(‘Marcus’ is now available in paperback, you can pick up a copy from Fun Junction in either Crieff or Perth)
A few feet under Crieff High Street a small interconnected network of basements and tunnels grow damp with neglect. Only a portion of their rooms and corridors still used as underground storage by the town’s businesses.
If you live in a town for as long as Mr Thomas had you come to know it’s secrets. Gordon and James, along with dozens of frightened children now found themselves hidden away inside one of these ‘secrets’. Inside Mr Thomas’ forgotten labyrinth.
Gordon and James had a system going; from their two different vantage points they communicated the numbers of ghoul-children. Theo was tasked memorising the counts.
As time went on the numbers dribbled away. They stopped counting when they recognised individual ghoul-children and could tell when their faces were no longer present. Something was stopping them from coming back. But what?
Would there be some point in the small hours of the morning when they would all return at once? Theo looked to his dad:
“What do we do?”
A swirl of black smoke grouped together directly between James and his son. Marcus rounded on Theo:
“I say you stop meddling in things that don’t concern you. For starters why don’t you hand over that watch you seem so interested in.”
The boy took off his watch, leaving a white band of skin where it had lived on his wrist for years. Mickey mouse marked out the time with his gloved hands. A childish comfort, one he hadn’t noticed till it was about to go. He handed it to the thing that had been his friend.
“I can tell you’re planning something, but really, what use could three people be against so many?”
He vanished along with the watch.
Marcus materialised outside another room. One that Theo and the others knew nothing about. He unlocked the door, heaved it against decades of built up dirt and peered inside. The door opening awakened a flurry of movement inside the room. Nicky’s voice broke through the darkness:
“Marcus? Is that you? What’s going on?”
Marcus looked back at her, blank eyes nestled in a placid face glowing corpse-green. Taz jumped in:
“Did he get them?”
Marcus nodded. Taz shifted his position, sitting cross legged on the old floor:
“Is it time?”
Marcus shook his head:
“Soon. First I need her.”
He pointed at Willow, Theo and Harry’s mum. Her eyes widened, she mouthed ‘No’ over and over, backing into the corner. Marcus held up Theo’s watch:
“Your son will be safe so long as you do absolutely everything I ask you to do. No fuss. No shouting. Just do it.”
She walked towards the ghost-boy and inspected the watch:
“You’ve got my son? You’ve got Theo?”
Marcus nodded slowly:
“You do one thing and he’ll be safe.”
She thought back to the strength of those tiny hands grasping her ankles. In the pitch dark of this dingy old room Marcus’s glow hurt her eyes. Something told her this boy was considerably more powerful than the others she had met. This was not the time to stand and fight, this was the time to save her child. She didn’t nod but her sigh told Marcus everything he needed to know:
“Good. I need you to go to the golf-course. Find Tash and her kids and tell her this exactly; ‘Get in the car. Everyone will be safe once you’re in the driving seat.’ You understand I want you to tell her that exactly?”
Willow nodded and repeated her phrase. With a nod from Marcus she was on her way.
Marcus looked back at the couple standing by the door:
“How many are in here now?”
Nicky shook her head, tears in her eyes:
“Twenty. Twenty terrified children. This is the first you’ve even stopped to say anything. Why do you need so many? This is monstrous!”
Marcus’ smile was full of pity:
“There are so many more Nicky. I’ll bring some to you. Comfort them. You’ll be good at that. Their time in this place will be over soon enough.”
Thick swells of tears rolled down the woman’s face. Her husband looked at Marcus with a face like marble. Every muscle tensed to keep from showing the slightest hint of emotion.
Marcus shook his head:
“I just wish it didn’t have to be this way.”
Daniel ducked into a small bush as another police car drove past. Beth (the ghost-girl) squeezed in beside him. Her skin was cold but she smelled good; like home-made soup and biscuits.
She looked better too. Less green. Her cheeks were growing pink and her eyes, though still black as night, at least looked more healthy. She smiled and took his hand:
“Come and see this.”
They walked along the street a little more then stopped. Beth looked at the door of a small ground-floor flat:
“…This was my Granny’s house. The week daddy went to fight the Jerries we stayed with her. Mummy was sad. We had loads of home-made soup and played checkers. I never did find out if daddy made it back.”
Daniel wanted to help his new friend:
“I’m sure we could check. Maybe we could sneak into the library. Or a graveyard.”
He regretted the last bit instantly as he discovered that ghosts can cry. Beth let go of his hand:
“…I’m not sure I’d feel better either way. Whatever happened, I wasn’t there. I never saw him again. Not after…”
Daniel tried to understand what the girl was going through. It was impossible. He held out his hand to her again. Her ice-cold fingers wrapped in his. He smiled:
“I can take you to the park instead if you like. Do you think it’ll be the same as when you were still…”
“…it’s OK. It’s strange for me too. Yes, the park sounds lovely. As long as it has swings. I liked the swings.”
They talked about school. About films and books. Favourite foods. How brilliant grannies are. How weird it was that Beth was older than Daniel’s granny. They laughed about friends and teachers, how different they were but also how much they’ve stayed the same too.
