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Conflux: From The Grey – Preview (Prologue & Chapter 1)

Coming in the next few months, Conflux: From The Grey is a partial prequel to Conflux: The Lost Girls, set nearly a century earlier 1899 in America’s Gilded Age. Here is a preview of the book, the opening Prologue and Chapters 1-3. Pardon any errors, as it’s still very much under editing.

If you like what you see, share with a friend, get started by reading The Lost Girls, or just wait for C:FTG to be released soon, summer 2020.


Prologue

Dim morning light twinkles over the pond surface, crowned by treetops piercing the sky waking from its slumber. I watch the gentle ripples and wait intently. Suddenly, a force jerks the rod in my hands.

“Set the hook now, Leeroy,” Father says, standing tall with his watchful, pained gaze, thin nose, ashen brown hair and long, clean face, a small wooden bridge in the background of his noble profile. “Carefully but firmly.”

The water struggles, conscious of a piece of it being pinched. It wants to pull me in and I’m not strong.

“Bring it in, son. Not too slowly, now.”

I reel and pull the fighting force closer. I expect a hand or head with a will of its own to emerge and attack, as if from a grim fairytale, perhaps some angry underwater goblin I’ve snagged. But at the edge of the water, a lowly fish appears, flailing about then puffing tiredly. I look to father sourly and he nods. I pull it up by the line, the creature that looks at once so alien and so human-like, a sleek, slimy body with a dumb face.

“There you have it. Now take hold and get that hook out,” Father commands.

I gulp nervously. It thrashes about in my grip then ceases.

“Let’s have that hook, like I showed you,” he says.

Carefully, anxiously, my fingers wiggle the hook from the fish’s mouth. When the wretched thing is finally freed, I’m great relieved. I’m left marveling at the limp creature. It looks sad, or perhaps just expressionless. I wonder if it feels as out of place here as it looks, gasping up here in the air.

“You did well,” my father pats my shoulder.

“Doesn’t the hook hurt them, father?”

“I don’t believe so. In any case, they’re little things God made for us to eat. I doubt he would make them suffer much if that is their purpose.”

My stomach turns a little, remembering many times I saw him clean a fish to cook.

“You said once that man was made to suffer and learn, father. Must the fish suffer, too? Will it learn from being caught?”

My father laughs one of his rare laughs. “I don’t know, son. Perhaps I hope not, or he might warn the others and leave us nothing to catch!”

I smile a little and look at the fish, who stares ahead expressionlessly. I wonder if it would be better if his friends were warned.

“You removed the hook well and gently, as I taught, so you hurt him as little as possible if he can feel it. A little hole in his face and he’s none the worse for it.”

“But what about the time the hook went through that one’s eye, father! How dreadful!”

“My, that mind is full of questions today, Leeroy.” Father looks ahead to the water, seeming thoughtful, almost happy. “You know, you’re turning into quite the young man. You’re sharp and studious, as handsome and gentlehearted as your mother.”

I nod quietly and watch the ground. “Why did she have to die, Father?”

Father goes silent for a moment. “Toss him back in.”

I look at the fish and throw it in. After a moment, it starts to move, then glides away and disappears in the green water.

Father kneels beside me. “God sometimes takes people from this world and puts them back into another world we don’t know or understand, but we know it is there. We don’t know why or when it will happen, or to whom, which can be terrifying for us humans, who are lowly but come to think so highly of ourselves, and think we will all live forever. But we all have to face that unknown thing we call death some day.” He breathes and sighs. “We comfort ourselves, believing that after death, we will know why things were as they were, and most of all that in the new place after, our pain is gone.”

I look back at the water. “So, Mother’s pain is gone?”

“I hope so, my son. I pray so.”

“And what if we catch a hook or lose an eye while we’re here in this world?”

My father sighs, then chuckles and ruffles my hair.

Suddenly a howl from the wind tosses up leaves and a cold breeze blows through us. Father reaches into his pocket and stares off, facing away from me.

“Leeroy, run along while I think a moment. You can play in those woods you so like.”

I look at him sideways, then hop off toward the trees, leaving his back turned away from me

“How long has it been?…” He says aloud, pauses for a while. “Too long, you say, but do you even feel the days pass there? … I wonder always why you left me here, why you cannot come back … what I would do, if only I knew how, if only you could tell me.”

I hide behind the bridge, listening, but I’m suddenly filled with fear. My father turns his head back just slightly, as if sensing or searching. I run toward the woods quickly and quietly as possible.


Chapter 1 – A grey morning and a dark night

Friday, 15th of July, 1898, a few years later

Black dreams, white morning.

I awake, my bedroom full of dusty light, wood walls and carpet floors, shelves decorated with books and papers and metal tools and figurines. My eyes scan over the front yard, a thicket of scattered dark green bushes and sheared grass, a hawk gliding on the winds of the day. Normally they speak to me, but today they seem empty. My eyes thin. What is this new feeling?

A paleness in the air appears for the first time and seems it will never depart. It taints every place and every moment. In the small of my mind, I suddenly wonder if I will ever taste life again, pure and sweet, or if the world will only follow and grow darker, blander, until this grey nothingness consumes it all?

In spite of it all, I go out to the library to relax myself in the comforts of its paper walls and its mountains of fact and fantasy, as is my custom. Comforted there, I remember that the greyness is just a feeling.

***

Burning day, falling night.

I walk home to what my father named the Manor, where I’ve lived my whole life. The name is tongue-in-cheek, for its size is but that of a barn or inn, on just a quarter-acre of land.

The not-small not-large house stands always in the shadow of his wealthier upbringing in old England. But it too gives him a pride he wears in an imperceivable smile, knowing he worked his small fortune up in this new American world after an unspoken exile from that childhood wealth. I know it is a smile he wears less often since my mother passed, too young for me to remember.

An unusual eeriness fills the air, and even at fifteen, I’m not one to heed little fears and queasy feelings. Night begins to quench the twilight as I see home from the distance, that dark, Gothic cottage of ashen walls and jet trim and lines, alive with only a few windows glowing golden, and rather colorless beside the blooming bushes that skirt it, and a garden of trees that winds back a hundred feet to the forest.

The woods, my lifelong playground in this hilly town of Grauburgh, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Its name means grey town, so far as I’m told, and I always thought it a rather grey place, in the cool air, the cool people that walk its streets, in their quiet yards and homes. Only the trees and flowers ever color it for me, so I am often among them, traveling through fields and woods from a young age.

But never before was it greyer than this night, as an oddly cool wind blows over my golden head. The trees wave silently as I pass by. I know each of them rather well. They are uneasy.

I enter through the front door, greeted by a woman’s shriek so terrible that it would remain forever impressed on my memory. I’m shocked to find the town doctor in the parlor, consoling my aunt who is on her knees, grief-stricken and in tears. My father lays stretched before us on his favorite Persian rug of brown, gold and crimson, pale and silent in his blue evening jacket and night attire.

I shall spare all the details, but I and my aunt join in mourning most severe. Childhood had numbed the pain of my mother’s loss as best a motherless child could, for I had never known her. She was but a vague form, a lost figure never to be truly known, and in that it hurt so much and yet perhaps so much less.

But now… some cruel thing has taken away both who had begotten me- the mother I never knew, and the man I knew as well as any boy could know his father! Only Aunt Gwen, my father’s younger sister remained. My only family. And who was left to her but I?

It is said my father died just a little while before I arrived. A fatal attack of a long-broken heart, the doctor confides. Grief blinds me from anything but the sheer tragedy of it, and after all, there are no signs that pointed to any other cause of death… save one.

