Grady’s Retirement

 

Horse in WinterThis is an idea I was kicking around for a while, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it as a flash fiction piece or build it up into something more elaborate. In the end, I really liked the simplicity of it, so I just wrote it as I imagined. I’ve wanted to write more fantasy for a while, but my goofy Terry Pratchett infused childhood always takes over. This was an attempt to keep it (reasonably) serious. Let me know what you thought. 


Grady’s Retirement

It had been many seasons since he last set foot inside The Jolly Toad. The inn lived up to its name in only one respect, its landlord was a bug-eyed old sod who, sadly, was anything but jolly. But an inn was an inn and after he returned from the longest of his travels in a long time, he was happy for a bed and a mug of beer. With or without the smile. The place could be a little rough, he felt his hand rest on his sword instinctively. He pushed open the heavy oak doors and was pleased to see it was almost empty. Business was slow since Winter set in, but as long as he kept the fires burning, there’d always be enough coin to keep the lamps lit.

It was a small place, smaller than he remembered, and the floors hadn’t been swept in a long time. The old man ran it himself, too cheap to pay for help. He caught the old man’s eye, who returned a curt nod and then waved towards a seat in the corner. He felt the ache in his legs set in as he made his way to the seat. It would be good to take the weight off. His bags dropped with a clank, he unclipped his sheathe and let the sword lay on the table. If anyone wanted to fight him for it, let him. This would be his last trip out beyond the Forest. With any luck, he need never draw a sword again. Once he pulled off his battered gloves, he could feel the warmth of the fire return to his fingers. The old man dropped a mug of beer on the table with a slop. He slipped a hand inside his bag and dropped a purse of coins on the table. The old man took it. He would worry about collecting the change in the morning.

As he rested his eyes, he became aware that someone was moving around him. Whoever it was dragged something. He opened his eyes groggily, he must have fallen asleep. In front of him was a boy, no more than seventeen. He must have come through the snow, but he wasn’t dressed for it. He looked like he’d come straight from the stabled. Only his hat, wide brimmed and falling under its own weight, looked touched by the weather. Behind him, he dragged a heavy wooden chest, braced with Iron. A sturdy lock over the latch. The boy reached out a hand and smiled.

“The innkeeper says you might be able to help me.” But the old man was nowhere to be seen. “You came from past the forest, right?”

“Aye,” he nodded. “But I won’t be going again.”

The boy shuffled into the seat opposite, keeping an eye on the old chest at all times.

“That’s a shame, Swordsman. I could make it worth your while.”

“I’m no swordsman. Just a trader.”

“Come, come!” Said the boy. “A trader beyond the forest is like a Knight in the capital.” He fished out a coin purse of his own and dropped it on the table, beaming. “I’m willing to pay handsomely for a guide, and an adventure!”

The boy’s eyes lit up, but he’d seen it all before. Thrill seekers from the city, he’d be dead within a week. He tried to change the subject.

“What’s in the chest?”

“Caught your eye did it?” The boy looked afraid for a moment, then grinned. “Spells! From the Old College.”

He laughed. “The college is a myth.”

“Oh it is,” the boy ran a hand along the chest. It seemed to make a noise, like music. “But I’ve been there all the same.”

“Sorry kid,” it was time to end it. “Not interested.”

The boy was crestfallen. “Fine then.” He bit his lip and lifted his chest like a child cradling an anvil. He turned, but lost his footing almost immediately, stumbling towards the fireplace. He grabbed the boy just before the flames touched him, but the chest landed right in the middle.

“No!” The boy screamed, but it was too late. A noise filled the air, like voices. Whispers filled the adventurer’s ears and the boy ducked and hid under the table.

The boy scuttled away to the other side of the bar, leaving his would-be guide alone, staring into the flames. As they consumed the chest, the noises grew louder. Colours exploded from the fire, but he did not duck or flinch. He reached for his sword, but he was glued to the spot as the contents of the chest were burned. He definitely heard music now, a half forgotten melody from his childhood, but he didn’t just hear it. He could feel it, swirling around the tips of his fingers like a dream. And then a nightmare. Visions of monsters, of every fear escaping from the flames, while the walls around him seemed to melt away. Then everything went black.

