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Old 10-08-2022, 10:49 AM   #11 (permalink)
Born to be mild
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Join Date: Oct 2008
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Coming Back to Life

The noise surprises me. I suppose I could say it shocks me, and that might in fact be closer to the truth – certainly more accurate – but then, technically I'm already shocked enough that the loud clang really isn't able to do more than surprise me. Why does it surprise me? Because I hadn't quite expected something so small and, really, relatively light to make such a loud sound. Maybe it didn't. Maybe the effect of its hitting the floor was merely amplified by my own sense of terror, dismay and revulsion, but it certainly rang in my head like the pealing of a bell. A death knell. I almost grin at the irony, but in my situation grinning is not only inadvisable but pretty much impossible, unless I want to go, or seem, completely mad.

I'm not quite sure when, or even why I dropped it, though I think that maybe I didn't: maybe it was all the blood that has made it slip out of my hand, or it could have been, too, that after the deed my fingers, losing their nerve, let it go automatically. It could also have been that horror and revulsion I was talking about a moment ago. Well, you'd be horrified and revolted too if you'd seen what I have.

If you'd done what I've done.

I find my eyes drifting downwards, almost reluctantly, as if pulled there by an undeniable call that has to be resisted, but cannot be. I think I see the knife first. It's lying on the ground, half-shrouded in darkness but still clearly stained bright red, making an odd kind of an exclamation mark with the droplets of blood that lead off from it, and make it, just for a moment, seem like the ultimate and absolute end of a sentence whose author will never write another word. Following its track my fiercely resisting eyes, iron filings dragged along by invisible magnets, uncover no final message, no clue left behind as to who had done this, no plea or last farewell or even a curse.

No more words. No exclamation mark, either – it was simply an optical illusion, like the sock that falls from the dryer into the shape of something else, the cloud that assumes a likeness to something recognisable, the image which eventually emerges out of a magic eye picture, as Jesus sometimes emerges from everything from a piece of toast to a pool of oil, visible clearly to some, to others nothing but a confused mess which shapes nothing.

No, the knife does not exclaim, nor does it question. The knife has had no say in this, though it has had the final say, you could say. Sorry for the somewhat rambling narrative here, but I'm sure you can understand I'm pretty much on edge. On edge! More irony! Iron! Well, steel. Iron. Steel. A sharp, dully glowing blade, lifted in the half-gloom to...

I push the image away. I'm not ready to deal with that just yet. Not now. Now I have another image to face, but before I do – and yes, I quite understand that all I'm doing here is delaying an unpleasant but inevitable task, but you would too if you were in my place – let me just complete that apology, which got a little off track when I started making silly puns. I suppose it's my way of dealing with this situation, though I'm sure any shrink worth their salt would tell me that the last thing I'm doing with this situation is dealing with it. Avoidance, they would say. Probably. Keep everything at arm's length, keep looking the other way, talking about other things, focusing on anything but the matter in hand (in hand! Sorry; there I go again) because the reality is too horrible, too scary, too real to face.

They'd be right. I'm sure of it. That's why they get to sit in plush offices in places like Manhattan and Chicago and Boston and look down on the rest of us, why they make more money than you or I could ever... Sorry, once again, I'm rambling. Time to take hold – no! No more puns! - and get this apology out there.

The rambling narrative I referred to earlier is due to this: I'm making this up as I go along. No, that's not as bad as it sounds. It also probably isn't phrased correctly. What I mean to say is that all of this is new to me, and to try to make some sense of it (if such a thing can ever happen) I've taken to writing down everything that happens, as it happens, and, well, it can get a little hard to remember details. My mind seems to be fragmenting, and sometimes I remember things before they've happened, if that doesn't sound like a crazy person talking. And if it does, hell, maybe it is. Maybe I am. Crazy, that is. You'd know. You're the shrink, aren't you? You're not? Oh.

You'll have to excuse me now for a moment. This is the part I always hate. I've come to hate it even more than... well, I'll get to that, and when I do, you might wonder how I don't hate that more than I hate this, but this is my nightmare and I'm trying to maintain whatever slim control I can over it, which isn't much I can tell you. But there I go again, rambling and going off track, running away on tangents while the thing I have to face is a mere flick of my eyes away. Off to the right. Just there. Just out of sight. In the dark.
Perhaps it's best that it is in the dark, but that won't save me. I know it's there, and if I didn't, like some frontier explorer looking for the source of a river I could follow the dark tide that has made tiny little lakes and then flowed onto the blade of the knife, follow it back to its origin, its wellspring. I won't be feted. No ticker-tape parades for me. Nobody wants to know about this particular discovery. I don't want to know about this particular discovery. But I can't ignore it.

As my eyes move right, my head turning with them, I find the rest of my body collaborating with them to draw me closer, and my knees begin to bend, my head lowering as indeed my body lowers, coming closer to the ground, my bottom descending until it's almost sitting on top of the backs of my heels. My hands, long and now limp since I dropped the knife a few seconds – a few days, months, years ago, reach out of their own accord into the darkness, groping through it like someone parting a screen, and my fingers, trembling slightly now, touch flesh. It's still warm, and it's sticky and wet too, and as I pull my fingers back, not in shock or horror this time, and certainly not in revulsion, I lift them to my eyes, touch them off my lips, taste the blood as my eyes register its presence.

It's by no means a surprise. This is not the first time I've done this. I think I've lost count in fact of how many times I've squatted in this very position and examined my kill, and it always makes me feel the same way. You're going to think I feel one of two types of emotion, I know you are, but you're wrong. You'll say she feels horror, shock, revulsion (yes, I've used those words, so why bother thinking of your own? They work, after all) at what she's done, but no, I don't. Not at all. So then, you'll say triumphantly, it's delight, satisfaction, a kind of manic pride in my work. Wrong again. I suppose it would be fair to say I do feel some sorrow, and maybe there might be a case for being satisfied, too, but they would definitely not be the overriding emotion. I don't quite know what that emotion is, or if it can even be described, but it leaves me with a very clear thought, one I can't ignore, or deny, one which I know is the truth, the reason I do this, the reason I've done it before and the reason I'll do it again.

This was necessary.

I don't hate her. I don't have anything against her. Hell, I don't even know her! Though that's not actually true. I feel I do know her, though I'm one hundred percent certain I have never seen her before. I don't know her name. I don't know any of their names. I don't know their backstories, I don't know where they come from or why they're here, and I certainly don't know why I have to kill them.

But I do.
Have to kill them, I mean.

Will I pay for it, you ask, in that oddly macabre interested tone people who read murder and mystery and horror novels use, knowing that the events cannot possibly affect them, that the people brought to life by the author's skill are in fact not real at all, and while some connection may, at some point, be forged between reader and writer, in few cases is the former going to sit and cry about the death of the creation of the latter. People cried when Dickens killed Little Nell. Dickens himself cried. I've cried over characters, but it doesn't last. It's not like losing a real person who impacted your life, who you grew up with, who you thought, when younger, would always be there and who, as you got older, you realised would not, and began trying to prepare for the day when they would not. No. It's nothing like that.

So you can be interested in the fate of a character, in a book or a film or on television, and either root for or against them, cursing the writer when the opposite to what you had expected or hoped happens, but then you forget it and tell yourself hell it was only a story. Who in the end really cares? We were shocked by the unexpected death of Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, and it hurt for a while, but then we got on with it. Poor Fantine's treatment at the hands of her creator was execrable, but once we'd finished Les Miserables she was put out of our minds, and when we realise Bruce Willis is dead at the end of The Sixth Sense, we're shocked (the first time) but hell, we know Bruce will be back in Die Hard 9 or whatever. The same thought comforts us through the most traumatic events in fiction, be they in print, on screen or even onstage.

It's just a story.
It's not real.

I wish I could say this wasn't real. Maybe it isn't. It would certainly explain – sort of – a lot of the things that have been happening. But I can't think that way. I have to assume it is real, and so to answer your question, will I pay? I don't know. As the man in the Carlsberg ads says, probably. But one thing I do know for certain, and I know it with a diamond-hard and laser-sharp clarity, surer as I have ever known anything in my life. If I don't do these things, I will pay.

I will pay with my life.

Kill or be killed? I suppose that's one way of putting it, though it wouldn't be fair to say, nor would I ever claim, that I kill in self-defence. Far from it. All my victims so far have been completely unarmed, defenceless, perhaps even innocent. It hasn't stopped me. I know I have to do this. Somewhere in my mind is the immovable, undeniable feeling that this is what I was put on this earth to do, that this is – no, not my vocation. Stop putting words in my mouth and trying to psychoanalyse me. I thought you said you weren't a shrink? Yeah, well then keep it zipped buddy. I'm no serial killer, no mad crazed (yes I'm aware they're the same thing; leave me alone) homicidal maniac. I'm not a sociopath. Of course I realise that if I were a sociopath that is exactly what I would say, just as many alcoholics will refuse to admit they have a problem or a junkie will confidently claim they can quit any time. But I don't feel an urge to kill. I don't enjoy it. I don't select and stalk my victims, I don't even have the kind of strong stomach you need for this. I hate blood; it makes me sick, as it made me sick just now. Sorry about that. But have you ever heard of a serial killer who can't stand the sight of blood?
Score one for me.

But if I'm not a natural born killer, then why am I doing this? Good question. I wish I had an answer. I told you a moment ago that I feel driven, feel a compulsion pushing me on, urging me, telling me I must do this. And yes again I know, thank you very much, this is from page one of Serial Killers Unmasked, or whatever treatise on murderers and what motivates them you wish to quote, and who knows? Maybe you're right. Maybe I can be classified as a serial killer. After all, the main – almost only – criterion for one of them is that they have to have killed a bunch of people, right? And I've certainly done that. How many? I've really lost count. Dozens? Oh no, not dozens.

Hundreds maybe.
Could even be thousands.

I haven't been counting. Maybe that is another score for me in the game of I'm Not A Serial Killer, Get Me Out Of Here! Although if it is, the last part of that title is less than useless to me, as it seems there is no way out of here. Am I trying to kill my way out of here? Have I been taken prisoner, trapped, placed in some fiendish maze like a laboratory rat, and unleashed to see what I'll do to get out, how far I'll go? You know, over the – however long I've been here; time really doesn't seem to have any meaning in this place, I've considered it. Well, you have to, don't you? In those quiet moments between the time you spend stalking, hunting, killing and being violently sick, to get ready to go on and do it all again, you have to think.

Because otherwise you'd just go mad.

I've sat down and tried to work it out, often as I'm cleaning blood or brains or shit or some other unnamed substance off the knife, or axe, or chainsaw (that took a long time to clean) and trying to hold down my lunch, which I never seem to partake of – yeah, I must eat I suppose, for who can exist without food, but I can't for the life of me ever remember any meals, snacks, even drinking water, and yet I never tire. I go through the alternatives, the theories I've come up with to try to explain what's happening to me, where I am, and how I can get out of here. None are encouraging.

There's the one I mentioned just now, hopefully you were paying attention. Yeah, the rat maze one. Am I part of some dark and off-the-books government experiment to see what sort of atrocities a person will go to in order to secure their freedom? If I kill enough people, will I eventually be rewarded by being shown a hatch that leads out of here, back to the real world, back to a life I don't remember but must have had? Is someone watching me, even now, taking notes, charting reactions, drawing correlations and preparing reports? Could that shadowy watcher even be you? If it is you, you're hardly going to tell me though, are you? Can't spoil the experiment. Have to start all over again, and where to find so many more victims for me to kill? I could kill you, right now, except of course I'm pretty certain you don't exist. Maybe I don't exist. But that's for the next theory. Whatever my status is though, I hold to my belief that you are not real, and so I can't hurt you. You're just in my head, a way of dealing with the loneliness and isolation. Lucky for you. Because if you were real, I would kill you.
Believe it.

