Archive for: March, 2016

A Chilling Affair by Nathan Elwood

Mar 27 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

It was one of the warmer summers in recent memory the year Lord Raxby was murdered; by late July of 1891 old London Town had only received a few inches of snow through the entire season.

I was lying near the Heartstone of my shared abode when our client arrived that day in early August, enjoying the stone’s emanating warmth and dreaming idly of the balmy conditions of the continent, experienced during my military service some years past. At the sound of approach my ears perked up at once, and I quickly rose from my position.

Sitting nearby upon his favorite recliner was my human companion, Absalom Hume, who I noticed was folding his paper.

“Easy, Winston,” he said. “No need to be suspicious of our guest so quickly, especially when you haven’t even seen the young man yet.”

I let out a low growl. “Suspicion is my business, Hume, as detection is yours. Allow me to keep to my nature as I allow you to keep to your own.”

“Of course. My apologies, old friend. Good dog.” Hume smiled then, just a tad bit more smugly than I should have preferred. Unlike most humans however, his smugness was very nearly deserved. I was already somewhat irked that he had detected the approaching interloper as early as I myself had, but I was baffled at how he could have determined that the visitor was a young man when even I could not yet smell him. As a bulldog, I certainly do not have the olfactory ability of some hounds I have known, but I should dare say that I am better-equipped than any hairless ape.

Seeming to sense and acquiesce to my annoyance, Absalom Hume ventured for my opinion. “Tell me about him,” he asked. I took a sniff of the air. “You were right, definitely male. Smells like… nice leather. Inexpensive cologne.”

“A servant, then,” Absalom said. “His wardrobe and footwear provided by his benefactor, the cologne a personal affectation. Care to make a wager?” “Five crown,” I growled. Devil-take me for a fool, but I can never refuse a gentleman’s wager.

A shadow came under the door as the young interloper reached it. I positioned myself nearby to greet our guest as he knocked. “Enter” Absalom said. There was a pause, a momentary hesitation before the door slowly creaked open. The young man entered cautiously, his eyes down. From his demeanor and the hundreds of smells that I could now perceive off him I knew that my companion was right about his occupation, and that I was down another five crown. My inheritance was shrinking dramatically as a result of my friendship with Mr. Hume.

The boy looked up, past me and straight at Absalom. He was well attired, but conservatively. He had a weak chin, and light hair. Consulting Absalom later, I was informed more specifically that the hair’s color was “sandy blonde,” and that his eyes were dark green. He introduced himself, only addressing Absalom, stating that he was “Henry Cooper, First Footman of the House of Raxby.”

Absalom returned the introductions cooly. “I am Absalom Hume, consulting detective. My companion,” he gestured down to me “Is Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley of Her Majesty’s Colonial Brigades.”

The boy started, only now noticing me after perceiving me to be a ranked member of Her Majesty’s Service. “P-pleasure to meet you, Leuftenant Winston,” he stammered out. “I am-am at your service, naturally.”

While the disregard of Canids among the upper class and their livery will always be a source of some annoyance, I rarely let it openly affect me the way my companion does. Bulldogs like myself are, if nothing else, resilient. I decided it would make things far easier if at least one of the two gentlemen in the room could play the host.

“Of course, my good man,” I said. “Why don’t you take a seat and tell us what brings you here on such a fine day?”

“I’m afraid I shall not have time, sir.” He looked back to Absalom. “I must request your presence at the Raxby estates at once.” He fished into his coat pocket and withdrew a letter. Absalom reached him in two long strides and snatched the letter from his hands. In no time at all it was read, crumpled, and tossed into a nearby wastebin. While Henry Cooper began to stammer, Mr. Hume was already donning his coat.

“Come Winston,” he said. “It appears there has been a murder.”

***

As we bumped along in the coach of the carriage that young Mr. Cooper had arrived in, Absalom again seemed again to sense my annoyance.

“What is it Winston? I understand your reticence to seem joyful at a murder, but usually the prospect of our adventures gets at least a slight twitch in your tail.”

I sighed. Stubbornness is something my breed is known for, but Absalom is my friend, and I didn’t wish to maintain bad blood between us. “I don’t like being instructed in the manner you did before,” I said. “‘Come Winston.’”

He paused, staring at the wall of the enclosed carriage. He turned to me. “I’m sorry, old man. I forget at times how recently Canids became true citizens of the Crown. I have never sought to treat you as anything less than my equal.”

There were few under the entirety of the Her Majesty’s dominion that I believed Absalom truly saw as his equal, but I appreciated the sentiment of his apology. I decided it best to simply continue on with the mission at hand. “Tell me about this murder, Hume. Why were we notified by that servant, rather than the police? Why in the form of a letter?”

“The letter was sent as it transmits the necessary information of the case far more efficiently than that stammering young man could ever hope to. As to why the boy was sent at all, I imagine the Home Office would like to prevent rumors getting out of a constable travelling from the home of a well-known Deeist to the apartments of London Town’s consulting detective.”

My ears, flopped over as they were, perked up to the degree they could. I had no idea that Lord Raxby was one of the elite scholars who followed in the footsteps of the great magician John Dee. It was their order that staved off the curse left over by the death of the last Ice Dragon in 17th century.

“Since it is the Deeists that maintain the spells that make Londinium habitable, as opposed to the frozen wasteland that is the rest of the island of Albion, any time a Deeist passes from this life is a cause for considerable worry for the Crown. I imagine they’ll have sent a high ranking officer from Whitehall Place. Someone who would know Lord Raxby outside the context of an investigative matter. Sir Lawrence Eardsley, or Chief Inspector Christie, I should wager. She always delights to be assigned to such grisly affairs, and has many connections amongst the nobility.”

