Tag Archives: independent author

It’s Here!!!!

On 31st October I received a delivery, one that I’ve been anticipating for a while. I have to admit it’s a little eerie that a dark fantasy/ horror story would be delayed so that it arrived exactly on Halloween but that’s how it went.

So… ladies and gentlemen boys and girls…may I introduce to you the print version of ‘Marcus’.

Set in Crieff, Perthshire, over varying time periods, this story follows the disappearance of numerous children, leading the reader to the slow realisation that something really isn’t right about Marcus.

From frenzied beginnings

I started writing Marcus exactly a year ago to the day. This book was a departure from my usual. My other books are fantasy stories but they’re all part of the same series centred around a boy called Jack Reusen.

These books are aimed at children from primary 3 (around 7 years old) and upwards. Aside from the fantasy and (some) locations, there’s only one real thing that ‘Marcus’ has in common with these books.

Every book I’ve written has been the result of a writers community called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Every November I disappear into my computer and craft a new story. NaNoWriMo pushes writers to complete 50,000 words in one month. So far I’ve never failed (which still surprises me) but I can’t pretend it’s easy keeping the pace to write that much in just thirty days.

In 2017 I decided to try my hand at something new. Not only was I going to write a darker, older, book. On top of that, I was going to use short punchy chapters to allow me to publish it as a serialised novel.

Tuning in each week

I can’t thank those who read my serialised version of Marcus enough. Knowing I had people ‘tuning in’ to catch the next installment each week kept me on my toes and forced me through the editing process (editing is something I’ve never enjoyed very much).

I felt supported in a way I haven’t before during the run-up to a book release. That’s why I felt so guilty when an oversight on my part led to a month delay on the publication of this book. To everyone who has asked about when the books would be here, I am so happy to finally be able to say ‘now’.

A wee party

I’ve sold my other books at Fun Junction in Crieff and Perth for years. They have given me a ridiculous amount of support and now to top it all they’ve volunteered both shops for book-launch events for ‘Marcus’.

I’m planning on hosting the first one in Crieff (it is the setting of the book after all). More than that; the bulk of my support has come from readers around Crieff so I want to make it easy for people to come along.

I’ll get some food and drinks on and we’ll make a night of it. If you would like to come along please let me know (Facebook message, Twitter, leave a comment below, or simply send up smoke signals, whatever works). I’ll do everything I can to keep you up to date on the details of the book launch.

Fun Junction Perth will be running a late night opening on Thursdays so I’ll also run a slightly different event through there as well.

It’s such a relief to finally have the books in my hands and I really hope you like the print edition (it has some changes from the web version). Please leave any comments or questions you like. I always like hearing from readers.

Once again, sorry for the delay, and thank you for bearing with me for so long,

All the best, John

P.S. Now I’m off to start another NaNoWriMo. I’m returning to familiar ground. Looking forward to getting back up to speed with a certain wee boy, a shape-shifting polar-bear girl, and an ‘owl man’ who always knows what to do. Wish me luck! 😉

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Marcus: Chapter 26: In the ruins of the High Street

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

Tash slammed on the breaks and tried to process the scene in front of her. A huge torso quivered on the road ahead, arms outstretched, head flung back in anguish.

Marcus climbed out of the car before anyone could stop him. The sheriff looked up at the boy. Recognition dawned slowly over Sheriff’s rotting features:

“YOU!? BUT HOW? YOU LIVE AGAIN?”

Marcus shook his head:

“It’s a long story, too long to go into. How bad is it there? I take it he did this?”

The sheriff bowed his head, he didn’t wear shame well:

“A CHEAT, THAT’S ALL HE IS. A FILTHY CHEAT.”

The sheriff drew back as Marcus knelt to lift his arm:

“I need to move you. We need through and you need to rest. You’ll be back to your usual self by tomorrow night.”

The sheriff nodded. Even half of the giant proved too much for Marcus’ new body to pull. Others came from the car to help. Straining to maintain their grip on his sinewy form, holding their breath against the stench. They hauled the huge rotten torso onto the pavement.

Looking at the exhausted form of the Sheriff, Tash couldn’t bring herself to start the engine. Andrew piped up from the back seat:

“Mum? Is dad still there? Is Auntie Nicky with him?”

Tash looked ahead and turned the key in the ignition.

*

Gordon had lost all hope. The only positive he could think of was that his kids were safely hidden behind the stone circle on the edge of town. Then he saw the boy.

He was a friend of Andrew’s, he lived next door to Tash’s place. Gordon couldn’t even remember the kid’s name and still he ran for him pulling him behind a flower planter. The boy yelled in protest, oblivious to the danger he was in.

A police officer flew overhead, crashing through a shop window. The boy stopped yelling. Gordon grabbed onto his shoulders:

“What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear the crashes? The explosions? The cars thrown down King Street? Why would you walk towards this?”

The boy looked him in the eye, sheer terror radiating from every pore. This kid wasn’t here through choice.

Daniel started to cry. He had promised her. He was so close and now the police had him. He was Andrew’s dad but he was still a police man. Daniel didn’t want to do it anyway but she had told him it was the only way to save everyone:

“I told her I’d be here. I promised.”

Gordon smiled. A girl. That explained everything (and it was a lot better than mind control). Gordon manoeuvred Daniel to crouch behind the planter and chanced a glance out in the direction of Mr Thomas. All was quiet.

*

Gordon’s car screeched around the corner and with it evaporated all hope of safety for all of them. Mr Thomas dropped a sandstone block from each hand and turned to face the oncoming police car:

“Marcus! You’ve come back to join me.”

The group exited the car. (All but Taz who slumped over in the boot. He wasn’t planning on any walking for a while.) Marcus didn’t even give an answer. Mr Thomas shrugged:

“A foolish hope I suppose. However, I see you brought me gifts. Now which to choose?”

