A Dark and Scary Place
'Five-Pointed Star' is part 2 of my new story The Chiller Cabinet. It's the experiences of an early psychologist, written in the manner of the late 19th and early 20th century classics, and is influenced by the work of the ghost stories of M.R. James and the cosmic horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.
Part One - 'Windfall'
My ordeal began when I received an unexpected written letter of invitation to attend Windfall Grange in the county of Gloucestershire. It arrived courtesy of my old Professor of both Literature and Experimental Psychology, Seymour Lasseter. I had not met him for a number of years, but remembered him as formal but engaging, intuitive and yet guarded. A friendliness which came with reservations.
It was an offer, morally, I could not refuse. I had studied under the tutorship of the man for both fields – one well-respected and established, the other relatively new and untested. I would even venture to say untrusted. In the latter I became his assistant. It was not a field I felt comfortable dabbling in; however, across the years I have made my own name in what I like to refer to as Progressive Psychology. After Lasseter retired to the country, he regarded me as his protégé, with my achievements adding to his own considerable but somewhat dark reputation. It was truth of a certainty: I owed it all to him.
We had become firm compatriots by correspondence, telegram and occasionally in person. Now, after a silence of five years, I wondered at the reason for this connection once more.
As I journeyed on the train from my recent home in London to Gloucestershire, I perused his correspondence. There was no indication of a purpose, other than simply being accommodating. Perhaps he was striving for company of a similar background and intellectual level. Or maybe I was overthinking the situation and was merely one of a number of guests at an undisclosed gathering.
I was finally deposited at a tiny deserted station with a name reminiscent of a Beatrix Potter children’s tale: Puddlestone. A horse and trap was there to meet me. The tall and gaunt man took my bag and secured it.
‘Welcome, sir,’ he croaked. ‘My name is Grayson. ‘I am afraid you will have to ride up alongside me for the short journey to the grange. It is all your host could arrange at short notice. I am certain you will survive,’ he commented as he reached down a hand to pull me up alongside him.
‘We will soon be there, sir,’ Grayson added. It was difficult to determine if it was spoken with dry humour or a sneer. Regardless, the strange man cracked a whip and the horses took off at speed before I had even taken a hold.
The inclement weather I had stepped from the train into was instantly forgotten as I concentrated every fibre of my being into holding on and forcing down my instant terror. The narrow country roads were far from stable, causing the trap to bump and shake to the point where my teeth knocked together, and vibrate such that the contraption might fall apart at any moment and unceremoniously throw us to the ground. The horses ran almost to the point of collapse, or as if making a desperate bid for freedom.
I could have demanded he slow down, but something informed me this might be an instruction from the professor; some kind of psychological test – fear, uncertainty and anticipation being some of the most expressive tests of emotion. Consequently, I did my best to distract myself absorbing some of the beautiful countryside. It all rushed by in a blur of multiple shades of green.
It was with infinite relief when I felt Grayson reign-in the horses to turn and guide them between two open gates. The horses trotted sedately along a wide path which led up to an expansive visage of Windfall Grange. Now I felt more at ease the biting wind and light rain returned to assault me. This time I welcomed it as a sign I was alive. Composing myself, I climbed down from the trap unaided, but could not but notice Grayson’s brief secret smile. He could not have missed the stark, pale pallor I surely displayed.
In the scant moment between Grayson taking down my bag and leading me up to the entrance door I committed to memory the grandeur of the building. It was surely significantly too large and extravagant for a single occupant and his manservant. It would have served better as a boarding school or hospital. Perhaps even an insane asylum. It did possess a foreboding façade. Brambles had claimed the East side, and ivy was climbing the West. The windows were plenty but small and heavily leaded. The sun seemed to peer fearfully through the clouds, only to retreat again in trepidation – as if the building held a powerful secret.
I shook off the malaise and smiled at myself. Undoubtedly, it was the literary master butting heads with the psychology don when never-the-twain-shall-meet. I must have chuckled too, as Grayson briefly turned and said, ‘Did I miss something, sir?’
‘No more than I missed your “something” earlier, Grayson.’
He seemed momentarily disgruntled by my remark, and I was gratified. It informed the man in no uncertain terms I was no fool to be trifled with.
The door was opened before we reached it.
‘Formington, old boy, how are you? Come in, come in.’
‘It is good to see you again, Professor Lasseter.’
My old tutor was wizened, with a white beard and spectacles he had not possessed when last we met. His eyes shone with the same stark intelligence, however, and the strength of his handshake belied the weight he had quite plainly shed. Evidently, he had lost none of his enthusiastic and engaging vigour.
‘Why so formal? Call me Seymour.’
‘Only if you refer to me as Jeremy,’ I told him.
The professor pulled a face and chuckled. ‘It is not going to happen, is it?’
As we walked into the spacious hallway, Grayson dropped my bag on the floor and walked away.
‘Grayson! What has gotten into you, man? Please take my guest’s bag up to the room I asked you to prepare, there’s a good chap.’
‘Of course, sir.’ He returned for the bag and carried it up the ornate staircase.
‘Come into the library,’ Lasseter invited me. ‘I will fix you a drink. It is my favourite room in the house and doubles as my study.’
It was a large room made somewhat more comfortable by the organised clutter. Countless bookcases were stacked with leather editions. There was an oak desk and two leather wingback armchairs near a small open-flame fire. He poured me a generous brandy and sank with an audible sigh into one of the chairs.
‘I must say, I sense an atmosphere of disgruntlement with Grayson. Can you shed any light on the situation, old chap?’
‘It is nothing,’ I answered, as I took the other seat opposite the heat of the fire. ‘Your valet… Let us say he attempted to play mind games with me, and I took him to task.’
‘Most curious,’ commented the professor, reaching for his pipe and tapping it out.
‘I rather considered he may have been instructed by you, sir.’
Lasseter frowned. ‘My psychology days are over. Grayson’s only instruction was to bring you here safely.’
‘I might dispute the validity of that final word.’
‘Oh, my dear boy. Rest assured, I will have stern words with the man.’ There was no pause in the preparation of his pipe for a new smoke.
I waved a hand dismissively. ‘It is done. We will say no more about it.’
‘That is dashed decent of you. What do you think of my library, Formington?’
‘It is very impressive. Do you possess any first editions?’
‘The entire house is very grand, from what I have seen of it,’ I told him. ‘It would seem retirement suits you well.’
The professor threw his head back and laughed. ‘It is not without reason it is called Windfall Grange. The house was left to me by a side of the family I had no real contact with.’
‘A fortunate acquisition indeed.’
He suddenly sat upright and gestured with his pipe. ‘I should warn you the grange is haunted.’
‘Good grief,’ I exclaimed. ‘And you believe that?’
Lasseter shrugged non-committally. ‘Some matters should not be trifled with, my boy.’
‘Have you experienced any of this… phantasmagoria?’
The professor noticed for the first time he had not touched his brandy, and so drank it in one single fortifying measure. ‘A number of knocks, creaking, rumbling and clanking sounds. Nothing which cannot be ascribed to the natural noises of an old house. There are a number of recorded spirit sightings, disembodied voices and objects moving of their own accord… So, you might want to secure your door tonight.’
Lasseter chuckled again. ‘From the prospective of an ex-psychologist, I consider the subject of mild interest.’
The mention of psychology steered the topic of conversation toward old times and the professor’s keen interest in my current theories. I could ascertain from the man’s demeanour he fully realised my own movements in this still fledgling subject had far surpassed his own. I stressed to him on a number of occasions, little of my achievements would have been possible without his important groundwork and tutorage in a field which required a certain pretentiousness whilst harbouring misgivings.
‘When do the others arrive, professor?’
He momentarily removed the pipe from his mouth and stared at me. ‘What others?’
‘Forgive me, professor. I assumed I would be merely one of a gathering of guests.’
‘None of it, old boy. Just you and I. And Grayson, of course. I have been enjoying your company.’
It is good of you to say so, Professor Lasseter.’
Invoking Grayson’s name must have tempted fate, as they say, because there was an immediate knock on the door to announce dinner was served. The professor patted me heartily on one shoulder and led the way.
‘I must confess I have turned my usual routine on its head this evening. It is almost unheard of to smoke and take brandy before dinner.’
‘In this instance the blame can be laid at my door, you might say.’
‘There is no “might” about it, m’lad.’ He paused for a moment before bursting with hearty laughter. I had no notion whether or not it was genuine. Even a psychologist is unable to read every individual.
The central room of the house – more of an open space – was vast, with a fireplace and mantle at least five times the size of that situated in the library. The long, stout table which commanded immediate presence could easily have seated King Arthur and all of his knights, had they felt a necessary change from the more customary round one. It was with some fortune I was positioned only two places away from Lasseter.
Grayson, whose mood had mellowed, laid on a hearty feast with the choice of wine or port. Our conversation flowed, with Lasseter expressing astonishment and joy at mention of the most meagre breakthrough in my work. For my part, I was considerably more interested in the history of Windfall Grange, the past occupants and origin of the so-called spirit manifestations.
As it materialised, there was very little to tell, if Lasseter was being entirely forthcoming. What was known centred around the drowning of a peasant boy on the grounds. It was considered the then master of the house – one Alistair Ableman – was somehow to blame for the incident. It is not precisely clear what his blame in the matter was; however, there was some evidence, it would appear. As so often took place and still does, Ableman used his money and good standing in the community to avoid any charges. The situation was laid to rest – as was the lad.
‘A most unremarkable tale, professor. I am surprised you are not ashamed to tell it.’
Lasseter shrugged. It is my sole claim to recognition – certainly regarding the house.’
‘This… Ableman is not an ancestor, I trust?’
‘No, no. It does account for the spectral happenings, however – the reports of them, anyhow.’ He rubbed his beard, evidently in thought.
The discussion returned to matters of interest in the press, and very soon we were retiring for the night. Grayson showed me to my room and reported he would wake me for breakfast. It was a relatively modest space considering the size and majesty of the grange. Though it was clean and tidy, if not aired. In fact, the staleness and oppression assailed my senses. I soon realised I would not slumber well unless some of the night air was let in.
Pulling back the drapes and fully intending to release a fastening on the window, I suddenly found myself jumping back in surprise. There was a dishevelled lad climbing in through the window and stepping on to the wide sill. He held a small blade similar to a dirk. Being a psychologist, I fully realise human beings react most unpredictably when presented with extreme circumstances. Foolish as it seems, I immediately pulled together the drapes and stood frozen, as if rooted in position.
I had plainly exclaimed loudly, as in mere moments there came an urgent fist pummelling on my door. It swung open to reveal Grayson, with Lasseter not far behind.
‘My goodness gracious, you shrieked like a banshee. What is it, Formington, my boy? You quite gave us a turn with your cries. Are you vexed? What on earth is the matter?’
I gestured dumbly at the drapes. When Grayson moved forward I blurted, ‘Careful, he has a blade.’
Grayson hesitated for moment before pulling aside the draperies. We all stared at the window, and the professor moved forwards to look out into the grounds. ‘There is nobody here, my man.’
My eyes flicked frantically around the confines of the room, and I went so far as to stoop to my hands and knees and glance under the bed. The professor aided me in regaining my feet. He could surely detect the disturbance in my demeanour.
Grayson offered me a brandy, and I absently shook my head. ‘There was a hardened lad – some sort of street urchin – attempting to climb through the window,’ I informed the two perplexed men. I noticed them exchange a glance, and added, ‘He was armed with a blade. He… he had reached the sill when I pulled open the curtain.’
‘But the main windows do not open!’
Lasseter waved Grayson to silence. ‘Perhaps it was a dream, my dear boy. If you remember, we have recently been discussing the so-called hauntings.’
‘I have not yet taken to my bed. Cannot you see I remain dressed. I know what I saw, professor.’
‘Of course. Calm yourself, my boy.’
The professor turned to his valet. ‘Grayson, I want you to search every inch of this house.’
‘Just carry out my instructions, please. And tomorrow you can contact the local constabulary.’ He turned to address me once more. ‘I must confess the reaction time is less than instant. We can expect to have our enquiries undertaken in the late afternoon.’
‘Then it is pointless,’ I replied. Some guilt at my lack of manners swept over me. I inhaled deeply and said, ‘Thank you, professor. Would you object if I rested down by the fire?’
‘Why would I object? Grayson, please rebuild the fire before you search the house, there’s a good chap.’ He appeared abruptly quite drained. ‘I have another confession, old boy. I tire easily in my wilderness years and must to my bed.’
‘I again thank you, Professor Lasseter. You have been more than kind.’
I found it considerably more comfortable down in the great hall next to the fire, and even managed to sleep a little, fully aware Grayson was not meticulously searching the house for an intruder. A different environment, away from my shocking experience, put my mind somewhat more at ease.
The next morning, while Grayson took the horses and trap to the local constabulary, Professor Lasseter showed me around the grounds of Windfall Grange. It was a pleasant walk which encompassed meadows, country walkways and trails, a wooded area and a small lake with a demure stone angel on a tiny island at its centre. There was no invitation to explore the interior of the grange, and I respected my ex-tutor’s privacy.
A light lunch and liquid refreshment was most welcome after the miles we walked that day. Lasseter proved undoubtedly hardier than he portrayed. Grayson commented with an air of nonchalance a constable had visited the grange but spied nothing of importance. My natural inclination was to disbelieve the man’s statement. I chose not to comment, however, and wondered how I would feel were the roles reversed.
Regardless, I awaited an opportunity to excuse myself. Proceeding directly to my room, I stepped up to closely examine the windows. Grayson had been correct, the larger windows were sealed and did not open. The smaller ones above only opened a crack. Little wonder the room was so stifling.
The larger windows were stained glass. It was faint, requiring careful examination, though I could just detect an old hamlet scene. There were some poor hovels in the background – little more than rude huts – and a cluster of indistinct figures grouped together. I discovered it impossible to discern what they were doing; there was the distinct impression some were kneeling or bowing. Curious.
Most startling was the figure of a boy fleeing the scene, his face etched with stark horror. He was depicted heading straight for the glass, as if seeking escape into the real world. It was extraordinary, and I stood staring at the scene for some time. Was it possible I imagined the entire experience of the night before? Had it been a living nightmare of sorts, brought on by the haunting tale of the drowned boy and a subconscious glimpse of the boy depicted in the glass?
Alone in the room, I shook my head emphatically. No, a psychologist of some standing such as myself fully accepted the difference between reality and flights of fancy. Nevertheless, a crawling sensation enveloped me, clamping the top of my head in a momentary icy vice-like grip, as the realisation something both impossible and remarkable had taken place. First impressions are often the most legitimate. However, a niggling conscience – a sub-conscience, you might say – rose up in objection. Did not madmen argue they were right; that whatever they witnessed, felt and believed was real, and that everyone else was effectively blind? In some cases, yes. Whatever the truth of the matter, I chose in that moment not to articulate my inner conflict to the professor. He had only to let slip my thoughts to the wrong person and it might ruin my reputation, such as it is.
In the evening I made my excuses and retired for the night without the customary port and cigar. My reasoning was an early start for my return journey to London, which was readily accepted. The truth of the matter was I had endured my fill of Windfall Grange. I might have requested an alternative room, but I did not, wishing to display a forthrightness worthy of my position – that ailments of the mind and body occur and can be readily overcome with a professional disciplined mentality.
The drapes had been closed; I did not attempt to open them. Sleep arrived with a welcome solace. I had enjoyed little the night before. With no inkling of how much time had passed, I was startled awake by a slow scraping and rasping sound. There was no mistaking it emanated from the window. I was on my feet in an instant and staring with fright at the drapes. The uncomfortable noise paused for a moment, before continuing. It was more than disconcerting.
Every fibre of my being screamed at me to flee the room. Instead, I stepped forward and tore back the drapes in one panicked flourish. The stained-glass boy was reaching through the glass. His two-dimensional body becoming living human flesh. He gripped in jerking movements for the edge of the pane.
With my heart beating loudly in my chest and a high-pitched ringing in my ears, I threw myself backwards, striking the bottom corner of the bed and falling unceremoniously on to my back. My eyes were fastened, however, to the ghastly macabre scene playing out in front of me. The boy’s other hand was starting to emerge from the glass, with the same discordant shrieking sometimes caused by a schoolmaster chalking on a blackboard. His head moved slowly toward the glass.
Skin crawling and mind in turmoil, my physical body began to move backwards seemingly of its own volition in an inverted crablike motion. I was aware of my mouth gaping, lips trembling, but could do nothing about the fact. I was still moving backwards when I felt the door strike me as it was abruptly opened.
‘Formington, my boy! What the devil is it this time? You appear quite vexed.’ He attempted to help me to my feet; my legs had all but lost their strength and refused to support me. He lowered me to the floor once more and scratched his beard. In the mere moment I was distracted, however, involuntarily my gaze was drawn back to the window. There was no sign of the boy, and all appeared normal.
Or did it?
‘Grayson, some help here, if you please.’ The gaunt valet entered the room and aided the professor in supporting me out of the room and somewhat precariously down the stairs. ‘Get the man a brandy, Grayson, before he verily expires on the spot.
I found myself seated before the fire again, with most of the feeling in my face having fled. Grayson fed me brandy like a babe-in-arms. A little trickled down my throat; I spluttered unexpectedly in the face of my host, who was leaning over me concerned. My eyes were fixed and my lips were still quivering. Had I caught the merest glimpse of the creature the boy was fleeing from? A membranous wing and the hint of a claw? I could even recall in hindsight the stench emanating from the hideous thing.
‘Poor chap, he’s suffered a shock, have you not, my dear boy? Another bad dream, perhaps. You rest there, Formington, old chap. We will soon have you right again. We are the experts, are we not?’ The professor clapped me on the shoulder, which had the unlikely effect of returning my senses to me. I felt desperately drained.
‘I suppose, Professor Lasseter, you will attempt to refute my experience once more…’ It was not delivered as a query, but as a statement.
My host had the audacity to laugh. ‘We are both learned men, Formington; I would not presume to deny the sight you believe you witnessed.’
‘Believe?’ Inhaling slowly, I held the man’s gaze. ‘I am not in the habit of creating illogical fantasies for the sake of impression. There would be little point.’ I paused before adding, ‘Are you aware the boy depicted in the stained-glass window is currently facing in the opposite direction? Rather than fleeing the gathered folk he is now running towards them.’
‘Dear Lord! You are quite mistaken, old chap.’
‘I think not,’ I told him emphatically, though I possessed no strength to argue.
‘You are quite clearly not yourself. You are white as a sheet, man! It is clearly overwork; you must take some time for yourself.’ He waved Grayson away and laid a hand on my shoulder. ‘You must remain here for a day or two. Take to your bed. You require the resumption of your strength.’
I absorbed my immediate surroundings. The flickering flames of the fire created shifting shadows which appeared to come and go of their own volition. The heat from the fire now felt oppressive, and I knew from experience the moment I distanced myself from it the chill permeated the very soul. Normally made of much sterner stuff, now the entire house felt as though it were sucking all my resolve – my very essence – from me. I had even regressed into myself a little. I recognised the downward spiral from my case studies. I had at all costs to be free of this place.
‘Thank you, professor, but no. I will leave at first light. I apologise for my behaviour and hope with all sincerity I have not been… a boor.’
‘None of it, lad. It has been a most interesting visit. I regret your current frailty. Might I make a suggestion? It would not be a good idea to return home and to your work in your condition. People will talk and they are all too ready to plug wires into your brain these days. An acquaintance owns a Victorian house of three rented rooms near Whitechapel. He is seldom there himself; it is run by a landlady of very fine repute. Rest, catch up on your reading, and return to your important work with fortified body and spirit.’
I was reluctant to take up Lasseter’s offer. The sentiment, however, could not be denied. I could not explain what had taken place over the last two days of my visit. It had undoubtedly changed me in a manner I previously thought impossible. Certainly, I had discovered a constitutional weakness, and never imaged I would make an interesting psychological study myself.
And so, with misguided positive alacrity I found myself traveling back to London, the given address gripped tightly in one hand. I would not have ventured forth had I any inkling of the darkness which would trail me there, and the madness-inducing interdimensional horror I would stumble across in the heart of suburbia.
Part Two - 'Five-Pointed Star'
My journey from Windfall Grange in Gloucestershire to the Whitechapel district of London offered ample opportunity to reflect on my macabre, if not outright experiences of horror at Professor Lasseter’s remote home.
I had no doubt what I witnessed with my own eyes was cold, stark reality. What troubled me still was – if I took the professor and his valet Grayson at their word – they had not acknowledged any of their own personal psychic visions, seemingly happy to isolate me in mine with comments of my so-called overwork. What ultimate goal would they employ for covering the truth? And why would the professor attempt to protect my reputation by sending me for a short break to convalesce, if he harboured any ill-will toward me.
The door to the ascribed Victorian house was opened by a stout but hardy-appearing woman with fiery determination in her eyes. ‘Yes, what do you want?’ she stated curtly.
‘Forgive me, madam, my name is Jeremy Formington…’
‘Why should I forgive you for that?’ she interrupted.
I refused to be baited by the woman’s bluntness. ‘I was sent here by Professor Lasseter, who considered it the ideal place to convalesce for two or three days.’
‘What is it that ails you, then?’ the woman demanded.
I returned a steady gaze and said nothing.
In all actuality, she grunted and folded her arms. ‘Do not entertain any ideas of a free room.’
‘Madam, it never crossed my mind.’
The woman adopted a pinched expression, as if considering another tactic with which to drive me away. ‘There is a contract to sign. The owner is particularly meticulous when it comes to the integrity of his property. He permits no damage or structural changes.’
‘I am here to rest, dear lady. I will gladly sign your papers. Now, perhaps you will invite me inside. I have travelled a fair distance today, and am eager to settle in.’
With an ill-tempered click of her teeth, the woman turned and re-entered the house without once looking behind her to check I was following. She waved a hand distractedly. ‘The ground and basement floors are yours, the upper-level mine. If you need me (and she emphasised the word “need”), pull the chord for the bell in the hall and it will sound in my rooms. She was already mounting the stairs when she finished with, ‘I will bring you the papers to sign.’
While the less than accommodating landlady was, no doubt, securing the necessary small print to be signed, I took it upon myself to peruse my new temporary lodging. It was spacious and curiously quaint in its tidy but significantly outdated décor. The house, at least what I had seen of it thus far, appeared comfortably ensconced in the Victorian period – a time of new endeavours and uncertainty in equal measure – offering a formal yet relaxed atmosphere. It was offset only by a macabre painting by Clayton Wallace, which suggested much more than it appeared to show. A dark and eerie setting seemed to threaten a multitude of hidden nameless entities. It was at once terrifying and compelling, sufficient to tease all the potential darkness from the human soul into the real world. Much as the woman had pressed the importance of making no changes, perhaps I might temporarily remove the picture, or at least turn it to the wall. There was indeed something twisted and uncanny about it that reminded me of my experience at Windfall Grange.
I was pleased to find a modest writing desk, with implements and paper, as well as a comfortable leather chair and a small selection of leather-bound works to read.
The forthright woman appeared like a spectre just as I was opening the door to the basement level cellar. ‘Here, you can sign these documents right now.’ She thrust them unceremoniously at my chest, but I refused to clutch them into my possession.
‘I am certain you will understand, dear lady, when I say it would not be prudent for me to formally agree to such an undertaking without having fully inspected my lodging.’
She issued a harrumph! Before launching into a tirade of words – some relevant, most otherwise – as I descended the wooden stairs to the lower level. The noisome monologue continued as I perused the sparse and mostly undecorated area, certainly more suited for the storage of perishable items due to the coolness of the air.
I began to grow aggrieved and curious at the woman’s incessant babbling, to the point she rudely spoke over me when I attempted to react to any of her words. It appeared purposeful and rehearsed, and abruptly ceased the moment we returned to the rooms above.
The as yet unintroduced woman tapped her foot impatiently and sighed theatrically as I meticulously examined her paperwork. Finally, suspicious though interpreting nothing untoward, I put pen to her papers and finally relaxed somewhat as she went on her way.
With no wish to converse with the landlady further than was absolutely compulsory, and having no inkling if food was included with my board, I ventured out for a walk, in order to obtain a better understanding of my surroundings. With a view to amenities, I came across a small eatery where I enjoyed an evening meal and exited with a bottle of brandy. Then, back at the lodging, I settled in the leather chair with a tipple of the fortifying spirit and updated my journal.
Little more than an hour had passed when I heard the front entrance close. Through the window I espied the unpleasant landlady exiting wrapped tightly in a fur coat. She appeared to have applied make-up, so perhaps a visit to the theatre. Whatever her destination, I guessed it would be two hours or more before she returned.
Lighting a candle, I opened the door which led to the cellar and carefully descended the steps. Two things were immediately apparent: without the light shining through the pavement glass from above it was extremely dark, the flickering flame from the candle barely illuminating the floor in front of me. There was a faint but definite sound which at first I took to be a curious moaning. As I stood listening intently I soon realised it was more of a continuous droning which I failed to identify.
The acoustics of the cellar meant it was difficult to pinpoint the origin of the noise. I slowly made my way around the lower level’s confines, placing an ear to various walls and even the floor, without success. However, when I reached a particular brick wall it gave the impression of being more recent in its construction. Furthermore, an impression which struck me and yet vanished upon my first visit returned. The dimensions of the cellar were minutely smaller than the rooms above. I crouched on the floor, maintaining my hold on the candle, and put my ear to the brickwork. The unidentified sound became slightly clearer yet no more distinct. Gently, I ran one hand along the brickwork, as if enticing it to reveal its secrets.
