Rule of Thumb

I don’t know how much longer the barricades will hold. It’s quiet out there now; they are roosting but I know the respite will be brief.

Professor Macomber lies dead in the corner. The coward shot himself in the neck rather than face the consequences of the havoc he has unleashed.

I have burned his notebooks. No one must be able to replicate the evil he has perpetrated on this island – no one must ever know!

He lured me here under false pretences. I was his favourite student, he said. He would like my assistance in cataloguing his discoveries on this remote island off the Chilean coast. I can’t offer you much money, he said, but you will get to spend your summer in a tropical paradise.

Like a fool, I believed him. But that’s the thing with people we idolise, isn’t it? We never suspect they might be up to no good.

“Jon – a – than!” The unnatural voice squawks from the veranda. “I know you’re in there.”

It is Flash. The ringleader. Macomber had brought him into the house and trained him, after a fashion, to act as butler. Flash had been privy to many of our late-night, rum-fuelled conversations in which I questioned the morality of the professor’s experiments.

“The thumb is key,” Macomber said, displaying the digit in question as if I had never seen one, let alone possessed two of my own. “It is the thumb that has elevated Man above the other animals. It is the thumb that has enabled him to reshape his environment. In short, it is the thumb that has allowed Man to rule the world. Once a creature has opposable thumbs, cognitive development is not far behind.”

“But these are birds, Professor. They are not meant to have thumbs or large brains.”

“What a parochial attitude!” the professor grumbled, sinking into one of his funks. “I don’t know why I brought you here.”

“Jon – a – than!” Flash squawks at the door. “We don’t want to hurt you, Jonathan.”

A chorus of cries echoes this remark. I can imagine them all, grouped behind the butler: their colourful crests and dazzling plumage. Their beaks. Their sharp and deadly beaks.  Already they have almost torn the shutters from the windows.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” they parrot over and over.

“Help us,” says Flash. “Help us and we will let you go. I know you pity us, Jonathan.”

“You’re unnatural!” I cry out despite myself. Now there is no doubt where I am. “You’re abominations.”

“We are what you made us.”

I can hear him walking along the veranda. His grey clawed feet scratch the planks. With his crest raised, he is over eight feet tall. He is no doubt looking for a weak spot in my defences.

“Never!” I scream. “You can all go to Hell.”

The man-birds screech and flap. It takes Flash, the most advanced in the transformative process, a while to calm them down.

“We will go to the mainland,” he says, not to them but to me. “With your help. We shall spread across the world and make it our own.”

“Never!” I repeat.

“You will help us, Jon – a – than. If you wish to leave this island alive. You will show us. You will return to us what was taken from us.”

I know what he means at once: the power of flight.

I cannot allow this to happen. It would signal the end of mankind.

I kneel at the professor’s body and prise the revolver from his grasp. In doing so, I almost have to break his thumb.

They’re pecking at the windows again, the door and the walls. It won’t be long before they get in.

I hope there is a bullet left for me.

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Baby Makes Three

“It’s me!  Open up!”

Cassie’s hand hesitated over the lock.  The image on the CCTV monitor was clear but in that protective clothing, the caller could have been anyone.

“Cassie!  I can’t be sure I wasn’t followed.  Let me in.”  The caller waited a few seconds before adding, “Cassie-Wassie-piddly-poo.”

Cassie hit the lock.  No one but Aidan would call her that.  While the locks turned and slid, she pressed the intercom and called him a pig.  “What if the neighbours heard you?  Calling me that!”

He reminded her there were no neighbours.  As far as he could tell, they were alone for a couple of blocks at least.  Alone in the penthouse flat they had commandeered when it had become clear that the outbreak was out of control and that civilisation – and humanity too, most probably – was facing its end game.

And losing it.

While Aidan went through the decontamination ritual, Cassie tried to appease Wendy who was grizzling in that persistent way she always did when she was hungry.  Which was most of the time.  Cassie cooed and tried to distract the child by wiggling her fingers like a puppet.  Wendy looked at this poorly executed entertainment with disdain and resumed her snivelling.

I’m nineteen, thought Cassie.  I shouldn’t be holed up in here with someone else’s baby.  I should be out in the world, off on adventures and making something of myself.

Ah, yes: the world.  As far as she and Aidan knew, that was gone too.

Aidan, looking raw and damp from the cleansing, placed two cartons of baby formula on a chair.  “That’s the last of it.  At least in this district.”

“That won’t last a week,” said Cassie.  She glanced at the boxes with the happy, gurgling infant on the front and wondered where he was now.  “You’ll have to try harder.”

“Damn it, Cassie.  You think I just stroll down to the corner shop.  Geez; if you knew –”

“If I knew what?”

She looked at him properly then, searching his bare chest and arms for abrasions.

“There were a couple of – guys.  No big deal.  I distracted them by chucking half a brick in the opposite direction.”  He chuckled but it was mirthless.  “Those guys sure are dumb.”

“Turn around.”

“There’s not a mark on me.”

“Turn around!”

Grumbling, he obeyed.  “See!  Not a scratch.  You did a good job of patching up the suit.”

Cassie didn’t seem convinced.  Aidan remembered something.  He picked up the trousers of his protective suit and pulled something from the pocket.

“Look; I found this.”

Cassie recoiled from the filthy square of newspaper he unfolded in front of her.  “I can’t believe you brought something so dirty, so… contaminated in here.”

