Creaky Gloom

Mutations: Chapter 9 – Trapped…

Xao Fe was trapped. For weeks, ever since the death of their son, his wife had been too ill to work and his wages from the cannery simply couldn’t cover the medicines she needed whilst the white doctor had been out of town. On top of that he had to find the money to bury what was left of his son; Xan had converted and out of love Xao had followed her, but despite her devotion to the faith, the local church still saw them as outsiders, untrustworthy and beneath them, and insisted upon payment in advance. He briefly considered asking his sister, but the shame of asking  her coupled with the shame of admitting how she earnt her money in the employ of the Dragon Lady ensured that it was but a brief consideration.

So Xao did what he’d never done before; he took a gamble. His wife’s brother was out at sea fishing with Captain Williams and when he returned Xao was sure he would help out, meaning that Xao only had to find enough money to cover the funeral and Xan’s medicines for a week, maybe two. With this to steady his nerves, he had approached the Tong for a loan. Sure the interest was high, but Chi would be back in a week and he could pay it off and Xan could have the medicines she needed.

Only Chi never made it home. He had been killed and any wages on him had been stolen, taking with them any hope Xao had of paying the Tong. The Tong did not take such matters lightly, in fact  it was known that several of the more violent thugs in the Tong’s employ relished the non-payers as it gave them something to do with their knives and clubs. Xao was, he believed, a condemned man when the money lender sidled up to him at the cutting table. But instead of threatening to cut off his fingers one by one, the shark offered him a simple, one-off job to repay the debt. All he had to do was make a delivery, just that, nothing more, just simply row over to the sampan lagoon below the Dragon Lands hotel and hand a package over to a contact and his debt would be cleared. Xao didn’t believe that last part for one second, but what could he do? He was trapped.

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The journey across Shanghai bay in the early hours of the morning was uneventful, yet Xao couldn’t shake the feeling he would be caught at any minute. He glanced down over and over again at bulging tarpaulin in the middle of the boat, beneath it lay the wooden crate he was to hand over. He pulled into the lagoon and moored up. There was no one about and only the soft lapping of the waters against the boats moored around him broke the dead silence. Again and again he found his gaze wandering down to the box. What was in it? What if it were drugs? Or worse, guns? He could turn a blind eye to smuggling, he could ignore many things the Tong did, but the thought that he might be involved in gun running horrified him. He had to look, he had to know.
Shanghai Explosion_010

With a final check  that no one, most of all his Tong contact, was around Xao pulled back the tarp and opened the box. His eye grew wide with horror! In the box lay three sticks of dynamite connected to a ticking clock: a bomb!
Shanghai Explosion_011

As his mind raced with the realisation of what he had uncovered, he heard footsteps on the path leading to the hotel above him. Looking up he could see the retinue of the Dragon Lady leaving the building and making their way down to the lagoon where he and the bomb lay in wait. This, he realised, was no smuggling operation but a cold-blooded assassination and he was the expendable fool the Tong were using to kill their greatest rival! He looked back at the bomb and then again to the small group coming down the path. The Dragon Lady was there, hidden from view beneath an exquisite parasol of red embroidered silk tumbling to the ground all around her to ensure no human eye ever saw her. Around her a small knot of serving girls held the shade in place, with two burly armed guards, one in front and one behind, providing security. But Xao’s eyes ignored them all save one of the girls holding the silk. It was Meili, his sister. In an instant he knew he couldn’t allow her to be hurt. He shouted a warning at the retinue which stopped in its tracks. The lead guard barked orders and his comrade began to pull and push the girls and his mistress back up the steps to the hotel. Xao shouted at them all to keep back, that there was a bomb on the boat and when he saw Meili being ushered back to safety he bent to grab the device so he could throw it into the lagoon.

