(Re) Making History

Time travel is a tricky prospect. Your first issue is discovering a means to propel your physical form through the space/time continuum in a safe and controlled fashion. Whether you utilise a limited edition American sports car, an antique call box or a map allegedly left over from when the Creator was building the Universe matters not – you still have to possess the item.

Your second issue (and this is the biggie) is whether your actions in the past will effect the future. If you meddle with a past timeline, when you return to your starting point, will the World you encounter be the same as when you left? Will the inadvertent loss of a cigarette lighter in the distant past have caused an earlier technological revolution, resulting in you previous ‘present’ being reduced to a radioactive cinder? Will the wrong thing said at the Nuremberg Rallies have changed the outcome of the Second World War, with the majority of Europe now occupied by the Nazis? Will the Earth have been invaded by super-intelligent Koala-like aliens, who have subjugated the population and forced them to mass-produce soft toilet tissue? These are all things that the intelligent and responsible time traveller must take into account when venturing into the past, as even the most subtle of changes could have wide-reaching and devastating consequences.

However, if you have a Plan and a goal, if you know exactly what result you wish to achieve, then maybe, just maybe, you can carefully tweak the past to improve your own future.

But it would have to be an extremely cunning plan…

With a slightly disappointing displacement of air, a canvass and wood contraption, looking like a carriage clock writ large, appeared suddenly, then dropped to the ground. As the booth-like object settled into the damp earth of the churchyard, there came from within the sound of someone falling over, followed by what appeared to be a toilet flushing.

Lord Edmund Blackadder closed the heavy tome he had balanced on his knee and looked askance at the crumpled heap of his manservant, who had endeavoured to prevent his fall by grabbing the toilet chain.

“Given that we have made innumerable jumps through time and space and upon reaching every destination, the time machine always drops the last few feet to the ground,” he began, “it truly astounds me that on every occasion, without fail, you seem unprepared and fall over. Either you have the memory of a goldfish, Baldrick, or you are the stupidest man in existence. On past experience, I believe it is the latter.”

Yes, my Lord…sorry, my Lord.” Said Baldrick, clambering to his feet.

Now,” said Blackadder, “as we – and when I say ‘we’, I actually mean ‘me’ – have ascertained that the time machine is keyed to our individual DNA, wherever – or to be more precise when-ever – we have appeared, one of my ancestors should be in close proximity to our arrival point. We therefore need to find out when we are – and on this occasion, when I say ‘we’, I actually mean ‘you’.”

Er…I don’t understand, my Lord.” Stammered Baldrick.

Blackadder sighed.

You never fail to disappoint, do you, Baldrick?”

“Thank you, my Lord.”

What I mean is that it is time to stretch your legs, Balders…to venture forth into the World beyond and find out where we’ve ended up this time.”

Blackadder released the cord holding the door and lowered the gangplank.

But…it might be dangerous, my Lord…” said Baldrick fearfully.

Exactly,” said Blackadder, pushing Baldrick out into the crisp night air, “which is why you’re going instead of me.”

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A Study in Scarlet

Sir Byron Carpenter stepped back from the slumped form lashed to a chair in his study, taking a towel from his desk to wipe the blood from his hands. Whilst he did have people who could perform this kind of interrogation, sometimes it was necessary to take a more hands on approach. It reminded his staff that he was not to be trifled with and allowed him to vent his frustrations.

He gazed impassively at the swollen features of the broken figure in the chair. He had used all of his formidable strength and techniques upon him and had discovered precisely…nothing.

It appeared the girl was more adept at concealing herself than he had first thought. She must be receiving some kind of assistance, as no-one had managed to elude him for such a considerable amount of time without outside help – especially with the resources and influence he had at his disposal.

Carpenter reached for the bell-cord and summoned one of his many servants, the muted echoes of the chimes offering a counterpoint to the final laboured breaths of the dying man.

This situation was becoming tiresome.

On the surface, Blackwell appeared to be a normal London borough, but the reports and rumours that had filtered back to him suggested that there was much more to this seemingly innocuous area than met the eye. The local ‘talent’ he had recruited had, so far, proved ineffective in locating his quarry and at least one of them was no longer amongst the living, having been found decapitated in an alleyway. Of his head there was no trace.

It was time to call in some professional help and, from recent reports, one such individual had recently taken up residence in Blackwell itself.

The door to the study opened and the immaculately-clad figure of Carpenter’s butler entered.

“You rang, Milord?”

Yes, Atkins,” said Carpenter, “send an invitation to a Mr Jefferson Lake, currently lodging at the Four Horseshoes in Blackwell. I have need of his services.” He glanced at the cooling corpse, his lip curling disdainfully. “And dipose of…that.

I shall attend to it immediately, Milord” said the butler.

Carpenter pulled back the drapes from the window and stared into the night.

Where are you, girl?” He muttered under his breath. Hopefully, this Jefferson Lake would provide the answer.

A Light Against the Dark

Constable Rowan was whistling merrily as he entered the Blackwell police station, which faltered as he beheld the expression on Sergeant Randall’s face.

“The inspector wants to see you,” said Randall, “you’ll find him up by the pigeon loft. We’ve had a…visitor.”

Randall refused to go into further detail and Rowan felt slightly apprehensive as he ascended the stairs and climbed out on to the flat roof at the rear of the station.

Inspector Neame was attending to the station’s homing pigeons, which he claimed was a chore, but Rowan knew that the inspector had named each individual bird and was able to identify them each by their plumage. As Rowan approached, the inspector turned, brushing maize husks from his hands.