He opened his eyes. Something was not right, he looked around, but there was nothing but snow. The inn was gone, and wherever it was, it left nothing of itself but the fireplace. Standing perfectly, every brick with the mortar between, stood alone in the snow. A fire burned in it, but he could feel no warmth. Without thinking, he reached for his sword, but he hands felt wrong. He looked down and saw not feet, but the hooves of a horse. He tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat and a mewling whinny was all that emerged.

A voice whispered just behind his ear. “Now, now.” He felt a hand down the back of his neck, and then a weight. Something was on his back. The voice whispered in his ear again. “It looks like we’ll be going on that adventure after all.” He felt the boy’s feet kick at his side, and he started running towards the forest.

Uncle Frank

Hey guys, this is only a quick piece but I liked how it turned out so I wanted to share it anyway. Let me know what you think.


I don’t remember a lot about Uncle Frank. He was old. Probably not that old. I’m nearly thirty now, nobody seems as old as they used to, but he was older than my Dad. I was still in plaid skirts and pigtails when he moved out. I don’t even remember much about him as, y’know, a guy, even though he lived here. My mum found him funny, I know that. Dad? I guess to dad he was more of a burden. Dad was younger than me when Frank moved out, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the same age as my Dad really. The man was born with a pipe and slippers in his hand, y’know what I mean?

Its just a lot of little images about Uncle Frank. Like the way he’d start the day with a glass of whiskey cut with gripe water. “Good for the digestion.” Dad would roll his eyes like Captain 50s, and puff away behind his paper. Uncle Frank would roll his eyes right back at him and drink his breakfast. That’s about it. That, and the scar. It ran from his forehead to beneath his eye and still makes me shudder.

Frank had to move out when I was seven and things get a lot fuzzier after that. I know we went to visit him at his home, because I remember Dad sitting me down and explaining in no uncertain terms that I was not to smuggle a bottle a gripe water to him. I did anyway. I did stuff like that back then. If he hadn’t warned me, I’d probably have forgotten. And that’s my last memory of Frank. Pale faced, staring out of the window while strangers goggled at him. Even his scar looked faded and ageing away with the rest of him.

When I think of Frank, I end up at an earlier memory. It couldn’t have been long before, it was the summer Uncle Frank gave me his gun. Everything else from those days is hazy, but this comes through clear. Like a big-screen TV, y’know? We’re stood in the garden. There’s a high fence that my Dad replaced with little wall years later. Uncle Frank was babysitting, but I didn’t mind. I’d spent most of the day with my friends. Then something had upset me, I’d gone home in tears and Frank had tried to comfort me. He was useless at it, so he tried distracting me instead. Silently, he lined up five glass coke bottles on my Dad’s old workbench. Then he disappeared inside and returned with a small wooden box. He pried the lid apart and retrieved the gun. I’d seen guns on TV and in books, but I’d never seen a real one before. It had been in the house of the whole time and I never knew.

Uncle Frank dropped to his knees behind me and with his giant hairy arms he reached over my shoulders and planted the gun in my hands. Adjusted my fingers, tiny next to his, until they held the gun like it was made for me. Slowly he pointed me towards one of the coke bottles, and I squeezed the trigger.

Have you ever had a sensation you can’t explain? It’s hard to put into words, until one day you find someone else who felt the same way? I’m not much of a reader, but when I was in college I learned a bit about a lot of things. Y’know that book by Proust? Where the smell of a cake takes him back to moment years before? Well, I still know exactly what happened the second I pulled that trigger, because every time I see fireworks, or pull a party popper, or ride the dodgems. Anything that leaves that acrid taste in the air, and I’m there again. I could count the hairs on Frank’s arm, smell the booze on his breath. I’m in the moment.

My shoulders shake a little. Frank is hurting my hand a little, but I don’t think he knows. I squeeze the trigger, it feels different to my expectations. I feel the gun jolt a little in my hands, and I realise this is why Frank is gripping so tight. I expect to be able to see the bullet, but I’m not even sure where to look. Before I have time to process my thoughts, the coke bottle shatters. Then the moments ends, Uncle Frank stands and ruffles my hair,

He walks back inside, but he leaves me holding the gun. Without him to take the weight, my hand drops and it feels like it ways a thousand pounds. When my parents get back, that’s how they find me. Stood in the middle of the grass holding the gun. I don’t know what happened to it after that.

