include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for The Luck Of The Devil by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

THE LUCK OF THE DEVIL

Ebook Edition


Table of contents


Title and copyright

THE LUCK OF THE DEVIL

Prologue: On A Storyteller’s Night

Chapter One: Can You See The Real Me?

Chapter Two: We Are The Road Crew

Chapter Three: Sympathy For The Devil

Chapter Four: Welcome To My Nightmare

Chapter Five: Don’t Fear The Reaper

Chapter Six: Symptom Of The Universe

Chapter Seven: The Number Of The Beast

Chapter Eight: Dazed And Confused

Chapter Nine: Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight

Chapter Ten: Stone Cold Crazy

Chapter Eleven: Gates Of Babylon

Chapter Twelve: The Court Of The Crimson King

Chapter Thirteen: For Whom The Bell Tolls

Epilogue: Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be

About the Author

Also available from WyrdStar Books


Please note that the hyperlinks within this ebook may not operate uniformly across all types of ebook reader hardware and software.


* * *

THE LUCK OF THE DEVIL


[About the Author] [Contents] [The Luck Of The Devil]


WYRDSTAR BOOKS

www.wyrdstar.co.uk


Copyright (c) Stephanie M Bennion 2018

All rights reserved.


SMASHWORDS EDITION


Smashwords license notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not bought for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Smashwords publishing history

First published September 2018


The right of Stephanie M Bennion (Steph Bennion) to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.


Cover artwork copyright (c) WyrdStar 2018


This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (in this world or the next), events or localities is entirely coincidental.


* * *

THE LUCK OF THE DEVIL


[Copyright] [Contents] [Prologue]


A Novel by

Stephanie M Bennion


WYRDSTAR BOOKS

www.wyrdstar.co.uk


Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Karen for friendship, cider and the usual help with proof-reading; The Happy Maureens, for getting me back on stage (the ‘M’ is for you!); and Sarah, who somehow kept me sane in that big, bad city. We now live by the seaside.


Von Däniken’s Express is a fictional band. While some of the quoted lyrics are also pure invention, others are from songs originally performed by Danse Macabre, a London-based folk-goth rock band that the author and Sarah Taylor performed in and wrote songs for several years ago. A few are even available to listen to on the band’s one-and-only independently-released CD EP, The Golden Age Of Ballooning...


* * * * *

Prologue


I see the madness

Behind your cruel eyes

As we build the fire

Beneath stormy skies.


Holy Terror

Von Däniken’s Express


* * *


Prologue

On A Storyteller’s Night


[Title Page] [Contents] [Chapter One]


THE STORY OF MORDIS TERRIFIED HER AS A CHILD. It was a tale of fear and anger, of devilry and revenge. It mattered not that the lives of which it told were of a strange and distant era, nor that the villain was the power of belief. It was a tale that haunted her, for it warned that those who dared to be different would suffer for their sins.

It began with a storm. Rain lashed down in torrents. Demoniac lightning pierced the clinging darkness as the raging elements unleashed their fury upon the world below. The wind howled across the hillside with the wrath of a thousand avenging devils, which to the frightened participants of this tale seemed more a case of a gross exaggeration than a mere metaphor. Opening a story with melodramatic weather was not yet a cliché.

An ominous dark mass took shape within the night. A huge fortress of stone, its grey battlements scarred as much by the forces of nature as by the wounds of battle, stood defiant against the raging elements. Wooden shutters at the narrow windows concealed all signs of life, save for one solitary light issuing from a room in a turret high above.

Buffeted by the fury of the storm, a young woman gazed from the tower window. No one in their right mind would be outside on such a night, yet her vigil carried a weight of expectation. A hand brushed the mane of chestnut hair from her eyes. Her other slipped beneath her night-dress, fingertips tenderly stroking the pale skin shrouding her womb. It would be months before her secret revealed itself for all the world to see.

“A dark and stormy night,” she might have mused. It was far too lame a description.

Suddenly, she spied movement far below. A faint glow appeared, barely discernible through the torrential rain. As she watched, another light appeared, then another. A dozen or so figures in heavy robes, their lanterns held high, were marching resolutely towards the stronghold. The men carried staffs, scythes and other implements, brandishing them like weapons. Each was determined that one way or another, tonight would see an end to the troubles that had plagued the village. From her vantage point high above, the woman watched the small army approach the castle and smiled wryly.

“Try using magic to get out of this one,” she murmured. “You friggin’ Faustus.”


* * *


Much of the story is conjecture. Yet like the now-fallen stones of the castle, enough jagged pieces remained for memories to echo still. It was not difficult for those who told the tale to paint a vivid picture.

Deep beneath the castle lay a secret windowless dungeon. This was not a place for prisoners, nor an inquisitor’s chamber of torture, but a den of blasphemous deeds. Set deep in the stone floor was a huge iron pentagram, its clumsily-wrought lines flickering in the candlelight that danced with the shadows on the cold stone walls. A heavy workbench held a brass hourglass, a collection of ancient manuscripts and vials of unidentifiable powders. Near the stout oaken door, on the wall next to a shelf of clay jars containing all sorts of weird and wonderful artefacts, a faded chart showed detailed anatomical sketches of the human frame. A mysterious odour hung in the air, a sweet pungent fragrance born from the forbidden herbs smouldering within the incense burner upon the bench.

The castle and dungeon were those of Lord Edmund Mordis. For a voyage into the darker realms of magic, his secret sanctum was well-equipped. Yet he himself was a weak, arrogant man who believed himself the foremost sorcerer in the land. Those foolish enough to meddle with the powers of the supernatural were mercifully thin on the ground. It was a time when seventeenth-century Ireland writhed with superstitious fears and the witch-hunter’s handbook Malleus Maleficarum was a best-seller second only to the Bible. To the villagers, not least his nemesis Nanny Steer, he was one black-magic practitioner too many. Mordis was in trouble and he knew it. Dabbling in magic to further his own ambitions was bad enough. Using the power to influence others was asking for trouble.

