By Martin Taulbut
steady flow of customers
kept her busy all day at the shop. Ellie was glad of the distraction. Occasionally,
she caught Jessie glancing over
at her, concerned. Would her friend understand? she thought. Jessie was
thirty-eight, just a year younger than Ellie.
The other shop girls were much closer in age to Joe’s quarter-century. Perhaps.
But Ellie couldn’t bring herself to confide fully. It wasn’t embarrassment –
she knew her friend wouldn’t judge, at least not openly. It was the sense that
if she shared her troubles, it would solidify them, and force her into a
her shift was
over, Ellie hurried into the Edinburgh streets, leaving Jessie to cash. As she
passed a newspaper kiosk, the grim press headlines confronted her. “Britain
Stands by Poland” read the Express. The Manchester Guardian went with “Russia
and Germany – Non-aggression Pact to be signed.” Her own concerns
seemed so petty in contrast.
She felt even worse.
As she passed the Palais de Danse, the previous evening’s festivities flowed
back to her. It was like the old days,
when she’d started courting Joe, and just for a moment, things were good
again. The dancing too, may have played
its part. (Her talent and vocation until
the engagements dried up. Audiences
wanted fresh faces, explained the agents. She recognised their lust as they ogled
the youthful girls behind her).
entered their lodging-room. The unmade
bed took up half the interior space. At
the bottom of the bed was a weathered packing trunk covered in green leather,
used for storing clothes. There was a bottle of gin on the dresser, and next to
that, a couple of glasses, one with a smudge of her red lipstick still on the
rim. Automatically, Ellie reached for
the gin, then stopped herself. As she
sat on the edge of the bed, she realised quite clearly. There were four people
in their relationship. Ellie, Joe and
the monsters they became when intoxicated.
When a drink or two lubricated kisses and kind words, there was one Joe
and Ellie. When drink unleased cruel
tongues and fists, there was another.
How long would it be before, like Hyde, those beasts sprang free without
the need of elixir to coax them out?
made herself a
cup of tea instead.
outside St. Andrew’s House, his nerves jangling. The new building’s monolithic
stone façade and endless black windows intimidated him. Which was rather the
point, he supposed. To Neumann’s untrained eye the style seemed
more appropriate to Il Duce’s Rome than Colville’s Edinburgh. Still,
P. had instructed him to attend. And P. was the principal, Neumann a mere
grip on his satchel and made for the entrance.
struggled with the heavy bronze doors, through their glass panels he saw a
dapper man of about thirty-five emerge from a corridor and cross the entrance
hall. It was P., in his double-breasted
pin-stripe suit, his hair beautifully oil-slicked.
see you found
us all right, old man,” smirked P, as he admitted Neumann. “You have the
sir,” stuttered Neumann.
P. “I’ll be your Virgil.”
led him through
the deserted hallways, past vacant offices. “We’re rather understaffed,” he
said. “Delays in opening. Then
conscription. Inconvenient. Still,
it assures us privacy. Ah, here we
two men came
to a stout oak door. P knocked twice.
through into the room beyond, which was lit by a single, shadeless electric
lamp. In the middle of the room stood a
cine-projector, sitting on a box covered by a tartan blanket. P’s attaché
case sat in front of the box. The
projector pointed at a white sheet pinned to the left-hand wall. Three folding
chairs had been set up facing
the makeshift screen. A man in his
mid-fifties, in military uniform and cap, with a moustache so bristling it
could have stood for Parliament, sat in one of the chairs. He was reading the
final pages of a
transcript, frowning at a diagram showing the cauldron in cross-section.
turned to scrutinise them. His gaze made
Neumann self-conscious. Who was this
young, overweight interloper, with his spectacles and dandruff?
military man’s scowl softened. Sliding
the report back into a manila folder, he stood up, acknowledging the younger
“Ah. Dr Neumann.” His accent had an Aberdonian croon.
“Colonel Stanley MacLeod. Read your
report on the cauldron, the ‘Pair Dadeni’. Am I pronouncing that right?”
Macleod,” said Neumann.
the Colonel. “Let’s crack on.”
eagerly and approached the projector.
From his satchel, he produced a film reel. Clipping it into place, he
projector on. Its motors whirred, the
spool turned. and the title card flashed up: Ministry of War (Most Secret).
The main feature.
of it that way, Neumann knew, but there it was.
When was the last time he’d been to a picture house proper? Ah
yes, last year. The Lady Vanishes. With
Agatha, one of the new girls, recently
transferred as a lab assistant. He’d
bought her some Maltesers.)
silent images showed a sterile countertop, with a cage atop it.
A syringe and a small squat
bottle, labelled with a skull-and-crossbones, sat on the tray. Inside
the cage, a pair of white rodents
scampered about in the straw.
a pair of
thick rubber-gloved hands, belonging to a man wearing a white lab coat,
appeared in the frame. His head was out of shot. The man in the lab coat filled
from the bottle. He opened the top of the cage, pulled out the first mouse,
injected it. The animal squirmed, quivered, then stiffened. Laying the
motionless mouse on the steel tray, the man repeated the technique with the
second rodent. It too jerked for a moment,
then lay still. He placed it beside its
fallen comrade. The technician prodded both mice with the tip of the needle.