Mr Thomas scanned the faces of everyone. Looking for something important, something the rest of them couldn’t see:

“I got more from some of you than others. It binds us in a way. I still don’t understand it myself…”

His eyes settled on James:

“Ah, perfect. Yes, it looks like we have a volunteer.”

James had no idea what the man was talking about. Marcus spotted it first:

“James you’re glowing.”

Through the skin on his face they could make out the faintest glimmer of blue in the shape of James’ skull. When James spoke you could see it even more clearly from his teeth. The glow grew brighter.

Mr Thomas walked to James, towering over them. He looked down at James with his newly luminescent skeleton. The new blue glow of his skull matching the blue flames in Mr Thomas’s eyes perfectly. The giant grinned:

“I wonder…”

Mr Thomas spoke under his breath and James dropped to his knees. The pain had come on so quickly that he didn’t even have time to scream. His teeth gritted against the strain as he felt every bone in his body trying to come out. His skeleton obeying the command of the giant before him while his flesh drew in the opposite direction.

Sweat dribbled down his chin. There had not been another moment in James’ life when he had felt so utterly helpless. Mr Thomas, at last, said something under his breath and the pain stopped:

“Fascinating.”

From King Street James could hear the voice of his oldest son Theo. Nicky screamed after him trying to persuade him to stay back. To stay with the other children in safety.

Mr Thomas took great pleasure in the scene:

“Oh, now, would that work?”

James had no interest whatsoever in finding out what ‘that was. He was given the opportunity to find out all the same.

His bones pulled against his flesh again. This time, the pulls were more coordinated. James was puppeted onto his feet and was made to walk towards his son. He tried to shout to him, to warn him to stay away, but his jaw bone held so tight that he could barely whimper.

The boy ran to him, closing the gap between them. James pulled against his bones with every fibre of his being, he could feel things tearing inside his body. If he had to tear himself apart to save his son then so be it.

His efforts did nothing in the end. Theo ran to him arms open wide. Beyond all control James’ arm swung at Theo. An alarmingly hard slap, but no more.

James’ emotions roller-coasted between relief at his son’s safety and revulsion at the pain he must have inflicted.

The boy’s face glowed pink and his eyes welled up with tears. Mr Thomas stood behind James and sighed:

“I’m not a monster James. I wouldn’t make you kill your own child. So long as you are loyal to me that is. Do exactly as I say and you can be assured that your family will remain safe.”

Willow ran to her son and, holding him close, led Theo away from his dad and the monster controlling him. James flopped onto the pavement, his forehead leaning on the frosted tarmac. He looked up at Mr Thomas:

“I will never be your puppet, you revolting piece of…

Mr Thomas slammed James’ jaw shut:

“Now now James. I did warn you.”

James lifted from the ground, writhing against the will of the man before him. His eyes swirled in his head, barely an ounce of willpower left. Everyone stood mannequin-still, hollow with fear. If they hadn’t witnessed the bifurcated Sheriff they would have considered doing something. At this stage one move could result in instant death for James.

Gordon wasn’t so easily put off. He grasped hold of a flag pole from among the rubble and ran full-pelt a Mr Thomas. The pole reverberated in Gordon’s hands. It was as though he had driven it at solid concrete.

Mr Thomas stepped back with the force of the blow, throwing his hands in the air:

“Remarkable; an evening of heroes! So many risking themselves for literally no gain.”

He grabbed the flagpole and swung it like a baseball bat, getting a feel for it’s weight. He laughed as it swung and collided with Gordon’s ribs. The man flew through the air and landed with a crunch at the bus stop.

His kids ran to his side (Tash wasn’t quick enough to hold them back). Mr Thomas grinned:

“I get the connection now! How interesting. So we have dads defending kids all round.”

Daniel stepped forward from behind the planter. Mr Thomas sighed with mock concern:

“Oh Daniel, what are you doing? You don’t have a dad to defend you,” he looked at the two men writhing on the ground “not that it would make that much of a difference mind you.”

Daniel reached into the inside of his jacket and pulled out a large kitchen knife. Mr Thomas’s fiery eyes widened:

“I am impressed. I mean I also find it hilarious, that goes without saying. A strong will too. I’ve seen many things in my life and yet you have impressed me young man. However, there is nothing you can do to harm me so long as that young man there is around,” (he pointed at Marcus) “I am, as far as I know, indestructible.”

Daniel had tears in his eyes:

“That’s what Beth thought too…”

Mr Thomas frowned:

“Who is Beth?”

Marcus looked to Daniel, his face ashen white, then back at Mr Thomas:

“She was my friend once. I’m not surprised you don’t remember her. You never remembered any of them. She was a very smart girl. Probably the smartest kid I ever knew. She would know what needed to be done.” (he turned to Daniel) “She told you didn’t she?”

Mr Thomas’s eyes blazed:

“What are you talking about?”

Daniel nodded at Marcus and stepped towards him. He hesitated for a moment looking into the ghost boys eyes. Marcus smiled:

“It’s OK. She was right. It’s the only way.”

Daniel thrust the knife into Marcus’ chest. It slid in much deeper than he expected.

Marcus fell to his knees. The others screamed. Seconds hung in the still November air, frozen and silent.

Marcus spoke in a whisper:

“Daniel, you missed.”

Mr Thomas roared. Blue light swirled from him, flowing up the hill, to the distant stones. Daniel knelt in front of Marcus, wiping the tears from his eyes:

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. What to I do?”

Marcus grunted as he pulled the knife from his ribs. It slipped onto the pavement between them. Daniel wiped the blade on his jumper. Marcus laughed a little:

“I don’t think you need to worry about cleaning it.”

He looked at the boy in front of him:

“It’s OK you know. I’ve lived too long. Seen too much death. I hurt people. I was lonely and dozens of children suffered because of that. I’d like to do something right.”

He had missed having a heartbeat. He used it to guide Daniel:

“Here!, And please be quick. He’s coming.”

