[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.

❡      ❡      ❡

“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.


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.”


Sir Edward Strangeweather & the Maroon Slipcase

Chapter I.

Our compartment was empty but for my companion and I. Sir Edward Strangeweather’s hands were clasping a maroon slipcase tightly to his person, his knuckles whitening against the dark red leather. Laying, as it was, on its side, the clockwork lock holding the case together was facing me, the small brass dial wound precisely – or so Sir Edward had told me – against the timepieces of the Greenwich Observatory. The case was set to open only at the pre-wound time. Sir Edward had not informed me when that might be, nor was I sure that he knew.

We were churning through the English countryside now, the train beating against the tracks so that I felt a strange mixture of nausea and lethargy. While my head dipped over my notes, Sir Edward’s was engaged with the passing landscape. He remarked both on the unremarkable—for instance, the verdant land that had soon developed after we had left London—and on the truly engaging. As we passed a grey mammoth of an airship floating seemingly stationery over the fields of Lancashire, he drew my attention to its markings and to the carefully counterweighted propeller shaft powering it, before drifting back into silence.

Eventually we pulled into York station, and he mused, gently: “The train, Mr. Butler. It is not likely to survive far into the coming century.”

I nodded.

“Tiny tubes of steel and glass. The inner workings of such contraptions hidden from view.” He glanced out of the window, as though expecting another vast steamship to appear on the horizon.

Pulling the case closer to his body, he asked: “What is the time?” Pulling my watch from my pocket, I answered him. We were half an hour behind schedule, and would most likely be close to an hour late upon arriving in Edinburgh.

Sir Edward seemed strangely perturbed by this, our latest in a series of ventures beyond the northern border. A Scot but no nationalist, his tongue customarily loosened (as did his accent) whenever we crossed into Scotian territory, but today his fast grip on this peculiar object in his possession seemed to be draining the lightness out of his day.

“So, Strangeweather,” I began, as the carriage pushed forwards and away from York. “Are you going to explain exactly where your new luggage comes from?” I pointed at the case. “It might help pass the time.”

Sir Edward smiled beneath his sullen eyes and leaned away from the window.

“Before her gracious Majesty saw fit to employ me, Mr. Butler, I was a young man.” Strangeweather’s stories commonly began in such a manner. “Hard though that may be to imagine,” he added with a wry kind of smile. I assumed, correctly, that a story was soon to follow.

Chapter II.

Upon alighting the train in Edinburgh, the artifact in Sir Edward’s possession began to emit a low whirring, as though the clockwork dial on its front had sensed our arrival. Strangeweather had spent the remainder of our journey expounding on his youth. At fifteen he had absconded his parents’ care and lived on the airfields at Dunclathan, where Morgan Aeronautics, a burgeoning steampower company, had taken him on as an apprentice. For his employer he had worked night and day in airship hangars, sweated out his rotund youth and built a healthy frame of muscle toiling away in the Highlands.

“But,” he had finished, as we crossed to the exit out of Edinburgh station, “we never succeeded in bearing those airships aloft, Mr. Butler. Alastair Morgan simply did not have the skill or the means to create working aircraft. Try as we might, the steamship was not to be.”

At the side of the road on Princes Street we found a carriage waiting, and crowded into the back. Sir Edward rapped on the roof and the driver could be heard geeing up the horses. “But. How does he know where we’re going, Strangeweather?”

My companion smiled opaquely. He was usually much more garrulous than this, and I was anxious that, in spite of his story, I still knew nothing as to the purpose of the slipcase.

“He knows, my dear Mr. Butler. Unlike my employer below the border, my Highland benefactor likes to take good care of those in his employ.”

I was beginning to tire of these mysterious comments and told Sir Edward: “spit it out, man.” Strangeweather looked shocked and bemused, but continued.

“Well, as you know, I found my way eventually from Auld Reekie to the Queen’s London. Though,” he added in a tangent, “the Thames reeks far worse than the Firth of Forth, I can tell you. Working for Her Majesty we have had many enjoyable cases, but, Butler, this might be the most important. At least to me.”

