The seasons, Book 1 Available on AMAZON for .99 cents during the 1st week of October.
A group of ten writers including Kevin Urban created a compilation of stories about and during Autumn
The seasons, Book 1 Available on AMAZON for .99 cents during the 1st week of October.
A group of ten writers including Kevin Urban created a compilation of stories about and during Autumn
“Flinders, I tell ya!” Brogan said, as he threw a telegram on the table, and looked out from his cottage window in Barley Cove, Ireland.
The spring grasses sprouted from the ground that lay fallow through the winter. Beyond this, there was a wide, calm bay.
Brogan swiveled around to face his wife, Cait. “I spent two weeks at the lighthouse and now I have to go back for two-days more.” Brogan’s eyes turned down with sadness, then he looked at his young wife. “I’m sorry, Cait. I know this ain’t what you wanted, but it’s the job of a lighthouse keeper.”
“That dosser, Murphy, has lost his mind. What does he need two days away fer?” Cait faced him, slamming a knot of dough roughly on the table.
“Don’t know, but I’m losing mine, too!” He moved behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Winding the lamp clock every eight hours, waking in mid-dream to do it. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m winding it, or dreaming that I am. And, just as bad, I’ll be sifting that mercury again. I can taste it in me mouth already, like sucking on a farthing.”
“The mercury,” Cait said with a distant stare. “It’s quite fascinating.”
“It’s how we get the Fresnel lens to spin smoothly every twenty-seconds. That lens weighs as much as an elephant, but it floats like a boat on that mercury, but we have to sift it with goat skin and cheesecloth every few days.”
Brogan paused, staring far off and shaking his head. “Funny, ya know… Two days back on my way, from the lighthouse I passed, old man Finnbar O’ Gnimh. He was wearing those bright buckled shoes.”
Cait rolled her eyes. “Was he dancing in the clovers?”
“Stop it, Cait. I know what ya think and it ain’t true.”
“He’s a leprechaun, if there ever was one.”
Brogan’s shoulders shrugged, and he walked to the kitchen window. “This is the year Nineteen hundred and five. We don’t go around believing that craic.”
Cait put her hands on her hips. “He’s the oldest soul in the county of Cork and lives there in Kilcondy all by his lonesome. Nobody knows how old he truly is.” She leaned forward. “And, Spring is when they bring about most of their jiggery-pokery mischief.”
Brogan resigned with a smile. “Very well, Cait. What I wanted to say is that old Finnbar was being harassed by some boyos on his way back from Barley Cove. Well, I was not feeling up for much, let alone a scuffle. But, that old Finnbar set to swiping at them hooligans with a shillelagh that was as knotty and crooked as, he.”
“So, ya helped him, of course.” Cait stood waiting.
“Why, yes, I called out to those langers as I stopped on the other side of the road. ‘Mind your business and crack on, now…’ Well, they looked at me and seemed to not be moved by my words. In fact, Cait, they were believing the same sorts as you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, that they were yanking on old Finnbar’s dark green overcoat, shouting, ‘where’s yer gold.’”
“See, I’m not the only one who believes it.”
“That’s not the point,” Brogan said. “Don’t you see how that thinking has already gotten old Finnbar into a scrape?”
“That’s because when ya catch a leprechaun, he’s beholden… and they always settle what they owe. That’s what me uncle Orville told me and that’s how he says he made his fortune, when he pulled an old geezer from a well near Dunlough years back.”
“It’s nonsense, and how can anyone hurt an old man like that when they don’t even know it’s true?”
Cait gazed upward. “I remember what me Uncle used to say… ‘Curse this well that me soul shall dwell, till I find me magic that breaks this spell.’ That’s what he said the old geezer spoke.”
“That’s an old fairytale of sorts. It can’t be true, that’s all.”
“Well, they always pay what they owe, the legend goes… So, what did you do?” Cait eyed him with anticipation.
“Well, I got on madder than a box of frogs, and I gave it out to ’em.”
“Gave it out to ’em?”
“That’s right, I couldn’t stop myself. I hammered the biggest one on the nose and he fell back. The others ran off. They say strike the shepherd and the flock will scatter, and that’s what they did.”
Cait narrowed her eyes. “Don’t go making enemies of the rowdies around here. Everyone knows yer up at that lighthouse alone and I’m here.”
Brogan nodded in agreement. “Yes, yes, anyhow, it was brutal and perhaps it just goes to prove what they say about lighthouse keepers… That we all be insane.”
“Now, get yer head out of that garden before you convince yourself yer a lunatic.” Cait stamped her foot defiantly. “So…” She changed the subject. “You started by saying it was funny.”
“Yes… After those hooligans ran off, I said to the old man, That was a holy show, aye? Bout ye, now?”
Brogan stood silent.
“Well?” Cait pushed.
“Strange.” Brogan hung his head. “That old Finnbar went scarlet. His wretched face scowled up at me. I couldn’t tell whether he was hurt or angry, but he certainly wasn’t grateful. Then, he answered, ‘Grand, thank you very much. I’m guessing I owe ya know?’”
Brogan shook his head as his expression soured. “His breath smelled like turpentine and I couldn’t help myself but to stare at his craggy teeth that were half gold and the others brown. I answered, ‘you don’t owe me a thing.’ Then he yomped away on his gammy legs, as crookity as that walking stick.”
“Turpentine, ya say? That’s because they drink it or any distillment they can get their hands on.”
“That’s nonsense, Cait.”
“Well, either way, it’s begrudgery, if ya ask me.” Cait paused with her arms still crossed.
She stepped next to Brogan and looked out of the window. “It’s a soft day now, but a wet rain is coming forth.” She pointed beyond the cove toward distant pillowy clouds on the southern horizon.
“I’ll make some supper and pack a basket for ya. Tomorrow we’ll wake early and see ya off. When ya return, we’ll relax then, and maybe trot up ta visit me, uncle Orville in Dunmanway. He’s not doin’ well… Got a touch of the brain fever.”
“Aye, sorry Cait, I know he’s your favorite.” Brogan’s eyes brightened. “Perhaps when we arrive, I’ll get me some of the black stuff.”
Cait put her fists on her hips. “Now, don’t make a show of it.” Her toe tapped. “Though that Guinness would be restorative to the soul. Just remember, we’re going there to see my Uncle Orville, not the beer.”
The next morning, Brogan and Cait exited their cottage. Still dark, the brightest light in the sky was not a star or the moon, but the sweeping flash of the Mizen Head lighthouse, over two leagues away. Brogan counted its passage through the sky, which ended at twenty-four seconds.
“Malarkey! She’s pulling slowly. Three days ago when I left, she was rolling every twenty.”
“That means you’ll have to clean the mercury?” Cait’s gaze fastened on the lighthouse.
“That it does! I think that mercury is giving me a brain fever, sometimes.” Brogan gave a sharp nod.
“One day, ya won’t have to do this. I’m going to ask my uncle for a stash to get us elsewhere.”
“Now, don’t go begging him. It’s not right and besides, you said he’s not well.”
“Darn it, Brogan, it pains me to see ya work like this.”
“I have work, don’t I? Some aren’t as lucky as us.”
Brogan placed his flat tweed cap firmly on his head. He lifted an oversized woven basket for toting sod to his back, with a single strap that held tight around his chest and shoulders.
“I packed you a loaf of bread, slices of black pudding wrapped in cloth, along with cold crubeens.”
“Oh, I can’t wait to eat those pig’s feet.” Brogan smiled and leaned forward. He put his hands on either side of her cheeks and kissed her. “I’ll be back in two mornings from now, my love.”
Though the sun had not yet risen, the sky was light blue to the east. Brogan set out on his bicycle, heading South toward the sweeping light that cut through the darkness. Ten minutes later and halfway to the lighthouse, he approached the town of Shiplake; the place where he struck the young man. Twilight was still peeking above the horizon and he rode steadily as he kept sight of the lighthouse.
Before the bridge to the peninsula of the lighthouse, he arrived at the desolate fork to Kilcondy. The eastern sky was light blue with orange peeking on its horizon. Only to the West, stars still shone, and the lighthouse beam carved through the night sky overhead like a passing sword.
Next to the bridge that connected the mainland to the small cliff-shorn peninsula, a figure stood motionless on the side of the road. In the dim light of dusk, the figure was formless, but took shape when the passing beam of light flashed behind it. Brogan’s eyes widened as he strained to make sense of the figure. Rather than slow, he peddled harder to avoid the shadowy thing that crouched waiting in the dark.
He steered to the opposite side of the road and sped past just as the figure made a sound.
“Fainic droichhead,” a voice called from the side of the road.
Brogan recognized the coat and buckled shoes of Finnbar O’ Gnimh that glinted from the flash of light. Without slowing, he struggled to make sense of the words. Confused, he looked forward just in time to see a plank missing from the bridge, then steered away. He rolled off the road to avoid it.
Brogan jumped from the bicycle, spilling his basket. After he stopped, he stood motionless, looking around through the light blue of the morning.
He rummaged his hands through the mixed wild plants and rocky slope to reclaim his things, then pushed his bicycle back onto the road. Finnbar was nowhere in sight. Brogan looked back and forth along the dirt road, his brow furled, but his eyes widened with a desire to know more.
He pushed his bicycle over the bridge and the last stretch to the lighthouse. He looked around, concerned and in doubt of what he had seen. In front of the lighthouse, Murphy waited next to a mule donned with saddle bags.
“Mornin’, Brogan,” Murphy tipped his head.
“Mornin’ Murphy. Ya owe me, ya know.”
“I know,” Murphy gave a half grin. “The wife is having another.”
“I didn’t expect it to be so sharpish. How many wee ones is that now?” he raised an eyebrow.
“Aye, too many to count.” Murphy took off his cap and scratched his head. “Glad you got the telegram. Thought ya might not.”
“I got it, sadly.” Brogan rolled his bicycle past Murphy and leaned it against a stack of sod logs used for heating.
“Still riding that doodah?”
“You still riding that tatty mule?”
“She’s a hinny.”
“Right… I forgot.” Brogan tilted his head, staring at the animal’s swollen abdomen. “She must be going on eighty stone.”
“Hush yourself, she’s not over fifty,” Murphy petted the animal’s neck, then changed the subject. “I put three sod in the stove a few hours back. Should be good for a few more, but ya probably won’t need it.”
“Thanks, just the same…” Brogan looked back toward the bridge. “Say… Murphy, you know the old speak quite well. What’s the meaning of…” Brogan rehearsed the phrase, and then spoke, “Fainic droichhead.”
Murphy scratched his chin. “Ah, yes, means, beware the bridge, in the old Gaelic.”
“Well… Fainic droichhead to you, Murphy. The bridge has got a plank missing.”
“Aye, thanks for telling me. I could have lost me life falling into that chasm. I’ll pass it on to the regents. Oh, and don’t forget to clean the mercury. She’s getting a little caked.”
“Of course.” Brogan smirked. “Tell me, Murphy, does that old Finnbar come wandering around here often? You know he lives there alone in Kilcondy, just past the bridge.”
“Never seen him about. He’s one of the last Gaeltachts left of the auld sod, as he might tell it, and the only person I know who survived the great famine sixty years ago,” Murphy told.
“Sixty years?” Brogan looked astonished. “He must have been a lad.”
Murphy shook his head in denial. “Not the way I heard it… He was a grown man.”
Brogan stood, confused by calculation.
