I haven’t put up a pure entertainment post for a while and it’s been a busy night. My printer died recently and I’ve been installing a new one. It’s incredible the features you get for £40 these days! It did, however, end with me pleading with the thing “I just want print and scan. I don’t want fax or wifi on this thing, I don’t want to print from my phone when I’m a hundred miles away, I don’t want reports down the internet and I don’t want a standing order for ink. Just print and scan”.
Eventually I got there but I’m too worn out to think of a post now. So here’s a jolly tale from the darker side of jolliness. It was in ‘The Gallows Stone‘, Underdog Anthology 6.
Here it is for free.
“That will be all, Chadwick.” Theodore Orson dismissed his butler, leaned forward to place his elbows on the red leather of his desk, and regarded the scruffy young man standing opposite. There was silence until the door closed and Orson was satisfied he had heard Chadwick close another door, further along the hallway.
Orson inclined his head. “Did you get it?”
“Yes. Two kilos of it. Might have been too much, but I don’t think anyone will notice.” The young man held up an insulated bag and placed it gently on the desk. “We should get this into a freezer right away.”
“Of course.” Orson zipped open the bag and took a quick look at the cylindrical block of ice before quickly closing it. “And the photograph?” The young man took an envelope from his jacket and passed it to Orson, who opened it and inspected the contents. “Perfect. Now we can close the transaction and you can be on your way.” He narrowed his eyes. “I hope I can rely on your silence?”
The young man grinned. “You’re paying enough to keep me quieter than a Trappist monk. Besides, if I were to talk, I would be in one hell of a lot of trouble.”
“Quite so.” Orson picked up a briefcase from the floor, placed it on the desk and opened it so the man could see inside.
Wide eyes blinked a few times at the neatly ordered stacks of cash. “Are those hundred bills?”
“You will find a little bonus in there. I might want to engage your services again in the future.” Orson closed the case and pushed it towards the young man, who lifted it reverently.
“Well, I won’t detain you further.” Orson rose from his seat and lifted the insulated bag. “I will, as you say, need to get this into the freezer at once. And I’m sure you have things you want to buy.”
The young man smiled. “Yes, but slowly and carefully. If they notice the missing piece and then I drive to work in a Lamborghini, someone might connect those things.”
“Very sensible.” Orson opened the door and led the young man into the hall. “Of course, I would expect no less from a Ph.D. student. I’m sure you have a long and successful career ahead of you.”
“I hope so, Mr. Orson.”
Orson opened another door. Chadwick was inside, polishing silver. Orson nodded to him. “Show our visitor out, would you, Chadwick?”
Orson sipped at his whisky and surveyed his guests. The Old Timer party had become a Halloween tradition and it had, over the years, become increasingly competitive. Guests competed to bring along the oldest thing they could buy, borrow or steal. This year, Orson was going to set a standard nobody would ever beat. At midnight, the big reveal would come. Orson chuckled and swished the crushed ice in his drink.
“Nearly time, eh?” Jeremiah Weston raised his glass to Orson, once again showing off cufflinks Orson had already recognised as Etruscan silver coins. Fifth century BC. Orson nodded, smiled and sipped at his whisky. Amateur.
“Just two minutes to midnight, Orson, old chap.” Weston took a sip of his ice-laden gin and tonic. “I hope you have your artefact on full view. That’s the rule. I admit I haven’t spotted it yet.”
Of course not. You’re drinking it. Orson winked. “It’s been in plain sight all evening. There’s no cheating here.”
“Looks like I have to wait for your reveal then.” Weston smiled and moved back into the crowd.
One minute. Orson watched the second hand move around the clock. His own hand reached for the small bell on the table. He halted when he noticed a tremor in his fingers. That was new. He would need to get that checked out.
The clock chimed midnight. Orson waited until the twelfth beat and then rang his bell.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the reveal. Some of you may have already guessed what your competitors have to offer since everything has been on open display all evening.”
“I haven’t seen yours, Orson.” Derek van Heusse called from the crowd.