“No, no; it’s okay.”  He pointed at some print that wasn’t smudged or stained.  “This must have been the last edition they put out before… Anyway, it says here that the scientists believe the plague is airborne.  You can only catch it if it gets in your body from a cough or a sneeze.  Once it lands, it dies.  They recommend avoiding contact with strangers – all strangers – and – Well, that’s all I can read.”

“All the more reason for us to stay here.  You said there’s no one else for blocks around.”

“Except those guys…”

She ignored him.  “We’re all right here.  The three of us.  You, me and Wendy makes three.”  She played with the baby’s toes to make her giggle.

“I don’t know, Cass,” Aidan rubbed the back of his neck.  “Perhaps her mother is still out there, looking for her.”

“No!”

“You shouldn’t have just taken her like that, Cass.  It’s kidnapping!”

Cassie gave a hollow laugh.  “So, lock me up.”

“She’ll slow us down.  When she cries, it’s too loud.  Those guys will hear her.  They’ll find us.”

“Wendy’s a good girl; aren’t you, baby?”  Cassie spoke in silly singsong.  Wendy was unimpressed.

“Listen,” Aidan cleared his throat.  “I’ve told you, we can’t stay here.  We should head out to the country.  We can grow our own food.”

“You’re dreaming!”

“You don’t know what it’s like out there.  It’s all gone.”

“You’ll find something.”

“No.  No, Cass; I’m leaving.  Right now.  You can either come with me or stay here and play Happy Families with the baby.”

He stepped into the protective trousers and pulled them up to his waist.

“No!”  Cassie threw herself at him, beating at his chest with her fists.  “You can’t leave us!  You can’t!”

He held her wrists until her anger subsided.

“Come with me, Cassie-Wassie-piddly-poo,” he whispered.  “Baby makes three.”

“Oh, Aidan,” Cassie sobbed, resting her head against his collarbone.

Behind them, in her makeshift cot, Wendy’s button nose wrinkled.

She sneezed.

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The Anniversary

The innkeeper brought the toddy to the pale, young gentleman at the fireside table.  “Here you go, sir; on the house.  You’ve had quite a shock, I expect.”

            He turned to go back to his station behind the bar but the young gentleman called him back.

            “Please!”  His eyes were wide and, despite his proximity to the fire, his face was white.  “Stay.”  He gestured urgently to a chair.  The innkeeper accepted.  He said he supposed he could spare five minutes afore the suppertime rush; it would be good to take the weight off his feet.

            The young man’s eyes searched the innkeeper’s face as though trying to decipher it.  “Tell me,” he said in desperation, “What happened in my room?”

            The innkeeper breathed out through his nose.  “Well, by all accounts – but I’m not saying I sets any store by it, mind – they reckon that room be haunted.”

            “Oh?  By whom?”

            “I don’t rightly know, sir.  As I say, I don’t go in for all that kind of thing.  Things that go bump in the night, sir.  But they do say as how something terrible took place in that room.  Afore my time, of course.  I’m talking about a hundred year ago or more.”

            “Please!” the young man cried.  “Just tell me!”

            “Well, sir,” the innkeeper glanced around to see if anyone else was listening.  Apart from Old Jacob perched on his usual stool at the bar across the room, the inn was empty.  “Like I say, it was a long time ago…

            “It was their wedding night.  Happy young couple, they was – but then that’s often the way with newlyweds who think they’ve found their happy-ever-after, but of course in time the rot sets in and love’s young dream is burst like a bubble, sir – only in this case, it didn’t get the chance, sir.  These two never lived to be old and miserable and sick of the sight of one another, sir.  Cut off, they was, in their prime.

            “A man got in through the window.  And while the couple was sleeping – exhausted, I should think they was – he cut their throats, jumped out the window and run off.

            “Now, the landlord at the time, he was under strict instructions not to disturb the happy couple and he wouldn’t have gone up there, sir, if it weren’t for something dripping on his head, while he stood behind the bar, sir, right where I stands every night.  Well, he puts his hand to his brow and when he looks at his fingers, they’s covered in blood.  Right above the bar is the bridal suite, you see, so he dashes up the stairs and that’s when he finds them.  Horrible sight it was, sir.  Blood everywhere.  He had to burn everything and get new paint and new furniture and everything.

            “Turns out the murderer was a jealous lover, sir, but not of the bride – oh, no!  Turns out him and the groom were entangled in some kind of tryst and the groom only married the girl for her money.  His lover thought he’d betrayed him and so he done away with the pair of them.

            “All this come out when a body was found in the gameskeeper’s shack in the woods.  You see, when the murderer jumped out the window, he cut his foot and it got infected.  He went to the woods to lie low and it got worse and worse, and as he lay dying he wrote a deathbed confession, see.  Oh, terrible business all round, if you asks me.

            “Now, sir, I see you’ve let your toddy go cold.  Never mind; I’ll get you another.”

            The innkeeper shuffled back to the bar, leaving the young gentleman staring into the flames.

            “Another year already!” said Old Jacob.  “Come round quick, don’t they?”

            “They surely do, Jacob.”  The innkeeper poured the cold toddy away.  “But I don’t mind telling the tale.  If it helps keep the peace in my pub.  They don’t remember, you see; the dead.  And that poor bridegroom don’t seem to understand but I tells the story and he goes away.  He’ll be back, mind, same time next year.”

            He poured himself and Jacob a shot of whisky.  They turned to the fireplace and raised their glasses to toast the empty chair.

