Short story (by me): NEMESIS WANTED

Private Detective Joseph Waterman was surprised to find his desk furnished with a neatly folded newspaper. Normally his secretary, who was also his girlfriend, left the paper rolled up outside the door, as though fetched and dropped there by a faithful dog. (Joseph once observed this to her, and she still hadn’t let him forget what she considered his calling her a dog.)

Sitting down, he picked up and unfolded the paper, letting a note fall out. The latter said: ‘I thought this might amuse you. Yours, Faithful Dog’. Joseph smiled, put the note aside and turned to the paper, which was folded to page 48. ‘NEMESIS WANTED’ was its heading, and Joseph realised he was looking at the main item of the reader’s notices page. Whoever ordered the notice had money. Beneath the heading was this text:

‘We are a race of malevolent beings seeking a human enemy to work against our various shenanigans in your city. “Shenanigans” include kidnapping politicians to advise us on the best ways to manage human slaves, poisoning your water supply to encourage future compliance, undermining your law enforcement with frequent viruses sent to their computer system, and other nefarious deeds designed to leave your race vulnerable to our steady encroachment.

You may be wondering why we require a nemesis. We have read your stories and studied your culture; in the literary and televisual genre your leaders refer to as “alien invasion”, there is always a plucky young hero, a “Buck Rogers” or “Captain Kirk”, destined to fight the alien hordes. Though our selected nemesis will not succeed in his attempts to subvert our will, he will be rewarded with a position and freedom above that of the slaves. Our aim is to use your city to forge a narrative witnessed by all human life on Earth, wherein a human champion was selected by invisible destiny, yet still was conquered by us, proving the futility of your stories, and thus your aspirations.

Anyone interested in becoming our nemesis should go to the courtyard on 4th Street, Mason Sector, entered from the street through the archway between Jones & Jonson Solicitors and Fast Food Empire, at a quarter past noon on the day this broadsheet is dated.’

So, Joseph thought, some idle-rich bastard was making a joke. He admired its audacity and tastelessness. Three politicians had been kidnapped, three weeks ago, during a terrorist attack on the yearly parade, organised to celebrate the city’s brave, charitable and influential citizens. The float carrying the present ruling committee was plunged into chaos when a masked gunman emerged from the driver’s cabin, forcing three committee members into a van which drove up alongside. The city’s mayor tried reasoning with the gunman, and was shot in the gut. He’d rolled off the float and into the gutter at a screaming child’s feet, the dropped scoop from the boy’s ice cream cone cooling his face. He had been conscious for two weeks now, but was still bed-bound.

No sign of the terrorists or clue to their motive had yet been found. No contact had been made, and the deputy-mayor, leading the city during his superior’s recovery, was worried that his colleagues were long dead. On television, radio and broadsheets, the liberal pundits blamed the right wing, while the conservative pundits blamed the left.

Receiving the heftiest portion of the blame, however, was the city’s police force, whose computers, as described in the article, had been regularly besieged by viruses since a few days before the parade. A connection was suspected, but no source could yet be found, and while the force’s best technicians searched, thousands of criminal records were tampered with. ‘ON YOUR STREETS NOW?’ ran the front-page headline of the paper Joseph was reading, above various thumbnail photographs of convicts.

He scanned the NEMESIS notice again, chuckled, and laid it aside as he heard a vibration from outside the 37th-storey room’s window. Swivelling, he saw a balding, middle-aged man seated at the wheel of an open-topped hover-car. He pressed a button on the windowsill and the glass began to descend. When it was a sufficient distance from the sill he said ‘Harold! To what do I owe the dubious pleasure?’ Harold smiled in that always leering way of his which was probably unintentional, at least some of the time. ‘Got a Boiler tied up in the trunk. We take him to District, split the money 60-40?’

“Boilers” were people who illegally possessed certain weapons, some of which were only authorised to be used by the military. These included the nominal Boilers: nasty ray-guns which boiled their organic targets from the inside out, heating their blood until it corroded their vessels, then skin. Joseph had seen some unpleasant videos of pre-killed rabbits receiving this treatment. “District” was a colloquial term for police HQ, which was so large it operated like its own social structure within the city.

Joseph heard feeble tossing and turning from Harold’s trunk. ‘What do you need me for? I’d heard you were your own boss these days.’ Harold smiled, popped open the glove compartment, grabbed a loose cigar without turning then put it in his mouth, fumbling for the lighter in his breast pocket. ‘Still am’ he said, and lit the cigar, ‘only District doesn’t like me too much these days. Thinks I’m a stain on their honour.’ He snorted. ‘Stain on their honour… They lost all that three weeks ago. What’s there left for a guy like me to stain?’

‘Plenty’ said Joseph, watching the cab driver and occasional mercenary seem to chew his cigar, two lips like bloodied parchment in a sodden trench. ‘I didn’t realise I was 60-40 valuable, though.’ Harold shrugged. ‘I can’t afford to sniff at 40% these days, what with my expensive tastes, and I know a plum bastard like you doesn’t get out of bed for anything less than the lion’s share. So, what do you say? I need you to make me look respectable, and you need me to buy you a new suit, by the looks of things.’

Joseph sighed. ‘You’re as observant as ever, Harold. Drive around to the parking bay and I’ll meet you there.’ ‘Sod that for a Boiler-man’s kiss!’ Harold replied, ‘just climb in through the window, you pansy. Or are you worried your girl’s gonna walk in and see you leaving with a handsome new beau?’ Joseph did as he was told, but not before insisting Harold pull up so the car touched the wall, leaving no space between Joseph’s foot and eternity. As if wanting to kill his captor’s new guest, the Boiler jerked suddenly, though the movement was too feeble to upset the car in any way. Harold flicked a switch on the dashboard which emitted a light knockout gas in the trunk. ‘Why didn’t you do that after you got him in there?’ asked Joseph, now settled in the passenger seat. Harold smiled. ‘I like hearing them struggle’ he said.

***

‘Have you read this?’ said Joseph when they reached a stoplight. Traffic was heavy. In a time when police were trained and equipped to the efficiency of robots, crime was a gentleman’s pursuit; these ghoulish tourists were no doubt on their way to the parade route, to see if their gadgets could detect any bloody residue. Though they didn’t hold much hope they even came with hi-tech swab-wands, in case they were able to retrieve some shadow of a particle of the mayor’s blood.

Harold glanced at the NEMESIS WANTED notice, and snorted. ‘Yeah, I’ve seen it. Seems like a lot of shekels for a cheap joke.’ “Shekels” and “sheep” were the names of the national currency, “shekels” meaning notes, “sheep” coins. After the last World War, which survived twelve years and was fought mostly by private armies, a religious fanatic reached office. He promised restoration of our elders’ simpler, quainter moral codes, and his enthusiasm for the ancient Christian myths inspired him to rechristen the money. Even as later leaders came and went, the custom wasn’t altered. As the man’s successor said, ‘it’s got to do better than the dollar or the pound, anyway.’

‘“Buck Rogers” and “Star Trek”, too’ Harold continued, ‘couldn’t they think of any shows that aren’t a thousand years old?’

‘I might go along, once we’ve deposited your booty’ said Waterman, ‘God knows I’ll have time to kill with what the District pays for Boilers.’

Harold laughed. ‘Yeah, then you’ll get mugged for your 60% and I’ll be laughing at you from the business end of a beer mug.’

‘There’s not been a mugging in this city since the war.’

‘Yeah, and wouldn’t you be the one to break that record.’

The light changed and Harold turned a corner. Now they hovered above one of the many city squares, eye-level with a giant TV playing serials and advertisements. Below, people streamed in and out of businesses, not one pausing to look at the hover-car latticework above them. There appeared on the screen a tall, muscular young man in a fishbowl space helmet, transparent enough to display his unshaven jaw. The logo CAPTAIN DU MAURIER: INTERSPACIAL SLEUTH unfurled below his dimpled chin.

‘Susie’s always raving about that guy’ said Joseph, idly, setting the paper down. ‘I bet she is, given the ugly lump she shacked up with!’ Harold replied, ‘girl’s got to get her kicks somewhere, and I’m busy.’
Joseph made a mental note to buy a Captain Du Maurier costume, preferably one as tight-fitting as the actor’s, though he knew he didn’t quite have the figure to make it work. He owed it to Susie, considering he’d once cajoled her into dressing as Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura. ‘I’m not even black’ she’d observed at the time.

***

In a small and spotless hospital room, disguised as a janitor’s office by virtue of a doorplate, Mayor Eustace Mahoney sat up in bed. He chomped through cigars like they were chocolates, grounding each massive bite into a paste which he then spat in an electric spittoon. This revised the paste’s natural composure into seasonal smells (which season dependant on the programmer’s taste). Mahoney was in a wintry mood, hence the sharp smells of chestnuts, braziers and pine cones which filled the room.

‘F______ little s___’ Mahoney grumbled, ‘screamed his stupid little head off. Between his screaming and the ice-cream sliding down my face, I felt worse than when the f_____ on the float shot me.’ Mahoney’s aide, a man who looked like a lightning rod repurposed as a scarecrow, gave his boss a tiny nod. ‘Speaking of little s____’ Mahoney continued, ‘this waste capsule they stuck up my ass is almost full. Tell some lucky nurse when we’re done here.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Oh, and before I forget, get this wrapped and sent to my nephew, before his birthday this time.’ Mahoney opened a drawer in his bedside bureau and removed an immaculate hardback book, titled Bone China, and Other Fairy Stories from the Lost Land of Arrows-Field.

