Divinity – 2021 Vol 1, a new collection of 10 Horror and Fantasy Short Stories, comes from 6 countries, across 3 continents and includes Winners from our Go Green Prize, Fantasy Prize and Horror Prize. It’s both creepy and sublime, wondrous and forbidding, yet imaginative and lyrical, packed with heroism, supernaturalism and madness.
His toes are starting to burn, but burning is better than no feeling at all. He wraps his scarf tighter against his nose and mouth, his hot breath beading sweat onto his brow. His nerves are shot – stretched out too thin like strings of a violin ready to be plucked. To play the melody that will be the soundtrack of his death. His swan song. He laughs bitterly as he continues to trudge through the ankle-deep snow.
The snow stretches for miles, untouched and glistening. In the very centre of the beautiful blank canvas stands a lone tree. It is huge and hulking and magnificent. The branches are outstretched and drooping with the weight of the thick cover of packed snow. It looks like a canopy – like a shelter created by nature. A haven in this dismal time.
His fur-lined boots crunch through the snow. His progression is slow and weighty and it makes his heart hammer harder and harder. His pack is slowing him down even more but he can’t risk leaving it behind. His crossbow is his only chance of survival.
He feels exposed in this huge expanse of whiteness. He looks back at his progression, seeing the churned-up trail behind him and he hopes that the thing isn’t smart enough to follow footprints. Tears well in his eyes at the emptiness behind him. He still half expects to see his little daughter struggling to keep up. Her arms flailing as the packed snow refuses to let her pass. Her little chubby face red from the harsh wind. But it’s just him now, and he wonders how long he’ll last.
He reaches the tree and pushes the willowing branches aside. A small avalanche of snow assaults him. Some of it goes down the back of his coat and he grits his teeth in frustration. He goes under the shelter and brushes himself off – his gloved hands slapping away the stuff from his coat and pants. He’s walking backwards towards the trunk, focusing more on getting himself clean than where he is going. The snow is a lot thinner under here and so he stamps his boots to free them of the stuff. The top of his head brushes against something and he assumes it’s a low branch. He turns, and almost chokes on his own shock. He stumbles back, trips on his feet and sprawls out on his back amongst the crisp snow and twigs.
Hanging above him is a body. It’s swinging on a frozen rope. The body itself is blue with frost and missing its legs. Beneath it, the thin layer of snow is red with old blood. Bile rises in his throat and he has to press his fist against his mouth to keep it down.
So much for a haven.
But the snow had looked so neat and crisp. The thing must have at least stayed away since the last snowfall, which was in the night. Knowing there is no other place to rest, he uses his last ounce of energy to climb up the tree as high as he can.
The rumble of the Dwarf Probe detaching from the HavenCraft shook the station so hard that Piper fell to her knees and thought that the walls and floor would crumble from the force. With the tremor ended, however, she got to her feet and felt a simultaneous sense of relief and terror with the weight of what she just did.
She had walked around, exploring the newly empty corners of the quarters her comrades had left behind. They had only taken the essentials with them, fuel, the navigation equipment, all but one of their molecular synthesis tools, and nearly all their tools to capture energy from the next star they’d find, to gather enough energy before returning to the Craft to get all the supplies to make this new star their new Haven.
Piper poked her head into one of the rest chambers. She blinked in surprise, once, twice.
The Captain’s quarters…
Piper opened the door and peeked inside, eyes straight ahead.
Even with her absence, the room carried an aura of brilliance and steadiness that reflected The Captain’s character. Her bed was neatly made, the blanket barely wrinkled, the pillow placed dead center of the head of the bed, as if calculated to the nearest half-millimeter. Her spare coveralls were neatly hung in her standard, small closet, and her spare boots were placed with the same precision as her pillow. Even being secondhand, thirdhand even, her coveralls were neat and only lightly discolored. Only one pair of her boots had a single scuff on them. The Captain never said anything about it, but Piper suspected that she held herself to such a high and disciplined standard, not to gain the confidence of the fellow residents, but to gain the confidence of her own self.
Confidence was hard to come by, these days.
Piper swiveled her eyes to the left and found exactly what she was looking for.
She stepped inside the room and knelt in front of the bookshelf. Very few at Haven had enough books to fill a shelf, if at all. Piper had a few related to various chemistry disciplines. She had been privileged, studying to assist the Chief Synthesizer in putting together all the bonds and molecules needed to build what the population needed. A noble, but mostly wasted effort, and the past few decades had been nearly solely devoted to creating fuel for the Dwarf Probe.