Mordis sat cross-legged in the centre of the pentagram. He wore his ritual garb of ornate flowing robes, a reassuring weight upon his shoulders. His eyes were closed, his mind concentrating solely upon the incantations passing his lips. His time in this world was running out. Mordis had reached the point where he believed his only hope of salvation was to conjure assistance from another. The trick was to do so without paying the ultimate price.

The first spell was cast. Mordis opened his eyes and rose to his feet. Walking wearily to the door, he drew back the heavy iron bolt. Beyond, a steep flight of steps rose to a small antechamber. He looked up to a narrow unglazed window and the raging tempest beyond.

“The moon, the stars,” he muttered darkly.

Leaving his sanctum, he climbed the steps to the window. Rain gusted through the open shutters, coating the cobbled floor with a slippery sheen. Set in the wooden frame were four nails, attached to which were two lengths of twine; one left-to-right, the other top-to-bottom. Facing the window, Mordis searched the floor until he found the cross he had carved after weeks of careful calculations and astronomical observations. Placing his feet on the mark, he gazed through the window. Pendulous and foreboding, the storm had destroyed his hopes of a clear sky. The bad weather was unforeseen. He recalled bitterly that the villagers joked he had trouble even predicting what day of the week it would be tomorrow.

His qualms faded as he saw the pale yellow glow of the moon, glimmering through a tear in the storm’s shroud to the west. The positions of the other heavenly bodies were established, for Mordis had been meticulous in his observations over the last few nights. It was the moon, the sentinel of the night, that was all-important; the catalyst with which to channel the darkness of the underworld and shape it to his own ends. He watched as the moon crept along its celestial plane, his heart thudding in anticipation. As it neared the crossed twines, Mordis held his breath, anxious for the critical juncture.

The cross finally fell upon the centre of the moon, slicing the pale globe in four.

Mordis exhaled sharply. Hurrying back to his dungeon, he upturned the large hourglass on the bench, one doctored to hold sand for just three minutes. He eyed it uneasily as he closed the door and slid the iron bolt across. Only then did he return to his place at the centre of the iron pentagram. Timing was crucial.

From the castle above came the faint sounds of the villagers hammering at the doors. Mordis swatted it away as if the disturbance were an irritating fly.

“Fools,” he muttered. “The wheel of fate spins to my tune now.”


* * *


The villagers gathered before the castle’s gatehouse doors, buffeted by the wind and rain. Amidst the noise of the storm, they hammered upon the timbers with what tools they carried, the staccato thud of iron upon wood rising in an angry crescendo of hate. It came as no surprise to find the huge oaken barricades securely bolted.

An old man, heavily cloaked and leaning on a staff, stepped forward. The villagers parted to clear a path to the doors. He was the village priest; armed only with the good book, it was he who had rallied the men into action. Reaching the gatehouse, he raised a hand to silence his uneasy congregation, then rapped his staff upon the aged oak.

“Open this door!” he commanded. “In the name of the Lord!”

Stepping back, the old man leaned upon his staff and waited, seemingly oblivious to the fury of the storm. The rasp of grating iron cut through the air as heavy bolts were drawn back from within. There was a pause, then the doors slowly swung back. They revealed a figure holding a lantern, its light illuminating the pale features of a young girl.

“You took your time, lass,” the priest grumbled. “May we come in?”

The girl beckoned them inside. One by one, the villagers quickly slipped through into the gatehouse. As they gathered uneasily beneath the stone arch, a rumble of thunder broke above the hillside, the sound taking on an eerie malevolence as it echoed around the drenched and windswept courtyard ahead. The young girl laid a hand upon the priest’s own.

“Fear not,” she reassured him. “Your dear Róisín is safe in a room above. It was she who saw your approach. She instructed me to let you in.”

The priest regarded her solemnly. “Where is Lord Mordis?”

“Down below. He has been there for days, working on some evil!” she replied, looking afraid. She pointed to a small door, half-concealed in the shadows of the gatehouse. “There is a passage from the room beyond to the west wall. That is the way to his lair.”

The priest nodded. Striding defiantly to the door, he swung it open with a crash.

“Come!” he commanded. “It is with God’s blessing that we shall crush this demon!” With a flourish he raised his Bible above his head. “The apostles of Satan have no place in our village. Righteousness shall prevail!”

The villagers nervously raised their weapons and cheered. They were eager for action, yet cowed by their gloomy surroundings and the storm outside. Apprehensive yet resolute, the priest stepped through the doorway into the dimly-lit chamber beyond.


* * *


A third of the sand remained, time enough for Mordis to complete his incantations. Within the pentagram, his eyes were on the large, leather-bound book before him, the yellow leaves of parchment open at a page whose words he had memorised long ago. Outside, the storm continued in its fury, the wind howling like a banshee as it whipped across the desolate hillside. Every now and then a rogue draught blew through the gap beneath the door, sending a cold chill across to where he sat. Faint though the sound was down in the dungeon, the wind seemed to be growing in its ferocious intensity, blowing stronger with every grain of sand that fell through the glass.

Slowly and with great deliberation, Mordis read aloud the next line of the spell.

His concentration was shattered by the thump of boots upon the steps outside. The avenging villagers had found his lair. Mordis flinched as loud bangs came from the dungeon door. Flickers of doubt grew in his mind. He was afraid; not of the priest and his bloodthirsty flock, but of his own innate fallibility. He had studied all that could be learned of sorcery and black magic. He had thoroughly researched and rehearsed this particular spell to the best of his capabilities. Yet the anger of the villagers was proof enough that being an enthusiastic amateur was not enough. Tonight was the night he had to pull something quite spectacular out of the hat. His record to date was far from impressive.

His hesitation was brief. A glance at the hourglass told him it was too late to change his mind. Returning his gaze to the book, Mordis spoke the penultimate line.


* * *


Outside the dungeon, the priest organised his troops. The villagers who carried axes as their weapon of choice were now putting them to good use, anxious to defeat the stout oaken door blocking their progress. To say the holy man was worried was an understatement. He had seen the crossed strings at the window frame; while unsure of their purpose, they were proof enough that Mordis was up to no good. The priest was an educated man and not as superstitious as most, yet nevertheless feared evil as much as anyone. The rising ferocity of the storm was all-too apparent. Unease grew amongst the rest of the villagers as they crowded apprehensively at the top of the stone steps.

