At a loose end

Earlier in the evening I had been absolutely, positively, no room for quibbling, drunk.  Not wasted, not merry, but, never-the-less definitely, drunk.  I’d gone beyond being a bit loud, beyond talking a little too fast, and through to the next stage, which for me meant discussing philosophy.

The excuse for this inebriation was that it was the blue period after Christmas, when everything feels a little flat.  Christmas and New Year’s parties are a distant memory; the excitement of the season has passed, resolutions have been made (and broken) and there is nothing now to look forward to until Valentine’s (or the cheap chocolate on the day after).  For some years my friends and I have held a fancy-dress competition party at the end of January to fill this void and to give us something to look forward to.  We’d met at a bar, gone for dinner, moved onto another bar – and then somehow lost them in the next move.  I’d made a rather desultory search, and this being New York in January, and bitterly cold, I’d given up quite quickly and ducked into an Irish pub that I’d not seen before.

The last few months had been busy and I’d decided that whilst I would take it as seriously as ever, I would go low-key, minimalist if you will, albeit meticulously researched.  I’d ended up dressed as an officer in the merchant navy circa 1900, based on the fact that I’d found an officer’s hat, by chance, in a flea-market.

I shrugged off my pea-coat and laid it across the back of a high backed bar-stool, and hopped up on the next one.  The bar was pretty empty.

“Guinness, please.”  I looked at the bottles on the wall behind the barman, and on a whim, “Oh, and a chaser of Lamb’s”.  I didn’t normal drink either chasers or rum, but the Navy proof spirit seemed fitting somehow, and I hoped it would warm me up.

****

And now it was later, much later.  And, somehow, I’d bet my immortal soul, somewhere along the way.  And now, I was very, very sober.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole thing – did I really have a soul? Could it be traded via an IOU? But I’d gotten more and more uncomfortable as the play had gone on, that little piece of paper apparently worth a significant amount to everyone round the table.  It had gone back and forth numerous times, and now it was in the pot of the final hand, with a pile of doubloons and sovereigns and Double Eagles and gems and who knew what else.  My lips were dry; my mouth was dry.  In front of me, arranged neatly, were my hole card, the eights of spades and clubs and the aces of the same suits – two pairs, an average sort of hand.   Some would even say a weak hand – there are 858 distinct ways of making two pairs, that is to say, if you prefer, odds of 20:1.  And yet part of my hind-brain was clamouring for attention, telling me to beware, telling me to look at the cards more closely.  Except it was me against the malevolent eyes glowering at me from across the table: everyone else had folded and now I was all-in, and so was he.  I couldn’t believe that the stakes were so high on such an apparently open game as five stud poker.

Pretty much everyone round the room looked slightly odd in the way that they dressed: some little tell, which made me think that they didn’t really belong to the 21st Century.  Most of them were pretty jovial.  One or two were serious, but friendly.  But the man across the table from me had a thin, ascetic, face: sunken eyes, which were red-rimmed, and hollow cheeks gave him the look of fanatic.  His suit was old fashioned in the extreme, the shirt – what was not covered up by a beard that was long and wiry – was rather dirty. Involuntarily, my gaze kept returning to the eyes: everytime I looked I began to sweat.  The eyes were dark and mesmeric and yet my fancy was that I could see the fires of hell dancing in their depths.

My opponent had the beginnings of a flush – the 5,6,7,8 of diamonds.  The 4 or 9 would sink me, and any other diamond would make things unbearably uncomfortable.  I had called, and he flipped over his hole card…a sigh rippled round the small, fug-filled room: the ace of diamonds.  There was a part of me that wanted to just flip my card over, like I was pulling off a band-aid.  There was a part of me that wanted to make some kind of cool quip.  There was a part of me that knew that my throat was too dry, that I would cough like my larynx was filled with cotton wool.  There was a part of me that knew that come what may, I needed to make this theatrical.

I could swear that there were flames dancing in those black eyes staring at me across the table, but perhaps it was just some strange effect from the darkness of the eyes surrounded by the red eyelids.   As though I were trying to stare down some dangerous animal, I kept my gaze fixed on the face opposite.  Without looking down I reached out, put my hand over the card, slid it towards me with my fingers flat, pressed to the table.  In all this time, there had been no word spoken by myself, my opponent, nor anyone else.  Slowly, oh so slowly, I turned the card over with the minimum possible movement of my hand; my arm appeared not to move at all.  I still didn’t look down.  The room exploded in cheers, my back being slapped.  The eyes across from me flinched first and looked.  A snarl formed on the lips and he looked as if he would fling the table in my face.  He got up, violently flinging the chair backwards and it tipped over as he barged out of the door noisily, curses and imprecations in harsh Russian sizzling the air.  I finally looked down.  The ace of hearts.  A full house, and I had beaten his flush.  There were only three cards that I could have turned up to win this game, and somehow, I felt I had done it in style.

The next few minutes passed in a blur.  Someone commented on the time.

I suddenly realised that the man standing next to me, whom I’d been thinking of as my host, had been my challenger to brief drinking game in the bar, and had inveigled me into this backroom.  His fancy dress, was more involved than mine, but still with a nautical theme: he was dressed in the finery of an 18th Century Captain.  He placed the IOU for my soul in my hand and pulled out a fancy lighter, flicking it open and lighting it in one movement. He lit the slip of paper, muttering something about “can’t be too careful”, and then guided my hand to an ashtray.