But the Captain had rows and rows of books, maybe forty total. Most were nearly falling apart at the seams, some were almost unreadable with the yellowing of the pages, but they were there. And they all now belonged to Piper.
She gathered seven into her arms, not even looking at the titles, and held them close to her chest. She felt a wave of exhaustion hit as she lifted them, and realized that she needed to return to the Great Window.
She walked down the wide hallway she’d taken on the way to the quarters, passing more rest chambers as she did. More treasure chests to loot.
She approached the Window area, the great expanse where all would enter several times a day. There were small benches set up, but all but the weakest either stood or sat on the ground. The great red light streamed in, warm, inviting, therapeutic.
She entered and screamed, dropping her books. One of their spines, a dry husk of its younger self, cracked and fell apart, a small spurt of dust kicking up.
It was a man.
But all the others had gone on the Dwarf Probe, and Piper searched in vain for a reason that one would have stayed behind. She herself had argued with her comrades, and eventually the Captain herself for months, everyone trying to convince her that she was crazy for staying.
There was a haze in the distance, down in the valley.
That’s not unusual, at that time of day, at that time of year. The temperature falls quickly in the afternoon and gossamer threads of mist form lower down.
Sure enough, as I descended past bare rock ribs and winter-brown clumps of bracken, I entered that haze, a Pernod of thickening fog. As I continued, broad, squat shapes emerged, great tumbled boulders that at some point had detached themselves from the crags above and careered down the slopes. Trees began to appear, shades and shadows on the edge of vision, barely noticed on the edge of the gloaming.
By the time I reached the thicker woodland of the valley floor and wet fallen leaves were clinging to my boots, it felt very cold. My head-torch was switched on but it was only of value if I pointed it directly before my feet. Aimed straight ahead or to either side, it just illuminated milky-white mist.
Finally, the track reached the road. It was dark as well as foggy, now. The last bus of the afternoon had long gone so I turned left and padded steadily along the tarmac. I tried to think of the last person I’d met, or the last person I’d even seen. Probably the tiny stick figures I’d seen on top of Helvellyn from the frosty sunshine of my own peak.
On this early winter night there were no cars from which to beg a lift but it was only two miles to the hotel. I was approaching the first lights of the straggling village, perhaps 25 minutes after joining the road, when the haze finally cleared, suddenly, like a cinema special effect. Then I was walking through a sharp, clear winter’s evening with the first glintings of frost on the tarmac. I could see the village lights reflected on the lake, without a ripple anywhere. In the heart of the village I reached the great, gaunt oblong of the Victorian hotel, not as grand as it once was, perhaps, but still an imposing presence.
I’m more of a youth hostel kind of guy but there had been a deal on and I was glad I’d booked in for dinner. I scraped my feet on the step (always respect the carpet) and birled in through the revolving door. I nodded to the girl at reception and received what I thought was a rather frosty look; surprising, as she was the one who had checked me in the day before. Had a day on the hills made me look so wild, so different?
I took the lift up to the second floor, walked towards my room and fished in my pockets for my key. It was one of those things like credit cards that you wave in front of an electronic pad.
I couldn’t find it.
I rifled through my wallet, emptied it, ransacked my rucksack, pulled everything out of the pockets in my jacket and my trousers. There was no sign of it.
I took the lift back down to reception. There was a mirror in the lift and I practised looking contrite, appropriate to having lost a key. Back on the ground floor I approached the girl, the person who had been a smiling picture of welcome the night before. She was a stern presence tonight. ‘I’m Mr McCall, from Room 241,’ I said. ‘You checked me in last night. I’m afraid I’m just back from the hills and I seem to have lost my key.’
She clattered her purple-sculpted fingernails on the keyboard. ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have a record of a Mr McCall on the system. And Room 241 is occupied by… someone else.’
‘What? But you checked me in last night! Like I said. Just after six. It was you. You must remember?’
