Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Three

marblebust

“The King wants results, De Vere. I understand results may take time, but do not fool yourself that you have an ample supply of hours to play with.”

Croesus fought the urge to yawn his way through the Chancellor’s lecture. If he pretended attentiveness and showed a keen eye, that might buy him some allowance when negotiating terms for his investigation. He had to be free to operate on a lengthy leash. So that, at a minimum, he might be able to wing it until some inspiration struck. For now, Chancellor Seedgrape was not quite done.

“But in the meanwhile, you must have theories. Something to impart. It falls to me to report to the King and I cannot go to him empty of words.”

Croesus considered it very unlikely that Seedgrape ever found himself empty of words. He appeared to have paused his speech for now though.

“Well, best I can tell you is we’re dealing with an absolute mastermind. A genius to rival my own. But I’m sure you figured out that much yourself.” Croesus cracked a smile like he used to crack safes. “But the good news is, we don’t have to trouble ourselves with working out how it was done.”

“We don’t?” queried Seedgrape.

“Not a priority. We’ll have to eventually. Well, I’ll have to. There’s some security loophole about the size of a volcanic crater, obviously, so I’ll need to see about plugging it at some point. But the beauty of stolen goods, from our current point of view, Chancellor, is that regardless of how they went walkies they have to go somewhere.”

“Ah.” Seedgrape nodded sagely. And with an arch of his nostrils that hinted of disapproval. “You mean to contact your associates of old. Fences, I believe, is the term.”

“Well, yes. The goods have to be handled. And I know all the leading players in the business.” Croesus leaned in to confide – and also because he knew the closeness would get up Seedgrape’s sensitive nose. “Thing is, I have to act quickly – most of these items will be hotter than hot potatoes so our thief won’t want to hold onto them for any length of time. Same goes for the dealers. Some folks like to sit on the fence, but fences rarely like to sit on anything for too long. Trickier aspect is, I’ll also have to tread carefully. Most of my old associates care less for me than you do. Since I turned coat and started working for the law they don’t appreciate when I come calling. And I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything quickly and carefully at the same time, mate, but try running a tightrope some day.”

Seedgrape sniffed and spent a while clearing his throat. “Yes, well, I quite appreciate the difficulties. But I will not concern myself over the methods, De Vere, as long as you produce the results. Recover the goods – as many of the items as you are able. And bring the criminal to justice. You need not apprehend him yourself. Merely supply his identity and the guards will do the rest.”

“Right. I’d best get my careful skates on then. Leads to pursue, inquiries to be made. I take it I’m free to go?”

Seedgrape stepped aside. The guards parted to make an exit. Croesus started along the aisle they’d created between them.

“Just one thing.” He halted and spun about in detectively fashion. “Out of curiosity. What’s the story on that marble bust?”

“That thing?” said Seedgrape. “Well, it’s not marble as such. But it is a bust of Montgomery Prye. Brother to the King.”

“Oh? The King has a brother?” Couldn’t be much love lost there, figured Croesus. The King prized the valuables (that had been) in his vault, but surely such a fine likeness of his own sibling would carry additional sentimental or emotional attachment and you’d give it pride of place somewhere you could look on it every day. Unless it was a poor likeness, in which case the reverse would apply. In other words, you’d give it pride of place if you didn’t like him. Love, hate. Either way, emotional attachment was involved.

“Had,” amended Seedgrape. “Regrettably the King’s brother – passed away some years ago.”

“Oh.” Croesus wondered if a ‘sorry’ was called for. But he had no idea how Seedgrape felt about the dear departed Montgomery Prye. He ran through his reasoning again, calculating how a deceased state might alter the rules. But no, it didn’t change a thing. You’d keep the statue or bust in daily view if you loved your brother and the sculpture was a decent likeness. You’d display it even more prominently if you hated the guy and it was a shabby likeness. Emotional attachments deepened when the subject was dead. Especially if the emotion was loathing.

“What happened to him?” Croesus wondered.