I approach the body in tears, kneeling over. Lifting my father’s head near mine for one final embrace, a torrent of emotional calamity and unparalleled sorrow rends through my soul and spirit, leaving only devastation and a constantly growing hole in which the grey rushes in, binding me to the inexorable emptiness of the world around me.

But for just one moment, one blink of time, I observe a single detail that knocks my mind from its sorrow. My entirety focuses on that one point for that one moment. But just as quickly I forgot I noticed anything and continue to mourn.

***

Monday, 18th of September, 1899

More than a year later.

Little has happened since my father’s funeral, though everything has surely changed forever. My aunt is the sole manager of my late father’s estate, a small, invisible empire of far-reaching and diverse investments he had meticulously crafted from smaller fundings through skill and fortune. A kingdom without a king, centered on our unsuspecting Manor. And while many accounts were settled or sold, many investments and the like are still open, requiring frequent attention in a world moving ever faster, particularly after the lightning-fast, fourth-month war against Spain and the United State’s triumphant victory. Aunt Gwen adapted quickly and resourcefully to her role managing so much changing business in a world of shrewd men and politics and war, and I dare say it changed her into a much more serious and organized woman.

Lying alone in my room today, I cannot help simply think and think about the past, as I often do. But today, for the first time, I remember something– that detail that caught my full attention for so small a moment, on that dark night that already seems so long ago…

Captive to some mounting feeling, I’m drawn to the parlor and go there swiftly. Perhaps I am fleeing from memories of the past tragedies that haunt the mind like the greyness that haunts the once more colorful world.

That dreadful night feels suddenly so close here, where my father once spent his time reading of worldly affairs, science and society, and far-off intrigues. I can almost touch the mighty feelings of sorrow, almost smell my father’s subtle, familiar scent that I will never again know.

It is dead and empty inside here, though. Aunt Gwen and I much prefer the upstairs with our time. Without Father there to rest and read, the parlor is but a sad museum, a perpetually silent space full of unused furniture over thin carpet and thick ornate rugs. Unspokenly, we deign to disturb it little, so it sits ignored and unused save for the occasional guest’s visit, little more than a reminder of our loss.

I wipe at the dusty shelves with my fingers, wondering when we last cleaned it, when we last had a guest of note. I look to where my father lay when he drew his last breath, and kneel there again, imagining when I held him. What had I seen then, that draws me here now? I demand my mind for answers that I’m unsure are even there.

But a jolt comes to me. It is as if something inside me asks, “Do you remember?” And finally, I do.

But then, in my father’s face, there was a tiny, blood indent. How could it have slipped my mind so completely?

What was that mark? I ponder, standing there expressionlessly. But I had asked the doctor that night, who dismissed it as a mark from hitting the center table on his final fall.

Perhaps it was just the table,” I mutter, looking it over. There was nothing but a small book on it before, a still-warm pipe, though they have been put away since then. But the corner of the table is much too dull to have produced such a small wound, I think, feeling it over with my thumb.

The detail tugs away at me, somewhere deep down in myself. I know it has some importance. It is important to me, if only because I took notice of it where others had thought nothing.

Since I was young, I seemed drawn to view things differently than others, and even to see different details entirely, ones that seemed invisible to them. I drew my own conclusions which, as I trained this sense, turned out most often to be correct.

When I delved to speak to the outside world, I was oft praised by strangers and the like for my charisma or skill of mind. These I kept sharp by conversing long and often with myself, and burying myself in mounds of books and worlds of imagination and experiment. A certain pride or vanity perhaps arose in my after some years, and by eleven or twelve I had begun to wonder if most others were simply dull or blind in some way they did not realize.

Eventually, my skills of inquisition, calculation and conclusion grew into something new, a personal power which I had not even consciously intended to create. When I realized this ability, I sought only to train it more, honing it by applying it at every possible instance.

But the power had slept for more than a year at the shock of so great a loss. And now, as if by its own will, it rears its head, and like the wheels of a locomotive, the gears of my mind start in full again.

I look around the room more diligently this time, meticulously scouring every inch. The chamber seems devoid of any singular detail, anything to help develop a different scenario of my father’s death. The true scenario.

The inner detective of pulp tales reminds me that there is always a clue, always an answer for those that look hard and true. But I wonder if there is nothing left to answer this awful feeling of incompleteness, that perhaps there is no alternative scenario. The inner skeptic asks if I am merely chasing ghosts, and the inner psychologist explains this behavior as a resistant product of finally beginning to come to terms with the reality of Father being gone, and there being no deeper reason or mystery to it than the sheer indifference of life.

I ponder for a while, caught between so many thoughts. Suddenly, standing where he may have, my hand clenches my chest and I lunge forward with a desperate gasp, hitting my cheek off the corner, then falling to the hard floor to the side with a slam. My teeth rattle, and I look at the stenciled plaster ceiling, waiting for the designs to resolve into order, lying there as my father had, wondering at his final thoughts as he may have watched the same designs give way to death’s dark quiet.

I blink and reorient. My position is markedly different from what the body’s had been. And my face… a sore blow, but the rounded corner of the table couldn’t deliver the minute puncture in question. Nor could anything visible in the room then or now. Might he have gotten the small wound before a diseased heart overtook him? Doubtful.

I stand for a pen and write on some scrap paper, “Possibility 1 – Death by heart attack,” with a stern face as dreary as the space around me.

I look back to the table uncertainly, stretch out my arms and lean backward, yawning, Suddenly losing my balance, I trip one leg over the other, losing the materials behind me. I pick myself up, flustered, and poke around for the pen, eventually seeing it behind a dresser full of papers. I stretch my arm as far as anatomy will allow, and pushing to reach it, the dresser shifts and two objects fall, producing a synonymous clink.

“How queer!” I declare aloud, setting the pen aside and looking at the other thing, a dusty monocle. I wipe dust and lint away with a thumb, revealing a crystal-clear lens cast in gold, gold-chained, without a smudge or blemish.

I question its origin with a silent gaze. I don’t remember my father wearing or keeping any such accessory. It was a tradition to remark on our family’s clear sight.

I hold it toward the light from the window, thinking without words, lost a little while in that sea of nothingness that dwells within and without. My aunt Gwen walks into the room to file a handful of papers, barely breaking my concentration. She is a tall, chestnut-haired woman of just twenty-seven who shares my father’s icy grey eyes and cool temperament, though she was jovial and carefree before his death. That childlike inner passion had cooled and solidified into industry and sobriety under a hard shell since her brother passed. She is the only caring person life’s circumstances leave to me, and the only person I deeply and personally care for.

“Roy, dinner is ready,” she says.

“Thank you Auntie. It’ll be a delight to experience another of your fine meals,” I say half-thoughtfully. “My!” I exclaim with a jump, looking at her through the lens.

“What is it?” she asks, startled.

“It is, ah… what do you think of this monocle I found?” I hold it close to her face, so she can see me through it.

She hums. “Where did you find it?”

“Behind Dad’s paper drawers.”

Her eyes thin and she thinks back for a moment, though not of the monocle.

“Well, I’m sure he would be glad for you to have it.” She nods and turns about on her feet toward the dining room. I watch as she goes.

Through the looking glass, I see a gentle flame of goldenrod light dancing about her, outlining her physical form. It seems to contain within it her very being, and yet too is fed by it. A light-body f life? A vague, obscure, even superstitious concept, but it comes to me with sudden clarity, and I take it as true immediately. I can hardly deny what I feel and see.

Alone, I look at my hand, seeing a similar field of energetic light, save that mine was pale and teal, having a thicker, smoky consistency. From where comes it in me to describe these mysterious vital energies, to not only see them suddenly and clearly, but to feel them and be at once certain of their nature?

