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Thriller

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Short story, Thriller

The Widow of Warren Street

Author: Moxie McMurder

Illustration: Mark Smith

Some say her name was Betty, others will tell you it was Louise, but everyone this side of the river knows her as the Widow of Warren Street. I’ve heard she was beautiful, 20 years old and newlywed to her childhood sweetheart. No one remembers his name either.

They were love’s young dream, but it was cut short when her husband was sent overseas to fight in the war. They wrote to each other as often as they could, the only way to ease the heartache of being apart. But after a few months the letters stopped coming.

Waiting by the window she would look for the postman and would run out into the street to ask him the same question.

Did he have a letter for her? The answer was always the same. No.

Soon she started waiting outside her front door. No matter the weather. She would walk up and down Warren Street looking for the postman, suddenly scared she would somehow miss him and her chances of getting a letter from her husband.

The neighbours began to talk, she had stopped eating, her clothes hung off her. She had stopped sleeping leaving her eyes red and weepy. She stopped brushing her hair and never seemed to change her clothes. They all felt sorry for her but no one spoke to her. People kept to their own back then.

Some will tell you that a letter arrived on the day of her funeral, 3 months after the last letter her husband sent.

They’ll tell you it said her husband had been badly wounded but was still alive.

And some people will tell you that two men from the army arrived at her house on the day of her funeral to tell her her husband was dead.

There’s even a story that there was a letter and it was from her husband. He had written to explain he had fallen in love with another woman. That he wouldn’t be coming back to her and that he was sorry.

No matter what came after she took her own life, the Widow of Warren Street still walks up and down the street late at night.

Her shadows creeps across the houses as she passes, her wild hair seeming to be alive, reaching out and licking at the stones.

My neighbour saw her ghost once, spoke to him, or so he says. Said she was looking for a husband. Her red eyes and pale face seemed to plead with him before her hands reached out, quickly as if to grab him.

He saw the scars on her wrists, painful and raw. He ran. He told me he could hear her sobbing the whole way home. A strange sound, echoing down the cobbled streets. Said he could have sworn her sobs turned to screams but that could have just been the wind.

So young men returning home late at night are warned to avoid Warren Street. Don’t speak to weeping women. If you see a shadow of a woman with wild hair you must run.

You don’t want the Widow to propose.

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Short story, Thriller

In The Garden of Krakow ( Part 3 )

Author: Timothy Connolly

Illustration: Mark Smith

 

That night he dreamed of Krakow. He walked. His footsteps ringing like bells. The streets empty. Not a soul in sight, and the chill hinting that there were none to be seen. The neon lights passed him. Red. Green. Pulsing. Arterial. Made up of gas‐flame blue. With a silver hue. Covering him in its dew.

He passed a nun on a mobile phone. Incongruous in her hands, as she ordered the newest magazines. Her face melted. Flames covering her head to heel to leave blackened flesh a falling.

The priest looked at him with a light in his eyes and covered with the soot of his betters.

He passed a school. A child watched him go by as she ate her ice‐scream with a spoon.

He walked and could feel it following him. All this time. Since he had left. He heard the sigh in his ear. The nails on his back. Its hand sliding in between his legs. Firm breasts pressed against him.

Soft lips touched him with the sharpness of its teeth.

He looked up to see the woman’s great black eyes.

***

The hammering at the door woke him. 5:00 am. On a goddamn Saturday morning. Fuck his life. Who was this? He stumbled out of bed and cursed the day he was born. Couldn’t he get one night’s rest? Couldn’t he deal with that dream in peace? The hammering increased and he could feel it like a blow to the head. His anger grew. First that woman, then that priest and now this fool at the door. He was sick of this shit. He was a plumber, for Christ sake, not a detective, with a drinking problem and an ex‐wife.

He flung open the door.

‘Do you want something?’

The man came in stinking of alcohol, dirt and day old aftershave. Stubble marred his chin. His hair like grease on his head. Marcin sized him up. Muscles knotted his frame. Bones showed in his face. Needle marks, healing, but not healed, bloomed on fresh skin. Marcin would have thought he was a football hooligan, but he knew, on some level, that this guy was some special kind of prick.

‘Why the fuck are you in my home?’

The football hooligan stuck a yellow finger in his face, ‘Listen here, chap. Me brother and me sister had a chat with ya, but you can’t see your arse from your elbow. But, I’m here – ’

‘Son, you’re about to get your ass whooped good and proper.’

The brother fumbled in his pocket, but Marcin was already on him. A knee to his balls sent him gasping and he followed it up with an elbow to the back of the head. Marcin grabbed his ear and, the hooligan shrieking all the way, he opened the door and chucked him into the hallway.

‘Tell your sister and your brother who did this to you. I am sick of this shit.’

He slammed the door. Fury bubbled in him. He couldn’t rest. He couldn’t relax. He couldn’t even sleep. That goddamn lump of metal had crashed into his life and uprooted everything. He flung the chair into the table. Sat down. Goddamn, but he was going to show them what he was made of. He’d figure this out. That woman wouldn’t know him as a fool, and that priest wouldn’t treat him like a little child.

He looked at it. Really, really looked at it. What could have caused those marks? Something curved. Something with a little bit of leverage. But, here, what’s this? The scrapes went wild. What was that? Something had happened. Something had changed. Something had… broke.

The dawning truth almost blinded him.

‘Oh Christ.’

He stood up from the table. The day turned to night, the shadows grew, and the sun died.

***

Marcin found himself at that apartment again. It opened at his knock. The smell of cinnamon wafted out. He stared, with that same lead in his stomach, at the person who opened the door.

She was barely five. No marks marred her skin and there were no shadows under her eyes. Clean hair. Immaculate clothes. And none of that smoggy muck that filled your senses as you walked out the door.

‘Is your mommy here?’

‘No, but big sis, big brother, and mean brother are here.’

He wondered who was who, but, before he could ask, she opened the door. She led him in. The three figures in that blood‐red room watched him and told the child to play outside. They watched him as he walked in. They watched him as he dragged a chair from the corner. They watched him as he sat.

‘I know what happened.’

