The Last Sunrise
The old man picked his way over the rocky terrain, hot sand blowing into his face. It barely stung his eyes any more. He had been walking for over a month now, barely sleeping, only stopping to drink from the sap of ancient, deathless trees.
He met nobody. There was nobody to meet.The old man was the last of his kind. It had been so for many years.
Even in his youth, the world had been a tomb. In the monastery, the novices’ time was devoted to studying the history of the dozens of civilizations that had flourished and died on this world. He had passed many of their ruins in the past month, and in the decades leading to it
All of their wise men and priests and philosophers had asked themselves the question that he would see answered this very day.
His masters in the monastery had done a fine job of quenching his pride.
He was the most important man in history—in a hundred histories—but he walked towards destiny feeling nothing but an overwhelming sense of his own smallness. His own unfitness. If there was any satisfaction at all, it was that he had defied the elements—hunger and thirst, hot and cold, and a hundred other hazards-- to see this day.
“You have all the virtues except care”, Watcher Darak had told him during his third trial for the brown cloak. The plump old man had chastised him for fasting too severely, keeping vigil too long, excessive labour. “There are few enough of us left now. Every life is precious is beyond words.”
Vows of celibacy had been lifted generations before. The old man had tried to parent children himself, but—like most others, for the past century or so—he was sterile.
So he had travelled the world, searching for suvivors of his race. Far to the West, animal and vegetable life still flourished. But all over the world, disease and sterility had extinguished the race of man.
And, even if anybody else had somehow survived, they were not here. The old man had surveyed the barren landscape from headlands, had shouted into the emptiness for weeks. There had been no reply.
Mankind had dreamed of this day, this place, through all their history. Now the day had come, and only one frail old man staggered towards the Sacred Valley.
He could see it from here, despite the flurries of sand that the winds sent scudding through the air. Centuries had eroded the two mountains that had flanked it, so that they were little more than barren and rocky hills.
The statues stood, as they stood for millennia. The old man had never seen them before. They were not to be looked upon, save for once in a lifetime. But he had seen so many pictures that he might as well have been looking at them all his life.
Were they gods? Were they angels? Were they demons? There had been thousands of creeds, through the generations. But the statues had stood through them all, untouched. Not even the most arrogant ruler dared to build his palace within a hundred miles of the Sacred Valley.
There were twelve thousand of them, each one carrying a sword in one hand a flower in the other. The carvings on the massive columns around them left no doubt. They were astronomical charts, and they looked forward to this day.
And the oldest of prophecies—a prophecy so deeply embedded in tradition that few ever questioned it—was that “life would give life” on that day. Or, as the Great Harram put it, “Man will give birth to the Gods.”
An old man, staggering towards the mystery of mysteries, in the red light before the last sunrise.
He had forgotten his prayers. Words no longer seemed to have any meaning. He had not spoken in years. No, he prayed without words now.
He walked into the Sacred Valley, as crimson light began to flood into the sky.
He stood before the first statue, the one that stood a little before all the others. It was the statue of a boy, with a look of holy awe upon his beautiful features.
The old man would not have believed how much his own expression resembled the boys, as he stood staring into his stone eyes.
And then the snake struck.
It was an emerald adder, and the old man thought they were all dead. It had been coiled behind the statue of the boy, waiting to strike. Its low hiss had been audible, but the the old man had stopped listening for such things. He had all the virtues but care.
It jumped straight at his neck, plunging its fangs into his flesh. Blood spurted onto sand and stone.
The sky burned a brighter red with every moment, and the disc of the sun began to look over the horizon as the last of the old man’s life ebbed away.
But the blood that had spattered onto the stone boy’s neck melted into the statue, and—as the sun rose—the statue began to come alive.
The old man lay dead on the sand, his staff still clutched in his hand. How he came there, who he was; that would be debated for centuries to come.
You Must Never Go Through The Blue Door
Barry’s life was built around rules. He had to do everything that Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine told him to do. He had to be quiet, especially when Aunie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine were sleeping. He had to put all his toys back in the red box when he was finished playing with them.
And most important of all, he could never, ever go through the blue door.
Barry was frightened even to look at the blue door. It haunted his nightmares. He never went into the room with the blue door. Even the way Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine looked at each other when they mentioned it frightened him. Their eyes became circles and their skin grew paler.