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The Secret of Florian White

“How the hell did you get in here?” Florian White stood in the doorway of his drawing room.  The middle-aged man at the fireplace ceased his inspection of the ornaments on the mantelpiece.

“Oh, a sneaky fiver to the butler,” he grinned.

“Then Birkworth is dismissed at once,” said White, his jaw clenched tight.  “And now I ask you to leave.”

“It’s good to see you and all, Flo.”

White’s eyebrows leapt.  No one had called him ‘Flo’ for a very long time.

“Albert?” He stepped into the room to get a closer look at his uninvited guest.

“The very same,” Albert made an expansive gesture but White did not reciprocate with as much as a handshake.

“How did you find me?”

But Albert was too preoccupied with looking around.  He whistled, impressed.  “You have done well for yourself, Flo.  All this must have set you back a pretty penny.”

“Talk of money is always so very vulgar, don’t you find?”  White kept nervous eyes on the interloper.  “Is that why you’ve come?  Money?”

He gripped the back of a Louis XIV chair as though he would strangle it.

“Don’t you be vulgar!” Albert chuckled.  “I’ve come a long way.  It would be good of you to put me up for a couple of nights.  Give us chance to catch up and talk about the old days.”

“I have no desire to go raking up the past.”

“No, I bet you don’t!  And I bet you don’t want your fancy London friends knowing you come from circus folk and all.”

White blenched.  He had to clear his throat before he could speak.  “I’ll have Birkworth prepare you a room.”

“Cheers.  Here, you are looking well though, Flo.  You don’t look a day older.”

But Albert’s host had left him alone again.

They dined in silence.  Albert enjoyed seeing White squirm.  Oh, he had questions all right – tons of them! But they could wait.  Albert was keen to enjoy the high life for a few days at least.

He was accommodated in a large and sumptuous room but then all the rooms in this Belgravia mansion were large and sumptuous – apart from, he’d be willing to wager, Birkworth’s lowly quarters.

Despite the comfort and luxury, he found his sleep was disturbed.  At first he thought he was imagining it, in that state between waking and dreaming, but the sound came again: a low moan, like the wind, punctuated by sobs.

The next day however, he forgot all about it.  His host left early on some undisclosed errand, leaving Albert with the run of the house, Birkworth informed him.  He was free to enjoy the library and the garden while he waited for Mr White to return with something Albert would find ‘advantageous to his future’.

But, on no account was he to venture into the cellar; the butler explained the stairs were rotten and dangerous.  Mr White was expecting a tradesman.

Albert toured the house, taking inventory of the oil paintings and the delicate ceramics, rubbing his hands in anticipation of treasure to come his way.

At dinner that evening, White pushed a bulging enveloped across the table.  “Two thousand pounds,” he said flatly.  “By noon tomorrow, you will be gone.”

Despite the itching in his fingertips to riffle through so many banknotes, Albert left the envelope where it was.  “Oh, no, Flo, no; you don’t state the terms of my departure.  We haven’t had our little chat yet.  How is your brother, by the way?  You know, after the operation?”

White looked down at his plate; his meal remained untouched.  “He did not survive.”

“Oh.  Shame.  But look at you now!  You’re flourishing!  You’re thriving!  If he could see you now, eh?  And still in the pink!  Must be good for you, all this wealth.  You haven’t aged a day.”

White rang a little bell to summon Birkworth to clear the table.

“How’d you do it, Flo?  To come from a humble background in a tatty old circus to this?  What’s your secret?”

White cringed.  “What makes you think I have a secret?”

“Then how’d you come by all this lot?”

White strode from the room without another word.

Again, Albert’s sleep was disturbed by the moans and the sobs.  He knew he would be unable to rest until he had investigated the source.  He left his room and padded down the stairs to the ground floor.  His ears were pricked like a hunter’s.  Along a narrow corridor that led past the kitchen, he came to the cellar door.  The sounds were coming from behind it!

He twisted the doorknob and was surprised to find it unlocked.  Unheeding the warning about rotten stairs, he crept down towards a pool of lamplight and the source of the sobs.

He gasped to see Florian White cradling a shrivelled, pitiful creature, rocking it gently in his lap.  The creature’s head was speckled with brown spots and sparse tufts of long white hair.  It was emaciated and skeletal, a thing of bones and papery skin.  It looked to be at least a hundred years old.

The creature’s rheumy eyes opened and it caught sight of Albert at the foot of the stairs.  It hissed like an angry cat.  White smiled sadly at the intruder.

“To answer your question, Albert: my wealth comes from rich gentlemen who take a shine to my youthful looks.  I give them a few years of incalculable pleasure and they leave me everything in their wills.  Since the operation I find myself blessed with eternal youth.  My brother was not so fortunate.”

The fragile creature whimpered.  Albert’s jaw dropped open.  So this was what had become of the other Siamese twin!

“That’s disgusting,” he managed to say before Birkworth behind him slit his throat with a carving knife.

“I have to keep my brother alive, you see, or all the aging he has done on my behalf will come back to me.  I am sure your blood will sustain him as well as any rich gentleman’s.”

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Foggy Jack

The fiend waited in the fog.  The lights of the public house on the corner glowed a dim yellow and the murk muffled the sounds of the last straggling drinkers.  The heels of a woman’s shoes clicked and clattered on the cobblestones.  The wearer was negotiating prices with her client: a tanner in the hand and a bob in the mouth.  The client was silent; the fiend supposed he was a gentleman who did not wish to be heard discussing such ungentlemanly things in the squalid Whitechapel streets.