The thug had bruises like blooming lips. The priest stood in the shadows of the sky. The woman’s figure filled the room like a burning cross.

‘It was the spoon. It bent. As if this,’ he took that damned piece of metal out of his pocket and threw it on the floor, ‘had broke it. I can see what happened. She was playing, or not, and it slipped, or not. It bent. It broke the safety valve and gas began to seep out. That immigrant couple came here, they slept here and they died here. All because of that goddamn rusted spoon.’

The priest licked his lips, ‘Can we punish a child for what she did not know?’

‘If it kills somebody…’

‘Listen here, you mess with me sister and you won’t be safe no matter where you go.’

Marcin almost stood up, but the woman broke past all of them.

‘Who cares? Really. You’re asking me to care about an immigrant couple? While my little sister’s future is at risk? You are worse than a fool if you think I will do that. You are worse than the lowest of the low, worse than druggy mothers and garbage fathers. You are worse than anything.’

‘People are dead.’

The priest banished Marcin’s words with a raised hand.

‘We are at a crossroads. Like all people in life. We have three roads to walk upon. One down. One up. And one leading only God knows where. You have to make your choice Marcin. You have to choose what to do. I will not choose for you, my sister will not persuade you, my brother will not force you and God will not show you. It’s your choice in regard to my baby sister’s life.’

‘Perhaps this will help your choice,’ she threw a package on Marcin’s lap with a glint in her eyes.

The envelope spilled crinkled bills on his faded pants. He could buy his ex‐wife a dinner with that. Of sumptuous steak and red wine. No, open a business. Keep his body warm in winter. Have his belly full and his throat wet.

He looked at that woman, with her jewels, her hair, all the trapping of wealth. She must have ties. People to talk to. People to see. People to help him get on his feet. And all he’d have to do is…

He shook his head and stood up. The money fell in a fan around his figure.

‘No. Keep your coins, woman. Keep your god, priest. Keep everything that you could ever offer me. A couple is dead.’

‘If you won’t take me sister’s money, perhaps I’ll take your ‐ ’

‘Stop brother. We all have to make our own choices.’

‘I ain’t letting her end up like m – ’

‘Let him go,’ the priest’s cloud grey eyes watched him, ‘We all have our choices to make.’

Marcin walked out of that red rimmed room into this frozen world. Shadows walked about in coats. The snow fell. Blackened trees reached for the skies. The streetlight had soft curves that stroked him as he passed. What should he do? What could he do? A child’s life lay in his hands. Accident or not, she had killed somebody. He walked on frozen grass. It crunched underneath. But did he have the right to ruin her life?

It was as if he were walking up a gradient. The lights of the city below, the stars above, and darkness everywhere. A burning pillar blazed toward the sky. A recess led into the deep‐dark earth and, when he walked between, his soul trembled.

He smelt smoke. The neon hurt his eyes as he entered the pub. The bar felt slick to the touch. The drinks were harsh. The drinkers worse. Throughout the laughs, the shouts, the screams, the television played the usual torrent of evil. He turned to the man next to him and asked what was going on in this world. The stranger had the tired eyes of a day‐time drinker.

‘Nothing new, my friend. Absolutely nothing new.’

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Short story, Thriller

In The Garden Of Krakow ( Part 2 )

Author: Timothy Connolly

Illustration: Mark Smith

He left the apartment with sweat dripping down his back.

Christ, that had never happened before. A woman offering that. Christ, that. Jesus, he hadn’t known what to do. The only thing he could think of, besides that, was to get the hell out of there.

He didn’t even get the money. The snow touched his blush as he remembered what happened. She probably thinks he was an idiot. ‘Don’t worry, I can find out what’s wrong with your machine.’

She was probably mocking him. The mucky plumber man. His Kinga would know what to do. His wife, well, his ex‐wife, would know what to make of a woman like that. Whether she was a strumpet, a seductress or the Virgin Mary herself.

He sighed as he stepped between a shadow reaching for the stars. He needed vodka. Like a baby needed milk. Like he needed his wife. But, unfortunately, she had left him. His mind turned black.

Focused on the metal in his pocket. What could have marked it like that? A bit of machinery caught? But it’s so goddamn unusual? Perhaps he should find out and show that lady he was no fool.

Marcin went home and opened the door. He looked at the mess. His mother had cleaned, and then his wife had cleaned, and, when they were all gone, he had been unable to. Clothes lay on the floor. A nude woman looked at him from the wall. The picture of the pope squinted through months of dust. Marcin felt a moment of absurd guilt. He really should clean, but Christ, the pope himself is hardly going to visit.

He turned the television on low. Just to hear another human being. The news played a scene of starvation and disease.

The pierogi flavoured the air like burning wax. His fingers pressed on smooth metal as he popped open the can. Ancient paint flaked off his skin. He could feel the silence in his apartment. As if the ceiling reached to infinity. The dust in his fingers. The grain of the wood. This feeling of weight…

The piece of metal lay before him on the table. What could make that mark? It was not accidental, of that he was suddenly sure. No other metal was ruined. No parts were bent. Nothing was amiss except for this single hunk of icy steel. He remembered the woman’s black eyes glinting from the sun. He wondered what had happened to those immigrants…

His doorbell rang. And, still thinking of that piece of metal, he got up and opened it.

‘Marcin,’ the voice spoke with the scent of smoke and old leather. He blinked. The man before him had silver at the side of his hair. Lines ran along his face, his eyes were pale and the pink of his lips flaked. White blazed from his collar like a dying sun.

‘Yes… how can I help you, Father?’

‘My sister sent me. You may have met her today while you carted off that damned contraption?’

He blushed when he remembered.

‘Eh, we may have said hello.’

‘I’m sure you did,’ he looked at him as if Marcin had forgot his schoolwork, ‘May I come in? The night is cold, and these bones are so old.’

‘Of course… Of course, Father.’

He let him in. The light grew bright. Showing the magazines, the dirt, the lack of a woman, and ending with the dusty picture of the pope. Marcin covered the magazines with a rag, and dusted the neglected Pope. Smiling, he looked at the priest. The priest stared at him.

‘Eh, so Father, what can I do for you?’

‘It’s what I can do for you.’

