Chapter 1: a message in the dark

Was it morning already? Arthur opened one eye and checked his alarm clock. The digital display gave out an eerie green glow: it was half past three. Why had he awoken? He tried in vain to remember his last dream. Slowly, Arthur got out of bed, pulled back the curtains and looked outside. It was raining again; some August this had turned out to be! The heavy night sky reflected the streetlamps far below, while raindrops drummed their secret tattoo on the window pane. Most of the houses and flats in his neighbourhood were dark, their occupants numbed by blissful slumber. There were a few exceptions, however: insomniacs, those who worked the graveyard shift and students who had no morning lectures to worry about. The girl who lived opposite was not one of them. On some evenings, whenever she neglected to draw the blinds on her bedroom window, Arthur would watch her while he smoked a joint and listened to his favourite pop ballads. He would observe her lying on her bed or typing on her laptop, all the while hoping to see a little flesh. So far, he had been out of luck. He wondered if she had noticed him yet and, if so, how she felt about being mentally undressed by a neighbourhood voyeur. Perhaps she appreciated the attention; after all, there was no harm in it.

For a while, Arthur did not care about having his sleep broken, instead letting his thoughts drift towards lustful fantasies and daydreams of happy events that had never come to pass. They were his comfort, where his anger was a bed of nails. His reverie was interrupted by a knock at the door. Who on earth would want to see him at this hour? He could think of only two possibilities: that it was either someone he knew with some very bad news (Mickey, most likely – the man was a terminal drama queen), or a scumbag who needed money for his next fix. Well, this was one victim who would not go down without a fight! He put on a dressing-gown to cover his nakedness, picked up his baseball bat, which he always kept to hand by the bedroom door, then padded down the short corridor to his front door. He opened the door a little and peered out. There was no one there. The stairwell was empty and the door to the flat opposite was closed. A practical joke, perhaps? If that was the case, then standards were really slipping. When Arthur was a boy, he and his friends would hurl eggs at Old Man Parr’s house, torment his vicious dog and coerce younger boys into fighting each other for sweets. They were such happy, carefree times! Reminiscing on his misspent youth, he was about to close the door and forget this whole business, when something caught his eye. There was a scrap of paper on the doorstep. He picked it up and brought it inside.

Sitting in his small living-room, Arthur examined the piece of paper. It looked like a page torn out of an old book. It was yellow with age and frayed at the edges, but there was no writing on it, no threatening missive (for that was what he had expected). On this page, there was only a picture, an old woodcut. A strange scene was shown thereon: three naked women, each clutching a dagger, danced around a fire. In the bottom right, a cat licked its paw, while to the left stood a hooded man clutching a large book. The artist seemed to have gone into particular detail with this grimoire, adding a jewel to each corner and a lion’s head in the centre. What could this mean? Why would someone go to the trouble of leaving this on his doorstep? Perhaps Arthur was reading into this too much, as he always did when anything out of the ordinary happened. Someone might be playing a practical joke, but got the wrong address, he mused. Nevertheless, he decided to keep the picture, if only because it was so interesting. He resolved to get a second opinion. Old Harriet, the proof-reader at work, might be able to shed some light on this. Harriet was probably the only colleague he genuinely respected. The others in the office were ignorant and small-minded, but Harriet was a highly-educated woman who could talk about a range of subjects, not simply football or soap operas, which seemed to be the default topics of conversation for males and females respectively. Arthur tried his best to bond with the others during down-time, but there were only so many plastic smiles he could manage in any one day. For Harriet, though, the smiles and the refrains came readily, with no artifice. It was a pity she had that drink problem.

Still clutching the strange delivery in his hand, Arthur decided he’d better return to bed, even though doing so would take him one step closer to the dreary morning routine. He cast his gaze around the living-room before switching off the lamp. The Savoy it wasn’t: the two sofas were second-hand and there was little by way of any decoration, save a few photographs of those closest to him. He kept his books neatly stacked on the shelves to the left, while the television set took pride of place opposite him, with only a row of DVDs to keep it company. Arthur disliked clutter, so almost everything he owned was purely functional. Some of his friends had never understood this and would mock him, but Arthur was always quick to point out how untidy their own homes were. His flat was small and unremarkable, like the others in this small and unremarkable cul-de-sac, but was a damned clean one. Before turning in for what was left of the night, he went over to the window and pulled back the curtains a few inches. He didn’t really know why he felt the need to scour the neighbourhood this way – perhaps it was idle curiosity, or the vain hope that the rain-soaked streets below would provide an answer to the night’s mystery, or perhaps he was simply being a good citizen and keeping an eye out for muggers and rapists. Yes, that was it. Peering into the gloom, he saw half a dozen parked cars, a waste bin that desperately needed emptying and large puddles sparkling orange underneath the streetlamps. There was someone down there, he noticed. Across the road, just by the footpath which led to the park, stood a shadowy figure. He could not make out any details at this distance, or even tell if this person were a man or woman, but he knew his own road well enough and there was definitely someone there, motionless in the dark. What was he up to? Was he the one who had posted the picture? The thought that this figure might be looking directly at him sent an involuntary chill down Arthur’s spine. He continued to stare out the window, not daring to move, though the rational part of him knew he ought to go back to bed. Logic and reason reigned supreme in the cold light of day, but here in the murky hours before dawn, he was prone to flights of fancy and pangs of fear, much as he had been as a small boy. In the lonely darkness, with nothing but his vivid imagination for company, the world was a frightening place. After a few minutes, the figure turned and walked down the footpath, out of sight. The show over, Arthur drew the curtains and went back to bed, convincing himself that he was not being watched and that the events of the last half an hour were of no consequence.

