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Tangerine

onehundredandeightyseven

Tell me, Red, did you ever see?
The buddha climbing the bodhi tree?
Ghandi, Lennon and J.F.K.
Take out their father’s gun to play?

Tell me, Red, did you ever hear?
About Princess Leia posing as King Lear?
Yeats and Keats and Ezra Pound
Shouting racist chants at a football ground?

Tell me, Red, have you ever seen?
Christmas cards written by Celine?
The valentine’s cards of George Bataille.
Chekhov checking his powder’s dry?

Tell me, Red, did you even know?
What’s planted in sand will never grow?
I think that Goethe said it best
Write for beauty and fuck the rest.

And this is how we’ve been sucked dry.
By neon jaws around our throats.
Nothing left in hollow eyes.
Nowhere for the light to float.

But I’ve got you and you’ve got me.
We’ll read to each other every night.
Tell me, Red.
Can’t you see?
Everything’s gonna be all right.

 

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The Clockwork Assassin

onehundredandeightysix

I

The ship coursed through emerald waters, beneath a bare and vibrant sky. Gulls wheeled overhead, their beggar cries stilted in the dry air. The vague outline of the port came into view as a dark smear on the horizon.

Three men were seated upon the deck in a loose triangle, sitting on overturned buckets and tubs. They tossed bleached knucklebones onto the boards, trading small coins as the fall of bones decreed. The man who faced the captain’s cabin looked up now and then from the ring drawn shakily drawn in chalk on the deck. Whom he watched, over the heads of his gaming companions, was another man sat cross legged atop the cabin. This man wore loose linen clothing and his skin was a sun-seared brown. An intricately patterned swath of cloth veiled the lower half of his face.

The man, who was sat on an overturned tub, looked back to his game.

“It’s your throw, Behrat” spoke another of the players, his eyes squinting against a sun which glittered on his golden teeth.

“Not so keen to throw now that you’re losing and the port is coming on, huh?” sneered the third player.

Behrat had only met this man on board the ship and he did not care for the way he jostled him over his bad luck as if they were firm friends. The man, this third player, was young but was balding early and kept a cloth thrown over his head and shoulders as they gamed in the sun. Well, nevermind, thought Behrat. Through a series of conspiratorial glances and signs he and his companion, Gohrn the Barber (he of the golden teeth) had made a pact to disabuse the man of his winnings, his stake and perhaps his life as soon as the ship set down and any opportunity presented. Foolish boy; the port of Sol Midan was no place to find one’s feet. He was a pup running amongst wolves.

Behrat scooped up the bones and shook them in his broad fist. The pup stared intently into the clenched hand as if it were his own bones rattling within. Gohrn watched the boy from the corner of his eye and wore a jackal’s smile.

“Gohrn…?”, Behrat spoke as he shook the bones.

“Stop stalling!” bleated the boy with the cloth about his head.

“On top of the cabin. Slow, like” continued Behrat.

Gohrn reached behind him to scratch his shoulder blade and used the turn to catch a glimpse of the man sat atop the cabin.

“Now where did he spring from?” he said as he turned back.

“You’re not any better!” laughed the boy, “You see, I’ll win those gold teeth out of your head before we make land!”

The two men paid no heed to his ill-judged jocularity. They stared down into the chalk circle and spoke in hushed tones.

“He must have been in the First Mate’s bunk. I wondered why the Captain was without a second” whispered Behrat.

“Then why appear now?” replied Gohrn.

“Who knows why he does anything? Perhaps he thought he might send a rumour amongst Sol Midan that he was back in town?” posited Behrat.

“Who?” asked the boy.

“There’s money to be made ashore if we help set that rumour in stone amongst the right people” ventured Gohrn.

“Who!?” the boy pestered.

“I’d sooner cross a sick cobra than him, Gohrn. Think with your head and not your greedy palm”.

As Behrat’s eyes flicked once more to the man atop the cabin, the boy turned and glanced full long at him. Behrat tossed the bones full onto the deck where they clacked and rumbled with exaggerated loudness in the dry air. The boy looked back instinctively, like a dog following the sound of scraps hitting its bowl.

“Keep your eyes down!” hissed Behrat.

His eyes down, but now wide as plates, the boy adjusted the cloth that had slipped back on his head, exposing a fine thatch of blonde hair and his pink scalp to the sun.

“Is that him?” he whispered breathlessly.

Gohrn flashed another surreptitious glance over his shoulder.

“Pick up the bones. Don’t draw attention” he said to the boy.

The boy continued the motions of the game but all attention was now being paid to the figure from whom the three attempted to withhold their eager gaze.

“Why does he wear the mask?” whispered the boy, unable to maintain his silence, “I heard that he tried to take the daughter of a great King to his bed and the King had his teeth filed to points like that of a beast!”

“I never saw Craid with any woman” replied Behrat, curtly.

“It was a woman that did that to him” spoke Gohrn, “but it was his own mother! I knew a man, once, who had seen beneath that veil. He shared a bunk with him on a shop just like this one.” And here he pointed down to the tired, salt worn deck. “The man snuck a look whilst he slept. Craid is a half breed. His mother sired him with a lizard man from the Tantal Heights. He has the snout of a dragon and fangs that drip venom. That is why they can never catch him, he can blend into any wall and squeeze through the bars of any cell!”

Behrat listened to their childish whispers with disdain. He did not know what lay beneath Craid’s veil and he did not know how no legion nor bounty hunter had managed to take him in, but he had heard the same stories and dismissed them out of hand. The world needed an excuse for a man like Craid. And, when it could not find one in the everyday, for none could match his strangeness, an alternative was sought in dark realms. But he, Behrat, had looked into Craid’s eyes once, many years ago, a tiny knife point-small scar just below his own heart was the proof of that if the fools cared to look, and he had seen enough to draw his own conclusion. This much he knew; Craid had abandoned all human apprehensions in a way that the most degenerate corsair, cut purse or assassin could not imagine. He had gone beyond the outer darkness and come back full into the light. A light so harsh that it blinded and burned away the flesh He could not be sought or bound because he existed apart from the rules and expectations of the world of men. Behrat had seen it in that split second, when death was so close that one could only see that which was true. The nature and the true name of things. And he had seen a fool; a lunatic jester dancing in the wasting light, staring back across the void at a feeble court of mortal kings, laughing at a joke that only he knew the meaning of.

“… to take the life of Medici if you ask me.”

The chattering faded in once more as Behrat came around from his reverie, a cold shiver whipping across his broad chest in spite of the furnace-like heat. He caught movement on top of the cabin and he slipped his hand inside his shirt as he felt a twinge below his heart.

“Eyes down, boys” he muttered as he watched Craid stand and stare out to the horizon. He felt a burning sensation at the base of his neck that was not the searing sun that hung overhead but some animal instinct. Some impossibly ancient prey response. He felt his gaze wrenched up beyond his control and he saw Craid looking back at him, a hand slipped within his own shirt, just below the heart. And with that the veiled thief walkedaway across the top of the cabin and disappeared from view.

*

As the ship dropped anchor in Sol Midan, the deck and the quay below came alive. Those who had sought refuge from the burning sky came up from the bowels of the ship and Sol Midan’s soldiers and legions of customs officers gathered to meet them. The soldiers stood at the foot of the gangway with spears and swords as the customers officers boarded, bearing their quills and ledgers with no less menace. The captain came to the meet the retinue of robed administrators and his purse jangled with each step that he took. Sol Midan was the city of merchants and thieves and there was ample room for the gambler and the gamer to collect the coins that scattered in the midst of the chaos. As long as one could play the odds, and the hand that one held, well enough there was plenty to be sheared away as the money changed hands.

Behrat, Gohrn and the boy waited in the shade of the dampening sails, and under the watch of Sol Midan’s guards, as the captain and the stock takers waged their little battle of numbers in the hold. In time there was the sound of rushing feet on the wooden stairs. One of the customs officers came bursting from the hold, his cloak drawn about his face. He pushed, cursing, through the crowds of pirates and privateers who made up the crew and its passengers. He headed down the gangway shouting in the haughty, course Sol Midan accent;

“Swine! Whatever they are transporting in that ship it stinks worse than a whore’s rotten linen!”

Spluttering, he pushed through the line of soldiers and promptly vomited on the hot stones of the quays. Pulling his cloak back about his face in revulsion he shouted, choking, once more at the hollering passengers;

“Northern animals! They should scuttle this tub and you all along with it!”

And, against a barrage of hoots and laughter and jeers from those on board, he disappeared into the crowds that swarmed the market on the dock.

It was only when the captain and the customs officers emerged from below deck five minutes later, laughing and looking fatted with gold, that some of the soldiers cast nervous glances at one another. Behrat, deep in the shade, smiled to himself. The boy was asking Gohrn where they might all find a drink and a woman. His great hand falling on his shoulder, Behrat assured the boy that he knew just the place to rid himself of his winnings.

II

Craid stuck to the back streets, moving amongst the shadows and hemmed in by the high, whitewashed walls. Flitting between the shade and the slats of light which fell between the tightly packed building, he discarded the cloak he had adopted to exit the ship down the first courtyard well that he found. There were few people here amongst the quiet avenues away from the markets, only the odd beggar woman or gaggle of playing children. In the still, shady laneways the smell of lemons and oranges drifted down from the hillside orchards and mingled with the warm smell of freshly washed sheets drying on lines strung between the windows overhead.

Craid found Conigliari’s modest townhouse by way of a mental map that recorded a city which grew as swiftly as a vine. But even after a decade it did not fail him. Conigliari was a shrewd man who knew his business. His home was here amongst the workers quarters. His customers sought out his specific wares and he had no need to peacock in the merchant’s quarter. In addition, the pace of construction and expansion was not so quick here amongst the homes of dockers, textilers and fishermen.

Craid stood in the shade of the small porch and knocked on the large, oak door. It opened and a dark face peered quizzically out at him from the gap.

“I’m here to see Dr. Conigliari” Craid said.

“The master is not at home, sir” came the reply.

A long silence followed as the servant girl stared into the calm eyes of the strange, veiled caller on the doorstop. The reedy smell of books floated in the air as it drifted down the hall and out into the light.

“Will he be long returning?” asked Craid.

“I can’t say, sir.”

“Well, did he give any indication?” Craid persisted.

“No sir, only that he was going out. He did not say where to” came the reply.

Craid narrowed his eyes.

“When did Dr. Conigliari leave?” he asked.

The girls eyes fluttered nervously. She seemed to seek imagined conspirators over his shoulder.

“Three nights ago, sir” she said at last.

*

Craid sat in the parlour. Having, in time, convinced the girl that he had a history with Conigliari, as well as legitimate business, and was not one of the chimeric vultures she supposed were beginning to circle the horde her master had seemingly abandoned to her charge. She brought him tea on a silver tray and poured as Craid readied his line of enquiry. Motes of dust peppered the rays of light that crept through windows across which all blinds were drawn.There was the air of a seige about the quiet house filled with its books, art and fetishes gathered from all corners of the world. And it was not just the girl’s wild fancy that made it so. Word and rumour travelled fast amongst the seedy alleys and taverns that littered the steep hill on which Sol Midan stood. Though Conigliari’s wares were not of the type that most prospective thieves would even begin to know where to fence, Craid knew that the dumbest would not be stopped by this and the that the truly cunning would be drawn by it. Craid knew, for, if he were not so indebted to the man, he would be lurking on the house’s boundary himself.

He took a pinch of snuff and winced as a shiver went across his shoulder blades. The servant girl was walking off to the kitchen with the silver tray.

“Wait” Craid called, “I need to speak to you.”

She set the tray down on the low table in front of them and sat in the seat opposite Craid, looking apprehensive. Craid went to pour her tea and realized, of course, she had brought only one cup. She sat, staring down at her hands which were clasped between her knees.

“What’s your name?” Craid asked.

“Ola, sir” she replied, talking down at her feet.

“How long have you worked for the doctor?” he continued.

“I’m not sure, sir. A good while, sir.”

Craid saw shining tears begin to run from her downturned eyes.

“You’re from Sabtah, am I right?” Craid asked after a time.

She up at him now, surprised and swallowing back her tears.

“Sabtah Shebah, sir.”

“Ah, I was close, though? Near the border?” he asked.

The tiniest flicker of a smile came across her lips.

“Yes, sir” she said.

“I’m glad you give a chitsiru the benefit of his efforts. I’ve been on the end of a blade for making that mistake before”, Craid laughed.

Ola gave him a puzzled little smile now but her hands still shook and she clasped them tight again between her knees.

“Would you take some snuff?” Craid asked, offering the little pewter box.

She looked back to her hands and shook her head.

“It’s Gongg Root. I think you’re in shock” Craid suggested.

She looked up again.

“Gongg Root?”

Craid nodded, took another pinch himself and held the box out to her once more.

Hesitantly, and without looking Criad in the eye, she took a small pinch between her thumb and ring finger and put it to her nose. A violent judder went across her shoulders and she sat back and she closed her large brown eyes. Craid brought the tea to his face and breathed deeply. It had the sweet, sharp scent of orange blossom. He put it down again.

“Have you any idea, Ola, any idea at all, where Conigliari might have gone?” he asked.

“I don’t have any idea. He rarely talks to me about business, Mr. Craid.”

“I know what a servant overhears” Craid pressed. “anyone he spoke with? Any deal he talked about?”

“He talked about you”, the girl replied, languidly, her eyes closing again. “He said that you would come and that you would have something for him. He said that I should not let you into the house if I was alone.” She giggled behind her hands and opened her eyes to look at Craid. Her pupils were like saucers. “I think he’s a little afraid of you. He said you have the voice of a demon. And you do. It is like it comes from the other other side of the room. But he also said that your eyes are cruel and they are not.”

Craid began to wonder if he had made a mistake with the Gongg Root. The girl seemed to have drifted into an exhausted sleep. Craid brought the cooled tea under the bandit’s cloth about his face and poured it down his throat. He sat and waited. She slept til the sun began to fall and the light thrown across her from the window grew pale. Ola awoke as if she had only dropped off for a matter of minutes.

“Where will you stay tonight, Mr. Craid?” she said now, still dreamily but more lucid.

“I can find somewhere, I’m sure” Craid replied.

“Oh no,” she exclaimed, her eyes wide, “It is not safe. There is a madman loose in Sol Midan.

Craid sat forward.

“A madman?”

The girl’s hands once more clasped between her knees as she continued.

“They have found many bodies. Horribly torn as if by some beast. All out in the open. Not a day goes by that you don’t fear to stumble across the aftermath in some alley or down in the market. He is striking in the night.”

Craid narrowed his eyes.

“Do you know any of the names? Of the victims, I mean” he asked.

“One was Medici, I had heard his name before. Another was Colombo. Then Bordelli.”

“Bordicelli, do you mean” Craid interrupted.

“Yes, that was the name” Ola replied.

“Goddammit” whispered Craid, “they’re all merchants. He’s no madman. He, or she, is an assassin.”

III

It was the dead of the night when Craid crept to the side of her bed. Her room, in the back of the house, was spare. An extinguished lamp and a couple of books on the bedside table. A small mirror on the chest of drawers. A brush threaded with curls of her root-black hair. He watched her chest rise and fall with exhausted sleep and then sidled out of the room.

Craid didn’t wish to leave her and he didn’t wish to have her worry that he had left. He had few friends in Sol Midan and none that he could trust with the knowledge that Conigliari was missing from his stronghold.

Craid slid out of the front door and locked it behind him. A small window left open in the room she had readied for him would be the point of ingress upon his return. It was on the second floor and away from the view of the street and he was comfortable leaving it ajar.

The streets of Sol Midan were perturbingly quiet. Even the accustomed light that glowed down in the harbour as the ships land and unloaded through the long night was dimmer than in days past. He slunk into one of the dark alleys and began to move towards his destination, a high and brilliant moon painting the white walls of the buildings a sickly blue.

He had not seen a single other person by the time he arrived and was crouched on a roof on the edge of the merchant’s quarter and was plotting his route amongst the new development. The merchant quarters nighttime crowds were less diminished than the rest of the city despite the, obviously quite targeted, slaughter that had descended on Sol Midan. Those who basked in the opulence and decadence that this corner of the city radiated were less likely to fear a madman and more a knock from the taxman at their door.

Craid, conversely, was more concerned with the threat which this particular part of the city posed him. A docker wouldn’t recognize him as anything but one more shadow sliding around the great warehouses on the quay, but a merchant, or any member of one of their their little private militias, may remember a scar he had left on their faces or inventories.

He made his way towards Francini’s mansion with caution. It, like many of the other buildings here, had grown new wings and towers in the interim, swallowing or incorporating adjacent buildings like a creeping fungus. Nonetheless, Craid found he still had enough memory and intuition to find his way in and soon enough he was lurking in a dark corner of one of the servant’s passages, listening as the muted roar of the party taking place in the great hall below, bounced between the walls around him.