He stopped himself from scratching his head. The priests used to frown at that when he was a schoolboy.

‘Sure, sure. Sit down please,’ he fiddled with his thumbs. ‘So, how can I… No, how can you, help me?’

‘My sister was telling me about the man she had met. An unfortunate meeting as our brother should have arrived. My sister should never have called you. I have to ask… have you met him yet?’

‘No… Should I have?’

‘Good. It’s best that you don’t, lest he leave a stain. Let us two men, old men, wise men, talk this out amongst ourselves. Leave the women, leave the children, leave that man who you will not meet, it is just us. Two men all alone in a too young world. In a place where evil is rife and redemption infinite.’

‘I’m sorry, but…’

‘Go on my son.’

‘I completely lost you.’

‘Few people can follow,’ the atrocities of the television lit his eyes and formed a lullaby beneath his words. ‘But I hope you will. What do you see when you look out that window?’

He looked out the window. Streetlights spread like stars in the sky and, if it were not for this man, he would have felt like the last person on earth.

‘Some streetlights.’

‘What else?’

‘… the sky?’

‘Exactly. Light and dark. Two opposing forces that we must contend with. We all go from the light, every night, into the dark, and hope we are not spirited away. We fear the footsteps, as we should, in case we cannot find our way. We fear the strangers, as if they may take our soul. We fear ourselves, as if we will be swayed from this mortal realm. It is a terrifying place. This land of light and night. A place to tempt you, to corrupt you, to end you. But we all walk out again. We all remain pure. Uncorrupted and back in this heavenly realm. Where we belong. Don’t you agree?’

‘I have no idea…’

‘If somebody passes into the darkness, should you stop them from coming back to the light?’

‘Father…’

‘Just think, my child. The son of God. A man of free will, passed from father to child.’

He looked at the piece of machinery, and it blazed with its own scalpel glow.

He looked at the priest and his voice hardened, ‘Father.’

‘I’m saying all that can be said. I’m saying nothing. I’m saying what needs to be said.’

‘Get out.’

It was the priest’s turn to blink, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Get out. You are not welcome.’

His mother would have scolded him if she had heard him. Christ, he would have had some slap.

But, in that moment, he did not care. The priest stood up and left.

But his presence did not leave. Marcin could taste it on his tongue. It smelt of hot air, undulating candle flames and shadowed alcoves. It smelt of heaven, hell, and every dark crevice in between. He looked at the metal. He held it in his hands. He touched the scratches on its surfaces and wondered: Could this have kept the gas flowing?

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Short story, Thriller

In The Garden of Krakow ( Part 1 )

Author: Timothy Connolly

Illustration: Mark Smith

‘I hope you can fix it’

That woman wouldn’t give him a moment’s rest. Sweat ran down his fingers. He could taste the
garlic on his breath. Christ, he didn’t want to talk to a beauty when he felt half a beast.

‘I’ll do my best.’

He heard her walk away and he breathed a sigh of relief. It had been near the end of the day when Marcin got the call. His back had ached, and he had been washing the grime off his fingers. The phone had rung. The voice would not take no for an answer. Could it not wait until tomorrow? No? You want me right there right now? You want me to drop my evening just so I can handle that water heater? Sure, why not. What else could a plumber in Krakow have to do on a Friday night.

If it was a man, he would have told them what to do with themselves. But, well, women were a different sort. Even listening to that voice sent a thrill through his synapses. It lit him afire. He hoped she hadn’t heard the rasp in his voice. Truth be told, the only women he knew were his wife and his sisters. He hadn’t been able to think. Had no chance for reason. Sure as hell wasn’t thinking of her as a sister. And all he could smell was that subtle scent of perfumed air. While he still fumbled, this woman struck. She offered him a large amount. So large as to be stupid. He had no choice but to say yes. And he had packed his stuff with a sigh.

Right now, his back ached. His knees trembled. The tiles pulsed red, the bath as white as milk. He couldn’t kneel. It would look savage. Couldn’t touch the bath. What if she wanted to shake hands? His calves ached from the stress. It was difficult to take apart a water heater. Lots of parts that crunched. Gushing water that stank. His callused fingers reeked of grease, but it helped to block out the scent of the woman. He paused. What was that…something had glinted in the depths of the machine. A star in a coal mine. He pulled it out. The cylinder was scratched as if by nails. His eyes ached as the silver clashed with the colour of the walls. He had to get out of here. He could taste the copper in the air, and the salt on his tongue. He put it in his pocket without thinking and packed up his equipment.

If god willing, he would have a drink when he went home. Boil some pierogi, open a can of peas, and throw it all together with some soy sauce and vinegar. First, he had to get the money off the woman, and his mouth dried at the thought. He walked through the hallway. The pain in his calves leached through his body as he stood. The floors were clean. The wardrobes spotless. A child’s box lay in the corner. It was green with a purple petal on its cover. It had been opened. He saw an old coin, a beaten book and a bent spoon. He entered the studio apartment and he noticed a couch. A bed. A table, and little else. The ceiling was in the shape of a square that had been spun on its axis. His feet felt unsteady, rolling with the very movement of this world.

The woman’s back faced him and he licked his lips at her shape. Her shirt left the centre of her back to touch the curve of her buttock. Her hair gushed like ink on her shoulders. She turned. Motes of silver burned in her hair. The outside light turned the whole room red.

‘Have you finished?’

‘Yes’

He felt awkward. Uncomfortable under those cool dark eyes. His eyes were drawn to her lips, her hips and her cleavage glinting in the light. It was as if he were the gardener suddenly called into the tea‐room. Should he sit on the floor to eat with his hands?

‘Nice place you got here. Tidy.’

‘I wouldn’t live here. Someone else did’, she replied.

‘Oh. Good. Well then…who was that?’

She leaned against the windowsill and he kept his eyes on her face, ‘Immigrants from another place. A gas leak killed them. Accidental. The minister told us so.’

I wasn’t saying he hadn’t.

The woman’s disapproval flavoured the air. He could smell his sweat. The blue of his overalls had never looked so faded in this room. Christ, he had been married. He should be able to talk with one woman. He didn’t want to leave a bad impression.

