There’s Something in the Cellar

cellar

5 months since my last post. Apologies for the delay and hope to bring you something worth the wait.

There’s something in the cellar. Dane knows it’s down there. He hears it move, groan and howl in the night. It stops him sleeping. All he wants is to rest his eyes, clear his mind and dream.

Dreams. Sleep. And the moaning thing in the cellar.

Dane lives alone in the woods. Cold dark woods which stretch for miles, a sea of trees cast in black shadows. Night comes on and the moon sleeps behind the clouds, but Dane can’t sleep. He hears the rattle of chains at the bottom of the stairs. He wouldn’t mind if the thing lived outside in the dark and cold. If the beasts were all outside then he would fear the night, but the famine of sleepless, dreamless half-life wouldn’t be cutting through him like a slow, cold blade. But the beast sleeps below. It sleeps in the day. At night it howls for the slumbering moon.

His house is old, cobbled together from thick timbers with nails and saws. Rough walls. Splinters. Soot staining a black shroud around the fireplace.

Rough wood gives comfort, knowing the hands which carved each beam held him as a babe. The same arms which plied the saw rocked him in his crib. But rough wood frays rope over time as it runs across its abrasive surface. Dane’s rope was already thin as it was. Calloused hands held him as a babe. Rough arms swung his crib. Maybe they were too firm. Maybe baby Dane won a bruise, caught a fracture. His own fault. Too frail.

The rope frays and then it snaps.

Dane reels out of his narrow bed, drunk on rage and fear. The thing in the cellar groans and rattles its chains, tempting him down.

‘Come on then!’ he answers it. ‘Come on!’

But it’s Dane who comes. He doesn’t so much charge down the stairs as he attacks them. He attacks the whole house. A final protest against its rough fostering. His shoulder collides with the doorframe hard enough to make him bite his tongue. He tastes blood and spits it out with a harsh snarl. The banister gives a crack as he rams into it. Then he’s crashing down the stairs, his bare feet pound on the steps and the whole house seems to shake around him. In the cellar, the thing screams a scream to put ice in the blood.

Dane is scared. He’s sweating and close to wetting himself with fear, if he hasn’t already, but he carries on. He’s committed now. His hand is closing round the cellar door, ready to rip it open and confront the cobwebbed darkness below. If he turns back and creeps away to his bed, he’ll never sleep in the house again.

He moves slower now, cautious of pale corpse fingers reaching over the steps to trip him on his way down. A short tumble, a broken neck and an eternity with the thing. He’s careful in spite of his fear.

An hour later, the smell of gasoline heavy in his dilated nostrils and its taste thick on his tongue, he throws a match onto the porch and watches the flames sate their hunger on the rough old timbers. There’s a sweet catharsis in it, but he feels sick to the pit of his stomach. He tries not to think about the thing he saw in the cellar. The memory wanders uninvited across his tear-soaked eyes.

A woman, no more than a girl if his memory paints an honest picture, kneels on a stained mattress in the middle of the dank cellar. Chains rattle around her scabbed, bleeding wrists. ‘No more,’ she begs. Does he listen?

He descends the stairs, shivering in a euphoria of terror. He’s never seen her like this. A little red pill dissolved in a rusty can of water keeps her asleep through the day. He fears her at night. But tonight it ends and he’ll never need to fear her again. Soon he’ll sleep and she’ll never wake.

Cover Blown

Fingerprint

Prompt: what if you had to throw away your whole identity

– every memory, friend and thing you have ever had?

Kris heard the phone ring and her heart dropped to a dead tremor in her chest. Was that the call? For six weeks, she had been working undercover. Her whole life had been a lie, a fabrication. Did they seriously expect her to go back under so soon?

Her eyes scanned the walls of her studio flat. Bookshelves, cupboards, drawers. Should would miss all of them and all the half-remembered treasures they contained, but it was only temporary.

She would be back, with a lifetime to forget them again. Her hand reached for the phone. Had she missed the call? It rang again. Tough luck, she thought.

“This is Kris.” she said, keeping her voice flat and toneless. If that did not get the message across, nothing would.