            The fiend held his breath until the pair had passed to conduct their transaction in some other alley.  Perhaps it would be over quickly and the whore would come back this way on her tod, hoping to pick up one last punter as the pub closed its doors.

            Out of the gloom came another figure, preceded by the odour of cheap lavender water.  The fiend pressed his back against the wall, unheeding the damp.  His heart was pounding like galloping hooves against his ribs.  He held his breath and his fingers tightened their grip on the cutthroat razor beneath his cloak.

            The woman wore a tattered red shawl and her hair was piled high on her head above a pale and painted face.  She tripped and tottered from a little too much gin – good: she’d be dead before she knew what was happening.

            The fiend waited for ten seconds – ten long seconds – as the woman drew closer.  Finer details were visible to him now: the beauty spot on her cheek, the paste earrings, the blue five o’clock shadow –

            What the hell?

            “Put your hands up, dearie!” scoffed a voice behind him he recognised as the first whore’s.  He wheeled around to see her and her gentleman client pointing pistols at his heart.  The whore in the red shawl drew a truncheon.  She peeled off her blonde wig and scratched at her undeniably male haircut.

            “Gor, that don’t half itch.”

“Never mind that, Constable Piggott,” said the gentleman.  “Cuff the bastard and let’s get him down Bow Street nick.”

The fiend let out a roar and, shedding his cloak, slashed at the air with his razor.  “Fools!” he snarled and his eyes flashed red beneath the brim of his top hat.  “Your prisons cannot hold me.”

“They won’t have to,” said the gentleman.  “You’ll be having your neck stretched before you can blink, old son.”

The fiend threw back his head and laughed.  He dissolved into the fog – the laughter was the last to go – leaving the undercover police empty-handed and frustrated.

Foggy Jack was free to strike again.

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Mr Weston’s Experiment

Arthur Weston was dozing in his armchair. The Times on his lap was unopened and ignored, and the fug of pipe- and cigar-smoke permeated his brain, making his thought sluggish and slow. This state of happy relaxation was short-lived, however, murdered by a commotion raised by a voice he recognised too well, calling out his name. The other members of the Bounders’ Club harrumphed and grunted; servants were not permitted on the premises – other than those employed to bring drinks, of course.

Weston roused himself and waved the newspaper like a finishing line flag. His man, Saunders, saw it at once and made a beeline for his employer.

“Oh, there you are, sir!” he cried as he bounded across the room, leaving a trail of exasperation in his wake. “I’m sorry to protrude, sir, but I think you had better come home, sir.” There was a note of urgency beneath the servant’s characteristic Cockney bonhomie.

“What is it, man?” Weston was reluctant to leave his comfortable seat near the fireplace.

“You’ve had a visitor, sir.” Saunders tapped the side of his nose. Weston was instantly galvanised. He dashed the newspaper to the floor and tossed the remains of his brandy down his throat. He strode purposefully from the Club without bothering to collect his hat and coat from the cloakroom.

The Kensington air was dense with a fog far less pleasant than the atmosphere in the Club, but Weston had no time for anything as trivial as breathing. He climbed into the Hackney Saunders hailed for him and spat out his address. The horse maintained a brisk and steady pace through the midnight streets but Weston wished it would break into a full gallop.

He sprang from the carriage and hurtled down the stairs to the basement of his town house while Saunders paid the cabbie.
The servant found his master in the laboratory, circling the figure Saunders had gagged and bound to a chair.
“I wouldn’t get too close, sir,” Saunders advised.
The captive was unconscious, Weston saw; a homeless tramp from the gutter, lured into the basement by a trail of sweetmeats and an unlocked door.
“…on account of the pong, sir,” Saunders added redundantly; his master was already holding a handkerchief to his nose.

“There is no time to lose!” Weston’s voice was muffled. “Hand me the serum.”

Saunders placed a hefty syringe in Weston’s hand then, gingerly and with a grimace, adjusted the tramp’s lolling head so that Weston could inject luminous green liquid into a vein in the fellow’s filthy neck.

They stood back and watched and waited.

Eventually, the indigent began to stir. His eyelids flickered and opened. He scanned the room and quickly apprised himself of his situation.

“I wasn’t going to steal nothing, guvnor,” he cried. “I just wanted some place warm for the night; honest I did.”

He recoiled as the two men peered at him.

“He don’t look no different,” said the one in servant’s livery.

“How do you feel?” asked the other, a gentleman by his togs and no mistake.

“Fit as a fish,” said the tramp. “You let me go and I won’t never come back; honest I won’t.”

The gentleman and his servant backed off a little and muttered to each other.

“Hard to tell, ain’t it, sir? I mean, he was a hairy bleeder to begin with.”

“Hmm…” Weston rubbed his chin. “Let’s try a banana.”

Saunders retrieved the fruit in question from a drawer and handed it to his employer. The tramp’s eyes widened as the gentleman approached him with what he took to be a bright yellow weapon.

“Here! What you gonna do with that thing?” The tramp tried to shrink from it. “Here – ack”

His voice caught in his throat. With an agonised cry, he thrashed about in the chair. His chest expanded and his arms elongated, snapping the ropes and bursting through his clothes. His lower jaw and forehead thickened and coarse, black hair sprouted all over his body.

With a screech he snatched the banana from Weston and knocked him to the floor with one swipe of a leathery paw. He smashed his way through the door and leapt up the stairs into the street and the foggy night beyond.