“Slan leat, goodbye and health to you,” Murphy saluted, turned and left on foot, leading the mule. “Come, Henna,” he said.
Brogan watched the man and animal wander off before he entered the first room of the lighthouse and set his basket on the floor. The smell of kerosene filled his nostrils and a nauseous expression waved over his face. He looked about the room, at the stove, the table and chairs, and the supplies under the staircase that curved upward on the right and which vanished into the next level. He then set out to climb the steps that ushered in the ritual he had performed so many times before.
Seven stories high, he climbed along curved white plaster walls, entering one bleak chamber and then the next. He paused in the sleeping quarters. A drop-tube passed through the center of every room. Brogan looked at a cut-away section that revealed a rope. The rope held ten stone of lead weight which powered the timing mechanism for the turning lamp of the lighthouse. Red paint on the rope meant it was near its end. They tied an additional knot around the rope before the painted section, which had since passed.
“Damn you, Murphy. I’ve got to wind it the moment I arrive!”
Brogan trudged up to the next floor beneath the lens housing where the crank of the clockwork sat. He took out his pocket watch and wound it first. He then took a deep breath, and cranked the ratcheting drum, which coiled a rope that held the lead weight.
Ninety-six rotations of the L-shaped bar turned the rope on a drum entirely. After six minutes, the winding ended. He set the handle in place. The spool turned, the ratchet clicked, and the lens light spun. Brogan pulled out his pocket-watch.
“Seven fifty-eight,” He recounted from memory. “Wind it again at four. Don’t forget to pump the lamp before bed.”
Brogan ascended the last set of stairs to the lantern room and exited to the cat-walk. On the outside of the lens housing, he looked away from the blinding glare of the lamp.
At the top of the lighthouse, an unending view of the Atlantic ocean lay before him. The sun had now risen. He gazed out over rippled water and followed the beam of light as it danced over the surrounding landscape, highlighting the waves, the black cliffs and, finally, the green expanse of the small wind-shorn peninsula that curved around the lighthouse. Rugged, yet tranquil, it appeared soft from above, but was blanketed with scrubby ground-cover of rock samphire, scurvy grass, clover and sprinkled with hardy wildflowers.
Below was a vertical drop into the ocean where the waves ravaged the jagged cliff. The only path down were zigzag sections of iron steps like scaffolding bolted to the cliff side. There, a small boat-dock jutted out into the water, wetted by the oncoming waves that swelled as the passage to the dock narrowed. From a flagstaff, they secured a cable stretched out over the boat dock and to a rocky outcrop beyond it. They used this cable as a supply line to hoist parcels to and from the dock.
Brogan descended the spiral steps to the ground level, where he counted supplies which included four pairs of galoshes of various sizes, three oil-skin coats, seven small caskets of kerosene, five coiled ropes, a tool chest and one crate containing cheese cloth and goat skins. He entered this information into the logbook and included the crate that sat in the clockwork room.
Someone rapped at the door.
“What did you forget this time, Murphy?” Brogan said aloud, and then opened the door.
Outside stood Finnbar. His beady eyes stared from under his thick, wiry brows. He sniffed the air that wafted out from the lighthouse. His eyes narrowed as he breathed in, “Ah, that be a burly brew, ye got, lad.”
“I think you’re smelling the kerosene, and I don’t keep a whiskey about if that’s what you want.” Brogan answered with a nod. “How can I help ya, old man?”
I came to check that ya made it across the bridge dandy.” Finnbar looked on with anticipation.
“That I did, but ya startled me and I ran her off the road just the same and now the tire is warped.”
“Drat!” The word spit venomously from Finnbar’s lips as he looked down at the ground. He then looked up at Brogan with a pointed finger. “You… You…”
“I what?” Brogan asked.
Finnbar turned scarlet red with anger and held his breath like a stubborn child. He then turned and scuttled off.
Brogan stood in the door and watched Finnbar trek back over the bridge and beyond a rocky hillock.
What got into him? Cait was right, it’s begrudgery.
Brogan closed the door and went back to his work.
Every eight hours, between winding the heavy lead weighted rope, he sifted mercury, pumped the kerosene tank, carried supplies to the top level, slept, ate, or read. At regular intervals, he made an observation of the southern ocean to watch for ships and entered his information into the logbook. When weather deemed necessary, they logged meteorological observations. A rain gauge, thermometer and barometer were attached to the flagstaff erected near the steps of the cliff.
When evening came, he did the same, but could only hear the distant clang of the buoy anchored off shore or see a distant lamp of a passing ship and what observations he could make from the lighthouse beam.
After his latest winding of the rope, it was nine minutes after midnight. Brogan stood on the catwalk outside the lantern. Gusts of wind blew and a light rain sprayed his face that inspired shivers. In contrast, the burning kerosene of the lamp warmed him from behind.
His eyes followed the path of the light-beam as it turned clockwise. Every twenty-seconds, it swept over the ocean, illuminating a small section of the waves, lighting their foaming crests. It then reached the cliffs and then dashed over the gentle slope of the small Mizen Head peninsula.
In a brief flash, Brogan leaned forward as he witnessed something dashing across the ground. The light passed, and the object disappeared into the darkness. He anxiously waited for the return of the light, wiping his eyes as if not sure what he had seen. Brogan gripped the railing as the seconds seemed to last an eternity. The light came back around. When it reached the cliff side, something disappeared over its edge. He gasped, putting his hands over his chest, wondering if he was dreaming. The distant clang of the buoy told him he was not.
The light came back around; he waited for it to reach the same spot of the ground. There and along the entire path the light shone upon, not a person or animal was in sight.
Brogan raced down the stairs to the sleeping quarters, grabbed a lit kerosine lamp and carried it with him to the bottom floor and set it on the table. There, he grabbed an oilskin coat and flung it over his back. He slipped his boots into a pair of large galoshes before he ran out, flogging the wet ground with the oversized rubber shoes.
In the darkness, he ran toward the cliff’s edge but froze, waiting for the lighthouse beam to illuminate his path. He called out as he neared the bluff, “Hello, is anyone there.”
A reply never came. Brogan crept, crouching low, as he dared himself to venture near the edge which hid in the blackness. The ground was slick from the rain. The wind blew irregularly, with gusts that swirled in a countercurrent pulling toward the ocean.
“Can anyone hear me?” Brogan called out, and then listened.
Voice-like bits of sound teased from the blowing rain, the crashing hiss of waves one hundred feet below, and the buoy that clanged uneasily as if a sea monster shook it.
Far off in the ocean, the lighthouse beam swept across the sea, revealing wavelets like white horses that raced toward him. Brogan looked up, waiting for it to come near. He willed himself to look over the edge and crouched to the ground. His hands hesitated as they reached forward, feeling for the slightest drop in elevation. The swirling gusts pulled at him. His finger tips trembled as they moved beyond the last of the grass and onto the crumbling rock that marked the edge of the abyss into darkness.
The light rushed toward him. He willed himself and slid toward the precipice. That in its last bit curved downward, threatening with gravity, slick and with a lack of handholds. The tips of his loose fitting galoshes feebly dug into the tufts of low-growing plants as his hips and elbows inch-wormed him closer. His face near to the ground, he could smell the earthen rock as every one of his senses was on alert, gauging any sign that he would fall to his death. He reached for the edge. In that moment something rough and claw-like grabbed his hand. With a reflex he pulled back with a gasp, but knew it must only have been a loose rock or perhaps a bird.
The light met him with a flash as his eyes peeked over the edge… There was nothing human or animal below, but some kind of flotsam near where white foam heaped against the black rocks; something non-living and mechanical. He could see it for only a flash, then it went black.
In the darkness, Brogan exhaled and pushed himself away from the cliff. His eyes dilated in the gloom, scanning with peripheral vision. His expression was blank with wonder of what happened. He touched his hand that still resonated from whatever had gripped him.
He slowly stood and stepped farther away from the cliff edge, matching the intervals of the passing beam. He marched back to the lighthouse.
“I’m losing my mind.” He entered the lighthouse and took off the raincoat.
He kicked off the galoshes, took his lamp in hand, and looked out over the dark landscape once more before closing the door. Exhausted by the excitement, he trudged up the steps.
“Pump the tank,” he reminded himself.
He climbed past the sleeping quarters, to the clock room above. He set himself in a posture to hand-pump a brass kerosene tank with enough air pressure to pass vaporized fuel over a bunsen flame within the lens, which would last until dawn. A gauge illustrated its pressure. Brogan stood straight to stretch his back, then descended to the room below.
There, he took off his boots and lay himself on his cot, fully dressed. He tucked one foot into the cut-away section of the drop tube, reacquainting himself with his familiar sleeping position. Then, waited for a touch from the knot in the rope. This would wake him, as it always did, if he overslept. Again, he would wind the rope as he always did.
Uneasily, he pondered the recent event, disbelieving what he had seen. He leaned to his side and blew out the lamp.
He drifted into a slumber assisted by the hum of the turning lens, the click of the rope spool ratchet, the distant clang of the buoy which echoed along with the whisper of the crashing waves, and the gentle caress of the rope strands against his foot.
The next morning, the knot thumped his ankle. He woke and looked at his watch, which read seven forty-three. He wound it, as he knew he would shortly wind the rope.
He put on his boots, tucked in his shirt, and donned his cap. First, he climbed to the clock room and pumped the kerosene tank once again. He looked at the rope spool and counted six full coils around it.
Still have half an hour.
He descended seven flights of steps. He lit a kerosene burner that sat atop the stove, then opened the door to see a heavy fog had enveloped the peninsula. He used the pot to scoop water from a rain barrel outside that brimmed from the steady rain that fell.
He left the lighthouse door open and set the pot to boil. Inside the stove, he looked to see a half burnt sod and exited to retrieve two more briquettes where he had leaned his bicycle.
Brogan walked out, then stood open-mouthed, as he realized his bicycle was no longer there.
“Damn rubbish! Who’s coddin’ me?” he shouted as he looked out over the green slope and toward the mist-covered bridge. Not a soul was in sight.
“Hooligans! I know it’s you!”
The words fell silent in the fog.
Not far off, he could see the bridge that spanned the crevasse, veiled in mist. Low, drifting clouds obscured the land beyond. Brogan stared at it with curiosity. He peered up at the lighthouse, which vanished into the dense white cloud. Like stirring cream, the light churned through it.
Brogan glanced back at the pot that had not yet boiled. Inside, he put galoshes over his boots and an oilskin coat over his body. Outside, the air was a mist with soft rain that was finitely visible. He yanked the hood of the raincoat over his head as he set off with a brisk walk toward the cliff.
An impenetrable fog hung over the ocean. The clang of the buoy was irregular and hidden within this void, which was a blank white canvas. The view of the cliff was opaque as he approached. Wisps of climbing clouds rose over it and whipped back around like ghostly fingers grabbing at the solid ground and then melted away. Brogan watched and then felt his hand that had been clawed the night before. Hesitantly, he approached the drop-off and stared over its edge again. Below, sea birds flew from rocky ledges, disappearing into the void while waves emerged, splashed the lowest crags.
It must have been a bird.
Relief waved over his face, confirming there was not a lifeless body on the rocks below. He then looked back toward the bridge and hurried in its direction, eyeing his surroundings with suspicion. It took less than a minute and when he arrived, his eyes widened with astonishment when he observed the missing plank was now restored.