I watch carefully as it rests on my chaise lounge. Sat myself with hands sheathed to the elbows in claret, I have poured generously into his trembling glass, provided grapes with only slight hints of rough cutting. Its eyes settle somewhere between the top of my head and the oil painting of my parents. I have lived lonely in my castle for so long that the colour has all turned stale; the silk has turned to cobwebs. The velvet is so drenched with blood that we can no longer tell what is dye and what is death; how many gallons have been shed and soaked up. Sharp corners follow you always and catch echoes. There are a hundred long corridors fit for racing down, if one ever had a child or friend. Rocks have long shot out the ornate windows, and I have long ceased replacing the wood boards when they rot. Old visitors would complain of the dust and dim light, the china plates and furniture left to fall into ruin; the clock always oscillating between midday and midnight. The cracking paper, grown grotesque with points and curls that were once purple, shrinks from corners, like dewy lettuce leaves folding back. Remembering to smile with no teeth, my voice lilts to grow musical and warm – to soft-speak the shivering thing with tones of saffron into a haze of almost-sleep.
On moon days, when melancholy has held me in bed for weeks upon months, I rouse myself with force. I float along upturned soil, chin held up as though pulled by elastic threads and a heart that I batter with threats. At my best I need only the barest of weapons to convince my prey to come hither. Sometimes just a smile will do. You have never seen such unsettling perfection that will not age and derelict with her home: eyes and canines that bicker so silently over which will pierce you first. My hair rushes for the ground like cascades of worm silk; my face, so unfairly proportioned the religious villagers cursed me and would not look in my eyes.
And I have nothing to do these days but catch strays. Invite them in and serve cold duck; bewitch them rotten and take out each eye. These eyes, most nights, become ornament: crystalline bluebells for lonely corners, that whisper to the sparkling sea. I hang up their shirts to replace the curtains long nibbled at by moths, spend endless nights sewing pocket squares into bunting. And I butcher, and I ravage, and I sing myself to sleep.
Do not look in her eyes, do not look in her eyes, chant the old hags. Eyes are the mirror of your wanting: eyes are the black pits of lost light wherein flesh is soaked in and gobbled up.
Picking my claws and brittle teeth, I sit for days in front of my mirrors, tripping into ever so slightly distorted reflections till I cannot be sure who I am. I talk and pretend they talk back. Whole floors are filled with them, by now – huge and small things that reflect each other and myself. Of course, it is easy to get lost, in this maze of distillations. Sometimes they do all the work for me – disorientating the poor rabbit until days have gone by and you are just full of imploration to be eaten: to be devastated and annihilated by the most delicate set of ivory hands.
Raised to be appreciative of beautiful things, I display my prey as I have seen others do in huge mansions. I have stared many a decapitated fox in the glassy eye, conversing with its master over red wine and soft cheeses that were always poked through with little bulbs of garlic. They hoped to catch me out, I suppose, the superstitious people who were once my neighbours, and spat over their left shoulders whenever we talked of blood.
Revolted, however, by the thought of decapitation, I hang up my dead bodies by the neck. Marionette threads pass through small holes in each hand and foot, before my tall babies are suspended from the ceilings and walls. And they dance! Oh, do they dance – they jerk in beautiful harmony with me; spin and entangle themselves in their strings, so they can never be freed to run away. When I tangle in with them, stay pressed to the skin as it cools – oh, you have not known such loveliness. I rub my cheek against their chests, smiling at a stillness of heart alike my own. Mais je suis désolé, jeune fils –désolé, désolé – we ballet. I bewitch more men to help manage the strings, sometimes; when there are over twenty marionettes and I cannot coordinate the dance myself. They spiral, they pirouette – they flit like the velveteen bats blending impeccably into our sharp, melancholy-spangled nights of red and rich blue. Our days are only pale lavender for countable hours a year; they dissolve, clandestine, into dusk-ridden nights that sit witness to endless slaughter.
But not yet, not yet, my new-born men. First, I will cradle your infantine bodies. Depleted, you shall dance through cobwebs and pools of sinking vermillion, learning the most ancient of this family’s footsteps. Dust rouses, blushing chests splice open and deluge: cataclysms follow each other with no breathing space, in these withering turrets of derelict that home a once tender, young mellow of a girl. She comes back up for air, at brief moments, when I lower my cocoons into safe-spaces under the floorboards, to rest for long hours and recoup.
The eyes were staring at me through the window, colder than the breeze that caresses a lake in the winter.
They were intimidating, but they didn’t scare me. In fact, they were interesting. Something within them was enough to whet the appetite of anyone that peered into them, and it was the only thing that was present in them. No feeling, no liveliness. Just the incomprehensible, captivating, tempting…
The year was 1985, and I was standing outside the front window of Schroeder’s Antiques, a quaint, unimpeachable store that stood on the edge of the street of Maple Lane. It was surrounded by a handful of other businesses and stores, so it was typically overlooked. Not by me, though. I had always loved that store. The smell of the old wood filling my nostrils always relaxed me, eased my nerves. Besides, it was a nice distraction from all of hullabaloo rummaging through the town.