At the word ‘case’ I glanced down to the dark cherry-red leather still in Sir Edward’s lap. The pun had, I was sure, been intentional. He continued: “I had never forgotten my time at Dunclathan. And when England’s finest engineers crafted their first steam-powered airship – the Spirit of Britain, beautiful it was – I felt a twinge of regret.”

These personal revelations seemed to be paining Sir Edward’s frame, his throat sticking uncomfortably on certain words, his face cast in an expression that seemed a mixture of both anger and sorrow. As I nodded in agreement and began to formulate my next question, the carriage jolted to a halt and a flurry of hoofbeats announced our arrival.

Chapter III.

An alley of bricks, narrow and brushed with streaks of yellow, stank like a water closet. Sir Edward did seemed not to notice the stench, but as his senses were as highly-attuned as any I had known, I assumed that he had chosen to ignore it. Similarly he must have consciously disregarded the slipcase’s clicking, now much louder than it had been even half an hour ago.

On the left Strangeweather eventually selected a short, crooked doorway and pushed it open without knocking. Inside we found a cosy living room as narrow as the alley outside, low ceilings drew back to a wooden staircase at the rear of the room, whilst torn, besmeared furniture was pushed up against each wall. There was no sound but for the ticking of a tall clock next to the fireplace.

“Strangeweather…” I began. He reached back with one hand to silence me. A creaking of leather and wood signalled the entrance of a pair of feet, stepping slowly and cautiously onto the topmost stair at the back of the room. A man, I could tell, of a stocky comportment, around the age of Sir Edward or myself. As he moved into view, I smiled. My estimations had been correct, though the short gentleman now standing before us was rather older than I had imagined.

I’ve been weetin’ for ye,” he said, directing his words at Strangeweather, who inclined his head in a bow, not breaking eye contact with the Scot.

“I apologise for our delayed arrival, however -“

The man stepped nearer. “You have them?” he asked, indicating the slipcase.

“Aye,” said Strangeweather. I tried not to grimace at his renewed accent. With its English cadence, the Scottish intonation of Sir Edward’s voice was rarely noticed in London. He stepped closer to the stranger and lifted the case onto the table, its red leather now reflecting as black in the low light. “But I don’t know when it is set to open.”

“So ye canna vouch for the contents? We need those specifications, Edward.”

“I assure you most heartily, Alastair,” Strangeweather paused, “that you will have all that you need.”

At the pause he tilted his head to one side, as though expecting that a rush of shock might escape my mouth when he spoke the man’s name. But I, no stranger to the peculiar twists in our little adventures, held in my surprise. Alastair Morgan? I asked myself internally. What could Strangeweather possibly have that Morgan Aeronautics might benefit from?

Morgan was examining the slipcase, placing his palm soothingly against its side and looking gleeful in spite of himself. “Well,” he said. “We must wait.”

Gesturing to an uncomfortable wooden chair covered with bare hessian, Morgan took a seat and Sir Edward followed. The clicking lock on the slipcase was now louder than the clock ticking beside the fireplace. We waited, listening to the feverish whirring.

Chapter IV.

It was several minutes before two o’ clock when I was shaken with vigour from my restive state. “Mr. Butler.” Strangeweather’s voice was as even as ever, but in his vice-like grip I felt an undercurrent of tension.

I rose and mumbled something affirmative. “A witness, Butler.”

“Witness? To what?” I said.

Strangeweather angled me by the shoulders towards the table on which the slipcase sat. There was a bright expression on Morgan’s face as he stood at the other end of the tabletop. “To the most important moment in Mr. Morgan’s, and perhaps in this nation’s, history.”

The clock chimed behind us, two successive strikes, and the slipcase began to shake as though possessed of some spirit. Settled on uneven legs, the table rocked back and forth for a moment and the brass-coloured dial sprang up, revealing a catch beneath it. Morgan reached for the catch first, and pressed it. The case cracked open.

Folding back the lid of the slipcase, we all peered inside. A divider split the interior into two compartments, in one  a carefully rolled piece of parchment paper was visible, in the other rested small pieces of card that had been stacked one on top of the other.