It had only been light for less than an hour, and no workers were in sight. Brogan turned in all directions with a look of bewilderment, wondering who fixed it so quickly, and why they did not stop at the lighthouse and bring rations. For it was the routine to bring the latest backlog of supplies when workers visited, and which would have included fresh milk, cheese and butter.
Brogan walked back to the lighthouse. The kettle whistled as he entered. He poured a cup, cut a piece of bread and ate it with a slice of black pudding. Standing in the doorway, he scanned the milky edges of land, expecting to see a human form. He finished his meal, then retrieved his pocket watch. It read four after eight.
Time to wind it again.
His lips curled inward as his teeth gritted. He leaned out of the doorway.
“You think you got me, aye?”
He stood waiting for a reply, but there was none. Brogan slammed the door and paused, studying it. He placed his cup on the table and then dropped a wood beam lock across the door and frame. He took a deep breath, then methodically climbed the steps. His feet fell into a rhythm that matched the click of the rope drum ratchet.
His eyes stared without seeing as his thoughts wandered. Up the steps he clomped like another piece of machinery of the lighthouse.
Are those hooligans playing a trick on me? Did Murphy fix the plank on his way out?
Brogan took a deep breath and then entered the clock-room. He stopped to yawn, with outstretched arms and clenched fists. He exhaled and rubbed his left bicep with his other hand, preparing to exhaust himself once again.
He appraised the drum with one and a half coils wrapped around, calculating the remaining time left.
Ninety-six turns divided by eight hours equals twelve turns an hour. Sixty minutes divided by twelve turns equals five minutes on each turn.
“Seven minutes left, thereabouts.”
He rolled his sleeves to his elbows and cranked the drum. He had wrapped it twice when the low drone of a fog horn bellowed twice, vibrating his ears.
“Holy craic! A steamer?”
He considered the signal. Two long blasts… Underway, but not making way.
Brogan rushed up to the cat-walk outside of the lens housing. The lighthouse beam rotated across the thick fog, as if shining against a wall. He stared out into the empty void that now told only a story through sound; the waves crashed, the wind was calm, but the buoy clanged uneasily.
After a brief silence, the horn blared twice again, shaking the surrounding air.
Brogan looked at his watch.
Two minutes interval.
He listened as a bell rang rapidly.
Anchored off shore?
A gong sounded gently to the right but in the same proximity.
The bell is at the helm; the gong is at the aft. She must be beyond the buoy, or near it.
A minute later, the bell and gong repeated.
Anchored off shore… but why?
Brogan glanced at his pocket watch.
Nine after eight.
He stepped back inside the lens housing and down to the clock room. One glance at the drum told him he had fifteen minutes of rope.
“Damn it all.”
He wound the rope round the drum twice.
That should last me. I’ve got twenty-five minutes.
He hurried down the many spiraling steps, stumbling twice. At the bottom, he grabbed a coat but ignored the galoshes.
“It’s a fine thing, it is!” He sarcastically muttered.
Hurrying around the lighthouse to the ocean-side near the flagstaff, which overlooked the quay, he watched for movement in the fog, then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Ahoy!” he shouted and waited for a response.
He stepped near the scaffolding of stairs that meandered back and forth along the cliff wall and which ended at the base of the dock. The supply cable stabbed out into the white void and abruptly ended, appearing to float in the white mist, defying gravity. A steady sound splashed in the mist.
“The Lady Gwendolyn,” a distant voice cried out from the void.
The Lady Gwendolyn? Haven’t heard of it.
“Ahoy there, Lady Gwendolyn, ’tis the Mizen Head station. About ye, now.”
“In a skiff but unable to row ashore, the surge is hefty,” the voice faintly called from beyond view, but near the edge of the cloud bank. Brogan looked down at the visible section of the dock, disappearing under the oncoming waves.
“The dock is submerged, don’t row ashore. About ye, I say.”
“‘Tis a trouvaille. We ran dry of fuel and by luck anchored near the buoy in the early morn’. We’ve been swaying about like a dandy in a howff. In need of petrol-paraffin.”
“Will kerosene suit ya?” Brogan shouted.
“Aye, Aye, she will, just fine,” Came the voice.
“The quay is too dangerous.”
“What have ye then?” The voice was faint.
Brogan studied the cable that dripped with condensation.
He gripped the cable leading from the flagstaff and followed its length with his eyes where it vanished in the void. “Can you see the cable attached to the rock beyond the dock?”
There was a long pause.
“Rolling near it but pushing back with oars to avoid collision.”
“Remain steady.” Brogan ordered. “Can you take on a casket of kerosene?”
“Aye, we can.”
“Will hoist one casket down the cable. One will have to keep ya, should get ya to a proper port near Barley Cove, heading northwest… Remain ready.”
“Aye, aye,” Came the voice crackling through the sound of the splashing waves below.
Brogan peeked at his watch, wiping the water from his eyes. “Eight twenty-eight.”
Craic, I’ve got six minutes.
Brogan raced into the lighthouse. He counted the caskets of kerosene.
Then, he ran up eight flights of steps to the clock room, where he bent over with his hands upon his knees. Catching his breath, he watched one last wrap of the rope slowly unravel. Brogan grabbed the crank and struggled to wind the rope. He turned it twelve rotations.
There, one hour, that should do it.
Brogan raced down to the bottom of the lighthouse, where he bent to lift a kerosene casket from under the staircase. His arms fit around the girth of the small barrel where his fingers interlocked. The top touched his chin. He breathed in the kerosene fumes that were dizzying, while leaning back slightly, allowing the base to press into his waist. His legs wobbled under the eight stone of weight.
From the lighthouse, he stumbled, breathing deeply. His breath fogged in the air and then vanished into the surrounding mist. At the base of the flagpole, he set the casket to the ground and stayed on his knees, recovering while looking around for a means to lower it down the cable. A small basket with a hook and rope secured at the top of the cable would not do.
He looked once again at the cable that aimed downward into the white void, calculating.
Back in the lighthouse, he hurried. Brogan’s sod basket was the correct width and sturdy enough. He lifted it and gathered another bundle of rope.
After setting the basket on its side, he tipped the casket and pulled the basket over its bottom like a shoe. Then, wrapped the casket with rope from bottom to top and around the sides, then stood it upright. Lastly, he threw the remaining end of the rope over the cable and hoisted it from the ground.
He unhitched the grappling hook attached to the smaller basket and eased the heavy casket of kerosene slowly down the cable.
“Coming down!” He shouted.
The cable dipped from the weight. His feet slipped as he pulled against the increasing weight. He held tight with one hand to the rope as he wrapped his arm around the flagpole. The rope cut into his palm as he gripped it to slow its ascent.
Hesitantly, he let go of the pole and held the rope with both hands, digging his boot heels into the rocky ground that bit by bit crumbled under the pressure.
The cliff edge neared. An impulse let go of the rope, entered his mind and he imagined it smashing into the rocky outcrop below.
Brogan let the rope out steadily, resisting the gravity that pulled it. The cable slunk down as it slid into the unknown, beyond the mist.
“I can’t hold on!” Brogan yelled. He looked up to see his rope pointing into the fog, holding on with an unknown end to his pain. His face contorted as he struggled. “I can’t hold it, I can’t hold it. She’s going to come smashing down.”
“I can see it,” the voice called out.
Brogan closed his eyes as his heels scraped the ground. He groaned with the ache in his arms as he felt them numb with exhaustion. His hands burned with the friction of the sliding rope.
Suddenly, the cable bounced, which lifted his body away from the ground. He looked up with fright. As a reflex, he coiled the rope around his wrist, realizing too late that this was a mistake.
“Oh, God!” Brogan cried, as it pulled his right hand out over the drop-off. He reached up with his left hand to hold the wet cable and halted, with one foot touching the cliff edge and the rest of his body suspended over it.
Brogan froze, his limbs stretched apart, his palms wet, his fear beyond his understanding. The casket rested somewhere at its end, and Brogan let go of the rope. He remained suspended over the cliff, unable to move.
Brogan looked back toward the flagpole to see Finnbar O’ Grimh. He stood within arm’s reach. His eyes glared red. A brown and gold toothy grin stretched over his wizened, leathery face.
At that moment, Brogan’s mouth opened, unable to speak, his eyes watching with disbelief, as Finnbar seemed to raise his shillelagh to strike him.
Finnbar stabbed his walking stick outward. Brogan gasped as it then scooped him by the waist. The old man pulled with one hand, and Brogan’s body eased back over the ground.
“Oh, thank you, Finnbar, thank you so.” Brogan said as relief washed over him. An expression of disbelief grew upon his dripping face.
“Thank you ever so.” Brogan repeated the words, whispering as he looked back at Finnbar who walked away.
“I don’t owe ya now.” Finnbar said without looking back. “I suppose you’ll be pleased to know your bicycle is restored.” His hunched body wobbled with his cane as he disappeared into the fog toward the bridge.
Brogan paused. “Yes, but how?..” Then he looked down at the loose rope in his hands. He opened his palms that were burned and blistering, then back toward Finnbar, who had vanished.
Brogan resumed his duties at the lighthouse. As the fog lifted, he searched for ships, hoping to see The Lady Gwendolyn, but none were near and no record of the Lady Gwendolyn having ever passed. However, more interested, Brogan was in the whereabouts of Finnbar, and how he knew to be there when he was.
That night he lay with his foot against the rope as the ocean and the lighthouse lullabied him to sleep.
The next morning, Murphy arrived as expected. He said nothing about the events, except that a boat out of fuel needed kerosene and to check the log.
When Brogan arrived home, Cait met him in front of the cottage. Her eyes were red from crying. She held a linen handkerchief over her mouth.
Brogan dropped his bicycle.
“Oh, Cait, what is it?” He gazed into her eyes.
She hugged him. “It’s my uncle Orville.” She choked with sobs.
Cait took a deep breath. “Uncle Orville passed to the beyond. God rest his soul.”
“I’m so sorry, Cait. I know how much he meant to ya. But, we’re going to be fine, I tell ya.”
Cait sniffled and shook her head. “We will, we will… My uncle…” Cait paused. ” Left us a fortune.”
“But why?” Brogan asked, as he searched her face for clarity.
Cait and Brogan kissed. After their embrace, Cait stood straight and composed herself and began to speak.
Brogan looked back toward the lighthouse and then at Cait. “Let us go inside… Have I got a story to tell you.”
From inside the cottage, they looked out through the window that opened toward the cove. Cait turned to Brogan, “I promise, ya, my husband, not to ply ya with myths and notions. It’s foolishness, I tell ya, just plain foolishness.”
Brogan put his finger to her lips. “No, no, my dear, you go ahead and believe it. I don’t understand everything that happened, but there’s more to that Finnbar than I can explain.”
In that instance, Finnbar O’ Gnimh’s face rose in front of the window from outside. Brogan and Cait jumped back in shock. Finnbar starred with red eyes. He grinned with his gold and brown teeth. “Curse this well that me soul shall dwell, till I find me magic that breaks this spell.”
(Adult sexual situations)
The rain poured down as I neared Paragon, the premier detective agency in London. I approached with a foreboding from the reputation that preceded it. Even the building itself appeared stoic and unyielding. The granite blocks they sculpted it from and the darkened glass of its front door and windows was, if anything, unrevealing. I stood on the street, thinking about who I was and where I came from. Then, of what I would become.
An insurance adjuster, young, up and coming, and maybe a bit of a loudmouth, now that I look back. A headhunter, she called herself, looking for the best, and I thought I was. It didn’t take me long to bite. I was on my way to the top, and Paragon was at the top.
