The Sleeper Underground

The Sleeper Underground

Lori hammered at the door of the dark house of dubious reputation. Even in her anxiety, she managed to admire the dragon’s head door knocker she was using to make the door vibrate in tune to the sense of urgency she felt.

The door opened and a person dressed all in black peered out.

‘Do you have an appointment?’ they asked.

‘No, but I need your help.’

‘You must make an appointment.’

‘I don’t have time for that. This is urgent.’

‘Everyone thinks that, but, very well, you may come in.’

They stopped in the hall, and Lori sensed that it would take some persuasion to get any further, but she was ready for that.

‘What is the nature of your request?’

‘Well — oh, I don’t know your name?’

There was a long pause before Lori got a reply.

‘Lamia.’

Really? Lori thought, but made no comment.

‘I’m Lori. I have lost one of my friends.’

‘Missing or deceased?’

‘Er, just missing, I hope.’

‘There is a very good dowser in town who would be able to help you. Our services are very specialised.’

‘Ken, yes, I know him — but he wouldn’t be much help in this case. You see, my friend, the missing one, he’s an urban explorer—.’

‘What is that?’

Lamia’s confusion was obvious.

‘He likes to look around abandoned houses, factories and so on—and tunnels.’

‘Tunnels?’

‘Yes, and he was telling me all about how the whole of Shuckleigh is riddled with underground tunnels. Very old, no-one knows who built them, and so on. Well, he told me that there is an entrance to the tunnels below this house.’

‘Why did he think that?’

‘He’s been researching it all for a long time. Well, obviously you weren’t going to let him access the tunnels from here.’

‘No,’ said Lamia, with the finality of a door slamming shut.

‘That’s what he thought. So there was no way of getting down there or of proving that they actually exist.’

‘They don’t exist.’

‘Don’t be silly. Of course they do, and a few days ago he told me that he’d found a new way in and he was going to go down there and try to map them out.’

‘Where is this other way in?’ asked Lamia, narrowing their eyes in suspicion.

‘If I knew that, I wouldn’t be bothering you, would I? Anyway, two days ago, he set off to do his exploration. I haven’t seen him since.’

Lamia stood quite still for at least thirty seconds, then abruptly turned and took the stairs two at a time, leaving Lori standing alone in the creepy dark hallway, but Lori was used to creepy so she waited patiently.

Above her, a door slammed on the first floor, and there was the sound of somebody running further upstairs. Lamia came down again and stood with Lori in silence while they waited. A little while later a thin man in a tweed suit, followed by a tall woman with flowing dark hair and a green velvet gown, came down to join them. Lamia introduced them as the Professor and Madame Nina.

‘Go home,’ said the Professor. ‘We’ll deal with this.’

‘No,’ said Lori. ‘I’m staying.’

There was a short silence, an exchange of glances, and no more was said on the matter.

‘Fetch Brindle,’ said the Professor, and Lamia walked into the gloom of the far hallway, through a door, returning a while later with a yellow-eyed creature that looked like a cross between a wolf and a bear. Fortunately it was on a leash.

All of them went through a second door, leading to stairs down to the basement, through some poorly-lit passages, and though another door with stairs going down into pitch darkness. A strong musty odour flew up towards them, borne on disturbingly warm air.

‘Lamia, take the rearguard,’ said Madame Nina, taking Brindle’s leash.

‘You,’ she said to Lori, ‘stay behind me and do not be tempted to look around. Don’t speak, either.’

Lori nodded, and touched the back of her neck under her hair, where there was a small tattoo, still fresh and sore, the only tattoo on her body.

Madame Nina and Lamia had electric torches, even though this felt like the place for flaming brands, held high.

Lori did look around, but there was little to see in the tunnels — rough-cut earthen walls held up by sturdy wooden beams. As they went down, the walls became rock, moist and musty. Sometimes a shadow flitted by. Behind her, the Professor kept up a steady chant, which she did not understand.

Whenever the tunnels branched, and they did often, Brindle pulled at his leash one way or the other, and Lori wondered how and what he was tracking, since he had not been given any scent to follow. She did not ask, though.

Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. There was no wind blowing but it felt as though they were at the centre of a maelstrom. Lori sensed a multitude of invisible beings swirling about her. The Professor’s chant grew in volume, though not in comprehensibility.

Brindle growled. Both Madame Nina and Lamia joined in with the chant. Lori felt the maelstrom enter her head. She touched the tattoo again and the swirling storm receded from her mind, but still there was the feeling of a screaming force all around.

What is this place? What are these tunnels? How will we ever be able to find our way out again? These questions tumbled around in her mind, chased by a fear that Lori wanted to say was irrational, engendered by the darkness, but which she really felt was perfectly reasonable.

She strained her eyes to see into the darkness beyond Madame Nina, and at last, there in the light of the torch, was a pale figure, frozen still with one arm reaching out.

Madame Nina stopped.

‘Is that him?’ she asked.

Lori stepped forward.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘yes.’ She tried to go to him, but Nina grasped her arm. They advanced together and as they did, Lori thought she saw a shadow, like a giant maggot, retreat from the oncoming light and Nina’s chanting.

