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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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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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flotsamjetsam

“Mine!”

Alice found herself suddenly awake, with someone or something pulling at her leg.

“Mine!”

“I most certainly am not!” Said Alice, sitting up quite abruptly.

The thing that had a hold of her was the most peculiar creature. It had pipe-cleaner arms and spidery hands, a body that was a knot of hair, and feet made of tiny pieces of soap. Its face, if you could call it that, was an old penny. The Queen’s face moved whenever it spoke in a way that struck Alice as positively disrespectful.

“I found you, you’re mine. Those are the rules, and if we don’t have rules, then everything just falls apart.”

“I’m my own!” Alice protested, kicking at the thing’s spidery little fingers, one of which snapped like kindling. It made the creature let go of her though and gave her a chance to scramble back up onto her feet. “Sorry about that.”

“Happens all the time,” said the penny-face, and took another spidery little finger from a bag around its waist and plugged it into its hand.

“Are you broken though? Most everything that ends up down here is broken, and broken things belong to whoever finds them. I found you; therefore you belong to me. It’s simple mathematics, d’you see?”

Alice squeezed water from her wet hair and combed it through with her fingers, picking out little pieces of muck from between the strands. “I’m fairly certain that’s law, or philosophy, rather than mathematics, but we don’t study that at school. As to whether I’m broken I’m not, I think something might have been left behind when I came through the grinder, but I suppose it’s washed far away by now.”

“Then you’re broken, and you’re mine, and I get to keep you. A piece of trash that walks and talks before it has been made, and even went to school! Perfect. Come along,” it gestured and waved her on after it as it walked away from the water.

Alice didn’t feel like she had much choice really, she didn’t want to climb back into the water – which didn’t seem to be going anywhere further, and following this strange creature seemed as good a thing to do as any.

“Might the missing piece of me have been washed up here?”

“Could be.”

“Well if I find it and put it back, then I won’t be broken, will I?”

“Everything’s broken,” said penny-face and with his ungainly stride, crested the top of the muck pile. “Everything’s broken somehow.”

Alice hitched up her skirts, though they were already ruined, and hopped along after him, blinking in surprise as she saw what lay beyond. “Oh my!”

Laid out before her was a whole town, made up entirely of rubbish and grot. There were high piles of fat and congealed oil being tended by creatures like penny-face, sorting and straightening with broken combs and the discarded ends of snapped spoons.

There was a disgusting pile of toenails and fingernails, one of the few white things there was to be seen and everywhere else, rising into the distance, the town was a mass of sardine tins, matchboxes and old shoes. At the very furthest point, rising above the town, was a towering mass of shiny foil and chocolate wrappers, culminating at its very tippy-top in a bright gold ring with a massive diamond.

“My aunt’s ring!” Alice exclaimed, but her voice was drowned out by a fanfare, blown through the empty shells of snails.

A gaggle of the junk creatures was approaching, gabbling, talking, in a constant uproar. Penny-face moved between Alice and the mob, protectively or possessively – she wasn’t sure – and she had to peek around him to see.

It was hard to tell where one junk person began and another ended. They were a grey-brown blur of detritus, hard to pick out as individuals. All save one. An old cotton reel was being spun out, and unwinding from it an old red-brown bandage. It served – it seemed – as a red carpet, for what followed.

Carried and pulled, pushed and moved along by great dint of effort, was a fat blob of a creature. Pearl buttons for eyes, a pouting little mouth carved out from the vibrant orange fat that was its body. It was dressed in an ill-fitting suit of purple chocolate foil and atop its head was a hairy spider, trying very hard to hold still.

The bandage unravelled to its end, and the big round butterball arrived at its end. Scurrying creatures moved to set up a matchbox podium, and the fat blob set itself up behind it.

“Great job, just the best. You’re the greatest scavenger there is. I’ve always said it,” the blob smiled, its button eyes twinkling in the dim light. “However, as Prime Minister, I have first dibs, that’s the law.” The crowd applauded wildly.

Penny-face shook his head and moved his arm, pushing Alice back with one soapy hand. “I believe the law you passed was ‘finders keepers’, and as the finder, I lay claim to her.

“You’re terrible, worst scavenger I’ve ever known. I’ve always said so. Bring forth and read the book of the law to settle this.”
“Do I get a say at all?” Alice asked, stepping gently around penny-face and curtsying, as you probably should do when you meet a Prime Minister.

“No!” They said, in unison, to more wild applause and cheering.

A little man, made of discarded twist-ties and pieces of broken glass pushed his way to the front, adjusted his bottle-bottom glasses and scanned through a dense, filthy book, full of tiny letters.

