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SOLOMON SAYS: The Blackmailer (rev) by Timothy Saint

© Timothy Saint

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‘Solomon Says’ is a collection of Modern Morality Tales comprising twenty short stories, each inspired by an Old Testament quotation from the Book of Proverbs – traditionally supposed to have been penned by King Solomon. All the stories are posted on YWO.



SOLOMON SAYS: The Blackmailer (revised)

A Short Story – 1,700 Words



Thorne-Baker took a nip. He swilled the supermarket own-brand scotch around his mouth before swallowing. He belched, which he found satisfying, slid the flat half-bottle back into the desk drawer and closed it. Shifting his bulk in the shabby leather office-chair, he broke wind, which he found even more satisfying. A corpulent man in his early fifties, Grahame Thorne-Baker’s ever-increasing girth bore testament to the passing of the years, in the same way the food clinging to his beard bore testament to his last few meals.

He picked at the jumbo-sized packet of potato crisps that lay open on the desk in front of him. He should, he decided, tidy up before the Old Lady arrived. He rarely left this room now; his bulk precluded much in the way of excessive movement, and he found he had most of what he needed right there. As his lifestyle became ever more sedentary, he'd drawn to him those things he required in order to exert his will.

The rest of the property had long ago been divided into bedsits and small flats and, rather than traipse up and down stairs in order to chivvy his feckless tenants, Thorne-Baker had organised the re-routing of mains electricity meters and water stopcocks through his own quarters. Thus, without leaving the comfort (and sanctuary) of his study, he could both monitor the use of the services he provided and interrupt them when circumstances deemed it necessary.

The closed-circuit television camera mounted over the front door relayed pictures of his tenants’ various comings and goings, to a monitor sitting on his desk. The only area of control and surveillance in which he considered he had recently come unstuck was the telephone. It had, he felt, been a stroke of genius to have the payphone installed outside his study door. With the expenditure of no effort whatsoever, he was party to everybody’s business. Until the arrival of the mobile phone. He was studying the technical eavesdropping options available.

His own bank of communications equipment only exacerbated the cluttered feel of the room. The telephone and fax machine constituted his lifeline to the outside world and, as he rarely made any forays into that world, he'd fallen into the habit of ordering-in even the smallest of items. The computer set-up, upon which he was wont to compose bullying letters to local tradesmen who he felt took advantage of his generous nature, jostled for space with television, video recorder and sundry IT paraphernalia.

Thorne-Baker was a man who generated a great deal of administration and paperwork but had little energy left over for either filing or disposing of it. Files and folders lay everywhere, invoices and correspondence spewing from them like the stuffing peeping through an old cushion. Gross and immobile though he was, his communication network allowed him to roam free. He had a recurring vision of himself as a large spider sitting at the centre of a cunningly constructed web; each hairy leg pulling on a different silken thread - controlling and shaping destinies far removed from his cramped office. He belched again.

He'd been blackmailing the Old Lady for as long as either of them could remember. He'd been blackmailing her for so long, the money she handed over every month, although once a considerable sum, was hardly worth his while collecting. But he felt to let her off now would in some way amount to failure. Or worse still, belittlement. He would have terminated this particular business some time ago - if the business had involved any effort on his part. But it didn’t.

He wondered again if he should tidy up. The savoury snacks were finished so he brushed the remaining crumbs onto the floor and shied the empty packet at the overfull waste bin. It hit the target but slid to the threadbare carpet, joining several others. Running his fingers through his wiry grey hair he discovered a small accretion of dandruff. Snagging it under a fingernail he transferred it to his mouth. He found it crunchy, but tasteless.

Thorne-Baker opened the desk drawer and extracted the whisky bottle. He took a nip and replaced it. He thought about the Old Lady. He'd gone through a period in his youth when he considered blackmail might be an easy source of money. There was something dark and glamorous about it. It spoke to him of secret assignations, illicit affairs and codes of honour and duty - the upholding of which were more important than mere money. He couldn’t imagine enjoying much success as an extortionist these days; money seemed to be the only thing anybody cared about and people queued up to announce their indiscretions to the world without a hint of shame or humiliation.

