Exit Only

She wrenched awake. Blinding sun streamed through a crack in the curtains. The sheets coiled damply and she struggled to escape them. Her mouth stuck to itself and she grimaced and poked her tongue into the crevices in her lips. The smell of bacon hung slack in the air.

‘Hey!’ A voice lifted from the kitchen. ‘Want breakfast?’

She felt her stomach curl and twist, ‘Nah,’ she said. She pulled her clothes on over her sticky skin. ‘Thanks,’ she added, walking past the kitchen door.

The front door slammed behind her, cutting off a question. Another morning, another exit.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts March 2015

***

Written for the 100 word flash fiction challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog. Definitely a bit quick and dirty. But fun!

The Hanged Man

Lana walked along the street two paces behind Cria. She jogged for a couple of steps to catch up with her employer and fall into step alongside her. They were both sweating and the black cobbles of the road radiated the morning’s heat along with the tang of horse dung baking on the stones which gave spice to the smell of a city full of moderately filthy people. Lana eyed Cria’s lightweight grey robe with a certain envy and, not for the first time, wondered whether breeches and boots were really the practical choice in the summer.

The street was one of those streets that didn’t go from anywhere in particular to anywhere else in particular and so, despite being in the prosperous part of the Citizen’s quarter and quite near the market, it was only moderately busy.

The landlord of the Black Horse Inn propped his doors open as they walked past and several people casually sauntered into the pub, pretending that they hadn’t been waiting for the moment since sun-up.

When they reached the largest house on the street Cria stepped back to look up at it causing a carrier with a great pack on his back to swear and dodge her. The timber framing of the house was carved with the symbols of prosperity and protection that would usually be found on a rich merchant’s home.

‘Hmm,’ said Cria. ‘The carvings are the bare minimum for the magic to work.’

Lana saw that Cria was right; the carvings had no elaboration, no flourishes, as if the carver had been told exactly what was wanted and that he wouldn’t be paid for a single extra chisel stroke. She saw that most of the top storey windows, usually the servants’ rooms in a prosperous house, were dusty and not curtained. She wondered whether the owner was a miser or just running out of cash.

A boy carrying three large fine white loaves on a tray came up the street, his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth as he carefully negotiated the pavement with his precious load. He turned into the archway of the merchant’s house and they followed him through to the courtyard behind to find him carefully backing through a door into the house. They caught a glimpse of a kitchen and a waft of cooking and then the door shut behind him.

Sergeant Luthor of the City Heart guardhouse was leaning against the stable wall. When he saw them he made a comment out of the side of his mouth to the young constable beside him who shifted uncomfortably and gave a faltering laugh. The sergeant shoved his thumbs into his belt and walked forward with a swagger.

‘Well, Truthseeker,’ he said, ‘I think there’s really no need for you to be here.’

Cria gave a brief, hard smile, ‘I’ll take a look anyway, Luthor. Your Captain knows that I like to look at every untimely death and she kindly let me know about this one.’

Luthor clenched his jaw and stood back. He looked at Lana with narrowed eyes as they passed and she saw a disbelieving sneer twitch up the corner of his mouth. A peasant working with the Truthseeker, walking alongside her as if she were an equal, Lana fixed her eyes on the stable ahead of her and ignored his stare.

The ground floor of the stable building contained three stalls with three contented horses and a bay containing a small pony trap of the design common in the city which allowed for it to be carried like a sedan chair over the steps which divided the city.

‘No cart,’ said Lana, noting an empty bay beside the carriage.

‘No,’ said a voice behind them. ‘Ours has been at the wheelwrights for months. Harrion Jennasline preferred to borrow one from a neighbour whenever we needed one, rather than get it fixed quickly.’ They turned to find a stocky young man in a russet red tunic. His black eyebrows joined in a scowl over grey eyes. ‘It was a pain in the arse. Three horses and no cart. Bloody ridiculous.’ It was a well-worn complaint.

‘You are?’ asked Cria.

‘Grenla.’ The young man gave the stiff bow of a citizen. ‘I look after the horses, dogs and all the joinery, metalwork and yardwork of the place.’

‘Who else works here?’

‘There’s me, Niall the cook and housekeeper, Dan the house-youth and Brenda the gardener.’

‘Gardener?’

Grenla sniffed. ‘Horses and gardens he loved, aside from his money of course. He’d spend anything on his horses and garden but everything else had to rub along on small change.’ He sniffed again and, indicating an outbuilding on the opposite side of the courtyard with his thumb added, ‘I’ll be in the workshop if you need me.’ Lana watched as he walked away, glanced over his shoulder at them and shut the door of his workshop behind him.

Cria walked up to the ladder that led up into the loft and started looking closely at it and at the dusty earthen floor around it.

‘That wasn’t there,’ Luthor shouted from the gateway, and started jogging towards them ‘that’s how we can be sure it’s a suicide. He took the loft ladder up there with him. That’s another ladder. The ladder that belongs there has been pulled up after Harrion Jennasline.’

‘Yes, I can see that,’ said Cria and looked up at the Sergeant. She pointed to two deeply worn dents in the floor, closer together than the feet of the ladder which stood there, ‘The ladder which usually stands here is much narrower than this one.’

Luthor stood awkwardly for a moment, shrugged and walked back towards where his constable stood.

Cria started up the ladder and when she reached the opening she carefully examined the rough edges of the hatch. Lana stood at the bottom of the ladder, waiting for Cria to finish whatever she was doing. The sweet smell of hay and horses filled the air and she looked at the ground Cria had been examining. She wondered what the Truthseeker had seen there to catch her attention, to her it was a scuffed mess.

Above her Cria gave a small exclamation and Lana looked up.

‘There is a small amount of blood here on the side opposite to where the ladder leans. A protruding nail has obviously caught someone. It is on the upper edge though so it can’t be that someone hit their head.’ She gazed thoughtfully into space for a moment then gave a shake of her head and continued up into the loft. Lana hurried up after her.

A body wrapped in a shroud lay on the dusty wooden floor, incongruous among the hay and sacks of feed. The end of the rope dangled from a beam and the loft ladder leant into the dusty angle where the roof met the floor. Herbs lay scattered among the dust and scraps of hay that littered the floor around the body. Lana winced at the sight of the herbs; they meant the Deathspeaker had already been and performed the last words ritual.

Cria shouted down the ladder for the sergeant. His head appeared in the opening a few moments later by which time Cria was on her knees looking closely at the dusty floor

‘What?’

‘Did the Deathspeaker report any words from our victim?’ Cria didn’t pause in her examination.

‘Just something about his money. “They’re always after my money,” or something like that anyway.’

‘Thank you. And in the future,’ she raised her voice as Luthor began to leave, ‘let me see the body before the Deathspeaker comes.’

‘Sorry Truthseeker,’ Luthor said heavily, ‘but I didn’t know you were going to waste your time with this. Truthseeker Daleen wouldn’t.’

Once the surly guard had gone back down the ladder Cria turned to the body and unwound the shroud slowly, muttering some words of prayer for the dead man as she did so.

She put the herbs wrapped with him to one side sending a pungent whiff of corpsemint into the air and then she examined his thin, sharp, heavily browed face and the livid red mark around his neck. She lifted his eyelids and looked into his bloodshot grey eyes and looked for his tattoos of which he had only rank and motherline tattoos. When she had turned Harrion onto his face to examine his back she pressed her lips together, frowned and beckoned to Lana and pointed to a lump which had bled a little hidden in his hair. Cria shook her head, rolled him onto his back, replaced the herbs and wrapped him in his shroud again.

Lana picked up the noose from where it had lain on the floor. It had clearly been cut from one of the coils of rope that hung on hooks from the roof and was a competently tied hangman’s noose but otherwise it was fairly unremarkable. She passed it to Cria who glanced at it and turned it over a few times in her hands then put it aside.

A sturdy stool designed to form a short set of steps stood against the back wall and Cria placed it by the opening in the floor and stood on it to get a close look at the pulley just above the loft hatch. Lana saw her reach up and pull something from it and carefully wrap it in a square of linen from her pocket.

