[fiction], [pulp]

The Glassborough Chronicle, part 3 of 3

Read part 1 here; read part 2 here.

The Time-Fliers

dropas the spring crept into summer my days seemed imbued with an uncanny quality from which, despite my best efforts, I could not struggle free. I had all my life believed that the moral arc of the world bent towards justice, but in recent months I had begun to fear that his faith in science had doomed Edward to an existence which he scarcely deserved. To me and to his family (though for far different reasons) he had become something of an artefact, lost somewhere outside of our control.

“Towards the beginning of June, dear readers, I felt the final touch of Edward’s hand and read the last words that he would write with me as his intended audience. I was returning from a proceeding during which I had been compelled to defend the inheritance of a bachelor whom in normal circumstances I would treat with the disdain his personal character merited. After a significant tug at my laudanum flask I exited the hansom cab and proceeded to walk the last stretch home along Storey’s Gate, the tall red townhouses fusing above me into a single monolithic structure overhanging the pavement.

“At the corner of Old Queen’s Road I stepped, as I customarily did, across the square-shaped patch of grass which separated the servants’ entrance to our modest house from the flue and the pavement of Storey’s Gate. I sensed as I reached the door a fluttering—little more than a movement accompanied by a bat’s wing mutter—emanating from the kitchen chimneystack. In a crevice between two red bricks there was, I saw, a note.

“I was gripped by the same sense of disinclination that had come over me after I had so casually taken the journals from Edward’s laboratory. Was this some form of rapprochement for the misuse of my dear friend’s messages? The note was packed tightly into the wedge between some dried mortar and the keystone above the arch of the flue. I removed it and read, in Edward’s hand:

‘“This city, beautiful though empty. She was lost, jumping ahead. Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time.


“Written indistinctly below the message was what could only be a date—the numbers 14/8/35. If Edward were indeed trapped, if Fitzpatrick’s potion had by virtue of its quantity been wrenching him from one point in his history to another, then he was now cast fifty years into our past.

“I turned the note in my hands over and, simple solicitor or not, it was immediately clear that my dear friend was not being cast further backwards but was in fact somewhere outside even my comprehension. The reverse of this small, papery artefact—glossy as though finished with some kind of protective veneer—was a daguerreotype of a kind I had never before seen. Vivid beyond the capacity of science, it was unlike even the most lucid portraits I had seen of the American President Lincoln or the Houses of Parliament by the Thames.

“The image was fully coloured and glowed—glistened—more than the place in the portrait should have done were I there myself. In the foreground the image was all water, a deep blue growing to black just below some sort of iron railing. But further into the background—miles further but as clear as they would have seemed to my own eyes—there soared buildings taller than any cathedral spire or monument I had encountered. Between them rushed carriages, grey and black and other colours, drawn much like Edward had described under their own steam, free (or so I imagined) from the necessity of horses and their attendant stench.

“Above even the tallest tower the sky was coated in cumulonimbus clouds, layered between the gridded structures and a cerulean-blue sky. Even fifty years from now, some things remained the same, I told myself. I crushed the portrait into my overcoat, touching as I did so the familiar shape of the key in my outer pocket, and imagined dear Edward doused in the mechanisms, the magic, of things to come but regretting always the things he had lost along the way.

❡      ❡      ❡

“The peak of summer came and I was incapacitated with the tremendous heat. As we often did, Mildred and I took several weeks to recuperate and to remain out of the clinging foetid air that inhabited the parks and brougham carriages of London. Though I thought daily of Edward and of the incomprehensible date of his last missive, I felt powerless to help him. Where once a glass of Glendronach and a sympathetic ear could assuage his worries, I had no doubt that he was now beyond such ministrations.

“In the obscurest corner of my study I settled into the rocking-chair below my portrait; a painting of myself looking rather regal at the now unimaginable age of twenty-three. On a table to the left of the chair was a translucent decanter full of tincture and a glass half-filled. I rested my hand on the table and pulled from the shelf behind me a leather-bound volume fastened shut with twine. With a brittle sound I untied and opened the book to the last page so that I might examine once more the portrait of this urban, foreign, future landscape.

“My skin rustled on the vellum of Fitzpatrick’s papers and I thought of Edward’s specimens—dead and dusty—in his basement study. Fifty years hence I too would be gathering dust somewhere beneath the soil of this city. Perhaps I will see you again, Edward’s note had said. This struck me as more than wishful thinking—even at his most fanciful my dear friend was not a nostalgic—and the words elicited in me the same urge which had drawn me to the mahogany cabinet that past spring.

Perhaps I will see you again, in the present-time. I finished the glass beside me and waited for the rheumatical pains in my foot to subside (aggravated as they were by the heat). I wanted to sleep, to dream the peaceful dreams that only the opium would provide. I could slip at this very moment like a raindrop, slip into the past or the future.

“—What, though, are you going to do, Henry? I suppressed a giggle at this hysterical state of affairs and a hiccough of my chest brought me close to spilling the book of notes onto the floor. Today is the first oft August, I told myself. I replaced the daguerreotype and closed the book on the uncannily-dated image. 14/8/35. I have a fortnight.

❡      ❡      ❡

“The humidity hung about me and commingled with the summer smoke as I arrived at 17 Salisbury Road on August 14th. The heat brought always a heavy atmosphere to the city, though in the decades I had lived there London had thankfully lost some of the organic stench that characterised its summer months.

“Using the key I had obtained against my better judgement, I unlocked the house door and an attempted to remain inconspicuous by stepping through a two feet-wide gap between the limn and the lock. Sunlight was being filtered through the drawing room and hallway drapes and its angle—I am sure Edward had remarked on this at one time or another—created a red hue throughout the ground floor of the house. Its warmth, I thought, was deceptive.

“Directly in front of me was the stairway leading to the private chambers on the first floor above. To my right were windows overlooking the alley and the entrance to Edward’s subterranean study, to my left the drawing room where Henrietta’s pendant had so mysteriously reappeared. Stepping into the drawing room I felt as though I were re-entering the scene of some crime; in the creak-creak-click of my feet followed by my cane I sensed an old house that was less than desirous of my presence.

“The intrusion, I decided, was warranted. In point of fact this decision had been reached long before I found myself in Salisbury Road that evening. On the furthest interior wall of the drawing room— running parallel to the front edifice of the house—was a door, concealed in part by the black finish of the piano standing in front of it. This entrance had in the past led to the stony room below. The narrowest of edges protruded from the wall and, fitting my fingers carefully around this lip, I pulled until the hinges just behind the imported Steinway tore at the wood and the door popped open to a strangling, reverberative chorus.

“Even with the absence of light the brief set of steep spiral stairs wound their way just as I remembered into the basement. I set about my descent with some trepidation and with a crescendoing fear less exacerbated than borne aloft by the opiates in my blood. Exerting pressure on the bare brick walls around the staircase and leaning my walking stick as near to the edge of each step as I dare, I spun my way down and into the gaslit study.

“I paused at the last step. Why were the gas lanterns running? In the low light cast around the stone walls were shadows and crooks which I could not recall having seen during my most recent visit to Edward’s study. The cabinets of medical paraphernalia situated to the left of the spiral steps were as dust-covered as ever and beyond stood the mirror in which I had seen that grotesque portrait of my friend just before his disappearance. In the centre of the room hung the solitary light source, directly above the central table and illuminating in a coppery glow the heavy bottle that had been filled neatly, filled to the brim with that damned stuff. The Phillips beaker remained empty beside its larger sibling and I felt a shudder at my having ingested any of this diabolical potion.

“Reaching out not without some apprehension I clasped a hand around the narrow neck of the bottle. Lifting it I held it carefully between my eyes and the gaslight and gazed through the autumnal viscous liquid in hopes of some trace of an explanation; some hope, or so I thought, of salvation for my friend. Enclosed between the cold stones that night I could not comprehend that I, as much as my dear Edward, was in need of salvation.

“At this stage, my friends, I must pause to tell you that my nerves were rather wracked and certainly in need of a supplemental drop or two of laudanum. The tales of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick as told in his extensive, mesmeric journals had somehow crept from my dreams onto the edges of my waking mind and were no longer, as far as I was concerned, fictitious. These stories flew through my head daily and had fused into some ghastly amalgam with Edward’s fate. If only, I thought, I could find Mr Thomson or Fitzpatrick, they could…

“—Henry. I stopped to check my senses at the sound of my name, a spoken hiss in the dark. I knew for a fact that Henrietta had returned home to Hertfordshire and I was sure I had laid the deadbolt across the front door.

“I replaced the bottle on the table and turned slowly in a clockwise motion: before me the bottle, under gaslight and against a backdrop of specimen cases; more cabinets of dusty medical journals and the neighbouring alleyway entrance to the basement room; the spiral staircase and the glass in the corner followed by more specimens on the oblong table where Edward had hidden the viscous potion. I leaned an arm against the chair back.

“—Henrrry, I… came failing through the air like the sound of an expiring creature. A subhuman hum shook the table and the miasma of fluid at the lip of the bottle made its miniature wave. A tremor ran across my chest as though my heart were beating to escape the confines of my diaphragm. I raised my left hand to my temple, a misplaced gesture of self-comfort, before catching in the strips of light between my fingers and somewhere in the corner between the mirror and the side-table a streak of movement.

“I turned and walked to the echo of feet and cane thud-thud-clinking towards the glass. Reflected in the top half of the surface I could make out my own figure, haloed as it was in a failing green light and slowly advancing. I was less than a foot from the glass when a whisper more tangible than audible dashed around me, a sibilant rush coming from my left which briefly forked to surround me before knocking with a force greater than seemed possible into the mirror.

“My reflection flexed and warped in the gaslight for several seconds and…

“—Henrrry, I am… The noise sounded again, this time with more force. At the far right edge of the mirror where previously there had been only a smudge of darkness and the barely visible brim of my hat was now a swirl of colour like an unfolding sheet, creases and furls which, though bathed in the green-black glow of the room, gave off an unnatural light of their own.

“—Unst…Henry… the voice faded as the lines coalesced into a picture—more alive still than the daguerreotype crushed between the brickwork of the flue—until of their own accord they drew beneath the glass an outline, in profile, of a cadaverous, almost monochrome face. Initially there emerged a jaw line, followed by the protuberance of an aquiline nose flared at the nostrils, a mouth thin and straight and—finally—the sunken, ghastly eyes of Edward Willis.

“—Am unstuck… Henr… The face contorted with each word as though a portrait come to hideous life. I gazed open-mouthed at the visage of my friend trapped in some unphysical aether which I could not penetrate, from which he could not be freed. The gaslit reflection now occupied the full length of the mirror—by now, friends, I was powerless to move—and fingertips pressed to the point of whiteness against the other side of the glass. An appalling inverse of my dear Edward.

I am unstuck… I stepped one thud closer to the apparition and its grey irises followed the movement.

“—Edward? I said. It seemed to comprehend speech even from its netherworld. I babbled: —The picture and the key… your letter, did you…?

“—Cannot go back, Henry. It seemed to approach the other side of the glass. Only advance. I raised my hand but hesitated before laying my clammy palm against the mirror.

“—Then the daguerreotype originates—will originate—in some city, some future that you inhabit? I said. A grisly nod revealed the white underbelly of Edward’s eyes. The reflection began to flicker and then seemed to laugh. For the first and only time that night I considered that perhaps I was experiencing some form of hysterical fit brought on by the tremors in my chest.

“—Alone…Up to you… He clung to the edges of the living portrait and I realised that he had not been laughing. His eyes glistened with a tiny wave of tears.

“The closer Edward pressed to the glass the less distinct he became. The whisper of those three words ringing in my ears seemed also to fade and a draught drew its way—growing in intensity—somewhere in the void between me and the mirror. Fearing that he would vanish once again and believing that I more than anyone owed Edward a chance of liberation from these temporal constraints, I felt the movement behind my eyes which had throughout my life signalled that it was time to act.

