Archive for: November, 2017

Clean Room, Dirty Room by Gustavo Bondoni

Nov 19 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

It was a magnificent beast of a machine.

Ernest Hillis couldn’t stop looking at it.  He wished he could remove the plugs in his nose so he could smell the air, but the team of engineers who’d built it would have a fit if he did.  They insisted that the testing and validation of the robot had to take place in clean-room conditions.  Even when he pointed out that the factory floors in which it would operate were anything but clean, they simply shrugged and told him to build his own.

He ran a gloved hand on the side of one of the four support legs.  The columns were thick enough to take the weight, but jointed in ten places, which would allow the machine to move, bend and dance – just as soon as Ernest’s team was finished teaching it how.

He knew that those were his last few minutes of relaxation before the tests started on Monday.  They had to upload the packets of pre-created programming, and get all the bugs out of the system before June… or Arkham Techno’s multi-billion-dollar processing plant would get even further behind schedule.  And any more delays could very easily lead to bankruptcy – every employee knew that the investors were stretched to the breaking point and the creditors’ patience was well past it.

It had to work.  And he and his crew had to make it work.  It was as simple as that.  A whole town depended on them to come out of its depression.  The continued survival of the “Miracle in New England” – the revival of this once barren stretch of coast, with its under-educated population and its ludicrous superstitions was on his shoulders, and he knew he could bear the load.

He would make the magnificent beast roar.

***

“For an alleged technology firm, you people sure didn’t have much of a firewall,” Scott chuckled to himself.  “My baby brother could have hacked through it in no time at all.”

But that wasn’t fair.  He’d been preparing for this moment for three weeks, hitting Arkham Techno’s adserver business unit with one malware Trojan after another, partly to keep his hand in, but mostly because he knew that the company’s IT people would flock to the attack and personally try to make certain that the hackers didn’t come in on their watch.

All of this, of course, meant that there was no one watching when Scott popped in, quietly, this time, through a very unfortunate security breach in the manufacturing computers.

He had a look around.  Anything he did would be kosher, since Arkham Techno was on Anonymous’ list of companies they didn’t like, for quite a few reasons having to do with intellectual property rights and with the fact that they had a unit running advertising, which slowed down response times, cluttered otherwise well-designed homepages and moved things one step away from a truly free and socialist internet.

He sighed.  The interesting bits of the control system were hidden behind a password, so he started running his cracker.  It was one he’d programmed himself, and it wouldn’t – or so he hoped – alert AT that there was someone snooping around their system.  With such crude security, he was almost certain of it.

While the program ran, he looked around.  It really was time to do something about the state of his room.  A coffee cup from a month before sat in the geometrical center of the rug, small green-and-white circles floating in the remaining liquid.  Assorted clothes covered most of the rest of the room.  The blinds were closed tight, jammed the last time he’d tried to open them.  It was a dump, but he was much too excited to clean now.  His weeks of planning had paid off.  He was in.

Or at least he would be when the program broke the password.  In the meantime, he could sleep.

The opening bars of The Imperial March woke him.  For one fleeting second, he wasn’t certain what was going on, but when it did hit him, Scott got out of bed as quickly as his gross weight permitted.

As he groped for his glasses on the desk, he promised he would begin exercising that very same day, just like every other.  He shut the music off and read the message on the screen: “Success – but then you knew that already, didn’t you, you gorgeous hacker you”.

Scott smiled and began to poke around the largest of the control systems.  A lot of it seemed empty, just huge amounts of processing power and disk space lying fallow, just waiting to be filled with something… awesome.  The system was way overbuilt to be another factory line.  He’d seen plenty of those, and they generally held nothing more exciting than a few feedback loops and redundant alarms with a big, usually red, shutoff command if any of a dozen parameters went out of a specified range.

This wasn’t a factory floor.

“Let’s see what you guys are going to build, my darlings,” Scott said.  A few keystrokes took him to a less well-protected folder.  And there, in a series of files labeled schematics – not very creative of them, hmm – he found it.

“That is awesome.  And it’s also something very naughty to have lying around a factory.  Imagine all the trouble it could cause if it fell into the wrong hands.  A machine like that could very easily hurt someone.”  Scott chuckled at his huge wit and went back into the control system.

A couple of hidden takeovers here and there, and this thing will be a lot of fun, he thought, running his hand along his whiskers.

He began to fill some of the empty spaces, writing the code he needed to take control away from the engineering team once they had the machine up and running, and chortling at how confused and irritated they’d be before the panic set in.

Then, without preamble or warning, his entire system shut down.

It took him four hours to get back in, but most of that time was spent trying to figure out what had happened.  It would take a very simple system to simply punt him out of AT’s network, but it would take a very, very complex one to shut him down that way – and anyone who could do that could do one hell of a lot more.

So Scott painstakingly went over the logs of his last few minutes in the company’s system and tried to spot anything creeping past his defenses.  There was nothing, not a single line, that stood out as hostile action.  Things were going perfectly…  and then nothing.

In the end, he’d simply shrugged and reconnected his servers to the internet.  If he couldn’t find anything wrong, it was likely that there really was nothing wrong.  It would just have to go down in history as one of those things.

Scott looked around the machine’s schematics and whistled.  It looked like an autonomous robot that could solve quite a few of the industrialized world’s factory floor space issues.  As long as you had a tall roof, this thing could build an entire car from the raw materials and components – even pressing the metal – in a tenth of the space of a conventional assembly line, and do it quicker.  And when it finished, it could be programmed to do something else.  The arms and appendages were infinitely flexible, and the processing capacity… well, it was clear that Arkham Techno  wanted to test-run their new semi-autonomous AI capabilities.

Naughty, naughty.

AT’s artificial intelligence protocols had been recalled and removed from household use because the erratic behavior of myriad lawnmowers and vacuums had made people nervous, and investigation had deemed them potentially unsafe.

The thing they were building at their French Hill site in Arkham had a lot more capacity to think for itself than a foot long vacuum cleaner.

Scott’s palms became moist, and his breathing quickened.  He had to make a conscious effort not to drool from the sheer desire…

He wanted it.  He wanted it a lot.

His password crack was still good, so he went back in.  This time he wouldn’t wait for the programming team.  He’d block them out and see what he could make the robot do before someone managed to kick him out or incapacitate it would be fun.

There.  He was in.

And then he was out.  But for five seconds before his system shut down and every light in his house blew out, a large green-on-black font filled his screen, and scrolled:

 

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

YOU ARE UNWELCOME

***

The developer cringed as he delivered the news, stepping back as if he hoped he could make it out of his supervisor’s sight.

“What do you mean, unwelcome?” This wasn’t the way Ernest was expecting to begin his morning.  After assigning the night team the task of getting the brain that lived inside his glorious robot up and running – or at least up and running for the most part – he wasn’t going to stand for any delays.

“Somebody got in, and we can’t get them out.  We’ve taken the entire network offline to work on it, but we just can’t seem to get back inside.  Every time we try, it flashes the message and shuts us down.”

“Shuts us down?  What do you mean by that?”

“It turns off the laptop we’re using to access the mainframe and anything else connected to it.  We’ve had to restart the entire company’s systems three times this morning.”

Ernest swore.  Anything he wanted done correctly, as always, he had to do himself.  “Let me see.”

Ten minutes later, his swearing had turned to profane shouts that had most of his team studiously attempting to avoid his gaze.  The green letters had made their appearance, but instead of immediately shutting the computers off, the message was replaced by a kaleidoscope of eye-bending colors.  A crawling chaos of bile yellows and excremental browns that, to Ernest, seemed the product of a diseased mind.

“That son of a bitch,” he whispered.

“What, sir?”

“It’s the hacker, the one who’s been putting malware into our ad system.  He’s responsible for this.  The bastard.”

