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Posts Tagged ‘Horror’

Part One: The Fate of Nyctimus

The door creaked open, swollen slightly in its frame from the wet of the summer storm. The petrichor scent was still rising from the hot streets, strong enough that it even masked the copper-rust smell of the room.

“I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble for this, but I’m fresh out of ideas, and this whole affair made me think of you.”

He was a tall, lanky man, surprisingly graceful and topped with a shock of red hair that – other than its colour – wouldn’t have looked out of place on a negro. It was – somewhat haphazardly, pushed down beneath a rolled derby and otherwise, his appearance was impeccable.

“I’m flattered Detective Constable,” Gathercole smiled slightly and picked his way over the threshold like a ballerina en pointe, careful to disturb little.

“I’m off the clock old boy, call me Charlie,” said the detective, following in Gathercole’s wake.

Gathercole paused and covered his hand with the bright blue handkerchief from his breast pocket, quite the contrast to his pale cream jacket. So protected, he flipped on the electric light and revealed a shocking scene.

The rooms were of impeccable taste, a fascinating – but balanced – the contrast between the old and the new.

There were shelves, heavy with books and ornaments, some of which seemed like nothing but rubbish. There were fragments of broken pot, pieces of stone, a few old coins. These were presented just as proudly as the modern clock on the mantle, or the standing lamps in the shape of half-naked dancers, scandalous – but rendered slightly more tasteful by the angular form of their sculpting.

The furnishings, similarly, were tasteful and modern, sleek and angular. This sense of tension between the old and new, the tastefulness of the décor, the stylistic ornaments, the artefacts upon the shelves, it was all disrupted by just one interrupting element.

Everything had been splashed with blood. It was as though some geyser of gore had erupted in the centre of the room. Blood splatter reached as far as the ceiling, and despite the best efforts of the police thus far, there were still fragments of viscera dashed about the place with the liberal abandon of wedding confetti.

Gathercole picked his way across and around the room, taking everything in with cold and precise detachment. A magician’s flourish and his notebook and pen appeared, conjuring the chicken-scratch shorthand of his notations across the page.

Detective Constable Wentworth held back, letting Gathercole work, following him with his gaze as the man in white went over the room with methodical, mechanical precision.

Finally, Gathercole stepped back to the detective, and his pen paused against the page.

“The body has been removed, but it is clear that this was a particularly violent death. One that would put a frenzied butcher to shame. The room tells me surprisingly little about the victim, though I would guess that they were a man,” Gathercole glanced to the standing lamps. 

“A man who did not hurt for money,” He continued. “I note that the poker is missing from the fireplace and not to be found, suggesting that they grasped it to defend themselves and that it has been removed from the scene with the body.”

Gathercole moved past Wentworth to the door. “I can’t say I’m much of a fan of open-plan living, though of course, the upper floor is more private. A general-purpose room all but directly off the front door suggests certain things about their character, but I do hate to speculate. The windows are all fastened, and there is no sign of damage, at least down here. The front door, however, is a different matter. I see the wood has been snapped where the door has been forced. There are deep scrapes in the carpet and on the back of this kitchen chair. That suggests that it was barricading the door when it was forced.”

“Ah, that was us Gathercole. He had to force entry to get to the corpse.”

“I see,” Gathercole swiftly crossed out several lines of shorthand.

“In which case, I see no sign of forced ingress on this floor. Wait here.”

Gathercole carefully stepped across the bloodstained room and disappeared into the back rooms for a time, then – leaving his shoes behind – he made his way in stockinged feet up the stairs. It was some time before he returned, sitting on the stairs to re-tie his shoes before he continued.

“No forced windows upstairs, no signs of struggle there. Nor at the back door, though another chair is braced against the rear door. They certainly knew something was coming for them. No soot, so nothing got in down the chimney. What can you tell me about the victim?”

Wentworth fetched his own notebook from his pocket and thumbed through the pages. “Professor Noel Bradley, forty-four years of age, the presumed victim as this is his residence and he hasn’t been seen today. A professor of archaeology at Birkbeck College, University of London. This only happened last night, so we’re still phoning around and gathering statements.”

“What can you tell me about the state of the body?” Gathercole’s pen paused again.

“Well, since I know you’re not squeamish… the poor bugger was torn the shreds. Throat ripped out, guts torn open. There were bite marks all over him. Now, I’m something of an amateur naturalist, and to me, I don’t think this was any dog I’ve ever seen. Not at that size and with the shape of the jaw. If it were anything, it was a freakishly gigantic german shepherd, and personally, I’d put money on a wolf.”

“Not your typical murder weapon, d’you have any theories?” Gathercole screwed the cap back onto his pen, tucking it back into his pocket with his notebook.

“Those sorts of things are well above my rank old boy, but between you and me nobody has the slightest clue. So I called you.”

“I think you were right to,” Gathercole stepped past Wentworth and out onto the damp flagstones of the path. It was steamy and humid now outdoors, and he loosened his tie, blinking at the bright sun.

“If anyone asks, you didn’t hear anything from me. Honestly, though, it seems to me that it would take something unnatural to sneak a dog or dogs into a closed house like that anyway, let alone not to leave any paw prints or hair. It’s all yours.”

Crispin was waiting by the Bedford, smoking a cigarette and frowning slightly against the sun.

They climbed into the car and started it up, Crispin tossing his cigarette out of the window to concentrate on turning the wheel. “Something for us then?”

“I think so, though we’ll have to play it carefully. The police aren’t the most understanding of my experiments.”

“Except Charlie there. He seems quite open to your ideas. How do you know him anyway?”

Gathercole glanced across the car and smiled slightly. “Drag ball near White City, you wouldn’t think it for those sideburns, but he makes a halfway decent flapper in the right dress.”

Silently Crispin’s grip on the steering wheel tightened, and the car began to pick up speed.

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Part Four: Freedom Bound

Upon returning to the apartments, the first order of business was to prepare fall-back protection, no matter how inadequate it might prove. Gathercole had trained Crispin in the basics, and inscribing a protective circle was a matter of drafting skill and practice – not a mystical talent. Crispin drew the signs and symbols around Hodgson’s bed and applied the waters and the garlic oil in the way he had been instructed. While he did this, Gathercole set to, breaking apart the radios and the boxes of his devices and working at them in a feverish state of technological possession.

It took almost every moment of the day, a lot of coffee, a great many biscuits and some of Crispin’s special tincture to get the radio-pentacle fixed.

“Má huáng,” Crispin explained, as he so loved to do, though Hodgson was barely paying attention. “Friend of mine in the war was a recruiter for the Chinese Labour Corps, swore by the stuff. Keeps you awake, keeps you sharp, stimulates the senses. Saved my life at Cambrai…”

“Friend, hmm?” Gathercole looked up from the intricacies of his wiring and valves with an arched eyebrow. “Why are you making nice with the uxoricidal spectre bait?”

Crispin paused, mid anecdote. The pause drew on a fraction too long.

“It means wife-killer,” Gathercole broke the silence. “Though how you can forget with the poor woman’s corpse still down there in the floorboards I do not know.”

“Like you, I saw enough death in the war. It’s a familiar friend,” Crispin muttered, resentfully.

Crispin dropped into a sullen, pouting silence after that, grumpily handing over screwdrivers or pliers as Gathercole demanded.

In the end, though, the task was done. While the boxes and aerials of radio-pentacle were not as neat nor as tidy as they once had been, they held a charge and hummed reassuringly. The power to the house had been restored with a judicious re-wrapping of fuse wire. The restored power ran into a rack of squat-looking batteries which, in turn, powered the peculiar devices.

Gathercole sat back on his haunches, legs akimbo, either side of the boxes of exposed wiring, valves and crystals.

“The bloody thing should work again now and should be able to carry more of a charge. If we lose power, the batteries will hold everything together, and I’ve grounded the whole thing more. It’s as good as I can get it in the time we have.”

Crispin checked his pocket watch. “By the almanack, we have about half an hour left before sunset is fully upon us. Is that when the thing will manifest again?”