We arrived at the Raxby Estate just past noon, as it was outside old London Town entirely, and on the edges of Londinium itself. We were escorted inside by Footman Cooper, where we were greeted by the butler, an impressively tall, thin man with grey hair and dark eyes. He introduced himself as Mr. Bellamy. I noted a similar set of smells from him as from Mr. Cooper, with some distinct variations. Clearly a member of the serving class, but evidently rewarded for his service far more handsomely than the footman. As he directed us to the parlor, I noticed how cold it was in the building. Though I do not believe that I let loose a perceptible shiver, my companion seemed, as he often does, to read my thoughts.

“Mr. Bellamy, has the Heartstone of this home gone out?” Absalom asked the butler.

“Our Heartstone was maintained personally by Lord Raxby, and heated not only this home but the neighboring servants’ quarters as well. It grew cold shortly after he passed away.”

“I presume you were the one who found his body?”

“No, that was the maid, Ms. Smith. She discovered Lord Raxby early this morning while dusting. Naturally I was immediately informed, and the authorities contacted.”

The butler opened the door to the parlor, and bowed to us as we stepped through. “Sirs,” he said.

There, waiting on the other side, was a bald man with a particularly impressive mustache. Though not tall, and in middle age, he exuded an air of strength. I immediately recognized a fellow member of the Her Majesty’s Service. Though it would be impossible to notice for any human (or even for most Canids not familiar with the man), I registered a sense of shock from Absalom by the unexpectedness of this figure. I should have taken his earlier wager, I deduced.

“Good day, gentlemen,” the man began. “I am-”

“Major General Henry Brackenbury” finished Absalom. “Director of Military Intelligence.” Now I understood his shock. The man before us was a hero of multiple campaigns abroad, and one of the most powerful men in Albion.

Brackenbury nodded. “And you are Absalom Hume, Consulting Detective.” He looked to me. “And Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley. Leuftenant, I’ve read your works on the campaigns of the Fighting Dog units in the Boar Wars. Your writings are as exemplary as your own service record.”

“Thank you, Major General, sir.” I sincerely hoped my stub of a tail was not wagging behind me.

“I suppose the two of you are wondering why I am here.”

“It certainly came as something of an initial shock,” Absalom Hume said. “But I can only surmise that when he passed that Lord Edward Raxby was at work on a project deemed of military importance, and that the Crown suspects the possibility of assassination.”

The Major General looked hard at Hume. I imagined he was not a man at all used to being interrupted at all, much less twice within mere moments. Nevertheless, he did not reprimand Absalom.

“Your summations are correct, I’m afraid. Unfortunately I am not at liberty to divulge the nature of Lord Raxby’s work, but know this, Mister Hume. Edward Raxy was a personal acquaintance of both myself and Commander-in-Chief Wolseley. Though there is little reason as yet to suspect foul play, we would like to be absolutely certain of all matters that pertain to this tragedy.”

“Of course, of course,” Absalom said. “Tell me, may we see the victim?”

Major General Brackenbury informed us that we may, and Mr. Cooper was summoned to the parlor to escort the three of us.

As we walked, Absalom began to lightly probe into the matter at hand. “Tell me, does Lord Raxby have family?” Brackenbury responded. “The Lady Raxby passed away nearly four years ago. She and Lord Raxby had two sons, both living abroad at the moment.”

Absalom nodded. Presently we arrived at the quarters of Lord Raxby. Escorted in, we saw the body, laid out on the bed, fully attired, his hands stretched out at his side. He was clearly an older gentleman, though he looked to be of good health. His skin was, however, extremely pale. I did not know if this was from the cold, his passing, or a natural effect of the reclusive habits of mages.

No obvious damage to the body could be discerned. Above and to my left, I heard Absalom let out a small snort, breathing out through his nostrils. A minor tic I had documented of my friend, audible only in moments of extreme frustration.

“Why,” he asked, “was the body moved from the location it was found in? On whose authority was this done?”

Brackenbury stared at him again. “Mister Hume, have a care how you speak. As I told you, this man was a friend of mine. I would not allow him the indignity of lying on the floor of his study.”

“Never mind the contamination of the data!” cried Absalom. He whirled to face Henry Cooper. “The body is useless to me. Young man, escort me to this study.” Brackenbury seemed ready to have Absalom drawn and quartered. If the man had possessed hackles, they most certainly would have been up.

“Now see here,” he said. “Lord Raxby very well may have died under perfectly natural causes. I see no reason not to respect the dead.”

“Major General Brackenbury, with all due respect, if you believed at all that he had died naturally, you would not have brought me. Again, I must see the study.”

***

The study in question was, for one of my somewhat limited means and rather pedestrian education, a wonder. Shelves of books lined the walls, which climbed up nearly 14 feet in the air. Many of the books were mighty tomes; some I imagined likely weighed nearly what I do!

At the far end was Lord Raxby’s desk, covered in sheaves of paper, some of which had fallen to the ground. The chair was tipped over onto the ground, and a few of the fallen pages had formed an odd halo around it.

Absalom dismissed the footman and set to his work, making quick, minute observations of every inch of the room. He approached the desk, but was halted by a throat-clearing from Brackenbury.

“Mr. Hume,” he said. “Some of the items Lord Raxby was likely working on could be of a… sensitive nature to the Crown. I am not sure I can permit you to examine them.”

I could see Absalom open his mouth, about to say something that would undoubtedly get him into trouble. As he had risen to my defense earlier, I decided I would do the same for him now.

“Major General, sir,” I began. Absalom closed his mouth. “Though he may be at times… unorthodox, I can assure you that few possess the loyalty to Albion and level of discretion of my friend Hume. I can promise you that no element of this case shall ever see publication, and that not even I shall be made aware of whatever Mr. Hume reads in those notes. For this, you have my word as a soldier of the Crown. But I am familiar with my friend’s methods, and inspection of every detail, undisturbed, is paramount.”