‘You know, I found some strange scratches on the machine. I can check them out for you? I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been doing this for years. And, you know, some of these government folks can be wrong.’

She paused, ‘Really?’

‘Here, why don’t I show you?’

He held it up and it blazed like a bloody sun.

‘That’s strange. Why don’t you leave it here and I can check with the minster?’

‘Don’t bother. I can check myself. I’ve been at this for years. Won’t miss a thing.’

‘Really’, the piercing on her tongue glowed green as she licked her lips, ‘…What did you say your name was?’

‘Marcin’.

‘Well, Marcin. I thank for offering your help.’

She blinked her lashes and he could feel their softness from where he stood.

‘Okay. That’s fine.’

He found himself short of breath. Flushed as if in fever. Blood pounding all around his body as the light flushed her skin.

‘No, it’s not fine. Not many other men would have been as gallant as you. So brave, so strong, so fearless to go against the long arm of the law. Marcin, you are a ripe apple that falls from the sky.’

‘Eh, well, maybe.’

‘A man of few words. I see. I wonder….’

‘You wonder what?’

The shadow of her opening legs ripped wounds in the floor.

‘Whether there is another way to pay you.’

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Short story, Thriller

The Bell Ringer

Author: Bevlington Lourdes

Illustration: Christopher Harrisson

“Do you have anything for a dead finger?”

“A dead… what?”

Silas held up his left hand.

“A dead finger, Gump. I went to sleep with a healthy hand but I’ve woken with three live fingers and this…dead one.”

Mr Gump explored an ear with one of his own long crooked fingers.

“Oh. I see. Is the new finger…er…yours?”

“It’s more of an old finger really and no, I don’t think so. Looks similar, but rather less… alive. And it’s on back to front.”

“Yes, I see. It is rather blue. Still, I’m not sure I have anything to help, although I can give you an ointment to soothe the stitches.”

Gump turned to consider the vast array of bottles displayed dustily behind him, rubbing some of their labels free of grime so their names shone out through years of disuse. The shelves were populated densely by unknown and untested medicinal treatments. Candles were mounted archaically on the walls, holders encased in years of drooping wax. It was always night in Gump’s shop; the whole place ignored the sun as if the weather and the seasons were none of its concern.

“Don’t trouble yourself Gump. I don’t plan on keeping the thing anyway.”

“What d’you propose doing with it?” Gump inquired, addressing the bottles not his customer.

“I’m not perfectly sure,” Silas replied cheerily. “Find out who it belongs to and then find my own, I suppose.”

Gump turned, nodding slowly, his eyes narrowed to slits and his brows caught together in a fight of disapproval above them.

“Quite so, Master Hardship.”

Outside, the sun was disarming and Silas turned his face towards it, attempting to banish the gloom of Gump’s shop. For a moment he forgot about the finger but it caught on his trousers as he made to put his hands in his pockets.

“Ah yes,” he murmured aloud before tipping his hat over his eyes to guard them from the glare and setting off for Harley Street.

***

Gump stood, bony hands on hips, watching Silas striding away down Churlish Street. His index finger once again found his ear – a nervous tic. He must have suspected something or he would not have come; Silas knew Gump would have nothing to cure such an ailment. Much of his stock was designed to hinder, not heal. His father would surely be the more natural port of call in such a storm. Something with a whiff of trouble about it was brewing.

So what did Silas know?

Whatever it was, it was too much.

Gump scurried in a whirl of dust to the back room where he kept the things the police felt a shop should not stock but that Gump felt no proper apothecary should be without. The bottles on these shelves did not shoulder mounds of dust like those in the shop proper. Gump was proud of these ones, and so they stood immaculate, throbbing with the glow of the candles, their labels proudly displaying the names of their morally questionable contents.

Gump looked at them as a man looks at a train he has just missed pulling away. How had he managed to take the wrong bottle to Silas’ house? The names were so clear, the bottles so different. Even the potions within were entirely separate, one viscous and dark with a mind of its own, like malevolent tar, the other light and clear, like liquid air.

He pressed his palms to his forehead, attempting to pressure the memory of the previous night to the forefront of his mind. But it rested, irritatingly, just on the edge of clarity. He raised his eyes and fixed them on the potions in question, ‘Amnesia’ and ‘Dismemberment.’

“Good God Gump,” he chastised himself, “has any fool ever made so dark and desperate a mistake?”

***

“Oh Master Silas, thank goodness you’re here.”

Martha was a fussy woman whose enormous girth seemed to contribute to the seriousness of her regular assertions that some terrible drama was unfolding. She shook and sweated with the excitement of any unfortunate event; Silas had long ago learnt never to take her at her word and to always see for himself when she claimed “something dreadful has happened.”

“Why is that?” he inquired with not a little frustration bordering his tone.

“It’s your father. He can’t remember anything.”

“I’ve told you to write his appointments down for him Martha, really, it isn’t such an emergency if he’s forgotten one, is it?”

Martha was head, indeed sole, secretary at his father’s surgery.

“It’s not that sir. He can’t remember anything at all. Not me, not his work, nothing.”

Silas’ eyebrows made a bid for his hairline. This was far-fetched, even for Martha. She levered herself out her seat with one trembling arm and began to puff down the hallway, beckoning Silas with a sausage-like finger.

His father was sat in the chair in his office usually reserved for nervous patients awaiting test results. He looked like he had just been told that time did not exist, his face the definition of puzzlement. He glanced up as Silas entered but no recognition registered on his face. He rose, offering his hand with an awkward jerk.

“Good morning sir. My name is… Well, anyway. Good morning.”

Silas found himself shaking hands, keeping his left hand and its corpse appendage stowed away in his pocket.

“Father, it’s me, Silas, your son?”

“My… hmm? I don’t think I… I don’t remember a son. Today is turning out to be a bit of a confusion for me I’m afraid. What did you say your name was?”

“It’s… oh never mind. Listen, I’m going to get Martha to look after you whilst I find out what’s happened to make you so forgetful, if that’s agreeable to you?”

“The large lady? Yes, yes that’s fine. Could you ask her to bring me a little snack? It’s 11am already.”