“Ah – an unfortunate riding accident. The King does not care for us to speak of it. Now, if that will be all – ”

Interesting. Relevant? Possibly. Or possibly not. Croesus filed the information away right next to whatever Seedgrape wasn’t telling him.

He had people to see. Most of whom would not be wanting to see him.

 

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

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Monty Bust & Carlo – Part Two

marblebust

Scene of the crime.

The first, most immediately obvious thing that struck Croesus was that Chancellor Seedgrape had told a porky. The Royal Vault was only mostly empty.

A solitary bust, mounted on an ebony pedestal, observed Croesus from one alcove. Croesus did his best not to let the stern gaze bother him as he completed his third circuit of the chamber.

Nope, he thought. This was wrong. All wrong.

The vault was housed under a sixteen-sided dome. And no, Croesus did not know the geometric term for the structure. He thought of it as hexadecagonal as that was adding ten and six and putting pieces together was his specialty. In his old days, the maths had been more about subtraction: one vault minus much of its contents. Rarely all though. All wasn’t often practical.

All was to make a statement.

He finger-drummed on his lower lip. Shot a glancing frown at the marble bust. “Curious. Between you and me,” he addressed the sculpture, “this has me foxed. Temporarily.” He wagged a finger. “Yes. Only temporarily, mind. So no need to go blabbing to old Seedgrape.” Seedgrape would pounce on any opportunity to have Croesus fired. Seedgrape was probably one of the advisers who whispered in the King’s ear when the question arose of where to house Croesus while on staff. “Not in the palace, Your Majesty. Anywhere but the palace.” Yes, Croesus could hear the old sourface muttering those exact words. “Well,” Croesus declared aloud, “stumped is not out.” He was about as familiar with the sport of cricket as he was with geometry. “The pieces are all here – even if they’re also all gone.”

Croesus toured the chamber again. Examining the mosaic floor, bending to inspect individual tiles – both to check for scuff marks and to be too close to view the overall picture. Although he was fully aware the mosaic formed a portrait of the King, graced with a pair of eagle’s wings and framed against a burning sun. Croesus had heard that fable and knew how it turned out. He poked around in every alcove. Recalled how he’d told the King alcoves were a bad idea. Alcoves afforded hiding spots for thieves. But the King liked them as an architectural feature and for the presentation of some of his valuables. And to be fair they only worked as places of concealment when masked by curtains or with things other than thieves in them. Objets d’art of concealment. There were none here. And no thieves.

The chamber stank of emptiness. It echoed of cleaned out.

The echoes were trapped inside, obliged to bounce back off the high hexadecagonal dome.

The shutters were closed, allowing in only slatted light. Narrow shafts like harp strings, waiting to be played by the waltzing dust. The shutters were part of his security installation, the oculus and decorative petal windows being an early-identified weakness that any thief unafraid of heights and rooftops would have cheerfully exploited. All the windows had been fitted with bars over the stained glass, but Croesus had ruled it insufficient. Armoured shutters routinely locked into place over night and clearly Seedgrape or somebody had ordered them to remain closed, perhaps to guard against further break-ins. Yeah. In case the thief came back to steal the mosaic tiles off the floor. Or the bust. But nobody in their right mind would want that thing.

Croesus was accustomed to working in shadows, had a good pair of dark-adaptable eyes. So the current gloom of filtered winter daylight was nothing to him.

Even from the middle of the chamber he could tell the bust was ugly. Well, not ugly exactly. But the subject had been in some kind of mood whenever he’d posed for the sculptor.

Bald as a dragon-egg, the subject had a nose that might have served well as an axe-blade and a set of cold marble lips that sneered at the world. The eyes had been left as a pair of blank orbs and that didn’t help make the subject’s expression any rosier. Add to that the chiselled bony cheeks, the wattled turkey-neck and a forehead with more ridgelines than most mountain ranges and Croesus could see why a thief might leave it behind. Few fences would want that face staring at them from some corner of their warehouse. It might have some value as a piece of art, he supposed, but who would you offload it on?

But – but – but –

Croesus sauntered in a small area in the centre of the vault and those dead pupil-less eyes seemed to follow his motions. If only they could tell him what they’d witnessed during the night.