Gabriel was covered in flimsy stuff like white cobwebs. Lori pulled it away from his face and spoke to him, but he did not respond.

‘Professor,’ said Nina, and the Professor came forward and picked Gabriel up in a fireman’s lift. Lori would not have thought he had the strength.

They went back the way they came, Madame Nina in the rear and Lamia leading the way with Brindle. All the time they were in the tunnels, something scuttled behind them, following.

Back in the house, the Professor deposited Gabriel on a chaise-tongue in the hall and Lamia called for an ambulance. Madame Nina brought a glass of water and tried to coax Gabriel to drink. He took one swallow and she seemed satisfied.

She offered Lori brandy, which Lori tried to decline, but it was pressed on her so insistently that she took it. The others watched, even Brindle, as she raised the glass to her lips and pretended to swallow some. A tiny drop did seep between her lips, and it tasted rather unusual. She touched the protective sigil on the back of her neck and her mind cleared, with only a bit of fuzziness left at the edges of her consciousness.

The door knocker sounded. Lamia went to answer it and the others withdrew out of sight.

As they came in, Lamia told the paramedics that Gabriel had been found wandering and confused after being missing for two days, and that Lori was his friend.

She went with him to the hospital. After a day in bed on a saline drip to rehydrate him, Gabriel returned to himself, but remembered nothing of the past three days. Whenever Lori tried to talk to him about the tunnels he would just look at her blankly and begin to talk about something else.

Lori remembered, though she knew that she was not supposed to. She decided that she would try to find out as much about the tunnels as she could, short of actually going back down there. She did not want to find out first hand just what followed them all the way back through the tunnels, always beyond the reach of the light.

Midnight Memorandum

Midnight Memorandum

Aidan went to bed unblemished and woke in the morning branded.

After a less than restful night’s sleep he got out of bed too early and bad-tempered. Also, his belly itched. He scratched through his t-shirt, thinking he’d been bitten by something. Pulling off the t-shirt, he looked down to see a word written across his stomach.

Upside-down from the world’s point of view, and scrawled in shaky handwriting as if it was written with a quill pen in iron-gall ink, was the word ‘Liar’ inscribed on his flesh. If it had been felt-tip he would have been less disturbed. He fled to the shower, pausing only to take a photo with his phone, for evidence. Lathering himself thoroughly, he rubbed and scrubbed at the word, but could not erase it.

At the office, the discomfort gnawed at him, he thought of reporting the incident to the police — it was an assault, after all — but feared they might laugh at him. Or worse, ask who thought he was a liar.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Will asked, not disguising the resentment he felt. ‘Feeling the stress of your promotion?’

‘I had a bad night,’ Aidan replied coldly.

You see, he thought, I tell the truth, even to Will. Will, who openly told everyone in the office how little Aidan deserved his promotion.

At lunchtime he went to the Gents toilet, into a cubicle, and pulled up his shirt. His stomach was perfectly clean and word-free, but rather pink still from the early-morning scrubbing. Even so, for the rest of the day every time he might usually have lied, he was unable to. Instead his colleagues were greeted with an uncharacteristic awkward silence. They were used to a more aggressive style of bossing from him, especially since he took over from Al Matthews.

Matthews used to have a way of shredding people to dust if they failed to meet his exacting standards, which unfortunately tended to change from day to day, so there was no way to win.

Aidan made it to the end of the working day, and by then he had shaken off his reaction to the ‘dream thing’ as he was now thinking of it, and returned to his normal self.

The next morning he was again woken by a ferocious itching across his stomach. He did not want to look, but he had to.

Liar, liar.

This time he didn’t try to wash it off. He tried to ignore it, but he was again pushed into a bad mood, and he caught himself starting to talk to people just like Matthews used to. Apologising, he claimed illness and took the rest of the day off.

On his way to the lift, he passed the door to the stairs and was, as usual, treated to a vivid memory.

Matthews yelling at him.

‘Why isn’t this report done yet?’

‘I need more time—‘

‘You need a kick up the arse.’

‘if you want it done properly—‘

‘If I wanted it done properly, I’d hire someone else. So I will. You’re fired. Pack up your stuff and get out.’

‘You can’t— ‘

But Matthews had stormed off. Aidan followed him through the main office, trying to get him to listen, but with no success. There was no-one around to witness his humiliation. Everyone except him had gone home, while he stayed to finish that bloody report.

Matthews went to the stairs. He claimed that using the stairs instead of lazing in the lift helped to give him his drive. Aidan followed through the door. At the top of the stairs, Matthews turned to face him at last, but only to say, ‘Give it up Aidan. The sight of you begging is making me sick.’

Aidan gave the miserable bastard a forceful shove in the chest, and watched the result in strange slow time.

The look of astonishment on Matthews’ face as he fell backwards, the sound of him rolling out of control down two flights of stairs, the crack as his skull hit hard concrete. The expanding pool of blood around his crumpled, motionless form.

‘I didn’t mean to kill him,’ Aidan thought.

Liar.

To every question the police asked — liar, liar. Verdict of accidental death, all lies. In the memorial speech he gave at Matthews’ funeral — liar, liar, liar. And the next morning, written on his body, liar in triplicate.