He had no way of knowing about the wire-bound trigger at its base. As he lifted it out of the boat a pin was pulled out and a short-fused detonator was armed. Xao manged to roll it overboard, but before it had time to even hit the water the dynamite exploded and the lagoon was filled with sound and fury…
Shanghai Explosion_005

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High above them all, she watched the explosion with a wry smile on her face. As the caboose keeled over and smashed through the wooden bridge and fell into the lagoon, she was already planning her retaliation…

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To be continued…

Links to other blogs and stories:
1) All my “Mutations” posts can be read on my blog here
2) In Shanghai, a lone Yakuza eyes this development with interest. Read more here
3) All my “Steal Head” posts can be read on my blog here

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Snatched From Steelhead: Chapter 3 – Back to New Babbage

The owl gazed at Dr Beck with eyes as inscrutable as time itself. For his part, Beck stared back with his one open eye full of confusion and sleep. He propped himself up on his elbows and blinked a few times. The owl sitting on the back of his chair failed to vanish and instead stared coolly back him.

“Erm, hello?” Beck mumbled. The owl blinked once very, very slowly. “You’re one of the Mayor’s owls, aren’t you? One of his messengers?”. Blink. Beck stood up and gingerly walked towards the owl as if it were a fiver pound note on a windowsill in danger of blowing away. The owl just sat and watched him. “Do, er, do you have a message for me then?”. Blink. Beck waited. The owl watched him. Beck shuffled his feet a little. The owl tipped his head almost imperceptibly in such a way as to make Beck feel decidedly nervous. “If you do, may I have the message, please?” he asked. The owl did nothing for a very, very log second before tucking its beak under its wing and pulling something small out from its feathers and flicking it towards Beck. The still sluggish doctor missed it and it fell to the floor at his feet. He bent to examine it and saw it was a small, folded piece of paper roughly half an inch square and one eighth of an inch think. “Thank you. Does the Mayor expect a rep…?” he stopped as his hair was ruffled a sudden breeze and he looked up to see a small cloud of soot fall from his chimney as the owl left. “…ly. I’ll take that a no, then” he completed to himself. He looked at the paper in his hand for several seconds before unfolding it. It was a letter from the Mayor himself, handwritten in his swirling spidery script…

To: Dr. R. Beck.
No. 13 Shamian Alley, Shanghai, Stlhd.

Dear Sir,

Following your rather vocal appeals to the citizens and civic leaders of New Babbage over the recent incident involving one Captain Kuroe I have been visited by a representative of Mayor Tenk who wished to discuss the matter as well as possible solutions.

To cut a long tale short the accused will receive a fair trial in a location still to be decided (although I favour Steeltopia, it is possible that Caledon may be chosen). In the meantime, and following rumours not only of limb amputation but also of beatings meted out to the prisoner, I have agreed you will travel to the William Wilde Hospital in New Babbage and act as his personal physician and, after a fashion, his guard until the trial is completed and justice seen to be done.

I realise you are a busy man and therefore I have booked you on the noon steamer from Steelhead Harbour to Clockhaven.

Travel well and I know I need not remind you to uphold the proud reputation of our city at all times and be the best ambassador we can expect, so I won’t.

Respectfully yours,
TotalLunar Eclipse.
Mayor of Steelhead & Environs.

Beck read and re-read the letter several times as the full weight of its message sunk in. He had to go back to Clockhaven. Today. Now. He had to pack. He had to be ready and on that steamer in time, Steelhead was counting on him. “Oh God, I need a cup of tea,” was all he could say.

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Half an hour after the Clockhaven Queen had paddled away from Steelhead and out to sea with a nervous Beck onboard a tall, worried Chinese man was knocking on the locked surgery door. He was scared and upset. Back at home his wife had sunk further in to the darkest places of her mind and had become all but lost to him. He was sure she was in danger from herself and he needed the English doctor to come and help. The doctor had been so good to his wife since their child had been snatched and killed. The doctor would be able to help. The man knocked louder, “Dr Beck! Dr Beck! Li Fe father! You come help Dr Beck! Please come help!”

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To be continued…
All the “Snatched From Steelhead” posts can be read here.