“Ah, the infamous Constable Rowan,” he began, “who seems destined to make my life more interesting with every breath he takes.”

He reached for a sheaf of papers held down on the parapet with a half brick and perused the top sheet.

“Whilst your report covers the salient points on the investigation into the abduction of the Darling children and their subsequent recovery by yourself, some of the details seem somewhat opaque. ‘Known sources’ and ‘civilian consultant’ especially…”

He gazed Northward, across the courtyard from which a sustained rattling was coming, towards the bare branches of Blackwell Common, above which could be seen the carillon tower at its centre.

“It may intetest you know that I received a visit from you ‘known source’.” He turned at Rowan’s sharp intake of breath. “That’s correct, Rowan, I have had the dubious pleasure of making the acquaintance of the Night Mayor, or Mr Thomas Morrow as he introduced himself intially.” He paused and looked sternly at Rowan. “I have to admit to being slightly disappointed in you, Rowan. Whilst the Darling affair was handled well and wrapped up swiftly, the fact that you chose to withold information regarding this…gentleman and his organisation, information that could have proved useful on several prior occasions, does not sit well with me.”

He sighed and continued.

“Howevet, the Night Mayor has proposed a mutually beneficial arrangement, in which he will put his resources and personnel at our disposal, in return for which he would like the protection provided by the Black Museum to be extended to include the members of the Court of Shadows. And you, Sergeant Rowan, are to be the official liaison between our two groups.”

It took Rowan a moment to realise just what the inspector had said.

“Sergeant?” He stammered.

“Yes, Rowan, I am promoting you. Don’t thank me just yet, as you’ll find the responsibilities of your new rank will far outweigh the increase in salary.” He beckoned Rowan forward and pointed down into the courtyard.

“That,” he said, pointing out a gaunt figure dressed in an ill-fitting uniform who was riding one of the station’s high-wheelers around in circles in the yard, “is your first constable. His name, if I recall correctly, is Jack Landers and he is one of the Night Mayor’s…people.” The inspector frowned. “Apparently he is a former blacksmith and seems obsessed with the station’s wheeled conveyances. He has been sworn in and issued a uniform. However, he refused the police issue lantern, stating that his own is far superior. Constable Landers is now your responsibility – try and keep him under control. You may go.”

As Rowan descended the stairs, he racked his brains. The name seemed familar, but he was certain the inspector had not pronounced it correctly. As he emerged into the courtyard, a cheerful voice with an Irish lilt greeted him.

“Well, if it’s not me old friend Stanley Rowan…” said the figure. “Oops…I mean me new boss, Sergeant Rowan. What d’ya think of me penny farthin’? Isn’t it grand?”

Rowan put his head in his hands. It seemed that the first Umbral police officer was to be Constable Jack O’Lantern…

Out, Out, Brief Candle…

It was New Year`s Eve and dreadfully cold. The snow fell quickly in the darkening night as evening came on. In the cold and the darkness, there walked along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded and with no shoes on her feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true, but they were much too large for her feet. Her mother had used those slippers ’til then, but the poor little girl lost them running across the street when two carriages were passing quickly by. When she looked for them, one was not to be found, and a boy grabbed the other and ran away with it. So on the little girl went with her bare feet, that were red and blue with cold. 

In an old apron that she wore she had bundles of matches and also carried a bundle in her hand. No one had bought so much as a bunch all long day and no one had given her even a ha’penny.

Poor little girl! Shivering with cold and hunger she crept along, feeling miserable.

The snowflakes fell on her long hair, which hung in pretty curls about her neck, but she did not think of her beauty or of the cold. Lights shone from every window, and she could smell the beautiful aroma of roast goose and turkey being cooked in all the houses… for the New Year’s festivities had begun. She could not bear to think about it. Honey roast hams, and sizzling bacon rolled around spiced sausages (pigs in blankets they were called by the wealthy who could afford them); game pie, pork pie, pheasant and rabbit, duck pâté and a host of other succulent rich savouries.

In a corner between two houses, she sat down. She tucked her little feet in underneath herself, but still she grew colder and colder. She did not dare to go home, as she had not sold any matches and could not bring any money. Her father would certainly would not be pleased. Besides, it was cold enough at home, as they had only a roof above them and that was full of holes.


Now her little hands were nearly frozen with cold. She thought that maybe a match might warm her fingers if she lit it, so at last she drew one out. She struck it: and oooh! How it blazed and burned! It gave out a warm, bright flame like a little candle, as she held her hands over it. A wonderful little light it was. It really seemed to the little girl as if she sat in front of a great iron stove with a lovely fire inside.

So nicely it burned that the little girl stretched out her feet to warm them. How comfortable she was! But then the flame went out, the stove vanished, and nothing remained but the little burned match in her hand.


She rubbed another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and where the light fell on the wall she could suddenly see right through it into the room beyond. A snow-white cloth was spread upon the table, on which beautiful china plates 
were laid, while a stuffed roast goose cooked away and gave off a most delicious smell. And what was more delightful still, and wonderful, the goose jumped from the dish, with knife and fork still in its breast, and waddled along the floor straight towards the little girl.

But the match went out then, and nothing was left to her but the thick, damp wall.

She lit another match. And now she was under a most beautiful Christmas tree, larger and far more prettily decorated than the one she had seen through the glass doors at the rich merchant’s house. Hundreds of candles were burning on the green branches, and little painted figures, like she had seen in shop windows, looked down on her. The child stretched out her hands to them, but then the match went out.

From the distance in the darkness there came a mischievous cackle. But when the girl strained to look – there was no one there: only the shadows and the night.


