Here is my latest effort, completed today, though it will maybe have a few changes in the future; the ending is a bit sudden.
Revenge on the Square
There he is look, my old chum, irascible as ever. Sitting up late in company with his old half-blind cat, Bunzel, and a bottle of cheap sherry; going through the day's papers in the hope of finding treasure. Tonight it seems that he may have been lucky because out comes his scissors and snip snip; another tasty morsel for the archive. Edward is proud of his collection of files and folders, organised boxes and haphazard piles of yellowed crumbling paper, that fills up so much of his life and so many acres of shelving. It has taken him a good deal of effort to accumulate but was worth it, at least to him, as it has proved itself invaluable in many ways not least in helping him to earn quite a fair living in an unforgiving and difficult world, that of freelance journalism; and not just that. His usual work, I am sure he wouldn't mind me telling you, was of a highly speculative and specific nature, much frowned upon by the intelligent press; that of the supernatural.
It was the strange and spooky, the unexplained and disbelieved, that he was interested in and Edward was never so happy as when he had one of his files out, lost within the net of his researches, chasing down all manner of herrings, be they red, pink or sky-blue purple. Imagine for yourself an elderly Morse, hunting down puzzles in a Borgesian library, busily leaping from shelf to nonsensical shelf in a vain attempt at solving the great mystery of who killed the English language, or at best, robbed literature at pen-point and made off with its heritage.
Snip, snip, yes, he has something at last! He's hauled himself out of his comfy fireside chair, thrown the mutilated newspaper behind him, and weighted down its body with the murderous scissors. He has shuffled of towards his shelves, the precious cutting held before him between a shaky finger and inky thumb, distant, reverential; a trodden creepy crawly or a pennyworth of flayed skin from a recent martyr. He finds the wanted file. He opens it with the care of a new parent opening the door to their daughter's nursery and places the infant offering safe inside with a sigh. He is mightily pleased yet it is a small enough creature really, merely a footnote to the great scheme of things, a piece of literary fluff, a sensationalist chip from the old 'silly season' block that scarcely requires any attention paid to it; except that I know different.
By some strange quirk of fate, or circumstance, I know this story, the real one that is, the one that lies unread between the words; the one that sulks beneath the froth more than half obscured by the insincere vagaries and bland exaggerations of a, luckily for them, nameless hack. Just how I know I will not say. It has little bearing on the case and I am almost certain I would not be believed in any case. It is sufficient for you to know that I have my sources and I assure you they are all good ones (in the main), and of the highest reliability.
* * *The story concerned the finding of a body, cold and grey as an unlettered gravestone, neatly arranged across a checker-board floor (White Knight's fourth to be exact and on the diagonal!) with no readily discernible cause of death nor any convincing reason to be where he was.
What's that you say, a sudden death? Unexplained? Where's the sensation in that? There must be a dozen every week. Two dozen. Three even! The television's full of them; and, of course, you're probably right except that I hadn't quite finished. Firstly, you see, it was soon established that the deceased had met his end solely through fright, a damn good scare in fact, and secondly the distinctive floor, so obvious if you are in the know, was that of the local Masonic Hall; a grim place indeed for such an exotic event.
As corpses go, Little Jimmy's was as poor a specimen as you could imagine and lying there, waxy skinned and pale, draped indifferently across the stark black-and-white tiles, he resembled nothing so much as an unstrung puppet; a Pinocchio without his magic dream. He lay there twisted, half on his back, his surprised face staring up at the star-struck ceiling with such an expression of fear and horror written across it that even I looked away, unwilling to share, albeit by proxy, in the terror that the man had obviously felt during his last few minutes.
It was doubtful, no, strike that; it was a sure fire certainty, that despite his rather pathetic and mysterious end, James Auger esquire, probably the last male equivalent of a 'spinster of the parish', would not be greatly mourned or missed in any way except as a long endured boil being finally burst, an itch scratched or a festering splinter recently removed from a red and throbbing derrière. By common consent he was, or had been, a thoroughly nasty man, and I should think that across the land, and within many a deep panelled chamber, glasses were being raised that evening and toasts made in celebration.