Links to other blogs and stories:
1) The background to the Ashiko Kuroe case can be found here.
2) Captain Kuroe’s letter to Steelhead can be read here.
3) The appointment of Mr Byron Wexhome by Mayor Tenk can be found here.
4) Mr Wexhome’s initial investigations can be read here and here.
5) Mr Wexhome’s proposed Plan can be read here.
6) The terrible tale of poor Li Fe can be read here.
7) Dr Beck’s near-fatal last trip to Clockhaven is journaled here.

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Mutations: Chapter 3 – Smoke and Water

Beck rode back in silence; both rider and mount had a lot to think about and the winding path around Spirit Lake and back home afforded them plenty of time to do it in. Once they reached the blacksmith outside Shanghai, Beck passed his surefooted steed back and retrieved his bicycle for the last part of his journey through the tunnel and onto the rickety wooden bridges that clung to the side of the crowded harbour. Normally he cycled slowly along these, having more than once nearly tumbled over the edge in the past, but now he peddled urgently with a seemingly scant regard for his safety. He’d been eager to get back to his practice before nightfall but something he’d seen when he looked at Antfarm had shaken him to the core and now he had a very different destination in mind.

Down in the belly of Shanghai, as night seeped its way across the water and squeezed itself into the alleys, snickets & ginnels criss-crossing between buildings, parents fussed and worried over their children. Those rich enough set guards to watch over their wards whilst others less well off locked and barred their homes and prepared to spend another uncomfortable night propped up in a chair with a gun nestled on their lap. The parents in the slums had no such comforts, and indeed, far more reason to worry. Their homes could not be barred and bolted, the heaps of rotting wood and crumbling brick they had no option to live in couldn’t even keep the night breeze out, let alone a child-snatching nightmare. They couldn’t afford gaurds to patrol their streets and watch their windows. Oh they had tried, exhausted men and women banding together after long, hard days in the cannery. They took hour long shifts from their precious sleep to walk the streets and alleys and watch over their sleeping children, but the Tong smelt money and sent in their thugs to deliever a series of painful lessons; pay us to protect your streets or no one protects them. Now families gathered even more tightly together, taking it in turns to sleep through the darkness of the night whilst someone sat awake, boning knife or fish-hook at the ready.

Beck could taste this atmosphere, could taste the fear and anguish and resentment, and it made him sick. Not since Manchester had he felt such terror infesting one place and he’d been living in it every day and every night since little Li Fe’s bones had been brought to his surgery. Well not tonight, he had decided. He couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t take the constant pall of dread, the sense of impotence, the bloody memories. Not tonight. As the sun set behind the harbour, the shadow cast by the glorious Sun Tower falling across the slums as if to deny its wretched residents any crumb of comfort by cutting off their light first, Beck propped his bicycle against the rear of the Dragon Lady’s hotel and slipped in a secret door.

“Ahhh, Meester Smeeth, welcome back,” the greeter’s tone a perfect blend of ice cold warmth, his spell gutting fish had apparently worked wonders on his attitude. Beck all but ignored him and instead allowed himself to be led through the heady, sickly smoke to a cot by one of the pipe girls. Unlike the poor women owned by the Tong, the Dragon Ladys girls were never forced into anything as seedy as common prostitution. That wasn’t to say such a path was closed to them, but if they chose it they ceased to be pipe girls and instead moved behind the curtain, deeper into this dimly lit underworld, and became concubines, dreams wrapped in flesh and silk, soft-skinned angels bestowing their graces upon mere mortals. Beck had always resisted their siren song no matter how insistent the call, but despite his resolve in his mind he was an adulterer; another failing, he thought, to add to his legion. He climbed into his allocated cot and loosened his collar while the girl handed him a pipe and turned to leave. As she walked away, her hips swaying back and forth beneath her exquisite red hanfu, Beck tried to ignore the knot of desire that twisted in his groin and the shame that it brought. Instead, to block it out, he put the pipe to his lips and drew in a cloud of sweet, thick smoke. Somewhere deep in his brain the rational, lucid, controlling part of him collapsed like a marionette having its strings cut. He was free once more…