Silas swept out and down the hallway, stopping at a nervous but gleeful looking Martha to give her the elevenses request and instruct her to see his father did not leave the surgery.

“Do come back soon Master Hardship!” she called happily as he hurried from the building, “you never know what may happen next!”

***

Gump’s finger was firmly buried in his ear. Everything about Lord Maugre made him nervous, including the ostentatious hallway he was currently fidgeting in, awaiting the return of the butler. Lord Maugre’s long-dead ancestors glared at Gump’s pacing with their cold marble eyes. He glanced at the busts, feeling the weight of their stony disapproval.

Gump had so distracted himself with his anxieties that the appearance of the butler made him start wildly, his finger flying out of his ear.

“Lord Maugre will see you now, sir.”

The butler balanced a great weight of sarcasm on the final word.

“Thank you Lepid.”

Thomas Lepid had been serving in the Maugre house since childhood but reserved his servile nature for his master alone. The rest of the world he treated with no more respect than he deigned they deserved. Gump wasn’t worth a deferential nod of the head, taking of the coat or offering of a drink. But he was just – barely, but just – worth calling ‘sir.’

Lepid strode from the hall with a curl of the finger as the only signal for Gump to follow. The Lord’s reception room hurled Gump’s tattered appearance into embarrassing relief. It was a glittering display of polished wood and stone, ancient tapestries and ornate but useless mantelpiece paraphernalia. Gump’s dingy establishment concealed the threads unfurling from his tailcoat, porridge stains clinging bravely to his lapel and the crevices that ran like tributaries over his face. He was battered and old, like a book left for too many years on a forgotten shelf.

The room was empty. Gump turned to ask Lepid where Maugre was but the butler had already abandoned him. He wondered how Maugre managed to keep his house in such condition with so little. It was common gossip that the Lord’s parents had died and left him nothing but this house and no money to run it. Lepid was the only servant left. He was obviously a talented cleaner.

The sun streamed through the room’s huge windows and he squinted against its glare, a restless worry slinking down to trouble his stomach. A grandfather clock marked the slow-passing seconds with trembling ticks.

Lord Maugre appeared in a sweep of silence at Gump’s side, startling the little man for a second time.

“What is it you mean by coming here like this, Elias?”

Maugre was one of only two people who called Gump by his given name. The other was his mother, an impossibly ancient woman holed up in a Devonshire mansion Gump would never see a penny from.

“Lord Maugre, please accept my apologies but I had to come. Silas Hardship came fossicking around this morning. I think he might know something.”

Maugre laughed; a deep joyless sound that bubbled up from his throat but never reached his eyes.

“How’s his finger?”

Gump displayed his discomfort with a shuffle.

“…blue.”

Lord Maugre turned to stare out the window at the gardens he never visited. His alabaster skin was best suited to indoor living and night-time excursions. His appearance shamed Gump, exquisitely tailored and expertly quoiffed as he was.

“But no ring?”

“No sign of it your Lordship, and Silas didn’t ask after it either. Maybe he hasn’t noticed its absence?”

“I find that unlikely.” Maugre snapped, his calm veneer cracking.

“But,” he continued, settling down again, “we can hope.  He has nothing to lead him here. Did he say what he planned to do?”

“He said he was going to find his finger. I suspect he’s gone to his father’s Harley Street practice.”

“Oh well Elias,” Maugre chuckled, “he won’t get much sense out of him.”

***

The church soared up above Silas’ head, its stone pillars and black wooden beams stretching up into a vaulted darkness. Candles burned in every corner, their feeble flickering light failing to illuminate anything but their iron holders. They threw constantly changing shadows into the recesses of the church. Silas could not shake off the impression that the walls were moving.

He walked down the centre aisle, listening to the sound of his footsteps losing itself in the depths of the church. He began to call out his priest’s name but shied away from the noise as the first clanging echo came back to his ears. Ahead, slumped in the foremost pew, he could just make out a human shape in the gloom. It was wreathed in an orb of light, cast half-heartedly from a spluttering candle. Silas advanced towards it.

“Father Enksy?”

The figure, a man in the robes of the Catholic priesthood, did not move, his head hung over his chest.

“Father?” Silas tried again, reaching out a hand with a tremor in the fingers to shake the priest’s shoulder.

“MARY, Jesus and Holy Saint Joseph!” cried the priest, yanked from his slumber, “what in God’s name do you mean by sneaking up on me so, boy?”

“For a man of the Church, Father, you blaspheme a lot,” Silas said, a smile pulling at the edges of his mouth.

“It lets the Lord know I’m still here, gets me a bit of celestial attention,” Father Ensky replied, balling his free hand into a fist and burrowing it into screwed shut eyes in an attempt to wake himself further.

“You really ought not to sleep holding a candle either, Father.”

Ensky looked in surprise at his right hand, as though he had forgotten he was holding anything. The pair sat in silence for a moment, the priest considering his candle and Silas considering how to begin.

“I saw Elias Gump today,” Father Ensky offered before Silas had a chance to open his mouth.

“Oh? For confession?”

The priest shifted his considerable girth and chewed at his lower lip.

“I couldn’t say, of course.”

“No. Of course.”

Silence reasserted itself between them with a waft of awkwardness about it, and both men fidgeted uncomfortably.

“I went to see him today myself. I have a little problem I was hoping he could help with.”

Silas held up his hand, complete with deceased finger. The priest’s face creased up in disgust, his nose drawing up his face towards a heavily wrinkled brow. The expression, however, did not translate any surprise.

“Gump had nothing to solve this trouble but I think he may have a solution to the riddle behind it,” Silas said, registering the efforts of the priest to look surprised.

“Why do you suppose someone would want to take my finger? Were they perhaps after the ring on it?”

Silas verbally prodded the priest for answers. Father Ensky squirmed, the rolls of fat at the back of his head sprouting beads of sweat despite the arctic temperature of the church.

“Well, that would seem a reasonable conclusion,” he muttered to the flagstones.

“I went to Father to ask him for help, but he seems to be having some troubling remembering anything. I thought the next step might be the police; see if they’ve apprehended anyone with stolen goods, what do you think, Father?”