“The moon, the stars,” he muttered. His Bible was held firm against his chest.

“We are through!” came a cry.

The axes had shattered the wood around the lock. Dropping their blades, the men put their shoulders to the door and pushed. There came the sound of splitting wood and the door burst open, the iron bolt hanging from the frame. The priest cautiously approached the open door and peered through the opening. The dim candlelight beyond at first revealed only vague shapes in the clinging darkness. Then, as his eyes began to adjust to the gloom, he made out the robed figure seated upon the floor.

“Lord Mordis!” growled the priest. “Bound for evil, to be sure!”

Mordis did not move. Growing bolder, the priest stepped into the dungeon.

“What terrible wizardry is it that you dare release upon the world?” the holy man hissed accusingly. “Your sorcery will not be tolerated!”

There was no response. Aware that his every move was being watched by the villagers, the priest edged further into the room, keeping his gaze upon the sorcerer. He had already noticed the unholy pentagram inside which Mordis sat.

“Answer me!” he roared.

Mordis did not move. A myriad of sounds filled the dungeon: the wailing of wind, the distant rattle of rain, the fearful whispers of the massed villagers; none seemed louder to the priest than the thumping of his own heart. Now he hesitated, unsure of what to do. He had expected his Lordship to respond with anger, but there was no reaction at all. An uneasy shuffle of boots came from the villagers behind, still huddled in the doorway.

Mordis began to speak. The priest’s eyes went wide. The eerie tangle of Latin from the sorcerer’s lips spoke of demoniac pacts and revenge. The holy man raised his Bible.

“I am here as the hand of God,” the priest declared, resolute. “I shall exorcise the evil spirits that have invaded your soul! I shall rid thee of Satan’s influence!”

With a dreadful sense of timing, lightning seared the sky beyond the crossed twines of the window. The stone steps to the dungeon blazed with stark white light, illuminating the scene below. The sorcerer stared at the priest with wide, bloodshot eyes. Startled, the holy man staggered backwards across the cobbled floor and stumbled into the workbench. An almighty crash of thunder followed, deafening all those present. Grasping the bench for support, the priest’s hand brushed against the brass hourglass behind him.

There was a second lightning flash. Again, the storm’s timing was impeccable. Filled with dread, the priest froze as the last grains of sand fell inside the glass.

Upon the celestial sphere, distant worlds converged.

A sudden hush descended upon the dungeon; eerie, deathly and complete.

The holy man twitched uneasily. Outside, the wind still howled and the rain continued to pour, yet his mind no longer heard. The silence within the sorcerer’s lair had become a living, breathing thing, a cloying presence that sucked every vibration from the air.

Then came a sound. A rising floodwater of noise seeped into the dungeon, a dull rhythmic throbbing that flowed from the bowels of the Earth. The priest felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising, the Bible clutched in his fist now more for self-reassurance than for brandishing as a deterrent. Lord Mordis had still not moved. Gripped with fear, the holy man looked around the dungeon in a mixture of bewilderment and terror. The rumbling tremors were a demoniac fanfare, a prelude to damnation.

All of a sudden, a column of crimson fire blasted up from the centre of the pentagram. Screams of anguish filled the dungeon, the wailing laments of the lost. The priest dropped to the floor and clasped his hands over his ears in terror.

“My God!” he cried. “The fires of wrath are upon us!”

Ethereal flames writhed with blood-red tentacles of ferocious, malicious energy. Mordis sat within, seemingly oblivious to the flickering fire. The sorcerer wore the calm, vacant gaze of the insane, his lips curled in a grotesque yet triumphant sneer of malice that in the eyes of the priest flowed from somewhere far deeper than his poisoned soul. The holy man turned to the villagers in the doorway and stared in confusion at their wandering, puzzled stares. It dawned on him that they could not see the unearthly pillar of flames. He alone had been hypnotised by this unholy whirlwind of horror. Confined within the iron pentagram, the awesome supernatural power burned cold.

The dull throbbing reached the limit of its crescendo. Satanic overtones combined to form an unholy cacophony of diminished fifths. The priest scrambled to his feet, his knuckles white as he clenched his Bible. Without warning, there came another explosion of light. A horrific rumble crashed in its wake, shaking every stone in the castle.

The desperate screams died. Darkness returned, save for the feeble glow of candlelight as before. Other than the muffled roar of the storm outside, all was quiet. The priest blinked and rubbed his eyes in confusion. Lord Mordis had gone.


* * *


Several moments passed. The priest stared at the conspicuously empty space at the centre of the pentagram. For a moment he thought the column of crimson fire was still there, reduced in its ferocity, but could not be sure. The sorcerer was nowhere to be seen.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” he muttered.

His eyes lingered upon the void where Mordis had been. He tried to convince himself that the unholy fire had been a ruse, an alchemist’s trick to mask an escape. The alternative was too horrific to contemplate. Remembering his audience, he turned to face the villagers gathered in the doorway. Though shaken, the priest was made of stern stuff.

“Mordis is vanquished!” he cried in defiance. “The hounds of hell have arisen to claim their own! We are free from the tyranny of his ways!”

An uneasy murmur rose from the villagers at the door. It troubled the priest that not one appeared to have witnessed the fire as he himself had done. Yet the fact that the sorcerer had vanished was beyond doubt. The idea that Mordis had opened some sort of gateway to the underworld was a tale easily accepted by superstitious minds. The wily holy man stroked his chin thoughtfully as he considered how to guard against the sorcerer’s return.

“This place is accursed!” he declared. “Unclean! It must be sealed from mortal eyes!”

“It shall be done!” cried one of the axemen. “I shall bring timber!”

“And I shall bring nails!” declared the blacksmith.

“Bricks are better than timber!” came another voice.

“Let us sanctify the dungeon with fire!”

“Let the whole castle burn!”