“In a moment of warped logic I have never come to understand, I pirouetted back towards the table and took three brisk steps up to the glass bottle and the conical beaker which lay beside it. In doing so my cane fell and clattered across the floor, the sound of wood on stone rattling across the confines of the basement. I clasped in my right hand the neck of the bottle and in my left supported its base, then—watching the while as the gelatinous fluid swelled and spilled from the open mouth—I turned and heaved with a strength I thought long past and let go the bottle.

“It flew from my hands twirling a coppery stream behind it and skewered into and then through the mirror, shards of glass spilling now from the frame, now from the shattered container. The ghastly mask in the mirror ruptured under the impact and split into tiny fragments. Amongst the noise resonating against the walls of specimens and journals I thought I could hear—or feel—the sound of a voice fading into the harsh, destructive background noise. As the reverberations decayed I leaned back on the table and felt a horribly oppressive stillness.

“At my feet and covering the cold floor were shards of glass drowned in the potion. The damned stuff flowed almost opaquely now between the stones in small, silent rivers. I stepped back to avoid its approach and walked with some difficulty over to my cane. Bending down I recalled the stack of tumbled journals which had been scattered across the larger table and the ground like flakes of dead skin. I wondered what might have been the fate of Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick.

“I creaked upward and tugged free the deadbolt on the cellar door. As I pushed out into the doorwell to Edward’s study, the August evening heat descended and brought with it the odour of horse manure and sewer water. I wandered for close to an hour before a solitary Hackney carriage on the corner of Lissom Grove decided my shambolic figure was worth the fare. Climbing in I rapped on the roof with my cane and nothing—not the braying of horses nor the calls of women in the sultry summer streets—could shatter the half-dead trance glowering over the corner of that cab.

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“Dear friends—you who have so patiently listened to and so meticulously documented this tale—you may be searching for some grand meaning or significance in the fate of Edward M. Willis. I fear that I can provide neither. As I recollect this story it is July in the year of 1886. It is another airless, malodorous summer in the city of London and I am reminded constantly of that evening in Salisbury Road when the glass was shattered, the story was ended and my dear friend Edward finally—as my mother used to say—passed through the veil.

“I hope, as you listen and transcribe, that my words might someday find an outlet amongst your other, more noteworthy, publications, and that my brief account of the last days of my friend, the writer and naturalist, might sit alongside The Time-Fliers, or A Story of the Present-Time on Heddy’s bookshelves in the red-hued warmth of the drawing room in the Salisbury Road.”

❡      The End      ❡

[fiction], [pulp]

The Glassborough Chronicle, part 2 of 3

Read part 1 here.

The Time-Fliers

letteri woke some hours later. My pallor was such that I would have frightened not only Scrooge but Mr Dickens himself a little nearer to the grave. I stood and—for the first time in a number of months—felt not a flicker of pain in my right leg. No doubt the opiates in the strange suspension were still at work somewhere in my blood.

“Walking unaided I circled the central table, the gaslight now burning too low to follow anything further afield than my own hands. Edward was gone; not a single trace of his person or movements was visible in the darkness and at the very bottom of my stomach I felt a churning more (so I thought) due to my friend’s absence than to the presence of his potion attacking my constitution.

“The Philips beaker lay on its side on the larger table, the bottle—its contents unnaturally still—sat to one side and Fitzpatrick’s papers were spread across the surface like a reptile’s scales. What I assumed were the journals Edward had mentioned were stacked half on the table top and half strewn across the cold floor where Edward had been moments (or what I experienced as moments) earlier.

“Without the aid of my cane I could not ordinarily have reached the floor of the study. Once the dampened journals were in hand I felt an unease about opening them to the most vital pages, the pages Edward had very likely memorised. Idly flipping through vellum pages in the empty darkness, I came inevitably to the diagrams and lists associated with the potion; though I recognised little of the medicinal nature of the substance I read below and on the following pages Fitzpatrick’s descriptions—vivid beyond even the most eidetic of memories—of distant imaginings both past and future. Not a single sheet contained corrections, as though the writings had been the product of some kind of mesmeric trance.

“After some moments I had retrieved my cane, scanned by the first glimmers of daylight my pneumonic surroundings and gathered Fitzpatrick’s and my dear Edward’s papers to my chest. I struggled to carry these out of the cellar and around to the house’s entrance, where I was greeted (friends, imagine my indecorous appearance!) by the sight of Mary’s sister Henrietta who, after a politic knocking, produced her own set of keys and unlocked the door to 17 Salisbury Road. She was entering as I reached the concave doorstep.

“—Miss Riordan, I said whilst attempting a bow.

“—Mr Glassborough, sir. She was a little less than frantic but clearly too anxious to question my sudden appearance at Edward’s home or the sheaves of paper in my hands. —Have you been visiting with my brother? she asked.

“—No, madam. Or rather, not any longer. Yesterday afternoon he and I had a rather impromptu meeting, but he seems to have… slipped away overnight. I added: —You have not seen him?

“She shook her head and explained that she had taken an overnight cab from her residence somewhere in Hertfordshire —I forget the location exactly—to London, at Edward’s request and expense.

“—His note was…. she paused. I were not going to come only that he worded it so strangely.

“She handed me a folded piece of paper and somewhat truculently I opened it and read:

“‘Dearest Heddy,—

Please forgive my recent impropriety in sending you away without explanation. Know only that my grief will soon find its own grave and I will be freed of my present troubles. I ask of you one final favour. Come to London as soon as you can; I have provided for your—and perhaps for my own—future.

Yours, etc,


“Written hastily in what was unmistakeably Edward’s hand, I realised that his plan had been decisive though impulsive. Sending Henrietta away only to recall her several days later was not in my friend’s character—not unless something grave were about to happen. I shuddered more at the content of the note than at the February chill. Miss Riordan asked whether I should help her search the Salisbury Road residence for trace of Edward’s presence and we thereafter spent close to an hour opening doors and creaking wooden stairways for any sense, however imperceptible, of our friend.

“Though we found some manner of sympathy in our concern for Edward, not a single footprint or any further explanation for his disappearance was unearthed. As I bade Henrietta farewell I collected my documents—papers, diagrams and formulae that might shed some light on the darkened basement of E.M. Willis—and stepped into the mid-morning light in search of a Hackney carriage. What remained of Edward’s family, sadly smiling at the doorway, would surely inherit this little house on the Salisbury Road, I thought.

❡      ❡      ❡

“As spring melted the white blanket in which the city had been swaddled, I returned to work and felt—not without the pangs of a Christian guilt that Edward would surely have mocked—that I had abandoned my lost friend. I had studied the journals left to him by Dr Jonathan Fitzpatrick but in them found nothing more than whimsy, fantasy told as though it were science and spread with the thinnest veneer of credibility.

“The narrative describing his experience with this potion was clearly the base stuff for Edward’s novella and, in turn, for the viscous opiate liquid sitting so unnaturally still below the drawing room of Salisbury Road. I could not, however, vouch for the accuracy of Fitzpatrick’s notes given that they were written under the influence of this drug; nor could I quash my suspicions that Edward’s potion was far from identical to Fitzpatrick’s. These thoughts commixed in my mind with my second reading of The Time Fliers; I felt almost as lost as poor Edward, his fiction and his reality hanging in solution with my own.

“As refuge I turned to my work and to my family. Monthly I visited Henrietta and was content for this to be my only contact with the winter past. In tending to petty disputes and attending court proceedings I found a pretence of normalcy, but my mind was constantly preoccupied with the specifics of this mystery—a preoccupation as much with the mechanics of my friend’s disappearance as with the physical absence which I should be mourning. I nonetheless locked Fitzpatrick’s and Edward’s journals inside a cabinet in the corner of my office, in hopes that my ageing senses would soon banish the thought of them from my mind.

“But on May 17th 1885, months after the snowy day of Edward’s disappearance and in the weeks between my social calls on Henrietta Riordan, I was compelled once more to this mahogany cabinet and to the bundle of documents sealed within it. The dark wood—though lit by spring light from my office windows—had assumed an ominous tone, as though in the swirls of the wood grain there were some pattern attempting to formulate a message.

“I unlocked the drawer simply with the intention of examining the contents. The papers remained bound vertically and horizontally with a length of twine, but beneath the cross at the centre of the stack was a rectangular shape I did not recognise. I placed the pile of notes on my desk and, with care, pulled an unaddressed envelope out from under the knot of string. Its appearance was somewhat of a mystery, and I thought I did not know it yet, any incident related even tangentially to Edward was destined only for mystery. The envelope was of a thick paper—almost paperboard—and inside was a sheet folded twice so that it concertinaed to a third of its full size. I unfolded the note and read:

“‘With M., all the time in the world once again. You are missing from our little reunion, but thank you, my own dear Thomson!

Yours, E.’

“—My God, I murmured. Curving its upper case to the right and with a distinguishing flourish on the final letter, I could all but picture Edward’s left hand moving across the sheet as he wrote the words. In the top right hand corner was printed a date, Monday February 2nd, 1875. I need not remind you, friends, conversant as you all are with the chronology of time, that this date preceded the current one by more than a decade. I might also stress that the remnants of Fitzpatrick’s and Edward’s documents were contained inside a locked drawer of a cabinet within my locked office for the three months previous.

“Was Edward alive, physically occupying the same space he had only months ago and yet temporally (I have only since learned the application of this term, strange as this might seem) his presence had been cast backward by ten years? This lunatic explanation seemed no less credible than the notion that he had remained hidden from me and from Heddy for months only to steal a note into a sealed cabinet in a sealed room of my office.

“I replaced the note and the envelope and went to a small table occupying the corner opposite the dark wooden cabinet. The glass vial of opium lay next to a bottle of spirit and with a hand aching from the spread of rheumatism I carried out the familiar motions of mixing my tincture, combining bottle and vial in temperate measures. In this simple act of medicinal creation I steadied both my hand and my nerves. I sipped the mixture, muttering:

“—With M. Wherever you might be, Edward, I hope you are indeed reunited.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Another week was spent in pursuit of very little at all. I completed what work I could whilst glancing with the chime of each half hour at the pile of notes—medicinal scrawl, incomprehensible diagrams, personal correspondence and much more—hoping that another envelope might appear beneath the frayed string. Nothing, of course, did.

“At the end of the week I attended to my monthly social call on Edward’s sister-in-law Henrietta. Despite our meetings feeding a somewhat sympathetic (though certainly not intimate) relationship, my appearance that afternoon in Salisbury Road was greeted only with a remote and anxious glance. In the drawing room the mousy girl—woman seemed still an overstatement—requested that I sit whilst she worriedly rummaged across the top of a tall bureau standing on little more than the points of her toes.

“She drew down an object with a tug—suggesting that it might have snagged somewhere out of sight—and proffered it me in her outstretched palm. Strung on silver-coloured thread was a pendant oval in shape and carved from some form of light but stoutly packed wood. Examining it keenly, I asked Heddy what I was supposed to be looking for. Perhaps another message engrained in tiny swirls, I thought.

“—This was given me by Edward, she said. It was a birthday gift some five or six years ago.

“I tilted my head and displayed what I hoped was an inquisitive expression. –But I haven’t seen the thing (it has been missing, you see) since nearly two years ago. I believed I lost it on our last trip to Dublin.

“She placed the object in my hand. Turning it over and examining the necklace I was surprised to find that its weight was far greater than its outward appearance suggested. A thin line dissected the breadth of the oval. I placed thumb and forefinger around the top of the pendant and twisted until—despite Heddy’s objections that I would break the thing—the wood popped open and revealed a metal object embedded in the bottom half. I pulled it out of its cocoon.

“—It looks like Edward’s house key, I said. The greening rusted metal around the circular shaft I recognised at once, though I was reluctant to broach my rather fantastical opinions as to who might have returned it. It had appeared, so Heddy told me, two days earlier, snagged on the splintered edge of the dark bureau in Edward’s drawing room.

“—When I arrived on Thursday evening I came to pull the drapes closed and there it was, she said, hanging and glittering in the street light. As though it had simply materialised and was waiting for me.

“—And the key? I examined it more closely whilst my companion stared absently at the two parts of the halved locket.

