Welcome to Schlock! the new webzine for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Vol 2, Issue 21
8 April 2012
Schlock! is an exciting new weekly webzine dedicated to short stories, flash fiction, serialised novels and novellas within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We publish new and old works of pulp sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and gothic horror. If you want to read quality works of schlock fantasy, science fiction or horror, Schlock! is the webzine for you!
For details of previous editions, please go to the Archive.
Schlock! Webzine is always willing to consider new science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories, serials, graphic novels and comic strips, reviews and art. Feel free to submit fiction, articles, art or links to your own site to email@example.com.
We will also review published and self-published novels, in both print and digital editions. Please contact the editor at the above email address for further details.
The stories, articles and illustrations contained on this website are copyright © to the respective authors and illustrators, unless in the public domain.
This week's cover illustration is "Schlock Anniversary" by C Priest Brumley.
Editorial by Gavin Chappell
Lovecraftiana: The Statement of Randolph Carter by HP Lovecraft - Gentlemen... your inquisition is fruitless... HORROR
The Hettford Witch Hunt Easter Special: The Mystery of the Eggs by J Rhodes “Grim, so is this your job then?” “What? Eating raw eggs?” “No, selling them.” “It’s just something I’m doing for Easter.” OCCULT SITCOM
Barnaby’s Exam by Bryan Carrigan - “Okay, then it wasn’t a magpie,” Lawrence said.... “Let’s call it a gnome, an elf, maybe a gremlin ... URBAN FANTASY
Ayame's Love - Part Ten by Thomas C Hewitt - Clarissa’s threat had come true for Anton... EPIC POEM
The Lives and Times of Gary Doolan by Obsidian Mercutio Tesla - Gary certainly needed cash, but he wasn’t willing to get his skull fractured for it.... HORROR
No Substitute For Experience by James Talbot – Pete meets an older woman who has quite an appetite... HORROR
The Stolen Other - Part Three by C Priest Brumley - Invalid? I'm a person, aren't I? HORROR
Run To The Hills - Part Two by Gavin Chappell - Hengest’s host had taken Eboracum soon after the fall of Londinium, and now they were making their way back down the country in the direction of the cities of the South... SWORD AND SORCERY
Schlock! Classic Serial: Varney the Vampire: Part Fifty ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest. Before Twilight... before Nosferatu ... before Dracula... there was Varney... GOTHIC HORROR
Schlock! Classic Serial: After London - Part Eight by Richard Jefferies – Felix and Oliver set out... SCIENCE FICTION
Well, here it is – the anniversary edition. Schlock! Webzine (complete with exclamation mark) has now been running for an entire year. With the exception of one week in August, when the mendacity of our then web host postponed the edition for a week, a new edition Schlock! has been published every week. And now we’re also available on Kindle.
So, what do we have for the anniversary edition? Starting with a Schlock! classic, HP Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolph Carter, the first in our ‘Lovecraftiana’ collection. That’s followed by the return of The Hettford Witch Hunt by James Rhodes, in which Gary solves the Mystery of the Eggs. There’s also Barnaby’s Exam, a short tale by Bryan Carrigan. Another episode (or should that be ‘canto’?) or Thomas C Hewitt’s epic poem Ayame’s Love. The Lives and Times of Gary Doolan by Obsidian Tesla, and No Substitute for Experience by James Talbot, who we both welcome back to the webzine after several months. Also the long-awaited third episode of C Priest Brumley’s The Stolen Other. Another chapter of my Dark Age novella, Run To The Hills. The fiftieth chapter of Varney the Vampyre. In addition, in After London, our hero Felix Aquila sets out into the world.
Here’s to next year! Enjoy!
THE STATEMENT OF RANDOLPH CARTER by H. P. Lovecraft
I repeat to you gentlemen, that your inquisition is fruitless. Detain me here for ever if you will; confine or execute me if you must have a victim to propriate the illusion you call justice; but I can say no more than I have said already. Everything that I can remember, I have told with perfect candor. Nothing has been distorted or concealed, and if anything remains vague, it is only because of the dark cloud which has come over my mind—that cloud and the nebulous nature of the horrors which brought it upon me.
Again I say, I do not know what has become of Harley Warren, though I think—almost hope—that he is in peaceful oblivion, if there be anywhere so blessed a thing. It is true that I have for five years been his closest friend, and a partial sharer of his terrible researches into the unknown. I will not deny, though my memory is uncertain and indistinct, that this witness of yours may have seen us together as he says, on the Gainsville pike, walking toward Big Cypress Swamp, at half past eleven on that awful night. That we bore electric lanterns, spades, and a curious coil of wire with attached instruments, I will even affirm; for these things all played a part in the single hideous scene which remains burned into my shaken recollection. But of what followed, and of the reason I was found alone and dazed on the edge of the swamp next morning, I must insist that I know nothing save what I have told you over and over again. You say to me that there is nothing in the swamp or near it which could form the setting of that frightful episode. I reply that I knew nothing beyond what I saw. Vision or nightmare it may have been—vision or nightmare I fervently hope it was—yet it is all that my mind retains of what took place in those shocking hours after we left the sight of men. And why Harley Warren did not return, he or his shade—or some nameless thing I cannot describe—alone can tell.
As I have said before, the weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master; but these are few as compared with those in languages I cannot understand. Most, I believe, are in Arabic; and the fiend-inspired book which brought on the end—the book which he carried in his pocket out of the world—was written in characters whose like I never saw elsewhere. Warren would never tell me just what was in that book. As to the nature of our studies—must I say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that I do not, for they were terrible studies, which I pursued more through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination. Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him. I remember how I shuddered at his facial expression on the night before the awful happening, when he talked so incessantly of his theory, why certain corpses never decay, but rest firm and fat in their tombs for a thousand years. But I do not fear him now, for I suspect that he has known horrors beyond my ken. Now I fear for him.
Once more I say that I have no clear idea of our object on that night. Certainly, it had much to do with something in the book which Warren carried with him—that ancient book in undecipherable characters which had come to him from India a month before—but I swear I do not know what it was that we expected to find. Your witness says he saw us at half past eleven on the Gainsville pike, headed for Big Cypress Swamp. This is probably true, but I have no distinct memory of it. The picture seared into my soul is of one scene only, and the hour must have been long after midnight; for a waning crescent moon was high in the vaporous heavens.
The place was an ancient cemetery; so ancient that I trembled at the manifold signs of immemorial years. It was in a deep, damp hollow, overgrown with rank grass, moss, and curious creeping weeds, and filled with a vague stench which my idle fancy associated absurdly with rotting stone. On every hand were the signs of neglect and decrepitude, and I seemed haunted by the notion that Warren and I were the first living creatures to invade a lethal silence of centuries. Over the valley's rim a wan, waning crescent moon peered through the noisome vapors that seemed to emanate from unheard of catacombs, and by its feeble, wavering beams I could distinguish a repellent array of antique slabs, urns, cenotaphs, and mausoleum facades; all crumbling, moss-grown, and moisture-stained, and partly concealed by the gross luxuriance of the unhealthy vegetation.
My first vivid impression of my own presence in this terrible necropolis concerns the act of pausing with Warren before a certain half-obliterated sepulcher and of throwing down some burdens which we seemed to have been carrying. I now observed that I had with me an electric lantern and two spades, whilst my companion was supplied with a similar lantern and a portable telephone outfit. No word was uttered, for the spot and the task seemed known to us; and without delay we seized our spades and commenced to clear away the grass, weeds, and drifted earth from the flat, archaic mortuary. After uncovering the entire surface, which consisted of three immense granite slabs, we stepped back some distance to survey the charnel scene; and Warren appeared to make some mental calculations. Then he returned to the sepulcher, and using his spade as a lever, sought to pry up the slab lying nearest to a stony ruin which may have been a monument in its day. He did not succeed, and motioned to me to come to his assistance. Finally our combined strength loosened the stone, which we raised and tipped to one side.
The removal of the slab revealed a black aperture, from which rushed an effluence of miasmal gases so nauseous that we started back in horror. After an interval, however, we approached the pit again, and found the exhalations less unbearable. Our lanterns disclosed the top of a flight of stone steps, dripping with some detestable ichor of the inner earth, and bordered by moist walls encrusted with niter. And now for the first time my memory records verbal discourse, Warren addressing me at length in his mellow tenor voice; a voice singularly unperturbed by our awesome surroundings.
"I'm sorry to have to ask you to stay on the surface," he said, "but it would be a crime to let anyone with your frail nerves go down there. You can't imagine, even from what you have read and from what I've told you, the things I shall have to see and do. It's fiendish work, Carter, and I doubt if any man without ironclad sensibilities could ever see it through and come up alive and sane. I don't wish to offend you, and Heaven knows I'd be glad enough to have you with me; but the responsibility is in a certain sense mine, and I couldn't drag a bundle of nerves like you down to probable death or madness. I tell you, you can't imagine what the thing is really like! But I promise to keep you informed over the telephone of every move—you see I've enough wire here to reach to the center of the earth and back!"
I can still hear, in memory, those coolly spoken words; and I can still remember my remonstrances. I seemed desperately anxious to accompany my friend into those sepulchral depths, yet he proved inflexibly obdurate. At one time he threatened to abandon the expedition if I remained insistent; a threat which proved effective, since he alone held the key to the thing. All this I can still remember, though I no longer know what manner of thing we sought. After he had obtained my reluctant acquiescence in his design, Warren picked up the reel of wire and adjusted the instruments. At his nod I took one of the latter and seated myself upon an aged, discolored gravestone close by the newly uncovered aperture. Then he shook my hand, shouldered the coil of wire, and disappeared within that indescribable ossuary.
For a minute I kept sight of the glow of his lantern, and heard the rustle of the wire as he laid it down after him; but the glow soon disappeared abruptly, as if a turn in the stone staircase had been encountered, and the sound died away almost as quickly. I was alone, yet bound to the unknown depths by those magic strands whose insulated surface lay green beneath the struggling beams of that waning crescent moon.
In the lone silence of that hoary and deserted city of the dead, my mind conceived the most ghastly fantasies and illusions; and the grotesque shrines and monoliths seemed to assume a hideous personality—a half-sentience. Amorphous shadows seemed to lurk in the darker recesses of the weed-choked hollow and to flit as in some blasphemous ceremonial procession past the portals of the mouldering tombs in the hillside; shadows which could not have been cast by that pallid, peering crescent moon.
I constantly consulted my watch by the light of my electric lantern, and listened with feverish anxiety at the receiver of the telephone; but for more than a quarter of an hour heard nothing. Then a faint clicking came from the instrument, and I called down to my friend in a tense voice. Apprehensive as I was, I was nevertheless unprepared for the words which came up from that uncanny vault in accents more alarmed and quivering than any I had heard before from Harley Warren. He who had so calmly left me a little while previously, now called from below in a shaky whisper more portentous than the loudest shriek:
"God! If you could see what I am seeing!"
I could not answer. Speechless, I could only wait. Then came the frenzied tones again:
"Carter, it's terrible—monstrous—unbelievable!"
This time my voice did not fail me, and I poured into the transmitter a flood of excited questions. Terrified, I continued to repeat, "Warren, what is it? What is it?"
Once more came the voice of my friend, still hoarse with fear, and now apparently tinged with despair:
"I can't tell you, Carter! It's too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live—Great God! I never dreamed of this!"
Stillness again, save for my now incoherent torrent of shuddering inquiry. Then the voice of Warren in a pitch of wilder consternation:
"Carter! for the love of God, put back the slab and get out of this if you can! Quick!—leave everything else and make for the outside—it's your only chance! Do as I say, and don't ask me to explain!"
I heard, yet was able only to repeat my frantic questions. Around me were the tombs and the darkness and the shadows; below me, some peril beyond the radius of the human imagination. But my friend was in greater danger than I, and through my fear I felt a vague resentment that he should deem me capable of deserting him under such circumstances. More clicking, and after a pause a piteous cry from Warren:
"Beat it! For God's sake, put back the slab and beat it, Carter!"
Something in the boyish slang of my evidently stricken companion unleashed my faculties. I formed and shouted a resolution, "Warren, brace up! I'm coming down!" But at this offer the tone of my auditor changed to a scream of utter despair:
"Don't! You can't understand! It's too late—and my own fault. Put back the slab and run—there's nothing else you or anyone can do now!"
The tone changed again, this time acquiring a softer quality, as of hopeless resignation. Yet it remained tense through anxiety for me.
"Quick—before it's too late!"
I tried not to heed him; tried to break through the paralysis which held me, and to fulfil my vow to rush down to his aid. But his next whisper found me still held inert in the chains of stark horror.
"Carter—hurry! It's no use—you must go—better one than two—the slab—"
A pause, more clicking, then the faint voice of Warren:
"Nearly over now—don't make it harder—cover up those damned steps and run for your life—you're losing time—so long, Carter—won't see you again."
Here Warren's whisper swelled into a cry; a cry that gradually rose to a shriek fraught with all the horror of the ages:
"Curse these hellish things—legions—My God! Beat it! Beat it! BEAT IT!"
After that was silence. I know not how many interminable eons I sat stupefied; whispering, muttering, calling, screaming into that telephone. Over and over again through those eons I whispered and muttered, called, shouted, and screamed, "Warren! Warren! Answer me—are you there?"
And then there came to me the crowning horror of all—the unbelievable, unthinkable, almost unmentionable thing. I have said that eons seemed to elapse after Warren shrieked forth his last despairing warning, and that only my own cries now broke the hideous silence. But after a while there was a further clicking in the receiver, and I strained my ears to listen. Again I called down, "Warren, are you there?" and in answer heard the thing which has brought this cloud over my mind. I do not try, gentlemen, to account for that thing—that voice—nor can I venture to describe it in detail, since the first words took away my consciousness and created a mental blank which reaches to the time of my awakening in the hospital. Shall I say that the voice was deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied? What shall I say? It was the end of my experience, and is the end of my story. I heard it, and knew no more—heard it as I sat petrified in that unknown cemetery in the hollow, amidst the crumbling stones and the falling tombs, the rank vegetation and the miasmal vapors—heard it well up from the innermost depths of that damnable open sepulcher as I watched amorphous, necrophagous shadows dance beneath an accursed waning moon.
And this is what it said:
"You fool, Warren is DEAD!"
THE HETTFORD WITCH HUNT by J. Rhodes
Easter Special: The Mystery of the Eggs
The woman shook her head at him. She wore an ill-fitting floral dress, the cleavage of which was pulled together with what looked like a shoe lace that had been used previously, and extensively, on a pair of shoes. Gary noticed that she only had one front tooth.
“I’ve got ‘em,” she said defiantly.
“But you can always use more, it’s Easter tomorrow.” Gary lifted his eyebrows and tried to force a smile.
“I don’t want any more eggs.”