Still, looking up along the arch of the alleyway, to the market square and the lights of the big public Christmas tree which burned higher and higher into the sky… she saw one candle light fall from the branch, forming a long trail of fire.

“Now someone is dying,” murmured the child softly, for her grandmother, the person who had loved her the most, and who was now dead, had told her that whenever a star falls a soul goes up to Heaven.

She struck yet another match against the wall. It lit and in its brightness her dear old grandmother appeared before her, beaming love and kindness.

“Oh, grandmother,” cried the child, “take me with you. I know you will go away when the match burns out. You, too, will vanish, like the warm stove, the splendid festive feast and the beautiful Christmas tree.” But when the match died away, only an evil cackle remained, quite close by this time.

The girl lit another match and allowed its warmth to fill her soul with radiant warmth. But when the flame went out the girl could feel hot breath on her neck, and fingers curling around her shoulder. “mine now” a guttural voice whispered in joyful glee.

The girl was so woozy she hardly felt scared, but to make sure her grandmother would not disappear, she lit a whole bundle of matches against the wall this time.

And they burned with such a brilliant light that it became brighter than the midday sun. In her mind`s eye, her grandmother had never looked so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms and both flew joyfully together, climbing higher and higher, far above the earth, away from cold and hunger.. away to Heaven, the little child hoped.

But the vicious imp beside the child held her by the throat, by one hand, and long fingers grasp, and turned her round by the neck so she could stare into the child`s glazed over eyes. The child murmured a word and smiled.. “Grandmother?”  But the vicious little old woman merely grinned and slashed once with her other hand. The knife danced in the glorious blaze of the match light, and sliced the match girl`s throat open from ear to ear so that her head pulled back from her neck, to lean awkwardly looking the wrong way, down her back. Blood pumped from her wound and formed a rapidly growing, steaming puddle of crimson on the ice and snow covered cobblestones.

Now she is mine.” The vicious female imp leaned in close and placed her mouth over the wound and drank her fill in great gulps of passion and hunger.

They found her the next morning, slumped against the wall, with pale bloodless white cheeks, and a sweet smiling mouth – frozen to death on the very first day of the New Year. A gaping wound revealed yet another dead victim of `the Beast`.  

“She wanted to warm herself, the poor little thing,” the people of Whitechapel said.

 “I wonder why she looks so happy?” some people asked. 

Good people might have imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone traipsing with her grandmother into the life beyond.

 

No one knew of the vicious little bitch who had stolen her life, and dragged this child’s soul down to hell and eternal torment. No one saw the imp place her long clawed fingers to the child’s face and twist the silent horror filled scream into a mimicry smile of peace and tranquillity…so the little match girl appeared happy at last.

No one saw that night, as the imp changed shape, just like she had done so many times before… and no one watched the thing walk away, looking the very aspect of the little dead girl, dress and matches and all.

That night.. the first of the New Year, the vicious little bitch would kill again. And when she was done, the doppelganger set lighted matches under the finger nails of its victim; and jabbed red hot lucifer’s of spent light into the sightless eyeballs, to create little carnivals of delight: and the imprisoned agony of eternal unrest.

The vicious little bitch was very old you see, and knew how to play a merry jig with the dead.

 Another `soon to be` victim of the night, of a punter scoring some cheap fun?

 This little RPG tale was actually played out using rules (above) created by Stephen Gilbert.

End Comments. I figured if Seth Grahame Smith could rewrite Jane Austen`s Pride and Prejudice – and add Zombies to it,  I could rewrite “The Little Match Girl”, and add a bit of horror hehe. I hope you enjoy my macabre little Victorian tale. The idea  was totally inspired by one of Jez’s throw-away comments about an unresolved Black Museum case file. Well,  I thought I`d just fill in a few blanks **grins**

Enjoy.

Tarot

Oh! Children, See! The Tailor’s Come…

With a jingle of tack, a Hansom cab drew up before the grand portico of Gimballs department store, the flanks of the carriage horse steaming in the chill night air. Constable Stanley Rowan stepped down from the cab, then turned to assist his heavily cloaked companion. As her bare feet touched the frosted pavement, there was a hiss as the snow immediately began to melt around them.

Ayesha does NOT require this heavy, smelly garment, – there was a petulant edge to this thought – for Ayesha is not cold.

Rowan turned from paying the cabman, sighing in exasperation.

“I thought we’d gone through this,” he said, “the cloak is to conceal you from prying eyes, not to protect you from the cold. And you will wear it, at least until we’re inside.”

Ayesha’s eyes flashed rebelliously.

Stanley said he would bring Ayesha some dates –  and he did not. Stanley dragged Ayesha into the night and made her ride in the rattling box. Why should Ayesha do as Stanley commands?

Rowan reached out and took Ayesha’s hands in his own and gazed into her scowling face.

“Stanley is trying to protect Ayesha,” he said gently, “and Stanley really needs her help. Will Ayesha do this for Stanley? Please?”

Rowan could see Ayesha weighing his words and then come to a decision.

Ayesha will do as Stanley comm…requests. But there must be dates later…

Yes,” Sighed Stanley, “there will be dates…”

Rowan turned and regarded the imposing facade of Gimballs. Somewhere amongst the haberdashery, millinery and cosmetics were the two missing children and their abductor, the red-legged scissor man. Four floors, sixteen departments and only five hours until the sun rose and the children were lost forever.

Rowan reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his skeleton key – time to get to work.

[Now, I could just continue the tale to its conclusion, but decided to add a random element, with a chance that Rowan and Ayesha would not be able to find the children in time.