Mr Thomas was striding towards them through the rubble, his steps less sure, his form less intimidating. Daniel looked to Marcus with a smile:

“He’s getting weaker. Maybe I don’t have to…Maybe you don’t have to…”

Marcus shook his head:

“No half measures. We have to mean this. Save your friends. Save my friends.”

He looked towards the crowd gathered around him. James had even recovered enough to pull himself towards them. Marcus smiled:

“You are my friends aren’t you?”

James grabbed the boys hand:

“Of course Marcus.”

Marcus relaxed:

“That’s good. Thank you….James you’ve got grey hair there old man. I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend with grey hair before…”

Mr Thomas propped himself up with the flagpole and heaved himself in their direction. Daniel looked up and pictured it all starting again. So many children, so many years stolen. His lips still tingled with Beth’s first kiss. A first that should have happened seventy-five years before:

“I’m so sorry Marcus.”

The knife found it’s target this time. As Marcus’ pulse slowed the blue light flowed away faster. Mr Thomas dropped to the ground, degrading into a walking corpse before their eyes.

The corpse quivered, lifting an arm towards the dying boy. Still reaching for a hold on life. Nicky wobbled through the rubble and grabbed a chunk of sandstone from the fallen hotel. When the boulder landed on Mr Thomas the bones collapsed like a melon. He was finished.

The others watched as Marcus drifted away. His body lay there, perfectly human, a smile hanging on his lips, but Marcus was gone. James reached over and closed the boy’s eyes.

A final glimpse of brilliant blue and it was done.

***

A smell of brothy soup and the feeling of rough hand-woven wool. Her arms held him tightly. The boy was home.

The end of the story

I hope you’ve enjoyed following this story over the past few months. I would welcome any feedback you might have.

The book will be available in print and in kindle format at the end of September 2018 (perfect timing for the long nights drawing in).

If you would like to pre-order a copy for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, please click on the link below to pay for your copy now via PayPal (you can also pay via Debit or Credit card).

It would make a great gift for any horror/dark fantasy fans who have some link to Crieff or the area.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have followed this story through. The readership has grown steadily over the past few months and your interest has made my job all the more enjoyable. Thank you all,

All the best, and thanks for reading, John

Pre-Order your copy of ‘Marcus’ now (£6.99 with UK postage included):

Marcus: Chapter 25: Crieff’s defender

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

Nikki tapped on the wall and called for the Sheriff. She didn’t have long to wait. Rotting hands as big as shovels heaved their way way from the earth. A pit of stinking sulphurous fire feet below. The Sheriff demanded to know who had summoned him and for what purpose. Nicky pointed up the hill.

The Sheriff didn’t back down, though his sense of self-importance did seem to dwindle a little:

“A LAW BREAKER? WHAT CRIME DID HE COMMIT?”

Nicky thought for a moment:

“He’s a bad man who should have been dead twenty centuries ago. I imagine he found the time to break all the laws.”

The flames in the Sheriff’s eyes burned so fiercely Nicky had to turn away. He grinned and walked to the exit then fell back on the frosty grass. His rage rattled the walls (and Nicky’s teeth). Nicky searched for a solution:

“What is it that keeps you here? Is it the wall? Could you leave if it were broken?”

The Sheriff shrugged:

“I HAVE NO IDEA.”

Nicky lead him to a goalpost. The Sheriff could understand the standard use of it but he could easily figure out what Nicky expected him to do with it.

*

Marcus’ newly functioning heard jumped a mile when the boom of the falling building reached their ears. His first reaction was to make his way to the noise. He could sense that Mr Thomas was still going strong. Possibly more strong than any of them would have liked.

Marcus pushed for his smoke form but nothing was there. He stood in front of his friends, arms outstretched. He had no time to worry about that:

“I need to go there. Now.”

Taz groaned, holding his mangled knee with both hands. James was by his side, his expression almost as bad as Taz’.

James barely lifted his eyes from his damaged friend. Taz grimaced, pulling himself up to look at Marcus:

“I hope you realise we’re coming with you.”

Marcus protested but no one would listen. They loaded themselves into Gordon’s police car. Taz stashed in the boot with his mangled leg perched on some police waterproofs. Everyone else squeezed in together.

The car skidded as they pulled out onto the main road. The night was colder than they realised (hours of digging will warm a person up). Taz grunted, announcing his dislike of the slippery roads.

Tash slowed down on the bends but let the speed creep up in straight areas. Taz didn’t seem to object too strongly. They passed the petrol station on the edge of town and soon after they got a growing view of the problem.

The town centre was spewing chunks of rock in all directions. Small fires had broken out in places where electric cables had been mangled. Boulders peppered the shop fronts, shards of glass littering the pavement. Roofs lay torn open clothing and other personal effects caught on the cold November wind. They had get to Mr Thomas. They had to stop all of this.

Then everything stopped as a huge body thudded into the tarmac in front of the car.

*

Nicky had been extremely busy. She rustled up a batch of volunteers. Most of the older children gathered in the car park put their hands up and were handed a single brick each. A tiny portion of the wall that held back the Sheriff.

The children dispersed in all directions. The idea was to increase the Sheriff’s range by forming a large stone ring to surround the town.

Children scattered in all directions, bricks in hand; up the hill towards the Knock (the zenith of the hill the whole town was built on), to ‘Bridge End’, (the bridge that led visitors into Crieff from it’s southern edge). West towards Lady Mary’s walk and MacRosty Park and westwards towards Calum’s Hill and the golf course.

From the moment the children left the Sheriff agreed that something felt different. At first he couldn’t make it through the gateway in the wall but the sound of parts of the old hotel raining down on the town centre fired something up inside.

His eyes grew wild with flames and the huge, tree-trunk muscles strained against the forcefield that would previously have thrown him back. He managed one step, then another, his old boots scraping on the flagstone entranceway. Then something ripped. Nicky feared something in the Sheriff’s rotten body had torn, but it was simple the sound of the barrier finally giving up.