I go outside for fresh air. I’m amazed to find light-golden auras emanating from the bushes, grass, treetops, even a stray black cat that wanders past the house. But something else catches my eye afar off– a man resting alone on a stone wall by my neighbor’s front gate. A friend of theirs? A worker? I wonder. Looking closer, taking heed of the eyeglass’ mysterious revelations, I see about him an aura somewhat dreary and ragged, lacking color but speckled with licks of greens, yellows, oranges. I know him at once for a different sort, but no danger.

I could fall into thought for hours or days now, but I remember dinner is waiting. My stomach rumbles, but my mind growls. Always I wish the things of the world could be put on hold forever, so I and my mind could be longer alone together.

I pocket the spectacle and its golden chain, my vision unremarkable as ever without its power.

***

“Aunt Gwen, what did Father think of me, really?”

Her fork and knife scrape as they fall to the plate. “Why Leeroy, he thought the world of you, you know that.”

“But did he believe I could handle anything that fell upon me?” I ask. “Did he trust me to become the man he wanted me to be?”

She lifts up her plate and starts to clean. Her dinner is only half gone. “Young Leeroy, he raised you to be the man you know you should be, by God’s grace. If you’re asking if he ever spoke an ill word in private… he did not. And beside, you are still very young, younger than you think- God knows. You have much time to become the good man you will be, and we have both been proud of the boy you are.”

“I see.” My thumb circles the eyeglass in my pants pocket. I stand to clean the table, and she bids me stop:

“No, I have it, Leeroy. Run along to your things. Enjoy the time you have now, to read and play so freely. You shan’t be young forever.”

“As you say, Auntie…” I put down the plates and reach to a rack around the corner, slipping on an old bowler hat my father gave me and his oversized peacoat. Underneath was a white cotton shirt and a crimson cravat tie. Father had taught me to dress well enough, at least. “I’ll go out for a walk, then.”

“Will you be back soon?” she asks, in her usual manner.

“I may,” I answer, as I usually do. I wrap a small cube of holed cheese in a paper and pocket it. With all the things to consider, it could be a long walk.

“You skitter about and eat that cheese as much as a mouse. It’s past dark, you know.”

I chuckle for her and grin. “The perfect time for a mouse, then. I’ll be back before you know it.” To wander and think and see the weather and look at many things was a most endeared pastime.

As I travel down our dirt road to the cobblestone path, I notice the lonely-looking fellow still sitting by the neighbor’s stone wall, lying with his head tucked between his knees, silently unaware of everything around him. Through the monocle, I see the glow around him clearer, a sort of dirty greenish grey, the colored speckles dimmer and less frequent.

“Hey!” I call, putting the glass away.

“Hn.. huh?” His large head rises, covered with dark, pepper brown hair and beard, short and ragged. He is fairly enormous when not hunched over, tall, with thick limbs, skin beaten by the sun, leather hands and wide-set, honest eyes and a strong brow, wearing tan, patched-up pants over battered brown boots and a dark worker’s shirt.

“How goes it, sir?” I ask.

“Hah, it was well enough till some English-soundin’ lad woke me while I was trying to rest.”

I smile at his brand of humor. My touch of accent was one thing I could not hide from folk; despite my upbringing in America, I knew none of my mother’s family, and could not help but be affected by the ways of speech from that second homeland across the Atlantic. “You’re Scottish then, aren’t you?”

“The real thing!” he replies. “And you’re the ghost of England come to haunt me from across the waters.”

“What are you doing out here though?”

“Trying to have a wee rest before I move along. Am I sitting on your land?”

No,” I chuckle. “But the neighbors are bound to notice if you’re having a wee rest on their lawn overnight.”

He shrugs and his head dips between his knees. “They won’t find me here by sunlight.”

I sit beside him. “What’s your name?”

Ha! Well, that’s a question. What do ye need my name for, laddie?”

“It just seems proper we know each others’ names, as men.” He half grins as I say that. “I am heir to the home over there.”

“Oh aye?” he puffs with a grim expression.

“I am Roy Arthur. It’s my pleasure to meet you.” I stick out my hand.

He looks away, contemplating, then exchanges a small handshake with me. “I’m Gerard Ferguson.”

“Where are you onto next, Mr. Ferguson.”

“Hah! Call me Gerard. Or Gerry. Me, I’m moving wherever I can rest peacefully and find work. That’s where I’ll go. Know of anywhere?”

I shrug. “I can’t say that I’ve seen much of the world, but this seems as good as a town as any. So you have no residence, nor employment?”

He grew frustrated, though with me than himself or his situation.

“No ‘residence,’ laddie. I came here from ol’ Scotland on a boat… made a lot of mistakes that bit me on the arse. Got in with some bad sailors in New Jersey, then got away from it all with nothing but the clothes on my back. I tire of smelling of fish in any case.”

“I see… so you’re forced to wander, looking for food… work… shelter…”

He nods and shrugs uncomfortably, sighing back into his fetal-like position.

“Then I insist… that you stay on my property!”

His head rises from his legs for a moment, then falls back. “Oh, I can’t do that, laddie. Go on and let me find my own way.”

“Surely you can. I have invited you,” I insist.

He looks over my stony gaze and must think me mad.

“No, laddie, surely your parents wouldn’t have a Scottish tramp living in the cupboards.”

“I have no parents,” I say, looking toward the Manor. “My aunt Gwen is the caretaker of the estate and myself. Surely she wouldn’t mind giving some help to a hard-struck man, and fellow Briton at that. It may take some time before I can introduce the two of you properly, and until then, we would have to take some measures to keep you, erm… out of sight.”

“Mm.” His brow furrows and his lip curls. “She’s English, your aunt?”

“Give or take. She came to the States at about my age now, I think.”

He puts down his knees and stretches “What would ye have me do, then?”

“Come back with me. We’ll go around back and have you stay in the shed for shelter, until I can arrange a more suitable situation.”

“A shed?” he exclaims.

I stand up, chuckling. “It’s far more comfortable than sleeping outdoors, I assure you.”

“I’ll take you on that, but what will I do for food?”

“What do you do now?” I ask.

He looks away. “It’s been days since a proper meal… I’ve just been taking what I could find along the road, and what a few kind folks have given me.”

I hand him the cheese from my pocket. “I will work it out somehow. You won’t starve. Until then, please only exit the shed through the back. There is a trail in the woods behind, and more past that to take you into town and such.”

He hums, stroking his chin. “What’s this?”

“Emmental, I think. Or the closest we have here in the States, my father said.”

I help him up with a hand. He stumbles, weak on his knees, but there’s a profound power in him, as if so much hard work has given his body a deeply-embedded strength, evident in his rock-solid limbs.

We sneak to the back of the Manor, stalked by its yellow eyes, out to a shed in the back. I pull open the squeaking wood door and sneeze at a cascade of dust. Gerard steps in, poking out his lips, not dissatisfied.

“Nearly a cabin,” he remarks.

“Quite fitting for a rugged Scot. There is an outhouse right by, you might have seen, though I would only use it carefully and quietly, in the night, if you don’t want to be discovered by my aunt before I’ve figured a way to solidify a better arrangement. In the meantime, if you go straight out this back door to the woods, you shouldn’t be seen from the house. Watch out the windows here, to be sure she isn’t having a promenade through the garden, should you go into town or to relieve yourself.”

“Got this all figured out, you have,” says Gerard.

“Well, I’ve retreated here at times myself.”

“Can’t blame ye, it’s warm enough, and as good as a cabin, beside the tools and clutter.”

“I tend the yard, don’t worry about that.”