The story of his life was not such a long one, nor over-burdened with incident, because through it all he had managed to accomplish precisely nothing, His first career had taken him nowhere worth the getting to; so that lately the man had been forced to earn his daily bread from being a minor clerical cog within a great company machine that, to his eternal frustration, hardly knew of his existence (and cared even less). He'd dreams of course, convoluted plans and schemes a-plenty, but nothing had actually been done. James had lived an empty life alone in an empty, soul-less cave of a flat which had been carved from a newly built mausoleum disfiguring the edge of an old distinguished town that undoubtedly deserved far better. I say 'lived' but he was hardly ever there. Over time, the obstinate man argued with most of his family up to and past the point of no return. He'd no friends worthy of the term, and few, if any, visitors that were not compelled out of duty or business. Consequently his time was spent either at his place of work, where he was severely (if secretly) disliked, or at the lodge, where he was (without too fine a point) openly hated.
James you see, had been a life long Mason. Not out of any deep felt sympathy with his brother man, nor even out of any Blytonesque desire to be part of a gang and play at secret signs or codes, all boys together, dyb dyb dyb and so on; but purely out of the need for some sort of status, to have power, influence and coincidentally, but just as importantly, a few extra bob in the bank. He wanted, desperately, to be close to the top of one of life's ladders and, as he knew he couldn't manage much out in the real world, he sought to scale the necessary heights within the confines of a smaller one; one that had more obvious rules and less certainty of failure. The Masons were his home and his nursery, the little pond in which he could swim the bigger fish, his begrudging family that, just like his real one, would preffer, by far, to have done without.
I only met him the once. He was, I found, a charming fellow, amiable to a fault, but the smile was only on his lips never in his eyes which always had a scared but calculating look in them, as if he were searching for a weakness but frightened of finding it in case it was within himself and not his acquaintance. I nearly said 'opponent' as he did seem to look upon any meeting as a trial of will. Who's in charge? Who would have the upper hand? The word I would use to describe him, if I ever had to, would be 'Heepish', a dickens of a word that is probably my own invention. Other than that the word 'sly' comes to mind; a good old word that seems to include, within its economy of size, all the slipperiness, suspicion and arrogance he personified so neatly.
James was as vain as the proverbial; conceited as any dictator and twice as insecure. If his job allowed, he would have worn a uniform, one with all the extra braid and frogging he could muster and all the medal ribbons he could invent. In fact he conducted himself, at all times, as if he were already fully kitted out in such an outfit and, imaginary as it was, he was always somewhat put out that nobody seemed impressed by it or able to defer to it as tradition, or his frail ego, required.
He was fearless in his vanity and it was an armour that few, if any, could penetrate except, well, except that like all armoured warriors he had one little weakness, one chink through which his victims could slip a swift retaliation, and that weakness, in this case, was his height; or lack of it. James Auger was rather on the short side (hence his unofficial moniker 'Little Jimmy'), and any reference to that sad fact, real or imagined, was sure to sting him as sharp as any arrow point of Paris, Such was his sensitivity on the subject that, had he overheard the Tyler refer to him as 'a jumped up little Hitler' (a reference often made), it was the word 'little' that he would have taken the most exception to and caused the greatest offence.
That one meeting of ours, short but memorable for all the wrong reasons, had been enough to last. I kept out of his way as much as possible from then on and I am glad, in a way, that our second encounter was as one sided as it was. You see it was me as found the body.
* * *No one could explain, with any credible certainty, just how the man came to be alone in the Temple after the place was known to have been shuttered-up and secured for the night, though it was such a rambling, mysterious place that almost anything was possible.
The building, like many of the brethren who met there, was both middle aged and unremarkable having been put together in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and tricked out in a neat but un-imposing style that the likes of Pevsner would probably describe as 'mock late-Georgian'. However, by the end of that busy century, the Victorian fathers had made their mark covering that utilitarian skeleton with a body of Gothic curlicues and vague Arthur-isms that were intended both to impress and to create a connection, of sorts, with the lodge's supposed medieval antecedents. They succeeded to perfection. No expense had been spared by those ambitious individuals so that amongst the carved shields and symbolic allusions that littered the walls and furniture, the muttered oaths and invented precedence that haunted the rooms and corridors, it was not surprising to find that the place had been initiated with its very own ghost; a fierce, unfeeling creature, a Templar knight who had died un-shriven under murderous circumstances and who was known to walk the hall at the dead of certain nights seeking vengeance for wronged brothers or martyred Masons; past or present.