But, most of the time, Barry was happy. He had his books, and he had his toys, and he had Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine, who he loved more than anything in the world.
And today was Wednesday. Wednesday. Wednesday was his favourite day of the week; party day!
He crept up to the door of Auntie Evelyn’s room and put his ear to it. That was against the rules, too, but it wasn’t a scary rule. It didn’t matter too much if that rule was broken; his aunties were never very angry when they caught him doing that, and they even smiled at him as though they thought he was funny and cute.
So he put his ear to the door.
“It’s getting worse out there”, said Auntie Evelyn. “Clients are getting…more difficult.” Her voice was rough, like a crow’s.
“They’ve always been difficult”, said Auntie Katherine, in her smooth voice. Barry liked Auntie Katherine most, though he never would have admitted it out loud. That would make Auntie Eveln jealous.
“Still….” said Auntie Evelyn. She would often start off saying something and then seem to forget about it. “And that weird guy was looking at me again. The guy in the leather jacket.”
“Why don’t you tell Steve?”, asked Auntie Katherine. (Barry had never seen Steve. He imagined him as tall and dark-haired and always frowning.)
“I will”, said Auntie Evelyn. “But….you know Steve. How he overreacts.”
“You can say that again.”
“Is Barry asleep?”
When he heard that, Barry took a few quick steps backwards, and quietly slunk back into his room. A few moments later, he was underneath his duvet, reading his Silly Squirrel book. The one with the astronauts
Auntie Katherine and Auntie Evelyn came in a moment later. They were smiling. They were excited.
“What time is it, Barry?”, said Auntie Evelyn, laying her hand on his head.
“Time for a party”, said Barry, eagerly. “Time for a Wednesday party.”
Both his aunties laughed, and Auntie Evelyn ruffled his hair.
They all went to the kitchen. The table was full of crinkly paper bags. Barry could smell the doughnuts. As always, he helped them lay out the party; there were gingerman-shaped biscuits, fizzy orange, apple drops, eclairs, and—of course—doughnuts, his favourite. Sometimes Auntie Evelyn and Auntie Katherine called him the Doughnut Dude.
They were singing a party song—Jolly Jim and the Jolly Roger—when Auntie Evelyn’s mobile phone rang. She made a face and lifted it to her ear.
Barry hated that mobile phone. It always interrupted fun, and it was blue. He hated anything blue; it made him uneasy.
“Hey, dearie”, she said into the phone, with a tight smile.
For a little while, Auntie Katherine and Barry kept singing the song, but it was obvious that Auntie Katherine was more interested in the phone call now.
“For fu—for God’s sake, Steve, what do you expect me to do about that? No. No. I’m coming over to you. Just calm down and I’ll be right over. Love love.”
She snapped the mobile phone shut, and cursed under her breath. Then she looked at Barry with a big smile. But it was a smile with sadness underneath.
“I have to go, pinkie”, she said. “I’m sorry. But I’ll be back later. And you know what happens later, don’t you?”
“Cowboys!”, said Barry, waving his doughnut in the air. It was his favourite TV show.
Auntie Katherine clapped her hands and Auntie Evelyn laughed with delight.
When Auntie Evelyn was gone, Auntie Katherine gave Barry his bath. Barry loved bath-time even more than party-time. He loved the bubblebath, the sound of water plashing from the taps. He loved playing with his rubber frogmen. But what he liked most was when Auntie Katherine told him to be very, very still, covered his face with foam, and gently sung to herself as she shaved him.
A Sweet Savour
Les was walking past Dimples Babywear when he first caught the scent.
It was impossible to describe exactly. But it immediately brought to his mind the smell inside a bakery. Like that, but more so, as though the bakery had just taken a hundred mouth-watering cakes out of some giant oven.
It was the richest aroma he had even experienced; it was like the smell of childhood and Christmas and first love and a thousand other good things all mixed up. It was the odour of the wind that blew from Eden.
He looked around. The street was busy, but it only took a moment to see where the smell was coming from. It didn’t make any sense, but there it was.
A man was leaning over a pram, fussing over his baby’s clothes. He was a fat, squat man in jeans and a khaki t-shirt. Les thought he was one of the ugliest men he had ever seen. His baby—Les couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl—was remarkably unattractive, too.
