The Guaranteed Eternal Life Assurance Company.
© Joanne Harris
The blood from the offerings was barely dry when Terry heard the knock at the door. A discreet tick-ticking against the hardwood. And again. Tick-tick. He swore. Who the hell could it be at this time of night?
A quick glance around the room showed what remained of his long hours of working. The candles burnt down to oily stumps, the chalk circle slicked with the drippings from his sweat, the pale boards spidered with hieroglyphs, himself breathless and drained from his repeated incantations. The shadows, which a moment ago had seemed to darken, perhaps in prelude to some apparition, had since receded, revealing unwelcome glimpses of the prosaic interior. Maxine’s Laura Ashley curtains. The dishes of pot-pourri, so incongruous beside the arcana of his offerings, the slaughtered cat, the blood, the honey, salt, wine, the dish of peacock hearts.
The knock came again, briskly. Tick-tick. He felt rage against the unknown caller engulf him. Who the hell was it? Maxine was safely at her mother’s. The remaining tenants slept.
Reaching for his robe he left the circle, checking for blood on his hands. In semidarkness he decided he would pass. He opened a thin slice of doorway, keeping the chain in place; blinked at the light from the landing. The man who stood there was young, clean-shaven, dark-haired, charcoal-suited, his raincoat draped casually across one arm. In one hand he carried a small leather attaché case.
“Mr. Terence Lomax?” His voice was well-modulated, his teeth perfect.
Terry frowned, bewildered and hostile.
“What the fuck is this?” he growled. “It’s the middle of the bloody night!”
“If you’d give me just a moment of your time, sir.” The visitor opened his jacket and drew out a plastic card, which he held up to the crack in the door. It showed his picture, his name and a company logo: The Guaranteed Eternal Life Assurance Co.
“J. D. Hayes. Pleased to meet you.” A hand extended itself towards the gap and remained patiently suspended, waiting for the door to open.
“Life insurance?” said Terry in disbelief. “You’re trying to sell me life insurance at two o’ clock in the bloody morning?”
“Oh, we like to adapt our working hours to suit the customer’s convenience,” answered Hayes blandly. “We can be very flexible.”
“Well I’m not interested,” said Terry, preparing to close the door.
“I think you are, sir, or you wouldn’t have called us,” said Hayes pointedly, looking beyond Terry into the darkened flat. His nostrils flared a little and Terry had the oddest impression the salesman could see the contents of the room as clearly as if they were floodlit.
“But I didn’t call -” he began. Then as realization came to him his jaw dropped. “You mean you’re from....?”
“Indeed.” Hayes gave a wide and disarming chat-host’s smile. “I do hope you haven’t changed your mind about sampling our service.”
“No! No.” Terry drew his bathrobe a little closer against the sudden cold and slipped the chain from the door. The salesman’s handshake was unexpectedly warm and strong. Vital.
“I just wasn’t expecting...” Terry couldn’t stop looking at him, his stare idiocy verging on rudeness. “I thought...”
“We’ve had to change our corporate image over the millennia,” said Hayes easily as he entered the room. “It was a little crude in the old days. All that blood. All those eviscerations.” He wrinkled his nose in charming distaste. “We have it all worked out now,” he added. “Computers, mobile phones, satellite, cable, the Net...” His smile was radiant. “So much less messy, don’t you think?” His eyes strayed across the chalk circle, the bloodied formulae, the offerings.
“But it’s still basically the same deal?” insisted Terry. “I mean...”
“Oh, to live forever in an ecstasy of decadence? Unholy pleasures? Forbidden torments? Glimpses of the Far Side glorious enough to make mortal men go insane?” The salesman’s tone showed nothing but polite amusement. “If you like, Mr. Lomax. We cater to even the most conservative of tastes.”
Terry’s eyes widened. “You mean there’s more?”
Hayes smiled. “Of course, Mr. Lomax.”
“And...” Terry swallowed. “And my end of the... contract?”
Hayes looked at him tolerantly. “Oh, we’ve made a few adaptations to the times,” he explained. “We understand we can’t make the kind of demands on our customers we used to in the past. I mean, this isn’t the Middle Ages!” He gave another of his engaging smiles. “No. All our accounts sign a basic contract. I have a pro-forma here, if you’d like to run your eyes over the details.”
He opened his slim attaché-case to reveal a notebook computer. Flicking a few switches shortly revealed onto the monitor a one-page form bordered in pale blue entitled: Welcome to the GELAC family.
Terry frowned at it, puzzled and a little disappointed.
“Is this it?” he said at last.
Hayes smiled. “I suppose you were expecting something more traditional,” he said apologetically. “A lot of our accounts do. But the old-style format really does play hell with the admin. back at Head Office. This way we can just put everything onto the network and...”