This last suggestion won a lot of support. Nevertheless, the priest saw to it that the door to the dungeon was not only nailed shut, but secured with battens of wood and sealed with a heavy sheet of lead. Then, just to be safe, the doorway itself was bricked up, as was the opening at the top of the steps. Only when this had been done did the priest step aside and let the villagers have their way.

Most of the castle’s servants, though innocent, had gone into hiding. It must be said that Lord Mordis’ entourage included an unusually high number of young girls, their natural timidness proving a problem until they finally realised just why the villagers were stacking great mounds of firewood against the castle walls. Many fled into the night to seek refuge back at the village. A few remained, huddled together beneath the dying tempest of the storm, determined to see the story through to the end.

The final chapter came at dawn. Their labours complete, the villagers gave the holy man the honour of placing a blazing torch against the prepared tinder. This he did so, with a great satisfaction that he failed to hide with the words of reluctance in his journal.

The castle burned through the night. The rain continued to pour. It was a great disappointment to many that the storm quenched the flames before the blackened shell fell into ruins for good. Few appreciated that it was only a matter of time before the terrible tale of fear and justice passed into folklore, then faded as all superstitions are fated to do.

It was a story that deserved to be closed. This one refused to die.


* * *


The tale of Lord Mordis should have ended on that dark and stormy night. The sole written account is confusing; it is the priest’s own, scrawled in a trembling hand. The only reminder was the accursed castle itself, devoid of life, standing empty yet defiant.

Three hundred years later, a visitor came from overseas. The real ending of the story was about to begin.


* * * * *

- I -


A place where sirens wail

Where people never smile

Ice creams vans don’t stop

Along murder mile.

Fortune stalks the rich

The brainless and the pretty

Another day dawns

In this big bad city.


Big Bad City

Von Däniken’s Express


* * *

Chapter One

Can You See The Real Me?


[Prologue] [Contents] [Chapter Two]


SUSAN LAY ON HER BED, floundering on the edge of sleep, a half-drained glass of wine clutched precariously in her hand. The curtains at her window were open to the midnight gloom of an unseasonably-rainy June night, the darkness marred by the dim orange glow of streetlights. Her handbag and coat lay where they had fallen next to her mangled umbrella, the sad detritus of yet another bad day.

Her old portable record player, perched atop a pile of books next to her bed, fell silent. The dissonant purr of a passing car gnawed at the distant wail of sirens, breaking the uneasy hush. A damp breeze stole through the window, blowing the battered album sleeve of Von Däniken’s Express’ Dancing at the Gates of Hell from the sill. Macabre artwork revelled in a pastiche of Hieronymus Bosch’s unsettling portrait of hell, though back when the album had been conceived, Susan had known of The Garden of Earthly Delights only by way of Deep Purple’s eponymous third album. The record player moved its stylus to the run-off groove.

Low, eerie tones rose from the speaker. The band had thought it funny to include a backwards Satanic chant when the album was pressed. The clawing sinister whisper filled the hush within the room. Twitching curtains animated the neon streetlamp glow.

The flickering orange light toyed with the album’s scenes of damnation. Tenuous images danced through half-closed eyelids and into Susan’s dreams. Fragments of the mundane spun through her subconscious, colliding with suppressed memories both disturbing and surreal. The room seemed to fill with ghostly, ethereal fire.

Her mind seized the shadows, twisting them into a sinister landscape of caverns, a blackened labyrinth stretching to a doom-ridden infinity. Vague shapes scuttled in the darkness. Figures from the album artwork became rows of melancholy wraiths, trudging along a causeway of skulls towards everlasting horrors. Echoes of wailing heavy metal guitars mingled with the desperate laments of the lost.

Tendrils of fear drew her deeper. Her dream grew dark. A beast rose from the fallen sleeve and took shape: Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. Reflecting her own weariness, the foul creature yawned, its blood-stained fangs gaping wide. She floated before the demon like a fish in glass bowl, cocooned from the fires of hell, the anguish and confusion. Beelzebub’s hideous crimson features barely registered any pleasure took from the tortured grimaces worn by the underworld’s unwilling guests.

“I am bored,” the demon seemed to lisp. It was not uncommon for her nightmares to find a voice. “What ghastly amusement can you find for me today, my loathsome one?”

A squat, ugly imp moved from the flickering shadows. The creature’s green leathery wings scraped forlornly upon the stone floor.

“There’s always plen’y of lost souls for ya enjoyment, master...” the imp began.

“I want more!” demanded Beelzebub, brusquely interrupting. “This tedious routine of suffering and debauchery has become stale. I want to be entertained!”

The lesser demon looked up at its master and grinned. “There’s a Satanist cult in Borneo doin’ a nice line in sacrificial virgins at the moment. I fink it’s Borneo,” the imp added. “Might be Bournemouth.”

A smile twitched the corner of Susan’s lips. Her dark sense of humour had a lot to answer for. Subliminal ideas coalesced. The walls became blackened oak panels, towering behind heavy office furniture and brass-handled cabinets that reminded her of the Minister’s office in Whitehall. Beelzebub now sat at a huge desk, oozing bureaucratic grace. The pink leather upon the massive wooden chair was probably not bovine.

“No,” said Beelzebub, after a pause. “Nice idea though, my little Sumokyn-Kils. I was thinking more of a bit of old-school skulduggery. The Book of Job is a cracking read.”

Sumokyn-Kils nodded respectfully. Looking sly, the squat demon trotted to a filing cabinet and withdrew a large leather-bound file wrapped in a tangle of red tape.

“The Saint Fursey affair,” the imp declared, handing Beelzebub the file. “It just so ‘appens the time of the fourth fire is near.”

Beelzebub smiled a perfectly wicked grin. A scaly paw snapped the tape with a talon, opened the file and withdrew the top sheet. The grin widened. Susan shifted uncomfortably in her sleep. The demons in her mind were being unusually verbose. Even the chatty rabbit that appeared after the dodgy pizza last week had struggled to maintain a conversation.

“You have been busy.”

“I likes to fink of ways to complicate matters,” the imp admitted proudly.