At length, I rose to my feet and returned to the leather chair upstairs. I attempted to read; however, I found myself unable to concentrate my mind on the task. My head was awash with questions, ideas and suspicions. In short form, I dismissed the possibility I could be losing my grip on reality; instead, I awaited the arrival of the landlady in order to note the time. She arrived approximately two and one-half hours after having left.
Immediately, a plan was put together. I required some answers. The woman had with purpose prevented my hearing the emitted droning. Nevertheless, she could not have believed by chance I would not revisit the cellar below. I was not, of course, new to the concept of reverse psychology; the idea of persuading a person to take an action by warning them not to. The locked room scenario. It was impossible to banish the belief everything happening to me was for a purpose. Events linked together. Simply stated, there was a convincing case for suspecting a nefarious scheme was at play. Without seeing it through, however, I would reveal nothing of consequence. I harboured no wish to be in the unenvious position of looking over my shoulder for the foreseeable future.
The next day I ensured to exit the house at precisely the same moment as I had the day before. This time, rather than seeking out a suitable place in which to dine, I searched for an outlet to appropriate the tools I would require. For fear of being seen, I could not return to my accommodation with them, and so stored them safely nearby.
The evening contrived to materialise all too soon. I sat in the leather chair with one eye on the front window, hoping against all hope the unpleasant woman would prove to be a creature of habit. As the time neared her exit of the previous night I nervously chewed my nails. The moment came and passed, and I felt myself slump as if defeated. If the woman failed to venture out this night I realised I would be obliged to extend my stay. That would prove suspicious, I was certain.
It was half of one hour before I heard the front door close with a certain finality. I watched her climb into a sadly declining Hansom cab which trotted with purpose down the street. I immediately vacated my seat, and indeed the house, walking quickly in the opposite direction. Within mere minutes I was safely seconded back in the house. Without hesitation, I descended the stairs to the cellar with two burning candles. A return trip was sufficient to secure all of the required tools before the wall in question. The humming noise seemed of significantly higher volume, as if anticipating my intention; calling, enticing me to more prompt action. I was not entire convinced it was simply my imagination.
Tentatively, I scraped around the brick which appeared the most likely to move. Abruptly, I realised I held no inkling how I might return any removed bricks to the exacting extent no one would notice the change. The drive to discover what lay beyond the wall overwhelmed any nervousness at being subsequently discovered. Finally, I pulled the brick free and held one of the candles to the gap. The wan, flickering flame revealed nothing, though there was an unmistakable unpleasant odour which suggested something more than stale air.
I levered the adjoining brick free and then, acutely aware of the passing time, swung brutally at the remainder with a sledgehammer. Kicking aside the rubble and waving away the brick dust, I stepped into the deep space behind the wall, carrying both candles.
Astonished, I spied what was undoubtedly a freezer unit. It was upright – a cabinet rather than a chest – and somewhat aged. A heavy link chain surrounded it, reminding me of the signed contract stating nothing should be moved, altered or changed. I could hardly halt here, however. I was no closer to uncovering an obvious closely guarded secret.
It took several minutes with my collection of tools to conclude I would not compromise the chain itself. Instead, I directed my attention to the lock. Oddly, this proved easier to break. Despite the coolness of the cellar, I found myself perspiring profusely and stepped back to regain my composure. At length, I released the chain, pulled the lever fastening the chiller cabinet, allowing an acrid nauseating stench to fill the air, and took another step backwards in the event something dangerous was inherent.
Several events occurred, seemingly in one moment, and I will seek to justifiably describe them all.
As the door swung open I espied what appeared to be a creature of nightmares – or, more succinctly, part of a creature. It was a bleached green hue, with a slither of misshapen head like a half-deflated dirigible. Two snake-like fronds hung from it, and there was a single long tentacle curled-up. At first I assumed the horrific creature to be deceased, before I detected a slight pulsing of the aforementioned tentacle. Startled and terrorised, I stumbled to one side… just as I acutely sensed someone behind me. An axe clove the air where my head had been only moments before, and the wielder stumbled forwards past me, off balance.
At that precise juncture, a single large eye opened in the section of the creature’s head. It was a pus-like yellow-white but fixed and silently commanding. I quickly looked away. My attacker was frozen in place; however, he quickly began to scream like a banshee as an unseen force pulled him slowly but resolutely toward the chiller cabinet. In a chilling instant I recognised the man as Grayson, Professor Lasseter’s valet.
I could not believe my own eyes as I witnessed Grayson’s body contort out of shape as it was drawn into the cabinet’s confines with the part-creature. Finding the foresight to move to one side, I pushed the door closed forcibly with one outstretched leg. The heavy chain was repositioned around the chiller cabinet the best I could under the circumstances, my heart slamming all the while.
Staring, disbelieving, at the closed door it was impossible to ascertain what was happening within, and I did not wish to know. Recognising the dangers of receding into myself was a benefit of my psychology background. There could not be more than an hour of the clock before the landlady returned from her night out. By that time, I intended to be safely out of the house.
One fact was plainly obvious: Grayson had followed me here from Windfall Grange with the sole intention of taking my life. The fact it had not been carried out during my stay at the Grange meant, undoubtedly, the purpose was to feed me to whatever the monstrosity in the chiller cabinet was. This line of reasoning meant, with certainty, Professor Lasseter was involved in some diabolical scheme in which I was to play a small part.
It is sometimes said it is foolish to presume anything; however, it was logical to conjecture in this instance the unpleasant lady was also assuredly involved in this plot. Furthermore, I secretly harboured the belief that Professor Lasseter’s mysterious acquaintance, who supposedly owned this property was, in truth, Lasseter himself – though at present I possessed no proof in confirmation.
Ensuring the soles of my shoes were free of brick dust, I collected together the tools and, leaving the axe, returned them to their secure hiding place not far from the house, hoping against hope no one in the road chanced to gaze upon me from their window. For the woman to believe sincerely I was the victim and Grayson had successfully carried out his task before discreetly exiting the building once more, it was necessary to leave behind my belongings. I was certain she had not laid eyes upon my journal, and so removed it from my bag and secured it safely within a pocket of my formal jacket.
I doubted the cantankerous buzzard would have the courage to open the chiller cabinet – even if the body of Grayson remained identifiable – through fear of being dragged in herself.
It was a simple task to ensure a visual state of current occupancy: an unfinished glass of brandy, items of clothing from my bag, as well as the case itself, and personal items left in the washroom. I stood in the hallway and took one last look around prior to leaving.
It was at that juncture I was silently reminded of my naivety. Whilst fully realising I had been the intended victim; I had no inkling of the reason or ultimate motive. Furthermore, why had Professor Lasseter lured me to Windfall Grange, only to send me on to this house in Whitechapel to be murdered? What was the alarmingly fearsome part-creature which had, in a very literal sense, petrified Grayson and dragged him to his death. If I left now I would be no less ignorant. Being a logical man, I crave the facts.
I glanced up the stairs towards the landlady’s rooms above. I reasoned there was less than half an hour before she returned, and there was always the possibility she might return earlier than the night before. Abruptly, my heart began slamming once more and my head swam with a light-headedness born of fear. Morally obliged to search for connections, I inhaled a deep breath in an attempt to calm my nerves, turned and ran up the stairs.
The layout came as a surprise to me. There was no locked entryway, simply a large, open arrangement with sectioned areas for two bedrooms, a food preparation facility, a washroom, drawing room and small study. There was a sizeable desk with pigeon holes and many small drawers. My hand shook slightly as I reached out to pull open the first.
I had never done anything like this before. It felt intrusive. It contained nothing of consequence. However, in the second drawer I discovered a partly inked letter. It was clearly intended for the recipient, Professor Lasseter, as his full name and the address for Windfall Grange sat at the heading.
The unfinished letter stated:
Your guest has arrived and events are preceding in accordance with your schedule (A. H. D. C).
There was no way of knowing if I was the ‘guest’ or she had meant my intended assassin, Grayson; it did prove a connection between myself and the occurrences at Windfall Grange.
Returning the letter carefully to the drawer, ensuring everything was undisturbed, and with time seriously ebbing away, I opened another drawer to find a folded sheet of paper marked with a large five-pointed star. At each point were scribbled initials, one of which was circled. Quickly, I removed my journal, turned to a blank page and copied verbatim what was on the sheet.
I could not afford to waste any more time. The sheet of paper was returned to its rightful place. I secured my recently signed contract from the desk surface and forced it unceremoniously into my other jacket pocket - for no more valid reason than it might prove of importance. Then I trotted down the stairs to the main entrance door. I had no clue if the five-pointed star I had copied held any connection to me or my recent phantasmagorical experiences, still I felt satisfied it was probably no coincidence. I put one ear to the door for a moment and, consequently hearing nothing, opened it no more than a crack. With no one in sight, I exited, closing the door as quietly behind me as I could.
As I walked out onto the street I could hear the unmistakable sound of a Hansom cab approaching from the West. Keeping to the darkness, I walked quickly in the opposite direction, secreting myself behind a wide tree. I dared not look out from behind it, lest I was witnessed by the landlady or, indeed, the Hansom cab driver. Soon enough, I heard the front entrance door to the house close resoundingly, and the driver turn his horses in the road to return in the direction from which he had arrived.
My first priority was to remove myself from the area and contemplate my next step, while avoiding the closest train stations and, of course, refraining from at any point hailing a Hansom.
Walking would undoubtedly aid in ordering my thoughts. Perhaps I might take rooms somewhere outside of London. Certainly, I could not currently return to work; news would leak out I remained alive and that would place me in constant peril. Additionally, it was not an option to report my experiences to Scotland Yard. I had little confidence my spoken accounts would be believed, and accusing a renowned scientist in the ground-breaking field of psychology would carry little weight – particularly as serious professional conflict would be named. I would be accused of attempting to ruin Lasseter’s reputation when the opposite is certainly the case. The means to an end. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Of one fact I was certain. There would be a reckoning…
End of Part Two.
A Novel Way to Die is a serial killer thriller set in Snowdonia, North Wales, and in and around London. It's a police procedural, with help that comes from the most unlikely of sources. The taster presented here is the second murder scene. You can download the eBook from Amazon or directly from my Homepage.
Liz Scott was a thirty-eight-year old honey-blonde woman with prominent angular features which were striking rather than attractive: high rouged cheekbones, orange-flecked blue eyes, small elfin-like ears and a particularly petite mouth. She was of Irish ancestry, but her mother had moved them from Dublin to London when Liz was only five.
More recently, she was a relatively new member of the Questers, and the pressure was already beginning to tell.
‘Look, I regret having to be blunt like this,’ the obese president of the society, Ben Osbourne told her, ‘but the rules are, if you don't start bringing some prizes back to the club, you'll lose your place to somebody else.’ Heavily overweight, after every few words he fought for breath, which wheezed and rattled through his nose like gale-force winds through a slatted fence.
‘And as you know there are several names on a reserve membership list simply waiting for the opportunity.’ He gazed intently at her with sunken piggy eyes topped by light-brown caterpillar brows, his jowls and three chins flapping as he talked.
Liz said nothing, but stared daggers at the huge, self-important man across the desk. She despised the man nine years her junior, inside and out. His skin was so flushed with high blood pressure that if anyone decided to stick the man with a pin he would surely explode, coating the walls with a cocktail of red haemoglobin and nauseating blubber. She imagined his sweat-covered bald head cracking in two and slimy tentacles slithering out. There was no logical explanation for his brain possessing octopus-arms, but it significantly enhanced the vision. It seemed the only logical explanation for his total lack of personality was the probability he wasn't human at all. She saw herself leap up and throttle his fat neck for good measure.
She must have smiled, because Osbourne sighed and said, ‘I'm glad you're amused, Mrs Scott, because from this moment you can consider yourself on probation.’ He leaned back in his giant leather chair, which released an alarming creak of protest. ‘I don't think it's unfair to highlight the fact that during eight major treasure hunts, over a period of six months, you've managed to elude every prize...’
‘I won a reward in my first week!’ she exclaimed indignantly.
‘A group session, and it was only a Stage. Nothing major and certainly nothing on your own merit.’ He altered the tone of his voice to a warning and leaned forward again for emphasis. His eyes regarded her with obvious contempt. ‘You have one further month to prove your usefulness to the Questers. I suggest you go home now, Mrs Scott, and ponder very carefully the consequences of what has been said here.’
Liz had some particularly descriptive phrases in mind but decided to hold her tongue. Instead she absently scratched her forehead like she usually did when angry or upset. Whatever it took she would discover a way to prove to the conceited Osbourne that she wasn't as useless as he suggested. When she'd succeeded in that venture, she would tell the president just what he could do with his Questers, in no uncertain terms. There were plenty of other competing societies who would take her on without question. This activity was supposed to be enjoyable first and serious competition last. Perhaps the other clubs had a more light-hearted approach.
The means with which to wreak her revenge came in the form of a letter found on the doormat when she arrived home.
It was a sunny but very windy Saturday afternoon in mid-November. Liz had been at the Mystic Maze Hunt in Tonbridge since Friday morning. The performance of the Questers had again been disappointing, putting Ben Osbourne in a dour frame of mind. As the newest member Liz became the scapegoat subject to official ridicule.
She felt grateful to be back home in Greenwich, home also to the world-famous Greenwich Mean Time and the Meridian Line, the Cutty Sark clipper ship, the Gypsy Moth, the National Maritime Museum, the only fractionally-built Millennium construction, vehicle pollution and tourist overcrowding.
Her maisonette was situated in a little side street called Spice Thoroughfare, ironic as it was unexciting, didn't really go anywhere and was far from the main drag. Externally, her home was tidy but unimpressive, inside it was organised chaos. The walls were papered with a dull lime-coloured design which was cold-looking in winter but currently impossible to redecorate due to the excessive clutter it would be necessary to remove.
Scooping up the post, she edged around the veritable assault course of consumer competition prizes: washing machine, television, video and satellite system, mountain bike, collapsible snooker table, and two dozen sundry smaller items. She had even recently won a Volkswagen Passat, sold on for spending money. A rusty Austin Metro was good enough for her and her partner, and cheaper to run.
‘Is that you, Liz?’ shouted Gareth when she inadvertently knocked over a stack of boxes.
‘I hope so,’ she answered, fighting her way to a kitchen bar stool. ‘We've got to get rid of some of this stuff. You can't move in here.’
Gareth appeared from the adjoining living-room. He was tall, with a black beard, mischievous eyes and a build like Geoff Capes. ‘I had a pretty productive day yesterday. I've managed to sell a fair amount of the gear on.’ He placed a hand behind her neck and kissed her once. ‘How did your weekend go?’
Liz poured some cornflakes into a bowl and began to eat them like crisps. She shrugged.
‘They're going to throw me out.’
‘The Questers? What for?’
‘Osbourne, the president, reckons I haven't been winning enough prizes for the club. He put me on probation for a month.’
Gareth Scott clapped a hand to his head in an exaggerated comic representation of complete incredulity. ‘I don't believe it!’ he laughed. ‘If only they knew what you've won on your own in a hundred and one different competitions.’
‘I don't think it would count for much in his eyes,’ she said gloomily.
‘Why does it have to? Don't give him the satisfaction of dismissing you. Resign. You don't need to do this, you know. I realise my being made redundant hasn't exactly helped our situation, but we're not yet destitute.’
Liz poured fresh orange juice over her cornflakes, then stared at the bowl, wondering if that had been her intention. She finally shrugged, spooning in a mouthful. ‘It's only the competition prizes that's keeping us afloat,’ she said between two mouthfuls. ‘I know I haven't succeeded yet in the treasure hunting game, but it's bound to happen sooner or later and, generally speaking, the prize money is presented personally to the winner. Only the team prizes and all trophies and shields go to the club. Your pitiful redundancy money won't get us anywhere.’
‘Thanks for the vote of confidence,’ commented Gareth.
Temporarily abandoning her cornflakes Liz walked across to her husband and touched his cheek fondly. ‘I didn't mean it how it sounded. The slur was targeted at your tight-
fisted old firm, not you.’
Gareth smiled. ‘All I'm saying is this Questers lark isn't a necessity.’
‘That's where you're wrong,’ she stated with resolve, ‘because I'm going to join another rival society. When I do win a prize, I'll stuff Osbourne by presenting it elsewhere.’
‘Just call me Mrs Devious.’
Liz refocused her attention on the post. Most were reminders of overdue bills or junk mail, but one proved more than interesting. Her eyes widened and she began scratching her forehead as she read.
‘What is it?’ asked a suddenly concerned Gareth. He had long since learned to recognise when his wife was excited, worried or uncomfortable.
Excitement and not a little fear on her face, Liz studied the letter again before passing it over.
Dear Mrs Elizabeth Scott
Your name has been randomly selected from the membership lists of all UK treasure hunting societies to take part in the greatest competition ever devised. Those names set out below are reserves, should you choose not to accept this offer.
There will be only one person striving for success through a number of prearranged
clues. You will need to display enhanced skills of intelligence, reasoning, decisiveness and deftness through each level. If you do not reach the ultimate goal you will deemed to have failed.
As you will have no doubt noticed, there is no publicity for this event. It is for one person alone. The media attention will come later when a candidate has successfully negotiated the hurdles.
Please note that some of the stages will be dangerous. Do not accept this challenge unless you fully intend to see it through to its conclusion.
In an exciting and unprecedented move in this field the prizes will be an all-time high. The capital gain for each stage will progressively ascend, and a further twenty thousand pounds is gained upon completion, along with additional jewellery and voucher bonuses.
This is a personal achievement with no outside help or interference, and for this reason if anybody is informed prior to the hunt you will forfeit your opportunity to participate. This includes all media, membership or other societies, friends, associates and family. There will be possibilities for later publicity, should you wish.
Reply to Thomas Able, Dungeon Productions, PO Box 666, London for details of location and event time.
Gareth passed back the letter. The envelope was postmarked West Sussex, which was strange as the reply address was London. No help there.
‘This is exactly what I've been waiting for. It could pull us out of a rut and allow me to exact my revenge.’ Her eyes sparkled and her forehead itched.
Her husband pulled a face. ‘I don't know, Liz. Sounds suspicious to me.’
Liz waved a hand dismissively. ‘You're suspicious about everything. We've got to take chances in life if we're going to get anywhere.’
‘But there are chances and reasonable chances. We don't know anything about Dungeon Productions, and have you ever heard of Thomas Able?’
‘No, but there's new societies springing up all over the place.’ Her voice was a little whinny as she tried to convince herself as well as Gareth. ‘It's like the list of reserves; I don't recognise any of the names but that's not unusual considering the number of competitors like myself.’ She returned to her fruit-flavoured cornflakes, but after another single bite she disinterestedly pushed the bowl aside.
Gareth sighed, but rather than weakening, he said, ‘I still don't like it. With no one there to watch, you're vulnerable. Anything could happen.’
‘You don't have to like it. The invitation is for me.’
And, so it went on. The objective discussion inevitably developed into a vehement argument. They agreed to differ that day and the subject was dropped. When broached in passing the following morning Liz played it down, saying she'd decided to heed his advice and not contact this Thomas Able. However, Gareth knew better; when Liz got an idea in her head, she often proved stubborn, refusing to let go. He knew she would accept the challenge, and he suspected she knew he knew.
Eight days later Liz made what sounded like a half-baked lame excuse to leave the house for the day. She took the Metro car and Gareth surreptitiously followed. He had acted shrewdly by calling in a favour two days before, which resulted in his secretly having the use of a Ford Fiesta.
Careful not to get too close he trailed her from their home in Greenwich, in an approximate southerly direction towards Croydon. He nearly lost her a couple of times in the heavy traffic and was forced more than once to jump red lights in order to remain with her. The bright tangerine colour of the old Metro helped, but still it required much concentration.
In fact, so intent was he on following his wife that he failed to notice the four-wheel-drive vehicle which had trailed him for several miles. As they moved along a dimly lit cut-through to South Croydon called Hill View Road, the vehicle accelerated up on the inside and cut in across him. The two vehicles made minute contact. Gareth stood on the brake but the steering wheel was wrenched from his grip. The borrowed Fiesta veered crazily across the road and upended itself against a row of sapling trees. Through blurred vision he was presented with an upside-down view of the road ahead. Of course, there was no sight of Liz and the Metro.
Liz felt awful about deceiving her husband. She felt it was necessary, however, because Gareth had been adamant, she should not attend the event. He would get the police involved before he knowingly allowed her to venture into potential danger alone. It was rather sweet, really, but totally unwarranted. So unconvincing was her excuse that she very nearly blew her cover. But fooled or not, today was the scheduled arrangement described in the subsequent letter and she had no choice but to leave or forget about the entire deal.
Continuing on towards the southernmost border of Croydon, she followed the written instructions for nearly two miles to a derelict warehouse. It was large and appeared threatening in its dilapidated state, as if resentful of its closure. There were no signs this was the correct venue; indeed, there was no indication anyone had visited here in quite some time.
She drove into the grounds and parked outside the main entrance. No other vehicles were present. Large patches of the otherwise deep red walls were stained a greasy black, probably by whatever unsavoury pollutant the single large chimney stack used to dispel, so that it looked as if the building had died of a virulent disease.
Locking the Metro, Liz slowly approached the large doors. A security chain linked through the bar handles was loose enough to allow her to squeeze between the doors. In the spacious reception hall, as with outside, the only activity was the movement of old litter caught in various tiny eddies. She pulled her fur-lined coat tighter around her midriff to combat the biting late November wind, sincerely hoping all this inconvenience would be worth her while.
‘Hello?’ she called nervously, watching her breath steam forth like an impotent dragon.
‘Hellooooo’, came the echo reply.
According to a half-faded board, the staircase in front led to the Administrative Offices. She recognised none of the readable names listed; somehow, she had expected to. Perhaps it was the distinct feeling she should be receiving clues as to where to go and what to do next. It smelled terrible here. Dank and corrupt, like wet fruit and vegetables had been dumped nearby to turn mouldy and slowly dissolve. Liz decided to move on before she was sick.
There were two large doors either side of the reception hall, labelled Workroom 1 to 4. She looked more closely at the plates; they were all chipped and faded, but remained legible. It didn't take Inspector Poirot to notice one of them was free from cobwebs and sporting new screws. An obvious pointer. She headed for Workroom 3 and slowly pushed open the door.
The fanfare music which blasted through made her back go stiff with shock. For a moment she couldn't move at all. It was as if the link between her brain and body was suddenly severed. Her breath came in short gasps and she was forced to fight against hyperventilation. Liz soon discovered she was considerably more nervous than she had expected. Before she ‘chickened out’ entirely, Liz summoned the courage to enter the workroom, slowly scratching her forehead as she went. A voice was already speaking, just detectable over the rushing of blood in her ears.
‘Welcome, my specially selected contestant, to the single most profitable event of its kind ever staged: Dungeon Productions’ Intelligence and Ingenuity Treasure Hunt. The stages must be completed in strict rotation. Hidden cameras will be watching your every move. The first clue is on the door through which you entered.’
Liz whirled around and spied the amateur printed card tacked to the inside of the door. Scanning the walls and ceiling she saw no obvious sign of cameras. That was not unusual, however; cameras such as those mounted on racing cars or utilised in certain surgical procedures were so small it was simplicity itself to conceal them.
‘Hello?’ she called. ‘Mr Able? Would you like to introduce yourself before I start?’ When no reply was forthcoming, she suspected the voice to be an amplified recording.
It cut in again, saying, ‘Please voice your thoughts and actions for each stage.’
Ripping the typed clue from the door Liz walked to the first stage. The meaning of the printed script was cryptic and open to interpretation. It read:
When She Got There, The Cupboard Was Bare.
Out of The Frying Pan, The Fox and The Hair.
There was a large cupboard with double doors standing by the sign which said, Stage One. She tugged at the knob handles but it refused to open. Drawing a hairpin from her tangles, Liz frowned in concentration over the tiny lock. It opened surprisingly easily. Almost as an afterthought she threw herself protectively to one side. The caution in this case proved unnecessary. The cupboard was indeed bare. She glanced fleetingly at the fingernails of her right hand, noticing the fragments of skin beneath them. She fought hard to ignore the nervous tingling of her head.
Realising she'd already forgotten the recorded instructions Liz began a running commentary.
‘I've just picked the lock on this cupboard, only to discover it's empty inside.’ She looked at the clue again. ‘Out of the Frying Pan, generally refers to going from one problem to another and normally ends with, Into the Fire. The Fox and the Hair puzzles me.’ She considered the variations. ‘The Fox and Hounds. The Tortoise and the Hare ...’ Liz decided to approach the problem from another direction. ‘The fox is red and considered to be sly and cunning. Instead of Hare of the rabbit variety, this is spelt differently, referring to bodily Hair. Putting them together what do I have? Yes, what do I have?’ she added under her breath. ‘In an empty cupboard is something red-hot, cunning and hairy!’
It made no sense.
Liz rapped her knuckles around the insides of the cupboard. The hollow sound informed her it possessed a false back. There was an audible click and as she ducked the false back sprang outwards, triggering a flare which sprayed her with bright red sparks.
‘Shit!’ she cursed. The smell of something scorching brought hands to her head where the loose hairs were frizzling. Panicking, she used her coat to prevent the sparks catching, although there was no real harm done.
At least now she understood the clue!
Little wonder this event isn't being publicised live, thought Liz. There was no way the media and other hunt societies would allow participants to be subjected to physical danger in the search for purely profitable gains.
Now she was presented with the obvious choice. The nature of this contest was now evident. Either continue, accepting the fact of subjecting herself to possible injury or worse, or admit defeat and common sense which would entail leaving right now and allowing someone else to take her place.