Not that he enjoyed much success back then. His big idea - his ‘business plan’ - was to sidle up to likely looking women at random and whisper to them, “I know what you’ve been up to.” In his youthful enthusiasm for the project he had not given much consideration to the idea that, in the middle-class circles in which he and his quarries moved, most were unlikely to have been ‘up to’ anything. And so it had proved. Having several times had his face slapped, and twice been threatened by irritated husbands, he dropped the scheme.

But not before he ensnared the Old Lady. Of course she hadn’t been old in those days, and had jumped like a startled gazelle when he whispered his wicked aspersion into her ear at a dull but genteel soiree. Thorne-Baker had somewhat surprised himself by having the temerity to target her in the first place - out of all his potential victims she was, in his opinion, the least likely to be hiding any dark secrets. He was even more surprised (not to mention gratified) when she tearfully agreed to hand over a monthly consideration in return for his silence.

That had been thirty years ago. She never complained or missed a payment, and he was sure she never would. It had, he supposed, over the years been a good piece of business. It was strange; all his approaches had been speculative, and he still had no idea what her secret might be.

He decided there was not enough time before the Old Lady was due to do much in the way of tidying. There was little he could do about the décor. A small electric fire in the corner just about kept the damp at bay, but the scruffy wallpaper sagged in places where the plaster behind it was falling off. Spiders had colonised the ceiling once he had dispensed with any sort of cleaning regime, and their dusty webs hung in the corners like grimy palm fronds.

He glanced at the battered leatherette chaise-longue where he more and more often slept these days. It wouldn’t do to have anything soiled on show when he was expecting a lady visitor. She was quite refined even if she did have some sort of skeleton in her cupboard. He lifted one enormous buttock and broke wind once more, delicately sniffing the air like a fawn in a forest glade.

The Old Lady’s image on his CCTV monitor alerted Thorne-Baker to her imminent arrival. He'd been exploring his left nostril with a fat forefinger, hoping to secure a little salty delicacy as an hors d'oeuvre to his next snack. He wiped the offending finger on his greasy trousers and sat up straight. The Old Lady had always shown remarkable dignity and he was at some pains to reciprocate. She knocked and entered.

She was, as ever, a model of respectability and Thorne-Baker, as ever, wondered what dark deed might lurk in her past. She was dressed in something conservative and floral. Expensive once, he assumed, but faded now, reflecting her straitened circumstances. A shame, he thought, whilst at the same time acknowledging the part he had played in her financial ruin. However, he was not a man to allow sentiment to get in the way of earning a living.

Her ramrod-straight posture belying her years and her head held high, she approached the untidy desk; a brown envelope clasped in one mottled hand. No words passed between them; this was a ritual which had been played out over many a year. She placed the envelope on a clear patch of desk and turned to leave.

The potato snacks and cheap scotch in Thorne-Baker’s huge gut roiled. Despite his best efforts to suppress it, he belched loudly. The Old Lady wheeled round.
“Grahame!” she snapped, the censure evident in her tone. Thorne-Baker blushed to the roots of his hair.
“Sorry, mother,” he mumbled and, embarrassed, lowered his eyes to the desk. The Old Lady closed the door and left.

***********

Mrs Thorne-Baker eased herself into the passenger seat of the Morris Traveller and slammed the door. “Okay?” asked her husband, tweed-clad and dapper. He squeezed her hand. She paused, returned the pressure. “Yes, John. Okay,” she replied.
“Dreamer,” he said, starting the engine with a clatter. He returned both hands to the steering wheel. “Yes, John,” she sighed. “He’ll never change.” Her husband grunted an acknowledgement and engaged first gear. “It keeps him happy, I suppose, the blackmail nonsense,” she reflected as the car pulled away. “Doling out pocket money every month to a child of fifty-one, though; it just doesn’t seem right.” She sighed again.
“Dreamer,” agreed her husband, as the car made its way slowly down the road.


***



Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit?
There is more hope of a fool than of him.
- Proverbs, 26:12







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