Gathercole nodded sagely and began to move the radio-pentacle into position, stepping carefully over the chalk pentagram and the symbols and signs that had been employed in the absence of power to secure Hodgson’s person against the spectre.

Hodgson, for his part, had not slept a wink – and without the aid of coffee or tincture. As the sun began to dim and the light through the cracks in the curtains turned a honeyed, smoky yellow his agitation became worse and worse, shaking in terror on the bed he had not left all day.

They checked and re-checked everything, took another dose of the tincture and settled in to wait, standing this time, alert to every creak and rattle of the house as the cooler air of the night set in. Crispin started at every sound, chewing the inside of his cheeks with tension. Hodgson had regressed to the state of a terrified child, huddled under his sheets and blankets, shaking like a bicycle on cobblestones and whimpering from his huddled ball. For his part, Gathercole stood firm, fixated upon his dials and needles, distracted from fretfulness by a screen of numbers, readings and calculation.

Slowly that same sense of pressure and weight filled the room, the sense of an oncoming storm, the air drew tight and oppressive, stuffy. Crispin reached out a hand and squeezed Gathercole’s shoulder, they shared a nod and as a pair swivelled their heads to watch the bed.

Slowly, imperceptibly at first the shadows lengthened, the light dimmed. Coloured bulbs had not been found in time, so they had replaced only a few fittings in the other rooms with the original bright bulbs. They began to flicker and to seem to dim and then virtually the only light remaining was that of the kerosene lamp. Flame, at least shielded flame, seemed resilient to this ab-natural power.

“The flame isn’t electromagnetic, d’you see?” Gathercole whispered to Crispin, who had taken his hand. Gathercole squeezed it, but then unwound his fingers to rend to his dials.

The shadows gathered about themselves in a manner painful to the eye. Not just an absence of light, but a sort of ‘anti-light’ that seemed to pull the very ability to see from one’s eyes. Gathercole swallowed and looked away.

“Crispin, tell me, in as much detail as you can manage, what is happening. I must tend to the radio-pentacle.”

“It’s darker, like smoke, gathering, perhaps more like a storm cloud. Right at the edge of the pentacle.”

Crispin carried on, raising his voice against the increasing hum of the machine and the stifling, leaden air of the room that robbed every sound of its treble.

“It seems more powerful than before, denser.”

“We need more power,” Gathercole twisted the loose, newly installed dials all the way up.

The aerials crackled and sparked, a sickly, violaceous aura surrounded them, flickering and waving like a flame and giving off the stink of ozone that had become all too familiar.

Crispin carried on, in uncharacteristically terse prose, concentrating on the task in hand – his words – much as Gathercole centred himself upon his technical wizardry as a way to displace the creeping horror of facing the ab-natural.

“THOMAS HODGSON! I AM MURDERED! AT YOUR HAND! YOU MUST PAY! YOU DASHED MY SKULL AND PACKED ME IN THE FLOOR THOMAS!” The spectres voice was deafening, shrill, unaffected by the leaden state of the air.

The shadows gathered into a ball of absolute blackness and smashed into the invisible boundary of the radio-pentacle. The violet aura became a crackling blue halo with each strike, and Gathercole feverishly worked his dials, tuning the frequencies against the resistance, finding the frequency of this ab-natural force, finding the settings – as much by art as science – that would most strongly interfere.

For all its hate and anger, this time the force was more methodical, probing in every direction in all three dimensions, but finding no weakness in Hodgson’s protections. Now though, even the chalk and garlic oil were heating up, making their eyes sore with the allium sting and drip tears down their faces. Gathercole dabbed, one-handed, with his blue silk handkerchief as he continued his work.

“It’s stopped,” hissed Crispin, squeezing Gathercole’s shoulder again.

Gathercole looked up, the creeps were stealing over his shoulders and up to his neck. There was the most peculiar feeling of being watched, though the black cloud of ab-natural darkness had no eyes or features.

There was a pulse, like the quake of an artillery shell. It wasn’t heard, but felt, in the thoracic cavity. It robbed them of breath like a punch to the gut, and in that same instant, every bulb shattered, and the aerials of the radio-pentacle glowed red and began to sag.

But they held.

“I think we’ll be alright,” Gathercole allowed himself a smile to Crispin, and at that moment the aphotic force turned on him.

Gathercole was lifted, almost out of his shoes, by force. In an instant frost rimed his suit, spiderwebbing its way across the pale fabric from every crease. He slammed against the wall, against the blood that was drooling from the cornices.

Crispin leapt to his defence, but the spectral form was as insubstantial as smoke, save where it wanted to be. The cold was bitter, though, turning the first joints of his fingers blue. He tried, numbly, to drag Gathercole down from the wall, but there was simply not the strength.

Gathercole clawed at his throat, collar-button flying, gasping, choking, wheezing out with all the volume he could muster, “Turn it off!”

Crispin froze, but then it dawned on him. He snapped the switch off, and the hum of electrical power instantly stopped.

Gathercole fell from the wall, a puppet with his strings cut, gulping for air like a landed trout.

The force moved like lightning, passing through the empty air that had been crackling with occulted electric energy just moments before. A pillow exploded, filling the air with smouldering feathers, the sheets tore. A screaming Hodgson was hoisted into the air and smashed into the ceiling in a shower of plaster.

Gathercole tried to speak, but over the emasculated shrieking of Hodgson, he couldn’t make himself heard. He crawled, past Crispin’s legs as his friend covered his ears with his hands and shrank away from the violent scene.

Suspended on nothing, Hodgson’s helpless body was slammed from wall to wall, leaving dents and impressions in the plaster and paint, splintering boards. His shrieking became more of a frothing wheeze, blood foaming at his mouth as his ribs gave way. With a terrific thud, he was driven down into the bed, so hard that the frame buckled and the mattress was bent and pushed down into it, clear to the floor.

Gathercole hauled himself up the table he had set his machines upon and slammed the switch.

Power surged back into the aerials of the radio-pentagram and Hodgson was dropped. The stygian force rammed against the barrier from the inside. It was unable to pass, though the antennae began to glow and sag once again. Every strike it made it weakened, dissolving, shrinking, losing its mass until finally, feebly, it seemed to fold back in upon itself and disappear.

It was like the moment a storm finally breaks. There was a palpable sense of relief and released tension. Tentatively Gathercole flicked the switch again, turning off the device.

Nothing happened.

Crispin helped him up the rest of the way and cupped his face, kissing his head again and again. For once, Gathercole relaxed into his attentions and threw his arms around him.

“You did it, William! You only bloody well did it. You’re a rum cove William, but by God, I love you for it.”

Hodgson groaned and gasped from the wreckage of the bed.

“What do we do about him?” Crispin’s tender hold of Gathercole’s face hardened in anger before he drew his hands away.

“He’s not going anywhere. We call the police from the first call box we see, tell them he engaged us to cover his behaviour and that we found out the truth. I doubt they’ll question too closely that we beat a wife-killer, but father can intercede if need be.”

“And the poor woman can be put to rest,” Crispin glanced back towards the kitchen.

“Along with her soul. This has given me a lot to think about. Let’s go home, Crispin. I am quite exhausted.”

The End

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Part Three: The Truth Will Out

The rest of the night passed with an air of tension between the men in the bedroom. Crispin couldn’t rest and would sit, brow furrowed for an hour at a time before springing up and pacing about the rooms at a furious pace. Gathercole would pore over his notes and tinker with his machines, offering sighs of frustration at each new failure to bring the aerials back to life. Hodgson, for his part, sulked, curled around himself in the very centre of his bed. Even though the radio-pentacle was defunct, he clung to the idea that it could protect him. It was as though he thought extending the slightest part of his body over the side of the bed would spell his doom.

It wasn’t until the sun rose that the sense of pressure and malevolence lifted – at least slightly. Crispin made fresh coffee. That and a bar of chocolate each had to compensate for the total lack of sleep. They were into their second cup of silent, brooding coffee before Hodgson dared show his face, slinking like a whipped cur into the messy kitchen and refusing both coffee and Cadbury’s on the grounds of an upset stomach.