I reached for the handle of the dark glass door that buzzed upon me, nearing it. The electronic lock clicked, releasing itself. The door swung open, premeditated and effortless as on air, perfectly balanced.
Once inside, I removed my mac, shook it, and draped it over my arm. An attendant quickly approached and took it from me.
“April showers bring May flowers.” He sang the words in a melody. “Fielding?” Then squeezed the coat in between others on a wooden coat stand that threatened to tip.
“Yes, Andrew Fielding.”
He turned with a smile, clearing his throat. “Come this way,” he waved a hand to the left. “I’m Terrence, by the way. You are to meet Robin Merryweather. He’s the best in the business. They call him the Butler.”
“The Butler, why?”
Terrence shrugged. His eyes evaded me. We went into a long corridor.
He ushered me into Merryweather’s office. The young man knocked, pushed the half-opened door and swung it wide. “Fielding.”
A suited gentleman of thirty-ish rose to his feet from behind a desk. “Good morning, Andrew.” His hand outstretched as he came around his desk. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
His handshake was gentle. I noted his medium height, slender torso and arms, short crew cut hair, and large almond-shaped eyes. Most noticeable was his smile. His front teeth were oddly rotated, appearing jagged with a pronounced overbite. He nodded with approval as he held my hand.
“Robin Merryweather at your service. Your picture doesn’t do you justice. We like handsome men around here… Let’s just say it opens doors that might otherwise be closed.” He waggled his eyebrows, then winked at Terrence.
Terrence robotically turned and strode away, shutting the door behind him. Robin sat behind his desk.
I hesitated to answer, creating an odd silence. He smiled cordially as he focused on my face. “Welcome to the gang. We’ve heard some good things about you. Down the hall is your office. I’ll introduce you around, but first I would like to ‘on-board’ you in my fashion.”
I felt my head slide subtly sideways in curiosity. He stopped and studied me for a moment. Leaning forward on his elbows, he picked up a piece of paper, scanning it.
“Your resume is short, but your last position was an insurance adjuster with Hargrove, correct?”
“Yes, that is true, a year and a half… I assure you I was quite thorough in my work.”
“I would expect nothing less.” His eyes widened. “I understand you worked on the Wainwright claim.”
I paused. “Yes, that’s correct, how?—”
Robin interrupted, “We’re the leading detective agency in London.” His eyes batted slowly. “We know quite a bit.”
He picked up a pencil and rolled it in his fingers. “Do you recall the name of the undisclosed beneficiary in the trust agreement?” He dropped the pencil on his desk.
My stomach contracted as a strange feeling came over me. I was sworn to a fiduciary duty of what I learned at my previous employer, and though Paragon was not another insurance company, I had to consider my non-compete agreement that could put me in legal trouble.
“Uh, uh, I can’t say…”
Robin turned pale. A haughty smile spread across face, showcasing his crooked teeth.
“Of course, you are worried about any conflicts you have. Your secrets are safe with me.” He whispered as he leaned back.
Using a normal tone of voice, he continued, “You understand, however, it would save us a great deal of time in putting a piece of a minor puzzle together. Perhaps down the road you may see it differently.”
“Mister Merryweather, I—”
“Call me Robin.” He interrupted, then picked the pencil up. “Don’t think for a minute that we can’t uncover these things, or that your job is in danger from not giving it to me. Quite the contrary. But… you can’t blame me for asking.”
“You see… I just can’t.” I squirmed in my chair.
Robin smiled. “You have a duty to your former clients, just as you will have here.” He pointed a finger at me as his eyes narrowed. “I commend you on your honesty.”
“Thank you for understanding.” I felt at ease after that brief struggle with my past and present loyalties. I attempted to change the subject. “Your man, Terrence, mentioned they call you the Butler.”
“Ah, yes…” Robin gazed upward. “We won’t go into that right now.”
Quietly, we sat. Unsure of what direction he was going next, I observed him. He glanced around at the things on his desk, odd trinkets and a set of steel marbles suspended by wires. Raising one from its end, he let it go. The balls bounced repeatedly back and forth in a pendulum manner. He then looked at me as the clacking balls persisted.
“Have you played the honey trap before?” A mischievous smile grew on his face. “It’s a special manoeuvre you must come to grips with in the spring of your detective career.”
“Actually… No.” I felt my brows knit.
“Well, it is something that has taken me a long way here at Paragon,” He said, leaning back in his leather chair, seeming to enjoy the repetitive clack while looking upward.
He held the pencil by its ends and twirled it gently, stroked its length, then wobbled it between his right index finger and thumb. He patted himself on the lips with it. I waited for him to speak. He seemed to choose his words carefully, giving me a bold stare.
“I have a special job for you.” He leaned forward. “It requires you to play the honey trap.”
A lump formed in my throat. “I’m to be the bait in a scheme?”
Robin smiled. “Yes, in fewer words, but it’s more than that. You’re a perfect specimen for my plan, Fielding. Your chiselled jaw, flawless skin, that swatch of dirty blonde hair that hangs over your bedroom eyes and your aquiline nose.”
Robin peered at a calendar on his wall and then back at me. “You are everything that April Spencer adores.”
I steeped in his compliment and smiled. “April Spencer?”
“You haven’t heard of her?” He asked.
I only wagged my head.
“She is the wealthy heiress of the late Josephine Spencer, the pharmaceutical magnate.”
Still, I drew a blank.
He slapped the pencil to the desk. “You are the perfect honey trap for that eccentric and kinky, miss Spencer. I may call you this afternoon if things play-out. It’s something more like spy work than accounting. But… I’ll have to teach you what I know myself.” His lips puckered sensually as his eyes narrowed. “You’ll be learning from the best.”
Robin raised one eyebrow. “You could say it’s…” He then twirled a finger in the air, speaking with a French accent, “ma spécialité.” He laughed at his quip.
Robin then grew serious. “An insurance company thinks she is defrauding them and this is right up your alley. They asked me to look into it. They can’t prove it, but a man on the inside could, and by the inside, I mean… A back-door man, if you know what I’m trying to say?”
A few ideas popped into my mind.
Robin sighed. “Let me start here, Andrew. Miss Spencer, or April, as you will get to know her, likes young handsome men and she’s willing to pay for them. She plays a very low-key game by which she calls an escort service to have rent boys meet her in her private car. She usually hooks up with each for only three occasions and then moves on to the next. I have made connections with the escort service, but have gotten nothing out of the few men that I’ve interviewed, except that she meets only thrice. You have got to be working on that woman from the start. However, it can’t be so obvious that she smells a rat.”
“You want me to pose as an escort?” I stared at him.
“You catch on quick. Are you up for it?”
Looking across at him, astounded by the abrupt questioning, I hesitated. “Well, I… I guess, but can I have some time to think about it?”
“The quick fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Robin replied.
“How is that?” I asked.
“The quick fox. Do you know it?”
My eyes searched the room and then Robin’s face, which concentrated squarely on me. I strained to answer as some historic meaning came to me. “The alphabet… All the letters in the English alphabet. Correct?”
“Partly. A quick fox or a lazy dog. Which one are you?”
I knew there could be only one answer. “The quick fox. What else?” I replied rhetorically.
“Good.” Robin answered with a sharp nod. “And, like this sentence, we use every letter at our disposal. Understand? Every tool is as utilised, clean and oiled, hanging ready to put into action. Are you ready for action, Andrew?”
This time, I did not hesitate. “Absolutely,” I answered, but my expression said otherwise. I felt my lip twitch, a peculiar, involuntary spasm, along with a dry-throated swallow.
“It’s ok to be nervous.” Robin leaned back in his chair. “In fact, it will be more authentic and arousing for her.”
“So, you want me to go on a date and possibly be romantically involved with this mysterious woman?” I wrung my hands. Then a feeling of commitment blanketed me. It felt liberating. I then sat up straighter. “What does she look like?”
Robin noticed and smirked with approval. “She’s an attractive woman, they say. There are no known photographs of her. She likes to stay out of the public eye. I can only tell you she is slender with auburn hair and is a hell of a good kisser. Oh, one more thing, she has a penchant for perversity… So, be ready. Just do as I say, and everything will go well.” He gave a quick nod. “Let’s take a walk.”
Robin took me for a tour of the building while mentioning minor aspects of his plan. He then left me in my office, which was barren except for a phone on the desk.
I stood near the water cooler shortly after 4 p.m. Robin stepped into my view at the far end of the hall. He held up his thumb and pinky finger like a telephone to the side of his head, and mouthed the word “call,” with a look of urgency. He then disappeared from view.
As I entered my office, the phone rang. I watched it with a sense of foreboding, knowing it was Robin.
“Hello?” My stomach knotted as I picked up the receiver.
“It’s Robin, tonight’s the night. You are to meet April Spencer. Be on the roundabout in Piccadilly Circus at 9 p.m. A black limo will pick you up. Wear a red scarf. She’ll know it’s you. Oh, and wear loose clothing, you’ll understand later.”
At eight-thirty, I took the tube from South Kingston to Piccadilly Circus, the entire time wondering what I had gotten myself into. At least I was doing something other than sitting in my flat watching the telly. It was strangely titillating.
I exited the station. A light rain had fallen. The smell of wet asphalt filled my nostrils. It was dark, except for the yellow glow of the street lamps that reflected upon everything wet like molten glass, clean and sterile. The buildings appeared skeletal, washed of any colour, only contrasted by light and dark. The rain had emptied the roundabout of bystanders.
In the cool air, I wrapped a red and yellow scarf tight around my neck as I dashed across Coventry Street, then stood on the bottom step of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain. There, I walked clockwise around until headlights beamed at me, approaching fast along Coventry. A black limousine screeched to a halt. The side door opened, showing only a dark interior. A voice from inside called me to enter.
I climbed in cautiously. In the large space at the rear, a woman sat in a short tan raincoat. Her long pale legs stretched out, ending in black stiletto heels. A large black veiled hat hid her face. I sat on the same seat, against the other side.
At the front of the cabin, a dark glass window slid shut with a click as the car drove away slowly.
She pulled me next to her. I tried to make small talk when a silk-gloved hand covered my lips. A retractable liquor bar was open in front of her. She withdrew a narrow metal spoon from a pre-made drink after giving it one last stir. Then handed me the broad crystal glass and gently lifted its bottom upward as I consumed it entirely. I exhaled with complete relaxation as she set the glass down. A fleeting thought of being poisoned entered my mind. The vehicle turned right. Through the window, I recognized the statue of the Horses of Helios. I knew exactly where we were.
I felt my scarf loosen and trained my attention back to her as she rummaged her hands over my chest. The hat and veil hid her face as she leaned close and kissed my neck. Naturally, I reached for her, but she pushed my hands away.
She spread my raincoat open past my shoulders. I felt restrained. Then I heard the buttons on my shirt pop as she pulled it apart. She bathed my chest in wet kisses, then nibbled at me, as her fingernails clawed my ribs, sending chills through my skin. My imagination swirled with erotic thoughts of where this was going.
One of her hands left my body, and from her movements, I knew she was touching herself. I felt compelled to give her the pleasure she was giving me, but again, she forced my hands away. Before long, her body convulsed, and she fell exhausted, her face against my bare chest. We lay there together, our breathing in unison, our sweat mixing.
