Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders

Dark night, dark clothes, dark wall, small window overhead open just a crack. he found the handholds, footholds, enjoying the climb, taking pleasure in his silent skill.

At the window he braced himself enough to free one hand and nudge the frame. It swung open a bit further without a sound. Perfect.

Grasping the frame, he pulled himself up, looked inside. A store-room of some kind with shelves along the walls. His dark-adapted eyes could make out no threatening shapes, so he nudged the window further open and slipped through into the house.

They would be at home, all asleep now, just the way he liked it. Padding softly about the house, Jase would lift all the small valuables, even right from their bedside tables. They never woke. it was his great talent. No breaking, no vandalism, just a quiet, professional job.

Jars. Rows of them. Shading his pencil torch, he turned it on, and started back in surprise.

Tentacles. Jar upon jar of tentacles, with pink or blue or pale white suckers, suspended in clear fluid, each jar labelled in what he supposed must be Latin, though he did not really know.

Turning off the torch, he stood a while in the dark, trying to shake off the mild shock, listening to the house for any hint of danger.

As he always did, Jase spent some days watching the property. No-one ever came out, and a lot of things were delivered. Old people or invalids lived here, he concluded, and a carer who opened the door to deliveries and the occasional visitor. Rich old people, since the house was so large and very well-kept. Now he could add strange old people. Maybe one of them used to be a biologist or something.

He glanced back at the window, a faint rectangle of less intense darkness, his means of escape should anything go wrong. Turning away to look for a door out of this storeroom, he became aware that in all the jars, the tentacles were emitting a faint glow. Had they been doing that before? Perhaps he just had not noticed.

With a soft, cautious tread, he moved along the shelves towards the far wall where a door ought to be located. The room proved to be much bigger than expected. Unreasonably so.

After five minutes, Jase started to breathe faster. Years of life as a professional intruder — his own definition of his work — gave him the ability to stay calm in very challenging circumstances, but now some ripples appeared on the surface of that calm — an awareness that something was not right.

He stopped. He did not want to throw away so many days’ careful preparation, but what kept him out of jail was a willingness to recognise when a situation was too hazardous.

True, nothing had happened, The house was silent, but all his instincts told him that there was considerable risk in going any further. the darkness was deep around him, in spite of the glow from the jars. He took two more steps forward, his arms stretched out in front of him, and touched something soft and warm, something that moved gently under his fingers, as if it was breathing.

He pulled away and backed off a few steps, stopping to listen. Nothing. No sound at all. Even the quietest, most empty house still makes small noises — the creak of cooling masonry, the wind whistling through windows or across chimneys. Here, it was as silent as a soundproofed room.

Jase backed away further, then turned and retraced his path towards the window as fast as he could while still being cautious. He wanted to run, but that would have been stupid.

Ten minutes later, he still had not reached the window, and his customary calm was nearly gone. he clung to the shreds of it, reasoning that he must have got lost — but how could he be lost when the path he took from the window was straight and the path he took back was also straight? He must, he thought, have somehow turned a corner in the dark without realising, and at that moment he saw an opening between the shelves and their glowing jars.

After only a moment’s pause he turned between the shelves. A few paces later, he knew that it was a mistake. The glow was gone and he was in complete darkness. He turned to go back, but the way he came in was no longer there.

The torch — he got out his torch and turned it on, not bothering to shade it. He was in a corridor, narrow enough that he could touch both walls at once with this outstretched hands. In both directions, he could see no end to it. On either side there were doors at regular intervals, all closed. The floor was of bare wooden boards, shiny in the torchlight as if they were very old and well-used.

Doors were hopeful. There might be good pickings behind them or, more importantly, a way out.

He listened at the nearest door. There was a faint rumbling sound. He turned the handle and opened it. Moist stone steps led down and down. The rumbling was louder. Wisely, he thought, he chose not to go there, and closed the door.

Behind the next door was silence, but it opened onto a corridor just like the one he was in. No.

Behind the third door there was nothing. It was a blank black space which swallowed up the small light of his torch and reflected no light back. He closed the door slowly and looked up and down the corridor. So many, many doors. Perhaps he should have gone down the stairs behind the first one. At least stairs were normal. He walked back to that door and tried to open it again, but it was locked.