Major General Brackenbury seemed to size me up then. Admittedly, at only three feet tall there wasn’t entirely much to size, but he seemed to be satisfied. He nodded to Absalom.

I might have saved myself the effort, for after only a few minutes of examination, Absalom promptly announced “I can find nothing!” I’m told that I and the rest of my breed have a naturally dour expression, even when we are perfectly content. I cannot imagine what my face must have looked like in that moment.

He approached Brackenbury and myself as I hung my head, wondering if all my military honors would be summarily stripped from me for this embarrassment. Absalom continued. “That is, I have determined from his notes and correspondence that he had a great many reasons to fear assassination, and his death was quite sudden. It seems it took him right in the middle of a sentence. But I cannot find any physical evidence of an attack on him. No remnants of food that may have been poisoned, no items he may have pricked himself on, no arsenic dust, and none of the characteristic sulfur smell of malicious magic. At least, not so far that I can detect. Perhaps a gifted sorcerer could disguise such a scent to some degree. Winston?”

I looked up. I supposed it was possible, after all. I breathed in deeply, absorbing the thousands of odors of the room. “No…” I said. “No sulfur.” I frowned even deeper and padded toward the desk. There was… something odd, however.  A smell that seemed out of place, something I seemed to remember from…

“Almonds?”

Absalom rushed to my side and knelt down, putting us at eye level. “Winston old man, what did you say?”

“I thought perhaps I was mistaken, but there is a slight scent in the room of almonds, a type of nut that only grows in the East. I encountered them there during my service in the Boar Wars.”

Absalom grinned, clapping me on the shoulder and giving me a slight scratch behind the ears as he rushed to the desk. From the top of it he grabbed a capped bottle of ink and darted back to me.

“Mr. Hume,” cried Brackenbury, “what is the meaning of this?” Absalom ignored him entirely. He uncapped the bottle and held it approximately a foot from my snout. “Winston,” he said, “I need to be absolutely sure. Is this what you smelled?”

I breathed in. “Yes,” I told him. “The ink smells of almonds.” Absalom capped the ink, turned to Brackenbury, and said, “Sir, I can confirm it; Lord Edward Raxby was murdered. If you could be so kind as to assemble the house staff in the parlor below, I believe we can resolve this matter.”

***

In the parlor, the small staff had been collected. There was Mr. Bellamy, Mr. Cooper, another footman, the maid, and the cook. All seemed perplexed at their being brought before us. Absalom paced slowly in front of them.

“As you all know, Lord Raxby left this world sometime this morning. There is no evidence of foul play, and for all intents and purposes it seems as though the patron of this house was victim to a heart condition or similar ailment. An autopsy would likely reveal more.”

The maid, a young woman, no more than 20 at the latest, let out a small gasp of shock. Absalom continued. “Luckily, none shall be necessary.” He turned to Major General Brackenbury. “From the many, many pages on his desk, it was easy to determine that Lord Raxby maintained a prodigious correspondence. Can this be confirmed?”

Brackenbury nodded. “I received letters from him daily, and I do not believe that I was the only one.” Absalom turned to the servants, a questioning look in his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” said Henry Cooper. “L-lord Raxby spent nearly three hours each day writing.” Absalom gave him a small, grim smile.

“I suspected as much. Any of the house would have known this, and likely would have known that Lord Raxby had, I believe, a rather common habit of touching the tip of his pen to his tongue before each new page. Mr. Cooper, can you confirm such a habit?”

The boy looked about nervously, but found no assistance from his fellows. “I-I… It m-might be that I’ve seen him do such a thing, yes.”

Absalom pulled his gaze from the young man, whose shoulder slumped as if he’d been suddenly released from a binding spell.

Absalom reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the bottle of ink. “That is why,” he said, “the killer decided to poison not his food, which would have been entirely too obvious, but rather his ink.” He addressed Brackenbury directly. “Cyanide, you see, is a unique poison, very hard to detect once it has worked its effects. But it is often discernible from its scent, which greatly resembles the plant from which it originates: Almonds. I have published a light monograph on how to discern commonly used lethal chemicals, Major-General. I’m surprised it hasn’t been distributed amongst the intelligence services. In any case, this ink was the tool of the killer, and I believe that will be corroborated by the chemists as Whitehall Place.”

Brackenbury fixed his eyes on Absalom’s. “But who is the killer, Mr. Hume?”

“It would have to be a member of the staff, someone with access to the ink. Unfortunately, that could be any one of them. However, there is a detail of one of them that I picked up as we entered. I’m certain my osmatic companion Winston would have noticed it even more readily than I.”

I looked up, recalling my initial impression of the Butler as being far better-off than I initially attribute to members of the servant class. “Mr. Bellamy’s cologne. It’s of a far more expensive variety than Mr. Cooper’s, or even that which Absalom could afford.”

We all turned to the butler. “What’s more,” Absalom said, “his gloves are of a particularly warm make. All the servants of this home were uniformly attired by their employer, but he is the only one wearing such gloves. Almost as if he knew that the house would shortly grow very cold. He must have recently come into money, to afford so many nice things.”

Suddenly, Mr. Bellamy shoved Henry Cooper and made a break for the door. Unfortunately for him, I was after him in a shot. I may be older than I was when I fought the Boars of the East, but I dare say I am still more than a match for a household servant. I tackled him at the knees in a lunge, bringing him to the floor. In mere seconds, the footmen of the house were down to the ground as well, holding Mr. Bellamy there. I found Absalom at my side again. “Good man,” he said. “Good man.”

***

Hours later, back in our apartments, I had resumed my place by the Heartstone, though I found it for more difficult to relax than I had that morning. Absalom, as he often does at the conclusion of a case, seemed similarly restless, and was busying himself by practicing throwing cards in a corner of the room.