She lifted her head slowly and deliberately and adjusted her veiled hat. She withdrew a small mirror from her bag while turning away from me. In the dim reflection of her cosmetic mirror, I could see her grotesque lips smeared with red lipstick. For a moment, I thought it was blood. She wiped them clean, said nothing, then motioned with her finger to exit as she withdrew to her side of the seat.
I paused, confused, then opened the door and stood from the car. I leaned down to look back in. Her hand reached for the handle and pulled it shut. The car sped away, blending with the lights and sounds of the other passing vehicles.
I stood in the exact spot they picked me up. The gentle rain still sprinkled as the few passersby hurried about. I joined them and walked back to the tube, as confused as before I arrived.
In my office the next morning, my phone rang within minutes of my entering. I knew it was Robin and picked it up. “Hello?”
“Come see me,” was all I heard, then a click.
I walked down the long hall to Robin’s office. His door was open, and I entered slowly.
“Sit, my boy, and close the door,” he said. “So?” He paused as a smile grew on his face. “Tell me everything. Was it hot? Or, what?”
I must have become red-faced.
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said. “This is what we do in genuine detective work. It’s not like in the theatre.”
“Well, how do you know anything happened?”
“You’re forgetting, Paragon is the premier detective agency in London,” He said with a smirk.
“Right,” I answered with uncertainty. “Wait a minute, the driver, that’s who told you. Somehow, you know the driver.” I looked around suspiciously. My imagination splintered into many incongruous thoughts. “I bet you have this room bugged. You’re up to something.”
“Don’t be silly.” He dismissed the notion with a waving hand. “Why would I bug my own office?” He asked rhetorically. “Look, don’t get paranoid. Whatever driver there was didn’t tell me anything. It’s what I know to be her modus operandi.”
I shrugged off that first impulse of paranoia.”Ok, ok,” I said and took a deep breath.
“Relax, Fielding. You’re my man on the inside, remember? Now, start from the beginning and tell me everything.”
I took another deep breath and told him the story. Robin licked his lips with every detail.
“I’m glad you were satisfied,” Robin said affirmatively. “Now, if she was satisfied, and it sounds like she was, April will call again and I’ll bet a thousand pounds she’s going to take it to the next level. So, don’t lose your nerve, ok, Fielding.”
“Ok, ok,” I answered. My palms began sweating, and I wiped them on my trouser legs.
“You’re nervous,” Robin said quickly. “Or, turned on?”
Again I blushed.
Robin watched and smiled. He then leaned back in his chair, patting his lips with a pencil. “There’s much more for us to do… Just work on those accounting records Terrence gave you and wait for my call.”
At 4.p.m., again my phone rang. I watched it, knowing it could only be one person, and for one reason. I hesitated, then picked it up on the fourth ring.
“9. p. m., Piccadilly Circus, and don’t cry off,” Robin ordered with a soft but persuasive voice. A click quickly followed that left me feeling off-balance.
That night again, the car arrived. Again, I climbed in and she handed me a drink. The routine was the same. I waited for her to advance, and she closed the gap between us, nuzzling my neck below my ear. She was someone who needed complete control, or a sense of security, or both. I let her have it, but felt she wanted to trust me. Once again, I reached for her, but she pushed my hand away.
This made it easy.
I decided to just go for the ride, but I had to get at something. I had tonight and then possibly another to give Robin what he wanted.
“You’re a very wealthy woman,” I said as she nibbled my neck. “I bet you could use a guy like me to help you with your tough work, huh?”
She put a finger to my mouth. “Shush,” she said, then reached for me once again and I knew this escapade would soon draw to a close.
“Miss Spencer,” I interrupted. “Can I call you April?”
Her hands stopped. There was a long silence, and she whispered, “I never told you my name. You’re here to spy on me, aren’t you?”
I didn’t know what to say, and struggled to speak as I felt her hand clench me. I feared for my safety from a primordial place within me. I could not push away and felt a complete loss of control. And, since it was entirely true, a hesitation lingered in me that I felt was a dead giveaway.
What if she has a knife, or worse, a gun?
Any moment I thought she might lash out in a rage and the driver would appear with his fists swinging.
“You, you, you were in the news.” I blurted. “That’s how I knew. Your family owns a pharmaceutical company, Right?”
“Your cover’s blown, spy boy,” she said. Now, you prepare to get yours.
“Really. I… I know nothing.”
“Know nothing about what?”
I froze as every thought that came to mind was an admission of guilt.
Instantly, her hands went to my raincoat and then the shirt, tearing it open. She stared at my chest. Then, groped me with her silk gloved hands.”
It would be a lie to say I did not enjoy it. There was something deviant and fearfully exciting about the encounter. Immediately, I was aroused. Miss Spencer cooed with pleasure as she held me, as if reading my mind. The moment was intense and regretfully over as quickly as it started. Perhaps it was fear mixed with pleasure, but she launched me into complete ecstasy before a few minutes had passed. I caught my breath for only a moment as the car rounded two more corners. I pulled myself together as her arm reached over me, opening the door.
“Ok, now, get out.” She whispered harshly. “Next time, you better give me something.”
The next morning, I marched into Robin’s office. He quickly spoke into his phone, “I’ll call you back.” Then hung it up abruptly and glared at me. “Who do you think you are, stomping in here uninvited?”
Instantly I felt ashamed. “Sorry, but last night was a disaster.”
“How so?” Robin inquired. “You got your knackers off, I suppose.”
I stuttered, searching for words, “Well, I… I might have ruined the entire operation. She knows I’m spying on her, or at the very least, she thinks so.”
“How can you be sure? Did she provide evidence of it? Perhaps you heard the rantings of a paranoid nymphomaniac, a sex fiend who may have been acting on her own delusions to increase her hyper-sexual state and that her assumption was a mere coincidence. Besides, she thinks everyone is spying on her. That’s why she’s so secretive. If you think about it, it’s just more proof that she is up to something.”
“I don’t know… Maybe?”
My mind spun with confusion as Robin stepped closer and put his hand on my shoulder.
“My gut tells me your last night is going to be tonight.”
“I don’t know if I can go through with it,” I answered. “For a moment, she terrified me, like she might slash me with a knife or something.”
Robin wagged his head dismissively. “Don’t worry.” He stepped back and sat on the corner of his desk. “I’ve never known her to be violent. If she was capable of something like that, she’d already be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Now, get a hold of yourself. We have one more night to make this work. Our only chance is to get her to open up to you. That means whatever she wants, you do. Whatever she asks, you answer, and I mean honestly. There is a chance that she smelled a rat, and she might just be close to certain.”
“What do I do if she confronts me, you know? Tries to nobble me.”
“Well, since you have nothing to lose, tell the truth.” Robin shrugged. “Make her think you are falling in love despite this.”
“In love? How do I do that?”
“You don’t know? My, you are naïve.” Robin sighed. “Show some tenderness and especially, don’t question her motives… Just give yourself freely. She’ll see that as a sign of trust.”
“She said she wanted me to give her something.”
Robin pumped his eyebrows up and down. “That sounds like one thing to me.”
I smiled nervously, “I don’t know… She already.—”
Robin interrupted, “oh, another thing. A big part of her M.O. is that she wears a red dress when she expects to go all the way… If you know what I mean.”
I paused. “Isn’t that what we did last night?”
“Oh, no, my dear boy, that was only a snog. You’ve barely scored a try against that rugby player. That manky mink wants more of you. Trust me.”
“Keep in mind, Fielding,” Robin’s tone turned serious, “she’s still a powerful woman with connections, despite her private desires. She has her hands in a lot of biscuit tins, and you don’t want that hand in yours. If she wants to uncover who you really are, she’ll find it. My suggestion is to play along.”
“What have you gotten me into?” I desperately asked, while putting my hand over my brow and looking downward. “I don’t need wealthy psychos mutilating me.”
“Trust me,” Robin exuded a calm presence “You won’t get mutilated. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll be nearby.”
I glanced at him.
He inspected me with a reassuring smile. “You didn’t know it, but I’ve been there the whole time.”
“Wait a minute. Were you—”
Robin held his palm in the air. “Stop. Now, go to your office and review those financial records from Bradford and Bingley.” He raised one eyebrow. “I’ll call you if something is up.”
At a quarter to four, I looked at my watch, then the clock on the wall. Every minute I looked again. Oddly, I wanted it now and as that thought entered my head; I pondered what it meant.
Was I becoming like her?
My heart pounded, my palms sweated, and for a moment I felt a panic and thought I might walk out of here right now and give it all up.
Why am I doing this? Maybe it won’t ring. She figured me out. It’s too risky for her.
Like clockwork, the phone rang at 4pm. With a reflex, I picked it up before a full ring had finished.
“Piccadilly 9 p.m.,” Robin’s voice whispered, then he hung up before I could speak.
I set the phone down. Immediately, a feeling of sexual arousal waved over me, and a need to see Robin. It took me ten minutes to put the accounting records of Bradford and Bingley back in the vault. I grabbed my briefcase, walked quickly to Robin’s office. He locked the door. No light shone from beneath it. A feeling of no turning back came over me and again that sense of panic.
At home, I showered and dressed in loose-fitting clothing, as before. I tried to watch the telly, but my mind replayed the previous two nights, her touch, her smell, how she rarely spoke and the impact of what little she did had such power over me.
Did I want this to continue or end?
I only knew that I was going through with it one more time, the last time.
Upon this rendezvous, the car waited for me on the roundabout. This alone told me she wanted me more than before. I stood alone on the other side of Coventry and waited for a few passersby, who hurried beneath the slight drizzle that chilled the air. Still, I felt a sense of guilty pleasure that required the utmost secrecy. I turned my head at their passing to hide my guilty, salacious eyes.
After a few automobiles had passed, I wrapped my coat tight with my arms and dashed across, directly to the door. As I reached for the handle, the door swung open. The scent of her perfume wafted out toward me. I noticed the smell of a cigarette in the air. I turned my head to see smoke pouring from the chauffeur’s window that was cracked just a smidgen at the top.
I could not discern whether I felt uncomfortable by his direct knowledge of our encounters, or confident that someone was keeping an eye out.
I stooped and climbed in, taking the same seat. All was as it had been, except this time she wore a tight fitting red evening gown. The same veiled hat covered her face. I felt at ease as she handed me my drink, which I now craved like a desert traveller, and swallowed in one gulp. The entire scene was as surreal as stepping into a noir film with a bad girl and a naïve detective in over his head. And though I knew I was at a tremendous disadvantage, I could not resist, for by all accounts, this was our last date.
“Have you got something for me?” She whipped at me as she set my empty glass down on the small bar.
“I don’t know what you mean?”
There was a momentary pause. She inched closer. Nervous twitches fluttered through my body as she neared. She had some kind of lustful power over me that I now had a corruptible yen for. Part of this strange desire was to go with whatever happened, regardless of the unknown physical or psychological consequences.
My arms relaxed as I waited for her to tear my shirt open once more… She did, and I gasped with the appeal of, at last. She sat poised, ready to strike like a cobra as she stared at me. She took a deep breath and buried her face in my chest, my abdomen, and lower. I felt I was being attacked by a giant lamprey that sucked ferociously. I became paralyzed, torn between pain and pleasure, her teeth almost cutting into me.
Miss Spencer possessed the strength and cunning of a succubus. I was at her mercy. My head spun, and I watched myself flail under her control. Regardless of how my arms and legs straightened and contracted, she never relented.
I heard a click. My eyes darted to the dark sliding window that had just opened and shut.
The driver’s watching.