“This really doesn’t look like…”

“Are you trying to get fired?”  The developer didn’t answer.  “Good.  Cate told me that they had the guy located to nearly 95% accuracy, and that the FBI would act under the new piracy laws if we could give them a name and enough proof to satisfy their e-crimes team.  She said they’d narrowed it down to the University of Arizona, and that her friends in net security said that there are only a couple of people down there that could break through our security as easily and often as this guy did.  She said that they stopped the search because it looked like they had finally managed to block him out.” Ernest sighed.  “Obviously she was wrong.  The malware was just a feint, designed to get us looking the other way while he tore into the important stuff.  God damn him.”

The laptop in front of him shut off, and took the lights with it.  In a way, even this display of absolute domination by the hacker was better than watching the colors swirl.  Ernest had felt that the chaos on the screen was evil, that it was slowly eating away his mind.

“Just call Cate and try to nail the guy, will you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Even in the darkened room, illuminated only by the battery-powered emergency lights, the relief of having escaped with his job was obvious in the man’s voice.

***

Scott ignored the knocking.  He didn’t hear the shouts.  His own shouts were more than loud enough to fill the room.  He’d gone three days without sleep and without bathing, stopping to eat only when his stomach growled that it wouldn’t take it any more.  Discarded Twinkies wrappers now lay two deep in places on the detritus that had already covered the floor.

“If you were really this good, you wouldn’t be working in IT at a goofy outfit like Arkham,” he said for the millionth time.  “You puny pieces of corporate crap will not beat me!”  He rebooted one laptop while another, freshly hardened against the newest crackers’ toys he could dig up on the least reputable fora attacked Arkham’s mainframes once again.

He was in…  And then, in a puff of smoke and capacitor fuzz, the machine expired in what sounded like a terminal way.

He screamed, and didn’t even notice the crash of his door coming down, or the heavy footfalls behind him.  The guys in dark jackets who subdued him and tied his hands with plastic wire-ties were surprised at how limp he went.

Scott fell asleep in the FBI van on his way into custody.

***

“Don’t give me that,” the big man said.  Scott had already decided that this was the guy playing the bad cop in this particular scenario.  The senior partner, a woman who would have looked great under any other circumstances, was pretending to look out for him.

“We already know you were responsible for the malware that ruined their ad revenue for the past few weeks.  You’re going down for that, but maybe if you play ball with us and tell us what you did to the machine, you might get out of this OK.  Arkham Techno says they’ve never seen anything like it, and that if you tell them how you managed to make it so they can’t reboot, can’t even format the brain, they’ll go easy on you.”

Scott was tired.   They’d been going on like this for hours.  He had been treated perfectly well, but the constant grilling was taking a toll.  “I already told you.  I had nothing to do with it.  I would have bet anything that it was the security guys playing with me.  After all, even if the IT guys are just a bunch of morons, the people who designed the brain inside that machine are probably smart enough to put up some serious security – which, come to think of it, should have occurred to me earlier.  I still think you’re trying to make me confess to something I didn’t do.”

The cops looked each other in the eye.  “What do you think?” the woman asked.

“I think we should let him stew a little,” the big guy replied.  “We’ll send someone from the DA’s office to tell him what things look like.  He might remember differently afterwards.”

They left, not even bothering to lock the small room behind them.

***

“No,” Scott said.  “I don’t trust you.”

“Are you kidding?  You can get off completely clean.  All you have to do is play ball with Arkham Techno.”

“Do you really think I’ll fall for that?  This is just another trick to get me to confess to something I didn’t do.  If I sign that,” Scott gestured at the large sheaf of printed sheets on the table in front of him, “I’ll probably wind up in Leavenworth or something.  Anyhow it will be much worse than what I’m looking at now.”

“What you’re looking at now is five years in a medium security prison.  Don’t you think it’s at least worth looking at what Arkham is offering?” the lady cop asked him.

The big guy looked like he was about to explode.  “Yeah.  And besides, this is America, buddy.  We don’t go around giving people false confessions to sign like some banana republic dictator.”

It occurred to Scott that maybe he really was the bad cop.  The expression on his face would have been hard to fake; the redness of his complexion impossible.  The combination reminded him that if they’d wanted to beat the living crap out of him, it would have been the work of a moment, and no one who wasn’t on their side would have heard anything.

“Let me have a look,” he said.

Scott read over the terms of the agreement.  He read them over again.  And once more just to be certain.  Unless he was missing something important, they really said what the FBI cops had said they said.  If he could help them neutralize the hacker who’d blocked the access to the prototype robot’s brain, they would drop the charges against him for the malware.  Of course, it was stipulated that he had to give them enough info to convict the other hacker, but it seemed a better bet than five years in the slammer.

The cops seemed surprised when he finally addressed them.  “How come they’re suddenly convinced that I didn’t do it?”

The woman shrugged.  “One of their people tore apart the machines at your house.  Said you hadn’t done it.  And they need enough help that they’re willing to overlook the little stuff if you can help.  So are we – our experts say that the blockage on AT’s system at the moment is better than anything else they’ve seen.  They actually looked worried, so we really want to catch this guy.”

Scott sighed and signed the papers.

The big cop grinned at his partner.  “Told you he was a rat,” he said.  He walked off.

***

“No,” Ernest said.  “Absolutely not.”

“Why not?” Scott retorted.

“I don’t trust you.”

The hacker chuckled.  He seemed to be enjoying the novel pleasure of making AT’s people squirm in person instead of at a distance.  Yeah, he’d be just the kind of guy who’d enjoy that – especially in a place where no one could kick his ass.  Ernest promised himself to kick his ass anyway after this was over, even if he had to follow him all the way back to his rat’s nest in Arizona to do it.

“Whether you trust me or not is immaterial.  You need me to do a job, and to do it, I need you to give me the tools necessary to do the job.  Simple.”

“No, not simple.  I don’t know how you know about the interface helmet–”

“You’re security sucks, that’s how.”

Ernest had to keep himself from hitting the guy, it took all his control to ignore him.  “But it’s still experimental technology.  If you break it, we can’t replace it.  And if it breaks you, we’d have to pay for you.  And we’d have to pay for you as if you were a real human being, not… well, not you, that’s for certain.”

The hacker didn’t even seem to notice the insult.  “It doesn’t really matter.  From what I’ve heard, your interface makes it possible to control a whole bunch of variables at once, and that’s exactly what we need to do right now.  The way this guy is blocking us off is by having parallel processes shut down some systems while blocking others and bypassing your security with still more.  I can use the interface helmet to keep all of that under control – and you know I can’t do that from a keyboard.”

Ernest sighed.  He knew that the hacker had a point, but he also knew that the guy wasn’t telling the truth.  He just wanted a chance to get his hands on the ultimate geek toy – even if he could only play for a while.  “All right.  But you’re going to sign a release, and I hope you get some strange kind of brain cancer from using it.”

Scott smiled.

***

The preparations took a lot less time than the hacker seemed to think they would and, if he hadn’t been so nervous, Ernest would have smirked at him.  The poor guy had actually hinted that he wanted a tour of the clean room and a glimpse of the machine while Ernest’s team set up the equipment.  He’d been pretty surprised when Cate had walked back in holding what looked like a cross between a bike helmet and a porcupine.

“That’s it?”

Ernest nodded.  “The scanners are actually pretty light.  Mainly magnets and wires which we use to read and modify the natural electrical currents in the brain.  The spines are antennae which send the readings in real time to the mainframe over there, which processes it and responds quickly enough that you won’t ever consciously notice any lag unless you are really, really far away – think the surface of the moon.”

“And will it hurt?  Don’t you have to plug it in or something?”

Ernest laughed.  “I thought you’d seen the schematics.  There’s nothing as barbaric as a plug needed.  We couldn’t sell many of these if you needed brain surgery to use them now would we?  Just put it on, and we’ll get it calibrated to your particular brain.”  He stopped himself short of saying just what kind of mind he thought might reside in a slovenly hacker.  The process was risky enough as it was – feedback from the system was, for the brain in the helmet, a very real experience – without risking a miscalibration because the subject was angry.