“Your diabolical meddling is commendable,” Beelzebub replied. “It is high time we brought matters to a close. Bring me an update and recommendations.”

Susan gave an involuntary shudder at the ritual request for a report. Sumokyn-Kils nodded and saluted, a curious contortion of wings and arms that would have perplexed a contortionist. The imp slunk from sight with its tail between its legs.

Beelzebub leaned back in the chair. A reptilian grin returned to deform once-angelic features. Susan’s hands grasped the bed sheets for reassurance.

“Another day dawns in this big bad city,” the demon growled softly, running a forked tongue over its grimace. Beelzebub suddenly locked its hideous stare upon her mind’s eye. “It will be a day of reckoning, my dear Mordis!”

Susan screamed.

The wine glass flew from her grasp and smashed against the wall. In an instant she was awake, fumbling wildly for the bedside lamp. Her hand found the light and switched it on. The malevolent shadows and flickering flames vanished in a blink of an eye, revealing the innocuous wavering curtains and a blood-red splatter of wine on the wall.

Trembling, Susan reached to the record player and turned it off. She stared at the album cover on the floor. She had hoped playing the old songs would trigger memories of happier times. Adding a bottle of wine to the mix had in hindsight been a very bad idea.

Big Bad City,” she murmured. It was the last track on side one and presumably the song that had been playing as she fell asleep. As if to confirm her suspicions, a distant sound of sirens drifted upon the night. “Can’t get much badder than the city of the damned.”

Her alarm clock said half past three. Leaving the lamp on, she changed into her night clothes, crept under the sheets and totally failed to get any more sleep that night.


* * *


In deepest south London, the rain-sodden light of dawn crept cautiously across the less picturesque part of Croydon. Lurking in the urban sprawl was one particularly dilapidated apartment block, a concrete monument to nineteen-sixties Britain, now languishing in disrepair in the economic recession of the nineties. It was an emblem of social decay, the sort of housing where if the authorities announced an intention to modernise, residents would promptly convene an action group, organise a petition and set up fund-raising events to buy their own bulldozer. Not that there should be anyone left living there: when the cockroaches moved out shortly after the rats, the borough council conceded the building had seen better days and finally got to work re-housing the remaining tenants.

Halfway up the tower was a cramped one-bedroom flat, the only one in the block still occupied. The unfortunate tenant had fallen foul of a clerical error and been left off the re-housing list, something Susan had been trying to tell the council for the past four months. This flat was her home and she hated every single square inch of it.

She had a secure job and no dependants to support, yet one look at her finances was enough to make an accountant weep. Her public-sector wages had not kept up with the cost of living and other demands that appeared with alarming regularity. These were often in the shape of repair bills for her beloved Volkswagen, which broke down more often than a neurotic film star; last December, the local garage had sent her a gift-wrapped tow rope with her Christmas card. A difference in opinion between private consultants and the National Health Service meant she got no help with vital prescriptions and hair-removal treatments. Her flat was furnished from a variety of second-hand sources, for nothing new lasted long.

Entropy, the universal tendency towards chaos, had claimed squatter’s rights, its ability to influence her world rivalling that of gravity itself. Susan’s flat was the dwelling of misfortune personified. Luck had never darkened her door.


* * *


Susan gave up trying to sleep and crawled out of bed around seven. Weary and bleary-eyed, she stumbled into the main room, which managed to be a lounge, dining room and kitchen all in a space barely twenty feet by ten. Reaching the kitchenette, she located the kettle and on an automatic impulse switched it on. She had forgotten to turn off the television on the worktop last night; somehow, the picture had gone fuzzy, while the warbling from its broken speaker sounded like someone attempting underwater opera. She gave the screen an impatient slap to clear the image and was rewarded with a dreadful American-style game show, the host revelling in cheerful cheesy banter, one of her pet hates. She suspected it was shows like this that were the cause of so many rock stars throwing television sets from hotel windows during the North American leg of world tours.

She killed the mocking screen with a vicious jab of the switch. Opening a cupboard, Susan stared blankly at the ranged tins, jars and packets of food, her mind whirring in the aftermath of last night’s dream. A nightmare featuring a coherent conversation between Beelzebub and an impish minion was disconcerting, for it had seemed so real; not least because the lesser demon’s dreadful estuary accent had been eerily reminiscent of a certain condescending manager at work whom she tried to avoid at all costs. Susan was no stranger to horrible dreams, for as an employee of Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue she often had horrible flashbacks of encounters with clients and staff who had been none too pleased to see her. Nevertheless, it was not often she was awoken by her own screams.

“Perhaps it’s an omen,” she murmured, reaching into the cupboard to pluck a teabag from the box. Her voice sounded particularly hoarse this morning. “Or that kebab I had on the way home. I thought it tasted odd.”

Teabag in hand, Susan glanced around her flat, searching for a mug. Her gaze fell upon the full-length wall mirror by the front door. She was twenty-six and in reasonable health, but in her opinion her attractive features ended there. She was tall for a woman, with a jaw a little too stern, pale skin that still bore the scars of teenage acne and long dark hair that was voluminous yet untidy. Skinny hips and an unimpressive bust did little to stop her looking painfully underweight for her height. Above all else she looked tired. Her face was drawn, her hair knotted and she was soaked in sweat. It had been a rough night.

A folded slip of paper jutted from the flat’s letterbox. Susan scowled, crossed the short distance to the front door and ripped it from the slot. It was a flyer from the local Evangelist Church, yet another missive quoting Deuteronomy 22:5. She had been followed home on more than one occasion by a scary team of canvassing evangelists. The leaflet and its predecessors fell short of naming her directly, but made it clear that certain individuals were unclean and destined to go to hell. She was starting to wonder if they were right.

As she stared at the flyer, her senses were alerted to a strange smell. Something foul was burning, forming a dark mist around her. Suddenly, she was back in her dream, staring across the foul caverns of a blackened, bureaucratic hell. Her flesh began to tingle as fear regained its grip. Susan slowly looked around the kitchenette, half-expecting to see a ghastly imp peering from behind the bread bin. With a loud curse of both relief and renewed panic, she leapt forward and yanked a plug from the electrical wall socket.