Joshua’s Gift – A Short Story

Manor in WatercolourHey guys, it’s time for another story. I suppose you could call this a horror, but it’s a lot gentler than the last one. This is more of an old fashioned cobwebs and crypts tale. I’ve wanted to write something like this for a while, but I wanted to get away from full moons and thunderstorms so I recast it upon a hot summer’s day. Let me know what you think. 


Beckett pushed open the old oak door. The house was old, and large. Rumour was it had once been larger, the surviving wing of a Tudor manor that had been burned to the ground nearly two hundred years before. What remained had been patched up, but had the feel or a diseased stump, soaking up the life around it and refusing to die. He stood now, facing the open door. The sun was hot and choking, but he was still reluctant to enter the shadows inside. There was a smell, like cobwebs and rotten fruit, but he was here for a reason. He could not go back and face his family until the job was done.

He stepped across the threshold and gave his eyes a moment to adjust. If he was right, there’d be nothing to worry about until sunset. It was hardly modern in there. He was stood in a small hall with an ornate staircase in the centre, three doors led off from each wall. He picked a direction and set off deeper into the building. The first door led him to the dining room. A thick layer of dust coated everything. A place was set on the table, but the plate was filthy. He peered through the grime and saw a cluster of maggot shells as rotten and ancient as everything else. He would not find Joshua in here.

The next room was a long conservatory, and someone had been there recently to clean. The glass sparkled and sunlight warmed a set of comfortable looking chairs. Beckett could see out into the garden, a mess of weeds and vines that he couldn’t get to from the front. Behind him, something smashed.

Beckett swung around to see the old man. He was tall and clearly frail, the remains on a small teacup were shattered at his feet, and he could see the man’s hand shook involuntarily. He stared at him with wet, whitened eyes and his sagging mouth trembled when he spoke.

“I don’t know you.”

“No.” Beckett stepped towards him, but the fright was too much and the old man collapsed into a chair. “I’m here for Joshua.”

The man cradled his skull with shaking hands. “The master is resting.”

“I won’t disturb him.”

The old man didn’t seem to hear him. “The master is resting. Come back later.” He clutched at thin air as if he still held the cup and then lost focus altogether. Beckett turned away. The old man’s mind was gone. Taken. He would not be the last. But he could still mange a lie. Joshua had to be there, he couldn’t be anywhere else.

Beckett opened the warped glass door and stepped out into the garden. He might as well be in the jungle, vines and reeds escaping from the pond clogged the path, but it didn’t take him long to spot it. Another relic from the Tudor days, no doubt. The entrance to the crypt was twice his height, but had long since been consumed by climbing ivy. A statue he guessed had been an angel stood on top, but was covered in green except for the tips of its wings. All the remained free was the gate, which looked as new as the day it was fitted.

It swung open easily. He had expected it to be locked, but it made sense. Nobody from the town outside the walls was going to attempt to make it this far. Too superstitious. After all, they had a good reason to be. Hell, he was terrified himself, but he was here now. The old man had seen him. If he didn’t see it through, he was as good as dead anyway.

The steps down were uneven stone, worn through years of heavy use. It was dark at first but shafts leading up to the surface were placed at regular intervals, until he reached the floor. They were only just below the ground, but here two large grates let light and air through, making it less claustrophobic than he had feared.

Beckett knew he was safe. Until night fell, he had nothing to worry about, but still he noticed he could feel his heartbeat somewhere his own head. His chest pounded so much it started to hurt. If anything, it was even hotter down her, and the filtering light caught every speck of dust and dirt, turning the air into a hot, musty fog that seemed to clog his throat.

There was only one coffin in the crypt. It sat on the far wall, where the light barely reached. He walked to it and placed his hands on the lid. It was varnished wood, cherry if he was not mistaken. It felt cold to the touch, and expensive. A brass plate was screwed in to the top, but the letters had worn away years ago. He dropped his battered old surgical bag down and lifted out the crowbar.

“Stop!”

That single world must have taken the last of the old man’s strength because he dropped to his hands and knees at the foot of the stairs.

“I’m sorry,” said Beckett. And he was. “I don’t have a choice.”