The aura around him seems to brighten and shift to a cerulean hue as he looks about the shed.

“Thanks, laddie. Thanks a lot for this.” He shakes both my hands roughly.

“Of course,” I say, removing the monocle. “It will have to do until I figure out a better arrangement for you, my good acquaintance.”

“As ye say.”

I leave him, and later smuggle him out leftovers- things my aunt would not miss, admittedly some of the less appetizing things like cod and liver. (I never had a liking for fish or organs.) But Gerard digs into the plate as fast as I could bring it. How fascinating! It isn’t my way to reach out to someone, but he intrigues me, his obvious ruggedness, wit, honesty, a fairly charming fellow, even by my standards.

Perhaps fate or something had placed him there at that right time, for both him and myself. I’m yet unsure whether I am more interested in helping him through his troubles, or seeing what interesting company he can make.

More importantly, though, he distracts me from musing on the anomalous monocle. That will not do.

“I bid thee well,” I say, leaving him to the quiet shack.

***

“Give me your secrets,” I whisper in my room, throwing off my coat and circling the monocle around my fingers. At the end of its long, thin gold chain is a small, five-pointed star-shaped clip of gold with a hold in the middle.

Damn it all, I think, staring at the ceiling as if it is an adversary, staring at my mind as if it will make sense of this enigmatic little thing. How did it get there? Was it Father’s? If not, who’s eyeglass was it?”

“Damn.”

I struggle to give it up for the night and sleep, my mind wrapped around it all. I’m anxious, excited, unable to break from thinking long enough for my mind to rest.

“Damn it all!” I pound the headboard behind me. But perhaps that silences my inner musings, for soon after, I drift into slumber of the most necessary kind.

***

The next day, dually unusual sensations: the monocle’s enigma, and having to put aside the mystery to perform my normal duties before I can do as I please.

Being my own teacher, I find myself town between study and fiddling with the monocle. Eventually, I put it away and go to work on my books with all due dedication- perhaps a little rushed- until I finish and find myself free to do as I please.

I look out the windows and in the mirror with my fancy eyeglass and my fancy clothes. I would appear to be a foolish juvenile imitating the older and richer if seen like this. But there is some force that compels me to keep it hidden. Is it just its secret power, its window to that ethereal realm of pure life-light. Is it the place of spirits from the ancient scriptures? Here was proof one could see, and vividly, a world beyond a world.

I can’t have been the only one to take a glimpse into this other side, in one way or another. But I’m the only one I know. And this unsuspecting monocle is my only connection to this world I’ve barely tasted yet have such hunger for. I find myself thumbing it in my pocket, cherishing it and thinking of it constantly. Though I’ve never had much love for material things, I already value it above all other possessions.

A sour feeling enters my stomach. One of the thoughts that most divided me: Was it my father’s, or another’s? Did it lead to his demise? If so, would it lead to mine? Surely any who knew it would not soon forget it. After all, it is no ordinary thing. This thing… it could change the world in the right hands… or the wrong hands.

I feel the weight of my discovery, not just on myself, but on the destiny of man.

“Damn.” I patter down the stairs. “It’s all too much to think on.”

Gerard must be getting hungry, I think. It’s nearly lunch. Taking care of a human is some work, but as long as my aunt is out of the way, it is little trouble.

What are you doing, Leeroy?” her voice demands from behind me.

“Taking um… some food for the strays.”

“All that for strays? Milk, turkey, cheese… bread?” Her eyebrow raises.

“And some for me. We’ll eat together, the cats and I.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t had time to prepare lunch. The papers never slow down.”

“It’s no trouble, Auntie. I know how busy you are. I hope you aren’t overburdened. I could help with the work.”

She smiles sweetly. “Ah, you’re kind, Arthur, but I’ll get on. It’s no work for boys, and better you keep with your studies. You have been, haven’t you?”

“With all diligence, Auntie. No matter what else I would rather be doing.”

“Good then. You’ll be all right till dinner?”

I nod.

“Good. Please don’t give all our food to stray cats.”

I smile and go outside, leaving the plate behind the shed for Gerard. I knock and walk around the front, wanting to remain alone for now. I see my aunt sifting through mail at a desk through the window.

I walk to the streets and put the eyeglass on, scattering a crowd of cats, glowing light gold. I should have brought them a little food.

I look back at the Manor, and even in it I perceive a certain glow, though it is perhaps weak, sad, a little grey. The memory of my father returns, my heart drops. But as it does, the glow around my hand constricts and turns blue as the sea.

I wave my fingers in front of me, watching the waves of ethereal light radiate continually off in a sweeping blur, as the color returns back to teal again.

“So, this is really part of me?… It is, I can see.” I turn about to see the world aglow, squirrels hopping across the ground like tiny lightning bolts, birds flying aglow, forests afire with life as if reflecting the sun midday sun.

A secret world. A third eye. A second sight. The first morning I can truly see.


2 – Monocles and coffee

Wednesday, 20th of September, 1899

Gerard devours the eggs and coffee I brought for him while Aunt Gwen is out on errands. I stay with him to talk. All this has become quite usual.

“What is the point of living?” I ask abruptly.

A big piece of bread and fried egg crumbles out of his mouth. “Why would ye ask me such a thing?” he asks, his voice full of humor and derision.

I shrug. “Do you think it a childish question, Gerard?”

He suddenly pinkens, scratches his neck. “Oh no laddie, it’s just not the sort of question… everyone thinks about a lot, let’s say?… There’s about a million different reasons to live, see? Mine’s just to survive and get on as well as I can. Honesty, hard work, good manners, all o’ that. It all comes around.”

“Sounds well enough I should think.”

“It sure beats gettin’ kicked in the arse for past faults. You can do a lot, laddie, but you can’t take back the things you did.”

“Is that why you left Britain?”

He looks suddenly flustered, and I feel ashamed for being too direct. He notices me flipping the monocle over my finger and thumb as a blossoming nervous habit. “That eye glass…”

“What about it?” I hold it tight, wanting to watch him through it.

“Looks like gold. Not something ye should play with in the presence of strangers and ruffians. Someone might snag it from ye.”

I laugh at the notion. I’d already considered it, but he hadn’t pocketed so much as a silver fork or a bone china tea cup. And I hope I could outrun a man in such a weakened state.

“I believe I can trust a friend not to rob me for a silly little eyeglass.” I smile.

His eyebrow raises. “Eh, friends? Aye, I suppose so,” he mutters and strokes his chin.

“In any case, I’m working on helping you more fully, soon enough.”

He rustles his fingers through his tufts of heavy hair uncomfortably. “Well, I appreciate all your assistance, little friend, but it may be better that I move on. It wouldn’t do for a grown man to live off your kindness, godsend though it is.”

“Nonsense! Neither God or these American streets have treated you kindly. I couldn’t well rest knowing a good, honest, hardworking man was out there getting kicked around curb to curb.”

He’s taken aback for a moment. “And how’re you so sure I’m such a thing?”

“Some things one just knows in their heart of hearts.” I slip the monocle over my eye and see joyful green crystals lick like mosaic fire from the muddy, river blue fog that used to be his whole aura. But it is brightening daily as he rests, as we talk and eat together. In that lifefire I feel the replenishment of his vigor and spirit, see the truth of his intent. “Some things one just knows. For now, I’ll head off. Talk to you again soon, friend.”

He nods and I step out and go back to the house.

Aunt Gwen heads me off at the door and the monocle pops out, hanging from my eye. She never fails to remind me how she towers above me in every kind of stature. “What are you doing, Roy?”

“Nothing so special.”

“Then you won’t mind helping me clean the parlor. We have a guest coming over tonight,” she says with no satisfaction.