He realised that it would be like this for the rest of his life. Soon enough he would wake up every morning scrawled all over with his guilt, no clean spot of skin anywhere.

Now he stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at the concrete, scrubbed clean, but which should have a single word scrawled on it in blood.

He hardly heard the door open behind him, but he felt two hands thrust hard against his back. He flew, and turning in his flight he saw Will with a look of furious triumph on his face.

Did I look like that? he wondered, just before his skull shattered and all the wondering was over.

Swallowed by Night

Swallowed by Night

Out go the lights. At one pm all the side streets of the town are flicked into darkness. Few people are about, and fewer still as the night bears down. Even the town’s homeless population take refuge in the shelter which closes its doors at midnight. All the town’s doors are closed by midnight.

An occasional car drives by. No-one else is out except for the shadows.

On this particular night a woman was walking alone in the dark streets, head down, shoulders hunched, footsteps firm and rapid. She seemed wrapped about in something darker than the night, and not concerned with whatever might be watching her. And there was something watching her.

As she walked, movement sensitive porch lights flashed on here and there. The follower avoided these pools of light. He stalked her through the streets, getting closer as they walked. She was so small a morsel, so slight, and so tempting.

The follower made no sound. He wondered where this woman was going at this hour of the night. The night folded around them. A cat crossed the pavement in front of the woman, froze, then fled.

A certain familiar shadow cast across the woman’s path but, like the cat, it did not stay to trouble her.

The follower lost patience with his curiosity. Hunger overrode his interest in the destination of his prey and he became less cautious in his pursuit, speeding up and not concerning himself about the few intermittent light sources.

She heard him. He saw that she did by the slight stiffening of her shoulders and the way that she, too, quickened her pace. Feeling his own power and the greater length of his stride, he easily closed the distance between them. Now he could tell that she was wearing a dark hooded garment.

He was almost on her when she stopped and turned halfway towards him. This was unexpected. Prey usually tried to run for it, that was half the pleasure. He stopped too, hesitating.

‘Go away,’ she said.

Her voice was clear, but small, almost as if it came from very far away — perhaps from the other end of a long, silent tunnel.

He laughed, and took a step closer.

‘I am warning you, go away,’ she said.

‘You’re warning me are you?’ I am so scared,’ he hissed.

She should have started to run, then he would be on her in a moment, but instead she began to turn slowly all the way towards him. He felt an unaccustomed sense of unease. Her face was invisible in the cover of the dark hood.

Against the urging of a primal fear, he stood his ground, sure that he was the one to be feared. He laughed again, and came on towards her.

He was far too close when he realised that she had no face, that she was not a woman at all.

Beneath the hood there was a pit of the most profound darkness. If he had shone a torch into it, all the light would have been swallowed up, never to escape.

Now it was too late. He stretched like a string of melted cheese, pulled long and taut, sucked forward into that inexorable darkness. There was a screech, then silence.

The woman pulled the hood closer about her, turned, and walked on, resuming her endless journey, always ahead of the dawn.

Services Rendered

Services Rendered

At the top of the hill there is a dark house. Visitors come to the front door, and while they wait to be admitted they glance about, not wanting to be seen.

Deliveries are made to the back of the property, occasionally a goat, often large oblong boxes, and various other peculiar things in unusually-shaped boxes. Post is taken in at the front door, but Haroun, the regular postman, does not like to have to ring the bell. It is always answered by an androgynous person, dressed all in black and with glittering coal-black eyes. They never smile or offer a pleasantry about the dreadful/wonderful weather. A short, chilling, ‘thanks’ is all he ever gets.

When Eli came to the front door the same person answered his knock and allowed him in, as he was expected.

‘What services do you require?’ they asked him.

‘I’ve done something really stupid,’ he said, ‘and I need it erased. I heard that you could arrange that.’

‘Not I,’ said the dark-eyed one, ‘but it may be possible. You will have to make your request to the Professor.’

The Professor was a short, thin and insignificant looking man in a tweed suit, whose domain was a small office on the first floor of the dark house.

‘First, I have to outline some conditions,’ he said. ‘This establishment does not involve itself in cases of murder or resurrection, no matter what you may have heard.’

‘No problem,’ said Eli. ‘I haven’t murdered anyone.’

‘I am pleased to hear it. Your request was for an erasure?’

‘Not of a person.’

‘Of the memory of some act, or of its consequences?’

‘Both would be nice.’

‘Both would be very expensive.’

‘Oh, well, the memory then. I suppose if no-one remembers what I did, they won’t know the consequences are my fault, will they?’

The Professor gave Eli look he did not quite understand, but it made him feel uncomfortable all the same.

‘How many?’

‘How many what?’

‘How many people’s memories would need to be adjusted?’

‘Oh. Two.’

‘Only two?’

Eli nodded.

‘Write down a detailed account of your error, including details of the two…subjects.’

The Professor handed Eli a pad of paper and a biro, then he left the room. Eli spent an uncomfortable half-hour recounting and reliving one of the most excruciating episodes of his life. As soon as he placed the final full stop, the Professor came back in. He took the pad from Eli and scanned through the account, sighed and curled his lip. Eli felt a deep sense of shame, and wanted to take it all back, but it was too late.