He jammed the crowbar into the side of the coffin and with a single application of force, the lid popped off. He laughed when he saw the nails. Barely a centimetre into the wood.

The body inside was not a body at all, but he’d been expecting that. He finally came face to face with Joshua, a man who was, by all accounts, nearly a thousand years old, and yet had the face of a seventeen year old boy. Its hair was plaited and tied and its face was red and flushed. It had fed recently. It had to be tonight.

“You cannot kill him.” The old man coughed through the choking air.

Beckett laughed. “I thought you’d be happy to see him go.”

“No,” the old man shook his head. Then he lowered himself to the ground and lay on his chest. His face was wet with tears.

“He really has broken you.” Beckett felt guilt for the old man then remembered why he was there. “Relax, my friend. I’m not here to kill him.”

He opened the surgical bag again and removed his equipment. A length of surgical tubing and a set of needles. In a few moments he’d set it up, and gently inserted a needle into the creatures arm. Beckett hissed as he inserted a needle into his own arm. He pulled back a syringe connected between the two of them. The vampire’s eyes opened, flickered from side to side and then closed again. When its blood began to flow down the tube it was dark and thick. When it entered his veins it made him feel cold to his shoulder.

He could not be sure when he had taken enough and so he kept the transfusion going until Joshua lost the blush from his cheeks. Too much, he supposed, could be dangerous, but no worse than everything else he had done today. When he was done, he pulled the needle out and left without bothering to clear up the rest. He passed the old man and still lay in the dirt, but whatever pity he had was gone. When he stepped back out into the garden, something felt different. The light felt cold without any of its colour, and it started to sting his skin already. It was time to find shelter.

Prey – A Short Story

Tavern SceneIt has been a while since I published a flash fiction story to the blog, but I’ve been a bit lax lately and they’re good for getting back in the habit. The setting for this story was Paris in 1719, during the Mississippi Bubble, one of the first major economic collapses in modern times. Parisian society was caught in a fever, trading shares in The Mississippi Company, which had a monopoly on French trade to Louisiana. A great account of this can be found in Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is a must read book exploring dramatic examples of mob behaviour. 


“Why should I be quiet, old man?”
Braker had watched the boy for an hour now, the more he drank the more foolish he became.
“I’m a patron like anyone else?” He slapped money down on the bar and then went back to boasting among his friends. Braker watched the landlord slip the coins into his pocket, shake his head and then leave the boy to his folly.
“Carry on, Jean!” Shouted one of his friends.
“Well it was as easy as all that. I’ve only been in Paris a few weeks, and I tell you I’m going to leave this city a rich man.”
He wished the young fool would keep his mouth shut, but if he didn’t listen to the landlord, he wouldn’t listen to some interfering Englishman. Now the word was out, Braker didn’t want the other patrons getting any ideas, but the lad continued.
“A drink to John Law, I say.” His friends raised their glasses. “I tell you, three days ago I bought and handful of shares in this Mississippi company of his and they’ve doubled in value since then. At this rate…”
“Aye, at this rate.” Muttered the landlord. “Half of Paris stood at the door of M. Law day and night, and for what? Paper?”
Braker watched the boy’s face fall, he was clearly stewed in ale now and the rest of the bar seemed uninterested. The fever that had gripped most of Paris hadn’t yet reached the houses of the poor yet, and whatever the boy was doing in a place like this, he had certainly never been poor. Neither had Braker, he’d taken a walk to the house of John Law himself. He felt his breast pocket nervously, but his stash was there safe and sound. He would not leave his home without his shares, but he knew better than to loudmouth about it like the child he saw before him.

“Paper!?” The boy sounded aghast. “I shouldn’t expect you to understand,” he sniffed and peered around the tavern. “Grotty little place like this, what do you know about economics?” The landlord waved him away and went back to cleaning glasses. “After all,” he said to nobody in particular. “Was it not M. Law and his bank that saved the country from the last disaster?” The crowd that followed the rich boy was dissipating, and Braker almost felt sorry for the lad. Up among the toffs he’d start a frenzy just mentioning the Mississippi company.