It wasn’t everyday that something like this happened in a small town like mine. Four children murdered in a span of three weeks? It was almost too much to handle. The town was still trying to wrap its head around it, but I didn’t want to. I just tried to ignore it. I had to ignore it. Dark things had no business being in such a bright place. And I guess you could surmise that my mind was on the list of bright places. You know what thoughts like that could do to you.
But I couldn’t ignore the doll in the window. Those eyes. The way it stood in the window like he was waving at everyone on the other side. He had been there since the first murder. I could remember him so vividly, yet I don’t remember why. I had never stood outside the window of the store before, I had always gone in. But yet it still lingered in my mind that I had seen this particular doll before, felt it before. And though I couldn’t recall every exact detail of it, it appeared to me like garden variety on that day on Maple Lane. Some part of me could only place one singular plastic balloon in his hand when I had first seen him, but somehow he had four as I watched him that day.
The eyes that were gazing at me were queerly human-like. Mere yellow orbs with their own life inside of them, like they each had their own heart. And though they were plastic you could almost see the breath rising behind them. I knew it wasn’t the case, though. There was no way that a doll could be even remotely human-like. That was stuff that only happened in movies.
Even if the doll was a clown, and it resembled something so alive, like it did there in the front display of the store.
In the reflection on the window in front of the clown’s face, I could see Jax. My son with chocolate brown hair like mine whose eyes would light up when the sun glinted against them just right. My pride and joy, the one that made it seem like everything that was good in the world was thriving inside of him like glorious caged heat. Jax was seven-years-old, and he had the liveliest attitude I had ever seen. How thrilled would he be to see a doll like the clown in the window.
One of Jax’s favorite things was to go see the circus with his father whenever it came to town. I never came along — the circus had always creeped me out — but Jax would always come home cheering of all the remarkable things he had seen. The music, the acrobats, the animals. But he had always loved the clowns; those seemed to be his favorite.
So of course, when his dad left and never returned, it was hard to see something like that stolen from him. To Jax, the clowns were his father, and when his was father was gone, so were the memories. The saying goes to let the dead dog lie, but when the dog was something that Jax needed, then I couldn’t just turn my head and walk away. It was medicine that he lurched for.
I scrutinized the doll a little closer. His demeanor seemed to send chills backflipping down my spine. His skin was a pallid, porcelain white, a scarlet painted-on smile hung over his face like Christmas lights. Those eyes that were staring so intently at me were a bright hazel, narrowed almost to slits, like a cat’s. He was dressed in a rainbow jumpsuit, with red pom-poms running down his front, finished with oversized, orange shoes. Tufts of vivid, sunset-orange hair protruded from his hairline, rays of the sun circling his head.
With my hair tickling the nape of my neck, tugging my sweater closer around my body, I made a decision. Swinging the door open to the store, I strolled in, the familiar smell of the ancient oak overwhelming my senses, giving me a similar feeling of strong vellichor. It seemed like I was the only customer. There was only one other person in the store besides me: a short, stout man with a thick mass of curly, brown hair on his head, dressed in a red floral Hawaiian shirt tucked into worn jeans. He was standing behind the counter of the checkout desk, and he flashed me an amiable smile upon entering. Anything to keep a customer, I guess. Any other reason couldn’t service the forced smile on his face, and it wasn’t like this place was Disneyworld.
It was a hot late summer’s day, and as the sun’s rays were reflected on the glass of the estate agent’s window, it was difficult to see the houses they were advertising. James, a town guide who worked for the council, and Rosie, a newly qualified schoolteacher, were linking arms and looking at the descriptions. Their eyes suddenly latched on to one of the photographs.
The Old School House
Period property in need of modernisation. This is believed to date from the 16th Century, and was a former school.
Lounge / diner with large dormer window
Rosie gave James a squeeze. “Huns, this looks lovely. It’s just perfect. Can’t we go in now and make an offer? Please?”
James gave a nervous frown. “Look at the price. Can we afford it?”
“Darling, you’ve got a good job at the council. You could be a museum curator in ten years. By that time I could be a Head of Department. We can do it! Please say yes!”