The Sheriff was free and he had a truly villainous fiend to haul back to the pit tonight.

He twisted his head to one side and clicked the bones in his neck. The effect was truly ghastly; Nicky held back vomit after watching those bones click into place through the putrid holes in the Sheriff’s sallow flesh.

“HIS NIGHT OF MENACE IS AT AN END.”

Nicky crouched over, hands on knees after a considerable amount of running around:

“Well that’s a relief!”

She did her best to follow but the rotting man took the steep hill in well-practised strides. He knew this town well, it’s hills gave him no need to slow. He yelled to the centre of town:

“YOU HAVE HAD YOUR FUN LITTLE MAN, BUT NOW I HAVE COME TO TAKE YOU AWAY.”

All Nicky could hear was laughter and then the sound of a car thumping and skidding against shops and other cars as it bounced down the hill towards them. She ducked into a nearby doorway for what little shelter it offered. The Sheriff shook his head, speaking under his breath:

“DAMAGE OF PRIVATE PROPERTY, ENDANGERMENT OF AN OFFICER OF THE LAW. YOU ARE IN MORE TROUBLE THAN YOU REALISE.”

Nicky was forced to duck between shop doorways as she followed him further up the hill. The police car was not the last projectile to come their way, it wasn’t even the last police car.

They passed the crossroads which would have led to the old primary school building. By that point the Sheriff had been hit by at least three large chunks of building. The flames in his eyes streamed out over the top of his head, so intense was his rage. With each step he now repeated:

“ROMAN!”

“ROMAN!”

“ROMAN!!!”

His pace increased. His rotten muscles twanging and squelching like wet rope.

Nicky ran but couldn’t get close. Up ahead she heard the Sheriff make contact with Mr Thomas. It was a sound with a wave of force behind it.

In James Square Mr Thomas had been faced with his first surprise since his transformation. The charging zombie of justice took him off guard as boulder sized fists with knuckles of exposed bone slammed into his guts and threw him into the rubble behind.

The Sheriff didn’t wait to see his advantage lost and raced to stomp on the face of the fallen man. Mr Thomas’s head disappeared into the rubble as a rotten foot in an impossibly large boot stomped, and stomped, and stomped.

The Sheriff kept stomping until all movement stopped, then turned in a fluid motion grasping the man’s ankle, dragging him from the hole his head had made. At the bottom of the hill the pit’s flames erupted from the grass of the Market Park, curling into the sky, licking the clouds in anticipation of its meal.

Mr Thomas groaned and shook his wits back into his head. He looked at the huge rotten hand encircling his ankle and sighed:

“You had your chance. But it will take a lot more than that.”

His other foot found purchase on the ground and stopped the Sheriff’s pace instantly. The dead man turned and glared at him then his burning eyes grew wider.

In one motion Mr Thomas was on his feet and had a hand embedded in the Sheriff’s ribcage, the other was forced through dry muscle in the Sheriff’s thigh until it found purchase on bone.

The Sheriff had enough time to ask “WHA…?” before Mr Thomas drew his arms in opposite directions. A sound like straining leather and cracking branches met the ears of everyone present and the Sheriff tore in two.

Both parts still moving, and the top half very much enraged, Mr Thomas could only bear so much of the Sheriff’s shouting. He lifted the torso and head portion and hauled it off to the east.

The Sheriff landed directly in front of Gordon’s police car. Tash slammed the breaks as the passengers watched the squirming torso on the road ahead, there was nothing they could say.

Keep up with the story

Click here to go to the final chapter ‘Marcus: Chapter 26: In the ruins of the High Street

Social media feeds are an oddity. What you say can be seen by millions but it can also slip away and be missed with ease. I always post new chapters on social media (Facebook and Twitter) but there’s no guarantee that we’ll both be on at the same time.

With this in mind, if you’re enjoying ‘Marcus’ and you want to be sure you get a link to the newest chapter as soon as it’s out, you can also get an e-mail reminder by clicking this link. Mailing list members also get access to printable files so you’re not forced to read it all from a screen.

What’s more, ‘Marcus’ will soon be available in print. Mailing list members will receive early notice on publication date, details on where to get your copy, and information about offers and events relating to the book. Register to keep in the know.

Thanks for reading, all the best, John

Marcus: Chapter 23: A monster in the Drummond

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

The ghoul-girl at the door grinned from ear to ear. Eyes fixed on Marcus she rubbed her belly as though filled with food for the first time in centuries. She strode towards to her Uncle.

Marcus didn’t wait, he was smoke, he billowed from the door and flowed along the corridor. He had distracted them long enough. Tash had what she needed and had started her work. Marcus’ place was beside his friend. Beside all of them.

Marcus didn’t change form again. He didn’t need to; the extra power flowing through his body, left a thrumming buzz in his head. He yelled with laughter, with joy. Overfed, over-brimming, unpredictable.

If the remaining three ghoul-children felt like this too? Marcus thought of their hate-filled eyes. It didn’t bear thinking about.

He arrived on the golf course to see Taz, covered in blood, crawling for the ring of stones. He inched closer to safety only to be dragged back by a glowing creature.

It had been a ghoul-child once but now it’s face was more skeletal, like an x-ray was shining through. Green bones glowed out and the face was stuck in a constant deathly grin. Without looking up the ghoul-boy spoke to Marcus. It’s voice bold and strong as any living person’s:

Good evening Uncle. How do you fare tonight? I appear to have lost a cousin and gained something…wonderful.”

The boy twisted Taz’s leg. Marcus winced at the crunch. He dropped on his nephew, moving from smoke to solid effortlessly.

The boy threw him aside and reached for Taz’s leg once more. However, Taz had hauled himself just close enough to be pulled into the stone circle.