Eventually he found Francini’s private quarters: in the opposite corner of the house to that which they had previously resided. But they were no less ostentatious for the move. Francini, the self-appointed mediator and facilitator amongst the ever warring guilds and factions of merchants, under the figurehead of the prince of Sol Midan, was like a mongoose amongst a pit of vipers and his riches had only grown. Craid turned over the possibility that he, Francini, was the dark aegis of Sol Midan’s spate of assassination. But Craid knew only half the story, a scared servant girls nightmares and a few deserted streets were slim intelligence.  He knew that he would need to bleed a pig and see how it squealed to hear the other half.

Within the hour the great double doors were flung wide and the pig came shuffling back to his sty. Craid watched on from the shadows of the grand bed chamber in which he had lain in wait. Francini was accompanied by a lithe and drunken girl who hung from his fat, sweating neck. The two sodden dancers wheeled about the room knocking over standing tables and lamps, laughing giddily. Craid watched the girl playfully push Francini onto the huge bed where he fell into it with exaggerated shock. She slid the, almost sheer, dress that she wore from her shoulders and it floated to the floor. She climbed, nude, atop Francini who giggled and grunted with pleasure. Craid slid from the shadows and crept, keeping low, towards the bed.

The girl was leaning down towards the leering and satisfied face that stared up at her from the pillow when Craid took her. Francini barely had time to gather his dulled and disoriented senses as Craid slipped the sedative soaked cloth about the girl’s face and pulled her from the bed, laying her naked body, already insensate, onto the soft rug. As Francini regained his consciousness there was a new figure atop him and staring down into his eyes. This one was less becoming; veiled and with eyes that burned out with horrid mischief. At the end of one down stretched arm was a blade and its tip pressed lightly against Francini’s adam’s apple.

“Now, I’m sure you’re paying for this young ladies’ company by the hour so I’ll try to be brief. I may even pay my share for this little interruption as I leave. Do I still have credit here?” Craid whispered, mockingly.

 

“Craid!…”

“You might need to help me with the calculation” Craid continued,”how much is a whore in Sol Midan nowadays?”

“Guar…” Francini began to spit out before Craid cut him short with a minute increase of pressure on the blade.

“Come now, Luca, you may be fatter and drunker but you wouldn’t still be here if you’d grown that much more foolish” he chuckled.

Francini sweated and grew a little pinker as his only response.

“Very wise, we’re on the clock after all” quipped Craid, “I only need some some information, Luca, and then I’ll be gone once again. I need to know everything that you know” and here Craid traced a tiny circle on the man’s larynx with the razor point of the dagger, “about the nasty things that are happening at night in these parts.”

“Why… would I trust… you…” Francini gasped, and with each word that he spoke he felt the tickle of the blade against his delicate skin.

Craid withdrew the blade but kept it poised in the air where it gently bobbed back and forth before Francini’s eyes like a swaying cobra. Francini swallowed hard.

“Who’s been killed?” Craid asked.

“Medici. Colombo. Bordicelli.”

“And who’s responsible?” Craid continued, his eyes narrowing.

“I don’t know, I swear it. I’ve felt around, as much as I dare, and found nothing” Francini whined.

“The Prince? Is he losing his grip on the merchants?”

“No” Francini slurred, “Perhaps a few years ago. Perhaps Medici might have been a target. But not now. His father’s might in the capital is greater than ever; there is no reason.”

“Then a thief? A shipper? A priest? Who might have a vendetta against the merchants?”

Francini choked out a mocking laugh.

“I’m as lost as you, boy” he grinned.

The dagger danced back and forth in Craid’s hand.

“Have you considered Conigliari?” Francini spat, “the old sorcerer has always been apart.”

“He has no need to assert his will in such a way, we both know that” replied Craid. But Francini was right, he was lost. And it was apparent that the corpulent merchant, transparent with drink, was hiding nothing. But then something came to him.

“Who’s competing with Conigliari?” Craid asked.

Francini laughed again.

“Who ever competes with him in that line of work!? Even with you gone he still deals in his usual unique line of arcana” he said.

“There was always one” retorted Craid.

“Well, I suppose D’Agostini runs some merchandise like that” Francini mumbled. The fire was going out of the situation and the drink was overcoming him.

“The watchmaker?”

“No” Francini replied, “his son. D’Agostini the Elder is long dead. But the boy is quite the up and comer, now. Purveyor of a few choice finds that even Conigliari would be proud of. The sort of thing that you used to bring him “ he said with a sneer.

“Where do I find him?” demanded Craid.

“In his father’s old workshop up on the hill. He runs his office out of there. I’m sure you remember; I recall the old man sparing your hands with a kind word to the Prince after finding a certain masked youth with his fingers feeling out his safe, all those years ago.”

Francini was getting sloppy and bold through drunkenness and with the atmosphere of fear giving way to advantage. Craid decided to cut their interview short before the merchant did something stupid like call out for help. The knife still poised, Craid slipped a hand inside his shirt and and pulled out a gold coin

“For your time. And hers” he whispered.

As Francini opened his mouth to scream and curse, Craid slid the coin into the merchant’s mouth and then smothered it with the soporific cloth. Francini’s eyes flared with anger and his pupils expanded like sinkholes before rolling back into his head. Craid pulled the bed sheet from under the titanic mass of flesh and laid it across the girl who still slept on the floor. He climbed onto the windowsill and looked out over Sol Midan. The sun was just beginning to break the horizon, far out at sea.  

IV

Craid snuck back through the streets in the hazy light of dawn. The smell of the ocean hung in each damp particle that was suspended in the air. He passed a tavern and saw through the window, slumped over a table, the man Behrat and his gold-toothed companion whom he had seen on the ship. They seemed to have obtained, then blown on rum and women, some kind of purse since having made land.

As Craid was coming down into the quays the broadening sunlight was beginning to creep up out of the sea and onto the flagstones, as if brought in with the tide. He aimed to procure some provisions from the early market stalls before the crowds began to gather. As Craid stepped out onto the dock he saw a strange figure walking in his direction. The detail was lost in the deep shadow that was thrown from the sun behind, but the light was not enough to obscure, in fact it only highlighted, that from which the figure walked away. It was a man slumped on the ground, the growing pool of fresh blood around him sparkling and shimmering in the dawn. The figure, walking with a strange and stiff gait, drew nearer and Craid freed his blade.

“Good morning!” he called with glib humour.

The figure kept walking. Craid glanced over his own shoulder down the alley from which he had emerged.

“Heading to the coffeehouse for an eye opener?” he shouted.

But the figure made no reply. It was within 30 foot now and Craid tried to piece together the collection of bizarre traits that it presented. It wore a hooded robe that was drawn across its broad chest. It bore a mask of shining bronze, the features plain. Neither comedy nor tragedy emanated from the black apertures of its eyes and mouth. In a hand that was not of flesh it carried a blade not unlike his own.

“It’s an early morning to be so active” snarled Craid, beginning to walk towards the figure. “Perhaps… best to return to sleep!” and he lunged forward, parrying away the knife that the figure thrust to meet him and tying up its other arm behind its back. But almost as soon as Craid noticed that the arm upon which he laid his hands was, beneath the cloak, as hard and jagged as cliff rock, the arm was torn free from his grasp as if it were only a swathe of cobweb and a series of thrusts and slashes of the dagger were thrown at his face.

Craid ducked, weaved and moved in, lashing out with his own knife. He was face to face with the thing now, inches from its hollow eyes. And his blood ran cold as he realized that no human, or even animal, eyeballs lay behind the mask.

Only perceptible in the quiet dawn, Craid heard the insect ticking of clockwork gears spinning and biting into one another come from the figures body. It grasped Craid’s knife hand at the wrist with a vice-like grip and pulled it and the dagger away from its body. With the other arm it levelled its own blade at Craid’s face. Unable to break free, Craid fell back with his whole weight. As he reached the friction point the strange machine man stumbled forward with him and let go of his arm in order to steady itself. Craid reached forward and pulled the hood over its face and, leaping into the air like a cat, planted two feet directly into its wide chest. The thing stumbled back, crazed and tearing at its cloak. The sound of the thick fibres being wrenched apart was quite audible over Craid’s own heavy breathing as he picked himself from the flagstones and tried to plan a method of attack. Or, potentially, escape.

The figure got a hold of the tattered remains of the cloak and threw them to the ground. Craid, for all the danger that he had foolishly invited, could only stand and stare, drinking in the strangest vision that even he had ever seen.

It was a man of wood and bronze. The arms, legs and torso were panels of polished oak, he could could even see the nick his knife had made in the wood above where a man’s kidneys would be. At each and every point of articulation, from the knee to the knuckles, there was a gap in the wood filled with joints and gears of shimmering bronze and silver that whirred and turned in intricate patterns. It was like an artist’s anatomy doll grown to the size, and beyond, of a man. And it moved with a sinister simulacrum of human articulation. Not quite as flexible, but with a ferocious strength and purpose that bettered the flesh on which it was modelled. Its face, that serene skull-like mask, glowed in the burgeoning sunlight like an impassive Angel of Death.

It moved, again, towards Craid in an affected fighter’s pose and with a complete absence of fear. As it struck out at him, Craid dodged its blow and, realizing that the his blade was useless, hammered the set of gears at its elbow with the hilt of his knife. He heard the metal bend ,but it became apparent that the damage that was being dealt was minimal when it used the very same arm to fling Craid to the ground.

Craid was quick and, when he fought, it was with the reactions and instincts of an animal on the plains, but he was barely to his feet when felt the cold blade slide in to his flesh to the hilst, penetrating his lower back. Craid knew where a man felt pain and where in the body the Gods had desperately buried the vital workings that sustain something so fragile as a human being. Perhaps this strange imitation of mankind did not know by instinct what a killer like Craid knew and utilized, for it made a mistake that saved its victims life. The blade had slipped between, by inches, the kidney and spleen.

Inundated, now, with adrenaline, Craid managed to roll onto his back and, as he did so, he slipped a hand inside his shirt. As the relentless automaton came in to deliver the fatal blow Craid flung into its face a handful of powder, praying that its action would be effective against this new and singular foe. As the powder was exposed to the searing light of a Sol Midan morning it exploded into flashes of silver and gold.

The thing staggered back and away, clawing at smoke and the thousan minute explosions the powder had let off. Craid clawed himself to his feet and, pushing through a pain that threatened to flaw him, he half-loped and half-ran to the edge of the quays and, choking out an agonized cry, hurled himself into the brilliant, blue water.

V

Ola opened the door and there Craid stood in the gloom of the porch. But it was as if a shadow had arrived twenty four hours behind its master, because the form in the doorway was only a dark imitation of the man who had preceded it. Shivering in spite of the heat and slouching against a pillar, the eyes that stared back at her were like dim and guttering lamps. He barely made it across the threshold, muttering some indistinguishable curse, before he crashed to the floor. Ola managed to get Craid into the low sofa seat in the drawing room and, when she turned to fetch water and bandages, she felt his hand grab her own, weakly. She had to lean in to him to hear what he said. His breath smelled of blood and seawater.

“In his room… the treasure hoard… an earthen pot with a man biting a snake drawn on…” he whispered.

Her eyes searched his.

“Craid, where in the room?”

He drew a ragged breath.

“Go!…” he spluttered.

What she found in the dusty and ancient pot was a wax like substance the colour of dead flesh and with a smell that matched. By the time she had got back to Craid’s side he had slipped into unconsciousness. Assuming his instruction, she took a handful of the salve and rubbed the deep, puckered wounds on his back before binding it in clean cloth.

*

When he awoke in the dead of the night, several days later, Ola was by his side. Craid tried to speak and found his mouth so dry that his gums stuck to the sides of his cheeks. He motioned to Ola to bring him water and his pouch of snuff. When she returned with them he was trying to drag himself to an upright position. She put down the water and the pouch and helped him to settle into the corner of the sofa. She down next to him and handed him a cup of water. He turned away from her and drank.

“You can take off the veil if you’d prefer?” she said, quietly, “I had to remove it whilst you were recovering. You breathing was so weak…”

Craid took two pinches of snuff into each nostril and lay his head back, closing his eyes.

“Then you’re probably used to this way that I look, But I’m not” he said in a whisper, “the last time I saw it was in the reflection of a dying man’s eyes and I intend to leave it there.”

“What was that salve in the pot?” Ola asked.

“I have no idea. But I’m glad I stole it for him all those years ago” Craid replied, dreamily.

They sat for a long time in silence. Ola assumed that Craid was sleeping but when, in time, she asked a further question out loud without having meant to, he replied immediately.

“Do you think he is still alive?” she had asked, meaning Conigliari.

“I’ve always known that he is” Craid replied, “that is why he’s disappeared and not turned up as some many-punctured corpse lying in a busy street. The rest were a message. His disappearance is something different.”

“Do you know who’s the person doing it?” she asked, nervously.

“I’ve met them quite intimately” Craid replied, and shifted painfully in his seat, “but it’s who’s picking the targets that I’m interested in. I have some idea about that, too.”

It took a further two days for Craid to be able to stand unaided. He took plenty of the soups and teas that Ola prepared and the same again of the pinches of narcotic snuff and daubs of the arcane, healing unguent.

*

One night, as he sat and pored over Conigliari’s papers, Craid heard a scuffing in the upper part of the house. He took his and knife and doused it in a particularly fast acting nerve poison which he had found amongst the various alchemical agents within the house. He passed the sleeping Ola, collapsed on a sofa seat, as he made his way to the staircase, a horrible deja vu creeping over him as he did so. He took the stairs one at a time, wishing that he had taken a pinch of the snuff.

Reaching the top of the stairs, Craid sidled up to the doorway from whence the sound came. He took a sidelong glance into the room and saw a dark figure halfway across the sill. The bunched shadows behind and the low, sinister muttering told of a further two would be intruders waiting in line. Craid slipped the tainted dagger back into its sheath and drew another, clean, blade. He drew a deep breath. The goal was to deal sufficient damage to force a retreat but not so much as to bring on a siege mentality in the jumpy figures behind and force a confrontation that, in this state, he was not sure that he could succeed in. Craid let out the breath in a long, quiet sigh and whipped around into the doorframe.

The knife sang as it flew through the dark and, as it found its mark, it sunk into flesh with the sound of tearing cloth. The victim howled and, to Craid’s disquiet, fell into the room rather than out of it. One of the shadows behind was now beginning to climb in through the window. As the one who had been felled by the knife stood once more, Craid picked up and hurled a chair that had sat just inside the doorway. It clattered into the recovering burglar who stumbled into the window, knocking out the one who had been coming in. Craid’s back burned where the exertion had split his healing wound. He took a few loud steps into the room, unsheathing the poisoned blade with exaggerated force. It made an unmistakable whipping sound, even amongst the groaning and confused shouts at the window. Summoning all the pain and bitter fury that had been welling up within him, Craid spat two words into the dark;

“Get. Out!”

And, chancing his fate on the way that the bones would fall, he flung his knife into the huddled mass where it embedded itself in his target – the frame of the window.  If the would be thieves had looked back as they fled they would not have seen the imposing resistance that they imagined but, instead, the figure of Craid on his hands and knees, retching in pain.

Ola found him this way as she cautiously peered around the doorframe. She bore him down the stairs and to the sofa, where he struggled weakly against her ministrations, muttering that time was growing short. She applied another handful of the salve to his ragged wound and managed to calm him until he fell into an uneasy sleep. As he dreamt, she did what she could to restore the security of the upstairs window.

*

When Craid awoke with a start the following afternoon she was sitting with her head in her hands.

“I need to go tonight” was the first thing that Craid said.

She looked up.

“You are still not well” she replied.

Craid ran a hand across his face.

“No. But word has got out. Either we get him back, the conjurer that they fear, or we both leave.”

“If you go then I stay here” she said quietly.

“No, that isn’t going to happen” he said firmly, “you need to go somewhere you’ll be safe.”

Without further comment she drew from beside the chair the dagger that Craid had doused in poison. It had been further marred with blood which had dried along its edges.

“They came again” she said, “or others. I am safe here, at least for a little while. What you have on this knife, it is like the violet flower from my village. But far worse. When the master comes back there will be something to take care of”, and her eyes rose to the ceiling.

“Well, I doubt that will cause too much of a problem” Craid replied, “but we need to get him back first.”

“You can’t go out at night” Ola said with icy calm, “the body down in the docks that you saw was one of the Moretti brothers. Bruno has his whole militia patrolling the city by dark.”

Craid sat in silence for a long time.

“Dawn, then. I need to gather some things.”

Ola turned the dagger over by the handle as Craid watched. Its blade still had the dull, fatal look of a poisoned weapon. He held out his hand. Ola stuck it forcefully into the wooden floor where it stood upright. He pulled it free and went slowly up the stairs without saying another word.