Spitting, and then chomping another bite, Mahoney grabbed his newspaper. He snorted and thrust it at his aide, who gripped it with one hand while using the other to store the book in his cavernous jacket. ‘You’ve seen this s___, I suppose’ he said. The paper was folded to the NEMESIS WANTED notice. ‘Clearly the f_____’s got sheep to spare, and I want him or her in the f______ stocks the moment I’m out of this s___-heap you call a hospital. There’ll be something we can get them for, disrespecting an official or some such crap. And I want this paper’s editor on his f______ knees, begging me for forgiveness! F______ swine… Mayor almost killed, three senators probably dead, and they’re already whipping their d____ out to p___ on our graves.’

‘Yes sir. Should I send a posse to the specified location?’

‘Nothing’ll happen, but yeah, do it. Show the cops we’re willing to f__ this comedian.’

Someone knocked on the door. ‘That will be PR, sir, with the woman from the city journal.’

With swift motions Mayor Mahoney closed his cigar box, threw it in the drawer, shut the latter, spat his last bite, and said, in a loud gregarious voice: ‘Come in, my friends. I am afraid we have many vulgar things to discuss.’

***

Apart from Waterman and a couple of college-aged stoners the courtyard was empty, but it was early yet, and the detective expected human nature to drive a few more here. Maybe some of the gentleman sleuths he’d seen in traffic.

The Boiler delivery went better than usual. Harold and his fellow cabbies were famous in District for using cheap knockout gas in their trunks, which was probably part of the reason they no longer welcomed Harold unaccompanied. His last delivery, he’d said as they pulled into a station’s car park, ended with an officer getting six month’s paid vacation after the Boiler sprung from the trunk and stuck a knife in him.

The one he and Waterman delivered had more than a little fight, but the station, seeing Harold approach, was ready. The sleuth and the cabbie surrounded the trunk with five officers. Harold popped it open with a button on his key-ring remote, then a half-conscious man, sturdy and just below middle-age, lunged from his vehicular coffin, blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, head poised as a battering ram. One bored officer stunned him with a laser before he could split his skull against the man’s armour.

As the prisoner was shouldered and carried like a martyr into the station, its chief stepped out. ‘Well, if it isn’t Mr Gresham, back from the sewers with a friend’ he called to Harold. Harold smiled. ‘F___ you, Tweety’ he called back. The chief, Joseph thought, did look like a giant canary, with his sallow skin and distended gut. ‘That’s Tweedy to you, Mr Gresham. Chief Inspector Tweedy if you want your share of this.’ He pulled two small certificates from his jacket, each printed with a sum to be redeemed at any cash clerk in the city. (Cash clerks were street-side machines which re-arranged the matter comprising the certificates into smaller, more disposable shekels.) Taking the certificates, Harold briefly acknowledged the little shepherd and sheep printed in their top right hand corners; seals of approval from the printing press. Tweedy noticed this gesture, and laughed. ‘You really think we’d get away with distributing fake certs, even if we were so inclined?’

In the courtyard, Waterman read the newspaper’s funny pages. His trouser pockets now had a pleasant cash lining. He’d treat Susie to a meal and the costume tonight. Several plainclothes men and women dribbled into the courtyard from the street. Despite their plainclothes and discreet distances from each other he knew exactly who they were; a Mayoral posse. The stoners, and the nerdy middle-aged men with swab-wands who’d also arrived, were probably fooled, but in this city even the lowest private dicks, the ones working divorce cases for shekels a poor ancient shepherd would have sniffed at, had some experience of the law’s upper echelons.

Waterman wondered if this curious group would only number eleven, including himself, the stoners, two nerds, and six who were paid to be here. Finally, five teenage boys (two he recognised from their respective lives as solicitor’s apprentice and fast food cashier) and a vagrant showed. Their group was completed. Waterman glanced at his watch: 12:15 exactly. He closed, folded and put his newspaper on the bin beside him.

A tortured rattling sound sprung from the ground between the arches. Everyone looked in its direction and saw, to their mingled fear and confusion, spiked latticework rise at an unbeatable pace from a trench freshly carved through the stones. Before two seconds passed, they were sealed in. One of the boys grabbed a spike-shaft, and was mildly electrocuted. Waterman, who’d seen such guard technology before, sensed the force-field stretched like elastic in the spaces made by the shafts. Now he was truly interested in this newspaper prank, if not yet frightened.

The middle-aged men backed against the right wall and everyone else save Waterman the wall with the arch, as another tortured sound dragged itself out of the courtyard’s centre. A large circle opened, spiked cobblestone leaves receding into unseen hollows. Once the hole was complete, a platform rose and filled it. Eight short metal monoliths, just shorter than the average man, dotted the platform’s rim, an alien mockery of Stonehenge. Okay, Waterman thought, now I’m really truly interested, and like the Mayor’s posse instinctively reached for the gun in his jacket. One of the men at the right wall, he saw, had dropped his swab-wand, which he suspected with sickening surety would soon have a lot of samples to analyse. The teenagers huddled together for comfort; a scared and intimate gesture they’d pretend never happened should they survive this.

They needn’t have worried. Rectangular holes appeared on the monoliths’ faces, below their crowns, and each hosted a machine gun. Waterman dived behind the bin supporting his paper, and the posse also took cover, a few trying to drag the nearby boys down with them. The platform rotated and the guns began firing, killing the stoners, the vagrant, one of the men and three boys almost instantly, their bodies torn apart like old parchment. The remaining man took two bullets to one shoulder, slumped to the floor and screamed in stupid agony as his arm separated from its socket, then dangled; a rotted tree limb. He did, however, take time for an indignant sniff of the smell seeping through the holes in the stoners’ corpses.

A posse-member, whether out of mercy or annoyance, finished him with a bullet through his forehead. The dying man remembered reading his first detective story as a precocious eight year old, staying with his grandmother in a simulated beach landscape; one day, he’d thought, he’d be smart, violent and courageous. Now, just before the mortal curtain fell, he thought: ‘I should have stayed in the f______ car.’ The two surviving boys wailed; another member, using his magazine as a cloche, smacked one then the other on the backs of their heads, rendering them unconscious.

Besides his next move, all Waterman thought as he crouched behind the bin was ‘Susie…’ her face and her body and her voice and her laugh. Prostrate on the bed in that silly simulation of a sleazy motel, where he played the cop and she the hussy; how she’d begged him to “complete” her, and he wasn’t sure if her urgency was real or a feigned arousal technique, nor cared because it worked either way. He closed his eyes and sighed; behind every cornered man there was a woman, reminding him what he’d miss if the next bed he booked was a coffin’s.

The gunfire ceased. A bullet ricocheted against the force-field (which also worked as a soundproof one-way mirror, Waterman realised, when he saw people on the street walking past the carnage) and was buried in the opposing wall. The courtyard’s walls, windows and open ceiling, he supposed, were similarly shielded. He thanked whatever God permitted this that bins were better reinforced than tanks in his city. Framed by a window just above the dead, nearly armless nerd, a bored woman fed paper to a shredder.

A voice, awkward and without accent, like a computer’s speech function, spoke through one of the monoliths. ‘You have passed the first test. But a story can only have one hero. The fault is not in your stars, but in your storytellers. The primitive minds you have secured a place on this frail world with can, it seems, allot sympathy to just one main protagonist in your narratives. That leaves us with you, our mayor’s men and women, and you, our private sleuth. Conversing with your stolen leaders, we have reached the conclusion that an underdog is always more sympathetic than, if you will permit us the use of your colloquialism, a “company man”. Even Captain Kirk fought bitterly against the Federation. As such, we have made our choice.’

The speaking monolith emitted a beam of light towards the posse, who lay like dogs enraptured by it. The beam then separated into six strands, each piercing one forehead with more precision and finality than the bullet that ended the nerd’s life. A metal hose extended from another monolith and sprayed the unconscious boys with whiskey, while a robotic arm turned one’s body, retreated, returned and placed a spent machine gun in his limp hands.

This elegant process completed, the monolith nearest Waterman emitted a gas so pure and dreadful it drifted like merest atoms through the reinforced bin, and then rocked him to sleep.

***

He awoke in darkness, not just an absence of light but an absence of any recognisable shape or texture. Even the floor he presumably lay on did not respond to his touch; he could push against it, but somehow not feel it. To what he guessed was his right a bank of monitors without discernible support floated down from unseen launches. The monitors erupted into static, and then each displayed a different science-fiction serial from Earth’s history. In one, Captain Kirk fought breathlessly against an android collar’s chokehold, his eyes popping out of his face. In another, Buck Rogers posed on an outcrop of moon rock, ostentatious laser in hand, a female model kneeling beside him. And, Waterman saw with eyes watered by bottomless sadness, there was Du Maurier: Interspatial Sleuth, wrestling with a rogue robot soldier.

‘Human adjustment to these vessels takes about a week, which is time our hosts are impatient to spend elsewhere. Earth-time, one presumes, requires its own adjustment for them.’ The voice appeared to the left of the monitors. Waterman turned and saw Christopher Plangent, a prominent figure in the mayor’s cabinet. This tall, wispy man, wearing the same dark red shirt with black tie and trousers he’d worn the moment of his kidnap, jacket slung over his shoulder, approached Waterman. He was calm, even serene. Waterman punched him. His fist, however, went right through his face, creating ever decreasing circles of static until the picture stilled again, an image in a lake. Plangent laughed, kindly and a little sadly.