I wasn’t quite sure of the etiquette here, but I felt the need to earn some good will – everyone seemed pleased that I beaten the evil looking man, but the sense of strangeness rolled back over me.  I called for a round of drinks, paid off the evening’s tab for the whole room from my winnings.  One chap, rather swarthy, and with a similar appearance to my erstwhile opponent had been gazing at a certain silver coin all evening.  In all other aspects he had been a friendly soul, and there was certainly nothing sinister in his eyes, but his entire play had been around the potential to win this one specific coin.  Whilst no numismatist, I was reasonably confident that the coin had an inherent value far beyond the face, and this coin was probably the least of the coins that I was struggling to pack away in my pockets.  On a whim, I slid the silver coin over to the strange man He beamed, and winked as he placed the coin into a leather pouch.  Those who had observed the exchange politely acknowledged the action, and I felt that I had earned goodwill of inestimable worth.

The Captain linked arms with me and pulled out a mobile phone, which seemed completely anachronistic.

“We’d best get you home, before you get into more trouble” he said, and you could almost hear the twinkle in his voice.  He thumbed open an app on his phone: the way I felt, the movement of his thumb over the screen took on cabalistic significance, but I was pretty sure that really, he was just calling an Uber.  We stepped out into the street.  By this point, I felt that nothing could surprise me, but I was wrong.  Around the corner came a horse drawn coach, lamps flickering wildly on the sides as the driver pulled up sharply crying “Boston by dawn!”.  I must have looked panicked, because my new friend said “It’s alright, he can still make Boston after he drops us off”.

“Where would you like to be taken?” he asked kindly, as he opened the door into the coach and helped me up.  I stuttered out my address, and my friend, said “Ah! Good!”, and then he repeated it to the driver, adding “And take us via the Brooklyn Bridge, would you, Peter?”

The Brooklyn Bridge was a little out of my way, and there would be very little worth seeing at this time of ni-…the morning.  Sunrise was still hours off and, whilst New York is never completely silent, we were certainly in the quietest part of the night.  The horses picked up speed.  I blinked, or thought I did: in reality I must have dozed for a few minutes, because as I opened my eyes, we were swaying onto the Brooklyn Bridge.  We couldn’t have made a 15 minute taxi-journey in the blink of an eye…could we?

The coach drew up on the bridge, and the Captain got out.  “Well, good night” he said “I’m sorry you got caught up in that – I thought you were one of us, and then it was almost too late.  I pick up my ship here, so I will bid you fare-thee-well.  Peter Rugg is to be trusted, and he will see you home safe – but don’t accept the offer of a trip to Boston!”.  I hardly knew what to say, so I said nothing, simply bowing as we shook hands.  The Captain walked off along the bridge.  Peter Rugg seemed to be waiting for something, and whilst I was impatient to be home, I was a little scared and so said nothing.  In our respective places, we watched the Captain.  At some seemingly random point, he turned and waved, and as he did so, the mast of a ship cut through the bridge.  He grabbed the rigging, and waved again as the ship carried on down the East River.  Peter flicked the reins and we were off.

Did I doze again?  I don’t know, but another blink-nap and I was outside my building, waving off Peter Rugg, who insisted that the account had been paid, but was persuaded to accept a double-eagle as a tip, before he set off into the darkness, once more crying “Boston by dawn!”

I went into my apartment building and tried to set my muddled mind straight.  What had really happened tonight?  Was this wealth really mine?  What was I to do with it?  Was I in trouble?

© David Jesson, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

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#secondthoughts: Fools & Mortals

Debs and I met through a book club. It started with just three people, Brave New World, and a less than ideal venue…(we weren’t anticipating the dance class in the pub where we chose to meet). From the beginning we took it in turns to choose the book and we had a rule that the book needed to be one that none of us had read – the idea was that we wouldn’t have an emotional investment prior to the novel and wouldn’t be heartbroken when a much loved favourite was ripped apart by others. When it came to my first turn to suggest a book, I couldn’t quite make up my mind, so I suggested a short list of three, and the others voted on this.  By the time that Debs joined the club a few years later, we had a pretty established format of a short list of 5-8 books, sometimes with a theme. Incidentally, the book we were discussing at Debs’ first session was an unusually long one for us – This Thing of Darkness – but one that we all loved, an infrequent situation for us!

Some authors are so prolific that it is possible to circumvent our rules, whilst still maintaining (some of) the spirit.  For example, I am a huge Pratchett fan, but had not read any of the Long Earth books when they turned up on one of Debs’ lists.  This month we read Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell: we have a huge Cornwell fan in the group, but she’d not read this one.  In fact, Cornwell, with only one or two others, is an author that has come up twice, the first book of his we read being The Last Kingdom. I’ve not seen the TV version of the Last Kingdom so I can’t coment on how it compares.  I wasn’t a big fan of the book: it should have ticked a lot of boxes for me, but I think I just didn’t warm to the main character.

I was intrigued by the idea of Fools & Mortals, especially as the group had opted to read Bill Bryson’s brief biography of Shakespeare a few years ago.  (We’ve been going for more than 15 years now, so we’ve covered a lot of territory).  I’m out of practice in terms of writing reviews and so this is not really intended to be one.  Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that I quite like Sarina Langer’s approach to reviewing, which is not so much as to offer a subjective star rating, but to pick up on the things that she likes and the things that she thought could be improved. One of the things that I have found myself doing more frequently as increase the time spent writing is to ask the question “what would I do differently, if I were writing this  book?”.