The house was playing with him, and he started to understand that here, you could never go back to where you’d already been. Everything changed behind you.

Choose a door at random and go through, he decided. One, two, three, this one. A set of stairs going up this time, wooden stairs. Afraid of the noise, he climbed shifting his weight gradually step by step, only making the quietest of creaks. The stairs turned and twelve steps further up he came to a door. He opened it a crack, not daring to shine his torch through, and listened. Nothing. He stepped through and the door closed behind him.

Now he used the torch, turning it on and then off again when he saw where he was. He didn’t want to see that.

A room full of shelves, and on the shelves, jars, and in the jars, eyes.

He stood with his back against the closed door, pulling on the handle, willing it to open, but it was locked.

The jars began to glow, and all the eyes were looking at him. He screamed and ran, and ran and screamed, not caring if anyone heard him, wanting to be heard. No-one was listening, and the room went on forever.

The Follower

The Follower

Gabriel knew that someone was watching him. He was well past the prickling on the back of his neck phase. Now it was a constant awareness.

Since Lori found him — tunnels she said, but he did not remember any tunnels — something had been wrong. What happened to him that he was hospitalised, and then off work for a week because he could hardly stand up? What happened to him that was so bad he could not remember three days of his life, and some things before, too. There were blank spaces in his memories stretching back for months.

At first he tried to recall, but then wondered whether he was withholding something from himself for good reason. That was even more disturbing than mere loss of memory. Gabriel considered the problem and reasoned that, if it was so bad, suppression might be the best option. He surrendered to it.

A month later his body was almost recovered, though sometimes he felt a deep upwelling of fatigue. His mind, though, was far from normal. Never before was he afraid of the dark, but now he was compelled to buy one of those plug-in night-lights for kids because he could not sleep in complete darkness. There were happy little bunnies on it which he found comforting (and that was disturbing too).

The knowledge that he was being watched crept up on him. At first a faint paranoia, rising to a certain knowledge. On a lonely street he might hear something slithering behind him, or catch a glimpse of an odd shadow. In his own flat he had a sense of being overlooked, even when he closed the curtains and locked the door. He avoided other people, looked over his shoulder constantly, but the fact that there was no-one there did not make the feeling go away.

Shaving with a slightly shaky hand, he heard a faint intake of breath behind him and felt the light breeze of and out-breath on the back of his neck. He paused mid-stroke and stared at his own wide-open eyes in the mirror. The breathing came again, He leaned a bit to his right, but the only thing reflected in the mirror was the bathroom door. A swift turn — nothing there. Nothing there. Yet he felt warm breath tickling his wet face. There was a faint foul smell about it. Trembling even more, he turned back and finished his shave, rinsed and dried his face and left the bathroom. the breathing followed him.

He didn’t know what to do. Standing a while in front of the bookcase, he tried to think. Running his gaze across the familiar spines, he noticed an old notebook that he did not remember, maybe belonging to one of the blanked-out memories. As he reached out for it the breather seemed interested, its breath quickening, so Gabriel reached further and picked out an old copy of ‘Frankenstein’ instead.

He made coffee and sat down to pretend to read the book, using the time to think what to do. He decided to go to see Lori, whom he’d been avoiding for weeks because she might ask questions he could not answer.

Before he left he returned Frankenstein to the shelf and palmed the notebook, shoving it into the waistband of his jeans, hoping that whatever was watching him had not seen. It followed him. he could feel it closer than ever before.

Lori was just finishing her early-evening ghost tour when he caught up with her. She was surprised by the warmth of his greeting and alarmed as he leaned too close to her.

‘Can you see anything behind me?’ he whispered. ‘I’m being followed.’

‘Person, or…’

‘Or.’

She gave him a hug, then drew back with a slight shake of the head.

‘Come on,’ she said, ‘there’s someone you should meet.’

He followed past Lori’s flat and down a narrow side alley. She stopped at a nondescript black door and knocked twice.

‘Lori! And friend. Come in,’ said the tiny white-haired old woman who answered.

Gabriel felt a pressure on his shoulder, as if something was trying to hold him back. he wanted to obey the restraint, but managed to pull away and through the door. Inside, he felt lighter, a burden lifted.