Susan rubbed her eyes irritably. She gazed at the sad wreckage of her kettle, which she had forgotten to fill with water. It was going to be another one of those days.


* * *


She quickly showered and dressed, pulling on her usual jeans and shapeless black jumper. After putting a pan of water on the stove, she returned to the kitchenette just in time to see it boil over and extinguish the flame beneath. Despite taking great care whilst carrying the pan to where a mug and teabag awaited, the end result was still a scalded forearm, a pool of water on the floor, a fair bit of swearing and a dent in the wall from a pan flung angrily in pain. Miraculously, most of the water had made it into the mug.

After pausing to run her arm under the cold tap, then again to turn off the cooker when she detected the smell of gas, Susan finally made it to the refrigerator for her marmalade and milk. The toaster, having been fed with what was left of the bread, finally spat out the charred results of its labour. Finally, she settled down to breakfast.

It was then the telephone rang. Susan scowled, debated whether to ignore it, then reached over and plucked the handset from its cradle.

“Hello?” she said hesitantly.

“Hi Susan!” greeted a chirpy voice. Susan smiled, recognising the caller’s soft Irish lilt. Marie was almost family; her fiancé Paul was a cousin by way of Susan’s adoptive father, who along with her mother had died not long after she was born. Marie’s dulcet confidence was scary for someone barely twenty. “All set for tomorrow?”

“Uh huh,” confirmed Susan, her mouth full of toast. Marie had suggested that they get out of London for a few days. She and Paul had persuaded Susan to take them all on a road trip to the south coast. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Are you sure that camper van of yours is up to the trip?”

“I’m quietly confident. It hasn’t broken down in weeks. Honest.”

“Grand. It’ll do us all good to get out of this big bad city!”

Susan shuddered at the reminder of last night’s dream. They chatted a while longer, but she was not a great conversationalist and brought the call to a close once they had made the final arrangements for their trip.

Today she had other things on her mind. Susan had taken time off work not for trips to the seaside, but to deal with a problem. It was with an air of defiance that she took her daily tablets with the last dregs of her tea. After depositing her dirty crockery into the sink and the deceased kettle into the bin, she resolutely returned to her bedroom to get ready. Susan hurriedly applied her make-up, overdoing the foundation as usual. Opening the cassette player by her bed, she removed the sleep-hypnosis tape prescribed by her doctor and stuffed it into her handbag. Susan grabbed her coat, went to the front door and reached for the latch.

What she saw in the mirror made her pause. For a while now she had been trawling Croydon’s charity shops and buying interesting clothes, yet to date had not ventured outside in anything more exciting than the dull trouser suits she wore for work. She glanced to her bedroom door and thought of the mound of second-hand fashion lying on the floor next to her bed. Today was supposed to be the day things changed.

“What the hell,” she murmured. “I’m bound to be late, whatever I do.”

She found that thought vaguely comforting. Twenty minutes later, she was back at the front door, ready to go. The lilac jacket and skirt she had selected from the pile had not been in fashion for years and clashed with her favoured brown knee-high boots, but she liked the colour and the ensemble fitted surprisingly well. Picking up her coat and handbag, she paused by a photograph on the wall, the only picture she owned of her long-dead parents.

“Wish me luck, folks,” she murmured.


* * *


Susan hurried down the stairway of the crumbling tower block, stumbling on the loose floor tiles like a crane fly nearing the finishing line of an insect marathon. Outside, the rain was getting worse. Pulling on her coat, she squeezed through the main front doors, which had been stuck in a half-open position for nearly a month. The pouring rain lashed down in a passable imitation of Niagara Falls as she sprinted across the rubbish-strewn forecourt to her battered orange and white Volkswagen, where she spent what seemed an age fumbling for her keys until she discovered a tear in her handbag. Susan cursed, fished her keys from a puddle of evil-smelling mud, opened the driver’s door and scrambled in behind the wheel, slamming the door shut behind her.

She twisted the rear-view mirror towards her and scowled at the bedraggled, sopping-wet wraith that met her gaze. Years of depression, nightmares and a soul-crushing job had left her on the brink of mental exhaustion; in the cold light of day she looked more pale and weary than ever. She moved the mirror back into position and slotted the key into the ignition.

The engine clattered into life on the fifth attempt. Susan cast her gaze across the growing collection of broken fridges, threadbare sofas and other household refuse littering the forecourt, manoeuvred the camper van out of its parking spot and headed for the main road.

The miserable weather was doing little to persuade people to stay at home. Eager to take her mind off the traffic, she switched on the van’s cassette player and smiled wryly as Tony Iommi’s opening riff to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid growled from the speakers. It seemed appropriate, for she was convinced the same sinister black saloon kept appearing in her rear-view mirror, one which quickly slipped from sight if she ever glanced back.

The traffic was alarmingly frenzied. Arrogant taxis beeped horns and did their utmost to overtake as she crawled behind hatchbacks stuffed high with shopping and screaming children. Her original plan had been to take the train, but fate had conspired to close all services into central London. Thornton Heath, the nearest station, was shut due to a derailed train; and she knew from her tortuous journey home yesterday evening that Norwood Junction would be out of action for days following an electrical substation fire, none of which admittedly was as scary as the Irish Republican Army bombs that caused chaos at Victoria and Paddington back in February. Her new plan was to drive to Merton and take the Underground from there. Driving all the way into central London, even on a good day, was more than her nerves could stand.

A glance at the Volkswagen’s clock showed she was going to be very late indeed for her ten o’clock appointment. A myriad of exasperating traffic jams later, she found a parking spot in a superstore car park and wearily brought the Volkswagen to a halt. Stepping into the rain, she locked the door and hurried towards Colliers Wood station.


* * *


The London Underground was stuffy, cramped and slow. After one or two delays, Susan finally emerged onto a rain-swept Oxford Street. She braced herself against the weather and hurried up the side streets towards Cavendish Square.