‘What’s that?’ Lana asked.

‘Hair.’ Cria said grimly.

‘Oh. So this isn’t suicide?’

‘Not unless the dead man hauled himself up into the loft using the pulley.’

Lana smiled. ‘I’ve seen dead men do stranger things.’ Cria gave her a sharp look and Lana added, ‘but this doesn’t look like magic.’

‘No. Plain, ordinary murder.’ Cria replied and looked around the loft. A large stack of feed bags stood at the back and she walked over to have a look.

Lana followed and ran her hand through the grain in an open bag, ‘This is really high quality feed. Grenla was right about loving his horses more than his people.’

Cria was looking in a nook behind the pile of sacks. She walked to the gable end and opened the shutter to let in some more light and then walked back to the nook.

‘Someone sat here,’ she said.

Lana looked around her tall companion and saw that the straw was flattened. ‘Maybe Grenla comes here to skive off.’

‘Maybe,’ Cria hunkered down into the nook and peered over the tops of the sacks. ‘Not a very comfortable spot for a break. Dark, a bit damp here where the water comes through the tiles. Smells a bit too, since the muck heap is just the other side of the wall. No it is not where I would choose. However, you can see the place that Harrion died from here, and you would not be seen easily either.’

‘That’d reduce the chance of his last words pointing to the murderer.’

Cria nodded, ‘Although, you would be surprised how few murderers think of that. They do it in a rage and then try to cover it up afterwards. Mind you, last words are rarely very intelligible.’ She stood, smoothing down her robes. ‘Right, we had better speak to the other members of the household.’

Down in the courtyard the guards were lounging in the archway where they could watch the people coming and going in the street.

Cria pushed open the back door of the house and they stepped into the large kitchen, filled with the smell of a meaty stew. Copper pans were arrayed on hooks on a wall, their gleaming bottoms shining in the sun from the doorway. Over the fireplace stood a large doughy man with hairy forearms and a white apron bending over the bubbling pot of stew.

The boy they had seen earlier was sat on a bench by the wall. He was busy ramming a sandwich of white bread and meat into his mouth and at their entrance he devoured the last mouthful and slipped out of the room. The three white loaves stood on the wooden table, one substantially demolished. The man stood straight, brushed his hands on his apron and looked at the newcomers and then the loaves.

Cria raised a questioning eyebrow.

‘Well,’ he said, as if explanation was called for, ‘He usually wants me to get the lower grade oat bread, but it’s a -,’ he paused and looked uncomfortable ‘Well, it’s an unusual day.’

Lana couldn’t help but let out a small, incredulous laugh and Cria gave her a quick frown.

The man blushed. ‘I suppose you couldn’t care less about that. Sorry. I’m Niall Smith, cook and housekeeper.’ He gave the deep peasant bow. Lana returned it and Cria gave the small bow of the gentry.

‘Niall,’ Cria began, taking a chair at the wide kitchen table, ‘What can you tell me about your master?’

‘Oh,’ he looked over his shoulder towards the door into the house and then out to the garden as if hoping for escape, ‘well, I’m sad he’s gone, didn’t think he was the sort to do that.’

‘It is alright Niall,’ Cria said, ‘We will not be overheard if that is what you are worried about. I have a mark of the Lawyer’s Silence.’ She turned her head so that the big man could see the magical tattoo curling around her ear among her greying hair.

‘Oh,’ he relaxed, ‘He liked to squeeze every penny until it whined but I figured that’s why he’s a rich man. Lots of people didn’t like him much but he’s never been unkind to me.’ Niall hooked a kettle over the fire and sat his bulk into a wide armed chair that fitted him perfectly. ‘Quite the opposite in some ways. I’d never get a cooks job up with the gentry, but here I do everything, cook, housekeeping, laundry. Up with the gentry, begging your pardon ma’am, I’d be some under-servant boy.’

‘So he is thought worse than he was?’

‘Well, if you’re just looking at the penny pinching he was pretty bad ma’am. But I liked him in his own way. He never had any friends or lovers round, only business people. And some people had better reasons not to like him I guess.’

Cria leaned back in her chair with her long dark fingers resting on the table edge. ‘Oh?’

‘Well, for example the gardener, Brenda, does several of the gardens round here and he really screwed her down on her contract. He pays almost half what the other owners do.’

‘Why didn’t she leave?’

‘He negotiated on behalf of the other owners, got a good price for all of them. Full time job for her. Then told her that she’d charge him a whole lot less for the work on his garden or he’d knock over the whole contract leaving her without the work.’

Cria pushed back her chair. ‘Is she in today? Brenda I mean?’

He nodded and Cria and Lana left the kitchen. Out in the courtyard Grenla was leaning in the doorway of his workshop, rubbing the palm of his left hand with his right, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, the edge of his motherline tattoo just visible on his forearm. He watched them as they walked under a rose arbour into the garden.

Ahead of them Lana could hear rustling and they came out into a garden full of roses and herbs where the smell of soil and greenery freshened the air. A rounded back bobbed behind some low rose bushes and Lana cleared her throat. The gardener stood up, squinting against the sun under a broad brimmed leather hat. She was a small woman made of taught rope and leather, burned by the sun and cured by her own sweat.

‘Greetings,’ said Cria. ‘You must be Brenda.’

Brenda threw an armful of the yarrow she was harvesting onto the sheet beside her, sniffed and said ‘Yeah?’

‘What can you tell me about Harrion?’

‘He was the tightest arsehole this side of the High City. Not surprised he offed himself, there can’t have been much pleasure in a life doled out in farthings.’ She bent and briskly cut another armful of yarrow.

‘We do not think that he killed himself.’ Cria said. Brenda straightened in surprise. Her frank hazel eyes looked straight into Cria’s.

‘You don’t say. Well, can’t say I’m shocked someone would want to off him either.’ She bent again and Cria turned away, back towards the courtyard.

As they walked under the arbour Cria said, ‘Did you see she had bandaged her hand?’

Lana nodded, she had noticed the scrap of dirty cloth around the woman’s right palm.

‘Whoever did this lowered themselves from the loft after drawing the ladder up and caught themselves on a nail in the roof opening, just a little nick but it might warrant a bandage if you were working with soil.’

‘Should we arrest her?’

‘No I shouldn’t think so?’

‘Why not?’

They emerged into the courtyard to find it was empty. The soft swish of a plane smoothing wood came from the workshop and Cria crossed to the barn and pointed to the ladder.

‘Well, we will just look at that opening again. Go up would you.’

Lana went up into the loft and waited as Cria shuffled the ladder away below her. It was peaceful in the narrow shafts of sunlight dancing with dust motes with the sound of the horses munching and shifting below, despite the neatly wrapped corpse lying on the planks.

Cria’s voice drifted up and disturbed her reverie, ‘Just lower yourself from the loft hatch and jump down.’

Lana did as she was asked and, as she landed, she swore under her breath and then put her palm to her mouth to lick the small nick in her palm from the nail in the edge of the hatch.

‘Shit, I knew it was there too, could have put my hand next to it,’ she said, muffled by her hand in her mouth.

‘Anyway, you have naturally put your left hand on the spot, not your right.’

‘You’d have to be doing it really strangely to put your right hand there. Oh, I see.’

‘And I know who has a sore left hand.’

The sounds from the workshop had stopped and when they stepped inside they found it was empty. A long bench was scattered with tools of various sorts and the air smelt of sawdust and pungent oils and varnishes. A clamp held a chair seat and next to it were piled four turned legs.

‘He does beautiful work,’ Cria said, ‘I recognise the workmanship from the furniture in the kitchen and much of the woodwork in the barn.’

At the other end of the room were a chair and more tools hung on the walls alongside a small unlit fireplace with a kettle. A small loft was accessed by a ladder and while Cria was admiring Grenla’s handiwork Lana went up a few steps and looked into the roof space.

‘He obviously lives here,’ she said, ‘there’s a bed and a few personal bits up here.’

The room darkened as Grenla appeared in the doorway.