I come in and hang my light jacket on Father’s old brass rack. He always said metal was strong. You can trust it more than wood which quickly rots and breaks. I remember this very hanging rack beginning an hour of puffing his tobacco pipe and recounting the merits of the railroads and steel, then eventually looking down at his burning ember and starting another tangent about the tobacco industry and how we were fortunate to have gotten into it when we did- which of course meant when he did. We hadn’t gone through half of the family’s stocks and bonds before it was late at night and he sent me to bed. I shake my head to dispel the memories.

“Roy? Do you remember Mr. Mattinson?”

I nod. “Father’s friend.”

Of course I remember Mattinson. He was an associate of my father’s who would often steal him from me during those rare times I had him. They would tuck themselves away and smoke those accursed pipes and speak of things which my young mind had no understanding of. Years later, when I was a little older and did try to take interest, Father would lock the door behind them. Mattinson struck me as vaguely but undoubtedly unlikeable. My aunt, too, was always wary of him.

“But why is he coming over tonight?”

“I chanced on him today at the market. He told me rather anxiously that he had been meaning to visit and make sure we were getting on well.”

He might have come earlier, I think to myself. “Well, did you tell him we were quite alright?”

“Of course I did. You know how I feel about guests.”

I chuckle nervously, but I’m thinking of the exhausted sixteen-stone Scotsman licking egg yolk off our best china, hiding in the shed out back.

I imagine a scene: Auntie shrieks from the shed. The plate shatters and Gerard stands stunned. Auntie suddenly produces an old Derringer pistol that Father had left in some drawer. A blast of fire and gunpowder, and Gerard keels over like a slain giant, dead instantly. Blood runs over smudged silver and shattered porcelain. I rush in and cry out to God on my knees, knowing it was my own folly. But no! I shake away those thoughts too.

“Least of all do I want a slippery man like Mattinson about. But you know how insistent folks are, such is their pity for the bereaved.” She rolls her eyes and sighs. “I suppose they did spend much time together. But Mattinson’s skill at feeling out investments from New England to the West is matched only by his ineptitude at cards and love for drink. I’ve made sure most everything of value is chained down or in a safe.”

“That’s what he did? Helped Father with investments?”

“That much I know. It’s clear in the years of notes, he did a large part of the footwork. But he had his hand in everything, Mattinson. If you want to know the truth, I think he and your father talked about a lot of nothing most of the time. Father could hardly admit he needed a friend, but it makes some queer sense that it would be someone as obsessed with markets and world affairs as himself, yet so distinct in character as anyone should be. I could never really grasp it. It was all I could do to tolerate their long hours smoking and rambling.”

That makes two of us. But a sour feeling hits my stomach. “Did he ask about… anything else?” I thumb the monocle greedily.

“Nothing else I can think of. We only talked briefly. Why?”

“Hmph.” I slip the glass in my pocket. “Nothing, I suppose. Silly question.”

“Well, let’s get to it then. The dust has snuck up on us in the parlor.

(…)

About 4pm the doorbell rings.

Mattinson comes inside with a weathered tan coat with dark pinstripes a bit too large for him, with a brown bowler hat that hardly matches and highlights his thin light-blond hair combed straight back underneath. His nose and chin jut out like a sinister caricature of a waxing crescent moon. His pointed face and pronounced canine teeth are vaguely offensive, invasive even, and give him an animal appearance, a wolf from one angle, a fox from another.

Though we’re steeled for his presence, another guest arrives with him to our surprise.

“I hope you won’t begrudge bringing another old friend with me on this visit,” Mattinson says, taking off his hat. His long nose seems to speak rather than his mouth. “We were both engaged in some business of mutual interest in town just now, and was equally concerned with your family’s wellbeing, so I invited him to accompany me before we walk home together.”

“Of course not, Mr. Mattinson,” Auntie says with a mix of generosity and annoyance. “Please do introduce your friend.”

“Call me Greg, please,” Mattison says with an overly friendly smile and a wave of his hand. “This is Dr. Richard Hirsch.”

The man with him is stout and well-dressed. He removes his round black spectacles to reveal bright blue eyes that contrast with dark hair that is greying and starting to bald. A heavy mustache sits snugly over pale lips, accenting his square stone-like face, pronounced brows and proud wrinkled nose and forehead. His large teeth form into a smile, and suddenly I and Auntie’s jaws drop in remembrance.

“You’re the doctor who arrived… that night…” she begins.

“Yes, my lady,” he says in a worn but still-strong German accent, crossing his hat over his heart and shaking mine and my aunt’s hands with a tight grip. “I am sorry to rekindle a painful memory, but I couldn’t bear to not know for sure that you poor two are alright. I should have come sooner.” He keeps a sad smile and a firm gaze, but I detect a fidget in his eyes. Perhaps he is a drinker or user of narcotics. Father said doctors all were, but here was the only doctor I had ever seen.

“No, Mr. Hirsch… Doctor, I mean. It’s… good to see you under better circumstances. Please, come in and make yourselves at home.”

She shows us into the parlor, where we and our company bring life to a room that has been dead and vacant for months. The guests and her seem to naturally overlook me as they converse, caring little for my thoughts or comments and suddenly the room seems as dead as it ever did.

I can little complain of that. My presence is more a technicality and the parlor without Father is hardly the parlor at all. What strikes me, however, is how uncomfortable the two men make me, and how uncomfortable these seem themselves, Mattinson is his constantly shifting, over-energized sort of way, and Dr. Hirsch with his quiet blue-eyed gaze, as though those black glasses still cloud his real intent. How I want to spy these strange men with the magic eyeglass burning in my coat pocket, but it’s too great a risk.

After twenty minutes of platitudes and wasted words, it’s time for them to make off. Mattinson seems satisfied that we remaining Arthurs are doing well enough after the loss of ‘good old Ray.’ He shakes my hand and gleams that snarling smile at me, before turning to my aunt. He aims a princely smooth for her hand, which she deftly dodges as she whisks away to see them out the door.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Mattinson halts, halfway out the door. “I misplaced a monocle some months back. Gold frame and chain, star-shaped clip. A family heirloom, I must admit. It’s possible I lost it here in this very room while visiting Ray some time back. You haven’t come across it, have you?”

A jolt sweeps through me, filling me with panic, though I give on outward indication. I look to my aunt blankly and she looks back similarly. I await with terror. What would I do when she…

“No,” she says suddenly and surely. “I cannot say I’ve seen such a thing about the house. What about you, Roy?”

I shake my head with my most childlike face.

“Ah.” He tries to nod graciously. “Well, if you do find it, know I’ll give a fair bounty for its recovery. It is a family heirloom, as I’ve said.”

“As you’ve said,” Aunt Gwen answers. “And Dr. Hirsch, it was too good of you to come.”

“It was only right. I hope you’ll stay well, good folk.” He places his black bug eyes back on with one fat hand and they shimmer strangely under his black hat and they walk off together, a strange duo, him so short and stout, and Mattinson so sharp-featured and lanky. An odd troll and a spooky little ogre.

“Cheerio to them,” Auntie says, locking the door up with all haste, a look half-annoyed and half-pleased on her countenance.

“Why did you not tell him…”

“Because!” she trots to the couch and sits down. “I trust you to repeat nothing here, but I know more of that Mr. Mattinson than he suspects.”

My eyes must widen in expectation.

“It’s bad enough being given to gambling and women and all manner of vices, but I know for a fact he grafted off Raymond. Why? He told me himself! For the life of me, I can’t bring myself to think why Raymond would just let it happen. And that tale about it being a family heirloom, what fool would believe it?”