Five minutes later, they were ready.  The development team started to guide him in the use of the helmet, and how to get it to interface with the specially designed operating and control system which allowed it to access all of AT’s computers.  Pretty soon, the hacker was intuitively jumping ahead of his training team to access new functionalities.  After about a half-hour, he said: “I’m going to see if I can make it into the brain on the machine.  Cover me.”

Ernest was impressed in spite of himself – and in spite of the lame attempt at humor.  Not many people had enough control of their mind to be able to achieve motor control of their physical bodies while their brains were under the influence of the helmet.  Both he and Cate had come out from their first experiences embarrassingly soiled… And this guy was talking – talking! – in half an hour.

For the first time, Ernest began to believe that maybe, just maybe, it hadn’t been a mistake.

They watched his process through the helmet’s GUI.  They could see where the hacker put his attention, and what he ignored, as each sector was shaded: red for high attention areas, blue for those he was ignoring.  The schematic itself showed a general map of the system, created specifically in order to experiment with the helmet.

The hacker went logically.  First, he studied the peripheral systems around the machine’s brain.  Each one in turn came under the red-tinged scrutiny, and, as Scott got more proficient, sometimes he would take two at once, and then three.  When he began to go after four at a time, the entire crew was watching.  Some of the team members, formerly sullen at having someone come in to do their work for them, were actually cheering him on.

Finally, the interface between the brain and the system warmed a bit, almost imperceptibly, as though the hacker had just noticed it, seen nothing that warranted any attention and moved on about his business.  It was a masterful display of control.

Slowly, imperceptibly, the hacker devoted attention to the interface, without letting his attention slip from the four other places he’d been attending to previously.

Ernest held his breath.  Would he make it in?  The interface moved from purple to dark red, and slowly to a brighter color.

All at once, the four peripheral systems went completely blue as the entire field of attention focused on the brain.  Not the interface, but the AI within the machine itself.  It went from blue-black to blood red in a second.  There could be no doubt that the hackers entire consciousness was focused there.

The scream came from an unexpected quarter.  Intent on the screen, the team had completely ignored the chair where Scott was strapped down.    The man was writhing, pain written on the fat features of his face.

“No!” he cried.  “No, no, no.”  He screamed again, and again, and again.

Cate rushed forward to try to remove the helmet, but all she got for her troubles was a kick in the solar plexus.

“No! The stars, they burn!”

Before anyone else could react, the hacker pulled his arms free of the restraints and, with utter conviction, pressed two fingers under each eye until they were deep enough that he could push the eyeballs themselves out of their sockets.  Then, as everyone watched, appalled, he simply tore them from.

The scream that went with this seemed to come out of the bowels of hell, but when the nerves finally gave way with a sickening pop, it stopped.  The silence seemed glorious.

It was broken by a whisper.  “But no.  I can still see them.  No, please.  No.”  The final word was stretched out, rising in pitch and volume until it was the scream of a woman in excruciating pain.

Then, with a final spasm, blood flowed out of the hacker’s mouth and he was still.

“Oh, my God,” Cate said.  “Ernest, what are we going to do?”

But Ernest wasn’t listening to her.  He was listening to the whine of gears, the motion of a huge machine coming from the clean room next door, from the place where a machine with nothing, supposedly in its brain, and no connection to the outside world was coming awake.

He heard the crash of its first tentative step. The boom of the second, more confident one.  The screech as some piece of inconveniently located equipment was tossed aside, and another footfall.  As a giant manipulator arm began to pummel the wall between the rooms, he knew the answer to Cate’s question.

“Run!” he shouted, and gave the example.

And he wondered whether the dead hacker might not be the lucky one.

 

Bio: I am an Argentine novelist and short story writer who writes primarily in English. My debut Novel, Siege was published in 2016 and I have nearly two hundred short stories published in fourteen countries. They have been translated into seven languages. My writing has appeared in Pearson’s Texas STAAR English Test cycle, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Perihelion SF, The Best of Every Day Fiction and many others.

Other recent work includes an ebook novella entitled Branch, published in 2014. I have also published two reprint collections, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). The Curse of El Bastardo (2010) is a short fantasy novel. My website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

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THE NAMELESS CHILD by Spinster Eskie

Nov 12 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

When Ellen found her cat, Rusty, had died in his sleep, she buried him in the woods beside a tree, and carved his name into the trunk. Then she sat by his grave site and cried softly, already missing her beloved friend of seventeen years. Rusty was like her – old, fat, tired, rusty. She knew his time would be soon. She didn’t expect it to be that very day.

Ellen walked home to her now empty apartment and made herself a cup of tea. She turned on the news to see famine and corruption, and when it only depressed her more, she turned it off and briefly thought about maybe giving her sister a call, but that would absurd. She and Megan hadn’t spoken in twenty-five years, not since their mother’s funeral. There wasn’t any one solid reason why they stopped talking. They just didn’t like each other. Never did. And their forced relationship only lasted as long as their mother did.

But the death of Rusty suddenly made Ellen lonesome for family. Rusty was all she had and now he was gone. Megan had children. Ellen didn’t know how many at this point, but she had met one of them while he was still a baby. Ellen held him and noticed that he had red hair just like her. He was just darling and he’d be a young man by now. Ellen wondered if he had a wife or children of his own. Did he know about her? Did he ever ask Megan, where is Aunt Ellen? Probably not. Why would her existence matter to him? She hadn’t been a part of his life for twenty-five years. She lacked any significance to him, his mother, and the siblings Ellen could only imagine he had.

Ellen stared vacantly at her photos of Rusty on the piano. She thought maybe playing the piano would make her feel better, but she couldn’t remember the last time she played. Maybe she wouldn’t even remember how to play. Anyway, her hip was hurting quite a bit. She then recalled all the times Rusty would purr on her lap whenever she was in pain. Or he would sit beside her at the piano, and listen as she banged out Chopin and Mozart. He was such a sweet animal. She missed him terribly.

Ellen slept for the rest of the day and all of the next day, until she realized she hadn’t eaten in 48 hours and that her fridge was bare. Ellen counted what was left of her Social Security money and decided she had maybe enough for a week’s worth of food, if she budgeted well. She wandered over to the old grocery store down the street and was greeted by Mr. Chong, who was always very kind to her. Often, if Ellen didn’t have enough money for a few items, he would buy it for her and then he would help her carry the bags home. “No cat food today?” Mr. Chong questioned with his ever so friendly tone.

“Rusty passed away this week.” Ellen informed him.

“Ms. Bryer, I am so sorry,” Mr. Chong said to her with the up most compassion.

“Thank you. He was a good cat.”

“Please, let me carry your bag home for you.”

“No thank you, Mr. Chong. I think I can manage this one bag today.” She smiled and Mr. Chong smiled, and Ellen put the groceries into her cart, and left the store. As she exited, she heard a clinking noise coming from behind her. She turned to see a little girl, no older than the age of seven, shaking a coin within a tin can.

“Spare some change, ma’am?” The little girl choked. Ellen was aghast at the girl’s appearance. She wore only a ragged white dress and no shoes. She was skinny. Too skinny. And gaunt. Her fingers and toes were long and her hair was gone. In some ways, she didn’t look human.

“Where’s your mother, child?” Ellen asked the girl.

“I don’t have a mother.”

“Your father?”

“I don’t have a father.” The little girl shook the can again. “Spare some change, ma’am?”

“A child your age should not be on the streets alone. I’m going to call someone to help.” Ellen removed her phone from her purse to dial the police, but her it was completely dead. “I must have forgotten to charge my phone. Oh dear.” She knelt down to the little girl and put her hands on the child’s shoulders. “What is your name, little one?”

“I don’t have a name.”

“Everybody has a name.”

“Maybe you could give me a name?” What a strange request. Ellen had never named a child before. She always believed that if she had a daughter she would name her after her mother.