Before we get to that, it is probably worth noting that (a) I did search for some reviews of the book, and the consensus seems to be that it is a 4* effort, and, (b) outside of Amazon (where, at the time of writing this post, there were 205 reviews) I’ve yet to find a compelling/reasoned negative review.

So what did I like?  I liked the opening a great deal: I thought it was intriguing and sucked me in completely. (The Cornwell fan in the group thought it rather obvious, and didn’t like it.  Ho hum.  As an aside, the best meetings we’ve had are around books that split opinion).  It was an excellent start and the epilogue echoes this to give the story a nice symmetry.  I quite like the main character, who is very much of the time.  He is not an anti-hero, but neither is he especially heroic – he is a self-confessed thief, but is a reliable narrator.  I learned something, and I think that the tings that I learned were even true in some respects!

I have two major, linked gripes.  There is a plot, but it’s a bit thin, and as a consequence the book feels as though it has been padded:  there are quite large chunks of Shakespeare’s works in the book and there is a great deal of repetition.  Take ceruse, for example.  Ceruse was the name for the paste made from white lead and vinegar that was used to whiten the skin.  Unsurprisingly, given the the book is set late in the Elizabethan period, ceruse is mentioned 11 times  –  perhaps the biggest surprise is that it is not mentioned more frequently.  Sometimes things were added to the paste – Cornwell describes the property mistress of the acting troupe trying out various dyes to give a green hue to Puck’s make-up at the first presentation of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The use of crushed pearls is also mentioned: in a theatrical setting it is used to make the skin sparkle slightly in the candlelight.  We were reminded of the crushed pearls almost every single time, and I got a bit fed up with this being rehashed.

I think the plot felt thin because the book couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be.  I was going to complain about the fact that there is very little ‘action’ (in this sense peril) until almost halfway through the book, but in thinking about it, this wasn’t necessarily the problem – the problem was that the action felt rather contrived.

What would I do differently?  I was going to say “Nothing!  I wouldn’t write this book!”, but that is perhaps being too flippant.  The book did give me an idea, which I will make a note of and I might even revist, which would require  reasonable amount of research, but might be quite fun; it does need time to mature.  But if I were to take Fools and Mortals itself…hmmm….I think what could be quite fun is to reduce the book to novella length and then treat that as the first third of the book, the first Act.  There are two other acts that could work well (and a scholar could probably find several others).  Within my back ground reading, I found out that the Globe was built from the materials of another play house, called the Theatre, which was removed from its site following a dispute with the landlord, stored and then rebuilt.  Also, we tend to forget that Shakespeare lived not only in the Elizabethan era, but also in the Jacobean.  Managing this transition must have been fun…

So how about you?  What things have you learned about your writing by reading other people’s work?

 

 

 

Prophesy

There’d been a bit of a fuss when someone from out of town noticed. It wouldn’t have been a problem, excepting that the particular someone was a journalist. Worse, a journalist who hadn’t produced a big story in a while. And he’d recognised the potential in this one.

He’d spotted the writing on the gas station’s bathroom wall when he’d taken the paper for a bit of an undisturbed sit down. His peace had been shattered by the occupants of a couple of motor homes. OK, so the kids were probably going stir crazy shut up inside whilst their folks did the long-distance driving, even so, the noise level had ramped up to positively nuclear and it’d driven the journalist straight to the gents.

The paper being dull, he’d started to read the graffiti. Some of it was pretty funny, smartly so, which was kinda unexpected for a small town in the middle of nowheresville hicktown. And then he spotted it. The prophesy. Or should I say this first one.

It was written in sharpie and the lettering was a bit wild. No neat cursive here. Unusually for graffiti, it appeared to have been dated. A quick google established that if the date noted on the wall was indeed correct, it pre-dated the occurence. Intrigued, the journalist checked out the rest of his cubicle’s walls. There was one more – with wild lettering and  dated. It too pre-dated the occurence it appeared to be prophesying.

Finishing up in a hurry, he checked out the other cubicles and found two more in each. Each with the same wild lettering, each dated, each date preceeding the event being prophesied. But the walls in the main room were clean, so clean that he’d suspected a recent re-decoration. His spidey-senses prickled.

Having washed up, he returned to the diner, ordered more coffee and some of the home-made pie. When the waitress delivered both, he was able to engage her in what appeared to be mindless chatter about the bathroom walls. When she visibly tensed at his seemingly innocent question, he dropped it quickly, realising there could be something there.

It’d taken a while to find someone willing to talk – it being a small town ‘n all – but he’d finally dug up a mean-spirited old biddy who’d spilled the beans. Turned out the handwriting matched that of the waitress’s son – who was special … and she’d said special as if to stress the quotes around the word. Apparently it’d taken multiples coats of special paint to cover the graffiti on the main walls, which is why they hadn’t started on the cubicles yet. He’d got there in the nick time. Being a pro he’d snapped pictures on his phone, holding up the day’s newspaper in each and every one as a time stamp. Leaving town, he took it to an old friend in the FBI, somone who’d previously kept first dibs on a story for him, if he’d shared the lead.