The box behind the false panel made up her mind for her. It contained a small card with the printed message: Double Bubble, Toil and Trouble. It indicated that she had to negotiate certain irregularities in order to secure the monetary rewards, which would double at each stage. The figure presented beneath caused Liz's eyes to widen in surprise and delight. If that sum truly doubled four times, her financial situation would easily be alleviated…and that was discounting the final prize. Feeling confident now she'd safely completed the first test, Liz pressed on with the following stages.
The conclusion of the Second Stage resulted in her narrowly escaping being caught within the metal jaws of a powerful spring-loaded animal trap. When they snapped loudly together only inches away, her heart almost stopped in sympathy. This Thomas Able must be a complete and utter madman, she reasoned. Curiously, this knowledge made her all the more determined to succeed. By this time Liz had discovered that this ‘game’ was more about avoiding the traps than simply finding and solving the clues. She maintained her expediency; however, there was a level to just how careful it was possible to be whilst still putting herself in danger. It was a case of being sensible and taking chances – as much as the two could coincide.
For the first time she noticed a small window high on the wall and out of reach. Momentarily, the sun shone blindingly bright through it, as if a message from God was reminding her of her foolishness. Then the Workroom was plunged into near darkness again as clouds obscured the light.
During the Third Stage Liz avoided an accidentally upended container of sulphuric acid, and in the Fourth narrowly evaded a spear rigged to be released at midriff height. Nevertheless, this ripped a large tear in the sleeve of her already fire-damaged coat, taking a pound of flesh and blood with it. Shrieking in shock Liz clapped a shaking hand to the wound.
‘Damn it! This had better be worth it, Able, you sick bastard!’
The itching of her forehead intensified; her own inner sense of foreboding. She couldn't stop now though. There was only the ultimate test to complete.
The final printed clue was within sight but agonizingly out of reach. ‘I see the card secured to the wall,’ she spoke aloud and abruptly. It wouldn't do to discount her instructions this late on in the competition and lose by default. ‘The problem is it's too high to reach or even make out the lettering from here.’
There was a makeshift wooden platform with two large steps leading up. ‘This little artificial level looks rickety to me. I'm not sure it will take even my meagre weight.’ Liz looked around to see if she could utilise anything else to gain the required height. There was no ladder available; that would have been too much to ask for! The cupboard from Stage One was too small but it wouldn't have made any difference had it been larger. Although the clue was attached to the wall it was centrally positioned above the platform; if a multitude of structures were piled up alongside the raised walkway the clue would still remain out of reach. There was no other option it seemed but to negotiate the walkway.
Her patience was feeling strained beyond endurance, which she realised was dangerous. It was necessary to pause for a moment and take stock of her feelings. Liz knew that her conflicting emotions were in turmoil, but there was nothing she could do to alleviate the problem. Excitement, apprehension, foreboding, anxiety and outright fear fought for prominence. In fact, she could actually smell her own fear, impossible as it sounded, stale and yet clammy, probably emanating with sweat through the pores of her skin. She needed the toilet badly. Touching the damp stickiness of her face, Liz couldn't resist the urge to forcefully scratch her forehead one more time.
‘I can't see any alternative means of reaching the clue, aside from by crossing the platform,’ she said shakily to the unseen Thomas Able or his concealed microphones. ‘Perhaps the edges are more secure or I could spread my weight by crawling across. If it collapses, I won't fall far, but I might injure myself in the way that I fall. And taking into account the nature of this event there's no telling what nasty surprise might be waiting for me below.’ As she finished the sentence a wave of nausea passed over her.
She remembered telling Gareth that you have to take chances to make any progress in this life. If she was to take home the promised substantial prize money – to be collected after this ultimate test – then it was necessary to put herself at personal risk, if only temporarily. If she was perfectly honest with herself Liz had come off lightly up to now. All it required was a certain amount of caution and lateral thinking to avoid the pitfalls...
Liz ascended the steps extremely slowly. They creaked loudly and for a moment she thought they might collapse before she ever reached the platform. Looking across at the wall she found it still impossible to read the card's printed script.
‘I'm about to step on to the platform,’ she said aloud, before falling silent to concentrate on her next move. She raised a foot over the platform. If it wasn't stable on the edges then the chances were the entire structure would collapse at a moment's notice. Liz brought down the foot to tentatively test her weight, like dipping a toe into the bath water. Then she rested the weight of that leg on the nearest edge.
Liz knew nothing about the triggered explosion that tore her apart. It was quick but devastatingly effective. Her body was thrown simultaneously in three different directions and the old wood of the platform was splintered into littered debris. It was only a small explosion; however, at such close quarters it wreaked fatal havoc. Blood sprayed up the walls, reaching a seemingly impossible height. The headless torso, thrown into the centre of the Workroom, continued to pump out blood and other bodily fluids for some time, forming a wide slick. An arm, separated from the body, twitched involuntarily, like a gruesome scene from an old Frankenstein film. A foot managed to reach the high window, as if seeking escape – a sick parody. And the head half-rolled, half-slid across the wet floor, somehow avoiding all the obstacles in its path, and came to rest just inside the door to the room. The open eyes sightlessly guarded the scene.
Approximately ten minutes later a figure emerged from concealment into the Workroom. It surveyed the devastation without emotion and was careful not to step anywhere near the blood and tissue spread across a wide area of the floor. The scene was left moments later generally as it was found by Elizabeth Scott; only a few minor items were collected. And one deposited.
Set in the near future, this science fiction tale explores the effects on the peoples of the world when it is discovered a young man can unerringly predict disasters in the future. And when all is seemingly doom and gloom, what gift if any can the bearer of this bad news bestow on the populace?
His name was Tobias Smith, but they called him Nostradamus, after the sixteenth century philosopher, because of his predictions for the future.
More commonly he was known as the Dark Portender, as all of his statements revolved around the darker side of life. No one knew from whence he came. His surname certainly suggested occidental origins, and his language was English but with no noticeable regional accent. However, his skin had a Mediterranean appearance. An orphan, his parents were never known, to him or anyone else. In ageing, he progressed from orphanage to children's home, and then made his way normally into the working world.
But he was far from normal.
Tobias Smith's talent first made itself known at the early age of six. He would tell the other boys of impending trouble, mostly at the hands of the masters, but when every warned-of occasion occurred exactly as foretold, it immediately alienated him, when he thought it would gain him companions. The information was not appreciated. Anyone who could do this was not a friend but rather a person to be feared. They blamed him personally for each unhappy situation, simply because he had told them it would happen. He was pretty much isolated by the others after that, the kids happy that they didn't have to endure each hour of each day dreading some predicted event. It was the masters who first started to refer to him as the Dark Portender. They were obliged to help Tobias with his studies, though they avoided catching his eye through fear that the boy might see right into their souls and tell them something about their future lives that they really didn't wish to know.
At first people simply avoided his company, but a little later in life he found that he was always the centre of attention, initially in his home town of Canterbury, then throughout England, and finally all around the world.
Tobias completed his education and, after training, began work as a professional photographer. His schooling proved a lonely but easy existence; those few troublemakers who chose to confront him physically were merely given a future instance of pain or embarrassment which, when it materialised to the minutest detail, assured that they left him alone. But shortly after beginning work, his name became so widespread that it disrupted his life.
The media virtually camped outside the offices in order to obtain interviews and learn more about this mysterious man. Tobias Smith didn't want to know, but his employers, at one time glad of the free advertising, finally had to ‘let him go’ because of the continual interruption to the business.
So, forced into a financial predicament for the first time in his life, Tobias Smith agreed to speak through the media. This announcement caused great excitement, with all the major press tycoons vying for his exclusive attention. But he turned them all down, explaining that this was, in his eyes, a public service to the people, and that no single party should have the monopoly on his ‘foresight’.
He announced that he would agree to appear on national television, live on all networks simultaneously. On these two separate occasions he would make one major prediction. For each appearance he would be paid a to be agreed sum from each branch of the media. Thereafter, all subsequent announcements were to be public and totally free of charge. Upon hearing this latter piece of news a few of the smaller names tried to step backwards, out of the limelight; however, the fees for the two initial appearances had been meticulously proportioned, percentage wise, according to the wealth and status of each media company, and Tobias refused to announce the first great day until all monies due had been deposited in the accounts set up solely for this purpose.
The first revelation was to be live from St. Paul’s Cathedral, but the Church of England was unsettled by Tobias Smith's abilities, and changed its mind, suddenly deciding that they were the instruments of the devil. This temporary reversion to medieval philosophy rather shocked the nation, not to mention the rest of the watching world. But then shoulders were shrugged and the venue moved to the Imperial War Museum.
On this first occasion Tobias told the world that there would be a multiple vehicle pile-up on the four lane M25 motorway, which completely rings London, England. He said it would happen between exits seven and eight, and gave the date of the accident, though for reasons of his own he refused to supply the time, saying only that there would be many fatalities. Needless to say, the M25 was closed off to the public, but long lines of traffic cones confused the two dozen media vehicles racing to film a scene of which they would play the major part. Two vehicles collided in fog and the remainder simply piled blindly into the carnage. Twenty two people died that day.
Tobias had long since accepted that these foreseen events could not be prevented. The irony of this first public prediction was not lost on the world, and steps were promised to prevent the second disaster at all costs. The media wanted the second announcement to be made from Hyde Park; however, Tobias sensibly declined, choosing instead an enclosed venue of his own. Self-appointed assassins were rife these days and seemingly chose their victims at random. There was no sense in tempting the hand of fate.
A joint Mars expedition, backed by all of Europe and Canada, was the subject of the next vision. Tobias told the world that it would meet with disaster after leaving Earth's atmosphere. At this news there was a huge outcry for the entire space program to be scrapped. But the governments of the world would never have agreed to this demand; there was too much time and money tied up in various projects, many of them long term, such as the eventual colonisation of suitable planets to cope with the ever expanding population. The possibility of cancelling this one mission hadn't appeared to have crossed their minds. Perhaps, because a date had not been given this time, they had reasoned that if it were going to happen, it would happen whenever the go ahead was given.
The launch, from Ontario, Canada, was delayed for a complete analysis and systems check to be carried out. When this showed no errors it was done all over again. Then the checks were moved to the Mission Control itself. Finally, the manned rocket was launched with no mishaps. With the world watching every step of the way, it reached Mars and touched down. Just when the peoples of Earth were hoping that perhaps Tobias Smith would be wrong for the very first time, the ground gave way and the rocket plummeted five hundred feet and was wrecked. They had landed on the roof of a vast cavern which had been unable to take the weight. The seven man crew was killed instantly.
As originally planned the wealth accumulated from his two appearances made Tobias Smith more than financially secure for life. In fact, he purchased a small island in the pacific and retired into relative obscurity. He no longer offered his services voluntarily, but felt it only fair to step forward when requested by the majority. These requests, however, became less and less frequent; the people were finally beginning to realise that there was little point in possessing the knowledge when nothing could be done to prevent the event. He disappeared from the public eye and was not heard from for many years. A large percentage of the populace assumed, quite naturally because of the prolonged silence, that the Dark Portender, the second Nostradamus, the Precognitive, was dead.
That is until, quite out of character, he voluntarily made his presence known once again. From his island retreat he warned of an impending prediction that would be vitally important to the entire world, and his final ever announcement. His words were hooked up to the speakers of the world, and Tobias Smith relayed his news.
He stated impassively that the world would end on the night of August 20th, almost exactly five years in the future. There would be no following dawn. Tobias did not reveal the cause of this catastrophe, saying only that the means were not important, only the end. The five year's notice he believed to be the final gift from God, as he had never before seen this far into the future. It would give the people adequate opportunity to tie up loose ends and to make amends where necessary.
There was a kind of respectful silence at the announcement. A stunned numbness. And then confusion.
Many of the media companies sent news representatives to the island, but they were unable to get ashore. Tobias Smith had developed some kind of invisible electrical field around the perimeter. They also found that it was impossible to gain entry from above. Tobias had obviously realised that additional information would be demanded from him.
There would also be assassination attempts; some people would want to kill the messenger, so to speak. He had to protect the time he personally had remaining.
The individuals which comprised the population prepared for the event in their own personal ways. There had been shock and mass hysteria, after the initial numbness, at the news. That was only to be expected. However, it was surprising how quickly the people became accustomed to the inevitable. The government expected and was prepared for riots and looting, of which there was none – at least none worthy of serious consideration. Instead of taking illegal advantage of the confusion, they were apparently learning to look at themselves and ask what they truly wanted from life.
The knowledge was not sprung on the populace; they had been given five year's notice. During that time there was a gradual breakdown of order. The cogs which made up the machinery of life, those small but important tasks which everybody took so much for granted, ground to a halt. For a while it caused chaos on the roads; no traffic signals and no traffic police. Public transport ceased to exist so that, unless you owned a vehicle – or knew somebody who did – it was impossible to get anywhere. Employees everywhere left their places of work, without notice. Most were only there for the money with which to live, and those seeking careers no longer had a future with which to ascend the ladder of success. Shops closed for the last time, forcing the government to supply the public direct with essential supplies. Not that they were particularly concerned, those officials. What difference would it make if some of those individuals perished before that fateful day?
In short, order degenerated into chaos. Not that anyone thought to complain; what would be the point? Who would listen? In fact, many treated the five years remaining as an early retirement, seizing the opportunity to undertake the activities or hobbies that their jobs or families had previously denied them. The age of free love returned; promiscuity at its foremost. No one worried about Aids or other blood or sexually transmitted diseases. If they contracted any, they wouldn't have to suffer for very long.
Even the hospitals closed overnight. What was the purpose of healing people who would die anyway? Besides, the doctors and surgeons would die, too, and they had as much right to enjoy the countdown to disaster as anyone else.
It was the breakdown of civilisation, and everybody was happy. Not once did they dispute the validity of the announcement. Even though the revelation came from the lips of one man. They had long since learned to accept his word as gospel. After all, he had never been wrong before. Not even once.
Now it was one minute to midnight on the day before the apocalypse, and everyone was at peace with the world. They held hands with strangers and smiled contentedly, waiting for the inevitable. Most had made peace with their respective gods, and some even discovered God for the first time in their lives, believing that changing their minds at the very last moment would automatically grant them entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. But midnight came and went and, with white faces and fibrillating hearts, the seven billion plus peoples of the world realised that they were now living in August 21st.
Had they understood the Dark Portender correctly? He had said there would be no dawn. Perhaps it would happen during the darkest hour of night before dawn. So, they waited. What else could they do?
Dawn came and went, and the world still lived. Something was definitely wrong – or right; whichever the point of view. But still the people waited, their nerves in tatters… just to be certain. They had naturally assumed that the dawn indicated was the one in England, and had forgotten to take into account the various time zones around the world. So, again they waited, this time for dawn to break around the rest of the globe.
Then they were sure. That strange enigma, Tobias Smith, had been wrong for the very first time in his life. It was rather curious, not to mention an immense relief, considering the result that this had been his last and most significant prediction. The peoples of six continents wandered the streets in a daze. A multitude of conflicting emotions vied for attention, the overriding ones those of confusion and relief. A few felt something close to disappointment; a feeling of anticlimax, as if they had been invited to the grandest party of all time, only to arrive and discover that it had been called off at the very last minute. Some had even returned to considering unimportant issues such as did they still have their jobs, and a hippy religious cult which centred on the culmination of all things on Earth had mysteriously vanished as if never having existed at all.
Several government officials from many countries made the journey to Tobias Smith's island in the pacific. This time their path was open; no powerful electrical fields shielded the man's privacy. Large, troop carrying choppers descended from above, and amphibious vehicles landed on the beaches.
They finally found a modest bungalow in the hills, set amongst thick vegetation, and converged on the site somewhat cautiously. Situated just outside the rear door was an empty grave, freshly dug, with an already set headstone. Upon close inspection they saw the engraving. It read:
NOVEMBER 3RD 2019 AUGUST 20TH 2049
THE FUTURE FORESEEN – BLESSING OR CURSE?
The bungalow was insecure; the government officials simply entered through a partly open patio sliding door. It was as if the great Precognitive had been expecting visitors and left an open invitation. The swarm of officialdom spread out to search for the man. They didn't expect to find him.
But they did.
Coincidentally, it was an Englishman who saw him first. It had never been established whether Tobias had originated from England, or elsewhere. The stocky, red haired man called Hector Wright gasped audibly, then waved his colleagues into the spacious lounge. Set upon a table in the centre of the room was an oak coffin, highly polished, with gold handles. The official wondered if the handles were truly gold, rather than just gold coloured. Probably not; the Dark Portender had always possessed simple tastes – the money and his island had only been an extravagance to protect his privacy – and there was no reason to believe he would be any different in death. The casket was open. The other men entered the room, and together they gazed, astonished, down on the body of Tobias Smith.
Tobias appeared completely calm and contented; there was no sign of the anxiety and turbulence which must surely have been endured for five painful years. In fact, the hint of a smile had frozen around his lips. It was difficult for those gathered to accept that this man was dead; many of them had expected the world to end, with Tobias somehow surviving the experience. But here he was, large as life, but quite definitely deceased. Wright wore a disbelieving grimace on his features. It was obvious that the second Nostradamus had foreseen his own death; but why had he lied about the end of the world?
To what purpose?
It was hard to imagine the cold reserve required for a man to climb into his own coffin and wait to die. Not to mention the nerve to dig his own grave, and carve out the headstone's epitaph.
This macabre scene had a strange mesmeric effect upon the handful of watchers. The hypnotic compulsion to simply stand and stare was overpowering and unavoidable. They remained for some time, even though one quick glance would have ensured that this picture burned itself into each person's memory for the rest of their life.
A minion of the English official, a tall, dark man named Roger Davies, discovered the note beside the body in the coffin, and was the first to snap out of the miasma and retrieve it. But, before he could unfold it, Wright snatched it from him and read aloud the contents to the stunned audience.
To whom it may concern. The peoples of my world. My people.
As you have no doubt noticed, I am dead and you are not. I foresaw, not the end of the world, but the end of MY world; my own demise. Though it is delivered through words from a pen, and not from my lips, I feel that I must apologise before progressing any further. Very soon, I believe, anger will emerge from out of confusion. However, I did not lie to the people, though I was fully aware that my words would, quite naturally, be misconstrued. This was not without purpose.
Many people harbour the wish to leave the realm of the living, having left their mark on the world; whether through a useful new invention, the development of a revolutionary new drug to cure an existing disease, or even just a business which offers the people a normal but essential service. I, myself, am no different. I wanted to be remembered for striving to achieve something beneficial to the world.
There is no doubt that I will be remembered for my ability, but this was not how I wanted to make my mark. My ability was natural to me, and I cannot recall any time I was without it. This would have been too easy an option and, therefore, not worthy of any personal merit.
Once I knew what I wanted – want – to achieve, it seemed so obvious. Upon earlier reflection, I considered my ability to be a useless talent. If I had kept quiet and not revealed its presence, there would have been the possibility of a normal life, without the ever present and obligatory responsibility I felt to the world. There was even a definite absence of good news; it was all disasters that could not be turned around, no matter the time allowed to prepare.
So, I should have stayed silent. But I was young and naïve. I had grown up with this inherent psychic power and knew no different but to use it. Five years ago I came to realise that it truly was a gift. I believe I am in possession of it for one reason only: to keep the world from heading towards its doom. I understand that this makes me sound terribly conceited, but I have no doubt now, as I write this, that I am God's instrument in successfully completing this mission – albeit I was only present at the outset. I knew this and saw my opportunity the moment I foresaw my own death, especially as I had never been offered five year's notice of impending doom or disaster.
I wanted to see how the peoples of the world would react to the certainty of Armageddon. Certainty, because I had never been incorrect in my predictions, and so my word could not be doubted.
Many of my expectations came to be realised. One major fault was understood immediately: that the world was controlled by machinery, rules and bureaucracy, and that people had long since accepted this, without question, as commonplace. All this, of course, dictated by the passing of money – truly the route of all evil.
Civilisation began to regress, causing a breakdown of order in everyday events involving finance and red tape; which is just about everything these days. You, the peoples of the world, were initially angry, but obviously soon came to realise that it did not really matter anyway, because you would soon cease to exist. Eyes were finally opened to what is really important: life itself, and life fundamentally means the people. The normal people are neglected – their needs underrepresented in all areas – taking second place to the constant movement of small pieces of officially printed paper.
Certain quarters have commented derisively in the past about totalitarian societies, but many countries actually possess this without properly realising the fact. What this actually means is that democracy exists, where freedom of speech is allowed, providing what is spoken is acceptable by that government's standards. Not even the most straightforward transaction can be applied without piles of the aforementioned printed pieces of paper and documents, signed in triplicate, which are worded in such a fashion that a lawyer is required to translate. In short, red tape is slowing progress rather than accelerating it.The people should be cared for in regards to health and living standards as a priority over all other things. In my view, we have become like the machines devised and built for our use; and, like machines, we tend to think in terms of logic, rather than old fashioned imagination.
Revolutionary new medicines are allowing us to live increasingly longer lives, and with the retirement age still high and pensions inadequate, many young are having an impossible task to find a job… even those with a good educational background. A percentage turn to crime, either to support their families, or through sheer frustration or envy of other's possessions.
The police cannot keep pace with the alarming increase, causing many victims of crime to
turn vigilante and seek their own justice. These and other problems are easy to see, if we would only look. And they can be solved, although I believe the answers lie further afield.
I think that each country should get its own shop in order first, by helping the poor, the sick, and the homeless. Then those better off can aid the others until they are in a position to be self-sufficient. This foreign aid has already started in a small way, of course, but seems to be more about money given than actual help.
Research can be conducted intensively on barren land and deserts, with the purpose of making them fertile once more – or perhaps for the first time. This would certainly solve the overpopulation problem, at least temporarily. Australia, for example, in relation to its size, contains only a handful of people. Long term, there is always space exploration. Mankind will spread out to the stars, I have no doubt of that. There will be a wealth of uninhabited planets from which to choose; I cannot believe that God would simply close the door on the human race like this. Some will possess a suitable atmosphere, and those without will have to be created artificially. This is why we must begin thinking in terms of one world, rather than countless nations.
Realistically, this semi socialism would never work on Earth. Perhaps an idea would be for every nation to contribute something substantial to the space project, any refusing, to be excluded from being represented in future colonies. Once the colonies have been set
up, they can learn to become self-sufficient. Money will not be required. The citizens will have everything they need, providing they contribute to the service and upkeep of the community. For example, people need roofs to live under, and that requires architects and
builders; to receive this service free of charge, the recipients should be obliged to produce a skilled service themselves – something that everyone else can utilise.
I hope that you can forgive my ramblings, but five years ago I had two visions: in the first I saw my own death of natural causes, however unusual that may sound at the age of only thirty; the second had nothing to do with my precognitive abilities. Although I would be
purposefully misleading the populace with my choice of words, I saw my death as the ideal opportunity to set the world back on track, and to remind everyone what is really important: people, other wildlife, and the environment, not machinery, politics, and red tape.
I will probably be condemned for misusing my guaranteed audience attention; however, if only a small percentage of you heed my words, I will have been satisfied that my efforts were not all in vain.
Now my body lies cold in its casket, the grave already dug. Lower me in and replace the soil, if you will. But remember, those people who come to desecrate my burial site – as some fanatics surely will – that I am no longer at home.
Best wishes for the future of mankind. And remember, a change is as good as a rest.
They all stood in awed silence, their gazes fixed to the Dark Portender's serene features, until the English official, Hector Wright, handed the note paper to his assistant, Roger Davies. ‘Keep this some place safe,’ he told the man who had first discovered the note, ‘and take it back. There's someone who'll want to see it.’
‘No!’ answered Davies firmly.
‘What do you mean, No?’ Wright was more shocked than angry.
‘Everyone on Earth should know the contents of this letter. Now that I have it, the first thing I'm going to do is duplicate it, so that every country can possess a copy.’
There was a general murmur of agreement from the others present. One bearded Canadian man commented, ‘I don't know about the Dark Portender, but that letter was the best thing I've heard for ages.’
The English official paused and then sighed. ‘You're right, of course,’ Hector Wright told his assistant. ‘The first mistake of many, no doubt. Belay that last order. We'll lay our friend to rest, and then restore and enhance the electrical field. When we leave here, no one will set foot on this island again. That letter will certainly open eyes around the world.
‘I wonder which nation will make the first move.’
This new story evolved from a dream I had. It centres on the psyche of the key character, and explores such conditions as loneliness and isolation - particularly relevant in these recent times of living with Covid-19. However, this tale is set during and after WW2, and involves an experience which echoes through time.
You will forgive me, I trust, when I say that the perceptions of a naïve young boy who had hardly begun his life have been reinterpreted by an older person who bears the benefit of education, maturity and hindsight. The same person, you might argue. I am not so sure. As I lie here waiting for the final darkness to escort me away, I find myself reflecting on the past – and one particular experience.
Let me recount to you how I met my wife.
When I was a child of around eight years old I spent some time in a cottage hospital in rural Kent with the unfortunate name of Grave Mews. The first thing I can remember is waking to a veritable assault on my senses. The smell of disinfectant, the hazy blur of activity, the fuzziness of my head, and a weight which felt as though it was tied to my leg. A face loomed up in front of my own.
‘Ah, you’re back with us, I see. You’ve had quite a time of it, so just you rest easy. Then we will see about getting you on your feet again.’
I took in the doctor’s messy brown hair and pock-marked but characterful face, before craning my neck to look down at my leg. The majority of it was encased in a plaster cast.