Tash and Ross pulled him by the arms and the ghoul-boy pulled at him by his injured leg. A tug of war with a rope that screams can be pretty disconcerting but Tash and Ross held on tight.

Marcus slid an arm around the neck of the ghoul-boy and drew him off of his friend. Taz collapsed face forwards into the ring. Blood sprayed from his lips with each short painful burst of breath. All the same he smiled up at his saviours. Then frowned:

Well? What are you doing? Get those bones buried!”

Outside the circle a crowd of the last remaining ghoul-children had gathered. They centred their attention on Marcus but one of the girls focussed her attention on the circle, throwing rocks at the small crowd of bone buriers.

The ghouls couldn’t cross the boundary but it became abundantly clear that a well-thrown rock could make it through to the middle with ease. Regardless of who was throwing it.

The rocks clipped their arms and even their heads. The diggers would stop briefly to tend to cuts, scrapes, and deep purple bruises. Small clumps of time lost to every well-placed missile.

Marcus fought on. The diggers continued their work wearing their blemishes as badges of honour.

As more bones made contact with the rocks, the glow from beneath increased. Tash drew her hand back as sparks licked out for more.

Something didn’t feel right.

Andrew poured in another handful of bones, the sparks hissed, and one of the ghoul-girls disappeared.

A swirl of energy fizzed and cracked then spread out into four streams. Two poured into the remaining ghoul-children, one into Marcus, and one flew away into the night.

Marcus saw this and looked at his friends within the circle, eyes wide, trying to communicate something important.

The last remaining ghoul-boy punched Marcus in the gut. It was a pain unlike anything he had felt in two millennia, almost as though he actually had a gut again.

The ghoul-boy punched him in the chest, then once in the mouth. Marcus coughed (another oddity for a creature with no internal organs) and spat liquid onto the grass. Blood.

With the back of his hand he wiped his mouth. His knees wobbled as he felt the thick blood run from the cut on his mouth. The ghoul-boy shook his hand in pain, wincing as he looked at his damaged knuckles.

The ghoul-girl grabbed more and more rocks, firing them hand over hand into the protective circle. Flesh made her more uncomfortable than she had expected. It had been a long time since she had last worn it.

Despite her efforts the electric fizzling slurped up the last of another skeleton. Her brother disappeared. Her body brimmed with power and she gaped at Marcus. A wet rattle echoed between the two of them as they both filled their newly returned lungs.

Marcus held his hands up. He needed this to stop. He needed peace:

“Please! I remember you now. Messu. My brother named you after the acorns on the trees he cared for. I never meant for you to go through this. I did His bidding, it took years to learn how to break free. I am sorry that you all had to go through this with me.”

The girl relaxed her shoulders:

“You didn’t have to befriend us all though. Every ghost-child you made. You made friends first. It made it all so much worse. The betrayal hurt much more than anything the magic did.”

Marcus’ breath caught in his throat. His eyes dripped huge thick tears:

“I am so sorry. I never thought it through. I was lonely. I missed people, and he used that, he used my friendships as a weapon. I really am so sorry Messu. I hope you will go somewhere good once the magic is broken.”

The girl shook her head and took hold of her uncle’s hands:

“Marcus, I don’t think you ever understood the stones. That’s not how they work. What you’re doing just now, you’re actually…”

Her words dispersed into the night. She was gone.

Blue light flowed into the stone circle then erupted out in two streams. One stream reached Marcus, knocking him to the ground with its force. The other out into the night. Marcus watched, slumped on the grass, as more power disappeared into the distance.

The skeletons of dozens of ghost-children lay nestled under the stones. Now came the turn of the final ghost-child; Marcus himself.

*

On the inside of the safe Mr Thomas found a small plaque. A manufacturer’s guarantee, moulded in metal and screwed on tight.

This safe promised to be not only tamper-proof, pick-proof, and fire-proof it was also, apparently, bomb proof. He was testing that theory. What was becoming maddeningly clear to those outside was that whatever he was doing to the inside of the safe door was about to reach a force greater that anything the safe’s makers had ever imagined.

Nicky and Gordon ushered every child out of the room. If Mr Thomas was about to break his way through a door of solid cast iron they weren’t going to stick around to see what he did next.

Gordon held the door as Nicky helped the children up and out of the room. She tore open an ancient door and led them up to the abandoned hotel above them.

Gordon turned in time to see a trickle of blue light weave through the hinge area of the safe door. The second of these beams so far. Just as the first had surprised them, this one seemed to offer Mr Thomas more energy.

The iron door creaked against the strain. For the first time Gordon could hear Mr Thomas’s yells. Pure, animal rage heaved against the door but, despite some bending, the door still held.

Gordon heard the sound of excited child voices near the exit. Nicky had got them all out. There was no reason for him to stay here. Whatever Mr Thomas was now, it was different. If Gordon tried standing his ground it would be like a fly fighting a bus.

He ran.

Then he stopped. Just outside the door lay a little boy. He had missed his step, been missed by the others, and left behind. He tried to walk on a badly twisted ankle but Gordon knew they didn’t have time.

He swept the boy up in his arms and hoisted him onto his shoulder in a well-practised ‘dad’ technique.

Despite his dishevelled state Gordon was still in uniform. Outside the hotel, gathered in the town square were at least a dozen police cars. The whole road was closed off. When one woman along with every single missing child left the building, only to be followed by an exhausted police officer, carrying an injured child on his shoulders the officers present came to a single conclusion.

A single officer began to clap, then that clap found friends. It rippled through the police officers present building into enthusiastic, highly relieved applause.

A couple of officers ran over to him. One was plain-clothed and spoke with a quiver of concern:

“Do we know if all the children are accounted for? It’s just…earlier tonight we caught two men with a sack of bones.”

He left the word ‘bones’ hanging in the air. Gordon thought of Taz and James with a lump in his throat:

“Do you have the men here?”