The smoke moved about him and through him. It infused his skin and flesh and bone, it swirled into his ears and nose and mouth filling him up with warm water from the bottom of the ocean. He was a fish swimming through himself in the depths of his own smoke and he was empty of purpose and memory as he drifted on strange currents, uncaring and unknowing. Until the hand. It reached through the smoke and the water and caressed his cheek, rocking him, tugging him. He turned away, pushed it aside. Not here! Not now! The currents raced and he pushed off into them, determined to get away, to stay free! But the hand was fast and strong. It fought for him, grasping and grabbing. He swam and dodged, flipping and wheeling to get away but it was tricksy and swift. And then, it had him. Strong fingers took hold of him and held him fast.

“Dr Beck…?” words darted around him, quicksilver through the smoke and water. He opened his eyes, staring up from the murky depths and into a woman’s face. For a moment he couldn’t place himself, a young well dressed white woman here? What would a respectable woman be doing here?

Er, yes? What can I do for you Miss…?” his mouth felt strange and full of seaweed and fish scales.

“Rhianon Jameson,” she said offering a gloved hand and Beck moved his own dull, dead hand to meet it, “I was hoping you could help me find someone. It’s quite important.”

“Hmm, yes, who is it?” he mumbled.

“A man who goes by the nom de plume the Scientist. He apparently knows some powerful medicine. I must find him, and time is running short.”

Beck’s face froze. Him! This woman was looking for him! God help her because if she found him no one else could. “I’m, ahhh, afraid I don’t know anyone with that name,” he tried to sound as sober as possible, please believe me please believe me please believe me he thought.

“You lie, sir. I can see it in your face,” her voice had a steel-edge that matched her eyes.

“I’m telling you, I don’t know…” A wave caught him, currents and undertows pulling him away as he started to drift off. The hand grabbed him again, he opened his eyes and she had him by the arm, anchoring him in the swell of the opium’s ebb and flow.

“Dr. Beck!” she was angry now, “You call yourself a medical man; you took an oath. And yet you are willing to let a man die – for what purpose? To protect the Scientist?”

One of the attendants appeared by her side, politely asking that she stop but she was having none of it. Around the small den people in various states of drug-induced apathy were gawping at the most unusual scene unfolding, all except Beck. He was staring at his hands as if trying to remember what they were called. No, not to protect him, he thought, to protect you! “Dangerous,” he said at last.

“I understand danger. I can take care of myself. Just tell me where he is!” Her tone was diamond hard.

“I don’t…know. I really don’t. He didn’t want anyone to find him. All I know is…Babbage…” Beck mumbled through the fog behind his eyes.

“New Babbage? Where?”

“Hmm, not sure. Find…” his voice trailed away as a wave narcotic slumber crashed against the rocks of Miss Jameson’s enforced lucidity. The attendant called for reinforcements. Footsteps coming near. He must warn her. He must.

“Find who? The Scientist?”

“No, not him. Find Lo Ping. Elderly chap. At least I think so…can’t really tell. He’s the only one…only one…who knows how to locate Scientist. SssssallIknow. Nowleavemealone.” Beck’s connection with the world was severed. The waves roared over him and pulled him far out to sea. The woman became but a distant speck on the horizon, a pinprick of light lost in the stars who were themselves extinguished by the ocean closing over him. He sank into it, to the bottom of its warm, cosseting depths to where his beloved waited for him with their children and he was disturbed no more…

Rynes Addiction_007

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To be continued…
All the “Mutations” posts can be read here.

Links to other blogs and stories:
1) For more on Miss Jameson’s hunt for The Scientist, read her blog here
2) For more on the death of the Chinese boy Li Fe, read about Creaky Gloom on this blog here and on the Steelhead Ning here.

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The kindness of neighbours…

When I moved to the wilderness of St Helens I knew that food would be a problem. Of course I could go to town to buy provisions but that would defeat the object of coming out here. I toyed with asking Beck to bring what I needed on his visits, but in truth I don’t want him to visit. He’s nice enough and means well, but he is… a complication. No, I needed to be as self-sufficient as possible as possible, but even so I still needed to get food from somewhere until the land thawed out enough to plant, let alone grow, my food. So thank the gods for Mara Razor and her mill!