I'm not threatening you, understand. It would just be necessary. Something tells me this. It's just one of those things you know, like when the sky darkens and you know it's going to rain, or that tight feeling you get in your stomach when it's a mad dash to the bathroom before you have an accident. You don't question it, you don't doubt it. There is no ambiguity; it will definitely happen and it can't be stopped. That's how I feel. Anyone I see now, anyone I meet, has to die. It's just how it is.

But where was I? Forgive me, my head has started really hurting and I forget things, get sidetracked. What was I talking about? Oh yes: the possibilities, the theories that might explain where I am, what's happening to me. Well, I've told you one already, the one about some black-ops covert unlicenced experiment run by the government. Yeah, fetch the tinfoil hats, I know. But on one level it fits. Another option of course, quite possibly the most likely, is that I am dreaming. Again, it would explain so much that can't be explained, but that theory has a few small problems. Firstly, I remember little about myself but I'm fairly certain that I don't dream in such rich – and often repellent – detail as I seem to be. I'm not, so far as I know, one of those people who watches movies and documentaries and reads books about murders and killers, and yet I seem to have a natural talent for this, or maybe have developed one. I can handle weapons I've never used before. Of course, in essence anyone can handle a knife, but to use it – ah, now that's a whole different thing.

You have of course (assuming you exist, which as I said I don't think is true, but let's assume for the sake of my rapidly-failing sanity that you do) used a knife, to cut bread, meat, vegetables, cords on packages and so on. But that's just using it. You've never (I imagine) plunged a knife up the the handle in someone's head, or rammed it into their eye, or drawn it across their throat. Believe me, slitting someone's throat might seem a relatively quick way of killing someone, but when you feel that vein pulsing under your thumb, the harsh intake of breath as your victim realises their life is coming to an end, and then the pop as the air rushes out when you slide the blade across under their chin, it doesn't feel like cutting string or cheese or even meat. For one thing, meat and cheese and string don't move, not like a human head moves, not like the arms that fly up to try to protect their precious throat, try to grab the knife, try to push you away.

And then of course, there's the blood.
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Old 10-08-2022, 10:52 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Cut someone's throat and you're going to get blood. Lots of blood. It leaks, it flows, sometimes it pumps if you cut an artery, and I'm no expert so I've done that a few times. It'll get on the knife, it'll get on your hands, and if you're unlucky it will get on your clothes, shooting out in a greasy scarlet fountain that splashes across your arms and chest, maybe even your face if you're too close. Serial killers may very well enjoy this, I don't know; they may get off on it, they may even need it, or feel they do. But it's abhorrent to me. The idea of taking another human life is anathema to my own nature, but to take it in such a close and personal way is ten times worse. Someone once said (I don't remember who, could be a fictional character in a book I've long forgotten I read or a movie or TV show I can't bring back to my memory) that it's easy (relatively speaking) to kill someone with a gun, because there's distance involved. You don't have to see the results of your work close up. But a knife can't – usually – be used at long distance. Oh, if you're very dexterous you might be able to throw one at someone and kill them (more likely though that you'll either miss entirely or just wound them, and have to go in then for the kill anyway) but usually you're going to have to get down and dirty in the trenches, as it were.

You're going to have to hold the person, restrict them (for who is going to let you stab and kill them without resisting?) and you're almost certainly going to have to look them in the eyes, see the fear or the arrogance or the hate or the mute cry for pity in those eyes, and then watch the light in them dim and be extinguished forever. You're going to have to hear their burbling cry as the blood fills up their throat and they begin to drown in their own blood. You're going to have to feel the thrashing of their limbs, the jerking from side to side of their head, the drumming of their heels on the floor as they die, and you're going to see, step in, kneel in or otherwise experience the slowly spreading pool of their life fluid in which they will eventually lie like a grotesque island in a red sea.

Oh yeah, it's up close and personal, and it's not something I would have thought I could ever do. But I have. And I continue to. I've become something of an adept with the knife now, which is good in one way, as now I can end the suffering of the victim pretty quickly, bring it all to a conclusion with the minimum of fuss and the least trauma. For both of us. You should have seen me in the beginning. Hack, hack, slash - I hadn't a clue. Achieved the same result in the end, of course, but it took a lot longer, there was a lot more blood, a lot more screaming, and also a lot more hunting and as you might (or might not) expect, a lot of screwing up my courage before the deed.

Like I told you, whether you believe me or not, I don't want to do this, and I certainly wanted to do it a lot less the first time. I couldn't imagine myself taking the life of another human, but I knew I had to, and I suppose that lent me strength and determination. When you know there's no alternative, when you have to do something despite your own feelings, you just have to get on with it. Removal of choice is one hell of a motivator. And I knew I had been left with no choice.

And I've wandered off on another tangent, haven't I? Sorry about that. I think I was just explaining, or exploring the idea that, if this is a dream, how I could have become so familiar with weapons I've never used. I just went on at length about the usage of a knife, but you shouldn't think this is my only weapon. I've used hatchets, hammers, guns, ropes, spears, swords, even, as I said, a chainsaw more than once. I don't know: they seem to just come to hand, as if... well, that's another theory I'll get into in a moment. But I said there were other issues with the dream one, so what are they?
Time is a major one. I don't know how much time has passed here, and if this is a dream world perhaps no matter how long it seems I'm in here, outside in the real world maybe only hours have passed, maybe only minutes. Who knows? But if time “out there” is the same as time “in here” it seems I've been here - “dreaming” - too long. I have no way of marking time: no calendars, no clocks, no watches, no sunrise or sunset, but I know that I have killed a lot of people. I don't know how many as I said earlier, but I'm pretty certain that the number couldn't be counted on the fingers of all the hands of a football team of Shivas, so let's round it out at a hundred. I feel, fear it's more, much more, but let's take that because it's a round figure and I'm not great with maths.

So if it is a hundred, and allowing for, let's say, an hour per killing (it isn't; many take only minutes but some take a long time, so I'm just going to average it at an hour) and then another hour for me to recover, and go seek my next victim, so two hours. Two hundred hours in total, which comes out at, what, ten days? Nearly. That's too long, surely, to be asleep. And that's another thing: I never have to sleep here (suppose if I'm dreaming what would be the point? Reminds me of that Poe quote about dreams within dreams) and I never have to eat, use the bathroom, or even rest. I do rest, but only because I need to gather my mental energy reserves, not my physical ones. They don't dull at all, they're constantly as sharp as the blade of the knife I just drove into this woman. But you can't go running after people and killing them, chopping them down like wheat stalks in a field, a human combine harvester, a reaper, or Arnie in T2. Mentally – unless you're completely insane, and maybe it goes for those people too; I wouldn't know as I've never been insane, so far as I know – you have to compose yourself, get ready for the next attack, plan it out, get your weapon ready.

I'm inclined to lean towards the dream theory, but as I say there are a lot of things about it that I'm not convinced about. Another one is that I'm mad. No, I know I said just now that I'm not insane, not so far as I know. But what if I am? What if I'm even now lying on some table, or crouched in the corner of a room with interior decoration inspired by the Michelin Man, grinning and drooling as I try to break my arms free of the restraints, while outside a light over the door will flash an urgent red if I should somehow manage that? What if there are drawings all over the clean white walls, in crayon and other substances generally not used in the writing arts, faces and symbols and equations that mean nothing equals nothing, and names and places and dates that mean as little to me as they do to the puzzled doctors who visit me from time to time?

Have I been locked up because these things I do – these things I think I do now – are reflections, remembrances of atrocities I have committed? Am I being punished for taking the lives of countless innocents, and unable to stand trial have been committed to this institution, shut away where I can no longer harm decent folk, strapped into a special jacket so that I cannot harm myself? Did the memory of what I did finally break on the blood-red shores of my mind and overwhelm me, pitching me headfirst into a grey, unforgiving sea in which I now drown?

Am I mad?

I must be.

And yet, I don't feel mad.

Does a madman (or in my case, madwoman) feel that they are mad, I wonder? Or do they consider themselves the only sane one, and everyone else off their trolley? Or do they even realise there is anything wrong with them? Do they realise anything at all? Do I, can I perceive the world as it is, or do I see what I want to see, or what my madness chooses or forces me to see? Am I a slave to it, or does it serve me?

And finally, is this all a game? I don't mean like the lab rat one, with myself as the pawn or puppet of unscrupulous faceless men in suits, whether working for the government, military (is there a difference?) or more private concerns. No. I mean, is this literally a game? The way the killing never stops, the way weapons seem to appear either when I think of them or need them, or just for no reason. The way none of the victims are armed, or seem aware of my presence until I'm almost on top of them? The way nothing outside of the killing and brief moments of consolidation and rest seem to exist in my world.
Can it be that I am not real, merely a collection of pixels on someone's computer screen, part of a programme in a video game, a character fated to kill and kill again, racking up high scores and gaining bonus weapons with each kill? Am I part of something that is rated MA for Mature Audiences? And when the kid or adult playing this game, directing my movements, making me kill tires of it and turns it off, will I rest? Will I find peace? Or will I just – what do they call it – respawn? Rise from the dead (though I don't have any memory of ever having been killed) and continue on with my pointless, savage killing spree?

To be perfectly honest with you, it could be any of these, or none. I really don't know, and the headaches get worse when I try to figure it out, so I've stopped doing that. Besides, I need all my cunning and agility now. I've noticed the last few kills have been progressively harder. The victims seem almost aware now that I'm here, like they're ready for me, and while none of them has been able to fight me, not being armed, they've struggled, resisted, and drawn out the end. This one lasted three hours. That's a long time to face someone with a knife and not die, but she seemed determined to survive. I made sure she didn't of course; her fate was sealed and there was nothing she could do about it. But she gave me my toughest challenge yet.

Which probably lends weight to the video game analogy, when you think about it. If the enemies, as it were, I face in the game are not armed, how can it be fun for the player unless their responses change, unless their reactions get sharper, faster, and they are better able to resist me, making it harder for me? Gotta make her work hard for the money, right?
Funny how things go. Last time I spoke to you I mentioned that none of my victims had been armed, and they hadn't, but the last three have been. Also, they've been harder to kill, even allowing for the fact that they're no longer defenceless. This might confirm the video game hypothesis – hell, it could confirm any of them, including the one where I'm locked up in a rubber room! But I'm finding it more difficult now both to track and kill them. The last one even managed to cut me up, kinda bad really. Still feeling that one. Almost literally licking my wounds as I speak to you. Not feeling too well and though in my head my mission remains the same, and far from dimming the urgency has in fact strengthened, making me more determined than ever to kill these opponents, I got to admit it's not as easy as it was.

But I'll prevail. The last one, as I said, got her licks in and it might be a little longer than usual before I'm out on the hunt again, but a few flesh wounds won't stop me. Can I be killed? Good question, and one I've asked myself, but there's only one way to answer that and I'm not ready to go down that route just yet. From the pain I'm now feeling I can certainly assert that I can be hurt, so probably stands to reason that I can be killed. Not that I'm going to let anyone do that, but in one way it makes me a little more cautious. When I felt I was more or less invincible, I had no problem despatching these women. Why is it always women, I ask? Or do you ask? Am I talking to myself? No idea. Possibly not important, but the question is valid.

Of the surely hundreds, if not more, kills I've made, not one single one has been male. Not one. There've been women – lots of young women – girls of teenage years, younger even, older more mature women and even ones I might consider someone's grandmother. Not that age has stopped me. I feel nothing can. It's almost like I'm being, not quite controlled, but perhaps directed, advised maybe? Something is telling me that I have to do this, and I know that whoever or whatever that is, they're right. A child with blonde hair in pigtails clutching a blue teddy bear is just as much a target, just as much a threat as a powerfully-built, athletic woman of thirty or forty, and even the silver-haired granny seems dangerous, something that has to be eliminated.