The priest cast his eyes to the blackness above for inspiration and guidance, wringing his pudgy hands together.

“I think, lad, that you might be heading for… uh… a dead end there. As the case may be. I think Gump… well, he’s a man of great knowledge and greater foolishness. Easily coerced, as it were. If he knew something about where your ring was, I’m sure he could be convinced that it would be a grave error not to inform you of it.”

Silas nodded slowly, digesting the priest’s speech, careful not to miss a single syllable of its meaning.

“Thank you, Father,” he said, rising from the pew and drawing outside the circle of candlelight. “Please return to your… prayer.”

Father Ensky nodded and let his chin fall back to his chest as Silas disappeared away into the darkness.

***

Gump’s head was filled with Lord Maugre’s words and a slide-show of images from the night, as he walked back through the grand hallway. The poisoning of Dr Hardship had gone so well; the butler left the door unlocked just as his bribe had convinced him to do. Hardship had been fast asleep, just as they had needed him to be. And, according to Silas’s own testimony, the man was having severe memory troubles. It had been perfect.

So how had everything gone so wrong? Age had squirreled away many of Gump’s memories, leaving him with grey patches whose images were always just a fraction too blurry to make out. He shuffled away from the Maugre mansion, flecks of rain soaking into his whiskers as the early evening clouds began spitting at him.

The only thought that brought him comfort was that he had administered just a single drop of the wrong potion. ‘Dismemberment’ was extremely powerful; a tea spoon would have had Silas’ limbs drop off in seconds. A finger was not so disastrous. If only it had not been the one with the ring on it.

Gump swung round a corner at the end of an alley, his tails flicking out behind him, setting an unusual pace for a man who normally creaked with age. The city was darkening fast, lights beginning to burn in the windows of passing homes, illuminating the cobbles beneath his feet with umber. He felt the humiliation of being past his best, of making mistakes he would never have made in his potion-brewing prime. Attempting to retrieve the finger with a reversal potion had been a fool’s errand. He should have known better.

As Gump neared the unlit entrance to his shop, the apothecary sign creaking on its hinges in the wind, Lord Maugre’s parting words drifted once more through his mind,

“Find the finger and you find the ring Elias. If you wanted to find something dead, where would be your first stop?”

***

Lord Maugre struck three times against the Hardship family’s door with his cane. He listened to the sound bouncing down the empty corridor on the other side. No lights shone from the windows. Neither Silas nor his father were at home. It was a beautiful building, grand pillars supporting a stone porch, climbing plants creeping up the Edwardian facade. It quietly spoke of great wealth without arrogance.

Maugre turned, irritated, to leave and found himself face to face with Silas whose expression was washed with suspicion. Night had fallen heavy on the city and the young man, dressed head to toe in black, eyes shaded by a top hat, looked intimidating even to Maugre.

“Your Lordship,” Silas said slowly with a slight bow of the head.

“Master Hardship. I was calling with the hope of speaking to you. How fortuitous that you should arrive home just now.”

“Fortuitous indeed, but perhaps not fortunate,” Silas replied.

Lord Maugre ignored this slight and gestured towards the front door.

“Shall we go inside, talk over a drink perhaps?”

“I think not,” said Silas. “You are not welcome in my home, Maugre. Surely you did not come here with idea of a warm reception?”

Silas’ refusal to observe civility in his tone was making Lord Maugre uncomfortable. His eyes darted around the street, resting anywhere but on the man before him.

“Surely you’re not still sore over our little disagreement, Silas?”

“My sister loved you, sir. Do you have any idea what that means? She loved you, and she would still be here if you had honoured that love and your promises. You as good as killed her.”

A shard of light sliced through the dark from a nearby window and reflected in Silas’ eyes. They shone with a fierce anger.

“I meant to marry her, dear boy. It was that blasted pre-nuptial agreement your father wanted signed, it took all the romance out of the situation you see and…”

He broke off at the look on Silas’ face which was twitching with a barely controlled hatred.

“What have you really come for?”

“I heard you had injured yourself; wanted to call and offer my services, check on you. We were almost family once.”

Maugre added this last observation tentatively, unsure how far he could lie without sounding absurd. Silas held out his hand with its dangling dead addition.

“Is this what you came to see?” Silas barked.

Lord Maugre recoiled.

“Goodness man, that looks hideous. Get to a doctor immediately.”

He turned and began to stride away.

“I would, but my doctor seems to have a touch of amnesia!” Silas called after the fast retreating figure.

His Lordship had not come to check up on him, Silas knew that in his bones. He was here trying to find something out.

In a sudden strike of clarity, there in the murky black of the city night, it dawned on Silas. The ring. It was a key. One of two needed to open their family vault. The key to their hard earned fortune. His father wore the other. Had he been wearing it when Silas had visited that morning? Panic squirming in his stomach, he realised he couldn’t remember.

Turning his back on his home and keeping to the deeper shadows cast by the looming buildings, he began hurrying on light feet after Lord Maugre.

***

Gump stole down the side of the church. He did not want to risk alerting Father Enksy to his presence as he passed the open oak doors. The fat old priest would only want to know what he was up to and Gump did not feel able to muster up another confession so soon after his last, rather desperate, admission of religious guilt. The man he sought would be amongst the graves somewhere. The church of Saint Rita was the nearest to the Hardship household and so his first port of call.

Fankle was indeed amongst the tombstones and effigies that were scattered with abandon around the graveyard. A large angel was towering over him, her expression lost to years of erosion. He weeded around her feet, apparently unaware of the strangeness of night time gardening. The moon cast a bold reflection on his considerable bald patch.

“Fankle,” Gump hissed at him from his position behind a nearby headstone.

Fankle fell back and lay flailing for a second like an upended beetle.

“Ooh, sir,” he moaned, spotting Gump, “you didn’t half make me jump, sir. What are you doing sneaky sneaking about in the dark like some lovely little midnight creature sir? Like some thief non-gooder? Not meaning to say you are up to no good sir, but you are certainly sneaking like you are.”

“Keep your voice down you simpleton!” Gump cursed back at the ragged graveyard attendant. “I just wanted to know if you’ve spotted anything unusual around here this last day and night?”