‘I did the same thing when I was brought here’ he said. ‘Our hosts interviewed us separately, and I was graced with an image of our mayor, who I’m sure you know has a very punch-able face.’ Waterman lifted a corner of his mouth in vaguest acknowledgement of the remark. ‘There’s nothing you can do to stop what will happen’ Plangent continued. ‘Though, of course, you’ll try. You’re the perfect kind of hero. Smart enough, but not an intellectual, strong, brave… handsome.’

‘Thanks, though I thought you were the marrying kind, Mr Plangent.’ Plangent laughed. ‘Yes, that’s right, my wife. She and our two daughters will lead long, relaxing lives in the new world. That’s mine and their good fortune. And yours and Susie’s.’

‘Leave my girlfriend out of this.’ Plangent smiled and placed a holographic hand as best he could on Waterman’s shoulder. ‘Trust me; you do not want her left out of this, Mr Waterman. The freedom promised by the notice will also be extended to her and anyone else you’ve invested yourself in. Is there anyone else?’ No, thought Waterman, not really. Harold Gresham, though loyal to his friends, was in the end a brute and a sadist. Waterman’s father was killed in the last war before he was born, and his mother, whose only family died when he was fifteen, had also breached the mortal curtain. He was an only child, and his father was estranged from what relations he may still have for reasons Joseph couldn’t remember, if he’d ever been told. No, there was only Susie. His “faithful dog”.

As if he’d somehow read this internal monologue, Plangent nodded. Beside them, the monitor playing Star Trek switched to a news report: ‘TEENAGE GANGBANGERS KILL THIRTEEN IN COURTYARD. “THEY SEEMED SUCH NICE YOUNG MEN” SAY FAMILIES’ Plangent saw this and snorted. ‘Morons’ he said, ‘they don’t question why no-one saw or heard two drunken kids spraying bullets around a crowded courtyard, they just play up the “nice young men” angle.’ Waterman didn’t bother asking who exactly the morons were. ‘What happens now?’ was all he asked.

Plangent faced him again. ‘You’ll awake in your own bed, and the moment you open your eyes your every movement will be recorded by millions of invisible cameras. Not that “camera” is an appropriate word for our hosts’ technology, but we appeal to what context we can.’ He seemed reflective. ‘They’re so damnably advanced, Waterman. It’s astonishing… Technically, you’ve been asleep in this vessel a day, but it reacts to its own space-time continuum, so on Earth it’s barely been an hour…’

Waterman stared at him. ‘I know you’re a politician, Plangent, but you’re also a husband and father. Do you not feel anything for the people these bastards slaughtered down there?’ When Plangent looked at him, his eyes weren’t haunted as much as void of all illusion. ‘What did they have to look forward to?’ he replied.

***

Joseph did awake in his bed, naked (as he always slept) with Susie encircling him. He removed himself from her grasp slowly and methodically. He stood before the un-curtained window as naked and unashamed as a hunter-gatherer. He remembered the millions of invisible “cameras” watching him and pointlessly surveyed the room. The nature of reality seemed entirely different for whoever these aliens were. He wondered why they needed such primitive humanoid mammals. Glancing at the flow of humanity in the morning traffic outside, and then staring at Susie, he decided that he would crush these bastards, whoever they were.

No matter how absurdly advanced their technology, so beyond conception by human minds it lived on the level of dark magic, his spirit, his determination would conquer, like all the heroes of those stories the aliens aped and dismissed. Captain Kirk, Buck Rogers, Du Maurier… Joseph Waterman. Pulp fiction would be written about him, and he’d one day be played by an actor like the one who played Du Maurier, in a fishbowl astronaut’s helmet. He would prove humanity’s divine essence, its worthiness, its compassion, and save every single life in the cars beyond his window now.

And even if he did fail (which he assured himself he wouldn’t) it’s not like he’d get the short end of the stick in the ensuing dystopia…

Film review: Deep Red (1975)

Rating: 4 stars out of 4

As dark, funny, scary and violent as the best of Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter or the other English-language masters, Deep Red is the perfect psychological murder mystery. A giallo, in English an Italian thriller film with elements of horror and/or eroticism, it’s overlaid with extreme, creative gore, though its real heart is the suspense, the waiting for violence to happen. It’s scored with a twangy rock and pop soundtrack, which you’d think would dilute the suspense in the quieter scenes, yet it actually heightens it. Something about the strange psychedelic tunes evokes a world where anything can happen, and anything can leap out of the dark with a cleaver.

The Hitchcock influences are clear, especially in a couple of shocks influenced by Psycho (brilliantly subverted here) and the innocent-man-wrongly-accused theme. (Amusingly, though, Deep Red‘s hero almost chooses to be in the frame. Initially, he’s just a witness at a crime scene, but then his fascination with the mystery places him at the scene of another murder.) Even the poster, pictured below, echoes Vertigo‘s. In fact, for those whose enjoyment of Psycho has inevitably been tarnished, or at least modified, by growing up in the spoiler-strewn decades since its release, I’d recommend Deep Red. In it you might capture some of the same shock and suspense felt by those who first saw Hitchcock’s masterpiece on the big screen.

The film opens with two pianists (is Dario Argento, director and co-writer, referencing Hitchcock’s comment about playing the audience like a piano?), Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), a pessimistic drunk, and Marcus (David Hemmings), an English expatriate. One night, after helping Carlo out of a drunken stupor and back to work, Marcus witnesses a murder through the apartment window below his own. Helga (Macha Méril), a psychic, is being butchered, hours after her lecture was disturbed by murderous thoughts unwittingly transmitted by an audience member. At the scene of the crime Marcus meets Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), a feisty journalist who teams up with him to solve the case.

Their budding romance provides the film’s comic relief, like in a great sequence where Marcus describes women as weaker, and an indignant Gianna challenges him to an arm-wrestling match. He loses, demands another, loses again, and of course accuses her of cheating. One thing I admire about Deep Red is its sharp eye for character. Few characters have much if any back-story, but they’re so sharply and simply drawn they don’t need it.

Deep Red is a very scary film, and it’s this as much as the violence which pushes it into horror territory. The murders are exquisitely arranged and directed, reliant on shots where you think the killer will emerge, but then doesn’t. But then does. The music, as aforementioned, helps. What it does, I think, is insert a world of terror and sudden violence, where before was the ordinary world we all know. There’s even an evil doll moment, the best of its kind I’ve ever seen on film. Good Lord, is that doll horrible! The murders mostly take place in houses, and a big deal is made of the move from outside to inside, disturbing the notion that we’re safer in than out. Occasional dream-like segments depict a black landscape littered with knitted voodoo dolls and toy babies, presided over by an eye.

Each murder scene is so tense and drawn-out the graphic violence crowning them actually comes as a relief, illustrating Hitchcock’s point that the terror is not in the bang, but in the anticipation of the bang. Deep Red even improves on Psycho by removing all the psychobabble (pun not intended) that film was prone to. Many critics have complained about the psychiatrist’s speech at the end of Psycho, and though I liked the speech for its macabre imagery, I see their point. Well, Deep Red has no such speech. In fact, it has no explicit psychology at all, really. Insanity is used and alluded to, but never explained. The film isn’t about psychology. It’s about eyes, knives, and murder leaping out of the dark.

Profondo_Rosso_poster

Short story (by me): The Impenitent Thief

The thief and his girl, a pretty blonde number with legs like giraffes’ necks, parked outside the kook’s house. The kook was Mr D’Amico, an Italian by nature and Irishman by disposition, having inherited the latter race’s potent sense of sin. A rusted iron cross hung in his office; he resisted any suggestion that he restore it, its rust reminding him, he said, of mortal things’ tendency to rot. (The cross held no body.)

His guests discussed this eccentricity as they walked to the door. ‘I never did like Catholics’ said the girl. ‘No-one did’ said the thief, ‘not even Catholics. If they were likeable they’d be Quakers, or at least Mormons.’ ‘How much is this old Roman worth, anyway?’ The thief smiled and coiled an arm around her waist, jerking her near. ‘Only I need that knowledge, daffodil. You just think about what dresses and jewels you’re going to buy.’ ‘Jewels? He is worth something, then.’

Before the thief could knock on the door it was opened by a servant, and for a moment he was irrationally worried that their conversation had been heard. Then he remembered the frosted-glass panels, and entered his chosen role before entering the house. ‘Mr and Mrs Charlton, here for Mr D’Amico.’ ‘Follow me, sir.’

The servant led them past a closed door through which piano music and laughter could be heard. One of Mrs D’Amico’s endless parties, the girl thought, reflecting that if he was her husband, she’d be the constant hostess too. The servant led them up two flights of stairs at opposing angles, down three similarly positioned corridors, and then deposited them outside a door in a small alcove, flanked by a couch and coffee table. The servant knocked on the door and left without a word. The girl went to sit down, but the thief caught her arm. ‘We don’t want to look like humble visitors’ he whispered. ‘“Mr and Mrs Charlton”?’ she whispered back. ‘Why not just call us the Charlestons and be done with it? Or, better yet, Mr and Mrs Capone.’

D’Amico, they knew, would take a long time reaching the door, also not wanting to look humble, or, worse still, grateful. Eventually, though, he did, and smiled in his guarded way at the two young people on his threshold. The thief began ‘Mr and Mrs Charl-‘ ‘Let’s cut the chaff now, shall we? I didn’t put my office in a housemaid’s toilet to make use of the bidet.’ Mr Charlton smiled and, taking his wife’s arm, they walked into the office. This room wasn’t much bigger than the alcove. Bookshelves were set into the left and right walls. A strand of frosted window hung above the aforementioned cross. Below this was a clerk’s desk, before which were two folding-chairs. D’Amico sat behind, in a dusty armchair. Mrs Charlton wondered where the bidet could have lived in this cupboard, and how lithe the poor housemaid must have been.