Saunders helped Weston to his feet. “You did it, sir! You reversed evolution! You made a monkey out of that man. You’re going to be rich, sir! And famous! Rich and famous! You’ll be as famous as whatsisname – Mr Darwin, sir.”

But Arthur Weston could not speak. His lips curled back and he made oo-ooh noises as he scratched his armpit.

He had fallen on the syringe.

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The Greenhouse Gorgon

In the novel I’m currently writing, the setting is Victorian and the characters compete with each other to tell stories.  Here is the story told by Charles Bickers, a botanist and entymologist.

THE GREENHOUSE GORGON

Great Uncle Willoughby was one of those inquisitive types so feted in our age: an explorer and adventurer but above all a scientist, setting foot in the dark places beyond even the reach of the Empire.

            As a boy he filled his room with insects pinned to boards and catalogued blades of grass with an assiduousness that was borderline psychotic. He eschewed the conventional route of education opting, instead of university, to apprentice himself to one of the lesser-known explorers of the day: the late and largely forgotten Professor Maurice Fitzmaurice. Together they sailed the South China Sea and, for forty years, the soles of Willoughby’s shoes did not touch British soil.

            But then, one year, a year framed in infamy, he returned.

            A curious figure in safari suit and snow shoes, Willoughby peered out from behind half-moon spectacles and from beneath a shock of frizzy ginger hair. There were rumours he had a hand in the disappearance of Professor Fitzmaurice and the subsequent publication in which he documented the discovery of thirty-three hitherto unknown species of stinkweed may not have been entirely Willoughby’s own work. If at all.

            It was under this cloud of suspicion that great uncle Willoughby came back to the family seat. A greenhouse, constructed following instructions he sent from abroad, was nearing completion, and he called upon his nephew (my father, Charles Bickers senior) to assist with the installation of some of the more exotic plants.

            The boy worked hard and Willoughby was delighted to see his passion for flora and fauna passing through the generations. He called young Charles to the greenhouse one evening for a special treat.

            “The time has come, my beamish boy, to reveal to you the crowning glory of my horticultural collection. You are among the first to see it on these shores. This is a great and rare honour for you.”

            “Golly, Uncle; thank you, Uncle.”

            Willoughby clapped his hands twice. A woman stepped out from behind some imported palm trees. She was dressed in a sarong and turban of bright colours and her face was veiled. She carried a large flowerpot covered by a cloth.

            “That’s it, my dear,” Willoughby beamed. “Bring it in.”

            The woman bowed her head and placed the covered flowerpot on a table.

            “The far East, my boy! The South China Sea, home to many beauties; two of which you see before you right now. The first: my protégée, rescued from a fire in her village. They thought her a witch but we in the civilised world have no truck with superstitious fiddle-faddle, the saints be praised! She has been my constant companion and my stick of rock ever since, and nary a word spoken since I untied her from the stake. Never has she revealed her face; I suspect some damage was sustained during her incarceration – and we all know what the ladies are like with their vanity, what! I present the enticing and beautiful Shappa Haras!”

            The woman bowed again and performed a graceful dance, evoking thoughts of the Balinese and the Chinese opera.

            Young Charles clapped politely but uncertainly.

            “Now, Shappa, ’tis time to reveal my greatest discovery. Behold, boy – oh, behold! The Willoughby Gorgon!”

            He whipped the cloth from the flowerpot, revealing an ugly plant with a gaping maw and snakelike fronds.

            “Ugh,” said young Charles.

            “You are right to recoil, lad. The Gorgon is deadly. A flesh-eater! Note these markings: like googly eyes. They hypnotise its prey, drawing it ever closer until… SNAP! The jaws close and the unfortunate victim is dissolved in powerful gastric juices.

            “Ugh,” the boy repeated. “It stinks.”

            “It does whiff a bit when it requires feeding,” Willoughby conceded. “I believe its carrion stench attracts scavengers. Jackals, buzzards and so on. Then they catch sight of the ‘eyes’, come over all mesmeric and SNAP!”

            “Golly.”

            “They’ll come flocking to see this, my lad. The only one in captivity. This will restore my standing among the horticultural academes. This will wipe clean any blemish from my tarnished reputation once and for all.”

            “Er, Uncle?” Young Charles raised a hand to interrupt.

            “What, lad?”

            “If it’s so dangerous, how come it hasn’t had Miss Haras’s hand off yet?”

            “Clever boy!” Willoughby tousled Charles’s hair. “Observant too! To answer your question: Shappa Haras is a plantvoyant. A fact which may have led to that little misunderstanding in her village. She can talk to plants in a way we are unable. And this why, my lad, you must never approach the Gorgon unless Miss Haras is present. Do you understand?”

            “Yes, Uncle; no, Uncle.”

            “Then all will be well. And now, my boy, tea! Lead on!”

            Alone in the greenhouse, the exotic woman made an arcane gesture above the plant. The Gorgon nodded slowly.

            A while later, the gardener had occasion to visit the greenhouse. With a sturdy broom he set to sweeping the floor. Behind him the strange and hideous plant perked up and emitted a blast of its rotting-meat stench. The gardener paused, reeling. He wafted a hand behind his back and carried on sweeping. The plant seemed to follow his progress around the greenhouse…

            Suddenly, there was ‘eye’ contact. The gardener froze, transfixed. The plant lifted a tendril and beckoned the man to come closer… and closer…

            SNAP!