The next time he went by, the gas station was closed and incident tape prevented anyone from entering. He finally got clearance from his FBI friend phoned through to the local cops who let him in, though it was clear there were really unhappy about it. He paid a visit to his old biddy contact who confirmed that the FBI had taken the special boy into custody and that the town was mad as hell. Sure he’d been making prophesies, but they all knew he’d not actually made them happen. Hell, they were happening all across the country, and he never left town. Ever.

They’d had to release the boy eventually, but no matter what he’d tried, the waitress wouldn’t let the journalist get near her boy. And the town were all supporting her. Every stranger who enquired was pretty much run out of town. Oh and the old biddy got banned from the gas station.

The journalist took to hiring a random selection of strangers to stop, buy coffee and a pie, then pay a visit to the gents. Whilst there, he got them to take a snap of any new prophecsy, together with the obligatory daily paper. Any new prophesy was shared with the FBI, after which they’d both tried to figure out where it might happen. There’d been 6 more to date, and they’d not managed to do anything about them, ‘cept recognise them when they’d occurred. They might have been able to persuade the old President to talk to the waitress and her boy. But no luck with the new guy. With his huge ego, he wasn’t going to risk being involved in something that far-fetched.

 


© Debra Carey, 2018

The Mondretti Cylinder

The Mondretti Cylinder

Elspeth McLeod looked down at the dead body at her feet.  An early lesson from her much-missed Father, and one taken to heart was: “A plan never survives first contact with the enemy”.  This, by anyone’s standards, was a significant deviation from a carefully prepared plan, but at this point it was unclear who the enemy was.  She glanced around to see if anyone was in view.  No-one. She had at least a few moments grace.  What to do?  The body had fallen out of the cupboard that she had just opened. Some might have screamed in this circumstance, and she might still do that, if it seemed expedient to do so.  Some might have called for help; again, still an option.  In the event, she quickly rummaged through the pockets to see if there was anything incriminating.  Nothing.  No coins, no tickets, not even any lint.  Nothing. Which in and of itself was suspicious, and slightly worrying.  What else could she learn?  Rigor mortis had not yet set in, so the corpse was relatively fresh.  The small(ish), neat hole in the back, was matched by one at the front, suggesting a through-and-through, which in turn suggested a reasonably powerful hand-gun using a fully jacketed ammunition.  The bullet hole suggested that the gun was larger than a .22, smaller than a .45 or 9 mm.  Probably a .38 then.  It might be one of the oddities, but chances were that it was something vanilla, something untraceable.  Two other inferences: the shooting hadn’t happened in the cupboard, so it had been moved from the actual scene, and the gunsel was using a suppressor – the body had been moved, but it couldn’t have been moved far, and any kind of gun going off here would have been…noticed.

The cupboard was exactly where one might expect to find a body if you were looking for one that had been hidden relatively quickly and was not expected to stay hidden for long.  It was for cleaning supplies, and was located in a side annexe used for personal lockers and toilets.  It could be argued that Elspeth had no really good reason for looking in there for anything.  She certainly hadn’t been looking for the body, although it was good, in some ways, to know that it was there.  She had spotted it earlier in the day when she arrived on site and had briefly thought about it as a potential hiding place for herself or as a place to re-home what she had come to find until an appropriate time when it could be retrieved.  She’d discarded the idea because it was such an obvious hiding place that it probably wouldn’t even survive the double-bluff – if not the first place to be checked, it would certainly be ransacked at some point, if the Opposition decided that she had located the artefact but not extracted it from the building.  Coming back to get her bag from the locker, she’d noticed that there seemed to be some sort of rag caught in the door, and it had piqued her interest.

It was as well to know that the body was there and she took a moment to put it back as she had found it, ensuring as best as possible that she left no trace of herself behind.  Almost impossible, of course, but then there was no particular reason that anyone should connect her with the dead body.  She didn’t recognise him, and he just looked like someone’s hired help.  The muscular kind that is there to stop people from leaving of their own free will.

One would have thought that a dead body would make a genteel young lady queasy, but Elspeth was firmly of the opinion that it never did to be just a genteel young lady, and her Masters cohort would have been surprised at quite how ungenteel she could be when pressed.  She was a young woman who knew her own mind and kept her own counsel: she was not vain, but she stopped for a moment in front of the large art deco mirror opposite the lockers, to ensure that she did not, in fact, look like she’d been moving a dead body.  Content that she looked like just another student, with perhaps a more of a nod to the librarian she was training to be than most of those in her year.  There was nothing unusual in any specific item, but the ensemble of sensible shoes (a pair of understated black brogues), Harris tweed skirt (green with a pattern picked out in black and violet) and a lighter green cotton blouse with a rather high collar, gave the appearance of a rather sober individual, which somehow made Elspeth look still a teenager, dressing up to look older.