The detective shook his head:

“Well…that’s the thing. It would appear that mistakes were made. We’re still figuring out the details.” The officer could barely maintain eye contact “Perhaps a third man was involved. We don’t know. On returning to the car, no more than two minutes later, it was found that the doors were unlocked, the boot open, evidence gone, and two pairs of handcuffs were retrieved, unlocked on the ground beside the car. We’re still looking for the men.”

Gordon let out an audible sigh of relief:

“They’re not the ones you should be worried about. Trust me. We need to concentrate on what’s in there.”

He pointed to the building behind him in time to catch another of the odd blue streaks of light. It arced over the building and plunged through the chimney stack.

Behind him Gordon heard multiple questions, the most common being ‘what was that?’. Gordon knew. He braced himself. Now he had backup, but did they stand a chance against Mr Thomas?

They had to at least try.

The door of the safe ruptured from the basement, tearing through every floor of the four storey building. It tore a hole in the roof, showering them with slate, then flipped a dozen times in the air, before landing among the gathered crowd, cutting the hood of a police car in two.

Mr Thomas was free.

Keep up with the story

Click here to go to ‘Marcus: Chapter 24: The death of the Drummond Arms‘.

Social media feeds are an oddity. What you say can be seen by millions but it can also slip away and be missed with ease. I always post new chapters on social media (Facebook and Twitter) but there’s no guarantee that we’ll both be on at the same time.

With this in mind, if you’re enjoying ‘Marcus’ and you want to be sure you get a link to the newest chapter as soon as it’s out, you can also get an e-mail reminder by clicking this link. Mailing list members also get access to printable files so you’re not forced to read it all from a screen.

Thanks for reading, all the best, John

Marcus: Chapter 20: Under The High Street

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

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.

Marcus smiled:

“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…”

Beth smiled:

“…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:

“What now?”

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:

“No!”

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

Click here to read on to ‘Marcus: Chapter 21: The forgotten boy’.

Social media feeds are an oddity. What you say can be seen by millions but it can also slip away and be missed with ease. I always post new chapters on social media (Facebook and Twitter) but there’s no guarantee that we’ll both be on at the same time.

With this in mind, if you’re enjoying ‘Marcus’ and you want to be sure you get a link to the newest chapter as soon as it’s out, you can also get an e-mail reminder by clicking this link. Mailing list members also get access to printable files so you’re not forced to read it all from a screen.

Thanks for reading, all the best, John

Marcus: Chapter 18: Between a rock and more rocks

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

Tash tried phoning Nicky a third time. It went to her message service. Her mouth was too dry to leave a message, she had a feeling Nicky wouldn’t be listening to it anyway.

At some point Marcus had left their digging party. With each burst of energy that went into the stone Marcus grew a little weaker. Part of Tash was glad he went, it wasn’t easy doing what they had to do while watching the ghost-boy.

Ross distracted himself with the simple act of digging. Andrew and Louise had figured out what was happening to their dad and had long since realised that distracting themselves wasn’t an option. The light display created every time they touched bone to stone offered what could well be the most depressing light display ever.

Tash called James:

“Hi James, I have bad news, awful news, and worrying news.”

There was a pause before James replied:

“No good news?”

“No good news…”

Once he had been filled in by Tash James had a whole host of options. Not one of them was attractive. Staying at home was worse than useless. Chasing after Scott and Nicky put the kids in danger. Option number three (the stones) had already claimed its first victim. Worse still, ‘option three’ left James and his kids in the open (albeit with a ring of magic stones protecting them).

James clung to the only tangible thing that might help keep his family safe. He grabbed their coats and shoes:

“Come on kids we’re off to the school.”

Harry didn’t like that one bit, wailing every moment that he got ready. Theo moved much more quickly:

“Is he there? Is Mum coming too?”

James still couldn’t get the truth out:

“No. Just us for now.”

john bray local author nanowrimo national novel writing month scotland perthshireThe car ride was silent, but for the constant whining of Harry. James pulled up round the back, parking in front of the old locked gates. He was on a constant lookout for ghoul-children.

Willow was gone. Gordon was gone. They couldn’t be sure but it looked as though they had lost Nicky and Taz too. The sooner he had some backup from Marcus the safer he’d feel.

The back door was hanging open when they got there. No Marcus to greet them.

James held his kids close, their footsteps making clumped shuffling noises along the corridor. He lied to Harry; told him they were part of a tour of the old school building but that they’d arrived early. Others would be here soon.

Harry took the lie and played up his boredom:

“I don’t want to go on a stupid tour. This place is boring and old. There aren’t any other kids here.”

James and Theo saw this as a strong positive.

James placed himself in the central stairway. Two grand staircases meeting in the middle, James remembered someone telling him one used to be for girls, the other for boys. He used to take the ‘boys’ stair every time even though that tradition had ended long before he started there.

Tonight he couldn’t care less about taking the ‘right’ stair, all he wanted was a good location to get Marcus’ attention. He didn’t want to risk yelling, he didn’t want to rattle the boys, but he also didn’t want anyone outside the school asking questions. James repeated Marcus’ name, making it clear he needed him.

James followed the stair down to the old boiler room. He stopped calling Marcus when he found the boiler-room door cracked and beaten. Shattered remains of the slide bolt lay on the floor, the padlock still attached.

For a moment he considered leaving the kids and investigating for himself. His imagination swam with ideas of what could happen to them if left alone. No good could come of that.

They filed into the old boiler room, James helping his sons down the old stepladder to the basement below.

Still no Marcus.

The boys held his hands tightly as he brought them to the bookcase at the end of the corridor. Harry relaxed his grip when they found the ‘secret passageway’. Brimming with excitement, he struggled against his dad to be the first down the steps. James held him back.

Still no Marcus.

James switched on his phone’s torch and scanned the tiny room. One difference was instantly visible; in one corner lay a mound of dirt. A sharp, clay smell told him it was fresh.

A tiny scrap of paper poked out from the top of the mound. James stepped towards it and picked it up.