‘This is Mildred,’ said Lori. ‘Mildred, meet Gabriel. He’s being followed by something nearly invisible.’

‘Nearly?’ said Gabriel.

‘I got a sort of shimmer in the air behind you.’

‘Come and sit down,’ said Mildred. ‘I’ll make tea. Don’t look so worried, dear. It can’t follow in here. We’re well defended.’

Over tea, Lori told Mildred all about the tunnels and how she’d found Gabriel with the help of the people in the dark house. Gabriel listened in astonishment.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise. I don’t remember any of it.’

‘I think they gave you something to make you forget.’

Gabriel pulled the notebook out and leafed through it. Pages and pages about the tunnels under Shuckleigh, with diagrams. All his tunnel research was there in his own handwriting, but he was reading it for the first time.

‘Well,” said Mildred. ‘I wouldn’t put it past those people to be following you, but I would say you brought something up to the surface with you. Something that wants you back.’

Gabriel fell the stirring of an awful memory. He did not want to look at it. Ever.

‘What can I do?’

‘Leave your notebook with me,’ said Mildred, ‘and stay here. I will clean your mind and put you out of its reach.’

‘Make me forget again?’

She shook her head.

‘You have some sort of attachment. I can feel it pulling on you, even here. It’s getting something from you, feeding, I think.’

Gabriel shuddered.

‘Do whatever you can. Please.’

‘It isn’t an easy process. It will hurt, and might damage you.’

‘Please,’ he said, ‘I don’t want it in my head any more.’

Two days later, Lori came back to take him home. He was hollow-eyed and pale. Stepping out through the door he took a breath, waiting to see what would happen. There was a sense of something touching him, but sliding away, unable to find any holding place.

‘Lori,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid. I never was before, but now I think I’m always going to be afraid.’

‘You get used to it,’ she said.

The Wicker Woman

The Wicker Woman

Beth was afraid of shop window dummies. Their fixed distant gaze, their frozen attitudes their almost-but-not-quite humanness, all these made her shudder. What she hated most was the shock on releasing that what she thought was a person, was not.

This only became a real problem when she opened her own dress shop.

It was a tiny shop, just off the High Street, and everything in it was her own work, from original designs to reworked vintage pieces. She needed a window display. Starting with a couple of pieces on hangers suspended from the ceiling was okay, but looked amateurish. Then a friend told her about a sculptor working in basketry.

Ella was a magician with wickerwork, and she made a beautiful, tightly-woven, figure of a woman for Beth. The mannequin stood a little taller than Beth, in a graceful pose with its arms by its sides as if they were just about to be raised to the world. The wickerwork was smooth enough not to snag on clothing, and the arms were detachable for easy dressing. Importantly, the face had no features. it was a perfect womanly form without being too human.

Beth was very happy, and quite comfortable with this solution. She dressed the figure in a red dress and black velvet coat. They both sold very quickly, and people kept on coming in. Everything was going better than she had hoped.

There were times when no customers were in the shop, and Beth would go back into the little sewing room to work on new pieces. She would hear the occasional creaking sound from the shop, but when she looked out nothing was amiss.

One day, changing the clothes on the mannequin, she noticed that one arm did not fit back into its place quite as it should. It had raised a little, as if reaching for something. Just the basketwork drying in the sun, Beth supposed. She finished dressing the window and went back towards the sewing room. a loud creak sounded behind her. Turning around, she saw that the mannequin’s arm had raised a bit more. The early morning sun must be warming it, she reasoned, hoping that it would not warp too much, thinking about phoning Ella to ask for advice.

Beth forgot all about it during her busy day of selling and making, pleased by the success of her venture. At the end of the day, she was reaching for the door on her way out when there was another creak from the mannequin, and she thought its head had moved, just a little, to look in her direction.

‘It doesn’t have eyes. It can’t look,’ she told herself. ‘It’s just cooling down now the sun isn’t shining on it any more.’

She got out of the place as fast as possible, though.

In the morning as she came in, she could not help looking over at the mannequin and saw at once that its head had turned far enough to appear to be looking directly at her. She shut the door and moved quickly to the back of the shop, to turn on the lights.