Gimballs is quite large and it will take a good half hour to search each separate department, so I dealt fourteen black playing cards, from the Ace to the seven of both Clubs and Spades, then added the two of Hearts (to represent the children) and the Jack of Diamonds (to represent the scissor man), then shuffled this deck. As they only have five hours until dawn, I can only draw ten of the sixteen cards.

If they draw the Jack of Diamonds before the two of Hearts, they will have to fight and defeat the scissor man to enable them to rescue the children. If the two of Hearts comes first, then they have found the children, but may still have to deal with the scissor man. And if neither comes up, then the children are lost. Let the search begin…]

The chiming of Rowan’s pocket watch signalled that it was 3 o’clock in the morning and whilst they had thoroughly searched the ground floor, they had still found no trace of the missing children. 

[3 of Clubs, 2 of Clubs, 7 of Clubs and 3 of Spades]

Rowan had been certain that they would some evidence of their passing in the confectionary department – overturned jars or a trail of toffee wrappers, perhaps – but this was not the case. 

However, this particular department had caused a slight delay in their search. Ayesha’s eyes had opened wide in wonder as she beheld the sheer volume and variety of sweets on display and, with a squeal of delight, she had descended upon the serried ranks of jars, prying off their lids and sampling the contents wirh gleeful abandon. Only after a stern talking to from Rowan and the provision of a striped paper bag, bulging with liquorice mushrooms, Pomfret Cakes and sherbet lemons could she be cajoled into leaving. As they ascended to the first floor, their progress was accompanied by the sound of Ayesha happily munching her way through her ‘bribe’.

Due to her nature, Ayesha was distracted by neither the shoe department – Ayesha does not require footwear – nor ladies fashion  – These garments have too much material and are very ugly – so the time lost amongst the sweets was made up, as they continued with their search.

[The 6, followed by the Ace of Spades]

As the pair moved deeper into the store, the sound of high-pitched voices echoed through the fabric and haberdashery department.

[2 of Hearts…finally. I was getting the teeniest bit concerned…]

My snowflake’s better than yours, Peter” said the voice of a young girl.

Rowan gestured to Ayesha to stay back and cautiously advanced through the bolts of cloth, finally discovering the two missing children, Peter and Annabelle Darling, sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a drift of paper. The girl was holding up a snowflake she had cut from silver paper for inspection, but the boy was far too busy carefully cutting out his own, his tongue stuck out in concentration.

“Hello children,” said Rowan softly, “I’ve been looking for you.”

Who’re you?” Asked Annabelle.

“My name’s Stanley. You mummy and daddy are very worried about you, so they asked me to come and look for you.” He looked at the mass of paper surrounding the two children, noting the paper garlands, snowflakes and various other decorations that had been carefully and not-so carefully cut out. “It looks like you’ve been rather busy.”

“It wasn’t just us,” said Peter, finally looking up and carefully unfolding his snowflake. He looked disappiinted that it was slightly lop-sided. “Mr. Snips did some too…”

‘Mr Snips’, thought Rowan, interesting…

“And where is Mr. Snips now?” He asked.

“He went to get some more paper, as we were running out.” Said Peter.

Rowan beckoned Ayesha over.

“I need to speak to Mr. Snips, but whilst I do, why don’t you show my friend here how to make a snowflake?” 

Both children’s eyes grew round as Ayesha approached. “She’s blue…” breathed Annabelle.

“That’s right,” said Rowan, “and as I know ‘Pinocchio’ is one of your favourite books, you know who she is…”

“The blue fairy…” said Peter in wonder.

Blue ‘fairy’? The sound of Ayesha’s laughter echoed in Rowan’s head and she grinned at him, then crouched down with the children.

“NO! The children are MINE!” Rowan turned and watched as ‘Mr Snips’ glided forward. Gone was the tailor’s outfit and the large scissors, replaced with a tall, thin masked figure, garbed in a hooded red robe, with brass scissor-like hands, which were flexing convulsively.

Ayesha rose from the floor, her anger gaining tangible form as shadows gathered about her. She stepped forward, joining Rowan to face the vengeful apparition.

There is no need for conflict here,” said Rowan calmly, “but the children need to be returned to their home.”

“But I NEED them,” said the scissor man, “otherwise I will fade…and die.” He glided forward, his shear-like hands outstretched. Rowan felt Ayesha tense beside him and put a calming hand on her arm.

“Actually,” said Rowan, “letting them go will actually help you more.”

The scissor man paused.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

“It’s very simple,” said Rowan. He turned and called the children. They came over a bit sheepishly and stood next to Rowan and Ayesha. Annabelle nervously slipped her hand into Ayesha’s, who looked a little surprised by this gesture of trust.

“Now children,” began Rowan, pointing at the red-robed figure, “who is this gentleman here?”

“Mr. Snips.” Said Peter immediately.

“And what does Mr. Snips do?”

“He shows us how to make pretty things out of paper and how to be careful with scissors, so we don’t hurt ourselves.” Said Annabelle.

“So, he wouldn’t hurt you then?” Asked Rowan.

“Of course not!” Said Annabelle, “he’s our friend.”

“And will you be telling all your friends about Mr. Snips?”

“Oh yes,” said Peter, then paused, “except for Oliver, but that’s because he’s a prig.”

Rowan turned and smiled at ‘Mr. Snips’.

“See?” He said, “you are no longer the ‘great, long, red-legged scissorman’, mutilator of children and terror of the nursery – you’re Mr. Snips, who teaches children how to use scissors safely and use them to create wonderful things. And these children,” Rowan indicated Peter and Annabelle, “will show their friends how to create snowflakes and garlands and paper marionettes, and tell them the story of the night they spent learning from Mr. Snips…and their friends will tell their friends, and so on. Keeping these children will only sustain you for so long, but if you let them go, your story will grow. You need to make the decision who you now want to be.”