‘We will send you a bill,’ said the Professor. ‘You should understand that late payment is inadvisable.’

‘Er, yes, sure. How long will it take?’

‘The bill?’

‘No the … procedure.’

‘Our specialist should have a free spot this evening, around midnight. I assume you would prefer not to wait longer?’

‘Maybe,’ said Eli, ‘my memories of the whole thing ought to be erased as well. Would that cost much more?’

‘I don’t advise that. How would you know to avoid such a banal mistake in the future?’

Eli signed a contract, not in blood, thankfully, and left the house as fast as he could. All he had to do now was to stay away from home until the early hours of the morning.

He crept in at four o’clock and slipped into bed next to Sarah. She turned over and seemed to half wake, but she did not scream at him, so that was good.

In the morning he got up and made coffee. When she came downstairs, Sarah gave him a confused look.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, innocently.

‘i feel like, I don’t know, I feel like I’ve forgotten something important.’

‘If it was important, it’ll come back to you,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Have a coffee, that might help.’

That afternoon, the big test, they went to the pub and met up with Gaby and Andy. Gaby and Sarah were best friends, but today they were very ill at ease with each other.

Afterwards Sarah was quiet and withdrawn. Eli asked what was wrong.

‘I don’t want to see Gaby again. I can’t stand the sight of her.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know, I just can’t.’

A few days later, a plain white envelope came through the post. Financially speaking it was a kick in the groin, and Eli was glad he had gone for the cheaper option, but there was also a subsidiary element, which he was afraid would turn out to be even more costly.

“Your services will be called on at some future date, and you may not refuse.”

Eli, who had been feeling very relieved and comfortable, suffered a flashback to the forgotten thing — Gaby’s soft thighs, Sarah walking in on them at just the wrong moment, his marriage and his life torn to shreds for a piece of stupid weakness. The Professor was right, his mistake had been banal. It was bad, but this bill he held was worse. Up there in the dark house they still knew what had happened. He had written it all down for them, after all, and then he had failed to read the contract.

At some ‘future date’ he was going to have to pay. Too late now, he realised that there might have been a better way, and that perhaps the easy way did not exist.

Dream Door

Dream Door

It took a good few minutes of staring at the blank wall for Ben to realised that he must have dreamed the door. This was a plain red brick wall, probably Victorian, mortar crumbling in places, but with no sign of any door, or even any previous opening, now blocked up, at any point along its length. Yet the image of an old weathered door, marked with traces of blue paint, but most flaked off down to the bare wood, now silvered with age — that image was vivid in his mind. He remembered an old iron latch with a twisted ring for a handle. It should have been about here in the wall, just where he stood — except that it was not, and apparently never had been.

It was not common for him to confuse dreams and memories, and his dreams were not usually so detailed and realistic. The discovery that the door did not exist knocked him off balance for the rest of the day, but by the next morning he had forgotten it all.

A week later, about two in the morning, he woke suddenly from a dream. A moment before he had been standing in front of that door again. He’d reached out and scraped off one of the few remaining flakes of blue paint with his thumbnail, then reached down for the latch handle and twisted it up to open the door.

The act of opening the door woke him, and he could still feel the cold iron of the twisted ring in his right hand. The sensation faded, but he could not get back to sleep.

In the morning he took a detour on his way to work, but the door still did not exist.

This time he accepted the non-existence of the door completely. He dismissed the whole thing as just a stupid dream and thought no more about it. In the following weeks he walked past the wall quite often without even looking at it.

He was with a group of friends walking to the pub on Friday night, talking and laughing. Ben half noticed that they were walking past the notorious wall on the other side of the road, but he paid it no attention. Chaz said something stupid and funny, and Ben turned to answer, but behind Chaz, across the road, he saw the door. It was there in the wall, real and solid. Ben stopped walking and stared at it.

‘What?’ said Chaz.

‘That door. Have you ever seen it before?’

‘What door?’

“That one.’ Ben pointed at the door, but it had gone. There was only a blank brick wall.

He had to suffer quite a bit of ridicule for five minutes, but the incident made him feel strange and he could not enjoy the drinking or the chat at all.

Leaving early, he walked back the same way, but on the wall side of the road. He dragged his fingertips along the brickwork, which was real enough. It was still fairly light and he thought he saw a familiar shape in the wall as he approached the halfway point.

There it was again. The door, looking as if it had always been there.

‘You bastard,’ he said, and stopped in front of it, daring it to disappear.

He reached out and scraped off a flake of blue paint with his thumbnail.

‘Am I dreaming?’ he wondered. ‘Was I dreaming earlier on? Does the door only exist in my dreams, or does it exist in reality and when I’m dreaming there is no door?’

That line of thought led nowhere he wanted to go. He reached out and took hold of the twisted iron handle, turned it, and the latch lifted.

‘I should wake up now,’ he thought.

He woke up. He was in the pub with his friends, his hand on a half-full pint of bitter. Everyone was laughing except him. Trying hard not to show how confused he was, he tried to join in the laughter, though he had no idea what was so funny.

‘Something wrong?’ asked Chaz.

‘No. No. Yes. I’m feeling a bit ill,’ said Ben. ‘I think I’ll have to go home.’