Her heart was pounding, but she calmed down quickly. The wicker was drying, that was all, or the shop was too humid. Some change in the atmosphere had caused the warp and weft of the woven structure to twist.

Beth went back to the shop door, changed the sign to ‘Open’ and looked directly at the mannequin. Nothing to be afraid of.

Later on she phoned Ella to describe what had happened and to ask if there was anything she should do. Ella laughed.

‘It’s no problem,’ she said. ‘I like to weave a little life into my sculptures, that’s all.’

Afterwards, Beth wondered exactly what Ella meant — and that odd laugh — but set it aside and got on with her work.

Clearing up in the sewing room at the end of the day, she thought she heard something in the shop, but paid no attention. Then she heard it again, a noise like something dry being dragged across the floor.

Picking up a large pair of scissors, trembling, she edged into the shop.

The mannequin was no longer in the window, but stood in the middle of the floor, between Beth and the door. She sucked in a quick panic breath and held it, frozen, looking at the thing. It reached out towards her with both arms. She let the breath out in a ragged scream and ran forwards, stabbing at the mannequin over and over. It fell, crumpled and crumbling, at her feet and she took hold of it, dragging it to the tiny back yard space where the bins were kept, pausing only to grab some matches she used for testing fabrics.

Dropping the broken mannequin on the concrete, Beth struck match after match, letting them fall onto the dry basketwork figure. It did not take long to catch fire. She watched it crackle and burn, its head twisting in simulated agony, flames giving the face a mouth and eyes at last, the arms reaching out, trying to touch her.

Beth stood until nothing remained but a drift of smouldering ashes. Amazing how fire could make something seem alive, she thought, but it was only movement caused by combustion, wasn’t it?

A piece of singed fabric fluttered in the hot air, and she briefly regretted the fate of the dress the mannequin wore. Then she turned away, went inside, shut the door and carefully forgot that the thing had ever existed.

Old Eyes

Old Eyes

Many weathered faces look down on the passerby, some of them almost human. Gargoyles, green men, Venus reclining on a shell, and a dragon carved into the wood of the only remaining half-timbered building on the High Street, the oldest face of all.

When Peter was new to the town, a year or so ago, he noticed all these architectural flights of fancy with interest. Then he forgot they existed and only saw the shopfronts and the people walking, and on some days nothing but his own thoughts or the messages on his phone.

The dragon was carved just above head height. It was about a metre long and appeared to be crawling down the facade. When Peter first saw it he took a photo, thinking it looked more like a bored iguana. He shared the photo on Instagram, had a laugh, moved on.

Walking to the pub one evening, just at twilight, the street lights only beginning to warm up, the sky was deep blue, darkening by the minute. There was no-one else around, which was unusual, but Peter did not notice because he was absorbed in the music piped into his ears from his phone, and his own internal obsessions. Then the music stopped, and so did he.

His phone was dead. He stared down into its blank black face and saw only his own reflection. This was a mystery. Half an hour ago the phone was fully charged. He shook it, banged it against the palm of his left hand, swore. None of that made any difference. He swore some more, pulled out his earbuds, then swore again.

That was when he noticed that there was no-one else in the street, not even a passing car. For a fleeting moment he wondered if the Apocalypse had happened and he’d missed it.

A street light flickered into almost full brightness a few metres further along and he dismissed the fancy. He shook his phone again, though he knew it would do no good.

Behind him there was a loud creak like a ship’s timbers flexing in a heavy sea. Startled, he turned towards the sound and saw the carved dragon looking directly at him. He flinched, and was glad there was no-one to see his reaction. He laughed, but then it seemed to him that the dragon’s head used to look downwards, not to the left as it did now. He thought of the photo on his phone and went to check it, but of course —

The creaking sound came again and he looked up quickly to see the carved dragon actually shifting on its front legs the better to stare him in the eye.

He yelped and backed off. Automatically, he held up his phone to try to film what he was seeing, but of course —

Above him there was now the sound of stone grinding on stone. He looked up to see that all along the street every bit of architectural decoration that had a face was turning to look at him. Gargoyles, green men, some weird snake things that he’d previously thought were vines, even Venus, every one of them turned to look at him. Then, slowly, they began to creep across the facades of the buildings in his direction.

