I’m Interviewed at Dark Worlds Quarterly

Morrigan Wild_cropped with Masthead

I was interviewed by G. W. Thomas over at the Dark Worlds Quarterly website. Check out the interview and peruse the site because there is a whole lot there of interest to anyone into SF, fantasy or weird fiction

Going Wild: An Interview with Jack Mackenzie

The website is a division of Rage Machine Books which has published my latest novel, Wild Incorporated: The Shattered Men. Check that out too!

WILD INCORPORATED

Available in e-book and print formats.

 

 

Doc Savage’s Hair: The Coiffe of Bronze

Recently someone in a Doc Savage Facebook group asked a question, and it was a good one.

The question was: How did we go from the Doc Savage as depicted on the covers of the magazine, the man in his thirties with normal hair, to the grizzled looking man with the weird crew cut and widow’s peak that we see on the covers of the Bantam paperback?

The short answer to that is art direction.

Let me see if I can give you the long answer to this question once and for all.

Doc-Savage-March-1933As most Doc Savage fans know, Doc Savage was first published by Street & Smith Publications, Inc., a New York City publisher specializing in pulp magazines. Meant to capitalize on the success of The Shadow, Doc Savage was first published in 1933. The first issue, titled The Man of Bronze, had a cover illustration painted by pulp magazine stalwart artist Walter M. Baumhofer. Bauhmhofer’s Doc is lean and rugged, looks to be in his 30’s and has a hairstyle which would not look out of place on most men at the time. It’s a hairstyle that you would find on the head of most of Hollywood’s leading men of the time, actors like Robert Taylor, Buster Crabbe or Gary Cooper.

Pulp-Covers-Summer-1949It’s a look that Doc kept as he was depicted on the covers of subsequent issues over the years, all 181 of them, right up until his last appearance in 1949’s Up From Earth’s Center before the magazine folded and Street & Smith stopped publishing.

The company and all its properties was bought by Condé Nast. In the mid 1960’s Condé Nast offered the rights to re-publish the 181 Doc Savage adventures to Bantam Books. Mark Jaffee was the editorial director at Bantam. The Art Director (and vice president) was Len Leone.

Leone was a huge Doc Savage fan and encouraged Jafee to buy the property. Once Bantam had them, Leone could only think of one artist he wanted to paint the covers for the paperbacks and that was James Bama.

Young James Bama at Cooper Studios in 1952-8x6Bama was a New York artist who had been working steadily as an illustrator through the 1950’s. His work appeared in advertisements, on paperback covers and in the pages of various men’s magazines. He had a solid reputation as a hyper-realistic painter. As such he photographed models to use as references for his paintings. One such model was Bama’s favourite, an actor named Steve Holland.

stevehollandHolland had limited success as an actor. He had played Flash Gordon in a 1954 television series that only ran ran 39 episodes. He had a cameo appearance in the 1953 movie, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. Holland had more success as an artist’s model. Holland had been the model for Fawcett Comics’ fictitious B-Western cowboy Bob Colt, that ran for ten issues in the early 1950s. He was also a favourite of the illustrators of the men’s magazines because of his rugged looks.

So, when Len Leone hired James Bama to paint the covers for the Bantam Doc Savage reprints, Bama naturally decided that only one man could model for Doc Savage, and that was Steve Holland.

Holland was in his 40’s and had a craggy, hyper-masculine look that Bama felt was perfectly suited for Doc Savage. Bama photographed Holland in the iconic Doc Savage pose that we all know today. He had him wearing a deliberately torn shirt in order to emphasize Doc’s developed physique.

CafTeqhUUAA5VWU

Bama’s first try at Doc depicted him much as he would end up, except for the hair. Holland’s hair was black, but Doc’s was described as a bronze colour. No problem. Bama simply painted Holland’s own hair as bronze, but gave him the widow’s peak that he is described as having in the adventures. Aside from that, Doc’s hair would not look out of place in the mid 1960’s.

b04b6872041ed60becea0ab840554048

But that look didn’t quite work well enough for Len Leone. “I wanted to convey to the reader that this man was not just another mortal man, but something far more visually spectacular.” Leone said back in 2008 for an interview in The Bronze Gazette. He told Bama to paint him “…with a strange looking widow’s peak, that might have been made of bronze.”

Bama went back and changed the hair to emphasize the widow’s peak and to try to make it look like it might be made of metal, like some sort of helmet. This description of Doc’s hair does appear in the original texts, though illustrators at the time generally ignored it. Leone wanted that emphasized. It gave the character a weird, unusual look that suggested a more “sci-fi” adventure waiting within the pages of the paperbacks.

4e47d1982b36fc635a8dbf1fc4efa4d0

Bama went on to paint 62 of the first 67 paperbacks. Other artists followed Bama’s lead. Soon the look was solidified. When Doc was adapted into the comic books by Gold Key in 1966 and later by Marvel Comics in 1971 the look had stuck. Despite the 1975 film adaptation by George Pal in which actor Ron Ely sported a typical 1930’s/1970’s hybrid hairstyle, Doc Savage with the helmet hair and the widow’s peak and the rugged features are how he is usually depicted.

And that, my friends, is how Doc Savage went from his 1930’s look to the look we all know and love today.

The Changeling’s Gift

Elves, Fairies, Trolls, and Goblins fight for equality in an alternative Victorian England.

John_atkinson_grimshaw_a_wet_moon_putney_road)

The distant bells of Westminster Abbey tolled suddenly and the sound, wafting over the cold morning air, made Arthur Freeborn stop in his tracks.

“What is it?” Nairn asked. “Do you see something?”

Freeborn shook his head. “The bells. Westminster. Her Majesty and Prince Albert are proud parents once again.”

Nairn gave Freeborn a wry smile. “God bless good Queen Victoria. Do those keen ears of yours tell you if it’s a boy or a girl?”

Of course Nairn could not hear them, not this far away. Freeborn smiled and then rubbed the tops of his ears in a self conscious gesture, his fingertips trying to rub warmth into the furrowed scars they found there. The scars, which he’d had since childhood, felt the cold December wind quite keenly as it whistled over them beneath the brim of his stovepipe hat.

Nairn squeezed Freeborn’s arm in a warm gesture. “We’ll have to have a tot of rum at The George in celebration. Once we’ve found our quarry.”

“Indeed,” Freeborn agreed. He resumed his course, walking a steady pace, his shoes sinking into the newly fallen snow, his ears and eyes alert for their quarry, a murderer the yellow journals had named the Eastcheap Phantom. It was that pursuit that had brought them to this lonely cemetery near Wanstead.

There were no mourners this morning neither was there any sound that Freeborn could detect other than the tramping sound made by Nairn’s boots as he trudged through the snow. Not that Freeborn was expecting to hear anything. Their quarry was a cunning one. He knew how to move silently and swiftly and hide in plain sight from most human eyes. But Arthur Freeborn was a Fey, despite all his attempts to appear human, and he could sense the other’s presence and the other was close.

He stopped moving and closed his eyes. He could still hear Nairn moving. Nairn probably thought he was moving quietly, but to Freeborn’s sensitive ears the dour former jesuit was lumbering around like a bull. But Nairn was a good man. He had always treated Freeborn fairly, even stood up for him against his fellow constables at the Yard who were prejudiced against him because he was a Fey.

Being a Fey was a secret that Freeborn was never able to keep despite his efforts to look and act like a human. Despite the painful disfigurement that he had put himself through in early childhood to make his ears look normal, Arthur Freeborn could do nothing to disguise his willowy frame, his ethereal manner and his startling bottle green eyes. He could not disguise the softly lyrical quality of his voice, nor could any amount of coloring agent cover up his golden hair. Despite this he had tried to live as a human, but it had never been easy. Even achieving the status of police constable at Scotland Yard had not lessened the prejudice, the taunting nor the outright hate that he experienced daily.

If it hadn’t been for Nairn, Freeborn didn’t think he would have lasted as long as he had. The kindly ex-priest had been supportive and had sponsored each and every one of his promotions. Rather than being frightened or intimidated by Freeborn’s Fey qualities, Nairn had known enough to put them to use in their work. Freeborn’s uncanny senses and attention to the most minute detail had put more than one villain behind bars.

Nairn had stopped moving. He had finally noticed Freeborn’s stillness and had stood still himself, trying not to breathe too loudly or to interfere with Freeborn’s perceptions. Freebornr could still hear his partner’s breathing, the ragged wheeze of his lungs that had survived consumption and still worked despite the foul smoke inflicted upon them by Nairn’s pipe. He could hear the bustle of daily commerce in the nearby market. He could hear all of these things but he could ignore them all to concentrate upon the one sound, the single noise that should not be there.

It was difficult because his quarry made almost no noise when he moved, seemed not even to breathe. It seemed the Phantom could mask himself completely from attentive ears, but he could not disguise the quiet whisper of a blade as it slid out of a hilt.

Freeborn was able to pinpoint where the sound came from and he sprang into action. Too late he realized that he had made the wrong move.

As fast as Freeborn had sprang, the Phantom had sprang as well, and the Phantom was faster. He felt the other brush past him and Freeborn turned, but too late. The other’s blade whistled in the air. Freeborn could only watch, helpless as Nairn’s expression registered shock. Nairn’s hand went convulsively to his throat and he dropped trying to stop the sudden flow of blood to no avail.

Freeborn froze for a moment only, but it was enough. The Phantom made a dash for stone wall that enclosed the cemetery. There was no chance that Freeborn could catch up with him now and the Phantom knew it. He stopped and stood stock still for a fleeting moment. Human eyes would barely have noticed but it was long enough for Freeborn to get a look at his enemy.

He… no… it was she!… wore a cloak of deep green. Raven hair, darker than the blackest night spilled out from underneath the hood. She wore a leather jerkin and leather breeches. and boots of animal skin. Her flesh bore marks… some sort of tattoo or scarification. Her eyes were darkened like they were smudged with kohl… more tattoos perhaps? Her eyes were white within the dark smudge and they seemed to taunt him. The edges of her crimson stained lips drew up into a smile. She knew he could see her. She had stopped this long just so that he could see his enemy.

Then she moved and faster than Freeborn thought was possible, she was over the wall and gone.

Freeborn blinked once then rushed back to Nairn whose life was pouring out of his open throat, making the surrounding snow a bright crimson. Nairn’s eyes locked with Freeborn’s… so quick had the attack been that Nairn was only now apprehending that he was dying. He tried to say something but no words would come. Freeborn touched his head to soothe him and he could feel the weakening pulse suddenly go still. The light went from Nairn’s eyes and he was no more.

 
The Eastcheap Phantom, as the yellow journals had dubbed him, had managed to kill five of London’s citizenry – a shopkeeper, a clerk, a banker and finally a barrister. None of them seemed to have any connection to each other. Witnesses to the murders were few and those that came forward said they saw nothing but a shape that was gone before they could even turn their heads to look. There were a dozen witnesses to the murder of Sir Archibald Wintonleek, including Mister William Locke, his private secretary, who was standing right next to the barrister, yet none could say for certain who or what had stuck the knife in the hapless barrister’s chest before vanishing into the crown on the steps of the Old Bailey.

Nairn and Freeborn had been tasked to find him. It had been given the highest priority from Whitehall. So when Freeborn returned with Nairn’s corpse and the news of their failure on his lips he was not surprised to be called into the Chief Superintendent’s office.

“Are you certain?” Chief Superintendent Hodgkiss asked again. “You’re sure it was a Fey?”

“As certain as I am sitting here,” Freeborn said. “We tracked the Phantom… the Fey… from Eastcheap all the way up to Wanstead. It could have been no other.”

Hodgkiss leaned back in his chair behind his desk. He looked out the window at the snow that was falling in big fluffy flakes.

Freeborn remained still, though he wanted to leap into action, tear across the city and turn over every corner to find Nairn’s killer. “We must keep this out of the newspapers.” Hodgkiss interrupted. “The journalists have already made a mockery of us with this Phantom nonsense. They will not get hold of this. I need hardly tell you what is at stake.”

Indeed, Hodgkiss did not. Arthur Freeborn knew very well the status of Feys in Her Majesty’s Empire, and it was not a favored one.

“If it were up to me,” Hodgkiss said, his expression sour, “I would pack the whole lot of you off to the gallows.”

Although used to statements such as this to hear his superior speak the words with such naked contempt to his face came as a shock. He bit back a retort but could feel a flush creeping up his neck and past his collar. “Nairn…”

“Nairn was a good man! He was too good a man to have died at the hands of one of your kind! A Jesuit, he was! A man of God! What would you know of God? Lilith spawn! That’s all you are!” Hodgekiss stood up while he spoke, his voice raising and traces of spittle flying from his lips.

Freeborn took a breath and kept still, barely restraining his anger. “If you wish my resignation…” he managed calmly.

“I would take it in a moment,” Hodgekiss spat. “In a moment! But I cannot. I have been given orders. Orders from Whitehall. They want you, Freeborn, the Good Lord alone knows why. They’ve sent a representative.”

 
The representative from Whitehall was named Darome. He was a big man, thick thewed and wide at the shoulders. his hair was black and pushed back from his low forehead and he wore a small round pair of spectacles, the lenses of which were darkened. When he spoke it was with a thick Irish brogue.

“Freeborn,” he said, not extending a hand when he was introduced. “So you’re the Fey.”

Freeborn said nothing.

“We’ve heard of you at Whitehall, so we have,” Darone continued a small half-smile forming on his lips. “Been keeping a weather eye on your work, naturally. Can”t be too careful with Fey’s runnin’ around the country, undeclared labour in farms and factories all over this country. With a Fey at the yard… well, we’ve got to keep a special eye on you, don’t we. Have to make sure you ain’t soft on your own kind. That you wouldn’t let a murderer slip away, avoid the noose.”

Freeborn had to struggle to keep his voice steady. “If you’re suggesting that I didn’t do my duty in the pursuit of the Phantom — this Fey killer — then I can assure you…”

“Oh, assurances are all very well, aren’t they? But what good are they comin’ from a forked tongue devil such as yourself? No, no. Actions is what it’ll take. Actions and loyalty. I’ll be keeping a close eye on you, Freeborn you can be assured of that. We’ll catch this killer, you and I, this Fey, one of your own own kind. We’ll catch her and then the hangman’ll stretch her neck. And you and I will stand and watch, we will. Watch as she swings. What about that, eh?”

“I will gladly deliver Nairn’s killer to the hangman myself,” Freeborn growled.

Darone paused and looked at Freeborn searchingly. “That remains to be seen, my lad. That remains to be seen.”

 
So it was that Freeborn found himself following Darone as they trudged through the snow to the grey brick building that housed the Yard’s morgue. Down the steps, they had to step over the sluices so as not to get blood on their shoes and cuffs. Coleville was there as usual, corpulent, red faced and half-drunk.

“They were dead,” Coleville said when Darone asked if he had noticed anything unusual about each of the Phantom’s victims. “Not that that’s too unusual in this day and age. Many end up dead and if someone’s done ’em in they end up here.”

Darone smiled at the old drunk. “What I mean is, did you notice anything unusual on their person? A possession… a necklace… a bracelet… a ring, perhaps?”

Coleville shrugged his meaty shoulders. “Whatever is on ’em when they get brought in here goes back to the Yard. If the family comes for it, it goes back to them.”

Darone looked at a shape on a table. “Is that our barrister?”

Coleville nodded. He pulled out a little silver flask and took a drink. “You’re welcome to have a look if you’ve the stomach for it.”

Darone went over to the corpse. Sir Archibald had been a not unhandsome man in his fifties. Now with the ghastly pallor of death and a gaping hole in his chest he looked hideous. Darone seemed unaffected by that. He went to work examining the corpse, peering closely at his fingers.

“You won’t find anything more than what’s in my report,” Coleville said, taking another sip from his flask.

Darone ignored him and turned the corpse’s head. He pulled out a small magnifier and examined the skin on the back of the neck. “Freeborn. Look at this.”

Freeborn came around and looked where Darone was pointing.

“What do your Fey eyes see that our good doctor has missed?”

“I missed nothing!” Coleville protested.

Freeborn looked and saw plainly a small white indentation in the skin at the back of the neck. The skin had been broken as if by something rough and jagged. “No blood.” Freeborn noticed.

“A post mortem injury,” Darone proclaimed.

“Leave that assessment to the professionals!” Coleville barked.

“Be quiet, you drunkard!” Darone snapped.

Freeborn saw a glint on the table directly below the corpse’s neck. There was something there. He reached in gingerly and picked up a small clasp with a few links of chain still attached. He showed it to Darone. “He was wearing a necklace. Someone pulled it off after the corpse was here, causing the small wound and snapping off the clasp.”

Darone smiled thinly. “Very good, Freeborn. You’ve a sharp mind to go with those sharp Fey eyes.” he turned to Coleville. “Who took the necklace? Was it you?”

Coleville blanched. He’d lost his aggressiveness now. “I don’t know anything about no necklace.”

“Then who did?” Darone demanded.

Coleville looked away. “I don’t know what you are blathering about. Get out of my…”

Darone grasped Coleville by his shirt front. “I have been tasked by Whitehall to get to the bottom of this and, by God, I won’t be humbugged by a drunken reprobate of a medical examiner! Who took the necklace?”

“I don’t know! It’s not my job to report petty thefts committed by policemen!”

“Thefts? How many thefts? Which policeman?” Darone demanded.

Coleville remained stubbornly silent, trying to extricate himself from the big man’s grip.

“Steady on, Mister Darone,” Freeborn said, stepping forward, trying to keep his voice calm. “Let him go.”

Darone let Coleville go with a snort of frustration.

“Thank ye, Mister Freeborn,” Coleville said, adjusting his shirt which had pulled out of his trousers. “You’re a good ‘un, sir, despite the fact that you’re a Fey. Mister Nairn always spoke highly of you and he was a kindly man, he was.”

Freeborn felt keenly once again the loss of Nairn. “You’re very kind, Mister Coleville.”

“Where’s Nairn’s corpse?” Darone suddeny demanded.

Coleville blanched and Freeborn began to protest. “I say, Darone…”

“Where is it?” Darone demanded.

Coleville gestured to a shrouded corpse on the table behind him. Darone grabbed the shroud and pulled it aside. Freeborn had to stifle a gasp as he saw Nairn laid out on the table, his naked flesh deathly pale, his throat opened wide. His eyes were closed and sunken in. He hardly looked like Nairn without his little round spectacles.

“Darone, for pity’s sake, show some respect!” Freeborn said. He found he had to stifle back a sob that came from deep inside his chest.

“Where are his things? His clothes? His personal effects?”

Coleville pointed meekly to a wooden box on the floor. Darone knelt beside it and began rifling through the box.

Freeborn had taken almost all he could take. He pulled at Darone’s shoulder “For God’s sake, Darone!”

“God?” Darone turned, snarling. “What does a Fey know of God?” He reached into the box and pulled out a chain. Dangling from the chain was a small white pendent embossed with a sigil that Freeborn did not recognize. “What does a Fey know about anything to do with God?”

“What is it?” Freeborn asked, staring at the disc.

“Have you never seen it before?”

Freeborn shook his head. He had never seen the chain nor the pendent in all the years he had known Nairn. “Nairn never spoke of…”

“Well, he wouldn’t, would he?” Darone said. “It’s the mark of Saint Patrick.”

“What of it?” Coleville asked. “Nairn used to be a Jesuit. What’s so unusual about a Jesuit wearing the symbol of a saint?”

“I’ll wager Sir Archibald wore one as well. That is unusual, is it not? Where are the rest of the chains?”

Coleville shook his head. “I’ve never seen the like of it before. I swear!”

“Never? Don’t you undress the corpses when they come in?”

Coleville shook his head. “My assistant, Tully. He does all that for me.”

Darone nodded. “Leaves more time for you to drink, I imagine.”

Coleville looked wounded but said nothing.

`Where is Tully now?”

Coleville shook his head. “I don’t know. When they brought Nairn’s body in he started to undress him. I told him I’d do it myself.”

“What? Actually do some of your own work for a change? Why?”

“Out of respect! Seeing as it was Nairn…”

“Very touching.”

“Tully got hot about it. He protested. I told him to leave.”

“You sacked him?”

“No. No! I might have hurled an insult or two…”

“Where can we find Tully when he’s not here?”

 
Tully lived in a small room above The Dancing Sprite. Coleville gave them the address and Darone hired a hansom driven by a taciturn dwarf who bit the silver coin that Darone tossed him as he shouted the their destination at him.

“Saint Patrick,” Freeborn began as the horses drew the hansome cab through the streets.

Darone smiled without humour. “What Fey doesn’t know about Saint Patrick?”

“I know that according to legend Patrick cursed the Feys and enslaved them to the followers of God.”

“Indeed. Saint Patrick – Quatrikias, as he was originally known – delivered the children of Lillith into the hands of the men of God. He is a symbol of man’s dominion over the Fey race.”

“But why does it matter if Nairn wore his symbol? A former jesuit…”

“Saint Patrick is not merely a saint. He is also a symbol. That symbol has been co-opted by a secret society. Sir Archibald wore one of these,” Darone held up the pendent. It swung back and forth with the motion of the cab. “I’ll wager all of the other victims of the Eastcheap Phantom wore one as well.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because Whitehall has known about the society for years. We keep tabs on the members. So when they are killed, we take notice. When more are killed we become alarmed. When they are all killed by the same hand… well, that’s when we must take action.”

“Are you saying that Nairn was a member of this secret society? I cannot believe that.”

“He must have been the newest member because Whitehall has no knowledge of that. He may have been inducted when the killings began. The membership obviously suspected trouble long before we did. Having a member inside the police force would have suited them.”