“According to the law, set down by the Prime Minister some four months ago, finders are, indeed, keepers. As settled in the ‘I didn’t know it was so shiny’ case, as you may recall Sir.”

“Hmm, but I set out the laws don’t I?” The Prime Minister quivered as he spoke and adjusted his spider toupee with one comically tiny hand.

“Indeed Sir.”

“Well then, take down a new law. The Prime Ministers may call ‘dibs’ on all good salvage.”

The little bottle-twist man flipped through the book until he found a blank page, where he squiggled down the Prime Minister’s words with a practised flourish.

“There’s a conflict between the two laws Sir, we’ll need to consult the judiciary to determine how to proceed.

“Oh, how tiresome,” the Prime Minister grumbled, hands on his hips.

Then Alice saw the most horrible and disgusting sight she thought she had ever seen. The Prime Minister’s orange, flabby bulk began to split down the middle with a sound like enormous, smacking lips. In a couple of breaths, he had completely split in half, two smaller versions of himself standing side by side, one with that ridiculous spider on his head, the other hurriedly donning a judge’s wig of soiled cotton wool.

“I agree with the Prime Minister,” said the judge. “The Prime Minister’s new ‘dibs’ law takes precedence over the older ‘Finders Keepers’ law. The Prime Minister will take possession of the salvage’s beautiful, luscious, verdant golden hair with immediate effect.”

“My hair?” Alice, who had become quite bored with all the arguing to-and-fro and whose legs were beginning to ache from standing still, was suddenly paying attention. “You can’t cut off my hair!”

“I can do anything I like!” said the Prime Minister, reaching for his judicial counterpart to glom back together.

“I… um… appeal!” Alice said, stepping around Penny-Face and feeling rather exposed. “I mean, if it’s not too much trouble, Sir,” she added another curtsy just to be sure.

“To the legislature?” the judge asked, while the Prime Minister made wild, silencing gestures with his pudgy little hands.

“Yes?” Alice wasn’t sure, this was all a bit beyond her, but she knew she was supposed to be polite around such august personages as judges and Prime Ministers, even when they were made of fat and rubbish.

“Very well, let’s put it before the legislature,” both the Prime Minister and the judge began to split off portions of themselves and to slap them together like clay, forming a third while an attendant scurried to tie a bow time – made of sooty string – around this third version’s neck.

Then the Prime Minister began to argue amongst himselves about who was in the right, it was all a show really. Since he was ‘arguing’ with himself, it seemed obvious how it was all going to turn out, and it looked like it was theatre for the cheering bits and bobs than anything meaningful.

Alice’s stomach grumbled, loudly. She realised she hadn’t eaten anything in quite some time and that she was starting to feel somewhat faint from it. Thankfully with all the arguing nobody had noticed and, given it was so filthy down here she didn’t want to eat a thing. It was far easier to be hungry.

Her mind began to wander. The Prime Minister looked so much like butter that she couldn’t help but think about it, that led her to bread and butter and thence to sandwiches. In that funny way the mind has of connecting one thing to another she ended up recalling an argument she had had with her friend Emily about sandwiches.

When you cut a sandwich in half, you get two sandwiches, not half a sandwich. Emily thought this was the most wondrous thing imaginable, while it bothered Alice a lot. If you cut anything else in half, you got halves, not doubles and the Prime Minister was cheating by doing the exact same thing. Cut those halves in half, and there are four sandwiches, not a quarter sandwich, cut those in half diagonally, and you got finger sandwiches, not eighths.

Alice was no fan of geometry or fractions, but it seemed to her that you might as well just have one big sandwich and eat it, rather than going to all the trouble of fiddling about with all those smaller sandwiches. She also supposed that eventually you would just run out of sandwich and have nothing but crumbs if even that and that you couldn’t possibly keep dividing things into infinity. Emily disagreed, and Alice hadn’t been invited to take tea with her for weeks afterwards.

“You’re a sandwich!” Alice shouted, interrupting the pretend negotiations the Prime Minister was having with himself, causing some consternation.

“And you’re a baguette, a stinking, foreign baguette!” Shouted the Prime Minister, petulantly.

“I’m sorry, Sir, I mean rather that I should like to take my appeal directly to the people!”

The Prime Minister, the judge and the legislature huddled together, whispering and when they split apart again, agreed.

“Very well. Your appeal shall be put to the people, and let that be an end to it!”