~#~#~

She returned to the desk that she had been working at.  Nothing had been disturbed – it was almost a shame to note that some rather ingenious tells were exactly how she had left them.  She glanced at the clock on the far wall, a rather large faced affair which was strangely silent.  She had been here all day, with a few brief rest breaks.  The Institute Library was one of the last relics of the Industrial Revolution’s side effects: educating the working classes and promoting social mobility.  Most of the colleges set up in the process at morphed into universities, but this one, an oddity from the beginning had survived in almost its original form.  At the heart of a large library, open to the public, was a private collection of incunabula and other rare printings, handwritten tomes and various scholars’ research associated with the items in the collection.  Elspeth was here for the very real purpose of collecting information on the Voynich manuscript for her Masters thesis, and indeed for other purposes as well.   A more cynical individual might think that the choice of the Voynich manuscript, a book that had defied the efforts of codebreakers to broach its secrets, a book that some believed was simply a hoax, was a clever ploy to gain access to this collection, which contained some of the most significant unpublished research on the subject.  Gaining access to this collection had been important, but the research that Elspeth had done today had been invaluable too.  Certainly worth the cost of this visit to London.

She gathered her things together and collected her thoughts.  She had hoped to find somewhere to hide after the library closed at 8 pm, but this had proven to be impossible.  Being winter, it was already dark outside, even though it was only 6 pm.  The general lighting was quite soft, making the wood-panelled room appear quite dark.  Here and there, bright desk-lamps cast pools of light.  The Inner Reading Room was large, with a book lined gallery running around all four sides.  The open area was perhaps 10 m wide and 50 m long, with large round tables apparently cast randomly adrift, although with enough space to move between them comfortably.  Alcoves, about 3 m in height,  formed from bookcases, created little nooks under the gallery: many of these alcoves contained small tables.  ‘Secret’ doors, built into some of the bookcases gave access to corridors that led to rooms dedicated to smaller collections or single books deemed valuable or important enough to be kept away even from those worthy enough to be given access to the Inner Reading Room.

Even if she’d been able to find a space to hide, now that she knew there were hunters on the prowl it made no sense to string things out for too long.  It would be nice to have some kind of back up.  It would be nice to know who the hunters were.  Still, if wishes were horses…  She was here to retrieve the Mondretti Cylinder and retrieve it she would.  Being a realist, she wasn’t quite prepared to go all the way – dying in the attempt wouldn’t help anyone – but she thought that there was still quite a good chance that she could get what she wanted and walk away.

Mondretti himself had been architect, a reasonably good one in fact, of the late Tudor era.  It had been he who had designed the house that had eventually become the Institute.  He died a violent death only a year or two after the completion of the house.  He had returned to Italy, been called out, duelled and was killed by an unlucky blow.  That was the story, but those who chronicled the life of Mondretti know the truth: he was murdered by a rival who sought the Cylinder.  The Cylinder itself was shrouded in legend, much of it woven by Mondretti himself.  There was some talk of it being an Atlantean relic.  Some said that it was a reliquary for a saint’s finger, and that it could cure the plague.

Elspeth knew more than almost anyone alive: she had found Mondretti’s diary in her Father’s desk when clearing out his office.  Starting with her Father’s notes, she had pried open the secrets of the diary, and had located the resting place of the Cylinder, and she was pretty certain she knew the secret of its purpose. Purposes.

It was time to act.  She checked her handbag and put her notes in her briefcase.  She moved to one of the alcoves, using the perusal of various shelves as a cover to see if she was followed or observed.  She slipped through the door at the back of one of the alcoves and into the corridor behind.  She found the right door, one of the reserved collections was hidden behind it.  Important enough to be locked away, not so important that it had anything more than a Yale lock, which Elspeth quickly picked.  She took a little door wedge from her bag and placed it so that anyone trying to come in after her would not be able to get the door open without some little effort.  She turned to the shelves on the left-hand wall.  She would quite like to have had some sort of Indiana Jones’ style Grail Diary, but she’d felt that it was dangerous to carry that information around with her.  She visualised the pages from Mondretti’s diary and her own interpretation side by side.  Master cabinet makers sometimes displayed their skill by making writing desks or boxes or other contrivances that had multiple secret drawers.  This bookcase was similar.  There was a question at the back of Elspeth’s mind as to how this antique had survived and whether everything would work properly.  In part it had survived because it was a curio – the book case hid a priest’s hole and in time this had become something of a tourist attraction, until such things became rather ordinary and the secret of the room had been forgotten.  The priest’s hole was known, and the secret of opening it.  The fact that there was a hidden compartment inside the hole was known.  What had never been discovered was that there was a cubby inside the compartment.  Elspeth completed the sequence and the cubby door did not pop open, but did at least stand proud of the panelling so that a finger nail could be used to open it properly.

Mondretti was reputedly a fan of the Borgias.  It was unlikely that any organic poison would still be viable after all this time, but one need only look to the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb:  there was no curse really, but it started from the death of Lord Carnavon and an infected mosquito bite… Elspeth pulled a small Maglite torch from her bag and shone it into the cubby-hole.  Yes…several oddly shaped needles…no, not needles, thorns…placed where an injudicious hand would be scratched.  The clever traps from the films were unlikely to be in play here as there did not seem to be enough room for any mechanism but, to be on the safe side, she unclipped a sturdier version of a lecturer’s telescopic pointer from next to the pens in her bag.  She’d used this several times before, usually with a powerful neodymium button magnet on the end, but the notes that she had on the Cylinder suggested that it was unlikely to be made of anything that could be picked up with a magnet.  Instead she screwed a stub onto to the end to give a flat surface, about the size of a small coin, stuck a disc of double sided tape on, and removed the backing.  Carefully, oh so carefully, she pushed it into contact with the Cylinder trying to ensure that the cylinder was not pushed further into the hole.  Time was of the essence, but it would not do to fumble this.  With the delicacy of someone disarming a ticking bomb, Elspeth pulled the object of her quest out of its hiding place.  She paused for a moment, as if waiting for something, and felt almost disappointed that nothing happened.  Gingerly she used her torch to look back inside the cubby in case there was anything else left behind.  Nothing, this time.  She closed the cubby door and tried to decide if it looked like it had ever been opened.