“This isn’t the end of it,” he said abruptly.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “The killer has been arrested, and we have both of us entered the good graces of the head of Military Intelligence. I should say this is a satisfactory conclusion, Hume.”

“We apprehended the killer, yes, but we still don’t know the why of it all. Who paid him? It may be determined under the questioning of Military Intelligence, but at the very least we have confirmed that this was indeed an organized attack against Lord Raxby. For all we know, all of the other Deeists of the kingdom are at risk. Winston, I feel as though a much greater game is at play, and we have only witnessed the first move.”

He turned back to his card throwing, and I padded my way to the window. Outside, snow clouds had begun to form above the city. So much for my warm summer, I thought.

***

Nathan Elwood is a student of Library Science at the University of Missouri. He has been recently published in Aurora Wolf, Devilfish Review, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine. His interests include writing and craft beers, and he has an unfortunate habit of combining the two.

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TREE FORT by Tom Leveen

Mar 20 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

Clown walks into a bar. Bartender says, “What’ll you have?” Clown says, “Gimme a treefort!” Bartender says, “What’s in a treefort?” Clown says . . . 

Playboy mags and cigars, hee-hee-hee!

I smiled but did not laugh. Tommy’s voice rang clear and cold in my ears, telling and re-telling his stale old jokes. I heard him as clearly as if he were still standing there beside me. Our tree fort never had Playboy magazines or cigars; those would come as we aged, but our fort was free from such degradation.

I stopped smiling.

The fort looked like it was still in decent shape. I tilted my head back as far as it would go, studying the warped plywood that served as the fort’s floor. I saw cracks, but no splits. I gazed down the length of the trunk. The wooden crossbeams we’d nailed through the bark all those years ago had been swallowed partially by the growing tree. Where once the rungs were weak and prone to popping off, they were now embedded in the bark. I grabbed the lowest rung and pulled on it. It was like trying to pull off a branch. The rungs were safer now than they’d been when Tommy and I first nailed them in.

Grasping the lowest rung, I began pulling myself up the ladder, careful not to disturb the lower branches as I ascended. We’d built the tree fort when we were ten, and no grown-ups had helped. We’d nailed the old wood together with nails pilfered from Tommy’s father’s workshop, and he’d never missed them. We’d surrounded two sides of the plywood with a short wall, constructed out of two-by-four scrap. We camouflaged one side of the fort with green netting I’d asked my mom to buy us. From the ground, you had to look closely to see it. It felt like a sniper’s nest, exactly what Tommy and I had intended. We even had an emergency exit: a thick, black nylon rope tied to a branch above the fort that we could drop out and slide down in case the fort was ever overtaken—or if we just wanted the thrill of sliding down the rope, which was often. It was a straight drop of twenty feet or so, a stupid height to be jumping from, but we had faith in our rope and our immortality. Even after all these years, the rope still held firm.

I reached the trapdoor and shoved it upward. The hinges complained bitterly, but didn’t resist. The trapdoor fell to the floor and startled a flock of birds, which took flight in a cacophony of whistles and caws. I glanced down, making sure their flight didn’t disturb the branches.

I pulled myself cautiously up through the hole. I weighed a good deal more than I had when I was ten. Back then, Tommy and I could scramble up the ladder and be hidden behind our green netting in about five seconds. Imaginary foreign invaders were always chasing us, but our cap guns held them at bay once we were secure in our fort.

The floor wasn’t big enough for an adult to crawl onto. I knew that from visiting the tree fort previously; once a year since Tommy died. Sort of a commemoration. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Tommy had died here. As if the invaders had finally taken one of our own. Tommy hadn’t gone without a fight. He’d fired his cap gun empty before the end came, and I admired him for that. Even to this day, I admired him.

I heard myself sigh. Tommy never gave up on anything. Even when our imaginary enemies invaded the fort and took us hostage—Tommy and I had tied the rope on ourselves –he was always full of ideas on how to escape, and of course, they always worked. When we were ten, eleven, and twelve, we were able to switch roles on a dime, better than any actor. Make-believe required it. I had to switch from fearless defender of American freedom to cold-blooded mercenary at the drop of a hat. Tommy took his turns too, though his mercenaries were always better—more evil and more sadistic—than mine. I envied his playacting as much as I did his stubbornness.

We were best friends, I almost said aloud as I began working my way back down the ladder and shutting the trap door above me. Even when Tommy got loud and obnoxious, which was frequently, I still loved him. I didn’t have the maturity to call it that when I was twelve, but looking back, I knew that’s what it was. It seemed only logical that the two of us would get our first crushes on the same girl upon entering junior high school. We were that much alike. Like brothers. The object of our crush, Lindsey McNaughton, had been swayed by Tommy at first, but in the end, had come to enjoy my company more.

Maybe it was because she felt bad for me when Tommy died. It didn’t matter to me at the time. Of course, by senior high, Lindsey and me weren’t an item anymore, but Tommy was still dead. I think Lindsey had only gone out with me as a sort of comfort, and I didn’t mind. Tommy wouldn’t have either, I figured.

I dropped the last couple of feet to the ground, careful not to disturb the lower branches. I glanced up at the nylon rope that hung taut from above, making sure everything was still in place. Tommy hadn’t questioned me when I suggested we play War one more time, even though at that point video games and girls had become much more important to us both. He’d joined me in one last daring escapade, this one involving more mercenaries than we’d ever faced before.

Our cap guns almost glowed red with the amount of imaginary hot lead we rained down upon our enemies. We were outgunned, in the end, but determined as ever to go down fighting, even as the mercenaries climbed into our fort. I’d prepared for them, setting a neat trap with a slipknot in the rope that served as our escape route. When the mercs burst into the fort, guns blazing, I’d dropped the noose over Tommy’s head and shoved him out the escape hatch. Tommy stayed in character till the end, firing his gun at me all the way down.