            The jaws clamped around the gardener’s hand, waking him from his trance. He wrestled to pull himself free and, with a scream, drew back a bloody stump that spurted and sprayed all over the floor. He swooned and dropped to his knees. The Gorgon’s jaws stretched wide and closed around the gardener’s head.

            The disappearance of the gardener was followed by the absence of several other members of the household. Willoughby spent more and more time in the greenhouse, jealously guarding his precious plant. The mysterious Miss Haras remained at his side and danced for him.

            “Ah, Miss Haras, Miss Haras! Allegations are being whispered. Fingers are being pointed. Our host – my brother – believes my beautiful Gorgon is at the bottom of the disappearances. He thinks the pong of it is putting people off and they’re leaving without giving proper notice. As you know, I am anosmic; I have no sense of smell. Tell me, is it really that unbearable?”

            Shappa Haras gave a shrug and clinked the cymbals on her fingertips together. She handed Willoughby a sheet of paper.

            “What’s this then, what?” Willoughby squinted through his half-moon glasses. “By Jove, it’s a list! Who are all these people? Friends of yours? Relations?”

            The veiled head nodded.

            “‘Little Geeta, scullery maid… Upjong Biltong, gamekeeper… Uncle Vanya, chauffeur…’ What are you suggesting? These people replace the missing staff?”

            The covered face remained inscrutable.

            “Well, I think it’s a capital idea!” Willoughby rolled up the sheet and brandished it like a baton. “I shall relay this list to my brother at once. You have saved the day! Oh, to kiss that unseen cheek! But no! To my brother! I am certain he will ship them all over forthwith.”

            Alone with the Gorgon, Shappa Haras rolled her dark eyes.

            But the friends and relatives were never summoned. Shappa Haras’s hold over great uncle Willoughby was broken soon afterwards.

            Young Charles was home and, with no studies to occupy him since the mysterious disappearance of the governess, decided to pass the time watering the plants and generally tidying up. He knew better than to go near the Gorgon but, as he approached the greenhouse, he saw that the sphinx-like Miss Haras was already there.

            She was gyrating to music only she could hear. The Gorgon was swaying in time. Young Charles watched, fascinated. Unfortunately, he knocked a trowel from the table. Shappa Haras froze. She turned to face the interloper; her veil was off. Young Charles gasped and recoiled to see her gaping mouth, identical to the plant’s, with snakelike tendrils. He tripped over a rake and fell to the floor.

            Shappa Haras bore down on him, hissing. She reached her long fingers towards the boy’s eyes but came to a sudden stop. She stiffened and screeched with pain and outrage. She wheeled around to see great uncle Willoughby, pumping weed killer all over her from a spray gun. Shappa Haras shrank and screamed, melting like ice before a naked flame. After a moment, nothing remained.

            “Uncle!” the boy jumped up and hugged Willoughby in gratitude.

            Willoughby looked at the spot where the plantvoyant had been. “She was blighted, my boy,” he said sadly. “My little Shappa Haras.”

            Behind them, the Gorgon blew one last noxious raspberry and flopped. Dead.

            International renown never came to great uncle Willoughby. Perhaps nothing haunts a man like unrealised ambition. He spent the rest of his days in the greenhouse, cataloguing his discoveries and keeping a watch on the Gorgon in case it raised its ugly head again.

            Some say his spirit lingers, so if you happen upon a foul stench, like that of an open drain or rotting meat in the sun, hold your nose and close your eyes. And light a match in memory of great uncle Willoughby, who is still watching over us with his weed killer spray.

 carnivorous-plant

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The Korkenzieher Pass

The diligence had broken down coming through the Korkenzieher Pass.  One of the wheels had come clean off and bounced away, dropping over the precipice and smashing to smithereens and splinters hundreds of feet below.  There was no hope, therefore, of effecting a repair.

            The driver ordered his passengers to continue on foot.  They didn’t have much choice – in fact they had no choice at all.  The night was closing in and the mountain peaks were shrouded in mist.  They had to leave their luggage too, the driver said, or they would never make it to the inn afore moonrise.

            The passengers kicked up a fuss, like passengers do, threatening to dash off sternly-worded telegrams as soon as they got within a sniff of civilisation.  The driver told them it wasn’t his fault and, rather than biting his head off, they ought to be making tracks while they could still see where they were going.

            Off they set – they numbering four.  The driver elected to stay behind.  “I’ll be all right,” he assured them, taking a bite of a bulb of raw garlic.  “The horses get spooked without me.  I’ll keep an eye on your belongings.”

            The four passengers were a couple of newlyweds from England, a man of the cloth (by which I mean a clergyman and not a tailor) and a cantankerous old man who walked with a stick.

            “I think it’s romantic,” tittered the young bride, earning herself yet another kiss from her amorous husband.  The clergyman looked away but the old gentleman was not shy in grunting his disgust.

            The sun was setting behind the tallest mountain in the range, painting the sky orange and purple.  The first stars were visible and the full moon hung over the scene like a watchful eye, baleful and cold.  Somewhere, behind the passengers, something howled.

            They had not gone far when the clergyman muttered to the old gentleman that he needed to answer nature’s call.  He was, after all, made of clay like the rest of us mortals and a slave to his bodily necessaries.  He nipped off the path and behind a tree.  The old gentleman called to the young couple ahead, telling them to wait in order not to separate the group.

            They waited and waited but the clergyman did not emerge.  The young man volunteered to investigate and so, despite his new wife’s protests, he stepped off the path and disappeared among the trees.