Freeborn shook his head. “Nairn said nothing of this to me.”

“Well of course he wouldn’t! It was a secret society! One that held the slavery of the Fey to mankind as its basic tenet. Of course he wouldn’t speak of this to you!”

Freeborn shook his head. “Nairn was kind to me. He was the only one of my colleagues to show me any respect whatsoever. If it weren’t for Nairn I would have left the police a long time ago. He encouraged me to stay.”

“Don’t you think Nairn knew that?”

“But why would Nairn want me to stay on the force if he hated the Fey?”

“Are you familiar with Sun-tzu?”

Freeborn shook his head.

“Sun-tzu was a military strategist in ancient China. He wrote a treatise called The Art of War. In it he wrote: Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.”

Freeborn said nothing for a moment. Then he asked: “Are we in a war?”

But Darone did not answer and they passed the rest of the way in silence.

 
The Dancing Sprite was lively when they arrived. It was early evening and the alehouse was already doing a brisk trade. Freeborn saw Fey servers in tattered clothes serving drinks to a crowd that was becoming exceedingly rambunctious. Whores and drunkards mingled at the tables. There was a small table of Fey women at the back of the inn. They were slightly better dressed but all had sad and hollow faces. A man stood in front of the table. Fey whores and their procurer.

Freeborn looked away from the tableau as Darone led them up the stairs to Tully’s lodging on the upper floor.

Darone knocked, but them immediately barked; “Tully! Open this door now! I’m quite prepared to break it down, so you’d better…”

The door opened and a young man with a pronounced adams apple and big ears stood before them. “There’s no whores here…” Tully began before Darone pushed himself into the shabby room, a beefy hand pushing the young Tully backwards onto the bed. “Oy!” Tully shouted in alarm.

Freeborn shut the door behind them. Darone pulled out the pendent of St. Patrick. “where are the rest of these?” he asked.

Tully’s face went deathly pale. He shook his head. “I don’t know nuffin’ I swear!”

Darone picked up the foot of the bed and then slammed it down on the floor. “You know enough to send men to the gallows! Maybe you can avoid the noose yourself if you talk now!”

Tears began to flow from Tully’s eyes. “No, please don’t let me swing! I swear, I didn’t do nuffin’ wrong!”

“Who did you give these to?” Darone roared.

Tully kept shaking his head. “No, please, they’ll kill me if I say!”

“I’ll bloody kill you if you don’t!”

“Darone!” Freeborn said. “Stop it. You can’t get anything coherent out of him if you frighten him to death!”

“I don’t need any advice from a damned Fey!” Darone snarled.

Tully looked at Freeborn and his face became even paler. His mouth worked in sudden fear. “A Fay? Oh God! Keep it away from me! Don’t let ‘im near me!” Tully was sitting up on the bed scrabbling madly at the back wall.

Darone, sensing a new leverage, pushed Freeborn towards the frightened young man. “Go on, Fey! Work your black magic on him! Make him spill it!”

“Darone,” Freeborn protested “Stop this nonsense right now!”

“I don’t know nuffin’! I swear I don’t know nuffin’! He just paid me to take ’em, that’s all!”

“Who paid you? WHO?!” Darone roared.

“It were Mister Locke! But it were for someone else! I dunno who! We was all just go-betweens! I don’t know anyfing!”

“Locke?” Freeborn asked. “William Locke?”

“Mister Locke!” Tully shouted. “‘e brung me the money and I gave ‘im the chains! That was it? I don’t know nuffin’ else!”

“Who is William Locke? Darone asked.

“He was Sir Archibald’s personal secretary. Nairn interviewed him. Did Nairn know?”

Tully nodded his head. “Mister Nairn… ‘e were the one who told me to do it… take the chains. ‘e said if I didn’t he’d let you get me… ‘e said you’d ensorcle me wif’ your black magic!”

Freeborn could scare believe what he was hearing. “Nairn and William Locke were working together?”

“Yes! I wanted to get Mister Nairn’s chain but Mister Coleville wouldn’t let me. I didn’t know what to do so I came home. Please, don’t let me swing for this. I was just doin’ wot I was told to!” Tully managed to crawl off the bed and backed towards a corner of his shabby room. He looked like a small and frightened boy.

Freeborn saw the blur of a sudden movement. A black shadow seemed to move out of the corner Tully was backing towards. Freeborn saw the glint of a blade but could not stop it as it drew itself across Tully’s throat. Tully managed one sound, a squeak of terror before his life’s blood spurted out of his open throat.

“GOD’S BLOOD!” Darone roared.

The shadow moved swiftly. It flew through a tiny closed window which shattered outwards scatterin glass and wooden splinters out of the room. Freeborn knew it was The Phantom – the Fey assassin who’d killed Nairn.

Freeborn didn’t think. He followed. He squeezed out the window and dropped onto the rooftop.

Outside the moon gave a pale light but Freeborn’s Fey senses could see the snowy rooftops around him like it was midday. He saw the assassin running across the roof of the inn. Freeborn gave chase. The assassin leaped from one roof to the next, her leather cloak flying about her like great leather wings. Freeborn leaped as well. He landed on the edge, and for one heart stopping moment lost his balance. He pinwheeled his arms and found his footing but that valuable second lost allowed his quarry to put distance between them.

Freeborn put on a burst of speed. He leaped from rooftop to rooftop, his footing growing more certain with every leap. Like a trapeze walker the assassin dashed over the crowns of the roofs, leaped from chimney pot to chimney pot and slid down slopes. Freeborn kept pace, trying not to think about the rooftops seeming to move beneath his feet at a dizzying pace or about the ground far below waiting for him to make a single misstep.

He saw the Fey drop from the edge of a high rooftop. He followed without hesitating. The cobbled stones of the street rushed towards him. As he landed her rolled forward on his shoulder then back up onto his feet.

The Fey assassin stood directly in front of him. Freeborn started away but there was a blur of motion and he felt the kiss of cold steel. He froze and found himself staring into the face of the Fey woman who was holding a blade still stained with Tully’s blood at his naked throat.

She narrowed her eyes and looked first at one side of Freeborn’s head, then the other. “Where are your ears?” she asked.

Freeborn let out a small laugh. It was the last thing he expected her to say. “I cut them off when I was a child.” Freeborn explained.

The Fey woman spat. “So foolish. As if that could disguise what you are.”

Freeborn said nothing to that. He just stared into her eyes. They were a dark green and as he stared into them he sensed depths within them in which he might lose himself. In his head he heard a strange sound like music playing in the distance. He felt something shifting in his mind, as if the world were suddenly turning upside down.

Freeborn’s fugue was disturbed by the sound of a pistol being cocked. “Step away from him,” Darone bellowed from somewhere behind him.

The female Fey looked over Freeborn’s head and her features tightened. Then she leaned close. Freeborn felt her lips brush against his ear. “Find the Queen,” she said, then she was a blur and was gone.

The pistol report shocked Freeborn into action. He felt the rush of air as the bullet sped through the space where his head had been a moment before. He rolled and then sprang back to his feet, facing Darone.

Darone put up the pistol. “BUGGER!” he shouted.

“You tried to kill me!” Freeborn shouted.

“I was aiming for the Phantom,” Darone snapped.

“Your aim is atrocious.”

 
William Locke was not at home when Freeborn and Darone called on his modest house in the early dawn light. “Mister Locke is in the country today,” they were told by the housekeeper, a pleasant and garrulous woman.

“Oh, he does ever so much traveling in his work,” the housekeeper said, amiably. “At least he did before poor Sir Archibald was done in. Poor man. Is this part of the investigation into his death?”

“Indeed, it is, Madame,” Darone said, pleasantly. “We’re following up on several enquiries and we need to speak to Mister Locke. Do you know where he is traveling today?”

“Well I imagine he’s at Sir Archibald’s country estate today. He said something about tying up loose ends, and he took his boots which he always does when he has to go out to the estate.”

Darone thanked the woman, and told her that she had been most helpful in their inquiries, which seemed to please her immensely.

 
It took nearly all morning for the carriage to reach Cloverdown, Sir Archibald Wintonleek’s sprawling country estate. They rode in silence and Freeborn pondered the female Fey’s cryptic words. Who was the Queen? He had no idea but his mind kept drifting back to her hypnotic eyes and the sound, like distant music, that he had heard in his head. He tried to bring it back, but found that he couldn’t. The strains of it were like a tune still sweet in his mind but the notes of which he could not recall.

The main gate was closed when they arrived. Darone told the carriage driver to wait. Freeborn opened the gates and they approached on foot. Darone had insisted that they be armed and they approached the ivy covered manor house now with their pistols in plain sight.

There was no sign of life or movement in the house. The windows were shuttered and curtains were drawn. Darone gestured Freeborn to silence. Freeborn stood still and listened. His heightened fey senses could detect movement inside the house. He heard ragged breathing and the clink of chains. He heard a door open and footsteps walking somewhere behind the house.

Freeborn opened his eyes. He indicated to Darone that there was movement at the back. The began circling the house.

Around the side of the manor was a small garden in front of a low wall. There was an open doorway in the wall. Freeborn moved swiftly and silently through the garden to the doorway. Beyond Freeborn could see an expansive square of ground surrounded by wooden buildings. There was a stone well in the centre. Freeborn smelled straw and the unmistakable stink of horses. Stables.

He heard a voice shout a harsh command. Freeborn dashed over the muddy square, his feet barely touching the ground. He could see two figures in the gloom of the stable. One figure was on its knees. The other held an axe.

Freeborn cocked his revolver. “Stop!” he shouted. The man with the axe turned. Freeborn could see that it was William Locke. The other figure was a Fey woman in ragged clothes. Her arms and legs were manacled.

“Put down the axe in the name of the law!” Freeborn commanded.

Locke squinted at Freeborn. “You’re the Fey policeman!” he said and he smiled hideously. His hair was unkempt and dark circles ringed his eyes. “You may as well be next!”

Locke raised the axe and ran at Freeborn, murder clearly in the madman’s eyes. Freeborn fired his revolver. He hit Locke square in the chest. Locke stumbled and gasped, but then raised the axe again and charged anew. Freeborn fired again, this time putting a bullet between Locke’s eyes.
Freeborn discovered the remains of several unfortunate Fey women scattered around the stables. There were five bodies. Locke had obviously dispatched them one at a time.

Tying up loose ends.

Inside the manor house Freeborn and Darone found the rest.

They were seven Fey women chained up in a stone cellar. The stench of decay was overwhelming and Freeborn felt a wash of horror course through him as he saw the emaciated bodies, each of them manacled hand and foot. Limbs as thin as twigs reached out to him in supplication.

Freeborn found a pitcher in the kitchen and filled it with water. As he helped the women drink they tried to speak. “…the queen…” one woman, more articulate than the others managed. “…see to the queen…”

The queen. That was what the Fey assassin had said. “Who is the queen?” Freeborn asked.

The women who could manage it pointed to a splintered wooden door at the far end of the room. Freeborn walked over and tried the door. It was locked, but the wood was old and easily splintered under the force of his shoulder.

Behind the door was a smaller room, stone like the cellar, but dark and windowless. Flies buzzed about as the air was disturbed. In the corner of the room was a narrow bed upon which a figure reclined. Freeborn approached. The woman was as emaciated as the others and was similarly manacled, and her clothes were rags, but she had an aura bout her, a certain radiance that seemed to shine in the darkened room.

As Freeborn approached her the music that he’d heard earlier seemed to play in his mind. It was louder now, stronger and it seemed to flow with life.

He knelt by the bed and helped the woman sit up. Her hair was golden, the same shade as his, her eyes the same shade of green and her features, though painfully thin, were as familiar to him as were his own.

“Who are you?” Freeborne asked, though he knew the answer. It came into his head unbidden. He had seen this face before when he was but a babe. There had been tears in her eyes then. Now the face broke into a smile.

“I knew you would find me once again, Tuato” she said, her voice hoarse from disuse. “What dutiful son would not?”

“I’m afraid you have confused me with another, Madame,” Freeborn said, although somewhere in his soul he knew the truth of her words. “My name is Freeborn. Arthur Freeborn.”

“There is no mistake, Tuato” she said, shaking her head. “You are mine and I have given you the gift of our blood. It is up to you now, to give that gift to our people. Take them home, Tuato. Take them…”

And then softly as a butterfly wing, her body went limp and she was no more.
Freeborn stood in the square near the stables. It was dark now and clouds had come in to obscure the moon. Small flakes were slowly drifting down from the sky. Freeborn felt in the grip of a powerful grief. He wanted to cry but tears would not come.

He and Darone had examined the rest of the manor house. They had found the chains, each with the sigil of St, Patrick emblazoned upon them. They found papers and communications and among them one name kept coming up again and again. Freeborn could scarcely believe it, but the evidence was overwhelming.

“You found her,” a voice said. Freeborn turned and was not really surprised to see the Fey assassin standing at the edge of the square. “You found the Queen.”

“Who are you?” Freeborn asked.

“My name is Fierna.”

“Fierna,” Freeborn said, tasting it on his tongue.

She took a step towards him “Where is the Queen?”

Freeborn shook his head. “She is dead.”

The assassin — Fierna — seemed to start at that, but then she nodded sadly. “Then it is up to you.”

“What is up to me?” Freeborn asked. “I do not know who that woman was. She called me Tuato. She seemed to think I was her son.”

“Don’t be a fool!” Fierna said, taking a step forward. “Can you not feel it in your heart? Do you not feel the truth of who you are? How can you continue to deny your nature? How can you turn your back on your people?”

“I was raised by good Christian people! People who showed mercy and charity…”

“People who suffered you, you mean. People who allowed you a place in their company, but not a full place. How much real acceptance have you had from them? Very little. How much fear and loathing? Much! It is time for you to look to your own people. Take them home!”

“Home? What home? What other home can the Fey have?”

She shook her head. “There is much you see but you refuse to really look. The chains — did you not wonder why it was the symbol of Saint Patrick stamped upon them?”

Freeborn shook his head. “A symbol? What of it?”

“Saint Patrick was the one who trapped us here!” she shouted. “In Ireland in 428 A.D.! He was supposed to banish us! We had reached an agreement with Ciaran the Elder. Saint Patrick agreed to abide by that. We were to be allowed to cross back into the Fey realm where we came from and we were to never come back.”

Freeborn shook his head. He’d remembered reading something like it in seminary class. “Legends. Myths. Fey stories.”

“I was there!” she shouted. “I was there and so was your mother, the Queen! She had the key, but St. Patrick betrayed us. He delivered us into slavery to the men of the One God. The key was shattered into eight pieces, and the pieces were given to blacksmiths…”

Freeborn heard the cock of a revolver. “That’s enough!” Darone commanded from behind him. “He is not listening to you. You might as well give up and come quietly with us.”

Freeborn turned. Darone was aiming the revolver at her. “Freeborn, stand behind me.” he ordered.

Freeborn looked back at Fierna. He expected her to vanish, to become just a blur and be gone, but instead she stood, resolute, unmoving.

“Darone,” he began.

“Freeborn, do as I say!”

“Darone, listen to me…”

“YOU LISTEN TO ME, FEY!” Darone roared. “Don’t listen to this Fey Trollop! She killed Nairn, or had you forgotten? Now get behind me!”

Freeborn looked back at Fierna. She had killed Nairn. He had seen it… been helpless to stop her. But Nairn was part of the secret society that kept this horrible place, that enslaved Feys… that had enslaved the Fey queen — his mother.

“Freeborn! Now!” Darone barked. “Or do I have to shoot you as well?”

Freeborn regarded Darone. “You would murder a fellow officer?”

“You’re no fellow officer if you don’t do as I say! You’re either a policeman or you’re a Fey that needs killing! Which is it going to be, Freeborn?”

Freeborn could see that Darone meant what he said. He would kill Freeborn and Fierna and probably all the other Fey in the house, in the entire country if he could. He looked back at Fierna who stood unmoving as if waiting for something.

He heard the sound of Darone’s pistol cock, and he decided.

Darone had moved around the muddy square, his pistol still pointing at Fierna. Behind him was the stone well. Freeborn moved swiftly, more swiftly then he ever had. His body collided with Darone as the hammer came down. The shot went wide and Freeborn felt the air escaping from Darone’s huge lungs. The back of his thighs caught the lip of the well and Darone’s body folded as it fell into the black, gaping maw.

Freeborn heard Darone shout in rage, his voice echoing from the hollow stone shaft. Then he heard a loud crash as Darone hit the frozen water at the bottom.

Then he heard nothing.

Freeborn reeled with what he’d done. He grasped the lip of the well to keep himself from falling in the mud. His finger’s brushed the edge and he fell. Suddenly strong arms were about him, holding him up. “Are you well, My King?”

“What did you call me? He turned and saw Fernia grasping her arm. Dark blood was seeping from between her fingers. “You’re hurt!” Freeborn said.

“’tis nothing,” she said through gritted teeth. “I will live. Although had you not interfered with Darone’s aim I likely would not have been hit. The man’s aim was notoriously inaccurate.”

Freeborn found a clean cloth inside the manor house. “Why did you not move?” he asked as he bound her wound. “You could have vanished as you did before. Why did you stand still?”

“I had to see what you would do. I had to know where your allegiances lay.”

“And if I had chosen to go along with Darone?”

Fernia stared at him gravely. “I am very glad that you did not.” was all she said.

 

Windsor Palace was a cold and drafty place. A liveried servant ushered him in to an opulent waiting room. Freeborn looked about at the furnishings and the bric-a-brac. It looked like it should be warm and inviting, but something about it left Freeborn cold.

A door opened and the Royal Consort entered. He moved precisely and formally. Freeborn bowed as he approached. Prince Albert smiled, but like the bric-a-brac, the smile had little warmth in it. “Mister Freeborn,” Albert said in his clipped German accent. “Zis iss a most irregular.”

“I apologize for that, your highness, but I am grateful you agreed to meet with me.”

“Yess. You haf news from ze investigation? Ze Phantom, iss it not? A most distressing affair. Haf you captured him?”

“I found the Phantom, yes,” Freeborn said. “I also found many other things along the way. I discovered the existence of a secret society, the members of which wear pendents with the sigil of Saint Patrick impressed upon them.”

The Prince’s smile faltered then.

“We also discovered Sir Archibald’s estate in the country and many Fey women.”

The Prince tried to recover, his smile widened but Freeborn could see the alarm in his eyes. “Men do put Feys to interesting uses,” the Prince said. “I have heard zat Fey women are devilish saucy in bed. Sir Archibald had certain… tastes… zat he indulged.”

“We also found one woman in particular. A Fey woman. A rather special woman.”

The Prince dropped all pretense then. His expression hardened and he glared at Freeborn with hateful eyes. “Zere can be only one qveen in Enkland,” he said darkly. “Vere is she?”

“Beyond your reach,” Freeborn said.

“She iss… dead?” he asked, hopefully.

Freeborn nodded. “We discovered something else in Sir Archibald’s property. All of the pendents that the Phantom’s victims wore. Sir Archibald’s secretary had gathered them up. Do you know what else I discovered? I discovered that when the pendents are melted down each contains the shard of a special key.”

“A… a key?”

“Indeed. A certain special key that, once complete, will open a passageway to the Fey realm.”

“Zat passage vill never be opened,” the Prince declared. “Ze key will never be complete!”

“No,” freeborn agreed. “Not without the final piece. The piece that resides inside the final pendent… the one that you are wearing around your neck even now. A pendent that I mean to have” Freeborn drew his revolver and aimed it at the Prince.

The Prince started, then glared at Freeborn. “You vill not live long enough to leave zis room. I have but to call my guards and zey vill cut you down…”

There was a sudden blur of motion and a very sharp and very cold blade was suddenly pressed to the Prince’s throat. “I would do as he says,” Fernia said to the Prince. “If you value your life.”

Albert unbuttoned his shirt with trembling fingers. “You sink you can bring an army of Fey into our land? You sink to overvelm us with superior numbers? You vill not get very far vit zis mad scheme, Freeborn!”

“My name is not Freeborn! My name is Tuato.” he said, grasping the pendent. “And I do not intend to bring any more Fey to this land. I mean only to keep the promise that I made to my mother.”

 

Pembroke Dock was a bustle of activity. Fey of every description — elves, dwarves, sprites, fairies — all of them newly freed from their positions of servitude crowded the docks readying to board the three ships that would take them across to the shores of Ireland. From there they would all gather at the gateway to the Fey realm.
Tuato fingered the key which he kept on a chain around his neck. Soon it would be time. The passage would be opened, something that only he could do with his royal blood, and his people would return to their true homeland.

Fernia came up behind him and wrapped her strong arms around him. “Soon, my love,” she said.

Freeborn nodded, watching in satisfaction as his people boarded the waiting ships. Her body was warm against his and he turned in her embrace and held her close.

“How touching,” a voice said from behind him. Freeborn froze. He knew that voice.

“Darone?” he turned, his guts churning, ready to fight.

Darone stood in a casual pose. “Hello, Tuato,” he said, smiling.

“I don’t understand. I threw you down that well.”

“That would have killed a man. For a troll, though,” Darone changed then in front of Tuato’s eyes, he grew and his features broadened. “It was just a minor inconvenience.”

Tuato stared at Darone in disbelief. “You’re a troll? What about Whitehall?”

Darone laughed a booming laugh. “I was surprised that a tiny bit of Fey glamour could have deceived you, Tuato. You clearly have much to learn. As for Whitehall… well, If you when there and asked for me they would have no idea what you were talking about.”

“Then why the deception? Why…”

“We had to be sure which side you would choose. We had to be certain that our King had the interests of his own people at heart.”