I’d never heard a sound like the one I heard that afternoon, the wet-stick snap of Tommy’s neck when the rope had played out. With that sound, the assault had stopped, and I never played make-believe again. There was no need. Lindsey didn’t play make-believe, and certainly never played War. She wouldn’t understand that I was a hero, that I had saved us both. From Tommy.

I shoved my hands in my pockets as I watched Tommy’s bones sway gently from the end of the rope. The police had never made it this far out of town when they searched for him, and I didn’t feel like helping them out. So here Tommy stayed, where he belonged, his weathered bones and leering skull protecting our fort from all invaders, foreign and domestic.

I wondered how long his skeleton could remain intact. Tommy’s blue jeans lay crusted solid on the ground beneath his fleshless feet where they’d fallen several years ago, his green t-shirt tattered and almost gone completely. But Tommy’s old stubbornness must have run as deep as his bones, for the skeleton was a model of perfection. It looked like a fake, something you’d find in a biology classroom, except for small tufts of brown hair clinging to his dry, ivory scalp. I watched the lower branches sway again in a light breeze, fearful they would disintegrate whatever remained of the sinews and cartilage holding Tommy’s bones together, but the branches veered away from the specter, as if in respect.

“What’s in a tree fort?” I asked.

Tommy’s skull was still and silent, smiling.

He loved that joke.

# # #

Tom Leveen is the author of six novels with imprints of Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Abrams. He can be found at www.tomleveen.com and on Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorTomLeveen.

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Bones By DJ Tyrer

Mar 13 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

It wasn’t really his idea of a good job, but sometimes you just had to take whatever you were offered. After all, somebody had to be a gravedigger, didn’t they? If nobody did the job, the world would soon be overrun with dead bodies and piles of bones. If he thought about it like that, he was a freakin’ hero. At least that let him feel good about being there in the graveyard in the middle of the night.

Joe just wished the city council would let him have a digger to do the job, just one of those tiny ones would do, nothing fancy. But, no, budget restrictions meant he was here with a shovel attempting to make a dent in the heavy clay. It was backbreaking work; you couldn’t squash the bodies into a shallow grave. Well, you could, but the bosses didn’t like it and he needed to keep this job. Which meant he had to keep scraping away at the thick earth.

“A stick o’ dynamite could hurry things along,” Joe muttered to himself.

There was a dry, hollow laugh from the darkness in response to his comment. He stuck the shovel blade into the ground and looked around. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody in the graveyard, besides him, unless one of the higher-ups was checking up on him.

“Who?” he called, staring into the darkness. Joe couldn’t see anyone; the night was too dark, overcast. He turned towards where he thought the chuckles had come from.

There was the slightest shuffling sound and scuff of gravel and a figure in a long, dark coat and a hat pulled down low manifested out of the night. Joe couldn’t help but jump slightly at the person’s sudden appearance. They chuckled again, although he couldn’t tell if they were laughing at his reaction or were still laughing at what he’d said. He wasn’t too certain he liked the person. If they were one of his bosses, that would be a solid no.

They hadn’t bothered to answer his question, so he asked again: “Who are you?” Then, he added, “What do you want?” He pulled his shovel out from the cloying earth with a slurp! and hefted it in what he hoped was a subtly-threatening manner. “Well?”

The figure chuckled again, as if Joe were making a jest towards them. Their reaction was oddly disturbing. Joe found himself wondering if he’d been approached by an escaped loony.

“Look, answer me,” he demanded. “Who are you?”

“Heh-heh, my name is Bones. Well, that’s what they call me, at any rate.”

“Bones? Your first name ain’t Dem, by any chance?” Joe sneered.

“No, although it might as well be. Knee bones, toe bones, funny bones – I’ve got ‘em all.”

With a shiver, Joe wondered if he was in the company of a bodysnatcher. He’d heard the odd rumour of such things, but had thought them spurious. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

“In fact,” the man said, “I’ve got nothing but bones.” He reached inside his coat and pulled out a rib.

Joe raised his shovel, ready to strike.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” said Bones, “you don’t know how lonely it gets round here. Sure, I’ve got plenty of neighbours, but they ain’t exactly talkative; know what I mean? Course you do, you’re surrounded by them every night. A dead loss, if you’ll excuse the pun.” Bones sighed.

“I just want to be friends,” he continued. “If you’d like, I could help out. I could lend you a hand – literally, if you’d like.”

“Sorry, are you saying you’re a skeleton?” asked Joe.

“Well, yes. Yes, I am. Is it really such a surprise? After all, friend, you’re a skeleton, too; only you’re wrapped in meat.”

“Very funny.”

“Oh, I’m deadly serious. Or, should I say, deathly serious. After all, I can’t be anything else, can I?”

“Really?”

“In my condition, I mean. See?”

Bones pulled his coat open, as if he were a flasher, and Joe gave an involuntary shriek. Beneath the coat, it seemed he really was all bones.

“No way,” Joe muttered. “It has to be a costume…”

“Oh, yeah,” said Bones.”I go about like this for the good of my health.” He – it – used the spare rib it still held to tap out a tune on its ribs.

“No – no – no…”

“Yes – yes – yes,” Bones replied. It reached up a bony hand and nudged its hat up to show a skull face. It looked as if it were grinning at Joe, but all skulls looked like that, so it was difficult to tell.

Joe reached out with the shovel and poked at Bones’ stomach area and watched the back of the coat it wore sway.

Joe swore.

“Convinced?” Bones asked, crossing his arms and cocking his skull.

“Freaked out might be a better description.”

