Wednesday, 6 November 2013


I was almost at the car when a cry from Herr Taut made me glance up. A figure in overalls had bounded into view from the shadowed doorway and was hurrying down the steps, leaping two or three of them at a time. I think I was aware at once where I had seen him previously, but closer confirmation came when he reached the foot of the steps, ran around the rear of the car and, busy glancing sidelong at the alley I had just left, dashed straight into me, throwing both of us to the ground.

The shock of being plunged on my back amid lukewarm mud was superseded by the realisation that, in falling, my right arm hand had lost its grip on the glass unicorn. Wriggling about to look for it, catching the voices of Herr Taut and Jurgen as they shouted from the top of the steps, I saw the unicorn lying a yard further on from where I had landed, inches short of the scrambling hands and knees with which the escapee from the factory was raising himself. Drenched with the sandy brown mud though his clothes and face and dark hair and bushy moustache were, he was unmistakeably the figure I had seen lurking in the trees by the Barsett house the night before.

On his feet by the time I could struggle to my knees, the fellow glowered at me; I was unsure whether it was simple anger at my obstructing him or awareness of my recognition pressing such bestial furrows into his countenance. I heard Herr Taut call for the "Polizei!", the shout succeeded by the sound of several pairs of feet hurrying down the factory steps. The fugitive glanced to his right hand, expecting to find more than the empty palm he showed himself. He cursed in a language other than German, swivelling to survey the puddled ground.

When he lunged for the area where the unicorn lay, I was seized by the irrational supposition that theft of this was his intent; I threw myself flat across the mud to reach it before him. In this I succeeded, but only for his heel to fix that hand and the unicorn under its weight, probably quite unthinkingly, as he stooped to seize another object a few inches further on.

It was as he rose again that I suffered the fullest burden of his weight, my first reaction to the resultant cracking sound being that this was my bones splintering, a sharp pain piercing that left palm, forcing a cry from me, this in turn prompting a slippage aside of his heel. I looked up to see him stare quizzically down at me while wiping mud from an object in his hand, brushing it back and forth against the breastpiece of his dungarees, the better to confirm it as a revolver.

It was then I noticed that the sound of feet descending the factory steps had ceased, but also that the cries accompanying them had multiplied, grown shriller, and now seemed to be coming from both sides of the road. The figure above me cursed, then turned and and ran off along the street, heading toward the railway station.

I attempted to lift my hand off the unicorn, only to feel it stuck there by thin strands of pain. Raising myself onto the support of my knees and the other hand, I looked down to see that the unicorn had cracked in two, the blood stung from me by the sharp ends of either half thickening into a puddle. I staggered upright, pressing the palm with my other thumb to staunch the bleeding. The loudest call yet boomed from behind me on the side of the street opposite the factory, followed by the sound of running, splashing feet. I was about to turn and see who approached when I noticed that the fugitive, still no more than fifty feet from me, had stopped, turned, and was aiming his revolver in my direction.

I wondered if I was supposed to raise my hands and beg for mercy, but neither arm nor tongue could shift, burdened as they were by the thought of what the gun's barrel would look like, in a second or so's time, when a shot would likely blaze, immense, from its tiny dark spot, some scrap of metal, smaller still, snapping forever the life within me. At my back, the loudest of the footsteps had audibly accelerated yet sounded now as if they had the distance between Scharlachklippe and the moon left to cross.

White fire blasted from the barrel. I thought I glimpsed the approaching bullet amid a spray of pale smoke. I flinched my head to the right, closed my eyes, felt a punch of air through the curls above my left ear and found myself dropping to a squat, eyes opening to take in the sight of the imprint I had lately left in the mud. I put both hands out to steady myself, dizziness surging through my skull, the echo of the shot rolling by and leaving me stranded in absolute silence. The smell and taste of smoke and burning metal wrapped themselves about me. A bead of wetness seeped down my brow, along the bridge of my nose and dripped into the mud. I watched for the colour of the drip. It seemed transparent.

The silence began to recede, disclosing the sound of a pair of splashing footsteps. These, passing into the distance, seemed those of the man who had fired; a cautious look upward confirmed his figure as already a good deal further on towards the stockyard of the train station.