“They’re only one pound ten.”
“I don’t want no eggs.”
Gary considered leaping on the double negative but the wrinkled, ugly and haggard frown of the woman deterred him from the effort.
“They’re good soft eating,” he suggested.
The door to the house slammed in his face. Gary’s shoulders slumped and he let his head fall backwards. He took a deep sigh and took hold of the shopping basket that he had borrowed from the farmer to carry the eggs in. He wheeled it up and out of the grumpy woman’s garden. Then he moved on to the next house.
“Who knew sales was so exciting?” Gary muttered to himself.
With a sense of growing trepidation, Gary approached the next door. He had visited half the village and only sold six boxes. When he agreed to the ten pence a box commission rate Gary had reasoned that if he sold fifty boxes he would have enough money to buy bread, beans, frozen sausages and UHT milk; that would last him for the week. He had hoped to buy orange squash too, the value brand, so he had to make the next sale. If all else failed, he at least needed enough to buy a loaf of bread. As it stood, he was burning more calories than he was earning food to buy. He knocked on the door.
“Oh hello, Gary.”
Mrs. Fuller’s voice was brimming with enthusiasm and welcome. Gary had not spoken to Mrs. Fuller since she phoned him to retract a job offer as a part-time English teacher. Gary did not want her to see him selling eggs at bargain prices. His feet were filled with the instinct to flee and they squirmed inside of his trainers as he attempted to stand and face her with dignity.
“Mrs. Fuller, would you like any eggs for Easter?” Gary asked.
“I’ve already got a fridge full, I’m afraid.”
Gary turned to walk away.
“Are you working at the farm now?”
“No, just offered to sell some eggs.” Gary deliberately hid any revealing inflection from his tone.
“How’s the garage?”
“It’s still there.”
“Are you still getting a lot of late nights?”
“I suppose that depends on your definition of late.”
“What I mean is…” Mrs. Fuller paused as she failed to find a tactful way to pose the question. “This isn’t your only job, is it?”
“Well, I handed in my notice at the garage so I’d be able to work at the school and, what with Hettford’s thriving economy; they had the position filled before I left.”
“So, are you signing on?”
“No, I just can’t bring myself to.”
“You shouldn’t be proud about it, that’s what it’s there for.”
There was no way that Gary could explain that he was physically unable to leave the boundaries of the village, so instead he said:
“These eggs won’t sell themselves.”
Gary walked quickly down Mrs. Fuller’s path and into the path of her next door neighbour. Mrs. Fuller did not go into the house, she watched him walk up to the door and then she called across the fence:
Gary eyed her sideways:
“We broke up,” he told her.
“But how is she?”
“She’s better than me, Mrs Fuller, always has been.”
“Would you like to come in for a sandwich?”
“I need to sell these eggs.”
“Come on, I’ve got a party platter made up for my family, it’ll only take a minute.”
“Right. That’s just adding insult to injury.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, I’m Mrs. Fuller I’ve got too much food.”
Mrs. Fuller gaped at Gary with a blank mixture of concern and bemusement.
“What are you going to do?” Gary asked, “Wait till I’m all sat down with my plate in front of me and then remember that you forgot to make enough for Aunt Merthyl, then take it away from me.”
Gary wasn’t sure that Merthyl was a real name but it was out there now, so he was going to run with it.
“Oh, here you go, Aunt Merthyl.”
Gary mimed handing a plate over to an imaginary Aunt Merthyl.
“Gary gave up his one chance at eating so I could get you this sandwich.”
“I think you’re being a little unfair, Gary,” Mrs Fuller spoke with the diplomacy that she would approach one of her teenage students with.
“I’m being unfair, you’re sitting in a house piled from floor to ceiling with sandwiches and I’m being unfair!”
Gary threw his hands at the sky in sheer frustration.
“Sandwiches everywhere, but you don’t need any eggs, do you? Unbelievable!”
He didn’t look back to check on Mrs. Fuller’s reaction.
“Are you sure this will work?” Milton asked.
“I’m not.” Dan answered.
“I wasn’t asking you.”
“No, I’m not,” Carrie told them both, “but it will work a lot better than doing nothing.”
“Ah yes,” said Dan, “but doing nothing is so much less work than this.”
The three of them were digging a small trench around the border of Milton’s back garden.
“We have to be very careful about depth,” Carrie told them “the water has to keep moving.”
“This is an awful lot of work to go in order to avoid getting free eggs.”
Dan wiped his brow; he had dug a hole that was about four inches wide and seven inches long. It had been more effort than he had anticipated.
“Didn’t you used to dig ditches in the Army?”
Milton was attempting to diffuse the coming argument between Carrie and Dan before it erupted.
“I did,” Dan told him, “but that was different. Back then I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from previously having been in the Army and forced to dig ditches.”
“You said you enjoyed the Army,” Carrie said.
“It was great, up until I shot that bloody cat.”
“What?” Carrie’s voice brimmed with curiosity.
Dan ignored the question and carried on poking at the soil with his trowel. The idea was that, as witches cannot cross running water, a small drainage ditch that could be arranged so that the water trickled downwards in a rectangle around Milton’s back garden. When it reached the beginning, it would be siphoned back up to the top to maintain the constant flow. If Dan had thought of the idea, he would have described it as an accomplishment of simple engineering to rival that of Xerxes bridging the Hellespont: He would have attacked the project with the conquering enthusiasm of a Macedonian imperialist. However, as Carrie had thought of it, Dan was sulking, which, he reasoned, is probably what Alexander the Great would have done too. He sullenly broke a layer of soil with his trowel whilst he thought of ways to distract the other two from the effort. As luck would have it, the opportunity presented itself almost immediately.
“I found another egg,” he told them.
“You want me to buy eggs?”
“Well, I was asking if you’d like to.”
The man stared Gary hard in the face; he looked like an aging bare-knuckle boxer. There were scars above his top lip and his nose had been broken and left crooked. Furthermore, the man’s knuckles were each about the size of a normal man’s knee cap. Gary considered stepping backwards out of arm’s reach.
“If I wanted eggs, I’d go to the fucking supermarket and buy eggs.”
“Alright, I was only asking.”
The big man thought about it.
“What kind of eggs?”
“Hen’s eggs? I could get bloody hen’s eggs anywhere. I get all mine from the Reginald’s farm and they’re ten pence cheaper. I could understand if it were quail or duck or bleeding condor eggs. I’d buy them off you… But hen’s eggs?”
The man shook his head as if the thought defied imagination.
“They are free range.”
“Well, I guess that justifies you interrupting my film then, because the hens have been humanely treated.”
Gary nodded and the door slammed hard in his face.
He trudged down the man’s path and on to the next house, his stomach gurgled at him as if to ask, “Where do you think these calories are coming from?”
Gary considered walking back to Mrs. Fuller’s house, apologising and asking for a sandwich but he only considered it for a moment before his pride told his stomach to go piss up a rope.
“I wouldn’t tell you that it was important if it wasn’t important.”
Dan was becoming frustrated.
“Listen Dan, if you don’t want to help with the trench, can you at least stop interrupting the digging?”
Dan inhaled and the air fanned the flame of his reddening cheeks.
“How dare you question my motives?” The indignity in Dan’s voice bordered on tearful. “When I say I have an important egg to look at, I mean I have an important egg.”
Carrie had decided to keep digging and stay out of the conversation.
“What could be so important about an egg?” Milton asked him.
“Well, if you’d give me enough credit to come and look at it then, maybe, you’d find out.”
Milton put down his trowel and walked over to Dan.
“You see,” said Dan, “it’s a funny size and it has a letter g in the pigment.”
Milton stared at it.
“It is odd.”
The egg was a pale white, its shell felt unusually delicate and sure enough, it had a blemish on it that very much resembled the shape of a lower case g.
“G for Geraldine,” Dan told him.
“Are you suggesting that a witch went to the trouble of casting a spell so that her initial would appear on an egg shell, but that she couldn’t be bothered to capitalise it?” Milton asked.
“Pretty much,” shrugged Dan.
“All the eggs we’ve ever found in the garden - despite the fact that they seemed to be being laid by a rooster and despite the fact that on your insistence Carrie had to adopt Roaster to stop the eggs appearing and they still keep appearing - have all been normal hen’s eggs. We’ve tested how many now?”
“We haven’t tested this one,” Dan protested.
“Which has a lower case g shape on it, maybe it stands for Gandalf.”
“Or, g for Gary.” Carrie piped in.
Dan’s face turned stern again:
“Perhaps this is Gary’s doing. All of it.”
“For the last time Dan,” Milton said, “passing on a piece of paper to somebody does not make you a witch.”
“Passing on a curse is witchcraft, and performing witchcraft makes you what? Milton?”
“In Gary’s case, it just makes you a bit stupid and desperate; he was trying to save me, remember.”
“Whilst passing it on to someone he hated, who just by co-incidence died that same day.”
“Co-incidence is right,” Carrie interjected, “if it had been the curse Saul would have died at midnight.”
“Except he didn’t live that long.”
“Look Dan, Gary’s our friend and we’ve already banned him from meetings, which, considering how badly the rest of his life is going feels like a massive betrayal to me. I’m not going to accuse him of nefarious egg dumping also.” Milton wiped the sweat from his brow.
Carrie nodded at Milton, with a gentle half smile.
“In fact,” said Milton, “we can give him this as an Easter present to show, that even though he can’t be in the hunt, we’re all still friends.”
“Good idea,” Carrie agreed.
Dan blew air through his lips to suggest that he did not share their enthusiasm.
As the unsuccessful morning passed into the unsuccessful afternoon, Gary’s stomach passed from nagging at him to producing extra acid in the effort to eat itself. After a particularly disheartening sales rejection from a brutally honest girl in her early teens, Gary was feeling particularly disheartened and not just with egg sales.
“Is this it?” she had asked him:
“Is this what your life is? Door to door egg sales?”
What do you say to that? he had wondered, but then she said:
“I’m not buying off you; it would be like enabling a junkie. You need to sort your life out, mate.”
“That’s very easy for you to say,” Gary mumbled at the door that she closed on him.
He rubbed his stomach to sooth the ache and then glancing about, he looked at the eggs. There was bound to be some breakages, he reasoned. Then, and not without a sense of shame, Gary reached into the box at the top of his basket and took out an egg. He cracked it on the wall of a nearby house and leaning his head backwards, opened his mouth wide and let the raw egg drip into his mouth. It slid down his throat with surprising ease. It didn’t quite hit the spot, and after throwing the eggshell into the road, Gary reached for another and repeated the procedure.
“You must be starving, mate,” a voice from behind him said.
Gary turned around to see his former nemesis Paul smiling at him.
“You’re a braver man than me,” Paul told him.
“I’m in training, like Rocky.”
“Grim, so is this your job then?”
“What? Eating raw eggs?”
“No, selling them.”
“It’s just something I’m doing for Easter.”
“Cool,” Paul said, “well, I’m off to my job at the shop.”
Paul walked away with a happy spring in his step.
“It’s Easter tomorrow.”
“So you might want some eggs for that.”
“Have you ever heard of Richard Dawkins?”
Gary let out a deflating sigh. As the air escaped so did any hope he had for making enough money to buy a loaf of bread with. The man he was talking to wore a t-shirt that was not quite big enough to cover his stomach. The t-shirt had a logo that Gary recognised as the Christian fish symbol; however, it had been altered so that the fish had feet (presumably as a tribute to evolution).
“Look, I’m not here to discuss the existence of God. I’m here to sell eggs.”
“It’s the same thing,” said the man. “Jesus rose from the dead so everybody has to paint eggs and eat chocolate, I wonder, I wonder if you’ve ever really thought it through. I mean what real significance does it have to Christ’s passion?” The man snorted derisively.
“It comes from the Zoroastrian New Year’s celebration, with the eggs representing new life. There is a vague tie in with the resurrection but the Catholic Church probably integrated the Zoroastrian tradition and other pagan fertility rituals in order to help with conversion. However, I suppose most people do it because it’s fun. Do you want any fucking eggs? Or do I have to stand here discussing cultural anthropology with you until I starve to death.”
“No thank you,” said the man, “I’m going to eat the eggs of rationality for my Easter.”
“Brilliant, I think I have some flour and pickled cabbage.”
“Perhaps you should consider the lilies,” scoffed the man.
If Gary could have slammed the door on the man’s behalf, he would have. He decided to abandon the venture.
“Here’s your eggs back.”
Reginald the farmer looked at Gary.
“You didn’t sell many did you?”
“I sold eight boxes.”
“Well then you owe me eight pounds.”
Gary gave him the money.
“I don’t suppose I could have a free box of eggs, could I?”
“I don’t suppose you could.”
“But I don’t have anything left to eat.”
“Well, eggs are a pound a box and it looks like you only have eighty pence.”
“Could you sell me three eggs for fifty pence?”
“No, but if you want to try again next week, you’re more than welcome to give it another go. If you sell another eight you should have enough for a whole box and some change.” Reginald told him.
“Thanks, I’ll leave it.”
Gary poked at the dinner he had made with his fork. He had managed to afford an expired tin of beans and he had mixed it with some curry powder he had at the back of the cupboard. It tasted incredible; it was the nicest meal he had ever eaten. The television emitted comforting electrons in the shape of James Bond. James Bond himself was in the shape of Roger Moore, and was telling Francisco Scaramanga that pistols at dawn was a bit old fashioned. Everything was good with the world; that is to say, that everything was as good as Gary could possibly manage to make it, so he didn’t need to worry about it anymore. Then the door bell rang.
Gary considered ignoring it but it rang two more times and by that point, his moment of nirvana had passed. Gary greeted his old friend without enthusiasm.
“Hi Gary, am I interrupting something?”
“The Man with the Golden Gun.”
“Classic, I once drew a superfluous nipple on myself because of that film. Can I come in?”
Gary gestured that Milton should enter.
“Would you like something to drink?” Gary asked: “I’ve got both kinds of water, hot and cold.”
“I’ll take boiling if you have it.”
The two of them walked into the kitchen. Gary tried not to think about his beans or the showdown in the funhouse. He filled the kettle with water and flipped the switch.
“So how’s things? I haven’t seen you in ages.” Milton’s broad smile was enthusiastic and more than a little forced.
“Well, I’m not allowed at meetings, am I?”
“Just a temporary precaution, I assure you.”
“Yeah, you assured me that in January.”
“How’s the job hunt?”
“Well, let’s just say that if you want sugar in your hot water you’ll be shit out of luck. How’s the bookshop?”
Milton shifted his feet, and glanced furtively around the room.
“It’s going rather well.”
“Still selling those trade paperbacks?”
“That’s good, I’m glad you’ve finally made something of it. I know you’re comfy with your inheritance but it must be nice to have something you made for yourself.”