“Agent Maddox?” the voice on the other end asked. It was unfamiliar, the voice of a blue shirt, no tie bureaucrat in a back office. But there was panic in his tone, words stumbling over each other in a rush to get out.

“That’s right. What happened?”

“Agent, your cover’s blown.” 

The words stewed in her mind, swimming around in sluggish circles. What did they mean? She knew the answer. They did not mean anything.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, hearing the bitter anger in her tone. What were they thinking, making her panic like that? “The operation is over. Which cover is blown?”

“I’m really sorry. They said you had to be told straight away. There’s no one else here. They said it’s serious. You have to burn it now.”

“For fuck’s sake, which cover?”

She was almost shrieking, the words scratching her throat as she spat them out.

“The file says ‘Kris Maddox – identity compromised’. I’m sorry.”

There was a grating ripple of static and the line cut out.

Kris was sitting on the floor, her back resting against the kitchen counter. Since when? She did not remember sitting. How long had she been staring at the phone? There was no time for that.

Her legs were moving, taking her from one side of the room to the other. How had she stood up? It felt like there was no strength left in her body. Her arms reached out. Kris was picking things up, putting them in the trash can.

Where was the rubbish? There it was, strewn across the kitchen floor. She looked around and saw the balcony. The screen doors slid open and she stepped out into the cool night air.

A childhood photo dropped into the can, a spider’s web of cracked glass splintering through a pair of smiling faces. They were fond faces. A laughing child swung from their arms.

The match hissed to life, leaving a winding trickle of black smoke as it dropped. A red glow, a yellow flame springing to life, more smoke. Fire ate at the corners of the picture.

School yearbooks, favourite novels, a leather-bound notebook with her initials embossed on the spine. Who was K.M.? Jess did not know anyone with that name.

Someone was crying on the balcony, but there was no time to ask why. This was Kim Maddox’s home, not hers. It was time to leave.

Scafell Pike #7 (finale)

Scafell Pike #7 (finale)

Lu stepped over the threshold and into the bustling warmth of the country pub. Hikers, ramblers, locals and tourists were crowded around her, laughing and talking over pints of ale, gin and tonics. She felt a tightening in her throat where the killer had tried to strangle her. The warmth was close to suffocating after the chill of the mountainside.

Suddenly, she spotted something distinctive. All of her attention was focused on the red anorak draped over the back of a chair, her field of vision closing in so that it was the only thing she saw. Lu didn’t know what she was doing, but the coat was drawing closer to her. She was walking towards it like a woman in a dream, a waking nightmare. Her hand reached out and brushed against the slick plastic material.

A man turned, casting a casual look around the pub. Beyond him she saw mouths open in laughter, teeth bared in aimless chatter and lips pressed to the rims of pint glasses. But in the man’s face there was utter shock, perhaps even fear.

“Murderer!” Lu shouted, stabbing at the man with her finger. “He’s a murderer!”

The hubbub died down to a soft murmur. Every tongue in the place was stilled and each pair of eyes fixed itself on Lu’s quivering face. She was exhausted and emotionally drained, but elation leapt in her breast when she realised that the killer had been caught.

“You’re her.” The man said, narrowing his brows and taking a hesitant step back. “You’re the madwoman who chased me down the mountain.”

“Don’t play dumb!” Lu snapped, stepping after him. “I saw you throw her off the cliff. I saw you kill your girlfriend.”

People muttered darkly on all sides, moving away so that a wide circle formed around Lu and the killer. A wall of stern faces and suspicious scowls surrounded them.

“My girlfriend is back home. What are you talking about?”

The man took out a mobile phone and starting pressing buttons. Lu heard a dial tone ring a few times and a woman’s voice answered. Voices grumbled  and, as she looked around for support, Lu saw that their angry stares all fell on her. Her hands began to shake with mingled frustration and embarrassment.

But she had come too far to give in. She knew what she had seen. If she hadn’t seen it, she would have taken her own life. Witnessing that innocent woman’s death had given her a purpose, a reason to go on living. She refused to let it go.

“Then it was another woman.” Lu said, and then turned to the onlookers. “It was a woman in a bright blue anorak. He killed her because she wouldn’t marry him. Trust me, I saw it!”