Harley Street was lined on both sides by imposing Georgian town houses, many split into offices for businesses eager to claim a select London ‘W1’ postcode. Susan could not fail to notice that the rain immediately began to ease the moment she reached the entrance porch of her destination. She pushed open the door and slipped inside.

On the third floor was the office of Doctor Hermann Mordussen, the consultant with whom she had an appointment. Mordussen was a psychiatrist, an American practising in Europe who three years ago had suddenly appeared in Susan’s life, claiming to be a distant relative of the father she had never known and offering his counsel for free. Initially grateful, she now hated her visits and loathed his patronising ways. Family or not, today was the day she had to tell Mordussen she was not coming to see him any more. Dripping wet, she entered his office and squelched towards the blond young man at the reception desk.

“Good morning, miss,” he greeted, offering a look of sympathy. “Still raining, is it?”

Susan managed a weak smile. A trickle of water dribbled from her coat sleeve, leaving a puddle on the desk. The man’s own smile slipped into a frown.

“I have an appointment with Doctor Mordussen,” she said, ignoring his attempt to start a fatuous chat about the weather. “Susan Jones, ten o’clock. Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s okay. He’s had a few cancellations today,” he replied, looking coolly at the even larger puddle on the floor with Susan at its centre. He gestured to her sodden clothing. “You can hang your coat by the heater,” he suggested. “Give it a chance to dry out.”

Susan nodded and peeled herself from her soaking overcoat. Her sense of relief at shedding the coat was marred upon discovering that her jacket and skirt beneath were not much drier. She took her dripping coat to the hooks on the wall by the door and hung it on the peg nearest where the fan heater whirred noisily on the floor.

“It’s not too close, is it?” the receptionist asked anxiously.

Susan glanced at her coat. It was not touching the heater so she assumed it was safe enough. The growing pool of water beneath where it hung, creeping inexorably towards the electric heater, suggested consequences she decided were not her problem.

“I think it’s okay,” she reassured him.

The young man picked up the telephone on his desk. “Please, take a seat. I’ll let Doctor Mordussen know you’ve arrived.”

Susan retreated to one of the chrome-framed chairs by the window and settled down to wait. She did not like confrontation, but today she had no choice. Deep in thought, she tried to ignore the dark shapes that scuttled in the shadows of an ornamental pot plant.

“Now I’m seeing things in broad daylight,” she murmured to herself. “Perhaps a psychiatrist’s office is the best place for me, after all.”


* * *


Doctor Mordussen opened his office door a fraction and peered through the crack. He was an imposing figure, his stern features encapsulating a brilliant medical mind topped by a ruthless, driving ambition. Though barely in his forties, he had already established a private practice in London and built from scratch a pioneering health centre in Ireland. That he had chosen to practise medicine in Europe rather than his native Chicago was no whim, but there were days when he wished his path had taken him to foreign shores where the only umbrellas to be seen were the tiny paper ones in exotic cocktails.

Susan sat with her back to his consulting room, oblivious to his watchful stare. Closing the door quietly, Mordussen returned his attention to his colleague, a sallow and balding rat-faced man with an inquisitive gaze.

“The one you spoke of?” his colleague murmured.

Mordussen nodded. “Other considerations aside, an intriguing psychological study,” he said. “Suffers from an intolerable personality disorder, not to mention vivid nightmares.”

“Nightmares?”

“The patient’s impious behaviour is my prime concern,” he growled. “It remains to be seen whether the nightmares are a symptom or a cause. This will be an interesting session.”


* * *


Mordussen’s terse voice broke from the desk intercom. Susan was intrigued to see the blond receptionist flinch. The young man waved a hand to attract her attention.

“He’s ready for you now,” he said.

Susan grabbed her handbag, stood up and approached the door to Mordussen’s room. Taking a deep breath, she entered. As soon as she saw Mordussen, she froze. The doctor was staring at her with extreme displeasure, his expression verging on contempt. There was a second man present she had not seen before, sitting in the corner of the room. A black psychiatrist’s couch beckoned beneath the window.

“Please sit down, Mr Mortimer,” Mordussen said coldly.

“My name is Jones,” she corrected, with equally icy tones. Somewhat apprehensively, she took the vacant seat before his desk. “My friends call me Susan. Miss Jones to you.”

“Whatever. I asked a colleague to sit in with us today. He is here to listen and maybe offer a second opinion to inform subsequent sessions,” said Mordussen. His smile carried no trace of humour. “I trust you have no objection to his presence.”

“There will not be any further sessions,” replied Susan. “I wrote you a letter.”

“We will come to that. I see you are dressed in female attire. Is that a padded brassiere under your shirt?” the doctor asked, his dissatisfaction clear. “Mr Mortimer, do you really think this is appropriate? You persist in wearing make-up too.”

Susan saw the rat-faced man fidgeting uncomfortably. It gave her courage to see she was not alone in thinking it was Doctor Mordussen who was being unreasonable. Taking a deep breath, she gathered her nerve for her prepared speech.

“Doctor Mordussen, I came to you for help,” she said. “You told me my nightmares and my gender-identity issues were one and the same. You spun me a story of mental health problems, that my life could be fixed by lying on your couch. You knew that wasn’t true.”

“You are questioning my methods?” Mordussen asked haughtily.

“I don’t need your friend. I’ve already sought a second opinion. A specialist who did what you refuse to do and listened. He wrote to my own doctor, who showed me the letters you had sent him about my treatment.”

Just for a moment, Susan thought she detected a flicker of doubt in his eyes.

Mordussen shrugged. “And what did these letters say, Mr Mortimer?”

“You told my doctor that I am being treated for schizophrenia, which is news to me. The other specialist instead confirmed what I have been trying to tell you for years. I am not mentally ill. My depression and anxiety are down to gender dysphoria,” said Susan, glaring at Mordussen. “I am now under his care. I have forgiven my doctor, who simply followed your advice. I also forgive my foster carers and the sisters at the orphanage, who hated how I grew my hair and punished me for stealing clothes, for even I did not understand what was going through my head. I can even forgive the hand of fate that left me unlikely to have a family of my own. I cannot, however, forgive you. You came close to convincing me that I was going mad.”