Morgan withdrew a card and held it up; it seemed, as far as I could tell, to bear instructions printed in a small, neat handwriting. Whilst the short man’s attention was fixed upon the card, Strangeweather pulled out the small cylinder of parchment paper and began to unroll it, handing the outside edge to me and telling Morgan to clear the table so that they could unfurl the document.

As Sir Edward moved to the opposite end of the table, unwinding the paper with twists of his hands, I began to understand. The long, narrow document was a blueprint, a cross-section of something that was slowly being unveiled in this dim, undernourished Scottish alleyway. At the top of the page a title, in printed script, was becoming visible:




Spirit of Britain?!” I was unable, in this instance, to contain my shock.

“Aye, sir.” Morgan beamed, clapping his free hand on Strangeweather’s shoulder. “Edward has ne’er forgotten our wee enterprise at Dunclathan.”

“The dreams of youth are the most enduring,” Strangeweather said, looking now at Morgan, now glancing back at the blueprint. “And it was hardly the Spirit of Britain, Mr. Butler. There is, after all, life beyond the northern border.” Sir Edward’s voice was even, though I sensed something apologetic hiding beneath his words.

“But surely, Strangeweather,” I said, “Downing Street is not privy to this… this little sojourn?”

“No, and I would prefer that it remain that way,” he rushed.

For another hour, Strangeweather and Morgan spoke in technical riddles whilst they fanned the small, hand-written cards around the blueprint. I could barely contain myself as I watched my friend and mentor explaining the intricacies of the English airship to the short Scot, pointing to the horizontal cross-section and then jabbing his finger against one of the small paperboard squares that, no doubt, contained all the information needed to construct a functioning Scottish craft.

Chapter V.

The blueprint would, no doubt, bear Strangeweather’s and Morgan’s dreams aloft. The parchment bore all the marks of authenticity, and its cross-sections and engine specifications were detailed to the point of excess. Nonetheless I doubted the success and the financial security of the venture if Alastair Morgan was its sole engineer.

As we departed, Sir Edward’s features relaxed and he ventured his first smile of the day. “You are, I surmise, shocked. Am I right, old friend?”

I nodded in reply, and he continued: “I understand. If you find it in your – or your country’s – best interest to take the matter directly to the Prime Minister, I shall, of course, understand.” He paused expectantly but I held my silence as we trudged through the wretched alleyway towards our carriage. “Well,” he laughed, eventually. “I would appear I owe you a debt of gratitude.”

Upon arriving at the carriage, he asked the driver to take us directly to the station and climbed inside. I stared out of the windows as we wove between children and stalls, horses and women, towards Princes Street, unable to comprehend how Strangeweather might have retrieved the documents that now sat on Morgan’s living room table. At Edinburgh Station we alighted, Strangeweather’s step brisk and unburdened – both figuratively and literally – now that he had left behind the maroon slipcase.

Strangeweather took one last look across the platform as we boarded the waiting train, then, smiling, said:

“To the true Spirit of Britain, Mr. Butler.”

I inclined my head and nodded. “To the Spirit of Britain.”

We boarded the train and began, slowly, to shunt back towards the border and out into the countryside. The train, I thought, was not likley to survive far into the coming century. [ends]


Ministry of Emissions, file 2.

Alular knew the streets well but knew the time of day better. The angles of sunlight coruscated across the cluster of buildings, outhouses and warehouses known as Silar’s Wharf, signalling midday. Seven days ago the Ministry of Emissions had handed the relevant documents to the cabinet, and the Prime Minister had promptly issued the repossession papers that Alular was about to serve to the squatters on the Wharf.

Mia Ziman’s personal army were, to Alular, little more than pirates. Where Ziman had been an industry insider, completing contracts with private corporations and even, in its infancy, with the Ministry, the lowlifes who populated the Wharf were motivated only by the financial morsels which Ziman allowed to fall from her lap after she had gone underground.

Little had changed, thought Alular. A few pennies here and there and anyone will follow you into the fire.