‘I’m sure Officer Harris wired you the story.’ ‘Is it wise to use his real name, sir?’ Mr Charlton replied. D’Amico snorted. ‘If you’re FBI you’ll be grateful for the information, if you don’t already have it, and if you are whom I hope you are you won’t care.’ ‘With all respect due to the man who pays us, sir, that doesn’t sound very loyal.’ D’Amico took a small green hymn book from a shelf to his left. ‘As useful to the Pharisees as Judas was, I still doubt that they wanted to break bread with him.’

His middle finger selected the page, unaided by crease or card. He opened the book with one gesture. ‘It pains me, you know, to use a holy text for such business, but I never cared for this particular hymn. Too much assonance and consonance, too little rhyme. A hymn-maker, I feel, should be more sophisticated than a minstrel.’

He turned the book around and pushed it towards them. Under the heading “PART V GENERAL HYMNS” was a work ascribed to “H. Bonar, 1808 – 89”. The Charltons read the first verse to themselves.

“A few more years shall roll,
A few more seasons come,
And we shall be with those that rest
In peace beyond the tomb.
Then, O my Lord, prepare
My soul for that great day;
O wash me in thy precious Blood,
And take my sins away.”

‘May I borrow a paper and pencil?’ said Mr Charlton. ‘Of course.’ D’Amico handed them the requested, and Mrs Charlton wrote while her husband dictated: ‘A1, B2, A1, B2, C0, D2, C0, D2.’ ‘Not exactly “The Gold Bug”, I know, but it serves its purpose well’ D’Amico said.

While his wife folded the paper and placed it in her purse, her husband asked: ‘may we keep the book?’ D’Amico smiled. ‘If a more honest colleague of our friend on the force found it in your car, “Mr Charlton”, he’d wonder how the thieves are finding God.’ Charlton smiled back, returned the book, shook D’Amico’s hand, and said ‘how else, sir? They crucified us beside Him.’

***

‘Don’t tell me “Officer Harris” knew the code’ said the girl as they were driving home. ‘Of course not’ he replied, ‘I told you how I met that guy, right? Ploughing a burrito with tobacco-stained teeth, spilling sauce on a rape report he hadn’t bothered to file. He’s one of the few cops I’ve met who are pigs in the literal as well as the figurative.’ ‘Then how did you know it? D’Amico certainly didn’t give it to you.’ ‘Only I…’ ‘“Need that knowledge, daffodil”’ she finished, ‘yeah yeah, I’ll keep thinking about dresses and jewels.’

They passed a well-lit drugstore, against whose display window a bum leaned, clutching liquor in a brown-paper bag with one hand, and a small box with the other. ‘I think the old man likes you’ he said. ‘What makes you say that?’ she replied. ‘Every man likes tall, blonde women who don’t talk.’

She smiled. ‘Not D’Amico. He prefers tall, blonde men who talk with their hips.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘The last time we were there I cased the joint while looking for the ladies’, the way you taught me back in San Fran. I heard, shall we say, aggressive noises coming from that powder-room he calls an office, and being an inquisitive sort of girl, peeked through the keyhole.’ ‘And?’ ‘He was inspecting one of his bodyguards.’ ‘So? You know how paranoid these old Italian mobsters are getting. With them it’s almost a ritual to check your staff for spyware.’ ‘Yeah, and I suppose stemming the rose is just a tribute to their Virgin.’

He glanced at her. ‘You saw that?’ ‘Uh-huh. Back to the cross and everything. I felt like Fanny Hill, peeking through that keyhole.’ ‘How does a girl like you know someone called Fanny Hill?’ She grinned, put a hand on his leg, leaned over and nibbled his ear. ‘I certainly didn’t marry you for your culture, Mr Charleston.’ He laughed. ‘If you want a cultured man’ he said, breaking away from her as he turned a corner into heavy traffic, ‘find one who stems the rose.’

They waited for the line of cars to disperse. Once it did he drove on, musing aloud ‘I wonder if Mrs D’Amico knows…’ The girl snorted. ‘I doubt she cares.’ ‘And I thought taking a bullet for your boss was brave. Still, it’s nice to know we have something to torture him with, should he ever turn on us. By the way, what did he mean by that “Gold Bug” remark?’ ‘It’s a short story, Edgar Allan Poe, about a coded treasure map.’

He parked in the storeyed garage beside their apartment complex. They walked in silence to their front door. Inside, she fetched drinks from a hostess trolley in the clean, white, otherwise empty hallway. He threw his tie and jacket on their bed, re-entered the hall then accepted his drink. ‘To the generous and gay’ he said, clinking his glass against hers. ‘To Mr D’Amico’ she agreed. They drank. She took the paper from her purse. ‘And, of course, to the hymn-makers’ she said, putting it in an empty cocktail mixer.

***

The code was simple and, knowing its source, she easily broke it. Mostly, each line’s last word shared, with its peer two lines below, a measure of assonance and consonance. A, for instance, referred to “roll” and “rest”, which share one common consonant. (Their association with Mr D’Amico had, she supposed, cultured her lover somewhat.) Hence, A1. These couples were then translated into their corresponding numbers and letters, so A1 became 1A, B2 2B, C0 just C, and D2 4B. This combination – 1A, 2B, C, 4B – were then dialled twice, once forward, once backward, on a safe-lock in Loan Lambs, the credit company D’Amico used as a front (its name chosen, he said, for how it compared favourably with “loan sharks”.)

Her real name was Mary Reed, and his James Strictly, and they still used these for their social lives. Professionally, they assumed new names for each job. James began work as a thief, graduating from hold-ups to bank and jewellery jobs after his talents were noted by a Mafia scout. She was a moll, no more than a guest at parties, before her acting gifts became useful. She turned away cops, designed alibis, collected consignments, and even gave evidence in court. Then her husband died, not in a shootout, as would befit a man of his exciting lifestyle, but of skin cancer, extracted from a youth working shirtless in chain-gangs beneath hot rural suns. Her history precluded an average life after that (she dreaded the curse of young, unmarried women with English degrees: secretarial work) so she stayed in “the business”, receiving support from her late husband’s cronies and grifting for them in exchange.

Then, two years ago, she met James at a party, and adored what she considered his essential devotion (to the women he slept with, anyway), coupled with a rugged charm which reminded her of the man who’d made her a widow. Together, their talents for problem-solving and performance art were formidable, and they embarked on a new, safer, better-paid career with the mob: detective-work. ‘A mobster can’t exactly go to the police when his money’s been stolen’ James explained to her, ‘and outside private dicks are a risk. Think of us like the military police. Or, in the spirit of these faithful Catholics, and your unswerving attempts to educate me, Father Brown.’ G K Chesterton, she’d thought, would be appalled by the comparison, were he watching from Heaven.

Their current case, like many others, begun with James’ suspicions that a robbery would soon take place at one of the mob’s fronts. He deduced this by observing peculiarities in the behaviour of certain associates. Mafia life was stressful and dangerous; more so when you knew you’d never become a “made man”: protected by your superiors, a superior yourself, able to command underlings, freer from the threat of prosecution or poverty. Rarely, but not rarely enough to the minds of Mary and James’ employers, people saw a new life in some foreign clime, equipped with a new identity, supported by stolen money, entertained by local women.

‘Who’s the poor mook this time?’ Mary asked, over breakfast the morning after their interview with D’Amico. ‘Officer Frank Harris of the LAPD’ he replied, ‘former mole, now desperate runaway.’ Mary replaced her fork during its ascent. ‘You can’t be serious.’ ‘I’m afraid I am, Mrs Charlton. Not only does he fear exposure by his colleagues, his wife’s on the verge of ratting him out, and he doesn’t have a carpet big enough to roll her in. Nor is there a harbour which could house her anyway.’ ‘That dumb pig? You really think he’s smart or brave enough to work a heist like this? Where would he even go? The tropics? I can see it now: big-breasted creep with accent enough to make a Yankee plug his ears, beached on a deckchair with a black beauty on each arm.’

To her distaste, James filled his mouth with eggs and continued, ‘fear makes people do desperate things, my inamorata. You should know that, having heard my pleas for mercy.’ ‘If you say so, James… At least he’s one I’ll not feel guilty for. How do you intend to trap him, may I ask?’ ‘During his drive home he’ll be pulled over by a “police” car; it’ll be dark, so all he’ll see are the flashing lights on Tony’s roof. Tony’ll handle it from there.’ ‘I’m sure he will.’ Tony’s nickname was “the cutter”. Once a troubled youth fresh from juvenile hall, where he’d spent two-and-a-half years for crippling his father, his arms were a latticework of self-harm. Even ten years later these scars were visible, though they looked more like worms wriggling beneath his skin. His friends in the mafia, he claimed, brought him nearer mental health than any shrink ever had. ‘So what role will I be playing this time?’ Mary asked. ‘This time, Bette Davis, I’ll be winning the Oscars…’

***

Outside Loan Lambs two goons sat in a car, slid below visibility from across the street, where Officer Harris’ arrival was expected. As they prepared to eat their second sandwiches of the night, the duplicitous policeman turned a corner into the parade and approached the front door. ‘The mook actually wore his uniform’ whispered the goon at the near window, chewing pastrami. ‘I bet he keeps his keys to the place on his desk, too’ said the other. ‘If I thought he’d be showing up for work tomorrow, I’d take that bet.’ Without checking the coast Harris unlocked the door, opened and, turning sideways to accommodate his bulk, stepped through it. The goons watched him through the display window. He picked up a magazine from a couch in the waiting area, and lifted the hatch in the receptionist’s desk. He opened the magazine as he walked towards the manager’s office. ‘Can’t we just do the pig now? Why should Tony the Cutter have all the fun?’ ‘D’Amico’s orders.’ ‘I never did like Catholics.’ ‘You’re in the wrong mob.’ ‘Isn’t my fault’ said the goon at the far window, dejected, chewing a bite of his sandwich, ‘the Quakers don’t have a mob.’