‘Can’t a man go to the shithouse without people snooping in his gear?’ He looked quickly from one to the other of them.

Cria turned and Lana hopped down from the steps in an easy jump.

‘Please do sit down,’ Cria said, quiet and stern.

‘What do you want?’ Grenla asked. He obeyed her and perched on the front of the seat and jiggled his leg. Lana stepped forwards until she was a pace behind his chair. She could see the sweat stains and fraying around the neck of his tunic; it had been repaired once before but the fabric was getting thin. He glanced back at her and stopped jiggling his leg.

‘Show me your hand, Grenla,’ Cria said.

Grenla opened his right hand, calloused and hardened from years of work. His sleeves were rolled down now so that Lana couldn’t see the tattoo she had glimpsed earlier.

Cria sighed. ‘Both of them.’

He opened his left hand slowly. It had a small puncture in the palm.

‘I bet you swore when you did that.’ Cria smiled at him and he nodded and gave a nervous laugh. ‘Just like Lana did,’ she continued.

Lana stepped forward and opened her left hand to show the fresh mark in her palm. Grenla started.

‘So, Grenla Jennasline, do you want to tell me why you did it?’ The man paled visibly at her use of his mothername and Lana raised an eyebrow as a piece of the puzzle fell into place for her. Grenla was related along the maternal line to Harrion, and might have some expectation of inheritance.

Grenla leaned forward and buried his head in his hands.

‘He was just so bloody tight when my Mother was struggling so much.’ He looked up at Cria with a pleading look on his face. ‘She’s his sister and she is so close to the edge, she lives like a bloody peasant and yet here he is in this big house, and he won’t even give her a farthing.’ he broke off, his voice choked.

‘And so?’ Cria asked.

‘Don’t you see? He got me here doing all his shitwork and carpentry, gave me a loft to sleep in like a dog and made out it was some kind of charity.’

Cria shook her head, there’s never an excuse for murder, her expression said clearly.

‘Well, what would you have done?’

She turned away and looked down at the nascent chair on the workbench, reached out to run a finger along a grainline cleverly used in the carving of the seat. ‘You have a talent, Grenla. And now it will go to waste but you could have used it. It was honest work at least.’

‘Honest work!’ Grenla spat the words and rose to his feet, his face red. Lana stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down into the chair. ‘You don’t get it. I could have been an artisan with a shop in the Heart if he had given me just a little start. He didn’t want that though. He shat on that dream so I could mend his door latches.’

Cria looked at him sadly and stepped to the doorway to call the guards. Luthor appeared in the doorway with a ‘what now?’ expression on his face.

Lana stood with her hand on Grenla’s shoulder. He had buried his head in his hands again and his shoulders shook. Cria stood in front of him with her back to the guard.

‘You must arrest Grenla, Sergeant.’ Cria said.

‘What, why?’ Luthor stepped into the room.

‘Because he murdered Harrion Jennasline.’

Luthor laughed incredulously but the laugh trailed off as he looked at Grenla.

‘I can give you all the specifics later,’ Cria said wearily, ‘but his mothername is Jennasline and he thought he would inherit some money and property, or that his mother would at any rate.’

‘Oh. I see.’ Luthor stepped forward to take Grenla by the arm. As the sergeant grabbed him, Grenla gave a yell and surged to his feet, his face red with rage and horror.

‘No I won’t! You won’t hang me!’ He raged and fought against Luthor who had him by one arm. Lana grabbed onto the other and Cria stepped back against the workbench as the short, muscular woman and the brawny guardsman quickly drove Grenla to his knees. He wept angrily as his hands were tied firmly behind his back and he was pulled up to standing.

Cria turned away as they forced him from the room.

Outside Luthor turned to Lana jabbing a finger into her face ‘I don’t need your help arresting my prisoners, sewer rat.’

Lana resisted the urge to break his finger and said ‘Oh?’

Luthor sneered. ‘And tell your Mistress we’ll bring this up before the magistrate, no need for her to bother.’

Lana smiled, her eyes narrowing. ‘So you get the credit? Hoping for a captaincy? I can only hope that you get the position you deserve.’

Just behind Luthor the young Constable’s mouth twisted and he found an urgent need to scratch his moustache. The Sergeant’s sneer faltered as Lana turned away from him and headed back into the workshop.

Cria was stood, staring down at the chair. She sighed and looked up as Lana came in. They both stood in silence for a moment.

Cria said ‘We ought to get back to my house. We could have lunch on the way, it must be gone noon.’

‘Thank the gods, I was starting to wonder when I would die from hunger.’ Lana said and added, ‘You can talk me through this case.’

‘Oh it was simple,’ Cria gave a little dismissive wave of her fingers as she walked out of the workshop. ‘I do not know how Luthor could miss it. We will take a detour on the way back to book a hearing and I shall present it to the magistrate myself, since the sergeant has been so impolite.’

 

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts March 2015

***

Locked

Tom’s flashlight beam flicked and skittered around the roof beams of the church. A grey layer of dust covered every surface and the pews, which would once have faced the altar in orderly rows, were scattered as if a great wind had blown them into crooked piles. I closed the massive wooden door behind me and explored the columns and carvings with my torch beam. The church smelled of dust and old wood with an undertone of decay. A sick feeling settled in the pit of my stomach.

Broken glass glittered among the dust on the floor and the distorted ruin of the stained glass windows let a sharp draught run through the building, shifting the cobwebs. Tom brought out a box of candles and a lighter and started to put the candles on the ends of pews and in stone niches, sticking them down with their own wax. The flames stammered in the draughts and more than one was extinguished the moment he turned away from it.

I walked to the west end of the nave, underneath the tower. There were two doors; one in the south side of the tower and one in the north wall. The font was a crude stone thing in the centre of the space below the tower and I couldn’t tell, in the flickering light of candles and torches, whether it was very roughly made or was once more intricate but had been vandalised. A line of rodent footprints scrabbled through the dust on the wooden lid which I lifted and peered into the empty curved stone basin. I dropped the lid back into place.

‘Hey Serena,’ Tom called from somewhere out of sight.

The church had a north aisle that ran the whole length of the building alongside the nave and a wooden screen divided off the east end into a separate chapel. Tom’s voice came from beyond the screen and I followed it. Two tombs sat square and dark in the centre; they were the sort that have a sculpted figure on the top with arms crossed and eyes open in blank piety. Tom had stuck a candle on each figure’s nose and groin.

‘Look.’ He gestured as if displaying a prize. A moulded brickwork fireplace had been built in the outer wall to warm the toes of priests praying for the immortal souls of the entombed.

‘We shouldn’t light a fire. Where will we get the wood?’

‘We can use the broken up old pews,’ he said and then in answer to my look, ‘Don’t be so scandalised, half of them are firewood already.’

The temptation of warmth and light was strong. I didn’t really want to be in the church and being warm would make it less of an ordeal. ‘I suppose it can’t hurt.’ As I said the words I heard a noise and cocked my head.

Tom was busy peering up the chimney and I strained my ears for a repeat of the sound. I was not sure what I had heard. A scraping, clanking maybe but it was over before I could focus on it properly.

I walked back to the font and examined the two doors I had glanced at earlier. Both were low and narrow, pointed at the top, and made of thick wood with large and ungainly keyholes. I tried the South door as it seemed to go up into the tower but it was locked. Behind me I heard the noise, closer this time, a scraping metallic sound. I spun round and the door handle of the other door settled back into place. My breath solidified in my chest and my eyes fixed on the door ahead of me. I forced my breath out and took another as I stepped sideways, keeping my eyes on the door.

‘Tom!’ I called. There was no answer. ‘Tom!’ As I yelled there was a crash and I looked down the church, eyes strained.

Tom stood among the debris of a broken pew. He held up a piece he had just broken off and grinned. The smile faded as he saw my face and then widened again. ‘Did I make you jump?’

‘I just saw that door handle move!’ I pointed at the door ahead of me.

He dropped the wood and sauntered up the aisle, frowning. ‘What?’

‘That door handle moved.’