“—In all honesty, Mr Glassborough, I have no idea…

“When Edward had presented the thing to his sister, the pendant had to her knowledge been whole. He had, in fact, consoled her the very day of its disappearance, she told me, recombining the two segments in her hands and rising to rehang it on the moulding of the bureau—thinking perhaps that it ought to remain in its rightful place. I too stood and strode towards the piano. Feigning to place the key on the top of the piano’s square frame I slipped it instead into a pocket of my overcoat, hoping that it might prove of some use.

“Though Edward’s note had suggested—at least to my simple solicitor’s mind—that he intended the key for Heddy, providing for her future by entrusting to her his home and his property, I felt justified in my holding very literally the means to unlocking Edward’s fate. I consoled myself with the thought that, no matter how strange his disappearance had been, I was still somehow in touch with my friend.”

Part 3 to follow.

[fiction], [pulp]

The Glassborough Chronicle, part 1 of 3

The Time-Fliers

letteri  suppose the story begins, as so many stories of our time, with a tragedy; a death. Mary, the wife of my dear friend the writer and naturalist Edward Willis, passed through the veil—as my mother used to say—on November 2nd 1884. Edward was quite distraught, though the decorum which his professed faith and which society expected from him meant that his grief was allowed expression only in his innermost circle. And so I felt obliged to offer him what I could in terms of solace. Most often this took the form of a serving of Glendronach or an attentive ear during his recital of some new idea for a story.

“On December 22nd of that year Mary Willis would have turned 47 years old. In her finite wisdom Mrs Glassborough had sent a letter inviting Edward to join our meagre Christmas celebrations earlier that week, and though I welcomed my friend’s company I was worried for his health. A thin layer of powdery snow had blanketed a good proportion of London and made cab rides slow and cold. The cane-thin frame of Edward Willis was ill-prepared for this widower’s winter.

“Nevertheless he arrived intact; we dined and spoke, Edward held forth and seemed in better spirits than he had been since Mary’s death. This remarkable change of mien he attributed to his having resumed his writing.

“—My craft, Henry, may well prove to be my saviour, he said.

“—I would hesitate to put it that bluntly on today of all days, I replied. Edward went on to summarise what, at this stage, was hardly more than note-taking for a story wildly out of the ordinary and yet founded on the principles of science and natural history. As always he drew on his training as a physician and on what—to me—were obscure writings on natural history. As he rounded off his speech and, with a modest glance, placed his hands on the table top I said:

“—Martians, Edward?

“—As a neologism quite sound, wouldn’t you say? I acquiesced.

“—And the idea is that they share a heritage with man?

“—Yes, exactly. His Irish accent—his intonation did not merit the term ‘brogue’—made this seem all the more reasonable. If, he suggested, man had developed from lower mammals, surely there was also the possibility that creatures similar to or even vastly different than man might have grown out of their predecessors on other worlds.

“The death of his beloved wife made me reluctant to weigh down Edward’s buoyant mood with questions. The fantastical was his preferred domain and I could not blame him. If, he continued, life were possible on such distant rocks then was it not such an illogical leap backwards to claim that all life had sprung from the same place? Whether this was the hand of God or the head of Zeus he did not say.

“Mildred returned holding a tray with two glasses of deep-coloured brandy and placed it in front of us. She must have recognised in me what she always termed ‘your dangerous frown’ and, before taking a seat, feigned to recall an urgent task she was neglecting elsewhere in the house. As she exited the cast of her face made it clear that marital obedience was not driving this particular decision.

“I raised my glass, Edward following suit, and said: —To better spirits. We had toasted, now we drank. But my dear friend was clearly debating within, as was his wont, whether he ought to divulge some new tale or forgotten secret.

“—Henry, I have to tell you, he said. These past weeks I have spent not with Heddy, but rather with myself and my imaginings. Henrietta, or Heddy as he called her, was Edward’s sister-in-law and was at least nominally in charge of his and his household’s care now that Mary was no longer with us.

“—I sent her home. She was as grief-stricken as I, and I had my own work to keep my company. But I want you to come and see with your own eyes. Please, if you can bear the inconvenience… read this first.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Now the book he left for me you will, my friends, most probably have heard of. Unlike many of my countrymen I myself had read The Time Fliers upon its publication in 1878, out of both curiosity and loyalty to my acquaintance of the time, Dr. E.M. Willis. It would be the fictionalist’s vanity to say that Time Fliers proved the foundation for our friendship. But the negative reception that it received was laced in most quarters with a blithe disrespect for Edward and for his imagination when—to my mind—his imagination was what set him apart from his contemporaries, founded as it was on science and natural understanding.

“Though not for the London literary salons, Edward’s novel appealed to sufficient people to prove a minor success over the course of a year. The chronicle—for this is the most accurate word—tells of an unnamed inventor who stumbles upon a theorem, no more than an outline, left by his predecessor at a less-than-prestigious London university. This theorem proposes the manufacture of a substance liquid in nature that might allow its users to move back and forth not only in physical space but also in linear time.

“The inventor takes this theorem to his companion, and the tale’s narrator, one Mr Thomson. He and Thomson between themselves procure the elements required to produce this ‘potion’ (Edward’s term) in a quantity small enough to be ingested in the name of experimentation. Initially they experience only the vaguest sensations of déjà-vu, but during their carriage ride return to the inventor’s home their common visions step further and further away from the present until the pair is catapulted from past to future, unable to pull themselves back to the fulcrum of the cab ride through present-time London.

“As Edward put it, his protagonists ‘soon began to feel suffocated by the d—ed stuff.’ A moment in the childhood memory of Mr Thomson’s country home, filled with birds and turning leaves, gives way to a trek through the most primoriginal wastes of a past described with an almost gleeful lack of sanity or, indeed, sanitation. The inventor and Mr Thomson find themselves variously borne into the air by means of some automaton magic, soaring above a gridwork of charnel houses and industrial wastes, and trapped in the crush of a busy London street full of carriages drawn not by horses but by their own internal and, to our narrator, inexplicable mechanisms. These ‘motor-wagons’ (Edward’s neologisms were by definition a new, though not a recent, development) blare like a collective of animals and the two men tumble to relative safety only after hailing a nearby hackney carriage.

“In the briefest of epilogues our Time Fliers are separated, and whilst the narrator Mr Thomson comes unstuck and finds this future motor-carriage modify slowly around him, changing inch by inch into their present-day London cab ride through slanting spring rain, his companion is not so fortunate. In the years post-dating this trip Jeremiah Thomson finds echoes of his lost friend in the strangest places—letters left idly in church pews, scientific papers dropped into his lap during soporific fireside evenings—but it is their fate never to cross paths again.

❡      ❡      ❡

“Shortly after the New Year, when the snow blanketing the city had begun slowly to melt, I heard the clattering and braying of a brougham pulling up in the street below my office. Clad in a black cape more suited to the ballet than to an uninsulated carriage ride through Central London, Edward stepped down and climbed the few steps to the door directly beneath my window. I laid my papers in a desk drawer on the assumption (soon proven correct) that my friend’s impromptu visit was going to foreshorten my work for the day.

“Moments later Edward had stepped into the room and drawn the ghastly black cape from his shoulders to reveal nothing but an undershirt, halfway unbuttoned and hardly concealing the protrusions of his ribs beneath his mottled marble skin.

“—Henry, my dear friend, he said, placing a hand just above each corresponding crook in my arms. His eyes bright, a return to his former self perhaps at hand, he continued: —Did you read it? Did you take it all in?

“—Yes, of course. Though I’m not sure I understand, Edward. My second reading, I must say, was just as enthralling, but wh…

“—Good, good, he said. In that case you must join me for a drink. With an emaciated drama he swung his own person around and nudged mine by the elbow—a reticent animal, I—towards the door. In the hallway he replaced the cowl and balanced his top hat, old but functional, on his mop of greying curls. We reached the brougham, stepped in and headed for Edward’s residence in Salisbury Road.

❡      ❡      ❡

“At the cellar door of the Willis residence, situated in an alley to one side of the brick building that Mary and her husband had shared, I was greeted by the incongruous smells of ammonium and unlaundered clothing. I steadied myself with the aid of my cane (I suffer a form of metabolic arthritis in my right foot) and took three steps down to the door. Edward was already inside and had removed his hat and cape by the time I had fully taken in my remarkable surroundings.

“In the years before and for several after our initial acquaintance, my friend was a much sought-after London physician. He tended not only to my needs but to those of a large number of wealthy Londoners whilst working by night (‘nocturnally’; his word) on his writing, studies of creatures and behaviours that did not fall within the category of standard medical practice. In those years Edward’s study—both a laboratory of sorts and a refuge from the house proper—was an enclave of cabinets filled with books and journals, tables covered in medical instruments and sample tubes, etchings of tree roots and wasps bisected in black ink.

“But in the darkest month of the New Year and under the gaslight hanging from the centre of the stone ceiling the cellar was much changed. A glass stood in one corner of the room, in which I could see my grey self and the miasmas of snow on the door over my shoulder. The cabinets of curiosities—culled so Edward told me from museums forced into closure—were obscured now by a fine film of dust and on the square desk directly below the light, where once there was a host of indefinite medical instruments, stood only a single row of sample tubes and a sheaf of papers. Edward motioned for me to take the only seat in the room as he drew from over a long wooden table against the furthest wall a tarpaulin covering. Edward’s body, though narrow, disguised the items in the dimly-lit corner. He said:

“—I forced my little story on you not out of vanity, Henry. The origins of my novella, rather like the origins of all things, came not solely from my wild imaginings but from a certain number of historical facts. A constellation of such facts designed, it seems, to create Mr Thomson and his time-flying friend.

“—I… don’t follow you, I replied. I tapped my cane on the stone floor.

“Edward turned now from the shadowed corner holding in one hand a large bottle with a narrow opening, filled nearly to the brim with a copper-coloured liquid, and in the other a conical beaker with a glass stirrer tinkling delicately against its lip. He placed them upon the large table in the centre of the room alongside his papers and the sample tubes, lifting his head and pinning me with an excited gaze to my seat.

“—Henry. He smiled and nodded, expecting (so it seemed) that I might string together the pearls in front of me into a coherent narrative. He glowered in the gaslight and told me:

“—Some months after I moved with Mary to this corner of the city, and some years (might I add) before I embarked on such studies as you were accustomed to observing in this room, my good friend Jonathan Fitzpatrick passed away. Jonathan left to me a minor sum to aid me in my profession (the figure was insignificant by comparison to the wealth and knowledge he had acquired in the medical world) but more importantly he bequeathed to me his papers, gathered over a number of years spent in both Dublin and London as a student and then as a young physician.

“—Amongst the trappings and personalia were several sheets containing what I took to be a list of constituent parts for some medicine, perhaps an invention of Fitzpatrick’s. Opiates and ammonium I could make out by their chemical formulae but the other elements were a mystery, and one that worried me; the majority of my more learned friends were as baffled as I by Jonathan’s notes. I had begun after several days’ investigation to feel as though I were trapped in a poorly executed story, a Penny Dreadful with the bare bones of a plot and little more.

“—Nonetheless I persevered and—through less-than-reputable channels—procured the means to manufacture those chemicals which I could not legitimately obtain. Despite the crown’s legal interventions, there were then still many roads clear enough and land unchristian enough to provide for the darker aspects of our profession. I don’t regret it, Henry. Not if the promise in Jonathan’s notes holds true.

“—After I had returned with the final ingredient for this strange brew I sorted again through the papers in search of some instruction and, in doing so, came across Jonathan’s journals, printed in a neat handwriting and spanning several volumes and a number of years. I had, out of respect for my colleague and friend, left these untouched and unopened but my curiosity bore the better half of me to my study, papers in hand.

“—He professed in these journals to have produced a viable batch of this stuff—science forgive him—and to have tasted but a whisper of it one morning before being carried, alone as always, to his Harley Street office. So his journal tells, not ten minutes after his…experiment, he was pulled into a trance, a deep sleep that took him into the past and left the doors of perception open, left time flowing like a liquid into and out of his mind, swimming through his vision. I was, Henry, quite frightened and yet peculiarly exhilarated by my friend’s words.