‘Two serious fractures of the left femur.’
I stared at him, feeling as though I lingered in a surreal dream.
‘You broke your leg in two places,’ the doctor clarified.
I mostly slept my way through the next few days, before one of the younger nurses began to wheel me in a chair to where another doctor would have me walking while aided. It was not only a slow process and extremely painful but awkward, like struggling through a sea of treacle dressed in a suit of armour.
It was here that I first saw the garden through the window. It seemed like another world. Pathways and ornate gardens, trees and flowerbeds, archways and play areas, pristine lawns and even a mini maze of prickly hedges. It was like a royal park, extremely well-maintained and I could see that God shone his light on it invitingly.
I persuaded a plump pretty nurse to wheel me outside. The sun was warm and welcoming. She deposited me under the extremities of a tree where I could feel the warmth of the day without burning my pale skin. She promised to return in a little while. There was plenty to take in – a diversity of conflicting surroundings. However, my attention was drawn to a group of children chasing up and down the numerous pathways. Having the first moment for personal reflection, it made me feel sad and lonely, as if I were being excluded from the world – from companionship. It wasn’t a new experience for me.
It was at that moment I felt a hand in mine. I lifted and turned my head to encounter a little girl in a white dress. She had long and shiny black hair and watery sky-blue eyes. I would have guessed her age as two years younger than myself.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked me.
‘Eight,’ I replied, distracted.
‘That’s a funny name. I think it might be your age.’
Embarrassed, I stuttered out my name. ‘S… sorry. I’m Thomas.
She waved her hand dismissively. ‘That’s alright.’ Then she nodded her head, satisfied. ‘That’s a good name. My name is Lilly.’
Never the best at flowing conversation, I said, ‘That’s a good name too.’
She erupted with jaunty laughter and for the moment all of my moody moroseness evaporated. ‘What happened to your leg?’
‘I broke it. Twice.’
Sitting down on the arm of my wheelchair but never letting go of my hand, she said, ‘How did you do that?’
‘Were you being chased?’
I looked at Lilly. It was as if she could see into my mind. Indeed, into my very soul. She smiled at me and her whole face lit up. My world seemed to brighten a little at the same time. ‘Yes, a woman was chasing me and I fell.’
For the briefest of moments the little girl pursed her lips, as if suspecting I wasn’t telling the whole story. Then she changed tack. ‘You’re not from around here, are you Thomas?’
‘We’re from London. I was… sent away.’
‘Evacuated, you mean? When war broke out?’
‘That’s it,’ I told her. ‘How do you know words like that? You seem much older than you look.’
‘Thank you,’ she beamed. ‘I’ll take that as a compliment. The truth is I talk to people.’
I felt a twinge of unjustified jealousy. Somehow, this little girl had become my friend. Ridiculous as it sounds, considering I had only spoken to her for a few minutes, it was of immediate importance, as I had never had a real friend.
At that moment I must have fallen asleep in the sun, because the next thing I knew the sun had waned allowing a freshness to creep into my bones. Lilly was gone, and a nurse appeared and wheeled me back inside. I glanced around to see a group of hyperactive young children being rounded-up by hospital staff and wondered if she was among them.
Throughout the night I lay awake picturing the gardens – which were like something out of an illustrated children’s fantasy – and recalling my conversation with Lilly over and over again. It was an experience I wanted to continue, but was equally afraid would never happen again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, that day’s events lifted my spirits and gave me something to look forward to… That is until I realised I had slept through most of the next day.
Immediately, I was sent into a panic. The hospital staff quite naturally, I suppose, connected my fretting with impatience and frustration at my physical incapacity. They walked me with the crutches early that evening and again the following morning. I did what they asked but conserved some energy, and kept one eye on the window to the garden. The instant that children began to be let outside I made my excuses that I would get my exercise out in the fresh air. Still, the round-faced pretty nurse insisted on escorting me outside in case I fell.
This time I was deposited on a bench alongside one of the myriad pathways. The sun was bright but not so intense that day, so there was little chance of burning. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Perhaps it was the magic of the garden, but more likely it was the anticipation of seeing and speaking to Lilly again.
I watched the clusters of little children running breathlessly up and down the pathways, some heading for the maze. Other individuals were being wheeled along gingerly, and for the first time I realised there were patients a lot worse off than myself. At least they appeared to have the comfort of at least one family member. Selfishly, this consideration caused me to feel lonelier than ever.
I wanted to hobble around the grounds searching for my friend, but simply standing confirmed to me I had exerted myself more than I had thought that morning. Now the afternoon was moving on. Shadows were appearing and creeping across the lawns. I hoped against all hope that the little girl would seek me out. However, the longer I sat there the more despondent I became. Maybe she wasn’t well enough to venture outside today. I hadn’t even thought to ask her what her ailment was. I suppose it was being distracted by the fact somebody wanted to talk to me; no one had before, except in an official capacity or to admonish me for some unknown discretion. Perhaps Lilly had just been passing some time on our first meeting and didn’t want to be my friend. Or some other children might have persuaded her not to.
I fell into a deep gloom. Why was it that no one ever wanted to be my friend? Was there something wrong with me? Without fully noticing the act I began to regress into myself. I could see the activity in the gardens but it seemed removed, as if the world was carrying on without me. Side-lined, I could only look on in despair. Lowering my head, I closed my eyes to shut everything out. That was when I felt a tiny hand in mine.
I opened my eyes to find Lilly sitting next to me on the bench. ‘Hello, Thomas,’ she greeted me with a smile.
‘Lilly!’ I blurted. I felt foolish at my outburst, but couldn’t conceal my glee, my relief, my… everything, as the darkness reluctantly receded.
She laughed brightly at my exclamation.
‘I didn’t think you would come,’ I told her. ‘I… er, overslept yesterday and worried you would think I didn’t want to be friends.’ I felt breathless.
‘I’m here now,’ she said, playing with the hem of her dress. ‘You know, you shouldn’t feel so gloomy. You have much to be thankful for.’
‘I can’t help it,’ I said guiltily. ‘I’m bored… Except for when you’re here.’
She smiled and squeezed my hand comfortingly. Her watery blue eyes shone and something reached my heart for a moment. ‘You’re not bored, you’re lonely. Everybody feels lonely at some point in their life. The last time we talked you said, “We’re from London.” That implies you have family.'
‘Yes, mum and dad sent me away.’
‘They didn’t send you away. You were evacuated. There is a war on, remember?’
I didn’t answer. I had no concept of war when I was eight – or at least what it meant. But I would soon learn.
Lilly squeezed my hand again and smiled disarmingly. ‘You was evacuated to outside of London to keep you safe. That means your parents love you and it means the country is trying to protect its future.’
‘Are you sure you’re only six?
She chuckled like a mini waterfall, and the sun made a late showing through the clouds as if in appreciation.
‘My dad went away.’
‘Your dad is… working for our freedom, so we don’t have to be at war anymore. Have you any brothers and sisters?’
I shook my head.
‘God willing, your dad will return unscathed and you will get your wish.’
At the time I had no idea what that statement meant, but knew better than to question it. Instead, I said, ‘I don’t like it where they sent me.’
Lilly looked at me intently. ‘The person who was chasing you when you broke your leg. Was it the same person you was sent to live with?’
I nodded slowly, remembering the woman’s viciousness.
‘You need to know that some of these people who have taken in children had no choice in the matter. They can be resentful because they have lost their privacy, or perhaps nature decided they can’t have any children of their own but they are expected to look after other people’s. I’m not saying you should suffer cruelty; just remember you are intruding on someone else’s house. So be good, be friendly, and be helpful.’
There was a long moment of silence. Then I said, ‘You are a strange person, Lilly.’ I immediately regretted it.
The little girl exploded into fits of giggles.
‘But I like you,’ I added.
‘I like you too, Thomas,’ she answered.
I chuckled too, for the first time since leaving my family. Then turned serious again in consideration. ‘Why do you like me when no one else does.’
‘That’s not true, Thomas.’
I didn’t want to argue with her and so drive her away, and so, again, I said nothing.
‘Some people are loners. They prefer their own company, but that doesn’t mean at times they don’t crave the company of others. That doesn’t make them weird or oddball, but it does sometimes make them appear aloof…’
‘A what?’ I asked. I just liked to hear Lilly talk.
‘Unapproachable. Difficult to talk to. It will help to open up a little. Talk to people, don’t just wait for them to talk to you. But don’t overcompen… Don’t go too much the other way, otherwise they may consider you to be annoying. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.’
‘You’re like a teacher, Lilly. Only, a good one. One without a cane.’
She beamed at me before exploding with laughter. Rather than being condescending, it felt as if everything that was good in the world was showing its hand.
‘That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.’
I felt myself go red with embarrassment.
‘I think your nurse is coming to help you back inside.’ She stood and started to walk away. ‘Goodbye Thomas.’
‘Will I see you again?’ I called out to her.
For a moment she looked serious. ‘You might. It depends if you’ve been listening to what I’ve been saying to you.’ Then she suddenly turned and skipped off, giggling her way down the pathway.
At the time I took her parting statement at face value. It was only many years later I realised what she had really meant.
I only saw Lilly once more, briefly, before I was discharged from the hospital. My physical therapy – or whatever they called it in those days – was intensified, which meant I couldn’t always enter the fantasy land of the garden – much as I wanted to. When permitted, it was to be accompanied by a member of the hospital staff who encouraged me to walk the pathways with my crutches and then with only a stick. It felt very strange once the plaster cast was removed. I found myself overbalancing and falling on the other leg at first, but I soon got used to not having all of that weight on the injured one. In all of this time there had been no sign of the one person who it seemed could raise my spirits with little or no effort.
On the day I was due to leave I had a final assessment. Afterwards, I sat in the garden awaiting the arrival of someone to see me to the taxi. Hospital transport was few and far between and always required elsewhere. I attempted to commit my surroundings to memory, but felt sad and empty again. Lost, with nothing to look forward to… in the short-term at least.
A hand slipped into mine and I turned to see the little girl sitting next to me, as if she had been there all along.
‘I can’t stay long, Thomas,’ she said. ‘I’m needed somewhere else. But I just wanted to say goodbye. I wish you well. Just remember everything that I’ve told you.’
‘I will, Lilly. I’ll remember everything – even if I don’t understand all of it.’
She chuckled. ‘You will, Thomas. You have a wonderful personality. Use it.’ She stood up to leave.
‘Lilly?’ I said.
‘Thanks for being my friend.’
She smiled. It was a smile I’m certain would have powered a major city for a year.
I was sent back to live with the old spinster. She remained a frightening creature, her bearing threatening, her eyes accusing and her tongue caustic. But she refrained from issuing out physical punishment. Perhaps someone had had stern words with her regarding my “accident”. Nevertheless, I remembered Lilly’s words and actively tried to be more friendly and helpful. At first I think the woman took this change as a form of taunting or sarcasm. If nothing else, it took some of the wind out of her sails and gave her less incentive to react.
I began to take long walks, primarily to exercise my leg, but also to give me a break from the woman’s incessant complaining. She didn’t object to this, of course, because it gave her back some of the privacy she craved. Even when I had no need of the stick I took it with me. You didn’t leave a handy weapon for this woman to use, should she feel the need.
It seemed like an age at the time, but in reality wasn’t all that long before I was returned to my mother in London. There was the added bonus that dad came home early from the war after being medically discharged due to a minor head wound. Later, they were pleased and excited to announce I would have a new brother or sister. Unfortunately, much as I tried, my sister and I never really clicked. As soon as she reached maturity, Doris went abroad and we never heard from her again. I never really considered their feelings at the time – it was just something I had no control over – but it must have hit my parents hard.
The bottom line was I remained a loner. No one really wanted to get to know me, and I had forgotten how to communicate with anyone outside of work – if I even knew in the first place. I had pretty much resigned myself to this state of being when my father, who had now reached retirement at sixty-five, started talking about his experiences during the war – which suddenly and quite dramatically threw me back to my time spent at Grave Mews Hospital for Children.
Without telling anyone what I was planning to do, I booked a couple of days leave from work and drove from my flat down into Kent. It took me a while to find the place; after all, I was only eight when last there. I half expected the place not to exist at all, like it had been some kind of childhood fantasy – or that maybe it had existed but had since been pulled down.
Not only was it still there, it continued its existence as a children’s hospital. As I pulled my car up near the main entrance I caught a glimpse at a section of the gardens. I wasn’t certain, but they looked a little different from what I remembered. Still meticulously well-maintained though. Perhaps it was because the seasons were different; it was Spring now rather than the heart of Summer, which it was when I had arrived as a child.
I climbed the two steps and pushed-open the heavy door. There was a reception desk just inside, manned by a bald-headed gentleman dressed smartly in matching jacket and trousers, with a collarless shirt.
‘How can I help?’ he asked, distracted by his paperwork.
‘This will sound like a strange request…’
‘Go on,’ said the man. ‘I’ll help if I can.’
‘I was in this hospital as a young child, after war broke out, and there were two people I never got the chance to thank.’
‘A doctor or nurse?’
‘The surgeon who operated on my leg. The trouble is I don’t know his or her name. Perhaps you have records?’ I asked.
‘That’s very noble, I’m sure. But even if we could find out who it was, it was decades ago. The person you’re looking for is almost certainly retired, if not deceased. Also, there are privacy rules.’
‘I understand,’ I replied. ‘If I leave you my details to pass on to the hospital manager they can contact me if they have any news.’
‘You can do that,’ he agreed.
I wrote down my name, home phone number, when I would have been admitted to the hospital, and my ailment – and handed it to him. I could tell by his demeanour he didn’t hold out much hope.
‘Goodbye, sir,’ he said, still distracted.
‘What about the other person?’
‘The same rules apply, I’m afraid.’
‘She was another patient.’
‘The hospital will certainly not release patient details,’ he said.
‘It’s very important to me,’ I pressed. ‘She chose to be my friend when I had none.’
Clearly, the smartly-dressed man didn’t know what to say to that, so I continued. ‘All I know is she would have been about six years old at the time, and her name is Lilly.’
The man’s head snapped up and he stared at me intently. His entire body language changed in an instant. ‘We don’t talk to journalists, Mr…’
‘What?’ I interrupted, shocked. I’m not a journalist.’
‘We’ve had no one called Lilly at the hospital,’ he announced with certainty.
‘Could you please double-check,’ I stressed. ‘It’s not an uncommon name.
The man waved a dismissive hand. ‘I’m sorry, you need to leave now.’ He got to his feet.
For a moment I stood, stunned by this odd turn of events. In a daze I turned to leave. I walked slowly to my car, but stopped short of putting the key in and opening the door. Instead, I walked around the side of the building and straddled the wooden fence to enter the gardens. I had come all this way, and felt a strong need to recapture my short moments in this magical environment.
I thought it would be a false memory, but as I slowly walked the pathways every feeling I experienced as a child immediately returned to me in vivid detail. I remembered every word Lilly had spoken and what it had meant to me – what it still meant to me.
Caught in a reverie I was reluctant to leave, it was a while before I noticed the lone woman sitting on one of the benches. It seemed she was the only presence in the garden. At first, she appeared to have long dark hair, but then the sun glinted and I could see I was mistaken. She was attractive, with auburn hair, pale skin with a rosy complexion, and an open face. She wore a knee-length dress with a cardigan over the top. No uniform, so probably not medical staff.
Her eyes were closed, head tilted up towards what little sun there was. She must have sensed my presence, because she turned in my direction and revealed stunning hazel eyes.
‘I don’t want to intrude, but do you mind if I join you?’ I asked.
She smiled. ‘Of course, not.’ She gestured with one hand for me to take a seat alongside her.
As I sat down I held out my hand. ‘My name’s Thomas.’
Eyes sparkling, she took my hand and shook it. ‘I’m Grace.’
‘That’s a nice name,’ I told her, and meant it.
‘Thank you, Thomas.’ Indicating our surroundings she said, ‘I love it here. There is something about these gardens. They’re relaxing. Sitting here, all of my insecurities are released into the air.’
‘That’s very poetic,’ I said, and she laughed. It was a pleasant sound that reached inside and put me at ease. ‘I totally agree with you, although I haven’t been here since I was a child.’
She swiveled her body around on the bench so that she was facing me. ‘What a coincidence, I was here as a child, too.’
‘I shouldn’t really be here, I suppose…’
‘The man on the reception told me quite sternly to leave, and I have no idea why.’
I saw her body tense, and I was quick to reassure her. ‘I’m quite harmless, believe me.’ I offered her a pinched smile and raised my hands quizzically.
‘What is it you said that made him react in that manner?’
‘I really don’t know, Grace. I was trying to say thank you to two people who helped me when I was evacuated here and ended-up in hospital with no one to turn to.’
Grace looked at me curiously, with her mouth slightly open as if she was about to speak. She hesitated before saying, ‘Do you mind if I ask you who those people were, Thomas?’
‘It was the surgeon. I had two breaks on my femur. You wouldn’t think so now, although this leg’ – and I patted it with one hand – ‘does get colder than the other during the Winter months.’
‘Commendable,’ she said. ‘What about the other?’
‘The other leg is fine.’ I released a quick smile to show I was joking and not an imbecile. ‘It might sound odd to say so, but the other person meant much more to me. When I was young I found it difficult to communicate with people. Consequentially, I’ve always been a loner. I must emit an invisible barrier or something, because nobody wants to come near me.’
‘I haven’t noticed,’ she commented with her own bright smile. I saw her relax again.
‘You’re kind,’ I replied. ‘Anyway, I felt lost and abandoned. I didn’t know anyone. The woman I was placed with was cruel and spiteful, and I ended-up in hospital with my liberty taken away. I was lonely and had no one to turn to. I only met her three or four times, but this little girl in a white dress, of around six years old, chose to be my friend when no one else wanted to be. She somehow saw past my moody exterior. Those simple and brief exchanges meant the world to me at the time. I can still remember what she told me, virtually word for word…
‘Anyway, her name was…’
My head snapped up in shock.
‘I knew her, too.’ Grace’s eyes went distant.
‘I couldn’t contain my excitement. ‘Really? What a coincidence. You must have been here at the hospital around the time I was.’
‘Perhaps,’ she answered. ‘It’s possible. Lilly helped me too, although my story is a little different to yours.’
‘That’s amazing!’ I exclaimed, and Grace chuckled at my excitement. ‘I wonder if she’s still alive.’
Grace briefly sucked-in one cheek. Not being a practiced student of human nature, I failed to register the significance. ‘But I still don’t understand why the gentleman on reception was so defensive with me.’
‘You haven’t heard of “The Kindness of Lilly”?’
I must have looked blank. ‘I’ve experienced it,’ I told her needlessly.
‘That’s the point,’ said Grace. ‘There have been newspaper articles about Lilly, and now there’s a sort of fan club for her.’
I felt stunned. ‘You’re joking?’
She shook her head. I’m surprised you haven’t heard.’
A kind of thrill went through me and I could see that Grace noticed it.
‘That was my reaction when I read the articles. The thought still makes me shiver.’ She wrapped her arms around herself to prove it.
I sat considering, before shaking my head. ‘I always thought she acted older than her age. Lilly must have helped a lot of people during her time here.’
‘During her lots of times,’ said Grace, cryptically.
She briefly touched one of my knees and said, ‘Brace yourself for a shock. A considerable number of people have reported being “helped” in one way or another, and the stories span the years from 1929 to date. All of those were patients here, and all of them described their friend as being a little girl of around six years old, with a white dress, called Lilly.’
I was shocked to the core. Conflicting emotions washed over me, and for a moment I felt light-headed and was obliged to draw in several deep breaths of fresh air. Until now I thought it had been an experience unique to me.
Finally, I blurted, ‘But that’s impossible, isn’t it?’
‘It depends how you feel about ghosts,’ said Grace.
‘Or angels. Even if half of the stories are made up by sensationalists, that still leaves at least seventy-five true accounts.’
‘That’s… I, mean… My word! I don’t know what to say.’
Grace’s cheeks were becoming slightly rosier, and her eyes sparkled as she said, ‘You’re handling it far better than I did, Thomas. I was so overwhelmed that I was sick on somebody’s shoes.’
I laughed at that and the mood was lifted again. ‘I wasn’t expecting any of this today when I left my flat. It’s… incredible.’
‘And yet it happened.’
‘Is that why you’re here today, Grace? Because of Lilly?’
Grace leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘In a sense, yes. I have a job interview. I want to give something back to the hospital, and perhaps help Lilly with her workload.’ She winked. ‘But don’t tell them my reasons. They know all about what people are saying about Lilly, but they swear blind they have never “seen” her – and I believe them. However, the hospital is scared of becoming a media circus, or being the go-to place for ghost seekers, so they simply reject all inquiries as a matter of policy.’
‘That explains why the guy was so… unaccommodating when I mentioned her.’
‘No doubt.’ Grace looked at her watch and immediately stood up, smoothing down the back of her dress. ‘I’ve enjoyed our chat, but my interview is due shortly, so I’d better get inside.’ She offered her hand. I probably held it for too long before shaking it. ‘It’s been nice meeting you, Thomas.’
‘Likewise,’ I said with an awkward smile.
She turned and walked away, turning back briefly.
‘Grace?’ I called.
She turned back with a wide smile that melted my heart. ‘Yes, Thomas?’
I stared at her before saying, ‘Good luck with your interview.’
‘Thanks,’ she replied, and turned in one movement.
I watched her go, berating myself mentally with each step she took, until she disappeared into the building. A familiar dark, depressive mood slammed down suddenly, like a security shutter. There was a lot to think about, but all that came to mind right then was the list of lost opportunities throughout my life, each of which my subconscious repeatedly tortured me for. Some people were born to be loners, I suppose. However, there was a difference between being a loner and being lonely.
Under a dark cloud, I walked back to my car. But as I dug into my pocket for the key, something that Lilly had said to me when I was eight years old lit up in my mind as clearly as a billboard advertisement.
You have a wonderful personality. Use it.
I opened the car door and sat in the driver's seat, but I didn’t start the engine. Instead, I looked at my watch and waited. I waited for more than an hour. I had just begun to fret about the possibility of there being a rear exit I wasn’t watching, when the front door opened and Grace emerged looking even better than I remembered her. But it wasn’t just down to looks; I felt we had a connection. I hoped she felt the same way.
I exited the car and walked towards her. When she caught sight of me she beamed happily and something inside of me took flight. Perhaps it was my fear and insecurity.
‘You waited for me, Thomas.’ Grace looked very pleasantly surprised, unless I was reading it wrong.
‘I wanted to know how you got on. And…’
She touched my arm with a little uncertainty herself. ‘Very well, I think,’ she replied. ‘They are going to phone me tomorrow.’ There was a pause before she repeated, ‘And?’
I took a deep breath. ‘And… I wondered if you wanted to go for a coffee or something?’
Her cheeks flushed a little, and an amazing smile spread across her face and out of her stunning hazel eyes.
‘Thomas, I’d love to.’
That first time we began by continuing our discussion of Lilly, but then we naturally asked about each other. I felt comfortable in her presence, so I tried to integrate my questions into the flow of the conversation so that Grace didn’t feel as if she was being interrogated. But she didn’t seem to notice my awkwardness.
We didn’t see each other the next day, because Grace wanted to stay near the telephone. She was delighted when she was offered the job she had interviewed for at the hospital. It was both amusing and delightful to hear her so excited when she spoke to me on the phone.
We saw a lot of each other after that. In fact, we were inseparable. It was good that mum and dad were able to meet the love of my life because I lost them both shortly afterwards to a car accident. Instead of being left alone in the world I had Grace to turn to and help me through the difficult times. We married eight months after meeting in the hospital garden. I’d like to think that if there is a heaven my mother would be smiling down on us with happiness – an emotion she displayed little of in life.
As it turned out, we had just short of twenty priceless years together – travelling and just enjoying each other’s company – before Grace fell ill. Without elaborating on her personal malady, she had some good days and some worse than simply bad. We both instinctively knew her days were numbered, although I couldn’t help but continue to give her comfort and encouragement. It was probably a blessing – both from her point of view and mine – that she passed quickly and so didn’t suffer for very long.
I think I aged pretty quickly after that. The loss ate away at my insides until I felt hollow and empty. It was like I was the missing piece of a jigsaw: pointless without the rest of the puzzle. I could think of nothing else but my life with Grace. After a while I stopped going to work; I couldn’t concentrate anyway. My brief sickness became long-term, and eventually my work colleagues stopped inquiring about me. I was approaching that age anyway, so they retired me on the grounds of ill-health. I barely noticed the transition.
I did try to break free from this malaise by actively eating more and going for long walks, but in my heart-of-hearts I knew my life was at an end. I had found the only non-family member I have ever loved… and now she was gone. Although I enjoyed looking through photographs of us together, it also broke my heart all over again. The action made me feel more alone than ever.
And now we reach the present. My own health has declined so rapidly that I find myself in hospital with the end approaching. They inform me that my internal organs are systematically shutting down and I haven’t got long. In the meantime, I mentally replay the many good times I shared with Grace, but the black veil of depression and despair lowers itself over me each time I remember what I have lost.
Is it my imagination? I can feel a small hand in mine, and my eyes snap open.
Through a rheumy vision I can see a little girl in a white dress standing close to the bed. ‘Is it really you, Lilly?’ I croak tiredly.
She was smiling. ‘Yes, it’s me, Thomas.’
I squeeze her hand gently with affection. ‘It’s lovely to see you one last time.’ I try to smile, but I seem to have forgotten how. ‘I think I know why you’re here. I’m feeling sorry for myself again, aren’t I?’