VI

Craid stood by the front door, next to the satchel that he had carefully packed through a night where he had stopped only to rest and doze for a couple of hours. Ola came from the kitchen with a length of gauze and the earthen pot. Craid peered through the window shutters. The blue-dark that was a Sol Midan dawn was just beginning to break through the night. He watched the backs of two of Moretti’s men disappear down an alley.

He turned back to Ola who was waiting, staring down at the floor. He delicately removed his shirt as she soaked the bandages in what remained of the salve. He stared up at the ceiling, his arms held wide, and listened to her quiet work. She barely flinched when she looked up to begin her task and saw the reams of bizarre, arcane text that was burned, tattooed and scarred all across his naked torso. In the silence of the pregnant dawn she bound his body in the soft cloth and then turned away.

As she flicked the water from her hands she turned back round and watched him draw the hood of his long jacket up and over his head. She had heard him take several huge pinches of a new, acrid smelling snuff mixture and his eyes burned out from the slit between his hood and the cloth wrapped about his face. They had not said a word to one another the whole night. She wondered if he would speak before picking up his bag and leaving and was almost surprised to hear herself speaking first.

“What will you do? If it beats you again, I mean. You are sick and it will not let you slip away another time.”

Craid slung the bag across his shoulders.

“My body is weaker, perhaps, but I’ve learned from our last meeting. It is only a machine of some kind. Machines don’t learn” he said.

Ola half raised a hand towards him and it hung in the air.

“But it moves and kills as if it were a man” she said.

“Well, men don’t learn either” Craid replied and, with that, he slipped out into the blue dawn.

*

The streets were deserted but for the occasional pairing of the surviving Moretti brother’s men, whose drunken footsteps Craid had no problem identifying in the still air and then evading.

As he slunk up the hill he came to D’Agostini’s watchmakers. The windows were dark mirrors and Craid had to step into an embrace with his shadowy reflection to see inside. The mechanisms, half stripped, and the tiny cogs and gears on the benches, like the aftermath of a surgery, all lay beneath a fine coating of dust. The shadows in the workshop were deep and impregnable. Craid smiled to himself. It was just as he had pieced it together in his head; tiny cogs falling into place.

Craid continued up the hill by the backstreets and, with some effort, climbed onto a roof that afforded him a view of the palace. It had not changed as the merchant’s houses had. It had always eclipsed the other buildings of Sol Midan and still did. A couple of sentries were posted at the gates, in the pillars of which flaming torches gutted down to nothing.

Craid dropped down from the roof and began to search amongst the detritus that littered the little back alley. He only hoped that, in the intervening years, no-one had worked out how he had found his way into the palace, all that time ago, to liberate the Prince’s most treasured sabre. Beneath an overturned and abandoned handcart he found it; a flimsy cover hiding the way down into the sewers.

Craid moved through the dry, crumbling passages, following a set of mental directions at each junction that he had dredged, turn by turn, from his memory as he had been recovering. Ancient plaster dust rained down as he made his way, slowly and bent double, towards an opening in the palace cellar that he prayed would still be accessible.

At last the passage opened out and he found the dry and decaying wooden ladder that rose into the darkness above. He tested it with a little of his weight and, though its rungs bowed a little, it appeared stable enough. The weight that he had lost during his convalescence was perhaps a stroke of luck.

He climbed the ladder and reached the covered opening in the ceiling and dropped his torch to burn out in the dirt below. With his heart in his mouth, Craid reached out and pressed against the slim, stone disc that, he hoped, would raise up from the floor of the palace’s cellar. But it did not move. Craid pushed harder and the decrepit ladder creaked beneath him. He considered the flash powder he had in his bag. The noise that it would create would call every guard in the palace down into the cellar and he had to consider the possibility that opening had been covered over on the other side.

He took out his blade and ran it around the rim of the opening, hoping to loosen decades worth of seizing. He pushed it again and it seemed to move a little more. But the ladder gave a rattling groan in response that made his heart skip in his chest. He looked to the gutting torch thirty feet below. In his current condition he did not like his chances.

Girding himself, Craid wrapped his legs around the frame of the ladder, fancying it more than the rungs. The exertion it took to hold himself aloft like that made his abdomen, with its unhealed wound, burn and clench. Using both hands now, he pushed upwards against the stone and, with a crack, the lid launched upwards. As his aching back creaked, so did the ladder. It spat dust and debris which he heard crackle faintly in the torch flame below. And then it collapsed entirely.

Craid’s body was wrenched downwards and he stifled a pitiful scream as his torso was jerked by gravity. His fingers dug into the stone floor of the cellar above him as his legs dangled and kicked in mid air. He took several deep breaths as soon as he began to feel his sweat soaked fingertips begin to fail him. Roaring out a noise which was cut to abrupt silence as he mustered all the strength he had left, Craid hauled himself up and out of the hole and collapsed onto his back on the cold, stone floor. He lay there like a newborn baby, unbreathing and unable to move. And then, actuated by the capricious ghosts of life, he drew a huge breath of air, rolled over and screamed into the dirt.

*

Craid pushed on the door of the cellar and listened at the crack. His head swam with the bitter memory of intense pain and yet was sharp with the effects of the snuff he had taken between ragged breaths. A shaking sense of unreality came over him. The footsteps that came closer and closer seemed to echo with a strange resonance. Craid shook his head clear. As the footsteps began to retreat he slipped through the door, closing it softly behind him. He followed the echoing footsteps to a bend in the corridor and peered round.

Craid watched as the palace guard, owner of the footsteps, ducked into a doorway and listened to the murmured conversation that began to issue from within. There was no reason for a guard to be patrolling these lower depths of the palace where only storerooms and servants quarters resided.

Craid crept closer to the doorway and listened. The conversation was carried out in hushed tones.

“How do you know it will be him?” whispered one of the voices.

“The same way I knew it would be Moretti. Now, do you want the name or not?” the other replied.

The city had not changed, Craid thought, even after so much time and amongst such new madness. In the dark recesses of the palace men’s lives were still bet upon and their advantages taken advantage of as if they were nothing more than fighting cocks.

There was he sound of clinking coins.

“No, no, no; we agreed, another half again for this one” said the voice that Craid had deduced was the guard’s. The other voice mumbled a non-committal response, blaming their weak memory.

“Then you’ll need to gather your advantage elsewhere, Beppe” the soldier sneered.

There was disgruntled mumbling in Beppe’s tone and then a further clinking and rattling of coins.

Craid had intended to wait for the gambler or rival merchant, whoever he was, to leave before he introduced himself to the guard, but it was his experience that even two men barely possessed the awareness of half-a-man when gold was glittering in their eyes. And he seized the opportunity.

Beppe, in the midst of trying to tip fate in his favour, was dying with a blade driven under his chin almost before he could react. Craid leered at the guard over the man’s shoulder. The guard held out a hand in an instinctive defence and in a split second found the blood soaked blade thrust into it and his body being pushed back to the wall with another knife at his throat.

“Who…who…” the guard stammered. And the veiled figure replied in an unearthly voice that came from everywhere at once and sent a shiver down the guard’s spine;

“No-one, really. Just passing through an old haunt. Tell me where I find Conigliari and I keep moving.”

“The tower!” the guard snapped back.

“And D’Agostini?” Craid continued.

“How did you kn…” the guard began but his voice was arrested by a twist of the knife that was embedded in his hand and the beginning of his cries were answered with an increase of pressure to the blade at his throat.

“The tower” the guard choked out, “he is in the tower trying to get answers from the old man!”

Craid looked the guard up and down.

“What’s your name?” Craid asked.

“Sar…Sar…Sar…” the guard stammered out. Craid grinned;

“Well, you look like a bleeder SarSarSar. Lucky you.”

And with that he clubbed the man behind his ear with the hilt of his knife and lowered the slumped body to the ground. Checking the unconscious man’s uniform he was pleased to find it spotless.

VII

Craid affixed the face cage to the palatial guard’s helmet which he now wore and stepped out of the cellar door and into the hallway. SarSarSar lay at the bottom of the sewer tunnel from which Craid had climbed. The torch had gone out but he assumed the man was still breathing down there. He had flung his own clothing down first to act as some kind of cushion and had tried to drop the body in such a way that any bones broken would not be the neck.

Craid marched with the exaggerated dignity and scorn that the palace guards adopted in order to properly represent their liege. He passed servants, subordinates and other guards without incident. It was strange; in what would ordinarily have been the strict regime of morning there was a hint of chaos in the palace. At first Craid worried that it betokened some knowledge of an interloper in their midst but there was a weary, resigned undertone that told him that this was part of some ongoing breakdown. And it played to his advantage. With the palace faintly manic and, thus distracted, Craid found his way from the gold and glittering halls and passageways to the grimmer, flagged avenues that led to the tower without suspicion.

As he unbarred and pushed on the great oak door that allowed entrance, Craid caught the first faint scream as it tumbled down the winding stair. Craid leaned the spear he had been carrying against the brickwork and pushed the door closed. If he were to meet the singular, clockwork assassin again he would have no more success with the spear then he had achieved with the knife. He knew exactly in which direction success lay and it was within the very reason that had caused his return to Sol Midan. He smiled to himself. Small cogs falling into place.

The screams grew in volume and intensity as Craid climbed the stair. He turned the knife over and over in his hand. His quiet rage grew as pain stabbed him with each step. Craid was no stranger to pain. He fed on what it offered and spat the cold remains into the stone at his feet.

Only one door led into the keep at the tower’s pinnacle. Craid, as he had done so often before, took what most men experienced as fear and made of it an amusing little pet. A pretty bird that sang on his shoulder a chorus of the absurdity of death and the ludicrous fragility of life. He slid a thin blade between the door and its frame and, thus, flicked up and away the bar on the inside.

“Little Mario D’Agostini” Craid announced as he stepped through the door, “how you’ve grown!”

D’Agostini stood at the far end of the room, bloody water dripping from his fingers and the towel he had dropped on Craid’s entry settling at his feet.

“Craid!” he cried in shock and fury.

“I’m glad you still remember the little people” Craid smirked.

D’Agonstini’s eyes flicked about the room, back and forth between Craid and Conigliari who sat, tied and bloodied, in a chair between them.

Craid strode into the room, the dagger twitching in his hand. As he passed the semi conscious Congliari he placed a gentle hand on the old man’s shoulder. Craid stepped nearer D’Agostini who backed away, his hands held in front of him. Craid picked up a cup of wine that sat on a small table against the wall. He pulled loose the helmet face cage and tossed it to the ground. D’Agostini gasped. The lower half of the thief’s face was a mutilated mass of bare muscle and tendons, the skin wasted or torn from its bed. Craid poured the wine down his throat. Thin rivers of crimson ran between his permanently bared teeth. He smiled at D’Agostini and it was the nightmarish leer of a naked skull.

“Craid, the old man is just a tool. He’s hurt but he’ll live. I only need his knowledge. You can persuade him and then you can both walk free.”

D’Agostini had been petrified. If no man alive had seen Craid’s true face it was assumed that this was because he had let no such man live. But as his slippery tongue worked he was talking himself back into a state of confidence.

“Once I have what he hides” D’Agostini continued, “I’ll rule this city. I’ll have the power to write off a lot of debts and wash away a lot of bad blood” he implored Craid, suggestively.

“And the Prince?” Craid enquired.

“That inbred fool? What of him? He hides in the capital whilst I take control so that he can return on more favourable terms with myself than against a cabal of merchants. He loans me his palace and his guards to complete my work? Pah! Once I have the secret to animating legions of automata I’ll tear his palace and his guards to shreds! Father took the secret to his grave. But he is the one who showed it to father” and he pointed to the slumped form of Conigliari.

“And you can build an army of those things?” Criad asked, placing down the empty cup.

D’Agostini smiled, “Whole battalions. Sol Midan is only the beginning.”

Craid leant back on the wall and let out a sigh as he considered the information. In truth, his back was on fire with pain.

“You’re father was a great man, D’Agostini. I mean that”.

D’Agostini took a solicitous step closer to Craid, “Indeed. But he had spent a lifetime peering into the tiny workings of watches and it limited the scope of his vision. He built the greatest work of mechanism the world has ever seen and imbued it with life and, do you know what he planned for it? To protect his workshop and safeguard his deliveries!” D’Agostini laughed from the depth of his father’s shadow. “But when he died I was the one to see its true potential. And, it’s strange that you should be here to see the culmination, because it was you that helped me see. That relentless purpose and lack of fear you have and which Sol Midan cowers from. I sent it out into the world as Conilgiari had directed you, intractable and ruthlessly efficient. To the cold tombs and hot jungles from which you brought him fabled treasure. To the emperors and warlords on whom you enacted countless bounties. And the money that it brought me, the influence and power to enact my will, have led us here.”

“I’m glad I was such an inspiration” Craid replied, stepping away from the wall.

D’Agostini stepped forward again, a triumphant, slimy grin on his face.

“You’re right about one thing, Mario” Craid said, “your father was a man of small vision. But he was enough of a man to know how little that mattered. No wonder he was always so desperately disappointed in you.”

D’Agostini stopped short. He sneered back at Craid;

“I should have known that a petty thief, especially one stupid enough to come and take a second beating, wouldn’t have the wisdom to join me. Well, time to give you a death ugly enough to match the one you wear on your face.”

D’Agostini gave a high pitched, undulating whistle and, from the darkest corner of the keep, came a reply. The steady and intensifying ticking and clanking of gears falling into place. The creak of wood and whine of copper joints loosening. The fall of heavy footsteps on the flagstones.

Craid watched the clockwork terror step out of the shadows. Even in his drugged and nihilistic state, the sight sent a twinge of discomfort through his heart. It showed no fear, no hesitance. Their last encounter had nearly proved fatal for Craid but this implacable machine strode as surely and purposefully towards him as it had done when he first saw it walking towards him from out of the glow of a sun rising beyond the docks.

As the first blow was launched towards Craid he was staring straight into the pits of the thing’s eyes. He had learnt to avoid his natural inclination to watch for the telltale jerk of muscle that forecasted an attack. It was a tell that the material of its body did not possess. Now, he relied on his years of experience in combat to tell him what assault made the most logical sense, this was the one that his strange opponent would employ. The blow that the assassin had launched came down in thin air. As the next attempt flew out in a wide arc, Craid ducked it and reached inside the guard’s tunic that he wore. He had been forced to abandon his satchel and the equipment inside in order to maintain his disguise. But he still had one piece of singular ordinance. He pulled the cracked, fist-sized black stone from his clothing and prepared to strike. But, then, something for which he had not planned happened.The lead footed thing swung a fierce kick towards his face. Craid’s hands flew up to protect himself but the blow simultaneously knocked the stone from his grasp and sent him skidding across the floor.

“You see, Criad” D’Agostini called from across the room, “if one of these can dominate even you, then imagine how many ordinary men it could best? Imagine how many a thousand of these clockwork soldiers could overthrow?”

Craid came back into coherence with hot blood running from the wound in his back and the thing almost atop him. He was not sure if the warm smell of copper in the air came from his blood melting into the stone or the frenzied gears and joints within his adversary. A knife came down at him and Craid flung himself free, tiny splatters of crimson soaking the floor from which blue sparks flew as the metal struck the stone.

Craid sprung to his feet and the assassin continued its advance. He scanned the floor in search of the stone he had dropped. Its blackness hid it perfectly in the shadows. As he backed away from the oncoming foe he had an idea. Almost backed to the corner, now, he bent to the floor, never taking his eyes from his opponent, and scooped a handful of dust and debris from between the cracks in the flagstones. He heard D’Agostini laugh;

“How do you intend to blind that which has sight beyond mere flesh, Craid?”

Craid flung the dust and dirt high into the air and, as it rained down, just as he had hoped, some of the debris hit the stone that was enshrined in darkness. As it did, the veins and cracks that riddled the stone’s surface glowed a fierce red, just for a second.

Now aware of its location, Craid turned his attention to the assassin. He had no more tricks to play and he could feel blood running freely down his leg. The assassin thrust its knife forward and Craid stepped to one side, lowered his shoulder and launched himself into the solid torso of the thing. The assassin stumbled, just a little. But it was enough. Craid rushed towards the stone, his breath held in anticipation of the iron grip that might fall on him as he passed; his arm clung to his side. As he had struck the thing bright flowers of pain had bloomed before his eyes. It was as if he had tackled an oak tree.

As he stumbled across the room, Criad was aware of great peals of laughter coming from D’Agostini, directed at his desperate flight. Craid reached the stone and bent down to scoop it up. Just as he did so, he felt something that approximated the power of a hammer falling upon an anvil strike him upon his wounded back. He fell forward, the world reduced to only two things; an exquisite white light of agony and the awareness of his hand wrapped like a vice around the stone. He came back to reality on his back and unable to breath, with two metal hands clasped around his throat.