Orson laughed. “Yes, you have. You all have. It’s been right in front of you all evening.” He held up his hand to silence the curious murmurs. “However, as your host for this year’s Old Timer party, I have the privilege of being the last to reveal.” He cleared his throat. “The prize, as always, is this.”
Orson held up a small plastic knight-in-armour toy. It was a token, valued at pennies, but money was of no relevance to these people. They all had far more than they could ever spend. No, it was the winning that mattered. To take home the trophy, the token of success, was what they spent thousands, sometimes millions, to win.
Sarah Morgan stepped up first. “You’ve all noticed my brooch. A beautiful gold scorpion. It’s from the tomb of the Scorpion King, the first Pharaoh of Egypt. Looted millennia ago and let me tell you, tracing its provenance cost me a tidy sum.” She smiled while a chuckle spread through the crowd. “Anyway, it dates to 3000 BC and I have the papers to prove it if – when – I win tonight.”
A short burst of applause was followed by the next order of business. Those who could not beat Sarah’s offering were to declare next.
Jeremiah Weston showed his cufflinks. Stephen Gradley-Smythe showed the shards of a Bronze Age Sword, from the Bonnanaro peoples, sewn into the lapels of his jacket. 1800 BC. Elizabeth Romero showed the spindle that had been stuck through the bun of her hair – Iron age, from the Latial people. A mere 900 BC. Orson struggled to keep his face straight although his fingers tingled uncomfortably.
They passed through the relative-newcomer errors of Napoleonic and Celtic and Mayan artefacts quickly.
A contender for the title then spoke up. Jayne Partridge lifted the heavy pendant on her necklace. “A dagger from the Copper Age. Remedello peoples, 3000 BC.” She winked at Elizabeth. “We might have to share our little knight.”
A murmur ran through the assembly. There had never been a draw. There was always one winner. It would come down to centuries, decades, years… damn, they would take it to seconds if they had to, and even if it cost them millions each to do it. One knight, one prize, one winner.
In the event, it didn’t matter. That well-known wild eccentric, Tarquin Rawlinson, held his (as usual) insanely decorated top hat up for inspection.
“Look at how my hat glimmers,” he said, turning it as he moved in a lazy circle. “See how it catches the light with its inlays.” He grinned, first at the assembled partygoers and then at Orson. “Neolithic pottery shards from Malta. 5900 BC. I think that trumps the dear ladies and their trinkets.” He took a low bow to the applause of his peers and replaced his hat.
Orson motioned them to silence. “We have one more, who has been silent so far.” He raised his eyebrow at a quiet, thin man who smiled around a glass of iced vodka. “Sebastian, I take it you hold an ace tonight?”
Sebastian Blackthorn moved to the front of the group and turned to face them. “You may or may not have noticed the wooden buttons on my waistcoat. Somewhat old and shoddy to hold together fine silk, I think you’ll agree.”
He displayed the buttons to Orson, who merely shrugged. They were plain wooden buttons. He saw no value in them.
“Well.” Sebastian closed his jacket. “These buttons are made of larch wood.” He waited for a response. Blank faces filled the room. “Very old Russian larch wood.” He raised one eyebrow. Most faces remained blank. Jayne furrowed her brow. Tarquin shifted from one foot to the other.
Orson felt a cold sweat form on his brow. He couldn’t have. After what happened?
Sebastian broke into a wide grin. “These are made from wood surreptitiously and,” he coughed, “not entirely legally, extracted from a Russian museum. They are shards of the Shigir Idol, currently dated to 9000 BC.” He took a bow. “I thank you all for your participation, but I believe the knight is mine.”
A scattering of half-hearted applause mixed with shaking heads and faces turning away greeted his revelation. Orson merely stared. Winning was the name of the game, yes, but at this cost?
“Seb,” Orson spoke softly. “We’re all aware of your family’s obsession with the creature the idol depicts, and we’re all familiar with what happened to your sister, Sofia, two years ago, this very night.” He paused for breath. “Are you sure you want to win this way?”