But the most delicious smell that had ever greeted Les’s nostrils was emanating from them.
Somehow, he knew straight away that it was the smell of love. He recognised it as surely as if it was sweat or smoke or cut grass.
The fat man looked up, perhaps sensing that he was being watched. When he saw Les, he smiled.
“Little bleeders, ain’t they?”, said the man.
“Are they?”, asked Les. “I never had one.”
“Don’t, mate”, said the fat man, with a gurgling laugh. “Don’t.”
Then he was pushing the baby along, humming a jingle from a peas ad.
But the scent lingered. After a few minutes—during which he simply stood on the spot, transfixed by this new sensation—he realised that it was coming from the entire street. It was fainter than it had been, but now and again, it would grow stronger as people passed by. An old man and an old woman, hobbling side by side, talking about biscuits. A boy and his labrador. Three young girls passing a magazine between them, laughing.
Les’s mobile phone rang. He barely heard it at first, he was so distracted by the all-pervading scent of love. Then he snapped back to awareness, and hurriedly drew it from his pocket.
“Betty?”, he asked.
“Are you on your way home? Can you get some butter and some tinfoil?”
“Sure”, said Les. “Betty, the most amazing thing has just happened to me—“
“I’m watching Down the Road”, said Betty. “You can tell me when you get home.”
“Sure”, said Les, and Betty hung up.
All the way home—he lived within walking distance of the office—Les was buzzing with excitement. His had been a very ordinary life. Not that he minded that, but he had always had a secret hankering to be part of something special, something different. Sometimes he had fantasised about being caught up in a bank robbery, or even being the first case of some horrendous new disease. He would recover, of course, and give many interviews. He would be the famous Patient Zero.
Les was such an invincibly modest man that it never occurred to him to rehearse a Nobel prize speech, or imagine an interview with a Sunday arts supplement.
As soon as he was home, he rushed into the living room, where Betty had passed from Down the Road to Fit for a Princess. She looked up with vague surprise.
“Did you remember the tinfoil and butter?”, she asked.
“Sure”, said Les. “Hey, Betty, you’ll never guess—“
He stopped suddenly. It had hit him, or rather, it hadn’t. The smell was entirely absent from the room. From the whole house.
“Never mind”, said Les, and Betty went back to watching Fit for a Princess.
* * *
Later that evening, he thought about suicide methods as he stared into his Guinness. He always had a Tuesday night drink with his friends Davy, Matty and Frenchy. He thought they had been friends. But he didn’t get the scent from them, either. Not the slightest suggestion of it.
He had made an excuse to move to the other pub in his street—The Pavilion—and now he was trying to imagine what drowning would feel like, and how painful hanging would actually be.
Then the scent struck him, stronger and more delicious than ever. He looked up.
Jenny, the pretty red-haired barmaid of the Pavillion, was taking his empty glass away. And giving him a sweet smile that he had never guessed, even in his wildest fantasy, was reserved for him alone.
Written in Stone
It was on his second visit to his mother’s grave that Gerry noticed the inscription.
It was six months after her funeral. Gerry had spent all that time trying not to think about her death, not to brood on regrets. Now it was time to remember.
He bought a bunch of daffodils—her favourite—and drove to the cemetery. It was on the other side of the country, in the country town where she’d grown up. She’d never even visited it since moving to Dublin thirty years ago, but she’d asked to be buried there. “Dublin is no place for a ghost”, she’d joked.
Once he’d laid the flowers on the grave, and read the inscription he’d chosen himsef—there were so many perfect lines he’d thought of when it was too late, but they’d gone with gentle Jesus give her rest—there wasn’t much else to do. He’d never been one for contemplation. But he couldn’t just go, could he? Even the dead demanded etiquette.
So he looked at the neighbouring headstones. The one to the left was ordinary enough, though sad. A mother who had died in her twenties, to be followed by her six-year-old daughter. There was a photograph of the little girl; she didn’t look sickly or doomed. She looked quite like Gerry’s little girl.
But the headstone to the right was a little strange, if only in its bareness. It was sleek black marble, about half the size of his mother’s headstone, which was modestly-scaled itself. There were no crosses, no pictures of Jesus. There was no decoration at all, simply the words:
survived by his wife
It was a little strange, but not strange enough to detain Gerry for long. He spent another fifteen minues or so staring at down at his mother’s grave, trying not to think of tonight’s episode of Skullduggery or whether the weather would let him go fishing this weekend. He said a prayer, awkwardly, and started back towards the car.