He thought of asking Chaz to come with him, but that seemed a bit weak. By the time he was walking the length of the wall, he regretted that decision.

Taking a deep breath he carried on walking, certain that there would be no door.

There was a door.

He really did try to walk past it, but he couldn’t. The only illumination now was a nearby street lamp. He reached out and flaked off a scrap of paint with his thumbnail. It might have been blue, it was hard to tell. He took hold of the cold iron ring and turned it, lifting the latch.

‘I should wake up now,’ he thought.

The Relic

The Relic

‘And this, my friend, is a real treasure.’

He handed me an oblong rosewood box inlaid with mother of pearl.

‘It’s a nice enough box,’ I said, not particularly wanting to be talked into overpaying for something I did not really desire. That has happened once too often and i honestly did try not to come in to Mosse’s Antiques and Vintage, not more than once a month, anyway.

‘Not the box,’ said Mosse with an impatient wave of the hand.

I opened the box and inside there lay a nice, but not rare, pearl-handled dip pen with a gold nib, old ink still crusted at its tip.

‘Erm, well, it’s a nice enough pen—‘

‘That, my friend, is the pen of Aesop Allen.’

My stomach gave a little twist, but he might as well have been trying to sell me a yeti tooth.

‘Oh yes?’ I said with as much scepticism as I could express. ‘No-one knows anything about Aesop Allen.’

‘Not true. The one thing known for sure is that he came from Shuckleigh.’

‘Well, that much, yes, but—‘

‘This pen has an impeccable provenance. I purchased it from a member of the Hollister family, and it is accompanied by a contemporary note.’

Mosse flipped open a velvet-covered flap in the lid of the box and an old piece of paper slid into his hand. I unfolded it and read what was written on it in black ink in a clear, but undoubtedly Victorian hand.

‘This pen was given to me by Aesop Allen as a token of our deep friendship. With this pen, Aesop Allen wrote Harrow Hall and other famous books. H. Hollister.’

‘Harrow Hall,’ I said, that terrifying work about primeval fear ripping apart the rational veneer of Victorian country life.

My fingers trembled as I refolded the paper and presumed to pick up the pen.

‘It looks quite ladylike,’ I said. ‘Some people say that Aesop Allen was a woman.’

‘Feminist piffle!’ snapped Mosse. ‘The muscularity of the prose completely rules that out.’

I did not judge it wise to pursue the point, and I forgot about it as I felt the pen vibrate with possibility in my hand.

‘H. Hollister was Hester Hollister, wife of the Rev. Mordechai Hollister of St Marys.’

‘Ah yes,’ I said. ‘I have heard of him, and the dates would be right, but can you be sure of the attribution?’

‘It is absolutely authentic. The family have shown me other documents which attest to that. Hester Hollister evidently knew Aesop Allen very well. Indeed, she may have been the only person who knew his true identity.’

Mosse knew me too well, I realised.

‘What are you asking for it?’

He named a sum that caused my vision to blur at the edges. Then he prised the pen from my fingers and returned it to the box with the note. Smiling, he placed it back in the locked cabinet.

‘It is a unique item directly associated with one of the greatest gothic novelists of the nineteenth century,’ he said. ‘I am afraid the price is non-negotiable.’

The pen that had written Harrow Hall. I went home and reached for my first edition of the book, a modest small octavo bound in green cloth, its exterior not hinting at the dreadful events recounted in its pages, unlike the editions of the 1890s with their vulgar illustrated boards. I did not open it. I have never opened it since the day I finished reading it. I do not need to.

The next day I got in touch with every Hollister still living in Shuckleigh, and they all confirmed the provenance of the pen.

I bought it, of course, as Mosse had known I would.

For months I investigated the life of Hester Hollister, but alas, there was little to be discovered. She was the wife of a clergyman who evidently discharged her duties and left no mark on the records of the town, other than her mere existence. The local records office and the museum held a number of local Victorian diaries, but though I spent a full month reading them I found only a few innocuous references to the lady, and no hints at all about her close friendships.

The pen itself I kept locked in my desk drawer and hardly dared to look at it. All the demons of Harrow Hall rose up in my mind when I thought of it. So pretty and slight a thing to be responsible for bringing such nightmares into the world.

If you have read the book itself, you will recognise that in writing this account I have fallen into using the language of the story. Decorous, formal and precise — but I am unable to conjure up such horrors as Allen did, when writing with a biro purchased from W.H. Smith.

I bought a bottle of real ink and a pad of good paper and sat down at my desk to try my hand at writing a ghost story. I had a little idea and thought that, if I got the atmosphere right, I might be able to make something of it.

Taking up Aesop Allen’s pen, I dipped it into the ink and sat a while, pen poised over the top sheet of paper, trying to compose my first sentence.

I came back to consciousness an hour later by the clock above my desk, my right hand stained with ink and four pages of closely-written text before me, the ink still wet in places.

I could not remember writing a single word of it, and worse, the writing was not my own. It was a story called ‘The Relic’, and the central character was myself. I read how I became obsessed with a haunted pen, trying to wring unearned talent from beyond the grave, until the dead turned on me. I was found murdered, and the instrument of my death was the very pen I still held.

Hastily folding the hand-written sheets, I pushed them into the desk drawer along with the pen, and locked it.