Tuato gave Fernia a questioning look. “You knew?”

“Please do not be angry with us, my King. We had to know where your allegiance truly lay”

Freeborn looked at both of them and tried to remain stern, but he could not. When he looked at both of them he could hear the sound in his head, the distant tune, the call of his homeland, that was growing close and stronger with every passing moment. He laughed.

Darone joined Tuato in laughter and Fernia beamed at him in perfect happiness. “Take us home, my King.”

 

This story was originally published in Dark Worlds Magazine in 2011. It currently appears in Heralded by Blood from Rage Machine Books.

Pickman’s Generation

A sequel, of sorts, to H. P Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model. This story was originally published so long ago I can’t remember exactly when or where, but I present it here. Hope you enjoy!

Pickman's Generation

Boston in the middle of a heat wave.

Kennedy Meyrick shook his head at the sun baked city. He took one last drag of his cigarette and carefully stubbed it out in the green plastic ashtray he always carried with him.

There was no smoking in the Fleet Centre. That was a sensible precaution and Meyrick approved, despite the fact that he had to stand outside on a balcony with no shade that looked out over the North End. He could just see the U.S.S. Constitution docked at its wharf and beyond it the gray spire of the Bunker Hill Monument. What little breeze that came up from the harbour was hot and dry and provided Meyrick no relief. His silk shirt was plastered to his body with sweat under his tweed jacket. The knot of his tie was similarly damp.

He opened the double doors and stepped back into the air-conditioned comfort of the upper arena. From his jacket pocket he pulled a can of breath freshener. Two squirts in his open mouth. He pulled out a small plastic bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer. One squirt in the palm of his hand. Rub vigorously. He was now fit to join the company of his fellow antique appraisers.

He moved through the crowded, noisy arena to his booth. He noted, with some chagrin, that a line-up had formed in front of it during his absence. Chelsea Gannon gave him a weak smile as he moved along behind her to take his position to her right. She was examining a lamp that looked like Tiffany, but was probably not, as a middle aged woman and her teen-aged daughter waited expectantly. To his left Albert Lennox was examining a jacket that could have belonged to a soldier in Washington’s army, but was more likely purchased at a costume shop in this century.

He sat down and forced himself to smile at the man at the head of the line as he picked up the cardboard sign that said BACK IN 5 MINUTES and put it down on the floor beside his chair.

The man had curly blond hair, cut close to his scalp. He was pudgy and his face had a faintly porcine cast to it. He had a mouth that stretched around what to Meyrick seemed to be overly large teeth.

“Took you long enough,” the man grunted sarcastically through a lopsided and cynical smile.

“What have you brought today?” Meyrick said, as he had done so over a hundred times this morning.

“You’re the art guy, right?” the man asked.

Meyrick smiled. “I am an art appraiser, yes.” He said. “I am a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts.”

“Yeah, whatever.” the man shrugged and pulled a painting out of a shopping bag. “My name’s Jack Denko. I bought an apartment building last month. I found a bunch of old pictures in the basement of the building. Are they worth anything?” The porcine man thrust the picture into Meyrick’s hands.

Meyrick held the picture at arm’s length and his insides gave a sudden lurch with what he saw.

The canvas was dark and smelled vaguely of mold. Water damage marred the oils and the surface was cracked and pitted through long neglect. But it was the image depicted that startled Meyrick.

The painting depicted a graveyard. Several bestial figures were tearing at a disinterred corpse. They were clearly feeding on the body of a young woman whose ghastly appearance was made all the more horrific by the absolute realism with which the scene was rendered.

The hunched, bestial figures had a skin texture that looked rubbery and viscous at the same time. They did not look like creatures made out of latex for some cheap horror movie, though. These figures looked clinically realistic. The shadows cast by the pale moon, the horrid angles of the corpse’s contorted limbs, and — worst of all — the pale and frightened child among them, utterly human and normal in appearance. One of the creatures was shoving a gobbet of bloody flesh at the child while simultaneously chewing on a similar piece of desiccated flesh in the other.

The scene seemed to show these hideous creatures teaching a young boy how to eat, like a human child gone feral, being raised by a pack of wolves.

“Good God,” Meyrick breathed. He hadn’t intended to but couldn’t help it.

“It’s kinda gross, yeah.” Denko said, noticing Meyrick’s look of distaste.

The sound of Denko’s voice broke the hold with which the picture had gripped him. He looked up. The prosaic reality of the here and now seemed dull and washed out after the intensity of the painting. The overhead fluorescents cast a harsh, sickly light over the whole scene. Denko’s skin looked greenish and pale. Only the bright TV lights in the center area gave the place a natural look, and even then it was too harsh and bright for Meyrick’s eyes.

He looked back down at the painting, taking care not to gaze too intently at the subject matter. He concentrated on the details of the canvas, the frame and the state of the age and water damage.

In the corner he found the signature of the artist, barely legible, and now the whole thing began to make sense. “Pickman,” he breathed.

“Pig Man?” Denko said. “I thought they looked kinda like dogs, myself.”

Meyrick shook his head. “No, no, no. Pickman. Richard Upton Pickman. He was a notorious artist in Boston in the early part of this century. He was considered a genius by some and, for obvious reasons, a madman by others.”

Denko nodded his head disinterestedly. “Uh-huh. Is it worth anything?”

Meyrick shrugged. “It’s hard to say. As far as sheer talent goes Pickman was on a par with Fuseli and Gustave Dore.”

Denko shook his head. “Ya lost me.”

Meyrick took a deep breath. “Fuseli and Dore were artists who produced a style of painting I like to call ‘fantastic realism’ They are different from an artist like Margaret Brundage, for instance, who, although talented, was not pursuing an artistic ideal, merely illustrating macabre subject matter for a magazine called…”

Denko’s pocket suddenly chimed to life with a gratingly loud electronic rendition of Turkey in the Straw. Without a word of apology, he stuck his forefinger in the air to silence Meyrick and pulled a cell phone from inside his jacket. “Denko,” he said forcefully into the receiver.

Meyrick pursed his lips and sighed. He experienced such rudeness all the time, but it seemed that he could never get used to it. He had tried to ban cell phones from the museum, to no avail. Commerce must continue, so the argument went. The wheels of the economy must be kept rolling, although most of the cell phone conversations he overheard had little to do with business and more to do with indulging the bearer’s own inflated sense of self importance.

Meyrick looked back at the Pickman. It was hideous — a nightmarish scene, but it was rendered in such an ultra-realistic style. It was the sort of painting that one did not see much of anymore. The sort of talent for this style had long since been co-opted for paperback illustration and movie poster design. This was before Picasso, before the rise of cubism and modern painters like Pollock and Mondrian. It was a style of painting that no longer existed, no longer needed to exist.

Pickman himself was a bit of an enigma as well. His work was shunned in most of the best galleries for its grotesque subjects. Meyrick could well imagine the reaction to a painting like this in Newberry Street. The Museum of Fine Arts didn’t even have a Pickman in its possession.

The canvas was in very rough shape. He could pick up a faint whiff of mildew and rot. It had not been taken care of. Meyrick didn’t wonder why. Such a ghoulish picture was not one that many would display openly.

“…tell that cocksucker one point two is too much for that rat trap. He’ll be lucky if he gets nine-fifty. He can take my offer or he can keep paying taxes on it ‘till the fucking thing collapses.” Denko snapped off his phone, folded it in half and tossed it back into his pocket. “So,” he said, turning back to Meyrick as if nothing had happened. “How much are we talking?”

Meyrick forced himself to smile. “A Pickman is a rare find, but their value is more historical than…”

Denko made a face and shook his head. “I mean money. How much money?”

Meyrick shrugged. “Perhaps fifteen at an auction…”

“Fifteen thousand?” Denko asked, his swine-like face showing a hint of eager excitement.

“Fifteen-hundred,” Meyrick corrected.

Denko scowled in disappointment. “Oh.” he said. Then he stared up in to the air and began counting on his fingers.

“If it were in better condition…” Meyrick began.

“Fifteen hundred times twelve is…”

“Eighteen thousand,” Meyrick supplied. “But you can only sell it once.”

“This one, yeah. But there are about a dozen of them in the basement.”

Meyrick’s eyebrows rose at that. “You found a dozen Pickmans in your basement?”

Denko nodded. “Yeah. I knocked out a wall. According to the plans there was enough space behind the back wall to build some storage units, maybe a whole other apartment. I found this old room and all these paintings lyin’ around.”

Meyrick stared at Denko. “A dozen Pickmans.” he shook his head.

“Would that be worth something?”

Meyrick shrugged. “Historically it might be invaluable.” he said. “I’d have to see it, of course.”

“Sure,” Denko said. He pulled out a card and scribbled an address of the back. He tossed it to Meyrick. “That’s the address of the apartment block. Call me on my cell and I can meet you there.”

Meyrick looked at the card. The front announced the particulars for DENKO HOLDINGS. The address in Denko’s childish scrawl was someplace in the North End. That would make sense. Right in the middle of the oldest part of Boston.

“So,” Denko said, rubbing his pudgy hands together. “Is any of this gonna get on TV?”

Meyrick raised an eyebrow at Denko and then glanced over at one of the roaming cameramen. He waved the young man over. The cameraman approached indifferently and pointed his shoulder mounted camera at Meyrick.

“This is a painting by Richard Pickman, who was a notorious artist in the Boston area…” Meyrick began. He got as far as holding up the painting before the young man switched off the camera light and held the lens away.

“What’s wrong?” Denko asked.

The young man shook his head. “I can’t shoot that,” he said, indicating the old canvas. “This is a family show, man.”

By five the road show was done. Technicians were packing away lights and equipment. Meyrick tidied up his area, throwing his trash away carefully. He organized his briefcase, straightened his tie and gratefully left the Fleet Centre.

He drove his Lexus carefully south to the Museum of Fine Arts, the air conditioning on full blast. At the museum the temperature controlled building was a welcome oasis from the heat of the outside. On the way to his office he spied Thayles, one of the oldest of the Museum’s curators. Thayles was behind his desk, noisily slurping a cup of tea. Meyrick stood in the doorway and knocked on the jamb.

“A moment of your time, Mr. Thayles?” Meyrick asked.

Thayles gave a shaky nod and indicated the chair in front of his desk. Meyrick sat and studied the old man.

Thayles had to be close to a hundred. He was a fixture in the museum, even though he did not do much actual work anymore. Nevertheless, his knowledge of the Museum’s history was an invaluable asset.

“Do you recall,” Meyrick asked after Thayles’ shaky hand placed his teacup on the surface of his desk. “If the Museum has ever had a Pickman in its possession?”

Thayles pursed his lips and his brow contracted. “Pickman?” he said in a querulous voice. “Pickman…. Pickman… Pickman…”

“I speak of Richard Upton Pickman, of course…” Meyrick supplied.

Thayles gave a little nod. His eyes were far away. Finally he shook his head. “No,” he replied. “The Museum has never displayed a Pickman. In nineteen twenty-five Pickman offered to donate one of his works to the Museum. The board of directors at that time voted to refuse it. Pickman denounced the Museum quite vehemently, but the board’s ruling was upheld. When Pickman disappeared a few years later some tried to change the Museum’s mind, but to no avail.”

Thayles’s eyes returned their focus back to the present. “Why do you ask?”

Meyrick smiled tightly. “I saw a Pickman today. A man claimed to have found it in the basement of an apartment. He says there are more. If I could find an appropriately preserved canvas perhaps the museum would…” Meyrick trailed off. Thayles was shaking his head.

“No,” Thayles said. “The Museum will not display a Pickman.”

“The subject matter is rather macabre…” Meyrick began.

“It’s not the subject matter,” Thayles said. “It’s the artist himself. His ideas were controversial. They dealt with race.”

Meyrick raised his eyebrows. “Was he a racial purist?”

“No,” Thayles said. “But his ideas amount to the same thing, politically. He believed in the muddying of racial strains by ‘older and swarthier’ races. Those were his words to me eighty years ago when I was a young assistant here at the museum.”

“You met Pickman?” Meyrick asked eagerly.

Thayles nodded, a dark expression clouding his features. “Many who knew him socially found him hard to take. Some were merely sensitive of demeanor and cut him from their social circles because of his gruesome pictures. Others had difficulty with the man himself.”

“With his ideas?”

“No. With Pickman himself,” Thayles said, noisily slurping the last of his tea. “Pickman had an odd power to him. His personality had such force that it was hard to resist him. But he was also unsettling to be around. Even if he hadn’t been regaling you with his theories of older races, you couldn’t help but feel that there was something in Pickman that was…wrong, somehow…. that he didn’t really belong in our company.”

Meyrick’s brow furrowed. “I’m not sure I follow you.”

Thayles shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter now. We see people like Pickman all the time. You yourself have railed against them.”

“I have?”

Thayles nodded. “Your petition to have the cell phones removed. You know the type I’m talking about. The type that does not see the beauty of the world. The type of person that feels no social responsibility to his fellow man. The kind of man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

Meyrick thought about Jack Denko and his porcine features, the eager, greedy light in his eyes when he talked about money. “Yes,” he nodded. “I think I understand.”

“We see these fellows all the time,” Thayles continued. “And the young are the worst of all. Nothing is valuable to them unless it costs a lot of money. That’s the one question I get asked all the time on my tours. ‘How much does it cost?’ they ask me. I try to explain its intrinsic value to the whole of humanity, but they refuse to hear.”

Meyrick nodded in agreement. He, too, had been asked that question and had been similarly ignored when he had tried to explain a non-monetary value. He thought again of Jack Denko and others like him.

“Pickman was like that and more so. He had no regard for the sensitivities of others. He spoke openly and gleefully about the corruption of the human soul. He spoke to me about a coming change. He told me as a young man that soon the world would be different. And I daresay he was right. I see more and more people today with that same evil light in their eyes.”

“Evil?” Meyrick asked, surprised by Thayles’ use of the word.

“Yes,” Thayles nodded. “Evil. I do not use that word lightly, for that is what I saw in Pickman’s face that day eighty years ago, a light of purest evil. It made me shudder where I stood. And when he fixed me with his gaze I could see what he had been speaking about. I could see that he was right about an immeasurably older race existing. He believed that he was descended from that race, and at that moment I believed it as well.”

Meyrick shifted uncomfortably. “Surely you don’t still believe that?”

“I do,” Thayles nodded. “The more I see of successive generations, the more I do believe it. The world is not what it was. A corruption has bled its way into the human psyche, and I believe that Pickman knew of it. His paintings may have been a warning to humankind, but I believe that they were a presentiment of the evil to come. Either way, we have ignored his warning and now we are paying the price.”

Meyrick sat in the uncomfortable silence for a moment before standing up. “Thank you for your insight, Sir.” Meyrick said as he made to leave.

“Don’t you ignore the warning, Kennedy,” Thayles said. Meyrick locked eyes with the old man and saw an intensity and a fear in them that he had never seen before. “Stay away from anything to do with Pickman and his kind.”

“Thank you, sir.” Meyrick said and excused himself.

As he walked up the hallway to his office Meyrick was not certain what to make of Thayles’ story. True, Meyrick had petitioned against the cell phones, and he had noted a chronic rudeness in the Museum’s patrons. His colleagues called him ‘old fashioned’ to his face, at least. Behind his back he knew they used more unflattering terms.

Meyrick was only forty-one, but if it was old fashioned to believe in the goodness of the human soul, to believe that there was more of value in this world than the almighty dollar, then he was old fashioned through and through, and he did not care what anyone else thought.

But Thayles’ words had disturbed him greatly and he did not know what to make of them.

In his office he opened the window and lit a cigarette. He smoked it fastidiously, blowing the smoke out of the window. When he was done he crushed the butt in the ashtray, dumped the ashes down the toilet across the hall, and then cleaned out the ashtray. He locked his door and shut his blinds. He stripped off his suit and his now sweat-sodden silk shirt and tie. He wrapped the suit in a bag destined for the dry cleaners and pulled another suit from the closet behind his desk.

He made use of the breath freshener and the hand sanitizer, again. Now he felt refreshed and clean. It was getting on for seven o’ clock.

He drove the Lexus North up Huntington towards Boston Common. He turned left on Charles, then right on Beacon Street. He turned left again and into the parking lot of the Museum of Afro-American History. Naomi was waiting for him at the front entrance.

She wore a simple cotton dress and white heels. Meyrick smiled at the sight of the white material contrasting beautifully with the deep brown of her skin. He pulled up and got out of the car. She smiled when she saw him and moved gracefully down the stairs towards Meyrick as he held open the passenger side door for her.

“I’ve had a dreadful day,” she said, smiling. Her accent was somewhere between Namibia and Oxford and made the phrase sound exotic and musical.

“It’s all over now,” Meyrick smiled back. She gave him a quick kiss as she slid into the passenger seat. Meyrick carefully closed the door and got back behind the wheel. He drove them to the theater district where a table for two was reserved at La Monde.

They ordered lobster and Meyrick ordered a bottle of white. He poured Naomi a glass and she drank gratefully as she told him of her day — of the rudeness of the museum’s patrons, of racist remarks overheard from the crowds, the obstinance of the museum’s directors and of the punishment that her feet had taken throughout.

Meyrick sipped his wine and smiled in sympathy, listening to her with rapt attention. They had been seeing each other for two months since they met at a curator’s conference and Meyrick was certain that he was falling in love with her.

He told her about Jack Denko and the Pickmans and about Thayles’ odd warnings. After he had finished, Naomi’s brows furrowed in concern. “Are you going to see the paintings?” she asked.

“I don’t feel I have much choice,” he shrugged. “I’m not certain what to make of Thayles, though.”

She smiled. “The man is almost a hundred years old. I think he’s entitled to a few eccentricities.”

Meyrick returned her smile warmly. “You’re right, of course,” he said. “But I still feel I should look at the paintings. If they are all Pickmans it would be quite a rare find.”

Naomi nodded. She finished her glass and poured another. A look of uncertainty marred her features. “This talk of Pickman and his beliefs… I’ve heard something like it before. My grandmother used to talk about the dog men.”

“Dog men?” Meyrick asked. He continued to smile, but an unexpected chill ran up his back as she said it.

Naomi shrugged. “African culture is full of stories about men who change into animals. Some tribes have legends of men who become leopards, for instance. Another tribe talks about the Alligator people. But this was different. Grandmother used to speak of certain men who had the stink of dogs about them.

“Near the village where she grew up they built a dam. She used to call some of the men who came to work on the dam ‘dog men’. At first my family thought she meant the white men, but she only meant certain white men. Even some of the black men who worked the dam were similarly named.

“Later in her life, when she lived in London with my mother and father, she would take me for walks around Trafalgar and talk about the dog men. She said you could tell who was a dog man by the evil light in his eyes when you mentioned money. If you spoke about spirits or something beautiful, they wouldn’t respond, but if you spoke about money or food or sex they suddenly got very interested. She said they would smile foully when one of those subjects was spoken of.”

Meyrick shrugged and continued smiling. “I wish that these dog men were rarer,” he said, trying to inject a tone of amusement into his voice and failing. “I encounter people like that all the time.”

Naomi smiled. “Grandmother used to say that every year there were more and more of the dog men and less and less of the real people. That’s why she didn’t like the idea of blacks and whites marrying. If she saw us together she would not be happy until she satisfied herself that you weren’t a dog man.”

Meyrick raised his eyebrows. “I hope that I would meet with her approval.”

Naomi smiled. “If she were still alive I know you would.” she reached across the table and took his hand in both of hers. “You are a good man, Kennedy. That is what attracted me to you. I knew right away that you weren’t like most others.”

Meyrick smiled. “Not a dog man?”

Naomi’s smile widened and she shook her head. “Not in the slightest.”
After the meal Naomi was tipsy from the wine. Meyrick helped her into his car and drove her to her apartment. He helped her up the stairs, going slowly so that she would not stumble and fall. He unlocked her door and moved her slowly to her bedroom. He took off her shoes and laid her down on the bed, covering her with a sheet.

She curled into the bed and Meyrick smiled down at her. She looked so beautiful and vulnerable. Meyrick did not want to leave her alone. He left her bedroom door open a crack and lay down on her couch and slept.

He woke to the smell of coffee. The morning light was streaming through the apartment’s windows and Naomi was moving around her small kitchen wearing a bathrobe. She heard him stir. She went to him and gave him a long kiss.

“You’re a good man, Kennedy,” she said, smiling. “Another man might have taken advantage of me in the condition I was in.”

Meyrick shrugged and shook his head. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him.

She looked down and smiled secretly. “You could have, and I might not even have minded.” she said, raising her eyes to meet his.

Meyrick felt his face flush. He blinked rapidly, looked away and tried to stammer out a response.

Naomi laughed at him, but not unkindly. “I’ve embarrassed you. I’m sorry.”

Meyrick shook his head, looking down at the floor. “It’s alright,” he managed.

They had breakfast together. Meyrick drove Naomi to her museum, and he drove to his.
Meyrick forgot about Jack Denko until two weeks later. A message arrived at the museum urging Meyrick to call him. Meyrick found Denko’s card and called the number for his cell.

“Denko,” his abrupt voice shouted in Meyrick’s ear.

“Mister Denko, this is Kennedy Meyrick,” he said.

“The art guy! Listen you’ve gotta come to the apartment block. I’ve found some things you might be interested in.”

Meyrick agreed to meet Denko there at noon.

Meyrick drove north up Huntington. The apartment building was deep in the North End. He drove around Atlantic to Christopher Columbus Park, then on to Commercial. He passed the Lewis Wharf and drove over the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels. He turned left before he got to the North End Playground. He was soon in an area that was rife with apartment buildings. It took him a few more turns before he found the address of Denko’s building.

