Stale Ale (short story)

Tavern

Ripper #2

Jack pressed his lips to the rim of the rough flagon, took a small mouthful and grimaced. He had never thought that a pint of ale could actually be stale, but that was exactly how the beer tasted. It had the hard, sour taste of bread long since become inedible. Something dark floated on top of the cloudy brew and Jack sincerely hoped that it was a head of wheat.

Around him was the low hubbub of tens of voices talking at once. The tavern was dark and musty, smelling like a damp cellar. This was unsurprising considering that they were one floor underground and only separated from the muddy bank of the Thames by a few feet of stone and brick. Black mold clung to the wooden beams holding up the ground floor.

“Are you drinking that, mate?” Someone asked from over Jack’s shoulder.

“You have it.”

He turned and pressed the vile drink into the grimy hands of an elderly man with hops and pieces of bread sticking out of his tangled grey beard. Jack shuddered as the wretched man’s hand touched his. Some people ought to be thrown in the river and given a good cleaning up, he thought.

Every rational part of his mind was pleading with him to leave the tavern. The men who frequented riverside drinking holes were all either vicious or desperate, sometimes both, and the very air was polluting his body.

“But I have to stay.” Jack said.

“What’s that, love?”

A heavy figure pressed itself between Jack and the crowd. He saw a maroon dress almost bursting at the seams where it had been tightly laced over an expansive bosom. A pair of gaudily painted red cheeks wobbled as the woman pressed her pink lips into a wet pout.

“I wasn’t talking to you, I’m sorry.” Jack replied.

“Well, who were you talking to then?”

“Nobody, you shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here with these men.”

“Tell me your name, love. Why shouldn’t I be here?”

Jack leaned closer to the woman and a heady waft of perfume stung his nostrils. He whispered in her ear.

“These men are all evil. I’m going to kill them.

PART 3

For another crime short story, click here.

For a fantasy short story, click here.

 

Currently Reading: Lamentation

Lamentation cover

Who is the Author?

C. J. Samson is the author of a gripping series of historical fiction set in Tudor England. He studied history at Birmingham University (BA and PhD), as well as training and working as a solicitor. His Wikipedia page is here.

What is the Shardlake Series About?

The Shardlake books are historical crime novels by C. J. Samson which follow an English lawyer named Shardlake during the reign of Henry VIII, perhaps England’s most famous monarch.

This is a fascinating period of English history with great social, political and religious upheavals. The author captures this sense of grand change by using it to guide the wider plot through the series.

Rather than focusing so much on the king himself, the author keeps Shardlake tangled in the machinations of the great men and women surrounding Henry VIII. There is a sense of how his advisers jostle continuously for power, sometimes with sinister consequences.

Expect to encounter prominent figures such as Thomas Cromwell as you read through the series.

What Do I Think So Far?

I’m only about 50 pages in so far but the story already has me hooked. Samson isn’t an author who allows himself to be rushed. He takes his time setting out the background to the plot and immersing you headfirst in the historical climate.

It’s a method which works extremely well. You get a real sense of the Tudor period and can enjoy vivid historical escapism. But the narrative soon intensifies. It doesn’t so much increase its pace (at least not yet), as I mentioned the author keeps things steady, but you begin to get hints and rumors of the twists and turns lying in the reader’s path.

Where can you find it?

You can find Lamentation on Amazon by clicking here.

For other book reviews click here or here.

For the first chapter of an unpublished historical novel, click here.

Lamplight (short story)

Battersea bridge

Ripper #1

Jed knew everything about the woman. He had been watching over her for almost four months and it felt as though they had been friends since childhood. He knew that she must think he was her guardian angel. One day, he did not know when, Jed would summon enough courage to speak to her. Every night she stood beneath the same hanging lantern, bathed in a halo of warm amber light. Every night Jed watched her from the shadows, her figure perfectly silhouetted against the waters of the river as they glimmered in the moonlight.

He knew it was not right that she was oblivious to her saviour’s identity. On several nights he had seen her being robbed and beaten by crooks or manhandled by the local constables. He had immediately done all that he could to save her life, praying feverishly for Him not to take her so soon. She had not died yet.