“Okay, how about Sylvia?” The little girl grinned, bearing her unusually sharp, yellow teeth. “Do you like that name?” Ellen asked. Sylvia nodded. “Well, Sylvia, I can’t just leave you here. It wouldn’t be right. Would you like to come to my house for dinner and there I can charge my phone and give Children’s Services a call.” Sylvia’s grin was wide and joyous and she reached out her hand and Ellen took it in hers and they strolled on home together.

Ellen made roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas for dinner and Sylvia gobbled it all down as if she hadn’t tasted food in years. With what little Ellen was able to afford, she knew how to make a worthy meal, and Sylvia’s appreciation of her cooking was gratifying. After dinner, Ellen took her medication and Sylvia questioned what they were for. “It’s for my pancreatisis,” Ellen told her. “I have to take them with food or I get sick.” Ellen then checked her phone again and saw that it still would not turn on. “This darn thing!” She muttered, “I have never been a fan of anything high tech.” Ellen sighed. “Well, it’s late anyway. I can make up the couch for you to sleep on and we can go over to the police station tomorrow.”

Ellen ran a bath for the girl and scrubbed her delicate skin clean of all the crusted dirt she had been covered in. She gave Sylvia a large t-shirt to sleep in and pulled out plenty of blankets and pillows from the closet for the girl to cozy up in. “Tell me a story,” Sylvia asked Ellen.

“Oh I don’t know any stories,” Ellen said.

“Tell me about the ugly duckling who grows up to be a beautiful swan.”

“Oh yes, that is a good one.”

“Ellen, do you think I’ll be a beautiful swan one day?”

“Yes, I think you’re beautiful now!”

“People are afraid of me. They’re afraid of the way I look.”

“Well, I’m not afraid of you. Everyone is unique and special in their own way.” Ellen kissed the child on the forehead and made sure her blankets were snug. “Goodnight Sylvia,”

“Goodnight Ellen.” But thirty minutes later Sylvia was at Ellen’s bedside. “I couldn’t sleep.” She whimpered in a high pitch voice, and Ellen opened her arms and held the child lovingly.

“You poor dear. You must be so frightened.”

“May I sleep in here with you, Ellen?”

“Of course!” The girl climbed into bed and rested her head on Ellen’s plump breast.

“I want you to be my mother,” She said and this startled the woman.

“Hush child. Go to sleep.” Sylvia pulled the blankets over both of them and slept peacefully throughout the night.

When Ellen could not conceive a child, her husband, Grant left her for a much younger woman. They were quickly married and had twins the following year. She began to drink a lot around this time and her chronic health issues cost her her job at the bank. Ellen became a recluse and shut out the world. She couldn’t bear to run into Grant and his family or sit through another knitting group, while the women discussed their children and looked at her with pity when she’d mention she didn’t have any. “You’ll want to hurry up and have them soon,” one woman had said to her. “The clock’s ticking!” Ellen thought to embarrass the woman by explaining that she was infertile, but what was the point? These women didn’t understand loss and hardship. They had husbands who provided for them, and children who gave them all the meaning and purpose they longed for. Ellen was better off in hiding, far from a world that reminded her only of her regrets and disappointments.

It was hard to find clothes that fit Sylvia. She was tiny and disproportionate, but she enjoyed picking out various baseball caps to cover her bald head. Pinks and purples were her preferred colors, as well as images of Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck. Shoes were uncomfortable for her though. She didn’t like wearing anything on her feet and even after she and Ellen had left the free clothing shop with bags of clothing, Sylvia took off her shoes on the bus to walk barefoot. “Where are we going now?” Asked Sylvia excitedly.

“I thought we might stop at the police station to see if they can help you find a new home.”

“But you’re my new home!” Sylvia protested.

“Sylvia, I’m sixty-two years old and poor. I can’t give you the things you need.”

“You’re all I need!” Sylvia cried, folding her arms defensively. Ellen’s heart ached.

“You may stay with me another day,” she told the girl. “We’ll contact Children’s Services tomorrow.”

“Play me a song!” Sylvia requested, motioning toward the old upright piano back at the house.

“Oh, I haven’t played in years. I don’t think I’d be very good.”

“Please?”

“Well, what would you like to hear?”

“I don’t know. Anything.” Ellen sat at the piano and pondered, then slowly she placed her fingers to the keys and began a piece by Chopin, Nocturne opus 9, number 2. But the melody was choppy and she couldn’t remember the notes.

“Like I said, it’s been a long time,” Ellen apologized, pausing with shame. Sylvia sat down next to her on the piano bench and began to play the piece perfectly. Ellen was astonished and she joined in, playing beside the child in perfect melodic symmetry.

A knock at the door interrupted the two’s playing. Ellen glanced at Sylvia, perplexed, as she did not get many visitors. She opened the door to find Mr. Chong standing with a basket. “Oh dear me, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had company.” The man from the grocery store stated as he noticed the strange looking girl sitting at the piano, her eyes intensely focused on him. “Oh, why yes. Sylvia this is Mr. Chong from the grocery store.”

“Hello Sylvia!” The girl said nothing. Ellen noticed that Mr. Chong had a basket with him. She looked at him with curiosity and Mr. Chong seemed nervous. “My – uh – my neighbor’s cat had kittens a few weeks ago. I thought you might like to welcome a new friend to your home.” He pulled a small brown and orange critter from the basket. It mewed and squeaked and Ellen gasped with surprise and adoration.

“Mr. Chong!” She managed to say, but as she took the tiny kitten into her arms Sylvia flung herself from her seat at the piano and started to scream. “Sylvia? What’s wrong?” The kitten puffed up, growled, scratching Ellen to get free.

“Dear me!” Mr. Chong said, scooping the animal up and placing it inside the basket. Sylvia was in a rage, pushing over the piano bench and knocking books off the shelves. “Sylvia!” Ellen shouted and she grabbed the child by the wrists and pulled her to the floor to keep her from hurting herself.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“Just go!” Ellen demanded, holding the girl whose breathing was heavy and coarse. Mr. Chong looked sadly at the basket and carried it away turned away. Ellen barely noticed his exit, as she rocked and soothed the child.

“Please don’t ever leave me, Mommy!” Sylvia begged and she hugged Ellen, her tiny fingers clinging with desperation.

“I won’t child,” The woman whispered, rocking her back and forth. “I won’t ever leave you.”

“Let’s watch a movie!” Sylvia then suggested cheerfully and she skipped into the living room and turned on the television. “Do we have any popcorn?”

“Yes, I think I have some microwavable popcorn in the cupboards.”

“Goody!” Sylvia said. “I love popcorn!”

Sylvia slept next to Ellen every night now. Even with her smooth scalp and odd features, there was still something so angelic about her when her eyes were closed. “Mommy,” she would say to Ellen, “Do you love me with all your heart?”

“Yes, Baby,” Ellen would reply. “With all my heart.” And Sylvia would cuddle in close to Ellen’s bulging breasts and curl her skinny frame with a gentle smile upon her face.

Dear Ms. Bryer, I am so sorry for causing a disturbance at your home last week. I thought that maybe you would enjoy having another feline, but I did not know about your current guest. Please accept my deepest apologies. Sincerely, Bo.

            It was a letter from Mr. Chong slipped into her mailbox. Ellen thought of the kindness he had always shown her and felt guilty that she had not accepted his kindness the day he came over with the adorable animal as a gift. Any other day, she would have gladly taken the critter in, but her attention was on Sylvia at this point. And why shouldn’t it be? Sylvia was a child. An orphan. Her well-being and happiness was presently far more important. But Mr. Chong. He was a good friend.

The letter went up in flames in Ellen’s hands and she gasped to find Sylvia staring at her with a displeasure. “Mommy, I want to go to the playground.” Ellen could not speak. She was too in shock over the burnt ashes that had been Mr. Chong’s letter. “I want you to push me on the swing.”

“Sure Sweetheart. That sounds fine.” Her words stumbled out, but Sylvia smiled and grabbed her coat. As the two headed down the street toward the bus stop, they spotted Mr. Chong carrying boxes into the grocery store. He tilted his hat toward Ellen.