Gathercole’s temperate nature had been stretched to its limit from the events of the night. His light features were oppressed by a stormy expression and he snapped, loud enough to make Hodgson start and knock a filthy saucer to the floor, breaking into shards.

Gathercole paid the crockery no mind.

“Mr Hodgson, you were not truthful with us. That manifestation was even more powerful than you had intimated and it was utterly fixated upon you, even to the risk of its own dissipation. You know this fiend, and it knows you. This is personal. If I am to save your life and bring an end to this apparition, I need the truth.”

Hodgson still seemed reticent, his lips tightened and lost colour, his tongue moved against his cheek as though considering his options, however few they might be. This went on more than a mere moment, far too long. His fingers twisting a golden ring around and around on his finger.

Crispin’s fist slammed down on the table, interrupting the wait and sending another saucer spilling to the ground to join its shattered brother. “For God’s sake, man! That horrific thing, that shadow, that fiend, will kill you and drag you down to hell! How can this even be a choice!”

Hodgson sprang back from his seat, spilling the chair, almost stumbling on a shard of crockery. Still wordless he pointed, mute, at the floor beneath the table.

Gathercole frowned a moment, but then a slow realisation stole across his face like an over-cautious thief.

“Of course,” he muttered. “I’m such an idiot, always fixated upon the supernatural, blind to the mundane. Here! Crispin! Help me!”

There’s was a shrieking grind as he shoved the breakfast table to the side, the rug gathered in a tangle and shifting with it, sending up a small cloud of grime and dust. Beneath the rug, there were bare boards, darkened and damp. Through the gaps in the planks, there issued a most frightful stench.

“God above,” Crispin thrust his sleeve over his mouth and nose at the reek. “It stinks like a trench.”

Gathercole rammed a filthy carving fork into the gap between the planks and levered, almost falling over when it lifted far more quickly than he had anticipated. The wood was damp, the nails were bent and had obviously already been pulled once before – recently.

“Fuck,” Crispin barked and darted to the already full sink, retching and vomiting into what little space remained.

Gathercole nodded, staring into space beneath the floor and nodded, very deliberately. “Yes, quite.” He drew his handkerchief from his top pocket and, folding it over itself, tied it in the manner of a bandit, its lavender scent guarding him some against the stench.

Hodgson – for his part – cowered in the corner of the dank kitchen, whimpering like a cornered fox.

Beneath the floor, there was the bloated, putrefying corpse of a woman. At least that was what Gathercole assumed, from the clothing and jewellery that was there arrayed. An attempt had been made to hide the very presence of a woman about the house. Every portrait, every piece of womanly attire, had also been stuffed beneath the floor. Perfume bottles had been emptied and deposited with the corpse in a doomed attempt to mask the stink.

“I should have known,” Gathercole muttered to himself as he leaned over the hole in the floor and investigated with his silver pen, poking at the liquefying flesh of the body. “A man of your age, your former station, it would beggar belief that you were a bachelor. The ring, of course, the size of the apartments, the feminine anger of the spectre that pursues you.”

“Have a care, she was a woman, a person. She deserves respect,” Crispin wiped at his mouth but could barely stand from his shock and horror. The same man who stood firm against the fury of the spirit brought low by a rotting corpse.

“The best respect that I know to show her is bringing this bounder to justice. An act that will also discharge our duty to the bounder in question by providing the spirit what it wants.” Gathercole stood up and edged around the hole, moving to where Hodgson was cowering.

With precise, cold anger, Gathercole struck him once, hard, across the face.

“How could you! A woman man! Your wife, presumably!” He gave the man another strike, sending him sprawling and blubbering across the floor.

“Doris, her name was Doris!” Hodgson babbled. “My wife! My God, I didn’t mean to. Married seven years and every day, from the first, complaint after complaint, pricking holes in my every triumph, crowing my every failure! I snapped once. I could not take another harsh word, and I snapped! The paperweight, my God, her head broke like an eggshell and…”

He was cut off, Gathercole had made a fist of his hand and applied it with liberal strength to the man’s mouth, sending him sprawling afresh.

“I will hear no excuse or justification from you, coward! What is a harsh word to you? Nothing! Gnat bites! Gallons of blood have been spilt for flag and country, against men just as devoted to ending their opponent, and you slaughter a helpless woman with a sharp tongue? You disgust me, sir. Where the devil is my pistol?” He cast about, but fortunately for Hodgson, the iron still lay on the floor in the bedroom.

Crispin laid hands upon Gathercole and wrestled him away, wrenching open the door, loaned strength by concern for his friend, and all but dragged him out by the ear into the road. “Pull yourself together, man!”

“He’s a damned murderer Crispin!” Gathercole hissed and spat the words, pacing back and forth in rapid agitation. “He deserves whatever fate that poor woman’s spectre has in mind for him!”

“No doubt,” Crispin offered, quietly. “But let him face the justice of man before he faces the justice of God, by God. You are no judge William, no jury, and certainly no executioner.”

Gathercole stopped short then, and for the briefest of moments that cold anger and fierce intellect gave way to the heart. “You’re right Crispin, you’re always right on these matters.”

“Should I get that in writing William?” Crispin smiled and shook his head slightly, then laying his hands upon Gathercole’s shoulders, placed a soft and lingering kiss against his lips.

Gathercole drew back at that. “Crispin, someone might see us, by God.”

Crispin smiled and gave a slight, cavalier laugh. “Ah, let them. Though perhaps you are right. We are a dishevelled pair after a night with ghosts and a morning with corpses.”

“There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked. We will get no rest yet if we do wish to save this murderer’s skin.”

“You know it is the right thing,” Crispin affirmed quietly, drawing his hands back from Gathercole’s shoulders.

“That it is,” Gathercole’s face was contorted in fierce concentration. “We shall have to take the motor-car, visit H. Curry’s and a garage. We need replacement radio parts, and batteries – so we can be independent of the house’s power.”

“I’ll fetch the car,” Crispin turned away and touched his own lips with his fingers. Things were back upon their proper course.

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Part Two: Melancholia

Gathercole sat, or rather perched, on one of the kitchen chairs. He looked as though he would much prefer not be sitting there, but was doing it to be polite – however prim he looked. His friend, Crispin St. John, was not so intent on being polite, and stood back from the table, leaning against the wall.

He made a striking contrast to Gathercole. Where Gathercole’s hair was short and dirty-blonde, Brylcreemed back, Crispin’s was down to his collar and a dark chestnut brown. Where Gathercole wore another pale suit, with almost military precision and was fastidious, sitting on a handkerchief, Crispin wore a dark blue suit in a rumpled, casual state. Where Gathercole was clean lines and unadorned, Crispin wore a wilting green carnation and a bright red – if loose – tie. They made strange companions.

The reason for Gathercole’s primness was the execrable state of Hodgson’s apartments. Rusty stains adorned every wall and dripped down to every floor, where they crusted on the carpeting and boards. There was dust everywhere, and it seemed that every pot, pan, plate, knife and fork was dirty and fly-speckled. Even the light was dim and dusty, the electric lights as fly-speckled as the saucer Gathercole was using as an ashtray.

“I apologise for the state of the place. The housekeeper left even before the bank terminated my employment. I don’t know that I can even pay you, but if you can get this… fiend to stop dogging my every… b-bloody move I will find a way to pay you back.”

Gathercole stirred the ashes without raising his gaze to Hodgson. “Never mind all that, knowledge is its own reward. I must, however, know as much as possible about this creature that has destroyed your life. When did it start?”

Hodgson gathered himself, with some noticeable effort, fortifying himself with a nip from a small bottle of gin. “Perhaps a month ago now, I have had trouble keeping track of the days. Any calendar I hang upon the wall is torn to pieces, and I cannot keep a clock or watch wound here. Since I lost my employment it has been even harder, but I think, perhaps a month.”

“A cycle of the Moon, or near as damn it,” Gathercole left the end of his Dunhill smouldering on the saucer and began making quick, neat notes in a small black-leather notepad. “Have you encountered anything strange, a person, an object, an unsettling book or sound?”

“Crossed an angry gipsy perhaps?” Hodgson snort-laughed bitterly and hung his head, taking a couple of deep breaths. “No, nothing of the like.”