I suppose if none of them are real it doesn't and won't matter. If I'm not real it sure won't. But I do on occasion take a moment to consider what will happen if they are real, and I survive to go on trial for all these, well, they'd be categorised as murders, wouldn't they? What else do you call the slaughter of unarmed women, and even if the latest ones are now armed, it's still hardly a fair fight. Oh, they've given me more of a challenge, these last specimens, but though I've had to work harder I've come out on top, and they never attack me: it's always self-defence with them. I can't ever expect any lawyer to offer me such a plea, nor any court to accept it. There's no mitigation factor for what I do: I simply have to do it, but they wouldn't understand. You wouldn't understand. You don't understand.

Neither do I. Not really. But I know there is no choice.
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Old 10-08-2022, 10:52 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Been a while since I last spoke to you, and man have things taken a turn for the worse. The last two were damned hard to put down, and I took a lot of damage myself. Not quite sure I'm ready to face another one. But I see one approaching now. It's weird: up to now, as I think I told you last time we conversed, it's always been me hunting them. Now for the first time I'm being stalked. I tell you, it's not a nice feeling. Jumping at shadows, never sure when you can rest (not that I seem to need that physically, but emotionally it's important I think), always on your guard. Suppose, when I think about it, that's how they must have felt when I was hunting them. Well now I know, and it ain't good. It's one thing when you can set your traps, plan your strategy, scope out your victim, quite another when you're taken completely off guard and they get the drop on you.

They're getting stronger too. I don't know what it is, but they seem not only more resistant to my attacks but able to press their own now. They've found weapons, yeah, from somewhere I don't know – where do I find mine? They just, you know, appear as I need them. Maybe it's the same for them now. Maybe whoever wrote this video game or whoever is controlling this experiment is trying to level out the field? Maybe my own diseased mind is rebelling, turning against itself, and giving me harder obstacles to surmount. Hey, what do I know? Don't look at me for answers. You probably have them, but aren't prepared to show your hand just yet.

Fuck! One just came at me while I was talking to you. Have to excuse me for a moment. This one looks...

Tough. By Christ she was. How many hours have I been away? Right. So you're not saying. Or you don't know? Well it seems like it took a hell of a long time to win that battle. I'm bleeding in several places, and if you can die in here, I'm starting to think I'm heading that way. Hard to concentrate these days – nights? - and my strength is rapidly fading. Hard to even stand up straight. Hard to... oh fuck. Another one.

You know... it's... funny but I... thought that one looked... familiar... somehow. Like I... Jesus fucking Christ that hurts! Like I... recognised her... though I knew... I had never... seen... ah fuckfuckfuckityFUCK! Can't be... oohhhhhh! Can't be... long... now....

Thought that... was... it. Just... aaarrrrgghh! Just blacked... out. But you know... now that I... look... at you... you... look familaARRRGGHHH! Oh fuck! You look familiar... too...

Oh... my head's... my head's swimming. I think I'm... I think I'm hal-hal-hallUCINATING OH CHRIST! You... look... just like... the one I just... fought. Didn't.. I....?

Aw... ****. You're... one... of them... too... aren't you?
You're... all of them. I... recognise you... now.
I recognise... me.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Oh... so now... you're gonna... talk to me? I can... see your mouth... moving... I can... I can hear... the words...
I can... hear your... voice.
Are... are you... are you God?

No, Jennifer, I'm not God, and neither are you. You had many theories about this place, about where you were, who you were, why you were here. The one about the nightmare was the right one, technically. You are – were – in a nightmare.

But there's one important point you weren't able to consider, as it never occurred to you.

It wasn't – isn't – your nightmare.
It's mine.

You're a part of me, Jennifer, a part I've always allowed to control me, and a part which, had I not fought back, would have killed me, or kept me here, which amounts to the same thing.

I know you're dying. I can't say I feel any sympathy for you. I want you to die, Jennifer. I need you to die. If you don't die, I can't live. This is one of the universal truths you were dimly aware of while you fought in here. If you didn't defeat me, all this would be taken from you.
And it will be.

But you won't care, because you'll be dead. Though really that's not a true statement, as you were never alive in the first place.

Let me try to explain it to you, Jennifer, before I leave you to die. Seems only fair you should know why you're dying, why you have to die. A long time ago – a year, they tell me, though I have no way at the moment of confirming this, so have to take them at their word – I had an accident. A bad one. Let me go a little further back though, to put this in perspective. Sorry, I know you're hurting. I don't wish you pain. I don't hate you. But you have to die, and there's just no way around that, and after all, you chose the method of attacking me so it's only fair and appropriate that you die in the same way as all your victims died.

Anyway, I was not – am not – a good person. Nobody could call me that, at least, not without lying through their teeth. I was a wife and a mother, and I sucked at both. I was lazy, arrogant, weak. I was bored with my life, with my perfect husband (though I now realise he was far from perfect, for who is?) and had no time for my three little children, seeing them as more an annoyance, a distraction, an unnecessary drain on my finances, rather than the blessing they are, or were. My husband made – makes – good money, and he gave me all the money I needed, happy to do it because he loved me, and he trusted me. Big mistake. Rather than spend the money on shopping trips I got into drugs, first relatively innocuously. I would go to parties – without my husband – and meet dubious people. I eventually became a cliche, selling my body for heroin when the money ran out and Danny refused to, or was unable to give me more.

It's nothing special as a story, happens all the time. Danny and I drifted apart, I spent time in jail, he held on for as long as he could then finally I forced him to file for divorce. I actually told him I wanted it, because I knew I'd get a very generous settlement which I could then plough into my addiction. Heroin was all: I no longer cared about Danny, I had never cared about the kids. All I wanted was my smack, and I didn't give a toss who I hurt in order to get it. Danny didn't want to divorce me – the poor fool still loved me, thought he could change me – but the decision was taken out of his hands when, fleeing from the cops with a key of the stuff in my trunk I slammed into a wall and they had to cut me out of the car.

I've been in a coma, they tell me, since then. I don't remember any of it. Little flashes: the pain of a sharp object across my throat, a kick in the head, the buzzing of a chainsaw? Faces floating in front of me, the faces of my family, and your face, always yours, grinning, looming, leering, hating. I knew your face. I knew it was my face. But I didn't know that I knew. I just had this terrible feeling of recognition every time you attacked me, like being slaughtered by your twin sister.

Oh yeah. It's been me – you – us you've been killing all this time. Every victim, every murder you've committed has been a part of me. I don't quite understand it, but Danny has, apparently, been coming to the hospital every day since I was admitted, sitting by my bed and telling me what was going on, keeping me updated in the hope that I might come out of it, come back to him.

It wasn't working, because I didn't want to.
But I do now.

But those victims I was talking about? The ones that never fought back? Well, until now that is. All aspects, I'm told, of my personality. You went for the weaker ones first of course. There was my sense of self-worth – easy pickings there, no resistance and a quick kill. Then my ambition, also weak, easily murdered. Others, too: again I don't understand it but it has something to do, I believe, with how my brain was perceiving my coma, and how it was deciding whether or not to fight back, whether to remain here and give up or try to get back to the real world, try to wake up, try to come back to life.

Hope. Guilt. Self-loathing. All little defenceless prom queens to be stalked and destroyed by the night slasher, all easy prey for the monster who walked among them. Me. Us. Whatever. Frail, fragile little weaklings who fainted away dead at the sound of the steel sliding into flesh, who closed their horrified eyes and passed away at the first spurt of blood from the artery. No match for you, those cutouts, those losers, those quitters. Because I was a quitter. I wanted to lose. I wanted to stay here. It's easier, of course it is. But nothing worth doing is ever easy. The good things demand sacrifice, the triumphs in our lives are only achieved through self-denial and backbreaking labour, through determination and acceptance of loss, acceptance of our fallibility, the recognition and realisation that we are not perfect, never can be, and probably never should be.

To slightly paraphrase the Beastie Boys: you gotta fight for your right to life.
And I didn't want to fight. Not back then. What had I to live for, Jennifer? My husband was leaving me (yes I know I said I wanted the divorce, but that was the heroin talking, not me) and taking my children. And he was right to. I couldn't look after them. I couldn't give them the nurturing love they needed. No safe haven in this harbour, kids. They'd be better off without me. So would he. I knew it, and he knew it. And then that small part of me that still realised that there even was an outside world, a reality beyond the one I found myself in, remembered that even if things had been peachy with my home life, I had crashed in possession of a kilo of horse. I was going down, if I ever woke up.

I had nothing to look forward to but a long stretch inside, a lonely life that would be even lonelier when I got released, assuming I didn't top myself or get on the wrong side of a shank while incarcerated. Outside, if I made it, I would be as alone as I would be inside. Nobody left to care for or about me, no chance of a job, and in all likelihood the craving would not only still be there but would have increased, as only the very foolish and naive think that you can't get drugs in prison.

So what else to do but slide down into welcome darkness, hide in the anonymous protection of the coma I was in? Why come out? Why not stay there? It was safe, it was quiet, and nobody could hurt me there. More importantly, I couldn't hurt anybody. I was better off where I was. My husband and kids were better off where I was. Everyone was better off if I just remained where I was and never troubled the world with my sorry presence again.

Which is, I believe, Jennifer, where you came in.

Now I'm no shrink, and I don't believe in God, so I don't have any way to adequately explain it, but you seem to have become the personification of my despair, though you would not of course have recognised yourself as such. You were born, if I may use that term loosely, with a single objective in mind: your survival, and continued existence. Hey, I don't blame you, you know. It's the driving force that impels us all, the instinct that makes us step back when a car nearly runs us over, or stop when we run towards a cliff, or too fast down steps. It's the defence mechanism that has us throw out our arms when we fall, or cover our heads when something heavy – usually something much too heavy for our mere arms to protect us from – falls from the sky. It's the sense of preservation that makes us turn away if we see trouble, refuse to bear witness or pick someone out from an identity parade even though we know who it is. None of us want to die. We all want to live as long as we can, and that desire is inbuilt and hard-coded into our DNA. So how could you not wish to preserve your life?

The only way you could do that, though, was to ensure that I remained in the coma, and to do that, you had to destroy my urge to wake up. Because some part of you knew, instinctively, that if I really wanted to come out of the coma, there was nothing you could do to stop me. You weren't strong enough on your own. The odds and the numbers were against you, but what use are superior numbers if they're made up of chicken**** soldiers who will run at the first sound of a shot? And that's what my – let's call them emotions, though that's not quite right, but it will do – were; cowardly, craven, weak, miserable little excuses for an army.

But not them all.

Because somewhere along the line, don't ask me how, I started to hear things. Maybe it's true what they say about people in comas, that if you talk to them they hear even if they can't respond. I certainly heard Danny talking to me, though for a long time all I could hear was a low mumble, a kind of muttering I couldn't even identify as his voice. But slowly I came to understand that it was him, that he hadn't abandoned me, that he was promising to stand by me, maybe bring the kids to visit me when I was locked up, and afterwards, when I got out... well, to be fair he made no promises, nor would I have expected or really wanted him to, but he gave me the impression that the door – no pun intended – might still be open for us. It was all I needed to start fighting back.

All I needed, except I had no clue how to. I tried to wake up, tried till I felt every blood vessel in my body was bursting with the effort, but nothing. And then one day I heard him talking to the doctor – actually it may have been a priest – and this guy was explaining a theory he had, that the patient in a coma fought a kind of existential battle, where one half of the brain, soul, heart, call it what you will, dug its heels in and wanted to stay asleep. Sleeping was easier than facing what I had done, and as I was already in a coma it would be, this man said, like trying to pull a massive plug that had been sunk into the earth out with my teeth, but that if I didn't manage it I would remain in the coma.

She has to fight, he had said with a tinge of sadness and regret in his voice (or was that the doctor? I couldn't see anyone of course so had no idea who might be talking) and she has to want to wake up. If the part of her that fears coming back, doesn't want to take responsibility for what she has done, wins, then she will never wake up, and she may just slip away.