If you find this, run!

Sorry. I tried, Marcus

James dropped the paper and ran for the stairs, picking the boys up under his arms as he went.

They ran the length of the corridor, stopping at the bottom of the stepladder.

James heard footsteps in the room above. He drew his children to one side holding one finger to his lips; shh.

He couldn’t risk calling but he sent a simple text to Tash:He has M's bones. Stone circle vital. Keep digging. Will try to get to you.Marcus’ whistle echoed down from above. James held his sons close not knowing what to think. With every fibre of his being he wished they could be somewhere else. He whispered into their hair:

“If you get away go to the golf-course. Tash will keep you safe.”

*

Tash’s heart sank as the tiny form of Harry awkwardly lifted himself over the fence and ran to her. She gathered her strength and launched herself out of the stone circle to collect the boy.

He swung his arms, copying runners he’d seen on TV. It didn’t help his speed, in fact Tash worried that he was making himself a clearer target. She reached the boy just as the black smoke appeared. Marcus’ face drifted past her, expressionless, cold.

Harry squealed as he fell to the ground. Marcus had his leg. Tash flung herself at him, grasping his hands. She pulled. With all her might she pulled.

Harry’s shoe slipped off in Marcus’ hand (‘My lighty-up shoe!’). Tash seized her chance, hauling the boy to her. She gathered him up and run for the circle.

Marcus gathered into his solid form and ran after them.

Tash snapped her legs back and forth, leaping more than running. Marcus gained on them with relative ease but stopped, the blue glow of the stone circle reflected in his black eyes.

*

Marcus hovered outside the stone circle but the digging and ‘planting’ continued. Harry seemed pleased to have something to do. Tash wondered how much he understood about what was happening.

A new thought occurred to her as she lifted more soil; there were three bags, no matter how hard they worked no matter how many bones were in contact with the stones, they would never be enough. Mr Thomas still had a bag and that was enough for his needs.

She looked at Marcus. More than enough.

Marcus circled them, drifting instead of running. Soon all they could see was a circle of smoke and a face swirling past. He grinned:

“I’m needed elsewhere. See you all very soon.”

And he was gone. It was nice to be out from under his watch but they couldn’t let themselves slow down.

Andrew’s phone beeped. 8pm a reminder for some show he wanted to watch. Meaningless now and so much of the night still to get through. Ten minutes went by then came a crackling electrical sound. Ross grabbed his police radio from an abandoned pocket.

“All hands, all hands. We have reports of another missing child in Crieff. Suspect same perpetrator as previous incident. Take precautions, this guy is stronger than he looks.”

Tash sat down on one of the rocks:

“More kids. We can’t let him get away with this. Got to keep at it.”

They continued with their work. The bones in one of the bags rattled for a moment, as if stirred up by something. Marcus drifted into view near the golf-course gates. He wasn’t happy, Tash could tell. All the same he had been sent by his puppet-master to gloat about the new addition. He played his part.

This pattern continued. More calls on the radio. Every time Marcus appeared the bones would rattle (Marcus must be like a magnet to them, Tash wondered if he was trying to draw them out of the circle for his old master). Marcus came to gloat over every kidnapping, grinning his false grin, forced to laugh by a puppet-master he despised.

Five children taken. Ten children.

By the time fifteen children had been taken, the town was lit up by the blue flashing lights of most of the police cars for the region.

Tash could remember what the captured were going through. She had been there herself once (albeit briefly). However, the sheer volume of kidnappings left her imagining a prison, teaming with children, tired, confused, frightened. How was he doing this? Why so many? and where could he be hiding them all?

Keep up with the story

Click here to go to ‘Marcus: Chapter 19: Count the Ghosts‘.

Social media feeds are an oddity. What you say can be seen by millions but it can also slip away and be missed with ease. I always post new chapters on social media (Facebook and Twitter) but there’s no guarantee that we’ll both be on at the same time.

With this in mind, if you’re enjoying ‘Marcus’ and you want to be sure you get a link to the newest chapter as soon as it’s out, you can also get an e-mail reminder by clicking this link. Mailing list members also get access to printable files so you’re not forced to read it all from a screen.

Thanks for reading, all the best, John

 

Marcus: Chapter 17: That’s Four

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

Theo’s house was locked tight. He watched from the top window desperate to see nothing. He had left his dad downstairs, eyes glued on the computer screen waiting for the strange reports to come pouring it.

The night was still; no wind, no sounds, no ghosts. After the third sign of movement that turned out to be the neighbour’s cat Theo went downstairs to get something to eat and drink.

James didn’t even look up from the screen, but he sat up rod-straight:

“Are they here?”

Theo slurped milk from his glass, shaking his head:

“Nope. Only so many times I can let Blaise scare me. How many times does a cat need to go out in one night?”

Harry was curled up on the couch watching cartoons on the tablet. He broke his eyes away from the screen for a moment:

“I hope you guys aren’t talking about ghosts again. Mum said you both had to stop ‘cos you’re scaring me. Ghosts aren’t real.”

James stepped away from the computer and sat beside his younger son:

“Mum’s right. You shouldn’t be scared. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Harry smiled:

“Can I get my toastie now? Mum said she’d make me one when she got back.”

James’ brow furrowed:

“When was that?”

“Ehmm…I don’t know, maybe when I started this episode.”

It sometimes wasn’t a great idea to trust a six-year-old’s sense of time. She had just gone out to put something in the bins outside. James realised he had lost track too. He popped on a pair of slippers:

“Be back in a sec guys. Just checking to see if mum needs a hand.”

He ran to the back of the house. The bins were on their side, tipped from the enclosure he’d made for them.

Out of sight, within the branches of their neighbour’s tree, two eyes were watching. It wasn’t Blaise the cat and it wasn’t a ghoul child. James’ wife held on to the branch with every ounce of her strength, pulling against them. She opened her mouth to scream for her husband but found a tiny hand stuffing it with dirt.