“Does the house have any sort of sordid history? Murders, occult activities, criminal enterprises, built upon a burial pit or anything of the like?”

Crispin lost interest and meandered away about the rooms, creating the occasional interruption as he rattled at the grate or opened the windows.

“Not so far as I am aware. I called in at the house agent who sold me the place and they had no records of anything that would explain it. He thought me quite, quite mad.” Hodgson’s head sank lower and lower.

“This manifestation, it is strongest here?” Gathercole’s eyes shifted from the immiserated Hodgson about the room, trying to ignore the filth and to get the measure of the place.

Hodgson looked up again at that. “Yes, but it follows me. It has spilt my drinks at several pubs, threatened me while I have been walking. I was almost shoved in front of a train at St Paul’s. Here though, I have been scratched, bruised, bitten. The house has become unbearably cold, or stiflingly stuffy. There have been the most beastly stinks. Banging on the pipes and walls at all hours of the day and night.”

“It’s quiet now,” Gathercole observed. “And, you’ll pardon my candour, but a stink would be hard to notice.”

Hodgson flushed with shame as Gathercole continued.

“I should like you to stay while I conduct my experiments, the phenomenon seems as linked to you as it is to this place. I shall need you to follow my instructions, however peculiar you may find them. Crispin and I will stay until the morning with you. Heaven help us, but these things seem empowered by night. I believe this creature must tie to an anniversary, and to this place. Some hidden history that has escaped record.”

Hodgson simply nodded and took another gulp of his gin.

Gathercole fetched his canvas kit bags from the car and set them down in the hall with exaggerated care. He then made his way about each and every room with ruthlessly methodical efficiency.

He closed and locked the door, pocketing the key, then applied a two-inch strip of Scotch tape across the keyhole and over to the frame.

He closed every window, sticking them in place with more tape and dusted the sill and jamb with fine talc before closing the curtains.

He circled each room, tapping the wall, the floor, the ceiling, seeking the peculiarities of thickness and thinness, learning the bones of the house beneath.

He took the temperature in each of the rooms and closed the grates in the fireplaces, sealing them up with rubber cement to prevent the possibility of any draft.

Last was the bedroom, which was in a sorry state, even for a bachelor. With Crispin’s reluctant aid, Gathercole dragged Hodgson’s bed into the middle of the room and then unpacked his second bag.

This was a most peculiar apparatus indeed. Five finely made wooden boxes, each trailing a rat’s nest of wiring, each attached to the sixth box with dials, valves and bulbs studded into its front. From the top of each box extended a diamond-shaped aerial, crossbars with a filigree of wiring. With each box precisely positioned, Gathercole plugged it into the bedroom’s power and warmed the valves, tuning each aerial with deft, sure hands.

That done, he circuited the house again, double and triple-checking everything he had done, adding more notes to his book. He scattered more talc on the ground, little worried about dirtying the sordid apartment any more. In each room, he replaced the light with a red bulb, such as those used by photographers. This done he finally retired to the bedroom with Hodgson and Crispin, bedrolls laid out for the two guests, Hodgson sitting uncomfortably, cross-legged on his unmade bed.

Gathercole sat, next to Crispin, on his bedroll. He peered at his instruments, arranging them with all the precision of a Grand Dame’s cutlery.

There was a scientific thermometer, of exceptional accuracy.

There were two cameras and a loaded flash tray.

There was a snuff-box of silver dust, a small bottle of holy water, a wooden cross, a pocket bible and an electric torch.

His old service revolver – loaded but not cocked – was close at hand.

Besides the electrical box of tricks, there were two clocks, one electric, one mechanical, ticking in sync, keeping precise time.

Crispin, by way of contrast, had spent all that time preparing a pair of coffee flasks and fetching his boiled sweets from the motor-car.

“What is all this?” Hodgson asked once they were all settled. None of them were going to sleep, and the silence and stuffiness of the house was unbearable to his nerves.

“He’ll talk your ear off about it,” Crispin offered, taking a sip of his coffee and heaving a long-suffering sigh.

Gathercole chuckled, pausing to re-check his instruments before he began to talk. “During the war, I met a man, a fine man, a fellow officer, a lieutenant in the artillery. He was a peculiar fellow, a sort of chaplain unofficially, to the men. He had some deuced strange ideas about death, spirits and the afterlife but spoke with such damned certitude that you couldn’t help but believe him.”

Gathercole ran his fingers over the butt of his Webley and his gaze unfocussed. “Thomas, he shared your name, was killed before he could satisfy my curiosity. Even so, the things I saw at Flanders made me a believer. I made it my purpose to track down his work after the war. He was a visionary, marrying the mysticism and balderdash of the past with electricity and the scientific method. I took his ideas and built on them, learning all I could, which lead me to this.”

Gathercole’s hand swept across the array of antennae. “The wireless pentacle, a step beyond anything old Thomas ever envisioned. He saw the relation between electromagnetism and the ab-natural, but never took the step beyond the material. These beings, such as your fiend, have no physical form under usual conditions, so why should one need a pattern or a wire? As we sit here, hundreds, thousands or electromagnetic waves are coursing through the air in a finely modulated pattern, creating a constant, vibrational, three-dimensional form of the pentagram. The modern and secular, married to the ancient and profane. Brilliant, though I say so myself…”

“Which you do,” Crispin smiled and popped another sweet into his mouth.

There was a sudden and subtle change in the hum of the electricity coursing through the room. Gathercole raised a finger to Crispin, demanding silence. Hodgson was already silent and stared into the shadows in evident agitation.

Gathercole played the dials of his radio-pentagram like a musician. He squinting at dials and needles, turned their arcane numbers and indications over and over in his mind. “Whatever you do Mister Hodgson, do not leave your bed. The radio-pentagram should keep you safe.”

“What about us?” Crispin observed, wryly.

“The fiend, whatever it is, appears to be focussed on Hodgson. We should be safe.”

“Should be.” Crispin reached across and plucked the cross from amongst Gathercole’s accoutrements.

“I thought you were an agnostic?” Gathercole glanced up from his dials for the briefest of moments, with a wry smile.

“I’m counting on the ghost being a believer.”

“It’s here!” Hodgson’s shaky voice cut through the banter.

The mercury in the thermometer was dropping, sweat began to bed on their skin in spite of the cold. The air got damp, dense, stifling, and beads of water formed on the stained and peeling wallpaper.

The stains and drizzles turned dark, but before any of them could be sure that it was blood – not water – the shadows closed in and thickened. The feeble red lights barely penetrated the gloom, and only their pale faces showed in the dark, picking up the light like the screen of the Astoria.

“It’s stronger, it’s more powerful!” Hodgson cried in terror.

“Stay on the bed! Within the aerials!” Gathercole scrambled to his feet. “I’ve never seen anything like this! The power of it! It shouldn’t be like this from everything I’ve studied, everything Hodgson has told us.”

A muttering sound built out the heavy shadows, rising in volume and intensity to a deafening scream of anger and outrage.

“THOMAS HODGSON! YOU BLOODY BASTARD! YOU WILL PAY FOR ALL YOU HAVE DONE!” It was akin to a choir from hell, many voices as one and seeming to blast from every wall, floor and ceiling at ear-ringing volume.

The aerials began to glow and crackle, the electric blue light mingled with the dark red to turn the room an unnatural flickering purple. Gathercole threw himself back to the floor, twisting the dials to their maximum setting.

The howling darkness seemed to gather and throw itself at the bed. It rebounded from the barrier with a crackling flash, straining, again and again, determined, spending its power to smash at the protective ward. The sparks flew, the aerials crackled and sang. Crispin winced and clutched the cross with white knuckles in one hand, the other flying to his cheek where the electrical ember had burned him.

The shadow billowed like smoke, spiralling around the room in an ever-tightening spiral. With a sharp pop, each of the red bulbs exploded, one after the other. There was a louder snap and crackle and the power coursing through the aerials was abruptly cut. Burning Bakelite and melting vinyl mingled with ozone and every last spark of light was extinguished.