He shrugged. And slouched out of the chamber.

He set his shoulders straighter and firmer as he met Seedgrape outside, waiting in the antechamber with a dozen guards. “Well?” said the Chancellor.

“There were a few telltale clues. I’m optimistic,” Croesus lied. What he really wanted to do was climb all over the building and inspect the exterior inch by inch. Or go home and think for a week.

Fat chance of the latter. He could tell from Seedgrape’s scowl his investigations were on a clock. At best, if he couldn’t produce answers, he’d be getting all the thinking time he could ever wish for. In the dubious comfort of a dungeon cell.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Monty Bust & Carlo – Part One

marblebust

COME AT ONCE. STOP. THE KING. STOP.

Croesus De Vere re-read the telegram through a haze of lost sleep and steam from his hastily brewed cuppa. He wished he could read it another way – like, come at once and stop the King from doing whatever. Sending telegrams before breakfast, for instance.

But once broken, the code of the telegram’s manner of punctuation allowed little room for misinterpretation. The King demanded the presence of his Court Investigator.

Croesus massaged away the sleep-deprivation, knocked back a gulp of his tea, then threw together his outfit with the same care as he’d taken in tossing the tea bag into the mug.

The morning was as bracing as a torturer’s rack. No sense wasting time stretching his legs. Croesus ran, hurdling the neighbourhood cats who populated the maze of narrow lanes he called home. Although an appointee on the staff of the Royal Court, Croesus was not of worthy enough stock to qualify for quarters within the palace grounds. Truth was, he had been born in a district not unlike this one and risen only so far as was needed to climb in through people’s windows. A shady past, long-since pardoned, followed him like his shadow. And while the King employed him as ‘Thief Of Police’, the royal visage probably held him in about as high regard as the scruffier felines of the Crippling Narrows.

Pah. Kings. What did they know?

‘King’ was the world’s shortest verb. To be king was to do precious little. Duties included a lot of sitting on thrones, which were only a form of chair made grand and impressive enough to accommodate all the sitting that had to be done by blue-blooded behinds.

Ah but, Croesus, some had argued, kings preside and decide over a host of difficult and weighty issues. But Croesus had observed this process in what might be termed ‘action’. Matters were raised, questions begged of the monarch’s ears. To all of which, the kingly head would nod, before turning to ask advice from a collection of counsellors, experts and authorities on this and that. And if a matter fell outside of the comfort zone of any one of the available advisers, new experts were sent for. Once equipped with the facts and a number of possible answers, the King would pick the solution he liked best and, by voicing it while wearing a crown and sitting on the aforesaid throne, convert it into law. It always seemed to Croesus that you could achieve much the same with just the council of experts and a bucket, in which they could chuck little scraps of paper inscribed with the best solutions to any problem. And hold a lucky dip. A governmental tombola.

But until anyone thought to replace the King with a bucket, Croesus was among those experts called upon to counsel and advise. His own purview: crime. And the position provided a steady income. With the only downside being the occasional emergency summons, like today’s.

Warmed up a tad, Croesus slowed his jog for the middle stretch of his journey. Progressing through the market district at a more seemly rate and taking care not to bump baskets out of shoppers’ hands. Then he upped himself to an energetic dash for the last leg, demonstrating a committed sense of urgency once within sight of the palace walls.

Croesus darted across the bridge, running the gauntlet of twenty-foot statues. All of them brandished polearms with blades that looked set to fall on faintly treasonous necks. And thoughts of replacing kings with buckets probably qualified as treason.

The actual ordinary flesh-and-bone guards ushered him through with half-salutes and tips of their helms. But the figure awaiting him in the Palace forecourt was ready with a greeting that had a bite similar to the ‘fresh’ morning air.

He stood to the left of the great needle of shadow cast by the giant sundial that was the courtyard’s centrepiece. As though to imply he had stood there all the while that shadow crawled by over him.

Croesus figured he’d been there a minute or two at most. “What’s His Maj panicked about this time?”

“If I were you, I would not compound my tardiness with disrespect.”