Sebastian waved a dismissive hand. “I win in honour of my sister,” he said. “And yes, we would very much like to own the entire idol and the power it represents but for now, a few buttons are all we have.”
Orson glanced at the floor then back to Sebastian. “It’s cursed, that thing.”
“Oh, spare me.” Sebastian laughed. “An evil demon from a Hell we cannot even imagine and I had part of its only known effigy made into waistcoat buttons. You think I fear it?” He took a breath. “Anyway, whatever you all feel about it, I think I have won the knight, don’t you agree?”
Orson let the room’s expectant silence fill him for a moment. He could refuse his reveal and let Sebastian win – but Sebastian showed no feeling for his sister’s death and had even used the instrument of her destruction in this game. To win a plastic knight for a year.
No. Orson drew himself up. “No.”
“No?” Sebastian looked confused. “You can beat my offering? With what? I have seen nothing of antiquity here other than what we guests brought with us.”
“Oh, you have. You have looked at it, tasted it, drunk it. All evening, you have experienced what I am about to reveal.”
“We’ve been drinking it? Is it safe?” Jeremiah Weston placed his glass on a nearby table. His hand shook as he withdrew it.
“Nothing to worry about, Jerry, old chap.” Orson’s grin grew wide. “No, it’s not some ancient concoction dredged from a shipwreck. It’s this.” He held up one of the buckets of shattered ice.
“Ice?” Sarah grimaced. “Somewhat ephemeral, don’t you think?”
“Well it won’t last much longer, but that doesn’t detract from its age.” Orson set down the bucket and took the photograph from his pocket. “This is ice from the bottom of an Antarctic ice core. Specifically, the last two kilograms at the very base of a core from a place called Dome C.” He paused for effect. “Ice that was laid down in 796,500 BC. Over three quarters of a million years old.”
He handed the photograph, his evidence that he had indeed had access to ice from that core, to Sarah, with instructions to pass it around. Then he allowed himself a moment to bask in the awed gasps of his guests.
Tarquin’s face bore an uncharacteristically sombre expression. “That’s very old ice. Are you quite sure it’s safe to drink?”
“I am assured that it is very nearly impossible for anything to still be alive after that much time.” Orson patted Tarquin’s shoulder. “You have no need to be concerned.”
“Oh, I’m not.” Tarquin broke into a wide grin and raised his glass. “I drink my whisky neat. No ice.” He laughed and moved off to mingle with the party.
Orson shook his head. Tarquin had inherited his wealth but even so, Orson marvelled at the idiot’s money management skills. Fool he may seem, but he had not squandered his inheritance.
“I think Sebastian took it a bit hard.” Jerry spoke quietly beside Orson. “He really thought he had this one sewn up.”
“It’s only a game.” All the same, Orson realised how much Sebastian had invested in this night’s game. Maybe he wasn’t just using his sister’s death to gain points. Maybe he really was doing it for her. “Where is he?”
“He’s already left. Looked quite miffed.” Jerry raised his eyebrows.
Orson lowered his own eyebrows. The Blackthorns were part of this social group but everyone was perfectly aware of the dark things they dabbled in. It was the reason everyone treated them with respect – the Blackthorns had been implicated in some very strange happenings and in quite a few bizarre deaths. Nothing was ever proven, since the family were very good indeed at covering their tracks. Still, annoying a Blackthorn was generally seen as unwise.
“I’ll call him tomorrow and make peace.” Orson pursed his lips. “I don’t want to cause any unpleasantness.”
Jerry snorted. “I think that family delight in unpleasantness,” he said, then looked around quickly as if to be sure nobody heard him. “I’m probably at my limit for drinking tonight. Starting to get a bit loose in the tongue area, yes?” He finished his drink and put his glass on the table.
Orson noticed the tremor in Jerry’s fingers and realised his own hands were shaking too. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead.
“I’ll say goodnight, old chap. And congratulations. The knight is yours by a very wide margin.” Jerry’s smile was tight as he held out his hand.