Hodgson screamed in the darkness, and the whole bed began to rattle. Without the barrier of the radio-pentagram, there was nothing left to stop it.

The electric torch flared with a sudden blinding light, revealing Hodgson’s form, suspended in the air and bound by shadows, choking, gasping out his pleas for aid. Crispin was paralysed by fear, pressed back into the wall in a panic.

There were few options left.

Stumbling over his words, Gathercole tried to steel his voice with confidence. The sibilant, long and rolling syllables of the Saaamaaa ritual came halting and slow. Horror shook him, his flesh crept, his voice haltering but somehow they still retained some power, half-remembered and slurred as they were. The dark force, weakened from its exertions, was driven back, dissipating like smoke with a last few hisses and curses before it finally melted away.

The oppressive pressure in the room receded, and Gathercole turned the torch on Hodgson, a sobbing mess of a man, twisted around the filthy sheets of his bed.

“You Sir, haven’t been entirely truthful.”

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seancebannermain

Part One: Madam Sokolev’s Seance

The room was cloaked in shadow, filling every corner with suggestions of motion and giving the room a sense of unearned intimacy. The candlelight flickered with the breath of the guests as they chatted in low, hushed tones or blew the smoke from their cigarettes into the light.

There was a rattle of beads, and with a grand sweep, that set the candles fluttering, Madam Sokolev entered. She was a giantess of a woman, square of jaw and broad of shoulder and hip with a pendulous bosom, buried beneath layers of shawls and beads. Her seat creaked as she set her bulk down into it and leaned into the slender circle of light. The yellow flame of the scented candles did nothing for her face, slathered as it was in thick make-up, nor did the scent of lily of the valley do much to mask the miasma of cheap sherry and cheaper tobacco that followed in her wake.

I vill need zilence,” intoned Madam Sokolev as she laid her hands, palms down, on the black tablecloth.

There was a slight, stifled laugh from the young man in the cream suit. He swallowed it down, shamed into silence by the glare of the other worthies around the table.

I do apologise, a slight cough,” he said, but there was a smug smile on his fresh face, and he used the excuse of stubbing out his Dunhill to look down and away.

Please to be joinink hands,” Madam Sokolev reached out her hands to the worthies beside her and one by one, a little uncomfortable, they all followed suit.

Sokolev began her intonations, her calls to the spirits. She projected an air of seriousness, but the man in the cream suit had to stifle another laugh. He also broke the circle for a moment and wiped his hand against the tablecloth. The man next to him was clammy, pale, trembling as he tried to hold the circle. Sokolev glared, and the man in the cream suit completed the circle once again, sweaty grip or not.

One by one, each person around the table got their moment in the spotlight with Sokolev. She channelled their lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and even their pets – to the extent of barking and yipping like a tiny dog. There were knocks and breezes. The candle-flame flickered in peculiar ways; it was all any of them could ask for – short of ectoplasm. Conspicuously, she passed over the man in the cream suit, eliciting another smirk, and settled her attention on the clammy man.

I am callink on the spirits, any who are here. Those who have passed and wish to speak vis Mr Hodgson.”

The clammy man looked up into the drifting smoke that swirled around the candle, his face a strange melange of hopeful and terrified at the same time.

Madam Sokolev started and twitched in her seat. The pretty young thing on her right squeaked in surprise. “Gosh, that smarts! Please!”

For the first time since the séance had started, Madam Sokolev’s voice changed convincingly. From the thick gipsy accent (in the sense that it was an accent that travelled far and wide, sometimes in a single sentence) to a gruff and brutish East End rumble.

YOU!” The whites of Sokolev’s eyes glared towards Hodgson, the clammy man who was swallowing over and over again. “THOMAS HODGSON! YOU BLOODY BASTARD! I SHOULD…”

The voice cut off, abruptly and Sokolev’s pupils returned to their customary position, leaving her looking dazed and confused. The man in the cream suit had stood, breaking the circle, and had uttered some strange phrase in some arcane tongue, all drawn out ‘ay’ sounds, rolled ‘ahs’ and sibilant hisses. It was like a line, drawn under the whole affair, shattering the atmosphere and mystique.

That is quite enough of that,” the man in the cream suit slid back his chair and stood, adjusting his cufflinks. “And quite enough of this, Madam Sokolev.”

He moved swiftly around the room and flicked the light switch, the electric light plinked on and filled the parlour with an unforgiving light that caused everyone in the room to wince and squint.

A fine show Madam Sokolev, a fine show indeed. However, it is no longer the nineteenth century, and I am not some mince-headed duffer like poor old Arthur.” He flicked aside the heavy drapes with a disdainful sneer across his face. “Holes in the panelling, so a compatriot can create unnatural breezes and whispers – barely audible – to unsettle us. The rest of the trickery is far less glamorous, but you all heard precisely what you wanted to hear, nothing that was real,” he sighed. “Barking? Really? Has the craft sunk so low? As for the knocking, the good Madam clicks her toes as you might crack your knuckles to create the sound. Now that is a skill, genuinely impressive.”

The worthies were in an uproar now, none more so than Madam Sokolev, who looked a damned sight less feminine in the electric glare. Harrumphing and grumbling, full of blind denials, hating being exposed for chumps – such was always the way – they made for the exit.

The man in the cream suit stopped Hodgson short with a hand on his arm. “Not you, what happened with you was something genuine, something real. That’s the real reason I come to these place, not to out frauds like Mickey here. To find people who might be genuinely haunted.” He nodded towards ‘Madam Sokolev, who clenched ‘her’ fists and stomped out with the swagger of a drill sergeant.

Poor fellow, any excuse to wear a dress. I feel for the chap.”

What?” Hodgson was a nervous wreck, slick with sweat, trembling, barely taking in anything that was going on around him.

Allow me to escort you out.”

The summer’s night air was pleasantly fresh after the stifling closeness of the parlour, and the man in the cream suit steered Hodgson down the road like a sober friend shepherding a drunk.

My name is Gathercole, William Gathercole. I am an investigator into the ab-human, the ab-natural and the strange. Amongst which are the things that you would call ghosts. I believe, building upon the work of my predecessors, that these are a natural phenomenon. We once thought lightning to be the work of Thor or Zeus. I think our understanding of these phenomena is also wrong-headed.”

Hodgson made some vague, affirmative noises and seemed to be slowly recovering, though he jumped at the chuntering passage of a motor car down the road.

I’m so sorry, already talking shop. To get, finally, to the point, I believe that you are genuinely haunted. I should very much like to help you and to test out my theories. What do you say?”

Hodgson stopped, unhooked his arm from Gathercole and leant against the wall of the chemists. “I only came here because I was desperate. It is a monstrous thing, a fiend that stalks me. It is pure hatred. I do not think you, or anyone, could stand against it, and it seems to be growing stronger.”

Stronger? Fascinating?” Gathercole stroked his chin as he considered. “Most ab-natural phenomena succumb to the inevitable march of entropy, like everything else. Unless… but no, it’s too early to be speculating. What is the nature of the manifestation?”

Hodgson rubbed his temples with one hand and fished out a hip flask, taking a nip to steady his nerve. “It began as a presence, a feeling. The hairs would stand up on my arms. I would get a creeping feeling at the back of my neck. I put it down to being spooked or nervous or that feeling we all sometimes get, of someone stepping on your grave.”

Gathercole lit a Dunhill and paced back and forth, staring down at his feet, turning on a sixpence to come back, his mind clearly racing.

But it didn’t stop there, right?”

No,” Hodgson took another sip from his flask. “Then I noticed things had been moved when I wasn’t looking. Food was mouldering faster than it should have. The house would be unnaturally cold, or still to the point where I could hardly breathe.”

That’s not the limit of it, is it? Such parlour tricks wouldn’t so shake you.”

I was sure I was going mad. It wouldn’t happen when anyone else was around. It was like it was tormenting me and me alone. There was blood, eventually, and while nobody saw the walls bleed, they saw the stains afterwards. They saw the bruises after the thing attacked me, but they never saw it.”

But you did.”