My arms reached for her body, but she drove them away, refusing to be touched. This continued until I felt something cold against my groyne.
“Now, my little twink,” she hissed.
It was sharp, and I tensed up as it pressed between my legs. My breathing seized and my hands grabbed onto her, pushing away in reflex.
“Who was the undisclosed beneficiary in the Wainwright claim?” Her now wretched voice beckoned.
My heart pounded, and I felt dizzy from lack of oxygen.
“Who? Say it!”
A survival instinct washed over me; a fight-or-flight mechanism of sorts.
“Or, God help me! I will—”
Suddenly, the words welled up in my throat like pigeons flying from a rooftop. Then, the words popped from my mouth, like bread from a toaster. “Miles Mason!” I shouted.
Her hands relaxed. Exhausted, I sunk into the leather seat. Miss Spencer sat up. She turned and pulled off her veiled hat that came off with a wig.
A jagged tooth grin and crazed eyes stared back at me.
“See, Fielding… I have my ways.”
This evil clownish version of Robin with smeared makeup laughed open-mouthed. He pulled himself into the front seat of the limo next to the sliding glass window, holding that narrow metal spoon in his hand. Robin Merryweather’s head bobbed with laughter atop a red dress that now looked like a Satan worshipper’s robe. His crooked teeth appeared longer, more hideous and jagged than before as his mouth gaped wide like a laughing, crying Nosferatu. I gasped from the shock of it. A nauseous feeling waved over me. He had made me a fool and worse, seduced me in a vile, wicked game. There was no limit to his perversions. And like that vampire of old, he sucked the truth out of me.
He continued to laugh as the driver’s window opened. Terrence’s face peered out, filling the window frame. “That’s why they call ‘im the Butler.” Terrence chuckled. “Ee opens doors,” Terrence said with a thick cockney accent.
The two of them fell apart with laughter, and I almost felt compelled to join them from the sheer insanity of it.
Terrence’s eyes shifted right, looking toward Robin, who caught his breath in between bouts. “Shall I give your date a ride home, sir?” Terrence tee-heed.
Robin answered with a nod and a waving finger as he tried to contain his laughter.
“Ya take the piss out of me, sir,” Terrence said and then continued to cackle.
A panic rose within me and I clumsily grabbed for the door of the limousine and stumbled out. I stood in the street beside the car, emotionally wrecked. The limo engine had been running the entire time, and the exhaust plumed into my face as the engine revved and drove off with a start.
“See you bright and early tomorrow,” Robin’s voice faded away behind a closing window.
The heavy motor chugged with a sarcastic growl, full of its power and confidence, an extension of Robin Merryweather. Cars rushed past, honking as I stood in their path, uncaring if I was run-over. The bright lights of a bus raced toward me like a freight train, and I was standing on the track.
Wasn’t I all along?
This time, at last, I jumped to the curb and stood on the roundabout, not knowing where to go. My mind went round and round, as did the cars, seemingly unable to find direction; the minds of us all detouring.
Passersby watched, some walked and some hurried. They all glared in confusion. Or was it, you got what you asked for, or I told you so. All of them stared back at me with what I knew was true. Either way, I read my conscience on their faces.
I got my bearing and rushed to the underground rail, not looking back and wanting to get as far away as possible.
A month later, I sat in my office at paragon. The door creaked open as Terrence entered.
“The young woman from the courier service, Robin, wants you to interview. Shall I escort her in, Sir?”
“Right away, Terrence.”
“Good morning,” I said as the young woman took off her hat to show a mop of short, curled hair. She wasn’t timid, and strode in with a heavy step with shoulders back, demonstrating her physical nature.
“Kendra, it is, correct?”
“Yes, sir, Kendra Parsons.”
“Sit down please, and I’ll get right to it.”
She interrupted, “First, I want to say thank you. I’ve alway dreamed of being in the detective business. It was an absolute prize to have one of my deliveries recommend me for this position.”
“It’s fascinating how these things work out sometimes, Kendra…” I looked around the room, then directly at her. She possessed something of the tomboy, a projecting chin, and scrutinising eyes. “You currently work for Talbot’s Courier Services, correct?”
“Yes, sir, but I’m ready to leave as soon as you need me.”
“That’s good to know. You seem in good physical condition, riding that bicycle about London making those deliveries, aye?”
“That I am, sir, that I am. The only female that stands up to the boys in this business.” Kendra said with a stiff lip.
I leaned forward over my desk. “Good, good, because I need someone who can do some legwork.”
“Well, I’m the girl for the job,” she nodded.
“Look at this,” I said as I retrieved a photograph of a Victorian brooch.
Kendra looked on with curiosity. “Why is that the jewellery pinched from the museum?”
“That it is,” I answered. “And we have a hunch as to where it is.”
“Then why don’t you call on the constabulary?”
“True, Kendra… We could, but Paragon is the premier detective agency of London. If we run to the police every time… Well, then they get the credit. Besides, if we’re wrong, then we lose their trust. What we want is to be certain.”
“Now, if you want a future here at Paragon, I must know that I can trust you, understand?”
“Absolutely, sir. I’ve been studying up on detective methods and I’m a fast learner.”
“Good then. I’ll get right to it. We think your boss Forbes Talbot has that brooch in his safe and I need you to help me find it.”
“The big safe in his office?” Kenda asked.
“That’s right, the big safe. Can you help us?”
“Why, I can’t go crackin’ me bosses safe. It just wouldn’t be right.”
Relax, Kendra. We just want to know the combination. Then, we’ll send a specialist around to… make an inspection of it.”
“I can’t allow you to steal from him, Sir.”
“We’re not going to steal anything, we only want to DETECT it,” I said with a pointing finger.
Well, I don’t know it, but I know how to get it. I know where he keeps a paper taped to the bottom of a hidden drawer.”
“I see.” I answered calmly, not wanting to alarm.
Kendra hummed and hawed. “I really would like to work as a detective, but I just can’t help you crack me boss’s safe, especially when I take-it you are not even sure it’s in there.”
“Quite right, Kendra, quite right.” I glanced around my office, thinking of a plan. “Well, there is another piece of work I think we can scrum-up against, a woman we are investigating. She’s part of a counterfeit ring and uses couriers to distribute the currency. This is right up your alley and further…” I paused, looking at Kendra one last time to be certain my instincts about her were correct. “She likes to spend time with young athletic women. Her name is… May Flowers.”
“May Flowers?” Kendra’s eyes danced about the room. “I’ve never heard of her.”
“That’s because she likes to stay on the low-down. Tell me… Are you familiar with a technique known as the honey trap?”
(First published on Short Fiction Break magazine.) https://shortfictionbreak.com/transfusium/
Leafless November trees arched over the path, lifeless yet alive, as my siblings and I approached the Baron’s estate. Gretchen’s thirteen-year-old face looked cheerful as she tested the bow in her hair. Peter, eleven, played with a curtain’s tassel that swung from the carriage window.
Miss Ostrom slapped Peter’s hand. “Don’t force me to take you back to the orphanage.” She skewered us with her eyes. “Behave!”
Our fear of her shook us like the trot of the horses over the ruts of the road. I looked forward with hope to the secluded mansion that drew nearer.
We turned into a deep circular driveway. The wheels hissed through the gravel before the carriage came to a halt. The ponderous coachman’s exit rocked the carriage. His steps threshed the stones with the long stride of a tall man. We climbed out and he stood before us. His grey, tired skin hung from a strong frame. His cheekbones stabbed outward like the hips of an old horse, under deep-set irritated eyes. He turned his slumped, heavy shoulders and walked toward the mansion.
“Children? Prepare to greet your new master.” Miss Ostrom nodded. Her pointed chin had the menacing promise of a ruler striking my knuckles.
I tilted my head back and viewed the magnitude of the gothic fortress. Dark lichen-splotched sandstone blocks rose skyward. At its highest, the walls seemed to lean over me against the passing clouds. The windows mirrored the blackened stone like the many eyes of a spider.
Three Doberman Pinschers appeared from the right side of the mansion. They whined with excitement, stopping near the Coachman. The largest of the dogs took sight of me. Its elation faded with a low baritone growl.
“Good, Petra.” The driver patted the beast.
The man pounded an iron ring suspended from a lion’s mouth upon a reinforced door; the reverberation quieted the animals.
The entrance opened wide, revealing a stout, apron-clad woman. Near her, a frail elderly man rested in a wicker wheelchair that reclined like a chaise lounge. Behind him, a magnificent staircase spiraled upward. The Coachman walked inside and stepped behind the chair. He took it by its rear handles and pushed it forward. The large spoked tires squeaked with a pitch from which the dogs retreated.
Miss Ostrom ushered us to the doorway. The smell of sour cabbage soup drifted out.
She extended a hand. “This is the Baron Roskavarni. You are fortunate to have such a wealthy master to take you in.”
The Baron’s thin-skinned hand emerged from under a blanket stretched over his knees. His crooked finger motioned us in. “Come close, let me look at my gifts.”
We stepped forward as the woman stretched out a muscular arm toward Miss Ostrom. For once, since the death of our parents, I felt free from her grip.
“Have the Stable Groom take her back,” the old man commanded. He glanced up and back at the Coachman. “You’ve performed well, Burkhart.”
The burly woman pushed Miss Ostrom out. The light faded, and the bolts latched.
The Baron clasped his palms as if sitting before a feast. “Take the two young ones for supper, Magdalena.” He pursed his lips with discernment, reading me through cloudy cataracts. “What is your age, young man?”
“Fourteen, the April last,” I answered as the woman drew my siblings away. I watched them vanish through a great sitting room decorated with portraits and heraldic shields.
The Baron inhaled as if sniffing a blossom. “Ah, to be fourteen again.” His milky marbles rolled in their sockets, calculating as he wrung his hands. He lifted a pointed finger. “Der Transfusium!”
“Jawhol, Herr,” Burkardt answered. He then bore into me with a hawkish gaze. “This way, Erik.”
We entered a room, mahogany-paneled and book-pillared, elegant but musty. A wide band of sunlight entered at a sharp angle. It lit the room and held captive infinite specks of dust. Our movements hurled invisible whirlwinds, sending this nebula into chaos.
Burkhart turned the Baron around and wheeled him back next to a system of glass cylindrical chambers on polished brass pedestals. Rubber tubes hung from a suspension above them, and over an elegant armchair on the other side.
“Schnell! Schnell!” the Baron demanded like a spoiled child as Burkhart marched toward me with the fortitude of an angry schoolmaster. From under my arm, he lifted me like I was a coat to be hung up.
He seated me with a harsh thrust into the chair, then secured me with a belt across my chest. He bound my wrists to the arms of the chair. A putrid odor emanated from his body.
A sinking dread filled me. “What did I do wrong?” I cried.
A mechanical winding sound intensified, as armatures with bizarre lights flashed from behind. It cast our twisted shadows against the wall in front of us, like spirits escaping our bodies. Burkhart’s ghostly image rose upward and back across the ceiling. His phantom arms flailed like tentacles as he operated the strange apparatus.
The Baron writhed with pain but then smiled after Burkhart slid long needles into the old man’s arms. He then turned to me with needles in hand. I wrenched against the straps, knowing his intentions.
In between us and under the glass cylinders, an accordion-like bladder rose and fell with respiration. A suction tugged at me with each gulp of air it commanded. The chamber next to me filled with bright red blood in spurts that matched the throb of the breathing machine. The Baron’s was a vile brown that oozed like gravy. A tube extending from it led to my right arm. My mind swirled, and all went black.