“It’s been a pleasure. And your Etruscan coins are impressive, I must say.” Orson forced his hand into a tight handshake and withdrew before the tremors would be obvious. “I’ll say goodnight then.”
“Goodnight,” Jerry said. Then added, with perhaps with more sincerity than was usual, “And good luck.”
News of Sebastian Blackthorn’s precipitous departure had spread. The party ended on a sombre note as the guests said their goodbyes, one by one, and drifted away. Finally Orson stood alone, a small plastic knight in his shaking hand, his triumph now feeling very hollow indeed.
All that money, all that risk and effort, all the potential trouble ahead, for a toy. I could buy the whole damn company making these things yet I—we, all of us—choose to compete for a bad plastic imitation of a mediaeval soldier. Hell, most of us have real antique suits of armour in our homes and we battle over this? Orson closed his eyes. How badly will Sebastian take it? He has part of the artefact he always wanted for its power. Can he use those little bits?
Only time would tell. Orson sighed, placed the toy knight on the mantelpiece and went to bed.
An insistent tapping on his bedroom door woke him from a troubled sleep. Orson wiped his brow against his sweat-soaked blankets and croaked “Yes?”
“Are you quite all right, sir?” Chadwick sounded worried. “You did not come down for breakfast and the staff are concerned.”
“I’m not sure. Come in, Chadwick.” Orson tried to rise, but fell back onto the bed.
The door swung open. Chadwick entered, took one look at Orson and put his hand over his mouth.
“Sir, you appear most unwell. Should I call Doctor Gill?”
Orson raised his hand to protest but stopped and stared at it. His hand shook – not so much shook as vibrated, he thought, considering the speed of movement. Worse, his fingertips had turned black and veins stood in sharp, pulsating relief on the back of his hand.
“Uh…” He tried to rise again but his pulse pounded in his skull as though it was trying to escape. “Yes,” he managed to gasp.
Chadwick disappeared. Orson lay on his back, breathing heavily, and closed his eyes in an attempt to still the hammers in his head. Sebastian. What did you do?
The phone on his bedside table seemed so very far away. The more he stared at it, the more it receded into the distance. This phone never rang, the ringer was turned off, but damn, he needed to reach it now.
Orson lifted one arm. His pyjama sleeve slid back to show black pulsing veins on his forearm. He wanted to cry under the weight of that arm, it was surely transmuted into lead. He aimed it at the phone.
As he shifted his weight to edge closer to the phone, the stench came to him. His bed stank as though he had lain in it for a month, the appalling reek made him retch but he focused on that phone. It had all his friends on speed dial and the fuzz in his brain cleared enough to let him remember Sebastian was number 13.
Dry rattles in his throat passed for laughter at the horrible coincidence.
His fingers touched the phone, or at least his eyes told him they did. There was no feeling in those blackened, swollen lumps of flesh. He kept his eyes open, blinking away tears, so he could guide his fingers around the handset.
Lifting the handset felt like lifting a car. So very, very heavy. Orson dragged the handset across the pillow until he could turn it and see the keypad. With numb fingers he pressed one, then three, then enter.
The phone autodialled and the shriek of the number tones almost caused Orson to pass out. Tears streamed down his face as the tones seared through his skull. Finally it settled to a merely irritating ringing tone. Then a click like a gunshot.
“Hello, this is the Blackthorn residence. May I ask who is calling?”
“Sebastian. I have to speak to him.” Orson felt as though his lips would shatter with every movement. His throat felt as dry as ashes.
“I’m sorry, sir, I have to ask again, who is calling?”
“Theo… Theodore Orson. Please, I have to speak with him.”
“I’m afraid Mr. Blackthorn is indisposed, sir. Perhaps you would like to call later?”
“No later. Might not be.” Orson tried to swallow but his mouth held nothing that could be swallowed. “Important. Tell him who calling.”