He made his way between a low stone outhouse and a series of rusted metal automobiles towards a large cement building. Its tin roof curved over two long, wide segments in a deflated M-shape—like a child’s sketch of a seagull—and Alular could hear movement within. He regretted having handed off his gun license when he left the Ministry of Emissions.

A wooden door leading in to the left-hand silo was offset in its jamb. He pushed until the door popped inwards. Inside the vast and seemingly vacant silo shafts of light streamed through cracks and illuminated dust hanging in the air. But behind him and to his right a figure had crept unnoticed into the space between Alular and the door.

“Get your fucking hands up in the air, minister,” the Cutter said.  Alular complied. If the Cutters saw fit to put a bullet in his head and dump him into the muddy Thames basin, he had no means to object.

“I’m not a minister,” said Alular. “My name is Samuel Alular. I used to work for the Ministry, but I’m retired now.” There was a moment’s pause. “Lung condition,” he sputtered.

The Cutter’s movements described a circle around Alular until the pistol was aimed waveringly at the captive’s head. He seemed to be reducing the situation to its fundament—numbers, letters, probabilities—before addressing the intruder.

“Well, whoever the fuck you are, we know that Ziman’s dead and that the Ministry of Emissions is behind it.  And now they’re out to throw us on the fucking pyre and let us burn, let our ashes light up Downing Street for a few days…”

“The papers were signed by the Prime Minist—”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean? I didn’t elect Luger. Neither did Mia. You, on the other hand, probably served on the committee that put him in office.”

Alular kept still.

“So tell me, Samuel Alular: why should I listen to a retired Emissions Agent delivering messages from an unelected official?”

The fire behind the Cutter’s eyes seemed for a moment to be quelled. Alular tensed until he could feel his ageing tendons crunch downwards, ready to snap at and wrestle the barrel from his opponent’s hand.

But the Cutter drew away, turned and jogged towards the end of the silo, shouting: “this way, Minister Alular.” He followed and, after several seconds, pushed into the sunlight at the end of the building.

*         *         *

The light bleached the tarmac. His eyes dilated and adjusted, and Alular saw the Cutter gesturing to an outhouse further ahead. He stumbled past another scorched and rusted car chassis and the husk reminded him of Ziman’s death mask beneath vacuum-sealed glass.

Alular jogged on. The Cutter reached the outhouse and stumbled inside, raking the handgun against the interior wall before swinging it absently back towards Alular. A red-brick glow was reflected in the Cutter’s eyes.

He flicked the barrel, indicating a wooden trapdoor in the centre of the room and said: “you go first, Minister.” Alular lifted the hatch to discover a ladder, punctuated with rusted holes and descending into low-lit chambers beneath the silo. The Cutter pointed with his chin and Alular clambered on to the top step and lowered himself downward.

In the chamber it could have been twilight. Tongues of light flickered against the walls, illuminating Alular’s captor as he reached the base of the creaking ladder. He knew as the Cutter brushed past him that this had not been in Augustus’ plan.

“Down here… down here is what you and yours are so afraid of.”

Alular was tiring fast. At the end of the tunnel, he slowed and stopped. The Cutter was haloed in an orange light, flame glowing and crackling around him in spite of the transparent plexiglass screen keeping the fire sealed in the passageway.

The Cutter’s pistol was dangling, pointing at the ground beneath their feet. Alular knew that, in that moment, he could have snatched the weapon and twisted the barrel to his captor’s temple.

But he did not. Instead he stepped close to the screen, an inch of plastic separating him from the flames. Placing a hand against the plexiglass he could feel the heat, could almost smell the ashes beneath the towering peaks of yellow and white and orange. Looking up he could see embers disappearing into a flue.

Alular had not seen so much carbon burning, so freely ablaze, since he had been a young Emissions Agent at the Department of Energy. The blaze put his teeth on edge, but the contained power of the fire entranced him.

“How did you get your hands on so much C?” he asked. The Cutter did not answer. “I haven’t seen this much flame in… twenty years.”

The Cutter drew up next to him. “Mia didn’t leave us without our bargaining chips.”

Alular moved back into the tunnel and was digging inside his jacket pocket when his captor said: “You can send those repo papers back to our dear Mr Luger. And now that you’re here, Minister Alular—sorry, former Minister Alular—I have a little proposition for you.”