I awoke with the fear of a nightmare. The glow of a candle now replaced the swatch of natural light. The Baron stood. No longer a sickly man, he rubbed his arm above a clenched fist, “You are a rhapsody of vitality.”
“What did you do to me?” I demanded with the little strength I had left.
He rolled a shirt sleeve down and gave a knowing nod to Burkhart, who exited.
A horrid image flashed within me; a boy, boney and limp. His body tossed into a shallow pit, like a rag doll. His limbs twisted like the strands of a wet mop. Facedown, he flopped before shovels of dirt splashed over him.
“Agh!” I exhaled. My eyes searched the room for an explanation. A trickle of sweat bled from my scalp.
“Shush.” The Baron placed a finger to his lips. “I see you are already experiencing my memories. Oh, Erik, the things I have accomplished, and you will live them over again as Burkhart has.”
The sound of a chamber orchestra played in my head. A vision of an elegant woman wearing a gown flashed before me. She smiled with a promise of love. Then the music stopped, and she lay across a bed. A scream filled my ears. Bare bosom, and with bulging eyes, veiny hands clutched her neck.
“Stop choking her!” I cried as my eyes must have stared somewhere beyond.
“Ah, the Viscountess Von Schlägl, perhaps?” The Baron frowned with pity. “I am not proud of everything I have done.” Then he shrugged. “Some of which I have forgotten… It has been so many millennia.” His sadness faded. “But, I feel your youth and optimism coursing through me, now.” He raised a fist. “Fantastisch!”
The Baron paced. “I understand Petra has taken a dislike to you. I doubt you could reach the gate before she had you by the throat… But, if you made it… Boys are clever that way, you would end up in the hands of Miss Ostrom once again, which would lead you back to me.”
“Please, don’t hurt my sister and brother,” I sobbed, looking downward.
The Baron paused. “Yes, little, Peter,”—he side glanced—”who would have to take your place if you vanished.” He blinked with satisfaction. “And, sweet Gretchen, she’s almost a woman, you know.” He leaned toward me with crystal clear eyes. “Don’t give me a reason to use them!”
I bobbed my head in agreement, fighting down the sickness of his rotten blood.
“That’s better,” the Baron answered. “You need your strength, or should I say… I need it.”
My jaw gaped and my innocence flew from my throat with a prolonged howling shriek that echoed through the mansion.
The child in me died. I slumped in the chair. My limbs, like those of the trees, hung lifeless yet alive as the Baron removed my straps.
“This is only the beginning.” He took a deep breath. “Ah, cabbage soup, it purifies the blood.” The Baron placed a gentle hand upon my shoulder. “You will come to accept it as they all have. Now, you must eat, for we will be together for many years… And one day, you will take Burkhart’s place.”
I returned from the war in Europe. It was over. Yet strangely, the numbness that accompanied me through the hardest times still lingered. The blankness of emotion that was, in some ways, a shield against the insanity still enveloped me.
Only in my dreams did an unsettling feeling arise, a drowning sensation that woke me from my sleep. A dream that always ended the same, trapped in a tank like a fish, staring out into a room distorted by a force that held me prisoner.
I traveled home without a feeling of purpose. Rather, an internal drive like a homing-pigeon tugged at me.
I looked out from the bus window. Numb from the horror of war.
Shell-shocked, that’s what they called it.
The view from the window of the bus resembled the landscape of the French countryside I traveled through. And though some soldiers laughed freely, there were others that stared out of their window in quiet contemplation. I was neither of those.
I placed my hand on the pane of glass. It filled me with a fear that I could not explain except to say that it resembled my dreams.
Finally, after an overnight train ride and another trip on a bus, I reached a small town. I disembarked the bus and friendly faced man reading a newspaper looked up with a smile, “Ian.”
He folded the paper under his arm and stood straight from the car he leaned against. The side of the car read “TAXI,” in large letters.
“Well, isn’t it a pleasure, boy,” Said he, as he walked closer.
I smiled, more from reflex than friendship. I knew him, yet I didn’t. He grabbed my bag and placed it in the rear seat, and then opened the passenger door. I only knew to sit, but nothing else.
“Boy, they’ll be happy to see you.” He smiled, and we drove away through what I knew to be familiar streets, but again, I could not remember.
“We got a new clock there, in front of the bank,” He said as he took a toothpick from his mouth and pointed. The convex windshield distorted the objects as they passed by its furthest edge. A sickening feeling stirred in me.
“Your mother will be overjoyed.”
Mother, yes, my mother, I remember now.
For the first time in two years, I smiled, then looked at the driver, “Yes, my mother.” Then, back through the windshield. My smile faded.
We stopped in front of a home. “This one’s on me Ian. I doubt you’re loaded with cash.”
“Yeah, right, thanks, uh…” I hesitated and then stepped from the car.
The driver, whom I could not remember his name, pulled my duffle bag from the rear seat and dropped it on the curb.
He tipped his hat, and there was a moment of silence. “Well, it’s good you’re back. Ya look a little tired,” He said with a smirk. “I suppose I’ll see ya around.” With that, he sat in the car and drove away.
I stood near the street and gazed up the pathway to the house. Again, this home and street of my childhood provided no memory.
I grew up in this house. This is where I lived.
A sudden fear rose in me, suffocating, drowning. I closed my eyes to stop nausea that lumped in my throat.
Something bad happened, tied, screams, splashing caustic liquid.
I struggled to breathe as I felt pushed below the surface of a murky tank of evil-smelly water.
My eyes sprung open. My heart raced as I felt something of apprehension to approach the front door, yet there was that drive to move forward. I knew this to be my truth, the purpose of my journey.
It’s my imagination, I thought with a shrug.
I approached the home. The quiet street, the trees, the gardens, all the colors were as I imagined, but only at the moment I saw them. A breeze blew past with a faint sense of familiarity, of knowing what it was, but without memory. Zombie-like, I stepped forward with an emptiness.
In front of the home, I stopped. The house was picturesque, as if unspoiled by the world that had pulled itself apart.
Two years of fighting in a war, what did it do to me?
For a moment, I pictured a boy that cheerfully waved goodbye to a family so many years before. When exactly that was, I was unsure. Something blurred their faces, their bodies were formless.
I took a deep breath and stepped up to the front entrance. As if out of body, I watched my hand rise and knock upon the door. A tingle of anticipation quivered through me with a notion of the old wooden door creaking. I closed my eyes and imagined the exact time it took for the door to open. I waited, and there was a call from inside the home, “Coming.”
A woman opened the door, flowery dressed and bosomy, gray-haired and scarfed, with a kind smile and wearing glasses.
Had things changed?
Our eyes met. And though I could see the regret on her face, I knew it was because of the pain in mine.
She stepped back and pulled the door wider. Her head tilted sideways with an encouraging grin.
I dropped my bag inside the door as I entered, but felt nothing as the woman embraced me. I followed her direction, and she closed the door behind me.
“Oh dear, you’ve lost it, tsk, tsk.” She sucked her teeth. “Your skin is lifeless, and your eyes have sunken. You look near death, my son.”
“Mother?” I questioned.
“Yes, my boy, you still remember a bit.”
I looked at her, straining to make a connection.
“Oh, you’ve nearly lost it. We’ll just have to get you that joy back. Oh, I’m so happy you’re home. I’ll make you something to eat, my dear. Just come in and relax.”
She pulled me by the arm and lead me to a sitting room.
“That war is over. It’s over.” She demanded.
My eyes teared. The sound of her voice, the aroma of the home, all meant something, but what?
“Mother.” I repeated with certainty.
“Oh, my dear boy, yes?” she asked with a coo in her voice.
I stood silently, satisfied that she confirmed it.
“Just relax. No worries now. I’ll have you back to your old self in no time.”
She scampered to the kitchen. Her hefty hips rumbled under her flowery dress. She muttered unintelligible sentences that included names I had once heard, “The Taylors sold their house and that Conners girl was asking about you since her brother Tom returned home.” She continued about uncles and cousins that I could make no connection between.
I replied short and cordial, “Oh, ok.”
“I’ll be down in the cellar,” she called out.
“Alright,” I answered as her steps faded into an underground space I faintly remembered. I followed the circumference of the room with my eyes and reacquainted myself with the furniture and photos. I stepped near the mantel. Above a fireplace that showed no sign of use. A picture of two men and a boy caught my attention. I put my finger to the boy’s face.
It’s me. Yes, they must be my father and uncle.
Next to this photo was another, and then another, sequentially older. The black and white photographs provided an impulse of memories but seemed superficial.
Bungling movements in the cellar space below grabbed my attention. I walked to a doorway in the kitchen and called down, “Mother. Do you need help?”
“No, no, I’ll be right up. Stay up there. Just take your things to your room. I’ll’ just be a few minutes.”
I stepped back through the house that led me to a small hallway with many closed doors. I opened the first. It creaked open to reveal a boy’s room.
This is my bedroom.
In the doorway, I stopped to look, then walked in. I dropped my bag on the floor and looked around the room to see a baseball, a model boat, some books on a desk, and a bed that was neat and unused.
The old days, the old ways, the joy, yes, joy. I remember that word.
I sat on the bed and stared at the neatly placed things about the room, the ball, the bat, the boat. Each item had a story I could not remember, but there was an impulse to remember.
Why are these things important to me?
I held the boat and looked at it. It was a child’s toy. That was all. I set it down and looked at each object with the same emptiness.
“Oh, Ian darling? Help me set the table.” My mother called.
I turned and walked back through the house, wiping my brow, blinking and dazed, then put two plates on the table from a stack she handed me.
“Better set two more. Your father will be home soon and your uncle George might stop by.”
Yes, my father, why didn’t I ask earlier?
I remembered the picture on the mantel.
“I can’t wait. How is dad?”
“Oh, he’s just fine. He hasn’t changed a bit.”
“Oh, joy!” I said aloud.
Mother turned with a bright smile. “Yes, you remember now, son, the joy. Here, sit, have some soup, and feel the joy come back.”
I sat. In front of me, she placed a bowl of soup and a spoon.
“Now, when you’re done, don’t forget to drink the broth. Drink it all down like a good boy.”
I held the spoon I felt I had held countless times before. The curve of the neck and shaft fit into my hand with body memory. I submerged it into the murky broth and lifted a spoonful to my lips, and closed his eyes. A briny, sour aroma wafted up into my face before I sipped. The taste was unique, yet familiar. It was singular in dimension, yet salty, meaty, and ambiguously decayed. My first instinct was to choke it off. I opened my eyes only to see my mother patiently waiting for me to swallow.
“That’s it, take it all down.”
Her request drove me forward. In her guiding moments, I had another and another spoonful until I was tipping the bowl for its last drops.
I sat the bowl down with a clack, “Oh, I’m full. That was wonderful… The joy.” I said as I held my hand over my belly.
“Yes, yes, that’s right. Now, why don’t you lay down and I’ll call you when everyone gets here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled, then stood.
My numbness retreated as I walked back to the bedroom. There I sat on the bed before laying down and picked up the boat. I held it close to my face with curiosity. Deep inside the ship’s deck, I could visualize myself with others as if I was there, all of us together aboard a boat. Each one of us going about tasks. Casting lines, steering, and hoisting sails.
Yes, I remember it now.
I set the model down as a queer smile grew on my face. I lay myself back and fell into a grand slumber the moment my head sunk into the pillow. I dreamt a twilight night of dreams. For once in years, my thoughts were not those of drowning but of hopes and desires.