“—But as my writing grew in importance and Mary’s health declined I lay aside my studies in this place. The stone underfoot grew colder and the specimens grew further layers of dead skin over their own. My natural histories found an outlet in several science journals and eventually The Time Fliers was finished and published. In my mind’s eye—and now you must see it, too—Thomson and I were one and the same, and Jonathan Fitzpatrick became my unfortunate inventor. My ‘potion’, so I thought, was just a fantasy, but coming back down here, back to these papers. This damned stuff…

“—This damned stuff, Henry.

“Edward paused and lifted the bottle from the table.

“—If he was right, this damned stuff might take me back, and in doing so…bring her back.

“The liquid made a miniature wave at the roof of the bottle as Edward held it in his hand. He produced—from where, I confess, I did not see—a tiny funnel such as he had used years ago when mixing laudanum for my ailments, and placed it in the mouth of the smaller container. As I watched the viscous substance pour in a perfect arc into the conical beaker I glimpsed in the glass across the room a gas-lit reflection of the profile of Edward Willis, which to this day I wish I had not seen but cannot erase from my memory.

“He proffered me the half-filled vessel whilst he withdrew from his belt a flask which, it seemed, already contained the stuff. He said:

“—Henry, my friend. Nothing remains for me here, now. There are no words that need to be said, no things that need to be known; explanations only weigh us down. I ask only that I might request your companionship this one last time.

“He drew from the flask and leaned his frail upper body on the table behind him. Dear friends, as you might have guessed, I could not abandon my friend; I followed him into the mouth of this strange tale. First tentatively I put my lips to those of the glass in my hand and then with abandon I tasted the last sensation of that afternoon, the viscous liquid lining my insides, and burnt into my mind the image of the gaunt figure in the glass, the last time I would see Edward M. Willis.”

Parts 2 and 3 to follow.


Dead Men Prefer Blondes

usty Deutsch’s name was, much like her hair colour, pure fabrication.

Her red ringlets glowed against the dark wood of the pub’s interior like embers in a fireplace. Bruen watched her approach from his customary corner, and with each step her face aged a year. Close-up, she was fifty, maybe fifty-five, and visibly tired of life. He counted

the rings under her eyes
the creases at her mouth
the broken fingernails

as she pulled out the chair and took a seat.

Ken Bruen?” Her eyes were wider than they ought to be.

Bruen nodded. “Nice to see you, Rusty. Congratulations on winning the competition.”

There was almost a blush. A shade darker and it would have matched the dye in her hair. “I’ve read all the Jack Taylor books. When they announced the contest, I entered straight away.” She smiled. Her teeth were crooked. “I had no idea you lived in London. Well… I know you and Jack Taylor aren’t one and the same, but…”

“You thought Galway?” Bruen smirked playfully. “It’s a well-known fact that all the best Irishmen don’t live in Ireland. I also don’t get through quite as many of these as Jack does.” He held up his glass and peered through it at Rusty. She was trapped in amber for a moment.

Rusty’s features mellowed with the evening, until she approached the colour of the faux marble statues standing on the bar. She told Bruen about her job, her ailing mother, thanked him profusely for the chance to meet him. After her third gin and tonic, the whites around her eyes had turned pink.

“Do you know why I read your books?’ she asked.

“No. And I don’t care as long as you pay for ’em.” Bruen smiled.

“My husband was in the Gardaí, he was a policeman, like Jack Taylor.”

Bruen swilled his beer and wondered: Is she a

a divorcée
a madwoman?

When she brushed the red out of her face self-consciously, Bruen asked whether they should go.

utside, the rain spattered as from a paintbrush. Bruen flipped his collar and held the door for Rusty, who exited and then stood, bouncing on the heels of her feet, beneath the illuminated pub sign.

“Sure, let me give you a lift home,” he said. Two beers were as many as he would allow into the driver’s seat of his Volvo. Rusty climbed into the passenger side, and after the hollow thunk of door-metal, they made their way onto the slick street.

Second gear.

“He died a few years ago. In the line of duty is the phrase they use, I suppose.”

“Your man? Sorry to hear such a thing.”

Third gear.

They passed under a low-set bridge and graffiti glared at them.

“Were you in the Gardaí?” she asked.

Bruen spun the wheel gently and shifted back into second.

“Me? No, never. There’s three things you can be as a son of Ireland:

or doctor.

I took option two and disappointed both the Holy Mother and my own holy ma.”

They climbed a ramp onto the motorway.

Third gear
Fourth gear

“Well, my other half ran with the bad crowd; that’s what he used to say. That’s what did him in, I spose.” Rusty glanced over at Bruen. “Sort of like Jack.”

“Jack’s not a nice fella, Rusty.”

Bruen imagined Jack Taylor’s face, the face he saw when he sat down at his laptop to write. Caved in and pock-marked, thinning white hair like the dying stroke of a paintbrush. Always a pint of beer in his hand.

“Jack’s only in it for himself,” Bruen added. “Wouldn’t make a good husband.”

Rusty Deutsch laughed.

They were close to Finchley Park and not far from the address that Rusty had given him. They pulled off the motorway and the lanes merged into one, trees sprouting up by the side of the road.

“What happened?” Bruen said it quietly, as though the words were tiptoeing past him as he spoke. “Was he shot? Or stabbed. Stabbing is more likely, in Ireland.”

“He drowned.” Twitching his head sideways, Bruen saw that Rusty had turned away from him. In the dim light of the streetlamps,


her hair seemed to writhe, Medusa-like. Bruen fixed his eyes on the white lines of the road ahead.

he trees were red herrings. Rusty’s mother lived in a concrete housing estate that towered above the borough, a long-lost symbol of Thatcher’s Britain. Perhaps he should set a novel in London after all, Bruen thought.

“My best to your mother,” he said.

Rusty clutched her purse and opened the door. As she climbed out, in her narrow, angular bones and the tumble of red on top of her head, there was something approaching art.

“And don’t get too hooked on Jack Taylor – he was never a good Guard, nor much of a man.”

“I never said he was,” Rusty replied, and slammed the car door.

Bruen wound down the passenger window and called out: “But he reminds you of your man?”

“I hated my husband, Ken. And he hated me.” She was taking baby steps backwards in her plastic high heels. “He always preferred blondes, you see?”

Rusty pivoted and a shadow swallowed her, from head to toe, until just the clicking of her shoes

the breeze


Deacon’s Folly

It was late when my friend began to speak. The lights cast a glow upon him that would have made him seem eerie, had I not been his companion of nearly ten years. Strangeweather moved his face until it was directly illuminated, and addressed our party clearly, crisply, and with more than a hint of menace. The rest of us sipped Scotch and shrank into our chairs until our childlike proportions poked through our adult skin and reshaped the tweed and wool of our jackets.

Years ago, when I lived in Edinburgh, few gas lights graced the Mile. Pockets of inky blackness spread between each lamppost and one could disappear into them at barely a moment’s notice. Many did. The labyrinths beneath the city were home to hundreds of lost souls who might once have made their way from tavern to tavern, and, eventually, to their homes. Instead, the alleyways took them.

I worked in the gardens at the Castle, and, at the end of each day, made the trip down the Mile and across the river to my boarding house, a cold, sparsely furnished room in the new town. Accompanying me each evening was another lad who worked at the Castle, Samuel Brodie, a native Edinburgher with a simple and direct manner (much like our friend Mr. Butler) whom I had met a year before, and brought to work on the grounds.

Brodie would slink sideways, disappearing at the end of the Mile into a brougham carriage. I could not say why, but I never asked him where he boarded.

One night deep into November, the air hardening the soft rain into snow, Brodie and I left the Castle grounds and made our way down the slope of the Royal Mile. We passed the tavern at the top of the street and heard bristling shouts coming from inside. Then the light faded, we dipped into darkness, and eventually the next gaslight shone upon us.

After one moment too many in silence, Brodie asked: “Do ye know the story, Strangeweather? Of the Deacon?”

“Deacon Brodie?”

“Aye. Artisan by day and robber by night.”

I told him that I knew the tale. Really, I said, who in Edinburgh – who in Scotland – did not? Supposedly, William Brodie had built the first gallows in the country and then fallen foul of the law and been hanged by the very contraption he had built.

“We continue to be punished,” my companion said. We were in the darkness and I could feel his breath clouding around him in the winter street. “Before the Deacon, the Brodies, if not of noble blood, came from a revered lineage. Respected about town, ye see?”

Aye, I said, and left it at that. As the streetlights grew more frequent and we reached the end of the street, I saw a leering grin on Brodie’s face. He turned, finally, and cantered towards the waiting carriage on Blair Street.

Throughout December, our routine remained the same. Brodie spoke from time to time of his ancestor, the gentleman burglar, but our conversations rarely lasted long. The Scot was absent from the Christmas service at the Castle and only reappeared at the Hogmanay celebrations at the end of the year. By February, I was living with a permanent chill in my bones, and Brodie, who had seemed always so robust, was ashen-faced and sour.

We were sliding our way down the Mile later that month, snow covering the street and lightening the darks between the streetlamps, when Brodie took my arm and pulled me towards an alleyway to our right. I grasped his overcoat, barely staying upright, and felt his bones protruding from beneath.

“Strangeweather,” he said. It was a growl more than a word. “We are friends, aye?”

“Aye, Brodie, but–”

“I have been debating for weeks whether to tell ye or no.” He paused as though this were a question and he expected a reply. “I have something for ye, a job, perhaps.” Brodie stalked off towards the Mile before I could ask what, exactly, he wanted me to do. Perhaps he wished to recompense me for finding him work.

At the end of the road, he turned right and called me on, his face clearer in the well-lit street, its pallor evident even against the crisp white snow. A brougham stood waiting, a thin layer of snow settled on its roof, and Brodie gestured to it with the same unnatural grin that I had seen months earlier. If only, my dear friends, I had turned and walked across the river and back to my icy room in the boarding house on Waverley Square.

Instead, I stepped up to the carriage and climbed into it with Brodie.

At first, I thought us alone. But after a moment, the creases and folds of an overcoat appeared in the corner of the cab. Crumpled against the seat was a man. Leaning forward, his face, I saw, was sallow and withdrawn, his skin pallid like Brodie’s, but with lines and wrinkles that the younger man did not have. He reached out a hand that was adorned with gnarled, curling fingernails and said:

“Mr. Strangeweather. How do you do. I am Deacon Brodie.”

The air puffed out of my lungs. Not wishing to be impolite, I took the man’s hand. It was stone cold. When he withdrew it, I saw on the back a faint impression, as though I had crushed some of the rotting flesh beneath my fingers. Deacon Brodie grinned a lilting, familiar grin and the brougham began to move.

When I regained some of my faculties, I turned to the younger Brodie, but a reflection of the man that was sitting across from us, and tried to speak. Words were lost to me. “There is one last job, Strangeweather,” Samuel Brodie said. “The Deacon has been planning it for years, since the day he was hanged at the hands of this city.” The clattering carriage struggled against cobblestones. The man – the dead man in the corner – barely moved.

After several minutes, mercifully, the carriage stopped and the younger Scot climbed out into the snow. I followed him agitatedly. I asked what he was talking about, told him I didn’t understand, but before he could reply, the thin, white figure of Deacon Brodie stepped lightly onto the snow.

“This is where it happened,” he said. His voice rasped against the night, but the air did not cloud around him. He turned to look at me. “Mr. Strangeweather, one benefit of being a craftsman is that you learn the ins and outs of timber and rope, right angles and circles, beams, bolts and.. nooses. It was a simple matter, really. One hangman’s folly, and I was free. A slip of the wrist–” he swiped his cane through the air “–and a dead man lives.”

I gasped a syllable or two before Samuel Brodie stepped up to me. He said: “What do you say, Strangeweather? One last robbery… for the Deacon?” He pointed behind us and I gazed up at the outline of Edinburgh Castle, stark against the red night sky. “Well, what do you say?”

“Well,” I asked. “What did you say?”

Strangeweather leaned back in his chair. “My dear Mr. Butler,” he replied. “I am a gentleman, not a thief.”

The room exhaled and we all creased out of our armchairs. Questions were fired at Strangeweather and he deflected them with ease, as though swatting a wayward fly from his face: “How did you get away?” “Why, I walked, Alastair.” “Did you return to your work at the Castle?” “I never leave a good job, Silas.” “And Samuel Brodie?”