* * *
Gerry was a quantity surveyor. He never had to write down a telephone number. He could remember telephone numbers he’d used a handful of times ten or twelve years before. Numbers stuck in his head.
So a jolt passed through him the next time he looked at the black headstone. It was a year later, and this time the inscription read:
survived by his wife
Gerry stood there, staring down at it, this year’s daffodils hanging limply in his hand. He knew he wasn’t remembering it wrong.
Suddenly, the empty cemetery seemed even colder, and the whistling of the wind had a menacing sound.
He took out his mobile phone, and flashed a photograph. He left the daffodils on his mother’s grave and walked out of the graveyard, torn between the desire to run and the desire to go back to the headstone for another look.
* * *
A promotion, a move to another neighbourhood, and an extra job coaching the under-sixteens of his old football club….none of it seemed to have happened, hardly seemed to matter, the next time he walked into the cemetery where his mother had been laid.
He had barely slept the night before. It had been difficult, in fact, to stop himself from coming back before his mother’s birthday came round. He hadn’t mentioned the inscription to anybody, though he had been on the point of telling his wife and his best friend, towards the end of boozy nights.
He forced himself to look at his mother’s headstone first. He stared at it for fully five seconds before he turned to its neighbour.
survived by his wife
He reached into his pocket, almost triumphantly, and plucked out his mobile phone. But the year-old photograph might have been taken today. Richard Wolff, both tombstone and photo declared, had died four years ago.
* * * *
A year later. Gerry had scoured the internet for a mention of a recently-deceased Richard Wollf. But he only found him in his dreams.
This time he didn’t even try to look at his mother’s grave first. This time his eyes sought out the terse marble marker straight away.
survived by her husband
The Little Monsters
“How many are there?”, asked the old man in the check shirt and corduroys, loading his rifle.
“Hundreds”, said the woman in the tracksuit. “Maybe three hundred.”
The old lady in the heavy black dress and thick wollen sweater put her hand over her mouth. “And they’re all children?”, she asked.
“They’re not children”, said a bearded man wearing football shorts and a bright orange t-shirt. “Whatever they are, they’re not bloody children.”
“Then what are they?”, asked the old woman, almost whispering.
“Demons, maybe”, said the man with the beard. “Monsters. Zombies.”
“But zombies are dead people come back to life”, said the old woman, staring out the window. The scene outside was peaceful, almost idyllic. Hens clucked on the lawn, and cows grazed beyond an electric wire. But the younger woman had a deep gash on her face, and her clothes were torn.
“Let’s not worry about definitions now, Judy”, said the old man, slamming the gun barrel into place. The three others started at the sound.
“They’ll kill us”, said the woman in the tracksuit, lingering over each word as though it caused her pain. “Unless we get them first. Believe me.”
“What the hell happened?”, asked the old man, peering through the window. “I mean, we heard some kind of—“
“Signal”, said the bearded man, with a strange kind of eagerness. “It was a signal, wasn’t it? A kind of high-pitched wail, like an air-raid siren, maybe…”
“And the kids went wild”, said the woman in the tracksuit, shaking her head as though she still couldn’t believe it. “They killed four of the supervisors right away. Just…tore at them with their teeth. They went for their throats…”
“We’re not going to kill children, are we?”, asked Judy, looking from face to face, her face dough-coloured.
“Here they come”, said her husband, raising the rifle.
The others stepped closer together and looked out the window. A mob of brightly-coloured figures were climbing over the hedges that walled the farm. They were all wearing sports-bibs, either red or green, over t-shirts. None of them looked older than ten or eleven years old.
It was hard to tell their age, though. They didn’t look like children. They moved with an urgency and a speed that bore no resemblance to childish giddiness. And their faces…no child had ever looked so furious, so utterly devilish.
“Don’t shoot, Stanley”, said Judy, grasping her husband by the arm. “Don’t shoot. Let’s go up to the attic. Please.”
But Stanley, now standing against the kitchen the wall, had already raised the rifle. “They’ll just follow us, Judy”, he said, quietly. “Look at them.”
The children—the things—had already closed half the distance between the hedge and the window. They were howling with eagerness.