Croesus slapped on a fake smile. His disrespect was all for this bloke. Chancellor Seedgrape always had a pinched-nose look like he was helping down a bad taste. “I was only implying if there’s such a flap on, His Maj is unlikely to be very jesty.”

“Indeed. Perhaps even you will be keen to set such humours aside once you learn what is amiss.”

Amiss? Croesus hadn’t imagined anything was actually amiss. The King was a security hypochondriac. Always perceiving flaws and potential weak points where there couldn’t be any. Because Croesus had devised the system himself and he did not do flaws.

“Go on then – what’s amiss?”

“Everything,” said Seedgrape. “The entire vault has been emptied.”

Croesus swallowed some tea that wanted up again. “Stone me,” he said.

Knowing full well that was one very possible outcome.

 

[To Be Continued…]

Haven – Conclusion

paradise

Over several days, Verity grew suspicious of Norris as he seemed to emulate her in more than just attire. He took to inventory like a fish to water, absolutely thrilled to partake in the stock-take of coconuts on the trees and livestock in the rock pools. Why, he even laid out sticks on a section of beach, arranging them in columns to record daily incomings and outgoings. Food and other materials consumed, food and other materials produced.

Eventually, Verity had to conclude that he was a man after her own heart and not trying to ingratiate himself with her at all. And he did not appear to be after her, despite her strolling around in a bikini. He was simply more interested in other figures. A quality that rendered him more attractive. Until he began to complain of the heat and pared his robes down to a pair of swimming trunks. He revealed a sunken chest that even the most fearless pirates would be unlikely to seek out.

Oh well, he seemed pleasant enough. Quite shy and quiet-spoken. Only really becoming animated when discussing numbers and assessing his array of stick-fenced columns on the beach.

And they revealed a strange truth.

While Verity adjusted to the presence of Norris, the island made its own adjustments.

More fish swam in the lagoon. More shellfish congregated in the rock pools. More fruits and coconuts sprouted on the trees. Paradise had grown more bountiful to accommodate the population boom.

Well, she supposed, that was one reason to continue to call it Paradise.

One thing Norris proved was as incapable as her of construction work. Together, they did manage to whittle and craft some tools and erect a ramshackle shack. A shack which, overnight, passed from ramshackle to tumbledown.

Useless.

But Verity could hardly be mad at Norris for a gap in his skill set that she shared. They would just have to muddle on together as best they could.

They marked the passing days with their regular meetings at the beach columns, reviewing and checking the quantities and agreeing the forecast for their tomorrows, most of which would be the same as their todays.

But there was a sort of mathematical harmony to that, something they could both appreciate over a half-coconut cup of coconut milk. They made it a bit of a ritual.

Norris proposed a coconut clock. Some device that might deliver one bobbing coconut into a rock pool on every seventh incoming wave. But they agreed it probably required a greater grasp of mechanics than either of them possessed.

Besides, Paradise was running smoothly enough with their admittedly imprecise means of time-keeping.

Until Day Twelve.

Day Twelve, when another newcomer splashed down in the lagoon.

She waded ashore and introduced herself as Jennifer. She was blind as a bat and explained how her spectacles had slipped from her nose as she struck the water. Without them she looked stunning and Verity just knew that when she fashioned her black robes with silver trim into a bikini she would have a fantastic figure.

Paradise was getting crowded.

***

Lionel Follymeister knocked on the door.

The cottage looked innocuous enough. Quaint, even, with a fuller head of thatch than him. But there were reasons to be on his guard. And not only the house’s remote location in these sombre woods.

A short doughball of a man appeared at the door, ready with a congenial smile. Which he shucked like a snake shed its skin. “Oh. It’s you. I suppose you had best come in.” He wore robes of crimson and a steepled hat tall enough to warrant its own golden spire. “Wipe your feet.”

Lionel did as bidden and followed his grudging host inside. The quaint exterior gave way to dinginess and clutter. Shelves full of books, books serving as shelves. And all manner of arcane instruments and ingredients inhabited every surface. A cat curled in the dust on the mantelpiece and it raised its head to peer at the visitor. And revealed itself to be a cat composed of dust. A fact which made its gaze seem sleepier than that of most felines.