“You know” called D’Agostini, “I think I will make a gift of your fabled knife. The next of these soldiers that I build, the next of many; I’ll close its hand around the hilt before I animate it. So that it might be born with blood already on its hands.”

The voice came to Craid from far away. His body was in shock, drifting, the life ebbing from it, and the stone lay in a hand over which he no longer felt he had direct control. But another voice came and, in his delirium, Craid did not know whether Conigliari, the old sorcerer and merchant in the arcane, had awoken or if the voice sailed directly into his mind on seas of bizarre conjuration.

“Old friend” it began, “do you know what you hold in your palm? Perhaps some of it, but barely half of it. It belonged, once, to a great Emperor of Wushii. The fable says that it is the petrified eye of the last dragon who roosted in a nest stop Mt. Wujin, and who roamed the misty skies bringing rain and fire. I suppose you imagine that I tasked you to bring it to me for the purpose of slaying this foe? But I did not. The world is a stranger place than either you or I know. Fate twists and turns like the coils of a dragon soaring in a leaden sky. It wheels like tiny gears falling into place…”

Reality crashed back in. Craid heard the guttural laughter of D’Agostini and the laboured breathing of Conigliari. He saw the hollow eyes of the clockwork assassin, its face appearing to glow with a golden aura all rimmed with red. The face filled his dimming vision, seemed to float like light at the end of a great tunnel. But he felt nothing, at first, as if he was suspended in a nighttime sea. But then, almost as if it were only some manifestation of clockwork, he felt his hand twitch and jerk with the involuntary animation of an automaton.

Craid smashed the stone against the forearm of the assassin and the room exploded into light. The assassin lurched backwards, releasing Craid who lay choking and gasping on the stone. Its wooden arm was ablaze with a fire that held a ghostly, green tint within it and stank of sulphur.

D’Agostini cried out in alarm as the clockwork soldier reeled around the room, vainly swatting at its engulfed arm. Craid dragged himself to all fours, drooling and spitting at the ground. In his hand the stone was smouldering and expelling large quantities of black smoke. The cracks and fissures glowed a fierce, lava-like orange. But it was not hot, not even warm, and Craid clutched it tight as he got to his feet.

The assassin was frantically clawing at the flames that roared where Craid had struck it. It looked up as Craid emerged through the billowing smoke and, though its face was only a mask, Craid, bleeding and numb, revelled in the fancy that he saw fear in its eyes. He thrust the stone into the broad wooden chest of the assassin. A burst of brilliant flame exploded into violent life where his blow had landed and he leapt back as an inferno of green-hued fire roared amongst the wood. The assassin tore at the flames and Craid smelled the acrid fumes of the copper beginning to melt. He struck again as the thing turned it back and another gout of flame went up.

“No!”

It was D’Agostini’s cry that turned Craid’s fire lit, shining eyes from the destruction. He advanced on D’Agostini, who backed away in terror and repeated;

“No!”

Craid snatched the watchmaker’s son-turned-would-be-ruler’s hair and twisted an arm behind his back.

“Look, boy” Craid snarled next to his ear, “look how easily power can burn.”

The clockwork automaton was almost invisible now in a ball of flame and rolling clouds of smoke. It moved desperately this way and that, but its movements became jerky as the pistons and rods that were its skeleton became liquid in the heat. When Craid released D’Agostini and he fell to his knees on the stone, all that remained was charcoal, ash and the copper mask that had been its face, melted and contorted into an agonized grimace by the inferno.

Craid went over to the smouldering remains and plucked the scalding mask from the ashes with a cloth wrapped hand. He advanced on D’Agostini, who scuttled backwards like a crab when he recognized Craid’s aim. But Craid drew nearer; the red hot mask held before him, concave side forward, watching D’Agostini pray, plead and scream, through the glowing holes of the former clockwork assassin’s eyes.

VIII

Conigliari lived. Whilst the healing salve was expanded there was no need for a doctor. The herbs and potions he directed Craid and Ola to prepare were of almost equal effect. The attacks on the house were ended, swiftly and lethally, with a common thief slitting his own throat in the middle of the merchant’s quarter, howling about demons that followed him through dreams and into daylight.  Conigliari did more with a scrying mirror then Craid could do with a blade to restore order. The stone, The Dragon’s Gaze, went into its vault alongside the other terrible wonders. And, in time, it was the hour for Craid to leave.

“Here’s the payment for your initial charge” Conigliari said to him as he dropped the purse into Craid’s hand, “I’m not sure what payment I can offer for the other services you’ve rendered?”

“None are needed, old man” Craid replied, “I wouldn’t be taking this one if I’d done nothing, would I?”

Conigliari smirked, “You’ve indirectly done a favour to a great many of the merchants. I’m sure that word will spread of its own accord but I might ease its way to the right ears? It might striked off a lot of bad debts. You might even stay?”

Criad slipped the purse into his bag;

“I don’t stay away from fear, you know that. It’s a big world out there, I have to see a little more before the best parts end up in your vault” he said.

“When you get bored of running from boredom, there’ll always be a place here for you, Craid” Conigliari replied. “There is warmth to be found if you step out of the four winds and wait a little by the fire.”

Conigliari looked to Ola who stood in the drawing room doorway.

“Ola?” he called, “see our friend out, I must get back to my work.”

And with that he placed a hand on Craid’s shoulder and began to climb the stair.

Ola stepped forward;

“Your ship is waiting” she said.

“I know. But first…” and he pulled something from inside his cloak and placed it in her hand. It was a black stone all riven with cracks.

“But, isn’t this…” she started.

“Dragon’s have two eyes” Craid stopped her, his eyes gleaming, “and I owe you something for my life.”

“No, Craid” and she tried to press it back into his palm. He took her wrist, gently.

“Conigliari will not live forever. One day all this will be yours to take. He wouldn’t have brought you in if he didn’t believe it. The docks are swarming with servant girls from which to choose. Just remember what I have learned; never trust him but learn everything you can from him. It is the only deal one can do with the Devil and win.”

She took back her hand and slipped the stone inside her dress.

“He is a broken man. And so are you. Why would I want what it is that you have?”

Craid opened the door and turned back;

“He has knowledge and will die knowing that which other men waste their lives hiding from. It’s all you can ask for. What else, Ola? A child on each hip? A husband to serve?”

Her dark eyes gleamed. Inside was resentment, anticipation, defiance and fierce ambition.

“Come and see me one day, if you find anything that I might like” she smiled, “we can discuss the price over tea.”

And with that he closed the door and made his way to the docks.

*

The ship was at sail and Sol Midan was being swallowed in a thick mist as Craid stepped away from the gunwale and took a seat upon a barrell with his new travelling companions. Before him was a small gaming table and upon the table were knucklebones and coins, waiting for the game to commence.

“You get seasick, friend?” said the larger of the two, his black expansive forehead glistening with sweat.

“No, no, just taking in the sights” Craid replied.

The smaller of the two was a withered old buccaneer, but no wiser for his age;

“You never been to Sol Midan?” he croaked.

“Of course. But I didn’t get to see it from the way out, last time” said Craid.

The two looked at each other quizzically but their vulture gazes returned to Craid at once.  Much like Behrat and Gohrn, they were sizing up their latest “friend”. Criad didn’t have the energy to alert them to their mistake. Already he saw from the corner of his eye some of the other crew and passengers whispering behind hands and chuckling at the hapless fools who were trying to groom him for a victim. Whatever; Craid could pass the journey playing knucklebones or cards as he played with these foolhardy cutpurses. He would announce himself in time – if no kind hearted soul from the crew warned them first.

“Strange things happening in Sol Midan, no?” said the large, dark sailor.

“Oh really?” Craid replied, toying with the bones on the table.

“You didn’t hear?” smirked the sailor, “some thing with a face of gold killing men in the dead of night.”

“Oh, that?” Craid replied with disinterest, “I may have heard something. But I thought it had been killed?”

“Pah!” snorted the old man, “who could kill such a thing!? I saw it, only last night, down an alley by the docks. Its golden face was glowing in the moonlight. Its eyes were wild, staring out from its mask, and it was howling as if the tongue were burned out of its mouth!”

“Goodness” Craid exclaimed with mock surprise.

“That’s right” smiled the old man, and he and his broad companion traded conspiratorial grins with one another before their quarries naivety, “it had only found a new victim, I’d say, for it clung to and adored an exquisite pocket watch.”

And now Craid smiled to himself;

“Well, better we’re free of such terrors, gentlemen” he said, “shall we play?”

And he picked up the knucklebones and rattled them in his palm, watching the hungry looks of his companions from under his brow. The bones clacked on the board as he threw them down.

“What luck! It isn’t your day, boys…” he chirped with a knowing good humour. He pulled the small pot of coins towards him. All the small bones had fallen right into place.

THE END

If you’ve enjoyed this work be sure to check out my other Craid story “Siege Machine”

 

 

 

Gore

Всесоюзный Пушкинский праздник поэзии

I walked towards her.
Debasing myself under a hail of bullets.
Rattling and jerking.
Like a junkie.
Or a frog all strung with wires.
The Gatling gun.
Hand cranked.
Spat pins and needles.
Into my hide.
Barely able to maintain.
My desire for death.
And her fishbelly flesh.
I walked til I died.

A herd of white bulls.
Flocked like birds.
Flecks of spittle.
Flying from cattle mouths.
As they whirled round the corral.
Like bullets.
Like ghosts.
Scattering priests and dust.
No one more yellow than the other.
Until red cloth.
Over altar.
Halter or horn.
Made them kneel.
Where once they had ran.
And one could barely discern.
Where was the end of the beast.
And the start of the man.

Old Harker’s Resurrection Pool

onehundredandeightyfour

Listen, all ye, who would learn.
By the fate to which I fell.
Sometimes that for which we yearn.
Is only another type of Hell.

Drinking and carding late one night.
I set off long for home.
I knew she would be sleeping tight.
In our marriage bed, alone.

At the altar I had claimed.
To be something I was not.
Cupid’s arrow had been squarely aimed.
But in time we had forgot.

A little her, but mostly me.
We had let the time go by.
Drifting from one another.
Like the shoreline from the tide.

But still I loved her, for all my shame.
Her beauty and her poise.
To the gambler, life’s a game.
And I had made my choice.

The pavement rocked beneath my feet.
Singing, drunk, of Scarborough Fair.
Stumbling, stupid in the street.
I caught the smell of cinders in the air.

Coming down the blackened drive.
I saw the sky burning like a coal.
The garden, now, was quite alive.
With fire burning beyond control.

Our house had become a bonfire, lit.
And the townspeople gathered round.
I staggered through as the vultures split.
To see them lay her body on the ground.

Lying in a soaking shroud.
That swallowed an early dew.
I beat the earth and cried aloud.
To a God I never knew.

They laid her down into an earth.
That was dry as my sunken eyes.
Overhead my grief gave birth.
As rain pelted from the skies.

But I obtained no further release.
And the pain was all my own.
The firmament offered no more peace.
As I walked the streets alone.

Lurching amidst tears of fury.
I found no solace from the sky.
Staggering from bar to brewery.
I drank a hundred barrels dry.

Listing in such a wasted tavern.
I met the man who would be my fate.
Lurking as if a ghoul in a cavern.
Or a snake that lies in wait.

From his dank and shadowed nook.
He watched me from a single eye.
Drumming his fingers on a book.
As black as any midnight sky.

The binding was some awful thing.
The pages yellow; torn and ripped.
It almost looked like human skin.
The binding as dark as any crypt.

He beckoned me with a shrivelled hand.
That I should sit and search the tome.
And from its script, to understand.
How I might regain my hallowed home.

The book, it seemed as old as time.
Somehow the crooked ink still bled.
It sent a shiver down my spine.
To see it had a tint of red.

He showed me passages of ancient lore.
Dread instruction from forgotten schools.
And finally his finger underscored.
The tale of Old Harker’s unholy pool.

Harker, in some uncounted year.
Had come across, or so it was said.
Back in a cave, in the depths of the wood.
A body of water that could raise the dead.

Though drunk and desperate as I tell.
I had no time for the old man’s trick.
Magic woods and wishing wells.
Could not make healthy what was sick.

Laughing off his foolish verse.
I pushed back my chair and went to stand.
But was arrested by a hissing curse.
As he took my wrist with an iron hand.

“Look, my boy”, he whispered, grim.
“If you want again to see her face
You’ll need to cut your ties with him
And anoint yourself at that devil’s place”.

I tore away my shaking hand.
And turned away with curt disgust.
But his words had left their brand.
And I began to place in them my trust.

I turned back round to meet this bait.
And the bile within me reared.
But there was no more object for my hate.
The sinister man had disappeared…

The shadows only left behind.
Except of course, I need barely look.
As the daemons had designed.
Upon the table remained the book.

I staggered back to my lonely room.
And in my hand I held that tract.
My mind was spinning like a loom.
But there could be no turning back.

I waited for the night to come.
Knowing only drink’s relief.
When your nightmares are your rest.
You will learn to spit at sleep.

Through the rooming house came the sound.
As the town clock struck its bell.
And the twelve chimes echoed round.
As I slipped out of my cell.

I wandered through the sullen streets.
Clutching to me the blackened guide.
Down by where the canal meets.
The dark tongue of the tide.

I wandered outside the town’s low walls.
And then up into the trees.
Where no man walks and no bird calls.
No sound beyond the shivering of the leaves.

I climbed amongst the abandoned shacks.
The woodland church and its tilted graves.
And found behind the overgrown tracks.
The lonely entrance to a cave.

I walked through rifts of dripping stone.
And corridors as cold as sin.
And though the way was never shown.
Something called me from within.

I pushed my body through a crack.
And though the gap was slight.
I slipped out of the cavernous black.
And stumbled on the light.

The walls were hung with ghostly fire.
That clung to the jagged slate.
The lambent glow began to inspire.
Within me, a sinister weight.

The floor was littered with tiny bones.
Creatures lost inside the gloom.
Perhaps they, too, were led from home.
By the curse that called within that room.

I walked towards the stagnant well.
All rimmed with stones and leaves.
I stared into its blackened swell.
Desperate to believe.

Old Harker had been a singular case.
Living up in these haunted hills.
Could he have truly found a place.
Where the cup of life could be refilled?

Up from the abyssal depths.
Came a pale and ethereal form.
I held to faith as I held my breath.
That my prayers were being sworn.

Just beneath the rippling tide.
I saw the face for which I’d yearned.
Her eyes were closed; her arms spread wide.
The one I grieved for had returned!

I reached into the icy murk.
That which we hold we understand.
But some things that in black pools, lurk.
Will reach out and take your hand.

As I touched that translucent skin.
I saw her beauty seize and contort.
What it was that pulled me in.
Was never the angel that I’d sought!

It wrapped its hands about my neck.
And as our forms drew nigh.
The face was now a sodden wreck.
But, still, I recognized that eye

The old man with his wretched book.
Was not some old and lonely freak.
His spirit skulked inside the brook.
And his bitter trick was now complete.

A body stepped from the frigid pool.
And I watched outside of time.
By the doctrine of some arcane rule.
The body was somehow mine!

He looked down at me from where he stood.
As I screamed up from the well.
His face was mine, and mine his blood.
By some diabolic spell.

And then I felt around me tighten.
The icy water that was my bond.
Specks of wan light began to brighten.
As spirits became visible within the pond.

A choir of voices in my head.
Beseeched me in their hollow tones.
That the black pool must be fed.
By the marrow of my bones.

The ghoul had been right, a devil’s place.
Not only some ancient wyytches well.
He stood there smiling, with my face.
By the black and hungry mouth of Hell!

And just as another must have misled he.
There was a further trial to be undertook.
Before his spirit could be truly free.
He would use my body to pass on the book.

Dusting it down, he turned to leave.
As I writhed within my frozen ghost.
The phantoms of the pool began to feed.
And he walked away, my body’s host.

Gone to search the living land.
For to bewitch some other fool.
To come and take my icy hand.
By Old Harker’s Resurrection Pool.

The Blood Engine

onehundredandeightythree

I

In the seat behind, a woman wittered into her mobile phone. Some reminiscence of how drunk she’d been and how terrible she now felt. Jennings wondered, sinisterly, what it would take to shut her up if a hangover could not. He wiped the sweating condensation from the bus window. It was Monday and the upper deck seethed with bodies, boredom and the resentment of the routine come around again. The slow trickle back into work. Water running down the windows. Five days starting their downhill charge to the gutter.

The bodies walking on the pavement below were steaming with the rain. The wind lashed lank, soaking hair into their faces and cheap umbrellas undid themselves against the gusts. The commuter crowds thickened as the bus came around the corner and started its descent into the high street. It came down between the rows of grand Georgian houses, sending spray out into the multitudes waiting at the various stops that lined the street. Jennings looked up from under the rim of the bus window at the towering buildings. The brick was a deep red, washed with the rain. The ivy that crawled across the faces of every other house was glistening and dripping sullenly.