‘You don’t need me, Thomas. Do you remember what I said all those years ago? “You have a lot to be thankful for.” – more so now.’
I feel foolish; suitably chagrined. ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?’
Lilly was smiling kindly.
‘You’re right, of course. You always were. Some people just need to be reminded of what’s important sometimes.’
‘It’s not just a case of needing reminding,’ she said. ‘It’s more a case of perspective. When someone you love passes away, do you feel sorry for yourself or the one you’ve lost? When you’re lonely, is it because you’re erecting a barrier around yourself, rather than reaching out to friends and colleagues. Think about how other people perceive your situation. Do you think Grace would want you to leave the world feeling like this?’
‘I’d like to think I’m going to see her again soon, but I don’t know if I believe in that sort of thing,’ I find myself confessing.
Lilly does not hesitate in her reply. ‘I wouldn’t tell you what to believe in, Thomas. That’s your own personal choice and nobody can take that away from you. And do you know what else no one can take away from you?’
‘The memories. The little things. They live on inside you. Tell me a funny story involving Grace and you.’
I’m not having to think for very long. ‘Well, there was that time we were climbing a hill in the country. Grace lost her footing and held onto me for stability, but we both tumbled down the hill, through the rain and the mud, collecting twigs and leaves and other detritus. When we came to a stop, totally disheveled and gasping for air, a rat poked its head out of a hole and began furiously squeaking at us, as if we’d disturbed its peace or something. It probably doesn’t sound like much, but we’d both never laughed so much in our lives.’ I chuckled for the first time since Grace had passed.
‘There you have it,’ said Lilly. ‘It’s the little things which are important.’
I can feel the depression, the loneliness, the isolation, the loss… all of these heavy, cloying feelings lifting away. ‘You’re right,’ I say to her. ‘I’ve been a fool.’
‘Not a fool. Never a fool.’
‘I don’t know how to thank you.’ I find myself being lifted even further by her happy countenance.
‘It’s been a pleasure, Thomas. You’re a good soul. Just remember, if you have to go, go with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.’
‘You really are a treasure, Lilly. I’m okay,’ I found myself assuring her. ‘I know you have to go because there are other people more in need of your help than me. But can you answer one question before you leave?’
‘Ask?’ she says, with a wide cheeky grin.
‘Are you a ghost or an angel?’
‘I’m a friend,’ she replies, and with a strangely echoing giggle which gradually fades away, I blink and she is gone.
As I lie here waiting for the final darkness to escort me away, I find myself reflecting on the more recent past. That was how I met my wife, and how I lost her. But I carry her spirit with me – as a part of me – to the end… wherever that will take me. So, I know you never lose someone you love. There but for the “Grace” of God, you might say.
I'm reminded that you should always cherish the good times. But it took a special little girl to show me the truth.
'There's a bloke on the rook, howling.' The Crypt is the opening part of my book of humorous music reminiscences, Memories of an Ageing Rocker, and is presented here as a taster for the download and paperback - available on the Homepage and from Amazon
The best venue I’ve ever been to – in fact, one of the best places I’ve frequented full stop – is The Crypt. Don’t look for it now; the building is still there but it hasn’t been run as a music venue for a significant number of years. It was actually located in the real crypt of the church set back off of Deptford High Street, South East London.
I first visited it in an attempt to see a local band I’d heard about called Full Moon. Myself and two good mates, Andy and Jeff, drove there, pulling into the grounds at just before 8 o’clock. My VW hatchback wasn’t exactly innocuous parked next to an iridescent purple van with smoked glass portholes, and a customised hearse. There was little sign of activity, and we were wondering if we really had the right place when we saw a notice promoting the club’s opening time as 9 till Dawn.
We had obviously arrived too early, so we walked across the road to have a pint in the nearest pub. It was like walking into an anachronistic East End war-time drinking establishment. There was an old geyser on the Joanna, tickling the ivories to the tune of Roll Out The Barrel, and a small group of middle-aged and old-timers singing along. As the rendition moved on to My Old Man’s a Dustman, we stood with the drinkers on the other side of the pub who wore a collective expression of amused interest tinged with embarrassment.
At a bit after 9 o’clock we crossed back over the road. There didn’t appear to be any more activity than before, but nevertheless we rapped on the huge wooden door round the side of the church. A small square slot suddenly slid open, and a face appeared to look us up and down. It was like a creepy scene from a Hammer House of Horror film. Then, after a pause of a few seconds, the large door was opened and we were quickly ushered inside, as if being offered sanctuary – or being abducted.
The air inside was so thick with pot that we felt ourselves floating up to the ceiling. Staring through the haze, we noticed the place was already quite full. There were groups of people sitting or standing around, many dressed like Goths or ghouls. It looked like a family reunion for the Addams Family. Off-beat psychedelic music was being played, and bubbles were being projected on the walls and ceiling. Being a real crypt, the layout was fantastic, with stone columns and lots of ins and outs, nooks and crannies. I often feel that if I could temporarily go back in time, one of the stops I would make is to a good mid-to-late-sixties psychedelic club. This was my opportunity to make that trip in the present.
We couldn’t resist a chuckle when we spotted the young and obviously hip vicar wandering around and chatting with the macabre gathering, as if they were his regular congregation. It was impressive; this was a man of the cloth who had the guts and foresight to reach out to the young people and make a connection without forcing old scriptures on them. Or perhaps he was simply a retro hippy.
One of the earlier bands on the set was The Garbage Grinders. Their music was certainly in keeping with the general atmosphere of the place: weird and enjoyable. We were mesmerised by the menagerie of moving images being projected on to the band and their instruments. Quick cuts meant we were never quite able to focus on the old cartoons, news clips or street scenes before they cleverly moved on to something equally confusing.
When I visited the toilets for the first time it was to learn they were unisex. There were benches inside which were opposite the urinals. People of both sexes sat chatting, not in the least bit interested that someone had their crown jewels out nearby. This was certainly not the place to be self-conscious. In the cubicles, aside from the obvious activity, the occasional couple would slip into the tight space and shut the door. It wasn’t just heterosexual couples either; I saw at least one female couple secrete themselves away, and I’m certain it wasn’t just to check on their make-up.
I guessed that Full Moon would go on stage at midnight (it seemed logical), but at 1 o’clock they still hadn’t materialised. Jeff went to get another round in and came back empty-handed. We naturally inquired where the beer was, and he told us they didn’t have any. Now, Jeff was always a bit of a joker so we waited for the punch line. He stressed he was serious. He had gone to the bar and ordered two lagers and a bitter. The barman just looked at him. Jeff repeated the order for the hard of understanding. The man shook his head emphatically, stating that he didn’t know what Jeff was talking about. He gestured behind him; there was no alcohol to be seen, instead there was a line of 2-litre plastic bottles. The barman helpfully showed him what was available: Limeade, Cherryade, Lemonade, Orangeade, Coke… It was very strange, that’s for sure. We later heard a rumour had been circulating that there was a police raid imminent for out-of-hours drinking. The Crypt apparently didn’t possess a licence to cover extended drinking, and so all the alcohol had miraculously vanished. After an hour, when nothing happened, the beer mercifully crept from its hiding place.
It was half-past-two when we left. We still hadn’t seen Full Moon, but we’d had a great time and we were knackered. The man on the door looked at his watch and asked if we lads were leaving already. We’d been there for five and a half hours.
I hit the sack about an hour later, and was woken by the telephone ringing at around 8 o’clock that same morning. The receiver was next to the front door, so I reluctantly heaved myself out of bed and staggered heavily down the stairs. The ringing was persistent, so it had to be important. I grabbed the receiver. I hardly had time to say hello, before my mate Andy asked me frantically if I’d seen the news. Again, I had no time to answer before he started babbling incoherently about Russians, submarines, and cold war conspiracies. I had no idea what he was going on about. None of it made sense, and I rather suspected he may have been offered a ‘boiled sweet’ at the Crypt. As he was excitedly telling me about our Soviet cousins, I heard a tinkling sound coming from outside. I opened the front door just as a float was going by. On the flatbed back pixies or elves, dressed gaily in green were jumping up and down and shaking little bells. This was all too surreal for me. I promptly went back to bed.
The second time we went to The Crypt, Andy, Jeff and I were to be met by another friend, Tim. He’d told us he would meet us there straight from work. When he turned up he was wearing pastel colours which made us cringe and then laugh. The doorman must have felt sorry for him, or perhaps admired his bravery. We told him he’d probably get beaten up for looking like he did.
Aside from the sheer uniqueness of the place, on this occasion there was another reason for making the journey. Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts were on the bill. We had followed DRN to a number of venues in London and the South East in recent months, and they were always fun and entertaining. Strictly speaking, they were a biker band, but recent songs incorporated into their set in the vein of Hawkwind allowed them to fit in just fine here. More of them later.
As we all jumped about in various haphazard movements, Tim’s own uncoordinated stomping and wind-milling patterns became increasingly voracious – to the point where he was starting to attract the attention of a few other revellers. I think he had been imbibing of the ‘hibition juice’ at a much faster rate than the rest of us, and all of his actions were exaggerated. Luckily, he managed to survive the night. Nobody even thought about violence; which is pretty much par for the course. I’ve been to dozens of Rock and Metal gigs over the years and I’ve never seen a fight. We’re generally good people, really!
When we left the venue, with the doorman once again checking his watch as if we’d only just arrived, we heard a sort of animal noise. ‘There’s a bloke on the roof, howling.’ Jeff helpfully pointed out a man sitting on the church roof, indeed howling. Such was the other-dimension craziness of the club itself, I thought nothing of following his direction and looking up. Going to that place was like entering the Twilight Zone.
We drove Tim home. He was so bladdered that I was a little concerned he might leave a thank you on the back seat. I don’t know how he even remembered where he lived, because we didn’t know. Or at least, I didn’t. Still, we arrived without mishap, and went into immediate convulsions as we sat and watched Tim bravely attempt to jump the front wall. One leg waved lazily around in the air, like an inept kung fu fighter. The wall was all of about two feet high. Our hilarity morphed into hysterics as we watched him determinedly try to jab his front door key into the lock. It was like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey…
This story was written in 1994 and first appeared in Peeping Tom literary magazine the following year. I have presented it here as an appetiser for my horror and supernatural short story collection Unlucky For Some (see the Purchase Books category & the Covers Photo Gallery on the Homepage).
Tommy stopped short of stepping aboard the boat. ‘I'm not sure about this, dad.’
‘I'm not sure about this, dad!’ his father mocked in a whiny voice. ‘You some kind of Nancy-boy?’
The adolescent boy ignored the insult. He was far too worried about what might happen tonight to concern himself with paltry matters. ‘Only a handful of people have gone that deep outside of a submersible,’ he pointed out.
His father boarded the boat, then turned to call softly. ‘That proves it's safe, otherwise no one would have even attempted the drop.’
‘Look, apart from being dangerous, what you're planning to do is wrong.’
The man cupped a hand to his ear and beckoned his son over. The moment Tommy had stepped across, his father cast off. As the boat drifted away from the harbour wall, Tommy repeated himself.
‘Hah!’ his father ridiculed a little too loudly. He glanced quickly around. The light was on in the harbour master's hut, but no one emerged. All seemed quiet. ‘We're going to have to break through this naivety of yours,’ he whispered.
‘There's a difference between naivety and caution,’ said Tommy.
His father allowed the Rosemary - named after his late wife and Tommy's mother - to chug gently and quietly between the gap in the harbour wall, before smoothly bringing the speed up to maximum knots.
‘Listen,’ he said to Tommy as he headed out to sea. ‘Two divers discovered a cavern in the uncharted depths of the North Sea. Inside, the walls are literally covered with a yellowish mineral. The couple of samples they brought up for analysis were found to be unique. There are no others in the entire world. Do you realise what that means to their value? They're priceless!’
‘But if we collect a sack full of the minerals there would be more in circulation. Wouldn't that lower the value?’
His father grinned. ‘Not necessarily. There are plenty of diamonds in the world; I wish I had some of them,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Even if they halve the value with each gem, that's still a hefty amount of dosh. Even Rosemary would have seen the sense in that.’
‘Don't bring mum into it; she wouldn't have anything to do with this. Anyway, how do you plan to sell them without revealing your identity?’
‘I don't think I'd have any trouble. Besides, there are always private collectors abroad, if it comes to that.’ His eyes turned distant, no doubt imagining the riches to come.
Tommy gazed at the tarpaulin covered bulk on the deck nearby. His skin prickled with trepidation. Although they were in the open, subject to the chill night air, Tommy realised he was sweating. It was the perspiration of anxiety.
Wiping his forehead with a sleeve of his coat, he said, ‘What about the suits? Are they safe?’
‘Safe as houses. They're a new design, not even available to the professionals yet. They revolutionise the deep sea diving industry. Imagine what new discoveries are going to be made when the suits become more plentiful. By then we'll have missed the boat.’ He chuckled at his own joke.
Tommy was unconvinced. ‘How will you find the right drop point?’
His father whooshed out a heavy sigh. ‘You're full of questions, aren't you?’ The tone was meant to bring the conversation to a halt, at least temporarily.
Tommy fell silent. Instead he stared out at the darkness. It was difficult to see exactly where the sea ended and the sky began; they melted into each other, leaving him with a lonely sense of hopelessness. Even the full moon seemed to accuse him with its presence. He longed to proclaim his innocence in this foolish expedition; that he'd been coerced against his will; that any consequences should not be laid upon his shoulders.
Time passed, and all too quickly for Tommy his father cut the engine. The boat coasted under its own momentum towards a large red and orange coloured buoy. He should have guessed the previous divers would have marked the area for their return.
His father pulled aside the tarpaulin cover. ‘Right, get your suit on,’ he instructed.
Tommy hesitated. ‘I'm not going,’ he said.
For just a moment his father was visibly stunned. But this quickly evolved into anger. ‘Have you any idea what expense I went to arranging the ... acquisition of these suits?’
Tommy shrugged. He didn't particularly care.
‘Get that suit on! It needs to be safety checked.’
Tommy stared at the deck. ‘But we don't know what's down there. There could be all sorts of monsters!’ He sounded desperate, even to himself,
His father doubled over, spluttering out a raucous guffaw. ‘Monsters? My God? What next? I hate to shatter your childish illusions, but there are no such things as monsters.’
‘There might be,’ Tommy objected lamely.
‘When it comes down to it, you're a right Jessie. Trust me on this one: they don't exist. Look, you're fifteen; isn't it about time you grew a backbone?’
They donned the suits. That in itself took more than twenty minutes. They were heavy and awkward, not to mention hot and uncomfortable. He studied his father's features through the face plate. His eyes were darting; they looked frightened but determined. Tommy, facially identical, was radically different to his father. True, his father looked scared, but it was nothing to how Tommy felt, he was sure. He had never felt so terrified in his life; a deep-rooted terror which frequently froze him to the spot, forcing his father to continually prod him into action. It was an accumulation of fears: the unknown darkness of the depths; the uncertain safety of the suits at those depths; the possibility of unusual sea creatures, his mind was haunted by visions of giant octopuses attacking submarines in the Jules Verne-type productions; and the character-driven inner-sense which told him what they were doing was wrong.
The safety checks were soon completed. ‘We look like a cross between Neil Armstrong and Robbie the Robot,’ Tommy said through the high-tech two-way head set receivers
‘Who gives a damn what we look like! Let's get on with it.’
His father shoved him with two hands. Tommy teetered dangerously on the gunnel for a moment, before overbalancing and plunging into the inky-black void. He tried frantically flailing his limbs to regain his equilibrium, but the bulk of the suit was slow to react. Panicking, he sank increasingly quickly, heart hammering, mind reeling.
Precious seconds expired before he remembered the suit's prime function. He fingered a release mechanism and one of many valves built into the back of the suit was opened, releasing a small rush of air which rose in the form of bubbles that slightly decelerated his descent. The additional weights mechanically attached to the waist and boots, allowed him to sink to the required level, which in this case would be the seabed.
Still, the descent seemed endless. Tommy imagined it to be like floating in space; civilisation an infinity away, and with no sense of time or reality. Then he saw a light to one side and realised his father must have immediately followed him overboard, to have caught him up this quickly. He was pointing at his helmet; belatedly, Tommy was reminded to turn on his own helmet light. The strip beam tried its best to penetrate the cloak of darkness, but the black seemed all-encumbering, so that the light appeared only to fade its shade.
Eventually they reached the bottom. Tommy's father held a line with a brightly coloured end weight. Because the suits were not attached to winches on the boat and carried their own independent air supplies, the weighted line was required for the return journey, so that they didn't surface too far away from the boat. For added security he wedged it part way beneath a rock anchored firmly to the sea bed. In his other heavily protected hand he held a closely woven net type sack, carrying two light levering tools.
Incredibly, they were only a short distance from the cavern entrance. There was no mistaking it; there was nothing even resembling an underwater cave as far as the strip lights would penetrate, which admittedly wasn't very far.
They made their way agonisingly slowly up to the gaping opening. To Tommy their halting steps were sheer agony; all he wanted to do was get this nightmare expedition over with, return to the surface and breathe fresh air, walk on terra firma.
When they entered the cavern, their helmet lights instantly became more effective. The proximity of the walls meant the darkness was less far-reaching, and so less oppressive. It allowed Tommy to relax just a little. He became aware he had been holding his breath for the last few steps.
The cavern walls were covered in yellow and green sea mosses, but no plant life more extravagant. The floor was soft and yielding, like walking on wet carpet or a dewy field. Tommy could see no life clinging to it.
They moved forward warily, checking the walls for signs of the yellow minerals. The cavern widened and then split as they met with two offshoots. The walls in this wide area had thousands of small white tentacles which swept backwards and forwards in the current, no doubt collecting minute food particles in the waters. There was a feint glow emanating from the left offshoot. Tommy's father pointed before starting off in that direction. Tommy followed, heart thudding, and the blood pounding in his ears.
Rounding a sharp bend they were met by one immense wall of glassy, multifaceted gems. Their helmet illumination made the minerals - more amber than yellow - appear to flicker like Christmas decorations. Tommy stood mesmerised, completely fascinated.
His father, however, immediately went to work. He pulled a tool from the net sack and pressed it into Tommy's heavily gloved right hand. Then he took the other and began to lever at the wall. Tommy watched for a moment before moving forward to help. The sooner they filled the sack, the sooner they would escape from this alien land.
He prised one of the minerals from the wall and grabbed as it floated free. Initially, he forced them off separately, but they began to come away in groups of three or four. Sometimes the gems were joined by the shale-like rock to which they were attached. Millions of minute fragments of the rock and silt swirled around him and his father in tiny eddies, until it was difficult to see clearly.
They had only half-filled the sack when Tommy released a cluster of gems from the wall, uncovering a circular glassy object, approximately three inches in diameter. As he leaned forward to take a closer look, an indeterminably small dark pin point quickly grew until it almost completely filled the translucent circle.
Tommy staggered backwards in alarm, screaming ‘Ah!’ into his helmet receiver. Although he was leaning back, off balance, the weights on his boots ensured that he remained upright.
His father moved across to see what he had discovered. Tommy's eyes were fixed unerringly on the glassy object, though his subconscious mind registered the fact the man had ignored his own son's health in favour of the find. With much enthusiasm, he began prising away the many clusters of minerals around the object. To Tommy's amazement he simply allowed them to swirl away in the slight current. Very soon he had uncovered much of the surrounding area. The strange object seemed to be part of a much larger shape, grey and ribbed. As he revealed the entire shape, they saw it was roughly torpedo-shaped in appearance, a six foot long and well-rounded bomb. But it looked far from solid.
Tommy cautiously approached the wall again. There was a definite gleam from the grey substance. He pressed a gloved finger at it, and was surprised and a little frightened when it sank in deeply before reforming its shape. A little behind the glassy circle there was another smaller but otherwise identical object. Tommy's helmet light caused the black to instantly shrink to a pin point. He pulled his head back sharply. Although his heart was pounding hard, he was finding it difficult to breathe. There was no doubt now in Tommy's mind that the circles were eyes, and that the bulk was some sort of subterranean creature.
He longed to rip off his helmet and run, screaming, from the place; the situation allowed him to do neither. All he could do was watch, stunned, as his father continued in his attempt to detach the thing from the cavern wall.
‘Dad,’ Tommy began, remembering the presence of the two-way helmet receiver, ‘that... thing's alive. I th...think we ought to get out of h...here.’
His father ignored him.
Gradually, the creature's anchorage on the wall began to loosen. Then it came away all at once and sank to the cavern floor, thrashing violently. A yellow liquid turned the water murky before dissipating. At the same moment the floor trembled, and the walls of the cavern rumbled. Tommy stood rooted to the spot. His chest felt tight. He couldn't catch his breath, although he was panting. The knowledge that he was hyperventilating didn't abate the terror and pain. The creature ceased convulsing, just as the cavern floor lifted horrendously and then fell to its original level.
‘Some kind of earth tremor,’ his father told him, ‘we've got to get out of here. It's not safe!’ Rather an understatement. With a final look at the deceased creature, probably disappointed it was impractical to take the body with him for later study, he pushed Tommy back the way they had entered, one hand still stubbornly gripping the half sack of minerals... his fortune.
The cavern was undulating and they were buffeted this way and that, like flotsam on the incoming tide. Only the weighted suits prevented them being pounded into the walls. Large chunks of rock were coming away on both sides, drifting free, before sinking. It was necessary to move from side to side as they progressed.
Tommy turned to check on his father... just as the cavern floor opened up behind the man. The upheaval unbalanced him, but he saw his father thrown against a wall, where he knocked his helmet hard and sank prone to the cavern floor. The sack opened and all the gems drifted free, twinkling like fireflies.
‘Dad!’ Tommy saw that his eyes were closed, but whether that indicated unconscious or dead, he had no way of knowing. The helmet appeared intact, as did the suit; he was no expert in such matters. He gripped his father beneath each arm and pulled. It was useless. He tried tugging on one leg. If only he could get him moving. He didn't want to risk damaging the suit, sturdy as it was.
Tommy could see the cavern exit, so near and yet so far. As he watched, gauging the distance, he felt a tremendous shuddering. Gradually, the gap was closing. Tommy couldn't believe he was actually watching the rock move of its own accord. Although his breathing had recovered, he found himself panicking like never before. Frantically, he yanked on his father's leg; the suited bulk moved slowly, as if reluctant to give up its resting place. He stopped suddenly as he realised the truth.
How could he have been so blind? The cavern was no natural rock form; it was a hitherto unknown sea creature, and they had just killed its unborn baby!
The obvious immensity made it slow to move, but Tommy knew, at the rate the gap was closing, he would never escape with his father in time.
‘Dad, wake up! Please! Dad? Oh!’
He was close to tears now. There wasn't much time. Tommy looked at his father, and back at the opening. He shook his father roughly; there was no change. A decision had to be made.
‘Sorry, Dad,’ he finally said, and made for the narrowing gap. Time seemed to stand still at that moment. It was like wading through treacle. With every step he was screaming, ‘No! No! No!’, although his father had warned him yesterday it was wasteful of air. Terror suffused him as he told himself, ‘I've left it too late!’
But then he was through as a heavy vibration informed him the gap had sealed completely.
He was whimpering like a small child, increasingly frustrated by the fact that he wasn't rising from the sea bed. It took a while to remember the weights. The suits had been designed so the weights would take the wearer to the required level. They could be jettisoned at any point; costly but convenient.
But Tommy considered nothing but rising to the surface immediately. The weights went one at a time initially, but his impatience caused him to jettison the remainder simultaneously, and he rose from the depths at a mind-numbing, painful and nauseating rate.
When he broke surface his body was in turmoil. Agony; unbearable pressure on his frame from all sides. Hands reached out and pulled him aboard a boat. But it wasn't his father's. The original discoverers of the minerals? He had no idea.
His helmet was removed, and through a tremendous roaring in his ears, he heard someone shout, ‘Let's get him packed in ice straight away! Can you hear me, son?’
Tommy could hear voices, mumbling and delirious. He realised they were his own, but they continued nevertheless. Then one thing broke through the darkness and disarray in his mind. As a face leaned close, Tommy shouted, ‘They do exist, dad. They do exist!!’
Disclaimer: This is a story I wrote in 2018, well before the onset of COVID-19. Although there are no vivid scenes of visceral horror, please do not read the story if you feel it may cause you distress. This is a teaser for my short story collection A Cry From the Inside: Tales of the Inner Self. Download fro Homepage.
(From the Journals of Gerard Plaintree)
It is said that we shouldn’t attach too much importance to inanimate objects. Well, I freely admit to coveting two very special possessions: a guitar and a desk. It took me some significant time to recognise their uniqueness. Let’s say they have certain properties. Let me explain how I discovered this.
The guitar is an immaculate condition early 1990s Gibson Les Paul Custom Lite, the curious abilities of which I took for granted and so somewhat overlooked. It rested on a stand in the corner of my modest rented room in the Whitechapel district of London. It remained plugged into a small Vox amp so that it was in a state of readiness for whenever the fancy took me… and it took me often. Although far from being the most proficient practitioner of the art, I knew enough to get by. The sounds it produced – even at the reasonably low levels necessary to keep the neighbouring residents tolerant – were exquisite. The guitar seemed to emote always to the required impact, but I suspected it had little to do with my handling of the instrument.
One day the guitar stand broke. My shocked instincts allowed my reflexes to catch the Les Paul before it could topple sideways onto the floor. My heart beat fit to burst; that was a close thing. I don’t know what I would have done had it been damaged in any way. I didn’t even possess the resources to purchase a new stand, let alone invest in any required repairs for the guitar.