“Sir?” The voice at the other end of the line, Orson assumed it was Sebastian’s butler, sounded curious. “Sir? Are you the Mr. Orson that Mr. Blackthorn visited last night?”
“Yes.” Orson gasped it out.
“I will see if he can speak to you, sir.”
It was just a game. Just a damn plastic toy. Seb, why did you take it this far? Orson took a few long slow breaths. The beating inside his head felt like an enraged demon trying to escape and he wondered if that might actually be the case. Why do we do it at all? Are we all so rich that nothing matters now? Is the plastic knight a symbol of our disregard for value?
Orson shook his head and immediately regretted the action. The room spun like a turbocharged carousel and the stench of old sweat filled his nostrils. There were faces at his bedroom door. White faces. Very white. Clowns? Have the clowns come for me?
“Theo?” The voice on the phone was distant and cracked. “Why have you called?”
“I am sorry, Seb.” Orson stopped to take heavy breaths before continuing. “Call it off. Please.”
The line filled with coughing. “Call what off? What do you mean?”
“You can have the knight. I’ll say I cheated. You can win this for Sofia.” Orson felt as though his eyes should water but they had nothing left.
“I,” Seb paused. Orson heard retching sounds. “I don’t know what you mean. I had to leave last night because I felt sick. I’m very sick now.” A sound as if a blocked drain suddenly cleared. “Theo, I don’t know what happened but I caught something nasty.” The sound of a phone hitting the floor and the crackle as someone retrieved it.
“I am sorry, sir, but Mr. Blackthorn cannot continue this conversation at this time.” The voice sounded stern. “Please allow him time to recover.” The click of a handset being replaced hit Orson like a nail into his forehead. He dropped the phone onto the bed and fell into something between sleep and coma.
“Mr. Orson, sir.”
Hands made of ice shook Orson’s shoulder.
“Mr. Orson, please wake up”
Orson opened one eye. It felt as if he was dragging sandpaper over his eyeball. He opened his mouth and tried to acknowledge Chadwick but all that came out was a dry creak.
“Sir, Doctor Gill can’t come right away. He has a lot of cases to deal with this morning. He suggested I keep you hydrated like this.” Chadwick held a wet sponge to Orson’s mouth, Orson sucked at it.
“Can you speak, sir?”
“I…” It was more a breath than a word, but the water in his mouth made it at least bearable. “I think so. Why?”
“There is a phone call, sir. Something about ice. The caller was most insistent.”
Oh, what does he want now? Orson groaned and closed his eyes.
“Should I tell him you are indisposed, sir? He could call back another time.”
“No, Chadwick.” Orson sighed. “Let’s get it over with. Hand me the phone, would you?”
Orson’s fingers were black to the knuckles now and his hands were completely numb. The handset slid from his grasp. Much as he would have preferred Chadwick leave the room while he spoke with the young scientist, he had no choice but to allow Chadwick to hold the phone for him, and to connect this line to the main house line.
“Orson speaking.” It might have been his feverishness but he was sure Chadwick’s hand was shaking.
“Mr. Orson. Thank God. It’s about the ice core. The whole facility is in lockdown, quarantine. Nobody gets in there and we’re all being screened.”
“They missed that section?” Orson should be worried but he was far too sick to care. “You know the terms. If you get caught, my name is never mentioned.”
Orson motioned to Chadwick to apply the wet sponge to his lips again. His tongue had begun sticking to the roof of his mouth.
“No, it’s not that.” The young scientist sounded panicked. “There was a study I didn’t know about. Some weeks back, they took samples to see if they could find any microbial life in the deep parts of the ice.”
“Did they?” Orson’s voice cracked. He coughed, which became a wheeze that brought tears to his eyes. “Did they?” he tried to say again, but only a whisper came out.
“They found a virus. Similar to a modern, harmless one. They tested it in rats.”
Orson cleared his throat and closed his eyes in an attempt to stop the throbbing in his temples “Harmless. So no problem then.”