Situated across the mighty Spirit river from my own land, I first saw Mara’s mill in operation when I had toured the region looking for somewhere to live…
Steelhead St Helens Tour

Mara had brought in farm animals and begun to grow her own food in order to to feed the ever hungry mouths of her charges, the Scamps and urchins that had made my life in the city so difficult. Without her bravery, I have no doubt that many of these wee tormentors may have fallen to the monster Creaky Gloom!

I had Beck approach Mara with a proposal – for a modest, regular payment she would provide me with enough food to see me through winter. To my delight she agreed and ever since she has left a packed basket on her pier and all I have to do is row across and pick it up. It was just this I was doing when I noticed something rather nice – she has found a replacement for poor Horace, her donkey so cruelly killed by Gloom.
Steelhead St Helens

It fair made my day and as I paddled back to my campsite I found myself looking forward to the day ahead cutting and shaping logs for my planned cabin…
Steelhead St Helens

Mutations: Chapter 2 – Dreams of War, Part 1

The sounds that drifted in from the night spoke of war. Men and beasts being made ready, swords and armour prepared and handed out. Countless campfires held the night at bay and filled the air with sweet camphor smoke that whipped along with the breeze and crept in through the canvas of my tent.

I opened my eyes, unsure and lost and found myself looking into the face of a beautiful angel.

At first I thought it was my angel, the one who had tried so hard to save me from the explosion and had watched over me in Babbage. The girl in the meadow who’d risked more than her life to pull me from the flames of a collapsing reality. I thought it was his granddaughter come to my aid once more, but it wasn’t. She had wings as red as blood and eyes of shining purple stars and her voice was a chorus. No, the angel I stood before me had white wings and eyes of shimmering grey, and whilst its voice may have been beautiful it was not a chorus, “My beloved?” it said. No, this was not my angel.

I looked around the tent and recognised nothing; from the writing desk to the carved wooden bed draped in animal furs, nothing was mine. The angel was dressing me in ornate metal armour, by its feet a sword lay across a shield. “Where…?” I said, my voice sounding small and far away. The angel must have sensed something, seen something on my face, for its expression changed and its eyes flicked back and forth across my own. “But, you are not He…” it started, suddenly glowing brighter and brighter, “I do not understand? Who are you?” it demanded becoming a star falling to Earth.

I tried to answer but my mind seemed slow and tired. I tried to shield my eyes, squinting against its light “Please…” I croaked dryly, “the light…”

Immediately it dimmed, dying away until I could look at it once more. The angel looked scared; it took my hand in its own, turning it over and over looking at my wrist, feeling the flesh. “This… this is not His!” I gasped as I noticed my hands were unburnt and whole again.

“I don’t understand…” I said unsteadily.

“You are the Other. This can not be! You can not be here! We need Him! We need him to find Bloodw…”

The tip of the spear that erupted through its chest tore the final word from its lips. It fell into me with blood foaming from its mouth and nose as its eyes stared imploringly into mine. I watched as they dimmed and the life behind them finally vanished. Outside beasts roared and men screamed as war erupted…

“And that’s all you remember?”

“That’s all I remember Doc.”

“And how long have you been having this dream?”

“I dunno. Two. Maybe three weeks. Since I started the cabin I guess,” I sat on a log, Beck sitting across from me with a steaming cup of tea in his hands. He looked around at the fruits of my industrious labours and nodded to himself. “And no other dreams? Just this one?”

“Just this one, at least since it started,” I answered. There had been others. Dreams of fire and pain and people with mirrors where their faces should be. Dreams of green light and monsters in flying boats. Dreams of being erased again and again piece by piece by piece. I dreamt those every time I closed my eyes, sometimes even when I didn’t, but I didn’t want to talk about those dreams.