He walked up to the door and rattled the handle, turned it and let it fall. It made the familiar scraping and clanking sound. ‘Locked.’ He put his ear to the door. ‘I wonder where it goes.’

I shrugged. ‘It’s like a section was added on to the end of the north aisle, or walled off from it.’

‘I bet it was just movement in the building or something. You know what old buildings are like.’

I frowned. ‘I definitely saw that handle move. Like properly turn. It didn’t just wobble.’

‘Hmm.’

‘God, you’re so patronising!’ I said.

‘Well there can’t be anyone else here can there? I’m going to get the fire going.’ He stamped off down the aisle and started to bash pieces of wood around.

I was just about to follow him and gather up some of the already broken pieces when there was another noise. It was a gentle scratching. Scritch scritch scritch. Then it disappeared behind a mass of Tom’s banging but when he stopped it was still there. Scritch scritch scritch. It was coming from the font and it sounded like a small animal.

Scritch scritch scritch.

It was probably just a trapped mouse and I ought to lift the lid and check. I glanced down the aisle towards Tom. He was gathering an armful of wood and scowling and so I stepped towards the font.

Scritch scritch scritch.

I dropped the lid and it crashed to the floor as I was transfixed by the sight in the font. I tried to yell but all that escaped from my mouth was a dry croak. Crammed into the font were the corpses of rats in various states of decay. Maggots writhed among blood encrusted bones, making the remains of dusty fur and leathery skin shift and heave. The smell of decay took hold of my throat and I retched.

Tom noticed me gag and came up the aisle to join me. He looked in the font and grimaced. ‘That’s gross.’ He picked up the lid and dropped it into place to hide the decaying mess.

‘It wasn’t there a few minutes ago,’ I said.

He looked at me with disbelief in his face.

‘I took off the lid a while ago and the font was empty. Absolutely empty.’ My voice rose as I saw doubt on his face.

‘Don’t yell.’

‘Well, you don’t believe me. What? Am I lying? Do you think I’m lying?’

‘No of course–,’

A loud bang from the ceiling above us made us duck. We looked up as dust sprinkled around us.

‘What the hell?’ Tom looked at me, his eyes wide.

I brushed the dust from my shoulders and clenched my guts. I swallowed again. ‘I don’t know. Let’s just go home.’

‘No. Someone’s messing with us, I want to see who it is.’

‘Does it matter? I just want to go.’

‘They can’t leave without passing us,’ he ignored my protest, stepped over to the door and tried the handle.

‘That door is solid,’ I said. He rattled it and then started looking round the walls and in the window recesses and niches. ‘What are you looking for?’ I asked.

‘Sometimes they keep the tower key somewhere nearby. Somewhere out of the way on a hook or a ledge.’ He reached above the door surround, said ‘See?’ and brought down an old iron key.

He put the key in the lock, turned it with a grinding noise and pulled the door open. He raised an eyebrow at me. I didn’t want to go up, but I didn’t want to stay alone down in the church either so I gave a tight nod. He turned and, shining his torch ahead of him, started up the spiral of steps. I followed behind him. As I stepped through the doorway my back prickled and I felt that someone was behind me, someone whose eyes were boring into my back. I turned and shone my torch around. Nothing. I continued up the steps and after a moment I heard the crunch of a footstep behind me. Again I turned and my torch illuminated the crumbling plaster of the staircase walls but nothing else. Tom was out of sight just above me and I hurried up the stairs, still hearing steps behind me.

I emerged into the tower room, turned and shone my torch at the empty doorway. ‘I swear I heard steps behind me.’ I said.

He snorted. ‘Echo.’

I was sure he was wrong. The crunch of the step on the plaster strewn treads of the stairs hadn’t sounded like an echo to me.

‘They must be up on the next level,’ he said.

I shone my torch upwards to crisscrossing rafters and the cavernous mouths of two bells. Bell ropes hung down through the room we were in and disappeared down to the ground floor through holes. A doorway opened onto the tower staircase above us to allow access along the rafters to the bells. I caught the flicker of a pale face in the dark and then it was gone.

‘Hey, I think I saw someone,’ I said.

‘Let’s see.’ He headed to the stair case and hopped up them two at a time. ‘Oh,’ his voice drifted down to me and a moment later he joined me, ‘It’s bricked up.’ He frowned. My skin chilled and tightened under my clothes.

‘Fuck it, let’s go light the fire and open the booze,’ he said.

The candles in the chapel had blown out in the breezes that criss-crossed the church like spider webs. I moved the candles to more sheltered corners, relit them, then wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and watched while Tom lit a fire in the old fireplace. I opened the bottle of cheap wine and he brought out a pack of supermarket sausage rolls and a huge bag of Doritos. We wrapped ourselves up in the sleeping bags and ate and drank in silence. The food and drink sat heavily in my stomach and we curled up in the sleeping bags with all our clothes on. Tom’s back was to the fire and I spooned up against him, my face out towards the church and my phone in my palm. I couldn’t imagine that I would sleep, but I did.

I woke suddenly. My right arm was fuzzy with pain from being under me on such a hard surface and I sat up to stretch it. Tom grumbled something in his sleep. The church was dark. All but one of the candles in the chapel had gone out and the fire had collapsed into pale ashes with a red glow. I could hear that it had begun to rain. I reached behind Tom for the wood and put a couple of pieces on the remains of the fire and watched as they started to burn, before lying back down and snuggling back into Tom’s chest. Then I wondered; what woke me? Was it the pain in my arm or a noise? I strained my ears. A memory of the scraping clank of the door handle came back to me. Was I just remembering the sound from earlier in the evening?

Tom mumbled something and pulled me further into his arms. I closed my eyes and tried not to listen. I was warm and comfortable snuggled in the sleeping bags and blankets with Tom and the fire behind me. I was just drifting back to sleep when I heard the noise again and my face was chilled by a cold breeze. I raised myself on one arm and listened.

‘Tom.’ I reached behind me and shook him.

He woke bleary and irritated. ‘What?’

‘I heard something.’

‘It’ll be your imagination. Again.’

There was a crash from the tower. Tom scrambled out of his sleeping bag and jumped up. ‘Oh whoever is doing this is going to get a kicking.’ He grabbed his torch and ran out of the chapel.

I muttered, ‘Right. So I’m imagining things and, at the same time, someone’s messing with us.’ For a moment irritation swept away the fear but it seeped back as I stood in the chapel chilled without the blanket and Tom’s warmth. The light from the fire flickered across the impassive faces of the knight and his wife lying on their tombs. I took my torch and went into the main aisle of the church. Tom was standing by the font. His torch beam flicked around me and then up into the rafters before settling on the wooden beams above him. The silence tightened.

The crash from the floor above was so loud that it seemed that the beams had all jumped together. Tom ducked, dust rained down around him and he coughed, waving his hand in front of his face as he stood up again. He flung open the tower door yelling, ‘I’m coming up you arseholes.’

I heard him run up the stairs and onto the floor above and then there was silence. The atmosphere solidified and every one of my nerves was at full stretch. A cold breeze whipped through me and still the silence hung.

I took a step towards the tower door. ‘Tom,’ I called. The silence started to ring in my ears and then it tore as a crash reverberated around the church. ‘Tom!’ I yelled and ran towards the door but I was stopped by a series of crashes from above me and then Tom’s voice shouted wordlessly in pain. My eyes were fixed in horror on the ceiling above me as another great crash sounded and then the silence descended again.

I ran to the tower and up the stairs. The tower room was empty although the debris and dust had been scuffed about and the roof door hung open, banging in the wind. As I emerged onto the roof I was slapped in the face by a gust of wind and rain.

‘Tom!’ I called out but the only sounds were the rain pelting down and my own ragged breaths. The sky was thick with clouds which gleamed like tarnished pewter as moonlight filtered through.

There was a lead gulley around the central roof of the church and I moved around it, leaning into the tiles. The crenelated brickwork that prevented anyone falling down into the graveyard was just knee high and I half crawled along the precarious path calling Tom’s name. As I came alongside the lead roof of the north aisle I could see a dark patch out on the pale grey surface. I scrambled onto the flat roof and went over to it. It was his knitted hat, soaked. I picked it up and it left a dark stain behind it on the lead.