Moments later they were through the door.
Rosie stood in the centre of her new house. A fresh maroon carpet had been laid, a sofa nestled by the bay window, and many unpacked boxes littered the floor. She looked up.
“Don’t you love the smell of an old house? You can smell history, past loves, past conquests and romances and arguments!” James stood still. The smell reminded him of his time as a guide at Hatfield House, where he would take wide-eyed tourists to the room where the lives of kings were made and broken. “This is ours now”, he mused. “The panelling over the old beams will have to go though.
Rosie turned and smiled. “You know what? I’m knackered. We’ve still got all these boxes to unpack, but I just can’t face it right now. How about we get some fish and chips and get an early night?”
James gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “Good idea! I’ll just pop down now. Have we unpacked the kitchen stuff yet?
“Yes – that’s one box I have done. See you in fifteen. I’ll be ready for you!” She gave him a broad smile.
It was just after Midnight when Rosie woke up with a start. She was sure she had heard something. She slipped on her kimono dressing gown and tiptoed down to investigate. A wine glass was lying shattered on the stone floor of the kitchen, its stem, still intact, pointing accusingly at her. She stood for a moment. She was sure she had unpacked all of the glasses, laid them in the cupboard above the sink in neat rows, and closed the door. She wasn’t so sure now. Maybe she had left the door open. Her memory was beginning to blur. She’d ask James in the morning. Determined to make no sound, she sidled gingerly up the stairs, opened the bedroom door, and very slowly and quietly eased it shut behind her.
The Easter Sun was streaming in through the bedroom window when James rolled over in bed and gave Rosie a kiss. “So how was your first night in our new bed?”
“Beautiful, slept like a baby”, Rosie lied
Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe it didn’t happen. Rosie slipped on her dressing gown again and crept downstairs. She always liked to have breakfast before she got dressed, something that often annoyed James, who stepped out of his side of the bed, slipped on a T shirt and shorts and followed her down, as Rosie turned towards him in the kitchen.
“Did you leave the cupboard door open last night?”
The anticipation was the best part.
Lily gave herself a treat that evening, outside one of the more expensive gyms where the rich worked off their calories and their guilt. She watched from the shadows as the light waned, waiting for the right meal. She was vaguely aware of time passing, but had only taken note of the passing people.
The summer air tasted like rain and sweat. The sky was dull, black and gun-metal grey clouds, the city cast in monochrome save for the occasional ray that had struggled through to light the depraved city below.
She disliked picking on the city’s undernourished. There was an aftertaste, like the bit of a cheese that you waited a little too long to eat. Or the leftovers that look alright but smells slightly off. At least, that’s what she had assumed. It’d been a while—some hundred years or so since she’d truly enjoyed a more conventional meal.
Finally, the male walked out. He was still in his sweat-soaked gym clothes, his bag slung over his shoulder. Keys to an expensive car flashed in his hands. The same car she had seen him park a couple of hours ago. Her senses narrowed to his movements and the sound of his blood whooshing through his veins. The dark sky above rumbled ominously.
Lily stalked him crouched on all fours, allowing her body to take full control. It guided her along the edges of the car park to where the flashy car was parked by a copse of trees and a conveniently recently-broken street lamp. She grinned. It was lovely when a plan came together.
The meat was a little tough, but that was a fact easily ignored. After exercise, the blood is a gorgeous, oxygen-rich ruby-red loaded with delicious hormones, with its own sweaty seasoning like the salt rim on a margarita. Enough for her to get completely blissed out.
Her very own, personal catnip flavour.
She had a pro-wrestler once. Got him in his dressing room immediately after a fight. He was the most delicious meal she’d ever had and absolutely worth the hasty escape plan.
She was two cars away, close enough to taste him on the air when the man dropped his keys. She inhaled deeply as time slowed. His lemon-and-salt flavour saturated her brain. Her mouth flooded with venom.
She leapt over the cars and landed in a crouch beside him. He started and fell back against the car, knocked off balance.
“Oh,” she said, her voice dropping into a mocking tone as she stood. “Did I scare you?”
He blinked. “I didn’t see you there.”
“I know,” she said. “I don’t like having to chase my dinner. All that stress ruins the flavour.”
“Er…” His eyebrows rose. “I don’t quite follow?” He looked her up and down, taking in the dark, nondescript clothing. Lily had average features, and looked about twenty—ish. Mousy brown hair, dark brown eyes. Utterly forgettable. He dismissed her with a roll of his eyes and a wave. “Listen, sweetheart,” he said. “I have no idea what kind of crazy you are, but I don’t want a part of it.”