She had thought the pub patrons’ glares were the worst of it, but they weren’t. Now people turned away, whispering to each other in tones of sympathy. Lu didn’t want them to feel sorry for her, she wanted to be believed.

A rough hand touched her arm and she jerked backwards. The killer was standing close, near enough to her that she could smell hops on his breath. He gestured to something, pointing at her chest. She looked down with the patron’s muttering loud in her ears.

“Poor thing, it’s sad really.”

“Probably unhinged. Someone should do something.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

Lu looked down and saw the bright blue anorak she had put on that morning.

You can read the first Scafell Pike here.

Ripper #9 (finale)

Ripper #9 (finale)

Battersea bridge

Matthews wasn’t quite sure what had happened. He remembered the sharp glare of moonlight of the edge of thirty or more drawn razors. The taste of London smog, smoke and dust, had been thick in his mouth. He’d seen grimy grey water spreading out as he fell towards its surface, or else it had fallen towards him.

Whether he standing, lying or still falling he didn’t know. He could feel the whole of his surroundings spin around and stay deathly still all at the same time. His eyes weren’t opening and that was a concern, but Matthews felt relaxed in spite of it.

He groped towards his chest and his movements were sluggish in spite of his desperation. One finger met with coarse fabric and found it damp. Relief washed over Matthews with the realisation that he was bleeding. It answered some of his questions and at least, he thought, the doubt was gone.

Now he did open his eyes, groping through the clouded darkness for some sign of light or life. An object swam towards him, a crumbled deck sprouting a decayed mast of brackish timber. Matthews tried to breathe sweet, crisp night air and inhaled foul Thames water. It burned in his lungs, but brought with it a certain peace.

“So that’s where I ended up.” Matthews thought as light shone blinding in his eyes.