*

“Looks like a sixteenth-century woodcut, unless I’m mistaken,” said Harriet as she looked at the page. “From what I can see, it depicts some sort of witches’ coven. Very interesting!” Harriet was a small, wiry woman in her fifties, a former schoolteacher who had turned to the dark side late in her career. She wore her grey hair in a Louise Brooks-style bob, sported a pair of oversized spectacles and had crooked teeth. Her clothes were never fashionable and she eschewed makeup and perfume. Though she was clean, she always smelled slightly of sherry. Nevertheless, Arthur was glad to get away from his desk and talk to someone intelligent. Back in Accounts, Kirsty had spent most of the morning showing everyone her holiday photographs, whether they had wanted to see them or not. She and her equally moronic boyfriend (a monosyllabic meat-head named Bradley) had just returned from Ibiza, where – if the photos were anything to go by – they had spent a fortnight drinking heavily, pulling faces and developing an orange complexion. Arthur had enquired as to what sort of local cuisine she had sampled during her stay, then immediately regretted doing so, as Kirsty’s pretty but stupid face wrinkled with puzzlement. It was unlikely that this woman could even spell the word ‘cuisine’, let alone understand its meaning.

“You might want to consider checking the library downtown to find out more,” Harriet went on. “Sorry, I haven’t been much help to you, have I?”

“That’s quite all right,” Arthur replied, “and thanks, anyway. I wonder if I’ll receive any more of these pictures.”

“Well, I suppose it makes a nice change from utility bills,” Harriet quipped. “I’m still waiting for those premium bond cheques to drop through my letterbox. Hope springs eternal! Good luck with your-”

She stopped mid-sentence and scrutinised the page one more time. “That book the hooded fellow’s holding looks ever so familiar. Where have I seen it before?”

“It looks like some kind of spell book,” Arthur said, trying to sound helpful.

Lost in concentration, Harriet continued to examine the picture. “No, it’s gone. But if I remember anything about it, I’ll let you know right away. I’ll also send you details of next week’s concert.” Arthur had promised to see Harriet’s daughter play the cello in some orchestra. While he loved classical music, he wasn’t sure he had the patience to sit through two hours of it on a plastic chair in a musty church hall. Corelli sounded a lot better from his couch with a joint in hand. Nonetheless, a promise is a promise.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Harriet,” Arthur said with a smile. “I’ll talk to you later.”

*

The afternoon had been mercifully short, with only a few routine phone calls and a company meeting in which some high-ranking drone from head office sugar-coated the latest profit-and-loss report. Revenues were down and this news came as a surprise to the CEO, as if the fool were living in some parallel universe where there had been no economic downturn. Welcome to today, Mr. Breadhead, welcome to today. His working day over, Arthur decided to swing by the local library and do a little research before heading home. It was a large, modern-looking edifice which stood behind the town hall. He always felt at home in here; the relative quiet offered a welcome respite from the roar of traffic and hubbub of the townsfolk outside. During times of unemployment, Arthur had come here almost every day, dipping into the first book that caught his interest, or leafing through the daily newspapers. The usual suspects were here: the bearded old man with the sandals, the two Zimbabwean men who seemed to be killing time more than anything else, the pretty student. It was always nice (or, rather, distracting) to see a comely young woman brighten up the place. They were almost always students, which left Arthur wondering if they would ever return here, once their studies had ended. Probably not, he thought with a great deal of disappointment. It was sad that young people had such a mercenary attitude towards learning, believing that education ended on graduation day, or whenever they landed that dream job.