“Oh, come on, we’re not so different, the two of us,” said Bones, uncrossing his arms and putting his hands on his bony hips. “Take away the flesh and blood and you’re just a load of bones hanging out in a graveyard. I thought we could hang out together. Eternity gets lonely, you know.”

“No offence,” Joe said, stepping back and holding the shovel defensively across his chest, “but I’m rather attached to my flesh and blood, and that makes a pretty big difference between us.”

Bones gave a sigh. “I thought you were the one. That you would understand. That you could feel the connection. That you could be like me.”

“Look,” said Joe, continuing to step away from Bones, “as I said, no offence intended, but I don’t like the suggestion I become a skeleton, too. Hell, I don’t even want to hang out with you – I do this for a pay-cheque, not for fun.”

“I’m sorry,” said Bones, cracking his knuckles. “I didn’t mean to give you the impression you had a choice in this; I’m afraid I must insist…”

“Thanks, but no-ohhh!” Joe took another step backwards and felt the ground give way beneath his feet. He lost his grip on the shovel as he fell into the grave he’d been digging. He lay still for a moment, then tried to sit up. He swore as his head swam. Looking up, he saw the skeletal figure in the flapping coat looking down at him, the shovel in his hands.

“Don’t worry,” Bones told him, as he began to shovel the soil back into the open grave, “I was buried alive and it didn’t do me any harm. You’ll claw your way out soon enough. It’s not like you’ve been embalmed or anything. You’ll rot quick enough, then you can join me. I’m sure we can find ways to make the years pass quickly.”

Joe screamed, but Bones just tossed some of the thick earth down onto his head, filling his mouth and silencing his cries.

“Don’t worry,” said Bones, “it’ll soon be over. See you shortly…”

—–

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines in the UK, USA and elsewhere, most recently in Amok! (April Moon Books), In Creeps The Night (J.A.Mes Press), State of Horror: Illinois (Charon Coin Press), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), Tales of the Dark Arts (Hazardous Press) and Cosmic Horror (Dark Hall Press), as well as in Sorcery & Sanctity: A Homage to Arthur Machen (Hieroglyphics Press), All Hallow’s Evil and Undead of Winter (both Mystery & Horror LLC) and Fossil Lake (Sabledrake Enterprises), and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dynatox Ministries).

DJ Tyrer’s website is at http://djtyrer.blogspot.co.uk/

The Atlantean Publishing website is at http://atlanteanpublishing.blogspot.co.uk/

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The Memory Rock by Geoff Nelder

Mar 06 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

Teresa shouldn’t have left at lunchtime—against the rules, but girls need something the arbiters of school rules didn’t take into account, and the corner shop sold that essential drug, chocolate. She should’ve headed in the opposite direction really, to avoid storekeeper, Mr Pervy-Pimpled-Prost but she’d miss Physics. She arrived at the shop and wavered, leaning against the doorframe, afraid to allow the dangly doorbell announce her presence so he’d ogle her alabaster white legs.

May came out laughing. “He isn’t here, gone to his other shop in Kinnerton. Here, I’ve got your seventy-percent, dark. You and your addiction owe me, let’s see you smile.”

*** 

Teresa turned to the vibrating, rain-splattered window to hide her smile and savouring the last square of chocolate. It was July so the rain was warm, yes? The double-decker bus lurched to the left as the driver rushed a tight roundabout, eager to deliver and be rid of his cargo of chewing gum-flavoured school kids. She’d climbed the swaying stairs of the overfull bus hoping to sit by her new squeeze, Finn. Except he wasn’t there. He’d have known better, and so should she, than to share his journey home with an immature bunch of snots from Dodleston.

A familiar voice startled her from behind. “Hey, Tess, he won’t be here. He got himself excluded from school this morning, the twat.”

“Eh?” She plunged her hand into her schoolbag, shoving aside an Advanced Level textbook on Earth Sciences then stopped, gasped and turned to May, her friend since birth. “My phone was confiscated in assembly and I forgot to collect it.”

May laughed making her marmalade hair bounce as she changed seats, pushing a couple of little year sevens out of the way. “Use mine. Bet he’s in the Red Lion.”

Teresa jabbed at the phone but the cacophony of immature voices made it impossible to hear his hardman act, although she suspected it was a, ‘Hey, May, darling’.

“I’ll have to text him, he thinks it’s you.”

May blushed.

“What? Are you cheating on me?” Teresa’s thumb blurred as she asked Finn his location and got nada in return. She looked up again at May, who’d deflected the question. She dropped the phone while giving it back as the bus braked sharply making everyone grab something, someone.

As she retrieved her phone, May said, “He got caught with vodka. You know, for tonight’s party. The shopkeeper saw it on the cam and told old Barney, who… well, like last time.”

Teresa hated the bus. A travelling virus factory, though the antics of the younger pupils made her laugh. She should speed up getting her licence. Several sixth-formers who lived out in Dodleston and the farms would help with petrol. She looked out at the suburbs of Chester, as a few pupils tumbled out of the door. Their green shirts flapping in the June post-shower sunshine and their legs already going like egg-beaters to get to a snack shop.

“Hey, Tess, what’s that in the sky?”

A dirty, smudgy line grew from behind the bus, overtook it and headed southwest.

Teresa muttered, “That’s not an aeroplane.”

May tilted her head then pressed it to the glass. “Is that rumbling noise coming from it?”

Nerdy Podge had just laboured up the stairs and stumbled to the large curved front windscreen. His voice quivered with exuberance. “It’s a meteor, on its way to becoming a meteorite.”

Many of the kids, now silent, ran to the front to watch, fascinated, but some in horror.

“We’re gonna die when that hits!”

“Someone tell the driver to turn round!”

“Don’t they just burn up in the sky?”

“They explode like nuclear bombs.”

“Ya not sposed to look at them. Makes ya blind.”