“Mr. Chong, I saw your letter. Thank you so much for the kitten. Now is just not the time.”

“It’s not a problem. I should have asked first.” Mr. Chong bent down toward Sylvia. “And who is this lovely young lady?”

“This is Sylvia. She’s my-” And then Ellen didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “Sylvia, say hello to my friend, Mr. Chong.”

“Please to make your acquaintance, Sylvia.” He extended his hand and Sylvia coldly took a moment before taking his hand in hers. As she squeezed his palm Mr. Chong looked deep into the little girl’s black, demonic eyes. His smile faded and dread came over him. He pulled away and glanced back at the woman who did not seem to know or care that this child seemed inhuman.

“Well, we must be on our way,” Ellen told the man and he nodded without a word, letting the two pass by him.

“Mommy,” Sylvia said to Ellen as they ate sandwiches at the picnic table. “Do you love me more than Mr. Chong loves you?”

“Oh child, don’t be silly. Mr. Chong is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for years.”

“Do you love me more than he loves you?” Ellen thought about it.

“Yes, Dear. I do.” But honestly, Ellen had never considered Bo Chong’s supposed “love” before. He was the grocery store clerk. He was a friend. A part of her life, yes, but not in any romantic way. At least that’s what she had assumed all these years. Ellen had lost her looks after her first marriage fell through, and romance was not something she saw ever happening again. Did Mr. Chong harbor feelings for her that she was unaware of? The idea made Ellen feel fairly light and and warmed. Perhaps it was her turn to have it all. Perhaps she would finally get her chance to have the family she always wanted.

Ellen dug through her closet. All her dresses were matronly and unflattering. There was one somewhat stylish afternoon dress she had hanging, but she hadn’t worn it since her sister’s baby shower in the 90s. She doubted it would still fit. However, once she put it on, she realized it didn’t look so bad. The zipper did not go all the way up, but she had a nice cardigan to disguise this fact. She also had one shade of lipstick. It was a dull peach, but it would have to do.

“You never wear lipstick.” Sylvia stated, as she watched from the doorway.

“I thought I would try something different today,” Ellen told her.

“I like how you looked before.” Ellen’s feelings were hurt, but she did not respond. “Where are you going?”

“Just down the road. We’re low on groceries. I don’t have any money left, but Mr. Chong will probably help us out.”

“He’s going to take you away from me, isn’t he?”

“Child, don’t be silly.” But Sylvia was not being silly. She was frightfully serious and she turned away from Ellen and ran into the TV room to watch her cartoons and squeeze the stuffed elephant Ellen had made of wool for her.

When Ellen arrived at the grocery store, it was mostly empty as it often was. She peered over the counter, but did not see Mr. Chong at his register. “Mr. Chong?” She crept around the corner of the shelves, and saw nothing but aisles filled with cans and produce. “Mr. Chong?” Ellen wandered to the back of the store where the storage was and her voice echoed as she called the clerk’s name again. And as she tripped over boxes in the dark, she was horrified to see Mr. Chong’s body dangling from a rope tied above. His tongue stuck out from the corner of his mouth and his eyeballs were grossly prominent. Ellen screamed and tripped over more boxes and junk strewn across the floor. “Help! Somebody help!” She cried, but the paramedics confirmed his death upon arrival. Mr. Chong had hung himself and Ellen’s dear friend was no more.

What had happened within the few short hours between his demise and when Ellen had last seen and greeted Mr. Chong on the sidewalk? Surely he could not have had a total breakdown in what was such a small chunk of time! And while Ellen admitted she did not know Mr. Chong too intimately, he was a friendly, decent, and joyful man. He had no reason to kill himself. He would never! What for?  Did she not consider his feelings soon enough? Did a long-term unrequited love get the best of him? Ellen would never know! And she would never get the chance to know what might have been.

“Don’t cry, Mommy,” Sylvia said. “You still have me.”

“I know, Darling, but I’m still very sad.”

“Let’s play a game! Let’s play Hide and Seek!”

“I don’t feel like playing Hide and Seek right now, Baby. I’m too sad to do anything right now.”

“But you still have me!” Sylvia said firmly,.

“I know Baby, and I’m so very fortunate.” With that, Ellen removed herself to cry in her bedroom in solitude.

At breakfast, Ellen was still grief stricken, but she did not know how to explain her emotions to the young girl. Sylvia seemingly did not understand why Ellen would care about anything that didn’t have something to do with being her mommy. “Mommy, let’s play ‘I Spy’! I’ll go first!” Sylvia announced. “I spy something blue!”

“Is it the sky?” Asked Ellen.

“No.”

“Is it my apron?” Asked Ellen. Sylvia giggled.

“No.”

“Is it my tea cup?”

“Yes!” Said Sylvia with cheerful enthusiasm, “your turn!”

“No, Sylvia, we need to talk about you staying here.” Ellen sat down at the table next to the child. “It’s been lovely having you here, but I’m afraid with Mr. Chong gone, I will not have much help affording food. I think it’s time we tell Children’s Services about your situation.”

“But I’m yours!”

“No child, not really.”

“Yes, I am! You said you loved me with all your heart!”

“I do!”

“Then why do you want to get rid of me?”

“I don’t, Sylvia! I want what’s best for you! You need to go to school. You need children your own age to play with.”

“I don’t want to go to school! I want to play always!”

“Children need to be in school.”

“No!” Sylvia threw her dish and it broke into several pieces. She slammed her chair backwards and tore at the window curtains.

“Sylvia, stop this!”

“No! No! No!”

“Sylvia, I can’t do this! I can’t be the one to take care of you like this! I’m not well enough!”

“No! No! No! No!” Ellen looked into the child’s black eyes and for the first time, realized that Sylvia was not an ordinary little girl. It was possible she wasn’t a little girl at all. At this very thought, Ellen felt a twisting pain in her stomach. She rushed to the bathroom and puked up repulsive green bile. Ellen remained puking for what seemed like hours and when she finally seemed to have gotten everything up and out, she managed to crawl into her bed and rest, her body weak and aching from the sickness.

“Poor Mommy,” Sylvia said, throwing a blanket over the old woman’s shivering form. Ellen cried out as if her stomach was being cut up with glass. She was dying. She knew she was dying. This is what dying felt like. And if she didn’t get help, she would most certainly perish in that tiny, isolated apartment. “Here you go, Mommy,” Sylvia said sweetly, offering Ellen a glass of water, which the woman took, but spilled on to the floor.

“Silly Mommy,” Sylvia grinned.

“Please child, I need to go to the hospital.”

“Let’s play a game, Mommy!”

“No Sylvia, no games. I’m very sick!”

“The game is called ‘guess where your medication went’.” Ellen was now convinced. Sylvia was trying to kill her.

“Sylvia, that is not a game. I need those pills to survive! Please bring them to me.”

“No, you promised you would love me forever. But you lied, Mommy!”

“I’m not your fucking mother!” Sylvia frowned and glared at the distraught woman before her. Then she stomped into the living room and turned on her cartoons. Sylvia could hear her giggling at the goofy voice of Sponge Bob and when she pulled herself up to get her phone, she noticed that it was still dead. In fact, she hadn’t used it since before Sylvia came to her. Somehow, Sylvia was preventing her from contacting the outside world. Or maybe it was the outside world that Sylvia didn’t want contacting Ellen. After all, it was her sister who finally had the police bust into Ellen’s residence, only to find her corpse weeks into decay. Megan had been trying to reach Ellen for a while. She wanted to make amends and introduce the woman to her three sons who were curious to know her. Sadly, neither sister would ever get that chance. According to the police, Ellen had died alone in her apartment, from pancreatitis related complications.

“Spare some change, Ma’am?” A little voice spoke quietly as a young woman passed along the street.

“Of course,” the woman replied with immediate concern. She dug into her purse and then stared at the child momentarily. What a lovely, yet strange looking child she was.“What’s your name, little one?” The woman asked.

“I don’t have a name,” the child replied. “Maybe you could give me a name?”