An hour’s research did not turn up anything new, though Arthur must have looked at over a hundred woodcut images. There were similar ones, featuring dancing witches and animal familiars, while others were more lurid still: some were caricatures of popes long dead, others were pictorial representations of the Seven Deadly Sins, while some showed King Death cheerfully scything through hapless bystanders dressed in Tudor garb. Charming, he thought. It was hunger, rather than boredom, which compelled Arthur to return home. A ten-minute brisk walk took him to the park near his flat. The afternoon sun had burned away much of last night’s rain and it was turning out to be a warm and pleasant evening. Local boys were playing football, a middle-aged woman was walking around the perimeter with a border collie in tow, and a mother was watching her child clown about in the play area. Arthur headed towards the far corner of the park, where the footpath took him home, when he stopped. Was there a man standing there, by the gate? Looking directly at him? He shielded his eyes from the glare of the setting sun in order to get a better view. There was definitely someone there, in the shadow of an oak tree, but he could not make out any details. Just then, his phone rang. Arthur did not receive a lot of phone calls from anyone apart from his mother, so the relatively unfamiliar sound of his phone gave him a start. He answered it and was surprised to hear Harriet’s voice on the line.

“I hope I haven’t interrupted you,” she chirped.

“Not at all,” he replied. Talking on his mobile phone always made him feel very important and popular. On balmy summer days such as this, he would often walk around the park and call a friend, just so that he could look busy while he ogled the sunbathing women. It was a pity that there were none here today.

“I’ve just remembered where I’ve seen that book before. Something like it was discovered at an archaeological dig recently over in the West Country, or thereabouts. Look up ‘Edgeharrow Excavation’ on the internet and you should be able to find out more.”

“I’ll do that after dinner. Thanks very much, Harriet.”

“Speak to you tomorrow. Bye!” She hung up. Some people simply did not do small talk. Nonetheless, Arthur was intrigued by this news and resolved to look into it later on. It was only when he reached the park gate that he realised the mysterious figure had gone.

*

It certainly looked like the same book. On the cover of this leather-bound tome were four large rubies, one in each corner, and in the centre was a brass plaque shaped like a lion’s head. It had been unearthed a few weeks back, along with assorted other treasures, underneath the church of St. Morcar in the village of Edgeharrow. Arthur had never heard of the place, but he learned that it lay west, along the Jurassic Coast. The book, according to this article, was some sort of alchemical treatise from the first half of the sixteenth century, hand-written by an unknown author. No mention of naked witches, hooded freaks or nonchalant felines. The article – on a parish website which at first glance looked like it was maintained by local special needs children – was not much more forthcoming. Perhaps it might be worth visiting the place to find out more, Arthur thought to himself. After all, the village wasn’t a million miles away and he needed a break from the old routine. His boss had spent two weeks on Cape Verde, Kirsty had been to Ibiza, Plain Jane had been to the Isle of Wight in a camper van and Honest Dave had gone cycling through Normandy. It was high time Arthur, the soi-disant office martyr, had a little sojourn of his own. He didn’t even care if nothing became of it; the idea of escaping to the countryside for a little rest and relaxation was an enticing one.

He spent the rest of the evening on his couch, vegetating in front of the TV. A newscaster was solemnly reading out the world’s latest troubles: more civil wars in the desert, terrorist activity, natural disasters, a new strain of influenza coming out of the Far East. Closer to home, there were job losses, strikes, some people missing, feared dead…yes, now would be a good time to book some annual leave, he thought as sleep crept up on him. Mustering enough energy to rise from the couch, Arthur allowed himself one last glance out of the window, in case the shadowy figure had returned. There was no one down there, apart from one of the neighbours trying to park his car. He was doing a poor job of it, by all appearances.

It was not often that Arthur remembered his dreams, but the one he had early the next morning was vivid indeed. He found himself running through a dark forest, his heart pounding in his chest. He did not know who, or what, chased him, only that he must evade capture at all costs. Low-lying branches raked at his arms and face as he ran for dear life, while his legs felt like they would give way at any moment, so great were his exertions. Still, he ran on. He thought he could make out gnarled faces in the trunks of the trees, leering at him, cackling with malicious glee at witnessing his plight. The way was illuminated by the light of the full moon beyond the web of branches above his head. It shone down, emotionless, heedless of the petty concerns of the world below. He returned his gaze to the unending path ahead of him, too late to spot the hole in the ground ahead. He stumbled and fell, plunging ten feet and scraping his face on a wall of mud and roots. Panting and in tremendous pain, he looked up just as a dark shape loomed over him, obscuring the moonlit sky above, its red eyes fixed upon him.

Arthur awoke with a start an hour before his alarm went off. His whole body was clammy and the bedclothes were damp. It was only a dream, he reminded himself, but the irrational sense of unease remained with him for the rest of the day.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 1: a message in the dark

    • This is the first chapter in my horror novel, which as yet has no title. Any similarities between myself and the main protagonist, Arthur Clipp, are entirely coincidental. Chapter two has already been posted and there will be further chapters coming soon, once I’ve rid myself of this confounded writer’s block.

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