***

Inside the manager’s office James Strictly removed his massive sunglasses. He was perspiring heavily, not from fear but the fat-suit, made with a thick bullet-proof vest and every shirt he owned. He removed these piece by piece and stored them in a sports bag Mary had left for him. Mary emerged from the safe-room, still wearing her sunglasses, and a large black panama hat with widow’s-veil besides. He wondered how she’d dialled the code through all that. She carried her own sports bag, now loaded with 100,000 dollars. Placing this on the desk, she prepared to transfer 50,000 to the bag with the fat-suit. James plucked a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and mopped his brow, then his bare chest. ‘You slut’ she teased, ‘next you’ll be asking for my panties to towel your thighs.’ He grinned, and kissed her cheek. ‘I’ll dance for you later’ he said. ‘Wear the fat-suit. I like my men husky.’

After the 50,000 was transferred, she pulled a folded shirt from the bottom of her bag and handed it to James. She admired him while he buttoned it up. ‘What are you going to say happened to the other 50,000?’ she asked. ‘Nothing. Earlier in the week I wore that fat-suit you so elegantly designed and made another trip for the benefit of those goons outside. D’Amico, for all his Christian humility, won’t like having to write off 50,000 big ones, but I’ll tell him it’s probably fattening a mattress in Harris’ house, which will be heavier guarded than Buckingham Palace after the precincts open their parcels tomorrow.’

Mary shuddered. ‘Just like the concubine in Judges 19…’ ‘Huh?’ ‘D’Amico will tell you some other time. I don’t like that you came here alone, by the way.’ Touched by her concern, he held her shoulders and kissed her cheeks, then her lips. ‘I like to keep you in the dark as much as possible. Who else would I dance for?’ She relented, for now, and kissed him back. ‘Where are we meeting Harris?’ ‘He should be waiting in our garage right now’ he answered, still giving her small kisses around her face. ‘We’ll drive the hire car down there, give him the bag without the fat-suit, and that, my lover, will be that.’ ‘He really thinks he’s doing D’Amico a favour, doesn’t he?’ ‘Don’t feel bad for him, Princess of the Reeds.’ ‘I don’t. You always choose the most deserving victims.’ They left the way Mary entered, through the back door.

***

The only mattress D’Amico’s absent 50,000 fattened, in the end, belonged to a bank in the Cayman Islands. Tony the Cutter found the other half in a sports bag on Harris’ back seat, with a magazine taken from Loan Lambs’ waiting area. On page six, above the headline ‘TO SERVE AND PROTECT? SECRETS OF THE LAPD” was written the safe code, in crude, unsteady characters. While Tony divorced Harris’ limbs from his torso, in preparation for their journey to the twelve tribes of Israel (otherwise known as the various LA precincts), the repentant mook pleaded that D’Amico’s bodyguard, of all people, had told him to deliver the bag to his boss. Why the bodyguard met him in the garage beside Mr Charlton’s apartment complex Harris couldn’t explain. But then he never was the brightest candle in the tabernacle, D’Amico reflected, while caressing his bodyguard’s hair. ‘And as for “Mr Charlton”’ he observed while his lover leaned into the caress, ‘I owe him and his wife my continued prosperity.’

Film review: Marnie (1964)

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

You may not feel it at first, but Marnie‘s heart is a lot colder than the melodrama and sentimentality which often surrounds it. Making heavy use of German Expressionism, an aesthetic style which places auterism and dream-like atmosphere above visual consistency, the film has some very dated elements. Patricularly, there’s a dockyard backdrop which is obviously painted and unmoving, and frequent bombast on the soundtrack. (This was the last of seven Alfred Hitchcock films scored by Psycho composer Bernard Herrmann, who fell out with the director after he came to believe Hermann was recycling his music, then fired him while making Torn Curtain.)

The story opens with an interview at a business which has just been relieved of several thousand pounds, by an attractive raven-haired typist who, to quote her employer, was too good to be true. (Hitchcock finds humour in a scene where the short, portly, middle-aged, bespectacled businessman is asked to describe the typist, and catches himself listing her, shall we say, less relevant qualities.)

Washing the dye from her hair and assuming a new name, the thief, real name Marnie (Tippi Hedren), takes a job at a new office, where she’s hired on the recommendation of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), against his underling’s wishes. Why is Rutland so keen on this purported young widow with insufficient references? He seems to recognise her, vaguely, from an office which was recently robbed…

From here we dive into Marnie’s complex personal life, which includes a reticent religious mother; violent dreams of noises in the night; and a fear of the colour red. Rutland realises her past, and derangement before she does, but rather than call the police or a doctor, or at least let her flee, he blackmails her into marriage, thrilled by her strangeness, hoping to unlock it…

One aspect of older films I’ve never liked much is the melodramatic music, which to me feels like the aural equivalent of purple prose, underlining and explaining every emotion. I’d guess that it’s a holdover from silent cinema, when the lack of recorded sound meant a pianist in the auditorium had to provide the emotional cues. It’s telling that Marnie‘s most suspenseful scene, with two women in a business office, one a safe-cracker, the other a cleaner, has no music.

But behind all the melodrama, and some dated approaches to sexuality which provoke laughter more than shock these days (a shot of Connery pulling off Hedren’s dress, though precursor to one of Hitchcock’s most disturbing shots, is hilarious; pure Mills&Boon), there’s a chilliness which grips the heart. There’s a much discussed rape scene, where Connery, tired of his caged bird’s diffidence and frigidity, forcibly takes what’s “his” during their honeymoon.

The assault is presented in such a way that, if you wish, you can do some gymnastics and rationalise it as consensual. (I’ve seen commenters on YouTube argue this point, some in the language of modern feminism.) I think the scene is in the tradition of contemporary pulp romance novels, a la Barbara Cartland and the aforementioned Mills&Boon. In 1970, Violet Winspear, one such author, infamously revealed she wrote her leading men as “capable of rape”. (With this in mind, all the “scandalous” Fifty Shades of Grey does is make overt what was once merely hinted at.)

Down this way, one might argue that Marnie‘s rape scene is a self-aware comment on the darker side of sexual fantasies, even those enjoyed by women and informed by notions of chivalry. After all, Sean Connery is the hero, and his evil assault does break through Marnie’s sexual exile. On a deeper, darker level, however, the rape is a commentary on Hitchcock’s own issues with sexuality.

Though never an object of desire himself (he was refused military service in World War I for his obesity) Hitchcock seemed concerned with finding attractive actors for his plots, women and men. Connery was a beautiful man, emitting a sense of brute masculine strength in a hunky, soft-lipped package. He was the ideal hero for a story about a woman whose psychological problems are overcome by a man’s virility and brutality. Is this what Hitchcock saw for himself, in his ideals? A man who was desired, and strong, and able to dominate ice-cold blondes like Tippi Hedren?

If you feel that I’m dwelling too much on the rape scene, well, it was the reason Hitchcock made the film, an adaptation of a novel by Winston Graham, at least according to screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, who once told Evan Hunter, the writer she replaced: “you just got bothered by the scene that was his reason for making the movie. You just wrote your ticket back to New York.” (Hunter, disliking the novel’s rape scene, because he felt that it made the hero unlikeable, tried writing an alternative, to which Hitchcock responded in a fashion perhaps only Hithcock would: “Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want that camera right on her face“.)

Tippi Hedren is likeable and vulnerable in her role, but she’s not one of the great actresses. She’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, she’s just not very mannered or sincere in her performances. She was much better as the confused, terrified Scream Queen of horror film The Birds.

More could be done with Marnie, a psychologically rich character, by a subtler and calculating actress, like Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest), who sought the role without realising Hitchcock already offered it to Hedren while making The Birds. In fact, Hedren’s unironic approach to the role gives it a naiveté which sometimes causes laughter, particularly during scenes of revelation, where she comes across more like a girlish ingenue than a deranged thief.

Connery is another performer who’s not exactly subtle, but he’s so right physically for the role it doesn’t matter as much. His beauty, his raw and violent sex appeal, was born for the part of Mark Rutland. The reveal of what lies behind Marnie’s madness is almost tear-jerkingly poignant, and filmed with empathy by Hitchcock, not often regarded for the tender approach to female characters. Marnie can be a frustratingly silly, dated film at times, mostly due to its Expressionist techniques, but beneath all the surface style is a black-hearted Freudian tale about abuse and exploitation, leavened with typical moments of black humour.

Marnie1

Film review: Family Plot (1976)

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4

A criminally underrated Alfred Hitchcock film, Family Plot was the last project the great director finished. Though almost all of his films are thrillers, one can be as different from another as night is from day, a truth illustrated by Hitchcock’s last two. His penultimate, Frenzy, was a gritty, grimy, violent and horrifying serial killer story set in 1970’s London. Family Plot, however, though it also relies on a deviously clever, teasing plot, is a polished, light-hearted caper about jewel thieves and long-lost heirs, filmed in sun-baked California. In this way, Frenzy and Family Plot can be compared to, say, Psycho and North by Northwest, two other Hitchcock thrillers with widely divergent tones.