Almost immediately the Prime Minister – in all his forms – began to split apart into many, many little pea-sized blobs, scattering around him and lining up to vote to take Alice’s hair. She was heartened, however, to see that many of the subjects of this little kingdom were lining up to vote in her favour – just not enough of them.

“You can do what he does!” She called out, desperately, and saw a few of them take her advice, breaking down and remaking each other into smaller and smaller versions until all of them, the whole cheering crowd, were so reduced in size that Alice towered above them like an Amazonian giantess.

While they continued to fight and argue and to organise themselves to vote, Alice took one giant stride over them, delicately trying not to crush them, and made her way toward the tin foil tower and its glittering ring.

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auriane-dubois-noyadeAlice swirled around and around until she was quite, quite dizzy and she couldn’t help but swallow some of the filthy water as it whirled and twirled. It was strange, she knew it was dirty, but it tasted like soap, and it smelled like lemon. So it was, that Alice found herself gagging on the sloshing filth, while also wondering how something could look, smell and taste so different in each way. Like white chocolate flavoured with lavender. Horrible.

With a sudden, welcome rush, Alice’s head was back above water, and the gulped for air and spat out as much of the nasty tasting water as she could, blinking her eyes to clear them.

It seemed to Alice, dizzy as she was, that she was rushing along in a grand, underground river. The dirty walls sped past at such a rate it was like looking at the sides of the cutting from the window of a fast train.

One of the little potato men twirled past, shaking his little white fist in the air.

“curse you!” He shouted as he approached.

“DAMN YOUR EYES!” He screamed as he drew level.

“monstress!” He hollered, as he floated away, much faster than Alice, whose petticoats were acting like a drag beneath the water.

“I had always thought that potatoes were only disagreeable when they turned green,” Alice mused aloud as her spinning slowed and the walls rushed past with a hypnotic blur.

“Solanine,” came a stentorian voice from behind Alice, and she twisted and turned, kicking her feet as her petticoats bloomed in the water, trying to keep pace with whoever or whatever it was behind her.

It was an octopus, with tiny little arms and big, darting eyes. Even as it spoke to her, it was like it was looking past her.

“Doctor’s recommend that you shouldn’t eat them, even though it would take a portion of green flesh the size of a baked potato to even begin to harm a fully a grown man.”

“Well,” Alice trod water to stay close to the friendly-seeming octopus. “I am a girl, not a man, and while I have been both larger and smaller than I am now, I do not think I am grown in the way you mean.”

“That sounds like a fascinating story young lady, lots of human interest.” His eyes suggested a smile, but it was hard to tell with an octopus.

“But you’re not human,” Alice remarked, more than a little confused.

“Am I not?” Said the octopus. “Preposterous. When did you last meet anything other than a person that could talk?”

It was peculiar, the octopus did look a bit more human than it had a moment ago, face wrinkling and crinkling and even changing colour a little to seem a lot more like a person.

Alice reached out and took hold of two of his stubby little tentacles, as her legs were getting ever so tired from kicking. “Not for a long time I think,” she said. “Years at least.”

“Well then,” the octopus shrugged with his whole body. “That settles it.”

Alice didn’t really think that settled it at all, but she had been taught to be polite. The octopus was awfully grown up and spoke with such authority and finality she found that that was almost as good as it being settled after all.

“Excuse me sir, but you seem to be rather knowledgeable. Do you know where we are? Where we’re going?”

“Why, this is a wonderful tunnel leading us a land of wonderment and plenty!” Pronounced the octopus, inflating slightly from Alice’s flattery. “Can you not sense that from the speed and urgency of the water?”

“How do you know?” Alice frowned as she asked, looking down the seemingly endless tunnel. “Have you been to the end before?”

“No, I have no idea,” the octopus shook his body-head back and forth. “But I have an opinion, and I can speculate. That’s what I do. That’s my job.”

“To make things up?”

“Good lord no,” harrumphed the octopus. “To speculate, to think, to observe and opine.”

“And that’s how you know that the end of the pipe is a magical, wonderful place?”

“Exactly!” The octopus’ eyes lit up with self-satisfaction.

There was a hideous bubbling, and from the depths of the rushing waters there emerged a squid, bright yellow, with limbs as long as the octopus’ were short.

“He lies!” the squid shrieked, shrill and loud, a woman’s voice coming from its little white beak. “He always lies! The end of the pipe is a hell-hole! There is nothing there but the worst horrors that you can imagine!”

“And how do you know?” Alice took one hand from the octopus and placed it on the squid, pushed and pulled between them as they argued with one another.

“It’s my raison d’être to comment on things,” offered the squid.

“You’re a hack!” Yelled the octopus.