“That is a little strong, Mr Mortimer.”

“I am not Mr Mortimer.”

“You had an unstable childhood. Your disorder is psychological and should be treated as such,” Mordussen retorted. “Ralph Mortimer is the name on your birth certificate, is it not? Are you saying I should consider a diagnosis of transsexualism? Do you feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body?”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” she exclaimed, scowling. “I was born this way!”

“The nature versus nurture argument is an interesting one,” Mordussen said curtly. “But not for today. Are you still having nightmares?”

Susan paused. “They have changed, but yes.”

“Changed? In what way?”

“Last night I saw a vision of hell,” Susan told him reluctantly. “A conversation between two demons. It seemed so real, as if they knew I was listening.” Maybe I was dreaming of you, she thought grimly.

“Was there any aspect of this dream you thought significant?”

“They spoke of people from stories I heard as a child.”

Mordussen looked at her oddly. “Who?”

“Saint Fursey,” she said. “And Mordis.”

“Lord Mordis!” exclaimed Mordussen. The rat-faced man looked up in surprise.

Susan regarded the doctor with interest. “You seem to know the name.”

“All I know is that I am more convinced than ever that further therapy is the way forward,” he replied severely. “Visions of hell? Do you really believe such dreams are the product of a healthy mind?”

She hesitated. “Maybe not. But my mind is clear. I will not be here again.”

He glanced towards the couch, then fixed her with a stare. “You must realise that if you choose to withdraw from treatment I will no longer be able to prescribe medication, nor prepare the tapes to help you sleep. Have you thought this through?”

Susan withdrew the cassette from her handbag and placed it on the desk.

“For your information, I stopped taking your anti-depressants months ago and I’ve never felt better,” she replied. She stood up and faced Mordussen with a determined glare. “You may not have been the one who ruined my life, but you have certainly done your best to stop me getting it back on track. Goodbye, Doctor Mordussen.”

Mordussen smiled. “Goodbye, Mr Mortimer.”

Susan rose from her chair. “My name,” she said calmly, “is Susan Jones.”


* * *


She resisted the urge to slam the door as she left the room.

The young receptionist was standing by the coat rack with a fire extinguisher in his hand, dampening the last flickers of an electrical fire that had reduced the waterlogged heater to a misshapen lump of plastic. The young man greeted Susan with a dirty look as he put down the extinguisher and reached for the desk diary.

“I won’t be needing another appointment,” she told him.

She glanced at the foam-filled heater and felt a tiny thrill of revenge. The young man scowled, undoubtedly thinking that whoever had to mop the floor and replace the heater would welcome the prospect of her never darkening their door again. Donning her damp overcoat, Susan opened the door to the outside world and strode defiantly down the corridor to the stairs, straight into a collision with a tea trolley pushed recklessly into her path by a sour-faced woman.

It was hardly a barn-storming rock ‘n’ roll exit, but it felt good. She was free.


* * *


From his office doorway, Doctor Mordussen watched Susan’s clumsy departure and smiled. It was not a nice expression. His colleague, having retrieved the office’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, had the hefty blue volume open on the desk.

“That was harsh,” the rat-faced man remarked cautiously. “I read her case notes and the patient does have all the classic signs of transsexualism. Why be so dismissive?”

Mordussen scowled. “There is more to Mr Mortimer than meets the eye.”

“And now she’s gone. For good?”

“Oh, we’ll see the wretch again soon,” Mordussen replied. Wearing a sly smile, he scooped the tape from his desk and slipped it into his pocket. “Two years of hypnotic suggestions have left their mark inside that addled brain. The time approaches.”


* * *


Outside, the rain turned into a torrential downpour the moment Susan stepped onto the street. A frantic dash took her back to Oxford Circus station, from where she had the dubious pleasure of a slow ride south squashed like a sardine in a sweaty overcrowded train.

Back in Merton, her Volkswagen had somehow gained a parking ticket despite there being no advertised restrictions. She snatched the ticket from beneath the windscreen wiper, climbed inside and shut the door against the pouring rain.

The drive home was uneventful. As the rush-hour traffic crawled from one red light to the next, Susan’s euphoria following her dismissal of Mordussen faded and her mood, like the sound of AC/DC on the cassette player, was soon Back in Black. It was a relief to finally have a reason for her confused and angry childhood, not that gender dysphoria was an easy thing to accept. Yet it did not explain why the rest of her life had gone so horribly wrong.

Susan felt so alone. She had lost both her mother and stepfather barely a week after her birth, in a freak hit-and-run incident outside the County Tipperary hospital. No one from the orphanage had stayed in touch. On her stepfather’s side, an uncle had eventually made himself known, which had brought a step-cousin in Paul and a good friend in Marie. Doctor Mordussen, distantly related to her real father, had kept their relationship icily professional. Susan mused darkly that at least it avoided the pain of visiting family at Christmas.

It was raining harder than ever by the time her Volkswagen reached the forecourt of her block of flats. She found a parking space between a rusting skip and upturned shopping trolley, brought the camper van to a halt and killed the engine. As she sat staring blankly at the rain lashing against the windscreen, an idea popped into her mind.

“Ireland,” she murmured. “The time approaches.”


* * * * *

- II -


Echoes of the daylight

Still rest upon my eyes

Weariness is mine

I am old before my time.

This world drains my spirit

I feel I am fading away

The living shadows of my past

Stay with me through the day.


Sleep

Von Däniken’s Express


* * *

Chapter Two

We Are The Road Crew


[Chapter One] [Contents] [Chapter Three]


“IRELAND?” MARIE EXCLAIMED. “I thought we’d settled on Brighton! What on earth possessed you to want to drive all the way to Ireland?”

Susan lifted Marie’s bag into the back of the Volkswagen. It was Saturday morning and they were outside Paul and Marie’s Victorian terrace flat in Hammersmith, loading the van for their trip. For what seemed the first time in weeks, the weather was fine and sunny. Marie, a slim and flame-haired Irish Aphrodite who had broken many a heart at university with her freckle-faced smile, looked concerned.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-32 show above.)