Rising, I glanced and felt about myself, making sure no wound was soaking through my hair or clothes, the sluggish ooze from my left palm the sole source of pain and bloodiness I could find. Becoming aware of a swelling babble behind me, I turned and saw the bullet's actual victim.

I knew instantly, across the distance of a good fifteen feet, that it was the blonde policeman earlier encountered in his arrest of the older man, recognition facilitated - as I hastened towards his sprawl - by the fact that in being hurled on his back by the shot he had lost his helmet, this leaving his blonde locks - in need of a trim, perhaps, given his station - standing out like spilled gold against the whiteness of his face and the powdery blue of his uniform.

Clustering about him were Herr Taut, Jurgen and several of the factory workers, the foremost among them striving to raise him to a sitting position, each pull on his shoulders evoking a wail of pain. Calling out that he ought to be left flat, I squeezed to his side, dropping to one knee and extending a hand I hadn't quite the nerve to lay upon him. A blot of purplish wetness was spreading through the blue of his tunic at the left side of his chest, a dark rip in the serge where the bullet had torn through what I took, from his laboured "hnnn... hnnn..." gasps and the bubblings of blood at the left corner of his greying lips, to be some portion of the lung.

The skin of his face was sweating to a blueish-green, his chalky-blue eyes wandering, blinking to clear spattered blood and perspiration, around those leaning over him, his look wary, childish, questioning, as if he had just wakened into his situation and was unsure if it wasn't we who had imposed it on him. He tried raising his right hand towards his head, either to tug his collar from the labouring muscles of his throat or to mop his face with his sleeve; but the exertion on that side briskly communicated pain to the wound on the other and he almost choked on the next breath, the hand stalling half way, Herr Taut easing it back to his side. A blow-fly buzzed around the salty beadings on his face, Herr Taut and Jurgen flicking at it, although one could hardly blame it for reacting so to the sour and earthy odour.

More splashing footsteps approached. Looking up, I saw most of the policeman from the other street come running into view, casting their comrade glances as they hurried past us and opened fire on the assassin, who had, by that time, shrunk to a speck against the sooty machineries of the stockyard. As the din of the shots hit him, the wounded officer squirmed against our attempts at restraint, thicker gouts of blood belching up, coursing down his cheek and puddling on the mud.

"Mein Helm!... Mein Helm..." he whimpered, glancing about, lips curled back across pink and scarlet teeth. Jurgen darted to where his helmet lay, close by the heel of the rearmost of the firing policemen. In snatching it up, he brushed the jackbooted heel. The officer turned, grabbed the chauffeur and pressing a smouldering gun barrel to his temple. The rest of us shouted in protest, but the loudest protest came from outwith our number and in brisk anglo-saxon.

"Bloody bullying bastards!"

Mr. Barsett raced to Jurgen's side, pushing the policeman aside, startling him into a defensive flinching of the gun under his left arm pit, as if he feared the newcomer might break his toy. Jurgen scrambled back to our little group, laying the helmet on the wounded man's chest with the awkward tenderness of one proffering a condemned man his final cigarette. The recipient, his head slightly raised as it rested on the knees of one of the factory workers, looked at the helmet with a tired thoughtfulness.

Then, with a grunt, he grabbed the helmet, tossing it, at arm's length, back in the direction from which it had been retrieved. The effort splashed a cough of phlegm and black blood across his chin. He spasmed onto his left side and out of the hands of those attending him. The left side of his face splashed into a shallow puddle, his last breath snorting crimson bubbles through the yellow water.

It was only then, with the shallowed blue of his right eye staring sightlessly up at the deeper blue of the sky, that I found I could touch him, laying the most tentative of hands upon the crumpled serge about his knee. Even through the thick, rough fabric, I could feel the leaden hollowness into which his form had already hardened. The clatter of the guns continued. I cursed them inwardly.

It was now Kanoff's turn to reach the scene, thumping through the mud like a circus elephant on its hind legs. He had a repeater rifle in his hands and had no sooner pushed his way to the forefront of his men than he was blasting off shot after shot. What efficacy this was intended to have was beyond me, for the gunfire had, by this point, choked the air in front of the line of officers with a gunpowder mist obscuring any view of the quarter into which the assassin had fled. But still they fired, reloaded, and fired on, as if the thickening of the mist, with its awful metallic odour, had become an end in itself.