‘Tom!’ I shouted against the wind and rain. Although I shouted at the top of my voice the sound was muffled and flung away by the wind. I pushed the soaked hat into my pocket and walked to the edge of the roof to peer down into the graveyard. My torch showed me the teeming rain and the black shapes of the graves as I swept the beam among the bushes and tombs. The smell of damp earth and grass came up from the churchyard.

A movement caught my eye and I swung my torch round. My foot slipped on the wet lead and I fell to my knee, grabbing the brickwork in front of me. I tipped forwards, landing hard with my gut on the brickwork, my breath knocked out of me and I just managed to save myself from overbalancing by dropping my torch and holding on with both hands. The torch bounced down the outside wall of the church and disappeared into the undergrowth and I collapsed in a heap behind the low brickwork. Sobs caught themselves in my breathing and I struggled to calm myself.

After a few minutes I reached to my back pocket for my phone but it wasn’t there; I must have left it by the fire. I stared into the darkness for a moment and tried to smother my swelling panic. A drip ran down the back of my neck from my plastered hair taking a shiver with it. My jeans were soaked and I was starting to feel numb and stiff and I realised I needed to get to my phone and the fire.

I felt my way back to the main roof and clambered over the parapet, bashing my sore ribs in the process. The handle to the tower door turned easily and the door swung inwards; the blackness inside the room was solid and malevolent. The charcoal smudge of light from the cloud huddled moon reached no more than a foot into the room. I stepped into the room with my left hand out against the wall and shuffled my way around the floor, feeling forwards with my foot at each step, leaning into the solidity of the wall. The darkness pressed painfully against my eyes which strained to see although there was nothing visible.

Halfway across the room I reached my foot forward and it nudged something soft but firm. I clung to the wall and gathered myself to bend down and touch whatever lay in front of me. I nudged it again with my foot and it gave a little but didn’t move. I bent, reached out and touched it with my hands; fabric, jeans, a leg inside the jeans.

‘Tom!’ I said out loud, shaking the leg. ‘Tom are you ok? We’ve got to get out of here.’ I moved up his body. ‘We should never have come.’ Something hard slid under my knee and I picked it up, square, plastic, Tom’s phone.

The leg moved a little and I sighed in relief but the air froze on my lips as a voice came out of the darkness. My voice. It said ‘Tom! Are you ok? We’ve got to get out of here.’ And then closer to me, ‘We should never have come.’ The voice had a flat tone which was nothing like the scared, shaking voice in which I had spoken. I scrabbled backwards away from the sound and touched the phone’s power button.

The dim blue light showed the room was empty. There was no body in the middle of the floor. My head span with confusion. None of the debris in the room could have felt like a leg in jeans, even confused and desperate in the dark. I flicked the light around into the corners, into the stairwell, up into the belfry above. There was nothing but dust, cobwebs and a sense of waiting.

I opened the door onto the stairs and found that they were not in darkness. Someone had stuck a single candle in the narrow, dust filled window ledge. The tiny rectangular window was made of a few small panes of leaded glass opaque with grime and there was one of these windows at each revolution of the stair. In brighter times they’d give a scrap of daylight and as I went down I found that each of the niches had a candle.

As I emerged from the tower firelight spilled from the chapel out into the church. The orange, flickering light winked and shimmered from the broken shards of glass still in the windows. I walked to the chapel entrance. The fire cracked and spat in the grate and as I came round the tomb of the old knight I saw a figure curled under our blanket, facing the fire.

‘Tom!’ I rushed to him and he lay still, curled tightly around himself. I shook him and he straightened arms and legs and then grabbed hold of me, screaming. I screamed and screamed and through my cries I realised that he was crying with laughter, not with pain. He was shaking and convulsing but with cries of laughter.

‘Oh we got you so good. You should have seen your face!’ Tears of laughter ran down his cheeks, shining in the firelight. I slapped him hard across the face.

‘Ow!’ he raised his hand to his face but couldn’t stop laughing.

‘You utter shit,’ I said and start to gather my stuff together, rage and embarrassment burning me up.

‘Oh come on,’ he said. ‘It was just a bit of fun.’

‘I thought you were dead!’ This elicited another guffaw from him and so I added ‘I wish you fucking well were.’ With that I closed my bag and slung it onto my shoulder.

He tried to stop himself laughing. ‘Ok look, I’m sorry.’ He coughed to hide another laugh that bubbled up, ruining his attempt at a sincere look. ‘But you’ve got to admit that the rats; that was classic horror.’

My anger turned icy cold. ‘So the rats were you, the turning handle, the banging?’

‘Well, not all me, Sian and Michael are here.’

‘Really.’ I narrowed my eyes. ‘And that bit with the body upstairs and my voice.’

‘What?’

‘When I was in the tower room; the body that disappeared, my voice repeating my words back to me?’

‘Sounds awesome but I didn’t plan it, they must have been improvising or some shit. Cool. Let’s go see them.’

‘Yes. Let’s.’

He seemed to have taken my sudden coolness as an improvement on incandescent rage and he led the way over to the locked door next to the tower.

‘Ta da!’ he said and swung the door inwards. Leaning against the back wall were two figures, their legs straight along the tiled floor in front of them, their heads tilted to one side. For a moment I didn’t recognise Sian and Michael. Their faces were white in Tom’s torchlight and the light from my phone, their eyes were wide and dark and their mouths hanging open. The smell of carrion was in the air and my stomach twisted.

Tom looked into the room and gave a short shout of laughter. ‘Cool set up guys.’ He stepped down a couple of steps. A cold tendril of fear had loosened from my anger and was working its way up my neck. I stood fixed to the top step.

To the left of the narrow room was a bricked up doorway that must once have opened out onto the churchyard, opposite it were three steps down to a door which was wide open. This doorway had a wide, rounded top, older than any other doorway I’d seen in the church. Steps continued down beyond the door and a dusty, earthy smell seeped up into the room.

Tom ignored the open door and walked past it, stepped up to Sian and shook her shoulder. ‘Sian!’ he said. She slid sideways onto the floor leaving a dark stain on the whitewashed wall behind her.

‘Fuck!’ Tom stepped back. He looked back at me, confusion and fear on his face and then turned back to her. ‘Quit messing, babe.’ He shook her again and then he shook Michael, calling for them both to wake up, stop messing him around, the joke’s over now.

He started to cry in small, whining sobs as he tried to feel for Sian’s pulse. I watched him, remembering my own fear a short while ago. I should have felt sympathy but the icy rage was still tight under my skin. The key to the room laid on the top step and I bent and picked it up. The cold iron chilled my skin.

The doorway to the right was dark and I could no longer see anything beyond the doorway; no brickwork or downwards stairs just a thick blackness. The darkness began to seep over the door step behind Tom, it gathered and swirled in tendrils and brought a deep sense of hatred and fear. I watched, held my breath, waited. Tom turned and saw the darkness gathered between us and then beyond it he saw me in the doorway holding the key in my hand. His eyes widened.

I slammed the door shut, turned the key in the lock, and ran.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts October 2014

***

The Stocking Filler

The mechanic bent over his pride and joy; the zenith of his craft, his masterpiece, the culmination of his talent and the exemplar of his art. He breathed on an imaginary smudge in the red paint and then buffed it with his sleeve until the imaginary smudge was no more. He smiled to himself, straightened and gazed upon his project with a satisfaction previously unknown to mortal man. He straightened the pointy latex ear extension on his left ear and thought that he would reapply it properly later as part of the preparation. The novelty Christmas clock on the wall told him it was half six and so there was plenty of time to prepare and get his full costume on before midnight.

The mechanic turned and went into the room designated ‘the office’ where he kept the plans, papers and, most importantly right at this moment, the kettle. He clicked the kettle on and allowed his imagination to wander through a tableaux of anticipations and expectations. The door to the wardrobe stood open and he smiled and took out the pointed green hat and, in an unusual moment of impulsiveness, he placed it carefully on his head and directed the fall of the pompom so that it hung correctly down the back of his head. Perfect.