Lily giggled and ran her tongue over her teeth. He was perfect. She could barely hold herself back any longer, giddy with bloodlust as she was. “Don’t worry about it, it won’t matter in a moment anyway.” She stepped towards him. “You look absolutely delicious.” She put her hands on his chest and ran one hand up and around his neck. Her right hand stayed above his heart. “Come here, handsome.” She tugged him down gently.
He leaned down at the first flash of lightning. The crack of thunder drowned out his scream.
The clouds succumbed to their weight and opened as she made her way back to the business district. The few people left wandering outside ran for cover. Rain washed away the grit-and-ash taste of exhaust fumes from her palate as it wiped the air and the streets clean, giving way to the sweet aroma of the city’s other delights—rotting refuse and the revolting creatures in the dark places of the world.
Rats. She’d always been rather fond of the entrepreneurial little beings. They climbed up telephone poles and then along the swaying criss-cross of wire that spanned the width of the street, tails wrapped around cables, tightrope walking in single file.
The rats go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah…
The hammering rain drowned out a lot of her hearing but Lily picked up a disturbance some distance up the street. The rain and fog obscured figures into shadows. The working girls were getting excited. A few of the window shoppers got a little handsy sometimes and she would have to interfere. She cocked her head to get a better listen. The sound was muted, as if it had travelled under water. It didn’t seem like they were being bothered. All Lily could hear was cooing. A high, quiet voice answered—a child?
Either way, she didn’t have to get involved. Again. She sighed and settled back under the awning of the shopfront that was providing meagre shelter from the torrential rain.
That night, Floret’s Perennials was her office. Tropical plants spilled out of terracotta pots and bright greenhouse flowers stood in tall vases, their unnatural presence even more unlikely in this rotten neighbourhood.
The smell helped drown out the tastes of human filth rising in steamy tendrils from the storm drains.
“We the jury find the defendant guilty of six counts of murder in the first degree.”
With those words, three long months of sequestration was ended, and the twelve individuals who held the fate of Jonas Slab in their hands could go back to their lives. The trial had been intense- Slab was accused of murdering at least six people over the course of three years. The evidence was vile and nightmarish- more than one of the jurors had begun to have nightmares, and several talked frequently of needing the number of a good therapist.
It was not all bad. The jurors bonded. Tess- mother of three- and Abigail- grandmother of eight- had formed an almost mother/daughter bond. Reggie, Clive, and Zed had all decided it would be fun to go together to see their mutual favorite football team- the Houston Texans- play during the upcoming season. Sam and Liz had been flirting a lot during the time, and several jurors had actually placed bets on whether or not he would ask her out before the trial ended. Alexis and Ted won when after the previous night’s deliberation ended, Sam caught Liz in the hall and asked her to coffee after the verdict. Luis, Jeb, and Olga were just glad to be done.
Jonas Slab waived his right to appeal, and declared- “I just want it over with.” His execution was set for one year to the day after the trial concluded.
They all received the notice about a week before the execution.
A jury summons.
They all had the same reaction- not surprising considering that they had just given three months of their lives the year before.
But a summons is law, so begrudgingly, they all showed up. Even though the location was at the old courthouse (Which they paid no attention to), and the summons was for eight in the morning (Which they did pay attention to).
When Reggie saw Alexis, he thought it odd that both of them would get called again. Olga, Liz, and Clive arrived next, then soon after all the rest were in the dark courtroom, in a vacant building. Ted was a contractor, and he noticed right away that the building was altered. But he couldn’t tell why.
Abigail noticed Liz and Sam were on opposite sides of the room. “Sam, did you not come with Liz?” Liz averted her eyes, and Sam gritted his teeth and mumbled, “We’re not together anymore.”
“Guys, something isn’t right,” Ted began. “This room has pipes it shouldn’t.”
Luis grunted. “It also has people it shouldn’t.”
As if on cue, a fine mist filled the room. “I don’t feel so good,” said Tess, just before passing out. The others followed in rapid succession.
When Zed and Clive woke, they made eye contact. They both immediately displayed expressions of shock and terror. What they saw was the rest of their fellow jurors in a circle around the room. Each was strapped to a rudimentary wooden chair and each had a variety of devices behind them. Some looked like surgical instruments- needles and scalpels and knives. Some were more electrical in nature. Some were tools. And a few had large blades- like guillotines laying on their side.