The faded gold lettering on the front glass door told Meyrick that the building was called the Peters Apartments. Jack Denko stood waiting for him outside.

“You’re gonna love this,” Denko said without the hint of a smile. “I made a couple of interesting finds last night.”

Meyrick locked his car and followed Denko into the building.

The Peters Apartments looked like they’d been built in the late sixties. The whole place had a faded, run-down look and Meyrick could see dust and cobwebs in most corners as well as some alarming looking water damage.

Denko bypassed the drab green metal of the doors of the elevators and went through a door that led down a flight of stairs. The linoleum on the stairs was cracked and peeling and they squeaked noisily as the two men descended.

At the bottom was a dimly lit laundry room. The concrete floor was covered with a faded green paint and half a dozen battered looking washers and dryers were arranged around the walls. There was evidence of mold on the walls and ceiling and one of the fluorescent lights was flickering.

“It’s through here,” Denko said, opening a wooden door set at the far end of the room.

Through the door was a room that could barely even be called a closet. There were two old, rusty cans of paint in one corner and an old tire in the other. The back wall of the room was torn through. “This was the storage area,” Denko explained. “As you can see there’s not much room to store anything. I figured there had to be more space behind it so I knocked out the wall and found this.”

Denko climbed through the torn wall. Meyrick hesitated for a moment, and then he followed.

The room smelled of age, dust and mold. It was a large open space with a dirt floor. Someone had hung a single bulb in the middle of the room which gave the place a ghastly, pale illumination. In a corner of the floor was the mouth of a well. It was circular and five feet across, made of thick bricks. It jutted about six inches above the level of the floor and was covered with a wooden lid. Meyrick estimated that the well had probably been built in the seventeenth century.

Beyond was another room with a wooden floor. Denko stepped through the door and turned on another bulb that was strung inside. Meyrick stood in the open doorway and stared in shock. The room was littered with paintings, all Pickmans, in various states of preservation.

All of the paintings featured variations on the same monstrous creatures. All were rendered with an incredible realism. There was little in the way of expressionistic technique. All were done with technical precision the like of which Meyrick had never seen.

The settings were easily recognizable though they were painted in the nineteen twenties. There was one that depicted these creatures in the subway. Another showed them dancing in the Copp’s Hill Cemetery. There were various depictions of the monsters coming out of the woodwork and hiding in cellars.

There was one very large canvas which showed a giant monstrosity with fierce glowing eyes. The figure was chewing on the remains of a man. Meyrick shuddered and looked away. Then he saw the sketches. They were drawn in charcoal on scattered bits of paper. In the corners of the room were old brushes and tubes that were completely squeezed of paint.

Meyrick looked back up to the large painting and saw now that it was unfinished. The implication of this crawled over his consciousness like a hundred tiny spiders. “This was Pickman’s studio,” he breathed.

Denko laughed from behind him. The sound startled Meyrick. Denko’s laugh sounded harsh and abrasive and Meyrick was suddenly cold with an unreasoning fear.

“The artist’s studio,” Denko said. He was smiling now, his lips pulled back from teeth that suddenly seemed to Meyrick to be overly large and canine. “Well, fuck me silly.”

Meyrick began to shake. His mind was suddenly whirling with the monstrous images. It became difficult to breathe. “I… I’ve got to tell the museum… this is…”

“You haven’t seen the best part, yet,” Denko said, his grin still wide, his teeth still too large for a man’s. His small eyes were squeezed almost shut, but Meyrick could still see a gleam in them that made him want to run screaming and hide himself.

“Please…” Meyrick said. He feebly glanced at his wrist watch, and then looked back at Denko. “I’ve got to get back to…” he trailed off. He had tried to keep the plaintive whine out of his voice but it was no good. Just like a dog, Denko had sensed Meyrick’s fear and, just like a dog, he knew that he could attack.

Denko turned suddenly and went back into the large dirt-floored chamber. Meyrick followed weakly, hoping beyond hope that he could make a break for the hole in the wall and run back up the stairs into the sunlight and the safety of the busy street.

Denko stooped and picked up a painting. He turned and held it out to Meyrick, blocking the way out. “Look at this,” he said.

The painting was another Pickman, as old and as musty as all the rest, but it was different. It showed a cut away view of a hill. Inside the hill was honeycombed with tunnels and chambers. All of the tunnels and chambers were filled with the hideous creatures from all of the other paintings. They were like an ant colony. They dug from underground up to the houses above, feeding on unsuspecting victims, or, when that was not possible, digging into graveyards and feeding on the buried corpses. Meyrick shuddered openly now. He wanted to scream out loud and run away.

From behind the canvas came the harsh sound of Denko’s laughter. Meyrick let out a small sound of fear that seemed to encourage Denko all the more. The canvas was pulled aside and Denko’s hideous, bestial face leered at him from behind. The harsh light of the naked bulb threw Denko’s porcine features into sharp relief and Meyrick was suddenly frozen with the uncanny resemblance between Denko and the creatures from the canvases.

Denko reached out a hand and pointed to the top on the canvas. “See?” he said.

Meyrick looked. Denko was pointing to a section of the picture that showed an exit from the network of tunnels. It was a well. One of the creatures was clambering out of it, his lips pulled back into a hellish snarl. Denko tapped the section and then pointed to the wood capped stone that jutted from the floor. “See?”

Meyrick felt a wash of horror and nausea pass through him. “No…” he managed to say, He shook his head and once his head found the motion he could not stop it.

Denko ignored Meyrick’s feeble protest and moved to the lidded well. He grasped the edge of the wooden lid and slid it over, revealing the well’s opening. An odour came from the now open well, a horrible, wet, dank smell that hit Meyrick like a blow. It was overwhelmingly nauseating. Meyrick felt his stomach lurch.

He moved towards the opening in the wall. Denko dropped the painting and grabbed his jacket, pulling him back. “Where ya goin’, art guy?” Denko practically screamed, his lips pulled back from his canine teeth in a gleefully awful grin. “You haven’t seen the best part!”

Denko kicked at the wooden cover. It slid the rest of the way off the lip of the well and tipped up revealing an old wooden ladder resting just inside.

Meyrick shook his head. “No” he said, feebly.

Denko laughed and pushed Meyrick to the edge. “Climb down,” he ordered.

Meyrick did not move. Fear rooted him to the spot. Denko moved close to him, menacingly. “Climb down or I’ll have to throw you down.” he said, a tone of horrid amusement in his voice.

Meyrick climbed over the lip of the well and placed his foot upon the ladder. It did not move under his weight. It had been bolted to the stone wall of the well. Shakily, Meyrick mounted the ladder and began climbing down. When he got far enough down Denko climbed onto the ladder above him.

Meyrick’s foot found the bottom and he stepped off the ladder. The ground underfoot felt wet and squelchy. The only light came from the open well that was now twenty feet above his head.

The wet, dank smell was overpowering and Meyrick choked with every indrawn breath. Denko seemed unaffected by the odour as he jauntily jumped off the ladder and favoured him with his hideous grin. “These tunnels extend far under the city,” Denko explained. “They’re older than most buildings in the North End.”

Denko grabbed Meyrick by the shoulder and dragged him away from the ladder. Meyrick did not want to leave the single shaft of light, but was too weak to resist Denko. The man had a strength that belied his rotund appearance.

Meyrick did not know how long he stumbled and choked beside Denko. He did not notice when the noises began until they grew in volume and became unmistakable. He could hear breathing and movement all around him. The wet, squelchy ground made hideous sucking sounds where feet walked upon it and those sounds began to multiply and grow louder.

Meyrick felt something touch his arm and he cried out. Denko laughed near his ear. “I gotta tell you, Art Guy,” Denko said, still laughing. “When I found those paintings I never thought I’d find something else down here.”

Meyrick could now see a flickering, orange light and he could smell smoke overtop the putrid smell around him. He began to see shapes, vague at first, then becoming more distinct. At first he thought it was his imagination giving the figures a fearsome cast, but as they approached the source of the light he could see that the figures that were around them were, in fact, the same creatures that had been depicted in Pickman’s paintings.

They were hideous. Their black eyes reflected the orange firelight; their lips were pulled back from canine teeth in vicious snarls. He could hear laughter, a high pitched braying that made Meyrick quake with fear. He heard growls and other noises, a slow, continuous susurration of breathing all around him.

“You see, Art Guy,” Denko said beside his ear. “I never knew that I was adopted. That’s because when I was a baby I was placed in a home above ground in exchange for Mrs. Denko’s real baby who was brought down here. Remember the painting I showed you in the Fleet Centre? The dog men teaching the child how to eat?”

Meyrick remembered the painting. The ghoulish creature chewing on a piece of bloodied flesh, offering it to a young child. Meyrick’s insides writhed with horror.

“That’s how they do it, see?” Denko explained. “They take a child from a crib and leave one of their own. Just like in those old fairy stories. That’s how they spread themselves out. They’ve been doing that for three hundred years.”

Meyrick shook his head. It couldn’t be true. Now he saw others in the firelight. Others who were clearly not one of these ghoulish creatures. Men and women, thin, desiccated, haunted. God alone knew how these unfortunates had survived raised by these hideous creatures. Meyrick managed to make a small noise, but his throat was choked with fear it came out as a squeak.

Denko laughed. “Some of the babies get eaten. When food is scarce, some of the people get eaten. There’s just not as good a selection in graveyards anymore. People don’t die young as much anymore as they did three hundred years ago. But, hey, that’s life in the big city, right?”

Meyrick stared around him. He was paralyzed with fear. If it had not been for Denko’s fierce grip on him he would have collapsed down into the mud.

The ghoulish creatures were moving in on them now. They were in a large cave. The walls were mud and rock. Meyrick could see structures along the walls. They were a hodge-podge of materials — cast off pieces of wood, tree limbs, metal pipes — all lashed together.

Denko had stopped before a larger structure that disappeared into the gloom. The creatures that had closed around them were not moving. They were waiting, expectantly.

Meyrick saw a figure moving from the structure, climbing down, making its way slowly, painfully. It was a thin, pale figure. As it approached Meyrick could see that it was an old man. His skin was shrunken on his flesh, his skull-like face and black eyes gleamed fearsomely in the firelight. He looked like an ancient mummy that had cast off its bandages and was walking free.

The old man approached Meyrick. He was grinning at him, his pale, wrinkled lips were pulled back from overly large teeth. His eyes were black, with no whites at all.

The creatures around him began to make a noise. Meyrick couldn’t make out what it was they were saying at first. It became a rhythmic chant as the old man stared, grinning his foul grin. Meyrick caught the words they were breathing. Pickman. Pickman. Pickman.

Meyrick stared in utter disbelief. This pale, wasted figure before him was Richard Upton Pickman. It was impossible. He would have to be over a hundred years old.

“Pickman?” Meyrick managed, staring into the old man’s black eyes. “Richard Upton Pickman?”

The old man’s eyes narrowed. His lips began to move. They quivered and flapped like sails in a strong wind. “F… fr….f….” Pickman tried. “Ff…fre….fressssh…m..mmm…meat…”

Now the creatures took up the chant. Fresh meat. Fresh meat! Fresh MEAT!

Meyrick felt a panic grip hold of him. He tried to move, tried to make his legs move, tried to run, but he couldn’t. Denko had him held too tightly. His limbs would not do what his brain tried desperately to tell them to.

Suddenly the air was pierced with a high pitched, unnatural sound. The chanting stopped The creatures glanced around in confusion at the jarring, grating electronic sound. Meyrick recognized it. It was the tinny version of Turkey in the Straw that Denko’s cell phone played. Meyrick wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Denko quickly reached to shut it off and Meyrick took the chance. He balled his fist and struck. He hit Denko square in the face. Meyrick had never hit anyone before in his life, but he put every ounce of strength he had into the blow and Denko went down.

Meyrick turned and pushed at Pickman. The old man’s flesh felt dry and papery. The ancient man fell back and there was a collective uproar from the creatures around them, but now Meyrick found his legs and used them.

He ran. He could feel hands grasping for him. One gripped his jacket and he let it slip off as he barreled through the darkness.

He did not know where he was going. He could not see anything and in his headlong flight he crashed into stone walls more than once.

How long he ran like that, Meyrick did not know. He could no longer hear the awful sound of the creatures around him though echoing screams and howls seemed to pursue him down the darkened tunnels.

He slowed. He was nearly spent. He could feel exhaustion beginning to overwhelm him, but he could not let it. He was moving along a wall, one hand upon it, slowly making his way down the tunnel when he felt the ladder. It was the same kind of wooden ladder that Denko had made him climb down. He seized the ladder and began to climb.

He hit his head on a metal ceiling. He reached up. It was cold and damp, but solid. He pushed. The metal ceiling gave a little. Meyrick pushed some more and it lifted. Meyrick climbed and pushed his way up through the gap between the metal and the stone wall. The metal lid was heavy but he wriggled his body until he was through, tearing his shirt on the metal lip. He pulled his foot free and the metal lid fell back with a clang.

Meyrick was lying on a concrete floor. He could smell dust and age, but could no longer hear the terrible noise of the creatures. He lay like that for a long time, gasping and feeling every ache in his body.

Finally he stirred. He managed to get shakily to his feet. He was in complete darkness. He reached into his pocket and fished out his book of matches. He lit one. In the faint glow of the match he saw that he was in some kind of disused basement. On the floor, set into the concrete was a stone well, a twin to the one in the basement of Denko’s apartment building.

In the feeble light he located a metal staircase and climbed up. He found himself in the lobby of a disused movie theater. The doors were boarded shut. Meyrick managed to get his fingers underneath the panel of plywood that was blocking the exit. He pulled at it and it gave inwards.

He froze when he heard the sound of heavy breathing. He heard movement. Someone was in the building with him. “Who’s there?” he called.

From behind the plywood the light from a streetlamp illuminated the inside of the old theater lobby. Meyrick saw a movement from behind the candy counter. He could not see who it was. It might have been just a vagrant, but in Meyrick’s eyes it was one of those creatures and it was coming to get him.

He pulled at the panel with renewed vigour. Soon he was able to pull it back enough to slip out of the doors and onto the street. He picked himself up and ran.

He did not know exactly where he was but he could hear the sounds of the harbour close by. He found a bus stop and when the bus came he got on. He stuffed a two-dollar bill into the metal slot and sat near a window, gazing out at the darkened city as it crept by like the backdrop of some awful nightmare from which he could not make himself awake.
A year and a half went by. Meyrick and Naomi married. He never told her of the tunnels or the creatures that inhabited them, and he never spoke about the Pickmans. He never saw or heard from Jack Denko again.

Thayles passed away and Meyrick was promoted. In his new capacity he was in a position to decide what paintings would hang on the walls of the museum. He vowed to uphold the wishes of the board and to never allow a Pickman to enter the place.

But after that day Kennedy Meyrick was different. There was a guardedness about him — a haunted look that his associates remarked upon. When he conducted tours and someone inevitably asked how much a painting cost, Meyrick would refuse to answer, choosing only to give the questioner a look of utter contempt. Only those who knew him and looked closely would notice that the look of contempt hid an expression of fear.

Shortly after his son was born Meyrick heard a noise late at night in the nursery. He got up, Naomi stirring beside him, and went to check on his newborn. The nursery was quiet. Nothing was disturbed. His son slept peacefully in his crib. But he could smell that dank wet smell of the tunnels.

His heart was hammering wildly in his chest as he reached slowly into the crib to turn his tiny child over. Would he see his son’s sweet face, or would he see one of Pickman’s progeny staring back at him with those cold, hideous black eyes?

 

This story appears in Heralded by Blood from Rage Machine Books.

The Grotto

Here’s a tale featuring my supernatural detective character, Harlan DaVinci

The Grotto

I was impressed by the sight of the mansion as I carefully maneuvered the Buick up the curving driveway. DaVinci merely grunted as he looked out the passenger window. It was a classic example of Gothic stone architecture with dark wood accents surrounded by verdant greenery.

Our client was waiting for us at the foot of a stone staircase, which led up to an ornate entranceway. He wore a casual, loose-fitting outfit made of silk. He had his trademark pipe clenched in his teeth and he was flanked by two nymphs in mini-skirts.

“You must be DaVinci,” he said, coming forward with his hand outstretched as DaVinci pulled his lanky frame out of the car. “I’m Rusty Steppner.”

DaVinci shook his hand and nodded. He gestured back towards me. “My assistant, Jimmy Dupont.”

Steppner favoured me with a brittle smile, which I returned. My attention was distracted by the nymphs.

They were beautiful and they seemed somewhat unearthly. They were tall and statuesque and, despite the ubiquitous bangles and peace symbols, they were elegantly coifed, which was a pleasure for me to see. There was so little elegance around these days. They were beaming bright smiles at us and had alert, accommodating expressions.

They were exactly the kind of women that had made Rusty Steppner a wealthy man.

Steppner introduced them. The blonde was Candy and the brunette was Paula. DaVinci gave them a perfunctory nod and moved off into the house with Steppner. I smiled and held out my arms. Candy and Paula each grabbed one and we ascended the stairs together.

I was going to enjoy this case.

We were ushered into a plush salon with a high ceiling. One wall had large picture windows, which looked out onto the grounds.

Steppner offered us a drink. It was ten in the morning so DaVinci opted for tea. Steppner had a whiskey.

He sat back with his glass and looked out the window. “It’s going to be a wonderful place, Mr. DaVinci,” he said. “I’m going to close up my Chicago operation and move it all out here and I’ll spend the rest of my days basking in California sunshine.”

DaVinci nodded. “That sounds pleasant enough.” he said. “Exactly where is the problem?”

Steppner gave DaVinci a piercing look, then sighed. “It’s my fucking grotto,” he said, draining his glass.
Steppner led us out of the building and into the large expanse of back lawn. The whole space was surrounded by trees and shrubs for privacy, but Steppner had other plans for it.

“I’m going to plant all sorts of things,” he said as we walked down the gently sloping yard. “I want to have a kind of a maze — like a mini jungle. And I want to import animals from all over; monkeys, tropical birds, that sort of thing.”

Finally we came to the grotto.

It was a shallow pool in front of what almost looked like a naturally jutting rock. I say almost, because it was built in front of an obviously man-made hill of cement. Most of the cement structure was covered in a dark, loamy soil, but there were still bare patches here and there. The front facade looked like a natural rock formation with two cave mouths on either side of the rock face that jutted into the pool.

“It’s not much to look at right now,” Steppner said. “When it’s finished it’s going to be remarkable. If it gets finished.”

“What is the exact nature of the problem?” DaVinci asked.

Steppner shrugged, clearly uncomfortable. “I was hoping you could tell me that. All I know is that the workmen refuse to go in there any more. I had almost a dozen men — stoneworkers, artisans, and others — working on this project. The contractor was a fellow named Dooley. When one of his men went missing…”

“Went missing?” I asked.

Steppner shrugged again. “That’s what they said. The other fellows swore that the man went into the grotto and never came out.”

Paula shuddered beside me. I looked at the half completed grotto. It seemed perfectly prosaic here in the warm sun.

“Curious,” DaVinci said. “What else?”

“After that there were a number of strange incidents. The workers claimed that they could hear moaning noises inside the structure. They claimed that they heard voices whispering and odd banging sounds.”

DaVinci pursed his lips. “Banging is not an uncommon sound at a construction site.”

“That’s what I said,” Steppner agreed. “The cave itself resonates. Sound from outside comes in and bounces around, especially when it’s filled with water.”

“Did you witness anything unusual?” DaVinci asked.

Steppner hesitated the briefest second before answering. “No,” he shook his head.

“Anything else?” DaVinci asked.

“Some of the workers claimed that one of my girls kept coming around and watching. They’d tell her to go, that it wasn’t safe to lounge around. They said she’d go, but then she’d show up again a few hours later.”

“Did you talk to her?”

Steppner shook his head. “That’s just it. None of them had been anywhere near the place.”

“Are you certain?”

“Most certain,” Steppner said. “We’ve had shoots going on all week involving all of the girls. I’m going to have a big feature in the next issue showcasing the house. They were all busy inside with the photographer. None of them went anywhere near the grotto.”

DaVinci nodded briefly and looked back towards the unfinished grotto, a thoughtful expression on his face. He let out a breath then turned to Steppner. “I’ll have to stay close to the structure for a while,” he said.

“You can stay at the house,” Steppner said. “There’s plenty of guest rooms.”

DaVinci nodded. “We’ll have to settle the money first.”

Steppner glanced at me, then back to DaVinci. “Money is no object. This place is going to be a landmark one day, but more than that, it’s going to be my home. I’ll pay whatever it takes to make that happen.”

DaVinci nodded and named a figure that made me blink in surprise. Steppner didn’t even hesitate. “I’ll have my accountant issue you a cheque in the morning.”

I tried not to goggle. Even with DaVinci and I now living in separate places, I in my apartment in Brooklyn and he in his old house in the country with his daughter, the money would be enough to keep both of us going for several years.

“I won’t cash it until you are satisfied that I have achieved the desired results,” DaVinci said. “Although there may be expenses along the way.”

“That’s fine,” Steppner said as he moved back up to the house. “Spare no expense, Mr. DaVinci. Just help me get my grotto built.” He and the girls walked back up the slope, leaving DaVinci and I alone.

I edged closer to DaVinci. “Can you do it?” I asked.

“I believe so,” he said. He didn’t take his eyes off the grotto. “Steppner’s not being completely candid with us.”

“I noticed that,” I said.

“I need more information. Stroll around the grounds. Talk to people. If you can talk to the contractor or any of the workers, all the better.”

I nodded. “And you?”