“God help us”, said the man with the beard. He reached towards the oven, and grabbed a heavy frying pan, giving it one or two experimental shakes.
“They’re going to kill us”, said the woman in the tracksuit. “They’re—“
But there was no more time for words. The children were already upon them. They didn’t bother to try breaking down the door. They simply hurled themselves at the window, a dozen at a time.
Chaos broke out it in the tiny kitchen. Stanley fired shot after shot into the huddle of attackers. They echoed loudly in the tiled and sparsely-furnished kitchen. Judy, standing behind her husband and burying her face in her hands, was screaming. So were the children.
Blood was everywhere. The horrible sound of a frying-pan coming down on juvenile skulls blended with the racket of gunfire.
The woman in the tracksuit, mobbed by children, fell to the floor. As soon as she was down, a little girl with honey-coloured ponytails fell to her knees and lunged for the her victim’s throat. The woman howled with pain.
Then a new sound cut through the pandemonium. A harrowing, ear-piercing, resounding screech. It seemed to come from the sky itself, and lasted perhaps five seconds.
Everybody stopped moving. Only the moaning and screaming and sobbing of the injured and dying went on. Gunsmoke filled the air.
“What happened?”, asked Stanley, lowering his rifle.
A boy who had taken a steak-knife from the kitchen drawer stood with it poised inches from the bearded man’s groin. He looked up at the supervisor, as if wondering how he had got there, and where the activity camp had gone.
Suddenly, forty of fifty children began to sob at once. Within a moment, they were wailing. Fifteen or twenty little bodies were lying dead on the tiles, and the tracksuited woman, still lying down, was making a horrible gurgling sound.
Crawling through the Desert
Milton saw Philip in the bathroom mirror before he felt the hearty clap on his shoulder.
“Bloody good presentation, Dale”, he said. “I don’t think you have to be a fortune teller to predict—bloody hell, man, are you OK?”
Milton tried to smile. His face was wet with the water he had just splashed onto it.
“That really took it out of you, didn’t you?,” asked Philip. “And you were so smooth in there!”
“I guess so”, said Milton. “I’ll be OK”.
“You’ll be more than OK”, said Philip. “You’ll be flying before very long. That went down like a bloody hundred megaton bomb.”
He gave Milton a gentle punch on the arm before he moved on towards one of the cubicles. He never would have guessed how much that light nudge ached.
Milton closed his eyes, and prayed for his dizziness to pass. As far Philip was concerned, the presentation had broken up two or three minutes ago.
But for Milton, it had been hours. Hours crawling throught the desert.
This was the fourth time it had happened, and the weird interludes were getting longer all the time. One moment he had been walking towards the bathroom after outlining to the executive board of Happen Insurance his anti-fraud proposals.
It had been a triumph. He had been euphoric. And just as he was reaching out towards the bathroom door, everything had changed. Again.
He was standing on the undulating surface of a desert that stretched in every direction. The sun blazed directly overhead, and the heat scorched his skin.
After the first wave of horror had passed, he began to march forwards. What else was there to do? There was nothing on the horizon, nothing to strive towards, but the merciless sun would not let him stand still. Besides, each time he found himself in this awful place—if it was a place—he was far from sure that he would be transported back to the real world.
It was a good thing Philip had not barged through the door a moment before, he thought. If he had, he would have seen Milton lapping up bathroom water from his cupped hands. He was still ferociously thirsty. I’ll take the rest of the day off, he thought, and head down to the Saracen’s Arms. The thought of cider slipping down his throat was almost unbearably enticing.
His mother used to chide him for his drinking, even after he’d moved out at the age of twenty-two. He drank more than ever now, but he was a hundred miles away from being an alcoholic. Then again, she’d chide him for his cursing, for his “lewd” remarks, for his frank assessments of his relatives. It was funny to think of now, but she had once given him a tongue-lashing for suggesting she make a claim against the local pub, when she had slipped in the lady’s room.
He kept meaning to visit her again. But she was living with some bookish retired professor, who had been scandalised when Philip admitted he hadn’t read a novel since leaving school. Besides, they talked enough on the phone. Right now, had an appointment with a glass of cider.
* * * *
It tasted just as good as he’d anticipated. The next one tasted even better, and the one after that was no let-down. He’d only planned to spend an hour or two in the Saracen’s, but three hours later, he looked up to see John Whittaker, the managing director of Happen, moving towards him with a pint of lager in his hand. Thankfully, Milton wasn’t even tipsy.