Brass plaques affixed to the walls announced chiropractors, dentists, solicitors and surveyors. But the pavements were filthy. Plastic swam in the drains and piles of rubbish bags were stacked in the porches. On any floor above ground the dirty, bare windows allowed one to glimpse the washing drying on the horse and the unpapered walls inside. Clothes, irons and tubs of washing powder sat on the sill. There was something of the slum, still, about these buildings.

On the stop before his own Jennings began to gather his damp jacket and scarf. He glanced out of the window as the bus was pulling out. The sign next to the peeling red door that stood behind the bus stop read “Yvette St. Vincent -xxxxxgrapher”. The letters that were missing had been peeled away since long before Jennings had ever noticed them. But they fascinated him. The whole street fascinated him. Though it was just off the city centre and was filled with people waiting to catch their bus he never saw a soul step in or out of these doors. He wondered how these businesses kept up with their rent. Perhaps they were owned in full by the dentists and solicitors? Perhaps they subsisted on the rent money from the hordes of immigrant families crammed into their upper floors? But Yvette St. Vincent’s establishment took the best part of his interest. Every weekday at 8:53 he wondered, again, what field of “graphy” it was that she practiced. And then the bus peeled out and the thought was gone.

 

II

He sat at his desk, the damp cuffs of his trousers brushing against his calves. The computer screen in front of him was horribly bare. It pulsed with the awful whiteness of bone. His mind was fogged. He needed to write a report. He could barely get his head around what it was supposed to be showing the result of. Who cared? Did the people who commissioned it care? Some of them probably did. The ambitious and grasping idiots who strutted around the office in too-tight suit trousers and ugly shoes. The kind who spoke loudly and had nothing worthwhile to say. They would be the ones who critiqued his work. Send it back to him in a relay with all the mistakes pointed out. The ones who made him feel two inches tall because he couldn’t invest in the quality of his work or how it affected company outcomes.

The ironic thing was that he was well respected within the office. His intelligence was obvious. Everyone made mistakes in these reports, it was the natural part of the upper management to check them and send them back for revision. The ambitious and grasping may have thought him a little odd but they knew that they could rely on his ability. Some were, perhaps, even a little intimidated by his sharp mind.

It rained for three days solid. For eight hours each day Jennings sat in his damp clothes in front of the slowly amassing figures and diagrams on his screen. He loathed them, these black scratches that filled the white page. What import did they have? They would be picked through in an hour and then discarded. Like faded and forgotten names in some country graveyard. He longed to leave a mark that would endure.

On the fourth day, as the sky was beginning to clear, he walked through the office door to water pouring from the ceiling fittings.

“Jennings. Did you not get the email?”.

“Sorry?”.

One of the office managers squelched across the sodden carpet towards him.

“The whole goddamn roof came in, man. We sent out an email yesterday evening, did you not get it?”.

Jennings looked around, a little bewildered. Sunlight twinkled in the sheets of water that lay on every desk. Busy repairmen and office staff hurried, toting computers and files, here and there amongst the damage. A dim rainbow shone in the spray by the operational manager’s desk.

“No. I don’t think so” Jennings mumbled.

The office manager clapped him on the shoulder.

“Well, sorry you wasted your bus fare, but it’s full pay and sat at home for at least the rest of the week. I’ll make sure they put you on the distribution list for the updates going into next week. Not a bad way to start your Thursday, eh?”.

He squeezed Jenning’s shoulder and winked. The man’s breath was stale with cigarettes and coffee.

Jennings took the lift back to the ground floor and headed onto the street. One of the security guards nodded and waved as he passed him. The sun was out and it beamed down in blades of brilliant heat. The air was cool and refreshing as the water gathered in the gutter began to rise and evaporate. Jennings began heading to the bus stop. He slowed and then stopped and loitered outside the coffee shop on the corner. He felt strangely uplifted and elated. People hurried past, their bags and umbrellas battering against their shins. They were stragglers who had been caught in traffic or who had overslept their alarms. Perhaps this joy was only Schadenfreude, but Jennings was not in a position to count or categorize his joys. Even if it was only to sit and have a relaxed cup of coffee with no commitments to meet, he decided that he would enjoy at least a little of his freedom in town before he retreated to his flat.

Sitting by the window and watching the truly late storm past with knitted brows and panic stricken eyes, Jennings sipped his coffee and thought about the day that stretched ahead. The cafe was full of mothers meeting after dropping the kids to school and students in no hurry to get to class. Jennings went through a mental list of films he had recorded at home and weighed up which one he would sit down to at lunch and which he would watch, with dithering interest, over a bottle of wine that evening.

He liked old films. Old horror films, particularly. The older the better. It was the same thing that attracted him to the old Georgian buildings. The sad, dreamy quality of things that have fallen slightly into ruin and are buried away from the gaze of those who are not inclined to see. The horror imagery was almost incidental. It was the sweet melancholy of art gone to waste and a cast of actors, long dead, whom no-one would ever remember, that made him feel something. A queasy, creeping but unique and calming feeling.

As he drank away the last of his coffee and watched the traces of black grounds swim lazily in the dregs he decided what he was going to do with his day of freedom. He stepped out of the cafe and headed up the streets and, against the crowds, towards the row of Georgian houses. The bus that would have carried him home passed him and a bus on the same route on which he came to work idled at its stop. He stood on the porch of Yvette St. Vincent’s curious enterprise, trying to surreptitiously peer in through the window. He could make out the dim outline of furniture and nothing more. He stepped up to the peeling, crimson door.

 

III

There was a row of buzzers on the right of the door. On all but one the incomprehensible surnames of foreign residents were written on in rain smudged biro. He pressed in the button that remained. He heard the far off rattle of the buzzer but he got not tell from whence it issued. He waited. The streets were quiet now and he still heard the idling motor of the bus behind him. He heard feet coming down the stairs and was beginning to turn when the door was flung wide.

An Arab man stood in the doorway looking at him with a vaguely disgusted look on his face.

“Yvette St. Vincent?”.

The Arab man’s brows knitted together.

“I mean, I’m looking for Yvette St. Vincent”, Jennings said.

The man reached out and tapped the set of buzzers.

“I did. I rang the bell”, Jennings stammered.

“No. Doesn’t work. No button. This is my flat” he said, jabbing his finger towards the buzzer that Jennings had used.

“I’m very sorry. I just assumed, because the rest were unmarked, you see…”

“You have to knock”.

Jennings pictured a scene where the Arab was about to slam the door in his face and force him to knock on the door. Instead, the man stepped to one side to allow him into the hall.

It was dark and the sharp smell of chlorine mixed with the warm smell of washed clothes floated in the shadows. Jennings hung around the bottom of the stair allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The man pushed past him without another word and begun to climb the stair. As he reached the point where the stairs turned he barked something in his own language to someone out of view on the landing.

Jennings was left alone in the hallway. He looked at the back of the door and considered what it was that had motivated him to come. There weren’t any answers. Some rush of passion that was fading like the blooms of coloured light before his eyes. He ground down a creeping anxiety and turned resolutely to find the door he had come here seeking.

It was all the way in the back of the hallway down the side of the staircase, enveloped entirely in the darkness. It looked like it should have been the entrance to some utility or storeroom. Only a brass plaque screwed into the wood made it stand out as anything other than that, and even the writing upon it was unreadable in the deep shadow. He began to think about what he was going to say. Began to think about walking out of the building and stepping onto the bus. His mind drifted. In the darkness and in that strange situation his mind and body seemed to slide away from one another. He thought about his warm, lonely flat. He was surprised to hear a loud banging on the door and realize that it was his hand that had floated up to the door to cause it.

There was a shuffling behind the door and he heard several locks being undone. He stepped back only a step and his back hit the stairwell. The door opened and a pale face peered out at him.

“Yes?”.

A light bulb encased in a frosted glass shade cast a warm light from behind the face looking out through the crack of the door. She had a lightly made up face and he could not place either her age or her accent. There were a few lines in the one and a a Slavic draw on the Y in the other, but he could not make a decision on either.

“Are you Ms. St. Vincent?” he asked.

“Yes?”.

And now what, he thought.

She smiled an encouraging smile at him as he fumbled with the decision.

“Are you a photographer?” he managed.

She opened the door a little more. She was wearing a long wine coloured dress that fit closely at the neck and a pair of what looked like black riding boots.

“No, I’m afraid not”, she said, “though I believe I have, still, some cards for a reputable man. I picked them up a while ago. I really ought to have that sign fixed, I suppose”.

“Oh, well, I, err…” Jennings was lost now. Entirely.

“What kind of work were you looking to have done?”.

There was a mischievous smile playing at the corner of her dry lips.

“Well, nevermind. I think he does all sorts. Would you like to come in and have a seat whilst I find the card?” she asked.

“Erm, yes, thank you”.

She stepped aside and held the door for him and, as he stepped over the threshold, he dropped his scarf. He reached down and fumbled for it on the darkened floor. As he stood up he came face to face with her. She was watching him with a strange concentration that broke back into a welcoming smile as their eyes focused on one another.

 

IV

He walked down a long hallway and stepped into what must have been the drawing room of the house before it had been carved up into flats. The large window through which he had tried to peer from the outside was fitted with murky glass and most of the light in the room came from the fire that crackled in a huge, ornate fireplace. The blurs of colour beyond the window were of buses and cars and people walking along the lonely street.

She came behind him down the hall, walking with a light tread. She motioned him to sit on a hard backed sofa in front of the fire and she excused herself to head behind a heavy curtain hanging across the arch at the back of the room. He looked into the snapping fire and listened to the heavy ticking of a grandfather clock. The room was decorated in a deeply period style; all brass candlesticks and bucolic watercolors that were darkened with age and faded by light. There was a smell of damp and dust in the air, mingled with a sweet undertone; familiar but just beyond the grasp of recall.

She came from behind the curtain carrying a silver tray upon which a china teapot piped thin wisps of steam into the murky air.

“Well, I’m afraid I couldn’t find his card so I shall have to offer you a cup of tea by way of apology” she smiled.

He began to stand, muttering some polite excuse.

“Sit, sit, sit. Don’t be silly, just one cup” she chided as she set the tray down on the small table in front of the sofa. Before he had had a chance to offer a counter the aromatic tea was splashing into the cup and he found himself sitting once more and watching it pour.

“There now. Milk? No? Then, sugar?”.

“Two please”.

“Perfect” and she dropped two quaint cubes into the golden tea and passed him the cup, rattling on its saucer.

She sat on the opposite corner of the sofa smoothing her dress under her. They sat in silence for an interminably long time. Jennings cursed the futile endeavor and himself for both attempting and then failing in its execution.

“I really must see if I can find those cards” she said, at last. “You wouldn’t believe how many people come looking for photographic services. I really, really must have that sign relettered”.

Jennings sipped his tea and watched her as she stared into the heart of the fire.

“What do you do, Mr…?”.

“Jennings. I’m a loss adjuster”.

“Are you really? You always hear that title. But I don’t think I have any idea what one is”.

She looked back at him dreamily.

Loss adjuster. It sounds a little sinister when you say it out loud”.

He smiled.

“You’re not the first person to comment on it. And what do you do here, Ms. St. Vincent?”

“I’m a haemotographer” she replied.

“A haemotographer?”.

“Yes”.

She said it in a prickly and clipped manner and sipped at her tea with exactitude.

“Something to do with blood?”.

“That’s a bit reductionist, but I suppose it fits” she said.

There was a heavy silence that he did not know how to navigate. He watched her from the corner of his eye. By the light of the fire the lines in her face had melted a little and her grey hair glowed with an echo of what it might once might have been. She had obviously possessed a great beauty in her youth. It still lingered, quiet and delicate, like smoke that ghosts the air after the roaring bonfire has died.

“I’m sorry” she spoke at last, “it was my father’s profession and it’s little understood. I suppose I have inherited his defensiveness around it”.

“Was he a biologist?”.

“Of a sort” she said, turning to face him again. And now the fire that burned was in her eyes.

“But he was much more besides. A scientist. A true scientist; bold and with an appetite for discovery that overflowed the brackets of so called fields. I am a shadow compared to him. I have gone further only because I ride the momentum he created. If he were still here today…”.

“He sounds a very great man. You continue his work, then? As a haemotograper?”.

She watched him with shrewd eyes, grey like flint and only the pink threads of late age in the white and the folds in the eyelids marking them as anything but a hot blooded youth’s.

“I have never known anything else” she said quietly. “Would you care for another tea?”.

She leant and poured him a further cup. The faint smell of lavender, orange and sandalwood floated off of her wrists. Jennings felt a great calm. Acquiescing to this strange circumstance, he found, brought control and a bright sense of accomplishment.

“What does the title refer to, exactly, though?” he asked, choosing his words carefully.

She slowly buffed the nail of one little finger with that of the ring finger on her opposite hand as she considered her response.

“Do you believe in God, Mr. Jennings?” she asked. There was, again, the thick, Slavic spitting of the syllable in “God”. The capitalization being pronounced..

He winced a little internally. He had hoped for something more when he had found himself rapping on that door in the dark hall.

“No” he answered. The urge to add “I’m afraid not” was swallowed down.

“Neither do I. But, ironically, I find that it is easier to explain what I practice to those that do. We lost something when we killed him, you know? God, I mean. We scientists perhaps lost the most. And far more than we gained. A lot of the curiosity, the wonder and the curiosity of the grand, has gone out of people. They know that science can explain the world and that they only need to wait long enough for the curtain to be pulled slowly back”.

Jennings waited for her to go on. In the silence the clock was a beating insect heart twitching against the wall.

“There are universes inside us, Mr. Jennings. Not in any literal sense. I don’t believe in existence in a grain of sand. But the cellular workings within every living thing are as complex and, I suppose the word is astronomical, as any of the gears that drive the universe without. The splendour out there in the great black sea of galaxies is no more infinite than that which takes place inside our own bodies every second of each day. There is as much to discover, and to correct, in our own workings as anywhere else in existence”.

“And this was your father’s work?” he asked.

“He splintered off from the main streams of scientific thought. His ideas and the things that he discovered were in direct opposition to the accepted wisdom and he spent a long time in isolation whilst he built a case to present. Too long. Daddy feared ridicule and loathed assumption. But there was always something new to test and to validate. His discoveries came one after another. In time, the various fields of science were so far removed from what Daddy had pursued, revealed, that his work would have looked like alchemy to them”.

She sipped her tea and a sinister, knowing little smle played at the corners of her mouth

You could show them, though?” Jennings said, “You say you’ve gone even further than him, right? You can finalize his legacy”.

She dismissed the idea away with a wave of her slender, wrinkled hand.

“I’m an old woman with no background in their institutions. Everything I learned was from acting as Daddy’s assistant. They wouldn’t give me the time of day”.

“Show me, then” he said. Unwonted calm had made him bold.

But she didn’t meet his gaze. She watched the shift of colours through the murky window over his shoulder. A muted ray of sun lit her face. She must once really have been tremendously beautiful, he thought.

“OK” she said and put down her cup.

 

V

She walked back each of the heavy damask curtains. Jennings watched on as a trill of electric anticipation pinballed through his nerves. But behind the curtain there was only a kitchen. She motioned him to come over as she flicked on an overhead light. He noticed a door, tucked in beside the Welsh dresser and secured with a large padlock, as he sat down at the large wooden table she invited him towards. On the table, before the seat she had placed him in, was a bizarre piece of machinery.

It was about the size of a microwave oven, all told, though this included the height and width of the copper pipes that snaked in an out of it. What appeared to be a short stack of bellows was also part of its makeup. The face of it was littered with dials housed in glass bubbles and, on the top, two chrome spheres were set at equal height atop rods wound with copper wire. He recognized many of the elements but could not name more than a few. The whole thing was like some antiquated piece of lab equipment from the days when they ran current through dead frogs and watched them spastically twitch.

She set down a tray upon which there was a syringe, gauze, a test tube and a smaller tray made of glass. Jennings looked at her.

“Some things, it is easier to show than to tell” she said, “Can you roll up your sleeve, please?”.

“I don’t…”.

“I’m going to take a small sample of blood as part of the process. Have you ever had a blood test?”.

“Erm, yes, I think once. Yes, I have”.

“Good. It’s no more than that”.

He began to unbutton his cuff as she tore the packaging from the syringe and began to fit the needle to the barrell. His hand shook a little as he fumbled with the button of his shirt. She took his wrist and brought his bare arm nearer to her. Her hands were as dry and cold as lake ice. She swabbed his arm at the crook of the elbow.

“Do you not like needles, Mr. Jennings?” she asked.

“I’m afraid not”.

“Look the other way”.

He shifted in the chair and stared into the battered grain of the locked door beside the Welsh dresser. The padlock that held its hasp to the wood was a lump of worn iron. He wondered what could need such significant protection?