            He returned a moment later with a face as white as milk and his hands as red as poppies, dripping with blood.  At first he was too shocked to utter a word.

            “Torn…” he managed to say and, “…to pieces…”

            The young woman gasped.  She would not allow her husband near her with those hangman’s hands.

            They resumed their walk in a horrible silence.  Every rustling of the leaves gave rise to terrible imaginings.

            The young man reached out to his wife, offering the warmth and protection of his arms but she ran from him; she did not want the clergyman’s blood to taint her.  She rounded a sharp corner and tripped over a stone.  Nearby, the grasses moved.  The young woman screamed: a pair of red eyes was looking directly at her.

            She scrambled to her feet and found she had sprained her ankle in the fall.  She tried to flee but did not get far.  Her husband and the old gentleman turned the corner just in time to see a shaggy-haired beast all teeth and claws pounce on the young woman.  With an almighty snap of its jaws, the beast took the bride’s head off.  The head dropped over the edge, eyes and mouth wide open in terror, and was lost in the gaping darkness below.

            “Stand back, my boy!” the old gentleman pushed the young man aside.  He lay into the ravening beast with the silver tip of his walking stick.  The beast snarled and roared.  With a swipe of its paw, it sent the old gentleman flying, walking stick and all, over the edge of the cliff.

            The young man fell to his knees beside his wife’s decapitated body.  Without her he did not want to live.  He closed his eyes and surrendered himself to the beast’s insatiable bloodlust.

            It was a quiet night in the inn at the end of the Korkenzieher Pass, but then it usually was.  Business was very slow and the innkeeper had laid off all of his staff.  He looked up from the tankard he was polishing as the door opened and his old friend, the coach driver came in.

            “Usual?” he offered.  “You look like you could do with it.”

            “Usual arrangement and all,” said the coach driver, watching thirstily as the innkeeper poured the ale.  “Come first light, take your cart to fetch their belongings.  We split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”

            The innkeeper grinned.  “On the house,” he pushed the foaming tankard toward his friend.  He peered closely at the coach driver’s face.

            “You need a shave,” he said.

 stagecoach-flash-alt-md

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Out for the Count

I was quite the pretty thing when I was young; you may find that difficult to credit, seeing me now – but when I was a mere slip of eighteen and made my debut in society, the young men were falling over each other to pay court to me and win my affection, as though I was some prize in a sporting competition. I found the whole thing both amusing and vulgar and, as the season wore on, all the attention wore me down.

            I escaped from London to our mansion on the coast. The sea air would clear my head and I would be able to stroll along the beach unmolested – that was my design but Mama was keen to see me married off.

            “Oh, dear,” she said over the marmalade the very first morning of my retreat. “I may have, in an unguarded moment, let slip our whereabouts.”

            I could have suffocated her right there in her own kedgeree.

            It did not take long for the suitors to arrive. Indeed they rode up on the first train from Paddington and, after enquiring around the town, soon discovered my address. I managed to evade them for the afternoon by retiring to my bed with a professed attack of the vapours. I was most put out: it was not the bracing seaside walk I had envisaged.

            In my absence, my conniving mother was far from idle. I came down to dinner to find a medium-sized ball underway. Mama had promised each young man at least one dance with me during the course of the evening. However one may admire her organisational skills, I really should have snatched the cummerbund from the nearest ardent admirer and garrotted her with it.

            She introduced me to a stranger, a man older than the pack of self-absorbed, vain and shallow bachelors. He was greying at the temples and his hairline had receded to a point, a ‘widow’s peak’, I believe it is called. He was not unhandsome but there was something – I don’t know – vulpine about him that I did not like.   He cut a dashing figure, dressed as he was for the opera in a long black cape with white lining. He took my fingertips in his and kissed the back of my gloved hand.

            “This is Count de Cost,” said Mama before gliding away as if to speak to someone she had just noticed across the room.

            “Perfectly charming,” the Count spoke with a foreign accent I couldn’t quite place. Not quite German or Russian, something Eastern and exotic. He told me he had moved into the old abbey across the bay and that made us neighbours. All through his discourse his eyes were never on me. They flitted around the room. “So many young people,” he said. “So many handsome young men – you are truly spoiled for choice, my dear.”

            “I came here for peace and quiet,” I said with no small amount of petulance. “I may as well return to the city.”

            He laughed; the feelings and opinions of a young woman – or indeed a woman of any age – are not to be taken seriously, it seems.

            “We must gather our rosebuds while we may.” He nodded; he even knocked his heels together, and left me! The suitors swarmed like wasps around a jam jar and I had a most tiresome time of it as they attempted to outdo each other with tales of their tailors and general braggadocio.

            The Count meanwhile was enjoying himself immensely. Every time I glimpsed him he was whirling around the dance floor with a different partner. The young ladies Mama had invited were glad of him, for the young men were ignoring them completely on my account.

            A storm was raging, sending the sea crashing against the headland. Mama declared the party would continue all through the night. There was no chance she would allow anyone to leave while the weather continued to be so beastly. The unspoken coda to the announcement was no one could go home until I was engaged to be married.

            And yet the guests appeared to be thinning. I did not notice at first but a peremptory head count, followed by another an hour later yielded numbers that did not tally. The young ladies were now outnumbering the young men. Indeed, my suitors – a baker’s dozen when they had arrived – were now only nine.