“Celebrating?”, asked Whittaker, squeezing in beside him.
“Well…” started Milton.
“You should be”, said Whittacker. “You should be. I don’t mind telling you I see big, big things for you in this company. And I’m telling you because, otherwise, I think you might do big things somewhere else. Another of those?”
“OK”, said Milton, smiling.
* * *
The streets of Manchester, melancholy and surly as ever, slid past the taxi window. The driver was silent. Milton had snapped at him when he asked him if he was feeling OK. They weren’t far from the train station.
Take a holiday, they had told him. Milton had collapsed in the middle of his first ever board meeting, after another—and the longest—of his desert intervals. It had been plain, from the faces around him, that this would also be his last board meeting.
He was going to see his mother at last. All of a sudden, it seemed like the only place he wanted to be. He couldn’t bear to let anybody else seem like this. The trips to the weird desert were growing more and more frequent.
But something very strange had happened at the end of that last one. Just before he had been whisked back to reality—just before he had collapsed--he had seen it, glimmering on the very edge of the horizon. Silver water, and green grass.
The House of Mystery
Carl rung the bell of the House of Mystery. Then he rung it again, twice. He waited a few seconds, and rang it three times in quick succession.
There was no sign above the door at the House of Mystery. It was on a residential street and the only sign on the door was the house number, forty-four. There was a spy-hole, though.
Carl had been coming to the House of Mystery for almost three years. For all he knew, he was its oldest customer. Or he might have been its newest.
Three or four minutes had passed when the door opened. An elderly man with mutton chop sideburns, receding salt-and-pepper hair, and heavy-rimmed glasses opened the door. He was wearing a grey bathrobe. He gave Carl a gay smile.
“Carl, my boy”, he said. “Come in, come in. I was beginning to think you would never show up.”
“My wife insisted I go to some awful lunch with her”, said Carl apologetically.
“Ah, the ladies, God bless ‘em”, said Carl. “It’s been twenty years since dear Edith passed away. I tend to forget that most men have domestic entanglements.”
“Are there any female members of the House of Mystery, Vernon?”
Vernon smiled and wagged his finger at Carl in a now, now manner. “Would you like some coffee and cakes?”, he asked.
“I’m always up for your coffee and cakes”, said Carl.
As they walked through the ritzily-wallpapered hallway to Vernon’s kitchen, Carl said: “I finished Death for Slow Learners”, he said. “I thought it was good but—“
“The street signs?”, asked Vernon, hastily. “You didn’t think it would be possible to switch them?”
“Well…” said Carl, hesitantly.
“The author assures me that he’s done it himself”, said Vernon, beaming.
“When will it be published?”, asked Carl.
“Oh, you know”, said Vernon, waving his pudgy hand dismissively. “It has to be spiced up with sex and dinner parties and domestic drama first.”
Many of the mystery genre’s top writers sent an early draft of their manuscripts to Vernon. The patrons of the House of Mystery—whose membership was by invitation only— were the most discerning of mystery fans, the connoisseurs of crime. Few stories foxed them. Writers couldn’t resist the challenge of trying. Those manuscripts that were met with a howl of derision from the House of Mystery patrons usually underwent radical surgery before finding their way to an agent or publisher.
“Well, here we are, old boy”, said Vernon, ushering Carl into his airy kitchen. “I have some fine éclairs today. The éclair is under-appreciated, is it not? Put on a par with the vile dougnut by some snobs. Dear fellow, today is a red letter day for you, though you know it not.”
“Oh yes?”, asked Carl, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“Indeed”, said Vernon. “Today you have come of age. You are now a full member of the House of Mystery, and may meet other members.”
Carl blinked in surprise. He put down the coffee pot. “What?”, he asked.
Vernon laughed. “I love telling people that. My dear boy, I have been hugely impressed by your sleuthing powers, by your critical faculties. You pass.”
“I’m flattered”, said Carl, resuming his pouring.
“You should be more than flattered”, said Vernon. “You should be very, very relieved.”
“What do you mean?”, asked Carl, looking up again, struck by Vernon’s tone.
“Well, take, for instance, your closest contemporary, a Mr. Lee Somerset. He did not make the grade. I had to expel him.”