Strangeweather rose and the light cast shadows under his eyes. “He was hanged in April of that year, outside the Castle. He screamed at the top of his lungs, cried out: ‘It was Deacon Brodie who planned it, it was his theft, his final performance.’ But of course, no one believed him.”

“Except you?” I asked.

Strangeweather was, as his name suggested, prone to the most unexpected changes of temperament. He whipped out his cane and sliced the air with it, then, with a stern expression, said: “A dead man lives, Mr. Butler? No, I shan’t have such a thing.”


Merlin’s Keep

here is an old foundry a few minutes from here. He grasps her wrist, battle-scarred like his, and walks out of the back door and across the street. They stumble down the grassy hill behind his house, their bodies vertical, the earth inclined, and they reach Pleasant Street on the other side.

This way, he says, his voice obscuring the empty pop of the tub in his pocket, and he lets her hand fall to her side.

Outside the foundry there is a sign, staked into the ground and splintering. A large horizontal gash splits the wood in two and nearly runs for the full length of the sign. On it, still legible, are the words: Merlin’s Keep.

When Yuri was a child, Merlin’s Keep had still been in business. It billowed mile-wide, inky clouds across the sky as it forged beams and girders, car panels and corrugated roofs. The Tobin Bridge had been built here; the train cars for the new Yellow Line subway. He remembered how it towered over the Square downtown.

Now the sign stands abandoned, much like the foundry inside, pointing jaggedly at a ninety degree angle to the ground. Yuri recalls online news clips of a stars and stripes flag being planted firmly in the red Martian soil.

They go inside. A cube-shaped space, steel beams still delineate the walls at intervals, rising around them for two stories. The roof is gone. In the far corner, the one nearest the river, there is a coal-covered, metal contraption.

One of the forges, Yuri whispers to Sandra. She smiles weakly and her mouth creases like a dolphin.

Reeds as brown as the sign outside perforate the stone floor, peering up through the cracks at the two foreign bodies in their midst.

Yuri creases into a cross-legged position on the floor, pushing aside the twigs in his way, and Sandra sits opposite with her knees bent toward her chest. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the small plastic tub, and the pills tip and tap against the side. The label is worn off, though even if it had remained legible, it would have been incorrect.

Are you sure? he asks. Sandra nods. In another time, before the Pulse, she would have been beautiful. White, lank hair now hangs around her face; and though her lips are full and alive, the creases under her eyes are as blue as her irises and exponentially wider. Yuri hadn’t looked in a mirror since then either. He couldn’t blame Sandra for neglecting her appearance.

Like Yuri, Sandra is an archivist at the Bradbury Library. It is a strange word, Yuri thinks.

Ok, he says, and twists the cap off of the bottle in his hand.

They are not archivists, he thinks; they are reconstructive surgeons. Pulling from memory the lost words, sentences, serifs. Rebuilding page for page and line by line the books which ought to fill the brownstone building’s shelves.

In his palm he holds out two pills: one white, the other half blue, half red. Sandra takes them nervously, opens her full mouth, and then gulps them dryly.

It might take some time, Yuri says. Her eyes close… Slowly, like honey smearing from a spoon. She slips into unconsciousness, and he lays her down on the cracks and between the reeds.

chug, train-like and unmistakeably mechanical, echoes against the ghost walls of Merlin’s Keep. It crescendos, then stops. Yuri hears footfall and stays perfectly still, leaning as he has for the last fifteen minutes against the dusty forge in the corner of the old foundry.

Outside, rushes and brushes. Breath crisps against the afternoon, and a figure appears like a mirror image at the opposite end of the Keep.

Hey. Yuri, he says. The man is bearded and thin, wears a plaid sweatshirt with holes near the wrists. This her? he asks.

Yes. She needed to get out. She’d transcribed her last, and the Library was under pressure to get rid of her, Yuri replied.

Your goddamn eidetic memory is all that’s keeping you in your job, the man says.

Yuri leans down and the remaining pills make distant popcorn noises inside his jacket pocket. He reaches under Sandra’s arms and lifts her from the ground to the sound of crackling reeds. Since the Pulse, there has been no electricity, and even the slightest noise bounces manically against the eardrum. He drags her over to the man, and takes one last glance at her before placing her carefully into his outstretched arms.

Pretty, the man says.

The man’s voice is dull. Yuri nods and tells him: Be sure to wake her as soon as you get there.  We have three more coming next week, all Fed escapees.

I’ll take as many as I can handle, the man says, and jerks his head in the direction of the water running quietly behind the husk of a building. Outside, in the river, Yuri knows that the boat is tied to the splintered, wooden sign, as usual. In it, others like Sandra lie unconscious.

As the chug resumes, Yuri leaves Merlin’s Keep and canters up Pleasant Street as far as the yellowing grass. He crouches at the apex of the incline and looks through the leaves of the trees to the Foundry.

A tiny puff of smoke emerges from behind the steel outline further down the street. Far below and headed for the Atlantic, a small tug boat struggles against the rough wash of the Charles River, and Yuri wonders if it will ever be his turn to sail away. [ends]


The Charles D. Thornton Tapes, on “The Second Murderer”

I read the classics, of course (though, of course, at the time they were not classics). Hammett, Chandler, some Gardner and Campbell, too. But it was Hadley whose prose grabbed me. J. Ford Hadley could wrap sentences so tightly around your fingers that you swore the bones would break once you reached the period at the end. Crisp, tight paragraphs. Hard-edged and whimsical. Hadley died in the Fifties; I suppose I have spent the intervening years trying (and, I admit, failing) to imitate his style.

Where his contemporaries would warp a story around the central murder, theft, or act of heinous violence, Hadley would not. There was rarely a semblance of plot because, after all, there is no single narrative to life. You cannot have predestination in detective fiction. Surprises come often, twists that interrupt – even end – your characters’ existence; without surprises, detective fiction is nothing but urban life with added similes.

When I started out, I wanted to be ‘literary’, whatever that meant. I set out to be spare, brittle, and irritatingly clever. But soon Hadley and co. had pulled me in, and I instead applied myself to becoming one of them. My first story was published in 19__, and it was very much a Hadley pastiche, from the opening lines to my nameless protagonist. (This detective cipher would, one day, swirl into the recognisable form of Delaney). Published in _____ _______ magazine, it was titled “The Second Murderer”, after a similarly nameless character in Macbeth.

(The Second Murderer utters one of the most prescient things in all of Shakespeare:

I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Have so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.

Unwittingly, my dear countryman seemed to have predicted the course of the Twentieth Century.)

I am blustering like an old fool. Forgive me, Liebchen. Tangents are like catnip to the old. What I mean to say is that fiction always seemed more able to order life, to categorise it; and that detective fiction, on top of this, provided an insight into what lay behind the crumbling facade of our time. That, and it was jolly good fun.

“The Second Murderer”
by Charles D. Thornton

Most cases begin with a bang. This one was no exception.

It had been the usual damp and lonely Wednesday afternoon before the dame in the red dress drifted into my office. She was tall and slender, the curves of a bowling pin and then some. Drawing on a cigarette, rich smoke rose like a curlicue into the room. Gauloises, maybe?

But the thought was amputated. From out of her clutch a package wrapped in parcel paper and twine dropped onto the rosewood table top. I almost spilled my coffee onto the taupe carpet tiles. Instead, I pulled myself together and tugged the cuffs of my white shirt another half-inch towards my fingertips, tilted my head approximately 45 degrees to the left, and asked:

“Where’d you get a purse big enough to hold a gun?”



Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?

e had been birthed by a collection of pop-culture myths. Coca-Cola had been his mother’s midwife. Pale Dr. Warhol in his white fright wig had nodded sagely in the background. A second attending, in Lycra and hair gel, may well have been Superman. This was how he remembered it (or, more accurately, misremembered it). His birth, beneath the warmth of neon signage. Dragged by the fingernails into a room of bright color and repetition. How could he help where he was going, if this was where he had started out?

Today, however, he was in a state of zen unhappiness, a state that might in ordinary circumstances have led to a productive morning. At least a few thousand words of memoir were waiting to be written, mostly anecdotes from the ’80s, but today, the nagging depression couldn’t coax even the shittiest sentence out of him.

He switched on the TV. Daytime cable. In yellow Colorvision, William Shatner was investigating an alien threat of some kind. Spock raised his eyebrow and the phone rang.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing, man. Trying to come up with a chapter for the book people.”

“Mmhmm. Cool.”

Josh had nothing to say. Josh had never had anything to say. Every day, Josh called him and asked about the memoir.

“You come up with a title yet?”

“The publishers wanna call it Just the Kid,” he delivered in monotone. “But I think that’s a fuckin’ stupid name.”


Eventually the Enterprise floated across the screen on invisible wires, and Josh hung up with an ‘alright, yeah, bye’.

He added a few lines to the Word file that had been languishing on his hard drive, and then picked up the remote control.  Weekdays, 1 p.m., reruns of the show. There he was: curly-haired, big-eared, his weak chin never destined to grow into square-jawed manliness. From ages ten to fourteen, he had grown inside a television tube into a surly teenager. After four seasons, the network had pulled the plug on Just the Kids. There was no public outcry against the sitcom’s cancellation, no words of consolation for his character, little Rudy Salmon. Just a life cut short, transferred onto VCR, and banished to Best Buy bargain bins. Suddenly, Sam Freeman had become a ‘former child star’.

The pop culture echo onscreen delivered a punchline and then exited. His television family continued their dinner table conversation. The baby face looking back and forth between television mom and television dad, a pink, tennis-ball of a child, would grow into Josh Reitenscharfer. Sam didn’t know why he was still in touch with Josh. Out of a sense of misplaced fraternity, perhaps.

“Hey… Hey, Sammy!”

He started, looked behind him. His Spidey sense told him that a jovial killer brandishing a lens-flare knife was waiting to pounce. No one was there.

“No: over here, asshole.” On the screen, Baby-Josh’s round cheeks lip-synched to words spoken by the adult Josh. He was staring out of the TV and right at Sam. “The fuck are you doing, watching this shit? Are you high or something?”

He wasn’t high. Was barely drunk. The scene around Josh had gone out of focus as though the camera lens had been smeared with Vaseline. Like when Shatner saw a beautiful alien he wanted to fuck, Sam thought.

“I… No,” he said. “Josh?”

“This is not the time to be thinking about getting your end away with some green-ass alien chick,” Baby-Josh said. His face was grainy like only ’80s TV could be. Sam was afraid that if he blinked he might be sucked into some static non-existence. Eventually his eyelids gave in, and the television family came into focus and went about their business. The slow cuts warmed Sam’s insides, and he went back to his laptop.

andall Pryce, the soft-spoken Midwesterner who had played Just the Kids’ father John Salmon, had been a poor man’s Jimmy Stewart. During filming, Sam could squint beneath the studio lights and almost make out the real actors trying to escape from beneath the TV family facade: here was James Stewart, opposite him a glamorous but homely Lucille Ball; the mailman was a Bogart, but without cigarettes (it was, after all, the era of political correctness); and their neighbor was Elvis, with sideburns turned grey.

He and Josh had always worn primary colors; they were the crew of their own starship Enterprise.

“Mr. Freeman, this is Sandra Killington, from Gotham Publishing.” He had picked up the phone automatically. It wasn’t Josh.

“Hello, what, er…”

“How are you today?”

“Fine, I’m just working on the memoir.”

A laugh. “Don’t worry, we’re not checking up on you. We had some more ideas for the title.”


“How about Sam & Salmon?” She paused. In the background, a Twilight Zone star scape swam on the flatscreen. “We can include Just the Kids in there, too. Maybe as a subtitle?” Sure, he said, whatever. Sandra-Killington-from-Gotham-Publishing had no more interest in Sam Freeman than Rod Serling did.

After he hung up, he asked: “Rod, what’s the twist at the end of this one?”