***

Bio: Deb (Spinster) Eskie is a resident of California and has an M.Ed in creative arts education. With a background in women’s studies, her focus as a writer is to expose the woman’s experience through unsettling tales that highlight the dilemma of sexual repression and oppression. By combining the genres of feminist and horror/science-fiction she aims to not only disturb readers, but deliver a message that is informative and thought provoking.

In 2005 Eskie’s play, Tell Me About Love, was featured in the Provincetown Playwright Festival. She has been featured in various online magazines such as Deadman’s Tome, Bad Moon Rising, and 69 Flavors of Paranoia. Eskie has a number of short stories published by Pill Hill Press, Post-Mortem Press, Scary Tales Publications, Cruentus Libri Press, and many others.

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The Black Dog of Morton by Rachel Moffat

Nov 05 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

On Wednesday morning, just before school, Ashley Dean posted a short clip of a large black dog running down from the wood at the top of Greyleas. By lunchtime the film had made its way round all the schools in the Morton area. Ashley claimed that it was footage of Morton’s Black Dog. It certainly looked the part: unkempt, feral and undeniably a very big black dog. Over the next few days, the children rehashed all the traditional Black Dog stories, posting and re-posting everything they had ever heard, enjoying a frenzy of terror. The adults shrugged their way through the familiar fright-fest; there was no point telling the children that May was too early. It was sometimes difficult to listen to them working themselves up into a state of mock fear, but it would blow over soon.

All records of encounters with the Black Dog, since the first in 1765, gave dates in autumn or winter. Most described a terrible chase by a hell hound through the back lanes of Morton or outlying areas. Very occasionally bodies had been discovered instead, bearing the signs of having been attacked by something vicious. In the 1970s a PhD student researching the tradition of Black Dogs within Britain observed that, although Morton’s Black Dog had not been specifically identified before the 1760s, the area had a long history of brutal attacks. Records of mysterious winter killings dated back to the late 11th century and had been much more frequent before the mid-18th century.

Since 1765 these records showed thirty-two fatal incidents officially attributed to wild animals but traditionally regarded as Black Dog attacks. The most recent of these had been in 1927, when a missing farm labourer had eventually been found dead in a remote corner of the valley, his body half-hidden among bracken and brambles. There had been substantially more reports from people who claimed to have been chased by a massive and vicious black dog, the last dating from 1973. And there were still two women alive who had heard the 1895 Stories from survivors. These Stories were the various memories of one famously bloody attack. In the January of that year some children had gone missing and men had searched through the freezing night. It was after midnight when the children were discovered in a hayloft. But shortly before this news arrived in the town, bells of alarm rang out. Men had begun returning to Morton, supporting those who were badly injured and carrying the covered remains of the dead. Many were too shocked to recall anything with clarity. Those who were still coherent reported hearing terrible screams across the fields. As men had hurried from all directions to give aid, the Black Dog had come at them in the darkness again and again.

In 2016 many people found their local folklore more entertaining than threatening but they were unwilling to ignore the legend’s influence entirely. The Dog stories were regarded as an integral part of Morton’s character and remained well-known and popular. Moreover, alleged sightings were not always dismissed out of hand. If the time of year was right, there was always plenty of talk about what might have been seen. And, while most of these discussions carried the thrill of campfire ghost stories, some contained a genuine sense of dread. Some residents still regarded the Dog as Morton’s curse and took precautions to ward off its evil influence. Their homes had rowan trees in the garden as well as blackberry bushes and plenty of ivy, although the Dog had never been seen in the town. Charm jewellery was also popular, especially as tokens for the children. Certain areas around Morton’s valley were regarded as sensitive occult spots and, while not all of them were considered unlucky, they were avoided by those who did not want an encounter with the Dog.

These habits mostly belonged to families who had lived in Morton for two generations or more. Reports of the Black Dog peppered each successive childhood and the most recent accounts always held the greatest currency as reminders that the Dog was not an old ghost story. These residents knew every 20th-century story by heart, many having heard the accounts first-hand. Peter Grey’s story from November 1973 was one of the most popular and he repeated his narrative whenever asked, especially to the children. A 22-year-old at the time, Peter had been walking home from a friend’s house late at night through the back lanes. He recounted how unearthly snarls and growls had ripped the still night apart with a shocking violence. Turning, he had seen the Black Dog not twenty metres away hurtling towards him murderously with fangs bared. Peter still turned pale to remember how near he had felt to death. He described running in a blind panic with the sound of the Dog all around him, never expecting to hear anything else. It seemed incredible to Peter that he outran the Dog and, like others, he put it down to the magical influence of ley lines and the boundaries of the lucky or unlucky ‘pockets’ which had been identified over the years.

In the aftermath of Ashley’s film the young people soon built up their own mythology. Within a week they had all seen the Black Dog up on Greyleas at least once and most had been chased by gigantic black dogs through Morton’s lanes. The rustle of rabbits and fidgeting sparrows in hedgerows were continuously provoking headlong dashes through brambles and nettles. In the local pubs some residents shook their heads at the young people’s restless excitement, uneasy with such ghoulish celebration. Ultimately, of course, this thrilling tension was unsustainable. Other distractions filled long summer days and Greyleas was forgotten. By October, no one wanted to camp out to catch the Dog on film. Now that autumn had arrived, however, a number of adults became quietly watchful, often turning their eyes to the thickets on the hill. Some were only influenced by the thrill of the stories and the recent excitement. They couldn’t resist checking at first but soon forgot to look. But there were others who continued to scan the tree line and were heard to talk about avoiding certain areas after dark.
*

The woodland at the crown of Greyleas Hill had once been part of the defunct Morton Estate. The black dog walked at the tree line, half-hidden but with a good view of the small town which had developed from villages and tenancies of the old estate. The dog had watched over these changes with steadfast vigilance. The creature he waited for often disappeared for many years but, so far, it had always returned and so the dog was always ready. Centuries ago, when the black dog had been called Bauderon, the creature had come to his home as the year was ending. For three days and nights Bauderon had caught the scent of something vile hidden in the woodlands of his master’s estate. He often barked and strained at his chain, sensing a hideous threat. As the sun went down on the fourth day the stench grew stronger, so that Bauderon knew something was approaching. Alarmingly, he could see nothing at all. The dog writhed in a madness of terror, unnerved by the presence of some invisible creature which was now racing past him, frantic in his attempts to warn his family of the danger. His desperate wrenching broke the weakened chain and he followed the scent, barking viciously through the grounds of the estate.

In the gardens behind the house he saw his family and raced towards them with barking shouts, defiant and protective. He was relieved to see Mistress and Nurse hurrying towards the house with the children. Master was rushing over from the other side of the lawn, but the evil stink still pervaded and Bauderon followed it, racing after the women and children, desperately wondering how to defend against an invisible attack. Suddenly, he felt a sharp and shuddering pain in his side and realised that the monster was attacking him and not his family. Before he could turn to engage the creature his eyes clouded over and the pain made him stumble. But in a moment his eyes were clear again and now he could see a squat, dark brown figure unlike any sort of animal he knew. Somehow it was ahead of him and not at his back. It seemed to shamble in an ungainly way, long arms dragging through the lawn, but it was moving with an awful speed.

It was gaining on Mistress, who was carrying the eldest child and had fallen behind Nurse some distance. Master ran shouting past Bauderon, who was shocked to see the women slow down and look behind them. No one reacted to the wood beast but it was now crouching to spring at Mistress. Bauderon instinctively leapt also, although he felt he
was still too far away. But he must have been nearer than he thought, or perhaps was better at leaping, because he landed square on the beast’s back and brought it to the ground. In a moment Bauderon would have been at the creature’s throat but it was quick too. With its powerful legs it pushed Bauderon away, turned and bounded off. The dog watched it out of sight and when its scent was only faint he turned round to the house. It was then that he saw his own dark shape huddled on the other side of the green lawn and remembered the dangerous pain at his side.