In the workshop the project gave out a metallic twang as it settled. It gleamed; the red paint slick over sheets of metal, the glitter of rivets, the smell of oil and hot mechanisms. It had beady black eyes that looked like they were made of coal but were in fact carefully worked dark glass and a round nose and cheeks which blushed with carefully applied red stippling. Below the nose and cheeks sprouted a chaotic beard of white painted springs in which nestled a red slash of mouth curved in a menacing grin like a knife in a bramble bush.

The mechanic stepped back into the workshop with his steaming mug and sighed with satisfaction. He took a gulp of his tea and turned towards his work bench. His hat pompom bobbed. Now that the project was finished the workspace must be cleared. Each tool must be put back into its place and the surfaces must be swept and cleaned.

Behind him the coal eyes of his project began to glow with a deep blue light and another metallic twang issued from somewhere in the rotund torso of the construct.

The mechanic pulled out a drawer and carefully placed three screwdrivers into their allotted spaces as designated by carefully painted white outlines and labels.

The construct raised its mitten clad hands in silence; the mechanic’s work was excellent and every smooth metal edge slid neatly alongside its neighbour, every bearing spun absolutely silently. The mechanic’s curved back bent and straightened, bent and straightened as if he were worshipping at the altar of his bench. His hat bobbed in time with his actions and he hummed ‘Santa Claus is coming to town.’ Tools slid into their places with conclusive clicks and thuds. He swapped from humming to whistling. The last piece of equipment slotted into its niche and the mechanic turned towards the corner where he kept his cleaning equipment. He stopped in surprise, the whistle dying on his lips, and gaped at his project which now stood before him, glowering, with its hands raised in a threatening manner.

‘Oh,’ he said aloud to himself. ‘Well, that’s jolly odd. Maybe I knocked the controller.’

When not in use the controller sat in a carefully constructed recess on the project’s back. The mechanic had been very proud of the design. He felt it was sleek and convenient and well hidden by the sack of coal the construct carried.

‘I’ll just have to get to your controller and see what’s going on,’ he said to the four foot tall robot in front of him. The way the eyes were glowing unnerved him a little and he didn’t know why he spoke aloud to the construct; there was no auditory input channel after all. He began to move round the robot. Snowflake shaped blades extended from the mittens with a ‘snick’.

‘Oh,’ he said again and took a step back. The construction now seemed to be looking at him, although the head had not moved. ‘Well, this is a bit difficult.’

The metallic mouth opened. ‘Ho. Ho. Ho.’ The construct had a tinny voice.

‘Shit,’ said the mechanic. He was not usually one for swearing, not even when he dropped his largest spanner on his toe. His word for such situations was ‘fiddlesticks’ but this seemed a swearing sort of situation and so he restated it to himself, ‘Shit.’

And then after a brief pause in which nothing happened except the mechanic’s pointy ear-tip fell off his left ear, ‘Bugger.’

He considered the situation as the construct stared at him. He was between the construct and the door but he knew his project’s capabilities (even now he could not repress a smidgen of pride at the thought) and was extremely doubtful of escape. He should have considered this possibility; literature and film and so on were positively littered with examples of the created turning upon the creator and he could not, therefore, deny that he had been warned.

‘Ho. Ho. Ho.’ It rolled forward six inches on its carefully designed tracks which could cope with rough ground and even stairs. The rubber treads squeaked on the smooth floor.

Some instinctive part of the mechanic’s brain took over and, hardly knowing what he was doing, he turned and sprinted for the door. Two attractive and very well-made snowflake shaped throwing stars buried themselves in the door with a decisive sound. Thunk. Thunk. He flung it open and ran out into the deep and undisturbed snow.

The construct’s tinny voice came from behind him. It said, ‘You are not a good boy. You are a bad boy. You must have some coal.’

The mechanic put on a spurt of speed hearing this damning judgement and six strides into the cold and sparkling night something dark and round landed in the snow just ahead of him, then something hit him in the middle of his back. He lurched forwards and then he was flying through the air as the world exploded around him. He landed face down in the snow, ash, snow and silver glitter floating down around him. His hat lay a few feet away in the soggy snow.

The construct rolled forward, its glass eyes focussing on the body. The mechanic’s flailing had made a very serviceable snow angel. The construct was satisfied. It looked up at the lights of a distant town and rolled on, clanking slightly in the cold air, to make its delivery of coal to all the naughty boys and girls of the world.

***

Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Cutts

***

This was written for a seasonal challenge on the Ultimate Write: Tea Urn forum and although I missed the solstice deadline I’ve managed to get it up for Christmas Eve so I’m happy.

Dust

Eliza sits on a damp stair in the corpse of a genteel Victorian seaside villa. In the distance the sea sounds as if it is taking great gasping breaths of the air, which stinks of mud and fish. Jackdaws squawk and clatter in the broken roof above; a litter of nest material and the tiny bones of dead chicks are scattered across the stairs around her. She is looking at the oak door in front of her which must be the only untainted thing in this town with its brass door knob, still shiny as if it’s regularly used, and a keyhole with an ivory inlaid surround.

She stands up, steps towards the door and strokes the pale wooden panels. It smells of clean wood but that passes and the old stench of the town returns. The door is between floors at the turn in the stair and Eliza turns her back on it to descend.

In the kitchen the brown light leeches through the glassless window, staining the remains of a lace curtain with a tobacco tinge. Eliza pulls at a drawer and, with a crash, it disintegrates into the cupboard below. She sorts through a litter of cutlery and rotten wood hoping to see a key but there is none. The other drawers are empty but for faded lining paper.

The living room only holds a piano which gives out a plunk as she looks in, so she turns to the last doorway off the hall. The door is of a similar type to the locked door except that it is weather stained and rotting like everything else in the town. It lies drunkenly against the wall and Eliza carefully steps around it into the room. Above a writing desk hangs an old sepia photo of a regal looking woman in a high necked blouse. Eliza reaches out with a dirty hand to touch the glass which somehow remains in the frame.

The walls are lined with bookcases and, thinking a key might be hidden in a book, Eliza attempts to pull one from the shelf only to find that they are a sodden mass glued together by mould and damp. The smell of rotting paper and leather catches in her throat and she gags. Abandoning the books she finds the desk drawers are locked but remembers metal skewers in the kitchen and fetches the narrowest she can. She shoves the point into the first lock and wrenches it, grimacing as she feels the delicate mechanism snap. Hurriedly she destroys the other two locks, avoiding the disapproving glare of the woman in the photograph.

In the left hand drawer she finds some coins and a small congealed envelope of paper money. Useless. She rubs her thumb over the faces and letters of the coins. The copper pennies have a tangy scent to them and she puts the coins in her pocket to look at later. The right hand drawer has a packet of letters held together with a ribbon that crumbles when she moves them. They are dry, miraculously. A glance shows her that they are love letters and she shoves them into the drawer and slams it shut.

Pulling open the centre drawer she finds a pad of letter paper, three good pens neatly lined up, and a white key. She picks up the key and examines it closely. Ivory. Or bone maybe. Its surface is smooth as if it has been handled repeatedly.

She goes out to the hall and reverentially steps up the stairs, slowly, one by one. She is holding her breath. The key slips neatly into the lock, turns with a gentle click and the door sways inwards. Eliza steps inside.

The room is so bright that she squeezes her eyes shut before opening them slowly so that they can adjust. This must have been a bathroom; clean white tiles line both the floor and walls. Clear glass in the window lets in clear light through a white lace curtain. Two mirrors on opposite walls reflect each other, and each other, and each other and bones. Neat heaps of bright bleached bones piled against the walls; small delicate bird skulls, thick leg bones of large mammals, nests of rib-cages of all sizes.

The dusty smell catches in Eliza’s throat, she feels as though the moisture and life is being dragged out of her by the desiccated air. She gasps. A sense of disappointment and fear wells up inside her and she cries out and she turns to leave.