During Rowan’s speech, the red-robed figure had become very still, the involuntary flexing and clashing of its long sharp fingers slowing, then ceasing altogether. Rowan waited, then gently asked “Who are you?”

“Mr. Snips.” answered the figure.

“Good,” said Rowan, “now I suggest you go and see the Night Mayor and explain yourself to him, although you might find him a changed man.”

“Thank you,” said Mr. Snips and turned to go, then paused. “What would have happened if I’d said no?”

“Well,” Rowan grinned at Mr. Snips, “I probably would have beaten you with my truncheon until you were very, very sorry.” Mr. Snips tilted his head to one side, considering.

“Yes, you probably would have.”


After the children had been safely delivered back to their loving parents, Rowan and Ayesha returned home. Rowan removed his jacket and pulled a small white box from inside, one he appropriated on their way out of Gimballs, presenting it to Ayesha as he sat beside her on the bed. It was a box of dates.

“I always keep my promises.” He said.

Stanley is a remarkable man. Ayesha has something for Stanley too.

She held out a small sprig of white and green. 

Mistletoe?” said Stanley, “Is that what Annabelle was whispering about with you on the way out?”

The little girl explained that it is a tradition at your Christmas to give ones you care for a kiss, under this greenery.

She looked shyly away, but Stanley reached out and took her chin gently is his hand, turning her to face him. His eyes searched hers and saw fear mingled with hope and he felt the walls he had built within himself crumble. He took the mistletoe from her hand and placed it on the coverlet.

“We don’t need that,” he said.

Constable Rowan to the Dark Tower Came…

The snow that had began as Constable Rowan had left the station earlier had now shrouded the borough in a blanket of white, lending it an almost fairy-tale appearance. Which was appropriate, given where Rowan had to go next.

He had sent Dr. Stone back to his lodgings and returned to the station to file his initial report, then collected his cape and ventured back onto the snowbound streets.

Having safely navigated the icy pavements, he pushed open the gate to the park known as Blackwell Common and trudged beneath the frosted trees towards the carillon at its centre.

It was assumed by most that this was a memorial to one of the innumerable foreign conflicts that Britain had involved itself in during the early part of the Queen’s reign, and, on the surface, this was true. But appearances can be deceptive, as this was also the Dark Tower, seat of power of the Night Mayor. Although given the recent incursions by members of the Court of Shadows, this power appeared to be waning.

Rowan approached the iron doors at the base of the tower, swallowed apprehensively, then raised the knocker.

“First for the princess, in the tower alone,” he murmured under his breath, as the knocker dropped for the first time, “second for the king, on his gilded throne, third for princes, sent on their quest, fourth for the supplicant, who is your guest.”

As the final echo of the fourth knock began to fade, the doors slowly and silently opened. 

“Who seeks audience with the Night Mayor?” Came a sibilnt whisper from within.

“Stanley, scion of the House of Rowan,” stated Rowan.

“Enter and ascend.” Said the voice.

Rowan climbed the internal staircase and reached the upper chamber, dimly illuminated with floating tapers. A tall, angular figure detached itself from the shadows and stepped forward.

“Young master Rowan,” said the Night Mayor, “it has been too long since your last visit. What matter brings you to my court?”

“You know very well why I’m here,” snapped Rowan, “your people have been causing disturbances on the streets – first Jenny and now, if I’m not very much mistaken, the red-legged scissor man. You are supposed to be in control of the Court of Shadows, but I’m not seeing very much of this control being evidenced.”

The Night Mayor turned from Rowan and approached one of the windows. 

“The World is changing, Master Rowan.” Sighed the Night Mayot. “I watch from my tower in my haven of green as the industrious nature of you mortals eats up the world I am familiar with. It is not one I understand and so, when the Court break the accords, I do nothing. I feel my time is past – there is no place for me in your world. The people no longer believe.”

“No,” sad Rowan, “that’s not true. You can adapt and change – embrace the new world and take your part in it. The red-legged scisdor man has changed. He used to punish children, now he’s abducting them. There will always be a place for magic in the world!”

The night Mayor turned and regarded Rowan.

“You truly believe…” he breathed in wonder. He stepped foward haltingly, his fingers questing, as though trying to grasp smoke

“Tell me where I can find him and I’ll share my belief with you,” said Rowan gently.

“He’s in Gimballs department store, with the children. Be gentle with him – he is no longet the avenging tailor of yore.”

Rowan reached out and took the thin, bony hand of the Night Mayor, closed his eyes and let his belief flow. He heard a gasp and felt the hand flex in his, filling out and transforming from cold flesh into warm metal. He opened his eyes and watched as the tattered robe dissolved into moths, which fluttered briefly before being burnt to husks by the heat radiating from the figure before him.

He removed his hand and regarded the transformation. Where once had been a shadowed and gaunt figure, reminiscent of a cowled monk, there now stood an imposing figure of iron and brass, steam leaking from its joints and fire flickering in its eyes. The figure flexed its iron hands and flashed Rowan a grin, illuminated from within as though from a furnace.

“I am reborn!” Boomed the Night Mayor, “a new incarnation for a new century! I thank you, Mastet Rowan, for this gift. I am indebted to you and I always pay my debts. The night wears on, though, so you must hurry – for if you do not secure the children before the break of day, they will be gone from this world.”