“Well, I couldn’t have done it without my friend Gary.”
Gary poured Milton a cup of boiling water.
“You’re welcome. Cheers.”
Gary raised his mug and Milton sipped his hot water.
“So,” Gary inquired, “how’s the hunt?”
“It’s been quiet; we’re still getting eggs show up in my garden, despite having moved Roaster to Carrie’s house.”
“Maybe they’re crow’s eggs.”
“Yeah, Carrie suggested that but crow’s eggs are blue and speckled whereas these ones look like hen’s eggs, ranging from light brown to white. Except for this peculiar egg that we thought you might like.”
Milton pulled the egg from his pocket and gave it to Gary.
“Happy Easter, from all of us,” Milton said.
“Oh wow, thanks.”
Gary took the egg and put it on his counter.
“We thought you’d like it because it has a letter g on it. G for Gary.”
Gary picked the egg up and looked at it.
“I suppose it depends which way around you hold it. It could be a figure eight too, or the infinity symbol.”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“Do you think it’s fresh enough to eat?”
“Probably not, plus we think the eggs might have some magical purpose.”
“I’ve never heard of witches using eggs for anything.”
“Me either, but I can’t think of any other way they’d get into the garden.”
“You should tie hag-stones around the fence and see if they keep showing up.”
“We tried hag-stones but the eggs are still coming.”
“I use Feng Shui myself.”
“Does that work?”
“As far as I can tell. Then again it’s supposed to help with money problems too and it isn’t.”
“Well, as long as no witches get in, that’s the main thing.”
Gary didn’t bother answering.
Milton smelled the food as soon as he opened the door. Although it was still light outside, the contrast between the dusk and the fluorescence of energy saving light bulbs was stark. Carrie kissed him.
“How was it?” she asked.
“I got the guttering laid; I think it will definitely work once we add the siphon.”
“And the water.”
“Of course, we’ve got Chinese food waiting for you.”
A voice came from the living room.
“It won’t be waiting long,” Dan shouted.
Milton walked into his lounge. The open gas fire was crackling, the coffee table was loaded with takeout trays, and the TV was paused at the beginning of a film waiting for his return. Milton ran his eyes over it all.
“We should do something for Gary,” he told Dan and Carrie.
“We got him an egg,” said Dan.
The beans had been cold by the time Milton had left, and Gary couldn’t be bothered to reheat them. Worse still, the James Bond marathon on the TV had moved on from The Man with the Golden Gun to The World Is Not Enough. Nonetheless, Gary was determined (or rather, resigned) to watch the film. He glanced out of the window and saw the streetlights begin to glow orange; rendering the grey air into dull beige.
He stood up to turn on the light and, as he flipped the switch, the TV blacked out. Gary didn’t even bother to check the fuse box; he had been running the electricity meter on emergency credit for four days. Had he not been out failing to sell eggs, he would have expected to lose power that morning. Out of sheer exhausted depression, Gary lay down on the couch and fell asleep.
It was dark when Gary woke, and he was too hungry to get back to sleep. The prospect of lying awake in a dark room until the morning was too grim for Gary to consider. So he decided to eat the egg that Gary had given him in the hope that eating would make him sleepy. Mercifully, his stove was gas powered and he had enough credit left on the gas to last him a good fortnight. He blazed up the hob, the light casting long shadows across the room, put a formerly non-stick frying pan on top of the flame and let a blob of margarine melt into it.
He looked a bit mournfully at the letter g on the egg; it was his only gift that year. His stomach growled at him and he cracked it into the pan. What looked like green slime began to hang out of the bottom of the egg. In revulsion Gary, dropped the egg on to the floor. As the frail white eggshell shattered, the corpse of a small green snake unwound itself from the embryo. Gary looked down at it.
“Well, I’m definitely not hungry anymore,” he told the still air.
Gary turned off the hob and bent over to check that the snake was not alive, its green scales were bright even in the darkness of the kitchen. The snake was coated in mucus; it couldn’t have been left in Milton’s garden for long. It looked fresh, as though it had only missed living by a few hours.
Gary got a piece of paper out of the recycle bin and gingerly lifted the creature off the kitchen linoleum. Holding it at arm’s length, he carried it outside to the wheelie bin. However as he lifted the lid, another thought occurred to him and with the foetal snake still dangling at arm’s length he muttered, “Those bastards” and strode towards Milton’s house.
The emptiness of the roads gave Gary some perspective on how late it actually was. The only light that was on in the village was at Ron’s All Night Garage where the silhouette of a former lover could be seen sitting at the boring job that had formerly been his. With that in mind, Gary had resolved not to knock on Milton’s door and scream about what he thought of their joke, calling him a snake, and instead was simply going to dump its corpse on their doorstep.
The front of Milton’s house was entirely taken up by the shop front of Occultivated. Gary crept around to the small back garden and opened the gate. A dark figure turned around in surprise.
“What the hell?” Gary asked.
“Shh!” said the figure.
The farmer walked towards Gary with his finger on his lip.
“I gave you work, so be quiet.”
Reginald’s speech was slightly slurred.
“What are you doing?”
“Step out with me and I’ll tell you.”
Gary waited for Reginald to pass through the garden gate; the farmer was holding a basket full of eggs.
Behind the bushes outside of Milton’s house and out of the line of Milton’s windows, Reginald began to explain himself.
“Your friend made me give him a hen, or he said he’d report me for misuse of a firearm. I was a bit half cut and I didn’t have a hen, so I gave him an immature rooster (like he’d know the difference). Anyway, at first I planted the eggs so he wouldn’t know what I’d done and get the police involved.”
“Ok, that was five months ago.”
“Well, after that, I just began to find it funny.”
“Wait a minute, you wouldn’t give me free eggs after selling eight boxes for you and you’re just dumping them in Milton’s garden?”
Reginald thought about the question.
“Why are you holding a grass snake?” he retorted.
“Because they gave me an egg they found in the garden and this was inside it.”
“It’s not one of mine.”
“Well, I was going to ask them about it.”
“Well, don’t tell them about….”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Reginald dug into his pocket; he pulled out a hip flask and then a few crumpled notes.
“I’ll give you this, if you keep quiet about it.”
Reginald stuffed twenty five pounds into Gary’s palm.
“Can I have those eggs, too?”
“Yes,” hissed Reginald.
“OK, it’s a deal but you have to stop doing this, OK?”
“Yes, just don’t tell anyone and throw that bloody grass snake away, I don’t want them asking questions.”
Reginald grabbed the tail of the snake and threw it over his shoulder. There was a rustle as it fell into the rhododendrons.
“Right, I’ll be off then.”
Reginald took a swig of whiskey and staggered away down the street.
Wanting to make the most of his new luck, Gary rushed home to collect his electricity card. The garage did top ups and he could buy a week’s worth of electricity, pay off the emergency credit and still have a fiver left for food.
Gary put the cornflakes, milk and bread on the counter.
“And twenty pounds on the electric please,” he requested.
“I haven’t seen you for a while,” said Julie.
Julie’s eyes were wide and heavily lined with mascara; they made Gary weak at the knees. He stared at her black lipstick instead and it had a similar effect.
“I’ve been around.”
“My mum said you sold her some eggs.”
“I did, yes.”
“Are you working at the farm now?”
“No, I’m still unemployed but I don’t sign on so I have to get money anyway I can.”
“You should just get to the job centre, no point starving to death.”
“You’re looking a bit skinny, you should grab yourself a pasty.”
“I don’t have the money for it.”
“Just take it, everyone else does.” Julie smiled.
“Nah, when I worked here that seemed like a perk but it would feel like theft now.”
“How about I steal one and give it to you?”
“I’m honestly fine. I best be going.”
“She’s still in Leeds.”
“Are you still together?”
“Yes, sort of… I’d rather not talk about it.” Gary looked at his feet as he talked.
“Well, if you do want to talk, or anything, you know where I am.”
Gary thanked her and walked home.
Once he had electricity again, Gary went to the kitchen to clean up the eggshell he had left on the floor. After he had picked up the shell, he wiped up the mucus that the snake had left behind it like a chalk outline at a murder scene. As the mucus wiped away it left a very dim reddish stain on the linoleum. When Gary had finally given up on trying to get the stain up, he stepped back and looked down at it. By an odd coincidence, the snake seemed to have fallen in the shape of a somewhat shaky capital letter G: a faint burgundy brand on the black linoleum.
“G for grass snake,” Gary mused to himself.
Gary made sure that every electrical appliance in the house was turned off and headed up to bed. He turned on his bedside light and tried to decide whether he should read the most recent letter Alison had sent him for a second time. There was no point, it was out of his hands, his phone had been cut off so he couldn’t call her and the broadband had gone off when the phone did. He could send her a letter, of course, but what would it say? I still love you but I have no job, no prospect of a job and am magically bound to this small village that you hate? That was hardly the right retort to her telling him she had met somebody else and would only keep paying the rent until the lease was up at the start of June. He knew he should take Julie up on her offer, but it wasn’t Julie that he wanted: Especially, considering that she had been the final nail in the coffin on Alison’s love for him.
Without bothering to undress, Gary turned the light off and lay in the dark until the sunlight began to pierce through the thin curtains. He finally made it to sleep with the assurance that he could have breakfast when he woke: it was an Easter miracle.
The church bells woke him three hours later; they were ringing at a very precise pitch and tempo that made it almost impossible for Gary to ignore. If they had just been a beat slower or an octave lower he could potentially have kept sleeping until Bank Holiday Monday.
The house was lonely and empty and Gary felt spent and desolate. He hobbled down the stairs and wished he had tea bags to make a cup of tea.
“Fuck it,” he thought, “it’s Easter Sunday and all the shops are shut. I can ask a neighbour for tea bags without looking like a beggar.”
Besides, asking people to give him teabags for free was bound to be an easier sale than asking people to buy eggs for one pound and ten pence.
Gary pulled on his shoes and opened his front door; he blinked as his eyes met the bright sunlight. Looking down to reduce the glare, Gary saw the three packages.
The first package was a plain plastic bag, Gary recognised it as the type that Ron’s All Night Garages used; it contained two packs of four Cornish pasties, some mild cheddar cheese and a variety of chocolate bars. A scrap of paper inside it was signed, “From the Easter Playboy Bunny.”
The second package was a Tesco’s bag that contained a Tupperware box. Inside the Tupperware was an assortment of sandwiches. The note on top of them said, “If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain.” Gary correctly guessed that they were from Mrs. Fuller.
Finally, there was a large cardboard box that had been wrapped in Easter paper. It was almost too heavy for Gary to lift; he put in on his kitchen table and pulled it open. Inside was about a month’s worth of canned goods from stewing steak to fruit cocktail, UHT milk and tea bags. There were two bottles of wine and a small bottle of whiskey. Best of all, there was some vacuum packed bacon. There was no note with that pack so Gary didn’t know for sure who had given it to him. However, he really hoped that it was from Milton.
Gary fried up a close approximation of a full English breakfast and put some of the whiskey into his tea.
He sat down in front of the television and turned it on.
“And now on ITV3,” an announcer told him, “the James Bond Easter Weekend continues with The Man with The Golden Gun.”
Gary raised his teacup in salutation and smiled.
BARNABY’S EXAM by Bryan Carrigan
Eliot brewed a pot of coffee and tried to make sense of his physics notes. Professor Barnaby had meticulously worked her way through relativity and uncertainty, wave-particle duality and Schrödinger’s equation. Eliot’s notes were a masterpiece. Equations-to-be-memorized were offset in blue ink. Constants were defined in green. Proofs were detailed step-by-step in red. He skimmed back through the pages and had no idea what any of it meant.
“Did you see a little magpie squirt through here?” Lawrence asked. “He stole my watch.”
“Can’t say that I did,” Eliot said, although even if he had, he wouldn’t have said so. Lawrence was one of those guys who never had to study; Eliot hated him. The registrar had paired them up freshmen year. Eliot had thought about applying for a single, but Lawrence’s uncle hooked them up with an apartment on the cheap and the idea of living off-campus had been too tempting to pass up.
“I liked that watch. It was my grandfather’s.” Lawrence helped himself to a cup of coffee and glanced at the flashcards Eliot had spread around the table. “Energy potential wells. Exciting stuff.”
“We’ve got Barnaby’s mid-term tomorrow.”
Lawrence shrugged. “All the more reason to find my watch. Listen, if Charlotte calls...”
“You’re not here,” Eliot suggested. “You’ve been expelled. You’ve contracted polio. You’ve opted for gender re-assignment so that you can date other men without it being gay.”
“Let her down easy, would you? She’s a nice enough girl, she’s just not . . .” He shrugged again and carried a load of laundry down to the basement. Eliot wanted to stab him the special theory of relativity, although he couldn’t remember what differentiated the special theory from Einstein’s general theory, and he was certain that Barnaby would craft a question that necessitated knowing the distinction in order to come up with the right answer. It took him four cups of coffee to work it out.
“There’s no time to explain,” Lawrence said. “I need your help.” He didn’t wait for an answer.
Eliot was due for a break, his hands were shaking from all the caffeine, so he followed Lawrence down to the laundry room. Lawrence strode past the washers and dryers and through the door to the electrical room. There was a pile of masonry and dirt on the floor. Someone had tunneled through the wall. Lawrence was covered in dirt.
“We’re never going to get our security deposit back, are we?”
“Don’t ask rhetorical questions,” Lawrence said. “C’mon.” He lit a Zippo lighter, held it aloft as though it were a lantern, and disappeared into his tunnel.
“You do realize that this is completely insane?”
“No,” Lawrence said, “insane is spending four years in college studying esoteric equations that we’re never going to use in the real world so that we can get a forty-hour-a-week cubicle job in finance or healthcare administration so that we can retire at sixty-five and wonder why our milquetoast lives turned out so dull. This is an adventure.”
Lawrence’s tunnel punched through a brick wall and joined an even larger tunnel. The air smelled old and damp, like the basement of a public library.
“Where are we?”
“I have no idea,” Lawrence said. “By all accounts, this tunnel shouldn’t be here. It’s not on any of the city’s maps. That’s what makes this so freaking cool.”
“How did you find this place?”
“I told you--that magpie stole my watch--I followed him.”
“A magpie is a long-tailed species of crow with green plumage,” Eliot said.
“Okay, then it wasn’t a magpie,” Lawrence said. He lit an old hurricane lantern. The tunnel stretched away in both directions. A brass grille blocked off a side passage. There were sconces evenly spaced along the wall for torches. He heard what sounded like a small girl laughing somewhere nearby. “Let’s call it a gnome, an elf, maybe a gremlin. There’s no way of knowing for sure. Although I suppose we could ask it.”
Eliot backtracked to Lawrence’s hand-dug tunnel.
“What are you doing?”
“I have to study,” Eliot said. “We have Barnaby’s mid-term tomorrow.”