Lionel tried to ignore its disapproving scrutiny.

“Now, allow me to introduce myself – ”

“I know who you are.” The warlock bustled around an especially unruly bureau, unearthing a hefty ledger from an ancient civilisation of scrolls and other documents. “Although I’m wondering what took you so long. I received your stupid notice of inspection three months ago.”

Lionel straightened his glasses and rearranged his own robes. “Now, really, Mister Salzpfeffer, you mean to tell me you have seen no other assessors?”

“Not a blasted one.” Salzpfeffer waddled over to the nearest table as though heavy with a large meal in addition to the burden of the ledger. He swept some of the junk aside and dropped the book on the table. It puffed up cirrus of dust. “The paths through these woods are treacherous. It’s one of the reasons I live here. Tends to deter unwanted callers.”

“Right. Well, I understand your work is important and I will try to keep the duration of my stay to a minimum.” Lionel cleared his throat and advanced to the table. “But you must understand, this is a matter of law. Hexes and Magicks Revenue Collections is a serious business.”

“Bah.” Salzpfeffer stomped off to the fireplace to pet his dustkitty. “It’s a damned stupid law. Tax on magic. It’s an offence to practitioners, is what it is.”

“The law is the law. And after all, we require only a very small percentage of the magic energies expended throughout the year to be directed to the government coffers.” Lionel tapped the ledger. “Now, can I take it that these are your up to date accounts? Every spell woven, every charm and/or hex cast?”

Salzpfeffer grumbled. His dustmog growled. “I think you’ll find everything in there to your satisfaction.”

Lionel flipped open the book.

The pages were blank. The columns empty.

But as he turned leaf after leaf, searching, the paper developed an enticing blue hue. And the dust – the dust danced across the pages, circling to form an island of sand…

***

Lionel – yes, he was fairly sure his name was Lionel – flapped the voluminous sleeves of his black robes with silver trim. But they failed to keep him airborne.

He fell and fell like year-end profits in an off-season tourist spot. And hit the blue with an almighty splash.

He kicked and swam to the surface. Only to discover he could stand. The water was not nearly as deep as when he’d plunged into it.

Most strange. Where was he? He had no idea. Where had he come from? Also vague.

He waded towards the beach where a group of about a dozen people had gathered. All in black bathing costumes with silver trim.

An attractive brown-haired woman stepped forward to greet him.

“Hello. I’m Verity,” she said. “Welcome to Paradise.”

 

 

SAF 2016

Haven – Part One

paradise

Paradise was a lonely place.

Beautiful. But lonely.

Verity took strolls along the beach every day. An hour’s leisurely walk would take her full circle around the shores of the island and, if she elected to slip off her shoes, finagle soft smooth-grained sand between her toes. Which she would then wash away with a paddle in the glittering shallows of the lagoon. Every day.

At least, as far as she could estimate. There was no night and the sun never moved in the sky.

But she had a very reliable body clock and by adhering to a routine she had been able to create what could be counted as a day.

Approximately eight hours’ sleep. Then Hour One: breakfast on fruit and coconut milk. Followed by her stroll. Then two hours – or what she gauged to be two hours – of scribing in the sand, mostly drawings of the kind of shelter she would like to build for herself out of trees and foliage if she ever acquired the tools to cut them down. Then a lunchtime attempt to spear fish with a stick of bamboo she had broken off for herself that first day she had landed here.

Fishing was not always successful, not least because she had not yet sharpened her bamboo, and so she often went without lunch. But it didn’t matter as long as she devoted the same amount of time to the activity.

Whether fed or not, she would then spend three hours running inventory on the trees and bushes that covered the island interior. Then she would gather shellfish and a salty but edible weed from the rock pools and sit down to dinner. After which she would write a short story in the sand, a tale for her to read back to herself at bedtime.

Between all this and a handful of other assorted activities she had no trouble filling her time. But such days as she created still felt very empty.

Until the day the man fell from the sky.