Tidily, she tucked her torch back in its pocket in her bag, removed the stub and returned that to its appointed place, closed the telescopic rod and clipped it back next to the pens.  Only then did she look at the Mondretti Cylinder.  Few had ever heard of this little artefact, and fewer still believed that it existed.  It had taken two years, and now she had it in her hands.  But for how long?  The dead body suggested that others who wanted the Cylinder were very close.

The history of the Cylinder was as drenched in blood as any other artefact or gem of renown you cared to name.  Despite having disappeared from view for more than 400 years, despite – or perhaps because of – countless fakes, the black deeds written about those who sought the Cylinder filled hidden history books.  The general belief was that the Cylinder was the key to a vast treasure, for any who could decipher the message engraved on the outside.  The Cylinder was about the size of a roll of coins or a shot-gun cartridge, in length and diameter, but considerably heavier.  It was made, apparently from some kind of brass, which had become verdigrised with age, although not to the extent that the object appeared corroded.  Indeed, it almost seemed as if instead of damaging it the green hue was from a protective patina, deliberately allowed to develop on the surface.  The surface itself was completely covered in small cartouchesque blocks which contained designs in both relief and intaglio.  The designs that had been uppermost during the long wait in the cubby hole were filled with dust.  Each end of the Cylinder was knurled for about a coin’s depth: cautiously Elspeth twisted one end and heard tiny clicks.  She reached for bag and pulled out the note book, ink pad and wet wipes.  Time to move quickly…

~#~#~

The door handle rattled and the door itself moved a few millimetres, but the wedge held.

“I know that you are in there.  It is time to come out.  And do not bother to scream.  There is no one in earshot that can hear you”.

Elspeth had hoped to regain the relative safety of the Inner Reading Room; on a positive note she had managed to finish taking a print of the design and cleaning up the cylinder, so hopefully no one would realise what she had done.  She tucked the print away where a casual search would not find it, removed the wedge and returned it to her bag, and opened the door carefully.

“Young lady, you will hand over the artefact.”

The voice was disquieting more than sinister: almost completely accentless English, which made it impossible to identify a nationality, but spoken with inflection and emphasis in all the wrong places.  If one had been inclined to laugh at the voice, the heavy, long-barrelled revolver (complete with suppressor, tick) emerging from the shadows would quickly dissuade levity.  The owner of the voice and the gun moved into the light.  He was as eerie as his voice, for much the same reason, although it took a moment to realise this: the man was completely average.  It was the only adjective that could possibly be used to describe him.  There was nothing exceptional or unusual about him that you could hang a label on.  Elspeth wondered how much of this was cultivated, how much a strange roll of the genetic dice.  Had surgery paid a part?  Was it just an extension of the ordinary suit?  Not too cheap, not too expensive; not bespoke, but not ill-fitting either.

“I will tell you that I am in earnest.”

Elspeth fidgeted with the Cylinder.  She allowed her Scottish burr to broaden slightly, into the version that she’d been told made her sound as honest and trustworthy a person as you could hope to meet.  “O! Don’t do that! I should never have got involved! O! What is to become of me?”

“Please, calm yourself.  Give me the artefact and you have my word that you may go free.”

“But what about th’ other man?  The man tha’ made me come here?  He said he would kill my Mother if I didn’t fetch the Cylinder for him.”

“I have killed one man today for the object that you now hold in your hand.  He knew much.  Too much.  Too much about me, and about my principal.  I have no wish to kill you too.”

“Well, I have no wish to die for this, and if you say that you’ve killed the man tha’ threatened me then my mind’s at rest.  Walk me out of the building and I will hand it to you when we are out on the pavement.”

“Very well – but if you attempt to flee…do not attempt it”.

They made their way back to the Inner Reading Room and then on through the building and out to the street.  With some apparent misgivings, Elspeth handed over Cylinder.

“Very good.  Two pieces of advice.  Firstly, forget the artefact, forget me.  Secondly, give up all this nonsense of the Voynich Manuscript.  It is a hoax, a fake, this is well known.” And with that, he disappeared into the crowds on the street.

~#~#~

Elspeth sat on the train and looked at the small rod nestled in the palm of her hand.  About the thickness of a pencil and shaped a little like a nail with one ended vaguely pointed and one slightly flattened, it seemed rather heavy for its size.  It had been devilish tricky to extract it from the case without the strange man catching on.  Thankfully her fingers had been sensitive enough to rotate the dial-lock.  She had the Mondretti artefact.  She had a print of the outer cylinder, if not the case itself, which should be sufficient.  Whilst a plan never survives first contact with the enemy, the second lesson was that a plan is only as good as its ability to adapt: this plan had been proven to be supple enough.  She smiled to herself.  Fancy thinking that the Voynich Manuscript was just a hoax!