Hodgson glanced up, and for the first time, Gathercole really saw the black bags around his eyes, and how haggard and drawn he looked. “I did. I saw it. Dear God in heaven, I saw it. If this goes on much longer, it will kill me.”

Gathercole flicked his cigarette into the road, where is scattered and sparked, smouldering and glowing in the dark.

Give me your address. I must prepare, but I shall be there as soon as I can to put paid to your tormentor.”

Hodgson fumbled his calling card from his wallet, creasing it in his fingers in his clumsiness and handing it, shakily, to Gathercole. In that time a two-tone, burgundy and silver Bedford sedan pulled up, idling.

Crispin, my driver,” Gathercole offered as he spirited the card away into his jacket.

I’m not your bloody chauffeur,” offered Crispin – a slight, chestnut-haired man with a dark scowl – out of the window of the Bedford.

You just can’t get the staff these days,” Gathercole offered with a smile as he hauled open the rear door of the car. “I’ll see you soon.”

Hodgson was left shaking, at the side of the road as the car slid away into the night. Its lights reflected in his full, staring, terrified eyes.

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dcqtz7s-6031f0c2-5279-41ba-9559-0c5db1c73baf.png

As I was a walk-en’ one morn-en’ for pleas-ure,
I saw a huge bear just a lopin’ along.
His fur was all matted and his claws was a scratchin’
And as he approached he was growlin’ this song.

Whoo-pee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
It is your misfortune and none of my own,
Whoopee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
I’ll gobble your bowels and make your stash my own.

“God fucking damn it!” Liam smashed his fists down on the table, sending empty packets of cold and flu medicine flying in all directions. “Why can’t I make this work?”

“What are we doing wrong?” James was muffled through his breath mask, frowning. He was little use for anything but passing ingredients, but he had some street smarts.

Liam yanked off his own mask and shoved the window up in its frame, rotten wood breaking away and sending startled pill bugs rolling everywhere. “If I knew that I wouldn’t be doing it. Goddamn, I wish I’d paid attention at school.”

James shrugged, which wasn’t much help either, but he seemed to want to do something, so he began gathering up the empty packets and flattening the cardboard. “At least we can recycle these.”

Liam grunted, frowning furiously at the stained print-outs, flipping them over back and forth, as though they would give up even more secrets on the hundredth reading.

“Liam…” James said, low and quiet, but Liam was trying to concentrate.

“Liam!” He tried again, hissing.

“What? I’m trying to think!”

“There’s some weird old dude out by your car.”

Liam scowled and squinted out the window, the shack was dark at the best of times, but the sun was out, and looking outdoors made his head hurt.

Sure enough, there was someone out there, a ‘weird old dude’ with long grey hair and a straggly white beard. He was dressed in a ripped sleeveless flannel and greasy blue jeans with biker boots. He limped as he moved and, as he turned, Liam did a double take. The old man’s face was covered in burn scars, and he carried one arm high and crooked, the flesh on it red, puckered and tight from scarring. One milky eye peered out from the middle of the scars, the other a bright and brilliant blue.

What really gave Liam pause, however, was the huge, fuck-off bowie knife, sheathed at the guy’s back, and the battered revolver in his hip holster.

“James. Get the fuckin’ gun.”

James grabbed the shotgun from the skeletal couch and followed Liam out, both of them wishing they looked more intimidating than they did in their plastic coveralls and freezer-bag booties.

“What the hell you doin’ here? This is private property!” Liam shouted. Behind him, James racked the shotgun. Truth be told, the intimidating noise was the real reason they’d settled on a shotgun.

The old fellow wasn’t phased.

“Sure it private property. Jus’ ain’t your private property.” He grinned. “No need for all that, jus’ a friendly neighbour stopping by. Nice place, really got your ‘Evil Dead’ vibe going on. Though your Oldsmobile’s too new.” He hooked a thumb back towards the car.

“Well, you said hi. Now get out of here.” Liam took another step, James following behind him, moving slightly to the side and half lifting the gun.

“Boy, don’t point that at anyone unless you’re willing to use it. Like I said, I’m just here all friendly like. I’m a cook too. Name of Carter.”

“I don’t know what you…”

“Horsepuckey. Come on, we’re brothers in meth. Show a little professional courtesy. You havin’ trouble?”

Liam deflated slightly and pushed the barrel of James’ shotgun down with his hand.

“Yeah, how’d you know?” Liam squared his shoulders defensively.

“Smells wrong. Want me to come take a look?” Carter shrugged, lifting his hands up and away from his body.

Liam exchanged a look with James, both of them fretful and suspicious.

“What the fuck, it’s not like we’re doing too well by ourselves, right?” James’ eyebrows lifted, and he glanced back towards the old man.

“Aren’t we rivals?” Liam asked.

“Shit, since the cartels pulled out all people have is stove-top cooks like ourselves. There’s business to go around.” Carter started up towards them, dragging his injured leg and they followed on in after them.

Carter expounded, at length, about the ins and outs of cooking good meth, holding court while Liam listened and took notes. After a good half hour of talking, he fell back onto the skeletal couch with a thump, sending rusty dust falling to the ground.

“Well, that’s me fuckin’ parched. You got a pop or one of them piblets?” He pointed to the mound of empty cans in the corner. “Don’t beat yourself up about the fuck-ups. A ton of people watch a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, read a Wikipedia article and think that’s all they need.”

James reached into the cooler and dragged out a can, tossing it over. Carter snatched it out of the air with his good hand and yanked the ring-pull, taking a long, deep pull from the can. “Ah, that’s so much fuckin’ better. Now, you boys have been real polite, but you’re wondering about the scars, right?”

“No, no, we weren’t,” Liam shook his head.

“What are you talking about? Of course, we were.” James wasn’t subtle, or that smart. At least he had looks and charm going for him.

“Ah shit, nothing to worry about. I know I look like a badly cooked burger patty and it’s only natural to wonder how it happened.”

“Cooking accident?” Liam said.

“Not exactly. You boys ever heard of Meth-Bear?”

“Oh, come on man. You going to tell us that’s what a bear-mauling looks like?”

“No man, but let me tell you what happened.” Carter leaned forward and took another swig from his can. “It goes like this…”

“Back in eighty-eight or eighty-nine, I forget which, me and my buddy Wyatt hit on the idea of cooking meth. Reaganomics hadn’t worked out for everyone, and we had plans, man. We were caught up in the whole ‘money’ thing of the eighties, and the nineties counterculture hadn’t kicked in yet. I was going to cook, I had a chemistry degree that wasn’t worth spit and Wyatt was a charming motherfucker. Kinda like the set-up, you fellas have here.”

“Told you I was useful,” James grinned to Liam.

“Anyway, we hit on this fantastic idea of coming out here. There’s a few caves, that’d help us keep cool, and people wouldn’t find them if we were off the trails. Seemed smart. We even made sure we found a cave with two entrances, so if the police happened by we could get away.”

“Clever,” Liam observed.

“Your set-up is fine, this place is run-down, but a building is a bit obvious if people cotton on to you bein’ in the area. So, we had our Batcave, made it about as cosy as you could hope to make it, with all the burners, broken glassware and toxic waste. We made good shit, and we got a bit of a name for ourselves, even got a brand, a rubber-stamped piece of paper with a buffalo motif in every bag.”

“Buffalo meth? That’s you? That’s some great shit!” James started away from the wall, against which he had been leaning. “You’re, like famous.”

“Ha, thanks. Yeah, still making it, still perfecting it. The best shit, and often the only shit, you can get. All was going real fuckin’ swimmingly until one day when we rolled up to work.”

Carter heaved a deep sigh and crunched the empty can in his fist, tossing it into the corner. He fumbled some rolling papers and tobacco in his good hand, as he continued.

“So, we come back one day, and the cave has been turned over. Everything’s smashed to fuck. Barrels are overturned, our stock is gone, or ruined. Glass is all smashed. All we can think of is some rival gang or a bunch of kids wandering the trails happening on our cookhouse. Still, we were spooked, and we decided to move, in a rush, to another cave.”

“Was it the cartels?” Liam asked, getting drawn into the story despite himself.