I rested it against the single threadbare armchair, and then against the old rickety bed; I couldn’t trust it to remain in either of those positions without it sliding to the floor and my accidentally stepping on it in the darkness of the night. A practical and cheap alternative would have been to fix a bracket to the wall. That would have been achieved rather surreptitiously while the landlady was off-premises. I thought about the best position for it, eventually holding it against the wall above my bed. If the bracket later snapped at least the Les Paul would fall onto the relatively soft surface of the bed. The downside to that was if it happened during the night the heavy body of the guitar might impact with my head while I was sleeping. In retrospect, the manner in which my life was heading into near hopelessness at that time meant I would have considered it no great loss to the world.
However, the moment I touched the guitar to the wall it appeared to fasten like glue. That was more than curious. I left my arm in position, supporting the instrument for some time, before carefully releasing the pressure. Then I quickly released it altogether, cupping my hands underneath, fully expecting to have to catch it as it immediately fell from the wall.
It remained in position on the wall. What on earth was keeping it there? I considered – quite illogically – there might be a magnet inherent in the wall. But why should there be? And even if there were, there was certainly nothing present in the guitar which would compel it to be attracted with such secure force. I expected to be obliged to prise it from the wall; however, as soon as I touched it it came loose.
This was weird. In a multitude of various random positions, I placed the Les Paul gently against the wall. Each time it stuck like glue. Better than glue. And it came away just as easily as before. It never occurred to me at that moment the answer might be anything to do with the guitar itself. I simply assumed it to be an unknown property of the walls in my room. Until, that is, I was visited with the notion of experimenting with the phenomenon elsewhere. I must confess, it both excited and frightened me when the guitar adhered to the side of the armchair, and then a wooden cupboard door in my kitchenette.
How much convincing did I need? It was simply that musical instruments didn’t possess properties like this. To be absolutely certain I took the guitar outside, walking down the road and placing it against a wooden fence, a post box, a glass shopfront, and anything else I was convinced it shouldn’t stick to. I attracted a handful of unsolicited curious or questioning glances, but I offered no explanation for my actions. They probably thought I was a mature art student experimenting with conventional urban backdrops for some sort of project portfolio. I didn’t really care what they thought. I just knew my precious Les Paul Custom was now even more revered by me than before.
Much as my guitar now possessed an astounding singular property, this achieve nothing in halting the downward spiral my life had taken.
I had previously been laid-off from my job. The company went into administration so there was no redundancy to be had. I took the only job I could find, in a warehouse; however, it was only part time culminating in my being obliged to move from my spacious new-build apartment into the tatty one-room abode I now occupied. As if this wasn’t a deep enough descent into the pit, my long-term girlfriend lost patience with me (more probably with my lack of money), and then I fell behind with the rent. You need money to do anything, and I had precious little. The landlady had even less patience. She demanded remuneration – practically with menaces, as she was a formidable lady. I had to find a remedy quickly before I returned home to find my meagre belongings out on the street.
Not to mention myself!
Ascertaining my assets didn’t take long. The only items with any value were my guitar and my desk. I couldn’t part with the Les Paul, it meant too much to me. If I found myself out on the streets I might have needed to do some busking in order to earn some small change. Everyone has to eat. No, it would have to be the desk.
It was an old oak writing desk, and I loved it dearly. I just felt comfortable with it; a perfect environment for story ideas, which seemed to spark into existence practically unbidden. Not that I’d done much with the output. I lacked confidence – even though I very much enjoyed their creation. They were like children being born; a part of my past and my future immortality. Something to leave behind. It was the process of sitting at the desk and letting my imagination fly free that I found so compelling. Circumstances dictated prioritisation: enjoyment or money? If I could have eaten enjoyment I would have readily chosen it; unfortunately, money I could not do without. So, it had to be the desk.
Much as I felt physically sick with regret, I walked down to the local newsagent to place an advertisement card in the window (no laptop, iPad or Smartphone for me – I simply couldn’t afford it. What surprised and somewhat dismayed me was that I solicited a buyer so quickly. He arranged to come round with a van to collect it, so I made preparations to move it out of my room, so that when he arrived we could carefully manoeuvre it out of the building between us.
At least, that was what I attempted to do. I struggled to move the heavy desk from its normal position, across the floor to my open door. It wouldn’t go through; the desk was too deep. That was strange. It had come through the door into the room easily enough, so it should go through the same gap and out. Nothing had changed in that time about either the door or frame.
Rooting around, I finally laid my hands on a tape measure. I mentally noted the surface size of the desk, before edging across to measure the doorway space. It should have easily fitted through but, when I tried again – this time attempting to push from different angles, it still refused. The desk was far too big for the space now. Bizarrely, it seemed like the desk was stubbornly refusing to leave.
It was impossible to dissemble. This was no cheap flatpack, it was a quality solid build undoubtedly created by a master craftsman. And now you are going to ask how I – a man of little or no means – managed to acquire such a classic piece of furniture. Purely happenstance. Back when I was fully employed a colleague was getting married and moving house. He had no further use for the desk and fully intended to dispose of it. It was only mentioned in passing, but once I knew I practically begged him to release it to me. Yes, it was old, but far too good to scrap – particularly as I had been utilising a clipboard as a hard surface for my writing. I smoothed it down and offered it a protective coat of varnish. For next to no cost I had obtained a classic and useful piece of furniture.
I was on my third attempt at measuring and moving the desk when the prospective purchaser appeared at the door to my room. “It won’t fit through the doorway,” I explained before he even introduced himself.
The man wore a heavy, long coat and a bowler hat. It was as though he belonged to another time. “Did you not measure it?”
“Several times,” I answered. “It should fit but it doesn’t.”
He stared at me and then at the desk. “I have some tools in the van. If we prise-off the desk top and one side, we…” At the dangerous look in my eye he stopped talking.
“No,” I told him. “I have a change of heart. The desk is not for sale.”
The man stood silently watching me, obviously mentally appraising just how far he might push me. Finally, he said, “Sir, you are a cad and have wasted my time,” turned on his heals and was gone.
I ran my hands over the desk as if to reassure it of my best intentions. “Don’t worry,” I told it, “you’re remaining with me.”
I was most relieved at the outcome that day, but it did not help me with the rent. There was only so long I could avoid the landlady for. It all came to a head later that day. If I didn’t know better I would have said the landlady was witnessing the entire scene invisibly from the astral plane! I had sat in silence for barely an hour, pondering my next move, when there came a sudden heavy and quite insistent pounding on my door. I answered quickly, quite clearly catching her off-guard. She recovered from her shock, however, standing threateningly in the doorway, ham-fists on hips. “You are two months behind on your rent, Mr…”
I cut her off in my desperation. “I tried to sell something, but… the sale didn’t go through.” I was not about to inform her of the apparent reason; she would have me carted-off and sectioned by the White Coat Brigade.
“You’ve had enough opportunity. I don’t run a charity here!”
I moved away from the door and over to the desk, but she wisely refrained from crossing the threshold. “What do you expect me to do?” I told her. “Just open a drawer and…”
I had pulled open the single desk drawer to find it full of bank notes.
Luckily, she couldn’t see into the drawer from where she stood scowling. However, my look of surprise would have been plain enough for anyone to see. I took just a few notes from the top (any more would have been suspicious) and slid shut the drawer.
“Actually, I have just found some money I’d forgotten I had. You’re more than welcome to it.” I walked back to the door and she practically snatched the money from my hand.
“This isn’t nearly enough!” she snapped defiantly.
“You’ll have the rest tomorrow. Now, will you kindly leave.”
She opened her mouth to retaliate, but simply stared at me instead. “How do you propose to obtain that sort of money in one day?”
I could only lie to her. “Not that it is any of your concern, but a good friend of mine has offered to loan it to me until I am back on my feet.”
The landlady actually made a “Hurrumph!” sound. She stared at me as if she didn’t believe I possessed any friends – and she would have been very nearly correct. Then, as I moved to close the door, she said, “See that you do!” It made no sense in the context of the sentences spoken, but the meaning was clear.
When I was certain she had moved away from outside the door, I opened the desk drawer again. The money was still there. For some reason I expected it to be gone… probably because it had no reason to be there in the first place. No reason but for the fact I desperately needed it.
I took out the balance left to settle the two-month rent deficit and stuffed it into a trouser pocket. I couldn’t risk it going missing before tomorrow. I had only paid the landlady what amounted to half of one month’s rent, because if I had paid the whole cost she would have wondered why I didn’t pay it on time, if it was in a drawer all along. The last thing I needed was her speculating to others about the possibility of my having robbed a bank, obtained money by deception, or drug dealing… Or any other number of ludicrous scenarios.
I thought this may well get me out of trouble temporarily but the big question remained: where had the money come from?
Nobody had enjoyed access to my desk but me, and even if they had it was unlikely they would plant money in my room. Even the strange man with the Bowler hat did not go near the drawer. Perhaps he somehow knew there was money in it, which is why he wanted to purchase it. Were that the case, however, he would have been much more persuasive. He certainly wouldn’t have just left without taking the money. So, he obviously didn’t know about it.
Wherever it had originated from it had certainly materialised at the time of my greatest need. And this got me to thinking. For the first time I started to piece together the individual elements. My guitar had adhered magically to the wall wherever I placed it because the guitar stand which it used to rest against had broken, and I had very much wanted to mount it on the wall, so that it would not get knocked over and damaged. In my heart-of-hearts I had not wanted to part with the desk, so each time I moved it to the door the dimensions increased just enough to prevent its departure. Then, when I had been flippant to the landlady about her expecting me to open a drawer and find the money I needed, that’s exactly what happened.
The realisation struck me like an epiphany. It wasn’t the guitar and the desk which harboured unique properties. I had transferred my feelings on to my two most prized possessions.
It was me who had this ability!
Now, you would think that once I had this revelation in hand I would immediately brandish myself with extravagance. A life of luxury and decadence. However, even had I wished riches upon myself, I would discover the power didn’t manifest itself like that. In retrospect, perhaps ‘power’ is too strong a word to utilise in this respect. So, let me call it a ‘talent’ instead, as I believe everyone possesses a natural talent – if only they can uncover in in their lifetime. Mine materialised involuntarily through need, rather than want.
Although some things came instantly, they would only prove to be a temporary measure. To survive long-term, I would need a full-time secure job again. I was obliged to go looking for one which suited my knowledge, practical skills and experience; my ability aided me in the process by giving me the good fortune to secure the position – against the odds. Sometimes all people need is a little good luck – a chance to prove to others they are of good use.
So, it wasn’t a fortune but it did allow me to move to a better, ground-floor apartment. I thought my landlady would be relieved, but she acted as if I had caused her some kind of personal affront. All the time I was shifting my stuff she stood there, hands on hips, tutting with disapproval.
Of course, it didn’t take me long to move. I collected together what clothes and toiletries I had into one sports bag, took my guitar from the wall, and carried out the small amplifier to the van outside which I’d borrowed. Then I came back for the desk… Was it my imagination, or had it moved closer to the door. That was weird. Of course, this time I manoeuvred it easily through the door to my apartment.
Without offering to help, my now ex-landlady watched me struggle alone until the desk was safely in the back of the van, then she loudly slammed the front door. I had no notion whether she was mad at my leaving, or it was simply a way of saying, “Good riddance!”
Shortly afterward, I began to wonder if my ‘talent’ could be useful to anyone else. If so, I failed to see how; it only seemed to manifest in ‘my’ need.
Around two months subsequent to moving into my new flat something went awry with the world… or, at least, the UK. At first I wasn’t aware of the contagion. I don’t tend to watch the news because it is invariably ‘bad’ and full of injustices. However, colleagues at work spoke of nothing else. Initially, it was a minor news item. Apparently, something virulent was being carried by an airborne host – possibly flies or wasps – and human contact had put several people seriously ill in hospital.
Information was that vague. When those individuals and many more afterward died the government intervened, culminating in an anti-virus vaccine which couldn’t heal the already afflicted but was supposed to help prevent people contracting the thing in the first place. The emphasis here is on ‘supposed to’.
As with polling stations for election voting, schools were closed for the purposes of free vaccinations for the nation. I have no idea if they took the names of people as they arrived; I doubt the notion had occurred to the government officials and medical staff that anybody would purposefully avoid treatment. Either way, I made the decision early on not to go.
It was quite evident to me that pandemonium would ensue. As a nation we might be known as queuers, but when people began to realise they wouldn’t get immunised that day it would pretty soon turn violent. I doubted, too, that there were enough inoculations to go around. The primary reason I didn’t join the masses is I’m somewhat suspicious by nature; too many people were dying now and I refused to believe every victim had been individually bitten or stung by a flying insect. The virus was obviously being passed from person to person.
I was proved correct in my educated assumption when, the very next day, the government announced that there would be no more public vaccinations. Everyone was instructed to remain in their homes, behind locked doors, and the medical staff would visit door to door. They gave the reason that violence had broken-out at schools across the country, but I suspected the officials now knew the truth but were afraid of revealing it for fear of mass panic and paranoia.
I was happy to stay inside. My chest freezer was full with food, so I was fine for the foreseeable future – providing the power remained on. My time was divided between playing the guitar and writing at my desk. Recently, I had returned to my fiction writing and had enjoyed a modicum of success. Not enough to go off and live in a castle any time soon. But I had certainly built-up a reputation of being somewhat ‘different’. It meant that most of my material would now find a market. So, I was relatively happy in my own solace. After all, everything would return to normal eventually.
Those who had been inoculated obviously assumed the enforced curfew didn’t apply to them. But it did. Black-clad soldiers appeared on the streets. They displayed no exposed skin, even to the point of wearing a complete head-mask and breathing apparatus. The radio reported that anyone out on the street was being herded at gunpoint back to individual homes. The official reason for this was that those who had been given the vaccine could not quickly be identified from those who had not, and some people might be carriers or hosts to the virus.
You could collect more information from what was not being said than you could from the actual official statements. Reading between the lines just told me that these actions meant the anti-virus inoculations were simply not working.
Individuals of the media were a part of the nationwide quarantine, along with everyone else. So, there was no live location reporting. At first, they were able to broadcast on TV, somehow managing to tap-into street CCTV cameras. It was more than unnerving to see deserted places which were normally a hive of activity. The images jumped from camera to camera until the sinister-looking soldiers were shown dragging bodies from houses along a street merely ten minutes away from where I lived. Until then, they had only ever been shown keeping the streets clear.
The number of bodies being removed from premises on a single street was truly shocking. Shortly afterward, the only broadcasts received by television were updates by the Prime Minister, who didn’t appear too healthy himself. He explained how all of the best scientists in the relevant fields were working around the clock, that they had made a breakthrough, and to listen out for more regular updates.
Of course, I didn’t believe any of it. The government just wanted to give people hope. With a virus as virulent as this seemed to be, how could they hope to have teams of scientists working together without one potential victim unintentionally wiping-out the others?
Britain stopped broadcasting on TV, so there was only the radio through which to keep appraised of events. This became government controlled, which culminated in general propaganda misinformation.
I had fallen asleep on the floor listening to the radio when I was startled awake by a sharp rapping on the window. Confronted with the nightmare reality of two black-clad soldiers looking in at me, I jumped up to reassure them I wasn’t sick. Having seen me lying on the floor apparently dead, I was extremely lucky not to have been dragged from the building. Another figure walked up to join them. It briefly studied a computer tablet and then tapped it a few times. Just as suddenly as they had arrived the soldiers were gone. They had obviously been checking their records to confirm I was the sole occupant.
I sighed with relief whilst knowing they would be back. So concerned was I for my own well-being that it was practically an afterthought to look through the window at the neighbouring houses. Great numbers of people were being dragged out and placed in trucks. The victims were all inert, but whether deceased or simply rendered unconscious to curtail their violent protestations, there was no way of knowing. I had only been in my new abode a little over two months, so I knew none of my neighbours aside from basic sight recognition. Nevertheless, the scene being played-out in front of me was truly horrifying.
The soldiers returned daily. However, after the first few visits I saw no other bodies removed from nearby houses. Did mean that everyone was dead? Or that some remained healthy like me? I had no way of knowing.
I began to look out for their arrival, and soon realised they were coming straight to me. What I wasn’t prepared for was when they crashed open my door and came for me. The shock and realisation very nearly produced heart failure. I couldn’t catch my breath and began to hyperventilate. Through panic-stricken gasps I protested their actions and proclaimed my good health. Two black-clad soldiers grabbed one each of my arms… But the moment they touched me they both collapsed to the ground, clearly unconscious. I had no inkling what had just taken place.
Stunned, I stared down at the two soldiers. I decided they might come-to at any moment and attempt to assault me again, so I struggled to drag them outside and re-barricaded my door. It wouldn’t keep them out, but I didn’t know what else to do. Perhaps I should have left then and there. I hesitated too long, however. My door was broken inwards, this time flying off the hinges.
Another soldier made a mistake of grabbing me. As he collapsed to the floor, another shot me. I glanced around to see more soldiers entering. Then the world went black.
As I regained consciousness, the first thing I became aware of was a scratchy sound emanating from somewhere nearby. It was an effort to open my eyes; reasoning told me it was almost certainly due to being drugged.
Vision now reasonably clear, I took stock of my situation. I was alone and strapped to a medical bed, in a relatively small and nondescript room. A black-clad soldier stared at me through a glass panel in the opposite wall. There were a couple of white streaks on his headpiece that identified him – I assumed – as a ranking officer of some kind. The rasping, tinny sound turned out to be a tannoy-like speaker. The man was speaking to me.
“What is your secret?”
I couldn’t raise my body, and my muscles were already painful from craning my neck. “I don’t understand. Why am I here? Wherever ‘here’ is.”
“Why do you think you are here?”
“I assume it is not to play Twenty Questions?”
“How would you react if I told you that you are the only survivor in your region?”
I paused, shocked. “Surprised, obviously. Who are you?”
“My name is Redbridge,” he said. It explained nothing really.
“I had no idea everyone had perished in my road.”
“Who said anything about your road? I was talking about the area; a significantly large region of London.”
I stared at the dark lenses which covered the officer’s eyes. “That’s… horrible,” I finally managed.
I thought about that for a moment. “And you brought me here to find out how I have survived when so many have died.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“It would appear, to all intents and purposes, you are immune to the virus.”
“So, you intend to take a sample of blood, whether I like it or not?”
Redbridge practically snorted. “We have already taken that step with no success. Literally dozens of prospective vaccines have been cobbled together in order to fight this thing, and that is why we are so interested in what makes you so different. Blood, saliva, urine, skin, DNA, scans… Even semen. All of this has achieved nothing. We are obliged to wear this…” He gestured loosely with his heavily-gloved hands. “…get up permanently.”
“I think you are wasting your time looking at me, Mr Redbridge. I’m sorry I can’t help you and everyone else.”
“I don’t think you fully appreciate the situation!” he suddenly snapped.
“Oh, I believe I do. I just think you’re looking in the wrong place.”
There was a silence which lulled me back towards sleep, before Redbridge suddenly demanded, “How did you do it?”
I struggled to lift my head again. “How did I do what?”
“Incapacitate my men.”
“Believe me, I have no idea.”
The black-clad officer snorted again with derision. “Initially, I thought it was a powerful electric field, but we found nothing.”
“That is because there was nothing to find.”
“We could take you apart bit by bit until we discover the trick.”
As apologetically as I could muster, I replied, “Even if you were able, it would do you no good.”
“So, you’re refusing to help us?!”
“There is nothing I would like more…” I attempted to smile, but there was little humour behind it. “Much as your threats disguised as diplomacy are… quaint; can’t, won’t – it all comes down to the same thing.”
“What the Dickens are you talking about? All I want to know is how are you still alive when everyone else is dying as we speak?”
“Because I need to survive.”
There was another silence. Finally, Redbridge said, “What do you mean by that statement?”
“You won’t believe this,” I told him. “I have discovered an inherent ability which supplies me with what I most desperately need.”
Redbridge cocked his head like an inquisitive dog. “Are you trying to tell me you are alive because your ability has decided you need to survive?”
“Well, I have no time for this nonsense!” He waved his arms about, precipitating the entry of six soldiers into the room. The moment they crossed the threshold all six collapsed, unconscious, to the floor.
“This is all so unnecessary,” I told the man behind the glass.
“I have no choice,” he answered. “This is a desperate situation, and I believe you are the key. Gas began to emerge through vents… and suddenly turned to pure oxygen.
“I told you, it won’t help you. “My… talent is selfish in that it gives me what I need – not other people.”
“How are you doing that?!” stressed Redbridge. Quickly, he changed tack. “Do you realise this thing can’t be stopped? Everyone’s going to die. You’ll be all alone.” He let that sink in.
“No, I won’t,” I told him. “Someone else will survive.”
Redbridge’s voice rose an octave. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I laid my head back on the bed and sighed. “Because, I will ‘Need’ a companion.”
This is my new and original suspense tale written in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft and the Brothers Grimm. I love the classic writing style from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and possess several leather bound copies. I've enjoyed immensely the writing of this one in the first person. I hope you enjoy reading it.
I had no inkling of the existence of the thing that would be my undoing, but from the first moment I laid eyes on the structure it captured my imagination. How had such a striking bearing existed without being photographed and recorded in the annals of the West Country.
There was no doubting it held some sort of power over me from the outset. It practically became an obsession. Once I had ascertained the legend behind the building it compounded that power to the point each time I attempted to put it from my mind and leave the area a curious form of mental magnetism compelled me to return, before I had reached so much as a mile. It was plainly a matter of my intentions, as I seemed to be permitted to venture out for essential supplies, but simply travelling forth instigated the onset of debilitating headaches and the sense of great emptiness and loss. Whether this malady was a result of personal psychological problems of which I was previously unaware, or an outside influence, I had no way of knowing. Either way, if only for my peace of mind, I had to take control and do something about it.
Over the last decade I had been making some mark professionally with my study of as yet unidentified species. Treatises were one consideration; however, it was all directed toward publishing my journals to the scientific world. This last venture had kept me away for almost four years, and I was keen, as always, to return to the land of my birth.
Mindful of the fact I was totally familiar with England’s West Country, I was transported from the sea-going False Maiden which had been my home for so long, to a small boat for the trip ashore, I could not but notice the foreboding tower which loomed over the little harbour – and the sea itself.
It was difficult to perceive anything clearly at first. Low cloud and a thick, cloying mist hung over this part of the shoreline. A most curious sensation, as it picked and clawed at the flesh of my face like a fearless hungry gull. But it was more than that. A deep feeling of dread and uneasiness crept into my bones. The owner of the tiny boat released a tight, knowing smile as he saw me shiver. Nevertheless, the moment I was deposited with my bag of belongings on the outer wall of the harbour, he immediately turned the boat back out to sea and vanished into the mist.
I walked slowly and precisely along the slippery surface of the wall until I passed the small harbour master station. It appeared to be a very small port, with only a handful of nearby cottages built from old grey stone, and a single chaotic shop, appearing claustrophobic enough to easily compromise its integrity by knocking something over. A wizened old woman with a beak nose stared at me with a mildly annoyed countenance, as if I had interrupted her reverie.
“Good day,” I announced by way of introduction. The old bird-like woman didn’t even move. She could have been a statue. “I am looking for somewhere to stay for a day or two, and thought you might be kind enough to direct me.”
The proprietor stared some more, before clearing her throat and sweeping out an arm grandly to encompass her stock. The majority of it appeared as though it had stood for decades covered in dust, and I wondered at the last time she had made a sale.
I chuckled appreciatively, and played it safe. “Well, I could use some fresh tobacco, if you have it.”
She slapped it on the surface of the tiny counter, and I paid her accordingly. Before I could repeat my inquiry, she pointed off to the right. “The Precipice,” she stated.
“I have a thing about heights,” I told her.
“It is a tavern,” she said with scorn in her tone.
I thanked her and was glad to be out in the open, as I harboured the distinct feeling if I remained any longer she would have turned me into a toad.
Had I negotiated a short corner I would have spotted the tavern immediately. It was by far the largest structure in the region, aside from the mysterious tower. I could have saved myself an encounter with the unsociable old crone.
The Precipice seemed too accommodating to serve the meagre local population. At least six upper-level windows faced out to sea. Pushing open the main door, I walked to the bar where a stereotypical ham-fisted bartender awaited my custom. There was an aroma of damp and old beer.
“I would like a room for one or two nights – perhaps longer, please, my good man.”
“Certainly, Sir.” The landlord answered in a jolly but distant manner.
He informed me of the price of a rear-facing room and the slightly loftier sea-facing room. I shrugged, before pausing in consideration. An image of the imposing tower entered my mind, so there was no further delay before I happily paid two nights in advance for a sea-facing room. The moment the transaction had taken place I could not help inquiring regarding the location, and in particular the surreal tower.
“I consider myself familiar with the Western Counties,” I told the man. “But… You will have to forgive my ignorance; I do not recognise this place at all. Where precisely are we?”
“Blight? Forgive me for saying so,” I said with a smile, “but that is a rather unfortunate name for… well, anywhere.”
The thickset innkeeper shrugged.
“That is for certain,” he answered with finality. “Let me show you to your room.” He suddenly bellowed, “Jack! As a helper you make a good skiver. Where are you?”
A strange-looking boy emerged from the back. He had unkempt blue-grey hair and cat-like eyes. Even his movements were odd: quick and jerky, like a spider.
“Watch out here while I take this gentleman to his room.” He hesitated before adding, “And I will know if anything is missing!”
I followed the man up a tight staircase. “Here we are, sir. Room 15.”
“How many rooms are there?” I asked as he unlocked the door.