“Sure,” Lawrence said, although Eliot could see that his roommate was disappointed, “good luck with that.”
Lawrence didn’t show up for the exam. Eliot scored a B-, filed a missing persons report, and changed his major to business administration. He wasn’t entirely sure how he’d cover Lawrence’s half of the rent, but at the end of the month, he found a coffee can full of loose change on the fire escape outside his window. He counted it out and there was just enough. Some of the coins dated back to the 1910s. A few were even older. He took them to a numismatist and discovered that he wouldn’t need to take out any more student loans. He never regretted not following Lawrence into the unknown, but whenever he heard a crow flapping its wings and carrying on, he’d keep an eye out for that magpie with Lawrence’s watch.
AYAME’S LOVE by Thomas C Hewitt
Clarissa’s threat had come true for Anton
and he found that he was unable now
to ever shake the woman from his thoughts
but there were other things that made him frown
such as the money that he hadn’t got
for dragging the sulking Ranzo around
and with him in the village he was stuck.
With no money for food he was tied down,
risking starvation’s bite if he returned
all the way back to Clarissa in Peres.
Of all the girls he cheated on or with
Clarissa was the only one he missed;
her soft face, her breasts, her words and her kiss.
On no other things could his thoughts be fixed
It was only absence of Clarissa
that placed her in his mind as most distinct.
The more he thought of how much he missed her,
the more that his thinking became tragic.
He had never paid much regard to her
but inside he’d always known his feelings.
The hurt of distance grew harder to bear.
She became the only important thing
and returning to her his only thought
besides the despair that he now could not,
and the one other growing thought that was
just a simple allocation of fault
that could only fall in one direction
and grew acridly inside of Anton.
The more that Anton thought of Ranzo
the more he became a companion piece
to the sharp notion that he could not go
back to the arms of Clarissa to sleep
post-coital and with a romantic show
of love never shown her previously.
So that then it could be forever know
his attention was held by her solely
but he could not now because of Ranzo
the liar who’d taken his love and hope
and since thanks to Ranzo he could not leave
he would pull something else out of his sleeve
and he’d find someway to make Ranzo pay
for taking his brightest light away.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
THE LIVES AND TIMES OF GARY DOOLAN by Obsidian Mercutio Tesla
Gary Doolan stood in the bus shelter watching the Post Office with all the anticipation of a hungry tiger lying in wait by a watering hole. The chill January rain beat down on the shelter, drumming a relentless rhythm on its grimy glass sides. The air felt wet as he inhaled, taking a drag on his roll-up, a well loaded joint that fought against the elements to stay lit. Its amber tip glowed briefly, adding colour to the hopeless monochrome world around him. The weather matched his mood. Why the hell am I here anyway? He exhaled, watching the smoke plume rise like an angry little storm cloud. Potential pickings were slim today. A gaggle of young mums had been in to collect their benefit payments. Before the girls, there had been some big shaven-headed gorilla of a bloke in a tracksuit. Gary certainly needed the cash, but wasn’t willing to get his skull fractured for it. He ground his joint out despondently against the glass side of the shelter, leaving a dark smudge on its smooth surface. Sod it. He’d bugger off home and smoke the rest in the dry.
The old lady appeared out of the rain on the opposite side of the road, little more than a blurred shape emerging from the middle distance. As she drew closer, he watched her struggling with several over-filled plastic bags of groceries. Her other arm had a thin leash coiled around it. A tiny dog was attached to the leash, pulling with the enthusiasm of a husky. He recognized the creature as being a miniature Yorkshire Terrier, the sort of little rat that wealthy old widows doted on and kept as pampered company once their husbands had died. He watched her keenly as she went inside the Post Office. He grinned wickedly and took the crumpled joint back out of his pocket, relighting it by way of celebration. Things might just be looking up after all!
He struggled to observe her movements through the glass panel in the Post Office door. The cars and lorries passing by on the road kept breaking up his clear view of her, raising an obscuring wall of spray as they sped past. She took something out of her pocket, handing it over the counter. The clerk returned it to her along with something else a few seconds later. She put whatever it was back in her bag of shopping. A bank card? A Pension card? A wad of cash? Has to be one of those! He took a deep drag to calm his nerves. This was it…the adrenaline rush! She came back towards the door, struggling to open it as she wrestled with her shopping and the dog. He braced himself, wiping his sweaty palms over the front of his tracksuit top.
When she came out, the little dog seemed to be going mad, pulling back on its leash and tumbling over between her ankles. The animal seemed to be having trouble standing upright, bucking wildly and getting tangled up in its own leash. The old woman looked confused by the animal’s frantic behaviour as it yanked backwards, trying to lock its tiny legs into place defiantly. In the end she seemed to lose patience with its antics, putting down her heavy load and scooping the tiny dog up in her arms. Once she’d re-gathered her shopping, she crossed the road and entered the park behind the bus shelter. Gary flicked the finished joint nonchalantly into a puddle and followed her.
She was now almost twenty feet ahead of him, huddled up against the curtains of rain lashing over her. It was now a deluge, pewter coloured skies hurling grey waterfalls over the sodden landscape all around them. The noise of the rain would perfectly mask the sound of his eager footsteps gaining ground behind her. Fifteen feet. He had to wait until she followed the path round behind a clump of trees before he made his move. Only then would they be out of sight of the main road. Only then could he strike. His breathing grew heavy. Adrenaline. Twelve feet. Dark branches formed tall arches over the black tarmac path, bare skeletal limbs intertwined high above their heads. Winter had stripped them of their leaves, dead hands clasped together in prayer, fingers tightly interlocked. Ten feet! Suddenly the little dog’s head appeared over her shoulder and looked straight at him. Its eyes were fixed on him, little brown orbs set into a fluffy teddy bear face. It was a look that he’d often seen before on victims’ faces, but had never before seen on a dumb animal. The look of mortal fear, a look that implied intelligent dread, a knowledge that something terrible was about to unfold. It whimpered. Five feet!
He struck out with his fist, hitting her squarely on the back of the skull. She pitched forward, arms flailing and one leg twisting under her with the force of the impact. Her housecoat billowed out as one of the plastic shopping bags split open, vomiting its contents over the path. His eyes quickly scanned the spilt items, picking out the brown leather purse. He reached down to snatch it up, but a frail liver-spotted hand grabbed his wrist. She kicked out at him weakly with her one free leg, the other being tangled in her long coat. She was trying to fight back…to defend herself! He felt the heat of indignant anger explode inside him. “Bitch!” he screamed, as he kicked her repeatedly in the stomach. After four powerful blows to the midriff she lay motionless, curled up into the fetal position. He was panting now, cold rain running down his hot flushed face and into his open mouth. He bent down once more to get the purse. She moved again! He took a step back in shock, getting ready to attack.
The dog’s head emerged from the folds of her coat. He relaxed… the old cow wasn’t going to give him any more grief. He grinned down at the defenseless little dog. Its legs were obviously damaged and it was trying to crawl out from under her prone body, whimpering in pain. He lifted his leg and stamped down with all of his strength and weight. There was a high pitched yelp as he ground his heel on its fragile body, feeling the tiny skeleton give under his weight.
A quick check in the purse revealed seventy pounds in cash…not too bad at all. He turned away from the corpses, running across the water-logged lawn towards one of the park’s many exits. Elizabeth Roach watched him leave, her dead eyes fixed on some far distant point.
The next night Gary was broke, once more in need of the endless drink and drugs that formed the cornerstone of his bleak existence. Shortly before midnight, he made his way on foot to old Bidston village. The houses there were posh and the rich bastards that lived in the numerous cottages and barn conversions were more trusting as a rule. It was easy for them, after a few glasses of wine, to leave a door unlocked or a key under a mat. He tucked his hands into his tracksuit pockets and walked through the darkness, his mind full of exciting possibilities.
These possibilities soon vanished. The first few houses were either inhabited by their wide-awake owners or had bloody big dogs snarling from behind sturdy locked gates. The last house, a pretty sandstone cottage surrounded by immaculate flower beds, had a single light on in the bay window. His mood lifted when he saw the old lady shuffle past the glass, clutching an oxygen mask to her sunken face. He stealthily made his way to the back of the cottage, his worn trainers moving soundlessly over the rustic stone path. The door handle was freezing to touch in the night air and turned easily in his hand. Senile old buggers…they never bothered locking up! Opposite the back door was an archway, beyond which was the illuminated living room that he’d seen from the road. The TV was in the far corner of the room and the woman sat in a small armchair facing it, her narrow back turned towards him. He felt the warmth of the central heating wash over him as he moved stealthily through the archway, treading carefully onto the thick carpet behind her chair after closing the back door silently behind him. She was watching the regional news, the volume on the TV turned up so high she would not hear him creeping up on her until it was too late.
Next to the chair was a small grey oxygen cylinder that sat on an aluminium trolley. Several plastic tubes trailed out of the tank, coiling around the base of the chair and over her small feet. He crept up behind her and noticed that she was wearing the plastic oxygen mask he’d seen her use in the window over her face. Her tiny shoulders heaved with the effort of breathing, her lungs making a dry rattling noise that could still be heard behind the newscaster’s baritone voice. Gary smiled to himself. The old bitch was ill and all on her own. There were bound to be drugs in the house…perfect! He stood behind her for a second, savouring the moment, anticipating the impending tidal-wave impact of her abject terror and powerlessness.
As the newscaster announced the next story, he leapt in front of her, his hand roughly grabbing her skeletal arm. The old woman jumped in her chair, raising her free arm defensively, her eyes bulging madly in her small face. Her mouth tried to form startled words, but was confined by the tight-fitting mask. All she could manage was to hold one hand up pleadingly and fill her mask with panicked condensation, while making an animalistic whimpering sound.
“Where’s your fuckin’ money?!” he screamed at her. “You got drugs in here?” She stared blankly up at him, her whole body shaking, arm still raised. She’s gone into shock. Good! “Your money!” he screamed in her face, his spittle peppering her wrinkled features. She pointed to a sturdy dresser, the hand he had now released clutching at her chest. He tore out the wooden drawers, scattering the contents on the floor. He found some old war medals and a gold plated ink pen. He knew a few blokes he could flog this crap to. He ignored her as she fumbled with her mask, making his way up the narrow staircase to the small bathroom. In the cupboard he found her medication and stuffed his pockets with the small brown plastic bottles. The steroids and prescription-strength painkillers were a real find. He went back down into the living room, half expecting to find her dead in her chair. She wasn’t.
She was standing in the middle of the room and was smiling up at him. “Did you get everything you were looking for, dear?” Her voice was quiet, no tone of fear or anxiety in the words. Gary blinked in disbelief, taking an involuntary step back. The old cow must be mad or senile. He walked straight towards her, his anger rising in his throat like bile. She was standing between him and the back door, my way out, so he was going to take her down hard. He grabbed the front of her old fashioned dress and went to throw her roughly onto the floor.
Pain! Sudden intense pain as she grabbed his wrists, twisting them round ‘til one snapped, the compound fracture poking through torn flesh like a dry stick. He heard himself scream as she turned him around with ease, throwing him down into the armchair. He hit the seat hard, the breath knocked out of him. His vision blurred, disbelief taking hold. He tried to get up, cradling his damaged arm close to his chest, but he couldn’t get up.
A creeping sensation moved steadily up his legs, working its way up from his ankles. He looked down in sheer horror as the material of his tracksuit bottoms writhed as if they had suddenly come to life! The eerie rippling sensation moved up to his thighs then stopped suddenly. There was a tightening feeling, as if his legs were being bound with strong cord. At the same time, more transparent plastic tubing ran from behind the chair around his wrists, working its way up his arms. He screamed again as it passed roughly over his broken bone, tightening up until the torn flesh bulged grotesquely out from between the transparent tubing. “Who the fuck are you?” he hissed, his burning glare meeting her pale grey eyes. The tube round his damaged arm constricted further, cutting off the circulation completely. All he could do was quietly whimper to himself, looking up at her through tear-filled eyes.
She smiled warmly down at him. “I am Malakh, or Aggelos, or Angaros, or Angelus if you prefer. That’s not important now. The only thing you need to know now is that it’s your time, Gary.”
“My time?” his voice sounded tiny in the small room. “What the fuck are you on about?...I’ve not done anything wrong!” Please!
She smiled and shook her head like a disapproving parent to a naughty child, reading his thoughts with ease. “’Please’ Gary? I fear you have gone too far for the word ‘Please’ to have any effect at all on your outcome. Yes, it is now your time of judgment and I am your guardian angel. I am here to pass judgment on your soul, but I cannot purify you for the afterlife on my own. I need your help.” She paused, observing him for a moment. Gary sobbed quietly, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I’m one of the ancient tribunal of forty-two gods. The ancient Egyptians gave me the title of ‘The Dangerous One’. It is my job to try you for the crime of murder…and for the abomination that you have wantonly made of your Gift. The gift you call ‘life’…the gift you abused without a second thought.” As she spoke, her face distorted, bones snapping and cracking loudly as her features rearranged themselves like living things that writhed in a sack of pale flesh. Her cheek bones swelled and her jaw line broadened and moved outwards by several inches. Her nose broke loudly and reformed itself like living clay. Within several seconds her features had changed into those of Elizabeth Roach. “Does this ring any bells for you Gary? Does this explain it a little more clearly?”
He shook his head, wild eyed, muttering to himself as his mind retreated from sanity. “No, no…” He blinked his eyes repeatedly, but her image wouldn’t fade. Not real…not real…
“Before you pass on, Gary, you must find your own personal redemption. You must destroy yourself, but it has to be of your own free will and by your own hand. I can only guide you.” Elizabeth Roach’s face started to peel away, skin shredding off and falling to the floor in wet, bloody strips. All he could do was scream and scream, losing physical continence as Malakh revealed its true godly form to him. Bony spines exploded out of multiple insect limbs as the woman’s face transformed once again, her distorted and enlarged body ripping through the cotton dress, pale flesh replaced with grey reptilian tissue. Immense bat-like wings unfolded with the sound of tearing cartilage mixed with thunder, seeming to fill the room with their magnificent, timeless glory. Enlarged golden eyes with red pupils looked down at him with cold intent, a huge three-fingered hand roughly grabbing his shaved head, holding his eye-lids open with talons the size of meat hooks. “BEHOLD MORTAL! Behold your day of judgment!” The god’s voice reverberated through every cell of his being, the truth of his meaningless life ripping through him with the force of a dying star. Before the god could finish showing its true face to him, he fell downwards into complete darkness.