I awoke and sat up cheerful, alert, and optimistic. The light from the window had shifted. I knew a considerable time had passed.
I placed my hands over my abdomen with fingers locked. I looked around the room at the things of my childhood and smiled at the bountiful memories they brought. Then, stood and walked to the bedroom door. Beyond, I heard the gleeful laughs and conversations of many people. I pushed the door open and ahead of me was my father, uncle, from the photo. Young ones danced and ran about.
“Come here, my boy! Come here and give your dad a hug!” a barrel-chested man sang in a baritone voice.
Eagerly, I hurried to him and indulged my father’s whim and received not just one hug, but another from my uncle as well. All felt warm from the gaiety of the moment. My mother commented on the spirit of it, “Oh, it’s back in you again. It’s back.”
Everyone beamed with happiness and told stories of family splendor. I looked into my mother’s face. She was as happy and young as I had ever remembered her. I now recalled her radiance and everlasting beauty, the same as when I was a young boy. Everyone sang in harmony, “oh the joy, oh, the joy.”
My father entered from the basement with champagne bottles. They poured glasses for all, even the young ones had a taste. My mother ladled soup into bowls around the dining room table and everyone sat sipping the soup and then stood drinking champagne and still others danced about.
So filled with merriment, I spun off into the kitchen, where I found my champagne glass empty. I turned to look for a bottle and then entered the cellar where I remembered father had brought them up. I could not recall the way, but carefully I made my descent down the dark steps. A cool wet breeze blew from the rear and I followed the earthy moist ventilation. I fumbled for a light switch and recalled a dangling string with a cap on its end, a light that hung from the center of the cellar’s one large room.
Upstairs, the festivities carried over into the space below. The lumbering steps of my family resounded and the words of “Oh the joy,” were ever-present, like a chant.
I found the string and tugged it. The flash of light was blinding, and I covered my eyes. As I slowly opened my fingers, my sight adjusted. In horror, I shook from what I saw. At the back of the room, gargantuan pickle jars lined the wall.
Electrified with fear, I shrieked. A paroxysm similar to looking out of the taxi window, but ten times greater, overwhelmed me. As horrifying as it was, I could not look away. From inside the jars, looking out, were tortured faces floating within the murky brine; contorted expression bent in the glass’s curvature.
What kind of monstrous experiment is this? This can’t be real.
Slowly, the faces looked familiar. My legs weakened, and I turned away when I realized these were the faces of everyone I loved. My father, my mother, my uncle, and cousins, and worst of all, myself. All stared back at me. Many had open mouths that held a drowning scream and the one like me floated with hands clawing at the glass. Strangely, the figures appeared younger and dressed in clothing from an earlier time.
I held my hands out in front of my face to question my existence.
If my parents are here… then who is up there, and who am I?
I spun from dizziness and struggled to stand. My ears rang as my heart pounded in a panic. I turned completely away in disbelief. In doing so, I turned to see my mother and father standing before me at the bottom of the steps in solidarity, hand in hand.
“You weren’t supposed to see this yet,” my mother said. “This is the joy. This is all of their happiness and life bottled up, preserved in jars that will keep us alive for many years to come.”
Slowly, they stepped toward me. I was torn between nearing them or walking back toward the jars. I froze and closed my eyes. Then, with nowhere to run, my legs folded, and I slowly crouched to the floor, quivering, hoping this was a dream. As I held my breath, they cradled me in a smothering hug and lifted me up.
“Everything is going to be fine, son,” my father said. “Let’s go back upstairs.”
They steered me toward the steps, matching my weak small steps. My mother’s calm voice spoke words of encouragement. Again, I felt numb, not from emptiness, but with the truth, with the completeness of everything, which finally made sense. We climbed the steps as my mother’s warm hand led the way. My father grabbed two bottles of champagne. His firm hand pushed me from behind. Something of a calmness happened between us. Above, we reentered the dining room. There I was, once again, surrounded by what appeared to be my loving family. The young cousins continued to play, and I pretended to play along as best I could. We toasted to life and everyone around me reveled in the moment’s joy and slowly I resigned to the idea that I was one of them, whatever that was.
My face freezes as I peer out from my mountain cave overlooking the village. The cold seizes me with shivers as my breaths quiver from sadness and anger.
The village glows through the falling snow that ever thickens. I can’t tell if I am numb from cold or grief as I peek down below at the cozy cottages resembling the embers of my fire.
Where my home sits at the edge of the forest, there are no lights. I can picture my mother laying in her bed.
If only I had said I loved her.
My small fire pops and crackles with white flames. I sit back and poke the wood that glows orange through charred patches.
My cave is only big enough for me, but there is only me. The sides are rough and the opening is narrow. I stare out through its mouth and into a starless black. Around it, the windswept shards of accumulating ice point horizontal like teeth. Bit by bit, they grow and threaten to close as hunger and loneliness gnaw at me.
They must be searching for me.
They won’t look far. Only a fool would leave the safety of a home in this weather, but I did.
You can’t take it back.
He deserved it. I had to do it. Everyone owed him. They should thank me, but they’ll hang me.
With my last stick, I push the glowing parts together and then throw it in. I pull my feet close, my knees to my chest, and hide my face beneath my collar. My fingers clench, hidden in my coat sleeves. I shiver and weep for my mother, who I will never see again.
Oh, mama, I miss you.
“It’s not fair!” I cry out, but nobody can hear me as I sit against the back of my hideaway and look into my small fire that shimmers. It wavers from the gusts of frigid air that carries ice crystals from the storm.
Blackened lines and spots are etched into the burning sticks. They resemble archaic writing on ancient scrolls. Their stories unfold as the heat scorches and shrinks the branches, releasing their memories.
I stare into the fluttering flames that dance upon the shrinking pieces of wood and drift into my memory of what happened.
My father made a life for us, herding goats. My mother made cheese. Now, at fourteen, I tended the goats and milked them while my father only sat and watched us.
As we prospered, he disappeared at night. My mother said nothing, but became distant and sulked. A coldness grew between them. I often awoke to angry shouts that ended with a slammed door, and my father’s steps disappearing outside. My heart ached with a pain I could not understand.
My mother loved me, I knew this above anything else and I was her little boy. Though I was becoming a man, I cherished her touch on my cheek and the love she cooked into every meal like I was still a child.
I escaped on mountain strolls, tending the goats. With only a walking stick and a knife, I would visit my secret place and daydream. Here I could vanish from the pain.
Upon my last return home, a large man stood at the door. Gundersen, the fat financier, stood with a smile of sadistic pleasure in a large fur coat and boots. My mother crumbled to her knees as she wept. I stood speechless as he held out a note of promise in front of our faces. My father borrowed against the farm and lost it.
A stabbing pain struck my gut as my mother released a horrid unnatural cry. Distraught, her eyes stared wildly and she stumbled to her bedroom, holding her arms over her chest in pain. Gundersen left and promised to return the next day.
I stood alone in our cottage, petrified. The fear of Gundersen’s return was a nightmare.
Where will we go? What will we do?
I fell asleep, waiting for my father, who never returned.
The next morning I awoke to the bitter cold. Snow set on the window sills as a frosty powder misted in under the front door. A fire had not been started and everything seemed frozen from the horrific news of the previous day.
I entered my mother’s room where she lay in bed.
“Mother,” I whispered and stepped near. She didn’t move but lay pristine and angelic. I hesitated to wake her, but we had to go on.
I put my hand to her shoulder. It felt rigid and I pulled my hand back. I reached out again. Her body was stiff. A strange sensation quivered through me, a paralyzing fear, followed by nausea. I sank with weakness but wanted to run. The sole anchor to life, my mother, was dead.
My mind swirled and I stepped back out from the room. In a panic, I ran from the home and staggered into the nearby woods. The world spun around me. I grasped the trunk of a tree, the only thing that stood strong. My feet stung with a fringed bite as I hugged this unmovable thing. The world stopped spinning and it filled me with an impulse to return.
I crept into the icy cottage. It now appeared as a replica of the place I once lived. Everything was frozen in time. Above a dormant fire pit, a cold iron pot with the last meal my mother cooked hung from a blackened bar. An emptiness tugged at my stomach, but the thought of food sickened me.
I could not eat and I could not enter my mother’s room but tinkered with the thought she would emerge. Again and again, my mind rehearsed the moment only to swirl downward in despair knowing that she died feeling unloved. This overwhelmed me until my agony gave way to pure and corporeal hatred. My heart froze, my life ceased. Then, as if reborn, I saw beyond this crippling sadness. Though my father was to blame, Gundersen was at the heart of my hatred. His repugnant smile begged for revenge.
The snow continued. The cottage became colder. My breath fogged with the wickedness of death. I paced the front room holding my knife as I filled with rage. Then, I wandered out into the blank slate of wintery white.
Snow crunched under my steps as I ventured through the village. The homes glowed with fireplaces while the windows flashed with signs of life, laughing, singing, and some silent shadows.
I was but a shadow now. A figment that lived through the one motivation that filled my body, revenge. All sense of fear left me. Revenge burned within me. It was a wicked warmth, burning with anger. There was nothing else.
I stopped at the home of Gundersen and stood upon the landing before his front door. With my knife in hand, I waited and stared forward. As I knocked, a baritone voice surprised me from behind.
“I am here, boy.”
I turned around to the sight of the rotund man who stirred from drunkenness. Like an involuntary reflex, my arm thrust forward. The knife slid into his belly. I had the sensation of watching it happen from outside my body. My hand retracted and he fell to his knees, facing me with a howling expression of surprise. Again, the knife lunged forward and slid upward through his throat. He gagged and swirled his arms as if catching his balance.
At that moment, the door squeaked opened behind me and I heard a voice gasp in shock. Gundersen’s body tipped backward as my hand remained where it held the knife. The hair stood on my neck as a women’s scream shrilled from behind me. Gundersen clomped onto his back. I ran from the landing and out into the cold twilight.
My snow-filled steps lead me back to my home. I stood and looked at it for the last time. Then, I turned and fled to my only place of safety, my secret cave.
Here, I sit inside this rocky crag. The wind howls as curious snowflakes enter and twinkle before dying in the faint orange glow that surrounds me.
My head droops as I cry between shivering breaths. The storm moans through the narrowing mouth of the cave. My hunger aches, as the fire dies, and my eyes struggle to stay open.
My mother’s image fades as the flames flicker. The last stick puffs and joins the other blackened figures. They crackle and finish burning their stories as the darkening cave closes its icy jaws, as I drift into a freezing slumber and follow my frozen heart.
Had you shaken a snow globe, then flash-froze it, the action, though unmoving, would still be expressed. This was the appearance of Nate Jackson. His eyes welled with a horrid vision, his hands clenched something that wasn’t there, and his mouth stretched open cupping a moan that never emerged as his motionless body lay near the entrance of a vacant lot. Something had shaken him, rattled his soul and then froze it…
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“Mortem praeparare meum novum maximum cofectio!”Adolf Van De Groot bellows from the mezzanine above a gathering of chocolate makers in the grand hall of the Van De Groot Chocolaterie located in the heart of Brussels.
His commanding voice reverberates through the hallowed hall with the reverence of his great ancestors, “I have chosen you all to witness my greatest confection. Chocolate so creamy, so decadent, so perfect, it will be the joy of the world. A raging storm of flavor I have named Chocolate Thunder!”
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