“They didn’t really muscle in until the nineties, so it wasn’t them. Something just as bad though, in its way. We had a big order coming in, Wyatt was working his magic with the Sons of Silence, and they wanted to make a big push. Needed the money for something, we didn’t care, we needed the money to make up for all the lost gear and chemicals anyway.”

“Sons of Silence, the biker gang?” James asked.

“Yeah, one-percenters, real bad dudes. If you want to shift a lot of meth, you’ve gotta get in with the bikers, but they’re assholes to a man. You gotta ask yourself if it’s worth the trouble. Now, I’m not the kinda person who gets high on their own supply, all these teeth are my own,” He grinned, broadly.

“That time though, we were up against it, so I admit, I got a little high to push through a marathon cooking session, and even after we were done, I was wired as hell. Couldn’t sit still, needed something to do, so I left Wyatt lookin’ after the stash, and I took myself out, back to our old cave. Still bothered me, you see, that we’d been fucked. Pops used to take me huntin’, and I figured – high as I was – maybe I could track whoever did us over.”

Liam handed Carter another Pabst, which he popped open with a hiss, wetting his whistle.

“I found tracks, but they were weird. More like an animal, but I followed them nonetheless. I don’t know how long I was walkin’ for, but I was mad and higher than balls on a giraffe. I’m starin’ at the ground so hard I don’t even realise I’ve arrived until I stick my boot right in some poor fucker’s guts.”

“Jesus,” they said together.

“Pure, fuckin’, carnage.” Carter gestured with his twisted hand, drawing an invisible horizon in the air. It’s a campsite, a pop-up cookhouse, another one of our sainted brotherhood, avoiding the pigs by movin’ around. Only some dark, dark shit has happened to ’em. I yank my boot out of this poor dudes entrails and look around. There’s two, maybe three guys. Hard to tell they’re in so many pieces. There’s baggies everywhere, blood, campfire’s been smashed and tossed, tents are ripped to pieces, broken glass all over, but of the meth, there is not a sign. Only dust.”

“Fuck, what did you do?” Liam felt a little sick from the apparent relish with which Carter told the tale.

“I was freaked out. I’ve seen some horrible things in my long life, but those ripped up bodies stay with me, and the stink. A backed-up sewer from their spilt guts, and grilling bacon from where some giblets had landed on the embers. It’s enough to make you vegan.”

“Are you?” James asked, always curious about people.

“Shit no,” Carter laughed. “Let’s not get crazy. I didn’t need an excuse to quit that scene, but it was all fairly fresh, and I was worried about Wyatt. So I high-tailed it back to the cave.”

“And that’s when you saw this Meth-Bear?” Liam was edging back towards incredulity.

“I shit you not. I get back to the cave, and I hear roaring and screaming and Wyatt’s Colt going off. Bam! Bam! Bam! Hurtin’ my ears as it came out of the cave mouth. Fuck knows what I thought I could do, or if I knew what was really going on, but I charged on in there like a rodeo clown after a buckle bunny.”

“And then you saw Meth-Bear?” James was spellbound.

“Then I saw Meth-Bear.” Carter took another long swig from his can and shook his head.

“He was huge but thin, even skeletal. His fur hung off him in ropes and strands, and he was covered in sores and scabs. When he roared you could see he only had a handful of teeth, but his claws were enormous, caked with blood. He had a mad, starin’ look in his eyes and he stank like the north end of a skunk walking south. Wyatt was still trying to shoot the bastard thing, and he was hitting, but Meth-Bear just didn’t seem to care. If he hadn’t been shooting it, maybe it would have left him alone, but never get between a bear and his meth.”

“What did you do?” James asked, in hushed tones.

“I didn’t have a gun, not that it would have helped. I didn’t have a knife like I do now. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but a giant, stinking, balding grizzly certainly wasn’t it. I was scared shitless and couldn’t move. All I could do was watch as it tore Wyatt to pieces.”

“Fuck,” the boys said in unison.

“It swiped his gun hand and all but took it off, so it hung, ninety degrees to the ground. Never heard a man scream like that before or since. It tried to bite him, but it only had a few teeth, so when it got hold of his neck that wasn’t an end to it, just made the screams…wetter.”

The sun had shifted while they talked, and now it came through a crack in the shack’s wall, striking Carter in his white eye.

“I still couldn’t move, and poor old Wyatt was done for. Meth-Bear finished him with its claws in his guts. They fell out on the ground like spilt noodles, and it near-as-hell tore him in half. All I could think of was the bodies I’d already seen. Then it turned and looked at me.”

Carter’s voice had been getting lower and quieter, drawing the boys closer.

“I’d just seen what it’d done to Wyatt, and that was enough to finally make me move. I fumbled my lighter out as it charged me, and I torched the chemicals.”

“Badass man, badass,” James commented, wonderingly.

“I remember the explosion and the fire, but not a lot else. I woke up in the morning, and the bear was gone, Wyatt was very dead, and I was horribly burned all down one side of my body. It’s amazing that I was still alive. I managed to crawl back to the trail, and some hikers found me. Luckily enough my hospital stay meant the Sons of Silence believed my excuse and then the medical bills got me right back to cookin’ meth again. He’s out there though, Meth-Bear. Cooks around here have a bad habit of disappearing.”

“Are we in danger?” James glanced at the shotgun, wondering if it was remotely adequate to the task.

“This was the eighties man, that bear is long dead,” Liam noted.

“Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s not the only Meth-Bear out there. All I know is that cooks still keep disappearing. So if I were you, I’d learn the lessons I did. Cover your tracks. Cover the smell. Never leave your meth uncovered. If it is Meth-Bear though, it’s like he’s paying me back, taking out the competition.”

Carter drained the last of the can and tossed it over with the others. “Well, good luck boys. Maybe we’ll run into each other again. Just keep in mind what I said.”

They shook hands, and he left.

“What do you think?” James asked Liam, as the old man reached the treeline and disappeared into it.

“It’s bullshit, but it makes a good story. Maybe he’s just trying to scare us off his patch. Still, we can try cooking again tomorrow with his advice, it sounds right.”

“It is a cool story though,” James stared out into the woods, a little apprehensive.

Carter walked away, humming to himself, back towards the caves. Every few steps, ever since he left the shack, he dropped a tiny little rock of meth, one after another, the humming stopping as he broke into a wicked grin.

As I was a cook-en’ one morn-en’ for money,
I saw a huge bear just a squattin’ right there.
His teeth were all missin’ and his scat stank like death,
And as he a sat he was growlin’ this song.

Whoo-pee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
It is your misfortune and none of my own,
Whoopee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
I’ll gobble your bowels and make your stash my own.

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Car-in-Pond-009“Come on Spacker!”

“My name’s not Spacker,” Spacker frowned so deeply his brow blacked out half of his vision. He small fist clenched around the wholly inadequate pen-knife in his pocket and, not for the first time, he fantasised about stabbing his’ friends’.

His friends, Joe and Nick, didn’t have nicknames, they were just ‘Joe’ and ‘Nick’. Nobody called them ‘Spacker’ or tripped them up at school. Nobody put dead wasp’s nests in their locker or stole their lunch. The only reason they hung out with him, it seemed, was to have a regular target for their own meanness and sometimes that appeared to be a fair trade to keep the worse bullies away.

“What was that Spacker?” Joe was always tanned from family holidays and had that particular brand of viciousness only wealthier kids could have. Ragging on other’s threadbare school uniforms, rubbing their noses in Instagram pictures of beaches, hotels and bikini girls.

“My name isn’t f-fucking Spacker!” Spacker shouted, struggling to keep up. Joe and Nick harboured fantasies of playing for a professional football team and seemed to enjoy the sweaty, wheezing mess Spacker got into trying to keep up with them.

“Yes, it fuh-fuh-fuh-fucking is, you spaz.” Nick was a more conventional arsehole, though he’d grown out of Chinese burns, pink-bellies and dead-legs and preferred vandalism and spite these days. A slight improvement.

“I’m not a fucking spaz you fucking fuckers.” Spacker could feel his face getting red now, and he was having trouble breathing. He yanked out his inhaler and dropped it onto the scrubby grass. Dropping down on his hands and knees to get it, and taking a couple of big puffs. That was better, but now he really did look like a spazz.