Finally, realising perhaps that his men might run out of the bullets they would need for any sensible assault on their quarry, Kanoff yelled for them to cease and then ordered them into a swift advance on the stockyard. As they charged off through their own smoke, not a few of them succumbed to a coughing fit. Kanoff himself turned to face Mr. Barsett.

"You see?" he said. "Murderous vermin! And what, I ask, is to be done with them? I pray no man who should know better was such a fool as to give the serpent warning. Such a man would find this boy's death was his... his..." Clicking his plump fingers as he searched for the word, he looked down at those of us about the body. "Der knab ist tot?" he asked.

"Jawohl, Herr Kommisar," Herr Taut replied.

"The boy is dead," he said to Mr. Barsett, before pointing to four of the fitter men amongst our huddle and telling them to carry the body to the wagon. “We'll let, shall we, the slav pigs ride down the mountain with the stench of their victim, hmm, Herr Barsett?"

"That's your decision, Kanoff," said Mr. Barsett, striding to where I remained on one knee. "I’ve no vocation for undertaking. - Come along, Isobel."

He guided me to my feet. "Let's get home," he said, signalling to Jurgen. I wriggled from his grasp, hurrying to where I had abandoned the broken unicorn. But that was the area where the firing policemen had assembled most thickly and I found the spot trampled to a deeper swamp and littered with singed shell-cases. At first I thought the horse had been buried altogether, but then a few glints signalled its having been smashed past semblance of its moulded shape, the fragments scattered just enough distance to make a battlefield mock of its previous coherence.

The wound across my left hand panged. Mr. Barsett caught that hand by the wrist, raising the redness of the wound for examination. "Come, let's get this patched up," he said.
He steered me to the car, Jurgen doing an excellent job of bandaging before driving us clear of the town. Before long, we were crossing the bridge by the waterfall and climbing past the factory’s smoke, emerging into the purer sunlight of the upper mountainside.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

DANCES SACRED & PROFANE £0.99 on Amazon Kindle - this week only!

My novel DANCES SACRED AND PROFANE: A Gothic Romance... my deepest, richest, most ambitious work is available for Amazon Kindle all this week at a reduced price of £0.99. You can GET IT HERE... Here's a sample chapter to whet your appetite.

15./ I resumed my search for Anabella, clutching at her elder sister's suggestion that a second look at her bedroom would likely find her back beneath the sheets. Reaching her door, I found it closed, as I had left it, no illumination showing beneath. I pressed my ear to the wood, heard nothing, gave the door a discreet knock and then, when this went unanswered, clicked open the door.

My lamplight fell across Anabella. She lay face down beneath freshly-smoothed bedsheets, body animated solely by the slight rising and falling of her upper back in time to breaths drawn in deep slumber. I crossed to the bed, the doll on the wickerwork chair by the window watching me with those inescapable eyes often dispensed to humanity's simalucrums.

I sat on the edge of the bed, stroking aside a few wine dark curls that sprawled across the white pillow, better revealing the profile beneath, Anabella’s youthfully plump features bunched in sleep, a tiny sheen of saliva on the fabric below her half open lips. I turned to rise and found myself facing the figure in the wickerwork chair.

This was not the glass-eyed doll that had sat there a moment before, but the seated form of a tall, thin man, wizened skin taut across his skull, a widow's peak of dark grey hair equally tight across his scalp, a crumpled black suit loose as shovelled earth about his bones. His position in the chair suggested his staring at either myself or Anabella, but for the single moment I saw him the sockets of his eyes appeared either sunk in shadow or obscured by black spectacles, like those of a blind man. He was rising from the chair, or so I suppose, although my impression was more of his remaining seated but elongating his top half towards us, accompanied by a half sweet scent suggestive of wet earth and withered flowers.

I noted too, in that same instant, that his lap was heaped with what I took for half a second to be dead leaves, but which I then realised was a mingling of the corpses of small and scruffy birds with the limbs and severed heads of torn-apart dolls, all burnt black or bathed in oil, eyes of glass and eyes of flesh staring at me from the tangle. As the man’s lap began to rise in pursuit of the upper half of his body, this mess slid from his knees. As it slid, I saw two of the doll-eyes blink as if alive and helpless.

A bolt of flame flared up my lamp's glass chimney, dazzling me, then plunging me into darkness.