Behind the screen the fire burned, wisps of light formed and reformed, and Alular saw the zigzag hairline of Mia Ziman disappear in a lick of flame. [continues]


Ministry of Emissions, file 1.

The Selibant building was large, grey and cumbersome, high above the scaly miniature villages of corrugated tin and tarpaulin. Its edifice was concrete, glass and steel, shining in the evening light as the helicopter descended to the roof.

After several minutes of shutting down engines and flicking switches from green to red, Alular exited. Two men, each incongruously dressed in a dark suit and tie during the most humid month of the year, nodded in greeting and turned to escort him to the drop platform. As they descended, Alular’s mind performed its usual synaesthesia and he saw in the elevator’s mechanical whoosh a stream of grey water.

The interior was spartan. On both sides doors led off the main corridor, some illuminated in a yellowish lamplight while others suffered under the sputtering of halogen overheads. The suit to the left gave him a room number and pointed. Alular headed down the hallway and his companions whooshed behind him back to the source of the stream.

*      *      *

The desk in room 1105 was as cluttered as the corridor was bare. A stack of taupe-coloured files danced in front of a monitor surrounded by stationery and electronic pads. Spread across the surface of the desk they nearly obscured the silvered nameplate which read Augustus Johnson, Director of Emissions. Alular crumpled into the hard plastic chair. The room was small and stuffy, and Johnson smelled like a week’s worth of work.

“Sam, thanks for coming.”

Alular made affirmative sounds. He knew Augustus was not one for small talk.

“You recognise her?” He pushed a large-format negative through the pads and loose-leaf files then pressed a switch. The desk beneath the negative lit up and an inverted luminance shone through.

“No,” said Alular. The image was a three-quarter close up of a woman. Her hair was cut close to the skin, the edges zigzagging unevenly onto her forehead. Toward the right of the frame the focus became lost, as though she were caught during a sudden movement. “Who is she?”

Augustus leaned over and twisted the negative so that it faced him. “This is Mia Ziman,” he said. “But I think you used to call her the Holy Grail.”

Alular raised an eyebrow and heard the desk lamp buzz out. The whites of Augustus’ eyes blazed in the low light as he waited for Alular to lower his brow.

“So why am I here?” asked Alular, feigning uninterest. “Now that you have a picture of Ziman, surely you can run her through the Ministry’s face recog and have her in a cell by dinnertime?”

“Ziman is already in the building, Sam.”

*      *      *

The glints and flickers, hard edges of brushed aluminium and plexiglass screens were lit lowly but consistently, and Alular barely noticed the sheen of coppery red reflected in the surfaces. One end of the room dipped into a circular trough several feet wide. A hole in the centre was backed up with watered-down blood commixed with clumps of grey bone and gristle.

Augustus had already stepped over to one of the cold chambers and punched in a number. The tube opened to an analogue creak and behind a transparent window at the head of the tube Alular saw the zigzag hair and the intelligent upturned mouth of Mia Ziman.

For the last two and a half years of his life at the Ministry, Alular’s only concern had been uncovering the identity of the woman in the photograph. Twelve hours spun into fifteen or twenty as he had searched for even the faintest scratch of DNA at crime scenes, any trace of the elusive figurehead of The Cutters in filing cabinets or the Ministry’s records . Within the last hour he had gone from the dynamic anxiety of being shown the negative in Augustus’ office to a despondence at seeing the husk of a woman, feminine features as yet undiminished in death.

“This isn’t just for kicks, though, Sam.” Augustus exerted pressure on the chamber and it slid back into place. “Ziman’s death—it was a car accident on the south bank; a former officer of ours just happened to be on the scene at the time—”

“Circumstance,” interrupted Alular, shaking his head. He saw the ligaments of luck stretching, connecting points A and B only when they saw fit.

“Her death threw up a whole load of legal issues, including the deeds to Silar’s Wharf. Which means—”

“That the Ministry can repossess the land.”

Augustus nodded. “And with your experience,” he said, “the PM wants you to deliver the message.” [continues]