She coughed and he misinterpreted it as a seemly way to let a man weak at the knees know that she was finished. He turned his head to see the needle still slid into the skin and an issue of blood still growing in the drum of the syringe. His stomach turned over on itself and his head felt like it lost five pounds of substance in an instant. He turned back to the door which now seemed to warp and bend before his eyes. He took a ragged breath.

“Just a moment more” she said in a cautious half-whisper.

“There now”.

He felt a pad of gauze pressed into his flesh.

“Give me your other hand” she said.

He did as he was instructed and turned back to face her, the chair wobbling on its legs just a little. She placed his hand on the gauze and he took over applying the pressure.

“Would you like another cup of tea?” she asked.

He shook his head delicately.

She took the test tube and began to decant the blood into it from the syringe. She screwed the test tube onto the open end of one of the copper pipes that emanated from the machine. She threw a large lever that took up almost one whole side of the thing and the machine began to thrum. The bellows started to pump like desperate, dry lungs. The table below Jenning’s elbow began to vibrate gently.

“What does it run on?” he asked, noticing that there were no wires coming from the machine.

“There’s a battery inside. My own design” she replied.

The blood in the test tube began to drain upward and into the copper piping. She reached across him and made a small correction to one of the dials. The humming of the machine and the vibration that it threw out began to ramp up in intensity. Arcs of cobalt blue electric charge began to crack and bounce between the two metal spheres on top of the body. Jennings lurched backwards. The air seemed to fill with electric charge. He watched the hair on his bare arm begin to stand up. An ear splittingly high pitched whine began to sound. The machine groaned and shook. The whine turned into a metallic scream and the veins of lightning snapped and whipped between the metal posts.

Jennings pushed back his chair in alarm. He envisioned this homemade reactor, whatever the hell it was, bursting and hurling shards of metal into his chest. He looked to Yvette. She was rapt with awe, unmoving. The reflection of the electric light flashed in her eyes as if they were sapphires in the sun. And, suddenly, the vibration and the lightning dropped out of existence. The bellows, which had been working feverishly, wheezed and died. All that remained was a hollow, sonorous moan as the blood began to flow, drop by drop, back into the test tube from which it had been drained.

There was a long silence

“We need to wait a couple of minutes” she said.

Jennings tried to swallow and found that his mouth was tacky and dry. The hair had gone down on his arm but his nerves felt as if they were twitching and dancing. He rolled down his sleeve.

“What does it do?” he asked.

“Would you follow even if I were to explain? I don’t mean to be course, but…”.

He supposed he wouldn’t. He was a sceptical man, though, and his instinct was to demand the credentials of all that was put before him, whether he knew their worth or not. He had been held back in his life, somehow, by this scepticism. Those that stand and question are often left behind as the rest go over the top. The cautious may live but they will not lead. Consideration and rationale is often mistaken for cowardice by the chaotic and feeling masses.

She watched the blood through the glass.

“That should do it” she said.

Taking the glass tray and setting it in front of him she placed the test tube next to it and then got up to switch off the light. He looked at the blood in the tube. Perhaps it was the light but he had the strangest fancy that it gave off an, almost imperceptible, blue glow. She sat down in the chair next to him and unscrewed the cap from the test tube.

“This”, she said, “is what Daddy worked to perfect all his life”.

She poured the blood into the tray. It dispersed with an exaggerated slowness. It didn’t seem to move in the way that a liquid should move. He couldn’t put his finger on it but the movement had an eerie quality. It was too uniform, somehow. As the last portion of the glass tray was covered by the glassy, shining blood the tinge of blue light that he wondered whether he had imagined became undeniable.

Veins of bright blue phosphorescence began to snake outward from the centre of the liquid. They crept across the shimmering surface of blood and began to form complex geometric patterns. Jennings hands grasped the edge of the table. The threads of light gradually began to take on recognizable form. The air was suffused with an indescribable smell, somewhere between ozone, hot metal and an animal shed. The image that appeared was an impossibly intricate scene of himself, Jennings, sat at a desk in the office. Not his desk, but that of his boss. The tiny identifying details were all visible in the seams of light that permeated the shed blood and traced the image.

He looked at Yvette, his mouth agape. She motioned him to look back towards the table.

The image was breaking up now, the blue light diffusing back into the crimson blood. But, once more, the veins of blue light pulsed and began to creep into appreciable forms. Now he saw himself sitting in a house that he did not recognize. The items that filled the room, though, were his belongings.

What is this?” he whispered as he gazed into the pool of strange, charged fluid.

“It’s what you came here to see, is it not? This is what I do. I am a haemotographer” she replied.

“What does it mean? Is it my future?”.

“Of a sort. I don’t pretend to understand these things to their full extent, I only know the process by which we can access them. I’m like a smith forming cogs for a great watchmaker. If only Daddy were still here…”.

He felt himself overcome. Hot tears began to form and his throat felt choked. A single tear fell and splashed into the blood. He lurched with a fear of nameless consequence. But there was no reaction. For a long time the blood lay still, its previous image having dissolved. He was about to push his chair away when there was a sudden change on the glassy surface. A tiny swirling pattern appeared in the centre of the liquid. It grew in size, its whirling tendrils now stirring every inch of the surface. The smell of ozone and butchery grew in intensity, stinging his eyes. The trees of blue light flashed in stark relief. Unlike the previous images which had traced in gradually, this final graphic on the surface of the blood appeared in a split second and lasted only half as long again.

It was of a single building towering above a city skyline. It seemed familiar to him but there was something subtly off about the picture. He did not have the time to place just what that thing was. The image was made up of the same tracery of blue light as the previous visions,  but in this there were two solid and opaque elements. A single window in the tower and a moon in the sky that glowed with grim intensity.

And then it was gone. The light suffused back into the liquid and the smell of gore and cold, metallic plasma hung, dying, as the only trace. Jennings let out a breath that he did not realize he had been holding. There was a pain at his temples and his jaw ached.

“What the hell just happened?” he asked.

She stood up and pulled her the material of her dress at the wrists.

“Come and sit down” she encouraged him.

He stood but stayed where he was, staring at the tray of inert blood. It was his blood. Something made him desire knowledge of what would become of it.

“What would happen if you were to put it back into the machine?” he asked.

“Come, sit, have tea” she said. But there was a look of knowing satisfaction in her eyes.

 

VI

By the time he was getting ready to leave the sky outside was growing dark. They had talked for hours about the machine and the ideas that underpinned it. He still hesitated to call it science. His mind vaulted between accepting what he had appreciated with his own senses and the unreality of what he had seen. Yvette had a knowledge that went far beneath the surface, but it was not total. Not enough to cement his own belief or settle the oath she felt she owed to her father. But she knew things that Jennings could tell she still kept withheld. There were times that the conversation would be subtly diverted down different paths. The desire to tease these secrets from out of the shadows had a strong pull. She walked him down the long hall and to the door.

“I don’t know what to say, Yvette. What you’re doing here, it’s earth shattering. All it would take is one person in the right position to see it… You could change the course of science”.

“And then what?” she asked.

“You go down in history? You advance the sciences? You become fabulously wealthy!?”.

“Daddy left more than enough collateral for me”.

“But, don’t you want people to know your father’s work?”.

“I suppose I suffer under the same curse that he did. The fear that they would laugh me out of the building before I had a chance to show them anything”.

“I could help” he said.

But she only smiled and opened the door.

The hallway was as black as pitch. The smells of cooking drifted in the cold air. He could hear the banging of hordes of small feet on the floorboards in the flats above. He opened the front door and stepped out into the night.

The rows of houses were like the imposing ridges of some black valley. The street was a trench of shade and flickering orange sodium. He stood at the bus stop and watched the streams of traffic and people on the high street further down the road. No one walked amongst the rows, here. It was strange; he felt no trepidation, isolated and exposed as he was. In fact, he felt indestructible. He felt rooted to the concrete, vast and immovable. His heart beat a solid, unshakable tattoo. He was aware of himself, of his strength, his ability and resolve, in a way that he could not remember having felt before. The bus came and he stepped boldly into the harsh light.

That night he dreamt. Dreams of fierce colour and emotion. In one he stood at the top of a small flight of stone steps looking down into a conservatory or greenhouse. Amongst the rows of tables and trellises a girl walked here and there, watering the plants. He took the steps slowly and the sound of his feet echoed in the glass chamber, though he could see nothing beyond the panes. It appeared to be a starless night beyond and, as he lifted his head, he saw his own reflection staring vertiginously down at him. The girl did not react as he reached the ground floor. She walked amongst the rows in her white gown, humming to herself.  The conservatory was lit by shaded bulbs that hung on long cords from the beam in the ceiling and the soft, swaying light they gave off showed the girl’s thin, pale body beneath the delicate fabric.

“Can I help you water them, at all?” he asked. And in the dream the movement of his lips and the sound coming from them seemed quite disjointed and of little consequence to one another.

She only continued to float from plant to plant, all the while humming some ethereal tune, dipping her watering can at the ones she decided needed nourishing. Nonetheless, he sensed that she had heard him.

They’re quite beautiful” he breathed, “you are very kind to come looking for them in the night when they need to be fed, and not wait ‘til morning”.

She looked in his direction but did not appear to see him. Though, perhaps a little flicker in her eye and a twitch at the corner of her mouth told him that she saw something. She went back to her flowers. He looked at the plants. The were the most vibrant crimson roses he had ever seen. Their petals were thick and tough and they seemed almost to burn with colour. The stems were a deep, dark green; the dense thorns that jutted from them were almost black. The cloying, sweet smell, undercut with the sharp ammonia of the earth, made him as dizzy as when he had caught his own inverse form staring down at him from the shadowy glass in the roof. He spoke and his tongue felt like a clot of lead in his mouth;

“Tell me; will I help you tend your roses?”.

And now she turned once more to him and this time, narrowing her eyes, she seemed to pick out his image, almost as if he were fading into view before her. She was quite unafraid and she shook her head gently, her blonde hair drifting too slowly about her shoulders.

Then how will you ever feed them all before the dawn comes?” he said, and this time his lips did not move at all.

He came up behind her and placed his hands on her delicate shoulders. She did not react. He looked down at the flowers to which she was attending. The roses in the bed before her were as white as polished bone. At first.

As she tipped the watering can forward a fine shower of vibrant, red blood rained onto the petals, peppering them with spots of colour. He watched, his hands still on her shoulders, as the flowers were washed with crimson. The blood that fell into the soil gathered in small, black pools. He looked at the rest of the flowers in the rose garden. They, too, dripped and shone with the gore that coated them.

She turned and her pale face looked up at him. He felt her bones creak beneath the thin skin. Her eyes were like those of a puppet, black, shining and hollow. The watering can in her hand hung at her side and the light sound of the blood pattering on the tile was the only one in the winter garden. Her lips curled back revealing two savage rows of tightly bunched, thin and translucent teeth. Like the tearing fangs of something hauled up from the depths of the ocean. They seperated with a sound like the rustle of dry grass or rusted iron being manipulated. Her cold, abyssal eyes showed no emotion. She placed her hands atop his and leaned in towards him.

He had awoken bathed in cold sweat but by the time he had showered and was sat on the bus the weight of the dream had been dusted from his shoulders by the fresh sunlight of morning. He went back to Yvette’s alongside the garrulous crowds of commuters. But he was no longer fazed or afeared. He felt imperious; apart, but possessed of a singular knowledge.

 

VII

He visited Yvette again and again, even after the restoration had been completed in the office and he was back on a work schedule. He found the time. He began to research, under her direction, science and the relevant disciplines. As well as the modern books that she advised, (“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day”) she outlined several esoteric works on middle ages surgery and alchemy for him to read. These came into his hands only through arduous pursuit. He spent long evenings in local and tertiary libraries making notes from books too ancient to be withdrawn. He would arrive home in the early hours, his mind still piecing together the summoning of spirits, aether and the humours. But these things did fit together. It became apparent that these were not the wild fancies of a few heathen mystics and conmen, they were part of a comprehensive, though incomplete, school of natural philosophy from which science had diverted rather than evolved. He became increasingly convinced that it had been diverted along the wrong path.

He took the treatment again and again. The wonders that were laid before him as he gazed into the pulsing blood never lost their luster. They showed times, places, events and people beyond the imagination. And as the blood was galvanized by that strange engine; his own self was similarly charged. The travails of life were reduced to their appropriate size in the face of a new world that stretched far beyond the previously observed horizon. At work he had a new zeal and a sharpness of mind. The work was a trifle; a chore compared to his new vocation. He completed it in a fraction of the time afforded to him and adopted what was now available, utilizing it for further study. Nothing seemed insurmountable. He was being noticed now not only for his abilities but also his drive and resolve. Members of senior teams began to sniff around, piling on blandishments and dropping hints about bigger and more gainful roles.

But there was still something that stopped him from committing fully. A deep rooted anxiety and diffidence that stopped him just short. Even in the accumulating fervour, he lacked something that the rest of them had.

Sitting with Yvette by the guttering fire one evening he turned over an idea that had been stalking the corners of his mind.

“Did you read the book by Aquinas that I recommended?” she asked, “If it is truly straw, as he claimed, then it is a most magnificent kind…”,

She stopped and watched him.

“Are you OK?”, she enquired and placed a hand on his knee.

“Have you ever considered what might happen if we were to introduce the blood back into the host?” he said.

For a long time there was nothing said. The fire continued to smoulder and a thin smell of smoke filled the room.

“Of course I have” she said, at last.

“I’m willing to try”.

She got up without a word and began to tend to the fire.

“Daddy believed that it would be the culmination of his work. He attempted it on rats. But nothing became of it. Of course, that is how it appeared. Who can know really what effect it can have had on them?” she said, without turning.

“But they survived?”.

“Yes”.

She poked listlessly at the ash in the fireplace.

“Well then. I’m still not sure whether the blood should be still manifesting its charge or whether we should wait for it to return to its intert state…”.

She whirled round, the poker in her hand blithely pointed towards his face.

“Why? What do you hope to achieve?” she demanded.

“It’s your work, Yvette. Our work, in as much as I have played a small role in it these few months. It’s your father’s work. You said it yourself, he saw it as the culmination…”.

“And why should it be you?” she demanded, and a small rain of ash fell from the dirtied poker as her hand began to shake. “You have been my guinea pig more than anything. It is my work. My father’s work. Our work. Or is it because, really, you only want to benefit from it yourself? To profit from the gifts you think the procedure will offer?”.

“Yvette, I…”.

“No!” and with this she flung the poker into the hearth, her grey hair falling loose into her face. “You think that I have not submitted to the process as we have it now? You think you are the only explorer in those outer reaches? Listen and know, my boy, you are not the first!”.

He stared into those ferocious, rheumy eyes in silence. At last he spoke;

“What is it you saw in the blood?”.

She pushed the hair out her face and laughed. It had the dry rattle of dirt being thrown across a coffin lid. She plucked the poker from the gathering fire and thrust it back into its holder. She sat across from him on the sofa and dusted down the front of her skirt.

“The engine that I use is not the original. Everything gets smaller in time, of course. Daddy’s original was the size of a whole room. And the results were different; far more violent. Far less stable. The last time I used it was after Daddy left us. It is tempting to seek answers in powers that we do not understand, projecting onto them, in blind assumption, the ability to grant us answers. The issues of blood that were used were far greater, originally, and it somehow magnified them even beyond that. I saw it dance and boil and roll like a sea. It did not trace out images but, instead, took on their forms. The currents that ran through it were like cables, twisting it into shape and holding them there. I saw him, my father, on his knees and screaming without a sound. But it was not like an image at all. It was if he were there, sentient, tortured and soaked in my blood. My blood. I reached out to take his hand…”.

He waited for her to speak. But she only closed her eyes, a second too late to prevent a single tear from escaping and falling into her lap.

“Well, that’s that” she said at last. Jennings fumbled with his hands.

They spoke for a long time but always around the edges of meaning. Childhood, fate and ethics were skirted and generalized. For them intimacy lay always beneath ice and there was no fire to warm it and no dark in which to hide what might be brought up from beneath. Not even at an end of things.

He watched her by the light of the fire as it spat cinders into the faded carpet. The curtains were drawn tight against the chill evening air. The sounds of buses and footfall on the street outside had dwindled and died. This strange knowledge they possessed; only to be found within these four walls in the world of the living and only in pockets of black air inside a few buried and lost alchemist’s skulls in the world of the the dead, it separated them from others as surely as the rift that separates those two worlds. He felt as if they were the only two people left on Earth. And he knew that she would not deny him.

 

VIII

Jennings sat down at the table and rolled up his sleeve. He winced at the bruised puncture marks that stared back at him. He felt his equilibrium go and looked away, but still did not find his mind at peace. The sound of Yvette readying the engine was vague and distant as he stared into the battered grain of the door that stood beside the Welsh dresser. The lonely ticking of the grandfather clock had become a too-slow throb. He only came around to himself as she placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you ready?” she asked. And it was like the voice of a priest at the bars of a cell. Sorrow, resignation and selfish relief.