Family Plot is also a funny, self-aware film, packed with Hitchcock’s trademark double entendres and mean little witticisms. Based on a thriller novel, The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning, screenwriter Ernest Lehman supposedly wanted Family Plot to be dark like the book, but Hitchcock vetoed this in favour of comedy. Lehman’s original vision might have made a great film, and you can see the seeds of it here, especially in William Devane’s role as a heartless career criminal, but Hitchcock’s is just as good, and probably better.

Family Plot is the kind of film that only a director as old and assured as Hitchcock could make. Presented with effortless cool and whimsy, it lacks any of a younger director’s need to prove himself. Its jokes and twists are arranged like notes in an idle but brilliant composition, by a composer enjoying his talents, as opposed to straining them. This is Hitchcock at his most relaxed, and it’s still a masterpiece of elegant suspense. I’d even be prepared to crawl out on a limb and say that Family Plot is better than Frenzy, a good film also marked by relaxed, confident humour. It isn’t as gritty or realistic as Hitchcock’s London slasher, but why should films be realistic, necessarily? Give me cool escapism any day.

Family Plot‘s, erm, plot, begins with “Madame” Blanche (Barbara Harris), a phony psychic (is there another kind?) bilking a rich old spinster with voices from “the afterlife”, particularly said victim’s sister, whose illegitimate child she pressured her into giving up decades ago. Now old and without heirs, the spinster offers Blanche ten thousand dollars (presumably a life-changing sum in 1976, by the way the characters discuss it) if she can find her long-lost nephew. Blanche follows the trail with her boyfriend, George (Bruce Dern), a jobbing actor and cabbie. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, the heir (William Devane) isn’t just your Average Joe. He’s a charming, sociopathic jewel thief with a soundproofed room in his cellar, wherein he houses kidnapped VIPs, from businessmen to bishops, ransoming them for precious stones. He’s assisted by his lover (Karen Black), who in true Hitchcock fashion wears high heels and a blonde wig to each ransom delivery.

Every scene with Barbara Harris is pure joy. Each line and expression radiates warmth, intelligence; she’s a mischievous pixie, winding poor, dim Bruce Dern (almost a Dr. Watson figure, if Holmes was always demanding sex from Watson) around one little finger. In short, she’s adorable. Her seances are a lesson in great comic acting; Harris is one of the most entertaining film comediennes I’ve seen. Even when I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling broadly. The film’s last shot perfectly captures her (and Hitchcock’s) sly charm.

Dern is also brilliant in his role as George, her lunk of a boyfriend, prone to clever observations but woefully amateurish in his attempts at discretion, and all too willing to let Blanche dominate him, no matter how much he protests. (“He doesn’t even drive his own car” one character observes.) Dern has possibly the film’s single funniest line, during a runaway car scene, which he reportedly ad-libbed to Hitchcock’s delight. Said scene is one of Hitchcock’s most humorously directed, and is a riot throughout. Hitchcock had a strong talent for visual comedy, and the scene may be one of his best directed in terms of pure effect. Its crowning shot, as Barbara climbs out of the car and the camera cuts to Dern’s face, is hilarious.

As the main antagonist, Devane is perfectly cast. It’s easy to see why he was Hitchcock’s first choice, and why the director fired his replacement, Roy Thinnes, when Devane, previously occupied, became available. (Thinnes later confronted Hitchcock about this in a restaurant, and Hitchcock, not sure what to say, simply stared at him until he left.) As the soulless charmer, Devane is as oily and unsettling as a Dirty Harry villain. His grin’s too wide, too cold, his teeth too large and white, like a waxwork’s. There’s a splendid shot, also improvised, when he suddenly picks a piece of lint from an inspector’s lapel, during a routine interview about a stolen diamond he happens to possess. If Barbara Harris is the perfect protagonist for this breed of clever, light-hearted suspense, Devane is the perfect antagonist.

As his accomplice, Karen Black rounds out a beautifully chosen cast. Her first scene is as cool as anything you’ll ever see in a caper film; in her blond wig, large black sunglasses, trench-coat and panama hat, she waltzes behind enemy lines, poised with her dainty revolver, not speaking once while she assesses each situation. No wonder a shot of her in costume was chosen for the poster (pictured below). Of the main four, Black’s is probably the least developed character, but her persona’s still sharp enough to be engaging. Essentially, she’s a criminal ingénue, happy to dress up and play cops-and-robbers with Devane, but squeamish when violence inevitably gets involved.

The film’s complex plot is carefully and leisurely worked out, leaving no loose ends, flaunting coincidences without ever once cheating. Devane’s criminal schemes, and the way the two couples weave in and out of each others’ lives, are delightful to witness. Family Plot was the only Hitchcock film to be scored by John Williams, frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator; on working with Hitchcock, Williams recalled a moment when, while scoring a suspenseful scene, the director called for more lightness in the music. When Williams questioned the appropriateness of this, Hitchcock replied: “Mr. Williams, murder can be fun.” With Alfred Hitchcock, it always was.

Family_plot_movie_poster

Short story (by me): Bone China

A long time ago, in a dark and heavily guarded palace, there lived Princess Gale, named for the wind which howled outside her parents’ chamber when she was conceived. Her father, the king, was a jaded and sadistic tyrant, forever devising new reasons to be murderously aggrieved. A year before this story, he ordered the execution of a tailor whose garment irritated the skin of the Prince, Gale’s brother. The king did not care for his children as individuals, but saw them as extensions of himself, so any perceived slight against them was a slight against him, and any slight against him was unforgivable. Princess Gale had been asleep when the tailor was executed, but the Hellish cries of the crowd around the gallows, some of whom were friends and family of the innocent victim, subtly invaded her dreams. Her child’s mind crudely re-imagined these cries as those of the Damned in Hell, a place she had only recently begun learning of in Sunday school, whose class comprised just herself, her brother and her parents’ private minister.

As this story begins, Princess Gale’s tenth birthday was fast approaching. In this particular kingdom, the tenth birthday was very important, because it symbolised initiation into the second phase of life, when the digits of your age number two and you begin the long ascent, then descent, of worldly life. Toymakers throughout the kingdom were auditioned in the palace, by a stern panel of courtly sycophants who dissected each craftsman’s creation with eyes more critical than God’s. Painted wooden dolls, teddy bears and games were tossed aside, forming a sad and broken heap beside the panellists. The toymakers, far from having their egos quashed by rejection, felt immense relief, for if they were prevailed upon to please the Princess with their product, and she disliked it, they could only imagine the king’s wrath.

Finally there came an old and cadaverous toymaker, stood erect but clearly with some difficulty. He was dressed in undoubtedly the best clothes he owned: a well-maintained though tired-looking suit, whose seams were like fingers clinging to a cliff’s edge. His eyebrows, great white bushes almost concealing the caves where his eyes were buried, were the liveliest things about him.

He carried a bleak suitcase. The foremost panellist, the king’s advisor (whose advice consisted mostly of praises) extended one hand, like a bishop expecting a kiss on his clerical ring. ‘Well, let’s have it, old man!’ he said when the toymaker did not proffer the case.

‘With all respect due to your class and position, fine sir’ the toymaker replied, ‘what I have in this case is too delicate, at this time, to be examined by hands other than my own. If I could have a table on which to open the case, fine sir, I would be delighted to show you its contents.’

The advisor reddened slightly, detecting a vague insolence in the toymaker’s manner. ‘What is your name, old man?’

‘Elias Hornsby, sir, just a simple inventor from one of your Majesty’s closest settlements, Arrows-Field, not far from where he slew our dreaded neighbours in ’88.’

The advisor’s nostrils flared as he raised his face a fraction, a sign indicating contentment and restored superiority. ‘You need not quote the King’s history to me, Hornsby. Servant! Fetch our visitor a table.’
When the latter was procured, Elias Hornsby placed his case upright upon it, flipped open its rusty iron clasps, and then opened it. Each half was padded with papier-mâché moulded to enclose a two-foot doll. This was made with bone china, not a crack in which marred the toy’s gleaming white perfection. The brittle flesh was as pure and unmarked as that belonging to a baby just delivered. Though its eyes were clearly two blue marbles, they had been shined and preserved to almost affect the appearance of sapphires. Its hair was light brown, like that of a healthy pet mouse, and undisturbed by any hat. The doll wore a plain, frilled white blouse, such as a modest bridesmaid would wear, and a long white skirt of similar colour and design, though the lowermost regions were sewn with small red love-hearts.

After a moment’s admiration among the panellists, Reason reached the king’s advisor. ‘It is certainly a fine object, Hornsby, but an inappropriate toy for a little girl. You said yourself how delicate it is. A child’s hands would break this the moment they removed it from the wrappings!’

Hornsby smiled without opening his mouth. ‘Once I have finished perfecting her, sir, she will be as likely to break as the King’s morale.’

‘Beyond employing the Dark Arts, old man, I do not see how that is possible.’

‘In the woods at Arrows-Field, sir, as I am sure a student of the King’s history is aware, there grows a species of tree whose sap was used to finish the saddles of His Majesty’s horses, and which rendered them stronger than sin. A full day’s riding and jousting could be completed with barely a scratch on the saddle. I, your humble servant, merely took inspiration one day and begun coating my dolls with it. This doll is as yet un-sapped, but once I have accrued enough of the substance, which should not be too far in the future, I will rectify that.’