Rod’s pixellated features looked out at him and said: “Picture the interior of an apartment, daytime. Samuel Freeman, 36 years of age, a minor star now supernovaed into obscurity. Like all things burned into their component atoms, Freeman may be destined to languish… in the Twilight Zone.”

he Chantilly Place Diner was his Holy Grail. It seemed almost to glow. It was red and silver, a toy racing car. As Josh slid out of the booth and waved a nonchalant goodbye, Sam noticed that his mustard-yellow polo shirt was torn in the back. He let Josh go without saying anything.

Behind the counter, a server polishing coffee mugs with a dish cloth asked: “Can I get you more coffee, hun?” She floated over to his table, silent as a silver screen Dracula, coffee pot held menacingly at head-height. Sam shook his head, asked for a strawberry shake instead. Drinking alcohol had been prohibited on a family show such as Just the Kids, and as such, the Salmon family’s only vice had been the occasional trip to a soundstage diner where Rudy slurped a milkshake and his parents sipped coffee. Since they had reconnected, he and Josh had gravitated toward the Chantilly Place out of some sense of nostalgia, he supposed.

He pulled his computer out of his bag and set it on the Formica table top. The still-open Word file blinked a cursor at him.

In the delivery room, Superman’s forehead creased, the midwife lit up with a red, familiar glow, and a newborn Rudy Salmon clawed his way into existence. Next to the impassive Dr. Warhol, Sam Freeman looked on, confused. Was this Rudy’s birth, or his? He felt like William Shatner wearing a William Shatner mask on Halloween.

The milkshake slid onto his table and he began to type: I had been birthed by a collection of pop culture myths. Coca-Cola had been my mother’s midwife. Pale Dr. Warhol in his white fright wig had nodded sagely in the background… [ends]


Losing It

he height of the counter and its angle in relation to his swivel chair aggravates James Coverstone. He is not a tall man, but all things considered, he is far from short. And yet, behind the lobby desk, his eyeline sits barely two inches above the highest point of the counter. Occasionally he extends his spine and peers out into the large foyer, watches the self-consciously sentient crowds come and go in tandem with the train schedules.

A woman with a long floral print dress and a nose piercing has just exited the Joseph Beuys exhibit and is heading toward the sloped counter. Her hair dyed red and frayed at the ends, she passes him a black rectangle with earphones wrapped around it, smiles, tells him that the Ipod is, like her, divorced from its other half. She found it, she explains, on a seat opposite a Beuys self-portrait.

Coverstone thanks her, notes down the time and the location of the lost item, and then places it in a drawer alongside three cellphones, a pair of glasses, a hotel key card for room 119, a flash drive and an expired university ID card. The drawer has a Post-It note reading “Lost Propperty” stuck to its front. The supplemental letter is another source of frustration for Coverstone.

*         *        *

is night is haunted by electronic ghosts. Feverish dreams persist on the subway ride to the museum the following day: the amputation of an Ipod, an Iphone, of eyeglasses, walking sticks and other prostheses, from faceless people. He should note this down for his next therapy session, he tells himself. Instead he scribbles in a Moleskine notebook the narrow outline of an Ipod Nano.

As the day passes, the drawer fills a little further. Coverstone records a pair of sunglasses that complement the other already in the drawer, and a woman with a small child hands him a thin, blue sweater that she found in the bathroom.

If it wasn’t bright pink I don’t think I’d have seen it. The man wearing a t-shirt with a strange swoosh of colour passes Coverstone a cellphone found in a video installation upstairs. Isn’t the Marley stuff amazing? Coverstone nods in response. Later, an unsheathed umbrella scuppers the “Lost Propperty” drawer, and he has to lean it between the corner of his desk and the wall. It is, he discovers, another Beuys orphan.

His shift ends at 8 p.m. As he rises and looks out into the lobby, he opens the drawer and extracts the black Ipod, before collecting his things from the staff room and leaving for the day.

*         *        *

he subway car jolts out of the station the next morning. The earphones are in his ears, but so far Coverstone has been too busy scrolling through the list of artists to actually listen to any of the mp3s. An item out of context, he thinks, might still reveal something of its owner.  He recognises most of the band names.

Postal Service
Rainer Maria

Instead, he chooses a band named Sandsturm and presses play. The thrash of guitar accompanies the shunting tracks and the train arcs into a tunnel. Perhaps the monochrome gaze of Joseph Beuys caused the Ipod’s other half to abandon it in the exhibition space of a moderately successful museum.

Behind the slanted desk, Coverstone spends the day playing solitaire at his computer. The PC is pure artifice. It does not have internet access, and is there merely to suggest that Coverstone’s job is more important than it really is. Over the course of the day, several items – including a contact lens case, a baseball cap, and another pair of eyeglasses – are added to the drawer. A child’s shoe lands on the counter and slides onto the table before Coverstone can look up to examine its source.

As the rain falls outside that evening, he steps out and opens the orphaned Beuys umbrella over his head. Water patters onto the plastic canopy, and Coverstone imagines that he is someone else, that he is more important than, in actual fact, he is.

*         *        *

t is the end of the day. The man says: James, I’m sorry. Coverstone takes the envelope, lifts the unsealed flap, and pulls out the letter. It is not even signed. Let me know if you need anything. The man walks away from the lobby desk, and Coverstone slumps in his chair, his eyeline sinking beneath the angle of the counter. He reads no further than “We regret to inform you” before understanding what this means. He has been cast off, fired, laid off, retired, disposed of, he is the equivalent of an unwanted Polaroid or a worn-down shoe.

Coverstone smiles, then tosses the pink slip into the trash. He then disposes of the Post-It reading Lost Propperty, and then opens the drawer.

Minutes later, he walks into the Beuys exhibit. The space is empty, the lights dimmed. From his bag he withdraws the thin Ipod, its battery expired and its screen dark, and he places it on the cushioned seat opposite a screen-printed portrait of the artist. In one corner of the room, Coverstone leans the umbrella up against a pedestal that is supporting a sculpture of a typewriter.

In the women’s bathroom, he drapes the sweater over the paper towel dispenser and, after checking the list in his pocket and seeing that the university ID was found in one of the stalls, drops the card with a plink into a toilet bowl.

Within an hour, Coverstone has dispersed his collection with care, examining the list and placing each item in the appropriate location. The permanent collection houses three cellphones and both pairs of glasses, while he installs in the rest rooms both the contact lens case and the hotel key card. Finally, the last cellphone, the baseball cap, and the flash drive find their respective homes.

Back in the lobby, Coverstone retrieves the small blue and white tennis shoe from his bag. A single, child-size sneaker divorced from its companion. He places it on the counter and watches it slide onto his desk, then smiles, and heads for the exit. [ends]

Choose your own adventure!

Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod Curse

“Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod Curse” hits full stride this week, as Delaney begins to track down the mysterious figure who has been hounding him out of Malmouth, Massachusetts. Are they responsible for Eddie Elderthorn’s death? Who is Agent Link? And can Delaney trust Detective Hadley? Read the latest installment and decide for yourself! Remember to vote, and to return each Wednesday for a new chapter.

Chapter V

r. Delaney.”


“Call me Silas.”


“Ray, you look a little worse for wear. If you don’t mind my saying so.”

Delaney nodded, and as Silas took a seat he flagged down a waiter to order cheap bourbon. The hotel bar was like the embers of a fine cigar, its grandeur burned up into dust.

“You know why whiskey’s always been a detective’s drink?” he said. Silas shook his head. “The glass is always half-empty.”

Delaney told Silas about the incident on the drive back from the Elderthorns, how he had seen the same silhouetted outline on the road behind him, standing idle in the rain, the same outline from Devil’s Point. Silas nodded sagely and asked the returning waiter for a glass of iced tea. “Apart from the anonymous note, there’s no evidence, nothing we can use to trace this guy, to find out who he is.”

“Definitely a man?”


“So at least we can be sure it’s not Miss Anna Carmilla.” Silas sighed, and pulled from his pocket a crumpled photocopy that he lay on the table. “Agent Link’s badge. As promised.”

Delaney picked up the xeroxed image. A black and white version of the woman he had seen at the police station stared up at him, with the name Carmilla, Anna K. printed beside it. The title Special Agent preceded her date of birth and sex in a narrow column to the left; on the right hand side a crest featuring a black eagle read United States Secret Service, Division 21.

“Secret Service?” said Delaney. “You could be in jail right now, Silas.”

“She went out for a smoke.” The policeman smiled and his face contorted. “When one door closes, another opens.”

Neither Delaney nor Silas knew what Division 21 might be. But at least, Delaney thought, they had a name. Special Agent Anna Carmilla.

*        *        *

dging toward unconsciousness later that night, Delaney had visions of a black nothingness in the shape of a man, a man who was climbing in through his hotel window and chloroforming him out of existence. But before sleep took hold, he was woken by a polite rapping at the door. He climbed out of bed, and thought of his gun. His gun, which lay in a filing cabinet in back in Boston.

“Yes?” he called out.

“Ray? It’s me, it’s Janet.”

He exhaled and pulled the door open. His sister, a false dolphin smile pasted to the bottom of her face, stepped into the room. “You need a shave,” she said.

“I’m untidy, unwashed, unshaved and unsober. And I don’t care who knows it.” Delaney grinned and Janet’s smile grew teeth.

They sat at the table in the corner of his room, Janet drawing a finger loosely across its fake wooden top. “So?” Delaney said, pouring a half glass of wine out of a miniature mini-bar wine bottle.

“There’s something I haven’t told you… about Eddie. It might be important, but, you know, Bob wants to keep this in the family.”

Delaney raised an eyebrow.

“I know, I know. Well, about six months ago, I got home from work, and Bob was there. He’d taken a day off. And he told me that he’d found something in Eddie’s room, hidden under some clothes in his closet. He’d found… drugs.” She whispered the last word.


“Well, the stuff that you would need to make drugs. Methamphetamine, Bob said.”

Delaney exhaled. “And you haven’t told the police about this?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, I guess you inherited some Private Investigator genes, too,” Delaney said. “So you think that Eddie was running away from something, something to do with these drugs?”

The visions were returning. His Buick, spinning in the rain; the mysterious figure following him. Was it the killer, following him, trying to do to Delaney the very thing that he had done to Eddie.

“Well.” He paused and Janet finished her wine. “Whatever happened, Eddie was trying to figure it out. He was coming to see me, Jan, coming up to Boston.”

“You don’t know that, Ray.”

Delaney rose and went to his suitcase. From the outside pocket he retrieved the CD that he had found in Eddie’s desk, and handed it to Janet. He explained that it was apparently just a copy, but that it sounded as though Eddie had been on his way to see his uncle Ray. “Listen to this when you have a chance. And let’s keep this in the family,” he added with a smile.

Janet returned to her wan dolphin expression. “Don’t be an asshole, kid.”

*        *        *

ello?” Delaney’s tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. The clock read 7.42 a.m. The voice was familiar, rough at the edges. Even in half-sleep he could infer anxiety on the other end of the phone.

“Silas?” he said. “What’s wrong?”

The policeman’s voice bristled, and said:

Choose your own adventure!

Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]

[untitled]‘s new Choose Your Own Adventure continues! In “Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]”, our PI protagonist is investigating the death of his nephew Eddie, and has stumbled across a spate of mysterious murders happening on the Cape. With no suspects and no motive, how will Ray crack this one? And will he beat Agent Link to the punch? Check back each Wednesday for a new chapter! And if you haven’t already, take a look at [untitled]’s sister site, PULPable, with a new post on Choose Your Own Adventures!

Chapter IV

he Elderthorns deserved it – ask Detective Hadley. Drop the case. Or Private Eye becomes Private Die!

There was no signature. Just letters, cut haphazardly from newspaper headlines, rearranged into words, and pasted to an ordinary sheet of paper. The large, ornate letter T that began the note – T for Threat, thought Delaney – was frayed at the edges. So were Delaney’s nerves.

He folded the note and stuffed it into his pocket. Standing at the hot drinks station just beyond the reception desk, he sipped hotel lobby coffee that tasted like the underside of a bus. His eyes flitted between the different figures idling near the revolving doors. Outside, slants of rain popped against the glass.