Rowan bowed to the Night Mayor and began his descent. He now knew where the children were and who had them. However, he would require some help and, based on the book he had seen in the children’s room, he knew exactly whose help he required…

A Visit From…

‘Twas weeks before Christmas,
And in Jerome Square,
The casement was banging,
The sheets, they were bare.

But where were the children,
Who should be in bed?
Snatched in the small hours,
By a figure in red.

Or so said the footman,
(And claimed it the truth),
He’d seen the strange figure,
High up on the roof.

The police they were summoned,
With Rowan not alone,
For he had brought with him,
The renowned Doctor Stone.

They examined the chamber,
Of the children – no trace,
But a curious article,
Was found in their place.

A garland of figures,
Hand and hand in a row,
Snipped from newspaper,
Then left, as on show.

Doctor Stone was perturbed,
For all of his lore,
Was of no real use,
He’d not seen this before.

But Constable Rowan,
Noted a mark that was made,
On the catch on the casement,
As if by a blade.

He had his suspicions,
Of the cause of this crime,
And would find the children,
If given the time.

If his theory was right,
Then he’d better take care,
But first he needs speak to,
The unnerving Night Mayor…

Night Work

As Constable Rowan approached the end of Hob’s Lane and turned left into Brewer’s Walk, the warm smell of malt wafted over the wall of the Merton & Son Brewing Company and caressed his nostrils. Their Blackwell Porter was a particular favourite of Sergeant Webb’s, but the scent always reminded him of one of his first cases with the Black Museum, that of the Merton Cask Murders.

He still recalled his sense of horror as he confronted the grinning ape responsible, on the slick tiles of the brewery roof, as it gleefully stuffed another broken and mangled corpse into a barrel. If it had not been for the presence of Sir Aubrey Michaels, the renowned big-game hunter, and his elephant gun, that could have spelt the end of both Rowan’s career and his life.

Rowan turned right past the gates of the brewery onto Blackwell’s main thoroughfare and followed the Blackwell Road until he reached Victoria Circus, site of the Blackwell Police Station and current home of the Black Museum. Dodging amongst the costermonger’s carts and hansoms circling the statue of the Queen, Rowan walked up the steps to the station and stepped into the cool quiet of the interior.

Sergeant Randall was on duty that evening and as it was still early, was catching up on some paperwork before the usual parade of ne’er-do-wells starting filtering in. He nodded to Rowan as he passed through the vestibule and into the station proper, to be confronted by a wicker basket placed in the centre of the corridor, which appeared to be buzzing.

“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you…” said a voice and Rowan turned to see Sergeant Doyle stepping out into the corridor. His usually pale features were marred by several welts scattered across his face like buckshot.

“What have you got there, Doyle?” Queried Rowan. 

“These little buggers” said Doyle, tapping the basket with his toe, which increased the angry buzzing from within, “are what’s been causing issues over at Pemberton Gardens. Someone reported a fairy ring by the bandstand and it appears that rather than docile little Faeries, it was a bloody Wysp nest. So rather than calm them down, the smoker got them all riled up and the little sods got me good and proper.” Doyle scowled at the basket, “If it had been up to me, I would’ve torched the lot of ’em.”

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Doyle gingerly picked up the basket, after ensuring the catches were fastened.

“If you’re on your way to see the Inspector,” Doyle continued, “watch yourself down by the armoury – Murray and Arkwright are testing their Galvanic Rifle and their aim’s a bit off.”

As Rowan reached the top of the stairs leading to the basement, he heard raised voices.

“There’s nothing wrong with MY design, Murray” snapped Arkwright, “it’s your ham-fistedness that’s causing the issue.”

“And absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the regulator overheating and causing the barrel to yaw?” Said Murray. “Watch…”

There came a crackling sound, a burst of actinic light and the smell of ozone – followed by the tinkling of broken glass.

“There…” said Murray, “definite yawing.”

“You may have a point,” conceded Arkwright, “hand it over and I’ll take a look.”

“Coming through, Gentlemen!” Called Rowan as he cautiously descended the stairs. As he reached the door to armoury, Murray stuck his head out, his face breaking into a grin when he saw Rowan.

“Stanley!” He crowed, “good to have you back. We heard about your encounter – fae women can be a bit of a handful, so glad to see you’re unscathed. Arkwright!” He called, “it’s Stanley.”

“m’busy” muttered Arkwright, tinkering with a long metallic object on his workbench.

“Don’t mind him,” said Murray, “he’s correcting a flaw in his design…”

It’s NOT a flaw!” Shouted Arkwright. Murray winked at Rowan and went back in to help his colleague.

Inspector Neame was busy poring over various reports when Rowan finally reached his office, looking up as Rowan gently knocked on the open door.

“Ah, Constable Rowan,” said Neame, “good to have you back on duty, especially with Moore still recovering from being stabbed.” 

“Thank you, sir, it’s good to be back.” Rowan cleared his throat, “However, I think there’s something we really need to discuss, sir…”

Stocking Chillers

Whilst the Christmas period is more commonly associated with festive cheer, overindulgence on comestibles both solid and liquid and the time-honoured tradition of acknowledging distant friends and relatives who you haven’t talked to or thought about for the previous twelve months, for me, Christmas is also about…the Ghost Story.

Of course, I am not alone in this, as the earliest and most well-known Christmas story (after that one about the homeless couple giving birth in a shed, that is) is the tale penned in 1843 by a certain Mr Charles Dickens, namely “A Christmas Carol”.

Or to give it its full title “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas”.

And the ‘tradition’ has continued down through the years. Montague Rhodes James was best known for his ghost stories, many of which were written as Christmas Eve entertainments read aloud to friends whilst he was at King’s College, Cambridge.