“Is that heading for Kinnerton?”

“No, Dodleston. My house. Fuck.”

Teresa stared at the descending trail. They all had homes out there. Cold sweat dribbled between her shoulder blades, while a hot tear rolled down her cheek.

Five kids at the front window elbowed and pushed to get to the top of the stairs and clambered down shouting at the driver to stop. He ignored them. He had a job to do.

She stared at the long line of cloud being made by the meteor, swirling round like the eddies when she paddled a canoe. Dodleston was just four miles away. She saw the line meet the horizon.

Instinctively, her eyelids snapped shut with the dazzling white light.

Next to her, May screamed as the front windscreen blew in, luckily in millions of tiny cubes. Teresa had seen enough nuclear-war films to know the blast was followed by a wave of searing heat and ear-splitting noise.

Teresa gripped the top of the seat in front as the bus swung to the left and swayed, tilted. She couldn’t tell which screams came from the bus, kids, acoustic shock or her. Her eyes now wide open. Her grip slipped. Needed to get May away from her window because it would smash in the fall. She’d be cut, or crushed. They couldn’t get away from it. Falling. Need anti-gravity—how did she have time to think of that? Better climb up the seat. Ah, no need. Bus has stopped tilting. A house got in the way.

Had the bus been blown over by an airburst from the meteorite or was it just careless driving, an overreaction? Too many kids bustling for the stairs, so she and May headed for the emergency exit window at the rear. Then she saw the trees and walls strewn drunkenly over the road. Bloodied people slowly scrambled to their feet.

Teresa and May heaved against the emergency bar and the window reluctantly swung open allowing them to disembark, precariously, lowering themselves to the tarmac. It had stopped raining, thank God.

Teresa jabbed at May’s pink phone to see if Finn was okay.

“He’s not picking up. What d’you think, May?”

“We should go back to school, it’s not far and—”

Teresa gave back the phone and looked south in the direction of a growing dark mushroom cloud. “We must go there, home. Walk, run if we have to.”

She jogged past the bus, followed by a reluctant May, and through the melee of pupils some of whom were crying, others heading for home in her direction but most milled around as if waiting for instructions.

A car horn startled Teresa, but instead of moving off the road and onto the pavement, she turned and held out her arms to force the rusty red Ford Fiesta to stop. Assuming it would.

It did, and Teresa saw the driver grinning. Finn, Year 13, lover, ex, maybe.

“We need a lift, Finn. Dodleston, now.”

He draped a pale arm out of the car. “It’ll cost you.”

 

“Whatever.” Should she sit in the front? A glance at the no-eye-contact May, said yes. Fuck ’em.

***

A mile from Dodleston they had to pull up. A snot-coloured furniture lorry languished on its side across the road, one of its wheels rotating.

Teresa gripped Finn’s skinny arm. “Can we get around it?”

“You’re kidding, I’m not taking my car through muddy fields.”

“And,” May said, “we’ve got to help that driver. I saw him move!” She got out of the car and ran over.

“Like there’s not hundreds worse off just up the road. I’ll walk. Phew, it smells of fireworks out here—cordite and ozone?”

She inched past the lorry. Some trees were down, and pointed away from Dodleston, at her. She couldn’t swallow as her mouth dried. She realised the dark clouds were not rain clouds—entirely—but smoke defeating gravity, from a bonfire a mile wide. Then came a drizzle of smuts, smudgy precipitation. From where they were, near the fishing pond, she’d normally see the church tower and the top of the redbrick primary school but it was too hazy to see anything.

Her house was alongside the school. She started to run but stopped to listen. A low ho-hum of traffic on nearby roads. Did they know of the disaster? Maybe some of it was the emergency services, she could hear sirens way off in the distance. Some of it from behind her. She must get to what’s left of her house and family before police-stop-tape and soldiers block her path.

People staggered out of the fog of raining dust. Was one Phoebe, her little sister? Grief they were all khaki and grey head to toe. Dust? At least their eyes were white, shocked open. There she was, dragging her school bag behind her.

“Phoebe, let me hug you.” Ignoring the dust, Teresa embraced her sister, who stood limply, unresponsive in her arms.  “You’re traumatised aren’t you? What about mum? Have you seen her?”

No answer.

“Of course not, or you’d be with her. Ah, your teacher’s here. Miss Anderson? Is there a crater? How much of the village was destroyed?”

The willowy woman’s blue eyes stared out of her grey head. At least her hair precipitated dust in a gentle fall revealing the blonde beneath. Others from the village stopped too, none talked.

“Are you all in shock? Phoebe, Miss Anderson, say something.”

The teacher finally refocused on Teresa. “Confused. Don’t know who you are. Who I am.”

Teresa walked up to embrace her former teacher. She nearly un-hugged when her nose filled with the burnt dust odour, but she continued. “It’ll be shock. I assume the school wasn’t hit then. I see other pupils. Did the meteorite land on the other side of the village? Surprised anyone survived. Pleased, of course.”

“What meteorite?”

“Ah, you mightn’t have seen it being inside the school. One struck somewhere around here. Look at all the damage.”

“What school?”

Teresa let the teacher go, brushed dust off her white T-shirt leaving ochre streaks. She’d need to use Stain Devil on that in the wash. She kneeled in front of Phoebe and hugged her.

“What do you remember, kiddo?”

“Noth … nothing.” Tears streaked through the dust on her cheeks.

Finn came up behind her. “Always thought Dodleston was the land of the living dead.”

Teresa hit his arm. “Finn, I’m staying with this lot at least till the emergency services arrive. Will you go ahead and see if there’s a crater or anything? Perhaps the rock exploded in the air so there might not be one.”

“Yeah, I’ll be the trail-blazer.” He ran on ahead through the dozen survivors, his red shirt and blue jeans blurring into the dust mist.