The panellists were impressed, and Hornsby was henceforth entrusted with the honour of providing the Princess’ gift. ‘Do not disappoint us, Hornsby’ said the advisor, with an austere glint in his eyes, ‘or, more importantly, the King’s daughter. Children are not so easily impressed…’

Hornsby merely smiled.

***

Elias Hornsby, esteemed toymaker of Arrows-Field, died just one month before Princess Gale’s birthday, as, he revealed in his will, he had expected. His pay for the doll, he dictated, was to be shared between his three daughters, giving them a life as free women, unbound by the necessity of marriage. This freedom for his beloved young was, he wrote, his only motivation in applying for audition at the palace.

This death annoyed the king, because it deprived him of someone to torment should his daughter not like her toy. The advisor dared not try to placate this annoyance, but meekly abetted it. Besides, should a head be required to roll, the king could always find someone to kneel before the block.

The room chosen for the princess’ birthday party once hosted her parents’ wedding reception. A circular marble ballroom, placed regularly around it were ten twelve-foot pillars, on each of whose crowns stood white marble cupids, with golden bows and arrows spearheaded by ruby love-hearts. Between the cupids were hung flaming torches; the room did not have a chandelier, so a shadowy and antiquarian atmosphere was evoked by the ten torches, their lights dappling the cherubic sentinels.

In preparation for the ceremony a long table was placed in the centre of the room, to host gifts given by the kingdom’s subjects. Also from Arrows-Field, there came a punch-bowl crafted by the town’s pre-eminent glass blower; from another settlement lumber for the palace’s hearths was delivered; other settlements provided their own gifts to the royal family, the haul including masses of jewellery, fine foods such as cheeses and truffles, rare books and artworks.

Of course, none of the gift-givers were permitted to attend the celebration and see the response to their offerings. The honour of attendance was exclusively for the men, women and children of noble birth. Even the palace servants, who stocked the ballroom with plentiful provisions (mostly wine and ale), were commanded to leave before the princess’ arrival; within the palace walls, the tenth anniversary of her introduction to the kingdom would be celebrated, by her, only among her peers. She would remember the celebration for the rest of her life, though not for its pageantry.

***

The queen knelt beside Princess Gale’s bed and applied a damp cloth to the sleeping child’s forehead. She woke, a decorous and prim young royal, already in her light purple ball-gown, on as opposed to under the bedcovers for fear of wrinkling the garment. ‘It is time’ said the queen, smiling as her daughter’s eyes registered her. The queen was a trim and attractive woman in her middle forties, the progress of age having not ravaged her beauty so much as modified it, delicately, so there were quaint little stretches at the corners of her eyes and mouth.

Though she was blonde and her daughter’s hair was brown (the princess inherited this colouring from her father), mother and child looked alike. If the queen was a portrait bearing exquisite wear, the princess was a new, small sculpture of the same personage. ‘I’m so tired’ said Princess Gale. The queen took one of her hands. ‘I know, darling, but this is important. Everyone is here, and you know how your father deals with those who disappoint him.’ The princess gave her mother a mischievous smile. ‘Not me’ she said, ‘I am his favourite.’ The queen laughed. ‘That is true, but I would not tempt his favour.’

Princess Gale slid off of the bed and let her mother place purple velvet slippers on her feet. The queen then opened a drawer beside the princess’ bed and withdrew a dazzling, feather-light tiara on a display cushion. She placed the former on her daughter’s head, tilted her face upwards with a finger below her chin, and kissed the princess’ cheek. ‘One day, you will make some undeserving fellow impossibly happy’ she said, and took her hand.

Several branches and generations of the royal family were gathered in the ballroom. The king, fat and hearty, an enormous glass of wine in one oppressively jewelled hand, stood behind the long table’s centre, before the package containing Elias Hornsby’s doll.

The crowd hushed as one of the two doors opened, and in stepped the queen with Princess Gale. Her mother bade her sit cross-legged in the middle of the room, surrounded by her familial spectators (which included noble cousins she had neither seen nor heard of, besides the usual grandparents, aunts and uncles). With his free hand the king picked up the package, walked around the table and presented it to his daughter. ‘In honour of the tenth anniversary of your patronage here, in this mortal realm, o angel embodied’ he recited, the first time he had needed to do so, his only other child, the Prince, being but eight years old.

Princess Gale, as she had been coached, nodded her gratitude and accepted the gift with both hands. She untied the dark purple ribbons, unwrapped all of the light purple paper, and found a varnished chest. Using a small knob which gave the chest’s lid the appearance of a door, she revealed Elias Hornsby’s doll to the light. The sapping had left no blemish on its china skin, or stain on its white blouse, whose frills were like snowflakes. The princess was momentarily enraptured by the doll’s blue marble-eyes, which seemed to hold endless possibilities for childish love and companionship.

She also noticed the doll’s tiny nostrils, crafted too well to be human, and remembered a lesson her parents’ minister once taught her about why you needed to be blessed after sneezing. The latter action gave your soul escape, he said, and the blessing replaced it. If a soul can leave through the nostrils, Princess Gale wondered, could an alien soul use them for entrance?

Regardless, she adored her new toy and, lifting it roughly from the chest, cried ‘I love it, daddy, I love it I love it I love it!’ The crowd erupted into deafening cheers before the third “love” was out of her mouth.

***

Not long after the princess gave her gift her seal of approval, the noble children were sent to bed while their parents continued the celebration in the ballroom. Princess Gale slept with the doll in her arms, but was entirely unaware when its eyes started to move, as though registering the room and seeking its door. Nor did she stir when it stretched its limbs, testing their elasticity and autonomy, an observer might have assumed. Stealthily, it wriggled out from under her protective arm and sat on the edge of the bed. Its head tilted downwards, it contemplated the drop, came to a decision and pushed itself off with its hands, landing on its firm sapped feet. (In height, the doll came up to the princess’ kneecaps.)

Though the doll’s mouth concealed no hinges and was thus immovable, close examination of its eyes would have revealed a sort of contentment. The doll, it seemed, was pleased with its position, and proud of its defiance of the universe’s laws. It had left mortality’s dwelling, and confirmed its presence in the strange world beyond.

Just as stealthily as it had wriggled free of the princess’ arm, the doll clambered up the ornate doorframe, turned the knob with one hand, slightly pushed open the door, climbed down and quitted the room. The servants having all been removed to their own quarters, the doll faced no resistance as it walked, slowly and clumsily at first, down corridors and stairs to arrive at the ballroom’s oaken doors, one of which was still slightly open. It peered through this small entrance, and was almost pushed back by what it saw.

The decadence and debauchery, this china girl felt, defied imagination. The kingdom’s gifts were scattered around, the punch-bowl smashed like a bird’s egg, the lumber in ugly disorder, the paintings in pieces and the books torn apart. Amid this chaos the nobles raved, their royal garments torn as they drunkenly attacked and fornicated with each other. On the long table, where the doll was laid barely an hour ago, the queen posed like a canine as her husband mounted her, the pair making gross, animal noises. Above this Sodom-in-microcosm, the cherubic sentinels sat dumb and silent.

What previously was contentment, in the doll’s eyes, became rage, a wrath so pure and Hellish it would have startled anyone who beheld it, though none did. Clearly, the doll had not expected this. It did not know what it had expected, but this disgusting ode to ingratitude and animalism was not it. Even the eldest and most dignified royals cavorted with each other, a mob to rival the one which threatened Lot.

The doll’s eyes emitted an invisible energy, almost (but not quite) against its will. This imperceptible force grasped a flaming torch and threw it from the wall. The face of a minor princess, her person caught in the act of defilement with her lover, broke its fall. Her delicate features caved in and combusted, while her lover found himself seeding a faceless martyr. His momentary ecstasy became eternal fear as the Hell-flames caught him, dragging him into an embrace painful beyond comprehension.

Startled from their revelry, the royals screamed and ran towards the doors, but before they could reach them the doll stepped back, while the energy slammed the open one shut, sealing both with its dark magic. Inside the ballroom, which was now her tomb, the queen pushed her husband off of her and stared, dumbstruck, at all her known relatives (besides the children), through marriage and blood, pounding the oaken doors as each torch fell from its socket. She turned to her husband, now lying equally dumbstruck on the carpet, and said to him her final words: ‘is this some kind of trick, you monster?!’

***
The children’s bedchambers were sufficiently far away that they did not hear their parents burning and dying. The doll climbed back into Princess Gale’s arms, comfortable in the knowledge that she would be the throne’s new incumbent, come dawn.

THE END

Short story (by me): The Leech: A Ghost Story

It was in the summer of 1928 that we met him, stood beside a gigantic Grecian plant-pot sprouting palm leaves, on the back porch of my wife’s country estate. A tall, rake-thin, somewhat middle-aged man in an ill-fitted brown suit, with clashing white Panama hat, he looked like one of those amiable leeches who flit between wealthy sponsors. He was certainly a raconteur, amassing an audience like some Homeric poet. Women adored him, the way they adore a handsome man who also inspires their matronly instincts. If my marriage to Floss (whom I called Florence, given her floss-white complexion) was built on sex, I might have envied him, like those men who sometimes gave him violent glances. As it was, I regarded him with much the same pure fascination as the women. He reminded me of a chap I’d served with in the war: somewhat callous in his general attitudes to life, perhaps, but warm and charming to the individual…

He looked roughly the same age as I, but he didn’t look like he’d served. (Although, as I’d learned in a Norfolk military hospital, not all wounds are physical.) Floss and I caught sight of him almost simultaneously. We were stood by the French windows greeting some late arrivals, she with a sherry in hand and I a bitter lemon, having resolved to no longer treat my war-shattered nerves with alcohol. ‘Who is that, anyway?’ I asked, after we’d spent a few moments watching him regale his crowd. ‘I don’t recall, and I’m certain I know all the invited faces here… Maybe he’s one of those old money parasites… You know the ones I mean. Their families hit skid-row, they’ve never learned a trade or finished an education, so they end up living like well-dressed beggars.’ My wife doesn’t mean to be cruel, but for all her good breeding she never quite learned the English art of dishonesty.