But now a new threat was drawing near. It came beneath a wide-rimmed hat and heavy overcoat, lingering in the shadows at the edge of the circle of light. Jed prepared his mind for the prayer he would soon be offering, but there was no need. The woman turned towards the stranger, laughed shrilly at something he said and threw her arms around his neck.

“Just business, no need to worry.” Jed muttered.

The pair began to trade fleeting kisses and he felt blood rush to his cheeks. He was not angry or jealous, merely embarrassed to be witnessing such a private exchange.

A rough leather shoe clapped against the hard cobblestones behind him. The sound was faint but it carried clearly to Jed’s ears. He began to turn as the sharp thing bit into his neck. It dragged across and a wave of warmth spread down his chest. A red mist hung in the air. Jed tried to ask what was happening but found he could not speak. He crumpled to the ground.

The crimson blush of life drained out of Jed’s face, replaced with the ashen pallor of death.

PART 2

To read another crime fiction short story, click here.

For a fantasy short story, click here.

Falling (short story)

Scafell summit

Scafell Pike #2

The voices were clearly audible to Lu, even though the words were indistinct. They were low and carried faintly on the wind, but still they tore apart the silence that she had so briefly enjoyed on the mountain’s summit.

It was not fair. How could it be fair for a woman to climb thousands of feet away from the world, expecting to find a barren nothingness, a release from life, only to have that taken away without warning?

She wanted to scream at them for destroying the expedition. It was supposed to be her chance to escape, a chance to start again on the descent or end it all in a moment’s flight from the summit.

But even with the whole weight of the world seeming to fall back onto her shoulders, Lu was curious. She lifted her head and peeked out over the top of the boulder behind which she crouched.

“That’s sickening.” She thought. “I actually want to be sick.”

Lu was looking at a moment shared between two people which was so intimate that the fact she was even seeing it revolted her. The woman stood at the opposite edge of the summit, feet planted on bare rock, blue anorak whipping around her in the wind and two delicate hands braced on her hips.

Her partner was kneeling in front of her, holding out a small box in both hands. Something glinted from within it, a ring. The man’s face was twisted with anxiety and distress.

“His knees must be killing him.” Lu thought. “Just say yes so he can get up and you can leave me in peace.”

The woman shook her head in a sharp, brutal movement like the crack of a whip. Something heavy sank in Lu’s chest as she saw the despair etched in the man’s face. But there was also a cruel sense of glee twisting inside her. It was better than any soap opera she had ever watched.

He stood slowly with his head bent. For a few seconds, Lu could not see his face and began to wonder, partly with sorrow and also with the same sick fascination as before, whether he was crying.

It seemed that he would try to embrace his intended. The man’s reached his hands towards her sides and she flinched slightly. It was an instinctive movement on the woman’s part. Her face was stern and brave, but her eyes showed that the man’s grief tormented her.

Then Lu saw his face. It was red with pure rage, burning white hot inside his chest. His hands took hold of the woman under her arms and he pushed. She seemed to hang motionless in the air for a moment, held there perhaps by Lu’s gaze or a desire to live. Her hands clawed the air, trying to cling on to something or reach the man’s face, Lu could not tell.

The woman fell with the blue anorak flapping around her like a pair of ugly wings. Without waiting to see how far she fell, the man turned and began his own, slower descent. Lu doubled over behind the rock and vomited against its side. Something fell with a snapping, cracking sound on the slope below.

PART 3

For the first short story in this series, click here.

For something different, click here.

A Locked Room (short story)

Locked door

 

Turnkey #3

Each individual hair on the back of Gil’s neck was standing on end. Goosebumps ran up her arms and back, as though her skin had been pricked by a thousand tiny needles. The cacophony of screaming, hysterical laughter and eerie singing around her was too much for her tortured mind to bear.

But just as she was preparing to turn and run back up towards the daylight, Gil caught sight of the door. Its surface gleamed like a plate of silver in the dark stone wall. Touching it warily with one finger, she discovered that the door was smooth and cold.

It had been fashioned from thick iron with minute care so that there was not the smallest of cracks between the door and the wall. In its center was a large, elaborately crafted lock. A small keyhole presented the only opening in the entrance to the cell.