Little Jimmy was fully aware of the legendary knight but was not superstitious, at least not enough to let it stop his skulduggery, in fact, such was the low opinion he had of his fellows, he was relying on it to narrow down the chances of his discovery. They were such a credulous bunch of ninnies, he thought, that few, if any, would dare brave the Temple in the small of the night especially after all the hints and suggestions he himself had spread around and about the place over the recent weeks.
James, you see, had recently suffered yet another attempt at getting him expelled from the lodge. The usual reasons of course; un-kept promises, unpaid bills, the placing of metaphorical knives between unsuspecting shoulder blades and gossip, always gossip! The creature was past master at the art of rumouring and innuendo, the insidious aside and the almost imperceptible hint or allusion. He hadn't been worried, at first, after all he had been through it all before, on several different occasions in fact, and had always weathered the storm; but this time it was different, the opposition a little more organised, a little more determined. He was thinking it best not to leave anything to chance; hence this nocturnal visit. His purpose was to look about a bit; to run his fingers through some drawers and delve into a pocket or two, poke around in any cupboards he could find, any likely looking cabinets, and generally to ferret out anything, good or, hopefully bad, that may afford him some leverage, giving him an edge so to speak, to use in the coming campaign. The man was up against it but determined. He was not about to loose everything without a fight and knew, from past experience, that there was always something to be found.
A Masonic hall is not a difficult place to burglarise, once one is inside, as the codes of the organisation, considered unbreakable by all but James, generally discourage the necessity for locks and keys. Even the building itself lends a hand as there are no windows, not even a spiteful skylight, to peach on a visitor by showing a torch beam to any inquisitive passers by. In fact lights can be put on with impunity and noise is scarcely a problem either with such walls as these, well made for the keeping in of secrets and the keeping out of prying eyes.
James had been about his business for some hours, with indifferent success, when he found himself crossing through the main body of the place, the Temple itself, where all the fraternal mysteries had their focal point of perspective. It was probably about three in the morning, that strange time when the night takes a dip and pauses before it starts its climb into the new day. Three is when light sleepers turn over and re-gather the bedclothes against the chill and people say that it is also a popular time for death's unwelcomed visit around the homes and hospitals of the country. Just the thought of three in the morning brings a shudder and a nervousness, even to me, and James was no stranger to this common susceptibility. He stopped and glanced about him; a guilty rat waiting for a probable pounce. The silence creaked.
It was precisely that time when, in certain types of film, a base clock, conveniently alluded to in a previous scene, would count out the hours with a reverberating hollowness, emphasising the emptiness of the place and drawing attention to the vulnerability of the tiny figure alone amongst the shadows. Bonggg! Bonggg! Bongggggg! James shuddered, his imagination providing the echo of the strike, his eyes eating into the darkness desperate to find some sort of safety. Another creak but this time more sustained. The door posts before him seemed to move. They lost their gloss and wrinkled, putting out shoots that quickly stretched into branches fully twigged and leaved, perfectly convincing as only nightmare trees can be. All the bench-ends and chair backs threw up stems as well, one after the other, and the walls soon disappeared amongst the shadows that crouched within the leafy gloom. An owl hooted. The air thickened with the atmosphere of sap and unseen animals, the pollen and the living dust that danced up amongst the stars; the smell of open space.
At either end, the grand chairs resplendent in their gilt and velveteen, mossed over and became embowered amongst the ivied trees. Another hoot, this time more urgent, further away in the depths of the wood. A distant hunter. James staggered and nearly lost his footing as the tiles beneath him cracked and heaved with the pressure of the hungry roots, grass growing through the gaps with flowers amongst the grass, until the whole room resembled nothing so much as a forest glade. A fox barked amongst the ferns. A sudden breeze made James look up; just in time to see the tail of a falling star arc across the sky, daybreak to twilight, dawn to dusk, and disappear before the storm clouds gathered.