I could not help exploding with laughter. “Nine? How does that work then?”
He stared at me indignantly. “Excuse me. How does what work?” The door was pushed open and we walked into a compact, sparsely-furnished room. There was a single bed, a desk and a small chest of draws. “The bathroom is along the hall.”
I barely heard this last sentence, noticing as I did the view from the window. The tiny harbour and the few dull cottages, which were also within my field of view, hardly registered.
“The tower makes for quite an imposing structure,” I ventured.
“That it does… I will leave you to it, then.” He took his leave before I could ask any more of him.
Depositing my belongings on the bed, I sat on the wide window sill and gazed out at the modest harbour and the immense tower beyond. What purpose did it serve? A look-out post, perhaps; however, it appeared too substantial in construct for that simple task. The stone blocks which constituted its structure were immense. I could spy that detail even from this distance. How where they even moved into place? Ship-mounted cranes would have been required. But the aged and discoloured stone almost certainly pre-dated that era.
The tower had a bizarre effect on the eyes. It seemed to demand my full attention to the point it actually moved – looming slightly nearer, then back to its original position. It was undoubtedly tiredness; I had not slept since early the day before. In a while I would ask the proprietor to prepare me a light meal, then I would rest. My journals would wait until the morrow. First, I was inwardly obliged to inspect the tower a little more closely.
Much as the cloying mist was mostly the other side of the structure, tendrils partly shrouded the side I could see. It was a tentative contact as if the mist was reluctant to wrap itself more tightly around the tower. No windows or door were visible in the stonework, so I could only imagine there was something on the blind side, facing out to sea. I resolved to discover the truth in the morning. Details appeared tantalisingly out of my range of vision, and that is when I remembered the binoculars.
My belongings were tipped unceremoniously out of my case on to the bed, when I quite abruptly recalled my specimens, maps and other paraphernalia. Fortunately, they came to no harm when the compact travel field glasses tumbled out. I snatched them up and returned immediately to the window, as if suspecting I may have missed the tower undergo a change during the scant seconds I was away. It was a curious sensation to discover I felt more comfortable when watching the structure than when away from it. Compelling was the sense.
The view through the binoculars helped a small amount; however, it was somewhat marred by the presence of mist, which caused a kaleidoscopic miasma which toned-down the clarity of my sighting. Nevertheless, I ascertained a greater understanding of the impossibleness of the huge, shaped blocks. I could see no steps cut into the stone, nor handholds which one might expect would be present. No, it was an imposing colossus, but whatever openings there might have been were surely on the out-facing side. This would command further study the next day.
Only subsequently did I notice the quaint panorama of the harbour and the few abodes within sight. I had just caught the glimpse of a dark figure looking up at my window, when…
The next thing I knew I was rousing myself fully clothed on the bed, with the rising sun streaming through the window. I had no recollection of moving to my slumber, and wondered if I had dreamt the figure looking up at me.
My stomach reminded me I had forsaken dinner for much-needed sleep. After taking care of my ablutions and attire, I presented myself for what I hoped would be an early breakfast. The landlord seemed disinclined to make an exception for me, even though there was no evidence of other guests. “We need to sleep as well. Breakfast will be at a quarter to the hour.”
I took the opportunity to partake of an investigative walk along the full stretch of the harbour wall, bracing myself against the gusting wind blowing in from the sea. My paramount objective was to discover what little I could about the foreboding tower. Walking briskly past the harbour master’s hut on the opposite wall to that I had arrived on afforded scant revelation than I had already viewed with the binoculars. I decided to waste no more time studying blank stonework.
Over a hearty breakfast I attempted to question the landlord without raising his mistrust. I began with, “What is the purpose of the tower?”
“Purpose?” he repeated, somewhat distracted.
“What is the intention? What is it… for?”
The ham-fisted, sweating landlord shrugged, making himself busy fussing around the other unoccupied tables. “It is just… there. It was there long before I was here.”
He must have detected the barely veiled impatience on my face, because all he added before moving away was, “It is simply a landmark. Of no importance. I suggest you put it from your mind, sir, before it becomes detrimental.”
It was plainly evident he knew far more than he was saying. There was little to be gained by pressuring the man; he would be just as likely to lose his polite indifference and eject me from his establishment. The quaint harbour town was not on any map or chart I had seen of the area, so the chances of finding any literature in the place was slim to none. In fact, the history of this place was more likely to be in the people than the leaves of a book. If only they were prepared to share that information.
Was the landlord’s finishing statement stamped with a warning or a threat? It might have been either. Or both.
Much as I found the prospect distasteful, my only option, it seemed, was to attempt to question the old witch proprietor of the rustic and chaotic general store that seemed to be caught in a previous century. I carried out that task immediately after breaking fast, on the pretext I was intending to investigate the narrow lanes nearby to stretch my leg muscles. In the event the landlord may be watching my movements from one of the many windows, I strode in a converse direction and began walking up one of the steep byways. The notion was to find a way to cut across and approach the shop from the opposite direction. Eventually, however, I was obliged to return some time later down the same lane and turn the corner past the Precipice Inn – hoping the landlord had tired of his observation – and approach the shop in a more commonplace manner.
When I pushed open the door, the beak-nosed, wizened old woman sat motionless in the same position and at the same angle, as if she had not moved since my last visit. “Good day again,” I spoke breezily. “I neglected to introduce myself yesterday. My name is Hargreaves.”
I waited; however, she did not reciprocate the introduction. In fact, she might have been a manikin, as she refused to move or speak. Just for a moment I began to wonder if she had expired. I moved closer and said, “I am considering researching the curious tower which stands beyond the harbour.”
I noticed her eyes flicker momentarily and I knew I had her attention, if not yet her cooperation. Pressing my advantage – if indeed one might consider it so – I locked eyes with her. “Do you know when it was constructed, and for what purpose? What is it utilised for now? Or is it simply abandoned? It is a most singular sight, and has quite captured my imagination.”
She quickly glanced around as if someone could be concealed and listening amongst the dusty relics from another age. The moment her eyes met mine again she swept out an encompassing hand, as she had upon my first visit. “I suppose I could always use another pouch of tobacco,” I told her.
The woman sniffed disdainfully, rejecting such a simple reward. Studying the bric-a-brac at closer quarters, I struggled to find an object which might be of use on my travels. That is until I moved an interesting paperweight aside to reveal a very nicely constructed compass. It had the size of a large chicken egg with a flattened bottom. The traditional dial of the compass was set behind glass – very professionally fashioned. I shook out my clean handkerchief to remove the dust of time from the piece, before setting it down on the table. I sneezed twice. The compass needle spun freely seeking Magnetic North. I walked back to the counter but the moment I put it down the needle spun crazily. I scooped it up once more and walked slowly toward the shop door. Wherever I placed the compass it operated reliably, but the moment I walked back to the counter it spun manically again. All the while the old woman sat motionless.
“A curious piece,” I announced, placing the item on the counter. “How much will you take for it?”
She held out a claw-like hand. I put a note on the counter top. She glanced at it, and then back at me for the briefest moment before staring vaguely off into the distance. I put another note on top of the first, thereby doubling the amount. When she made the barest of movements, as before, I slid the compass closer to her and gestured as if to pick up the money. However, the claw moved with such alarming speed as I was far from certain I had witnessed the action. I only knew the money was no longer there.
“God’s Light,” she announced in a scratchy tone.
“I don’t follow you. I…”
“That is because I have not told you yet! Be silent and listen.”
I would normally have given short thrift to the cantankerous old bird, but on this occasion I had little choice if I wanted to learn anything at all regarding the structure.
“There are no records of which I am aware that offer any information at all about when it was built, or who constructed it. All I know is it was already there when my grandmother was born. You may have speculated its use as a lighthouse; to my knowledge it has never been used as such – no open area for a lamp and no pinnacle platform on which to build a naked flame.”
I had to make it plain to her there was a wish to know what it is, rather than what it was not. She forestalled my interjection with a raised claw and a stern look. “I can only offer you rumours. Stories passed down through generations. Most apoc… apoc…
She stared at me. “…at best.” She suddenly seemed impatient, no doubt wishing to return to her endless hours of statuesque staring. “Look, it all amounts to this. There was a young woman, it was said, whose countenance was so stunning and so pure any individual – particularly men – who looked upon her beauty instantly erupted in flame. No one knew who her family or ancestors were. Had they perished? Many wanted to end her life; however, the church saw her as a messenger of God. Obliged to wear a mask, she was homed in one of the local cottages – before you ask, I have no idea which one – and left supplies on a regular basis.” She sneered. “There will always be the curious and the disbelievers: those who fell foul of the stories and local advice. Most of these, it was said, were never seen again. At last it would be decided she would be ensconced in the tower, despite her protestations, for the safety of the people.”
The old woman raised a hand again to prevent my inquiring of the obvious. “Do not ask me how she was imprisoned in the tower when there is evidently no opening. I have been offered no explanation.”
“And she became known to the local people as God’s Light, due to the intensity of her visage.”
The wizened old woman almost imperceptibly nodded her ascent.
I had carried out some research into the myths and legends before I gave my professional life to nature and the cataloguing of the rarer species, and decided they were built on unanswered questions. It was undoubtedly the case here.
“It is a singular and entertaining tale,” I opined. “Correct in your initial assessment of apocryphal,” I think.” The old crone said nothing as I took my leave. “I thank you for your time. Good day, madam.”
I exited the shop to be instantly assailed by the salt-laden wind from the sea. It returned me to an immediate sense of reality. Not only had the experience in the antiquated general store felt as if time had stood still, I now realised my true haunts were beckoning me. I had been away from home for far too long. There was no immediate family; however, it would be more than pleasant to dine again with half-forgotten friends and associates, before seriously pulling my thoughts back to formally setting down my dissertations to the academic world.
Holding the compass in the palm of one hand I watched as the needle smoothly sought Magnetic North. I allowed myself a private smile. At least this diversion would prove an amusing tale told over dinner to fellow published professionals. Deeply breathing in the refreshing brine, I finally turned, retracing my footsteps back to the inn. The burly proprietor was fussing around an already spotless bar.
“Ah, sir. Back so soon? I regret there is very little to see in our harbour town. I can prepare you a light lunch, if you wish.”
“Just an ale, thank you. I will take it to my room while I prepare to leave.” I had already paid the man for my stay, but settled for my meals and a not immodest extra of coinage. He accepted the payment as if the extra was of little consequence, and set to drawing me an ale from the cask.
“Will you do me the honour of arranging transport for an hour or two?” The innkeeper grunted under his breath; I had no inkling if this was assent or annoyance. I wordlessly accepted the ale and climbed the narrow staircase to my room. It took mere moments to secrete my meagre belongings into the carry case, so I sat at the window sipping the ale and looking out past the harbour to the ever-present mist-wreathed sea. Inevitably, my gaze returned to the overshadowing structure of the tower.
The logic of putting the tower from my mind by removing myself from its presence was sound. However, the reality of the matter was quite different, as I would soon discover.
A small horse-drawn carriage – something resembling a Hansom Cab – pulled up outside the inn. Motor cars were still a rare and expensive commodity. I carried my case downstairs and, as I walked through the inn to the outer door, the proprietor called, “I will keep your room open, sir. Should you change your mind.”
I acknowledged the driver and, before I had settled myself comfortably inside, the horse was directed to move forward, the carriage rattling and squeaking behind. Apparently, there was only a single road in and out of Blight, so there was no requirement at that moment to request of me for directions. After only a handful of minutes we arrived at a crossroads. An old sign indicated that Twisted Finger Point was to the left. It was another name I failed to recognise, and I wondered if the boat had deposited me in the West Country at all. Nevertheless, I smiled to myself when I noticed someone had put themselves to great trouble in order to twist the pointed end of the sign.
We proceeded straight forward, and I began to feel unwell. It came on quite suddenly. I was nauseated. Inhaling of deep breaths, I called to the driver to stop. Light of head, I opened the door and stumbled to the ground, retching. The driver climbed down and simply looked on, believing me, I think, to be inebriated. “Do you require a physician?” he said uselessly.
I felt too sick to answer. It required significantly more than a single attempt to climb uncertainly to my feet, watched by the driver with barely contained impatience. I managed to stagger a short distance back in the direction of the crossroads, halting frequently for rest, and to take deep breaths. I was soon standing, holding onto the sign, and immediately felt more at ease – energised, in fact. Collecting myself, I began to return to the carriage. As with the impact from a wayward horse the pain and discomfort returned. The strength fell away from my limbs, and I began to suffer the effects of vertigo. With a mad, panic-driven effort I stumbled back to the sign, holding tightly to the lifeline and feeling warmth suffuse my body until I was able to stand of my own volition. Not yet harbouring the energy to call out, I waved to the carriage driver, beckoning. The man appeared to hesitate – evidently considering whether to abandon my person on the side of the road – before manoeuvring the horses around.
Forestalling his opportunity to complain, I instructed the disgruntled driver to take me to Twisted Finger Point. “There is very little to see,” he told me in no uncertain terms.
Impossible as it seemed, the notion which entered my head would not rescind its hold. “I would like to decide that, if you have no objection.”
The driver audibly grunted as he set off in the direction indicated by the sign. Inevitably, as I had determined, my well-being was shortly compromised. Balance and coordination was taken away from me, and I threw myself from the disorientating jostle of the carriage to hold to the stability of the hard ground and violently empty my stomach. I crawled on hands and knees back to the sign at the crossroads. Immediately, I began to recover a little; however, remaining very weak.
“It is little good,” I attempted to explain to the both disinterested but somewhat agitated driver. “I will have to return to Blight.”
“If you will forgive me, sir, I could have told you so some moments ago!”
Momentarily, we were heading into Blight. I began to feel strength return to my limbs. A euphoria flooded my well-being, fulling confirming my suspicions. To the evident satisfaction of the driver I relieved him of his obligation. His demeanour was significantly improved by my more than generous over-payment. He even doffed his hat and told me “It was a pleasure, sir. I trust you will recover without delay,” before sharply shaking the reins, persuading the horse and carriage to clatter away. I surveyed my own thoughts as I walked, shakily, with my bag. I reached The Precipice Inn with the beginnings of a strategy in mind.
The proprietor barely offered my presence a single glance, evidently unsurprised in the least at my return.
“I will be requiring the room for a further day or two,” I informed the perspiring man. “Perhaps you will be kind enough to fetch me up a light lunch?” The man nodded once, uninterrupted in the polishing of his tables. I glanced across at the bar, before wearily climbing the stairs to my room.
I failed to even partake of the opportunity to view from my window. If my makeshift strategy played-out I would see more than enough of the tower at close quarters. For now, I needed to rest from the effects of the short-lived but virulent assault on my mental senses. Furthermore, I felt physically drained and would need my full strength for the night’s… excursion.
I awoke in darkness, fretting for a moment or two that more time had elapsed than I had calculated. The night was young, however. Splashing water on my face to bring the senses alive, I donned my jacket coat and went downstairs to order a light evening meal and an ale. I seated myself where I had sight of the entire bar. I seldom saw anyone other than the landlord, and it was he who brought along the meal. It might as well have been of no taste, as my mind was on other matters.
Eventually, the doorway through the bar opened from the outside, and the strange boy the landlord had referred to as Jack appeared carrying a half-size ale keg. He struggled to lay it gently on the floor, before shifting it this way and that to manoeuvre it into a space under the bar. When he turned to leave I followed him out, closing the door behind me. The cold air assaulted my senses.
“Jack, I wish you to acquire some equipment for me. You will be well rewarded.”
He did not appear surprised to see me, simply staring with fathomless eyes. Finally, he said, “You are planning to see God’s Light. I can tell you it will not end well.”
I placed my hands in my pockets to display set determination. My fingers touched the compass and I absently brought it out, looking down curiously at the needle as it spun crazily. “It is sufficient for you to know my requirements,” I answered noncommittally.
“You will need a boat. And plenty of strong rope. And a shuttered lantern. A small hip flask of brandy…”
It was my turn to stare at him. It was as if he had planned this, or had arranged it before. Shaking off an uneasy feeling, I added a few small items to his list.”
“I can have these ready for you on the morrow.”
“Too late. I require them now. Tonight.”
The boy narrowed his eyes. “I will cost you.”
“Naturally. Half now, half upon return of the equipment?”
Jack shook his head. The manner in which he laid eyes upon me, I knew he was seeing another time, another place. It was somewhat unsettling. The boy glanced around, as if impatient to be doing other things. “All of it now.”
“Do not consider cheating me, Jack. I have far-reaching contacts,” I bluffed.
The boy turned and spat. “You will have your things in an hour.”
I returned to make my presence known in the comforts of the inn, slowly picking at my meal and nursing my single ale. When an hour had almost passed I watched the movements of the innkeeper. When he had moved out of sight to clean tables I drained my ale and exited, illicitly, through the bar. I trusted the proprietor would assume I had retired to my room.
It was a chill night. Clear for the most part, but the ever-present mist still clung to the tower like an inquisitive stranger. It proved both eerie and reassuring. Further out, nothing could be seen through the writhing wall of mist.
I spied the tiny rowing boat prior to spotting the boy Jack himself. It was tied unnervingly close to the harbour master’s hut. There were no lights on in the little construct; however, that did not mean no one was present. I could see the items I had requested lying in the boat.
“It is all here,” the strange boy stated in low tones. “From here you are on your own. Remember, these are treacherous waters. The is a riptide on this side of the tower. Approach it from the far side, it is calmer and there are rocks upon which you can stand. That is all.”
His anachronistic educated speech hardly registered with me. He turned and merged with the darkness before I could even think to acknowledge the advice. It sounded helpful, but I just didn’t trust the lad. Perhaps it was his eyes and curiously unnatural movements. There was something more, however.
Untethering the boat, I moved it gently and quietly as I could further out on the water. Should the harbour master or innkeeper look out of a window at that moment they would view me quite plainly. There was nothing I could do to prevent that fact. If they did happen to spy my suspicious presence on the water, they were hardly likely to pursuit me. There was nothing nefarious about my actions and, should I fall into peril, it was my own decision and the fault entirely my own.
The first presence I was aware of as I smoothly stroked out of the harbour and towards the tower was the immediate bitter chill in the air and the strong smell of brine. Tendrils of mist began to tease me into its clutches until I found myself fully enveloped and dripping with dampness. I am certain I would have been shivering with the cold if not for my exertions directing the tiny boat. The air brought with it an atmosphere of foreboding. Briefly and resoundingly I had doubts. I even considered turning back, but that would have proved counterproductive. I was resolute. There were a few things I simply had to know, and as ridiculous as it seemed I had the unnerving feeling the tower wished me to know as well.
Lost in thought, I very nearly forgot Jack’s warning about the treacherous riptide waters on the nearside of the tower. Rowing wide of the forbidding structure, I approached it cautiously from the other side. At least the boat would not be spied from the harbour, should the mist unexpectedly disperse. I had no experience to believe it would do so.
It took several attempts to clamber onto the narrow rocks whilst keeping a firm grasp of the rope to secure the boat. Finally managing to maintain my balance, I reached for the dull grey stone of the tower… and almost slipped. The stone was damp and peppered with moss. With effort I managed to pull the boat partly onto the narrow ledge of rocks. There appeared to be no obvious place to tether it, so I was obliged to snag the rope unconvincingly around and between some of the rocks, in the hope this would prove sufficient resistance to prevent the little boat being dragged out to sea. It was a somewhat precarious task to transfer my procured equipment from the boat on to the ledge.
I had given some forethought to my intended strategy, but now that I was perched on what amounted to the edge of a cliff face my plan appeared significantly more ridiculous. It was a distinct possibility I would fall to my death here. Why was I so driven? The myth of God’s Light was undoubtedly apocryphal at best. It is true most legends are based on a nugget of truth, however, I found it difficult to believe in any aspect of this one. So why was I so determined and forthright? I simply had to know. Least of all things, I could give the old crone in the shop a piece of my mind.
Coiling the long length of rope over my shoulder, I hooked one end around some jagged rocks, careful not to dislodge the boat’s tether. Then I edged my way slowly and cautiously around the base of the tower. One slip on the other side and I would be pulled into the undercurrents of the harsh mistress of the sea – never to be seen again. Once more I questioned my motives, but did not hesitate in my purpose. When I had completed one circuit I took up the tethered end and tied it off through the loop. Doing my best not to unduly hurry, I edged around the base a second time, on this occasion looping the rope around the stone structure as high as it was possible to reach. If I fell I might be dashed on the rocks, but at least I would not be dragged out and lost at sea.
As I circumnavigated the foreboding tower I closely inspected the stonework. It was a universally dull grey, tinged with dark moss. Could I have been mistaken when I spotted a discrepancy? The tint of the stone in one area high up was a minutely different hue. With no obvious way into the structure I was offered no choice but to ascend to that point and examine it at closer quarters.
Using the same process as a rural lumberjack would to ascend the trunk to the higher limbs, I looped the rope around me and edged up the wall. It proved both treacherous and strenuous – not to mention frightening. I had no liking for heights. My heart felt almost permanently as though it were in my mouth, as if taken residence. The rope continually slipped on the wet moss, and I constantly wiped the mist’s moisture from my hands. When I was halfway up and beyond the point of gentle return, my muscles began to spasm. Attempting to rest for a moment, I found no ledges to support my weight. I was obliged to press on before my strength gave out entirely.
My fingers cramped and soon felt like immovable claws. I inhaled sharply of the bitter air in preparation for inching my way close to the discoloured section of wall. However, there came a quite sudden loud crash, the shock of which caused the rope to loosen a little. I found myself two feet lower and holding on for dear life. I chanced a look downwards to discover the little boat was damaged and drifting out to sea. A forceful swell had undoubtedly thrust it against the rocks and freed its tether.
I had just lost my only salvation off this structure. To attempt swimming into the harbour would almost certainly fail at the hand of the cold water and strong undercurrents. With depleted strength I would tire quickly and be swept out after the boat. At least I still possessed the covered lantern, strapped as it was to my waist. There was no thought of abandoning this enterprise now; my only option was to follow my objective through to completion. Whatever form that may take.
With every part of my body protesting, I continued edging up the wall. Exertion meant the perspiration instantly chilled, resulting in periodic sneezes and coughs. I would be several days recovering from this endeavour. During my countless journeys cataloguing unknown or rare species, I had visited many inhospitable lands, but had never been as close to total exhaustion or death as this.
Finding myself level with it, I was now able to witness for a certainty there was something curious about this section of wall. I chanced touching it – holding on with one hand – and of instant heard a grating of stone against stone. I pushed against it with more force and was startled when the entire section fell inside of the structure, revealing an opening little more than a yard square which was straight at its base and arched at its apex. The integrity of the rope around the tower was compromised somewhat by this irregularity, causing the rope to twist alarmingly. Fully expecting to be shaken clear and fall to my death, I admittedly panicked and threw myself through the opening.
I had jarred a shoulder and bruised a hip; however, I hardly felt the individual ailments, added as it was to my catalogue of pain. Now at rest on a stone floor, my limbs felt weighed down like ballast in a galleon, and fire erupted simultaneously in all of my muscles. Blood having rushed to my head caused light-headedness and sharp headache shooting pains. I was aware of my chest heaving and a tightness to my throat. My body was starved of oxygen. Accordingly, I attempted to calm myself and rest for a while. My vision came and went, and I suffered such agony in my back the only option to temporary respite was to curl into a fetal position.
There was acute awareness of a dank, stuffy odour, and something else which my troubled mind had no experience to describe. Cold air and mist was pushing in through the opening, which undoubtedly aided in catching my breath, but it only swept a modicum of the indescribable odour away. For some illogical reason I had expected to discover bones. As I sat up straight to check the floor next to me, a wave of… something washed through my head leaving me feeling nauseated.
Though it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of me, I fully expected to find a skeleton – or at least the dust of one. Perhaps the mythos of a woman so pure that her light consumed any unfortunate soul who laid eyes upon her was dreamt up aged villagers with nothing better to occupy their minds, given they have no local history of any interest aside from the tower – which they cannot explain. But what explained my fascination – ney, obsession – to the point I was unable to leave the region?
There was another brief scraping sound. However, this came not from the stone of the tower but from the darkness inside. I scrabbled for the covered lantern at my side. Perhaps there was some kind of wild animal inside. Lifting the shields, I held out the lantern before me. The light waned and died. I struck two matches in succession; they both immediately blinked out.
I knew you would come.
I jumped to my feet in shock, pressing my back to the wall one side of the opening as my legs threatened to give way. “Who are you?” I managed to croak.
You know who I am. The voice was deep but both feminine and sibilant.
A thrill of fear or excitement went through me. “God’s Light?”
If that is how you wish to address me.
“Come into the light,” I coaxed it, my voice audibly trembling. The light, such as it was, was meagre to say the least, and emanated from a half-moon almost totally obscured by clouds and further filtered by the ever-present heavy mist.
There came a cacophony of sounds, some more prominent than others. A light tinkling sound was joined by a wet slithering, a creaking as with wood rubbing on wood, a hissing as with laboured breathing, and a curious rattling. Some of them came and went, only to return once more.
Somebody or something had halted just beyond the reach of the light. I found it impossible to fully separate the grey outlines from the black backdrop.
Are you not afraid of being consumed by fire the moment you set eyes upon me? You are indeed a brave man.
“Or a foolish one,” I replied. “However, all roads have led to this moment and for the sake of my own sanity I would like to meet you.”
Are you certain? There is no turning back.
“I am certain though I have no inkling how I will return to the shore.”
Do not fear. I will solve that…puzzle.