A few minutes later she saw him wandering back. “What did you see, Finn?”

He stumbled past her, making her grab and pull him round. “Finn?”

His forehead sported worry lines like an accordion. He trembled. “Who are you?

What d’you want?”

“You just went into the village to see… what did you see?”

“What village?”

Paramedics were leading the confused amnesiacs to waiting ambulances. Teresa was grabbed by the elbow by a policewoman and tugged.

“No, officer, I’ve just arrived to check on my family, but my friend here…”

“We’ll take him too. Do you want to come or can you look after these older folk until more ambulances arrive?”

The dust was thinning over the village. Teresa could see ruined buildings now, but no more people coming out. “Are there emergency services on the other side and on the road from Gorstella?”

The brunette policewoman looked back as if checking she won’t be overheard by colleagues. “There was, but we’ve lost contact with them. They’d reported going to the rim of a crater where the Red Lion used to be…”

A paramedic motorbike growled past them towards Dodleston. Both the policewoman and Teresa shouted at him to stop but he couldn’t hear because of the newly arrived helicopter overhead. Any lower and it would make the dust worse.

A red glow brightened from the motorcycle’s brake light then a thud.

Teresa took a step towards the crashed paramedic, eager to help but also curious in spite of the worry knot in her stomach.

“No, you might lose your memory too,” the police officer said. “I’ll go up to that crumpled phone box and yell at him.”

May had come up behind and pulled her backwards. “Come right back, Tess, I’ve seen footage from that news helicopter. It’s too dangerous here. Come on!”

Reluctant to move, Teresa changed her mind when she saw the policewoman holding her head as if it was about to burst. She shivered—it could have been her. “Where did you see it?”

“There’s a BBC TV van, look for yourself.”

***

At last, she saw the crater even if vicariously via a helicopter and mobile screens. Centred on the edge of the village the meteorite had swallowed The Red Lion and the church with the rim running along the edge of the school. Trees, lampposts, walls outside the circle had fallen outwards like spokes of a wheel. Amazingly, the school remained standing as did a few other strong buildings.

May knocked heads with her. “Can’t see the rock in the middle. Too much debris fallen back onto it, I s’pose.”

“Never mind the rock, where are the people? They can’t have all been vaporised. Can they?” She was being illogical, but then it’s only human for a teen to believe they’re indestructible. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

She was dragged away by May, back to Finn’s car beyond the upset lorry and anguished crowds. She considered driving the car even without a licence but their passage back was blocked by the worried and the gawpers. Where to go? Both May and herself had homes with the last known address in a crater.

Teresa borrowed May’s phone again and jabbed at the number of a nearby aunt, but no signal. The service could be overwhelmed, underground or sideswiped by fucked up electrons. Hang on, she remembered a footpath across fields to Lower Kinnerton, then a jog up the road to the Royal Oak to her aunt’s.

***

“Ninety-eight people,” May read aloud from the Chronicle. “Ninety-eight whose memories were wiped that day and more since. A hundred missing. Even bio-hazard-suited-up scientists were helicopter winched back up as forgetful automatons with lost pasts and names.”

May threw the newspaper in the bin at the MacDonalds Amnesia Clinic. “Come on, Tess. You’ve been a patient here for ten days you must remember something.”

Teresa rubbed her forehead. “I fell over a branch.”

“Now we’re getting recall. Where was this, Kinnerton?”

“Garden. I was three. Nothing since. I’ve tried and tried.” Tears filled her eyes until they dribbled down.

May stamped a foot. “They’re moving Finn from the Eaton Amnesia Clinic to be near you. Thought maybe you’d wandered over to the crater. Maybe you thought the amnesia affect had worn off.”

“I don’t know nothing, not even you.”

Her visitor left to investigate screaming. Teresa should be upset, a wreck of tears butalthough she’s been told her mother’s died, her sister has lost her memory and her dad had flown back from his oil rig, none of it meant anything. Oh, a door bang and that girl, May, was back.

“You’re not going to believe this, Tess. The meteorite. The rock that destroyed our village. It’s left! Flew out of the crater, straight up. You know what this means don’t you? It wasn’t a rock. Some kind of alien ship. Why? Probably off course, crash-landed. Or perhaps it’s gathered all those memories to take home.”

***

Lightning crackled through Teresa’s brain.

“May, May come quick!” Where was she? Screams from the other wards. A man’s grating cough and despairing yell reached her from the next bed. She too needed to cough, and scratch down there—nooooo.

She screamed. Withdrew her now contaminated hands, up to her face, stubble. Argh!

“May, May, May!”

She appeared at her bed. “That you, Tess? In there?”

Teresa could hardly hear her friend over the shouts and cries, but May spoke again, “It’s happening to everybody. So sorry, Tess. Erm he’s back there, his hands all over your…”

“Whose body, May?”

Her so-called friend just shook her head, so the mind of Teresa made the head turn to read the name over the back of her bed. “Mr. Percival Prost.”

 

 

Bio of Geoff Nelder

Geoff Nelder is a professional liar, badass editor, and fiction competition judge. He was awarded Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society for his research into air pollution and microclimates and used his students as unpaid researchers to discover urban heat islands in Yorkshire towns and villages. He taught now-out-of-date Geography and IT to the ungrateful alive but escaped on his bike to write.

His publications include science fiction novels Exit, Pursued by Bee and the ARIA trilogy; and thrillers: Escaping Reality, and Hot Air. Many of his short stories have found homes in mags such as The Horror Zine, Ether Books, Encounters, Jimston Journal, Delivered, Screaming Dreams and many anthologies such as Monk Punk, Science Fiction Writers’ Sampler (with Gregory Benford and David Brin) and Zombified.

Website www.geoffnelder.com

 

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