He woke up in a swirl of bright colour and sensation, an overpowering assault of scents and sounds. He tried to stand upright, but couldn’t physically manage it. Something tight was tied round his neck, dragging him forwards along the floor. He was sure he was naked, feeling cold wet stone beneath his bare feet. Where the hell are my clothes!? There were deafening noises all around him, but his eyes wouldn’t work properly as he fell to the floor several times in succession. He struggled, trying to anchor himself to the security of the floor with his arms and legs, but whatever was dragging him was far too powerful for him to fight against. He tried to shout out, to scream for help, but he couldn’t. His mouth wouldn’t make words! His lips felt paralyzed, so he had to settle instead for a meaningless strangled howl.
Something terrifying and huge grabbed hold of him as his heart threatened to explode in his chest. Oh God I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m…He felt himself lifted high into the air, freezing water splashing into his face. He was surrounded by swathes of cold material tangled around his struggling limbs. Trying to gain a foothold was difficult, his hands grabbing desperately onto folds of cloth, hauling himself up whilst trying to get a better view of his surroundings. The cold rainwater helped clear his vision, his eyes becoming more focused by the second. He climbed higher up, his legs shaking with the effort, muscles burning with exertion. The sky above him was grey with pewter-coloured cloud, rain falling in an endless cascade as far as the eye could see. Then chilling realization hit him with the next image he saw. He saw his own grinning face, looming up behind Elizabeth Roach, going in for the kill, and all he could do was whimper.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE by James Talbot
Drip, drip, drip. The regular sound of water falling to the stone floor from the cracked pipe penetrated the fog that filled Pete’s head. Slowly he lifted his chin from his chest and wondered just where the fuck he was. He tried to open his eyes then realised something was wound tightly across his face preventing them from opening. Pete lifted his hand towards his face to remove what was across his eyes, or he would have done, but his hands were securely fixed to a point higher than his shoulders. He tried to move his body but something was fastened securely across the lower part of his chest and his stomach, preventing any movement. He tried to move his feet but they were also restrained.
He was cold. He started to panic but tried to force the fear out of his mind. Pete could tell he wasn’t wearing any clothes; he could feel the coldness of the surrounding air against his skin. Brian and the rest of the lads were just playing some kind of trick on him. They’d obviously tied him up and blindfolded him while he was drunk, probably some time after he and Brian had got back from the pub last night. Pete forced his thoughts back to the previous evening and tried to reconstruct the night’s events from his patchy memory.
‘Two pints of lager please, love,’ Pete shouted across the bar to the barmaid who was only standing a couple of feet away from him. Despite his raised voice, she still struggled to hear him over the pounding bass rhythms that filled the pub. It was another busy Saturday night and the pub was full of young people intent on having a good time.
‘Two?’ she mouthed at him and pointed towards the lager tap on the bar. Pete lifted his thumb in the universal gesture of approval and two pints duly arrived. Pete paid the barmaid then turned away from the bar looking for his drinking companion. He spotted Brian on the other side of the pub with his mouth close to the ear of a woman that Pete didn’t recognise.
‘Not bad looking,’ Pete thought to himself as he negotiated his way through the crowds towards Brian. ‘A bit old maybe but what the fuck. SAS, as they say.’ Pete laughed to himself as he remembered how puzzled he had been when he’d first heard his friend Paul use the expression before he’d started to try and chat up a big fat girl while they were out the previous weekend.
‘What the fuck does that mean, SAS?’ Pete had asked as Paul got ready to approach the fat girl.
Paul turned back to face him and grinned. ‘Shag’s a shag mate,’ he said then made his way over to where the fat girl was standing with a couple of her friends.
Pete grinned at the woman as he finally made his way through the crowded pub and stopped in front of the couple. Brian sensed his arrival and turned towards him. ‘Here you go,’ Pete said loudly and passed one of the pints to Brian.
‘Thanks. This is Ruth,’ Brian said, leaning towards Pete to make himself heard.
Pete leant close to the woman’s ear. ‘Hello, Ruth. nice to meet you. My name’s Pete. Do you want a drink?’
Like a synchronised dance, she leant towards Pete as he moved his face away from her ear. ‘No thanks. I’ve got one,’ she said then raised her glass of wine as though proving her own statement.
Pete couldn’t help himself from looking down at Ruth’s breasts as she leant forward and the loose fitting, low cut top she was wearing obligingly gave him a view of her ample bosom.
He lifted his gaze and found Ruth looking him in the eye and smiling. Her lips were slightly parted and she moistened her top lip with the tip of her tongue. Over her shoulder, Pete could see Brian miming a large pair of breasts with his hands then giving Pete two thumbs up before saluting, waving and making his way back towards the bar.
‘Where’s your mate gone?’ Ruth asked, leaning towards him again.
‘I think he must have gone to the toilet,’ Pete replied, although this time he managed to resist the temptation to look down at Ruth’s chest
Pete was annoyed that Brian had left him with Ruth. He wouldn’t have picked her to try and chat up. She must have been in her early forties and he wasn’t that desperate that he’d had to resort to “grab-a-granny” just yet. He quickly drained his pint, hoping to use going to the bar as an excuse to avoid being trapped all night with Ruth, but he needn’t have worried.
‘I’m just going over to see some friends. Maybe I’ll see you later?’ Ruth said, leaning close to Pete’s ear, allowing him another view of her breasts.
‘Sure. See you later,’ Pete said, lifting his empty glass in salute and then walking towards the bar to get another drink.
Ruth watched him go and slipped the small bottle back into her handbag.
Three hours later, Pete was standing by the bar trying to get another drink but he realised he was out of luck when the pub lights suddenly got brighter and the music stopped. The towels went over the pumps and people started to make their way out of the pub. Pete turned unsteadily away from the bar and put his glass down on a nearby table.
‘Hello,’ said a woman’s voice at his side.
Pete turned towards the voice. It was the woman from earlier in the evening.
‘Hello love.’ He looked blankly at her.
‘Ruth,’ she prompted
‘Shit! Sorry, Ruth. I’ve got a terrible memory for names.’
‘I saw you trying to get served at the bar. Do you want to come back to my house for another drink?’
Pete rapidly reappraised his earlier opinion of Ruth. She was quite attractive; a bit broad across the shoulders but she had a great set of tits. He decided he couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and it wasn’t every week he was invited back to a woman’s house. SAS, he thought and smiled at Ruth.
‘Sounds like a great idea. Shall we get a cab or can we walk?’
‘It’s okay. I’ve got my car outside.’
Brian walked out of the toilets a couple of minutes after Pete and Ruth had left the pub. He’d been talking to someone he knew and had managed to have himself and Pete invited back to a nearby house for more drinks and maybe a joint. He looked around the rapidly emptying pub but Pete was nowhere to be seen. There was no sign of him outside either.
‘You coming, Brian?’ a voice called from a group of people a few yards away.
Brian took another look around but could see no sign of Pete. Shrugging his shoulders, he followed the group down the road and away from the pub.
Pete opened the door and lowered himself into the seat of the sports car. The car was low and he felt as though he was sitting on the ground.
‘This is nice,’ he said. Ruth climbed into the driver ‘s seat next to him, pulled her seatbelt across her chest, and fastened it. Her skirt had ridden up exposing a great deal of her thighs and the seat belt seemed to fit tightly between her breasts and make them seem even bigger. She reached between her legs and beneath her seat and pulled out a hip flask.
‘Whiskey?’ she said smiling as she offered the flask to Pete.
‘This is getting better all the time,’ Pete thought to himself as he took the flask and pulled out the stopper before lifting it towards his lips.
‘Cheers,’ he said and took a swallow.
The whiskey tasted great and Pete allowed his head to lie back against the headrest as Ruth eased the car out of the car park and headed towards the main road. As soon as she turned the car onto the wide dual carriageway, Ruth pressed the accelerator down hard and the powerful engine roared as the car accelerated away.
‘Fucking lunatic,’ said a voice close to Brian as the sports car roared past them and away into the night. Brian turned towards the voice and saw a young woman he knew vaguely by sight.
‘Yeah. What a fucking tosser,’ Brian said watching the car disappear onto the distance. ‘You going back to Keith’s?’ he asked
‘Yeah, just for a couple of drinks,’ the woman replied. ‘How do you know Keith?’
Brian looked more carefully at the young woman at his side. ‘He was in my year at school, so I suppose I’ve known him for years,’ he said. ‘What about you, how do you know him?’
‘He went out with a mate of mine for a few months so I used to see him with her in the pub quite often. My name’s Michelle. You’re Brian aren’t you?’
‘How did you know my name?’ Brian asked suspiciously.
‘I don’t know. I’ve seen you in the pub loads of times and someone must have told me your name.’
‘Well, it’s nice to meet you, Michelle.’ Brian fell into step next to Michelle and together with the rest of the group, they carried on walking down the road.
Pete couldn’t remember much after arriving at Ruth’s house. He vaguely remembered the car bumping along an unlit dirt road then walking across a wide lawn and seeing lots of trees surrounding a large secluded house.
‘Impressive,’ he said as Ruth unlocked the front door and led him inside.
‘Have a seat,’ Ruth gestured towards a large leather settee as they walked into the lounge. Pete sat down heavily and leant his head back as Ruth made her way around the room switching on table lamps. She walked back towards the door into the lounge, switched off the main lights, and turned to face Pete.
‘I’m just going to put on something more comfortable then I’ll get us a couple of drinks.’
Pete was trying hard to stop his head from spinning and keep his eyes focussed.
‘Okay, I’ll be right here,’ he said trying to smile and slurring his words slightly as Ruth walked out of the room.
‘Give him a minute and he’ll be out for the count,’ Ruth said to the large heavy set man waiting in the hallway.
‘Are you sure you gave him enough?’ he asked.
‘Don’t worry, he’ll be easy to manage,’ she said as she moved into his arms and kissed him.
When they walked back into the lounge Pete was lying sprawled across the settee. His eyes were closed and he was breathing heavily.
‘See? What did I tell you?’ Ruth said gesturing towards Pete’s prostrate body.
Between them, they lifted Pete, carried him downstairs to the cellar, and stripped his clothes off before they secured him to the wall.
Ruth lifted Pete’s head by the hair and the man wound a length of black silk tightly around his eyes and secured it at the back of his head.
‘Do you think he’ll be okay standing up like this?’ he asked doubtfully
‘Don’t worry, Thomas. He’ll be fine, and tomorrow when he wakes up we can begin.’
Pete jerked awake as he heard the creaking and realised it was the sound of a door opening. He must have fallen asleep again after he’d woken earlier. Pete felt a draught flow across his face and he smelt a woman’s perfume.
‘Who’s there?’ he asked but there was no reply. ‘This isn’t fucking funny Brian,’ Pete said then laughed. The laugh sounded forced though and he knew there was a tremor in his voice.
Something brushed past his face, startling him, and Pete jerked his head back sharply. The crack and sudden burst of pain as his head hit the brick wall behind his head made him groan and without thinking, he tried to lift his bound hands towards his head again with as little success as his first attempt.
‘Who the fuck’s there!’ he shouted angrily not caring who heard him now, or how he looked, but the only reply he received was silence. ‘You’d better untie me, you bastards! It’s not funny anymore!’ He pulled ferociously at the restraints that held him but succeeded only in bruising his arms and legs against his bindings. Pete started to yell loudly and thrash and pull at whatever was holding him tight.
A sharp stinging slap first across one side of his face and then the other brought a sudden end to his movement.
‘Please, who’s there?’ Pete asked again only this time there was fear and pleading in his voice. Again, there was silence and Pete moaned softly to himself before he spoke again. ‘Please untie me,’ he said plaintively. ‘I need to pee and my arms are numb.’ He sobbed again and tears began to trickle down his face. He heard the creak of the door, then a soft click as the lock turned, and he knew he was alone again. The realisation seemed to drain his self control and his bladder emptied itself. The relief was immediate and Pete sighed as he listened to the trickling sound of the urine as it splashed on the hard ground.
‘What do you think?’ asked Thomas from his seat on the leather settee as Ruth walked into the lounge.
‘He’s fine,’ she replied. ‘Still trying to pull himself free but he’ll never manage it.’
‘When will we able to start?’
Ruth took a seat facing him. ‘Later,’ she said. ‘Let him tire himself out a bit more then we’ll make a start.’
‘I’m hungry,’ said Thomas
‘Me too,’ she replied.
Brian tried Pete’s mobile number again but once again the call was diverted straight to the answer phone. He left another message and wondered once more what had happened to Pete. He’d rung all the people they knew but no one had seen Pete and no one had any idea where he was.
‘He’s probably shacked up with that bird he used to go out with,’ Paul had said when Brian telephoned him.
‘He hasn’t been seeing Kate for a few months,’ Brian replied.
Paul had laughed long and hard at that. ‘Don’t you believe it,’ he said. ‘They see each other every couple of weeks for a fuck. They’re friends with benefits,’ he’d said and then laughed again.
Brian didn’t know whether to believe Paul or not. He’d known Pete since they were in school together and thought he knew him better than that. ‘There have been a few nights when he’s made some odd excuses for not going for a pint in the months since he finished with Kate,’ he thought as he wondered who to get in touch with next. Pete was an only child, his mother was dead, and he hadn’t seen or spoken to his father in years. Brian scratched his head as he contemplated his next move.
In the darkness, Pete slowly moved his head from side to side. He felt something cold and wet touch his cheek and he moved his head further over towards the object. Using his lips and tongue Pete explored the shape he’d discovered. It felt like a tube with something round in the end of it. He pushed his tongue at the round shape and it moved up into the tube allowing water to run out of the end. The cold water tasted wonderful to Pete and despite his situation he grinned as he realised he was drinking from a water bottle that a rabbit or a guinea pig would use.
As he sipped the water, he heard the key turn in the lock before the door creaked open. He thought his hearing seemed to be more acute since he’d been secured to the wall. ‘It could be because I’m concentrating more,’ he thought as he tried to focus his hearing towards where the creaking of the door had seemed to come from.
Ruth was conscious of the smell as she walked into the cellar and her face twisted in distaste as she breathed in the stench.
‘Thanks for the water. A cup would have been nice, but beggars can’t be choosers, can they?’ There was no answer so he tried a different approach. ‘Sorry about the smell,’ Pete said towards where he thought the door was. ‘There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it seeing as you’ve got me tied to this fucking wall!’ He raised his voice in anger as he spoke.
Ruth didn’t answer him. She walked over to wall opposite and unrolled a hosepipe from a reel fixed to the wall. Pete was doing his best to work out just what the sounds were that he could hear but he had no idea what was happening. He jerked backwards and narrowly avoided cracking his head on the wall behind him as the hose spluttered into life and ice cold water splashed across the lower half of his legs. Ruth sprayed the water across the cellar floor and washed the urine and excrement into an open drain in the floor beneath where Pete was standing.
‘Who are you?’ Pete asked slowly turning his head from side to side as he spoke. Ruth ignored him.