Olga was the first to scream, then Sam, then a chorus of terrified voices cried out- some tearful, some angry, some pleading.
Ted was still looking around the room- the same they had entered into. But the furniture was different before- more like the courtroom. Now, it looked eerily similar to their deliberation room. Where the judges seat was, there was a large television. The lights were fluorescent, stark, and flickery. Below the television, on the wood panel was a clock. It read 6:00 in digital red numbers.
The television flickered on.
There was a shape- a dark, hooded shape not unlike a grim reaper. But where the face should be, there was only blackness. When it spoke, its voice was mechanical. Altered by some device to mask the true voice. There must have been speakers spread around the room, for when the shape spoke, it seemed to be right behind everyone at the same time.
“Welcome jurors. Today, we are holding court to judge crimes so heinous, so cruel that should a guilty verdict be rendered, then death will be swift and equally cruel. You are judge, jury…and defendant.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. Sam began to weep, as did Liz and Tess. Abigail, a woman who had been through much in her life, steeled herself. Jeb began to struggle with his restraints.
Ted- who had been foreman- fell back into his leadership role. He was a man of medium build, but large forearms that strained against the restraints told a story of a life wielding heavy hammers and tools. “What do you want from us?” he demanded, his stubbled jaw tense.
The painter threw down his brushes in disgust. He stepped back to examine the canvas. Everyone said his talent was self-evident. So what was missing? His latest work was a portrait of an old family friend who was also his agent. Stefan had commissioned the work himself as he found it hard to see the artist struggle to make a living.
From a young age it was clear this painter was brilliant. Art school had confirmed this. A bright future was forecast. When they met, his wife had expressed her utter belief in him. Three years on and even she was beginning to lose faith.
His paintings exuded class and know-how… and yet. They simply would not sell. At least not for the price he needed to earn a crust. All who knew him were baffled. Artists who were far inferior had become internationally famous. He, however, was faced with penury or giving up on his life’s goal. In his heart, the painter sensed his work needed that elusive spark, but he could never discern what it was.
‘Darling,’ said his wife, ‘Stefan will love it.’
She rubbed his back reassuringly as he bent to pick up the brushes.
‘I hope so,’ he sighed. ‘But I can’t charge him what I need to.’
‘He can afford it.’
‘No. Look at how he has helped us. He’s lent us so much money. And he’s yet to see a penny back. I’m going to let him have it for free. Darling, could you fix me a drink?’
His wife placed his gin and tonic behind him on the table with his paints and left the room.
A minute later she heard glass shattering and her husband curse.
Months passed and it seemed he would have to give up on his dream. He began looking for a job, though the thought of actually taking one was tantamount to suicide in his mind.
He was typing out his C.V. when an email arrived from Stefan.
‘Hi Guys, I hope you’re well. I feel most embarrassed, but at the same time elated for you. I had this collector over for supper and he was so taken with the portrait! He wants to stop it going to auction. Would you be offended if I sold it to him? I know it was really a gift for me, but if I can get a good price…’
‘That’s great news,’ the painter typed back. ‘I must admit, I only ever intended it for you, but it’s your property. You can do as you wish with it.’
A week later an ecstatic Stefan arrived at the artist’s door. He announced that not only could the painter repay his debt, but there was a tidy sum on top, which he insisted on paying the artist.
‘Perhaps our luck is changing,’ said his wife later as they enjoyed a meal in celebration.
‘Yes, but I cannot understand why that particular painting attracted such a price. It’s no better than those before or since.’
‘I guess it just struck a chord with that buyer,’ said his wife.
‘Well, it’s a mystery to me.’
‘Just enjoy it,’ she replied.
As time passed it became clear this might be a one-off. Whatever he did, the painter could not repeat his success. He produced what he considered far superior works, some of which his agent friend was convinced would sell for more. Each one struggled to meet their reserve at auction, and he was once more faced with ruin.
One day, as the artist was shaving, his wife kissed him on the cheek.
‘Ow! Darling! Good morning. Much as I love your kisses, I’ve nicked myself.’
‘You know you maybe a wonderful artist, but you are so clumsy sometimes.’
‘I think I will take that as a compliment. I wish the buyers agreed with you though.’
She smiled and said: ‘I’ve a feeling things will begin to look up soon.’