He watched the boy until he could see he was reaching his fill. When he started to button his cloak, Braker got to his feet too. He reached inside his jacket and felt for his old sword. It was tarnished and bent out of shape, but it would do the job. Brake patted down the pocket with his shares and smiled to himself. The boy was right, wealth made overnight, but the more shares the better, and Braker had put all the money he had on the little he now possessed. Rumour was Law would stop selling soon, unless the Regent intervened, and Braker couldn’t wait for that.

Soon the boy pushed his way through the drunks by the door and stumbled into the night air. Braker wasn’t far behind. He stepped slowly and carefully. The boy was too merry to notice him, but Braker didn’t believe in taking chances. He’d need a quiet spot to slip the sword in and unless the boy lived in the same slum he drank in, Braker knew he might need to walk for some time.

He’d followed the boy nearly twenty minutes when he turned a corner into an alleyway between two houses with dark windows. Nobody would see them there, but when he turned the corner too, the boy was nowhere to be seen. He stepped forward into the alley, covered his eyes and peered through the fog of the gas lamps. Had the steamed young gentleman collapsed into the gutter? Perhaps he could be off with the shares without bloodshed, that was as good an option as any, Braker supposed. He leaned down to see better through the mirk, but it was no good. The boy was lost to him.

Unfortunately, the boy found him first. The sensation was new, but Braker had seen enough of war to know the sound of a knife through the back. It had missed his heart, but as he struggled to breath, he knew it had pierced his lung. The knife was removed, and Braker fell onto his face. The wet street soaked into his jacket, and even now he panicked for the papers in his jacket. Firm hands turned him onto his back, and under the lamplight, Braker saw the boy clearly. He smiled back at Braker and started to search his jacket.

“Sorry for that, my friend.” Said the boy, Braker spat curses and blood in return. “You’re English? How are you finding Paris?” The boy found Braker’s papers and his eyes gleamed. “I really am sorry, but I see from your sword you had the same in mind for me.”
Braker tried to speak but his wind was gone.
“No need to apologise.” The boy closed up Braker’s jacket and then got to his feet. “It was a cruel trick, I know. Beneath me really, but I really would like to leave Paris a rich man.” Braker felt his strength leaving him.
“Anyway…” The boy pulled Braker’s eyelids closed, he tried to open them but he had nothing left. “…they’re all doing it.”

The Visitor – A Short Story

Hey guys, this was supposed to be posted last week, but it just wasn’t ready yet so I pulled it for another pass. It’s good to go now and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think. In other news, the switch to the new domain is completely final now. I’ve got everything working as I like it, so I can get back to posting and enjoying blogging for a bit. I’m still getting little bits of feedback from the Two Cephalopods Walk in a Bar freebie which finished the other week. If you grabbed the book and enjoyed it, you’d be doing me a massive favour by reviewing it on Amazon. If not, don’t worry, it’s never too long before another freebie. That’s all for now. If you like this story, check out The Octopus of Suspense, or Octopus Returns, which contain a lot of my other stories. Or, click the “Fiction” tab at the stop for some stories you can read free right here. 

The Visitor

1953

Grayling sanded the rail. There was a knot in the wood, it took longer to sand down. A dark spot in the finish and he couldn’t paint it until the whole thing was smoothed out. When it was done, he could finally sit back and say the job was complete. He looked out across the water, grey clouds hung off the coast, but the last of the summer sun was bearing down on him. Looked like he would be done just in time.

Two years ago, he’d have laughed if someone said he could build his own house. Now it was ready, well, maybe he’d get a good night’s sleep without worrying about the next day’s work. It was getting quieter now. Tourists usually filled the beach the last few weeks, but he hadn’t seen a soul all day. It was a small price to pay for peace and quiet the rest of the year. Besides, the house was firmly on his land. If he had enough, he could keep people on the right side of the fence. Most of them weren’t that bad anyway.

He worked the wood down some more, trying not to think about anything else. He whistled some tune he half remembered, he couldn’t remember the name. He couldn’t remember anything except that his mother liked it, and he knew that if he didn’t whistle all the way through at least once, he would be still hearing it when he went to sleep. He looked back into the sky, the clouds were getting nearer. He lifted off the sandpaper and blew away the dust. The dark patch where the knot had been was still visible, but when it was painted over, nobody would know any better. He would know, and it would niggle away at him. Little details always did. But if the clouds opened and it started to rain on the exposed wood, well a little dark patch would be the least of his worries.