Fankle, appearing to consider the question with his limited brain power, put his hand to his chin and made to lean on the nearest headstone. He missed by some distance and landed once more on his back with a thump.

“Good God! Keep quiet!”

“Sorry, sir,” Fankle replied with a strained voice from his horizontal position.

“There’s been nothing of note to report, sir,” he said, making a move to right himself but getting tangled up by some florists twine from the nearest gravestone’s flowers in the process.

Gump appeared to deflate a little, letting out his disappointment in an elongated sigh. Fankle, covered in soil and grass, looked no more strange than usual.

“Seems a funny thing, sir, to ask what might go on in a graveyard. Nothing much here, sir, but the dead and the buried and mostly the one is the other, sir. No one to talk to, nothing to see. No need to be squirming and poking around, sir.”

Gump opened his mouth to berate the peasant but before he could do so a shadow arrived at his side.

“That’ll be all, Fankle,” Lord Maugre said.

Fankle did not need to be told twice and quickly lost himself once more amongst the graves and tombs.

“What is the meaning of this Elias? Did I not warn you to be discreet?”

“I was being, your Lordship! I…”

A sound cut through the night, halting the conversation. It was a frail ringing, a soft tinkling coming from somewhere in the graveyard’s darkness. A bell.

Fankle appeared once more, sniffing the air as though he might smell the sound’s origin. The three men stood for a moment listening, then set off without a word in the same direction. In the darkest corner of the graveyard a lone bell, affixed to the edge of an ancient crumbling headstone, was ringing.

They stopped in front of the nameless stone and a wild beast of fear woke in all their stomachs. Gump trembled like a bowl of jelly riding a horse and trap, sticking his finger into his ear. Lord Maugre stood stock still, staring at the bell whilst Fankle scratched his head.

“Not supposed to happen, that,” observed Fankle. “This grave ain’t even that old. Bell’s a leftover from the plague. Dodgy docs diagnosed some folks as dead when they weren’t, so they buried ‘em with bells to ring if they woke up six feet under. Curious thing to hear one ringing don’tcha think?”

Lord Maugre responded with a single word.

“Dig.”

***

Silas had watched the men from behind a stone cross. Though he could not hear what they had said, he heard the haunting peal, cutting straight to his heart. He had stayed hidden, watching the graveyard worker digging under the ringing bell. It wasn’t until Lord Maugre stumbled back, hand over his mouth, that Silas rushed forward.

The men did nothing to acknowledge Silas’ arrival. They were all staring into the open coffin. Silas made to speak but his eyes caught movement from the deep hole and he looked down.

Inside was a corpse, blue and green with decomposition, its features melted into one another, worms and maggots rooting into the eye sockets and mouth. The body looked soft and gooey except for the index finger of the left hand which glowed pink and healthy, a wire tied round its tip. It was tugging at the wire, ringing the bell.

Round its base was Silas’ ring.

***

The next few moments passed with alarming speed. Gump fell over backwards, unconscious. Fankle ran to the church, crying out for Father Ensky, and Lord Maugre sprinted for the street. Silas tore after him, the cold air harsh in his throat, but at the gates Maugre threw down a bottle that exploded in a puff of noxious purple smoke. Silas stopped, coughing his guts up onto the pavement.

When the sickness had passed, Lord Maugre had disappeared. Father Ensky and Fankle appeared, the latter clutching Silas’ finger and its precious cargo.

“Yours, I believe, sir,” he said, passing over the appendage.

Father Ensky put his arm around Silas’ shoulder.

“Let’s get you home, child,” he muttered, leading Silas out to the street.

***

“And how are we today, young Master Hardship?”

“Better thank you Father. My finger is healing well.”

Silas held up his hand, complete with neatly sewn stump, to show Father Enksy.  The priest nodded his approval.

“No sign of his Lordship?”

“None, I’m afraid,” the priest sighed, “disappeared along with his butler.”

“And what of Gump?”

“He has shut the shop. Taken nothing with him from the stock but a few bottles he kept out the back, according to the police.”

Silas sat back in his chair, his brow wrinkling in thought.

“How is your father doing?” the priest enquired.

“Rather better thank you, he remembers me now but not Martha, despite her memorable appearance. The antidote seems to be working.”

The priest nodded again and gazed out the window of Silas’ reception room. The sun was just breaking through a bank of gunmetal clouds.

“And what of your father’s ring?”

“No sign. But I rather think I might begin looking for it, now I’m healed. No doubt the secret lies with Gump.”

“It always does,” replied Father Enksy, and the two men smiled at each other in the strengthening sunlight.

rsz_fullsizerender_1
Short story, Thriller

Drowning in the sea of trees

Author: R J D Moore

The unnatural light of the factory burned Yoshi’s retinas. It was late in the year, darkness fell early and his hours were long. He hadn’t seen daylight in what seemed like a thousand years. His wife Aki had lost her job due to the economy two years prior, so Yoshi had to work all the hours he could for them to survive. He felt little more than a robot. He repeated the same task over and over repeatedly like a clockwork animal. The white lights disorientated and bewildered his sense of time; the clocks could easily be changed and no-one would be any the wiser.

The Foreman called to Yoshi that it was the end of his shift. He stretched his frail slim frame in to a C shape and rubbed his sore back with a worn out, grease smeared glove. He could barely walk as his nuts chaffed against the harsh unforgiving fabric of his trousers, every movement felt like a napalm explosion. The hours he was doing were crazy – he was up at first light and home well after the sun had made its exit. He was exhausted, but the shame of not being able to provide was worse.

When Yoshi got home it was pitch black, his wife Aki and little girl Akira where tucked up in bed, unaware of his presence. He felt like a ghost as he floated around his abode checking on his family, the moon reflecting off his grey malnourished skin. He hadn’t even conversed with them much in the last month. The only conversation he had had with his wife was about a loan and using her mother as a guarantor and the only interaction with his daughter had been about a poo she had just completed. He sat down at the table to eat the cold meal that had been left by his wife. Next to it was a note.