Gil took the brass key out of her pocket and slipped it into the hole. It stuck halfway in and could not be pushed further. This was not the right key. But the grating sound had drawn the attention of the cell’s occupant. A faint trickle of air whispered through the keyhole, brushing against Gil’s trembling hand.

“Is somebody out there?” A voice asked.

“I’m here.” Gil replied.

She realized at once how foolish this response was. Luckily, her heart was still lodged in her throat and the only sound she made was a hoarse croak. Another breath slithered out past her shaking fingers.

“Who are you?”

“My name is Gil.”

“Were you chasing me, Gil?”

“I think I was. How did you get out of your cell? How did you get back in?”

“That’s a silly question isn’t it, Gil? I have the key, of course.”

These words sent a spasm of fear arcing up Gil’s spine. She was deep underground in the dungeons of the Tower, an island fortress holding the most vile and murderous creatures. Worse still, only the most powerful and wicked were kept away from the sunlight.

But that was not what made Gil’s blood turn to ice. This door was solid iron, built to withstand the burning force of dark magic which would tear a wooden door to splinters. Whoever or whatever was locked away behind it was capable of crushing men like flies, and they had the key to their own cell. Gil was standing a mere few feet away from certain death and there was nothing to shield her from it.

But the sound of the voice on the other side of the door was like warm honey. It comforted and reassured her that she had nothing to fear. Gil leaned closer and pressed her ear against the keyhole.

 

For the first short story in this series, click here.

Click here for the next installment.

For something a bit different, click here.

 

Summit (short story)

Summit (short story)

Scafell Pike #1

It felt as though there were small fires burning in each of the muscles of Lu’s legs. Ribbons of pain ran along the bottoms of her feet where blisters had formed and broken. But Lu did not stop walking.

Loose rock shifted under the treads of her thick walking boots. The sun was high and bright, but obscured behind a thick canopy of misty clouds. Lu was moving steadily closer to those rolling hills of vapor which hung above her head. She was climbing into the clouds and escaping the world below.

The environment around her was so uncomplicated, life stripped bare of unnecessary accompaniments. All that she could see was the white sky, iron-grey rock and tufts of emerald green grass. She was climbing the tallest mountain in England, escaping from her life and rising higher than anyone else in the country. At the summit, she would find something invaluable, freedom.

All at once, the world fell away. Suddenly, there was nothing solid above or to either side of her, only empty air. Lu was standing on the summit and there was nowhere higher to go.

The first thing that she felt was a sinking sensation in her stomach as all of the security she had known in her life was stripped away. Lu was alone, exposed on a broad pinnacle of rock jutting into the sky. If she walked a hundred paces to either side, she would be trying to walk on clouds.

Her heart raced and she felt something horribly familiar stir inside her. Anxiety, a cold hand gripping her heart. The summit was not a pill which cured all ills. It was a task like any other. She had overcome it and that gave her some sense of achievement, but she had been a fool to think that it would eliminate her unhappiness.

A gaping hollow seemed to be growing inside Lu’s chest. It was dragging her towards the top of a steep cliff. She dropped to her knees and hunched behind a low boulder. It was a relief like nothing she had ever felt before to have something shielding her from the yawning vacuum beyond the summit.

Lu heard voices and the breath caught in her throat.

PART 2

Find another short story here or here.

For something a bit different, click here.

Dark Depths (short story)

Dungeon

 

Turnkey #2

Gil was chasing a shadow in a place where everything was darkness and fleeting shades of grey and black. Her heart was pounding and beads of sweat stood on her brow. But whether this was from fear or excitement, she was not certain.

A head of bright hair shone ahead like a beacon in the black dungeon, and then it was gone again around a sharp corner.

There were voices all around her. They cried out from behind thick iron and oak doors, some sounding pained, others angry and yet more screaming incoherently at nothing.

As the insistent, maddening wall of noise rose around her, Gil heard a faint sound trilling behind it. The voice was soft and melodious; it seemed to be singing. Nothing could have seemed more alien in that dismal subterranean dungeon than a song.

Click here for the previous short story in this series.

Here for the next installment.

Or here for something a bit different.