“You’re wise beyond your years, Auntie.” I scratch the star clip off my thumb nervously.

“The nerve of that shark, coming in here with his slicked-back hair, with that snakish look of his, trying to take advantage of his dead friend. He knows I won’t use him anymore or be used by him like your father, so he comes to play one last game on us! He was lucky I didn’t show my temper. Oh, I should have!”

Despite her fluster, I’m growing quite pleased, having escaped that situation’s multitude of uncertainties. But now there seems to be more questions than ever.

“And roping the poor Doctor into it, as if he should want to see us!”

“Calm now, Auntie. One never knows who they can really trust. Impossible to look into another’s soul.” I nearly laugh at the thought, holding the key to just that.

She nods casually. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her temper. But it’s then that a thought strikes me.

“I must use the washroom, please excuse me.” I suddenly trot upstairs to my bedroom window and see the two men walking down the length of road together, not too far off. I quickly put the monocle on.

Though muddled in detail from that distance, I’m still shocked to look at them. Mr. Mattinson’s aura was like tarnished gold and rust. It shined with pride, avarice, greed, and design. Dismal, but nothing special versus the other energies I’d perused the past two days.

But the kind, quiet Doctor’s… Blood red is their glow, and purple, and much black, all mingled together in thin licks like mythological Kraken’s tentacles and waving like shadows of fire. It was heavy and terrible, deep with menace, full of a thousand unknowable thoughts and not a single feeling, as if no emotion dwelt within. Surely it isn’t real.

Then he stops and the darkness seems to fade. I think it was all imagination.

But he looks straight back toward the Manor, as if into my eyes. His black glasses flash in the falling sunlight and send me on my backside. When I crawl back to the window, I see Mattinston stopped and looking toward the Manor too. He seems to persuade the doctor to come along. I watch them intently until they can no longer be seen, but even through the looking glass I can’t be sure of what I see of them. It all looks like an indecipherable grey mottle of oil paints, and I suddenly doubt in my ability to interpret these life energies, if they even are such a thing.

I fall on my bed, my mind a torrent of so much scattered cogitation. I sort through every fact that might be relevant to the accursed eyeglass or the accursed men that paid this unwelcome visit, yet nothing adds up to anything solid. I groan, my mind full of problems and devoid of solutions.

Later, it’s night, it’s completely quiet. Aunt Gwen is asleep. When I look for a midnight snack, I find Aunt Gwen’s cold pot of coffee. I’ve barely had it before but decide to give the drink its fair run. I empty a percolator of the liquid and devour two cups of it cold and black.

Cold as the coming winter, black as the night outside.

(…)

Friday, 15th of September, 1899

A sleepless night later produced no sure conclusions but a few vague leads I would still have to make arrangements for. After a bit more coffee and some very impatiently-done schoolwork, (never have I struggled more to jot down a simple history essay,) I make my way to the town with some saved-up cash.

People wander the streets in their summer outfits. Many are in work suits and homey dress, for the people of Grauburgh are simple folk, laborers and artisans, most of little means, though some old wealth remains. The rich mingle little with the poor, the poor mingle little with the rich, and neither speak much with us. To me, Grauburgh was always rather dreary.

We are new money, foreign to them. It matters little that I was born here or that my blood is half American. There is no Anglican nor even Episcopal church within an hour’s ride, and Father and Auntie found the Anabaptists and Pentecostals backwards and overly fiery, both much too loud, sermons too fast. They were never overly pious anyhow. I think they longed for the ritual and liturgy of their homeland.

In any case, today paints a lively scene, with people coming to and fro, and for once there is something pleasant and even magical about watching all the hustle and bustle, real living people in all their business. I begin to wonder where they all from, and though the magic monocle cannot tell me all that, it gives new insights into the who and why. I feel a little ashamed that I’ve written them off for so long.

I stroll about and take in the sights. It’s relaxing as a cup of tea, well-needed after the sleepless nights since the monocle fell in my hands. I haven’t been to town but a few times since my father’s death. For me it is still the forests and trails that I call home. But today’s destination is a goldsmith and jeweler in a modest brick and mortar storefront that I remember seeing in town.

“Well, you’re the youngest person I remember walking in here without a parent,” the shopkeep comments, putting down a trinket he was working on.

“I assume money talks. And I see you do good work.”

After a bland chat with the old owner, I leave him with a very particular custom order and travel home a great deal poorer.

I walk toward home, pondering my next step but hardly knowing what I’ll do at all. All the possibilities flash in my head, all the stray facts trying to come together. The monocle, lost behind the dresser in the parlor. Was it father’s? Mattinson’s? Did both know of its power, and did it lead perhaps to a struggle in which Mattinson murdered him? With such a weak attempt to see if we had it, was Mattinson unsure or simply hiding his hand- and if so, what lengths would get to next to see it returned?

I rub my chin, caught in thought as I approach the Manor. There are some things I need to test to quench my thirst for faces and quell my developing fears. Assumptions and unknowns whirl beneath me like a deadly torrent. My footing seems suddenly unsteady in this game.

[Aunt Gwen’s subplot – here Roy arrives home greeted suddenly by her enthusiasm, perhaps bc she’s been drinking. something good has happened which is why she’s in an unusually chipper mood and doesn’t even ask where he’s been.]

I go out back to bring Gerard some food.

(…)

“Gerard?”

He looks at me if I’m going to ask him the meaning of life again and swallows a half-chewed morsel. “Aye?”

“Can I trust you? As a friend? With anything in the world?” I ask with seriousness that must seem childish.

“Well, that’s the thing about trust. If I say ye can’t trust me, it’s like that ye can’t. If I say ye can, what is that worth?”

“I take your point.”

“Listen laddie, ye ought not take anyone at their word so easily. Of course I know the measure of my own trustableness, but it’s not normal to take a pet Scot, even on hard times, and if your aunt found out she’d be horrified. If not for the kindness of you- and your sandwiches- I’d have moved along for both our sakes.”

I feel a little perturbed. I know there’s risk in what I’m doing, yet in my heart I believe that Gerard keeps his honor sacred, if not always then at least now, and despite some past misadventures and drunken revelry he had already expounded on in some detail. Beside that, it’s not often I like someone, let alone care about them. He must read it on my face. He sighs and puts the sandwich down.

“I’m not saying ye can’t trust me, lad. If anyone has my trust, after all, it’s you. So you’ve got mine.”

“Well then… do assist me in one small thing and stay sitting there, would you? Surprise may otherwise knock you back down.”

“Look.” I hold it in front of his left eye. “Do you see anything unusual?”

He shakes his head.

“Not a thing?”

“Nothing,” he insists. “Is the glass scratched or something? I’m nearly blind in this eye. Got slugged in it good as a lad by someone wearing a ring…” He goes on about his childhood friend and his mother but I’m too concerned with my own thoughts to hear his words.

I move it to his other eye. “Now then?” I put my hand in front of the monocle as well, as far out as I can hold it.

“Hmm… mmm! A good, clean lens, your hand, what else? The air?”

“Nothing else?” I wiggle my fingers.

“What else is there, laddie?” he groans.

“No… flames?”

As the words come out of my mouth, I see his eyes thin as if some machine mechanism clicks inside him… the realization that he could see what was there all along.

“Now that you say so… good Lord, laddie!” he exclaims, swiping my arm away. “Your hand is afire!” He looks at it with the naked eye and blinks, then brings the monocle back up to his eye slowly, peeking through it with intrigue like I have never before seen in a grown man. “There’s a bluish green fire ‘round your hand, dancing through this lens, surely as any a thing I’ve seen. Is this some kind of trick crystal? A play of lights?”