He placed his arm on the table and gritted his teeth.

The machine pumped like a bitter heart jerking the blood through its copper veins. The smell of ozone filled the air and the constellation of black wounds on his inner arm sang with discomfort as the hair was pulled to stand upright. He watched the machine work and so did she. They stared blankly at the workings only to avoid one another’s gaze.

She busied herself preparing the needle. The blood in the drum gave off its abnormal blue glow. He stared deep into it as the light waned. He was waiting for her to say something as she gripped his arm and positioned it. But she did not say a word. Not as she guided the needle towards his flesh and not as she threaded it into the vein. He looked away, overcome with a thick nausea. He began to speak but no noise came out. He tried to say her name but, already, his eyes were turning back in his head and he found himself sliding into the oily and absolute darkness.

He came to sprawled across the table and with his mind floating in a horrible state of dissociation. The room was pitch black. He found his lips moving and his tongue twitching in his mouth. Involuntarily he spoke her name

Yvette… Yvette?”.

He got uneasily to to his feet and groped his way into the kitchen in search of the matches. The countertop was covered in some grainy substance that clung to his fingers. He found the matches and struck one. In the little pool of light that it cast the room seemed strangely drab and he rubbed his heavy eyes. There was complete silence and this, particularly, unnerved him in a nameless way.

He called her name again. The match guttered and died and the acrid smell made him feel more uneasy again. His nostrils flared in the dark. The damp and dusty smell of the room was gone. As was the smell of lavender that always pervaded. The smell of her. As he lit another match with an unsteady hand he caught something lying on the floor. It was the the iron padlock that held the door by the Welsh dresser. He turned the meagre light towards it and found it wide open.

He stepped hesitantly into the dark aperture. A set of stone steps lead down into a blackness that the light of a match would not penetrate. He stood there for a long time lighting match after match. He had always assumed that the door led into Yvette’s private quarters. But no person would live in a frigid cellar such as this. The walls were spotted with dark threads and spots of mould and the stairs were uneven and without a bannister.

He couldn’t reconcile why he stayed so long staring into that abyssal gloom until the sound that was growing in volume became loud enough to attract his conscious attention. And yet it was still too quiet to place. But it grew. He recognized it at last, turned and, dropping the match, ran for the door. It was the sound of some huge volume of heavy liquid sloshing back and forth across whatever unseen paving lay at the bottom of the steps.

He stumbled across the living room, banging into furniture as he went. The noise amongst the awful silence was not enough to drown out the unnatural, and still growing, sucking sound of that malicious tide which he could still hear beating inside his head. He felt his way down the hall and to the door. As he groped for the door knob he considered for one terrible second that it might not open at his command.

He pulled it open and slammed it behind him. The sound echoed in the dead dark hallway. But it was the only sound. There was no thunder of feet above or foreign voices calling them to heel. He felt his away along the staircase. The scratching of the match as it was drawn across the strip and the tiny hissing explosion as it caught set his heart racing with their clamour. But this was arrested as a further noise crept upon his shaken consciousness. On the landing above, something began to scrabble around in the dark.

He turned the weak globe of light towards the stair as the source of the noise came around the turn. It was a woman in form. Young, athletic, nude and entirely soaked in crimson, shimmering blood. But it did not move like a human. It began to skitter down the stairs like a spider or a lizard, its limbs at right angles to its body. Out of its face, huge eyes stared. Wide and white as porcelain. The pupils were huge and venomously hateful; this thing had perhaps never seen light. The staircase shook as it made its way towards him. He saw the broad pupils catch the sputtering light just before the match went out. He felt the air rush forward as a dripping hand reached toward him in the darkness. He screamed. And the creature screamed back.

 

IX

He pulled the door closed behind him and walked slowly out into the street. It had the shape of the world that he knew but, also, the unreality that he had expected. The rows of houses, the empty streets, the abandoned pavements; they were all covered in a thin layer of pale grey dust. There was not a single living being nor sound. He only knew he still heard by the tread of his soft footsteps. There was no scent in the air and no breeze to brush his clothes or skin.  He stood in in the middle of the road and looked up at the sky. It was a roiling mass of crimson clouds. Some silent maelstrom seemed to be churning the entire atmosphere. There were occasional flashes of lighting within the banks of scarlet cloud but no thunder ever sounded. It was so quiet, so horribly quiet, that he could hear the blood pulsing in his veins.

He walked down into the city centre. He passed the cafe where he had stayed a while the morning that he had met Yvette. He looked through the huge plate windows. It was an empty room. The sign above the door had vanished. The walls and pillars and glass only remained. He looked further down the street and found the same strange emptiness outside and within each building. It was like walking along the bones of a skeleton, each thread of flesh, of life itself, had been picked clean from the world. Only the underpinning remained. He looked down the thoroughfare to the street just over. He saw his work building. It, too, was an abandoned crypt.

It was neither night nor day in this world. A huge moon glowed in the vibrant, crimson sky. It gave off a waxy blue-tinged light the colour of cold, dead skin. But the light was too bright and, almost too disturbing to properly apprehend, caused no shadows to be cast from anything on which it fell. The world was a perpetual and sterile dusk, dredged in the dust of ages. He ran a finger across a wall and rubbed the soft matter between his fingers. It was as if the sky that he had looked upon were only a veil that had been scorched and had fallen like scattered ashes.

He wondered, vaguely, what might lay inside these forsaken shells of the former world, set against that blood red sky? What atrocities of form and aberrations of orthodoxy might rock back and forth within, only waiting for a witness to rouse their natures and begin their crazed dancing? He was not afraid now. In this way he had gotten what he had wanted. He had it, the thing that had held him back for so long; the abnegation of that ultimate terror. After all; why would a man fear death when the existence that he inhabits is something so very much worse?

As he came onto the main street he saw the only sign of life (or something approaching it) towards its opposite end. Near the top of a tower block on the opposite side of the river, a light burned in a solitary window. A tiny square of eerie and pulsing blue. He walked down the middle of the wide road, his eyes never leaving the pinnacle of the tower. In that still and silent tomb he moved towards the light and, even when it began to burn his eyes and the blood began to throb in his neck, he did not let his gaze fall. The world did not breathe and the footprints that trailed behind him were like etchings in cold stone.

Runway

onehundredandeightytwo

Pine blinds.
Forty floors up.
Level with the sun.
They always let the light in.
There was no escaping from the light.
Air conditioned skin.
Rough and dry as lake ice.
Cold like the sound of a compact disc.
You always looked a little ill.
Ashen around the eyes.
But it was all artistic.
There was nothing wrong with you.
The bullet holes were all drawn on.
With fifty dollar mascara.
They sparkled in the sun.
Like spiderwebs soaked in dew.

You rolled out of bed.
And told me.
That you had to catch a flight.
A flight to where?
Anywhere.
But I was not the kind of man.
Who can appear at a check in desk.
Barely dressed.
In pain.
But not afraid to die.
March across.
Some field of grey concrete.
And step onto a plane.
Under an azure sky.

I waited whilst you hailed a cab.
A cigarette hanging between dry lips.
And the sun bleaching my hair.
Everyone turned to stare.
They must have wondered who you were.
Did you ever wonder.
Who it was you were?
You faded into shadow
Stepped into the car.
It’s a beautiful thing
To remember.
The sun is only one more star.

Now all I have.
These dreams of you.
Tight, faded.
White t-shirt.
And Union City Blue.

At Last (Death of a Polar Bear)

onehundredandeightyone

I

I was sitting on the sofa and watching TV when I noticed it. The flat was bitterly cold. My girlfriend had moved out about six months prior and, without the extra money, it had come down to food or heat. I don’t remember what it was that I was watching. Some documentary or a repeat of a crime drama. Something from terrestrial TV. I was under a blanket and having a final cigarette before bed. On the hand that held the cigarette the knuckles were starting to ache from the cold. When I exhaled it cascaded out in huge plumes, the tobacco smoke mingling with my visible breath. Under the blanket, my other hand was wedged between my thighs.

I felt it as an itch on my neck, halfway between the ear and the shoulder. I leant my hea to one side to rub it away against the collar of my work shirt. As my skin brushed the limp cloth a terrible pain shot out like something with teeth. I lurched and dropped the cigarette on the sofa where it rolled into the groove of the seat cushions. Jumping onto the cold floorboards I flung the cushions aside and found the smouldering butt, dropping it into an abandoned cup of coffee, and patted down the embers that were smouldering on the fabric.

I sat on the icy floor, my heart racing a little. Delicately I sought the throbbing area on the side of my neck. Even to touch it brought near-agony. It was about the size of a 50 pence piece and raised up by about half an inch. It felt warm to the touch and I could feel a pulse beating quickly within. What the hell was it? Perhaps an ingrown hair, an impacted follicle? Perhaps it was an allergic reaction? But none of these things gelled. That morning there had been nothing there. I had used no new shower gel or washing powder, anything that might have caused it. Maybe that was the issue? The amount that I could shower and do washing had become something that I had to ration to make ends meet. Maybe it was an accumulation of that greasy, cold, dirty feeling that comes on the poor with winter? It was not pleasant to think of myself as poor.

I stood up and looked at the mark in the mirror which hung behind the sofa. The mark was a deep plum colour. It looked as bad as it felt. My shoulder twitched as little shivers of pain radiated out and into the nerves. I leaned in to the mirror. At the centre of the mark was a spot that was almost black. Only the reading lamp was on and I tilted my head to allow the light to fall on it better. The black spot moved. My chest felt empty as I watched. I turned this way and that. But it had definitely twitched. I considered that it might have been a convulsion of muscle. I considered this for a long time before the mirror which hung behind the sofa. But I knew what I had seen.

I sat back down and stared blankly at the television. I no longer felt the cold. I felt the itching in the side of my neck and a breathless kind of fear. I looked out of the window beside me, drawing back a corner of the curtain. An icy chill came off the glass. The nearest hospital was 5 miles outside of town. I had no money for a taxi. A hollow variety of hope was fending off logic and I could not bring myself to ring an ambulance.

I went into the bathroom and pulled the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet wide. stared at the bare shelves as I brushed my teeth. I closed the cabinet door and went to climb into bed. One of the drawers in the nightstand was open a crack. Inside was a strip of Tramadol pills. She had used them when her period was bad. The temptation was to drop a couple and drift away into sleep, dumb and anesthetized. But I had to be up at 6:00 to make it for work. It didn’t matter to them if you had a growth on your neck or an eye out, you didn’t get paid if you didn’t clock in. And if you didn’t clock in 177 days out of 180 you were clocked out for good. I plucked the strip of pills from the drawer and they rattled like tiny bones in their happy, hermetically sealed little pods. The itching in my neck was very bad. I lay down on my side and closed my eyes.

 

II

I can’t say that I slept but I drifted. Half dream and half memory, I thought of some TV advert that I had seen that day or that week. In it a cartoon polar bear crawls in a desert. Big blue drops of sweat roll down his forehead. He sees an oasis on the horizon and his eyes light up. The advert cuts to him reclining on a sun lounger by the oasis, sipping a can of cola through a straw with his face beaming behind a pair of huge sunglasses. He dips his sunglasses and winks at the camera.

I’d seen a video recently about the melting ice caps at the North Pole. It was footage of a pallid, emaciated polar bear staggering across the jagged rocks of the coast, looking for food. Pawing at the seaweed in the tidepools. And was sure that people watching it had picked up the phone to set up their monthly standing order to donate to the charity that had posted the video. And I was sure that another set of people had made a note to try a new and refreshing cola drink. And perhaps a subset of these people were in both camps. But I didn’t have the money to donate to polar bears or buy cola. And I didn’t give a fuck either way.

I was jolted awake by a pain in my neck that made me vomit over the side of the bed. I tried to place a hand across my mouth and the bile ran between my fingers. My hand went, instinctively, to my neck and I pressed against the growth. The pain flashed again and bright red flowers of light exploded across my vision in the dark room. I rolled off the bed and stumbled, disoriented and barely breathing, into the bathroom. I pulled at the cord to turn on the light and found that I barely had the strength to engage the switch. I hauled on the cord and the light came on, the cord swinging wildly and clicking against the wall. I was almost blind with the pain, my eyes took time to focus as I squinted at the blurred mass of pale colour in the mirror’s surface.

The growth was larger, darker and, to my horror, there were long, black, thread like marks radiating out from it. My fear was that whatever infection was in the growth was spreading out into on my bloodstream. Heading towards my heart. I turned my neck and inspected the blackened veins. And then one of them curled in on itself, the blunt end of it touching and stroking against my skin. I tore at it and it came away in my hand. Open mouthed, I looked at it as it lay twitching in my palm. It was about four inches long. It was not a vein. It was some kind of insect leg.

The bile rose up in my throat again but as I tried to vomit into the sink I staggered backwards and fell against the wall. I could feel the other legs wildly tapping and writhing against my flesh. I reached and pulled away another, fighting a revulsion that made me once more vomit down my bare chest. Two came away in my hand. I tried to hurl them away from me but they were so light they only floated down and fell on my leg where they spasmed. I kicked my legs, trying to loose them, and smacked my foot against the cold porcelain of the sink

I sat in a daze. I could feel the feverish movement of the insect-like legs where they emerged from the skin. I could feel their ends dancing on my neck. I felt a sickening lurch of movement in the growth. The pain was intense but it lurked beneath the shock and I was barely conscious of it. I pulled myself to my feet by the edge of the sink. The plaster burst and the sink came a little way away from the wall. I forced myself to look. The growth was still horrifically dark and the black spot near its centre had become larger. The black spot flickered this way and that beneath the bruised and shining skin.

My hand trembled as I reached towards the growth. But I could not bring myself to touch it. My mind raced. Another jolt in my neck and the sound, more a feeling in the tiny bones of the ear than something external, of the flesh and muscles being wrenched and torn settled it in my mind. I went into the kitchen and pulled a knife from the block.

The tiles were freezing against the soles of my feet. The whole living room and kitchenette were horribly cold. The wind whipped outside. I turned on the gas hob with a hand that shook so desperately I could hardly keep the knob depressed. I held the dull blade of the knife to the blue flame with both hands. The smell of scorched metal filled the bitter air. I took the black and slightly smoking knife back into the bathroom.  

Standing before the mirror I drummed my feet on the cold floor. Every muscle in my body was taught and soaked with adrenaline as I tried to summon the courage, or perhaps just the abandon, to take the knife to my flesh. My teeth were set as I watched the insect legs twitching at their points of articulation. I brought the knife slowly towards the growth and tried to plan in what way I would approach this little impromptu surgery. As the hot steel got close to the skin I was seized by a pain that crippled my intent as much as my ability. My hand dropped to my side and the knife dropped from my hand. It clattered and skidded on the tiles with a silver scream.

A scream was more than I could manage. My breath was caught somewhere between my chest and throat. The thrumming light of the bathroom’s single bulb seemed to be pulsing in a spot just behind my eyes. I caught a reflection of those eyes in the mirror. Amongst the chaos and terror and isolation they were the sad, helpless eyes of a child.

A jet of sallow looking blood shot from my neck and began to run down the shower curtain. I looked towards the wet sound it had made with disbelief. A few gouts of more vibrant, circulatory blood dripped on the cold tiles. Small wisps of steam floated up from them in the frigid air. A wrenching feeling in the growth brought me to my knees where my hands slid in more blood. I brought them up to my neck. I could feel it beating against my palms. The legs swishing this way and that, soaked in blood and pus, were still, somehow, the thing that terrified me the most.

 

III

I only screamed once. Something about holding my silence, laying there on the bathroom floor in the depth of a winter night, allowed me to disconnect myself from the reality of what was happening. Who would not scream, after all? But when the thing finally pulled itself loose from my flesh there is nothing of flesh that would not scream. It was the feeling more than the pain, because the pain was instantly lessened. Dialled down from a high pitched whine to a low throb. It was the feeling of the skin unfurling and the pressure, built and then released, as the thing hauling itself out of my body that broke me.

I shuffled away until my back hit the wall. It lay there on the white tile, pushing itself around in an issue of blood and ichor. It made no sound but the tiny maddening sound of its legs skittering on the wet tile as it tried to find purchase. I put my hand to the wound on my neck. There was a trench of flesh there, a hollow, the size of a chicken egg. It was raw and slippery to the touch. But I did not seem to be losing any more blood. Whatever had been growing in there had made itself a little cavern of muscle and sinew away from the other workings.