No matter how hard I scrub my hand, I cannot get the ink stains out. Every night I dream the events of the story and see myself dead on the floor of my study, a pearl-handled pen stuck in my neck, the pool of blood growing around me blackened with ink.

I would burn the story and the pen, but first I would have to unlock the drawer and let it out, and I am too afraid to do that.

Out of the Ordinary

Out of the Ordinary

Lucy bent to smell the scent of a rose, but was startled when a fairy leapt out of the flower. Oh. No, not a fairy, but a bee. The bee hung in the air in front of Lucy’s face as if it were wondering if she was a flower. Then, the moment of mutual misidentification over, it flew away.

‘Why did I think it was a fairy?’ Lucy asked herself. ‘What’s the matter with me?’

There had been something wrong for a while now. Things seen out of the corner her eye, strange things — an unexpected small person, and emerald snake rearing up, a cat in the corner of the room — but when she turned to look there was either nothing there at all, or only shadows, a twist of leaves, branches fluttering. Even so, she was left with an odd feeling that there had really been a presence until she turned her full attention to it.

That evening she was reading a rather dull book. Her mind, and then her eyes, wandered away from the text. As she was thinking of something else, she saw at the edge of her vision a large black spider detach itself from the printed words and begin to walk over the white page. Resisting the urge to scream and throw the book across the room, she watched the progress of the spider without looking directly at it.

It moved up the page, walked along a line of text, then settled down on one particular word, seeming to melt into the ink. Lucy looked to see what the word was.

Spider.

She put the book down and walked away from it. In the kitchen she poured herself a glass of wine and contemplated the idea that she was suffering the onset of schizophrenia or some other psychosis. Not liking the idea at all, she preferred to think that she had noticed the word, spider, on the next page and her unruly imagination had conjured up the hallucination of an actual spider for her.

So it went on. Day after day, improbable creatures appeared in the edges of her vision. Lucy stopped trying to look at them directly, instead observing by pretending not to notice them as they danced or loomed or lurked.

Then, a real cat turned up at her door. It was fearful at first, but she began to feed it and eventually it decided to move in with her, when she named it Henry, for no good reason, and began to think of it as a person, he.

The phantom cat shape appeared in her vision on evening as she sat watching TV with Henry. He noticed it, too. He sat up, flattened his ears against his skull and hissed right at the corner where the shadow cat sat. It vanished.

It was both comforting and disconcerting that Henry saw it. Comforting because it meant that she was not suffering from the onset of mental illness: Disconcerting because it meant that she was seeing things that were actually there.

The next time she mistook a bee for a fairy she looked at it straight on and said, ‘I know what you are.’ But it turned out that she did not. The creature dropped its bee disguise and she saw a peculiar twig-limbed winged creature. It buzzed angrily, gave her a small, but eye-watering smack on the nose, and flew away.

Henry had followed the whole encounter, and as the creature flew past him he leapt, like the predator he was, and caught the creature in mid air. He came to earth with it crumpled under his paws and leaned down, teeth bared.

‘No,’ said Lucy, ‘No, no.’

She prized Henry’s paws off his quarry and scooped it up. It looked like a collection of tiny sticks with a pair of transparent wings and a small, angry face.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and took it to the nearest tree where she laid it in the crook of a branch and watched until it recovered enough to fly away.

Lucy knew that if she kept on seeing these out of the ordinary beings, she would not be fit for normal society. People would notice, even if she never admitted a thing. So she refused to believe in their existence, even when Henry clearly saw them too. Gradually, with much practise, Lucy made them fade back into the usual world, to become shadows and nothing more. She was sad, but there really is no room for magical things in the everyday human world. Henry continued to chase shadows, but hardly ever caught them.

Dust and Shadows

Dust and Shadows

There was such a thing as too much peace and quiet. It was making him jumpy.

At first the move from London to the countryside was great. Life was slower, you could hear the birds singing, no constant traffic noise, it was like a holiday. After a while, though, the feeling fell away. This was everyday life now, and the birds were really loud, especially first thing in the morning when you were trying to sleep.

The house was Victorian and it made a lot of noise for something so solid-looking. It creaked in the sunshine and whistled whenever the wind blew. There were all kinds of thumps and ticking noises that Neil could not find the source of.

Laurie had a job in the town, Shuckleigh, and brought back stories of all kinds of spooky goings-on that the locals apparently took seriously. They laughed about it at first, but alone in the house all day working at the computer, Neil started to have weird feelings.

A floorboard would creak behind him and all the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He felt he was being watched. Sheer paranoia, of course. It was a big house for just the two of them and he was alone in it for so many hours.

The house was set quite far back from the road, which led to a tiny village a mile further on, so there was little traffic. There was another house within sight, but Neil had no idea who lived there. Shuckleigh was two miles away. For someone used to living in London, this was the middle of nowhere. No other person in sight. Nothing but trees and fields, wildlife and cows.

And inside the house? Who knew?

Once Laurie came home from work the atmosphere brightened. the house didn’t make so many odd noises, or perhaps Neil didn’t hear them any more. The thought passed through his mind that the house liked Laurie, but was not so keen on him — but that was ridiculous. Houses have no feelings.