© David Jesson, 2018

 


Rushing in to the coffee shop, Monica spotted Oona sitting in the corner and waved. After ordering – soy latte with a biscotti to dunk – she slipped into the booth beside her friend, planting a kiss on her cheek: “So, what’s up? What was so urgent you had me cancel my mani/pedi?” Oona turned to face Monica whilst removing her dark glasses. The sight of Oona’s red puffy eyes caused Monica to utter: “Oh honey, what’s he done now?”

It was a while before Monica could stop Oona’s tears which erupted afresh and not just tears, but muffled mutterings of “I don’t know what to do” and “I’m so unhappy” and “how could he?” Taking a stab in the dark, Monica asked the unlikely question “Is there someone else?” That usually raised a smile, but this time, it was a smile tinged with sadness. “Not someone, something!” “What, like a robot? I’d heard they were in development, but surely Tim doesn’t need one of those. I mean, he may be a geek, but he’s got you. And he has always adored you!” This time Oona’s smile was more genuine, and less sad, but there was still far too much sadness there for Monica’s liking. “If you don’t spit it out, I’m going to sit here and guess, and as that’s my opener, you know it’s just going to get crazy.” Oona let out a small sound, it could even have been a chuckle: “I knew you were the right person to call. Give me a minute, I’m going to the ladies to splash my face with cold water and put a comb through my hair. I’ll be back in a minute. Drink your coffee before it gets cold!”

Monica felt relieved, once Oona was back to being concerned how she looked, things were getting back on an even keel. Still, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d looked that bad. And she’d never appeared in public looking anything other than immaculate. She took a deep breath, this was going to be tricky. Humour and home-spun wisdom may not cut it this time.

Oona had married Tim just two years before. He was different to all her previous boyfriends. He was smart for one thing, very smart, working for the government smart. He wasn’t exactly ugly, nor even bad looking, just a bit … unkempt and gawky. And what she’d said about him – that he absolutely adored Oona – was true. He did. But they’d lived very different lives before getting together, and there’d been a lot of ups and downs whilst they tried to find the middle ground. Monica had advised living together first, so they could iron all this stuff out, but Oona’s mind had been set. The last time she’d been upset, she’d admitted to Monica that she’d probably have left him by now if they’d not tied the knot. Even though she loved him to bits, he was that darn hard to live with.

He didn’t drink, take drugs, or play around, but it had taken a lot of hard work to get him to change his schedule. He had a routine – or used to have – and he was very set into it. It caused him enormous stress to change it – any of it. Even the smallest aspect seemed to cause him trauma. It had taken a lot out of Oona to get Tim to understand that she didn’t want him to change, she was just asking that he make room for her in his life. For if he stuck to his routine, she’d get to spend so little time with him, there was no point in them being a couple.

There’d been a lot of tears, so many deep and meaningfuls that Monica had lost count, but Tim had listened, he’d heard Oona and eventually, he’d understood. It’d been hard work, but they’d both made compromises. Not so many long lie-ins as Oona had hoped for, but not as many all-nighters and weekends at the lab as Tim was used to either. In fact, things had been so good for the past few months now that Monica had felt it was safe to exhale. That is, until this morning’s call from a sobbing Oona.

Once Oona rejoined Monica, she looked better. She’d not just washed her face, she’d applied make-up, and she’d not just put a comb through her hair, but she’d done something to it so it looked smooth and sleek. “Do you have a set of tongs in your bag?”  Monica asked incredulously, only to receive a nod, together with a bit of a shrug from Oona in a ‘doesn’t everyone’ kind of way. Oona was clearly back on her game, so Monica suggested they go see if they could arrange a side-by-side mani/pedi, together with a bit of retail therapy at that new little boutique. For a moment, Oona looked hurt, but Monica re-assured her “you need to get your equilibrium back, we’ll talk over lunch, I promise.”

A few hours later and while Monica tucked into a burger, Oona played with a salad. She always did. Her excuse was usually that she had a proper evening meal with Tim. But she’d accepted a glass of wine – and a large one at that. Food over, Monica took a long contented sip of her wine and said “Shoot! Tell me about it.” Oona bit her lower lip: “I’m not sure where to start really.” Signaling the waiter to top up their glasses, Monica suggested: “I’ve got nothing better to do this afternoon, so start at the beginning and take your time. Having seen the state of you first thing, this one’s big.”

Oona’s hand shook slightly as she picked up her wine glass, but she set her shoulders, took a sip and started: “He’s been having these disturbed nights for a few months now. I’d wake up and find him gone. At first I thought he’d gone to the bathroom. As it was happening so much and so often, I worried that he was ill, that there was something wrong with him. But he wasn’t going to the bathroom. One night, I went to look and he wasn’t there. Most nights, I’d find him in the study, not at his computer or doing any work, just sitting in his chair. Sometimes he’d be staring out into space, sometimes he’d have his head in his hands. I’d ask him what was wrong, but he’d say it was nothing, he just had work stuff that was keeping him awake.” And then Oona did something unexpected, she signalled the waiter over and asked for the dessert menu. Not that Monica minded – at all – but she’d never seen Oona eat dessert before. Oh no, was this a signifier to the severity of the problem?