He yelped again and started to run, convinced that he heard the clatter of stony feet hitting the ground behind him. If only he could record any of it, but of course —

The sun finally dropped below the horizon and all the street lights came on. Peter cannoned into someone waiting to cross the road. There were cars going by and the normal number of people everywhere. After he apologised at length to the offended person, Peter looked back along the street. Illuminated by the mercury lights, each and every one of the statues and carvings was frozen in its usual place and attitude, although the body of one of the snakes did seem to droop a bit further down than the other.

He stared for a while, wondering if he had been dreaming while awake.

The phone buzzed in his hand and he almost dropped it. Just a notification, but the screen was lit up, and when he put his earbuds back in, the music was playing where it left off.

Afterwards, he never failed to look at the populace of the building fronts, to nod to the dragon, smile at Venus, recognise that they were there, and hope that they would never move again.

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-longue 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.

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.

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.

What We See In The Woods: Part Three

What We See In The Woods: Part Three

The fragment of a song was playing in Angie’s head — couple of half-remembered words and a bit of melody — over and over on a loop. She paused in her digging to try to recall the rest of the words, but could not, and went back to her task, shovelling earth out of the hole to the rhythm of a mostly-forgotten song.

A fox leapt the neighbour’s fence onto the lawn, a small rabbit hanging from its bloodstained mouth. Angie gasped. The fox looked at her, the rabbit kicked, and Angie instinctively stepped forward and reached out. The fox gave the rabbit a brutal shake, sauntered past Angie and in two jumps went over the fence at the end of the garden, into the woods.

So much for the joys of nature, Angie thought. She dropped the hardy palm tree into the hole and began to fill around its roots, wondering if it was not going to look out of place against the deciduous woodland behind it. Not so Mediterranean after all.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone watching her from the woods, someone peering through a mass of green leaves. Angie turned to look. There was rustling, but no-one there, only the trees and bushes. A bird, perhaps? They had heard owls in the woods, so maybe an owl had been looking at her. She turned away again and pretended to be absorbed in filling the hole around the roots of the palm, but all the while paying attention to that place at the edge of her vision where the shy thing might reappear.

It took a while, but at last she heard the undergrowth rustling and saw two large round eyes watching her. That could be an owl, she thought, but it was hard to see anything else but leaves.

Angie wondered what she could do earn its trust. What might it want? Owls were carnivores, so the next day she brought out a piece of steak and laid it on the flat top of the waist-high fence. she retreated to watch from the house, but no owl showed up. Eventually a magpie swooped down and carried off the steak.

Perhaps it was not an owl. She laid a row of peanuts along the fence and stayed in the garden, half-heartedly pruning a rampant buddleia. This time it came. Softly, slowly, as if they were playing a game of statues. Each time she turned a little towards the creature it stopped and seemed to vanish, but when she turned away the eyes opened again, fixed on her, and came a little closer. Now she could tell that it was not a bird, but some other creature. All she could determine from the limits of her peripheral vision was that it was larger than a fox, and had eyes set in the front of its head, like a human.

She stood quite still. There was a quick flurry of movement and when she turned to see, all the peanuts were gone and so was the creature.

The next day she set out more peanuts and stood quite still next to the fence, looking away from the direction of the creature’s approach. After a while she sensed its presence and then saw it softly sneak towards the peanuts. A swift movement took the nuts and the creature retreated.

Without looking round, Angie placed a few more nuts on the fence. Minutes passed as the creature moved up again and took the nuts. She replaced them and turned part way towards it, trying to make out what it was as it crept towards the nuts.

They repeated these moves several times. Each time Angie turned a little more to face the creature, though never looking directly at it.

Eventually it waited just beyond the fence for her to drop more nuts. She did, and fingers like twigs brushed her hand. It was hard not to react, but she managed.

Pulling the last few nuts from her pocket, she laid them down. As soon as she saw the movement, she turned her head to look, and saw two large brown eyes in a face made entirely of leaves, a short body covered in shaggy brown lichen, and little twiggy fingers filled with nuts. They looked at each other for a moment.

She gasped. The creature gave a low squeal and sped away, vanishing into the bushes.

Angie was never able to coax it out again while she was in the garden, but she continued to leave out peanuts, and something always ate them.