And that's what you are, Jennifer, or what you were anyway. You're that part of me that tried to keep me asleep, roaming the corridors of my brain like some slasher movie stalker, hunting down my weaker impulses and killing them, destroying me piece by piece, taking my resolve and my determination to break out of here and rejoin my family, weakening my defences and shaking me by the throat like some wolf finishing off its prey.

I was ready to let you win, to just sink down into the mire of my own bad choices and talent for fucking my life up, and that of everyone I knew, until today.

What happened today? I'm glad you asked.

You see, today Danny was back at my bedside, the way he has been for a year now, every day without fail. But today he did something he has never done before.

He brought my kids to see me.

And I heard their voices, heard them crying, whispering to their mummy to come back, please come back, they needed her.

I say this in the most general terms, but after all, you're me, as such, and so I can say it to you. You're a woman. You know the greatest, most indefatigable, most unstoppable force in the world is the love of a mother for her children. You'll give your own life for your kids.
Or take it back.

So, yeah, I feel a little bit sorry for you now, Jennifer, as you lie there bleeding and dying, and finally realising what it is you've been doing, and how, despite your many victories, you were always fated to lose. But I don't feel that sorry. You're a bitch, Jennifer. A selfish bitch who tried to keep me apart from my children, and for that you deserve to die.

I don't know, though: maybe you'll live on when I wake up. You're a part of me, after all, a small, insignificant part now of course. I'm not saying I'll get off dope like that, and I know I have a hard time facing me once I wake up and can be moved to prison. But I can face all that now, because I am no longer alone.

Perhaps you won't be, either.

I really don't know, and to be brutally and frankly honest with you, I don't care either way.

Goodbye Jennifer.

I'm going to open my eyes now.
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Old 10-11-2022, 10:13 AM   #14 (permalink)
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Boss of Bosses

Ah yeah, think ya got it all figured out, huh kid? You've been with the firm, what – a year now? Oh, sixteen months, ya say? Well well. And now you're just about ready to take over. Gonna go up against me, huh?

Yeah, yeah, you're the one with the gun. Think a gun makes you a big man, do ya? Ya got a lots to learn, kid. If ya ever lives that long that is. Nah, not a threat son. Don Angelo Di Marco, he don't make threats.

Kinda remind me of myself when I was younger, kid, you know that? New on the job, fulla piss and vinegar, ready to take on the world. I know that feelin'. Why should ya work for me when ya can have it all for yourself? Just what I was thinkin' back then about my boss. Old guy was losin' it, lettin' insults pass, not collectin' on debts, showin' – Jesus Christ! Showin' mercy! I ask ya, right? Time the guy was put outta his misery. Time for, ah, new blood, capische?

Yeah I had the same idea, kid. I was in your place, standin' where you are now, but I didn't use no gun. Nah. See, I knew somethin' about this Family that you don't. We been here forever. We got secrets.

Lemme tell ya a story. What? Got somethin' more important to do? You're about to take out the Boss of Bosses, an' ya don't wanna hear his final testimonial? Hell, ya owe me that much, right? Sure ya do. Right then, ya gotta come with me then, back about – oh, fifty years ago I guess it would be now. Heh. No, I guess I don't look my age, true. All this good livin', you see. Good to be the boss.

Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah. I was standin' where you are, facin' my boss. Folks always thought there was somethin', you know, different about Don Vito. His enemies had a nasty way of vanishin', an' nobody ever found no bodies. But that wasn't strange; happens in any crime syndicate. Lots of places to bury people – or parts of 'em – where they ain't never gonna be found. Nah, the really weird thing about Don Vito was his aversion to the day. Never rose till the sun went down, conducted all his business at night. If he had deals to be done in daylight, well, he had agents to take care of it. Didn't eat much either – well, when I say not much, I means nothing. Not so much as a scrap of food. And for an Italian, well, he sure avoided goin' to church. Never set foot in there, not once.

Sure, I knew why, but then, I was part of the Family. And we were loyal, and sworn to secrecy. Sworn to protect the Family.

But I was about to break that oath of loyalty which had been the hallmark of our Family for – well, for longer than you can imagine, kid.

I was young an' foolish, full of my own confidence.

I broke into Don Vito's office – not hard, for a man of my talents, I assure you – and I was waitin' for him when he came back from a meetin'. His eyes popped when he saw me. Not exactly friends, him and me – members, you might say, of opposin' factions within the Family. Well he looks down at my gun, up at my eyes, over at his three goons, who all go for their weapons.
And he laughs.

He sneers. Don't this punk kid know who he is? Does he really think a gun is going to have any effect on a guy like Don Vito? The goons, taking their cue from the boss, begin to laugh too. They're waitin' for the signal, but they ain't never gonna get it.

I squeeze the trigger and hit him square in the heart.
Don Vito laughs as, instead of hot lead slammin' into his chest and ruinin' his expensive Brooks Brothers suit, water spurts out of my gun.

Don Vito laughs.
The goons laugh.
Then Don Vito stop laughin', and starts screamin'.

He's clutchin' at his chest, flappin' at it, slappin' it with his palms. Black smoke is risin' from the folds of his shirt, and a nasty, cookin' smell is in the air. Don Vito looks at me with eyes that suddenly realise what's happenin', as the smoke gets thicker and heavier, and red and orange flames start to leap from his chest, his neck, his hands as the water trickles down his body. I fire a few more shots, and Don Vito sinks to his knees, his entire head wreathed in fire, skin meltin' down what's left of his face, his body already crispin' on the Axminster.

One of the goons rushes to him, one comes at me. I take both of them out with a few shots. A few bullets impact my body, but I shrug them off. The two of them begin to smoke like their boss. The third one has turned and run. I take careful aim at his back. The gun sputters and coughs, but nothin' comes out.


Cursin', I reach in my pocket, pull out the small glass vial with the holy cross embossed on the side, refill the pistol, and go after him. I catch him halfway down the stairs.

I spray his back, emptyin' the gun into him, and he literally erupts in flame, cindered remains fallin' down the steel steps. He don't even got time to scream.

I walk back to the office, kickin' apart the ashes of the man who was once Don of the First Family, crime boss of all New York, and I stride to his desk. I pick up the phone, and give the code word.

You ever heard of the Night of the Long Knives, kid? No? Ya oughta pay more attention to your history. See, there was this guy, Adolf Hitler. He wanted to take over his country, but there were guys in the way, guys he didn't trust. Gotta have trust in this business, right? So what does Hitler do? He does what any good mob boss would do. He removes the threat, makes sure there ain't nobody to stand in his way.

This here is my Night of the Long Knives, kid.

Oh yeah, your accomplices are all bein' dealt with as we speak. One of them gave you up.

Loyalty, kid. Ain't got loyalty, ain't got nothin'.

Tell ya what, kid, I couldn't be bothered bitin' ya. Why don't ya do me a solid an' point that gun at your head? Go on, that's it. All ya gotta do now is pull the trigger.

Yeah, I'm real sorry too kid. Only got this desk French polished today and now I'm gonna have to have your brains cleaned off it. Ah well. I got people for that.

Good to be the Boss.
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Old 10-15-2022, 08:50 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Support Group

For a long time, I stand staring at the door. It's like I'm paralysed, but I know it's fear that stops me. Which is pretty odd, when you consider it. I want to change – I know I do – but it's hard, taking that first step. The perfectly ordinary door leading into a perfectly ordinary building yawns before me like a huge black mouth, waiting to swallow me. I can feel the icy kiss of the rain as it falls about my head and shoulders, running in small trickles down my neck, and it's strangely comforting. I could stay outside, here in the rain, in the dark, in the cold. It seems... right.

But Herman is there beside me, and his pale hand is on my sleeve. Small droplets of rainwater glance off it and hit the ground; some others, having landed on his skin, run slowly over his knuckles and down his wrist, dripping off his hand to join their brothers on the dark pavement. There is concern in his eyes, concern that does not belong there. For a moment, I hate him.

“Come on, Victor.” His voice is soft, low, a sibilant hiss in the darkness, but forceful in its way, containing both persuasion and wounded pride, a hint of disappointment and rather a lot of encouragement. “You knew this would be hard, but it will be worth it, I promise you. The first step,” he nods at the door, waiting for me hungrily, seeming to grin at me, “is to walk through that door.”

“I – I don't think I'm ready.” If I hate Herman at that moment, I hate my own voice even more. It shakes with fear, fear which disgusts me the more because it's real, and I'm usually not afraid of anything. I hate it, and I hate that I'm letting it win. But I am afraid. “Maybe next week.” I begin to turn from the building, turning up my collar against the rain, more a symbolic gesture really as the weather does not in the least bother me. His hand on my arm tightens. I know how tight that grip can get, and for a moment my eyes flash a challenge in the gloom, reflected in the white sodium glare of the street light.

“No.” It is a simple denial, more an order, a refusal to accept my defeat. “No, Victor. Next week you'll feel the same, and if you walk away tonight you're going to feel like a failure, and I won't allow that.”

“You won't allow it?” Now the challenge is full-born in my eyes, a red anger rising in them that would speak, in other circumstances, of mortal combat. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

“I'm your friend.” The three words are spoken quietly, gently, but with commanding force. The strength of his forceful, gentle commitment defuses my anger, deflates my burgeoning arrogance, and shrouds me in shame. I nod.

“I know,” I tell him. “I know. But as my friend, you must understand how difficult this is.”

This time he nods, and looks back at the waiting door, an immovable object waiting to meet its irresistible force. “Of course I do,” he assures me, his hand still on my arm, as if, should he release it, I would be gone in a flash, disappearing into the night, leaving him behind, leaving any potential hope for salvation behind. He's right; I would. “But we've talked about this. Nothing that's worth doing is easy, and there are no quick fixes. You want to get better, don't you?”

This time it is he whose eyes bear the challenge, but it isn't the challenge of combat or that of resistance; his gaze dares me to have the courage of my convictions, to do what I said I would do, what I promised him I would do.

To take that first step.

I try to make my feet move in the direction of the door, but they are determined to carry me away from it. Only his grip, strong but caring, arrests me. I wonder how he can do it; this is not how we are. How can he be so understanding, so friendly, so, so... good? Do I want to be like him? I've asked myself this question a thousand times in the last few months, since he first told me of this program, of his experiences with it, and how it helped him. And I've swung between that's what he wants, good for him to can't I have it too? Eventually, after what most people would call soul-searching (though I do not use such a term, for why would I?) I came out on the latter side of the argument, and gave in to his repeated blandishments, allowed him to encourage, almost force me to accompany him to one of his meetings, hoping but not believing that I would gain something from it, that it would help me, that I would attain from it what he has.

Peace. Acceptance. Serenity.

What have I become? I sleep through the day, go out at night looking for my fix, my hit. And I get it, but it does nothing to assuage the hunger in me, the need, the desire for more. It's slowly destroying me, this addiction, I know that. But it's so hard to stop. If it's even possible. It's ruined my life, this thing that has taken over my every waking moment. It's made me hurt the people I love, do anything to attain that high, to feel that – that invulnerable, that strong – though I really know, deep down, that it's weakness that drives me, not strength.

Strength, as Herman has pointed out to me, comes from wanting to change, not allowing this thing to define who I am. Strength comes from standing up, from saying no: this is not the way I want to live, this is not how I am going to live. I am going to do something about it.

As if he's reading my mind, he asks me “Do you not hate what you've become, Victor? Can you even look at yourself in the mirror?”

“No,” I tell him honestly. “No, I can't.”

I used to despise addicts. No will power, I would scoff. No self-respect, no control. The scum of the earth. I would, I arrogantly told myself, never be like them, grubbing around for my next shot, selling my very soul for the one thing that keeps me going, the thing I must do, the thing that has made me its slave. But it's funny how your perspective changes once you're riding the red horse. You see a whole different world from up there, and it's not a better one. You understand more, you realise what it's like, and despair eats your heart as you come to accept that it will never change, that you are trapped like this forever.