“You’re nothing but a pseudo-intellectual!” Screamed the squid.

Alice found herself floating free again, as the squid and the octopus flailed at each other in a manner that put Alice somewhat in mind of the time she saw two distant relatives swinging at each other with gloved hands at a wedding. The hatred was real – and shared – they just weren’t very good at fighting.

“This really hasn’t helped very much,” Alice said to herself, picking up speed and twirling faster and faster. “One tells me it’s heaven, the other tells me it’s hell. Neither of them seems to actually know, but both seem so very sure. Perhaps it’s some mix of the two things, and perhaps it’s neither. It seems like the only way to be sure, is to look.”

With that thought coming from her lips, Alice plunged over the edge of a waterfall and deep into the frothing pool beneath.

Alice bobbed up again, into the air and the light and pulled herself, exhausted, to the shore. A shore of fat and hair, rice grains, crumbs and slimy things that didn’t bear thinking about. There was no sign of the octopus or the squid, but that made sense didn’t it? They were aquatic. At least it made sense to Alice’s exhausted brain and so, laying on her back upon the shore she closed her eyes.

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artem-olegovic-kartofelscann2

“Who goes there?” Was what people said in stories about wars and adventures and Alice, a young lady of lawks-a-mercy-almost-ten, felt rather silly saying it. She was hardly a soldier, though she supposed she might count as an explorer. How many people could say they were ripped into pieces and stitched back together again as she had been? Not many, if any, she thought. That sense of uniqueness added some strength to her spine, and she stood up straight with her shoulders back – just as the doctor had told her to.

“Who be going over there by ‘eck?” It was a queer little voice and as it spoke the figure that was carrying it lifted a small lamp and Alice got her first look and who – or what – it was.

Before her, was a peculiar little man in a fustian suit of muddy brown. His pale little face peered out from between the eaves of a high, starched collar and as he blinked, Alice realised that there were more than two eyes. His whole face was covered with them, all of them staring. Alice also became aware that there were other little lanterns, picking over the ground, which she now saw was a ripe and foetid mix of everything that had ever fallen down the plughole.

“Why, I’m Alice. I’m pleased to meet you,” Alice gave a little curtsey, a man in a suit – however peculiar – seemed like a gentleman to her, and politeness cost nothing.

The little man seemed somewhat sombre, and he stared with his too-many-eyes at Alice before appearing to recall his manners. “My name is Edward,” he said, and stepped closer, wiping his grubby hand on the corduroy roughness of his russet trousers. “I’m afraid you come at a sad time, I was going to give you the last rites.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry to have put you out by not being dead,” Alice didn’t quite know what to do, she hadn’t been to a funeral before – save that of poor old Dinah. She curtseyed again, for lack of anything better to do and offered the only words she could think of. “My condolences for your loss.”

“Thank you, thank you, but fortunately it seems to have stopped,” Edward looked upward and, when Alice followed his gaze with her own, she could see the opening to the plughole high above and the light streaming through – though it hardly seemed to penetrate the gloom.

“Oh however will I get back up there?” Alice fussed.

“You come from that hellish place?” Edward started in horror and turned his many-eyes on Alice again, seeming to see – for the first time – all the joins and scars where she had put her pieces back together.

“It’s not so bad, even if my aunt and cousin can be a little cruel,” Alice frowned as she looked up into the sky, trying to puzzle out the problem.

“But it is such a cruel place! Full of horrors! Only we, the shortest are spared the tortures, our friends and brothers skinned alive, cut to pieces, their severed parts raining down on us from above and only our dedication putting their spirits to rest!”

Alice was shocked and horrified to hear such a thing, not to mention puzzled. “You make it sound like the most ghastly place imaginable, and it’s really just a kitchen!”

“But look at you!” Edward, rather presumptively, poked and prodded with one whitish finger at the scar lines on Alice’s arm. “You were ripped to pieces as well! What manner of vegetable are you and how did you survive?” An intense, penetrating, suspicious stare emanated from every one of his squinty little eyes.

“Why I am not a vegetable at all!” Alice declared with her hands on her hips. “I am a human being!”

“A harwig bean?” Edward leaned even closer. “Que’st ce to fais ici, si loin de la Belgique?”

Alice’s French vocab had entirely abandoned her, so she tried explaining clearly and loudly. “A human being!” She said. “An animal!” She added, for clarity.

“Oh, we don’t get many of those, and never alive,” Edward said. “How is it that you are untouched?”