They did not respond, but remained flat on their backs, paws pointed at the
scene. Here the technician stood beside
a spherical iron cauldron, three feet across and almost five feet deep. Again,
his face excised by the camera
angle. The technician held the tray over
the cauldron. With a pair of metal
tongs, he conveyed the mice, one by one, into the utensil.
Woolton,” murmured P.
laughed. Neuman focused on the
stirred the liquid in the pot, before dipping the tongs into the fluid and
pulling out a mouse. He laid it on a
tray, then did the same with its brother.
Lifting the tray, the technician moved in front of the cauldron,
displaying the prone rodents to the camera.
A paw twitched. Then
another. One of the mice trembled and
righted itself; the second followed suit.
Both mice remained frozen for a moment, their tails swishing, cheeks
grinding, noses quivering. The
technician laid the tray down next to their cage, opened it, and lifted them,
tenderly, into its interior. He moved
aside. In the final shot, the mice
scampered through the straw, seemingly none the worse for wear.
as the lights
were dimming, Neumann had leaned over to whisper to Agatha, but his movement
must have startled her: the box of Maltesers went flying, sending chocolate
balls cascading in the air or skittering under seats. An elderly matron with
a fox-fur scarf seated
in the row in front of them tutted, brushed Maltesers from her lap and glared
at them. Conversation on the walk home
had been polite but stilted. There was
no second date.)
the projector. “Colonel, I hope this convinces you. Given recent developments,
Harold,” interrupted MacLeod. “You’ve shown it works on mice. But
does it work on men?”
“Excellent question, Colonel. Neumann…?”
H-certificate movie, thought Neumann.
Producing the second reel, he swapped the reels over and clicked the
the screen: a
poor, grey figure gasping, bewildered, as a trio of burly technicians dragged
him from the cauldron. No soundtrack,
but Neumann didn’t need it. His mind supplied
the panicky hubbub, the curses from the staff as they restrained the poor
man. The rope-marks around his neck were
still fresh. A crime of passion, the
press had said. Neumann didn’t think of
himself as squeamish. His training as a pathologist and work at the lab meant
he’d seen plenty of corpses, but he shuddered still. The man struggled
against his rescuers, his
mouth opening and closing.
head. “A peculiarity of the power: it leaves the resurrected mute.”
Thomas. Ryan Thomas. Neumann looked away
from the screen as the Webley came into view.
A flash from the revolver, twice, thrice. Peace.
nodded. “All right. Anything else?”
supplementary notes,” said P. “Neumann?”
his throat. “Yes. Well.
There was a delay in one of the follow-up tests with the mice. The technician
had completed the euthanasia
stage when an urgent telephone message came through for him. When he returned
from dealing with it, he found the mouse scurrying about with its brethren.
right as rain.”
unnecessary?” muttered MacLeod.
Neumann. “Proximity alone is sufficient.
It might take a little longer…”
muttered the Colonel. “Well, we have a
decision to make, gentlemen.”
gave a wry
smile, glancing at Neumann. “Sir?
I thought we’d already agreed on
the doctor has to say first,” said MacLeod. “Ensure a fresh perspective.
What’s your view, Doctor Neumann? The cauldron could offer us bottomless
manpower. A boon to our overstretched
broke in P. “Not just red, white and
blue. Red, or brown. Or yellow.”
swallowed. “Uh. Well, to
be honest Colonel. I disagree with you.
We can’t allow the Pair Dadeni to fall into
his eyebrows. Nodded. “It
seems I’m outvoted. I’ll defer to your expertise, doctor. Destruction it is. I’ll leave you to make the arrangements,
Harold. Doctor Neumann, I’ll await your verification.”
Neumann looked at P. MacLeod chuckled.
told him, Harold,” said the Colonel.
little past nine
o’clock, she heard whistling from the close, then footsteps. They stopped
outside the door. Joe. His key scraped at the lock and the door opened.
Her boyfriend breezed in, carrying a bundle swaddled in newspaper. The scent of
salt and sauce, mingled with the aroma of fried fish, wafted across the small
room. He plonked the food down on the dresser. She could smell cigar smoke and
the heavy tang of spilled Guinness on his clothes. And the merest hint of cheap
supper,” he said, taking off his hat.
voice level. “Where have you been, Joe?”
“Christ. Can’t a man have a few drinks—”
suppose,” she said, flatly. “What did
you tell the poor cow? That you loved
said Joe. “I told you before—”
saw you,” said
Ellie. “Giggling away at your nonsense
in the saloon bar! Think you’re Max
Miller, Joe Mitford, do you? Well, this
is your last engagement. I want you
then. Laughed right at her. “You’re
kidding me on.”
my name on
the rent book, Joe,” she said. She was shaking. Grief and fear fought for her
attention. “You can stay—”
died. His fist lashed out. Ellie
fell against the dresser, hurting her
back. He laughed at her again. And
there was the bottle of gin, just sitting
there. She grabbed it, panicking. But
Joe was quicker: he rushed her. Ellie felt his hands around her throat,
choking, squeezing. Her arms flailed,
scratching at his face, but he persisted.