Neil learned to ignore the noises and the odd sensations, and learned to tolerate the aloneness, immersing himself in his daily work.

Laurie was happy, doing well in her new job, and she was invited to a weekend conference. When he kissed her goodbye on Friday night and watched her drive away in her car, he thought he felt the house grow stern and cold and dark around him.

It’s only my imagination, he thought. It isn’t the house that misses her, it’s me.

He ate a meal, going to some trouble to make a really good lasagne and a salad with everything in it, and opened a bottle of wine, but only drank one glass, because getting drunk alone was no fun.

Okay, so he poured another glass and settled down to watch a film, something stupid with plenty of fighting for no good reason. It was a loud film, so he was only vaguely aware of the storm that was rolling in, until the winds hit gale force and rain started to pelt against the window. He paused the film and made the rounds of the house to make sure that all the windows were secure and the doors locked and bolted, then he settled back down again.

Fifteen minutes later the flash of lightning and roll of thunder started. Neil turned up the sound on the TV and ignored the weather — but the power went out and he was suddenly in complete darkness except for occasional lightning flashes.

He fumbled for his phone and stood up. There was a flash and he thought he saw something in the corner of the room. Just shadows, he told himself, but he could not move for the sudden fear.

Another flash, and a brief glimpse of a figure standing there, looking at him. Just shadows, nothing but shadows.

Another flash and he saw, quite clearly, an old woman looking at him. He couldn’t breathe.

A third flash. The figure had grown, was now a man, angry-looking, dark and bulky. This is not real.

A bang and flash of lightning bolt striking very close by — in its light he saw a child, an arm’s length away, dark eyed, reaching for him.

He shrieked and ran — out of the room up the stairs and into the bedroom. He pulled a small chest of drawers in front of the door and got into bed, pulling the duvet up to his chin. By reflex he was still holding his phone and he tried to call Laurie, but there was no service.

His reasoning mind tried to take control by assuring him that the people he saw were just the effects of shadows and his imagination, but then it failed him by pointing out that if they were ghosts a closed and blocked door would do nothing to keep them out.

There was a recording of Laurie singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ on his phone and in self-defence, he played it as loud as it would go. It was not as good as having her there, but the house did seem to become less fearsome as long as it lasted. He played it over and over until he finally fell asleep.

In the morning he was still alive, but there was no power, and his phone was quite dead. Neil grabbed his toothbrush and a change of clothes, and drove into town. The Has Bean coffee shop let him charge up his phone while he ate a croissant and drank a large cappuccino, one benefit of the small town. On finding out from the power company that the house would not be reconnected before Sunday, he went to find a hotel room.

It was holiday season, and everywhere was fully booked, so he ended up as a last resort walking in to the Black Dog Inn. Only the barman was around.

‘Do you have a room free?’ Neil asked.

‘You’re in luck if you don’t mind paying for a double. We had a couple leave early.’

‘No, that’s fine,’ said Neil, relieved, looking forward to getting a shower and some more peaceful sleep.

‘I’ll get the key. It’s one of the haunted rooms so it’s only available for one night. They’re always popular, and usually booked out.’

‘No thanks,’ said Neil. ‘No thanks.’

He walked out, got in his car and drove to the next county where he found a Travelodge to spend the rest of the weekend ghost free, happily listening to other people banging doors and playing the TV too loud at all hours of the night.

The Sight of an Angel

The Sight of an Angel

Sophie first saw an angel when she was five. She knew what it was, because it had great white wings and it glowed with some internal fire.

‘Look,’ she said, but no-one did.

They did not all have wings, but they were all different from ordinary people. She would see them in the street, on a rooftop, and one one occasion, hovering above a boat on the river. That one did have wings, but was not bothering to use them.

She never did see any of the winged angels flying like a bird, and as she grew up, she began to think that their wings were only metaphors.

As she grew up, she also became more aware that no-one else saw them, and she wondered why she did. Sometimes, she tested people. ‘Who’s that on the roof,’ she would ask, but never got any answers except ‘Where?’ or ‘I can’t see anyone.’

Could the angels see her? They never looked at her. Each one was intent on something, a frown of concentration on their glowing features, but they never spared her a glance.

It went along like this for many years, and she became quite used to seeing them, as if they were birds or butterflies. An alien species going about its business in the midst of human life.

Then one day she came home to find an angel in her living room. It was an awkward situation. Should she acknowledge its presence or pretend it was not there? And then, it was a worrying situation, too. Had it come because she was going to need it? She really hoped not.

The creature was a monumental presence, standing in the corner, head bowed under the low ceiling of the room, the curve of its wings compressed in the tiny space. This one was dressed in a featureless cream-coloured robe of some fine fabric, and it glowed as they all did, illuminating the room softly with its presence. It did not move or speak.

Sophie chose to ignore it. She had never been quite sure that interacting with them was allowed, and this one was so close that she was a little afraid of it.

She just went about her evening as she would if the angel had not been there. She prepared and ate her dinner, watched TV, had a shower, went to bed. All the while the angel loomed motionless in the corner of the living room.

She did not sleep much, waking constantly throughout the night to check if it had come into her bedroom to stand in the corner, watching her.