Scarlet Fever

SF Cover

Scarlet shifted in her seat, looked at her mobile phone and twisted back into her previous position. Boredom had settled on her like a heavy, damp blanket two hours into the flight when she finished reading her novel. It was a six hour flight and she’d only packed one book.
The complete lack of distraction or stimulation felt like it was killing her slowly from the inside. It was a sign of how desperate Scarlet was that she did something she had never done before. She looked around for someone on the plane she could talk to.
It was an unspoken rule, almost and Eleventh Commandment, and Scarlet was sure she was not the only one who followed it; nobody talks to strangers during a flight. Bad enough, she thought, that people were packed together in a great flying sardine tin. Worse yet that there was less than no chance of having something in common with another passenger. Once you factored in stop-overs and connecting flights, economy versus first class, travel for family and tourism or business, it seemed to Scarlet like human soup, everyone mixed together in a random assortment of jumbled lives.
But the boredom was numbing her mind and she needed to talk to someone. On her left, in the window seat, a slightly tubby lady in her late sixties was dozing against the armrest. Scarlet looked at her for a moment, taking in her blonde hair faded almost white, and wondered whether she had been beautiful when she was younger. She had done her makeup before boarding, there was a smudge of lipstick on the cuff of her blouse, so clearly she was someone who took care of her appearance.
The cruise brochure sticking out of the seat pocket suggested that she might be hoping to meet a male companion during her holiday. There had only been the usual safety card and in-flight magazine in front of Scarlet’s seat. I was fun trying to make observations about her neighbour, but she was aware of how awkward be if the lady woke up to fin Scarlet staring at her.
The man on her right seemed more promising. At least, Scarlet thought, he was awake. Her first guess was that he was a holidaymaker traveling with his family, but she hadn’t seen him even look at another passenger.
“Hi, I’m Scarlet. Are you going on holiday with family?”
He couldn’t have looked more shocked in Scarlet’s mind if she had hopped onto his lap and started singing Christmas jingles. His eyes widened as he turned to look at her, mouth slightly agape, as though he couldn’t believe someone was actually trying to start up a conversation mid-flight. There was genuine panic in his expression as he seemed to momentarily forget how those exchanges usually went.
“Yes.” He said in an oddly high-pitched voice. “Sorry, I mean no. I was going back, or rather I was home seeing relatives. Now I’m going back. I work in Manaus.”
“Oh that’s interesting.” Scarlet said, not needing to pretend to be intrigued. Nothing about his appearance suggested he was an international businessman. In fact, she had noticed that he didn’t carry a briefcase onto the plane, only a small backpack stuffed full to bursting. “So what is it you do?”
“I work for a large commercial organisation.” He furrowed his brows in a frown, as if frustrated with himself. “Sorry, I’m not really allowed to say more. It’s quite sensitive.”
“Ah, right.” Scarlet muttered in a blank tone. “Do you mind if I get up for a minute?”
She gestured vaguely down the aisle towards the toilets. He stretched out of his seat and let her shuffle past. Scarlet scowled as she walked between the rows of seats. She guessed that the man had been flattered by the attention of a younger woman and decided to try his hand at being mysterious. The way he had spoken made it sound like he was a spy, or wanted to be one. Her mood was sour and hadn’t improved by the time she left the bathroom.
But something distracted Scarlet as she wandered back to her seat, stumbling through a juddering patch of turbulence. The man in the aisle seat looked even more nervous than when she had initiated their short-lived conversation. A Latin American woman, tall with stooped shoulders and tear-soaked cheeks, was clinging to his arm. The man was nearly writhing with discomfort.
“Please, mister.” The grey-haired woman said in a frantic voice. “Tell me what you know. You must know something. My son, my grandchildren. What’s happening to them?”
A flight attendant had arrived on the scene, wearing an expression of canned calm. It was the same look all airline employees bore, one which told travellers that nothing was wrong. That look always worried Scarlet, making her think that they were hiding some impending threat from her.
“Madam, please go back to your seat.”
“No, but I heard this man talking. He works for the company. They know what is happening where my family lives, let me ask him.”
Scarlet decided to intervene. A part of her felt sympathetic towards the old grandmother, but more than that it seemed like a situation which could easily provide a few hours of distraction. The flight attendant had managed to chivvy the lady back to a vacant seat in the rear of the plane. Scarlet followed them and waited until the stewardess had moved away, suspecting that she might be breaking some airline rule.
“Excuse me.” Scarlet said. The woman’s tear-streaked face turned towards her with a despairing look. “I heard what you were saying before. Is there something I can do to help?”
“Please.” She whispered, reaching up with a quaking, wrinkled hand to hold Scarlet’s. “Something terrible is happening. My family lives in the rainforest, at a tourist lodge in the jungle, and I haven’t heard from them in weeks. Please, look at this.”
She pulled a crumpled sheet of paper out from her battered handbag. It was a printout from a website, the layout similar to that Scarlet had seen on news sites, but the writing was all in Portuguese and she couldn’t understand a word of it.
Her eyes snagged on a black and white photograph stretched across the top of a page. It had that obscure, abstract appearance Scarlet always saw in monochrome pictures. For a while, she couldn’t even tell what it was. Then a small detail emerged, someone’s grey big toe nudging out from the bottom of a crumpled tarpaulin. Gnarled tree roots were twisted around the edge of the image. Scarlet realised that she was looking at a picture of a dead body.
Using her very basic knowledge of other languages and some guesswork, she translated the headline.
“Mysterious deaths in heart of rainforest. Cause unknown. Hundreds missing.”

Killer in the Shadows #9

Rome night

Aquila took up his heavy stick and beckoned to Hanno. Expressing his thanks to Porcius for his information and apologising for the fact that he couldn’t stay to talk, he led the way out of the offices into the bright morning sunlight.

“Some person or people have been busy Hanno. That two men were killed on the same street hardly be a coincidence. Perhaps our benefactor will be reassured to know that the death of the soldier might not be related to his person or property.”

The young clerk followed all that his master said as they walked past the courthouses. Hanno felt more curious now than he had when they stood over the corpse earlier that day, caught up as he was in the older man’s excitement.

The two men reached the arched gateway in the later part of the morning. Aquila had decided to deliver what good news there was to his benefactor before proceeding with his investigation.

The sun had risen higher in the sky and the wind had receded. Beads of sweat on their brows threatened an exhausting midday heat was soon to come. A group of poor men, women and petitioners were turned away from the gate as they approached. Aquila knew some of them from his patron’s waiting rooms.