He brushed down the rail, dropped the ragged sandpaper into his toolbox and went inside to finished the paint. When he returned, he saw the man on the beach. Not a tourist, he wore a suit. Even at this distance, Grayling could see that it was immaculately pressed. He walked right towards his house, and Grayling knew it was over.

He did his best to ignore the stranger, to hold on to the moment. He opened the can of paint, a blue he’d picked out just for the porch, and started to paint. He focused on the knot, trying to cover it completely. He went back to whistling, but he still couldn’t place the tune.

“Now, what is that song.” He said to himself.

“Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish.” The man was behind him now.

“Right,” said Grayling. He turned and dropped the paintbrush back in the can. “Harry Warren.”

“I believe so,” said the stranger.

“Here to visit the beach?” Grayling asked. The man shook his head and extended a hand. “I’m here to speak to you, Mr. Grayling.” He took back his hand and smiled. “Shall we go inside? I’d rather not catch a tan, if it’s all the same to you.”

Grayling walked the stranger into his house and invited him to sit. “Drink?”

“Please,” said the man. “Whatever you have will be fine.” Grayling laughed. Gin it was, how far would get if he poisoned the glass? Not that he could, who kept a stash of cyanide at their beachfront cabin. He gave the man his drink and then sat opposite, more than a little proud of himself. He’d played out this day in his head so many times, but never did he think he’d keep his cool so well.

“So, what can I do for you?”

The man took a drink and then placed the glass gently on Grayling’s coffee table.

“I’d like to tell you a story, Mr. Grayling.” He leaned forward. Grayling hated him, the bastard almost managed to look earnest. “It starts ten years ago, very far from here. The government gives a man a job, and it isn’t a very nice one.” He looks empathetic, even magnanimous. “The man, still young then, takes his expenses and his passport and leaves to do it. Word comes back to the government that the job has been done successfully, but the man in charge has been killed. He is given a hero’s burial, though no body is discovered.”

“Yes,” said Grayling. “That sort of thing was common a few years ago. Sad times.”

“Certainly. Now imagine it is discovered that the job was not completed. Not entirely.”

“I think I can do that,” he muttered.

“Well, then the government might start to suspect that some of their other assumptions were also incorrect. Might they.”

“Look, what’s all this about… what did you say your name was?”

The stranger stood and knocked back the last of the gin. “I didn’t. It wasn’t about anything exception professional courtesy, Mr. Grayling. Suffice to say, I am also a man who has been sent to do a job. I just wanted to really know what the job was first. I think we both deserve that.”

“I think it’s time you left.” Grayling stood and showed the stranger the door. “I’ve had quite enough.” The stranger nodded and left by the front door. When Grayling got up the nerve to follow him, the man was long gone.

When the rain began to fall, Grayling took his things inside. He stayed away from the windows, and without making too much commotion, he retrieved his old leather bound suitcase from under his bed and started to pack his things. As he worked, he felt the home he had built from the last year begin to close in around him, as if it were straight jacket. The walls felt smaller, and the doorways a little tighter, and the spot that had seemed so remote now felt exposed and in the full view of the world. How he had believed himself to be hidden, he could not understand.

He could pack light. Perhaps he had always known this day would come, because when he looked around he could see little that he could not do without. Now it was as if he had been living light, waiting for the day to come. He packed a change of clothes, he gathered all him money, his passport and the small collection of documents that would make travelling a little easier. When he belted up the suitcase again, it didn’t feel much heavier.

And then he sat. He didn’t leave the house. He watched the light fade outside his bedroom window and listened to the sounds of the beach surrounding him. He thought about the suitcase and he didn’t know why he’d spent the time with it. He was never trying to hide, he couldn’t stop them finding him. He just wanted to lay low enough to stop them having a reason to look. Now they knew he was alive, they would find him. His cheek felt cold, he raised a hand and felt that it was covered in tears. He did not have it in him to start running again, and how far would he get if he did.

Grayling sat on the floor until dawn came again. Then he opened up the can of paint and returned to painting his porch. He whistled Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish until he could really feel the sun on the back of his neck, and when it got dark again, he went back inside and slept through the night.