And then, in the darkest of dark nights, a torch shone through for me, and here I am standing beside my friend, a sinner at the gates of Hell, waiting, hoping to be admitted.

This is my chance, my chance to turn it all around, to turn my back on the life I have led and make my existence mean something. This is my chance to atone, to walk a different path, to step out into the light, terrifying as that seems.

But, as Herman has told me many times, this isn't like one of those car washes where you go in with a filthy vehicle caked in grime and muck and it comes out sparkling clean, good as new. It's not like confession, where the faithful who have sinned go in and repent, and come out with their souls as shiny and scrubbed as when they were born. It's a long, arduous process, and it takes time, and it takes commitment, and it takes perseverance. It's not easy, but it starts with one step.

If I can make that one step.

But I'm finding it a lot harder than I had expected.

Still, like Herman says, nothing worth doing is easy, right?

“I'm not going to try to force you, Victor.” His voice seems to come from a long way off, and I notice faintly that he has taken his hand off my arm. His eyes are serious. Are they ever any other way? Above in the sky, the eastern wind pushes a small bank of clouds from the moon and the half-full pale yellow disc illuminates us, standing outside the building like two penitents fearing to enter our god's sanctum. Well, one fearing and one trying to urge him. “But aren't you tired of living the way you do? Aren't you tired of hurting people, of hiding who you are, of the terrible agony that comes with every morning, the awful realisation that you've done it again? Don't you want to take back your life, take back control, be the man you want to be?”

I find it hard to answer, but I nod. My eyes shift towards the door again. Perhaps it's the appearance of Lady Moon, lightening the darkness, but somehow it doesn't seem as threatening as before. I believe I may be able to approach it.

“The first step in dealing with your problem,” Herman tells me as we stand in the hallway (I hear a low murmur of voices from down the hall, and a tiny sliver of light spills out from beneath a closed door, which we approach now), “is admitting you have one. They'll help you, as they helped me. But you need to be open to that help, and ready to change. Are you ready to change, Victor?”

I nod, uncertainly. “I want to,” I tell him honestly. He smiles, and knocks on the door. We are admitted to a circle of people, who do not look that much different from us, all sitting on plastic chairs. They welcome us into their circle, and I am encouraged, as a newcomer, vouched for by Herman, to introduce myself. I know what to say – what must be said – Herman has coached me in this, and there is a certain form which must be observed. It's hard to say it – hard to admit it to others, when you've spent so long hiding this secret, protecting it, guarding it, fearing that it might be discovered.

But this is it, now. I've come too far. I've made the giant leap, and it's time to make another one. I've lived in the darkness for too long. It's time to do something I never thought I would, and step into the light, even if it hurts.

I stand, clear my throat, look around at my fellow attendees, at Herman, and back.
“Hello everyone,” I say, a slight tremble in my voice. “My name is Victor, and I'm a vampire.”
“Hello Victor!” they all chorus.

I'm feeling more comfortable already.
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Old 10-18-2022, 08:44 AM   #16 (permalink)
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Not one of us

“Welcome back. The headlines on SCNN: still no verdict in the Rosco Peterson trial, now in its sixteenth day.

(VT rolls)

“I'm coming to you live from the victory speech of our new Prime Minister, Jurgen Reynolds, whose party, the HLRP – Hard Line Right Party – swept to power in a landslide election victory yesterday. The speech was marred by the attempt of one man to assassinate Mr. Reynolds. As the assailant was led away by police he was heard to scream “He's a demon! He's a demon!” Mr. Reynolds' interrupted speech then included a mention of the attempt, calling for psychiatric aid for the man, and pointing to it as a stark example of the dangerous freedoms allowed by the liberalism of the previous government. The new Prime Minister promised tighter security checks and better screening for hereditary mental problems. Harry Doveturtle, for SCNN.”

(VT ends)

“That was the scene over two weeks ago, the attempt resulting in the swift passing of the Draconian Acts, which I'm sure have made us all feel much more secure.”

“Thank you, Harry. We welcome to the studio the very eminent Dr. Indira Patwani. Dr. Patwani, you were called as an expert witness at the trial of Mr. Peterson. Why was that?”

“Well, Maurice, I specialise in certain conditions of the brain, and it was my belief – and remains so – that Mr. Peterson was suffering from a rare case of DPRD.”

“D... P... what?”

“Oh I do beg your pardon. We psychologists are so used to using acronyms, we tend to forget people may not know what they stand for. DPRD stands for Degenerative Personality Regression Disorder. DPRD occurs in, oh, maybe one in a million, one in two million brains. It is a condition that can go undetected for years, decades even, and then be triggered by some major event. In this case, it seems to have been set off by the HLRP's shock election.”

“Yes. It was a shock, wasn't it? Rumours of election tampering?”

“Not my area, I'm afraid, Maurice. I'm only a doctor. But in that capacity I have seen, in my time, perhaps three cases of DPRD, and I am convinced this is one of them.”

“So, how does this bear on the case, Doctor?”

“I'm getting to that. You see, a patient suffering from DRPD sees reality literally fragment before him. He sees his world break apart. It no longer makes sense. Things, as I believe one poet had it, fall apart.”

“The centre cannot hold.”

“Precisely. And in this case, the fragmentation of his world made Mr. Peterson believe utterly that Mr. Reynolds was, and is, a demon.”

“But surely, Doctor, we all -”

“I'm coming to that. DPRD is insidious, Maurice. To one suffering the symptoms, everything else can seem real and only one tiny part is wrong. But – and this is the important, and indeed tragic part – that one part that he sees as being wrong is in fact the only part of his world which is still, as it were, right. He is imagining all the rest, but believes it to be a true reflection of his world. What this means is that when Mr. Peterson saw our Prime Minister as a demon, he didn't realise --”

“Sorry to cut across you there, Doctor, but I'm told we have breaking news down at the courthouse. Sally Wilson is on the spot for us. Sally? You there?”

“Hi Maurice. We're told that the jury has just returned, and that a verdict is indeed imminent. This will bring to a close the longest-running criminal case in recent history. Rosco Peterson has been accused of having links to the liberal – ah, right. Yes. Thank you. And here it is, Maurice. The moment we've all been waiting for. The jury has found Rosco Peterson NOT GUILTY, by reason of insanity! Quite unexpected verdict there, Maurice. This is Sally Wilson, for SCNN, returning to you in the studio.”

“Not guilty. Are you surprised by the verdict, Dr. Patwani?”

“Not at all.”


“I knew he would be found not guilty. How can you blame a man suffering from DPRD for his actions?”

“And you are certain he was afflicted by this – what did you call it? DPD?"

“DPRD. Without a doubt. Worst case I've seen in my time. Mr. Peterson was unable to see himself – and the world around him – for what it is. He saw the Prime Minister as a demon, but it would not occur to him, in his sick state of mind, that this was the natural order of things, and that we are all demons.”

“I see. Well there you have it folks. A sensational end to a sensational trial. Thanks to Dr. Indira Patwani for sharing his insights with us. Looks like that book is going to be a bestseller, doc! That's all from Sixth Circle Network News on the day Rosco Peterson, attempted killer of our Prime Minister, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Remember, for all the news from the Sixth Circle of Hell, keep it here, on SCNN. Good night.”
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Old 10-24-2022, 08:10 AM   #17 (permalink)
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Nikkolai salivated as he ushered her outside into the cold night air. The roar of the music was abruptly cut off as the door swung shut, thumping bass and squealing synthesiser beats fading away as the sound of distant night traffic and the sigh of the wind replaced them, making him feel more at home. He hated dance music, especially that bloody EDM, but those clubs were the best ones to pick up women. He had his arm around her waist, and in some small part of her drug and alcohol-addled brain the nineteen-year-old with the skirt that barely qualified as such, tottering on white boots with heels far too high for someone of her diminutive stature, must have wondered why that hand wasn't sliding further down? Maybe this guy really was one of that dying breed, a gentleman? Maybe she had lucked out, hit the jackpot.

As he encouraged her down the alleyway, she sighed inwardly. No. Just another guy looking to get his. No reason why he should want to go into this dark, lonely passageway otherwise. Any moment now his hand would drop and begin to creep up her – OW! What the hell was that? Was this guy kinky or what?

“Wha – wha you say... name was .. 'gain?” she slurred, falling against him as he supported her.

“Nikkolai,” he told her tersely, looking around. Not that anyone would mark them, two more drunken lovers staggering out of a club.
“Ni – Nicho-las?”

This always angered him.

“No. Not Nicholas,” he corrected her. “Nikkolai. Two K's , A and an I. Nikkolai.”

Suddenly her heart began to race, and she felt sure it was more than just the two tablets of MDMA she had taken earlier. Something had penetrated her, and not in the place she usually expected to be penetrated. Her breath was coming fast now, laboured, like it did sometimes when she tried to run for the last bus. She suddenly thought of her mother, waiting up anxiously for her, watching the door. It might have given her mother some small comfort to know that she was the last thing on her daughter's mind before she slipped away.

Withdrawing his fangs, Nikkolai wiped his sleeve across his mouth, the blood making an ugly smear, as if someone had hit him in the face. He lowered the lifeless body of the girl to the ground, knelt down beside her, listened at her heart. When he was quite sure she was dead – he might be a monster but he wasn't a sadist – he reached in his pocket and thumbed the black Zippo. He touched the tongue of flame to the edge of her PVC skirt, which began almost immediately to crackle. By the time he had turned the corner the body was already smoking.

Nikkolai had found one foolproof way of covering his kills. If you burned the body, there was no evidence and nobody would see the tiny holes in the neck which spoke of his presence. Not that anyone would take any notice of such a thing, of course.

Nobody believed in vampires in these enlightened, arrogant times.
And his name, so revered in the past, so royal, had become corrupted.
No Nikkolais now. All Nicholases.

He always made sure he set his victims straight before the end.
It was vain, but it was an annoyance when they didn't get your name right.

Their lack of faith made it easier for him to hunt, but he still missed the old days, when he could inspire terror by simply walking past closely-shuttered windows in hovels and cottages the length of the country. Ah, once they stop believing, he noted sadly, the fear is gone, and with it, the respect.

But the girl had been little more than an appetiser. Perhaps it was her youth, or the drugs in her system, but there had been something bitter about her blood, and he had not enjoyed the repast. He needed more.

“Got a light?”

He turned to see, with a mild shock, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen standing behind him. She had long black hair, dark as the night, so dark in fact that it seemed to be a part of the night. It tumbled down her slim shoulders in waves, those shoulders naked due to the strapless dress she wore, which did all it could to contain her heaving breasts. Unlike his last victim, her hem was high, but not scandalously so, stopping about halfway up her creamy thighs, which were encased in high boots of soft black leather.
Everything about her, in fact, was black. Hair, makeup, dress, boots. Even her eyes looked black in the moonlight. He recognised her instantly as what had been called some twenty or thirty years ago goths, though how little these humans knew of the true meaning behind the word made him smile, and not in a pleasant way. A perfect target for him, a perfect victim. If anyone believed in vampires, this one surely did.

He snapped the Zippo, lighting the cigarette she held out to him like a movie star from the forties. He had known some of them personally; this girl, this woman could have worked alongside them. She might even have put the likes of Doris Day or Audrey Hepburn to shame. He really had not seen such an almost elemental beauty in – well, longer than he could remember, and that was a long time.

“Thanks,” she grinned. “I should really give these things up.”

He looked at the cigarette gravely. He did not approve of smoking, and carried the lighter for other reasons.

“You should,” he agreed, a bit of a snap in his voice, a slight edge of contempt. “They will be the death of you.”

As if he had said something hilarious, she tipped back her head and laughed, a coarse and yet tinkling laugh, like a fairy princess chewing glass.

“I've lasted this long,” she told him philosophically, taking a deep puff and exhaling the smoke into the air above his head. “No much point in giving up now.”