The breathy wind became a little more lively, stirring the leaves and even moving a branch or two in its eagerness. There was a roll of thunder. The leaves danced with excitement. Then the lightning sizzled through the air followed by the inevitable crash! James looked into the tangle of trees that stood between him and where the doorway had been just moments ago. He stared with wide and frightened eyes because he had seen, or he thought he had seen, a movement. It couldn't be; but flash! another bolt lit up the spaces under the maddened leaves and there it was; the sparkle of light from the mail, the shine of armour and the sudden glint from the blade edge. There stood the knight in all its frightfulness, its face clearly seen under the broken helmet: the empty hollows that held no human eyes, the sheared hawk's nose, and beneath them a blood caked beard, parted by a mortal slash that only served to emphasise the gleaming bone and grinning teeth beneath. He took a step forward and James reached out to fend him off, to push him away, to delay, if he could the inevitable; but the hand met no resistance. The air was clear; the knight as tangible as vapour. The sword was raised and flashed, sharp as the lightning, as it dropped onto James's head. He screamed, just the once, and in the silence that followed he fell, like the sack of evil bones he was, across the polished tiles of the Temple floor, never to move again.
* * *'Riveting stuff', I hear you say, 'very thrilling, very 'Boy's Own'. but . . . but . . .'.
Yes, there are always 'buts' to be had. Every author has them, every story-teller fears them, but they are a necessary fact of creative life. For instance you might ask how, if James had been alone in that fortress of a hall, how did I come to find his body? Well, I could say, by way of explanation, that I too had overstayed my welcome and gotten myself locked in; although in my case purely by accident.
The particular Temple in question serves, as you may know, more than one lodge and so, having slightly more money to hand than other such establishments, it had a few extra amenities, among them a comfortable and well stocked library (the envy of many a fog-bound Gentleman's club in far-off London town), which is where I had fallen asleep over a comforting volume of Blackwood's tales, snug in a voluminous chair and which is why, I suppose, I hadn't been noticed when the Tyler made his rounds.
Then again, you might also reasonably inquire, how I came to be privy, in such mesmerising detail, to the hated man's last moments on this earth?
Ah-ha! There you have me! I should have quit whilst the going was good. I suppose, now, I shall have to come clean? Well, O.K., I admit it, it was all a story. There was no Templar ghost. There was no body and no hated and reviled James (at least not there) and that Mason's hall is a fiction too; though there may well be something similar somewhere in this poor benighted land.
The thing is; my chum Edward, well, I love him dearly (he is my oldest friend) but he's a prize bore sometimes as well as something of a diva. Me! me! me! He can be more than difficult when the mood takes him and, on occasion, a little selfish, especially when it comes to stories. Over and again he has stolen ideas from me, wiped the sweat from my imaginative brow and wrung it into print on his own behalf, stealing my hard dreampt ideas and leaving me bereft, deadlines looming and nothing in store. I'd had enough!
So, I thought, I would get back my own. I planted a story, the purest fiction of my own invention, into a late edition (it isn't hard at this time of year if you know the right editor), and waited for Edward to plunder it. He could hardly resist: a frightened corpse and the Mason's too? Perfection! All I had to do is wait for him to refer to it, as a fact, in one of his articles or pompous books and then I should have him! Exposed! The gullible Mr. Sampson stripped for all to see.
Of course I'll never go through with it; I never do. A friend is a friend after all but, my goodness, he is so irritating at times! That story was obviously hokum and yet he swallowed it all, hook and byline complete, despite his being 'an authority on the subject' and knowing full well that the press can't be trusted; especially if I'm on the staff!
It is possible, I suppose, that it was only honest greed on his part, an overwhelming desire to collect every story he could find regardless, a minor species of addiction; or maybe he's a secret fan of my work and, recognising it as such, sought only to preserve it for posterity. A friend might do that, Perhaps, but for whatever reason Edward chose to dilute his store of knowledge with such glaring nonsense, I am done. It's beyond me. I shall leave him to his own company from now on and welcome to it. He always was something of an enigma, wasn't he, and I doubt if he will ever change. I don't know why he named his cat 'Bunzel' either. Interesting though isn't it?
* * * * *