The door is smooth and polished and firmly shut. There is no brass door handle on this side and Eliza cries out again, beating on the door with her rough hands. She falls to her knees and puts her eye to the keyhole.

On the stair outside a jackdaw gleefully tears open a fish and eats.

***

Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Cutts

***

This is written in response to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. The idea is to roll dice against lists of genres and story elements and then combine them. I rolled:

Genre 1. Southern Gothic. I interpreted ‘southern’ as the English South coast because I’m not American and there is something gothic about our delapidated coastal towns.

Genre 2. Dying Earth.

Story elements: a locked door, a key made of bone. To get the door and the key was very lucky!

If it wasn’t for the fact there’s a deadline I would put this aside for a couple of days before making another run through it, and maybe finding a beta reader but there’s no time for that so here it is.

 

The Morning After

Sheila stood staring at the ruins as rain dripped from the hood of her borrowed cagoule. At her feet the water was mixing with the soot into a blackened mud, dripping and gurgling in a silence in which she could hear the cacophony of the night before. Flashing lights, wailing sirens, crying and the roaring of flames. It had been like some ridiculous television programme she would usually watch curled up with a glass of wine. She poked a nondescript blackened lump with her foot. It turned out to be a book and the pages smeared apart damply, their insides unburnt. A dictionary, nothing romantic. If life were a television programme it would have been something significant. If life were a television programme it would be A Clue, there would be A Moral Purpose and eventually, after fifty minutes there would be Justice.

She glanced back, hearing footsteps behind her. Col hadn’t got his hood up and his hair was plastered to his head. She would usually have teased him; his red cheeks and rain spattered glasses topped off by the flattened hair made her affection for him rise in her throat in a way that would usually have emerged as a laugh. Not today. She held out her hand and he took it, pressing his lips together in the half-smile people give when a burden of sadness must be shared.

‘We won’t be able to recover anything at all, will we?’ she asked. He shook his head.

‘They say it’s not safe to go in and there’ll be nothing worth getting out anyway.’ He looked around at the remains of the garden. ‘Wonder if Horace got out ok? I don’t think he was in the house.’ He called out ‘Horace!’ Horace!’

Sheila watched the rain falling out of a ruined gutter and pooling by the front door in the quiet, a car swished past, slowing to peer at the wreck of the house. To her relief, as the car drove on, there was a reproachful ‘meow’ and an ancient and very wet black cat emerged from the grass with an accusatory look. Col squatted down and the cat purred and butted his knee with its head.

He lifted the cat up, cradling it between his coat and his chest, ‘Come here,’ said Col as a deep purr rumbled out from under the jacket. He tickled the cat under its chin and looked up at Sheila and smiled, a watery smile, pale but with a ray of relief that not everything was lost.

‘Darling,’ she began, and he drew back, sensing a warning in her tone, ‘what are we going to do with him?’

‘I. Well. I don’t know.’ He looked down at the cat.

‘We can’t take him back to Mum’s place can we? And we don’t know when we’ll be sorted out. We may need to rent for a while.’

‘But we can’t chuck him out!’ Col’s voice cracked a little.

‘No, no of course not, but maybe Mrs. Dale…’

‘No! I mean, no. Why?’

‘You know why. And she’s always loved Horace. He spends half his time there already.’

Col sighed ‘I suppose you’re right. I just thought…’ he paused, and the sentence faded away.

‘I know, love.’

He looked down at the cat. ‘Always were a mercenary old thing weren’t you? Making big eyes at Mrs. Dale like we never fed you. Come on you silly animal.’ Sheila followed as he carried the cat round the corner to Mrs. Dale’s place. Her beautiful garden had butted on to theirs and Horace had worked his way into her affections in the way that only a personable cat can, rubbing his face on her knee as she tried to do the weeding and asking to come into her immaculate kitchen from the rain.

Mrs Dale opened the door and with exclamations of surprise, consolation and offers of help she ushered them into the kitchen, bustling to get the kettle on and biscuits out.

‘Well Mrs Dale, there is maybe something you can do for us, at least until we get ourselves sorted.’ Sheila said and Col brought the cat out from under his arm.

‘Oh Horace! The beloved beast. Does he need a foster mum?’

Col nodded. ‘I hope we’ll be able to have him back soon. But we’re going to have a bit of a time of it.’

‘Oh you are aren’t you dear. Of course I’ll look after Horace.’ She smiled at the couple and reached out and patted Sheila’s hand. ‘Of course if you need anything else just ask, this is no trouble, no trouble at all, it will be my pleasure.’

As they walked down Mrs. Dale’s path, Sheila gave Colin’s hand a quick squeeze and he sighed. They didn’t look at the burnt out remains of their modest little home, with the black sooty marks streaming up from each window like grotesque eye make-up. They avoided each other’s eyes and Sheila held her mouth tightly shut against the tears as she climbed into the drivers seat. Colin slid in next to her and briefly laid his hand on her leg and as they moved off, tried desperately to think of something to say, something optimistic or mundane, something not about the immediate future, or insurance policies, nor about past memories, nor about being sad, about Horace or home, he just wanted to say something boring. Something that was nothing, but he couldn’t think of anything so they pulled away in silence and tried not to look at their home.

***
Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Cutts

Strangers

The voice came from close behind her. ‘Hi there!’

She jumped. Abandoned warehouses and factories lined the canal here, looming against the autumn sky. She hadn’t seen anyone else on the tow-path but then with her head down and ears full of Pearl Jam she probably wouldn’t have noticed a shark in the canal either.

‘Oh, er, hi.’ She blushed, taking off her headphones and fumbling to stop her tape. ‘I’m Jenna’

The young man who’d appeared beside her was the good looking one she’d noticed here before. He seemed to have business in one of the buildings and she’d been dawdling along the path home from school in the hope of seeing him again. His loose shirt, old fashioned in style, had an open, laced neckline which she thought made him look like the hero from a dodgy romance. On other men she would have laughed at it, but it somehow suited him. She wished fervently that she’d bothered with some make-up this morning instead of running out of the house, toast in hand, exactly fifteen minutes after she’d woken up.

‘I’ve seen you a couple of times about here, haven’t I?’ he asked.

She glanced back along the tow-path, praying that her Dad wouldn’t appear on his daily run. It was starting to get annoying, the way he’d run past her and her friends, wearing leggings and shouting a cheery ‘hello girls!’. It was so excruciatingly embarrassing, even when it was just her friends. Here with this cool guy it would be twice as bad but she did feel a bit lonely here with someone she’d never spoken to before.

‘Yeah. I live near here. Watson Street. My Dad often runs along the canal here,’ she added, just in case. Just in case her Dad showed up, or just in case this guy turned out to be a psycho, either really. ‘So what are you doing here?’

‘I’ve been preparing for a gathering we’re holding tonight.’

‘What, like a party?’

He paused and thought for a moment. ‘Exactly, a party. Would you like to come Jenna? You would be welcome.’ He gestured at the building behind him.

‘What here?’ she said incredulously, looking at the shabby, lonely old warehouse, stained with rust and grime, which looked down on the canal with its broken windows.

‘Why not? There are three stories of space for the dancing to really get going in there.’ He smiled widely, a wink flicked across his face and was gone almost before she spotted it.

She shifted uneasily and chewed her lip, but maybe Sadie would be free to come with her. Sadie would think a party in a warehouse was just the most awesome thing.

‘Yeah,’ she tried to sound casual ‘great.’

‘Any time after dark, just come on in.’

And before she could say or ask any more he had opened a door in the side of the warehouse and slipped quietly through it, leaving her staring thoughtfully at the closed door, the afternoon becoming evening around her.

* * *

‘Mum!’ Jenna yelled along the corridor from her room to the kitchen.

‘What?’ her Mother’s exasperated face appeared round the door ‘Can’t you come in here to speak, rather than yelling? Oh never mind. What is it?’

‘I’ve got a ton of coursework to do, I’ll probably be up later than you. Can you just leave me to it and not interrupt?’