“Well, we’ve had to clean up our act a bit. You can’t run a business entirely on anarchy, however heavy the emotional commitment to promoting it on a global scale. And since the Inquisition, souls haven’t really been viable currency anyway. So now all we ask of you is a certain amount of voluntary work - to promote the organization - and a single premium to be paid every half a century. It really is a great offer,” he added earnestly. “You can always tell the quality of a service if the employees themselves use it.”
“You mean you’re one of -” Terry’ head was still reeling with the phrase half a century. “You’re not a -”
“Voluntary worker for the company,” finished Hayes helpfully. “ Have been for fifty years.”
Terry gaped. “I’d have said you were twenty-three, maybe twenty-five,” he said in amazement.
Hayes smirked. “It’s a useful source of declarable income,” he continued.” It gets you an opportunity to meet like-minded people, to travel all over the world....”
“But under the terms of the contract you’d get that anyway,” objected Terry.
“Ah, but this is all about discretion,” explained Hayes. “You can’t go swanning about nowadays with that kind of cash without someone asking questions. Comes the time you’re going to have to explain where it all comes from. This way you’ve got a steady job, you can open accounts all over the world, the Company relocates you on a regular basis so you never have to stay in the same place long enough for people to get nervous at your extraordinary longevity and success.” The words rolled off his tongue like syrup.
Terry nodded, excitement finally beginning to overtake his suspicion. “And the - premium?” he said.
“You’ll like this,” answered Hayes. “A single life for every half a century your account stays open.”
“And I can get to live for ever?” asked Terry, his eyes wide.
Terry gave a slow smile. He might start with Maxine, he told himself, with her Laura Ashley valances and her M&S pot-pourri. Yes, it might be good if it were Maxine.
“Just a life? Any life?” he asked in growing excitement.
“Well, there are parameters,” said Hayes patiently. “Obviously you don’t want just anyone. Your subscriber - we prefer the term to “sacrifice” - has to know about the deal and to have signed the standard form. We don’t want any accusations of fraudulent behaviour. You’ll find it’s all written very clearly in here - he indicated his attaché- case terminal - under Contracts.” He bared his teeth charmingly. “Of course, you’ll get one of these if you decide to take advantage of our offer.”
“And if I don’t make the -” he swallowed. “ The downpayment?”
Hayes looked at him briefly. “Oh, I wouldn’t advise that,” he said. “There’ll be plenty of opportunity for you to find subscribers. You’ll have fifty years from today to find your first. If you don’t...” He made a small, pained grimace. “You’ll find our Defaulters Department hasn’t modernized quite so much as the rest of the organization.”
Terry digested that. “Ah.”
“Don’t let this little technicality put you off, Mr. Lomax,” said Hayes easily. “I can print the contract here and now for you to sign.”
Terry hesitated. “I....”
The printer in Hayes’ case chattered briefly, giving out a strangely comforting whiff of sulphur. Wordlessly he held out the sheet.
Still Terry hesitated, his eye straying back and forth from his own hands to the ceremonial dagger on the mantelpiece, baffled on procedure.
“Biro will do, Mr. Lomax,” said Hayes gently.
Terry bent over the paper, eyes half-closed in blissful reverie.
There was no cold rush as he signed, no waft of hell, no tolling of subterranean chimes. All he felt was a thin shard of agony as Hayes sliced his throat, spattering his steaming blood over the new contract, the Laura Ashley-print rug.
Terry slid sideways to the ground, one hand moving too late to stem his gushing throat. Suddenly he seemed to be wearing a hot red apron. His other hand moved in his lap like a flapping scarlet fish.
“Bluh, said Terry clearly. “Bluh. Bluh.”
Hayes looked at him with odd, pitying distaste. “You really ought to read the small print, Mr. Lomax,” he said mildly. “You’ll never make a businessman until you do.”
“Bluh! ” gasped the subscriber thickly, in sudden, awful comprehension.
“It’s all perfectly in accordance with the terms of the contract,” said Hayes. “Section fourteen, paragraph eight.”
But Terry was no longer listening. Instead, in the darkening vortex he grasped at the straws of their conversation, trying to remember... His hands thrashed against the underside of the coffee-table, leaving long smeary commas of blood against the glass.
A voluntary worker for the Company , the salesman had said. Been with them for fifty years.
A subscriber, he’d said, one who had signed the contract and knew of the arrangement. The GELAC document lay on the bloodied carpet close to his head, a spray of his blood obscuring the small print he had so stupidly omitted to read.
Hayes watched the subscriber in his death throes, saw his eyes finally glaze, his mouth flutter his last breath. Then he picked up the contract, pleased to see that the signature at least was still legible.
It never paid to neglect the paperwork.