“No, no, it’s harmless now. I mean the modern one is harmless. They’ve tested it in rats, at ten-thousand-year intervals along the ice core. It gets more dangerous the further back it goes. It lost its virulence over the millennia and became a harmless parasite, but at the start it was very nasty indeed.”
Orson’s breath came in shallow gasps. “How nasty?”
There was a silence.
Orson tried to shout. “How nasty, dammit?” His body twisted with the agony of a coughing fit. Chadwick held the sponge to his lips again.
“Mr. Orson, I know you paid a lot for that core but please, get rid of it. Let it melt and then sterilise it. Don’t let anyone touch it. If the virus gets inside it’ll… well, you’ve heard of Ebola? This is worse. And it’s highly contagious.”
Oh shit. It wasn’t Sebastian who did this. It was me. “What’s the cure for it? What treatment?” Orson’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“There is no cure. Maybe one day, but it’s a new disease. It has to be contained.” Voices murmured in the background. “I have to go. Mr. Orson, I’ll get the money back to you, I promise, but you have to get rid of that ice.” The line went silent.
Chadwick replaced the handset. His fingers trembled and veins protruded on the back of his hands.
“I couldn’t help overhearing some of that, sir.” He avoided eye contact. “Is it as bad as it sounded?”
Orson forced his breathing to slow. “Yes, Chadwick, it is. When Doctor Gill arrives, have him check out yourself and the rest of the staff first. Make sure he wears a face mask, I know he always carries some. Seal the house, don’t let anyone enter or leave.” This long speech was too much. Orson’s lungs burned, his nose and throat felt as though they were filled with acid. He wheezed and motioned for the sponge again.
Chadwick held the sponge with his now clearly trembling hand. “Sir, If I lock down the house the staff might panic.”
Orson waited until he felt safe to speak. “Think of some pretext. Say a valuable artefact went missing and nobody is to leave because there has to be an investigation. Something along those lines.”
“Very good, sir.” Chadwick left the sponge within reach and moved to the door. He paused. “Sir, I have not yet prepared a last will and testament. Should I do so now?”
Orson could have laughed, if he still had the ability to do so. “I would recommend it, Chadwick, old friend. I would heartily recommend it.”
Chadwick lowered his eyes for a moment, then put his shoulders back and stood erect. “I understand, sir. Thank you for the advice.” He left and closed the door quietly.
Orson closed his eyes. He tried to touch his legs – his hands had no feeling but he also felt nothing when he pressed them against his legs. How far had this spread? The young scientist said it was fast and fatal. Very contagious. Chadwick, dear, faithful Chadwick, already showed the shake in his hands.
Tears, and not just of pain, streamed from his eyes. All those guests. The drivers who took them home. Their staff, their families, their children. Even Doctor Gill, who would already have visited some of them without knowing he needed to wear a face mask. Would that even help against a virus? Orson had no idea.
In his mind, he chuckled. What came out sounded like the last gasps of an asphyxiated ferret. Tarquin. That bumbling eccentric, that peacock-feathered popinjay. The clown of the upper classes. He took no ice in his whisky. He would likely be the only one of us to survive.
All the others, though, all their immediate family, all their staff… and all the family of the staff, delivery and postal workers, maybe bank tellers. Every shop they visited, every pub they drank in, every school their children went to…
Oh my God, what have I unleashed? His dry lips cracked in a smile. The Blackthorns would be so proud of me, and so envious. The mayhem they have dreamed of for generations is here and I did it without knowing.
The effort even of moving his face became too much. Orson let all muscle movement subside. His breathing became shallower and shallower.
It was for a toy. Not for fame and glory, not for some noble ideal, not for the end of war and peace for all mankind. I have let loose a demon on the world and I did it for a petty competition over a little plastic toy.
His breathing became erratic. There was no more pain, no more feeling of any kind. His vision clouded and the room darkened.
It was just a game. A game of old times. Finally, the old times came back to bite us.
The game is over. The knight is mine.
Here comes the night.
I hope there are no screams in it.
Don’t worry. I’m sure nothing like this could ever really happen. Probably.