He splashed down in the water not far from shore and she watched him flap and flounder for a bit before he realised the lagoon was only waist-deep and he could safely wade to the beach. Which he did and then stood dripping into the sand, while his black robes with silver trim hung about him, sodden and lightly adorned with seaweed.

Verity hadn’t had lunch that day and the seaweed was the edible kind. So she was sorely tempted to pick pieces off the man’s robe and snack while he dried off. But really, he might consider such an act terribly forward and she did not wish to give him the wrong impression.

He was not ugly. He possessed a rather flat, inoffensive face with a moustache that had been careful to grow only so far in order not to provoke any strong reactions either way. He seemed polite enough as he reached up to doff his hat – before discovering that he had lost his headwear in the splash down.

All the same, Verity did not wish to broker any relations beyond civility. She thought it very unfair if the gods intended this gentleman as her mate since she would much rather have been presented with a choice. Not merely handed one prospective husband from the sky and expected to make do.

“Uh, hello,” said the man. He flapped the sleeves of his robes to shake out a little excess water, then proffered a handshake.

Verity smiled and advanced close enough to shake his fingertips. “Hello,” she said. And wondered if she should add more. “I’m Verity,” she said finally – and trusted that did not sound too forward.

Honestly, she had quite forgotten all the social graces. She must have been here alone for longer than she thought.

“Ah. Verity. I’m – allow me to introduce myself – I am – that is to say – I think I am – yes, I’m reasonably sure my name is Norris.”

“Norris,” repeated Verity. “That’s so funny.”

“It is?”

“Oh, not your name. No, it’s perfectly – ” Perfectly what? Lovely? Hardly. “Fine. Perfectly fine name,” she decided. And hoped he believed her. “No, it’s only that for days and days after I arrived here, I couldn’t remember my name. Odd, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes, I should say so. Slight memory loss – from hitting the water, I suppose.”

“Hmm.”

Verity’s mind wandered on from names to the black robes with silver trim in which her castaway was attired. She was struck both by their familiarity and a sudden consciousness that she was comparatively underdressed. After days of sweltering on this well-baked island in the sun she had torn up her robes and re-fashioned them into a bikini. She glanced down at herself and it reminded her that it too was black with silver trim.

Interesting.

But if Norris thought that turning up in a matching outfit would guarantee him a mate, then he was sorely mistaken.

Still, there was no denying the simple fact that he was here. On her island. Which meant adjustments would have to be made. Adjustments to her daily timetable. Adjustments to everything.

“Well,” she said, “welcome to – ” She realised she hadn’t yet named it officially. “Paradise.” Why not? “Paradise. First of all, you’ll be wanting to dry off. And then we had better talk inventory.”

“Inventory?” said Norris.

“Yes. This is an island economy with limited produce and, between you and me, no industry. And now a population that has doubled. Also, between you and me.”

Norris appeared to enjoy the joke. “Why, I would love nothing more than to take inventory with you.”

“Whoa! Steady on there!” Verity showed him her palm.

Even in Paradise, men wanted to move too fast. She was here first and this was her island. She wasn’t about to stand for any funny business.

She turned and led the way up the beach. If nothing else, Norris might have some DIY skills and assist her in constructing a sturdy shelter.

He trudged after her, squelching and dripping, but otherwise good enough to keep quiet for now. Which was something. Because in the short space of their conversation Verity had lost all track of time.

Now she was going to have to start all over again from Hour One. Which would mean breakfasting again. This time with company.

What kind of screwy Paradise was this?

 

 

 

[To Be Concluded…]

Nechronometer – Conclusion

skullclock

Three of the clock. Too long to wait.

And furthermore it would not be enough.

Cadaverus heard the thunk of the heavy man’s steps on the stairs. Like the tock of a mahogany clock. Counting down to his doom. The big fellow with the axe, coming for him. Coming to destroy his life’s work.

No! It would not be!

Thunk. Thunk.

Two more stairs. Thunk. A third.

The house measured time. But gauges, dials, any measuring devices at all were made to be set.

Thunk. Thunk.

Man and axe. Two steps closer.