They went on the roundabout, had a go on the see-saw, went down the slide a few times, but mostly they sat on the swings talking. Talking and holding hands.
Daniel didn’t spot the black smoke until it was growing together in front of them. It formed into legs and then a full body. Marcus stepped towards Beth:
“Beth. It’s time, they’re getting to your bones now. I hope you know how sorry I am.”
Beth stood up, letting go of Daniel’s hand. She walked to Marcus and hugged him:
“…I know Marcus. I know.”
Marcus turned to smoke again, drifting off on the wind. Beth made her way back to Daniel, standing in front of his swing. He got up. She put her tiny icy arms around him:
“Do you still have it?” Daniel nodded.“…good, I hope you don’t need it. Daniel, I would like to thank you. Thank you for the nicest night I’ve had in seventy-five years.”
She leaned into his shoulder, gripping him even tighter. Her face moved closer to his. He felt the cold touch of her cheek as it brushed against his own, then two icy lips pressed on his. Beth was blushing when she moved back:
“You know that was my first…”
Beth was gone.
Daniel looked up. He was alone. The park had felt so comfortable just a few moments before. It wasn’t where he was supposed to be any more. He made his way to his friends.
Marcus was on borrowed time. That became abundantly clear when he dug into the bag, through the rocks he’d filled it with, in search of the last four sets of bones. They weren’t there. If he made any more noise Mr Thomas would hear.
A thread on the bag came unhitched.
Rocks scattered across the floor.
Every sound in the room stopped. Mr Thomas hauled himself out of bed:
“What have you done!? Another of your sneak tactics. Can’t follow orders. No wonder we Romans decimated your kind. Backwards, no foresight. You can’t see how good we could have it.”
Theo and the others watched on as Mr Thomas gripped a small parcel in his hands. Ragged old sheets of tartan. More ancient than any cloth they had ever seen. Marcus dropped to his knees, tears in his eyes:
Mr Thomas scanned the room:
“Your friend there. His energy was to be mine. Too good for that I guess. I will show him some charity. I will not use his son’s energy for my great transformation. Go over there and set the boy free.”
James was lost. What was the man doing? Marcus undid the ropes binding Theo. The boy grinned at his dad and thanked Marcus.
Mr Thomas smiled:
“Such a polite boy. Clearly a good friend to have.”
Marcus waited, he knew what was coming. Mr Thomas’s voice grew higher, quivering with joy:
“…but, that is your weakness Marcus. It’s what gets in your way. Ever lonely. You can’t help but get attached. I will help you cut out that weakness.”
The old man grasped the remains of Marcus’ kilt. The last thing he had to remember his mother. The only memory he could still hold on to. Mr Thomas cleared his throat, forcing the excitement down a notch:
“Kill him Marcus. I don’t want his energy. Just kill the boy.”
Marcus straightened up, like a puppet on strings and reached for one of the ropes on the floor. His walk became laboured, as though fighting his orders. Theo backed away but Marcus herded him in the direction of the old man.
Marcus raised the rope, preparing to strike, ignoring the sounds of James tearing at his restraints, almost lifting an old iron radiator straight off the wall. He looked at Theo, then at the old man:
He leapt for Mr Thomas’s throat, wrapping the cord around his neck and dragging him to the ground. The man bucked against him, squealing like a farm animal. The tartan fell to the ground and a cascade of stones spilled out, falling underfoot and making the old man slip.
Marcus rummaged through the old man’s clothes and found what he needed. Tied to Mr Thomas’s waist was a large bag.
Marcus dispersed into smoke. A thick slashing sound filled the air. Marcus unveiling a power none of them has seen before. The slashing sliced against the old man’s clothing, ripping shreds from him. The bag fell unnoticed on the floor beneath them.
Mr Thomas laughed:
“Nothing you do can hurt me. I may be old but you can’t so much as scratch my flesh. You can’t break my bones. What’s more…”
He gestured in the direction of his four motionless ‘body-guards’:
“These four are our oldest members. Perhaps you recognise them. Your nephews. Your nieces. The last of your clan, your tribe…whatever you savages called yourselves. They came to help and instead you fed them to me. My first meal. They are eager to see you pay for what you did. They need no orders.”
Sure enough the four ghoul-children beside the bed grinned, glad to finally have their chance with Marcus. They stretched and swatted at the black cloud Marcus had become. It did nothing.
They stopped their hand waving. Green smoke dribbled from their arms and into Marcus. Mr Thomas laughed again:
“…bet you didn’t know they could do that.”
Marcus, in his smoke, screamed in agony. The cloud clumped together, and his body collapsed to the ground. The ghoul-children sped towards him but he regained his senses in time.
He ran for the door and the last of the ghoul-children continued in pursuit.
Mr Thomas dusted himself off, crouching to draw himself off of the floor. James and Gordon landed on him with their full weight. He pushed against them but more hands and fists joined the fight as dozens of children forced the man down.
His arms and legs were tied and he was dragged to another room. A huge iron safe lay open in the corner. His strength was no match for the legion of fists and feet forcing him into the safe. They locked him in and threw away the key.
Keep up with the story
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Thanks for reading, all the best, John