Setting her shoulders square – and taking another sip of wine – she prompted Oona to continue. “We talked a lot about it, but he kept saying he was just developing something new and it excited him so much that it was keeping him awake. After this went on for a few weeks, I asked if he’d find it easier to put in some all-nighters at the lab to get it done. He was so grateful, like ridiculously so, and started immediately. I insisted that he kept the weekends free – he needed some time to rest after all, but that he was free to work whatever hours he needed during the week.” “And did that work?” Monica asked, unable to hide the hopeful tone in her voice. “A little, I guess. But only because he wasn’t home for me to see. In fact, I never saw him during the week. After not seeing him for the first two days and nights straight, I took food into the lab for him, and when it became clear he’d not be coming home for days on end, I took a towel, toiletries and fresh clothes in too. But I made it clear, the weekends were still mine. And he kept to his word, he came home every weekend.” “But?” Monica asked. “But it became clear that his mind was elsewhere. Also he was becoming more and more tired, just dead on his feet. He fell asleep at the wheel that weekend when we went to the mountains, and of course he’d fall asleep at the cinema or watching TV, he even fell asleep over breakfast one morning. I asked him if he slept at the lab and he assured me that he took regular naps, but I was getting more and more worried so I got him to promise me he wouldn’t drive. I started driving him to and from the lab and if he needed anything, he’d call me to get it.”

“That explains why I never saw you, but this all sounds really instense. How long’s it been going on?” Monica wasn’t even attempting to hide her concern now. “About three or four months I guess. Maybe longer, I’m not really sure.” “But that’s way too long to go without proper sleep. Hasn’t Tim been to see a doctor?” “I tried to persuade him, but he insists it’s normal. And maybe it is in his world. I’ve bumped into a few of the other wives there, all delivering food, clothes and the like, so I kind of accepted his word for it. That was, until I met the wife of his usual lab partner.” A small sob escaped from Oona and Monica could see that the mascara she’d put on that morning wasn’t waterproof. She offered her a tissue and gave her hand a squeeze. “Are you OK to continue my lovely? It might be best if you get it all out.” Sniffing, Oona nodded, before mopping her eyes. “She told me her husband hadn’t seen Tim in ages. That he’d started working on this special project – and she did that thing with her hands when she said special, you know, miming quote marks. I didn’t like it when she did that. It seemed she was suggesting that it wasn’t really. So I asked Tim when I got to the lab and he told me some rambling tale about how his partner was jealous of his work, how he was upset that Tim wasn’t sharing his idea with him. When I asked him why, after all, he and Tim had been partners for years, even since leaving college, he just shrugged. Said the guy plain didn’t ‘get’ the idea, thought it was nuts and so Tim’d decided to work on it alone.”

“Sweetie, this all sounds a bit weird. What’s Tim working on?” “The Mondretti Cylinder” “The what cylinder?” “Mondretti.” “And what’s that exactly?” “I don’t know Mon. Worse when I asked Tim to explain, he couldn’t tell me” and with that Oona started to sob once more. Shaking her head, Monica got up and gave Oona a hug. “Honey, I don’t intend to be mean, but you and me, we’re neither of us big brains. We don’t tend to understand Tim when he gets all theoretic. That’s normal, isn’t it?” With a sigh Oona continued: “That’s what I persuaded myself too, at first. But … he started to become a bit hyper, even manic, so I put my foot down and refused to drive him to the lab. I insisted that he stayed home, got a good night’s sleep – or more – as he needed it. And that’s when things got scary. He went mad, absolutely mad. Screaming at the top of his voice, yelling at me that I was stupid, that I wasn’t being a supportive wife, that I was just the same as everyone else.”

Monica drew breath when she heard the last phrase and not just because Oona had put emphasis on it. “Honey, do you know what he meant by that?” “Yes” Oona’s voice had shrunk to that of a little girl now. “I went to see Tim’s boss. They told me they were all worried. That Tim wasn’t making any sense. That his behaviour was really erratic. That they were concerned he was having a breakdown. They’d wanted to reach out to me but my reaction to his old lab partner’s wife had suggested I wouldn’t be open to it.”

The tears were now pouring down Oona’s cheeks. Her mascara had run everywhere, her cheeks were covered in dark streaks, her nose was running, but she was staring off in to the distance. “They introduced me to a couple of doctors on staff – medical doctors I mean, not just guys with PhDs. They’d wanted to section Tim. They asked me to support them. They could do it without me, but they’d prefer not to leave themselves open to a lawsuit from me. They allowed me to sleep on it.” Oona reached out for her wine glass and took a long slow sip. “Not that I did sleep of course, how could it? When I called you this morning, I’d just left the lab. I’d just signed the papers to have Tim committed. Their two doctors co-signed it.”

Monica realised she was crying too: “Oh babe.” Oona nodded. “I know. I hate the Mondretti Cylinder. And yet I’ve no idea what it is. All I know is that it’s stolen my husband; it’s stolen Tim’s mind.”

© Debra Carey, 2018

#FF Prompt – The Mondretti Cylinder

I have no idea who or what Mondretti is, nor why he/she/it/they has/have a cylinder – but that’s half the fun!  So, this month’s prompt can be applied to your favourite genre, or a genre that you’d like to trial.  For bonus points, you could try and write in the style of one of your favourite authors.  Double bonus points if you take that style and place it into a different genre.  So for example Steve Shovel could be on the hunt for a McGuffin known as the Mondretti Cylinder (bonus points) and this turns out to be a cthonic entity (double bonus points).

I think you need a bit of play for this one, so 1500-2500 words – on your marks, get set go!
Deadline: 2pm on Friday, 12th January 2018.

 


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