The boys had finally reached The Hedge. It wasn’t an original name, but all the kids at their school who spent any time on the wrong side of the tracks knew where it was. In the old days, it had been legendary as a place to find rain-smeared copies of Asian Babes or to smoke a crafty dooby. Then it was a place for illegal raves. These days it was mostly relegated to being a fly-tipping site and the venue for kids with off-road bikes to do sick jumps and get tetanus.

The boys hung out there just to get away from their parents and the other kids. To build dens out of rusty junk, fire arrows at each other, start fires, vape and to pick on Spacker without anyone interfering. Today, they were the only ones there.

Joe put on his leather gloves and pushes the brambles and dog roses out of the way so Nick could clamber through. Unhelpfully he let them go, causing them to snap back into Spacker’s face, leaving him with cuts from the thorns and little ruby-red beads of blood slowly running down his face.

He didn’t cry.

Bitter experience, since his very first day at school, told him that wasn’t something that would help at all.

Instead, he pushed his way through, unpicking the thorns from his clothes and caught up to the others.

A train rattled past at the top of the cutting, distracting him for a moment so that he all but walked into Nick’s back. He drew himself short just in time and realised they were looking at something.

“What is it?” Spacker shifted around them for a better look.

There was a ‘pond’ of sorts here, as long as anyone could remember it had been. Google and Wikipedia had informed them it was a ‘dew pond’, and it certainly looked like one when they looked it up. It was a lot deeper than it was supposed to be, and local legend was that a body had been found in it, back in the day.

Though nobody knew for sure, though generations of people who went ‘up The Hedge’ swore up and down that it was true. The boys had never found anything much past a few old bones and a drowned kitten. That had given Spacker nightmares for weeks, and he still hated the pond, blaming it somehow for the poor, bedraggled thing, rather than whoever had done it.

Today though, there was something in the pond. Something big. Something visible. Something new.

A car.

“It’s a car you dopey fuck,” Joe sneered.

“It’s a Ford Mustang Boss,” Said Nick. Then, when Spacker and Joe stared at him, “What? I know things! I’ve got old Top Trumps’ about cars. It’s a Mustang, in Grabber Blue.”

“What’s it doing here?” Spacker regretted asking the moment the question left his lips.

“Someone nicked it, didn’t they?” Nick was the master of the obvious.

It, after all, wasn’t the first time a stolen car had ended up here. The rusting, skeletal, weed-riddled remains of a couple of them were still down here, even though – time to time – the police or the council would come by and tow them away.

Looking more carefully, Spacker could see now, that it was more obvious it had been stolen. The passenger side window was smashed, little square fragments of glass glittering in the mud. There were long scrapes and dents down the same side, and the front end of the car was half submerged in the murky, brackish water of the pond.

But the running lights were still on.

“It must have been ditched not long after dawn,” Joe broke the reverent awe and curiosity with which they were staring at it and stepped forward towards the swampy car for a better look. “Keys must still be in the ignition.”

“Fuck yes! Reckon we can drive it?” Nick jogged after him, leaving Spacker still hanging back.

The pond still made Spacker think of the kitten and, even when he tried to step closer, he could barely take a single step, the toe of his shoes dragging through the grass.

“Guys,” called Spacker. “I don’t think this is a good idea. What if the police…”

“Oh fuck the police, come on!” Joe beckoned and stepped into the mud, which slurped and farted around his foot as he peered in the window. “Keys are in!”

“We don’t know how to drive!” Spacker took another, faltering step. “We’re only thirteen! Come on, leave it, we can make a fire or something.”

“I think I can drive,” Nick hurried to catch up to Joe, looking in through the shattered window. “Fuck, it stinks. I think they tried to set a fire on the back seat and then someone’s taken a piss in here or something.

Joe yanked the door open. “Here, you can get. If it starts, we can probably reverse it out.”

Joe and Nick swapped sides, Joe in the passenger seat and Nick on the driver’s side, climbing in and looking suddenly small in the adult-sized seats. Joe leaned out the broken window and shouted. “Come the fuck on Spacker! You can sit in the back while we do doughnuts.”

Spacker took another couple of dragging steps, but looking at the shore of the pond, all flint and chalk, discoloured with weird, oily shades, all he could think of was the kitten, and the memory was bringing stinging tears to his eyes. “I don’t want to.”

“Get the fuck over here, or we’ll take turns kicking you in the balls,” Nick shouted, rolling down his window to lean back and holler.

The threat got Spacker a couple more steps before he came to a halt again, startled by the gurgly, half-hearted chunter of the engine as Nick turned the key.

Joe and Nick cheered as, after a second try, the engine roared properly into life, and exhaust stained the air, the first smoke black and foul somehow. The whole car trembled and vibrated, and Spacker found himself fascinated by the way the small flints on the shore around it quivered and bounced like dust on a speaker.

There was a deafening graunch and splutter as Nick fumbled with the gears, inexpertly grinding it into reverse and – perched on the front of the seat to reach – pushed his toe against the accelerator.

Spacker’s eyes dragged back to the car as, to his surprise as much as theirs, the vehicle lurched forward – not back – and plunged into the water with a huge splash. Its back end rose into the air and began to sink straight away, bubbles of foul air breaking the surface all around it.

Everything seemed to slow down. Spacker’s heart hammered in his chest, and a sensation like pinpricks flushed back and forth across his skin. For a moment he was stunned. For another long, unworthy moment – that felt like an eternity – he found himself coldly assessing whether he even wanted to do anything. The pond still terrified him, and his friends were nothing but slightly lesser bullies. If he let them die, nobody would ever know.

No.

His legs obeyed him, finally, and he ran towards the pond. In his heightened state, it was like one of those terror-dreams, where you want to run but can’t. He felt so slow. He also noticed, in a way he was sure he wouldn’t have before, that there were no tracks from the car leading up to the pond. He waded through the noxious mud and floundered deeper, into the sludgy green water. He held his breath as best as he could, and he dived.

Beneath the water, it was like another world. Bone white flint at the bottom and the shadowy, bottomless well at the centre of the pond now obvious. Strands of algae, a film at the surface, cutting out most of the sun, while strands and clumps of the same substance stuck to his face like slimy cobwebs. The car was still lit, easy enough to find, though through the algae it seemed ephemeral and indistinct and its lights seemed red, oddly, rather than green.

He swam, weakly, lungs already burning, close to the car and reached it. Joe was inside, in a panic, hammering at the window with his fists.

Wait. Hadn’t that window been broken?

In the dim glow of the overhead light, he could see them struggling, but nothing seemed to work, and the car was sinking lower and lower. He could barely hear their screams through the windows and the water but heard a single word with clarity.

“Door!”

Spacker grabbed the handle of the door and pulled. It gave, weirdly, under his hand like plasticine or icing and to his horror he was stuck. He yanked out his little pen knife and stabbed it against the window, but it didn’t even chip, let alone crack. The pressure on his ears was getting intense, and it was getting darker, he could barely see.

Spacker couldn’t breathe well at the best of times, and now in a panic, he was sure he was going to drown. In desperation, he levered at the door handle, but it wouldn’t give. Fuck Nick, fuck Joe, now it was about him. He loosened his grip on the handle as much as he could and jammed the knife under his fingertips, pulling as hard as he could.

Spacker burst out of the water, gasping for breath and dragged his way to the shore, crying and wheezing, clutching his bleeding fingers in his armpit. He fell onto the edge and pulled himself, one-handed, as far as he could onto the dry grass.

Bloody fingers fumbled for his inhaler, shaking out the brackish filth so he could inhale, forcing his breath under control and rolling, sobbing onto his back until the stars at the edges of his vision finally went away.

His phone was soaked, broken, useless. He couldn’t call for help. All he could do, until he found his nerve, was to sit, shuddering on the shore of the pond. Even as the water washed the shore and the car – empty now – reversed up onto the edge, squatting and malevolent as red entrails and matted, drowned hair washed up at the fringes of the pond.

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