“I need to get some history on the grounds,” he said.
Back up at the house we found Steppner greeting more visitors at the door. More ladies had arrived along with two gentlemen carrying camera equipment.

DaVinci approached Steppner and pulled him aside. Steppner nodded, made his apologies and he and DaVinci ascended the grand staircase.

The four ladies who arrived were all as beautiful and statuesque as Candy and Paula. “Rusty wants to finish the shoots today,” Paula said, coming up beside me. “We’ve been doing sessions all week over the house. Rusty wanted to finish with a photo essay of the grotto. He’s very disappointed.”

I nodded. “What exactly happened to make work stop?”

Paula gave me an uncomfortable look. She watched as the photographers and the other girls dissipated to various rooms in the house, then moved over to the couch and sat down. “Mr. Steppner told you about the worker that went missing and the noises.”

“I know,” I said, sitting down beside her. “But I want to hear your perspective. Were you here when it all happened?”

Paula nodded, clearly uncomfortable now. “I remember the workers. They were all right. Candy and I would sunbathe around them… in the buff, you know. We thought we’d give them a bit of a thrill. Everything was fine except for one guy — Seamus Flannigan. He was Dooley’s young cousin, I think.”

“How young?”

Paula shrugged. “Eighteen, maybe.”

“This place would have been quite an education for him,” I said.

She shook her head. “He didn’t like it. He’d been raised in Dublin by a strict Catholic aunt, or something, so us being naked offended him. He came over with the stones.”

“Stones?”

Paula nodded. “The stones they used to build the grotto. They were imported from some abbey in Ireland. Dooley arranged it and Seamus traveled with them on the ship. Dooley was going to take him back to Ireland when they were done, but then…” she gazed out the picture window, a wistful expression clouding her features.

“Do you suppose he just wandered off?” I suggested. “Perhaps the conflict between his Catholic upbringing and this…” I stopped myself before I said what I was going to say. “…Xanadu — for lack of a better word — became too much for him.”

Paula frowned. “I could believe that except… Candy and I saw him go into the grotto. Once you’re in that tunnel there’s no way out — no back door. So did most of the other workers. We all saw him go in and none of us saw him go out.”

“When did they realize he was missing?” I asked.

“Almost right away. One of the workers went in to check on him and he was gone. They searched everywhere. Dooley became really upset and had a big argument with Rusty. That’s when they all left.”

“They didn’t come back?”

“Dooley came back a few times. He’d check out the grotto, but he wouldn’t go back to work on it. Except for one night, but Rusty had to stop him.”

“Stop him? Why?”

Paula shrugged. “I don’t really know. It was late and I was asleep when it happened. I gather Dooley was trying to tear the thing down. Rusty said he was drunk.”

“What else did Rusty say about that?”

“Not much. He was pretty shaken up after that. He wouldn’t go near the grotto for days afterward. I don’t know what Dooley said… threatened him, maybe… but it was soon after that Rusty called in Mister DaVinci.”

I nodded. I was about to ask another question when I was distracted by Candy coming into the room. She was in her birthday suit and was followed by one of the photographers. “Sorry to interrupt you, man” the fellow said. “I wanna make use of the light in this room. You wanna get in on this, Paula?”

“Sure,” Paula said as she stood up from the couch. As casually as you please she started taking off her clothes right there.

I’m not a prude, and no one appreciates the female form more than I do, but somehow, after sitting with her, talking to her like I had, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of suddenly seeing Paula naked. It just seemed kind of empty without dinner and some dancing beforehand. Besides, with Candy and the photographer in the room as well, it felt a little crowded. I casually wandered out of the room.

Outside in the entranceway I saw Steppner coming down the staircase. “Your Mr. DaVinci is quite a unique individual,” he said when he saw me.

“He certainly is,” I smiled.

“I’ve just left him in the library with all of my records about the house. Sales documents, assessments. He wanted to see everything.”

I nodded. “He’s very thorough. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions?”

Steppner shrugged. “Fire away.”

“Dooley,” I managed. As soon as I said it a sour expression stole over his face. “I take it you’re not pleased with the man.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” he said, darkly. “Miles Dooley was recommended to me as a fine contractor. He seemed very competent at first. Then his young cousin ran off and he just fell apart.”

“You say his cousin ran off…”

“Of course he did,” Steppner said, rather adamantly. “He was a young kid from a very strict religious background. He was a long way from home and didn’t agree with our beliefs over here. I don’t think he liked America much. He called it the ‘Land of the Dead’.”

I nodded and made a non-committal noise. Many young people didn’t seem to like America much these days, and they didn’t have to be from Ireland. “Tell me about the night Dooley tried to tear down the grotto.”

Steppner’s expression darkened. He shrugged. “Dooley was drunk. He was angry and he blamed me for his cousin’s disappearance. He came over and tried to tear apart the grotto.”

“You confronted him?”

Steppner heaved a sigh. “Mr. Dupont, I have paid a lot for this house and I paid Dooley a lot to build my grotto. I wasn’t about to let him tear it down. Yes, I confronted him.”

“And what happened?”

Here Steppner hesitated as he had done before when DaVinci asked him if he had witnessed any of the odd events. “Dooley took off,” he replied flatly. “I haven’t seen him since.”

“You haven’t tried to get him to come back to finish the job?” I asked.

“No.” Steppner said, turning away abruptly. “I’m a busy man, Mister Dupont.” he called over his shoulder. “I’ve got a magazine to put out.” and with that he was gone.

I stood in the entranceway for a moment, then headed up the stairs. The house was labyrinthine, but I eventually managed to find the library. DaVinci was sitting at a round mahogany table with a single Tiffany lamp for illumination. He was surrounded by Steppner’s records.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Better than you,” DaVinci replied without looking up.

“How do you know I’m doing poorly?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t be up here talking to me if you were actually making progress.” he said.

He was right, of course. If I were making progress I’d be following leads and not bothering him while he was conducting a paper hunt. “Maybe I’m getting too old for this.” I said.

“I should think so,” DaVinci said, still poring over the exhaustive mound of documents. “Time was when a pretty girl was enough to keep you moving until you stumbled across some useful information. Now you have a whole house full of naked nymphs running around and you don’t know what to do with yourself. You’re slipping.”

I grunted. Maybe he was right. I shrugged. “It’s just no fun without the foreplay. It’s like the steak without the sizzle. Besides, Steppner keeps clamming up when I press him about Dooley.”

“Supernatural denial,” DaVinci muttered. “You and I see it all the time. It’s cost us a few paycheques as well.”

“Hopefully not this one. Where did Steppner get a hold of Dooley?”

DaVinci furrowed his brows and began digging through a pile he’d set aside. He pulled out a dog-eared and stained contract. “Miles Dooley lists his address as an establishment called O’Roark’s. It’s a pub. Dooley rents rooms above it.”

I took the contract and jotted down the address. “Thanks Harlan,” I said and left him alone in Steppner’s library.
Downtown Los Angeles is almost all freeway, so navigating my way to O’Roark’s with the Buick was a bit of a challenge. Eventually I found the place and made my way inside.

At the long oak bar I sat on one of the stools in front of a bowl of pretzels and ordered a beer. The place was quiet and dark and there were few other patrons. It was late afternoon and the overhead speaker was playing Let It Be.

The bartender was an older black man who wore a shirt like a barber’s. I laid down a buck for my beer and asked him about Miles Dooley. He took the bill and pointed to a corner booth.

Dooley looked like he’d started drinking three days ago and hadn’t got around to stopping yet. He wore a ratty old blue sweater on his skinny frame and three days’ worth of rust-red stubble on his chin. He looked blearily up at me as I approached.

“I hope what you build is steadier than you are,” I said as I sat down opposite.

“Who the hell are you?” Dooley slurred, his Irish lilt as thick as a T-bone steak.

“Name’s Dupont,” I said. “I wanted to ask you about your cousin, Seamus Flannigan.”

I felt a presence suddenly looming behind me. I stiffened and got ready to slide out of the booth. Before I could do anything a giant hand clamped down on my shoulder. I turned and looked at an incredibly tall black man standing beside me.

“This honky buggin’ you, Miles?” the man’s baritone rolled down at us.

Dooley blinked at the black man, then waved him off. “It’s alright, Leroy” Dooley said. “Let him talk.”

The hand let go of my shoulder and Leroy sat down beside me in the booth, pushing me over into the corner. I tried my best to smile disarmingly at the newcomer, but he seemed unimpressed by my winsome grin.

“You a cop?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I’m not a cop.”

“Then what are you?”

“I’m an assistant paranormal investigator,” I said, deciding to confuse the fellow with the truth. “I’m an associate of the Inner Circle, an adept of the second level, as well as a licensed thaumaturge.” So I lied about the thaumaturge. How was he going to know?

He blinked at me, now completely uncertain of how to continue, which was what I wanted.

“What did you want to know about Seamus for?” Dooley asked me.

“The folks at Rusty Steppner’s house seem to think he ran off. The prevailing opinion is that the rampant hedonism at Steppner’s mansion offended his deep seated catholic sensibilities.”

“That’s a lie,” Dooley spat. “Seamus didn’t run off. He wouldn’t ha’ run off. Where would he go?”

I shrugged. “You tell me, Dooley. Where did he go?”

Dooley made a face and drained his glass. He gave his companion a pleading look. The fellow snapped at the bartender and two beers were brought over.

“Seamus wasn’t bothered by it,” Dooley finally said after a healthy swig of his fresh brew. “Not religiously, anyway. Seamus was Catholic, yes, but he’d lapsed. He’d seen the troubles first hand. His parents, my aunt and uncle, were killed by a bomb in Belfast.”

“Victims of the IRA?,” I asked.

Dooley shook his head. “Victims of their own carelessness. They were setting the bomb in a Protestant school when it went off prematurely. Seamus arrived at the scene in time to see them wiping what was left of them off the walls.” Dooley shook his head and took a healthy swallow. “He’d seen the horror and turned his back on it. Catholic, Protestant, he didn’t care. He just wanted away from the violence.

“When I invited him to come to America, he jumped at the chance. I hired him to supervise the transport of the stone from Drohgheda, just north o’ Dublin, from an old ruin. I told him if he brought me the stone I’d keep him on.”

“So he came over with the stone and started working on Rusty Steppner’s grotto with you?”

Dooley nodded. “He was young. The naked birds… they confused him. He was a teenager… they’ve got urges, you know.”

I nodded. I knew.

“So these birds are teasin’ him. Teasin’ us all, really, but we know how to handle it. Seamus doesn’t. He’s just come from Ireland where his parents were blown to bits and now he’s in America and it’s confusin’ to him. He goes inside the grotto, just to get away from it, you know? Leroy made a joke.”

“I wish to God I’d kep’ my mouth shut,” Leroy said, shaking his head.

“It’s alright,” Dooley said to his friend, then he turned back to me. “We all saw him go into the grotto. We’d built the bloody thing, so we know there’s no other way out. When he didn’t come out Leroy went to check on him. He was gone.”

“Like he’d vanished into thin air,” Leroy said. “Damndest thing.”

I nodded. “What about the woman that wouldn’t go away?”

Leroy grunted. “Carrot top,” he said. “Red haired girl. She wore a gold headband and hippie clothes — Sandals and some sort of robe. You’d be workin’ inside the grotto and suddenly she’d be there behind you. Bitch gave me a heart attack more than once. I told her to fuck off, but she wouldn’t say a thing, just stared like she was high or somethin’.”

Dooley nodded grimly. “She was there that night when Steppner took a swing at me.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Steppner tried to hit you? Was that the night you came back to the grotto to tear it apart?”

Dooley made a face. “I was drunk, but I didn’t go back to tear it down. After Seamus disappeared I swore I could hear him callin’ to me. The others heard it too. That’s why they wouldn’t go back inside. I called to him, asked him where he was, but it was like he couldn’t hear me.”

“Are you sure you weren’t just…imagining?” I asked.

Leroy shook his head. “I heard it, too. It was as real as I’m sittin’ here. It sounded like it was comin’ from inside the rock.”

“It was,” Dooley said. “I admit I was pretty cut, but I know I heard his voice comin’ from inside the stone, and Steppner heard it, too.”

“Steppner came out to the grotto?”

“He was already there when I arrived. So was the red-haired woman. At first I though she was one o’ his bitches — that they were havin’ it off in the cave — but he was just talkin’ to her. Then we heard Seamus’ voice cry out from inside the stone.”

“How did Steppner react?” I asked.

“He damn near pissed himself,” Dooley said. “He was terrified. He ran outside, leavin’ me alone with the red-haired woman. Then she vanished.”

“She ran outside with him?”

Dooley shook his head. “She vanished right in front o’ me eyes,” he said. “Like smoke. I ran outside and grabbed Steppner. He was wailin’ like a schoolgirl. I tried to ask him who the woman was. He swung his fist and just missed catchin’ me on the chin. I went down and he ran back into his house.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

Dooley finished his second beer. “I came back here. I started drinkin’ and I ain’t stopped. I won’t stop, neither. Not now that I’ seen me one o’ the good people.”

I blinked. “Good people?”

“The fey folk,” Dooley said. “The fairies.”

Leroy let out a breath. “Man,” he said. “You are one fuckin’ drunk Irishman.”

Dooley looked at Leroy then began to laugh. It wasn’t a happy kind of laughter. It was the kind of laughter that you knew wouldn’t stop, not even when the boys in the white jackets came to take you away.
After that Leroy dragged Dooley upstairs. I got back into the Buick and braved the freeway again. By the time I pulled up to Steppner’s mansion it was fully dark.

Inside the lights were bright and the stereo was playing some lively jazz. Dinner was being served, buffet style. The girls, the photographers and Steppner were all enjoying the food, the music and some free-flowing champagne.

I was more than a little shocked to see DaVinci amongst the revelers, but there he was in his old tweed suit, sitting on a low stool, balancing a plate of food on his bony knees. He was in what looked like earnest conversation with Candy, Steppner’s blonde companion, while he picked at his beef Wellington.

Paula spied me and came over. She grabbed my arm and led me to the table. I loaded a plate and Paula grabbed two glasses of champagne. I sat on a chair next to DaVinci. Paula sat next to me.

“I see you’re making progress,” I said, leaning towards DaVinci. “Though I must admit, it’s not usually the kind of progress you make.”

DaVinci narrowed his eyes at me. He was genuinely confused and had not picked up on my insinuation, which was reassuringly like DaVinci. “Candy’s been telling me about the red-haired woman,” DaVinci said. I nodded. I should have known better than to assume that DaVinci was chatting with a pretty girl for the mere enjoyment of it, yet I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Since Eloise’s death he had become more taciturn and misanthropic than ever. “There have apparently been several sightings of this mysterious woman,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I’ve gathered a few stories about her today as well.”

“Did you see Dooley?”

“Yes,” I said. “He’ll be moving soon — into a padded room. He was raving about the fairy folk.”

DaVinci gave me a sharp look. “He may not be as insane as you think. Tell me everything that happened to you today. When we’re done you and I will examine the grotto.”

I nodded and began telling him about my day. When I was done we dispensed with our plates and excused ourselves. In the entrance hall he took my arm and guided me to the front door. “We need to make a stop at the car,” he explained.

Outside the mansion DaVinci asked me to open the trunk. I did and waited while he rummaged amongst our suitcases and bags.

DaVinci emerged with a red cloth bag tied with a white drawstring and his cane with the griffin handle. Before I closed the trunk I grabbed a large flashlight we walked around to the grotto.

“Steppner’s records were most illuminating,” DaVinci said. “This house was the former home of a wealthy industrialist named Flannigan.”

“Flannigan?” I said, looking sharply at DaVinci. “That’s the name of our missing Irish boy.”

“Exactly. Flannigan built the house in the early 1900’s and his family lived in it until the late 1950’s. After that they fled their adopted land and returned to Ireland. The house was left to run down until Steppner bought it and restored it.”

“The Flannigans,” I said. “Were they Catholic or Protestant?”

“Neither. As far as I can tell Flannigan practiced a strange form of pagan religion derived from early Celtic mythology. It’s the main reason he left Ireland. He believed that America was the mythical ‘Land of the Dead’.”

“That’s what Seamus called it,” I said.

DaVinci nodded. “It’s also known as the ‘Land of Youth’. These are names for the mythical Celtic Fairyland — the Home of the Fey folk. Traditionally it was believed to be located west of Ireland, across the ocean.”

“Well, you can’t get much farther west of Ireland than California,” I said.

“The Fairy folk were also known as the Danan,” DaVinci went on. “The children of a goddess named Dana. Their stories go far back into Irish history, long before there was any form of writing.”

“So they weren’t like Tinkerbell?”

“No,” DaVinci scowled. “The modern conception of the fairy is a bastardized version of the original idea. In Irish myth unwary travelers would encounter the Danan, be seduced by their music and become trapped in their world. Entrances to the Danan’s land would invariably be found in close proximity to some sort of mound.”

We were at the grotto now. It loomed in front of us in the darkness. I could see the moonlight reflected on the surface of the water. The twin cave mouths yawned darkly at us.

I shone the flashlight at one of the mouths. The water continued on into the cave, but there was a stone walkway leading in. DaVinci and I followed the walkway.

The inside of the grotto was a large space built to look like a natural cave. The pool inside was almost as big as the one outside, but there was also a large open lounge area made up of flat, smooth stone. Sounds from outside came in through the cave mouth and echoed eerily throughout the chamber.

Almost immediately we began to hear something. It began as a formless noise, like a vibrating string that would slacken and then tighten again. Then it began to change and it coalesced into a voice.

“Miles…” the voice moaned. “…where are you…?”

I glanced sharply at DaVinci who seemed unsurprised. He wore a mask of concentration as he tried to pinpoint the voice’s location.

“…Miles…” the voice spoke again, this time stronger. It was clearly the voice of a young man. It could only be Seamus Flannigan.

DaVinci listened intently, moving around the grotto, trying to discern the location of the voice amongst all the echoes. As he moved he tapped the end of his cane against the stones, listening to the sound as it bounced around inside the cave.

“… Miles …” the voice moaned. “… where are you? I’m cold …”

I felt a shiver run down my spine at the far away sound of the voice.

DaVinci merely kept moving around, tapping the stone.

Suddenly she was there. The red headed woman that Leroy had described. One minute I was looking at a stone wall, the next she was standing in front of it, tall and regal. She glared at DaVinci.

“Harlan,” I warned. DaVinci turned and looked her in the eye. He pointed his cane towards her.

“We’ve come to get the young man back,” DaVinci said, boldly.

The woman flashed her eyes at us, and I could see the signs of a sharp Irish temper.

“The young man is blood of our blood,” the woman said in an accent that sounded old — almost Germanic. “He will take his rightful place beside the high seats of kings.”

DaVinci slowly advanced towards the woman, his cane still outstretched. “The man is mortal,” DaVinci said. “He is blood of a mortal family.”

“He has Danan blood. He is the son of the son of Ecne.”

“The son of Ecne knew a mortal woman,” DaVinci said to her. “The issue from that tryst turned her back on the people of Danan.”

The woman drew herself up to her full height. “Do not trifle with me. I am Brigantia, daughter of Dagda, mother of Ecne. The young mortal shall be mortal no more, so long as he is with us.”

DaVinci shook his head and continued his advance pointing his cane in front of him. “The young man must be returned.”

I noticed that the woman would not leave a certain spot on the floor. She was clearly uncomfortable with DaVinci’s cane, but the would not back away from the flagstone upon which she stood.

DaVinci seemed to sense that as well. He got as close as he could. Her eyes blazed with anger, but she stood tall and defiant, never lifting a foot from the stone.

Suddenly there was a splash from behind me. I turned and saw Rusty Steppner running through the shallow water of the grotto. He was wearing a robe and silk pajamas. His arms flailed as he ran to the far wall where DaVinci and Brigantia stood eye-to-eye.

“Take me with you!” Steppner shouted as he splashed.

DaVinci took immediate advantage of the distraction. He had hold of his cane by the griffin head. Now he tossed it upwards. As it came down he grasped it by the haft and turned it so that the griffin head was facing down. He raised it up, then drove it straight down onto the flagstone between the woman’s feet.

I winced in anticipation of the cane shattering on the stone, but it didn’t. The moment the griffin head touched the stone the grotto was suffused with a harsh, white light. A roaring sound echoed round the chamber and I could feel a blast of hot air move past me.

Suddenly we were not in the grotto anymore. We were on an open field under an overpowering dark sky. Steppner suddenly let out a great shout of joy. He was lying on the ground; his robe and pajamas still soaked from the water.

I could hear the sounds of horses racing across the field. The riders all had long, flowing hair. I saw other figures surrounding us. All of them were tall, young and beautiful.

“Now you see,” Brigantia said, her voice a booming noise that rolled over the wide plain. “Look upon the land of the Danan. See the paradise that we can make of your mortal lands. Worship us! Worship us again and live in peace. Or turn from us into chaos and despair. The choice is yours.”

“I want to stay!” Steppner shouted.

Among the figures surrounding us I saw a young man with short fair hair. He was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and workboots and an expression of fear and misery. It could only have been Seamus Flannigan.

DaVinci still held his cane with the griffin head intact. He held it in front of him now, as if it could ward off these beautiful youths. The Danan seemed to have a respect for it and kept their distance.

“You can stay,” Brigantia continued. “But if you return, once you set foot upon your own soil, you will be trapped in your own world forever. You will be unable to return to the land of youth.”

“Jimmy,” DaVinci shouted over his shoulder at me. “Grab hold of Seamus. Quickly!”

I did not hesitate. I ran to where the young man was standing and grabbed his arm. He gave me a worried look, but seemed to sense that I was not someone to fear.