“I love you” it stated. Yoshi broke down. He couldn’t take it anymore; the shame, the workload, eating poorly, not seeing daylight or his family. He had made his mind up: he was going to die. At least if he was dead his family would get his life insurance payout and he could rest. Like a warrior he was going to commit the final act himself rather than be swallowed up by life’s twisted fabric; at least this way he would have the dignity in providing for his family.

The sun broke Yoshi’s slumber like a hammer to a glass window. He was so used to the rhythm of waking up at the same time each day he didn’t even need an alarm clock. He was more machine than man these days; at least machines can’t kill themselves Yoshi thought. His death would be his final act as a man. He kissed his family goodbye for the last time and slumped into his car. He was still exhausted and every muscle ached. Every day for as far back as he could remember had been exactly the same; a wash rinse repeat cycle of dreariness and time loops, he didn’t even know what day it was. He started the car in a daze and drove to the nearest store.

Yoshi had decided to head to Aokigahara, Sea of trees, a forest known to be haunted by the angry souls of those who seek release. He checked his bag was filled with the necessary implements and headed on his way. It was a long drive from the north of the island of Honshu. Yoshi checked his watch several times, almost feeling guilty for not turning up to work, breaking the cycle felt very strange. The roads twisted and turned down scenic emerald highways, the grey icy peak of Mount Fuji poking out the top. This was the longest time Yoshi had been subjected to natural light and nature in so long it felt surreal, like a dream he was sure he would cruelly wake from.

He arrived at the huge sprawling forest by mid-afternoon. He negotiated his way to the entrance through hordes of tourists who would hike down the trails set out for them. Yoshi took a detour over the rope and into the depths of the forest, leaving the voices of the tourists far behind him. As he clambered over moss and rocks he noticed something unnatural in the distance; a red ribbon was flapping out of sync with the green scenery.

Yoshi’s curiosity got the better of him and he decided to follow it. The ribbon seemed to be endless; the bleak flapping sound it made was the only sound that could be heard in the dead of the forest. The endlessness of the ribbon and the endlessness of the forest disorientated him even more than he was already. All of a sudden it ended abruptly, Yoshi looked around: Nothing. That couldn’t be right? He continued. In the distance he noticed something catching the light, so he bent down to investigate. It was what appeared to be a plain gold wedding band; much like his own. The ring was heavy with sadness, it engulfed him with woe and he fell to his knees. The forest felt like it was feeding on his negativity as he dropped.

He picked himself up off the ground and continued with his backpack over a mossy mound. There was something swaying in the breeze a few yards away. As he got closer he discovered it was a young girl of around 20, swinging from a rope. Her clothes were damp and a lifeless sadness was painted all over her face. He broke down in floods of tears; she looked just like his wife Aki. He took out a knife and cut her down. She hadn’t been there long as hadn’t started to decompose. It couldn’t be her, could it? He stroked the hair from off her cold damp face to take a better look; she could have been her twin. There is no way it could be her, he had left he house before her. No way?

He flopped onto the floor overwhelmed and weary next to the corpse, he took out the ring he had picked up and placed it on her finger. The wind lifted some leaves and a smell of perfume filled his nostrils. He put his head in his hands and cried, just then he herd a voice whisper through the trees

“Thank you”.

Yoshi darted to his feet. There was no-one to bee seen.

He shivered.

Yoshi sat on the mound near the young girl and drank a bottle of water. He took out a picture of his wife from his wallet and looked at it solemnly. He wanted to see her again; he also wanted to make sure that the girl he had just discovered wasn’t in fact his wife. He couldn’t tell anymore. How long had he been here anyway? Time had abandoned him and his brain no longer functioned properly. He sat in silence and listened to the birds and the streams, he wasn’t ready to die. He would fight.

Suddenly the silence was broken. In the distance he could hear voices, they sounded like shouting. He picked up his backpack and went to find out what was going on in the distance. As he got closer he could see two guys in suits viciously wrapping a noose around a third guy’s throat. They looked like gang members, maybe a fracas between two factions. One member held the would-be hangee while the other threw the rope over a branch and began to hoist him up. The man kicked and shook violently in the breeze while the two men laughed and shared a cigarette. Yoshi hid behind a tree, trying not to let a single sound escape. The men made jokes as one of them disrespectfully stubbed out his cigarette on the dead mans shoe. He shook no longer. The men began to walk back, talking loudly. Yoshi tried to remain as silent as possible but a branch under his feet betrayed him. The two men pulled out their guns and aimed them in Yoshi’s direction.

“Who’s there?” the larger of the men shouted

“We know there is someone there” grunted the smaller grumpier man

Yoshi froze in cold sweat, there was no escape, the only thing he could do was run. He found his feet were running before his brain could catch up. Bullets whizzed past him and splintered trees in his path. He had never felt so alive, ironic as only an hour ago he was about to kill himself. He sprinted over rocks and mossy logs and was making good ground until he caught his foot in a vine and fell on his face knocking himself unconscious.

He awoke with a rope around his neck and the two men staring blankly at him, just another mundane day’s work.

“What are you doing here?” asked the smaller grumpier gang member

“I came here to kill myself” sighed Yoshi “but I have changed my mind” he pleaded “I have decided I want to get home and to live”

“Well that’s unfortunate timing” barked the larger man “you have witnessed something that we don’t want anyone to know about”

“I won’t tell a sou….”

“I don’t give a shit” interrupted the grumpy man “you have two choices, you can be hanged? Or we will torture you, then shoot you, then hang you?”

“Those aren’t great choices” Yoshi suggested

“They are you’re only choices” Said the big man, making a sad face and smoothing down his suit.

“Fine just do it” Yoshi submitted

The Men pulled on the rope and Yoshi felt his entire weight pull on his neck. The rope creaked as it twisted its way round the large branch and tightened on his throat. Yoshi took a last deep breath; it was really difficult to breath now. White and green flickers of the thin trees and the light of the sky cracked in his line of sight. He tried to grab at the rope with his hands to no avail. It was going to happen. As he felt his life slipping into the white fog he saw the young girl, she caressed him in her arms and vanished. The last thing he could hear over the rope creaking was the wind in the trees and the birdsong. His last thought was: ‘Life is beautiful.’