A similar tradition was upheld by the Canadian author Robertson Davies, whose collection High Spirits (1982), was made up of eighteen ghost stories he himself wrote and told at the annual Christmas party at Massey College, Toronto. If you like your ghost stories to have a little bit of tongue in their cheek, this collection is for you.

However, whilst there have been many unsettling supernatural tales written over the years, not many of them were actually about Christmas. Yes, they may have been set amongst snowy climes, such as August Derleth’s wonderful 1939 tale “The Drifting Snow”, but that was merely the set dressing.

As a connoisseur of things both Christmassy and macabre, I set out to find tales that fell solidly into both camps. A tale that you can read online, which I believe has never been published, is “Anti-Claus” by Graham Masterton, who is better known for his Dream Warriors trilogy. This explains the real story of Santa Claus – and he’s definitely more naughty than nice. Additionally, in Neil Gaiman’s 1999 short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, you will find “Nicholas Was…”, a short tale and unsettling explanation of Father Christmas and in Terry Pratchett’s 2012 A Blink of the Screen you will find “Twenty Pence, With Envelope and Seasonal Greeting”, which explains why you should justly fear Christmas cards…

Which actually brings me on to the ‘meat’ of this post. When I was younger, one of the banes of my existence was the annual writing of Christmas cards, as my mother insisted that each of us children should write and send a card to our various relatives. The usual fracas would happen as we each tried to secure the ‘best’ cards out of the bargain box of fifty and, although I was the oldest and biggest, I always seemed to end up with the crap ones. You know the ones – the ghastly festive candle, the Victorian carol singers or the pastel-shaded Nativity scenes.

Being of a mischievous and inventive nature, I decided to…improve…these cards, by adding captions and speech bubbles, to make them less crap. Whilst this didn’t last with my relatives (apparently some of the more strongly religious felt I was putting my immortal soul in jeopardy by “mocking the celebration of the birth of Our Lord”), I continued this with friends until I left school.

As I was preparing to send out cards this year to some of my blogging colleagues, I had a bit of brainwave. As I dabble in short stories, would it be possible to write a short story in the limited space available on the inside cover of a Christmas card, inspired by the terrible cards of my youth, that was both Christmassy and slightly unsettling? I set myself this challenge, with the images of Christmas Cards Past to guide me, and succeeded. The problem, I discovered, was that whilst the stories I had written fit nicely within the assigned space, they don’t make those sort of cards anymore…

So, the cards (and tales) were dispatched, but without the correct images. So, to rectify this flaw in my otherwise extremely cunning plan (and to share them with a wider audience) I present my three (very) short tales, but now with the relevant images.

I hope that you enjoy them, as I spread a little festive cheer fear.

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Once he’d been Grim – Now he was ‘Jolly’. Once he’d been showered with gifts – now he gave gifts to others. Once he’d had a steed with eight legs – now he had ‘eight tiny reindeer‘. Once he’d been worshipped, yet feared, by an entire nation – now he was believed in and loved by every child in the World…

Upon reflection, it wasn’t all bad.

And at least they’d let him keep the beard… 

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“As long as you eat by the light of this candle, you will never grow fat.” She held it out. “But only when you eat, understand?” He grunted and took the ugly thing, willing to try anything. However, it worked – he could consume as much as he desired by the light of the candle, never gaining any additional weight. In fact, he discovered, if the candle was left to burn for a few moments after he had finished eating, he actually lost weight! Which gave him an idea…

When the Police broke in, they found the smoking remnants of a candle and a corpse which appeared to have too much skin, yet not an ounce of fat…

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The coachman was the first. Concerned for the horses, he had stepped into the night and rather than the moonlight bleaching colour from him, it seemed to intensify it, making him look almost…artificial. As he approached the coach, his movements slowed, as though wading through treacle, until they faltered completely, next to the now un-moving horses.

One by one, each passenger rose silently and left the inn, flaring brightly under that terrible moonlight, then locking into place.

I am the only one left…but I feel it calling me. How long before I too join that frozen tableaux, like an insect trapped in amber for all Eternity?

Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good Fright Night!

Eye of the Beholder

Over the past few weeks, my posts have been coming thick and fast, due to the fact that I was between contracts, which meant I had quite a bit of spare time. However, last Monday I started a new contract, which whilst closer to home, is regular office hours.

This has resulted in the bare minimum of ‘hobby time’ this week, none of which is fit to be shown. This presented me with a slight quandary, as I felt I should post something, but didn’t have any concrete ideas about what I should be posting. Should I resurrect one of my old posts from my previous blog, dust it off, tart it up and post it as revised content? Whilst this is something I do intend on doing, I haven’t really had any time this week, so I’m going to do what I did the last time this happened.

That’s right, it’s story-time…

Long-term followers of my blog will know that the last time this happened was at the end of February, when they had the dubious honour of reading the first short story I ever wrote that I considered was fit for public consumption. This particular piece of humourous fantasy, heavily influenced by the late, great Terry Pratchett is entitled “A Bad Day for Murakh T’arr” – which you can read by following the link.

The short story I’m using as a filler piece for this post was originally written for the ‘Pulp Idol’ writing competition, that the sci-fi magazine SFX ran on an annual basis. The story had to fit within the genres covered by the magazine and had to be 2,000 words or less. This was quite a challenge, as when I write, the story takes as many words as it needs and whilst 2,000 words sounds quite a lot, it isn’t.

So I beavered away at it, trimming extraneous words where I could and when I was finally happy, submitted it.

Then I forgot about it.

