Monday, 19 March 2012

The Express Diaries - 2

With a clattering of iron wheels, a sinister plume of smoke, and a slightly-less sinister chuff-chuffing noise, The Express Diaries edges closer to it's terrifying final destination - your brain

And so, it's time to tease you a little more with a few glimpses into my new novel. They say a picture paints a thousand words - so here's a whole short-story's worth from Eric's easel...

Ms. Grace Murphy - young spinster, secretary to Betty Sunderland, and good friends with Violet Davenport



*****


"Within ten minutes we found ourselves standing in a quaint, cobbled courtyard, outside an old, glass-fronted shop. The window was filled with all manner of stuffed animals, and a weathered sign hanging above the door proclaimed

‘Wellington Fils
Taxidermie
50, Rue St. Etienne’

 Extract from the diary of Mrs Betty Sunderland


*****


‘But...how on earth are we supposed to find...’ Violet began, but at that moment we heard a great clanking of gears from somewhere above us. Looking up, we saw a campanile, some five stories up, and as we watched a pair of figures jerked in to view in front of the great clock face. A winged angel, sword in hand, and cloaked, hooded Death, holding his scythe, stood before each other. They began a slow, mechanical battle, whilst the chimes for six o’clock pealed across the courtyard. After a brief struggle, the angel retreated. It appeared that Death was victorious.
            ‘Where is more likely to be struck by lightning,’ I suggested, ‘than a clock tower?’
Extract from Milos Valinchek's journal
*****

And finally... another excerpt from the diaries themselves, where our intrepid party discover the tragedy that has struck an old friend...