The shock made her hand slip. She let go of the branch, the force of their pull dropped her to the ground with force. Her head hit the trunk of the tree and everything went blurry. She could swear she heard the faintest whisper:

…that’s one…

*

Tash was tired but she’d taken enough of a break already. The others had been digging for twenty minutes straight. The strange stones seemed stranger still when you dug up the earth below them.

It was then that the blue glow was visible, the same blue glow coming from the bags of bones. Marcus couldn’t touch the stones himself, but insisted that all the bones had to make contact. Every time a bone was laid beside a rock it would glow brighter, it’s light flowing into the stone until all that was left was dull bone.

Tash grabbed a shovel and started digging. After the third shovel-full of soil flicked in Gordon’s direction, he moved over a little.

It was as good a time as any to grab a drink of water and stretch his back. November soil fought back, a lot, it had taken him over an hour to get just a few inches down.

He had dropped his jacket into the car a few minutes after they started. In the dry cold his sweat grew icy. He hunted in the back seat for the jacket. In the end it announced itself; his phone rang from the pocket. The jacket wasn’t in the car but hanging over a tree a short distance from the stone circle.

He flung the jacket on before fumbling for the phone with icy fingers. He didn’t have to sound too official, his shift had ended ages ago. His screen displayed a Crieff number, vaguely familiar:

Hello?”

James’ voice came back, hushed and terrified:

I’m standing in my back garden. I don’t want the kids to hear this. They’ve taken her. They took Willow. They took my wife.”

Gordon walked back and forth trying to keep himself warm:

OK James. Is there any sign of struggle?”

James told him about the overturned bins and said something about an upset cat. Ordinarily Gordon managed professional detachment quite well, not expecting the worst, especially when adults were involved.After the nights he’d had, he let the conclusions jump to their heart’s content.

OK, look, I’m going to get in the car now. I’ll be there in less than five minutes. Go keep an eye on the kids and I’ll…”

Gordon’s foot got hooked on a tree root. It tangled round his ankle and he fell to the ground dropping his phone. He reached down to untangle the root but it moved. His eyes adjusted just in time to make out the tiny fingers.

…that’s two…

*

James could hear muffled cursing on the other end of the phone. It disappeared into the distance. Where had Gordon gone?

He hung up the call and selected Tash’s number, all the time making his way back round to the house to check on the kids. The kids?! He had been so worried about Willow that he’d neglected to get round, to lock the door, to check the house was safe.

The kids weren’t in the living room when he got in. He locked the front door. (Why didn’t he do that earlier?) James’ eyes darted in all directions searching for any sign of his children.

From the top of the stairs he heard whispering:

…you’ll never find me…

James raced up to the boys’ room in time to hear Theo yell:

Found you Harry! Now it’s my turn to hide.”

James gulped back the bile that had been rising in his throat, then noticed Tash’s voice chattering from his phone:

…James what’s wrong? Is everything OK? Can you hear me?”

He raised his phone to his ear. The reality of Willow’s disappearance slamming back into view. Out of earshot from the kids, he recounted everything he had just told Gordon. Tash interrupted:

Wait, when were you talking to Gordon?”

James tried to count back the time:

Maybe five minutes ago. Probably less than that. He said he was getting into the car. He should be here soon.”

Tash’s eyes settled on her ex-husband’s car:

James, his car is here. And Gordon is not in it.”

She yelled out for him but heard no reply. Apologising to James she hung up and tried phoning Gordon.

It rang. She could hear the ringtone; the theme tune to one of those ridiculous crime dramas that he loved so much. A light pulsed under a bedraggled tree. There it was, Gordon’s phone, and no Gordon. Tash shook her head:

Oh Gordon…”

There was no way to hide this from the kids. She broke the news of their dad’s disappearance as gently as possible. They were clearly upset but they held it together better than Gordon’s buddy Ross.

She debated going to check on James. Maybe perch all the kids inside the stone circle. They’d keep them safe, the same way they’d done for her years ago. However, Gordon was near the circle and they’d got to him easily enough.

Whatever happened next, she needed help. She also needed someone who could deal with the blubbering man-child Ross had become. She needed Nicky.

*

Nicky’s phone rang as she was getting into the car:

Hey sis, what’s up?”

The next few minutes were a series of ‘what?’ and ‘but…’ as Nicky was filled in. She wanted to pop on the ignition to get the heater going to take the chill out of the night. Sadly, Scott had the keys and he was taking an age to come out the house.

*

Scott knew he’d left the keys on the hook, where could they be? For the fourth time he wandered through to the kitchen to check if they were on the worktop. Next stop would be his jacket pocket. He was getting sick of this loop.

There was a jangling sound. Had the keys been in his jacket the whole time? He already knew the answer. The jangling hadn’t come from his jacket. Nicky was out in the car. That meant…:

No no no nononononono!”

Scott slammed into the wall and didn’t get up:

…that’s three…

*

Nicky got out the car and walked round to the boot. Scott was always losing his keys. Perhaps he’d left them in one of the bags.

Before she went for the pockets her attention was drawn to the small leather bag Scott had dug out of the attic that afternoon (“…seems respectable enough…”). It was hard to believe that it contained the bones of a whole person, albeit a small one.

Scott explained why they needed Marcus’ bones but she hadn’t followed it entirely. She reached forward and undid the old clasp. It opened like an old doctor’s case.

So small, glowing ever so gently. Hard to imagine them linked to someone so powerful, so ancient. She reached forward to touch one and a fist pounded into her temple forcing her sideways to crack her head on the car:

I’ll take that!”

A leathered hand grasped the handles of the tiny bag. Mr Thomas laughed:

Now does that count as four, or five?”

Keep up with the story

Click here to go to ‘Marcus: Chapter 18: Between a rock and more rocks’.

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Thanks for reading, all the best, John