As I grabbed Seamus, DaVinci pulled out the red cloth bag and reached inside. He pulled out a fist filled with a white substance and flung it through the air.

It hung briefly in the air before falling to the ground, but the effect was remarkable. The Danan scattered as if they were suddenly under napalm attack. I felt some of the stuff hit me and Seamus and I saw a great clump of it fall onto Steppner who was just climbing to his feet.

It was salt. DaVinci had filled the red cloth bag with common table salt.

“Jimmy! To me!” DaVinci shouted.

Keeping my grip on Seamus I sprinted to DaVinci. DaVinci grabbed me around the shoulders with his free hand and I held Seamus tightly.

“No!” Steppner screamed. He seemed to realize that something was about to happen. He reached up and grabbed the back of DaVinci’s coat. “Stop! No!” he screamed.

But it was too late. DaVinci struck the ground with the griffin head again. I felt a sudden and violent sense of vertigo, as if I were suddenly on a maddeningly spinning merry-go-round, then with a violent lurch we were all four back inside Steppner’s grotto.

“NO!” Steppner cried. He fell back into the water, his body suddenly wracked with heaving sobs.
We managed to get Steppner out of the water. His raving and shouting very quickly turned into an incoherent babble. We dragged him out of the grotto and I managed to get him over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry and lumped up the lawn with him.

He was lighter than I’d expected him to be. I suddenly got a sense of frailty and age from him that I had not noticed before.

The girls crowded around us as soon as I was close to the house. They took him from me and helped him inside, handling him with genuine concern and tenderness.

I found DaVinci speaking quietly with Seamus. He was giving the young man his standard ‘Encounter with Supernatural Forces debriefing’. Seamus had the a wide-eyed, shell-shocked look that we’d seen many times before.

I stood apart, waiting for DaVinci to finish. I looked up at the stars. They were reassuringly real. They were distant and cold, but, just like all of us mortals, they would eventually grow old and die.
DaVinci and I were in the Buick driving north. I would spend a week with him and his daughter before driving back to New York.

We had stayed at Steppner’s until the morning, just to make sure he was alright. He slept fitfully until about noon the next day when he woke grumbling and complaining about a hangover. He did not remember the events of the night before and DaVinci and I said nothing, save to inform him that his Grotto was clean of all supernatural influences.

It had become clear to us that, far from wanting his grotto exorcised, Steppner had used DaVinci to open the door to the realm of the Danan. Because of that we didn’t feel comfortable at the mansion anymore so we spent the night in a hotel and hit the road early the next day.

DaVinci was showing me the still-intact griffin headed cane. “It’s made from pure iron,” DaVinci explained. “That and the salt were enough to keep the Fey folk at bay. The red cloth of the bag would have done it as well.”

“Why?” I asked.

DaVinci shrugged. “It’s metaphorical. The red cloth represents blood, of course. Iron represents the passing from Stone Age to iron age. Salt used to be employed as a preservative to stop meat from aging, something unheard of in the Danan’s world. All of these things were intrusions into the Danan’s universe.”

I nodded. “So young Seamus was the offspring of a Danan and one of Flannigan’s daughters?”

“Yes,” DaVinci replied. “That was the apex of the Flannigan family’s history of Celtic worship. The experience seems to have frightened the young couple back to Ireland.”

“Right back into the arms of the Catholic Church as well as into league with the IRA.” I supplied. “Poor Seamus. I hope his return will pull Dooley back from the brink. But what about Steppner? He wanted to stay with the Danan, but now he doesn’t remember a thing.”

“The memory of being there and not being allowed to stay was too traumatic. He’s blocking it out,” DaVinci said, staring out the window at the rolling countryside. “Steppner worships youth and beauty. You’ve seen his magazine. He is sitting on the pulse of America and helping to foment a cult of youth and beauty.”

“Would that be so bad?” I asked. I was thinking about the beauty of the Danan world. “What if the earth became like the Danan’s world?”

“Where would there be room for you and I?” DaVinci asked. He shook his head. “Age and wisdom have their places just as youth does. If we praise one to the detriment of the other we will end up in a world out of balance.”

As I watched the road I spied a small cluster of young people hitchhiking. Their hair was long, their clothes were loose and colourful. They wore beads and symbols and bright, smiling expressions.

But they would age. “Youth’s the stuff t’will not endure” I quoted.

DaVinci nodded and smiled sadly.

 

This story originally appeared in the anthology Amazing Heroes in 2004. It also appears in Heralded by Blood from Rage Machine Books.

The Belly of the Beast

Here’s a story I hope will raise a chuckle and maybe some spirits…

BellyoftheBeast

“Dragons are quite real,” Professor Sterling stated flatly, carefully removing his circular spectacles and gently rubbing the lenses with a white handkerchief, “At least in the psychological sense.”

A Hansom cab clopped its way underneath the Professor’s window. He pulled his pocket watch out of his waistcoat and noted the time (2:30 in the afternoon). He suppressed an excited smile as he calculated that in less than 19 hours he, Professor Archibald Phillip Sterling, would be at Buckingham palace standing before Queen Victoria herself.

“No,” his visitor said, shaking his head. “No, no, no. This dragon were real, guv’na, not psychy-whotsits.”

The man, Bilgin, had showed up at his flat less than ten minutes ago in a state of great agitation, insisting on seeing the professor. He stood now in the middle of Sterling’s office, his shabby work clothes a mute testament to his working class life, fidgeting nervously with the cap in his hands, the one he’d respectfully doffed as he’d been ushered in.

“Are you saying that you believe that there is a real dragon loose in London?” the Professor asked.

Bilgin shrugged. “I dunno if I believe it, guv’na, but I seen it wif’ me own eyes, I did. An’ I swear on a stack o’ bibles that I ain’t had a drop to drink!” Sterling noted the man’s eyes drift forlornly towards the bottle of sherry that Sterling kept on a convenient shelf. “Not as yet, anyways.”

Sterling ignored the man’s comment. “Well, Mister Bilgin, that’s quite a claim, but I don’t see why you have come to me about it…”

“Well, it’s ‘coz o’ your work, innit? I seen the pictures in the Times o’ you and’ I read… well, I had it read to me… that you’d studied them Iggy-wanas in the Gallpa-goneo islands, just like Mister Darwin did.”

Sterling let out a laugh. “I studied Tuatara lizards in New Zealand,” he said. “They’re big, certainly, but they’re just lizards.”

“Oh,” Bilgin said, his eyes dropping to the floor in disappointment. He remained downcast for an instant only then came right back up with a cheerful smile. “How big?” he asked.

Sterling was taken aback. “Two feet long, at most,” he said, holding his hands apart to demonstrate the distance.

“Well, there ya go,” Bilgin said. “This lizard’s bigger ‘n that! Loads bigger!”

The professor sighed and regarded his watch again. He supposed he could have a look at the man’s supposed dragon, though it was likely to be a wild goose chase. As long as he was not late for supper and was able to be rested for tomorrow, then what would be the harm?

He agreed to accompany Mister Bilgin (“It’s just Bilgin, Guv’na” the man said.) back to his house to see this supposed dragon. He poked his head into the living room where his wife was mending his best jacket, the one that had been torn while en route back from his expedition to Auckland, and told her that he was off to see a dragon.

“Don’t forget your hat, my dearest,” his wife said over her prince-nez. “And please send word if you’re going to be late for supper. And don’t forget that you have an appointment with Her Majesty tomorrow.”

“I shan’t,” He smiled warmly at his good wife and allowed Bilgin to lead him out into the street and towards his abode.
Bilgin’s house was in the East End of the city which came as no surprise to Professor Sterling. Neither did the offensive odors of that particular area of London, nor the sound of caterwauling felines, screaming babies and shouting men and women that drifted from the windows of the slum row houses to either side of a steaming muddy street.

Sterling was beginning to wonder now what had possessed him to allow this man to lead him into this fetid street when he began to see scorch marks on the red brick buildings. “My word,” the Professor exclaimed.

Bilgin said nothing but continued to lead him further into the heart of the squalid neighborhood. They came to a part of the muddy street that was burned black. A horse cart was turned over, its one wheel spinning lazily in the air, the driver and horse portentously absent.

They rounded a corner and Sterling was confronted with a scene of chaos and devastation. Several of the row houses were burned and broken apart. The sound of keening voices could be heard and it sent a shiver up Sterling’s spine. He saw men and women staring in absolute shock at the devastation. Children sat in the street wailing in terror and no one came forward to comfort them.

In the center of it all was one of the brick houses, now nothing but a hollowed out shell. Red bricks were strewn everywhere and most everything around it was scorched black.

And there, in the middle of it all, sprawled the dragon.

The beast lay on its back, its scaly hide the color of dark bottle glass. It looked to be about thirty feet long, and was probably longer. At its thickest point it was wider than ten feet. Its prodigious belly was exposed and the hide that stretched to cover it glistened in the wan sunlight. The beast possessed a long, articulated neck and atop sat a fearsome head that boasted several spiked appendages, a cavernous mouth and rows of sharp teeth, some as fully as long as a man’s forearm.

Sterling stared at the great beast in utter amazement. He could hear his heart hammering wildly in his chest and he could barely breathe.

“My word,” he managed after a moment of stunned silence.

Bilgin nodded. “I told ya, Guv’na” he said.

“How did it get here?” Sterling asked.

“I didn’t see it at first. I heard a lot o’ screamin’ then I looks up an’ there it is, just flyin’ around. It makes a great bellow and then shoots a great flame outta its mouth. It ate a few people, a couple a horses, burned all wot you see aroun’ here, then it landed and… whoom! Over it goes and there it is, kippin’ on its back like that.”

Flew. The idea boggled Sterling’s mind. He could not see the creature’s wings. They must have been folded behind its back, underneath the creature. He would dearly love to see it with its wings fully outstretched. He wondered what the creature’s wingspan would have to be to raise its not inconsiderable bulk.

“How many people did it eat?” Sterling asked.

Bilgin shrugged. “”alf a dozen, I reckon,” he said “and two horses.”

“Extraordinary.”

Sterling watched as the dragon lifted its head. The beast opened its mouth and Sterling gasped for breath as an overwhelming odor was exhausted from the great, toothy maw.

Sterling pulled out his white handkerchief and covered his mouth with it, then he stopped and pulled it away. The odor was unpleasant, but not unfamiliar. He had smelled something very like it in his own home. “Gas,” he breathed. “The creature expels gas.”

Just like the gas that was laid on in his own home, this creature produced naturally a substance that was easily flammable. But whereas Sterling needed a match to light the gas in his lamps, so to the dragon needed to ignite the gas that his body produced. How was that done?

Sterling’s fear and amazement were slowly giving way to his natural scientific curiosity. He wanted to get closer to examine this incredible creature. He was burning to discover what secrets it harbored, but he was less keen on burning in the dragon’s fiery breath.

Then the beast let out a bellow and the surrounding buildings shook with its power, but to the professor’s ears this was not an angry sound but the sound of an animal experiencing great pain and suffering.

“He’s been doin’ that ever since he flopped over,” Bilgin said. “He’ll flop back down in a moment, just you watch.”

Sterling pursed his lips. “It sounds as if the poor beast ate something that didn’t agree with him,” he said.

“Oh, aye. That’d be the wife,” Bilgin said.

“I beg you pardon?”

“My wife is… was… a very contrary person. She didn’t agree wif’ nothin’ less it came outta her own mouth.”

Sterling stared at Bilgin. “Do you mean to tell me that this creature ate your wife?”

Bilgin shrugged. “I told her to leave it alone, but she would insist. Tried to whack it wif’ her rolling pin, she did.”

“My dear chap,” the Professor said, earnestly. “I’m so terribly sorry.”

Bilgin just shrugged and wiped his nose.

The dragon let out another pained bellow. It tried to raise a clawed foot. Sterling was alarmed at the size and razor sharpness of the thing’s talons, but he was also curious at its resemblance to many species of birds that he had encountered around the world. Could this dragon be related somehow to an avian species?

The dragon was trying to claw feebly at its distended belly, a behavior common to canines. Its smaller foreclaws worked feebly as well, trying to drive away some imagined enemy that was causing pain to its midsection,

“Poor blighter,” Bilgin said. “”e’s got a devil of a tummy ache, he has.”

Professor Sterling regarded Bilgin and wondered at the man’s sympathy for the creature that had so recently devoured his wife and perhaps several of his neighbors.

Sterling looked at the beast and reasoned that half a dozen human beings and two horses would have been an average sized meal for a creature of its size. It would not have been the size of the meal that was causing the creature such distress, unless it had eaten more on its way towards this neighborhood, though that hardly seemed likely or there would have been more of a tumult.

No, Sterling concluded, it must have been something particular about this meal that was now causing the creature’s gastronomic distress. He wondered if the dragon ate its victims whole or whether it chewed them up properly before sending them down its gullet. He wanted to ask the only eyewitness, but seeing as how one of the victims was the man’s wife, he hesitated to do so.

The sound of a police whistle interrupted the Professor’s thoughts. He turned to see a uniformed bobby making his way towards the decimated domicile.

“’ello, ‘ello’ ‘ello,” the bobby was saying, as bobbies are wont to do. “What’s all this, then?”

Bilgin looked at the bobby, then looked to the Professor to take control of the situation. Sterling sighed and approached the policeman.

“Good afternoon, Constable,” Sterling said in his most professional manner. “It appears we have a dragon on the premises. He is in a lot of pain, having just consumed half a dozen citizens of our fair city.”

“And two ‘orses,” Bilgin put in.

“’struth!” was all the bobby managed to say.
It was not long before a crowd of curious onlookers had gathered around the downed dragon, though most kept their distance. The bobby had called in reinforcements and they managed to create the appearance of taking charge by blowing their whistles and ordering the wounded conducted to hospital. Sterling persuaded one of the bobbies to go around to his house to inform his wife that he would not be home for supper.

The professor’s curiosity had finally overcome his caution and he had moved closer to the beast in order to conduct a more thorough examination. The beast was magnificent even in its current tortured recumbency. It was a marvel of inconsistency. The skin and scales were like many lizards that he had seen but the overall structure of the beast resembled more that of a bird. It seemed to be iguana and chicken in equal measure.

Its eyes seemed to have a clear inner membrane like other lizards he had seen, and the appendages on either side of its head swept up majestically. It was much like the frill that he’d seen adorning small lizards in Australia, but it was more rigid and less flexible. Sterling suspected that it might help regulate the creature’s temperature rather than being merely decorative.

Sterling’s mind was afire with questions about the beast. How did it produce the bilious and flammable gasses within its body? How did it cause those gases to ignite? How did such a massive creature manage to fly? Were its bones hollow, like birds? Or perhaps the gasses it produced, being lighter than the surrounding air, helped it stay afloat like an air balloon. Igniting the gasses might regulate the height at which the creature flew.

The dragon lifted its head and let out another mournful wail. Its claws twitched again, trying to bat away whatever was causing distress to its midsection.

Why was the creature in pain? What was the cause of its distress? He needed more information. He would have to ask Bilgin exactly how the dragon consumed its victims.

Sterling climbed down over the ruins of the house. Night was falling and it was becoming difficult to see. The bobbies had lit the street lamps and had brought oil lanterns, but the jagged bricks strewn carelessly about the street still made navigation treacherous. Sterling stubbed his toe on a small pile of loose bricks and bit back the curse that came to his lips.

Sterling made his way to the bobby who had taken charge of the situation, a sergeant named Flay. “These bricks are a hazard,” Sterling said to him. “Perhaps some of your men could gather them up so that they’re not underfoot?”

The bobby nodded respectfully “Rightio, Governor. Good idea. I’ll have some of my boys take care of it.”

Sterling thanked the bobby then walked to where Bilgin stood, watching the bobbies pick up the bricks that had once been his house. Sterling felt for this man who had lost everything. “I’m terribly sorry about your house,” Sterling said. “and… well, everything…”

Bilgin shrugged. “It weren’t much of a house, really.”

Sterling nodded. “Perhaps it can be re-built. You have all the bricks. See the constables piling them up? Mortar is all you’d need.”

Bilgin shrugged. “Mortar, yeah. And more bricks.”

“More bricks?”

“Yeah,” Bilgin said. “To replace the ones what the dragon ate.”

“I see. Bilgin I need to ask you some questions about…” Sterling stopped, suddenly realizing what Bilgin had told him. “I’m sorry, did you say the dragon ate bricks?”

“Yeah,” Bilgin nodded. “That’s what caused the trouble, see. It started in on the side o’ the house. There’s… there was a wall there what was fallin’ apart. Loose bricks everywhere, right? Anyways, this dragon, ‘e starts wolfin’ down these loose bricks. That’s when my wife goes out wif’ ‘er rollin’ pin and starts shoutin’ at the beastie. That didn’t ‘alf make ‘im mad, I tell you.”

“Curious,” the professor said, looking back at the suffering creature. “It ate the bricks?”

“Yeah. I dunno what for, but ‘e ate the bricks. An’ when ‘e started knockin’ down me ‘ouse, ‘e ate more.”

“Extraordinary!” Sterling murmured. Why would a dragon, who had just eaten half a dozen people (and two horses) want to follow them down with a load of bricks? Sterling stared at the creature and tried to think of a similar behaviour that he had observed in the lizard species he had studied. He couldn’t.

But this dragon was also partly avian. “Gastroliths!” Sterling declared.

“Gastro-whats?” Bilgin asked.

“Gizzard stones,” Sterling explained. “Certain species of birds will swallow small stones to aid in the digestion of vegetable matter. Other animals do it as well. Usually it’s a practice associated with herbivores. Perhaps at one time our dragon friend was an herbivore. Perhaps eating people was a necessity forced upon him by circumstances.”

“But why’d ‘e eat the bricks?” Bilgin asked.

“The dragon must have recognized that the bricks were a sort of stone. Normally a gastrolith would be rounder… smoother. But in the middle of London loose round stones are not convenient to find. Bricks, however, are in plentiful supply. But their irregular shape and hard edges would cause our dragon much distress.”

“Blimey,” Bilgin declared. “So what’re you gonna do?”

Sterling put a knuckle to his lips. “I think I may have a solution.”
Professor Sterling explained his plan to Police Sergeant Flay. Sterling was not certain that Flay understood, but the bobby conceded to Sterling’s authority in the matter and ordered his men to rouse the local chemist (It was, at this point, very late at night).

The chemist was a thin, reedy fellow of advanced years. He was naturally agitated at having been roused from his slumber by a group of policemen. Professor sterling stepped forward and introduced himself and gave his credentials. Then he showed the old chemist the dragon.

As Sterling consulted with the chemist on his needs, the bobbies set to work rounding up the biggest barrel they could find and filling it with water. They then placed the barrel as close to the dragon’s head as they dared.

The chemist’s shop was fortunate enough to have a large quantity of the substance the Professor needed. He and the chemist transported it in a wheelbarrow to the waiting barrel of water. Using a shovel the professor carefully measured an amount of the white powder and dropped it into the barrel. He then used the shovel to stir the water vigorously.

The Professor stood back, telling all to do the same. Then he waited and hoped that the dragon would cooperate. “Come on, you silly beast,” the Professor exhorted under his breath. “Come on!”

The dragon lifted its head and sniffed at the barrel. It had been obtained from a fishmonger’s and had retained a distinct odor of halibut. That was what now attracted the dragon’s attention. The great beast sniffed the barrel a few more times and then set to drinking its contents.

Professor Sterling watched in elation as the dragon’s tongue lapped up the treated liquid. He marveled at the precise action that allowed the dragon to retrieve every drop with a minimum of spillage.

The dragon drained the barrel than lay back. It let out a groan. Its claws worked feebly at its midsection. Sterling saw the beast’s great, distended belly begin to distend even further. He turned to the bobbies. “Gentlemen,” he said, as he climbed down from the dragon. “I think it would behoove us all to take some sort of cover, post haste!”

The dragon rose up and let out a deafening bellow. From deep within the beast’s belly a rumbling noise grew louder. Suddenly the bellow turned into a horrendously loud belch. Gas and other detritus began to shoot from the dragon’s mouth.

The air was alive with flying bricks and partially digested pieces of people and horses. Sterling ducked behind a wall. Everyone in the surrounding area screamed and tried to duck for cover as best they could. Some ran in sheer terror and Sterling saw a flying brick knock a bobby’s helmet off.

Another great rumble sounded from the dragon and a second wave of expelled gas, bricks and body parts was forcibly ejected from the dragon’s great maw.

Three more times the dragon’s belly ejected its contents until all that remained to be ejected was gas. Sterling was concerned that the gas would catch alight from the flames burning in the streetlights, but fortunately most of those had been extinguished in the first few volleys.

After the fourth forcible ejection of gas the dragon stood up. Professor Sterling stood as well. The great beast opened up its wings and Sterling’s breath caught in his throat.

The sun was down but the moon provided enough illumination to see the magnificence of the dragon with its wings fully unfurled. The wings were like the sails of a great sailing ship. Joy burst through the professor like he’d never felt in his life.

The dragon took an experimental flap. The wind produced by the wings rushed at the Professor and nearly knocked him over. Then the dragon began beating its wings fervently and the palpable wind produced was too strong to allow him to stand any longer. He sat down heavily and watched as the dragon lifted off from the ground and soared majestically into the night. Sterling followed the disappearing form of the dragon for as long as he could but it was soon merely a speck in the night sky and soon after that was lost in the darkness.

For a long moment Sterling could only stare at the black space the dragon disappeared into. He slowly became aware of bobbies milling about, trying to bring order to the dragon-wrought chaos.

Bilgin appeared in front of the Professor and offered him his hand. Sterling took the proffered hand and stood.