Two porters stood at the gate, while a mean-looking, thick-set man with a scarred face leaned lazily against the archway. His eyes followed their approach, focused on the stick in Aquila’s hand and his broad arm reached for a short club resting by his side. One of the porters, the taller of the two, waved his hand dismissively to the guard. He slowly manoeuvred to lean back against the archway.

Aquila was informed by the porters that the master of the house had taken his wife to a friend’s funeral. The mistress’ friend had lost her husband earlier that day, the murdered senator.

The master had left instructions that nobody should be let in and had hired a local thug to stand guard. Having been shown the direction in which his patron had travelled, Aquila once more led the way up the Via Plenium.

They passed rich merchants, important statesmen and their wives. Labourers, servants and other people of lower social standing hurried about their business. All suffered equally under the hot midday sun.

PART B

Killer in the Shadows #9b

The pedestrian dynamic changed quite suddenly. People passing by slowed their pace and turned their heads towards a large palatial villa. Others stopped across the street and stood individually or in small groups. A larger collection of curious citizens had gathered around the villa’s large ornate doorway.

Through this crowd passed men in senatorial tunics and fine robes, escorting weeping women clothed in black dresses and veils. Conscious of his frayed tunic and the faded leather of his sandals, Aquila searched around the corner of the extensive house for another entrance.

He soon discovered a small wooden door set into the wall of the garden. This served as an entrance for servants, workmen and slaves attached to the household. Via this entrance the staff could make their way to the servants’ quarter of the villa without being seen.

Aquila and his clerk were admitted by the cook who was awaiting a delivery. He assured them that their patron had been announced and was still inside, but they would have to wait until he left or else find a way to discreetly pass a message to him.

The two men were shown to a low kitchen table where the mortician was eating a hearty lunch of pickled fish and vegetables. He had cleaned, dressed and prepared the senator’s body for viewing after it was brought inside. Aquila questioned him about the body while he ate. His answers were brief and punctuated by mouthfuls of food.

“Sprawled on the street… they had turned him over, thought he was unwell… then they saw the blood… lots of blood, only seen that much blood at a sacrifice… was washing the body clean for hours… deep hole, yes, very narrow… right in the gut… more wine eh?”

“Wouldn’t have happened if that big Thracian had bothered to show up today.” The cook ignored the empty wine jug which the mortician shook under his nose. “That barbarian idiot is probably still sleeping one off.”

Aquila ascertained that the Thracian was a thug hired to guard the senator when he was in public. He lived in the River District, moonlighting as a brothel guard, and hadn’t met the senator that morning to accompany him to the senate house.

“He left alright last night as well,” the cook elaborated, “drank nearly all my wine, tried it on with the lady’s maids, called me a cheat at dice and swaggered off. Just like all the other barbarians.”

The mortician spat on the floor in agreement and waved the empty jug above his head. As the cook went to fill it the cheapest wine he could find, Aquila left a message with a serving boy to be delivered to his patron. This outlined their discoveries and his intention to visit the River District in search of the Thracian.

PART C

Killer in the Shadows #9c

By the time they left the villa the midday heat had abated and the air was pleasantly cool. As they walked down the Via Plenium Aquila stopped to investigate the place where the senator had died, identifiable by a group of children pawing at an area of blood-stained cobbles.

As they passed the gated archway, one of the porters kicked the guard awake and they heard shouted curses behind them. The street narrowed and other avenues began to branch off on either side of it, but they could reach the River District by following an almost straight line from the senator’s villa.

The alleyways and narrow streets which they passed through after leaving the Via Plenium were occupied by an entirely different class of Roman. Men lounged down alleyways or in doorways. Full-figured women leaned out of the upper windows of brothels.

Aquila scolded Hanno for staring at the naked forms which displayed themselves and whistled down to the passing men. Armed heavies could be seen lounging in and around these establishments, ready to rush in on anyone who failed to pay for the women’s services. Aquila kept a tight grip on his stick and a close eye on his companion.

Keeping to the same straight route, enquiring after the Thracian from those they passed, they eventually met with a chaotic scene. A squad of soldiers were having a heated confrontation with a mob of locals.