The beast left that night and Bauderon began his long watch. Year on year, the dog waited for the return of the wood creature, soon recognising the seasonal pattern. Even after years of the beast’s absence the dog remained watchful until the spring buds broke open. At first, Bauderon stayed in the shadowy groves beyond the Hall’s formal gardens. Unseen he watched his family live and grow older. The children left and the parents grew frail, dying during a winter of dangerous sickness. Aware that he was a shade, Bauderon had hoped to see their echoes but they had left him. He realised this had been foreshadowed by the fact that he had remained visible to humans, but not the ones he had known. The Morton Estate was broken up and sold by the young master and Bauderon went to make his home in the woods, commanding a better view from Greyleas. As the nights drew in and grew colder, Bauderon would move out from the dark thickets of the woodland and stalk the tree line at the top of the hill. Stags, foxes and other dogs were frequently mistaken for the Black Dog, but Bauderon walked there too and some sightings were genuine. He rarely reflected on his reputation beyond the knowledge that it was useful. He did not know he was the only guardian the valley had known in all the long centuries of the beast’s ritual of slaughter.

*

In October 2016 Bauderon was alert, sniffing the air intently. Last year the wood beast had returned after an absence of five years and the dog did not expect a quiet winter. The beast’s vicious appetite had been largely frustrated over 250 years, but it had not yet learned to relinquish its claim on Morton. Confined within the valley’s limits, Bauderon could do nothing to forestall the beast’s arrival and every sunset found him pacing the outer limits of his woodland lookout, unquiet until dawn. In the early hours of the first morning of December, Bauderon picked up the creature’s scent as it crossed an ancient boundary line into the valley. It was travelling through a wooded area south of Greyleas and Bauderon swiftly made his way down the hill to find it. Familiar scents faded into the background against the wood beast’s distinctive, eerie odour which was so easy to follow.

As often as the wood beast returned the dog had contained the creature’s aggression by stalking it through the night, forcing the invisible marauder towards the more remote areas of the valley and away from its human prey. This constant surveillance had soon shown Bauderon that the beast sought cover when the sun rose. Not that the creature needed sleep as such, but it lost its thirst to hunt and liked to hide itself away from daylight. Needing to exploit any vulnerability Bauderon had hounded the beast relentlessly, preventing it from entering dens and chivvying it from leaf piles and tree holes. He forced it back under the eye of daylight and, while a winter’s sun was just bearable for the wood beast, its strength diminished. Enraged and frustrated the beast would hold out as long as it could, but each successive sunrise found it weaker. Usually it was spent by the third morning and a cold and wintry dawn would see it running for the nearest boundary and the promise of shade.

For a long time this was the only weapon Bauderon had against a beast as seemingly indestructible as himself. He had dramatically curtailed the wood beast’s attacks with his relentless shadowing but the beast had enjoyed freedom for too many centuries to relinquish its territory. It did not return every year, following a pattern hidden to Bauderon, but the dog never regarded even a lengthy absence as permanent. And he had never been mistaken. In fact, the beast’s season in Morton was tied to the erratic traditions of an ancient festival, a week-long event connected to the shifting auspices of full moons through autumn or winter. The festival had been abandoned more than 700 years ago and was long obliterated from knowledge but the beast still returned, enabled by forgotten invocations. Denied its ritual offerings, the beast had forged a hunting ground to satisfy its gnawing maliciousness.

It had been a profound shock to the wood beast to be faced with such a formidable challenger after centuries of freedom. Bauderon had passed through death and emerged gifted with the same speed and strength as Morton’s ancient predator. The dog’s advantage was the subtlety of his intelligence, a keen weapon against the beast’s limited instincts. Bauderon quickly exposed his enemy’s weaknesses and, crucially, almost entirely neutralised the deadly advantage given by its invisibility. Chance provided the beast with occasional kills in the unwatched moments after its arrival but it was usually discovered by the dog first or, worse, thwarted with its prey in sight. Bauderon would appear, racing at an unnatural speed, filling the air with growls and snarls. He was always carefully positioned so that no one ever ran unsuspecting towards the wood beast. Bauderon never failed to be as horrible as possible; he remembered how his family had fled from him. As the victims took to their heels the dog would wrestle the beast to prevent any pursuit, forcing it towards more remote areas.

The beast was beside itself with rage and frustration but clung furiously to its claim on the valley. Indeed, the humiliation of many defeats fed the creature’s resolve nearly as robustly as the glory of a rare triumph. Opportunities for its crude strategies were rare but they did occur.
Prior to the beast’s most notorious victory in 1895 its best chances had occurred on the handful of occasions when it had arrived in early autumn, before livestock were under cover of barns or byres. The beast had been elated to realise that it could baffle Bauderon’s tracking skills by slaughtering the large animals and confusing its own scent with a myriad of blood scents. The beast could then make its way towards Morton undetected. While its magical nature held thresholds as taboo, keeping it from built-up areas, it could still count on finding victims in the lanes or fields before the dog discovered the right trail.

To be outwitted by the wood beast, and with such bloody results, left Bauderon distraught and humiliated. The only minor victory against such dreadful defeats was that the following day’s chase was much more taxing for the wood beast. It was shattered by the warmth of autumn, so unlike the watery gaze of a winter sun. Even cloudy days stifled it. As the day wore on it would make its escape, desperate for shadow and dank, woody holes. But this early retreat was small consolation for the dog. It was not enough to make the wood beast pay for its slaughter if it was never to be deterred from returning. The beast needed to fear the valley and Bauderon as its protector.

In 1895 the beast had arrived at the start of a cold January and the first thing it saw as it emerged from a copse was the blink and flicker of lanterns, as the townspeople searched for the missing children. It was like walking among the sheep and cattle again. Even now three men were making their way towards the copse and the wood beast roared triumphantly towards them. Frenzied with excitement it cut, slashed and bit. Then, aware that time was short, the beast dashed headlong away looking for more lights. As it bounded over a stone wall into the lane beyond, two more men came rushing towards the cries they had heard. Their own screams soon sounded across the fields, baiting the beast’s next trap. It stood by its kill and waited.

Men now came running from several directions, horrified by what they had heard. Their terror and despair only increased when they saw the bloodied bodies in the lane. Their first thoughts were for the children before they realised that they were under attack. At first no assailant could be seen; there were claws and teeth but no one could glimpse what creature came at them in the dark. But then vicious growls cut through the night and the light of a remaining lantern showed the shaggy form of a large dog, leaping and snapping through the mêlée. In the confusion of bodies and stumbling men, the beast slipped out of Bauderon’s grasp, but the dog was determined not to lose the trail and followed as swiftly as he could. The beast had forgotten about stealth, in any case, and Bauderon heard it crashing through trees away from the main path.

The beast ran swiftly through the woods, following the road and watching for more tell-tale lanterns. Bauderon followed, shaking with rage at the beast’s easy success and its brutal delight in slaughter. Shouts sounded from behind as more men hurried along the lanes. The beast whipped round, hoping to catch the dog off guard and dodge past him. It ran into Bauderon’s snarling face and sprang back rapidly. Slightly disorientated by this, the beast bounded off into the depths of the woods, away from the road. Bauderon followed and the hubbub of distress dwindled behind them.

Rushing haphazardly through the trees the beast suddenly scrambled down a ferny bank. It landed on a broad path and ran on, hoping to shake the dog by being erratic. But they were now in the woods near Morton Hall and there was no way to dodge the dog or confuse him on such well-known paths. The beast ran on, unable to shake Bauderon but still hopeful of surprising victims in the dark. In time it was scattering the gravel under an avenue which opened onto the formal lawns of the Hall. And now the beast’s pace faltered slightly as it recognised the gardens and recalled its first encounter with the black dog. Immediately Bauderon was upon it. He cannoned into the beast and they tumbled down a shallow flight of stone steps into hedges lining the walkway below.