By mutual agreement we introduced ourselves, bridging the centre of his group, to their slight consternation as he paused his latest story. His eyes met mine, and an odd sensation took a pew within me while I regarded those light brown orbs, the colour of soft spring mud in a sunbeam. He glanced at my wife, and introduced himself.

‘I fear I’m something of a gate-crasher, dear’ he told her, ‘I came down with the West London set, after the dog races.’ Floss nodded politely, having attained all the information she needed about our unexpected guest. The “West London set”, as he called them, were a group of gambling and drinking cronies whose patronage she’d inherited from her late father. ‘Well go on then, tell us the rest!’ said a woman to my left. He laughed, momentarily catching my eyes again before turning them on the speaker, and in that moment I grew as weak as a schoolgirl in the presence of a crush. I wallowed privately in shame and bemusement when the moment passed, unable to account for the weakening rapture.

‘Okay, okay, don’t twist an ankle, my girl, or I’ll be forced to expose my appalling lack of chivalry…’ Those words drew Floss, I and again the crowd into a world we scarcely remembered on leaving it. The details of his story, which the woman to my left was so eager to hear completed, remain obscure, though I associate them with sunlight, breezes, tall trees, stony paths and, above all, a sweet kind of happiness, to which only children are normally allowed admittance. It was the kind of story which wouldn’t be expected to entertain young people, even those who’ve seen war as we had, and its effects on us as our women had. Yet we all listened with religious reverence. That may explain how he wrangled an invitation to stay the night with Floss and I.

The party dispersed, and after dinner with those that remained, including our new guest, I stood in the drawing room by the French windows, gazing at the lawn in the darkness. I love early evening, because they’re besotted with a calm the day has no time for. The world, especially out here in the country, is infused with moonlight which draws even the hardest stone and bleakest blade of grass towards a silent, invisible awesomeness. My Heaven, if I earn it, will be in a perpetual state of early evening. ‘A loner, like me.’ The voice came from the doorway, and though I didn’t know anyone else was in this part of the house, I wasn’t surprised to hear it. I turned to greet our “old money parasite”, as Floss had insensitively surmised him to be. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘A loner, I said, like me. Not comfortable with crowds.’ He smiled, seeming coy as he approached. ‘Like you? You’ve spent the day holding court better than a judge!’ I replied. He laughed. ‘I tell good stories, I’ll allow myself that. It’s how I make my living, after all. You and your lovely wife pegged me for what I was before you’d even introduced yourselves, didn’t you? I’m not quite the species of leech you think I am, though… I live comfortably enough, financially. It’s the goodwill I seek, the friendship. I wonder if anyone’s a loner by choice, you know…’

Suddenly what he was seemed obvious, and I felt ashamed for not realising it before. He was one of those lonely sorts who never acclimated themselves to peacetime, but flitted between people and parties seeking a respite from the same memories which haunted me. I dulled them with alcohol, they with companionship. They’d made the better choice, I supposed. He stood by the couch, looking at his hand on its back, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know his name. I asked it, my voice soft and hesitating for reasons I didn’t know, when he raised his head.

Our eyes were locked in together, and for an instant that felt like an hour I was back where I never wanted to be again. I was in a foreign trench, where a comrade’s right foot had swollen to burst the stitching of its shoe. The image was utterly absurd, but as my stare travelled from his wasted, uncomprehending face to that horrible foot, I thought I saw a rat crawl out from between his toes, as though it had been birthed inside the shoe, nourished by the putrescence. The rat turned to look at me, regarded by it as an enemy, and the spell broke. I was back in the drawing room, eyes locked in with my guest’s.

‘What are you two plotting in here?’ came a new voice. Floss stood in the doorway, her expression an odd broth of cheer and nervousness. She turned the ceiling light on. ‘What is this, anyway, an Agatha Christie? Why all the darkness and long faces?’ Our guest buried his stare in the back of his hand. I smiled at her. The effort, though a matter of three or four seconds, was intense. It felt like raising a barn with ropes, alone. ‘Just reminiscing’ I replied (the ropes fraying). ‘Our friend here was in the war…’ He looked up at that, his eyes revealing a desert of pity and confusion. If Floss wasn’t there, I might have taken him into my arms.

Floss rolled her eyes in a good-natured fashion. ‘Oh, Henry’ she said to me, ‘I’m sure he doesn’t want to spend the night dredging up war stories in the dark.’ To both of us: ‘why don’t you come back to the bar? Helen’s going to bed soon, and she’s promised us a song before she does.’ Falling back into reality, our guest glanced at her, laughed and said, ‘so long as she promises to finish before the second chorus. I’ve learned from her brother that if she doesn’t, she’ll sing until she faints and cracks her head on the piano!’ Floss, delighted by the response, hooked her arm in his and with a jerk of her head commanded me to follow them.

That night, as Floss and I lay in bed, she asleep, I considered the vision my conversation with our visitor gave me. Though I’d been told by doctors after the war to expect such surges of memory from time to time, sometimes vast distance apart, sometimes in tortuous succession, I felt I’d never experienced anything quite like this vision before. I wasn’t just recalling a painful memory; in fact, I had the bizarre sensation that, in this strange and mortal plane we call reality, I’d never visited the trench I saw, or seen the man whose shoe birthed the rat, at least not in that exact confluence of perspective and circumstance. So what was I seeing, if I saw anything at all besides mad pictures cobbled together by an unsettled imagination?

I recalled from boyhood some peculiar lessons by my school’s chaplain, a zealous man who loved children and thus was deeply concerned with their souls. Though, as most civilised men of the modern age, he denied the existence of such quaint things as witches, he was singularly fascinated by a minor figure in Christian history, Elijah Crane, a Norfolk puritan who emigrated to the new world with the first of that breed who’d come to be known as Americans. Despite the austerity of his Biblical namesake, this holy man was by all accounts gentle and forgiving; he presided over the witch trials in his community (for he was its appointed patriarch) with a seemly fear and disquiet.

The chaplain would dedicate a week of his appointed lessons in the school year to this Elijah, and end it with this story: on the morning of the execution of a local spinster, convicted with reluctance by Elijah, the jailer opened her cell door and, within that bleak stone garret, afforded light only by a high, small, barred window, was nothing but the witch’s straw bed. The jailer alerted his masters, who in their turn alerted Elijah, and soon a group of the relevant men stood in the cell, vainly searching for a solution to the riddle.

Elijah, on his knees in a corner, suddenly drew back, allowing a rat to step into the light and be perceived by all. ‘How did that get in here?’ he demanded, because the only window was situated high above a steep quarry, without considerable footholds in the outside wall. None of the men knew, and almost in unison they caught the eyes of the creature, who gave them an impression of such Hellish, immortal disdain that three fled like children, while Elijah and two braver companions stood transfixed.

Overcome by Christian loathing for the foul and bedevilled, Elijah lunged forth and tried to squash the rat beneath his boot, but it fled through the open door before orders could be given to lock it, and from the hallway dropped down into a drain. Recovering himself, Elijah cursed his haste and superstition, then left to prepare an elegant excuse for the witch’s escape, saying instead that she died overnight. Only in a secret diary, discovered in a hidden drawer of his bureau some years after his death, did he admit the terrible superstition that had overcome him that morning in the cell, a superstition that would be derided by scholars from then until now. Even our chaplain was hesitant to claim a belief in it, though he always concluded the lesson with a quote from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

As I lay in my bed, a part of my mind travelled back to that classroom, where I sat listening to my peculiar chaplain. Instinctively, I reached out under the sheets with one hand and grasped my Floss’ knee. Her warm and feminine skin consoled me. But the consolation was brief because, not long after this intimacy, a crash from the direction of the stairwell startled Floss and I, her wrenched brutally from sleep. Exchanging fearful glances, we both crept out into the corridor and towards the noise’s source. Floss brought her hands to her face and gasped when we saw what it was: our guest, kindly having extinguished his candle during the moments of pre-collapse, had fallen down the stairs. He lay now in the oak-floored foyer, hot wax on his pyjama front and blood haloing his head.

We both rushed to his aid, careful not to slip and fall ourselves on the drops of wax dotting the stairs. ‘Call the doctor!’ I cried to Floss, but with what I now suppose was his last ounce of bodily strength he grabbed her arm before she could flee, saying: ‘I am so tired… Please… Don’t let me be imprisoned in this cell any longer… I should have left a long, long time ago…’

I grasped his hand. ‘What do you mean?’ He smiled, with a little humour and a lot of sadness. ‘I think you know, friend… I never should have dabbled in what I did not fully understand… Such magic is not always forgiven by even our most merciful God… But I so wanted to carry on, even if I had to be a leech… giving my soul to a familiar, and from a familiar to a fresh body, un-warped by the trenches… I spoke and I laughed and I entertained, leeching off of others’ hospitality and good spirits… But I am so tired now… I saw it too, Henry, just as you did… The shoe which bore the rat… Mine was the foot in that shoe…’