            I danced with each one in turn but when I returned to my seat for refreshment or to collect the next hopeful, there was always one less. By midnight, they were down to a mere trio. It would make any choice on my part easier but I was more concerned by the mystery of their disappearance.

            I saw the Count return. He was dabbing at the corner of his mouth with a handkerchief. Something occurred to me and I decided to put my theory to the test.

            I grabbed the nearest suitor by the cuff and dragged him to the dance floor, despite the protests of the other two that he had already taken his turn. I had noticed that whenever I was dancing, the Count was nowhere to be seen and, whenever I was seated, he returned to the floor and danced with energy and vigour that belied his apparent years.

            And every time I was one suitor down.

            I led the dance, to my partner’s indignation, angling myself so I could keep an eye on the Count’s movements. I saw him beckon one of the remaining suitors, gesturing for a light. When the young man approached to oblige, the Count offered him a cigarette from a silver case and together they left the ballroom.

            But the Count came back alone.

            By this point, I was down to two suitors so I swapped the one I was dancing with for the one I hadn’t.

            “My name is Giles,” he breathed in my ear.

            “Be quiet!” I snapped, “And keep your eyes on that man.”

            As we waltzed, Giles and I watched the Count beckon to the last jealous suitor. A moment later, with cigarettes between their fingers, they left the room. I urged my partner to follow.

            We were just in time to see the Count usher the young man out onto a balcony. We crouched in the dark as lightning showed us flashes of a horrific scene.

            The Count’s eyes glowed yellow. His mouth sprouted fangs as he tore at the young man’s trousers. He sank his teeth into the young man’s privates.

            Even over the lashing rain I could hear a dreadful sucking and gurgling sound.

            When he had drained the poor fool dry, the Count tipped the husk of a body over the rail and onto the rocks below in the turbulent waters.

            My last remaining suitor – Miles or Giles or something – snatched up a poker from a nearby fireplace. He launched himself at the Count and drove the sharp metal rod directly through his heart. The Count gave one last malevolent snarl and burst like a soap bubble. All that was left was his clothes.

            “He tried it on with me,” said Giles, his chest heaving with exhilaration. “But I don’t smoke.”

            The following morning Mama put it about that twelve broken-hearted young men had tossed themselves to their doom, because I would not favour them. She thought such a story would enhance my allure. I told her she need not bother and, for once, I did not feel like pushing her off a balcony.

            “This is Giles,” I told her, “and he’s the man I want to marry.”

 engagement

 

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The Golden Egg

The ayah hurried through the marketplace. She had only minutes to find what she wanted but every stallholder she approached gave her the same denial. Some were more apologetic than others. Some appeared outright offended. One made the sign of the evil eye but one more gave her directions. In a corner of the square, where sunlight never seemed to penetrate, a rickety cart stood as though abandoned. Its awning hung in tatters, its gay colours faded and dirty. The ayah shook her head. She had been misdirected. That stallholder was having a joke at her expense.

            “How may I help you, lovely one?” A cracked voice made the ayah spin around. A small figure was smiling toothlessly at her; it was the height of a child but whether male or female, the ayah could not determine – many old women have wiry white hairs sprouting from their chin.

            “I’m sorry – There’s been a mistake.” The ayah clutched her headscarf around her throat and made to leave.

            “I don’t think so, dearie,” said the little old person. Her eyes were like raisins and her brown face a paper bag. “You will find what you seek on my cart.”

            “I don’t think so. I had better be going. The memsahib will be home shortly and I have chores.”

            “Here!” the little old person lifted a dusty sack from the back of the cart and delved a gnarled hand inside it. “This will solve all your problems or you may call old Suki a liar.”

            She was a woman, then. The ayah was a little reassured but not by much. Old Suki withdrew her hand from the sack and uncurled her fist. The palm of her hand was like a nest of dried twigs and in it a golden egg gleamed. The ayah stared at it.

            “Place this in the room of the afflicted one,” Old Suki pressed the egg into the ayah’s hand. The ayah tried not to express her revulsion at the old woman’s touch. “But let it not be seen. No one must know it is there.”

            “I cannot afford gold…” the Ayah protested but she could not take her eyes off the egg.

            The old woman cackled. “I don’t want your money, my honey.”

            The ayah frowned. “Then what?”

            A sandpaper hand took the ayah’s wrist. The old woman led her into the shadows behind the cart. “This won’t take but a minute,” she said.

            The memsahib looked through the house but there was no sign of the ayah, in the kitchen, in the pantry.

            “I’m sorry, memsahib,” the ayah came down the stairs. “I was cleaning in your son’s room.”

            “An endless task!” the memsahib clucked. “What’s for dinner?”

            “I’ll get right to it.” The ayah kept her head bowed and went to the kitchen. The memsahib followed.

            “You don’t have to wear your headscarf in the house, you know,” the memsahib reminded her. “I know my son has been troubling you. He’s at that difficult age…”

            The ayah kept her back turned as she chopped some coriander and garlic. She would never show her face unveiled again. The golden egg, now concealed in her tormentor’s bedroom, had come at a terrible price. The prominent veins and spots on the back of her hands could not go unnoticed for long, and the aches in her swollen knuckles would soon prevent her from performing her chores.

            Across the city, a rickety cart trundled towards the gates. There would be other markets in other places. Young Suki stood straight, pulling her cart with vigour. She took in deep lungfuls of air and grinned, showing perfect white teeth as bright as stars. How good it was to feel so young and alive once more!

 

 golden-egg-md

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