A couple of month’s later, the issue containing the final ten runners-up and the winner was published. I knew I hadn’t won or fallen within the top ten, as they would have contacted me. However, the magazine did publish a list of the names of those who had submitted stories that had made it through to the final 50.

And there was my name.

Out of the 5,000 odd people who had entered, I had made it through to the final fifty. I may not have won, or come within the final ten, but they did think my story was better than 4,950 other stories that had been submitted. As far as I was concerned, that was a win. So, here it is. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

Eye of the Beholder

By

Jeremy Winstanley

Carla was impressed. The way the artist had captured the hesitancy of the creature, as it cautiously stepped from beneath the overhanging trees, dappled sunlight patterning its flanks, was breathtaking. The detail was amazing too. She could see each individual hair on the creature’s coat, the small soft wrinkles along the lips, the soft delicate eyelashes surrounding the deep brown eyes.

Behind the creature, in the depths of the wood, shafts of sunlight from the canopy above struck motes of dust, or possibly small insects, giving the whole picture a sense of realism that was usually lacking from this type of art. It was almost as if the artist had stepped into another world, armed with a digital camera, and taken photos of the wildlife.

But that was impossible, as the creature depicted in the picture was a unicorn and they do not exist. Yet, the picture almost made you believe that they did and that they should…

The rest of the pictures in the gallery were similar, each showing a creature of myth or legend, depicted in such a way that it was like walking through a room of windows, with each picture showing a different view of a world not our own. Here a faun perched on a tree stump, his face ruddy with drink, proposing a toast with an overflowing tankard to a group of shadowy figures gathered round a campfire. There a scaled wyvern curled protectively and alertly around a clutch of eggs, their shells the colour of a summer sky…

The exhibition was called ‘From Life?’ and, according to the pamphlet she had been given by a girl wearing too much make-up on the door, ‘showcased the amazing skills of an artist who has mastered the nuances and subtleties of the medium of digital art.’ As she had meandered about the gallery, examining the pictures, she had overheard the phrase ‘photo-realistic’ mentioned several times. She had to admit, the phrase fitted.

Whilst she had admired each picture individually, there was something about the unicorn that kept drawing her back. She stepped closer, her lips pursed.

A deep male voice interrupted her thoughts, ‘I’m guessing that you quite like my picture, then?’ it asked.

Carla turned. Standing behind her was a tubby, bearded man in an obviously hired suit. He looked slightly uncomfortable, as though he was not used to talking to women, or people, for that matter.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I do. It’s perfect. Exactly what I imagine a unicorn would really look like. You’re very talented.’ The man looked even more uncomfortable.

‘It’s nothing, really’ he said, flushing slightly, ‘Anyone could have produced this picture, with the right equipment.’

Carla turned back to the picture.

‘But to actually produce a picture like this, and the others on show here, takes more than just “the right equipment”.’ She said, ‘You have to be able to see something in your mind, before you can transfer it into another medium, surely?’

The man looked even more uncomfortable, if that was possible, and started to nervously sidle away.

‘Sometimes, they just come to me…’ he muttered, before making a hasty exit.

Carla turned back to the picture of the unicorn. Yes, she decided, I must have this…

At the front desk, an eager young girl in a baggy white t-shirt explained that ‘due to the versatility of this particular digital art form, whilst the artist keeps the original files, we can produce copies of the artwork at any size and for considerably less cost than buying an original piece of art’. She then launched into a detailed explanation of the type of computer equipment necessary to produce work of this nature.

Carla gritted her teeth as the techno-babble washed over her. She thrust her credit card like a talisman at the eager young thing, an action that caused the girl to finally stop talking and produce a typed order form.

Carla selected the size of her copy, chose the type of frame and arranged delivery.

Her apartment was sleek and clean, almost utilitarian, and a picture like this would offer an ideal counterpoint to the modernistic space she dwelled in. Besides, she had a large blank wall space that needed filling.

A few days later, the picture arrived and, true to their promise, the people form the gallery professionally mounted the picture exactly where she wanted it. She stood back and admired it, which at 6’ x 4’, was considerably larger than the one shown in the gallery. It suited the space perfectly, looking like it had always meant to hang there. Now it looked like her fourth-storey apartment had a window into a sylvan glade, occupied by a mythical beast.

Who needs a wardrobe, she thought, smirking.

Over the next couple of days, every time she passed the picture, she paused. There was something about the picture that was niggling at her, like a loose tooth. Something out of place, slightly off kilter, like a warm toilet seat in an empty house.

But, for the life of her, she could not work out what.

Night after night, she found herself sitting pensively in a chair opposite the picture, scouring it with her eyes, trying to see what her mind was trying to tell her was wrong…

Finally, after spending many sleepless nights tossing and turning, as it preyed on her mind, it came to her. She quickly threw back the covers and padded barefoot into the lounge. Flicking the lights on, she rummaged through her desk drawers, searching until she found what she was looking for. A magnifying glass.

Moving across to the picture, she dragged an armchair close to the wall beneath the picture and clambered up onto its soft, yielding surface.

The eye. There was something different…no, not different…more…about the unicorn’s eye. Balancing unsteadily on the arms of the chair, Carla peered through the magnifying glass at the picture. There was a shape there, very small, but she could just make out what it was…

Realisation struck her like a blow and the magnifying glass fell from her now numb fingers. She slowly collapsed into the soft embrace of the chair, hugging her knees tightly.

She then recollected the exact words the artist had said to her, what seemed like such a long time ago, and realised that every word he had spoken was true.

For what she had seen, reflected in the eye of the unicorn, was the tiny figure of a bearded man, holding a camera…