Delaney reversed out of the parking lot minutes later, glancing in the rear view mirror. A curtain of rain turned the outline of the hotel into a barcode, and then into white static. The Elderthorns deserved it – ask Detective Hadley. As much as his gut lurched every time he spoke to his brother-in-law, even Bob Elderthorn didn’t deserve to outlive his own son.

His foot hit the accelerator, and tires spat water onto the sidewalks. Malmouth police station was just a five minute drive away. It was time to meet Detective Hadley.

*        *        *

ou’re Sergeant Silas Hadley?”


“I’m Ray Delaney, Eddie Elderthorn’s uncle.” They shook hands.

“Oh, I’m… I’m very sorry for what happened. The investigation is still ongoing – we’ll let you know once we have some more information.” He made to turn away.

“Sergeant, I’m also a private investigator up in Boston. And last night, your name landed on the windshield of my car while I was out at Devil’s Point.”

Silas raised an eyebrow, asked: “What would you be doing out there, Mr. Delaney?”

They took seats around Silas’ desk, Delaney feeling as though he were on the wrong side of the table. Pulling out his PI license, he explained why he was on the Cape, how he had found the CD recording in Eddie’s desk, and how a mysterious figure had tucked a note with Hadley’s name on it under the windshield wiper of his car.

Clearly, Silas said, someone was out to implicate him. “I hardly knew your nephew. Or their parents.”

Delaney looked at Hadley. With his thin frame and crooked nose, he was an unlikely detective. Silas had maybe a few years on him, his cheekbone bristles peppered with a little more grey than Delaney’s own five o’clock shadow. The note, he figured, was pure obfuscation. Incriminate both the investigator and the victim’s family.

“Whoever’s trying to get me off their back,” Delaney said, “has something to hide. Any idea who might have wasted their evening cutting up a Boston Globe?”

The station doors swung open and a gust of wind puffed into the room. Agent Link strode through right after it.

“I think I may have an inkling, Mr. Delaney.”

*        *        *

ruised puffball clouds were obscuring the morning sunlight. Silas had told Delaney about Agent Link and his mysterious informant as he walked Delaney to his car. They agreed to meet later at the hotel, Silas ensuring Delaney that he would somehow make a copy of Link’s ID badge. Delaney didn’t know what to do, so told Silas he’d make some calls. A line he often used with clients.

After a lunch with the Elderthorns that consisted mainly of laconic conversation over cups of coffee, Delaney decided to head back to the hotel and wait for Silas. As the Buick pulled out of their driveway, the speckles of rain had started again, and he felt uneasy beneath the grey sky.

Several seconds of pressing the accelerator into the footwell, and the storm began to worsen. The pop-plip of water on the car’s roof soon turned into a steady stream, and the windshield wipers could hardly keep the rain away from the glass. The odometer, he realised, was still hovering between 35 and 40, despite how far his foot was buried into the carpet beneath the pedals; the breeze outside had turned into a gushing wind that was pushing against the nose of the car.

His knuckles whitened slowly against the steering wheel, as though he were turning into a ghost. His stomach churned. The harder he pressed against the wheel, the more the rain obscured his view, and the stronger the wind pushed against the Buick’s hood. About to lift his foot from the pedal, the car spun amid a waterfall of squeals and crunches, and, for a brief moment, Delaney thought that he too was about to be flipped upside down, crushed between cold steel and the wet vinyl roof.

He pushed the driver’s door open and clambered inelegantly out. Rain sloshed over his feet. Delaney circled the car, scanning the street for some sign, some clue as to why the car had skidded. Then he looked up, and saw an outline of a man, the same outline that he had seen last night at Devil’s Point, several hundred feet behind him. He was starting to wonder if this silhouette might be behind the Cape Cod [noun].

Choose your own adventure!

Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]

Ray Delaney’s life has become much more complicated. The mysterious Agent Link seems to be investigating the same case, and Delaney has uncovered evidence of his nephew Eddie’s own investigation on the Cape. Did Eddie Elderthorn’s discovery lead to his untimely demise? Place your votes to determine what happens next time in “Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]“!

Chapter III

here’s no Agent Link working out of this office. Sorry.” Silas thanked his acquaintance, lay the phone back in its cradle and made his way out into the makeshift office that had been set up in the incident room.

“Agent Link,” he said. The woman looked up, feigning boredom under lilac-colored lids. “You say you work out of the FBI bureau in Boston?”

“Yes.” Link moved her gaze back to the document spread out on the desk. Silas knew she was lying. His friend at the Bureau had confirmed that there was no ‘Special Agent Link’ currently employed by the Feds.

“What do you do up there?” he asked. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

She straightened. “Federal prosecution, Sergeant. Same as the FBI does all over the country.” Silas nodded. “This body you found out at Devil’s Point beach. The death of this boy, Edward Elderthorn. They’re just two more incidents in a larger investigation. With each death, all signs point to homicide, but there’s never any sign of suspect or motive. At Devil’s Point, the boy was alone on the beach, correct? Forensics show no sign of anyone else having been present?”

Silas nodded. “There was nothing. Bruises around his throat suggested asphyxiation, but there was no evidence to link the death to anyone else, and no water was in his lungs.”

“And the Elderthorn boy. He was on Route 6, it was nearly 2 a.m.. There were no other vehicles, and there was no reason that his car should have flipped.”

“So what are you saying? They did these things to themselves?”

A shake of the head, and she bent back down to the document. “I don’t know.”

His shift nearly over, Silas retreated into the rear of the office. But before he could pull on his coat, the phone jangled at his desk. He looked at Agent Link. She hadn’t looked up. Silas lifted the receiver.

*        *        *

limbing out of his car and gazing down onto Devil’s Point, Delaney felt like a toy balanced on top of a giant sandcastle. The incline was steep and narrow, rolling down towards the sea and creating a thin peninsula as it reached the Atlantic. Thinking of Eddie’s voice ringing through the car speakers, he began his descent, first across the grass and then onto the slippery dune-like sands.

The weather was turning grim. Dark thunderclouds like Gothic cotton candy floated over the coast. His brown loafers, the ones that looked like a thousand dollars but cost twenty bucks, were filling with sand. He shimmied down, then slid, his feet came out from under him, and his coat wrapped up and around his back, flapped over his head. Then thunk into wet beach at the base of the cliff.

“Swell,” he muttered. Looking back up, maybe twenty or thirty feet, the Buick was still visible, but only from the wheels up and only in stark silhouette. To the left, the tip of Devil’s Point curved around and continued up the Cape, but on his right, Delaney saw the pepper grey and sandy outlines of stones and caves. He crunched across the beach towards them.

Eventually he reached the entrance to a large cavern, leading back into darkness and into the Massachusetts rock. A pocket flashlight shone into the hollow and illuminated nothing but stones, moss, seaweed and sand. The body that he had heard Eddie describe was nowhere to be seen. Most likely in the local morgue. Behind him, his own footprints led back to the dunes and the tide was beginning to wash in.

Then Delaney flipped the light back in the direction of the Buick, and caught a man-shaped silhouette disappearing behind his car.

*        *        *

ilas hung up and stared for a glassy-eyed moment at an unremarkable filing cabinet in the corner of his office. Then the floodgates opened and his mind was awash with questions. Her name isn’t Agent Link, the voice had said. Silas had tried to interrupt, but the muffled words continued to spill from the receiver: Her name is Anna Carmilla. She is not an FBI Agent, but she does work for the government. Don’t let her play you for a sucker, Shamus. Then the dial tone punctured his eardrum, and the voice was gone.

As he made his way out, pulling a coat over his uniform and bidding Agent Link goodnight, the same bruised, puffball clouds that Delaney had seen at Devil’s Point drifted overhead. The evening air was sharper than a butcher’s cleaver.

*        *        *

elaney let the sand fall through his fingers as he pulled himself up the incline toward his car. There was a concave indent in the convertible‘s roof, as though a giant had pressed a finger gently against it. The silhouette had vanished, but wedged between the windshield wipers and the glass was a sheet of paper. He pulled it out and read it in the arc of the flashlight.

Choose your own adventure!

Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]

After a tie in last week‘s vote, Ray Delaney begins to unearth clues and signs in the death of his nephew, Eddie, on a Cape Cod highway. At the end of the chapter, place your vote to determine what happens in the following week’s installment of “Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]“!

Chapter II

ddie’s bedroom was directly above the Elderthorns’ kitchen. Windows facing south and east looked out onto white crests breaking against the evening shore, while inside, lost in a tiny bubble of his own, Delaney trod the creaking floorboards of his nephew’s room. Janet’s voice perforated the dropped ceiling tiles one floor below and hummed around him.

Five years his senior, Janet had married Bob Elderthorn, a real estate broker with a grey mustache that looked like a well-worn shoe shine brush, almost twenty years ago. Bob and Delaney had never liked one another. On this point, at least, they agreed.

That afternoon, his tone unchanged even in tragedy, Bob had greeted Delaney with a terse: “Raymond.”

“Robert,” Delaney had replied. He had then hugged Janet and divested himself of his overcoat.

His nephew’s room was, on police orders, strictly out of bounds. Delaney had headed straight upstairs. A handkerchief now hugged his palm as he extracted from beneath a pile of school books a thin plastic CD case. The disc inside was unremarkable but for the word COPY scrawled on it in Sharpie. Lain so conspicuously hidden underneath in a desk drawer, and under several school books, Delaney was certain that it was important.

Later, downstairs, dinner was blanketed in silence, and the strange darkness set in around the Elderthorns’ house.

*        *        *

he Cape air was thick with intrigue and doubt. Detective Silas Hadley watched as the woman with the vulpine features and the dress that hugged to her hourglass hips strode into his police station. Two officers flanked her. After flashing a badge he didn’t have time to read, she said:

“Mr. Hadley?”

“S’right,” he replied.

“I need your station.”

“What for?”

“For the foreseeable future.” She looked around. In her right hand was a small plastic box, buttons across its top, a transparent window on the front. A dictaphone.

Behind his desk, Silas mustered something approaching indignation. “This may only be Malmouth, Massachusetts,” he said. “But this is still my station. Who are you? Who do you work for? The staties?”

The woman smiled, and her teeth shone under the halogen lights. “I’m with the FBI. Special Agent Link.” She placed the dictaphone on the table top. “Get this transcribed for me, would you, Sergeant?”

*        *        *

howl of air whipped the hood as Delaney’s Buick rattled along the street. He slid the disc into the CD slot and pressed PLAY. The low hum of the engine and the whistle of Atlantic were suddenly accompanied by a voice. Eddie’s voice, set to the familiar soundtrack of the ocean waves. Delaney grimaced in the rear view mirror as his nephew spoke.

I’m [crunching of  stones]… I’m at Devil’s Point. It’s still in the cave. I thought the sea might have washed it out, but it’s, like, stuck on the rocks or something. [Pause]. I think it’s – well, he’s dead. He looks young. [A sniff, then static].

The same Cape air, brisk and almost salty to the touch, surrounded Malmouth Police Station as Delaney was making his way to his hotel. Silas had left a message with an acquaintance at the FBI office in Boston – he wanted to check on Agent Link’s pedigree – and then sat down to transcribe the tape. At intervals, he glanced across at Link, who had settled into a desk chair in the corner and was speaking into a cellphone.

When he idled toward the woman with the transcript in hand and said, “this is evidence in an ongoing inquiry,” she drew the phone away from her ear saying, “I’ll call you back.”

“A boy was found dead at Devil’s Point beach about a month ago,” Silas explained. “It’s a mile and half from here, looked like he drowned.”

Agent Link snatched the paper from Silas’ hands, and read:

… I think it’s – well, he’s dead. He looks young. Shit… I need to get to Boston, to uncle Ray. [Wind grows louder]. What the… [Footsteps on stones, voice gasps for air, a sound like chattering teeth]. No, I… It’s… [The click of a dictaphone button]. Okay, I think it’s gone. Looked like a cloud, or a storm. It seemed to be following me. It must have been drawn to the… to the body. [Static.]

“Doesn’t sound so much like an accident anymore, does it?” Agent Link raised an eyebrow.