Pete could feel the panic starting to well up from his stomach and he tried to keep the pleading out of his voice as he spoke again.
‘Please just let me go. I promise you I won’t go to the police or anything.’
Ruth ignored him and wound the hosepipe back onto its reel. She moved quietly across the space between them and punched Pete as hard as she could in the solar plexus.
The shock of the blow caused Pete to jerk backwards. This time he did crack his head against the wall before he slumped forward and tried desperately to breathe as his diaphragm went into spasm. Slowly his breathing returned to normal but now he was more wary as he lifted his head from his chest.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you angry,’ he said quietly. Ruth ignored him. Through the darkness of his blindfold, Pete thought he could sense something in front of him but he was unsure if it was his imagination playing tricks on him. He moved his head from side to side as he tried to hear or sense something.
Ruth smiled. Her face was inches away from Pete’s but he couldn’t see her. Without warning, she lifted the point of her knee sharply upwards and drove it hard into Pete’s testicles then moved quickly away from him. Pete screamed at the sudden pain that lanced into the lower part of his stomach. He desperately wanted to curl up into a foetal position but his restraints made that impossible. Through his agony, he heard the creak of the door as it closed. Slowly the pain subsided leaving behind a dull ache. Pete wondered what was happening and what he’d done to deserve the way he was being treated.
‘Is he ready yet?’ Thomas asked as Ruth walked into the lounge.
‘He’s only been down there a day and half, Thomas. Have some patience.’
‘I’m hungry,’ Thomas replied.
‘I know you are, Thomas, and so am I,’ Ruth said. She walked across the room to where Thomas sat and bent over to kiss him.
‘We’ll leave him for another couple of hours and then we can begin.’
As she spoke, Ruth slid her hand across the crotch of Thomas’ jeans. ‘You’re not just hungry, are you?’ she said as she stroked the hardness of his erection. Thomas put his hands on Ruth’s shoulders, pulled her close and kissed her then moved his hands lower and fondled her breasts.
Ruth could sense his eagerness. ‘My, we are keen,’ she said as she pulled down his zip and slipped her hand inside.
‘Sorry love I haven’t seen him since Saturday night,’ the barmaid said as Brian explained to her that Pete seemed to have vanished since he was last in the pub.
‘Have you tried the police?’ she said helpfully.
Brian hadn’t but he was wondering if he should. He didn’t want to make a fuss though. Knowing the way things usually worked out for him he’d go to the police, tell them Pete was missing and he’d turn up with a big grin on his face and a story about how he’d spent the last two days in bed with some fantastic bird. ‘I’ll look a right dickhead then won’t I?’ Brian thought to himself as he thanked the barmaid and made his way out of the pub.
‘Why do you have to beat them first?’ Thomas asked as he lay back on the settee and watched as Ruth rearranged her clothes.
‘Because I enjoy it and it turns me on.’
‘It certainly does that,’ Thomas said, a wide grin creasing his face
‘I didn’t hear you complaining about me beating them while you were fucking me,’ Ruth said as she fastened the front of her skirt. ‘You were making plenty of noise but I didn’t recall hear any complaining, just grunts.’ She picked her ‘T’ shirt up from the floor and pulled it over her head then leant forward to kiss Thomas.
Thomas smiled at Ruth as she ended the kiss and lifted her head away from him. ‘No, you’re right. I didn’t complain, did I?’ he said. Ruth leant forward and kissed him again.
‘Are you still hungry?’ she asked as their lips parted and she looked into his eyes.
‘Starving,’ Thomas replied quickly.
‘Me too,’ Ruth said as she stood up straight and walked towards the door then looked back over her shoulder towards Thomas. ‘You coming?’
Pete heard the key turn in the lock and the creak as the door opened. He thought he heard what sounded like a light being switched on but he could see nothing through the blindfold. He concentrated his hearing and tried to listen for any sound that would give him a clue to what was happening. He didn’t want to be winded again and he definitely didn’t need to be hit in the balls again.
‘Who’s there?’ he asked quietly.
Thomas looked at Ruth who held her forefinger to her lips signalling him to be quiet as she moved silently towards Pete. The scalpel in her hand glinted in the glare from the naked light bulb suspended from the ceiling.
Pete felt something sharp draw a line down the centre of his chest and he flinched away from the sudden pain. He started to panic as he wondered what was going to happen to him.
The blood welled from the incision Ruth had made down the middle of Pete’s sternum and she watched Pete’s face closely as the blood trickled down over the straps that held him tight then across his stomach and ran into his pubic hair.
‘Please don’t hurt me anymore,’ Pete moaned. ‘I’ll do anything you want but please don’t hurt me.’
Ruth had to step away quickly as Pete’s bladder let go. Then he started to cry quietly at first but then he began to shake as deep sobs racked his body.
‘Why are you doing this to me?’ he managed to say between sobs. ‘What have I ever done to you? I don’t even know who you are,’ he pleaded.
Ruth stood silent and waited for him to calm down.
Pete was unprepared for the sudden pain as Ruth cut deeply into the top of his leg and carved a huge piece of flesh from the meaty part of his thigh almost to his knee. He screamed at the pain then suddenly felt cold and started to shake violently as his body began to go into shock.
Ruth handed the bloody piece of meat to Thomas then tightly bound Pete’s thigh with cling film. It wasn’t easy, he was shaking and doing his best to free himself from his restraints, but her task was made easier when Pete fainted and his body went suddenly limp. Working quickly Ruth wound the clear plastic around Pete’s thigh and lower leg before tying a tourniquet around his thigh above the wound. When she was satisfied that the flow of blood from the wound had reduced she motioned towards the door with her head to Thomas who stood silently watching her every move.
‘You do that very well,’ Thomas complimented her as they made their way upstairs from the cellar.
Ruth was wiping her bloody hands on a towel as they reached the top of the stairs. ‘Practice makes perfect,’ she said over her shoulder as Thomas followed her through the door that led from the cellar stairs and into the kitchen.
‘I’ll put the frying pan on the heat,’ Ruth said walking towards the large range cooker set against the kitchen wall. The piece of meat Thomas carried left a trail of red drops on the floor as he carried it towards the cooker.
Thomas put his knife and fork on his empty plate and pushed it away as he placed his forearms on the table in front of him and sighed contentedly. He looked at Ruth who was dabbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin.
‘That was nice, very tasty. How long do you think he’ll last?’ he asked, a concerned note in his voice.
Ruth’s forehead creased as she thought about her answer. ‘A few days I would think,’ she said after a pause. ‘At least until Thursday. If we harvest him carefully and he doesn’t lose too much blood I think we’ll get a few good meals from him.’
‘What about after that?’
‘I’m sure I can find us another supply.’
She smiled at Thomas as she looked across the table at him.
‘I do have certain attributes that are attractive to men, you know. I may be a little older than some of them would like but there’s no substitute for experience.’
They both laughed.
THE STOLEN OTHER PART 3 by C Priest Brumley
"Okay, you're ready. Disable the firewall."
"Got it. What next, sir?"
"Hard part's over. Now, we just do a base search of the system's files. Try your name first, see if your file's been flagged. Toss your Social Ident number at the end of the search string, just to make sure you have all your bases covered, okay?"
"Cut that out, Hadley."
/searchDB:inquiry:Hadley, David Chase:SS5919364307
searching. . . . . .
file SS5919364307 invalid
"What the fuck?" I was nonplussed. Invalid? I'm a person, aren't I?
"I have just as much of an idea as you do, Hadley." His brow sunk as low as I had ever seen it go before. Not a good sign.
After a pause, I decided to voice what was on my mind, in the hopes of creating answers. "File Invalid. What the fuck, man? What do you think we should do, Hector?"
He scratched his beard thoughtfully, then lit up at a moment's notice. "Wait, I have an idea."
searching. . . . . .
His triumph was infectious. "Yes! Now we can see why the system invalidated your file"
"Thank you, Cap'm!"
"Fuck you, Hadley."
I chuckled as I looked him over in mock appreciation. "Maybe a few years ago, if I were really drunk. I mean it. Absolutely trashed."
"Not what I meant." He turned his patented 'smartass' look on me, eliciting another chortle. The monitor bleeped, capturing both of our attentions at once.
retrieving file SS5919364307. . . . . .
"Huh?" I turned in my seat to look at Hector's face, bathed ice-blue in the glow of the monitor.
His expression was stern and contemplative as he turned to me. "How old are you, Hadley?"
I blushed. Fuck. He saw that. Well, guess I should answer truthfully. "Twenty-nine, sir."
"Uh-huh. Yet it says here you're just under Five. Care to explain?"
"Yeah. Um, sex change five years ago. Finished my bottom surgery on my Twenty-fourth birthday, but the legal change approval came through a lot sooner than we--" My eyes flew open and my heart raced. God damn it! Why hadn't I thought of that sooner? I turned my head to meet Hector's confused face. "Oh fuck. I know what's happened, Hector."
"Wanna fill me in, here?"
My eyes flew left to lock on to Hector's. "Hold on, I need to try something first, okay? Test my hypothesis, make sure I'm right."
Hector, for his part, remained silent and jerked his head in a tight nod, trying to suppress a yell. I turned back to the monitor and let my fingers fly over the keyboard, the rhythmic clacking noise having become almost a part of me at this point. I typed out the inquiry string from earlier, substituting my current name and Social Ident number with my older one. My fingers hesitated when I went to type in my old name, loathing at the very thought of revisiting the dark times in my life having taken control of my fine motor skills. I pushed past the hesitation with a surge of willpower and pressed on, determination to answer the mystery now the dominant drive.
/searchDB:inquiry:Sutton, Anjelica Marie:SS3694736062:file.history
searching. . . . . .
The lump in my throat tightened. I was hoping for a miracle, that this hypothesis would prove to be incorrect, and I could close the file with not a second's thought as to what the file contained in its rear entry. My fingers crossed as the horizontal dots repeated out and out again, system catching up with the inquiry string, seconds dragging like hours, until--
retrieving fileSS3694736062. . . . . .
"I said it before, and I'll say it some more: What. The. Fuck?"
"You have more of an idea than I do, Hadley." Hector's face grew more tense as he re-read the inquiry results, confusion replacing the silent rage burning in his visage.
"Talk to me, Cap'm. Whatcha thinking?"
I didn't see the hand hitting me behind my head, but the impact drove my face forward hard enough to crash my nose on the keyboard.
"The fuck, Hector?" I screamed at him, the sting in my nose mellowing to a dull throb after a bit. Hector's rage was in full effect, tan brown turning to red with pent-up anger.
"Call me that again, Hadley, and I swear to God I will rip your ovaries out with my bare mitts and force you to choke on 'em!" I had never seen Hector like this, apoplectic with rage. His entire frame was shaking, bearing down on my sitting form with the presence of a behemoth. I darted left out of the chair and grabbed the scalpel sitting next to the keyboard on the end-table we were using to hold the slicing materials. We squared off, my apprehension at the confrontation against his overbearing rage.
“What the fuck, Hector?” My voice sounded much calmer than I felt.
“I'm tired of your flip bullshit, Hadley,” Hector spat at me, “And if this is what it takes to get you to realize how fucking serious the shit you're in is, then so fucking be it!” He struck forward with a fist aimed at my head, but I was faster, dodging right and aiming the scalpel for his arm. I missed narrowly, the blade skimming the length of the long-sleeved shirt Hector wore and ripping a hole towards the end by his wrist. He stared at the hole, disbelief etched across his face, then looked up at me with an even fiercer rage than was evident before.
“Are you seriously trying to hurt me Hadley?” He swung at me again and connected with my stomach, leaving me doubled over and gasping for air. I was defeated and Hector knew it. Hector lashed out with his boot and kicked me in the chest while I was down, sending a massive spasm of pain across my ribcage. “So much hell you've given me!” Another kick, another spasm, rolling over on to my back in my agony. “Why the fuck can't you just keep your fucking mouth shut and listen!” A stomp this time to my prone chest, pressure crushing down on my lungs and leaving me gasping from pain. “Why? Why me, god damn it?” Another stomp, harder than the first, accompanied by the sickening sound of bones cracking under pressure. I felt a sharp jabbing in my chest and was unable to draw a deep breath. Hector raised his foot once more and aimed for my chest, eyes glazed over with a bloodlust I had never before witnessed and prayed I never would again. Out of desperation my hand shot up and grabbed at the air in front of me, trying to get Hector to stop before he could resume his attack.
Mercifully, it worked.
Hector lowered his leg, triumph etched across his features as he leered down at me. I coughed and felt a warm trickle run down the left side of my face, pooling up at my earlobe. And at once, Hector changed. All of the rage, all of the hatred, gone in the blink of an eye. Instead, a look of revulsion appeared, disgust etched where the victory once was. He backed off, one step at a time, until he stood against the wall at the far end of the room, tears forming at the corners of his eyes.
“Oh my God.” His voice was nothing more than a breath, carrying across the void between us with the strength of a breeze. I coughed again, feeling more blood bubbling up at the corner of my mouth, and tried to draw a breath back.
It wouldn't come.
I can't breath. Fuck me, I can't breath! I flailed my arms wildly, trying to snap Hector out of his stunned stupor, to no avail. Tears were streaming down his face as he stared at me. Have to snap him out of it. Now. Darkness was creeping up on me, making my vision go blurry. Tired. Desperate, I used the last of the breath I had in me to call out to him.
“Hector... Can't breath...”
The black took over.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Jesus H Christ, I feel like I've been hit by Kyra's truck.” My eyes opened to a slit and closed again at the barrage of bright lights assaulting my eyes. “Can someone please kill the damn lights?”
“Thank you.” My eyes opened again to a dimmed room, sterile white ceiling and walls dotted with plugs and access ports for the myriad of electronics scattered about. Hector sat on a stiff-backed chair next to my bed, facing forward and conspicuously trying not to catch my eye.
“Look, David, there's some things you need to know before I say anything else.” He turned his face to me, bearing the haggard look of a man who hadn't slept in days. “First, we have a situation. We have two cops outside the door. Real ones, not Slicer I-A.” His eyes narrowed. “They know, David.”
“Fuck me.” My left hand flew up and covered my face in frustration. “What are we gonna do, sir?”
“Don't know yet, still working on that one. We have a bigger situation on hand, though.” His hands started twisting in front of him, nerves playing out in physical motion. “After I got you admitted yesterday, I went back to Kyra's to feed Cloud and grab your bag for you.”
“And?” Hector looked down, averting my gaze again. “Hector, what the hell happened?”
“Kyra's missing, David.”
RUN TO THE HILLS by Gavin Chappell
2: Fire and the Sword
At long last, the tree-trunk smashed through the Eastgate, and the howling Saxon host charged into the city of Lindum Colonia().