Weeks passed, and the artist returned to tinkering with his C.V. Then an upbeat email arrived.
‘Fabulous News!’ the title read. ‘The study of the swans you asked me to put to auction in Geneva has far exceeded our expectations. An American dealer has bought it for twenty thousand dollars!’
In a quiet road leading off of Brighton’s Trafalgar Street, Scott Kingdom was putting the finishing touches to a graffiti masterpiece – a giant multi-coloured tag, depicting the word ‘Scare’. Designed to appear as a 3D image, it featured a flock of giant bats flying out of an ‘S’ shaped crack in the brick wall. A student at the local art college by day, he was responsible for many of the area’s most skillfully composed murals. He specialised in anamorphic perspective, a technique used by artists to trick the eye since the Renaissance. Influenced by pavement chalk illusionist Kurt Wenner, Scott hoped soon to be recognised for his work in the way someone like Banksy, Paul Insect or Darren Cullen was. He had already earned a little money, receiving commissions to brighten up a wall in Kemp Town and a warehouse in Hollingbury among others. Still he could not still resist the thrill of going out at night to illegally spray his designs in the graffiti hotspots of the city, wanting them to be viewed and compared with the best of the local street art.
Scott grew up in Horsham, West Sussex and had moved to Brighton six months previously, to take a degree at the art college, encouraged by its vibrant street art scene, and reputation as a haven for members of the counter-culture. He also wanted to escape the ever-watchful gaze of his narrow-minded, overly aspirant parents. Brighton was a cosmopolitan place with a dark, sleazy underbelly that appealed to the rebel within him. It was a place where it was easy to slip under the radar of officialdom, and where individual self-expression was celebrated, or so he had imagined. While Scott had expected to find himself at the centre of a group of like-minded souls in Brighton, instead still felt like an outsider looking in. Brighton already had its graffiti heroes and was, as he was discovering, a very tough place to make an impression.
The major graffiti sites of Brighton were dominated by a shady and secretive cliché of ‘Old Masters’ as they were referred to in hushed tones. Several of them had alleged links to the criminal underworld. They only let an artist into their group, when they felt that person has paid their dues, and they judged the work of others with a critical and informed eye. Scott was doing everything to win their approval, but so far, the mysterious Old Masters had completely ignored his efforts. This was something he had to change, and the only way to do that, was to leave his dramatic mark on the city.
Scott’s part-time job in a supermarket paid towards the rent of his student room and allowed him to buy the best quality spray paints available. He also volunteered his time teaching school kids how to paint street art as part of community projects, and this year intended to take part in the city’s world famous B Festival. Scott’s best friend, Calum, was a lanky and slightly less cool teenager at the same college. Calum was on the photography course and dreamt of being a photojournalist on a top magazine. He was nerdily obsessed with graffiti, knowing the names of all the legends of London, Paris, New York, Rio and beyond. Calum regularly photographed Scott’s work for various magazines and websites. The escaping bat design has already taken Scott the best part of the night to create, and Calum had now arrived to photograph it. “Sweet” was his only comment as his shutter began to whirr.
The local police patrol car passed by, cruising down Trafalgar Street towards London Road. The guys hid in the shadows until it had gone. Upon returning to the wall however, Scott and Calum could not believe what now faced them. Black paint had been sprayed over Scott’s artwork, and painted upon it, in luminous white, was a realistic-looking cracked gravestone with ‘RIP Scott’ written on it.
“Were there any tags on the wall when you started, man?” Calum asked, looking worried.
Scott admitted there were. Calum freaked out, his voice suddenly high and shrill, “You must never spray over old graffs, man!” Calum explained that the art Scott had replaced might have been by one of the feared Old Masters. He looked around for a tag or some clue to the earlier painter’s identity, but Scott had obscured not only the design, but also the tag. There was the small possibility that the artist who has made the gravestone threat was bluffing, but in Brighton, there had been violent deaths attributed to feuds over graffiti – a fact Scott, as an outsider, was not until this moment aware of.
The black paint on his wall was too thick and wet to paint over for the time being, so Scott called it a night. Heading for his student room, in a house conversion off Stanford Avenue, he heard a low hiss as he passed beneath the viaduct. It was not the hiss of a spray can, he knew that much. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the spitting cobra in the centre of a graffiti design, coil and lunge towards him. Scott leapt back, a car’s hooter blared as it clipped him, knocking him to the ground.