She kicked out, desperate: her shoe came off—
some point, he
must have fallen asleep. Neumann came
to, lying above the covers on his bunk, still fully dressed, sweating
slightly. He’d not even managed to draw
the blind. Through the carriage window, blackness. The rhythmic clatter of the wheels on the
tracks as the train raced North.
Thump. There it was again. The noise that
had woken him. He struggled from his bunk, slipped his boots
on, and peered out into the corridor. A
young, fair-haired guard was advancing down the passage.
I can do
to help, er…?”
to worry about sir,” said the guard. “Just
a routine check. You can go back to bed.”
sure. He stepped into the aisle. “Oh,
I didn’t mean to offend you, William. I’m sure you can handle it,
of course. But…bear in mind I’m here…?”
there was no mistaking the origin of the noise this time. It was coming from
compartment. Neumann followed William:
the guard took out his bunch of keys, unlatched the door, and stepped into the
storage space beyond, switching his torch on.
A sallow circle of light passed over the bulky crates, cases and trunks,
briefly ruining their mystery, before letting them sink back into
obscurity. There was Neumann’s box.
And beside it, a slightly larger trunk, its
green leather skin scratched and bruised.
Newer dents, bulges and thin splits too, marked its face.
The lid of the larger green chest buckled outwards. Something was striking
it from within.
got in or
something,” muttered William. “You…you behind me, sir?”
aware of his vulnerability. No Ministry
training in firearms or Jiu Jitsu for him.
He rolled his newspaper into a tight cylinder, praying for what…a Daddy
leaning forward. He fumbled with the first
latch holding the lid of the green case shut, and it sprang open. Crouching,
he repeated the action with the second
latch: it released. And the final, the middle
latch. The lid burst open. The
guard jumped back, dropping his
torch. It rolled across the luggage
compartment floor, illuminating a painted rocking horse, a cello case, some
squat mail sacks. And in the shadows,
something stirred. A short and slight
figure unfolded itself from the depths of the trunk, untangling its limbs,
struggling to get upright.
last, the guard
located his torch and swung its pale circle of light back toward the green
trunk. The torchlight panned upwards: past
grey stockings (she was missing one shoe) and a floral dress, spattered with patches
of dried blood, and onto the thin, elongated face of a woman in early
middle-age with a bob haircut. She stared
at them with confusion. As she tried to
step forward, the woman stumbled on the side of the case, and fell. Her mouth
opened and shut, gasping, but no
you all right miss?” said William.
woman’s side, the guard struggled to assist her to her feet. Failing,
he snapped at Neumann:
me a hand,
spell. Neumann was still shaking, but
adrenaline overrode his cowardice. As he
took her arm, and together with William, managed to help her to stand, he felt
her skin, cold to the touch. An awful sickly-sweet
aroma invaded his nostrils. By the dim glow of the guard’s torch, he saw her wounds.
A necklace of black, purple and pink bruises decorated her long, thin neck. The
woman’s jaw moved again, but no sound came out.
then Neumann realised.
She’s not breathing.
her arm. “Oh…”
playing at?” barked William. “We have to help her, man!”
seemed to be forming her own plan. She broke free from the guard’s grip and
stumbled past them to the corridor. Neumann watched her stagger down the narrow
passageway and tilt her head upwards, searching for something. Reaching out,
she seized the communication cord.
let out a
sharp rebuke. “Here, miss, that’s for emergencies…”
was an awful
squeal as the brakes were applied. Neumann tumbled forward, hurting his
shoulder as he collided with the luggage compartment door. The train’s electric
lights flickered madly. Neumann saw the woman gaze at him as she reached for
the door. The lights failed again. When they came on, the carriage door hung
wide open to the elements, banging in the wind.
in the name
of the wee man…” murmured William.
power of the
Pair Dadeni, thought Neumann.
she drew closer
to the tenement block, Ellie began to feel strange, as if in prelude to a
fever: a fizzing at the base of her skull, her limbs not her own. Her pace slackened
and then stalled at the
entrance to the close. She looked up: her
apartment curtains were still drawn.
block and ascended the stairs to the first-floor landing. Imagine him sweating
as he dragged the green
trunk down here! She reached their door.
They had no knocker; the previous tenant had taken it with them. Joe kept promising
to fix it. Ellie rapped on the wood.
Well then. Again: she hammered at
the door with her fists. From the room,
she heard a series of coughs, then a woman’s sleepy, plaintive murmur.
grumbled: “All right, all right.”
scrape as the
bolts drew back, the door opened…Joe. He
froze, staring at her, his mouth gaping.
An involuntary squeak escaped his lips.
He clutched at his chest. His
terror, his guilt almost made her feel sorry for him. Almost.
across the threshold. As she shut the door behind her, she heard Joe’s floozy
began to scream.
It was good to be home.
Martin Taulbut lives
in Paisley, Scotland, and is a member of the Shut Up and Write! Glasgow Group. His
previous short stories have appeared in Psychotrope, Scheherazade, Albedo One, Black
Petals and Mycelia.