To his surprise, he found himself concerned for her. That was a new feeling for him. The last time he had felt actual concern for a mortal... well, he had warned her to get out of Paris as the mob closed in, but though she was a queen she hadn't a queen's sense that the jig was up. Not his fault if she lost her head.

“Die young, and leave a pretty corpse, is that it?” He found himself grinning; she would certainly leave a very pretty corpse. She laughed that strange laugh again.

“Oh, I'm not as young as you think, kid.”

Kid? Nobody had called him kid in, well, a long time. A very long time. He didn't like the word. One of the reasons he had left the Deep South after the war had been lost. He hadn't survived this long without knowing which way the wind was blowing.

“You look young.” She shrugged, took another pull.

“So I've been told.”

It was true: she could not be any more than maybe twenty-two, perhaps twenty-four. She had all the energy and vigor and beauty of youth. But there was, when he looked closer, something about her eyes that spoke of age. Even so young, really at the start of her life, he could see she had already had a hard one.

But she would not have to endure any more hardship.

To his amusement, and then annoyance, he found it hard to speak. It was as if her beauty, her very presence was overpowering him. And he was not used to that.

“Want – want to come back to my lair?”

She grinned mischievously at him, looking up from beneath impossibly long black eyelashes.

“Your lair?” she repeated. “What are you, a serial killer?” She poked him in the ribs with her elbow. Nikkolai felt it, which in itself was odd, given his supernatural strength.

Damn it! Why had he said that? He decided to make the best of it.
“Come into my parlour, little fly,” he grinned.

She suddenly linked arms with him. That, too, was striking. People just didn't do things like that today. He remembered escorting the Duchess of Bloomsbury to the wedding feast of Charles V. And he remembered how later he had indulged in a feast of his own.

“Hmm, I'm more a wasp, really,” she told him, grinning. “I'm Kitty, by the way.”

“Kitty?” He frowned; it didn't suit her, somehow.

“Well, Catherine,” she admitted with a shrug, “but I don't like the name. Always thought it was, you know, too formal.”

“Nikkolai,” he said, heaving a heavy breath. “That's two K's...”

“An A and an I,” she finished for him. “I know. An old and respected name, that. You don't hear it much these days.”

Well, thought Nikkolai, a very special woman indeed. This could be very interesting.

Let's go.” She almost dragged him down the road. He was, again, surprised at her strength, for one so small, but allowed himself to be urged along. Hell, this was almost too easy.

It turned out that they had more in common than the vampire could have believed. She talked of politics with him, of the economy, of wars – she had a good grasp of history, at least, fairly recent history. They talked of music, and literature, and before he realised it the first rays of morning were beginning to quest through the shaded windows. A chill ran through him. Suddenly, he didn't want to kill her. She wasn't like any victim he had ever taken. There was something... different about her. Special. Unique.

But as Cat Stevens once wrote, morning had broken, and the thirst would not be denied. It wasn't hard to do: they had moved closer all night, and now she fell easily into his arms as he embraced her. The first shock when his fangs went in always sent a thrill through his – what?

But this was impossible!

He was feeling a sharp sensation in his neck!

Panicking, unable to believe it, he withdrew, just in time to see her wiping the blood from her rosebud mouth with a grimace.

“Urgh!” she spat, wrinkling her perfect nose. “You're a vampire, too?”

He sat back, looking at her, feeling wonderingly at the two tiny pin pricks in his alabaster skin. It all made sense now. For a moment they just stared at each other, unsure what to say.

Then Kitty burst into helpless laughter.

For a moment, he thought she was laughing at him, and his anger rose.
Then he recognised the humour of the situation, and he joined her, the two laughing as no vampire has laughed for centuries. They usually have little to laugh about.

They shared his coffin, as he had no spare. She lay on top of him, smiling down at him.

“So who -?” He did not need to complete the sentence. She knew.

“Eklund the Vile,” she told him. He nodded.

“I know him. Nice guy. Just don't mention Liverpool.”

“The city?”

“The football team.”

She laughed. “A fan, is he?”

“Quite the reverse. Dyed in the wool Red Devil, in more ways than one!”

She grinned. “You don't have to tell me that!” she remarked.

They were silent for a while, each communing with their own thoughts.

“I've never hunted with anyone before,” she said at length.

“You want to hunt with me?”

She looked hurt for a moment.
“Don't you?”
He smiled. “Can't think of anything I'd like better.”

“By the way, if it's not a rude question, how old are you?”

He made an effort to calculate, shrugged.
“I'm not sure, to be honest,” he admitted. “You?”

“Oh, I'm ancient,” she giggled. It was a lovely sound. “I go all the way back to the Blitz I do.”

“All that way?” He was teasing her.

She snuggled closer to him, laid her head on his chest. It was deliciously cold.
“You fought in any wars?” she asked him, touching his icy lips with her long fingernail.

He nodded. “A few. I was in the Civil War.”


He shook his head. “English.”

“Ah.” She tapped his nose. “Well, that makes you old enough to be by great-great-great-whatever-grandfather!” She pulled back from him as if in shock, then grinned again.

“Never mind,” she laughed. “I always did prefer older men.”
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Old 10-24-2022, 07:01 PM   #18 (permalink)
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This is really not a story at all. It's a novella, my attempt at combining the master detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a ghost story. I have to say, I found it tough going: I've never written this way before, with someone as the narrator who is involved in the story but not all of it. It's not easy. Hopefully what I came up with wouldn't shock Sir Arthur too much, even if it is far removed from his genius.

Anyway, for better or for worse, I present to you the first of seven chapters in

"A Grave Injustice - A Sherlock Holmes Mystery"

Editor's note: in accordance with the last will and testament of Dr. John Watson, this story has been withheld from publication until a more tolerant climate prevailed in England. The revelations within the text, although names have been changed to protect careers and reputations, were deemed too serious and threatening to be allowed into print in Dr. Watson's time. It was also considered by Dr. Watson to be prudent that the remarks made by the late Sherlock Holmes himself towards the conclusion of the case be kept from the public, lest they adversely affected his career and standing in the community. It was the doctor's wish and instruction that only when the details would no longer be in danger of harming any reputations, careers or lives of anyone connected with the narrative should the publisher, to whom this was entrusted, allow it to be seen by the public.

With the agreement and permission of his estate, and the aid of his great-grandson, the eminent heart surgeon Dr. Charles Watson in checking the text to ensure nothing compromising remained, especially with reference to his great-grandfather and his most eminent friend, as well as of course Her Majesty's Government, we are advised that the time has come to tell this most fantastical, but entirely true tale.

We therefore present to you, very slightly edited as above, but otherwise entirely as it was written on October 31 1899, the final case for Sherlock Holmes, and the last written by Dr. John Watson, of 221B Baker Street.

Chapter I: A Ghostly Message

I: Death of a Nobleman

“Spooks and spirits!”

Holmes threw the paper down in a fit of disgust, casting it away from him. It crumpled to the floor, almost falling into the fire before he snatched it up impatiently. I looked up from my book, my eyebrows raised.

“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated. “Whatever is the matter?”

He fixed me with a steely eye, as if he held me responsible for all the charlatans and frauds in London, if not the world. His voice was dripping with sarcasm.

“Fools!” he snapped. “What utter nonsense they print these days! Why, Watson? I ask you, why is it that our esteemed newspaper editors find not enough interest and intrigue on the London streets that they need resort to such, such... aaaahh!” He hit the paper with the backs of his fingers, as if it offended him.

“Come now, Holmes,” I remonstrated with him, leaning back and relighting my pipe, which had gone out. “Surely it can't be as bad as all that?”

For answer, he sprang out of his chair and all but shoved the newspaper at me, the headline glaring at me. It was so close I had to refocus my eyes to make sense of it.


I read the article, shaking my head. I felt I had to agree with my friend. When there were so many other important news stories to be told, why did our national press insist on titillating its readers with such nonsense?

“A couple out for dinner at a fashionable restaurant – the name of which we withhold at the request of the establishment – called the manager to complain of the cold. As we are currently suffering through one of London's worst heatwaves, the manager (who has also requested anonymity) attended the couple, thinking perhaps the woman suffered from a thinness of the blood, or some such disorder which would make her feel the cold more than other people. He was quite astonished to find that, as soon as he neared their table he, too, felt cold. 'Icy cold', the unnamed official described the chill. He had, he noted in his statement, been in his youth to the Arctic, and declared that what he felt was at least that cold, if not more so. The woman's teeth were chattering and, to prove this was not some strange sort of illusion being shared by all three, the wine in their glasses had frozen solid, and the man's spectacles were covered with a thin layer of what could only have been frost.

The couple noted the presence of a man seated at a nearby table, and the manager approached him to ask if he, too, felt the unseasonable chill, but swears that as he turned the man vanished into thin air. The woman screamed, the man leaped up – all three had seen the disappearance – but just then the temperature returned to normal and the wine thawed. The police were called, but were unable to locate the man.

Our readers will recall, of course, the two previous sightings of what has now been dubbed “The West End Phantom”, when a woman on her way home found to her horror that a man had apparently materialised in her carriage. She screamed, and the cab came to an abrupt halt. But when the driver looked in, she was alone. Neither of the doors, she swears, opened, yet the man was gone, as quickly and mysteriously as he had appeared. There had already been one sighting of a man who was seen loitering near the court house, but a constable investigating swears the man dissolved into air before his very eyes.

One can but wonder where this fantastic spirit will choose to manifest itself next, and what its purpose may be in doing so, if it has any.”

“What absolute twaddle!” I growled. “When there was yet another flower girl fished out of the Thames only two nights ago, the seventh in a month. I say, Holmes,” I looked up at him. “Why not look into that? The police seem to have no leads.”

Holmes gave me a half-bored, half-sneering look as he took back the newspaper.

“I go, as you know, Watson, where I am invited. These drownings have been recorded as either accidents or suicides. It is a sad fact, my friend, that the great mother river gathers more poor unfortunate souls to her cold bosom in a week than either you or I could guess, and the public at large does not care. What are these poor girls but an unwanted burden on society? In the words of our greatest writer, the official attitude of Scotland Yard seems to be that they are decreasing the surplus population.”

I was somewhat aghast, though it was not hard to believe. The death of a few flower sellers, some of the lowest of the low, the least fortunate of the millions who make up this great city of ours, was hardly a pressing matter for the police. Especially if it seemed there was no crime involved.

“But so many in so short a time, Holmes!”

He frowned. “It is entirely possible, Watson – possible, I say to you, mind, not probable – that there is a killer behind all these untimely deaths, someone who is stalking our flower girls, and we should care. We simply cannot afford to. I cannot go expending my energy trying to track down a murderer who might not even exist. Besides, there is the Liebert case, which occupies all my time.”

He was right, though I feared that this time even my good friend, who had solved so many crimes and freed more innocents than any other man in London, or likely in England, had this time too steep a hill to climb. Mrs. Liebert had already been arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced for the murder of her husband. She currently languished in prison, awaiting her date with the gallows. Both Holmes and I - indeed, it seemed, most of London society, and probably most of the country - had raised more than an eyebrow at the unexpected sentence of death, but then, the man who had sat the bench was well known for his severe treatment of criminals, regardless of their sex or status.

Of course, the evidence was damning, and the lady's guilt proven. But Holmes as usual saw more to it, and also as usual kept his cards very close to his chest. He had his own ideas about the current state of our judicial system.

“What incredible bad luck that she should have drawn Lord Bailey as the trial judge,” he moaned. “What other man would have pronounced sentence of death on a woman?”

I nodded in sympathy.

“Not for nothing is he known as the Black Judge,” I noted. “Sixty-three cases tried in the last two years, all but three of them ending in a verdict of hanging.”

Holmes growled. “And not all of them capital crimes. Do you know, Watson, he even sentenced a boy of twelve to be hanged for petty theft of a few miserable shillings?”