“Sir, I hardly think I was untouched. The machine chopped me into tiny pieces, and it was all I could do to pull myself together again. I’m not sure I got every piece though, I have a suspicion that there were some bits of my insides left over.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that,” Edward shook his head. “Have you ever taken apart a carriage clock?”

Alice thought for a moment and winced slightly. “Never on purpose.”

“Well, you will often find,” Edward took on a professorial and lecturing tone. “That there are pieces left over, but that the clock works just the same as it ever did. You seem to be fine. Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”

Alice paused and thought for a long moment, she had happened to have strange adventures before, but she had never been entirely sure whether they had really happened or not. “I suppose I have. There was a time when I fell down a hole, and another when I travelled to a mysterious land. There may have been another one where there was a sort of mechanical doll that looks exactly like me, but I’m not sure it’s canon.”

“Well, I’m sure I fail to understand what guns and explosives have to do with it, unless they’re what blew you to pieces,” Edward had become haughty and priggish since explaining about the clock. “You can join me if you wish, I must find a couple more casualties before I return to camp and then we can see what is to be done about you.”

“Oh, I do so hope you and your friends can help me,” Alice fell in behind Edward, glad of the warm little light cast by his lamp and keeping quiet, for his search seemed to be rather sad.

Alice found herself wondering, recalling her past adventures, which of them had been real and which had not. They seemed ridiculously fanciful when she thought back to them, but then again here she was in yet another strange and sinister world, at the mercy of forces beyond her comprehension. There was nothing for it but to go along with things and to see how they all worked out.

“Hark! Avert your eyes girl!” Hissed Edward, and Alice swiftly turned her back.

“What is it?”

“The gruesome remains of one of my poor, fallen brothers,” answered Edward and crouched in the muck, mumbling some sort of prayer. Alice could barely hear, but it was something to do with tubers and leaves and the richness of the soil. It had the same, well-practised drone that the Reverend’s words had every Sunday and while it was pleasant enough, it made her feel bored by association.

Alice had been told not to look, but then she’d also been told not to play with the garbage grinder and where had that gotten her? Slowly, carefully, trying not to make any noise, she turned about. “Why, it’s nothing but a potato peeling!” She cried.

Edward started from his crouching prayers and twisted back to look at her. “I said don’t look! This is too terrifying for a mere bean-sprout to see! It’ll turn your leaves black!”

“But it’s only a potato peeling, I’ve seen plenty of those!” And, after a moment “Altogether far too many of them!”

Edward seemed horrified, spluttering without words for long moments before gasping out, “You poor, poor creature, to see such terrors!”

“Oh, it’s not terrifying, just annoying to be made to do chores like a common scullery maid. I’m almost ten you know! I shouldn’t be peeling potatoes.”

“Puh-puh-puh-peeling? You did this? You carved the living faces of my brothers from their bodies and cast them into the pit?” He was shaking and trembling and seemed in a frightful sweat.

“My aunt made me,” said Alice, scuffing the dirt with her shoe.

“But why?” Edward stood, clutching at his own face, every one of his eyes glaring, unblinking at Alice.

“Well, without them what would we have to go with our sausages for supper?”

“Sausages?” The concept seemed outside of Edward’s experience.

“Chopped up meat in a sort of skin-bag and cooked,” Alice offered, matter of factly, trying to remember what the butcher had said last time she had visited. “Pork and fat and… rusk, I think.” Then, after another moment’s thought she added; “But I don’t think I’ll eat sausages any more, having been treated like one. I think I might become a vegetarian.”

“Eat… only vegetables?” Edward’s jaw had practically hit the floor.

“Well, what else could I eat if not meat or fruit or vegetables?”

“Soil!” cried Edward, forcefully. “Like any peaceable, civilised tuber! Delicious, loamy soil! Full of goodness and minerals!”

“I can’t eat soil,” Alice frowned.

“Won’t, you mean, you unethical monstress!” Edward took a deep, deep breath and began to bellow. “Help! Help! A demoness! A monster! A wild-eyed potato eater! A fiend in a pinafore!”

Alice almost jumped out of her skin. “What? No! I mean yes, but…” There was no talking to him, and the little lights of the other suited men were getting brighter and closer. Alice turned this way and that and then, in a panic, hitched up her skirts and began to run, as far and as fast as she could.

The lights gathered and pursued her, with a hollering, bellowing roar of outrage. Alice was terrified, but also confused and scared. Why were they all so upset? “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t mean anything! It’s just a silly chore!”

Clammy, wet, white hands clawed at her, dancing lights threatened to catch her petticoats aflame and just as all seemed lost, a great flood of water fell from the sky and in a maelstrom of icy suds and filth the world was swept away.

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