When she woke in the morning she was fairly sure that she had dreamt the whole thing — but there, in the living room, the angel still stood, as if it had not moved the whole night.

Sophie tried to pretend she could not see it, but the looming presence weighed on her. At last she cracked.

‘Just what do you want?’ she asked.

The angel raised its head and looked directly into her eyes, and she knew she had made a terrible mistake. It crossed the room in a single step, raised its hands and laid them over her face. The weight of them was immense, and they burned. When those hands withdrew from her eyes she could no longer see the angel, though she knew it was still there. Then it left, taking a part of her with it.

‘It’s like I’m blind,’ she told me. ‘Of course, I can still see the way other people do, but it’s like living in a fog. I know there are so many things that I can’t see.
‘Sometimes they brush against me, or there will be a change in the light, and I know one of them is there, but I can’t see any more. I don’t understand why they would take that away from me.’

I shivered.

‘Do you think there’s one here now?’ I asked.

‘I think so. I heard feathers. It came in with you.’

I looked around, but there was nothing for me to see or hear beyond the ordinary world.

Questions That Should Have Been Asked

Questions That Should Have Been Asked

There was a vacant stool at the bar in the black dog. Eddie slid onto it and caught Dave the barman’s eye.

‘Glenmorangie, please. Double.’

Dave nodded and turned away to grab a glass. Eddie caught sight of himself in the mirror behind the spirit bottles. Grey-faced, hollow-eyed, gaunt. Not a great look. He saw how the other patrons at the bar were leaning away from him, edging their stools further along. He probably smelled bad, he thought. The company he was keeping, it was inevitable.

Dave brought the whisky and took his money without the slightest hint of revulsion — but he was a professional, and the Black Dog having the history that it did, there were probably stranger folk than Eddie turning up on a daily basis.

‘You’re looking tired, Eddie,’ he said.

‘Tired isn’t really the word,’ said Eddie with a twisted smile he saw reflected in the mirror.

Dave moved down the bar to serve someone else, and Eddie downed the whisky in one gulp, savouring the artificial heat that lit him up for a moment or two, easing the deep chill that lay next to his bones. The effect began to dissipate, and he felt the longing for some real warmth. He looked around the bar, but he knew he would get nothing unless he tried to look more like the living.

It was not a long walk home, back to the High street to his flat above the bakery. Stripping off his clothes, he got into the shower. The water was hot, but it only warmed his skin. They really pulled it out of you, and gave so little back.

He threw on some clean clothes, and thought he looked almost normal, maybe like someone who had been really ill, but that was normal these days, wasn’t it?

There was a club that opened at nine. He went there for some more alcohol and the possibility of contact with a warm body.

There was dancing. Eddie was a good dancer, and not pushy like so many men, so women liked to dance with him. Eventually there would be a slow number, and he would get to hold a partner, and suck in a little life. He only ever got one slow dance, though. They would start to feel unwell, blame the drink, and that would be it — but just that little top-up of vitality would be enough to keep him going.

A little before midnight he would climb up the hill, ready for another night without sleep. As he went uphill in the real world, he was fully aware that in every other way he was going downhill. If he had been able to take a bit of sleep in the daytime things might be better, but the dreams that crowded in on him when his eyes closed would not allow him that peace, being so vivid that he might as well be awake.

At the top of the hill was a house with no light in any window, but the side door was unlocked for him as usual. He stepped inside and found his way to the basement door by the light of his phone. The basement itself was lit by a multitude of ritual candles. In the middle of the space, the circle was set up for him, ready charged, tonight’s subject lying on the stone slab at its centre — a middle aged man, cold and still, looking quite peaceful. Well, that would not last.

A sheet of paper lay at the man’s feet. Eddie picked it up and read through the questions before beginning the ritual. As the incantations progressed the man began to twitch and moan. Eddie always hated this part. He tried to remember the warmth of his dancing partner’s body, even as that warmth was sucked out of him.

At last the man shuddered and sat up, puzzled, unhappy, with no control over his limbs, as if he had forgotten what they were for.

‘Hello, Arthur,’ said Eddie, ‘just a few questions and then you can go back again. Where did you hide the life insurance policy?’

Arthur scowled, his eyes swivelled in their sockets.

‘Don’t be awkward,’ said Eddie, ‘or you’ll be stuck here, and you wouldn’t want that.’

He uttered the few words that threw the body into an agonising spasm, then asked the question again.

‘Garage, toolbox,’ croaked Arthur through dry, barely usable vocal chords.

Eddie noted that and moved on.

‘Account number and passwords for your secret bank account?’

With the occasional nudge, Arthur provided all that was asked for, but with increasing reluctance and as much anger as he could muster.

‘Any other stashes?’

Arthur screamed his safety deposit box number.

‘Last one. Billy would like to know why you never loved him?’

‘Not my son,’ growled Arthur.

‘Okay, back you go, begone.’

He made the gestures of dismissal, and the body flopped back onto the slab. Next to the last question, Eddie wrote, ‘Emotional inadequacy.’

Once the final candle was extinguished he laid the paper in the niche at the back of the room and took his fee.

Dawn was breaking. He stepped out into the morning, drained, shivering, and longing again for some human warmth.