Colonel Neville Goodenough’s Personal Notes, Saturday, October 24th 1925

The cab drove away as I walked towards the door of the bedsit where our friend’s card suggested we would find him.  As the others watched, I knocked on the door, not at all sure what to expect.
            I admit that I was surprised after a few moments the door opened an inch or so, and Beddows peered out into the street, blinking in the grey light of the day.
            Now Beddows is a man fastidious in nature, and respected around town as one of the finest manservants a fellow could ask for. I have never seen him anything other than immaculately turned out, so to see the gaunt, dishevelled figure blink nervously at us without a hint of relief came as almost as much a shock to me as anything I saw in the trenches. I heard Betty and Violet gasp behind me, but he paid them no attention.
            ‘You came,’ he said, flatly, leaving the door open just a crack. He seemed to be waiting for something.
            ‘Now look here, Beddows,’ I said, stepping into the doorway, ‘I understand you’ve had some trouble, but we need to know if your master is inside. Are you going to leave us on the doorway like travelling salesmen?’
            This shook Beddows out of whatever spell had possessed him. He mumbled an apology, and opened the door. Ignoring our questions, and our coats, he ushered us down a short hall into a small room, whereupon the cause of the poor man’s discomfiture became sadly apparent.
            It was a tiny bedroom, grimy and dank. The drapes were pulled closed, shutting out what grey light would otherwise have filtered in from the street outside. As we shuffled into the room, our eyes becoming accustomed to the gloom within, we became aware of a dark figure lying on the bed. As we entered, the figure started, and emitted a peculiar noise, somewhere between a whine and a rasp, which immediately made me think of the field hospitals, and the poor devils who had been gassed by the Hun.
            We crowded around the bed, all eyes upon the figure. The poor man was covered by a thin white sheet to protect his dignity, but sadly there remained little of it left to protect.
            ‘Julius?’ Betty whispered, unbelieving. It was, indeed, difficult to recognise the poor wretch before us as our avuncular host of the previous evening. His hair and famous moustache were gone, as were his eyebrows. The skin of his face and arms was blackened and cracked, except for several large red and weeping sores. One of his eyes was glazed and white, and the other one flitted from one to the other of us, never resting in one place for long. The room stank of smoke and blood. Horrified, it was on my mind to grab Beddows and demand why he had not brought the professor immediately to a hospital, when Julius lifted one of his arms and laid a blackened claw upon Betty’s hand. He smiled, then winced in pain.            ‘My friends,’ he said, in a voice that was barely a whisper, making us crowd around the bed to hear him. ‘Thank God you have come.’
            Written down, Smith’s speech appears clear and rational, but be aware that in reality this was punctuated by numerous coughs, pauses and sighs. Often his voice faded into incoherence and several times he was silent for so long that we feared he had passed into unconsciousness. Despite this, he managed to talk for several minutes, and though his speech made little sense to me, and must surely have been coloured by delirium, I will try and lay down in these notes as sensible a version of his words as I can piece together from his broken voice and my own poor memory.
            ‘I cannot bear to talk for long. Please, for a moment, listen to me, and I shall try and explain how I came to this sorry state.
            ‘You are aware, of course, that I have been on the trail of the Sedefkar Simulacrum – at first, as an archaeological curiosity. Lately, however, I have come to realise it is something much more – a source of great power.
            ‘At the end of the Eighteenth Century it was taken apart and scattered. I initially planned to retrieve the pieces for the museum in the University of Vienna - but now I realise this was arrogant folly. The thing must be destroyed!’
            Betty began to ask Julius a question, but he held up his hand and was overcome by a fit of coughing. Beddows held a handkerchief to his mouth as he did so, and it came away stained with blood and some black substance.
            ‘Last night, as we returned to our home, Beddows and I were attacked by Turkish madmen. I know little of them, save that I believe they seek the Simulacrum themselves, for their own dark purposes. We barricaded ourselves indoors, so they tried to burn us alive. Fortunately, Beddows found a way out. Not before I...’
            He gestured helplessly to his crippled form, and his voice faded into silence. His one good eye looked around the room, and his voice was even hoarser than before when he continued.
            ‘To have come to such a place! To have fallen so far!’
            Betty laid her hand over his to comfort him, but he winced and drew it back from her, though he tried to smile.
            ‘I am afraid, my friends, to come out of hiding. They would stop at nothing, these men!’ He glanced across to his manservant. ‘Beddows has a plan to escape, but the less we speak of it, the better.’
            ‘Most of my notes were destroyed in the fire, or else taken by the Turks, but I managed to rescue something – the summaries of my researches. The Turks will know as well now.’
            He paused, his one eye staring at the ceiling, as if building courage for his next statement.
            ‘And so, my friends,’ he said, looking back at each one of us in turn, ‘It falls to me to pass this burden to someone other than myself. I dare not ask, yet I hope that you will take it for me. The statue must be recovered and destroyed before these men find it.’
            He suddenly sat up in the bed, his eyes wide and staring. ‘I cannot show you what I have seen! You cannot know what I know!’ he cried out. ‘I only hope, and pray....you must trust me! The statue must be destroyed!’
            Such strenuous effort had a grave effect upon him, and he fell back to the bed, exhausted. He began muttering under his breath, and it seemed was no longer aware that we were present.
            ‘I am sorry. For them, for me. For all of us. I am the lucky one. I may be spared. I am sorry. So sorry.’
            He voice failed, and his consciousness soon afterwards. His breathing slowed, but did not stop. I think all of us were relieved to see him asleep, and so temporarily released from his agonies. We looked at each other in shock, and then to Beddows, who stood quietly in the corner.
            ‘He is delirious,’ Alfonse said, sadly, ‘to be taken in by such a fairy story. I am sorry for him.’
            I nodded. Betty frowned, but it was Beddows who replied.
            ‘My master is not insane, sir – at least, he did not imagine the attack on the house last night! I saw them with my own eyes.’
            Alfonse fell silent, pondering. Beddows’s eyes met Betty’s, as she seemed the most sympathetic in the room.
            ‘Please consider my master’s words, Madam. He asked me to give you these.’
            He handed Betty a few pieces of paper covered in Julius’s cramped handwriting.
            Grace and Violet were looking at each other, each with a sceptical expression mirrored on the other’s face. Beddows was not slow to see it.
            ‘I do not know if my master speaks truly,’ he said, glancing at the figure in the bed. Julius’s mouth twitched in his sleep and a fearful expression crossed the manservant’s brow as he must have remembered the night of terror the two of them had just experienced. ‘I can only tell you that he believes it to be so. He thinks this statue is of great importance, and he is a far wiser man than I am. I cannot tell you what to do, but who amongst you would refuse the wish of a dying man?’
            The words ‘dying man’ echoed around the small room. Although it had not been spoken of before, it was obvious that Julius did not have much time remaining.
            ‘Please,’ Beddows said, his eyes on Julius’s sleeping form. ‘Read the notes. Consider his words.’
            Betty folded the notes carefully in half, and placed them in her bag. She laid her hand gently upon Beddows’s arm. He jumped, as if struck, but did not remove it. She looked into his eyes.
            ‘What will you do?’ she asked.
            ‘As the professor said,’ Beddows replied, ‘I have...I have an escape plan. There is someone who can...care for him. But I dare not speak of it. Please.’ He broke Betty’s gaze. Not since the war have I seen anyone look so lost, alone and afraid.
            Betty nodded, and turned to the rest of us. ‘We should go,’ she said. It didn’t seem right, leaving a wounded man behind, but there was little else we could do at this point. Both Julius and his manservant had requested we leave them alone now, and they did, as they said, have some sort of plan.
            Betty began to study Julius’s notes on the cab ride back from that dreadful room. I have a horrible feeling that she is taking his mad fantasy seriously.

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