he had felt from below; the young guy still trying to cut him, or perhaps accidentally striking him during his desperate thrashings to regain the surface.
Sitting up, Richards took hold of the ivory handle and freed the blade. He got to his feet and stumbled toward the door. His ankle and foot hurt like hell where the step had given way beneath him, hurt him so badly he could hardly walk.
Then he felt the sticky, warm wetness oozing out of his foot to join the cold water in his shoe, and he knew that he had been cut by the razor.
But then he wasn’t thinking anymore. He wasn’t hurting anymore. The moon rolled out from behind a cloud like a colorless eye and he just stood there looking at his shadow on the lawn. The shadow of an impossibly large man wearing a top hat and balls on his feet, holding a monstrous razor in his hand.
© 1987 by Joe R. Lansdale.
Originally published in Grue Magazine,
Reprinted by permission of the author.