Cadaverus pulled one lever, unlocking the mechanism, then another to override the machine’s complaints. He ran to the wheel at the end of the row of levers. And grasped the crank handle. It was meant only for minor adjustments, corrections for when cogs’ teeth wore down and gears slipped and time was lost. But Cadaverus Helskur turned the wheel onward. Winding and winding as though life depended upon it. Winding, winding, winding, as though adding on years with every second.

Thunk. Thunk.

Helskur cranked the wheel round and round. Gears turned. Cogs ground their teeth.

The house struck Three. Four. Five.

Thunk. Thunk.

The house struck Six. Seven.

Thunk. Thunk. The boots on the stairs struck two more.

The clock door creaked open once, twice, thrice. Released figures onto the landing.

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiins!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurgh!”

“Foooooooooooooooooooooooood!”

Thunk. Thunk.

Helskur cranked and cranked. Time and the house wound on and on. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven of the clock.

Thunk.

The final footstep. The big man crested the landing. He turned to examine the suspended symbol. Weighed his axe, appraising his chances of cutting the symbol down. Then turned to face the alcove and the metal clank and clank of Helskur’s frantic cranking.

Cadaverus Helskur met the man’s gaze. But completed the final turn of the wheel.

The house struck Twelve of the clock.

Mid-day. Noon had arrived at about Three.

It was possible Helskur had damaged the mechanism. It was a calculated risk. Damage could be repaired. Whereas, once subjected to the attentions of that rusting axe blade, he could not.

He shrank into his alcove, hurting his back as he pressed against the levers. The big man advanced a single slow step. And raised his axe.

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiins!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurgh!”

“Foooooooooooooooooooooooood!”

“Fleeeesssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhh!”

“Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaat!”

“Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumaaaaaan!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrggh!”

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiins!”

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaats!”

“Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiins!”

Ten pained, starved voices travelled the landing. Ten at Twelve of the clock. Noon at Three. The house was broken.

The big bald axeman turned again to face the shambling army of undead. His eyes widened as he appeared to count their number. They came as a jostling, grasping pack. Cold, hungry beggars reaching to warm their hands and hearts on human flesh.

The big man braced himself for battle.

Ferocity and fear competed in his eyes.

He was large. There was no telling how many he might cut down before he was ultimately overpowered.

That was the calculated risk.

Except Helskur could not do the calculations. He could only hang back in shadow and watch.

*

Gears turned. Cogs ground their teeth.

Away along the main landing, a door creaked open. Club-feet dragged across floorboards, one pair scraping, encased in boots of rusted steel plate. A formidable addition to the mechanism. It had been an inspired notion, to suit the big man in armour.

Although he was no longer a man. Technically speaking.

“Braaaaaaaaaiiiiiins!”

“Uuuuuuuuurrrrrgh!”

“Braaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiins!”

“Meeeeeeeeeeeeeat!”

The moans echoed around the hall and Cadaverus Helskur listened to the undead dragging their upright carcasses in their circuit of the landing.

Four.

In the end, the big man with the axe had felled four. The perfect number. The house was a very precise mechanism.

Helskur bent to his notes and scratched away with his pen. There were more modifications to be made, perfections to be perfected.

Tonight, he was determined to work long into the small hours of morning.

Undisturbed.

*

Sisily tread the boards, her stomach hollow with hunger. She delivered her monosyllabic line, over and over, drawling it out for all its worth.

It was the same show, mornings, matinees and evenings. The same part, the same line.

There were long waits in the wings. And she always followed Grievance out onto the stage. The house was their theatre, the shadows their audience.

Time marched on.

And twice daily the whole troupe appeared together.

Life after death, it turned out, was a lot like life. Just more of the same.

 

 

SAF 2016

Nechronometer – Part Five

skullclock

Livier backed up, allowing Sisily to back up further. The two undead – zombies? – was that what they were? – dragged their feet like they wore leaden slippers. But Sisily, although she glanced down, failed to register what manner of footwear they’d chosen for their nightime walk.

Zombies. Dead. Undead. Whatever they might be, they were real. And suddenly the mat at the entrance made horrible sense.

UNWELCOME.