“The law,” I sighed, “is on his side though.”

Holmes' face was black as a thundercloud.

“I have, as you know, Watson, the greatest respect for the law,” he said, lighting his pipe and shaking his head. “But this idea of men who are so far past working age that they should be in a bath chair watching the sunset rather than trying to decipher the case of another unfortunate who happens to fall to their tender mercies, is something that has long been at the root, I believe, of many a wrong verdict, miscarriage of justice, and, sad to say, innocent man hanged.” He looked up sharply. “The whole system of justice needs a complete overhaul, but with the stranglehold the aristocracy and nobility has on appointments, this seems to me something which will not happen in my lifetime, nor in yours.”

I arched an eyebrow. I had never taken my friend to be a revolutionary or an activist, though I could not fault his reasoning. Too many old men who should have retired ten years ago were still practicing on the bench, many often having to be nudged awake during a case. It really was a shocking state of affairs, but had been the norm for so long now that I feared Holmes was right when he prophesied gloomily that it would take longer to change than either of us had time on this earth.

I picked up a paper, this one The Times, and gasped aloud.

“Well, Holmes, it seems the Black Judge has passed his last sentence, and surely now stands before a higher court, to be judged himself!”

“What?” Holmes' head snapped up, like a cobra detecting its prey.

“It's all here.” I tapped the newspaper and read the article to him.

It is this newspaper's sad duty (read the article) to record the passing of one of England's finest judges. Lord Bailey, known for having the longest serving record on the bench, was killed early yesterday evening when he stumbled out into the road and was knocked down by an omnibus. All four passengers maintained that His Lordship had a terrible expression on his face, a look of pure terror, and ran into the street without once looking, as if he were being pursued by something which terrified him.

Father James Dwyer, the curate of St. Margaret's, was travelling as a passenger on the omnibus, and attended the stricken judge. Seeing no hope of recovery, Father Dwyer took the man's last Confession and administered the Last Rites. By the time a policeman brought a doctor to the scene, His Lordship had sadly passed on to his reward.

The body was removed to the city morgue until it can be claimed by His Lordship's relatives. We are sure our readers join with us in offering our heartfelt condolences to His Lordship's family. England shall not see his like again. Further, we add our voices to the desperate need for regulations governing the speed of these death-traps which menace our roads every day.

“England shall not see his like!” Holmes' voice was dripping with sarcasm, and I had to agree. “Let us fervently hope not! That man should have been put out to pasture years ago. How many innocents have suffered under his cruel justice, Watson, I wonder? How many men gone to the rope when a prison sentence would have sufficed?”

Holmes sighed, took the paper and reseated himself.

“Perhaps,” he suggested as he puffed at his pipe thoughtfully, “there is justice in this world after all.” His eyes narrowed. “I do find myself wondering though what would make a man of such sedentary habits as Lord Bailey run screaming out into the road?” He was scanning the rest of the newspapers, checking accounts. “No pursuer was found, though I suppose it is possible such a person, having seen the result of his pursuit, whether it be his design or no, could have left the scene unnoticed in the dark and the confusion.”

I felt ashamed of making light of the situation, but both Holmes and I had good reason to feel little sympathy for the death of the man who had so callously condemned our client to death.

“Maybe it was the West End Phantom after him,” I joked. Holmes gave me a stony stare, the kind of look nobody cares to get from England's most accomplished – and indeed, to my knowledge, only – consulting detective.

“As I believe I made clear by my somewhat inappropriate and uncharacteristic outburst, Watson, I place no stock in the supernatural, as you well know. Most people were prepared to believe the creature known as the Hound of the Baskervilles had come straight from Hell, but I knew better. The case in Cornwall, too, the one you so flamboyantly named “The Case of the Devil's Foot”: the vicar was convinced that Satan himself was walking abroad in his parish, yet I proved, with your help, that there was no superhuman agency involved. No, Watson, the world has mystery enough, evil enough in men without our blaming our woes upon spirits.”

“So what do you think happened, then?”

He sighed. “It is elementary, my dear Watson. Lord Bailey has long been known as a habitual drunkard, and I have heard rumours of other vices, worse again. He is – or was – a bully, an inveterate liar and a coward, and I say so in the full understanding that I am disparaging not only the dead, but a member of the nobility. As to the former, I await his vengeance from beyond the grave.”

Holmes sat back, puffing at his pipe, as if waiting. The large smoke rings spiralled up to the ceiling, there was the trundle of wheels down below in the street, but no ghoul appeared from out of thin air to strike my friend down. He snorted.

“It seems,” he remarked sarcastically, “that the spirit world is a little lacking in its avengers. So. As to the other, well, I very much doubt I shall be the only one listing the late Lord Bailey's vices. He was not a well-liked man, and had few friends. It's quite clear to me, Watson, that the Black Judge got drunk, ran out into the street in some sort of drunken – or one might conjecture, opium-induced – fit, and met his end though no fault but his own.” He clamped his teeth around the stem of his pipe. “There will of course be much public mourning at His Lordship's passing, but not too much in the way of private regret, I would think.”

For a few more minutes silence reigned, as we both read our papers, then I ejaculated “By Jove! I earnestly hope for his sake that circus fellow had the thing licenced!”

Holmes looked up, somewhat distracted. “I beg your pardon?”

I indicated my paper, and he came over to look.

I showed him the short article on the second page, just below one which bemoaned the strike by chimney sweeps having moved into its tenth week. The article was headed

“Monkey Attacks Man at Circus'.

Rehearsals for the final shows of the Fennington and Nilsson Circus, which has been in town for some weeks now, were cut short suddenly yesterday morning when one of the monkeys, which was at the time in a show with a troupe of acrobats, leapt on one of the men and began clawing his face most viciously. It took two men to pull the creature off the acrobat, whose name was given as Francis Deschamps, and who now has some rather ugly scars as a memento of his ordeal. The offending animal was destroyed, and it has been decided that with Deschamps unable to perform, and none of the other acrobats willing to allow the monkeys into their act, the circus will depart these shores earlier than was originally intended. The circus is regarded as one of the finest in the world, having only recently completed a two-year tour of North America.

“Trained animals going wild, people seeing apparitions that vanish, a judge running into the street screaming like a woman!” Holmes returned to his seat, his brow clouded. “I swear to you, Watson!” His face was drawn and tight, but exhibiting a certain redness I had seldom seen in my friend, as his patience seemed on the verge of snapping. “It seems all of London has lost its mind! Why can't – halloa! What is that commotion outside?”

Jumping to his feet, Holmes walked to the window and stared out. Instantly he was again the man of action I knew so well, and which suited him so completely.

“Hurry, Watson! To the door!” he cried. “A woman has fainted on our very doorstep! Bring your kit!”
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Old 10-24-2022, 07:02 PM   #19 (permalink)
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II: A Most Perturbed Visitor

Banging downstairs, we gave Mrs. Hudson quite the fright, but this was no time for finesse. Holmes opened the door carefully, as it appeared the lady had fallen against it, and opening it too suddenly or roughly might have hurt her. Like someone gathering up a fallen bird, Holmes exhibited that gentleness which was for him so rare, but which he was capable of displaying, and carried the woman into the parlour. She began to make faint moaning sounds, to our immense relief, and as Mrs. Hudson, who had fled into the kitchen at sight of Holmes' unconscious burden, returned with some brandy and water, colour began to return to her cheeks and her eyes flickered open.

“Wh- where am I?”

She looked around, and it seemed to me that for a moment, naked terror was in those hazel eyes. She scanned the corners of the room, as if looking for something, something I got the distinct impression she feared to see. Once assured by her eyes that she was free of whatever had been troubling her, she sighed and seemed to relax a little.

“You are in Baker Street, madam,” Holmes told her kindly, gently. “This is my associate, Dr. Watson, who will, with your permission, conduct a quick examination to ensure you are not hurt.”

Her eyes flew open, and recognition sparked in them.

“Dr. Watson! Then you must surely be Mr. Sherlock Holmes!”

“At your service, madam.” Holmes bowed stiffly. She reached out and grasped his hand.

“Oh, Mr. Holmes!” she gasped, as he, uncomfortable as he was with human contact, drew back involuntarily. “Do forgive my forwardness, but I now recall: it is you to whom I was bound when I had my faint.” She frowned. “Do you know what happened? Did you see it?”

“See?” Holmes seemed a little lost, a position almost alien to my friend. “I am afraid I was not a witness to your fall, madam -”

“Mrs. Fraser,” the lady introduced herself. Holmes bowed again, as did I.

“Mrs. Fraser,” he repeated the name. “I merely heard a noise in the street, looked out the window and noticed you had fallen. I did not, I am sorry to say, see how it occurred, or why.”

Mrs. Fraser was by now able to sit up a little straighter, and I had finished my very cursory examination.

“You seem perfectly fine to me, Mrs. Fraser,” said I. “Can you tell us what caused you to swoon in the street?”

She seemed hesitant.

“You will think me foolish indeed, sirs, but I swear that what I tell you is the truth.”

“Go on,” said Holmes gently. “We will make no rash judgement upon your sanity, I do assure you.”

“Well, as I am not familiar with your address, Mr. Holmes, I walked around a little before I could find the street. I was looking for a policeman to assist me when I saw a man whom I seemed to recognise, though his face seemed in shadow. This in itself I found odd, as it is, as you can see, a bright sunny day outside, and the sun is in the centre of the sky at this moment, throwing the shadows the other way, away from your door. Yet there he stood, shrouded in darkness, his head down, walking along the street. He stopped then at a door, leaning against it, and I approached him, to ask directions, when – and you must believe me, Mr. Holmes – he simply vanished before my eyes!”

Holmes' eyebrows raised and he rolled his eyes but said nothing.

“I now realise,” went on our visitor, “that the door he had been leaning against was your own, and so I had found my destination. However at the shock of his disappearance I fainted, and remember no more until you revived me just now.”

Holmes folded his arms, a determined look on his face.

“So,” he sighed. “You are yet another victim of the West End Phantom?” He turned a terrible gaze upon her, the kind of look I have seen strong criminals quail and crack under. “What is the meaning of this, madam?” he demanded harshly of her. “Does someone play a trick on me? Are you part of a conspiracy to drive me mad?”

“My dear Holmes!” I remonstrated with him, placing myself between him and Mrs. Fraser, to shield her from his wrath. “Such behaviour is most unbecoming of you!”

For the barest instant, a look the likes of which I have seldom seen crossed my friend's face, and I actually thought he was going to strike the lady. Then his expression changed, the tension went out of him and he relaxed, like a spring uncoiling.

“Forgive my brusque manner, madam,” he said, somewhat stiffly I thought. “But the newspapers have been full of so-called reports of this spirit, and it is an affront to my logical thinking that such things should be given credence. I am weary of reading about these sightings, and to think one such had been brought to my door...”

He stopped, bowed, shrugged.

“I do not know what it was I saw, Mr. Holmes,” the shaken woman averred. “Perhaps it was a ghost, perhaps it was my own imagination, or the fact that I have not slept properly these last six nights, but I swear to you on all that is good, on the grave of my departed husband, that I saw what I saw. I have no explanation for it, but I believe it must be connected to the reason I came to see you.”

Holmes appeared to have control of himself now. Never had I seen him so enraged. Well, perhaps once or twice. The affair of the “Five Orange Pips”, when he had sent a man unknowingly off to his death. The anger that had caused him to snatch up his whip and drive “Hosmer Angel” out of Baker Street. And of course, the time on the moors, when we had come across what we believed to be the body of Sir Henry Baskerville. Clearly, these sightings of the West End Phantom were affecting him more than he would care to admit.

“You shall tell us all about it, madam,” he promised, “ but I fancy you would be happier to discuss the details in a more, ah, private setting, am I correct? Do you think you might manage the stairs? I know I am always more comfortable hearing the particulars of any case when in my own apartments, and it will undoubtedly be more conducive to our conversation.”