It picked itself up from the small pool of mucus and filth in which it lay. I got my first proper look at it as it stood on shaky legs that seemed too fine to support its buk. Its body was around the same size as a closed fist, and of the same irregular outline, supported on those thin legs that were like those of a spider or a daddy long legs. It was gelatinous and a mix of pale yellow and blue. The organs and viscera quivered and pulsed within its semi-transparent body. As it turned its eye fell on me. It had only one eye, set in the lower front end of one side of its body. It was like a fishes eye. Or maybe an octopus. A great black pupil within a protruding bulb of a cornea suspended in a clear liquid. The pupil flicked this way and that. Taking my measure. It was like being caught in a terrible black beam. It seemed to pin me to the wall. A hideous shudder went across my shoulder blades. At the onset of the moment it raced across the tiles with frightening speed. It flew past me and out of the bathroom. I jerked my legs away from it in disgust as it passed. Tiny little specks of red blood followed it into the hall.

I sat up against the wall and pulled in a juddering breath. A flash of light brightened the bedroom as a car pulled out of its spot and drove out into the night. My breath floated before me in tiny clouds of vapour. Looking back I imagine I must have been in shock. But the numbness of the fight or flight response being turned in on itself still felt more like life than the months of emotional numbness that had preceded it.

I stepped out into the kitchen, following the breadcrumb trail of blood. I found the thing crouched in the corner. It was smoothing itself down with its insect legs. It reminded me of a fly resting on a window sill. I looked around the room, measuring up what I might use to kill it. I had a very strong urge to kill it. I looked up at the clock on the kitchen wall. It read a quarter to four. Keeping an eye on the strange creature, I gently lifted one of the kitchen chairs. As I drew nearer to it and the shadow of the chair fell across its rolling eye it jerked and scuttled to the opposite corner of the kitchen. Its legs made a tinny patter on the tiled floor. I aimed to crush it under one of the chair legs whilst I had it cornered. My fear was that it would escape out into the rest of the flat. That it might end up under the sofa or the bed. Somewhere that I could not keep my eye on it.

I watched it for a long time. It just sat there cleaning itself. Sometimes its eye would fall on me and the pupil rove all over, judging what I was likely to do. I waited a long time. It was very cold in the room and my fingers and toes were beginning to numb as I stood there in the pair of tracksuit bottoms in which I normally slept. But I did not want to leave it to fetch more suitable clothing. I did not feel as if I could look away from it for a second.

I was waiting for it to turn. For its eye to face away from me. It became apparent that this was not going to happen. Whatever intelligence it possessed (and the extent of this was a gnawing anxiety in the back of my mind) was sufficient that it knew, or sensed, that I was a threat and not to take its eye off me any more than I intended to take my eye from it. There were a handful of loose coins on the table behind me. It was my bus fare for work in the morning. Very delicately, I reached behind and picked up a coin. Weighing it in one hand I placed the other on the back of the chair. I tossed the coin into the kitchen where it struck one of the cabinet doors with a clang.  

The thing whirled round. And it hissed. It hissed like nothing from this Earth. I picked up the chair and lurched towards it. My numbed feet came down like slabs of concrete. I was bringing the chair leg down on it when it turned to face me once more. It raced out from under the descending shadow of the chair leg and brushed against my ankle as it rushed into the living room. In a moment of panic I hurled the chair into its path hoping to crush it or trap it, shouting a curse at it as I did so. It ducked sharply out of the way of the falling chair which clattered on the floor. The sound of feet being planted on the floor in the upstairs flat distracted me and I did not see where the creature hid, though when I looked back it was no longer there.

The chair was still rocking on the wooden floor of the living room. A heavy and deliberate thudding came from upstairs as someone stamped their foot in anger. I could hear muffled but aggressive remonstrations coming through the ceiling. I looked at the clock in the kitchen. It read a quarter past four.

Turning my attention back to the living room I tried to look for a trace that would lead me to where the creature had hidden. Tiptoeing across the room I picked up the chair and set it back in its place at the table. I drummed my feet anxiously on the floor. Perhaps if I could not kill it I could at least get it the hell out of my flat? I wedged open the inner door that led into the small porch before the front door. Then, creeping over to the ceiling to floor windows at the front of the living room I unhooked the latch and pushed the part that opened as wide as it would go. A gust of freezing air pushed me back to where the tiles of the kitchenette met the wooden flooring. I had no idea if it could climb a window. I hoped that it could. And also, very much, that it could not.

I walked over to the TV cabinet. And I kicked the hell out of it. I listened very carefully for the sound of the creature. I went over to the sofa and kicked that, also. Once, twice. Strike three came from upstairs as feet slammed on the floor. I barely noticed. My nerves were pulled tight as piano wires. The freezing air blowing into the flat was turning the anxiety within into a desperate mania. I kicked the TV cabinet again. And this time there was a rustling in the wires at the back.

My breathing was heavy as I backed into the kitchen. I opened the door to the utility cupboard and reached in without taking my eyes from the TV cabinet. I pulled loose the iron. It had a nice weight in my hand. Wrapping the cord around my forearm I went back over to the TV cabinet. I kicked it again. Nothing. I kicked it harder. Still nothing. I reached behind and smashed the back of the cabinet with the flat of the iron. The thing came running out of its hiding place and headed towards the sofa. I hurled the iron at it as it went past. As the iron smashed into the floor, missing its target, an answering volley of banging issued from the front door.

“What the fuck are you doing in there!? Do you know what time it is?”.

I froze, breathing very quickly and very, very quietly. I was quite sure that he must be able to hear the pulse that was beating in my throat.

“Get out here!”.

BANG BANG BANG.

“Get out here, you weird little fucker!”.

The creature could have danced across the floor in a top hat and tails and I’m not sure that I would have noticed. There are alien looking creatures that burst out of your neck in the depth of a winter night and then there are six foot, skinhead psychopaths banging on your door. One of these is a more digestible horror.  

“Don’t fucking let me hear you again!”.

BANG.

Get out”.

I whispered it like a curse but there was just as much of the sad begging of a cur to it.

“Get out!”.

I began to pull out the sofa. As delicately and quietly as one can pull out a three person sofa. The perspective afforded by my terrifying neighbour trying to kick my door down had taken some of the edge off my fear of whatever it was that lurked behind.

But it was gone. I followed the line of the skirting board. There was a large dark rift running down it. Pulling the sofa a little further from the wall, and conscious that the thing should not come skittering out from beneath it, I stepped closer to the dark smear. I reached down. The skirting board came away from the wall with the slightest pressure. The thing had gone inside the walls.

 

IV

I stood back and tried to plot the layout of the walls and floors of the flat. A gust of paralyzing cold came in through the open window and I reached out to pull it shut. I vaguely noticed that the sky was beginning to lighten. The wall which held the cracked skirting board ran up to and met the wall that adjoined the next flat. I found my mobile phone on the table to use its torch. But, stood in the freezing flat in the first doleful light of morning, I made sure to check my messages first.

Pulling back the skirting board with the tips of my fingers I shone the light in as best as I could. A shadow fluttered as some clod of dust or hair was disturbed by a draught within the walls. I dropped the torch and jerked away, swearing under my breath. But there was nothing there. The inside of the wall was alien enough, filled with the husks of insect bodies and flecks of plaster and insulation, but it held nothing more sinister than that. So, it was gone. Now all I had to do was ensure that the point of egress did not become one of ingress.

Searching the flat I found nothing that would do the job. I was beginning to panic. What if it found its way back in whilst the gap was open and unattended? I would need to find a temporary measure. I tried moving the sofa against it but the shape of the arms stopped me from getting it flush to the wall, no matter which way I turned it. None of the kitchen chairs were heavy enough. I caught my dim reflection in the black expanse of the TV screen. The image was of some fish belly-white corpse floating up to the surface of a still lake. She had taken the plasma TV when she left. A friend had lent me the cathode ray relic that now sat on top of the media unit. It had taken the both of us, my friend and I, to get it up to the flat by the single set of stairs.

With the sofa moved and the TV unhooked in the back, I tried to find a good grip on the monolithic hunk of plastic and glass. My knees creaked as I tried to take the first of the weight. I could barely get my arms around the front of it and onto the hand holds on the side. I tried gripping it from above. As I shuffled it towards the edge of the media unit I was extremely conscious that, if it slipped and fell, my feet were likely to be crushed or my toes sliced off by the sharp underside. I got down on my knees in front of the TV. I came face to face with my reflection in the black expanse of glass. The ghoulish figure that stared back at me from what seemed an abyssal depth only inches away was very pale and had its hair in disarray. It was a sick looking creature with dark circles around its eyes. I turned my head and looked at the wound on my neck. In the dim reflection of the TV screen it really didn’t look too bad.

I tried to edge the TV off the unit and cushion its fall against my chest. It was an abysmal failure. The thing toppled off and smashed on the floor as I fell backwards. The crash it made echoed across the disordered room. I heard feet stamp on the ground in the upstairs flat. I sat, frozen, my legs splayed in front of me and all the hairs on them stood on end. The banging upstairs continued for a couple of minutes and a lump built in my throat and choked me to the point where my pulse ran like an animal fleeing a gun. I heard two muffled voices, one raised in fury and one pitying. In time the voices died away.

I dragged and pushed the TV, inch by inch, over to the wall. The front of it sat perfectly against the skirting. I tried to push it with one foot and could not. A wave of relief washed over me. The thing was not getting back in. Not through here. I didn’t give a fuck where it went, as long as it never came back. The brightening sky threw a wan light into the living room. I turned off the overhead bulb and looked in the mirror. The gouged flesh in the side of my neck looked grim in the natural light but the pain had been dialled down to a weak background noise. I would need to get some kind of antiseptic for it on the way back from work. The thought of going to a hospital had been put aside. The clear light of day is worthy of it place amongst the cliches. You don’t walk into an emergency ward and tell a nurse that an existential horror came climbing out of your neck last night. Trust me, you don’t tell fucking anyone.

Looking at the sickening mark that it had left, however, I realized that if I were to avoid it becoming a topic of conversation I was going to need to cover it up. I went into the bedroom and found a sweater with a collar that, when turned up, did an adequate job. It would look a little strange but it would have to do.

The sun fell across the bed and tumbled onto the back of my legs. It was deliciously warm. I would need to set off for work in a couple of hours, there was no use getting any sleep. One usually feels better in the numb, unreality of a day after a sleepless night then one does in the thick torpor of one after a few hours. I sat down on the bed in the broad shaft of sunlight.

I thought, again, about the advert with the desperate polar bear. Forget jazz and forget rock n’ roll, advertising is the great American artform. To take an animal suffering on the wastes and use it to flaunt sugar water is an act of malicious genius. Or perhaps that wasn’t the case at all? Perhaps it was the documentary maker who took inspiration from the advert and used it to further their environmental cause? Maybe I had seen the advert before I had seen the clip of the bear? Maybe the whole thing was a test. Two picture cards set before me to see which one I would react to the most? What do you see? A token of a dying planet. A diet beverage which doesn’t compromise on taste. Were either of them real and who could you believe if they told you which came first? I lay back, only for a second. There was a pain at my temple. Some knot in the vein. I closed my eyes. But only for a second.

 

V

I awoke in blind panic. The midday sun streamed over me. Outside was silence, all the cars and children away at work and school. Groggily I became aware of an alarm sounding from my phone in the other room. And then I felt the light dance of spider-like legs on my throat and the pressure of something pushing, writhing, on my neck. I screamed. It was OK to scream now. I threw myself from the bed tearing at my neck and landed half on the bed and half on my ankle. I screamed again. My fingers dripped with some slick fluid from where I had touched the creature that now lay thrashing on the bed covers. I let out a desperate, anguished moan rubbing at the raw flesh on my neck. The thing had been trying to fucking burrow back in.

Whatever dark and uncertain fear that had smothered me was now torn and ravaged by the white hot light of actual terror. I pulled one end of the blanket and tried to wrap the creature in it. My ankle gave as I lurched forward and my cry was mingled with the sinister hissing of the creature as it saw my intent. It skittered up onto the pillow and turned its grim black eye on me. I grabbed the lamp from the bedside table and, using my good foot, hurled myself towards the thing. It scurried away and down the side of the bed. As I limped after it a web of acid pain flashed in my injured leg.

It was in the living room. It had settled on top of the TV pushed against the wall. Fleetingly I wondered how it had got back in. It could obviously squeeze its strange soft tissue into all manner of tiny apertures. It stood wiping itself with its front legs in that awful vermin-like way that it adopted. All fear had become fury. I was frozen, wounded and on the verge of losing the job that barely kept my head above water. All because this thing, whatever the hell it was, had used me as some kind of host.

Tears of frustration in my eyes. I screamed at the creature in the bland light of that lonely afternoon.

“What do you want? WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT!?”.

And it blinked its black eye. The wet penumbra around its pupil rattled as the lid flicked across the glistening surface. Its legs, like dry witches hair, twitched in disinterested response. The flesh in the side of my neck burned. I limped back into the bedroom and came out with the bedsheet I had torn from the mattress. A couple of cold tears ran down my cheek. I spat on the floor. I I wrapped the sheet around my arm and stepped forward, dragging my numb ankle behind me.

 

VI

The river was low. It had been a cold, dry winter. Thin, brown reeds poked above the surface of the water. As I stood at the railing the road behind me was quiet. I looked to my left and right. The old man who had passed by with only the faintest interest in the occasionally writhing bundled sheet that I was holding was still heading along the pavement. I maneuvered the sheet over the railing, keeping it at arm’s length. Some animal sense in the thing, some smell of fear or predatory intent, awoke and it began to thrash wildly. Further up the road a car’s tyres squealed and its horn blared. I dropped the bundled sheet into the slow but powerful water. And I watched it float beneath the bridge. By the time I had managed to avoid a small stream of traffic and cross the road on my good leg it was only a pale blur rolling on the swell of water and disappearing around the bend in the river.

I got home and collapsed on the askew sofa. The whole room was in turmoil; the TV overturned and tiny shards of glass leaking from within. The table was overturned and cigarette butts littered the floor from where an ashtray had been hurled. I took the cigarettes from my jacket and tore the cellophane loose from the packet with my teeth. My heart was racing but I could not identify the feeling that made it run. My mind was a mess of unfinished thoughts reeling around in gales of vague anxiety and elation. The flat smelled of stale smoke, vomit and the remains of the cold night air. My hand shook as I brought the cigarette to my lips. I became aware of the ticking of the kitchen clock as its insect twitches sounded steadily between the chaotic thumping of my heart. It was half past two. I looked at my phone on the kitchen table.

It was half past three before I had concocted an excuse for not being at work that seemed reasonable. They were not interested. I was advised that I was being issued with a final warning. As the evening drew in around five I turned on the heating. I turned on the lights. I ordered takeaway and dropped three Tramadol for a warm and gooey dessert. It was glorious to be warm and fed and comfortable, all at once, for the first time in several months. I was exhausted but happy. I could go back to work tomorrow and make amends. Perhaps I could find a cheaper place, a flat share maybe? There was something about the terrible events of the last twenty four hours that made me feel a strange optimism. My life had seemed to be circling the drain for a while now, surely this was the final vicious bump? I could rebuild something now. And I had had a unique experience. Something significant. Surely providence would oblige me for meeting this test of character? This is how the human mind works. It believes in the narrative and the Hero’s Journey. I went to bed and dreamt that my brain crawled out of my skull and climbed the bedroom wall on legs of vertebral arteries where it lurked on the ceiling, watching me as I slept.

 

VII

I did not awake until the noon the next day. And I never made it out of bed until around three A.M the following morning. I dragged myself from the covers still in the depth of a fever so great that it had destroyed my senses. I tasted fever and saw fever and heard fever roar like a crippled beast. I crawled across the floor. Actually crawled across the floor on my stomach. It doesn’t sound real, like something you’d see only on television, but that was all I had the strength to do. I crawled through the dust in the doorway like an animal dragging itself to water. I managed to pull myself up to reach the phone that I had, in my pride and indulgence, left on the table the night before. Its battery was dead and I plugged it into the charger. I slumped back against the couch and waited.

The phone came on in time and all the little lights blinked as a slew of missed calls came in. There was a message informing me that I had been left a voicemail. And the voicemail spoke through the fog and smoke of fever and, in muffled tones, told me that I must attend a disciplinary the following day. At three A.M, rinsed with sweat and racked with ague; that day was today. The floor was cool and I lay my cheek against it. It felt good to sleep and know that there was nothing waiting for you in the morning.

I kept the windows open and I kept the wound clean. I walked around the flat wrapped in a blanket. The cold was bitter. I took the mirror down but I knew what was left in its surface. A shrouded figure stumbling to the window and back. Its skin as thin and sallow as isinglass. Sometimes muttering or breaking into tears. Sometimes calm. All too fucking calm.

I waited for it to come back. I would sell it on. Or I could tell a journalist and show him my proof. Someone would pay money for this unique creature. They would want to cut it up and figure it out. It would come back if I waited. I didn’t have all the time in the world, but I had some time. I lay down on the floor and closed my eyes against the cold. It belonged to me, this crawling, ugly and unkind thing that fed. If I waited it would come. And I would be saved.