“What did you do?” Bilgin asked surveying the ejected bricks and body parts around him. “What was that stuff you gave to the dragon?”

“Bicarbonate of soda,” Sterling admitted. “It usually proves to be quite efficacious in the remedying of stomach ailments”

“Oh,” was all Bilgin said as he surveyed the damage that was once his home.

“So, my good man,” Sterling said gently. “What will you do now?”

Bilgin shrugged. “Dunno. I reckon’ I’ll go see the widow Hammond an’ see if she’ll ‘ave me.” Bilgin turned to the Professor and favored him with a leering smile “She’s devilish saucy, is the widow Hammond.”

“Gracious,” was all the Professor could say, then cleared his throat three times.

That was when he noticed the rosy haze of sunrise over the buildings. Sterling hastily pulled out his pocket watch. “Good Lord,” he exclaimed. “Her Majesty!”

Without a further word of explanation, Professor Sterling ran back to the West End. When he arrived at his house he found a coach and rider waiting in front. The coach bore the Royal seal. The Professor was bundled into the carriage and hastily galloped to Buckingham Palace.

As the coach rolled up the Mile towards Buckingham palace, Professor Sterling found himself scanning the morning sky for another sight of the magnificent beast. As he did so he pondered on the implications of the existence of the dragon. How vulnerable a city like London was to an attack from a maddened dragon! The Professor tried to imagine flames shooting to the ground from above. He imagined whole neighborhoods ablaze with dragon’s fire. He shuddered involuntarily.

Something would have to be done to prevent such a scenario. Mankind would have to somehow make peace with the beast. That meant gathering knowledge. That meant trying to eliminate fear and prejudice and replacing them with understanding and respect. He, Professor Archibald Sterling, would have to begin that process. He thought he would start with a monogram on the subject.

The coached pulled up then slowly rolled through the iron gates surrounding the palace. He was bundled out of the carriage and escorted up the main steps. He felt excitement grip him anew but that excitement was tempered when he suddenly noticed the state of his clothes.

He’d had no time to change or wash. Professor Archibald Sterling stood in the receiving hall at the palace, dirty, disheveled, covered with brick dust, mortar, blood and dragon spit. He reeked of the East End.

The doors to the receiving room opened and Queen Victoria was ushered in. Sterling watched in amazement as the monarch of the world’s most vast and mighty empire came towards him in the form of this plump, pleasant-faced old woman.

“Professor Sterling,” Her Majesty said. “We have read with great interest about your research with lizards in New Zealand. Pray, tell us, if you would, what we might expect to see from you next?”

Professor Archibald Phillip Sterling blinked twice at the Queen of England. “Your Majesty,” he said, calmly “I plan to write a treatise on the care and feeding of fire-breathing dragons.”

The Queen raised one eyebrow and her mouth drew down, dragging a flotilla of fresh wrinkles with it. “Professor Sterling,” Her Majesty declared. “We are not amused.”

It is a recorded fact of history that Professor Archibald Phillip Sterling was never invited back to Buckingham Palace after that day.

This story originally appeared in Encounters Magazine in the June/July issue 2010. It also appears in Heralded by Blood from Rage Machine Books.

The Sound From the Deep

These are extraordinary times. In order to survive these times many have had to take extraordinary measures. Social isolation is not an easy thing to live with (unless you are a writer).

So, in order to help I am posting some of the stories from my collection of dark fantasy stories Heralded By Blood.

I will post more stories in the coming weeks, but here is the first, a tale featuring my stalwart sword and sorcery heroes, Ka Sirtago and Poet.

Enjoy.

Sirtago’s broadly muscled back stretched taut as he thrust his head over the side and heaved. Poet winced. He’d felt like that for the first couple of hours after they’d set sail but somehow he’d found an accommodation with the rolling deck. Sirtago hadn’t. As was his habit, the large man chose to fight rather than to succumb, and he’d spent two days in abject misery.

Sirtago finished heaving his guts into the sea and lifted his head, giving Poet an unobstructed view of the scarred side of his face. An involuntary shudder ran through him at the sight of the affliction. They’d known each other since they were boys but the hideous visage and long, misshapen tooth that thrust out from between his lips like some kind of tusk still filled Poet with fear and dread.

Sirtago turned, showing him the smoother side of his features. That side of his face was handsome in its way, but now it looked drawn and pale. “Gwut curse this rolling ocean,” he said.

Poet shook his head. “Can you never learn your pantheon? Gwut is only the allfather on the land. Ciesfor is Lord of the Ocean.”

“Piss on Ciesfor,” Sirtago said, sitting heavily on the deck, his back against the rail. His hand went to his sword, as if he would draw it out and fight what was causing him so much woe. Instead he coughed and slumped back.

Poet sat beside him, adjusting his ever-present twin daggers. “We’re halfway through the passage. We’ll be in Bradex in another couple of days . . .”

“Two more days?” Sirtago groaned.

“. . . then we’ll be in Kandra, the Golden City. There should be plenty of work there for two such as us, eh?”

Sirtago nodded and his one eye took on a dreamy, far away look. “And women,” he said, managing a small smile. “And ale houses and . . .”

Poet could see that the thought of an ale house and the victuals that Sirtago usually partook of in such places had brought on another bout of his ocean malady. Poet thought that his friend would heave again, but Sirtago gained control and blew out a breath in bitter frustration.

“Were I in the Great After I would find Ciesfor, turn him round and tan his salty backside!”

Poet smiled halfheartedly at Sirtago’s words, but before he could say anything there was a great cracking sound like distant thunder and the vessel shuddered. The deck moved under his rump, jarring him backwards and causing his head to smack the railing behind him.

Ignoring the pain in his skull, Poet leaped to his feet. So did Sirtago, who was suddenly sharp and alert. “What was that?” he shouted.

The sailors frantically climbed out of the ratlines, scrambled about the deck, and crowded the railing to look over the side.

“What’s happening?” Poet said to an old sailor. “Did we strike something? Has the hull been breached?”

The sailor ignored him. Based on his wide-eyed look, Poet guessed that the man did not know the answers to his questions.

Poet and Sirtago looked over the side with the others. The sea was relatively calm. The water below in the wake of the wooden vessel. The sails were fully billowed. A strong wind pushed the vessel swiftly and surely across the surface of the ocean. Poet scanned the water again and saw no sign of anything that might have caused the ship to shudder so.

“Did we strike a rock?” Sirtago said. He turned away, steadying himself on the rail.

“The ocean’s too deep,” Poet said. He turned as well and spied one of the other passengers, the veiled woman, standing on the deck.

Poet had first seen her soon after he and Sirtago had boarded. She’d been lifted onto the ship in a litter, seemingly deathly afraid of the waters. A haunted, frightened look stole into her eyes whenever she looked upon the great, rolling sea. He sensed that she was taking this ocean voyage only out of sheer necessity. She rarely left her cabin, and when she did, she always stayed well away from the sides.

She was wrapped in a simple, dark traveling cloak, but Poet had caught glimpses of colorful and exotic cloths underneath it. Poet knew such rich clothing came from the Eastern Lands, the lands of the Tey’ei Vaus, whose rulers used dark sorcery to achieve their mastery over that region.

Her cloak could not hide the swell of her breasts or the lithesome curves of her hips. She wore a simple black hood and her face was veiled. Only her eyes showed above her veil and they were two of the most magnificent and hypnotic orbs that Poet had ever seen. He gazed at her, fascinated and drawn by those alluring dark eyes as they shone out from beneath their hood.

She stood in the midst of the panicked sailors, calm and defiantly regal. She turned and for a moment locked eyes with Poet. A thrill went through him with the sudden connection, but beneath her calm exterior, her eyes were filled with dread, as if she knew what had happened and was deathly afraid.

The moment passed and the veiled woman lowered her eyes and hurried back to her cabin.

“That’s enough gawking, you dogs!” a rough voice cut over the babble on deck. “Back to your stations! There’s work to be done on this boat. I’ll not have ye all skylarkin’ on my ship!”

The captain was a tall man with a great belly, yet covered with muscle. He possessed huge, strong hands. Since the passage began, the master of the vessel had hurled a continuous stream of invective at his sailors. It was surprising that he had any voice left, but his bellows still rivaled the gale that currently pushed them towards their destination.

“Get back below, you!” he shouted to one sailor. “You, get your thrice-dammed behind back into those lines! An’ the rest of you, who seem to think you can stand around being bone-idle, can swab this here deck ‘til it’s clean!”

Sirtago regarded the captain with barely hidden disdain. He’d taken an instant dislike to the man. This was not unexpected. Despite Sirtago’s fierce and low appearance, his blood was noble and he did not take kindly to those who had authority over him—particularly those who used that authority capriciously. The captain appeared to enjoy the cruelty that his position allowed. He regarded Poet and Sirtago as mere mercenaries, barely worth common courtesy and that only because they’d paid for their passage in coin from the kingdom of Ruegeld.

The captain would be surprised that Sirtago was, in fact, a prince of the southern kingdom of Trigassa, and heir to the throne. As it was, Sirtago needed to travel inconspicuously, so he bore the man’s disdain, but only just.

“What caused the ship to shudder so?” Sirtago said, his manner surly, as if accusing the captain of being responsible.

The captain clearly took umbrage at Sirtago’s tone, but did not rise to his bait. “Go below, you two,” he said, turning away.

Sirtago persisted. “Did we strike something?”

The captain rounded on them. Fear and confusion filled his eyes. “Go below,” the captain said again.

Sirtago stared defiantly at the captain with his one good eye, his monstrous features rattling the portly man. The captain dropped his gaze. “. . . or stay on deck. It’s all one to me,” he said, starting to walk aft. “Just stay out of my men’s way!” he called over his shoulder.

Sirtago glared after the captain’s retreating back until the rolling of the deck caused his stomach to heave again. He thrust his head back over the side. Poet sighed, sincerely wishing that he could do something for his companion’s affliction.

Through the entire passage, it had been warm enough for Poet and Sirtago to sleep on the open deck. It was convenient for Sirtago, since he spent half the night with his head over the rail. Poet tried for sleep but it was elusive, between Sirtago’s heaving and the general noisiness of the ship. Poet stared up at the glittering panoply of stars above him, his thoughts vacillating between the strange thing that shook the ship and those alluring dark eyes above the silken veil.

Sirtago broke into his thoughts by angrily dropping himself to the deck. He blew out a great breath of frustration. “I’ve fought enemies both natural and unnatural,” Sirtago said. “Why can I not defeat the rolling ocean?”

Poet closed his eyes. “You cannot defeat the ocean,” he said. “You just accept it.”

“I can’t do that.” Sirtago pulled his blanket over himself and rolled onto his side.

Poet knew—better than Sirtago himself, probably—that Sirtago was constantly fighting and could not give it up. He had always been at odds with the world around him, fighting anyone at any time at the slightest provocation, even if it were madness to do so.

Somehow he had always managed to come out on top. Most of the time it was because Poet had known how to steer his friend’s wrath to do the most good. Poet also knew how to duck and get out of the way when Sirtago was in his wrath.

It was not easy for his friend, despite being the heir to a kingdom. As prince, Sirtago lived a life of pleasure, satisfying his lusts for food, wine, and women whenever he felt like it. That would end on the day that his father died. Trigassan Monarchs live a life of austerity and seclusion in the sacred palace, only being seen in public during festivals and great holy days.

That fact of Sirtago’s life had kept both of them wandering as mercenaries. Perhaps Sirtago thought that Trigassa would forget about him. More likely Sirtago did not think of it at all. He merely ran. But it was no good. Eventually his father would die and Sirtago would be King. The Trigassan court would be determined to track him down and drag him back to the kingdom. There was no one else to take the throne. Sirtago had only a sister, Jeswana.

Jeswana. Poet marveled at how the mere thought of her name stung him. The hurt flared, as fresh and as painful as always even after all these years. The thought of Jeswana bound to another—the sight of her belly swollen with another man’s child—caused hot, salty tears to come to his eyes. It was at these moments that he envied Sirtago’s simplicity.

Sirtago did not reflect on past disappointments, living constantly in the here and now and was always looking to the next horizon.

Poet wiped away his futile tears and turned over, trying to find sleep. He was almost there when he was startled by a great crash like a clap of thunder. The vessel shuddered.

Instantly Poet and Sirtago were on their feet. Poet rushed to the side and looked down. In the light of the stars, the ocean was a great black mass. The crack like thunder sounded again and Poet could tell that it came from just below the surface of the water near the ship’s hull. Once again the ship shuddered violently.

The deck was in chaos; sailors ran to and fro in the confusion. Feet pounded the wooden deck and a bell rang a shrill alarm.

Poet stared at the surface of the water for a moment longer, but he could see nothing. His gaze traveled to the point where the ocean and the night sky met, melting into each other like lovers in a passionate embrace. As he turned away, motion caught his eye.

He sensed more than saw a black shape moving out on the water, like a great round wave swelling up from the calm surface. Amidst the confusion on deck Poet thought he could hear water falling like a great and heavy curtain. Was it his imagination or was there some glistening thing breaking the surface?

A pressure struck him like a musical note that went so high one could feel it in one’s head. It was there, between his ears and at the base of his skull, a tiny shattering tone that buzzed like an angry hornet. He covered his ears but that did nothing to stop it.

“Do you hear that?” Poet yelled over the buzzing.

Sirtago was glaring at the ocean with his one good eye. “Hear what?” he said. “I can hear nothing over the clamor of these oafs.”

The sound assaulted Poet’s ears for a moment more, then began to fade. The voices of the confused sailors recaptured his attention. The captain cajoled and threatened his men back to work. Despite his bluster, fear and confusion was writ plain upon him. The night calmed and men slowly returned to their bunks. Poet tried to settle back to sleep. Sirtago tried as well, but the rocking of the boat soon had his empty stomach heaving again. Poet tried to ignore it. After a while Sirtago flopped back down onto the deck with a curse. With sleep elusive once again Poet sat up. He was about to say something to Sirtago when he saw a figure approaching them from across the deck.

It was the veiled woman, no doubt woken by all the noise. She moved lithely, gliding almost, towards them. Kneeling in front of Sirtago, she stared directly into his face without a hint of revulsion, not even an involuntary shudder. Sirtago stared back. Her hypnotic eyes had given him pause even in his misery.

From within the folds of her dark cloak the woman produced a small glass vial that contained a milky liquid. “This is a tincture,” she said, her voice smooth and mellifluous despite her strong Tey’ei Vaus accent. “It will help you. It will stop your stomach from heaving.” She held the bottle out to Sirtago.

Sirtago stared at it, his natural mistrust mingling with his desire to be free of his malady. As usual with Sirtago, the two sides warred fiercely.

“Who are you?” Poet asked. “You’re Tey’ei, aren’t you?”

The veiled woman’s eyes flicked to meet Poet’s, but only for an instant. They quickly darted back to Sirtago. “Yes. I am from Tey’ei Vaus. My name is Fayethima. Take it.”

She gestured again with the tincture.

The woman seemed sincere, despite being a Tey’ei. But, as a people, they were versed in many arts that were strange to those from Trigassa. It truly could be a cure.

“You might as well take it,” Poet said. “It certainly can’t make it any worse.”

“It could kill me,” Sirtago said.

“At least that would stop you from heaving over the side all night.”

“I promise you,” Fayethima said. “It will do you no harm.” She unstoppered the tiny vial and offered it again. “A tiny drop. That is all that you will need.”

Sirtago stared intently at the vial. “Why are you doing this?”

The woman’s gaze did not waver. “Even the Tey’ei are not strangers to compassion.”

Sirtago hesitated a fraction of a second more, then nodded. Too weak to grab for it himself, he opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue.

Fayethima tipped the vial carefully until a single drop splashed onto Sirtago’s outthrust tongue. She tipped the vial back, stoppered it again and slipped it back into the folds of her cloak. “In a little while you will feel better. You will likely hunger. Come to my cabin—both of you—and I will feed you.”

With that she stood up and glided back across the deck. Both Poet and Sirtago watched her depart, hypnotized by her lithesome retreat.

Once she was out of their sight Poet turned to his friend. “How do you feel?”

Sirtago merely grunted and lay back down on the deck. “In a few hours, I will feel better or I’ll be dead. Either would be preferable at this point.”

Poet laughed mirthlessly and lied down as well.

True to her word, Fayethima’s tincture had its effect. The dawn was just rising, painting the clouds in the sky with a rosy glow and Sirtago was up and looking better. One of the hands drew up a bucket of seawater and Sirtago did his best to clean himself up before they went to Fayethima’s cabin.

They knocked upon her door. Fayethima ushered them in. The odor of rich foods assailed their nostrils and Sirtago’s stomach growled alarmingly loud like a hungry beast.

Poet was not surprised. Sirtago had been unable to keep anything down for two days

and must have been ravenous.

The cabin was small and the ceiling was low. Sirtago had to duck to avoid braining himself on the timbers. There was a small table in the center of the room that was covered in the finest sweetmeats that Poet had ever seen. There were cured meats and exotic fruits. There were strange Tey’ei delicacies that gave off an aroma redolent of heady spices.

There was wine, too. Sirtago stared at the spread with rapt attention.

“Please, gentle sirs,” Fayethima said, “do avail yourselves of my—”

Sirtago had not waited for her to finish, but had tucked in. He ate like a ravenous animal and Poet had to look away.

Fayethima stood away from the table. She doffed her black cloak and her veil. Poet’s breath caught in his throat. She was as beautiful as her dark eyes had promised. Raven hair cascaded down to her waist in gentle curls. Her form was exquisite; her womanly curves were displayed openly, only a few pieces of fine silk allowing her modesty.

Poet could not help but stare at this vision of feminine loveliness, but Fayethima did not take her eyes from Sirtago. She stared at him while he noisily masticated the food she offered. Most fine women were as disgusted with his appearance as they were with his appalling lack of manners. Fayethima was not. Indeed, she stared at him intently, as if he were an object of tremendous interest to her, as if, Poet thought with a shudder, she were a cobra gazing hypnotically on its intended prey.

Poet was about to apologize for his companion’s lack of decorum when the high, shattering tone assailed him between his ears and at the base of his skull. He covered his ears in alarm, to no avail.

“What’s the matter?” Fayethima said, her attention suddenly dragged away from Sirtago by Poet’s obvious distress.

“Do you not hear it?” Poet shook his head, trying to dislodge the sound. “The tone?”

“I hear nothing,” Fayethima said, but Poet noticed a look of disquiet in her eyes. Sirtago had obviously heard nothing, or if he had it had not affected his ravenous appetite.

Poet squinted his eyes and tried to block out the noise, but it just seemed to get worse. “It’s everywhere,” he said.

Fayethima looked from Sirtago, who continued to eat blithely, and back to Poet, seemingly at a loss for what to do. Unable to stand the noise, Poet stood. “Please forgive me,” he managed to say before leaving the cabin.

Out on the open deck, the tone began to drop in intensity. Poet staggered to the railing and looked out over the rolling ocean. The tone faded steadily. A great wave rose up, and Poet thought he saw a black shape within, but the wave rolled back into the bosom of the ocean before he could discern what it was.

The shattering tone finally disappeared and Poet shook his head in relief.

He had always been sensitive to certain pitches. He loved music and as a lad had often listened with rapturous delight as the many passing musicians played for the entertainment of Sirtago’s mother, the Empress. Poet would often thrill to the sound of a well-played flute, laughing as its highest notes tickled the back of his head. But this was no delightful music. There were no notes; only the disquieting tone that overwhelmed all his other senses.

Poet stood up from the rail and looked around the ship. The sailors were busily going about their daily routine. From somewhere near the fore, a sailor played a lively tune on a small pipe. Had that been the instrument that had caused his distress?

It seemed unlikely. It was just a simple hornpipe, incapable of producing such an agonizing tone.

Poet walked across the deck, back towards Fayethima’s cabin. He would make his apologies to her and perhaps be admitted back into her company. There might even be some victuals left over, providing that Sirtago had not consumed them all.

As he approached, he heard Fayethima shriek, and Sirtago let out a loud groan. Poet unsheathed one of his daggers from within his shirt and ran to the door, ready to burst in.

He stopped himself when he heard them laugh. Then he heard sounds that were instantly familiar. He had been with Sirtago far too long not to recognize noises made in ardor. It was clear that Sirtago had finished satisfying his appetite for food and had moved on to satisfying his other appetites. From the sounds that Fayethima made in response, it seemed that she was only too happy to provide for Sirtago’s satisfaction.

Poet let out a defeated breath, returned his dagger to its place of rest, and moved away from the door. He wandered up the deck to find the sailor who played so lively a tune on his little hornpipe. Poet sat, listening to the sailor play. The foredeck was filled with sailors working or relaxing in the bright sunshine. A group of them had a huge white sail bunched between them and they were meticulously sewing, closing holes and rents in the white fabric. Some whittled on bits of wood while others swabbed and washed the various parts of the ship. One sailor, a younger man, got to his feet and began prancing about which encouraged the player to make his tune even livelier. Poet took it all in,

smiling and content.

He had nearly forgotten his disquiet when he heard a dreadfully familiar sound from aft. Sirtago was once again heaving his guts over the side. Poet wandered back to console his friend. Obviously he had overdone satisfying his desires. Fayethima’s tincture was not as effective as she’d claimed it would be. Either that, or. . . .

Poet stopped and looked at the deck. Sirtago had begun heaving before he made it to

the side; Poet’s nose wrinkled in disgust at the vomitous mass on the deck. He looked away to his friend who had finished heaving. Sirtago wiped his mouth with the back of his arm, leaving a streak of silver across his face.