Mrs. Fraser nodded, and I thought I detected what looked like gratitude in her eyes.

“I believe I could make it upstairs indeed, Mr. Holmes,” said she, smiling at Mrs. Hudson, who still looked a little prickly. “Thank you indeed for your kindness, Mrs. Hudson. I am indebted to you.”
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Old 10-24-2022, 07:03 PM   #20 (permalink)
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II: The Writing on the Wall

“I wonder that a lady of your obvious standing does not come to see me in a carriage.” Holmes remarked when we had repaired to our rooms and Mrs. Fraser was settled in one of the chairs, the colour returning to her face. I took my chair and he as usual sat in his armchair, tapping out the remains of his last pipe. “Though perhaps the sudden decline in your fortunes explains this. Nevertheless, it is a long way to come, all the way from Sheffield.”

Mrs. Fraser's eyes widened, but I knew Holmes well enough by now to be able to follow his deductions. Nevertheless, I knew the faint amusement it gave him to display what some people had called magic powers, until he explained and then they tended to either laugh or nod, as it all seemed so simple.

“Your boots and your cloak, to say nothing of your hat, are of the finest quality,” Holmes observed. “However, if I may be so bold, they have not been, ah, updated, in some time. I detect signs of mending, and I do believe that is a small patch there near your shoulder. You have come from Sheffield, as is clearly evidenced by the return ticket you hold in your glove, and we heard no sound of carriage; indeed, had you arrived in one and fainted it would be a hard-hearted driver indeed who would not help you, or at the very least ring our bell for assistance, as I am somewhat well known in these parts. Therefore I conjecture that you walked from the train station – no, no! I am in error. Of course you did not walk. The scuffing on your boots, so clean and well kept otherwise, and that very tiny tear in the hem of your dress denotes the standard hazard of travelling on one of those blessed omnibuses.”

Mrs. Fraser nodded each time Holmes made his deductions.

“You are correct in every detail, Mr. Holmes,” she said, admiringly. “I feel that I have chosen wisely in coming to you.”

Something in our visitor's manner, the way she visibly seemed to flinch when Holmes struck a match to light his pipe, stayed his hand.

“You are averse to tobacco?” The question was said almost with a touch of irritation.

“You are of course master in your own home, sir,” said she, “but I would just point out that I suffer from asthma, and so even the smell of tobacco...” She trailed off, somewhat embarrassed to be asking such a boon.

Holmes shook the match out, put the briar pipe to one side, laying it on the table. There was just the barest flash of annoyance in his eyes, but it did not show in his voice.

“Then for the sake of your health I will of course forego my smoke.” I was impressed; I knew the pipe was to him as invaluable and indispensable an aid to his thought processes as a notebook is to a police constable, and that he was willing to accede to her unspoken request showed what a man he truly was.

“Now, if you please, Madam: your story, from the beginning, and pray leave nothing out, no matter how small or insignificant it may appear to you. It has been my experience that those things which I like to refer to as trifles often turn out to have the deepest importance, frivolous though they may at first seem.”

I noticed that the lady had removed her gloves as Holmes had spoken, and now she toyed with them nervously in her lap. In a halting voice – whether this was from her recent faint, or was her normal way of speaking I could not guess – she began.

“First of all, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson, I should say that my name will of course mean nothing to you, but should I mention another name you will understand perhaps why I have come seeking your help. That name, gentlemen, is Francesca Liebert.”

Holmes sat up straighter, his keen eyes alight with interest, the muscles along his arms tautening in a way I had often marked. He was intrigued. As, indeed, I must confess, was I.

“Indeed!” He made a motion with his hand, which I knew was a habitual thing he did, expecting the pipe to be there, then with a sort of irritated wave at himself dismissed the gesture, settling for stroking his chin instead. “You are related, I presume?”

“I am her sister. You will of course be very aware of Francesca's predicament, gentlemen. At this very moment she languishes in Pentonville Prison, sentenced to hang for the murder of her husband.”

Holmes nodded. “A most unfortunate and troubling case,” he murmured. “I was quite taken by some aspects of it. Your sister, sadly,” he looked sharply at Mrs. Fraser, his eyes hard, “refused my offer of assistance at the time, quite rudely turning me away. And as for the police, well!” He shook his head, looked over at me. “I am sorry to say that once Scotland Yard has its man – or, of course, in this case, its woman – they tend to become blind to anything which might damage their case, and so I am certain some very important aspects of the murder were overlooked in the rush to judgement.”

Mrs. Fraser coloured, her cheeks heating up at the rebuke Holmes afforded her, though directed not at her personally. “I am afraid Fran has not changed her mind on the matter, Mr. Holmes,” she confirmed, “which is why I have come to ask for your help. I know you are likely ill-disposed to assist us now, when we have been so ungrateful to you after you offered your help, but I cannot but help think that my sister had a reason for not wanting you involved.”

Holmes' eyes were suddenly bright.

“Yes,” He nodded, leaning forward. “I got the distinct impression she was trying to drive me off, lest I discover something she would rather remained hidden. Knowing my, ah, reputation for being able to see what others cannot – including very much our gallant guardians of the law – she feared I might unearth some secret? Something which might perhaps throw an entirely different light on the matter?”

“Mr. Holmes.” The lady's face had gone ashen again, and I hastened to move to the dresser, pouring her out a small sherry. She took it gratefully, sipped from the glass with dainty lips. “I am not a rich woman. I never was, but in the past few months much of my savings, including, I am somewhat ashamed to say, the legacy left me by my late husband, has gone on Fran's defence. Yet I fear that even the barrister whom I secured at great cost knew full well the case was futile, knowledge that did not prevent him from taking his fee.”

There was a hardness in the woman's tone, and I understood perfectly. Our own great writer of the age, Mr. Dickens, had underlined the rapaciousness and greed of those who made a living in the legal profession by bamboozling clients with extra charge after extra charge, papers for this, papers for that, appeals that went nowhere, costs and fees, until their client was both physically and financially exhausted. Another symptom of the general malaise afflicting the corpulent, complacent body of our legal system.

“Quite so.” Sherlock Holmes looked longingly over at his pipe, but mindful of the lady's breathing difficulties, restrained himself. “I have heard our English lawyers described as little more than pirates with a licence, and I must admit it is a description I can heartily concur with. So, if I am to understand then, Mrs. Fraser, you spent all, or most of your money on a lawyer, but to no avail?”

“Well.” Mrs. Fraser looked down, as if ashamed. “As you of course know, the verdict was a guilty one, and to not only my shock but, I believe, that of most right-thinking people, she was sentenced to hang. The date is set for seven days from now.”

Here, to our intense embarrassment and my own private dismay and sympathy, Mrs. Fraser broke down and wept into her hands. I was mildly surprised to see, as I moved to comfort her, my friend rise from his chair, go down on one knee and take her two hands in his as gently as a lepidopterist cradling a rare specimen of butterfly. Sometimes, the harsh coldness of Holmes' manner shocked me, even now, when I knew him so well, but this was not one of those times. Tilting the lady's chin up he looked into her eyes, which were shining with tears.

“Fear not, madam,” said he quietly. “If justice has not been done, I am the man to see that the balance is restored. Just gather yourself a moment, and when you are ready, pray continue with your account. And be in no doubt that you are among friends here; we will do all we can to help you and to prove your sister's innocence, if innocent she be.”

Wiping her eyes, Mrs. Fraser looked at Holmes.

“I imagine, Mr. Holmes, you are familiar with the details of the case, as you were involved in it until my sister asked you to refrain from investigating further.”

Holmes snorted. I could see his ego had been slightly bruised, and this was not something he suffered lightly. In the main, Holmes did not differentiate between men and women: a slight from one was exactly the same as a slight from the other, and unwelcome from any quarter.

“Hardly asked, madam. She all but had me banished from the police station. Most impolite.” He frowned, nodded. "And most singular, indeed." He coughed, a slightly embarrassed air about his next words. "One does not wish to, ah, as they say, blow one's own trumpet, but it is a matter of record that my reputation is such that many insoluble problems have been cleared up by my efforts, and many an innocent person saved from the gallows. While," he tapped his chin thoughtfully, "I could of course make no promises, it does seem strange that someone sentenced to die should refuse the help of perhaps the only one in England who could prove her innocence."

He sat back, made the gesture again which would have involved holding the stem of his pipe, had that article been in its usual place, protruding from his lips.

“I can only offer my apologies,” said Mrs. Fraser, looking ashamed, “and assure you that Fran had, I am sure, good reason to be as, ah, forceful as she was with you. Whatever she is hiding – and I do assure you, I have no knowledge as to what it might be – she seems willing to give her life for it.”

Holmes snorted again.

“That, my dear Mrs. Fraser,” he told her with asperity, “has been evident from the first time I met your sister.”

“Oh?” Our client seemed a little taken aback. I thought I saw some flicker of hope kindle in her tired eyes.

“Yes, it was evident from, well, many factors,” Holmes nodded, “but mostly from the rather cold way she met the news of her husband's death. Not a tear, madam, did I see, fall from her eyes, nor the sign of any. This,” he leaned back, steepling his fingers and looking up at the ceiling, “I am afraid to say, played its part in allowing Inspector Lestrade to come to an opinion regarding the killer. Not,” he added archly, “that the good inspector had any doubt, I am quite sure, of her guilt, he not having the mental faculties and the power for observation with which I am, thankfully, blessed.”

Mrs. Fraser started in her seat.

“Then you believe Fran to be innocent?”

“There is not the slightest doubt of it,” Holmes told her, as if he discussed the most obvious thing, against which he would hear no argument. “I had my suspicions before you entered our home, but as I was not required on the case I could not make those known to Lestrade. It is not,” he transferred his gaze from a contemplation of our ceiling to Mrs. Fraser's face, in which now hope was lighted, like a candle behind a heavy curtain, “for me to interfere with the official police for my own ends.”

Mrs. Fraser nodded, understanding.

“As I told you, sir, my fortune is not what it was. Yet of course I do not expect you to work for free, and so...” She reached into her bag, her brow creased. Holmes reached forward, staying her hand.

“As you probably know by my reputation,” he told her without the slightest hint of pride or arrogance, “I interest myself in cases which intrigue my curiosity, or have a very singular aspect. I could not involve myself officially, as I had not been invited to, but in my own small way I have been turning the facts over in my mind and it seems to me there is far, far more to this case than meets the eye.”

Again his hand strayed towards his pipe, as if it had a mind of its own; again he restrained it with a gesture of annoyance.

“Should you decide to engage me to look into the case,” he told her, looking into her eyes searchingly, “you are of course free to defray any small expenses I may incur in its investigation. However I would be churlish indeed were I to insist you pay for my services, when our legal system has already robbed you of almost all you have. No, my dear lady, I have no wish to be paid. If you know of me, you will also know that the pure prospect of an interesting investigation, to say nothing of the opportunity to save a lady's life and prevent a terrible miscarriage of justice is reward enough. We are at your service, my friend and I. You have but to command us.”

Holmes' eyes were shining with that light I had seen so many times before, when he was about to set out on a fresh investigation, that look of keen interest and – yes, almost eagerness – that he got when, as he once put it, the game was afoot.

“I cannot thank you enough, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson!”

The lady was virtually overtaken with gratitude. Holmes waved her thanks away.

“I do not say,” he warned her, “that it is possible to save your sister, for in order to do so I must not only prove her innocence, but also present the police with the real culprit. But we shall endeavour to do our very best towards achieving that end.”

He rose to his full height, stretching his legs by the unlit fire and leaning his long arms on the mantel.

“Now, I shall relate what I know of the case, adding my own observations – which have not been shared with Scotland Yard, I should stress, as I like to keep my theories until they are ready to be revealed as full and unchallengeable – and you shall correct me on any detail I may have got wrong, or any point I may omit.”
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