Bauderon sprang up rapidly but was startled to see the beast scramble away from the neatly clipped trees with screams of anguish. It huddled on the gravel of the walk gibbering and sobbing, apparently in pain and shock but with no apparent wound. Bauderon looked at the hedging more carefully, which seemed ordinary enough. The dark trees carried berries which, rather than glossy, had a sort of dusty matt appearance. He remembered that they had been planted elsewhere on the estate too, in a shady clearing where a small mausoleum housed master’s ancient family.

The beast was shivering through its sobs. Bauderon grasped the scruff of its neck and dragged it towards his former woody haunts, sweeping it through the gravel. It remained unresponsive and Bauderon imagined it might be grateful to be taken from the hedges. It didn’t mistake the scent of yew, however, as they approached the mausoleum. Distressed, it tried to twist free of the dog’s grip, but it was too weak. Against the back wall of the mausoleum leaned an ancient yew, bent and gnarled, its split trunk revealing a hollow. Bauderon flung the beast into this space, provoking renewed cries of agony, and settled himself to guard the opening.

The dog watched the night pass and did not stir. The beast’s noisy keening finally quietened to shuddering sobs and moans with an occasional howl. Bauderon listened with angry satisfaction. The creature’s agony was some sort of penance for the awful victory it had achieved. Never, in Bauderon’s experience, had the beast enjoyed such blood-ridden human butchery and what a lucky chance had revealed this punishment. When the late winter dawn finally broke, Bauderon could see a grey shape huddled and exhausted in the centre of the hollow. The greyness was not a trick of the dawn’s light, the beast’s brown, barkish hide was now silvery grey and startling in its contrast. Bauderon looked at the tortured creature grovelling and whimpering and decided he could afford to allow it to leave its prison. He stepped back but watched the beast closely in case this appearance of weakness was exaggerated. It shuffled out slowly, refusing to look at the dog, and limped through the dappled light towards the darker recesses of the woodland. Bauderon followed as it crawled towards the nearest boundary line it could remember. He wondered if the beast could be leaving to find a hole to die in but then rejected the idea, convinced instead that its resilience would gradually be rebuilt in some dark corner. He watched the creature over the boundary and saw it shuffle off, wondering if it would keep away and for how long.

*

Now, in the small hours of a new December, Bauderon followed the beast’s scent along a moonlit lane heading towards Morton. Of course, the beast had returned to make its sorties again since 1895. The glory of that success had not been entirely overshadowed by the severity of the punishment, but imprisonment had hurt the beast and broken its aggressive belligerence. After avoiding the valley for twenty years it had crept back in again, both hopeful and cowering. Bauderon had caught the offensive scent instantly and soon appeared in a wild fury. At the sight of him, the beast had turned tail and made for the boundary. Its coat was still pale, suggesting that it had lost some strength. Certainly the nature of the wood beast’s visits took on a very different character; instead of bold hunting forays, the creature acted warily as a trespasser. Once it managed a lucky kill, meeting a farmhand moments after crossing the boundary, but even then it ran off before Bauderon appeared, fearing retribution. Throughout the 20th century its visits to Morton were fleeting and less frequent.

Bauderon was nearing his quarry in the lane, anticipating the beast’s panicked reaction when he appeared. Suddenly a new scent triggered a current of alarm and he increased his speed with urgency. Some distance ahead a man was walking along the lane; the beast had not had such a chance for more than forty years. Bauderon followed the twist of the lane round and there was the beast at full pelt, desperate for its first human kill in nearly a century. Bauderon was no less desperate and he unleashed his most ferocious snarls and a bark of mad fury. In the next moment he realised, with mortification, that he had made a rare mistake. The man was now rooted to the spot in terror, unable to run, and the beast was closing down the gap all too easily. As it sprang so did Bauderon, catching at the beast’s outstretched legs. And as he saw the Black Dog leaping towards him the man finally tried to move, but only stumbled backwards and fell down.

Feeling helpless in the dirty lane, watching the Black Dog’s teeth and claws as it leapt towards him, the man was astonished to see the Dog tumble forwards, apparently entangled in the air. Hot breath and rough coat brushed past the man and then the Dog was wrestling on the ground, snapping and slashing, trying to pin down nothing at all. The man realised, with a mixture of relief and anti-climax, that the dog was fighting itself. He almost laughed at how surely he had believed in the Black Dog for a few petrified minutes. But he felt panic stir again as he registered the mad, vicious growling and ran wildly back down the lane, away from the carrying sounds of the dog’s deranged battle.

In its first rush of fury the wood beast fought Bauderon with all its madness, clawing, tearing and biting. But then panic came and when it twisted from the dog’s reach it had already given up its prey. Instead, it dashed wildly through a gap in the hedgerows to open countryside beyond and fled from Bauderon’s anger. In its panic it had chosen a direction at random; the nearest routes out of the valley were at its back. But the beast could do nothing except run and stay clear of the dog’s grasp. Eventually, cresting a high field, the beast sighted a stretch of woodland, one of the largest acreages of trees in the valley and still some miles away. There was a boundary on the far side. The distance would be taxing for the beast but it sped on, desperate not to flag. Bauderon followed, confident that he could still run the beast down and imprison it among the yew trees again.

In time they approached the woods, which were bordered with scrubland thickly overgrown with some unruly plant. The wood beast continued its dash towards the trees, becoming enmeshed in the shrub. Suddenly it began to scream and keen, heaving and tearing at the thin green stems which were not strong but plentiful. Hastily it ploughed its way through the plant to reach the tree line, shaking and gibbering with fear. The scent of sap from ripped leaves and stems hung heavily in the air, spreading an unfamiliar fragrance. Bauderon watched his enemy falter through the green snares, knowing that with a leap he could force the beast back into this new prison. Even in his anger Bauderon wondered if he was really going to watch the beast struggle in this undergrowth until it died. Its coat was whitening and it sobbed as it tore itself free. Bauderon hesitated but then sprang. Hearing the shifting rustle of leaves, the creature screamed but sprinted away through the trees. Bauderon raced after it realising, with some surprise, that he needed to run at full pelt to keep the creature in sight. He had expected it to be much weaker and felt a keen disappointment. The beast continued on, following the route of a stream, tearing up the banks in the desperation of its flight. The stream soon joined the river, leading out of the valley. Keeping to the shade of the trees all the way the beast followed the water, never letting up its pace. Bauderon kept up the chase, hoping he would not regret his hesitation.

They ran for several miles along the river at breakneck speed. Slowly the darkness lost its depth and gave way to a dim sort of dawn. The light gave the beast a translucent, pearly look but its speed did not slacken. After another mile Bauderon could see the woods thinning as the river made its way out of the forest and through moorland into the next valley. He would not be able to chase the beast beyond the trees and it could smell its escape. But, as they approached the newly sunlit grass, the creature slowed. On the moor, some distance away, thickets of gorse promised a tantalising haven of shade, but the wood beast hesitated at the very edge of the light. It was now transparent and fog-like. Grey wisps of the beast streamed around it, feathering its form. Its manic flight had been its death throes and its powers were exhausted. It was now turning rapidly in an agitated manner, aware of Bauderon gaining but unable to steel itself to cross the stretch of open day.

Bauderon stopped a few paces from the beast and allowed the time to pass, watching the creature accept its situation. It saw Bauderon’s appraisal and read his triumph. Hatred snarled within it; it was unbearable to see the dog observe the moment it chose its death. Baring its teeth and growling with all its murderous energy it turned and sprang over the boundary, racing the daylight to reach the dark thickets. Bauderon watched as the sun seemed to draw wisps of substance from the wood beast. Over the grass it pelted, still swift, and Bauderon wondered if some fragile outline of the creature might reach shelter after all. A hazy form strained towards the gorse and then there was no form. Like mist and like water the shape of the beast broke apart, streaming in all directions. At the very last it was a shimmer hanging in the winter air and in a breath it was gone.

***

Bio:

Rachel Moffat lives in the west of Scotland. She has developed her love of literature through research as well as creative writing. She loves collecting ordinary and random details for inspiration and taking them off in entirely new directions.

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