Aha!

An hour of discussion erupts. Gerard naturally yearns to hear all I know about the thing but I insist that I know very little and what I do know is extremely sensitive and possibly tied to a conspiracy most foul. He seems pleased to hear, however, that I’m intent on discovering its origin. Allowing him to use it proves that its bizarre traits can be utilized by others than myself which only bodes worse of Mattinson’s involvement and intent, I figure.

“In any case, you won’t have any trouble from me about that thing, laddie. No loose tongues or sticky fingers.” He seems to have some grasp on the importance of the discovery.

I chuckle. “I expected nothing less from a good friend. It’s good to know I can confide in you, even in so unbelievable a thing as this.”

I tarry for a while longer before going back into the house. I put away the kitchen knife I had concealed on my person, pleased that Gerard had met my trust and benevolence with his own. I could not place the monocle in his hand without such little insurance, of course.

The rest of the day is uneventful, though full of thought. I retire early, knowing that somewhere soon was the next step of this haunting journey.

On this very night I begin the practice of hiding the special eyeglass away each time before I sleep, in a different spot that is hard to reach. Just an ounce of the situation’s gravity is starting to hit me by this point, I think, but I know I will be playing some very dangerous games in the future.

Dangerous games indeed.


3 – Precipice, slip

Saturday, 23rd of September, 1899

The next morning is filled with the usual unremarkable business of studying and reading. And suddenly I drift to drawing out plans. Ater this, I continue where I left off the day before.

I run into town and come back home, equipped for a bold plan. My aunt is out of hte house, so I have reign over the Manor until much later in the evening- a necessity for what I would be doing.

“Gerard!” I call, peeking into the shed. His head pops out from the small back room and he comes to meet me. I hand him an extra pillow blank which he puts into his temporary room in the shed.

“What can I do for ye?” he asks as I follow him inside.

“I was hoping for your assistance in one small matter.”

“Anything.” I wonder if there is not a little sarcasm in his voice.

“Good,” I smile. “Let’s go into the house then. My aunt is away until the evening, so we can chat over a meal.”

He seems reluctant, looking around the room hesitantly, but I meet his anxiety with a sure, strong gaze. He sighs and acquiesces.

(…)

I’m happy to finally provide my friend a proper meal as he listens to my request. He is equally happy to oblige me as he comes to fully understand what I plan to do and how it relates to our shared secret. He assures me that he will do exactly as I ask, though he was as cautious as I, perhaps even more so.

“Ye don’t want to stir up trouble where there isn’t already,” he warns. But I think that is what is necessary, and that there is already trouble afoot.

Not much later, I dial a certain number on the telephone and take a seat in the parlor, my eyes closed. Rather than thinking, I clear my mind and my attention turns to my emotions. I do my best to calm myself and the sort of unsteady vibration in my stomach that frequently follows such times of stress.

Soon the doorbell rings, though, and all of my worries melt away into a dark and sober excitement, a grin cut across my stony face. I answer it and Mr. Mattinson stands there with his weaselish smile. He greets me before I do him, obviously excited about my message.

“Good-day-and-how-are-you?” he blurts.

“Fine. And yourself? Come on in.”

“Good, good, especially now.”

I nod, showing him into the parlor.

Before we sit, I tell him. “I do have two questions though.”

His eyebrow raises inquisitively, which creates an odd look in combination with his unceasing smirk. I make another gesture to sit, and we do.

“What is it?” he asks impatiently.

“Well, firstly I must know…” I hesitate, only arousing his curiosity further, “What bounty did you offer for that eyeglass?”

“Aha!” he laughs. “Just like your dear old dad! Right down to business!”

It’s all I can do to simply hone my eyes in on him.

“I will give a good five dollars to an enterprising boy like yourself for the return of my precious item,” he offers grandly. “After all, you’ve been taught to know a good deal, I’m sure.”

“That I have,” I calmly nod, mimicking his own smirk. “Yet surely its worth is much more, given its gold content, fine craftsmanship, sentimental value. An enterprising boy might find himself more fully rewarded with twice that.”

His look turns blank, as if I had disturbing his thought process. Suddenly, he bursts into laughter.

“Ah, pulling one of those on ol’ Mr. Matty, eh? I will admit, it’s considerably valuable- and twice as much to my sentiments! Ten shiny greenbacks it is, alright kid?”

“Good then.” I rub my hands together. “The other question- I pray you’ll satisfy my curiosity- is how did the monocle come to you?”

This time, my question strikes him deep. His inner thinking is knocked off its trail. His ridiculous wolf’s smirk disappears for a rare moment and he looks like he must search all over inside to collect himself. I pay close attention while maintaining my own plain disposition entirely.

“Well!” he claims with a grin. “You are an odd one, aren’t you? So like your father, yet so different. It’s simple. It was my father’s gift to me, you see. An heirloom from before I moved here from the West where I was born.”

“I see. That does explain it.”

He nods slowly, greedily.

“Well, good then.” I pull out the monocle. “I will happily exchange it for that reward then.”

He looks at it for a moment and cannot contain a twisted grin. He clasps it in his heads and shoves it deep into a pocket, then pulls out a wallet and slaps two five-dollar bills on the table ceremoniously, his hands quavering. He looks at me straight-on and straight-through, as if we’re eye-to-eye.

“Thanks for the call, little Roy. I’ll see you around.”

I show him the door, though he barely notices me by now.

I hum, shutting the door. I return again to the parlor and sit, slapping my feet up on the table on top of the money.

“You should come out now, Gerard.”

Gerard pokes up from the steps, then comes over swiftly and sits. “He’s gone?”

I nod. “What did you think of all that?”
“To be honest, I wanted to stop ye from surrendering that thing for such a a small price, all things considered. Even in a sideshow it would earn as much in a day. But I trusted when ye told me not to interfere unless ye called out.”
“Yes,” I smile, “but rest at ease.” I produce the monocle once more in front of his very eyes like a magic trick.

“Devil!… But I thought ye gave it to him.”

“Aha, what I gave him was a very similar replica I had made. With plated gold, admittedly. He didn’t recognize it for a fake, so it brings up some questions. He knows it has special value, I think. It’s too much coincidence otherwise. But he left with a fake monocle quickly and happily. I expected your assistance to become necessary when he peeked through my replica, but somehow it seems he himself doesn’t even know what he is really looking for.”

“Good thing that he didn’t. But what now?” Gerard asks.

“You can take the monetary reward for your part.”

Gerard is taken aback, to say the least. “Surely I can’t take that much money for nothing!”

“It was anything but nothing, Gerard. It was insurance. It would have been a messy scene if he had realized my ploy, but…” I sit up and hand him both bills. “I may very well need your help again in the future.”

“Aye, sure.” He looks at the cash curiously, unsure it’s real.

I smile. “Good then. Although for now, I’m afraid it is best we return to our places. I have a feeling my aunt will be back soon. Please help yourself to any food before you go out.”

“Hah, ye do me too much good.”

“No such thing for a friend,” I say, looking straight ahead in thought.

(…)

I rest in the parlor, taking some much-needed time for myself, planning for whatever will come next, but the previous night’s restlessness catches up to me as I muse.

I fall asleep on the chaise longue for a few hours before the doorbell startles me suddenly awake, petrified at the thought of a vengeful return from Mattinson with the knife put away and Gerard gone. Drat! Caught napping away! I sit there stone cold for what seems like a minute, till I jump up, ready to sprint.

The door promptly rattles opens to my aunt, who seems surprised to see me frazzled half awake, poised to dash out the window with my tail between my legs.

“Are you well?” she asks compassionately.