They were coming to ungreet the uninvited guests. Coming to say their dead hellos. An unwelcome.

“Get back! Back, I say!” commanded Livier like a nervous priest.

“I am!” Sisily told him. But every time she retreated she bumped up against Livier’s midriff. And the two undead advanced, reaching, clutching, grasping. Like rotten, mouldering grandparents seeking to draw her in for an embrace. Or a foul-stenched, slippery-lipped kiss.

“Not you! Them! Those – things!”

Livier couldn’t say the word.

Zombies.

“Zombies!” Sisily hollered. Forcing the word out in a trembling scream. Making it more real for her. Real for everybody.

“What – what do we do?” Derby Brown whimpered.

A zombie lunged, swiping at Sisily’s face with an emaciated claw. Livier backed up several paces at once, snatching Sisily and pulling her back with him.

“Somebody get up those stairs!” Benevolence Wisheart strode forward, swinging one of her capacious carpet bags.

She let go at the end of a third, hefty swing and sent it flying at the lead zombie. The luggage struck it in its hollowed abdomen. It hissed through a set of teeth like lichen-clad stones in old-meat gums. And staggered under the baggage blow. Knocked its fellow creature into a backward stumble. Both somehow remained upright.

Dead things really ought to be more inclined to lie down.

“Run up those stairs and grab one of those holy symbols!”

Benevolence was right. “I’ll go,” volunteered Sisily.

The zombies steadied themselves and recommenced their advance.

“You’ll never be able to pull that down. It’s on chains,” Wallis Fringe pointed out. “Grievance! You should go.”

Grievance shot looks around the troupe. He stomped away, around the base of the bone tree – then broke off towards the left of the hall.

“What are you doing, man?” protested Wallis.

A zombie lurched forward again, arms outstretched and reaching for that fateful hug with Sisily. The other zombie, just a few paces behind, tripped over the carpet bag. It toppled, arms flailing, and dominoed into its unfriend.

The lead zombie staggered, pitching straight at Sisily. She screamed and darted aside. Its wizened hands latched onto the frilled front of Livier’s blouse. One or two rotten fingernails popped loose, but the remainder dug into the fabric.

Livier backed away and away, swatting at the hanger-on but without wanting to make any actual physical contact. Attached by its claws, the zombie was towed along by Livier’s quiversome stomach.

The second zombie steered itself towards Sisily.

Benevolence thundered in to intercept, now armed with one of the umbrellas, battered and broken by the storm, but still serviceable as a weapon. She beat at the creature with this ragged, flapping object. It appeared unbothered but the assault disrupted its plans to feast on Sisily.

It turned its arms towards its attacker. And gnashed its teeth.

A deafening clatter all but stopped Sisily’s heart. Lightning flared through the hall, but the noise was not the work of the storm. Grievance marched from the left of the hall, leaving a fallen suit of armour in his wake. But carrying the empty knight’s battleaxe.

The blade was dull and rusted. But the sight of it – the sight of Grievance – raised a cheer in Sisily’s heart.

The big man swung the axe high and, covering the distance in a few brisk strides, brought it down on Benevolence’s foe. Then he turned and headed for the one still being tugged around the hall by Livier.

Sidily screamed. Again.

She knew it wasn’t strong or independent or doing her gender proud, but she couldn’t help it. One of the few things more horrible than an undead person was the sight of a dead undead person, freshly hacked with a battleaxe. If relative shrillness of screams was any gauge, then Derby Brown was doing his gender even less proud.

Sisily shouldn’t have felt better for that. But she did. A bit.

She reined in her breathing and did her best to look anywhere but the gorier directions.

Grievance, the axe hanging in his hand, blade dripping, wandered past on a mission to the stairs.

“Grievance? Where are you going?”

As much as she didn’t wish to see the axe, she wanted Greivance close.

“Symbol,” he said. And gestured to the landing. “In case there’s any more.”

***

Damn. Damn. Damn.

Cadaverus Helskur was now doomed to face the intruders alone. Until three of the clock.

And the biggest of the unwanted guests was coming his way.

 

[To Be Concluded…]