Hired thugs stood alongside prostitutes and local businessmen. Clubs, sticks and knives were brandished above the heads of the crowd. The soldiers stood in close ranks, shields thrust forwards and hands on the shafts of their spears. They had apparently been patrolling when the mob had barred their path.

In the midst of the shouting, an officer sprang out from among the ranks. He cried out an order and the squad surged forward after him. Their shields winded those they impacted with. The combined weight of the soldiers drove back the crowd and forced a space between them. Through this gap they forced their way and the first pairs of sandaled feet pounded towards Aquila and his young companion.

They rushed into a doorway and watched the wave of shields, red tunics and helmeted heads sweep past. The soldiers were chased by a disordered mob. Large men ran as fast as they could to catch up while women threw stones and hurled abuse at the soldiers’ retreating backs. Soon the hubbub faded into the distance.

PART D

Killer in the Shadows #9d

The two men moved out from the doorway. The majority of the mob had dispersed. A tall man with long dark hair dominated the scene. He stood a full head taller than the rest who congregated around him in small groups.

He owned the brothel on the corner and soon ordered the women back inside, the men following after them. The tall man was left alone in the street and Aquila approached him. Coin was offered in exchange for information about the fight with the soldiers and the whereabouts of the Thracian.

After he received his payment, the brothel owner cooperated fully. He revealed that he had in fact employed such a Thracian. He used to guard the doors at night, his savage appearance serving to deter any violence against the owner or his female employees. In return he had free wine served to him at the door and a woman to share his bed when business was slow.

The previous night one of the women had been turned out on the street. She had been drinking heavily and to such an extent that the men she serviced had refused to pay. As the owner had watched her leave, the Thracian ran past and knocked her down. She cracked her head on the cobbled street and the Thracian had disappeared into an alleyway.

“I wouldn’t go outside right away. At least not until I rounded up a few of the lads.” The owner continued, “I thought he might have gone mad with drink or been in some barbarian blood-rage.”

Aquila and Hanno were shown into the alleyway in question. In the narrow space they encountered a gruesome spectacle. A muscular figure was slumped in a crouching position. High, filthy walls surrounded him on three sides.

His head was titled unnaturally far back and his throat had been torn open. Gashes had been opened in his arm and thigh. Congealed blood clung to his skin and covered the ground beneath the corpse, kept from drying by the slick mud on the earth and his clothes.

“Soldiers did that.” Their guide spat on the ground. “If you want to know why we were after them before, soldiers cut up the Thracian. One of my girls used to service the soldiers at the city barracks and she recognised the shape of the wounds. A Roman soldier’s sword makes holes like that and we’ll get them for it.”

Aquila also recognised the shape of the wounds. But it was impossible to tell whose sword had made the injuries. It might have been the dead soldier’s he realised. The soldier’s body had been positioned so that Aquila had not seen whether his sword was still in his possession.

Before departing they were shown into a room where a woman lay motionless on a bed. A blood-soaked bandage was wrapped around her head. The unfortunate woman sweated feverishly and breathed shallow, rasping breaths. Other than these frail movements, she was motionless and unlikely to recover.

Read the latest of The Diplomat and Wilson’s War.

Find my historical novel here.

Scarlet Murder Release

SM image

My first crime / mystery novel has just become available on Amazon Kindle. It’s a new genre for me, so something of an experiment. I’ve already posted a prologue and introduction. It’s quite a short ebook, but reasonably priced.

Here’s what it says on the tin:

“If your fiancé suddenly asked you to go on an early honeymoon, would you say yes?

When Jack begins behaving oddly, Scarlet wishes she hadn’t. But little does she know that the holiday from hell will soon be taking a terrible turn for the worse.

Unsettling mysteries, tragic murder and a cold-blooded assassin stalk a young couple’s romantic getaway on the Spanish coast.

Scarlet Murder follows the experiences of a woman who is desperate to discover the truth and catch a heartless killer.

But can she succeed before the murderer turns his attentions towards her? And how does the death of a laid-off construction worker turned petty arms dealer connect the dots?”

Buy the ebook here.