“I am, thank you.” I scratch my neck embarrassedly and take the bags she is carrying, walking to the kitchen with her. “Did you get Emmentaler cheese?” I rummage through the groceries like a hungry mouse.

“Fresh from Mr. Vaughan’s delicatessen. I had to go shopping again this week. Seems like someone’s been gorging themselves of late.”

I grin. “Oh! And Frederick?”

The big lean fluffy black and white patched cat appears suddenly beneath her, rubbing off her leg as he slinks over to me, looking healthier and pleased to be back in his little kingdom. He gives off deep raspy purrs as I lovingly rub his cheeks and ears.

“The veterinarian said it was just a cold. No medicine.” She shakes a half-gallon of milk up and gives him a small bowl. “We should make sure he eats and drinks properly so he gets well. Rare advice, no?”

“I told you he would be alright. He’s a strong boy.”

“Better safe than sorry. You know I’d prefer a big strong dog, but Frederick was your father’s cat, imagine how we would feel if the sniffles took him?”

He smiles and stands in an arch as my hand pets down his back to the end of his tail.

“Where does a cat catch a cold anyway! Surely from one of those neighborhood tramps he’s always battling. We’ll see how pretty he is when one scratches an eye out.”

“I doubt one will ever top Frederick.” I look up and notice she’s carrying a heavy bag of flour toward the backyard. “Ah, let me help you with that!”

“I’ve got it, thank you. If you could just get the door…”

I open it for her hesitantly and begin to slightly panic, inadvertently letting it slam behind me as I follow along. She looks back to rebuke me. “You must be careful with the house, Roy. We have no groundskeeper to repair anything if you damage it, and Mr. Key moved back to New England. I wouldn’t know who to call.”

“Right! Sorry! Please let me take that bag, Auntie, it looks awful heavy and it’s just not proper…”

“Why, we’re almost in the shed now! Am I some weak little woman to you, Roy? Would you care to take care of the investments too?” she jokes and giggles. “Please do get the shed door.”

I march over and slowly, reluctantly pull one of the double doors open with a long whining squeak and drop my head. “Before you get angry, know that I had every intent…”

“What a mess this is!” she exclaims to the cluttered room, but it’s only us in there.

“… every intent to clean it, Auntie. I know I should take more responsibility for the house.”

She nods and sets the flour on a creaky shelf when she notices something shiny peeking from behind a pile of rusted paint cans. She picks up the silver spoon and hums. “These are costly, Roy, not to be left around and lost.”

“Yes, Auntie.” I will admit to anything if it gets her out here.

“Oh, that reminds me. There should be some pails of dirt in the side room. I’ve been meaning to level beside the walkway out front before we plant. Ah, but it’s nearly autumn, perhaps I should wait till next year if I’m to plant by seed.”

“Yes, much too late, Auntie, it would be very wise to wait for the proper time to-!”

“Ah, but of course I could buy them live and see how they come out next spring. Either way, that ground needs evened out, so help me fetch these pails, Mr. Strong Man.”

“Well! there is one thing I ought to tell you, then!” I run alongside her as my words seem to bounce off her.

As she turns the corner, she stops suddenly. I wait for a moment for an outburst. My fear turns to curiosity as she moans with displeasure. I come next to her in the side room and see four buckets of dirt, one knocked over toward an open window.

“Hmph, such a mess! Tools scattered, dust, silverware left out, and dirt being knocked over!”

My face is as blank as my mind. “Yes, Auntie, I’ve abused the shed as if it were a playspace. I’ll take it on myself to clean it up.”

Her dissatisfaction melts away. “I don’t fault you. It wasn’t clean before your father passed and hasn’t been since. But it could really use some attention, and it’s only proper that a young man takes care of that. Now then, help me with the last bucket?”

“I’ll take two,” I say, grabbing them and following her out toward the front.

“I am very glad that you help with things like this. I really do appreciate it.”

“My pleasure.” I spread each of the buckets over the dugout dirt skirting both sides of the long walkway leading from the street to the door of the Manor. “I think I’ll start on cleaning the shed now.”

“Wonderful, Roy. Would you like me to bring you out some lemonade later?”

“Oh no, no no no. I will be done with it very soon, surely. Just leave me to it and all will be transformed in no time.”

“Oh-oh! I wait to see it.” She giggles and goes into the house. I dash out back.

It’s empty still. For lack of anything else, I start cleaning, arranging tools, dusting, sweeping, when there is a rap at the back door of the shed. I jump up in surprise and look back, wanting to kick myself for leaving myself defenseless twice in one hour. But it’s Gerard, or rather the the top of his head, peeking in.

“Hey,” he says through the small opening in the window, “is she gone?”

“She’s inside now.”

“Ha!” He laughs, going to the back and into the shed. “I popped up right when I heard the back door slam. Saw you two coming, so I jumped out the back window.”

“I apologize for that.”

“No trouble. Had to escape from worse situations, but those are stories for another time.”

“That they are. I’ve got to get this cleaned quickly before I head back in, but I’d like if we could talk for some time tomorrow or the next day. I’m sure you tire of spending your nights in even so fanciful a shed, so we should work to get you employment of some sort soon. It shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“I’ve been into town, laddie. There’s little to do for a rough-looking out-of-towner. But it isn’t, right for me to just laze about all the day long and eat your good food. I can’t say I don’t appreciate what you’ve done for me, but it may be best I move on.”

“We’ll figure something out, rest assured. If you tarry a little longer, it will be better than doing it alone. I know a few people.”

“Ah, know a few people do ye?”

“We will figure something out, rest assured.”

With locks his hands around mine with a slap and smiles gratefully. We both tidy the shed and before long I am back inside. Aunt Gwen gives me her gratitude but I ask her not to look at it until it is all ready and she agrees.

I toss an apple in my hand for the rest of the evening, staring into my plaster ceiling from bed. Yet as I lie there, I sense something eerie, like some hostile force is lying in wait, nearby me or my future, nearby in the world, where I can just feel it.

Ghost. The thought appears in my head, a final, terrible thought before I fall asleep. But I shake my head- dreaming asleep or I don’t know. Ghosts! What nonsense.

(…)

Sunday, 24th of September, 1899

The next morning, I imagine that the fear should be gone from me, but night terrors had torn up my night into sleepless shreds of broken images and half-formed ideas. All imagination, I insist, but the emotional self will not let go of this disturbance.

I press a cup of coffee against my face, fill it with sugar to sweeten up the day, enjoy the pleasant warmness of the drink. A great shriek shocks me so that I drop it, the coffee glass exploding on the wooden floor so that I think my feet burn.

I run to the entryway and see my aunt there, unable to shake off images of the night of my father’s death. Gwen is sunk next to the front door, holding her mouth with muffled erratic breaths. The sight of crimson near her catches my eye.

I cover my mouth as a wave of nausea and horror sweeps over. A large mutilated dog, cruelly skinned and flayed in parts, with many of its organs torn out of a gaping hole opened in its side. Its fur is stained darkly all over with splashes of dry and wet blood, but its oozing eyeholes are darkest of all, giving it the appearance that it was not just killed but its very soul torn out.

The neighborhood seemed its darkest grey as my eyes hastily survey it for an clue to the vile crime and criminal. I look back down to the beastly mess and notice one other detail, one more shocking to me than the dead animal itself.

Ghost. It is carved crudely into the side of the corpse, sending a new flood of terror and sickness in me. I could die.

“Damn it,” is all I can whisper to myself, going to help my aunt recover herself.

What have I done?


Read the rest for free at JordanWakefield.com when it released Summer 2020. The partial sequel Conflux: The Lost Girls is available for free now, with free audiobooks coming soon!