At their head came Hengest, surrounded by twelve Swabian Wulfheodens, wolf-coated berserkers who fought in the bodyguards of Germanic kings. Their lord led the charge up the steep hill beyond the gate. The defending citizens rushed down to meet them, and these top-knotted warriors snarled like beasts, caught in the berserker rage that made them feared throughout the barbarian world.
The two lines clashed near the foot of the hill, in the shadows of the houses at the edge of town, and a great war-shout echoed from the surrounding timbers. Then the scene exploded into flashing steel and smashing lindenwood, to the metallic clang of blade on blade, the wet crunch of steel on bone, to shouts and screams and roars of fury.
Hengest found himself pitted against a well-armed Welshman who was fighting at the head of the contingent. Dressed in second-hand Roman armour, the small, dark-haired man put up a good fight, but Hengest soon despatched him with a savage hack to the skull that had behind it all the force and fury of a wronged man.
Others in the Welsh line had fallen already, and the survivors began to pull back to seek a more defensible position further up the steep slope. Hengest called a halt, and scanned the ascent.
Lindum Colonia was built upon the only sizeable hill in this part of the district of Linnuis, at the end of the long ridge upon which the Romans had built the road to Durobrivæ(). Hengest’s host had taken Eboracum soon after the fall of Londinium, and now they were making their way back down the country in the direction of Venta() and the cities of the South. Most of the people of the eastern half of Britannia now bowed their heads to Hengest and his warriors, and when Lindum Colonia fell, they would be able to consolidate their grip on the South. Their Pictish ally Drust of the Hundred Battles was moving down from his northern fastness with Hengest’s son Oeric, harrying and burning all before him. Soon only the western mountains would be left for them to lay waste. The effeminate, unwarlike Welshmen were fleeing before their advance, but they were running out of places of refuge.
‘Shouldn’t we attack?’ demanded a tall thane named Meaca, a Jute with a savage topknot. ‘Before they strengthen their position?’
Hengest’s eyes lit upon a nearby building. He shook his head.
‘Get some of the men positioned in the alleys for about ten yards ahead,’ he said. ‘Then send another band to that church over there. Burn it! That’ll bring these superstitious fools back down, and then we’ll have them trapped.’
Meaca nodded, and turned away to give the orders. Hengest turned away to consider his next move, once they had slaughtered these troops. More would come to support them, but hopefully by that time they would have gained a better foothold in the town; then they could start forcing their way through to meet up with Oswine’s Wælsings who were advancing up the Via Eboraca from the South. If Woden were with them, they would have the city under their heel in no time, and soon be able to return to the road of vengeance.
Warriors ran past him to take up positions alongside the street, under cover of the alleys. He grinned briefly to himself. As a lad, he would never have accepted such an ignominious role - then again, back when he was a warrior in Hnæf Hocing’s warband, he had seldom found himself battling in such conditions. He remembered the bloody strife at Finnsburh, in Frisia, when his lord fell in the never-ending battle and he had first found himself steering a troop of men to glory. Even then, he had gained for himself a reputation for cunning, for well considered vengeance-taking, and for a willingness to sacrifice his personal honour for the good of his folk. Men would always flock to his standard while he lived, even if the future remembered him only as a traitor.
Hengest had survived forty years of life by the sword’s edge, and in many ways, he had recaptured his reputation. But when he came to Britannia and entered the service of Vortigern the King, the same old problems had reared their heads. He had crushed the King’s enemies with ease; he had even managed to get farms for his land-hungry people from Vortigern, marrying his daughter to his lord, and receiving the country of Cantium for his followers. But Vortimer and his brothers, Vortigern’s sons by a previous marriage, had risen up against their father, demanding that the ‘pagans’ be cast out from the land. The rebels had fallen upon the peaceful folk of Cantium and forced them from the land; Hengest’s own brother had been slain.
But this was soon turned on its head when Renwein, Hengest’s daughter, secretly arranged Vortimer’s death. Vortimer removed, and Vortigern returned to his throne, Hengest returned. But then the slippery Welshman had begun to starve them, refusing to supply them with even the basic staples. Hengest had brooded upon this problem while around him his warriors writhed on the ground with distended bellies, gasping for nourishment. Finally, calling for a peace conference with Welsh, he had turned it into a slaughter-field, encouraging his men to stab their foes to death. Few other than Vortigern had escaped with their lives and the land was now open for mass invasion. Sending his son to the Picts to ask for aid in the campaign, Hengest swept the land of Britannia with fire and the sword.
He looked up as a shout broke the air, and saw a figure standing at the entrance to the church, a black-robed man who stared down haughtily at the blond warriors who were approaching the building with blazing torches. Hengest knew enough of the Welsh tongue to understand the gist of what he was saying.
‘Come no further!’ he bellowed. ‘Or the Lord shall strike you down! This is the house of God, and a curse will fall upon any who dare to defile it!’
Hengest could see that his men were intimidated by this; the fools! They were almost as superstitious as these followers of the Roman god. He watched in wrath as they backed slowly away from the sinister figure.
Meaca turned to him.
‘That Welsh wizard’s cursing our men!’ he snarled. ‘What are we going to do, lord?’
Hengest spat, and scowled.
‘It’s only one man,’ he bellowed. ‘Cut him down!’
But none of his men seemed willing to take up the challenge.
‘Who knows what sorcerous powers these Welshmen have,’ muttered Meaca, reaching up to the Ðunær’s Hammer talisman that hung around his neck. Hengest scorned witches and warlocks as unmanly wretches. But their powers frightened many of his men, though they let nothing else intimidate them.
‘Fools!’ he snapped. ‘No magic can stand up to cold steel, haven’t you heard? A true warrior believes in his own strength, not in the powers of evil.’
He drew his sword and faced the Welsh priest.
‘Out of my way,’ he growled.
‘You shall not defile my church,’ the man replied, staring bleakly at his opponent. ‘God’s curse shall fall upon you, and you shall die an ignoble death.’
Hengest was momentarily chilled by that cold gaze, so lacking in the warmth and vitality of a true man. Maybe this was a wizard, muttered a cringing, superstitious voice within him, maybe he was a fiend trapped in a human body, able to call down the wrath of the gods upon him... But Hengest crushed his fear, and raised his sword.
His eyes bleaker, the priest did nothing to defend himself, but merely made some kind of mystic pass across his body, and muttered;
Fear shot through Hengest again. Was this some kind of spell? Unmanned by gut-wrenching terror, he brought his blade hissing down. It plunged almost silently into the priest’s body, opening him from shoulder to breastbone, and the Welshman fell to the ground, gushing hot blood across the church entrance.
Hengest turned to his thanes.
‘See?’ he snarled, memories of his previous fear stirring his anger again. ‘These Welshmen are nothing to be afraid of. Call yourself warriors?’
He wrested a torch from one of his warrior’s hands and cast it into the church. As a blaze caught up in the darkness of building, he stepped back.
‘Burn it down!’ he shouted. His men moved forward to obey his command.
He turned, and gazed up the hill. Far above them, on the ridge, he could see the Welsh warriors massing. He smiled. They’d soon fall into his trap.
And Lindum Colonia too would soon fall, he thought to himself as he headed back towards the main body of his warriors where his banner waved on high; a white horse triumphant over a green field. And the rest of Britannia would follow this city’s fall. The Welsh were fools, and had lived under Roman protection for so long that they had forgotten how to fight. His superior military might would win his people new lands from them with ease. One day he would be the hero of the conquering English nation.
He turned suddenly, as he heard a thunder of running feet on the cobbles. The church was blazing like a funeral pyre, and the Welsh warriors were charging down hill to save it, just as he’d hoped. He readied himself for the ambush.
Vengeance would be his.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK…
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest
THE INTERRUPTED BREAKFAST AT SIR FRANCIS VARNEY'S.
Notwithstanding all Mr. Chillingworth could say to the contrary, the admiral really meant to breakfast with Sir Francis Varney.
The worthy doctor could not for some time believe but that the admiral must be joking, when he talked in such a strain; but he was very soon convinced to the contrary, by the latter actually walking out and once more asking him, Mr. Chillingworth, if he meant to go with him, or not.
This was conclusive, so the doctor said,—
"Well, admiral, this appears to me rather a mad sort of freak; but, as I have begun the adventure with you, I will conclude it with you."
"That's right," said the admiral; "I'm not deceived in you, doctor; so come along. Hang these vampyres, I don't know how to tackle them, myself. I think, after all, Sir Francis Varney is more in your line than line is in mine."
"How do you mean?"
"Why, couldn't you persuade him he's ill, and wants some physic? That would soon settle him, you know."
"Settle him!" said Mr. Chillingworth; "I beg to say that if I did give him any physic, the dose would be much to his advantage; but, however, my opinion is, that this invitation to breakfast is, after all, a mere piece of irony; and that, when we get to Walmesley Lodge, we shall not see anything of him; on the contrary, we shall probably find it's a hoax."
"I certainly shouldn't like that, but still it's worth the trying. The fellow has really behaved himself in such an extraordinary manner, that, if I can make terms with him I will; and there's one thing, you know, doctor, that I think we may say we have discovered."
"And what may that be? Is it, not to make too sure of a vampyre, even when you have him by the leg?"
"No, that ain't it, though that's a very good thing in its way: but it is just this, that Sir Francis Varney, whoever he is and whatever he is, is after Bannerworth Hall, and not the Bannerworth family. If you recollect, Mr. Chillingworth, in our conversation, I have always insisted upon that fact."
"You have; and it seems to me to be completely verified by the proceedings of the night. There, then, admiral, is the great mystery—what can he want at Bannerworth Hall that makes him take such a world of trouble, and run so many fearful risks in trying to get at it?"
"That is, indeed, the mystery; and if he really means this invitation to breakfast, I shall ask him plumply, and tell him, at the same time, that possibly his very best way to secure his object will be to be candid, vampyre as he is."
"But really, admiral, you do not still cling to that foolish superstition of believing that Sir Francis Varney is in reality a vampyre?"
"I don't know, and I can't say; if anybody was to give me a description of a strange sort of fish that I had never seen, I wouldn't take upon myself to say there wasn't such a thing; nor would you, doctor, if you had really seen the many odd ones that I have encountered at various times."
"Well, well, admiral, I'm certainly not belonging to that school of philosophy which declares the impossible to be what it don't understand; there may be vampyres, and there may be apparitions, for all I know to the contrary; I only doubt these things, because I think, if they were true, that, as a phenomena of nature, they would have been by this time established by repeated instances without the possibility of doubt or cavil."
"Well, there's something in that; but how far have we got to go now?"
"No further than to yon enclosure where you see those park-like looking gates, and that cedar-tree stretching its dark-green foliage so far into the road; that is Walmesley Lodge, whither you have been invited."
"And you, my learned friend, recollect that you were invited too; so that you are no intruder upon the hospitality of Varney the vampyre."
"I say, admiral," said Mr. Chillingworth, when they reached the gates, "you know it is not quite the thing to call a man a vampyre at his own breakfast-table, so just oblige me by promising not to make any such remark to Sir Francis."
"A likely thing!" said the admiral; "he knows I know what he is, and he knows I'm a plain man and a blunt speaker; however, I'll be civil to him, and more than that I can't promise. I must wring out of him, if I can, what has become of Charles Holland, and what the deuce he really wants himself."
"Well, well; come to no collision with him, while we're his guests."
"Not if I can help it."
The doctor rang at the gate bell of Walmesley Lodge, and was in a few moments answered by a woman, who demanded their business.
"Is Sir Francis Varney here?" said the doctor.
"Oh, ah! yes," she replied; "you see his house was burnt down, for something or other—I'm sure I don't know what—by some people—I'm sure I don't know who; so, as the lodge was to let, we have took him in till he can suit himself."
"Ah! that's it, is it?" said the admiral—"tell him that Admiral Bell and Dr. Chillingworth are here."
"Very well," said the woman; "you may walk in."
"Thank ye; you're vastly obliging, ma'am. Is there anything going on in the breakfast line?"
"Well, yes; I am getting him some breakfast, but he didn't say as he expected company."
The woman opened the garden gate, and they walked up a trimly laid out garden to the lodge, which was a cottage-like structure in external appearance, although within it boasted of all the comforts of a tolerably extensive house.
She left them in a small room, leading from the hall, and was absent about five minutes; then she returned, and, merely saying that Sir Francis Varney presented his compliments, and desired them to walk up stairs, she preceded them up a handsome flight which led to the first floor of the lodge.
Up to this moment, Mr. Chillingworth had expected some excuse, for, notwithstanding all he had heard and seen of Sir Francis Varney, he could not believe that any amount of impudence would suffice to enable him to receive people as his guests, with whom he must feel that he was at such positive war.
It was a singular circumstance; and, perhaps, the only thing that matched the cool impertinence of the invitation, was the acceptance of it under the circumstances by the admiral.
Sir Francis Varney might have intended it as a jest; but if he did so, in the first instance, it was evident he would not allow himself to be beaten with his own weapons.
The room into which they were shown was a longish narrow one; a very wide door gave them admission to it, at the end, nearest the staircase, and at its other extremity there was a similar door opening into some other apartments of the house.
Sir Francis Varney sat with his back towards this second door, and a table, with some chairs and other articles of furniture, were so arranged before him, that while they seemed but to be carelessly placed in the position they occupied, they really formed a pretty good barrier between him and his visitors.
The admiral, however, was too intent upon getting a sight of Varney, to notice any preparation of this sort, and he advanced quickly into the room.
And there, indeed, was the much dreaded, troublesome, persevering, and singular looking being who had caused such a world of annoyance to the family of the Bannerworths, as well as disturbing the peace of the whole district, which had the misfortune to have him as an inhabitant.
If anything, he looked thinner, taller, and paler than usual, and there seemed to be a slight nervousness of manner about him, as he slowly inclined his head towards the admiral, which was not quite intelligible.
"Well," said Admiral Bell, "you invited me to breakfast, and my learned friend; here we are."
"No two human beings," said Varney, "could be more welcome to my hospitality than yourself and Dr. Chillingworth. I pray you to be seated. What a pleasant thing it is, after the toils and struggles of this life, occasionally to sit down in the sweet companionship of such dear friends."
He made a hideous face as he spoke, and the admiral looked as if he were half inclined to quarrel at that early stage of the proceedings.
"Dear friends!" he said; "well, well—it's no use squabbling about a word or two; but I tell you what it is, Mr. Varney, or Sir Francis Varney, or whatever your d——d name is—"
"Hold, my dear sir," said Varney—"after breakfast, if you please—after breakfast."
He rang a hand-bell as he spoke, and the woman who had charge of the house brought in a tray tolerably covered with the materials for a substantial morning's meal. She placed it upon the table, and certainly the various articles that smoked upon it did great credit to her culinary powers.
"Deborah," said Sir Varney, in a mild sort of tone, "keep on continually bringing things to eat until this old brutal sea ruffian has satiated his disgusting appetite."