“Oh yes?”, asked Carl. “And how did he take it?”
Vernon smiled. “Well, I went a special way about it. I cooked him a long story about an elaborate mystery game, involving him breaking into a country house that I had loaned for the purpose. At two in the morning.”
“And what happened?”
“He was shot fifteen times by a hunting rifle, that’s what happened”, said Vernon, with a smile of sheer glee. “Carl, this is where the real games began. The only question is, are you ready to play?
Carl stared at Vernon for a long time. It was plain that the man wasn’t joking. “What makes you think I won’t just turn in you in to the police?,” he asked.
Vernon shrugged, and took a bite from his éclair. “Nobody ever has, dear boy”, he said. “And The House of Mystery is a hundred years old next year.”
I Dreamed About You Last Night
“Women are insane”, said Ian, stirring his coffee rapidly and frowning.
“You might be right”, said Ger, staring through the microwave door at his pizza, his arms folded.
“No might about it”, said Ian. “I mean, seriously. I’m not saying that women can’t be logical. Of course they can. But every now and again, it’s just like—there’s a bomb that goes off in their brains—“
“So what happened?”, asked Ger, with a resigned smile, his eyes still fixed on his pizza.
“Just this girl I was seeing”, said Ian. “I mean, I don’t understand what she saw in me to start with. I mean, she was gorgeous, and she was all over me. It was like she’d been hypnotized. And then, out of nowhere, she just turned.”
Ger laughed softly. The microwave pinged. “Maybe you did something.”
“I’ve thought about that”, said Ger, haplessly. “But I can’t think of anything. There was no reason for it. None. And just the other day—“
“Well, you’ll have to tell me later”, said Ger. “My stomach is begging for this pizza. Talk to you later, sir.”
“Yeah”, said Ian, as Ger passed from the kitchenette to the adjoining break room. He took a sip from his mug of black coffee. He was a short, thin young man, with dark wavy hair and a permanently worried expression.
He looked up. Louise Rooney had just walked in the door. She was a well-proportioned young woman, with cascading brown-blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. She was looking at Ian in a way she had never looked at him before.
“Louise”, he said, tensing. “What’s up?”
“I dreamed of you last night”, she said, with an almost shy smile.
“Oh yeah?”, he asked, nervously. “Was it a nightmare?”
She laughed. “No! It was a good dream. We were…it was in a hot air balloon. It was a glorious summer day. It was a really happy dream, actually.”
“Cool”, said Ian. “Um…”
“Louise!” said Dermot, stepping through the door. “Have you seen Anna this morning?”
Louise and Dermot got caught up in a conversation about the junior manager. Ian finished his coffee, feeling happier than he had in days, and went to check his emails.
There was one, from Sharon, his friend who had emigrated to Australia last year.
Hi Ian, it started. I had the weirdest dream about you last night. We were in a gondola in Venice, and there were these golden butterflies in the air. It was the weirdest dream. But nice! How are you, anyway?
* * * *
Ian had made his mind up; he was going to ask Louise out today. She had done nothing but stare at him through the budget meeting yesterday.
It wasn’t just her, though. Almost all the women had been grinning and making eyes at him yesterday. And not just in work, either. The girl in the local shop asked him if he’d seen Dreadnought. He’d been buying film magazines from her for years and she’d barely spoken a friendly word to him before. And the question had come with a sweet smile.
Then she’d told him about her dream. Something to do with an ice palace.
They were all dreaming about him, he decided. Most of them couldn’t remember their dreams, that was all. Most people never could. Why were they dreaming about him? That was a question that barely occurred to him. Ian had stopped trying to understand the world a long time ago. He was a financial services representative at a credit union. Not Yoda.
He walked straight up to Louise as she was taking her coat off.
“Hey…Louise…have you seen Dreadnought?”
She looked around at him, but this time there was no smile. Instead, she looked perturbed. She looked down quickly, paying close attention to her buttons as she undid them. “No…yeah….I mean, it’s not really my thing”.
“Cool”, he said. “I just wondered...”
“Talk to you later”, she said, hurrying to her desk.
It was the same with everyone else. Even the blokes had been extra friendly to him yesterday. Today, everybody seemed to be avoiding him.
He was washing his hands in the bathroom when he heard Carolyn Lynch talking to Deirdre Cosgrove in the ladies’ room next door. The women seemed to have no idea how clearly their voices carried over to the gents’.
“I had the creepiest dream about Ian last night”, she said. “It was horrible. He was covered all over in scales….really slimy scales…”
The Barbaric Past
“You have very beautiful breasts”, said the stranger, gazing down at them.
“Thank you”, said Fee, smiling. “I’m lucky.”
The man smiled back. “Would you like to go to the Lu and make love? There’s one just down the street.”
“No, thank you”, said Fee. “You’re very handsome but I’m not attracted to you.”
The man shrugged, the warmth of his smile not diminished. “Well, some women aren’t. My name is Bry. Welcome to Dub.”
“Fee”, said Fee. They raised their hands in the air and placed the palms against each other for a moment.
“Your accent tells me you come from the West”, said Fee. “Are you visiting Dub for the first time?”
“Yes”, said Fee. A walnut-scented breeze gusted past, and she closed her eyes, savouring it. Bry did the same. When she opened her eyes again, she said: “I’m here with my little sister Ver. She’s seventeen today.”
“Oh, Dulty!”, said Bry. As though overcome, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the woman’s shoulders, pressing her head against his chest. “Dulty is such a happy time!”
“Yes”, said Fee. She squeezed him. “Thank you.”
“Let me show you the gallery”, said Bry, as they pulled apart again. “Unless you’ve seen it already?”
“We haven’t”, said Fee. “And that would be wonderful, thank you. Here is Ver now.”
“Anything for a Dulty girl”, said Fee, looking towards the beautiful amber-haired girl who walked towards them, grinning and clutching a stick of jolly-floss.
* * * *
“This one is called The Firing Squad”, said Bry. “Just look at the use of outline in this one! So sinuous, such harmonious proportions, such rhythm in its undulations!”.
Ver was staring at the picture, her green eyes wide. “What are they holding? What are they going to do?”
A flicker of regret passed over Bry’s face. In his eagerness, he had forgotten Ver had just become a Dulty girl.
“Well, Ver”, he said, giving Fee an apologetic glance. “Those are guns. They’re…well, they’re machines that propelled a small pellet, with the intention of…causing injury, or even death.”
Ver continued to stare at the painting for a few moments, then she threw her pale hands over her eyes, and cried: “Why? Why would anyone do that?”
“That’s a very good question, Ver”, said Bry, encouraged by the sad but reassuring smile Fee was giving him. “They invented all sorts of reasons. Before the nans provided for our needs, there weren’t enough resources to go around. Sometimes they blamed that. Sometimes they blamed differences in opinion, in belief.”
“Why would anyone kill somebody else because they had a different opinion?”, asked Ver, through her hands. She was trembling.
“Nobody sane would, Ver”, said Bry, putting his hand gently on the girl’s hair. “But that wasn't the real reason. The real reason was anger, and psychological trauma, and—especially—the natural aggression of males in their late teens and twenties. The society of that time was profoundly neurotic. Thankfully, we no longer suffer from most of those primitive drives. Nobody has to be angry when everybody is loved.” He ruffled her hair.
“And the natural aggression that remains”, said Fee, putting her hand on the girl’s shoulder, “is channelled into healthy, useful channels. Like hunting the Dij. It’s been many centuries, my love, since any human ever hurt another human.”
The girl sobbed, slowly lowering her hands, but averting her eyes from the canvas. “It’s still horrid that they ever did.” So these, she realised, were the unpleasant Dulty secrets she’d been warned about.
* * * *
“And this”, said Bry, his voice deepening with reverence, “is a depiction of King Gal leading the first ever Dij hunt. God bless King Gal!”.
“God bless King Gal!” cried the small crowd around the canvas, in unison. Ver cried the words loudest, her beautiful green eyes shining with tears, a worshipful smile on her coral lips.
King Gal, brought to life in sumptious oils, lifted his lance in the air, his magnificent white steed rising on its hind legs. Behind him, a host of gaily-dressed lords and ladies were riding, smiling with delight.
And before him ran the Dij, hundreds of them, their eyes wide, the females carrying their young, both males and females grasping crude spears in their fists. Their faces were grotesque masks of hatred and imbecility. To think they had once been considered human beings! If it was not so ridiculous, it would be horrific.