Silver? Poet glanced back at the vomit on the deck. Amongst the food that Sirtago had thrown up was a silvery glint, like crushed pearls. What has she fed to him? Had she poisoned him? But why? Why cure him of his ocean sickness just to feed him poison?

Poet was about to speak when the air was split with a crack like thunder and the vessel shuddered mightily. A second crack sounded and the ship shook again; Poet almost lost his footing. Then a third crack and a third shudder.

Suddenly the waters behind Sirtago were boiling. Horrified, Poet watched a hideous black shape rise from the surface. Long limbs, sinuous and snake-like, stretched out towards the boat. A glistening black body followed. A huge eye rolled in a black socket and a horrible open maw issued a great scream, spewing flecks of silvery spittle onto the deck.

Chaos erupted. The sailors armed themselves, grabbing hooks and daggers and cutlasses.

Sirtago turned to see the giant ocean creature looming over him.

“Gwut’s Balls!” he shouted, drawing his mighty blade and hacking at one of the thing’s limbs as it slithered close.

Long, sinewy arms were everywhere. Poet drew his daggers and, with a yell, flew at one of them, stabbing and slicing as it tried to grasp hold of him.

Sirtago was fighting wildly, his great sword lopping off the tips of the creature’s probing limbs. He normally had the strength of three men, but his slashes and thrusts were becoming sloppy and less accurate. Poet feared that the days of sickness had drained Sirtago too much.

Still, he had the strength to sever any of the sinewy limbs that came too close. Poet watched in horrified fascination as the arms fell to the deck and moved about as if still possessed of life. They bled a sticky liquid, which contained glints of pearly silver just like the stuff that Sirtago had vomited onto the deck. How much more of it had he heaved over the side?

The creature uttered another angry bellow that seemed to drag up from the darkest of the sea’s depths. The sound ripped through Poet’s head. Then the high tone that had so overcome him earlier rang back.

The sound faded for a moment and Poet was able to strike out at another limb that came too close. He glanced up. The creature had dragged itself almost fully out of the water. It was monstrously huge. The maw could eat a man whole and the dreadful eye that rolled back and forth was as big as Poet’s head.

The creature let out another horrendous shriek. Again the high tone sounded, stabbing its shrill intensity into his brain. It faded long enough for Poet to see the havoc around him. The creature’s weight had caused the boat to list to one side. He had to scramble to maintain his footing. Sirtago was having similar trouble. He tried to retreat to the higher ground but the thing kept pursuing.

And that was when Poet noticed that the creature was ignoring almost everyone onboard, concentrating its wrath on Sirtago. Limbs would snake out and toss sailors aside, but the main force of the creature’s attack was centered on his friend.

The thing let out another shriek. The high tone answered. Poet cradled his head in his hands. As the shattering sound faded from his skull, he realized that the tone was just that—an answer to the creature’s dreaded shrieks.

But where was it coming from? Poet had heard the tone on the open deck, but he had heard it most strongly in . . .

. . . Fayethima’s cabin!

Poet leaped over a writhing tentacle and ran towards the door of Fayethima’s cabin.

It was barred, so Poet put his shoulder to it. Sirtago could have broken it open with a single push. Though Poet was a slighter man, not possessed of half the strength of his companion, he was wiry and determined.

The creature shrieked again and the answering tone rang through Poet’s head. He tried to ignore it and kept thrusting himself at the locked door.

Finally the latch gave way. The door burst inwards and Poet spilled into the cabin. The room was in a shambles. The remains of the meal that Sirtago had consumed were littered across the floor, spilled there after having slid from the table with the deck’s slant. The table itself was close to tipping over and small items rolled across the floor, following the downward slope of the deck.

Fayethima was curled up on the bunk. She stared at Poet with wide-eyed terror. “Get out!” she said, an edge of hysteria in her voice.

From outside, the creature shrieked, and the answering tone sounded in Poet’s head, louder and more intense than ever. He doubled over and cradled his head in his hands, afraid it would burst open and spill the contents of his skull over the deck.

The tone passed and Poet reached for the Tey’ei sorceress. “What have you done? What have you done to incur this creature’s wrath?”

Fayethima leaped off the bunk and swung a hand toward Poet, her sharp, claw-like nails narrowly missing his cheek. Poet grabbed both her wrists, one in each hand. She fought him with surprising strength. Poet lost his balance and she twisted out of his grip.

The Tey’ei woman had a crazed look as she ran to a corner of her cabin. There was a pile of blankets and clothes that had slid down the deck and had stopped there. Fayethima leaped on the pile and wrapped herself around it.

When the creature shrieked again, the answering tone was so intense that he thought surely it would cause him to black out. It filled his eyes with a white-hot wash of pain no matter how hard he closed his lids against it.

The tone began to fade and as Poet realized that Fayethima huddled on top of the clothing and blankets because there was something beneath them that she was trying to protect . . . or to silence.

Poet pulled her from the bundle. She uttered a cry of rage as she flew to the floor in the center of the cabin. Poet whisked aside the clothes and blankets. There, beneath the jumble was a glowing orb.

Perfectly round and almost as big as a man’s head, it was milky white and it glinted with silvery flecks. The sphere was made of the same substance in Sirtago’s vomit—the same substance that dripped and oozed from the attacking creature’s severed limbs. Beside the sphere was a small dagger. The floor immediately around the orb was covered by tiny motes of silver that looked as if they’d been scraped from its surface.

It all made some kind of sense. The orb belonged to the creature. The Tey’ei sorceress had stolen it somehow. She had scraped some of its surface and put it in the food. Was that why the creature’s attack was concentrated on Sirtago?

Poet had no time for more speculation. Fayethima let out an angry cry and was suddenly on top of him. They toppled to the deck, as she screamed and slashed at him with her razor-sharp nails. Poet held up his arms to cover his face, and her nails slashed through the skin of his forearms. He let out a yelp of pain and then rolled over, trying to dislodge the screaming, slashing woman.

She shrieked in fear. One of the creature’s sinewy limbs had slithered through the cabin’s broken door, groping blindly for something to latch onto. Fayethima leaped off Poet and back onto her bunk, pressing herself tight against the cabin’s rear wall, staring at the approaching limb with wide-eyed terror, screaming at the top of her lungs.

Poet’s heart hammered in his chest. The limb’s surface glistened wetly, covered with silvery flecks. Poet leaped up, ducking once to avoid the limb’s probing swipe. He scooped up the silvery orb, retrieved one of his daggers, and slashed viciously at the limb.

The tentacle jerked back and the creature outside let out an angry shriek. The orb responded and Poet felt the white hot pain slash through his head. His legs buckled underneath him and he slid to the deck, squeezing the orb, holding it closer despite the pain.

When the answering tone passed, Poet climbed unsteadily to his feet and headed for the door, following the retreating limb out into the daylight.

“No!” Fayethima screamed, launching herself at Poet, but he was too quick. Outside, the creature’s black form took up most of the deck. Only a few of the sinewy limbs still trailed in the dark ocean. Its glistening body pulsed and quivered in the bright light of day.

The sailors were doing their best to fight off the monster, but it tossed them about, mere annoyances to its pursuit of its one quarry.

But where was Sirtago? Poet looked up and saw his companion climbing the ropes towards the main mast’s lookout. He climbed with one hand and with the other he slashed out with his sword when the creature’s limbs came too close.

Poet ran towards the creature, holding up the orb. He tried to shout but his voice was drowned out by the cacophony of battle. Before he could call again, the creature let out another thunderous shriek. The orb responded. Poet doubled over in pain, nearly dropping it.

The creature paused, its limbs waving snakelike in the air. The creature’s great black eye rolled around inside of its head. The answering tone faded and Poet stood up straight, holding the orb out for the creature to see. “Take it!” Poet shouted at the thing. “It’s what you want! Take it!”

Something hit him from behind. The orb flew from his hands and he fell to the deck. The air escaped his lungs in a great Whoof! His face smashed against the sloping deck.

Fayethima was on his back, scratching him and shrieking curses in Tey’ei.

Poet bucked and tried to roll her off, but she would not budge.

“Return it to me! I killed ten men to possess it, including two lovers! Give it back to me, now!”

Poet tried to speak but he could not draw enough breath; she was suffocating him.

The creature shrieked again and the orb answered. Poet gritted his teeth, managing to turn his head to see the orb. It had come to rest further down the tilted deck against a coiled length of rope.

Fayethima must have seen it as well—suddenly she was no longer on top of him. Poet saw a brief flash of her pale, silk-adorned legs running towards the orb, then the creature loomed over him, its great black maw open wide, dripping silvery drool. He rolled, but not fast enough. A glob of the foul stuff splashed over his head and shoulder. Poet scrambled to his feet, coughed at the foul smell, and wildly wiped at the sticky mess in his hair.

The creature shrieked again, releasing a fetid stench, like dead fish that had baked in the sun. The thing, so accustomed to the depths of the sea, was rotting in the open air.

Poet managed to gain control of his fear and revulsion. He was dimly aware of Fayethima running towards her cabin, her body hunched over the orb.

Poet moved to follow her, but one of the creature’s sinewy limbs wrapped itself around his midsection. It squeezed, once again forcing the air from Poet’s lungs. The creature tightened its grip, crushing him. He tried to scream but no sound came. At any moment his ribs would crack and his heart would burst.

The world dimmed. Poet thought he was being dragged into that frightful maw. Through the blackness Poet heard a mighty shout— the sound of Sirtago’s berserker rage.

Poet was jarred once, twice, and then a third time. The darkness began to recede.

Sirtago still yelled his battle cries. Poet struggled anew against the limb that held him in its crushing grip. He had room to draw air into his lungs and it never felt so sweet.

There was another impact, and then he was falling. He had only a fraction of a second to panic before he crashed to the deck.

Poet lay stunned for a moment, before realizing that the limb was still wrapped around him. It had cushioned his fall. It ended in a ragged, milky-white, silver-flecked mess where it had been hacked from the beast.

The creature shrieked again, but this time its bellow was weaker. Pain and rage seemed to have expended much of its energy. Sirtago, on the other hand, found a new strength as the creature weakened. He was back on the deck, continuing his attack on the creature’s limbs.

The orb’s tone assailed Poet, but the pain was lessened. Fayethima was nowhere in sight. She must have made it back into her cabin. He assumed that she was smothering the orb with blankets and clothes, trying to dampen the sound that she could not hear but must know it emitted.

The creature dragged itself towards the cabin. A tentacle snaked around the wooden cabin while another poked itself through the broken door. Fayethima screamed as the creature’s limb lashed out. The tentacle retreated from the cabin, the screaming sorceress in its grasp. She clung to a bundle of blankets and clothes. The tentacle coiled tighter, and lifted Fayethima toward the creature’s mouth. Her wail strangled off as the maw opened wide.

Then Fayethima fell, resuming her scream as she tumbled into that pulsating, glistening mouth. To the end, she did not relinquish her grip on the orb.

The creature slowly crawled back down the side of the ship. It had been in the open air for too long. It was missing limbs, and bleeding silver from dozens of wounds. Poet felt a small pang of sympathy for the creature.

As the creature retreated, Sirtago attacked it afresh. With a great bellow, he hacked at the creature’s limbs. The creature flicked out a tendril. It crashed into Sirtago and sent him flying across the deck. Then the creature finally rolled over the side, splashing back into the dark sea.

As the creature’s weight was dislodged, the boat rolled the opposite way. Poet lost his balance and crashed to the deck, rolling along with coils of rope, abandoned weapons, and various bits of wood. He crashed into the opposite rail, his head connecting violently with the timbers. The world rolled and spun and blackness overtook him.
Poet woke to a familiar heaving sound. He opened one eye despite the pain it caused his head. Sirtago was hurling his guts into the sea. Poet opened his other eye and sat up, trying to ignore the pain and the shaking of his limbs. The deck around him was littered with broken planks and splintered spars. The crew was valiantly trying to clean it all up.

Sirtago flopped onto the deck next to him, and focused his one good eye on Poet.

“You’re still alive,” he said.

“So are you, it seems.”

Sirtago grunted. “Barely.”

Silence settled over them and Poet closed his eyes, allowing the sounds of the boat and the ocean to lull him, but it no longer calmed him like before. He kept hearing that high tone in his head.

“She was comely enough,” Sirtago said.

“She was using you as bait for that creature.”

Sirtago gave a bit of a start. “Why?”

Why? That was a good question. Gwut alone knew how she got the orb. She must have known that if she crossed the ocean with it, the creature would come to claim it. Perhaps she thought that if the beast ate Sirtago it would be satisfied long enough to allow her to reach the mainland.

What the orb was, and what it was to the creature, Poet would never know.

“She was a sorceress,” Poet said. “Who can fathom such a one as that?”

Sirtago considered that for a moment, then grunted, seemingly satisfied. “She wasn’t that comely,” he said, standing up and heading to the railing.

Poet dragged himself to his feet as Sirtago heaved again. In the distance, a narrow strip of brown crept into view between the dark sea and the bright sky. Land.

Poet nudged Sirtago. “Soon we will be away from Ciesfor’s domain and back on dry land.”

“Now, that’s the comeliest sight I have ever seen.”

 

This story originally appeared in the anthology Sails and Sorcery from Fantasist Enterprises. It also appears in Heralded by Blood from Rage Machine Books.

Heralded by Blood and Other Tales

RAGE MACHINE BOOKS has published  my collection of short Dark Fantasy stories!

If you ever feel that you are doing well as a writer, I would recommend re-reading all of your old short stories. That will put a pin in any inflated sense of accomplishment right quick.

As I have gone through the process of selecting stories for this volume I have run headlong into countless cringeworthy examples of my many bad writing habits. I have shuddered with embarrassment at the numerous examples of passive voice, imprecise word choices, repetition, bad grammar, not to mention atrocious spelling.

When I began I was keen to become reacquainted with my older works, but as I slogged through I became more and more mortified at my own inadequacies as a writer. And what made it worse was that most of this work has seen print!

If ever there was an argument as to why a writer needs a good editor, I am the embodiment of it.

Nevertheless, it has been somewhat illuminating to look back at where my head was at when I wrote these stories. It is interesting, particularly at my age, to read the words of a much younger version of myself, to smile indulgently at my youth’s misconceptions, and to be reminded of the things that I once considered to be very important. As I head North through my middle age, the concerns and cares of my bygone days seem quaint, if not downright mystifying to my older (and hopefully wiser) self.

As well I have been able to track the voice of the writer Jack Mackenzie as it developed, slowly and painfully throughout my early career, such as it was. I can clearly see the influences, the bad imitations, the clumsy striving for poetic turns of phrase as well as the many places where I was just plain bullshitting my way through a story.

I fear that my naked prose is not as elegant as I had hoped it was. My dialogue seems to work, though, far better than the simple task of describing clearly and concisely what the hell is going on. Perhaps I should have been writing screenplays instead of short stories.

Well, what’s done is done. As the venerable Omar Khayyam puts it in his classic Rubaiyat;

The Moving Finger writes and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears blot out a word of it.

However, as true as that is, another aphorism about vanity may apply here, for I have not let all of my mistakes stand. I know many writers who present their earlier works “warts and all” but I simply cannot let these little darlings into the house without first insisting that they wipe their feet. I find that I am compelled to wipe away the dirt from their faces and try to smooth down the cow licks as best I can before I let company in.

I always felt that when someone comes to visit you should at least try to put your best face forward. Perhaps that seems old fashioned, put it’s how I was brought up and it is how I continue to live today even when I do not feel like it, thanks to my beloved wife.

Besides that, it is a sign of respect to one’s company to try to present an inviting and clean atmosphere – to not let the dogs run wild, to pull out the best china that you have (the sets that match best and have the least amount of chips and cracks) to serve the better quality biscuits, the nice tea and to provide some clean seats and dusted surfaces when company comes to call.

And you, dear reader, are the best company.

As for the kinds of tales these are, well, these are tales of the darkest fantasy. These are the literary spawn – bastards though some may be – of the stories that one would have read in the pages of Weird Tales, that venerated pulp magazine of the early part of the twentieth century. That pulp rag that birthed the stories of Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Seabury Quinn, C. L. Moore, and many others. These stories have percolated in those pages as well as through the fiction of Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. They have been steeped in heroic fantasy fiction, sword and sorcery, and outright horror.

One is even a sequel, of sorts, to a story by the great horror icon and popular Weird Tales author, H. P. Lovecraft.

Does this literary inspiration guarantee that my tales will inherit the quality of the stories which have provided their impetus? No. Of course not. My poor efforts cannot be faulted for their enthusiasm, however. My love for these authors and the types of tales for which they are famous knows no bounds and I have tried to infuse much of that love and admiration into these stories.

If you have a similar love for these kinds of tales, then I am certain that these efforts will prove to be acceptable to you. It is my hope, dear reader, that they provide you with a modicum of pleasure. It is my sincerest wish that they will thrill you in the same way that those Weird Tales once did.

I have tried my best, dear reader. I have cleaned the furniture and importuned the children to behave. I hope you enjoy the biscuits and that you find the tea satisfactory.

Lets spend some time visiting, shall we?

You can purchase the e-book at Amazon.com. The print version will follow shortly.

 

THE PARADIGM TRAP

the-paradigm-trap-cover1626961824.jpgRage Machine Books has published my Military SF novel The Paradigm Trap.

The book takes place in the same universe as Debt’s Pledge and Debt’s Honor, but during a very different time period. Where Debt’s Pledge and Debt’s Honor take place at the very beginning of the Kreoch War, The Paradigm Trap takes place at it’s very end.

Kent McLennan is a Commander in The Fleet, the powerful military defense force that has protected the human colony worlds for generations. But McLennan is an outspoken critic of the Fleet’s admiralty.

Still suffering the effects of a devastating accident, McLennan is on the verge of resigning his commission, but when he is suddenly offered a choice assignment, leading the mission to accept the Kreoch’s final surrender, his suspicions are aroused.

And with good reason. Fleet Admiral Burroughs is a man whom McLennan does not trust. The mission has too many odd features for McLennan’s liking, from two near legendary historical figures who seem to have an agenda of their own, to a brash diplomat whose past is as inscrutable as his motives.

The Paradigm Trap is a tense and exciting SF adventure that involves deadly enemies, treachery, and a plot to change history… literally.

The Paradigm Trap is available as an ebook and in a print version from Amazon.

An excerpt from DEBT’S HONOR

Debt's Honor CoverHere is an exclusive, available nowhere else excerpt from my new novel, DEBT’S HONOR:

Jefferson Odett would have been fine if he’d just kept going, but he had to stop when he heard the voice of a dead man.

The shuttle settled down on a featureless plain on a dirty ball of a planet that was their rallying point before the troops were sent again to engage the enemy. A light drizzle from the perpetually overhanging clouds turned the ground into a sloppy mud pit and Odett’s boots squelched in and out of it with every step. His mood was already grim and this weather improved nothing.

He spied a part of the field that looked a little more passable. The mud was broken up by large rocks. He was making towards it when his communicator chimed. Updates. Orders. He didn’t bother opening the message. There would be plenty of time for that once he was warm and dry.

The first of the temporary shelters came into view. They were pre-fab constructs that had the benefit of being a barrier against the elements and little else. There were groups of them arranged to some order by various commanders. Individually the arrangement must have made some sort of sense but to Odett’s eye it was just a jumble of small huts surrounded by miserable figures wearing rain gear and looking as grim as Odett felt.

His own men were some yards away yet. He could not tell where. There was a map on his communicator but Odett did not want to look at it right now. He wanted to concentrate on his footing. He trusted he would stumble upon his men sooner or later or they would stumble upon him. They were bound to be keeping an eye out for him.

As he leaped from one rocky outcrop to another, trying to avoid a muddy patch in between, Odett heard the voice that made him stop. It belonged to a man he thought had been dead for over two years.

“I saw the bladeships with my own eyes…” the voice was saying. “I saw it carve up the transport like it was nothing! I barely escaped with my life!”

Odett looked in the direction the voice had come from. A group of soldiers were gathered round to hear the tale the voice spouted. They were an Earthborn division. Odett could tell by their uniforms and their gear, which was new and up to date and hardly used. He pushed his way through the group of soldiers, garnering stern looks as he did so, but he didn’t care. He had to know.

There he was, surrounded by a group of admiring Earthborn soldiers, looking clean and scrubbed as if he hadn’t had to lift a finger for anything.

Winters.

Odett could see he was a captain now. Unlike Odett, he likely hadn’t earned the title. He’d probably purchased it with the prize money he’d been awarded for the capture of Albert Carlysle, a wanted prisoner that Odett had, in actuality, recognized and captured – a prisoner who had saved his life aboard the Emperor Malthius.

That was the last time Odett had seen Winters aboard that damned ship. Odett had assumed Winters died with all the other soldiers.

But here he was, telling his tale to a rapt audience.

“The thing… the Kreoch ship… just clamps on to the unsuspecting ship. The Kreoch warship is like a great knife that cuts into the ship, ripping it apart.”

Odett sighed inwardly. Everyone knew that now. When he’d told the admiralty about it after he’d made it back to Earth they had a hard time believing his incredible story. Since then there had been documented proof of the existence of the Kreoch bladeships, and the unimaginable damage they cause to hapless vessels unfortunate enough to encounter them.

“How many Kreoch did you kill?” a voice asked.

Winters shrugged and smiled. “I don’t know. It was all a blur and I didn’t keep count.

“Hard to kill Kreoch when you’re cowering in a lifepod,” a voice countered.

Odett was somewhat surprised to realize that the voice was his own. He’d thought it and said it aloud without meaning to.

DEBT’S HONOR is available at Amazon in e-book and in paperback.