‘Fine. But don’t stay up until dawn again. Any work you do in the wee hours will be worse than useless and you’ll just make yourself ill.’

‘Yes, Mum. If it gets to one in the morning I promise I’ll stop.’

‘Ok. I just worry about you’ her mother wagged a finger ‘It’s good you work hard but sometimes…’

‘Yes, Mum!’ Jenna said sharply and shut the door to her room. She heard her Mum sigh and shut the kitchen door behind her. Jenna’s room was on the ground floor just off the kitchen, isolated from the rest of the house because it used to be the garage until her Dad had converted it. Now she was seventeen they pretty much left her alone if she asked them to and conveniently there was a low window. She’d only snuck out this way once before, but it was nice to know she could if she wanted.

She thought about the fact she really ought to do that coursework and forget about the amazing party she would be missing. She couldn’t believe that Sadie wouldn’t come with her. Standing on her doorstep Sadie had glanced over her shoulder into her house and whispered ‘No really, I can’t risk it. Mum will go mad if I fail and I’m already behind. Mr. Johns wants to see my work tomorrow. I just can’t.’ All Jenna’s other friends lived too far away to ask in person and the phone was in the living room, in prime eavesdropping space. Her parents would be bound to overhear.

So she sat on the bed thinking about how unfair it was. She’d never been to a proper big party before, never had a boyfriend. Sadie was on boyfriend number three and this one was twenty-one years old and achingly cool. The closest Jenna had got was a disappointing and sloppy fumble with James at his house during something he laughably called a party. Jenna stood up and began rummaging through her wardrobe.

* * *

Half an hour later she hurried along the towpath, guts twitching with nerves. In the dark, the noise of her feet scuffing along echoed strangely over the water and the murky smell of the canal seemed to hang in the air. As she approached the warehouse warm lights flickered for a moment in the broken windows and then were gone. She paused to build up the courage to try the door and as she did so a couple opened it and stumbled out and away up the path. Music followed them out, a deep, roaring beat that exhilarated Jenna and drew her in. She tentatively opened the door and stepped through and then jumped when two identical large men appeared, one either side of her. They glanced at each other over her head.

‘Jenna?’ they said in unison.

‘Um, yeah.’ The music she had heard almost seemed quieter here than from outside, as if muffled.

They gestured to an inner door, mirror images of each other. Glancing at them curiously she opened the door they had indicated and was engulfed by the beat. She was a vast, cavernous room. Windows high up in the walls showed deep blue squares of night sky. The room was packed full of people wearing the most ridiculous assortment of clothing. One man wore a red business suit and there was a woman in an old fashioned ball gown, some wore richly coloured and uncanny masks and yet others seemed to be naked but for their gorgeously painted skin. They were all dancing to the thunderous music. She couldn’t see the speakers, but there must have been a massive stack somewhere here. She stared around her, enchanted by the abandonment of the dancers and the variety of their costumes. Some even had wings somehow attached to their backs and tails coiling out behind them.

Their bodies writhed, the beat resonating through them, they jumped and flailed so that it hardly looked like dancing. Some of the people were grinning, having the time of their lives, others had a look of intense concentration on their faces. Lights, seemingly as sourceless as the music, wove and played above them, reflecting off the sweat and glittering costumes. Walkways and stairs criss-crossed the space above the floor and here too people danced, the lights span across them, faces and masks flickering and then falling into silhouette again. Jenna gasped as someone launched themselves from a platform and seemed to hang in the air before unfolding wings and swooping across to the other side of the space.

Jenna stood, awestruck, feeling her plain clothes to be shabby and insufficient. As she wondered whether she ought to leave two smiling people span out from the mess of dancers and gathered her up. Their skin was identically painted in a shimmering luminous green and they laughed as they took her by the hands and drew her into the throng and as they did so she felt the beat move through her body and she began to dance.

* * *

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been dancing with the strange assortment of people when a hand gripped her wrist and drew her out of the crowd. Looking around she saw it was the man who had invited her. He seemed taller than he had outside and somehow held himself apart from the dancers, maybe because he was the host.

‘Having a good time, I see!’ He said and to her surprise she found she could hear him. She nodded breathlessly, bouncing slightly in time with the beat. ‘Would you like to come up for something to eat and drink?’ She nodded uncertainly, feeling drawn back into the crowd, but he took her hand again and led her away from the music and out into the lobby with the two identical security guards. Her host opened another door and they began to ascend a narrow staircase.

They came out onto a long corridor with large windows down one side. Here the place didn’t look or feel particularly industrial. It was more like some kind of sparse mansion. None of the windows were broken and the dull throb of the music was barely audible from below through the carpeted floor. Opening a very plain looking door, he led her into a richly decorated room. Soft lights glistened on velvet sofas, hangings and piles of luxurious cushions. A gentle haze of scented smoke hung in the air and a low table was covered in an assortment of delicious looking food and drinks. She stood in the doorway awkwardly as he walked over to the table, picked up a glass of pink liquid and drained it in one fluid movement. He took a sticky looking pastry and turned to her.

‘Please, have something to eat and drink.’ He gestured to a row of filled glasses of all the colours of the rainbow and the plates full of rich looking food ‘It will allow you to dance forever and a day and open your heart to the other dancers.’ He smiled.

Jenna smiled back awkwardly. This sounded suspiciously like she was being offered drugs although it just looked like food and drink. Fabulous food and drink but still just food and drink but she found herself saying ‘thank you, I’m having a lovely time’ as if on a visit to an aunt ‘but I’m not very hungry.’

He shrugged and picked up a passion fruit, tearing it open and scooping the insides out with a delicate silver spoon.

‘Well,’ a soft voice spoke from behind her ‘I think it’s rude, don’t you darling?’

Jenna spun round and a beautiful green eyed woman was uncoiling herself from a sofa that Jenna could have sworn was empty when she entered the room. Jenna stuttered in embarrassment.

‘Don’t be embarrassed girl-‘

‘She’s called Jenna’ said the man.

‘Don’t be embarrassed, Jenna. I am joking. But please, really, won’t you have anything?’

Jenna flushed. ‘No really, I’m fine thank you.’

The woman smiled with amusement and Jenna felt strangely transparent. The woman laughed a slightly bitter laugh and stepped forward.

‘Poor little girl. Are you rejecting our hospitality? I think she’s rejecting our hospitality, darling.’

‘Oh leave it my sweet’ he sighed and eviscerated another passion fruit.

‘But we haven’t had such a lovely captive for, oh it must be centuries.’

‘No,’ he turned to look at Jenna a thoughtful look on his face ‘no we haven’t.’ He picked up a cobalt blue glass and turned to Jenna staring at her intensely.

She turned and ran for the door, along the corridor and clattered down the stairs, laughter drifting along behind her like the incense.

The music seemed to have stopped and as she ran into the main room she found it empty. There was no sign of the party she had left just minutes before. Impossible shafts of light came in through grey and broken windows, dust motes danced in the air and silence filled the huge space as the beat had moments ago.

Outside she found that it was full daylight. The canal glistened and she blinked, confused. Behind her the warehouse was silent.

Then she realised she must have come out of a different exit from the warehouse, though she didn’t remember there being other branches of the canal there must have been because right opposite the door she’d just come through was a glistening new apartment building, all wood and glass and metal. And up the canal she could see another new building. She’d obviously come out the other side of the warehouse into a newly rebuilt area of town she didn’t recognise.

A white haired man was running purposefully along the tow path towards her in lycra leggings and very snazzy looking running shoes. White cords sprouted from his ears, obviously from some up-market in-ear earphones and tucked down the front of his vest. As he got closer she realised he looked vaguely familiar, as if you’d put her Grandad into lycra, somehow straightened his back and sent him out to train for a marathon.

‘Excuse me!’ she said loudly, intending to ask where she was.

He stopped dead, staring at her disbelievingly then whispered ‘oh my god’ and then, his voice hoarse, ‘Jenna?’

Jenna felt her stomach drop and her head swim with a vertiginous shock of recognition and confusion.

‘Dad?’

 

 

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Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Cutts

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