The wind outside Delaney’s car seemed meagre by comparison to the hiss of dead air, the crunches and desperate breaths on the disc. Eddie Elderthorn had died trying to bring this recording to him; he had to find out what had happened at Devil’s Point, and more importantly, what had happened to Eddie. This had been no traffic accident.

Choose your own adventure!

Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]

[untitled] welcomes you, readers old and new, to “Ray Delaney & the Cape Cod [noun]”, a new Choose-Your-Own-Adventure that takes P.I. Ray Delaney to the Cape on a mission to solve a mysterious spate of deaths. Vote at the end of each chapter to decide Delaney’s fate, and check back each Wednesday for a new chapter!

Chapter I

treetlamp reflections like quotation marks rolled across the windshield of the car. Eddie Elderthorn’s face was blue with cold and worry. He had taken the vinyl convertible roof down before pulling out of his parents’ driveway, and his fingers were now pressed to the point of whiteness against the steering wheel. The chill evening air buffeted his face and drew goose pimples out along his forearms.

The road was widening. On the drive up to Boston, the ocean always began to dissipate after you passed Malmouth, the Atlantic waters moving off to the left as the highway grew wider. They’re going to kill me, Eddie thought. His teeth chattered in time with the words.

He glanced into the back seat. A smile broke his face in two. The small rectangular box lying behind the passenger seat was his ticket out of here.

Eddie turned back to the highway and took his last breath, a deep intake of salty, acid, Cape Cod air. And then, fear gripped his windpipe. The plastic moulded steering column seemed to fuse with his fingertips. In front of the windshield, a large cloud of black hovered over the car.

His screams breached the spring evening as the maroon convertible pivoted on its front bumper, arced in the air, and came to rest roof-side down against the tarmac. The black cloud dissipated. The small box bounced out of the upturned car and landed in a sandy divot at the side of the road.

*        *        *

The woman’s legs were curled so tightly around one another that Delaney feared they might never get untangled. He could make out a phantom reflection of her in the coffee shop window, a blurry arrangement of limbs. If he looked left, he would see her, would know whether she had an aquiline profile or whether her jaw jutted in a stiff V below her mouth, whether her eyes were set far apart or her cheekbones high on her face. Delaney didn’t look to the left. He preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.

As he made to turn to the next page of the Globe, his cellphone buzzed against the table top and flashed the name JANET up at him.

“Hey.” He flipped the phone open, and sobs trapped his sister’s voice on the other end of the line. “Janet – what’s wrong?”

“It’s Eddie.” A whelp and a swallow. “He… he’s dead, Ray. He was in a car accident last night.”

Delaney suddenly felt inanimate; the voice was just a disembodied spirit on the other end of the line.

“He took Bob’s car, the police said that he was on Route 6 and heading up the Cape.”

“Eddie’s dead? Stay at home, stay with Bob,” Delaney said. “I’ll drive down this afternoon.” He got up, leaving half a cup of coffee burning a ring into the table, and headed for the door as Janet explained. One minute later the tightly wound legs to his left disentangled themselves, and followed him in silence.

*        *        *

The silver speck in the rear-view mirror went unnoticed as Delaney sped onto the highway. His thoughts drifted above the cars and along I-93, twisted across treetops toward the sandy Cape, and came to rest above the ruined maroon Mazda Miata and the remains of his nephew tossed so carelessly onto the roadside. He couldn’t quite believe that Eddie was dead. Why had he been heading to Boston? And he had lost control of the car? Even at 17, Eddie was a good driver. Stop making a mystery out of everything, he cautioned himself.

As the rotary span him onto Route 6, the sky darkened and the clouds seemed to hang lower.  Thunder storms threatened all the way to the Elderthorns’ house, and a distracted Delaney sped past the small, black box that lay buried behind police tape and men in high visibility jackets.

Within ten minutes, the silver speck trailing Ray Delaney had grown in size. An angular, unmarked car made its way along Route 6 and drew to a halt across from the wreckage of the upturned convertible. Limbs and then a torso unfolded, stepped out of the car, and crossed the road. The woman from the coffee shop flashed a badge and ducked under the tape.

A moment later, she sifted from the yellow-and-green roadside a scuffed rectangular box. And later, at the Elderthorn house in Malmouth, Delaney pulled from his nephew’s desk drawer a small clue of his own, as the Atlantic winds blew darkly in the distance.


Faber: The Secretary

In our regular feature, we take a photograph of Darby O’Shea‘s and prove that a picture is worth at least a thousand words.  Check out Ms. Jones’ photos here. This week’s post is part of a larger story, previous chapters of which you can read here and here. Faber is in Germany investigating the final years in the life of Charles D. Thornton, an American ex-pat detective author.

He moved slowly along the cobbled street. The scrap of paper in his satchel bore an address printed in the Poet‘s neat handwriting, an address that Faber had been hoping to uncover since his arrival in Germany.

The small apartment was situated in the so-called Karoviertel of Hamburg and occupied the third floor of a large square cement building on Falkenstrasse. It was the last known residence of Helga Schnatterer, Thornton’s private secretary for nearly twenty years and the only living person to have spent any significant time with the ex-pat writer during his final years in Berlin.

A street in the Karolinenviertel of St. Pauli, Hamburg

Brown paint accented the windows of every building on the street, the identical and finely adorned houses speaking to the difference between Berlin and Hamburg. The latter, a uniformly prosperous north German city, seemed to Faber foreign by comparison to the patchwork aesthetic of the country’s capital. He almost missed the haphazard arrangement of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, the miniature diasporas within each community. Eventually he came to a door, indistinguishable from all the others on the street except for a tall 23 painted above it.

A thin, wispy cloud of rain hung in the air, the nucleus of each drop surrounded by a ball of humidity. North German summer. He scanned the buzzers on the right hand side of the door looking for the name Schnatterer, but it wasn’t there. From top to bottom, the four buttons read:

W. Schneider
Theodor Hasse


His eyes stumbled over the English name several times. He backed out of the doorway, looked up at the windows enclosed by brown parentheses. Finally, he stepped back in and pressed the fourth buzzer.

A moment passed in silence, then static hiss accompanied a distinctly male voice: “Ja, hallo?”

“Guten morgen,” Faber choked. “Ich suche… Frau Helga Schnatterer.”

He considered formulating a second sentence, but was interrupted. “Are you American?”

“Oh. No, I’m English. I…”

“Helga is my wife. What do you want?” The accent was mid-Atlantic, stern. For a moment, Faber imagined Thornton, decrepit with age, standing at the buzzer three stories above.

“I have some questions for Mrs. Schnatterer. About Charles Thornton.”

A sigh, then: “Come in.” The door hummed against its hinges, and Faber stepped truculently through.

*        *        *

The narrow hallway had given way to an apartment that, if not palatial, was at the very least prosperous. The Poet had told him that Thornton’s inheritance had been significant, and Faber wondered whether, unlike the Poet, Helga had been lucky enough to make it into Thornton’s will.

“Good morning, Mr….?”

“Faber.” The man was eying Faber cautiously.

“Mr. Faber,” he said. “I’m Lionel Watson, Helga’s husband.” He held out his hand and Faber completed the handshake. Watson was not as old as he had expected, though he did have powder-white hair that was strangely offset by deep, suntanned grooves in his forehead.

“Is Mrs. Schnatterer here?”

“She’s Mrs. Watson these days,” the man said. “And no, she’s at work.” Watson gestured Faber into the apartment, and offered him a seat on a sofa opposite the entrance. Watson reclined in a leather chair across from Faber and crossed one leg over the other. “So what do you want to know about the venerable Charles DeForest Thornton?”

Faber explained why he was in Germany, why he had felt that Helga might be the only connection left to Thornton and the only person who could shed some light on why the author had moved to Berlin in the late ’50s.  When he finished, Watson chuckled and said: “Good Lord. You have an academic interested in Thornton?”

The sarcasm rang loud. “You think academics are interested in genre literature? I thought I was way off the beaten track with this little… search of mine.” He laughed awkwardly.

“Maybe in England. Here it’s de rigeur to write a master’s thesis on Charles’ books.” He leaned forward in the chair and a smile forced deeper grooves into his face. “I suppose I should explain. I’m a lecturer at the university here. Hamburg is an Americophile city, and they’re badly in need of washed up academics like myself to teach American Studies.”

Faber considered asking how he and Helga had met. The pairing did seem unlikely. “In any case, Helga might be an eyewitness, but I don’t think she will be of much help,” Watson continued. He rose and walked through into the kitchen, Faber trailing behind and trying to instill some confidence into his voice.

“She’s the best person to go to,” he said. Watson poured two glasses of water, placed one on the granite counter top and handed the other to his visitor.

“Maybe. But we’ve been married for nearly eight years and she’s mentioned Thornton a half dozen times at most.” Why did you marry her? Faber thought. The personal unknowns would, he supposed, have to remain unknown for now.

They parted having made dinner plans, Watson promising nothing more than an informal meeting with his wife under the pretense of her charming a visiting colleague over sushi and sake. Faber doubted that Helga would be any more forthcoming than she had been with her husband of eight years.

Exiting Falkenstrasse and walking in the direction of the Sternschanze train station, the air around him was lighter, the humidity having abated a little. Rain still soaked lifelessly into the pavements, while drops speckled each bicycle that Faber passed, their wheels or frames chained to lampposts or street signs. Pulling out an mp3 player, he unwound the earphones – picturing simultaneously the reels of magnetic tape that lay in his apartment back in Berlin – and plugged the buds into his ears. Scrolling through the Thornton recordings, he found the tape that he had last been listening to, labelled Apr. 94 and pressed play.

My dear Hans,

Firstly, and in response to your eruditely-composed English question: No. [A cough sputtered into the Dictaphone] I no longer think of any individual location, its inhabitants, topography, and cultural artifice, as home. Patriotism is at home neither in my bones nor in my heart. Neither, I believe (not that you asked), is it in Mr. Delaney’s character.  In his latest excuse for an adventure, the intrigue comes in large part due to his surrounding himself with foreignness. The book will be set here in Berlin. (You and your promotional people will, I’m sure, be glad to hear this. The cultural translation will be so much easier).

Cars skated past Faber and the recording gave way to static. The gentle rush of rainfall against tyres complemented the hiss of dead air around Charles Thornton.

*        *        *

Watson and Helga stood as Faber reached their table. Helga was in her late fifties, but like so many German women she possessed the air of someone much younger. Her hair was carefully bobbed and dyed a deep red, her skin pale and flat. In many ways a negative image of Lionel Watson, though Faber.

She shook his hand, smiling and squinting her eyes as she did so. Her clothes were overly elegant, making Faber self-conscious in his plain black t-shirt.

As they sat, she said: “You are here to research with Lionel, yes?” The two men exchanged glances and Faber nodded.

“Yes, I’m a postgrad at Warwickshire University. I’m studying American literature, and Lionel -” he stumbled over the name. “Lionel offered his help.”

“What do you research?” Helga said.

“Well, my thesis work is on detective literature.” She stiffened a little, leaned back as a waitress placed a glass of sake in front of her. Faber had come this far. He took his chance and, while she was distracted, said: “on Charles Thornton, specifically.”

A pause fell across the room like a smothering pillow.

“Mr. Faber,” she said as the server withdrew. “Charles died eleven years ago, and though he did teach me some wonderful turns of phrase, and saw fit to pay me rather too much for my services as a secretary, I really have nothing more that I can give to the academic community or to his supposed estate in America that I haven’t already given.”

Faber nodded and tried to appear contrite. “I have no letters or manuscripts, no amazing revelations about his life in Berlin. I’m sorry.”

“But he was working on another novel, wasn’t he?”

“Look, Mr. Faber,” Watson interrupted. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

Helga raised a hand. “Yes, he was. But I don’t have a copy of it. He only had one copy, and that had been sent to Lichttrager, his publisher, several weeks before he died.”

Faber knew that the publisher would never give him access to the manuscript. Helga was his only chance. “The last Ray Delaney novel, Mrs. Watson. Even a glimpse at it would help me more than you could imagine. Maybe a phone call from Helga Schnatterer would help to loosen Lichttrager’s filing cabinets?”

“A brand new turn of phrase.” Helga looked rueful. She asked: “How long are you going to be in Hamburg?”