This time I was certain I could detect sibilant whispers simultaneous to the unknown entity’s standard vocal tones. The discordant symphony of noises continued as it imperceptibly moved towards me. The figure was a mere yard or two away before I was able to discern its shape anything like clearly.
I was unable to refrain from releasing a single gasp at both the vision and the powerful unidentifiable odour that washed over my senses. She was in essence a shapely female with the body physique of a twenty-year-old. However, there was nothing overtly erotic regarding her nakedness. It was as if she had become fused with an ancient oak tree – set in a trunk which entirely encompassed her form. Roots or tendrils, I knew not which, writhed constantly, maintaining the whole in perpetual motion, if agonisingly slowly. As I studied the form more closely I began to notice many more descriptive details to the conglomerate form. There were mottled and ridged sections to her shape, reptile with bone-like protuberances. Sections of her humanoid skin were piscine, with blended scales and rippling movements. Protrusions, one from each shoulder, were solid and formed from hair as with a rhino’s horn. Molluscs and crawling arthropods filled any spaces on her frame. Smaller insects played around any connections between the amalgamated forms. It was as if all earthbound nature had come together to complete this one singular construct.
Some might have been terrified or disgusted by the countenance of God’s Light. However, I now came to realise the reason every fibre of my being had been directed toward the tower.
Something in my consciousness had pointed me to this one moment in time; the culmination of my life’s work.
Facing myself in a predestined direction reminded me of the compass. Retrieving the object in question from my pocket, I flipped it open. The needle span briefly before pointing unerringly at the feat of nature before me. I was unsurprised by its action.
She must have detected my gasped reaction, because she spoke for the first time in several minutes. Am I not abhorrent? An abomination?
“No,” I replied promptly and in earnest. “You are a beautiful creature.”
“A wonder to behold!”
You speak truly?
“By my life.” The conviction was clear in my tones.
You do not fear me? Her voice carried a minute but unmistakable musical tone in this instance.
I realised at that precise moment, with utmost clarity – however they had achieved the task – God’s Light had been entrapped in the tower, not because her mere visage could cause a veritable conflagration, and not due to her supposedly being the cause of multiple deaths and missing persons, but the locals saw her as an abomination of nature and an insult to God.
Still weak from my exertions, I managed to stumble forwards a little in silent reply to her query.
“Can I touch you?”
Take me in your arms. I have not been held close for so long.
The odours overwhelmed my senses as I moved closer. I discerned dog – probably wolf – bear (certainly, she possessed a heavy fur hide) and a skunk perfume, along with wet grass, wood, and a multitude of others I was unable to determine. Her eyes were a strange blend of hazel and a kaleidoscopic purple which constantly shifted. I was obliged to steel myself against falling into and becoming lost in their depths.
I opened my arms wide, embracing as much of her form as I could reach. As I made contact with my upper limbs and midriff, I both heard and felt a crack as if of brittle china. Cracks appeared over the whole of her form. I took a single step back in alarm. It was impossible, much as I struggled with my depleted strength, to break contact. I confess to shrieking once in distress. Her form then became soft and I found myself sinking into it.
Join us, I heard her say as I was completely cut off from the outside world. I was aware of a new strength suffusing my very being – my soul, as my consciousness and physical body joined with many others. Not only human but animal, amphibian, bird, insect, plant, and even in part, mineral.
Mistakenly believing myself to be swamped, instead I became an equal part of a conglomeration. Instantly, I knew what every other individual knew, and had their instincts added to my own. Of fact, they became a part of me, likewise. Additionally, I acknowledged beyond doubt I had no need of sustenance. We would endure.
Knowledge was one thing, experience quite another. And so we would while away an eternity, remembering each other’s lifetimes until another individual arrived. Perhaps if enough birds came we might escape from our relative incarceration. Hindsight taught me I had undoubtedly been tricked – at least by the old crone in the shop and by the strange boy Jack. However, it mattered not.
My single regret was I would not have the opportunity to write-up these experiences in the journal I always kept in my breast pocket. God’s Light naturally knew of this harboured disappointment, and I discovered shortly thereafter it was possible to disentangle me from the whole every Hunter’s Moon.
So it was that I sat and penned my experiences. These experiences. She was pleased for me to write my story, as it would focus my thoughts for the others. When I had completed my tale, I considered pushing it out through the opening in vain hope it might be discovered before the weather or water destroyed it. I could not do so, however. I was now part of something greater. Hargreaves is no more.
I am Legion, for we are many.
The Plot Thickens, by Ty Power (c) 2021. A Brand New, Never Before Seen Humorous Sequence Featuring The Further Adventures of 'Red' Head and Domino. It jumps straight into the action with the end of an adventure and begins a new one. Let me know what you think. Survival of the Thickest below, is available for download.
"I think we've outstayed our welcome!" said Red, his voice edged with hysteria.
Domino was preoccupied but answered anyway. "Yes ..." The old crone never took her eyes from their assailants. "I do concur this is one of those moments when discretion would be the better part of valour."
“Oh, You think?” His voice turned high-pitched and he cleared his throat self-consciously. "Talk about ungrateful! We helped these ... whatever they ares," Red almost spat indignantly. His luxuriant red hair felt clammy with sweat against his neck.
Quietly, the crone said, "Help is as help does."
"What's that supposed to mean? I just wish one day you’d speaks proper English likes me."
Domino gave him a side-long glance, then shrugged. "You help one group, you hinder another."
Red took his eyes off the creatures for the first time. "But we were doing the right thing!"
"Right is relative."
Red scowled, throwing his hands in the air. "Don't start all that again. According to you, everything's relative."
"It is, pretty much."
The thirty-something man sighed theatrically. "What are we going to do to get out of this, old woman? Shouldn’t you be doing something?"
“Apart from panicking, you mean?” Domino narrowed her eyes. "What have you learned about these Aqualloys?"
"They're part metal, part fish."
"They don't move very fast on land. At least they didn't until you built the machine which controls their artificial legs."
"Yes, yes," the old woman tutted impatiently, as if the given information was the most obvious statement ever made. "And?"
"And ..." Red screwed his face up in thought. "And ... And what?"
"And they hunt and attack in packs. One victim at a time."
"So? It’s too early in the day to do all this thinking."
"So, I need a diversion." Domino released one of her best gap-toothed grins, powerful enough to petrify the most hardened criminal at fifty paces.
Red's heart leapt into his throat. Suddenly, he found it difficult to breathe. "Have you seen how fast those things can travel when detached from their legs? I’m not exactly Lynfield Crystal!"
“I think you mean... Never mind.” Domino was momentarily downcast. "I should know how fast they can travel. I enabled them to do it. It may go down as one of my biggest mistakes."
"Come on, old woman, you can't blame yourself. Let me do it for you. You seem to make a habit of mistakes. But I will say one thing in your favour: How was you to know they'd use the ability for warfare." With a jolt he remembered what the old crone was asking of him. "What do you want me to do?"
With slow and deliberate movements Domino fished in her pockets and drew out a strangely-shaped key on a chain. "I want you to run to my mobile home as quickly as you can. I need to get to the signal emitter."
Red doubted he would make it, but nevertheless felt elated, despite the situation, at being entrusted with the key to her precious Marybelle for the first time. "Okay, old timer." He frowned. "Hey, I thought this key only worked for you, you said?"
"Oh." He couldn’t help beaming proudly.
Domino tapped him affectionately on the nose. "See you in a tick." It sounded to Red like a veiled goodbye.
They moved slowly apart. The commune of creatures stayed together but constantly shifted on their six artificial crab-like limbs. Their shark-like heads on torpedo-shaped bodies followed Domino's minutest movements. That is until Red drew their attention.
"Oi, fish faces! Over here!" He jumped up and down, waving his arms like a demented fitness instructor, before immediately turning on his heels and sprinting away in the direction of the mobile home like a greyhound from a trap.
Domino threw herself on the stony ground, protecting her ugly features as the creatures she'd named Aqualloys scuttled and scrabbled past, their tunnel vision sights set unerringly on the fleeing figure of Red. One ran straight over her back, knocking the wind from her lungs, making climbing to her feet again a painful effort. When the vibration of charging metallic legs abruptly stopped Domino knew it could only mean bad news.
The water beings were detaching themselves from the artificial legs and rising slowly into the air. Then they sped away, gaining speed quickly as they went, homing in on the intended target like Cruise missiles.
Housed beneath an open shelter was the machine constructed to enable the Aqualloys to be readily more mobile on land. It had taken more than a week to build using components salvaged from Marybelle and Domino’s own spacious pockets. The design enabled it to operate continuously; the centrepiece signal emitter allowed the creatures to control their artificial legs mentally via an electrical circuit central nervous system. It also gave them airborne freedom for short distances without breaking the link with their legs.
The ability had to be removed.
Running directly to the control panel Domino prised it open and removed the breaker connector she'd installed in case of just such an eventuality as this.
“Nothing happened,” she told herself to prove it.
Her eyes widened in sudden panic. The Aqualloys would be on Red in seconds. He wouldn't stand a chance.
Red was sprinting for all he was worth, and that was a lot as far as he was concerned. Both hands were clenched into fists and his arms pumped like piston rods. His brow was creased in concentration, his eyes fixed on the little mobile home in the distance. Perspiration beads speckled his forehead. He could smell his own sweat and fear; just for once it wasn’t emanating from his underwear. Bacon and eggs fought their way from his stomach up in to his throat. To look behind would be to consolidate the fear in his heart; sight of the pursuit would surely turn his limbs to lead. So he stared steadfastly forward as if fixated on the khaki covered shapely rear end of Sheena, who had accompanied Domino and Red in the nonsense with the calendars and the dimensional breakdowns. The blood rushed in his ears and a curious electric-spark clicking noise sounding in his head, like a clock ticking off the seconds to his own personal doomsday. Why did he listen to that crone? He had to start a new life sooner or later. There was only so long he could hold on to her coat tails.
At first he thought the new whistling was in his head, too, but when it became more pronounced and shifted in pitch to counterpoint other similar sounds, Red realised it was death on his heels. He had already met Death, and he he had no wish to catch up on past times. He had no idea whether the creatures were issuing shrill war cries or it was merely the wind in an effect like that heard when an aircraft passed by overhead. What he did know was they were quickly gaining on him.
Reaching the brow of a hill Red threw himself over the top. It was too steep on the other side to keep his footing for long. The loose, uneven ground and his sheer momentum caused him to slip and roll. Trying to ignore the sharp scree which dug into his hands and face, he managed to roll on to his feet and continue running to the bottom of the hill. Now that he was on lower ground the mobile home appeared to be larger and closer. Maybe he would make it after all. But the cacophony of droning noises was much louder now, threatening to overload his senses.
Fifty more metres.
The leather jacket Red wore was puffed out with trapped air, as if he was swimming in his clothes. He could surely run faster without it, but didn't have the time or strength to remove it.
Forty metres more.
How long would it take to place the key in the lock, open the door and get inside?
Red strained his hearing to enable him to judge the last possible moment before they would be upon him.
With a shout of anguish he threw himself to the ground, unaware that he was mimicking Domino’s actions of only moments before. One hand protected his head, whilst the fingers of the other reached imploringly for the out of reach sanctuary of the mobile home.
The old woman was knocking her forehead with the heel of one hand. "Think!" she implored herself.
Electing to take the unsophisticated but direct approach she looked frantically around for an implement with which to sabotage her own work. When she caught sight of the collapsible walking stick she still held in one hand she unhesitatingly opened it out and stabbed it, like a sword, into the control panel. She was instantly rewarded with a shower of sparks. For good measure, she thrust it in three more times. Then she bridged two wafer circuits and a flame appeared. Only when the fire had taken hold of the signal emitter machine did she turn away.
"Elementary, my dear Domino." Her smug expression immediately slipped to one of grave concern. She knew she had forgotten something important. Now, what was it?
"Red?" she muttered under her breath.
At the same moment that Red made the target of himself as small as possible on the ground, the maddeningly shrill cries abruptly ceased. There was a brief hiatus and then it was raining shark-like fish.
One of them fell across Red's legs and he quickly kicked it off in disgust and defiance. "Yuck! I've always hated fish!" Deprived of both their legs and their short-term powers of flight they lay like beached wales, trying desperately to make it back to sea.
Domino appeared and pulled him up with a surprising show of strength. "Quickly, inside Marybelle."
"Cheers, old woman, I'm fine. Thanks for asking."
"Red!" She pressed the key he still held into the lock, twisted his wrist to open the door and pushed him through in front of her.
"I could've been brained by one of those flying thingies."
Domino was flitting about like a bee around flowers.
Something impacted with the outside of the vehicle and the resulting vibration shook them to their knees.
"What the hell was that?!" Red exclaimed.
"I rather suspected this might happen. It's their god."
Red was incredulous. "You've managed to upset a god?"
"It's another species indigenous to this dimension, but they worship it as their god. Probably because it's extremely large." She looked solemn for a moment, but then smiled. "Don't worry, it can't get in. Marybelle is very nearly indestructible."
There was another almighty impact and a rasping, scraping sound like fingernails on a blackboard magnified a hundredfold.
"You sure," said Red worriedly.
The crone shrugged, only slightly concerned. "You see, Red, the thing about indestructibility is ..."
"It's relative? Well, I don’t believe any of this nonsense. Just get in the driver’s seat and get us out of here please. Wherever 'here' is."
"Why can't we ever go anywhere without getting into mischief? It's like the world hates you. Not just the world but the entire universe!"
"Well, thanks for the appreciation," Domino muttered. "I don't get involved unless I can help matters."
"But you're supposed to help matters get better, not worse," stressed Red.
"Well, I think it's time we had some rest and relaxation, and this is just the place. The old crone gestured out of the windows.
Red followed her gaze. "I'm not even going to ask how we've moved a great distance without you even driving anywhere. You'll probably tell me some rubbish like Marybelle has a velocity time drive and, although we only think we've arrived, we'll avoid going somewhere else soon."
"What on earth are you going on about, Red?"
"Are we in my reality now?"
Domino pulled out a long curly hair from her warty nose, sneezed twice in reaction and finished by wiping her nose along one sleeve. Red waited for some kind of explanation, but all she said was, "What is real?"
"Real is relative," said Red sarcastically.
"Now you're getting it," the old witch congratulated him. She slapped him on the back, nearly knocking him into next Tuesday. "We're here to visit a friend of mine."
"Where's 'here'?" All he could see out of the window was a non-descriptive field and a pub in the distance.
"This is Kent, the garter of England."
"I think you mean 'Garden' of England," Red corrected her.
"You obviously haven't been to the same parts I have. You've missed an experience if you haven't visited the three sisters, April, May and..."
"Ah, no. February."
Red snorted. "February? Nobody's called February."
"I'm sure she'll appreciate your reassurance."
"Anyway, they sound like the Stygian Witches. No wonder you get on so well with them."
Domino tutted loudly and waved a hand dismissively. "This is Kent, the Garden of England." She gestured more grandly this time, before pausing momentarily for reflection. "Well, we're not exactly in the heart of the county, but you can't have everything, can you?"
Before Red could reply, Domino snatched-up her bag and collapsible walking stick and opened the door. "Come on, slow coach!" she cackled.
Red ran to catch her up. "This is your idea of relaxation, is it?"
"A brisk walk? Of course. There's nothing like it! A spot of lunch first, I think." The old crone pointed with her collapsible walking stick towards the pub. "Look, it's called The Village Idiot. You should feel at home here, Red."
Red didn't benefit her with an answer.
The interior was fairly full for an isolated establishment. A sure sign of popularity, you would think. It was traditional in its decor; what some people like to call spit and sawdust. However, Domino positively reveled in the low oak beams, open fireplace and display of brass workmanship.
"This calls for a ploughman's lunch, wouldn't you say?"
"Can't we have our own?" moaned Red.
"Boom. Boom!" She cackled again like a witch, startling a leaving patron's dog. It took off yelping and dragging its terrified owner behind it. "You know, Red, your education is severely lacking in certain areas. Just tell me what you prefer, ham or cheese."
"Ham, of course!" Red nudged her unexpectedly, causing her to step on someone's foot. The giant yokel turned to confront his aggressor. The old crone smiled at him and Red could almost see the man's blood freeze in his veins.
"My fault," he told her.
Red followed as Domino pushed her way through to the bar. "Ham," she muttered. "I should have known that was your life's philosophy."
Red's eyes lit up when he spotted the real ales. "Ah, barman." An overweight but physically threatening man who looked like he'd shared a pot with a boiling lobster ambled over.
"Two ploughman's lunches, if you please," said the old woman. "One with ham, the other with your finest English Cheddar. And two glasses of..."
"Ah, no. Lemonade will be fine, thanks."
"You've got Satan's Armpit!" stressed Red.
The barman looked at him suspiciously, but couldn't help taking a took under both arms. He briefly displayed a sweaty shirt. "Well, I do work very long hours, you know!"
"No..." Red waggled a finger at one of the pumps. "The real ale. Satan's Armpit. It's the best thing ever. I'll have a pint of that please barman."
"Oh, right. Satan's Armpit. I was hoping someone would get around to drinking that. Here you are, sir, and here is your drink, Mother Witch. Not so much lemonade as medical aid if you drink too much of it."
Domino and Red picked up their respective drinks.
"Are you outsiders?" asked the barman.
"We were," answered Red, "but now we're inside."
While the barman was still thinking about that, Domino and Red carried their drinks over to secure an uneven circular wooden table.
The food arrived surprisingly quickly. The barman brought it over himself. The ham was composed of thin slices still sealed in plastic.
"I see your food is locally sourced!" quipped Red.
The barman put ham fists on hips - which seemed appropriate. "That's right. The local supermarket sells it to us." He stormed off.
Red picked-up a piece of lettuce which looked like it had been stomped on a few times and then rinsed under a tap. "What's this supposed to be?"
"Hmm. It does look a little sorry for itself," the old crone agreed. "I always say there's nothing like a ploughman's lunch, and this is nothing like a ploughman's lunch."
As they picked selectively at the food a commotion erupted. Disgruntled patrons complained as an iron-grey-haired man forced his way recklessly between them. His eyes were wide with fright, his mouth gaping. He stumbled with little or no coordination; drunk perhaps, but on alcohol or fear-induced adrenaline?
"He's not going to be on Strictly-Come-Falling-Over-On-Ice-Get-Me-Out-The-Jungle any time soon," commented Red.
As the man tripped over a trailing leg, he fell headlong across their table. Surprisingly, the rickety wood held. One of his hands landed on Red's ham ploughman's.
"Oi," Red protested. Pushing at the man once, he slid his chair away from the table, protecting his precious pint of Satan's Armpit.
In contrast, Domino was both curious and concerned. "Are you alright, old chap?" she asked.
"I'm alright, I suppose. But my lunch will never be the same!"
"Not you, Red," hissed Domino. "It's not always about you, you know!"
"Well, actually it seems to be mostly about me. At least from my point of view."
The stricken man's eyes stared at the old crone as if she'd just arrived from another dimension. That much at least was true.
As the stranger extricated himself from the table, Domino ended up with a plateful of salad and cheese in her lap. But she didn't seem to notice. Despite appearing to be three times his age, she helped the troubled man to his feet. Just as quickly, two younger men arrived to mysteriously usher the man away.
Domino watched them, frowning in thought.
"It's all go here, isn't it," said Red into the silence. He looked at the old woman and recognised the distracted look.
"Hey, we're here to see your friend, remember? What's her name again?"
"Hmm?" The old woman shook her head. "Yes, yes, of course. Shall we go? And her name's Coral Reef."
"You're making that up. No one's called Coral Reef."
"I am not!" she stated indignantly. "She has a nice little line in producing and selling Barrier Cream."
Deftly, Domino managed to return all of her food to the plate in one movement. She brushed a few crumbs from her tweed skirt and made for the door. She was mildly disappointed to discover that the two men from the pub had vanished with their charge.
"Waste not, want not," Red mumbled to himself before tipping half the pint of Satan's Armpit down his throat in one go. He frowned at the glass for a second or two, and then lapsed into a half-coughing, half-retching fit.
"Keep it down, will you," shouted the barman. "We still have some of that muck to sell."
"Keeping it down is precisely what I'm trying to do."
Red exited The Village Idiot to find Domino striding purposefully back towards the mobile home she liked to call Marybelle. He puffed his way up to her, still clearing his throat from the off-beer.
"Aren't we going the wrong way?" He wanted to know.
"Coral Reef lives over that way. About four miles."
"You made us walk the wrong way when we still have four miles to go?!"
The old woman's smile made Red's flesh creep for just a moment. "After our shenanigans with the Aqualloys, we've arrived back in the right county in the right country in the right dimension, and we're only four miles away from where we should be. To my mind, that's a bullseye. Besides, the walk will do you good: stretch your legs, put some fresh air in your lungs. Goodness knows, you expel enough of the stuff.
They had walked barely half the distance to the cottage of Coral Reef when Domino said, conversationally. "Don't look now, but we're being followed.
Red tensed but resisted the urge to look behind him. How can you be so sure, Sherlock?"
"This isn't exactly the well-trodden path to Piccadilly Circus, is it? But there's one way to find out. See that little lane that offshoots to the left? We're going to walk casually around the corner and wait to see who comes to visit."
This was the nearest they had come to the centre of the village. Domino crouched behind an overgrown hedge, doing her very best to keep Red quiet for a few seconds. When her back began to ache she stood up and walked to the corner. There wasn't a single soul within sight in any direction.
Red chuckled rather cruelly. "You can't be right all the time. But once in a while would make a change."
Confused, the old woman dug both hands into the pockets of her tweed jacket. She frowned, surprised now as she removed a sheet of paper.
Domino turned somewhat subdued. "I don't know. A letter of some sort, perhaps" As she unfolded it, Red pulled down her arm so he could read it at the same time.
"It appears to be a letter to a man's lady friend... He works for a research centre of some sort... Disillusioned... Security overbearing... Little or no results... Thinking of leaving, etc, etc.
Red prodded the paper. "Have you seen the addressee at the top?"
She nodded. "Coral Reef. Quite a coincidence, wouldn't you say?"
"Your life seems to be plagued with them," said Red miserably. "At least we can return it to her."
"Not yet," said the old crone. "I want to return to that public house. The letter was obviously planted on me in there - possibly by the man who man who made friends with your ham ploughman's."
"But he was dragged away. He'll be miles away by now... Hopefully."
"Don't be such a damp squibb. Come on, The game's afoot!" Amazingly, she actually started jogging."
"You're doing this on purpose!" Red accused her. "I feel like an old hound being taken on an unwanted walk."
When they reached a field near to the mobile home, Domino stopped, lifting her warty nose to the wind. "Do you smell something?"
"Only my burning feet," complained Red, miserably.
"That's it exactly," Domino exclaimed.
"Burning." She lifted a bent forefinger to the wind. "This way, I think." Taking two steps, she abruptly spun on her heel and marched off in the opposite direction.
"Do you you mind if I sit this one out?" asked Red, only half joking. "I'm overdue for my afternoon nap, you see."
"Nonsense. Aren't you just a little curious?"
What they came across caused Red to turn away and retch. He made acquaintance with his pint of Satan's Armpit again. Domino, in contrast, bent down and began examining - even prodding - the cadaver. The body was burnt almost beyond recognition. The hair was gone, the eyes burnt away to the sockets. The head was scorched red in some areas and crispy black in others. It was difficult to see where the remaining clothing ended and the skin began.
"I know this Guy!" announced Red.
"That isn't even funny," Domino admonished him. But she knew it was a defence mechanism.
"You know, this really is quite interesting," she said.
"If you like that sort of thing," countered Red, holding a well-used tissue over his nose and mouth. A thought suddenly struck him. "It's him, isn't it? The man in the pub."
"Yes, I rather think it is," Domino answered, looking up. "How did you know?"
"Your affinity with coincidences," Red told her.
Peering more closely at the body, Domino commented, "One thing I can say without any doubt is that this man didn't die accidentally."
Red cleared his throat self-consciously. "Ah, Domino?"
"No, he was quite clearly shot and then set ablaze." She shook her head. "Quite horrible."
"Domino!" Red spoke with more insistence.
The old woman turned her head to see a forty year-old, grey-bearded man standing next to Red. He was dressed formally in a suit and tie.
"Moon," said the newcomer.
"I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you," answered Red.
"Detective Inspector Moon."
"Yes, two of them, actually."
Domino offered a hand to shake and a forced smile of reassurance. "I realise what this must look like."
The inspector just looked at her, before turning his attention to the body. "What does this look like?"
"We discovered this unfortunate gentleman on our shortcut across the field." She offered no other explanation.
Is that your mobile home... ah, madam?"
"Well, yes, I'm guilty on that score, I'm afraid. Don't worry, Marybelle will be moved soon."
"Are you some kind of amateur sleuth? You look like Miss Marple, only twice her age and twice as ugly."
The old crone didn't answer and he didn't press her. The inspector pulled-out a phone and requested Scene Of Crime Officers, an ambulance and transport to take two people into custody. Then he took Red to one side.
"What's your name? asked Moon.
"Red Head," he answered.
Moon frowned. "Are you sure it's not Dick?"
"I'm sure," snapped Red far too quickly. He sighed. "We have nothing to do with this body except finding it."
"That has yet to be established. But your friend..."
The Inspector stopped in mid-sentence, looking around him in confusion. It seemed impossible in the middle of an open field, but the strange old woman had simply disappeared.
Suddenly coming to his senses, Moon grabbed Red by the arm as if afraid he too might evaporate.
"Thanks a lot, you old witch!" Red moaned into the emptiness.
Copyright © 2017 - 2023 A Dark and Scary Place - All Rights Reserved.