“Well, I’m no alienist Antfarm but I’d take a stab at anxiety and painful memories rising at a time of change as you begin to rebuild your life,” Beck didn’t sound as confident as he’d have liked to. “Look at what you are doing out here? This cabin is wonderful, you are putting your life back together piece by piece just like this cabin.”

I looked around at the felled and shaped logs, each one the product of my sweat and blood, and smiled. I’d let the doc think what he wanted, but putting my life back together was far my mind; I just needed somewhere to live that didn’t flap in the wind was all. We sat in silence for sometime, each lost in a private world of memories.

Beck made the first move. He downed his tea and stood up “I’m sorry to cut this visit short, but I better be heading back if I want to be back before nightfall.” Ever since that Chinese kid had been killed he’d been on edge about the slums at night. I guess I couldn’t blame him for that, those kids were family to him. “Look,” he said as he gathered his things and packed them away on his horse, “you’re doing well but please, please! take it easy. You’re doing an awful lot of hard and dangerous work and one slip could be serious.”

“You can say that about any of the settlers out here, Doc” I chided gently. He smiled back and shook his head as he got on his horse. “How about you take it easy, eh?” I said, “It’s a tough route back now the spring thaws are here. Don’t want to have to fish you out of the river as you bob past, do I?”

“Ha! I promise my friend but with Frank here,” he patted the horses’ neck “I’m sure I’m in good hands. Or hooves.”

We said our final farewells and Beck turned to go only to stop again and look at me, “Eyes,” he said.

“Eyes?” I repeated, feigning mild confusion.

“In your dream, you describe their eyes well.” A question disguised as a statement.

“Do I? I hadn’t noticed,” I batted away, aiming for the long grass.

“Hmm,” was all he said but he fixed me hard in his gaze. I looked back into his eyes, eyes I recognised all too well. I should. They were mine. More than that, they had been my creator’s and now it would seem they were my brother’s too.

Mutations Mutations

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To be continued…
All the “Mutations” posts can be read here.

Links to other blogs and stories:
1) For more on the return of the Bloodwing, read Darien’s, Jeremiah’s, Qlippothic’s, Koen’s, Wren’s and Ama’s Blogs
2) For more on HBA and the Mason mythos, read the previous tales The Lost Journal, Lost & Found, and Far From Home.
3) For more on the death of the Chinese Boy, read about Creaky Gloom on this blog here and on the Steelhead Ning here.

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Steelhead Stories: The Hunt for Creaky Gloom – The Cost of His Crimes

The scamps had found Li Fe. Or what was left of him. I’d seen cannibalism before, back in Manchester, back in the dark days, back when I still had children. How in God’s Name was I going to tell a mother that her only child had been eaten by some monster from our collective nightmares?
Steelhead Stories: Creaky Gloom

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For all my Creaky Gloom posts, click here.

For more about the Hunt for Creaky Gloom read these posts:

Steelhead Stories: Something Creaky This Way Comes…

A gloom has fallen across Steelhead! A foul creature by the name of Creaky Gloom (a supposedly indestructable spirit called a Slaugh*) has followed the Scamps into the city and is preying on our children. It would seem that he – it! – has already stolen away little Li Fe from the slums and if the tales of this swine are true then the poor boy may well have been eaten!

No one is entirely sure what this Creaky Gloom wants, but there are reports from New Babbage (where the monster was first seen) that he is on the hunt for a scamp named Quill, but for what nefarious reason no one knows.

I’ve had some posters printed and hopefully we can get enough of them around town to warn the children. Get a copy here and spread the word!
Steelhead: Creaky Gloom

The sheriff has asked for people to remain calm and not take the law into their own hands, but I seriously doubt he can stop parents desperate to protect their off-spring from taking drastic steps. I have a horrible feeling that things are going to get much worse…

* He’s unlike any Slaugh I’ve encountered before – back in Manchester, the Slaughs came across the water from Ireland at Feg’s call as massed clouds of screaming, hungry ravens that stripped people of their flesh (and more) leaving terror in their wake.