The admiral opened his eyes an enormous width, and, looking at Sir Francis Varney, he placed his two fists upon the table, and drew a long breath.
"Did you address those observations to me," he said, at length, "you blood-sucking vagabond?"
"Eh?" said Sir Francis Varney, looking over the admiral's head, as if he saw something interesting on the wall beyond.
"My dear admiral," said Mr. Chillingworth, "come away."
"I'll see you d——d first!" said the admiral. "Now, Mr. Vampyre, no shuffling; did you address those observations to me?"
"Deborah," said Sir Francis Varney, in silvery tones, "you can remove this tray and bring on the next."
"Not if I know it," said the admiral "I came to breakfast, and I'll have it; after breakfast I'll pull your nose—ay, if you were fifty vampyres, I'd do it."
"Dr. Chillingworth," said Varney, without paying the least attention to what the admiral said, "you don't eat, my dear sir; you must be fatigued with your night's exertions. A man of your age, you know, cannot be supposed to roll and tumble about like a fool in a pantomime with impunity. Only think what a calamity it would be if you were laid up. Your patients would all get well, you know."
"Sir Francis Varney," said Mr. Chillingworth, "we're your guests; we come here at your invitation to partake of a meal. You have wantonly attacked both of us. I need not say that by so doing you cast a far greater slur upon your own taste and judgment than you can upon us."
"Admirably spoken," said Sir Francis Varney, giving his bands a clap together that made the admiral jump again. "Now, old Bell, I'll fight you, if you think yourself aggrieved, while the doctor sees fair play."
"Old who?" shouted the admiral.
"Bell, Bell—is not your name Bell?—a family cognomen, I presume, on account of the infernal clack, clack, without any sense in it, that is the characteristic of your race."
"You'll fight me?" said the admiral, jumping up.
"Yes; if you challenge me."
"By Jove I do; of course"
"Then I accept it; and the challenged party, you know well, or ought to know, can make his own terms in the encounter."
"Make what terms you please; I care not what they are. Only say you will fight, and that's sufficient."
"It is well," said Sir Francis Varney, in a solemn tone.
"Nay, nay," interrupted Mr. Chillingworth; "this is boyish folly."
"Hold your row," said the admiral, "and let's hear what he's got to say."
"In this mansion," said Sir Francis Varney—"for a mansion it is, although under the unpretending name of a lodge—in this mansion there is a large apartment which was originally fitted up by a scientific proprietor of the place, for the purpose of microscopic and other experiments, which required a darkness total and complete, such a darkness as seems as if it could be felt—palpable, thick, and obscure as the darkness of the tomb, and I know what that is."
"The devil you do!" said this admiral "It's damp, too, ain't it?"
"No; the grave."
"Oh! uncommonly, after autumnal rains. But to resume—this room is large, lofty, and perfectly empty."
"I propose that we procure two scythes."
"Scythes, with their long handles, and their convenient holding places."
"Well, I'll be hanged! What next do you propose?"
"You may be hanged. The next is, that with these scythes we be both of us placed in the darkened room, and the door closed, and doubly locked upon us for one hour, and that then and there we do our best each to cut the other in two. If you succeed in dismembering me, you will have won the day; but I hope, from my superior agility"—here Sir Francis jumped upon his chair, and sat upon the back of it—"to get the better or you. How do you like the plan I have proposed? Does it meet your wishes?"
"Curse your impudence!" said the admiral, placing his elbows upon the table and resting his chin in astonishment upon his two hands.
"Nay," interrupted Sir Francis, "you challenged me; and, besides, you'll have an equal chance, you know that. If you succeed in striking me first, down I go; whereas it I succeed in striking you first, down you go."
As he spoke, Sir Francis Varney stretched out his foot, and closed a small bracket which held out the flap of the table on which the admiral was leaning, and, accordingly, down the admiral went, tea-tray and all.
Mr. Chillingworth ran to help him up, and, when they both recovered their feet, they found they were alone.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AFTER LONDON, or Wild England, by Richard Jefferies
CHAPTER III - THE STOCKADE
When Oliver and Felix started, they left Philip, the third and youngest of the three brothers, still at breakfast. They turned to the left, on getting out of doors, and again to the left, through the covered passage between the steward's store and the kitchen. Then crossing the waggon yard, they paused a moment to glance in at the forge, where two men were repairing part of a plough.
Oliver must also look for a moment at his mare, after which they directed their steps to the South Gate. The massive oaken door was open, the bolts having been drawn back at hornblow. There was a guard-room on one side of the gate under the platform in the corner, where there was always supposed to be a watch.
But in times of peace, and when there were no apprehensions of attack, the men whose turn it was to watch there were often called away for a time to assist in some labour going forward, and at that moment were helping to move the woolpacks farther into the warehouse. Still they were close at hand, and had the day watchman or warder, who was now on the roof, blown his horn, would have rushed direct to the gate. Felix did not like this relaxation of discipline. His precise ideas were upset at the absence of the guard; method, organization, and precision, were the characteristics of his mind, and this kind of uncertainty irritated him.
"I wish Sir Constans would insist on the guard being kept," he remarked. Children, in speaking of their parents, invariably gave them their titles. Now their father's title was properly "my lord," as he was a baron, and one of the most ancient. But he had so long abnegated the exercise of his rights and privileges, sinking the noble in the mechanician, that men had forgotten the proper style in which they should address him. "Sir" was applied to all nobles, whether they possessed estates or not. The brothers were invariably addressed as Sir Felix or Sir Oliver. It marked, therefore, the low estimation in which the Baron was held when even his own sons spoke of him by that title.
Oliver, though a military man by profession, laughed at Felix's strict view of the guards' duties. Familiarity with danger, and natural carelessness, had rendered him contemptuous of it.
"There's no risk," said he, "that I can see. Who could attack us? The Bushmen would never dream of it; the Romany would be seen coming days beforehand; we are too far from the Lake for the pirates; and as we are not great people, as we might have been, we need dread no private enmity. Besides which, any assailants must pass the stockades first."
"Quite true. Still I don't like it; it is a loose way of doing things."
Outside the gate they followed the waggon track, or South Road, for about half a mile. It crossed meadows parted by low hedges, and they remarked, as they went, on the shortness of the grass, which, for want of rain, was not nearly fit for mowing. Last year there had been a bad wheat crop; this year there was at present scarcely any grass. These matters were of the highest importance; peace or war, famine or plenty, might depend upon the weather of the next few months.
The meadows, besides being divided by the hedges, kept purposely cropped low, were surrounded, like all the cultivated lands, by high and strong stockades. Half a mile down the South Road they left the track, and following a footpath some few hundred yards, came to the pool where Oliver had bathed that morning. The river, which ran through the enclosed grounds, was very shallow, for they were near its source in the hills, but just there it widened, and filled a depression fifty or sixty yards across, which was deep enough for swimming. Beyond the pool the stream curved and left the enclosure; the stockade, or at least an open work of poles, was continued across it. This work permitted the stream to flow freely, but was sufficiently close to exclude any one who might attempt to enter by creeping up the bed of the river.
They crossed the river just above the pool by some stepping-stones, large blocks rolled in for the purpose, and approached the stockade. It was formed of small but entire trees, young elms, firs, or very thick ash-poles, driven in a double row into the earth, the first or inner row side by side, the outer row filling the interstices, and the whole bound together at the bottom by split willow woven in and out. This interweaving extended only about three feet up, and was intended first to bind the structure together, and secondly to exclude small animals which might creep in between the stakes. The reason it was not carried all up was that it should not afford a footing to human thieves desirous of climbing over.
The smooth poles by themselves afforded no notch or foothold for a Bushman's naked foot. They rose nine or ten feet above the willow, so that the total height of the palisade was about twelve feet, and the tops of the stakes were sharpened. The construction of such palisades required great labour, and could be carried out only by those who could command the services of numbers of men, so that a small proprietor was impossible, unless within the walls of a town. This particular stockade was by no means an extensive one, in comparison with the estates of more prominent nobles.
The enclosure immediately surrounding the Old House was of an irregular oval shape, perhaps a mile long, and not quite three-quarters of a mile wide, the house being situated towards the northern and higher end of the oval. The river crossed it, entering on the west and leaving on the eastern side. The enclosure was for the greater part meadow and pasture, for here the cattle were kept, which supplied the house with milk, cheese, and butter, while others intended for slaughter were driven in here for the last months of fattening.
The horses in actual use for riding, or for the waggons, were also turned out here temporarily. There were two pens and rickyards within it, one beside the river, one farther down. The South Road ran almost down the centre, passing both rickyards, and leaving the stockade at the southern end by a gate, called the barrier. At the northern extremity of the oval the palisade passed within three hundred yards of the house, and there was another barrier, to which the road led from the Maple Gate, which has been mentioned. From thence it went across the hills to the town of Ponze. Thus, anyone approaching the Old House had first to pass the barrier and get inside the palisade.
At each barrier there was a cottage and a guard-room, though, as a matter of fact, the watch was kept in peaceful times even more carelessly than at the inner gates of the wall about the House itself. Much the same plan, with local variations, was pursued on the other estates of the province, though the stockade at the Old House was remarkable for the care and skill with which it had been constructed. Part of the duty of the watchman on the roof was to keep an eye on the barriers, which he could see from his elevated position.
In case of an incursion of gipsies, or any danger, the guard at the barrier was supposed to at once close the gate, blow a horn, and exhibit a flag. Upon hearing the horn or observing the flag, the warder on the roof raised the alarm, and assistance was sent. Such was the system, but as no attack had taken place for some years the discipline had grown lax.
After crossing on the stepping-stones Oliver and Felix were soon under the stockade which ran high above them, and was apparently as difficult to get out of as to get into. By the strict law of the estate, any person who left the stockade except by the public barrier rendered himself liable to the lash or imprisonment. Any person, even a retainer, endeavouring to enter from without by pole, ladder, or rope, might be killed with an arrow or dart, putting himself into the position of an outlaw. In practice, of course, this law was frequently evaded. It did not apply to the family of the owner.
Under some bushes by the palisade was a ladder of rope, the rungs, however, of wood. Putting his fishing-tackle and boar spear down, Oliver took the ladder and threw the end over the stockade. He then picked up a pole with a fork at the end from the bushes, left there, of course, for the purpose, and with the fork pushed the rungs over till the ladder was adjusted, half within and half without the palisade. It hung by the wooden rungs which caught the tops of the stakes. He then went up, and when at the top, leant over and drew up the outer part of the ladder one rung, which he put the inner side of the palisade, so that on transferring his weight to the outer side it might uphold him. Otherwise the ladder, when he got over the points of the stakes, must have slipped the distance between one rung and a second.
Having adjusted this, he got over, and Felix carrying up the spears and tackle handed them to him. Felix followed, and thus in three minutes they were on the outer side of the stockade. Originally the ground for twenty yards, all round outside the stockade, had been cleared of trees and bushes that they might not harbour vermin, or thorn-hogs, or facilitate the approach of human enemies. Part of the weekly work of the bailiffs was to walk round the entire circumference of the stockade to see that it was in order, and to have any bushes removed that began to grow up. As with other matters, however, in the lapse of time the bailiffs became remiss, and under the easy, and perhaps too merciful rule of Sir Constans, were not recalled to their duties with sufficient sharpness.
Brambles and thorns and other underwood had begun to cover the space that should have been open, and young sapling oaks had risen from dropped acorns. Felix pointed this out to Oliver, who seldom accompanied him; he was indeed rather glad of the opportunity to do so, as Oliver had more interest with Sir Constans than himself. Oliver admitted it showed great negligence, but added that after all it really did not matter. "What I wish," said he, "is that Sir Constans would go to Court, and take his proper position."
Upon this they were well agreed; it was, in fact, almost the only point upon which all three brothers did agree. They sometimes talked about it till they separated in a furious temper, not with each other but with him. There was a distinct track of footsteps through the narrow band of low brambles and underwood between the stockade and the forest. This had been made by Felix in his daily visits to his canoe.
The forest there consisted principally of hawthorn-trees and thorn thickets, with some scattered oaks and ashes; the timber was sparse, but the fern was now fast rising up so thick, that in the height of summer it would be difficult to walk through it. The tips of the fronds unrolling were now not up to the knee; then the brake would reach to the shoulder. The path wound round the thickets (the blackthorn being quite impenetrable except with the axe) and came again to the river some four or five hundred yards from the stockade. The stream, which ran from west to east through the enclosure, here turned and went due south.
On the bank Felix had found a fine black poplar, the largest and straightest and best grown of that sort for some distance round, and this he had selected for his canoe. Stones broke the current here into eddies, below which there were deep holes and gullies where alders hung over, and an ever-rustling aspen spread the shadow of its boughs across the water. The light-coloured mud, formed of disintegrated chalk, on the farther and shallower side was only partly hidden by flags and sedges, which like a richer and more alluvial earth. Nor did the bushes grow very densely on this soil over the chalk, so that there was more room for casting the fly than is usually the case where a stream runs through a forest. Oliver, after getting his tackle in order, at once began to cast, while Felix, hanging his doublet on an oft-used branch, and leaning his spear against a tree, took his chisels and gouge from the flag basket.
He had chosen the black poplar for the canoe because it was the lightest wood, and would float best. To fell so large a tree had been a great labour, for the axes were of poor quality, cut badly, and often required sharpening. He could easily have ordered half-a-dozen men to throw the tree, and they would have obeyed immediately; but then the individuality and interest of the work would have been lost. Unless he did it himself its importance and value to him would have been diminished. It had now been down some weeks, had been hewn into outward shape, and the larger part of the interior slowly dug away with chisel and gouge.
He had commenced while the hawthorn was just putting forth its first spray, when the thickets and the trees were yet bare. Now the May bloom scented the air, the forest was green, and his work approached completion. There remained, indeed, but some final shaping and rounding off, and the construction, or rather cutting out, of a secret locker in the stern. This locker was nothing more than a square aperture chiselled out like a mortice, entering not from above but parallel with the bottom, and was to be closed with a tight-fitting piece of wood driven in by force of mallet.
A little paint would then conceal the slight chinks, and the boat might be examined in every possible way without any trace of this hiding-place being observed. The canoe was some eleven feet long, and nearly three feet in the beam; it tapered at either end, so that it might be propelled backwards or forwards without turning, and stem and stern (interchangeable definitions in this case) each rose a few inches higher than the general gunwale. The sides were about two inches thick, the bottom three, so that although dug out from light wood the canoe was rather heavy.
At first Felix constructed a light shed of fir poles roofed with spruce-fir branches over the log, so that he might work sheltered from the bitter winds of the early spring. As the warmth increased he had taken the shed down, and now as the sun rose higher was glad of the shade of an adjacent beech.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK