Monologue

A quick explanation is probably due.  This was a writing prompt from someone who wanted the Writing Prompts subreddit to do their homework for them.  They’d been tasked with writing a monologue.  I was the only person to respond, the original prompt was deleted for breaking the rules and the post faded away into obscurity.  I, on the other hand, was relatively pleased with bashing out a two handed one act play in about 30 minutes.

THE MAN sits in a bedroom. On the bed, a pile of clothing (all female in a variety of colours).
There is a dressing table, a chair, the bed, and a table. Only these things are lit, everything else is black.
SHE stands in the background and we can barely make her out. Throughout, as THE MAN speaks, we increase the light on her until she is fully spotlit.

THE MAN
I miss you.

He starts to pick clothes out of the pile, haphazardly. He looks at them before setting them aside. He settles on one.

THE MAN
They said I had to do this eventually. Go through your things and pack them away. I remember when you first wore this. On our…second date? Yeah. I was lucky to get a second date, you made me work so hard for the first one and I was pretty sure you weren’t going to return my call. But you did. And teased me mercilessly about being too eager.

He folds the garment carefully and sets it on the table. He picks another, sniffs at it.

THE MAN
The perfume I bought you for our first Christmas as a couple. We drank a bottle of wine each on Christmas Eve and then your mother called me and yelled at me for getting you drunk and leaving you hung over for Christmas morning. And then my mother yelled at her for yelling at me. They still laugh about that. It’s good that they can laugh together. I wish I could. No one made me laugh like you did.

He folds the garment carefully and sets it on the table. He picks another up, but does not look at it.

THE MAN
I miss laughing. It went when you did. You tore a hole in my life and because you weren’t there it filled up with pain.

He folds the garment, then unfolds and refolds it.

THE MAN
I used to breathe hurting. I used to hate waking up because it would be fresh, like cutting, to wake up not next to you and to make breakfast without you in the bathroom using all the hot water. Eating cereal without you telling me grownups don’t eat cereal, nothing tasted of anything very much. Or when it did, it was like tin. Like blood in your mouth when you bite your cheek. Even that went away, eventually. Your absense took even the pain, when it had become a friend.

He unfolds and refolds the garment. A different way, this time.

THE MAN
I wish I could hate you for d… for not being there. For leaving me. It’s hard, being here on my own. Having to go on. My phone doesn’t ring any more. I spent so long picking it up and saying your name, because this is all some stupid mistake and you’re just in another city with one of your friends. Shopping. Seeing that band you like. It’s never you. I think people started to hate the disappointment in my voice when they called, so they’ve stopped calling. That’s OK. I don’t have much to say.

Mechanically, he starts to fold and stack the other garments into same height piles.

THE MAN
The only person I want to talk to is you. I just…when the accident…when the car…I could see you. I could see you as they tried to cut you out but I couldn’t reach you because they wouldn’t let me. I could see you were scared and I wanted to hold your hand and tell you I was sorry, and you were right, and we could work past it, but they wouldn’t let me. I remember your eyes. Wide open and so afraid, and that’s my fault. You were so angry. I just wanted you to pull over. I just wanted us to talk like we did in the beginning. I know you would have forgiven me. I know you would have forgiven me if we had just been able to talk.

He sorts the folded garments into piles of the same colour.

SHE is now lit and during the next speech she moves to stand behind THE MAN. SHE remains expressionless.

THE MAN
You had a right to be angry. I was stupid to take the wheel but you needed to listen and I needed to be forgiven. I was wrong, but you shouldn’t have told me it was over and you shouldn’t have shut me out and I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

The sorting becomes more frantic. The piles of clothes aren’t the same height, so he sorts them into height order as he speaks.

THE MAN
You were nowhere. But now I can feel you everywhere. I can hear you. Everywhere. They don’t tell you that you start to forget things. I can’t remember what your voice was like. I can’t remember what colour your eyes were. Those things were taken when they put you in the ground and your mother took all the pictures for her scrap booking. But I can feel your eyes on me all the time. You watch me and you don’t say I’m forgiven. You watch me all the time and you never speak. It’s all I need to hear. Then I can be better. I want to be better. Why won’t you let me be better?

THE MAN flips the table.

THE MAN
Why won’t you leave me alone?

THE MAN crumples himself into a ball, makes himself as small as possible. Behind him, SHE looks down at him, then out at the audience. SHE smiles.

You hire a witch doctor to curse someone. However, the only curses you can afford are extremely petty.

I completely misread this prompt and, when I’d finished writing the story, decided I liked it better than if I were the one buying the curse.


You always wipe down the chair once your appointment has left. Basic hygiene. People sweat, or very occasionally lose bladder control (although that hasn’t happened nearly as much since we got the new chickens in). Once I’d finished my quick wipe around, I sat behind my desk and tapped the intercom.

“Hello Susan, would you send my two o’clock in?”
It’s already two fifteen, but I’m lucky to be only fifteen minutes behind. The last one, Mrs Shapiro, was a talker. I busy myself with the computer for a moment. Next on the list is Mr. Blakeney of Hatch End. The door opens, and in he steps clutching a trilby in his hand and looking pale and nervous in his sensible tan raincoat.

“Hello, Mr. Blakeney. Do take a seat.”
Mr. Blakeney twitches at this apparent evidence of my powers, even though he filled in the new patient card at reception. But that’ll be Susan for you; a woman so glacial that people forget their own names as they speak to her. Mr. Blakeney sits, and I notice that he’s wearing sensible brown corduroy trousers and some battered Hush Puppy shoes. He hasn’t bought clothes since the 1980s. Oh dear.
“And what can I help you with today, Mr. Blakeney?”

Mr. Blakeney peers at me through his black framed glasses that look to be in need of a good clean. He grips the mean little brim of his hat and rotates it nervously. The hat makes it through 360 degrees before he says
“I thought you’d be, you know…”
“African?”
“Well…errr…” He falters. He stands up and sits down again. “Yes?”
I smile. Time to do the reassuring professional bit.
“Not to worry, Mr. Blakeney. Ever since the National Health Service started offering Complimentary Medicine and Sympathetic Magic, the two disciplines have attracted less…traditional…practitioners over time. I got my degree from Bristol. You can’t get much more British than that.”
He seems relieved and disappointed at the same time. The idea of blacking up is, of course, massively racist but sometimes I think people expect it. And for me to wear a bone through my nose. No one understands that there are European traditions that go back almost as far and…
Mr Blakeney is talking again, which is good, but I’ve been ignoring him which is bad. In my defense, he’s terribly easy to ignore.

“…fence” says Mr. Blakeney with some finality. I raise an eyebrow.

“I am, of course, here to help you feel better Mr. Blakeney, but I find it helps if you just cut to the chase, as it were, and tell me what it is you actually want.”

He blinks. He doesn’t know.

“Well,” he says “I thought you might…curse him? A bit?”
“A bit.”
“Yes, you know, nothing fatal. Nothing horrid.”
“Just mildly, then?”
“Yes. So he’s inconvenienced, and he knows it!”
Ah. I don’t say things like ‘not enough for him to countercurse you, or litigate or anything’. I flip through my copy of Crowley’s Almanack while I think.

“Well, Mr. Blakeney, it all rather depends on whether you can provide me with any further information about the target. I can work with a name, or a physical description, or…”
“What could you do with a name?” he asks.
“Well…I could make sure his shoe laces never tie, or once they’re tied never untie. Or I could ensure he always loses his bus ticket?”

Mr Blakeney considers this.
“No good,” he says “he wears slip ons. Orthopedic ones at that! And he never takes the bus.”
“Well, for something stronger we’re going to need more. Fingernail clippings, or a strand of hair, for example.”

Mr Blakeney reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a plastic bag, like one of those little evidence bags the police use, and there’s something pale and semi-translucent inside. After a moment, it’s like when you’re staring at an optical illusion and can suddenly see a rabbit or a woman’s head instead of a duck, or something, because suddenly it’s a little sandwich bag containing a used condom. Oh dear. This isn’t a neighbourly tiff over a garden boundary at all.

“Well, I think I could probably do rather a lot. The question is, how far are you willing to take this?”

The sad, doughy little man is changing before my eyes. The evidence of his wife’s infidelity before him, his lips pulled away from his teeth in a nearly savage smile that has nothing whatever to do with humour, Mr. Blakeney looks like a very angry guinea pig that has somehow got hold of a gun.

“Maybe” he says “we can do more than just inconvenience him?”
“Don’t forget, Mr Blakeney, the NHS can’t cause actual harm. It’s not like I can drop a piano on him or anything.”
“What about limiting him in some personal way?”
I think about this. I nod.
“Perhaps his…performance?”
“Oh yes” he says. “That would be satisfying. Perhaps when he’s been drinking? I know he likes a drink before they have their…trysts
I’ve never heard the word spoken with that much venom before.
“So you’d like his bedroom performance to be hampered and limited whenever he consumes alcohol..?”
“More than one glass of alcohol” says Mr Blakeney “Yes.”
“Any particular reason for being so specific?” I have to ask.

“Well,” says Mr. Blakeney “I don’t want to inhibit his performance with me“.

Which is why you should always, always pay close attention to the initial consultation.

Instead of wars (and rap battles), countries use stand-up comedy battles. The first to laugh out loud loses. Write a battle between two enemy countries.

10 Downing Street, COBRA briefing room

The declaration of war hadn’t come as a surprise, even though the world was still recovering from the annual dust-up in Canada as nation faced nation in the *Juste pour rire* event. You had to be so careful when speaking with the press. Anything that could be misunderstood as funny might be taken as provocation. In retrospect, it had been a mistake making a woman with a naturally sarcastic tone of voice Foreign Secretary.

The PM sighed and reviewed his options. They’d approached Cleese, who’d spoken to them about sex and travel in shockingly brief terms. Izzard was ready to defect to France and the Security Service had placed him under house arrest. The PM flipped through some briefing documents. He stopped.

“Are we sure Dara O’Breien is Irish?”
“It’s what his passport says, Prime Minister” answered the Defence Minister. He was pale and exhausted, having spent three weeks attending open mic nights in every major city and town in the UK looking for fresh talent.
“Damn. Oh, and Ed Byrne too I notice. I take it we can still use Frankie Boyle?”
“Is it really time for the nuclear option?” asked the Defence Minister.
“Well, then, what about Michael McIntyre?”
Everyone fell silent.
“Prime Minister, we want to win” said the Home Secretary.

Porton Down. The UK’s top secret comedy testing facility.

The Red phone rang. It wasn’t actually red, but there was a label on it that said “Red phone”. Dr. Banofski answered it and listened for a few minutes. He set the phone aside and called a Heads of Department meeting.

“We’re up against the Yanks” said Banofski “and as you know, they’ve been on excellent form recently. There are rumours they’ve convinced Bill Murray to come out of retirement, but even so their stockpile of first class talent is huge. Downing Street wants us to come up with an effective counter to the Bill Murray scenario. What have we got?”

One by one the department heads came up empty. Despite the work done by the assorted writing and performance teams, the UK had nothing that might break America. Finally, Banofski turned to his last option. At the far end of the conference room a team of scientists who had once been engaged to study joke construction but who had been long since consigned to a basement lab and ignored.
“Well?” said Banofski. The team looked at one another.
“Well…” said the team lead “there is one project. But you’re not going to like it. It’s possibly a bit unfunny.”
“I don’t care how unfunny it is” snapped Banofski “detail it with all speed.”
“It’s classified as NORWEGIAN BLUE” said the team lead, and the room fell silent.

10 Downing Street, COBRA Briefing room.

The Prime Minister listened as a team from the Ministry of Defence detailed NORWEGIAN BLUE.

“Fucking hell” he said, eventually. Then he stepped outside for a cigarette. He came back, sat down, sipped some water and thought for a moment.
“Fucking hell” he said again, and went for a walk. The Defence Ministry team looked at one another and there was an outbreak of shrugging.
“Let’s prep for a no,” said the Minister “Call Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. Someone make sure the BBC will release Capaldi just in case.”
The Prime Minister came back. He sat, he played with a pen. He looked up at his advisers.
“Will it work?”
“We think so, Prime Minister.”
“Will anyone laugh?”
“That’s the beauty of it,” said the Defence Minister “it won’t matter if they do.”
The Prime Minister signed the order.
“God help us” he said.

Wembley Arena, site of the American Invasion.

Half the audience was American, half British. In a curious move, the Americans had been given seats on the floor of the arena and the Brits had been relegated to the sides and the back. With no fanfare whatsoever, a spotlight picked up a figure ambling onto the stage from one of the wings. The audience roared a welcome as the figure of Bill Murray made his way to the two microphone stands in the middle of the stage. He leaned on one stand, waved to the crowd and seemed oddly surprised by the standing ovation he received.

Eventually, things calmed down. The PA clicked and hummed. A voice boomed out.
“Let’s DO-OOOOOO-OOOOO…IT!”
There was a thunderous explosion from the side of the stage, all compressed air and polystyrene debris. Out of this fake maelstrom leapt a man in a military red coat and tight, white trousers. He faced the audience, spread his arms and yelled “It’s me! HURRAH!”. He was immediately answered with another HURRAH! from the Brits in the audience.

In the crowd, two American comedy observers stared at each other.
“Am I seeing things, Brad?”
“I don’t think so, Ernesto. That looks a lot like Rik Mayall.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Ernesto “and the problem with that is, he’s dead.”

For his part, Bill Murray seemed completely unmoved.
“I brought a flag” said Murray, setting a small Stars and Stripes down on the stage. The tiny flag in the huge arena and Murray’s complete lack of affectation caused a tide of laughter to sweep around the arena. Rik Mayall swaggered towards the mic stand nodding. He reached for the mic, seemed to think better of it and felled Bill Murray with a sudden, shocking right cross. While his opponent lay on the floor, Mayall produced a pistol and shot him three times in the chest. The ensuing silence was broken by the clicks and rattles of every British audience member cocking a gun.

International Criminal Court, The Hague

“The New Yorker thought it was a witty deconstruction of the conflict resolution paradigm” said the Prime Minister. No one smiled.
“A man died” said the Attorney General of the United States.
“Fair’s fair” said the PM “we *had* just brought one of ours back from the dead.”
“You clearly don’t understand the seriousness of the situation” snapped the American. The Prime Minister stood and addressed the court in general.
“Oh, I do” he said “The United States is the most heavily comedified nation on earth. The reach of American broadcast media is global. There is not a country on Earth where American comedy shows don’t play. There are tribes of Amazon Indians who sing the Seinfeld incidental music when they perform their rituals. It is almost impossible to fight against American Cultural Imperialism if you speak the same language. Accordingly, and to prevent our nation becoming America’s whipping boy to a greater extent than it already is, we have taken the following steps.

“Firstly, we’ve changed Britain’s official language. Much as it pains me to say it, we’re embarking on a massive program of re-education and teaching the population Cornish. While that takes effect, and for the next three generations, we are arming the population with guns and will respond with lethal force to anyone who attempts military action against our nation. This includes the use of sarcasm and one line throwaway remarks, so the world stands warned.”

There was silence. Finally, the American Ambassador stood.
“Sir,” he said “what about Bill Murray? You restored Rik Mayall to life. Can you not to the same for our fallen hero?”
The PM considered this.

“No” he said “thought about it, not going to do it. That would simply be re-arming a dangerous nation with its most effective weapon. I’m sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but Mr. Murray is an ex-comic. He has ceased to be.”

Writing Prompt: Queen Elizabeth celebrates her hundredth birthday by sharing her ‘biggest surprise!’ on worldwide television.

“Not bad for your first Outside Broadcast” said Trevor, and Faz had to agree. She grinned up from her monitor at the avuncular Trevor, who was so Old School BBC that his cardigan had leather patches on the leather patches on the elbows and was never seen without a mug of tea.

“I know!” she said, running down the checklist for the tenth time in as many minutes “Buckingham Palace on the occasion of Her Majesty’s Centenary Broadcast! That’s what I call work experience!”

“You’ve earned it,” said Trevor, wandering back to his own post in the outside broadcast unit “best of the new intake, been saying so for months…”

Beside Faz, Andy the Unpaid Intern was chewing a pen.

“She’s supposed to be making a major announcement today” he said, around the pen, his brow furrowed “what’s the betting she’s retiring?”

“Never happen!” said Trevor.

Faz shrugged. She adjusted her hijab, a rather nice pearlescent gray number her Dad had given her, the better to deal with headphones and settled back.

“I don’t think she trusts Charles” said Andy.

“She’ll never quit” said Faz, “have you seen how good she looks for a woman of one hundred? My nan’s only sixty five and she moves way slower than the Queen.”

“I bet your Nan would move like she was on rails if she’d had the same health care as Her Maj” said Andy.

“Dangerously republican talk, young Intern” rumbled Trevor as he checked and rechecked cables and connections. Andy did his best to look shamefaced, but flashed Faz a grin, raised a fist and mouthed “viva el presidente!” She smiled and went back to work. Outside, technicians were arranging cameras and microphones and the Producer, Director and very likely a number of supernumery people just along to see the inside of Buck House would be back soon. She’d have to focus.

***

Elizabeth sat in her study, at the curved and carved desk where she’d answered letters and conducted business for over seventy years, and pondered. Daylight flooded in through the tall windows to her left, picking out the pictures and photographs of ancestors, friends and family. Even the man in the gray suit was part of the furniture now. They changed every few years, but they were always there. A Saville Row reminder of Duty, as if she needed reminding.

“There’ll be an awful fuss” said the man in the gray suit.

“There’s always an awful fuss” said Elizabeth, brushing her hand over the speech she’d prepared.

“Ma’am, are you sure this is wise?”

Elizabeth fixed him with the glare. The glare that had made Prime Ministers stutter and stammer or, like Cameron, stop talking entirely.

“I have been doing this for so long now,” she said, her voice even and quiet and dangerous “that I no longer care about the wisdom of things. The People deserve to know some of the things that have been hidden from them out of a habit of secrecy. And I have put up with the Republican nonsense, all their comments about me being a parasite and contributing nothing, for so many years. Well it’s about time I put a few things into the public domain.”

“Your Majesty” said the man in the gray suit “once this particular surprise is out there, we’ll not be able to undo what you’ve done. Of course we’ll ride out the storm….”

“See that we do” said Her Majesty, standing and ending the conversation.

***

The BBC One Channel ID, currently planets orbiting a star for no comprehensible reason, was replaced by an image of the Royal Standard flying over Buckingham Palace.

“And now on BBC one, all other UK channels, and to an international audience of hundreds of millions, on the occasion of her one hundredth birthday, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second will address the Commonwealth.”

The announcer sounded suitably grave, thought Faz, as she kept an eye on the feeds to the broadcasters outside the BBC network. On the screen, the Queen sat behind a suitably imposing desk. Faz knew that she’s move out from behind it and sit next to a fireplace for a cosy chat with her subjects, and then she was supposed to make announcements. She’d been given an outline of what Her Majesty was supposed to say. The director and producer were in muttered conversation when there was a knock at the door. Andy opened it to be met by three men in gray suits. One of them, an elderly man in thick black framed glasses, stepped inside and tapped the director on the shoulder.

“Alright, son, out you go. And him” he gestured to the producer “everyone else can stay and get on with it. Off you go.”

“Now wait a minute…” said the Director, a long time associate of Jeremy Paxman and therefore not easily intimidated. One of the two younger gray suits reached inside his jacket and produced a wallet, which he opened to display what Faz assumed was a warrant card.

“Go on, son” said Black Frames gently “go away. Find yourself a cup of tea or something.”

Both left, too shocked to say much. Black Glasses sat down in the director’s chair.

“Who’s running the book?” he said. Everyone looked at everyone else. “Oh come on,” said the man in the grey suit “someone is. Odds on she’s abdicating. Ten to one she’ll say in favour of William. Hundred to one she really did kill Diana, thousand to one she did it herself and a million to one she really is a space lizard?” He paused. “None of you? Blimey. What is the world coming to?”

The Queen had reached the portion of her address the BBC had titled “hello commonwealth” and she was recounting the successes of commonwealth nations. The two younger gray suits had taken over the producer and director roles, although one of them was standing to do so since Black Glasses seemed disinclined to leave his seat.

“Do you know what she’s going to say?” asked Faz. Black Glasses smiled at her.

“I do. I don’t think anyone would guess it. Not in a million years.” He looked at one of his companions. “What do you think, Reggie? Has anyone got it right?”

Reggie flicked a glance at his elder.

“No, Harry. No one has.”

“There,” said Harry turning his attention back to Faz. “Although I suspect it might be of particular interest to you.”

Faz turned to Andy and shrugged. Andy shrugged back, but in the privacy of her own head, Faz began to wonder if the head of the Church of England and the Defender of the Faith had turned to Islam. Faz began to pay close attention to what the elderly woman in the tiara was saying.

Elizabeth settled back into the chair.

“As some of you will be aware, I have promised to reveal something surprising today. When I think back over my long years of service to this country…”

***
In his mum’s house in Liverpool, John Stoney sighed.

“Long years of service my arse” he muttered, and caught the flat of his nan’s slipper across the back of his head.

“Respect!” snapped the formidable Grandma Stoney.

***

“…many service personnel to whom we owe our freedom, our way of life and who are, in the main, unsung heroes. During the Second World War it was my honour to serve in an auxilliary capacity…”

“Did she really?” asked Faz. Andy nodded.

“Yeah. She was a mechanic. Google her later.” Andy’s attention was fixed on The Queen, hanging on her every word.

“…the capabilities of this nation, which too often also go untold and unremarked upon. What I am to tell you tonight will sound unlikely to many ears, even outlandish, but it is all absolutely true. Great Britain has for many years been able to field a military asset that many would describe as a ‘super hero’.”

***

“You are fucking kidding me!” said John Stoney, ducking instinctively. The slipper did not appear.

“What does she mean?” asked Grandma Stoney.

***

In the outside broadcast truck, Harry sat back and closed his eyes.

“Story time,” he said “Jackabloodynory.”

On the screen, Elizabeth looked at the floor and then back at the camera.

“I do not know the full history behind this remarkable project, only that it goes back to the reign of Elizabeth the First and her adviser John Dee. I am given to understand that Dee’s researches created something we nowadays might call a ‘super-soldier’ serum, a treatment which, when applied to the right subject, gave that person abilities beyond the human scale. It has been a closely guarded Crown secret ever since, and there has not been a time when the person in receipt of that treatment has not fought for this country.

A quirk of the treatment means that it is only effective on women. Thus, the superhuman agency of the Crown has always been referred to as Britannia.”

Andy was staring, slack jawed, at the monitor in front of him.

“The superman exists…” said Harry “..and he’s got tits.”

“Breasts” said Faz, barely above a whisper. The Queen was talking about how Britannia had always been a representative of the nation in times of crisis. There was footage of the Royal Marine Commandos training during World War 2, and with them someone obviously a young woman carrying a hoplite shield and trident, and wearing a Corinthian helmet which rather effectively doubled as a mask. The black and white footage showed her engaged in combat practice, taking on and beating commando trainees with grace and power.

“Over the years, the identity of the woman operating as Britannia has been held a closely guarded secret, but she has always been at the forefront of events” said the Queen. The image changed to footage of the seige at the Iranian Embassy in 1980. Taken from a different angle than the normal footage shot by news teams, it clearly showed a woman in pale gray combat clothes but wearing the helmet, shield and trident entering the building slightly in advance of the SAS. It cut again, to footage of Helmland. British troops are watching several young Afghan girls at play. One of them has a stick, a makeshift shield and a hat. The soldiers seem amused, but when the young girl adopts a combat pose they stand to attention and salute.

“It is long past time that the existence of Britannia was made public. It is long past time that the truth about our capability were known, and time perhaps that the symbol of this nation were more than just a weapon to point at enemies of the state” said the Queen.

“The process that creates Britannia is unique. The people who can undergo the treatment are also unique, and from a very specific lineage. We are extremely careful about who we select for the role. They must have the highest committment to their duty, they must understand above all things the importance of service, and they must be willing to sacrifice everything – recognition, family, love, any hope of a normal life – to take up the mantle.

“The process has a side effect. It greatly prolongs life, and youth, but this inevitably costs the person who takes up the role any kind of normalcy. They will watch their loved ones age and wither long before they themselves feel the chill of old age. And they will ultimately be alone, because there is only ever one Britannia. This is a lonely truth. But the truth is…”

The Queen looked down at herself, at the floor, for a long moment. Then she looked directly into the camera. Her jaw clenched. She hooked a thumb into the skin of her neck and in a moment that caused gasps the world over, appeared to slit apart the skin of her face to reveal…

…that face was nothing more than a mask. In a moment, seventy years of age fell away from her as Elizabeth Windsor demolished the remains of the prosthetic mask that hid her true features.

“..the truth is, I am Britannia”.

“Disney are probably going to sue” said Harry, but Faz couldn’t help noticing the pride in his voice.

1887. Holmes and Watson are on the trail of a homocidal madman calling himself The Joker.

Much has been said about my friend Sherlock Holmes, more than a little of it by me, and I have always tried to honestly capture and relate the workings of his unmatched mind and the tides of his emotions. I believe I have shown him victorious and, on very rare occasions, baffled. Only once have I ever seen him display pity towards a foe.

The case began witha series of outrages, which would have drawn the attention of Special Branch had they not been perpetrated against an assortment of Hooligan gangs that, on the streets of London, were as common as cobblestones. Holmes had taken an immediate interest in the theatricality of the assaults, since each one was marked by the presence of a calling card.

“Or rather, Watson,” Holmes announced “a playing card. Of sorts.”

Holmes had half a dozen of them displayed on the wall of his Baker Street residence. Each was slightly different in design.

“From different packs, Watson, and some of them are most unusual.”

My friend had subjected the first two cards to every test he could devise, and he was fascinated with the results.

“Materials quite different from the ones used to make the subsequent cards. The first two show evidence of materials and manufacturing processes quite alien to these shores, Watson, in considerable advance over the methods used in this country.

“The others are all from packs that could be purchased within a mile of the locations where they were left. Lestrade is pursuing shopkeepers from those locations with his usual tenacity, but he won’t find a common buyer.”

“How could you know that, Holmes?” My common question, one that never failed to elicit a smile and an answer.

“These acts of brutality have been characterised by the Police as the acts fo a madman. They are anything but. The violence involved is unusual, Watson, to the point where I fear that even your time in the Army would not prepare you for the sight, but it is calculated. This man wants attention, from the authorities and from the criminal world at the same time.”

“To what end, Holmes?”

Sherlock Holmes lit his pipe and thought for several minutes.

“There can be only one answer. We are witnessing the birth of a new power in the criminal strata of London. Our man was committed the first two outrages. All of the injuries inflicted are consistent, the patterns of the fight show one man taking on several and winning. We see the same thing in the next one. The one after that, several people take on several people and make crude attempts at mimicking the style of the one man. The same is true for the next two, and with the most recent, the style changes again.”

“How so?”

“In the last, a group of men formed a circle around the victims and watched as the victims beat each other.”

Holmes was right, as always. This seemed to indicate a level of barbarity that I had not previously witnessed.

“The pattern is not hard to follow. First he shows his savagery and declares himself a match for any single man in London, then he gains the admiration of those that survive their meeting with him. As his influence grows, he is able to put the blade into the hands of other men and, finally, he has the strength to compel men to kill each other for fear of their fate at his hands. This man is a murderer, and perhaps something worse, but he is no thug.”

“Then he must be stopped!”

“The Police, nor any private client, have not engaged me to do so. Although I have an excellent idea of where to find him.”

And so my friend remained aloof from the madness of this “Joker”, as he clearly styled himself, and it was not until the Joker began leaving letters to the general population, posted in the manner of playbills, at the scene of his crimes, that Holmes once again took an interest.

I was called to the scene by telegram, which was the typically terse “come at once” and an address. I was surprised to see that the address was in Limehouse.

Holmes met me outside a bonded warehouse. Like the rest of the area the building seemed dilapidated and battered, a disguise to conceal the presence of valuable merchandise inside.

“Our man is a chemist” said Holmes. He had been studying marks made on the floor just inside the door. My attention was drawn to the words daubed on the wall. Just two letters, repeated over and over.

“Stylised laughter” said Holmes “He may have chosen to mock the wrong victim. This warehouse is under the protection of The Lord of Strange Deaths and, according to the owner, he has made off with a number of valuable items.”

“He’s seeking funds, then”

“No, Watson. The owner is lying. Based on some residue I found, and a distinctive pattern of discolouration I observed inside, he’s stolen chemical reagents. I believe he’s making explosives.”

As any sensible reader might imagine, the news did not sit well with Inspector Lestrade. The Inspector cornered Holmes on Baker Street to express his annoyance.

“The last thing we need is a war on the streets of London,” snapped Lestrade. Holmes, who had been about to unlock his front door tensed and relaxed.

“A war you already have, Inspector. How else would you describe the casualties? No, Scotland Yard might be better employed in finding out where this Joker intends to use his explosives once he has made them and if he survives The Lord of Strange Deaths.”

“If? Holmes, I’m about as well acquainted with Limehouse as anybody in the Yard and I’m not rightly sure of who you mean. Is there some criminal genius living in Limehouse?”

Holmes leaned against the railings, lost in thought. Lestrade waited, poised for fresh information, and I scraped my boots clean, impatient to be off the street.

“Living in Limehouse? I find it unlikely he lives there, but he has interests there and protects them. In the meantime, ask yourself this. What has this Joker done so far and what might his point be? What message is he trying to send and how might he go about underlining that message? For the moment, Inspector, I must bid you good day. I have another case to attend to.”

With that, Holmes abandoned Lestrade to Baker Street by pushing past me and bounding up the stairs. I exchanged goodbyes with Lestrade, and was barely turning back to the door when Holmes’s voice boomed down the stairs at me, summoning me to go and listen to him think.

We were on another case at the time, which I have recorded and may yet present to the world (assuming Holmes is willing), and had just returned from Hertfordshire having spent the greater part of the preceding three days observing some very strange goings on in the village of Datchworth. Holmes had some very particular thoughts on the matter at hand and was making, by his own account, excellent progress when we were again interrupted by the Police.

Two serious faced officers entered 221b Baker Street, flanking James Monro -then head of the Criminal Investigation Department. Monro, his face partly concealed by a scarf and hat, offered Holmes his hand but my friend was not inclined to take it. He faced the window looking out onto Baker Street as Monro asked him to join the efforts of Scotland Yard in tracking down and apprehending the Joker. Holmes remained silent for several minutes and finally, with turning around, sighed.

“Assistant Commissioner, I fail to see how I can be of more help than Special Branch. You have access to the same information as I, yet you are telling me that not one man in Scotland Yard can hazard a guess at where the Joker will strike next? Is it not obvious?”

Monro bridled at this.

“Mister Holmes,” he snapped “your previous service to the Police is, of course, remembered and it is your great skill that we need now. London is a storehouse of tempting targets for a man as agreeable to violent conduct as the Joker. We cannot guard them all, nor do we have the resources to investigate every possible lead. Any assistance you can give us in deploying our resources will be gratefully received.”

The controlled fury in his voice was a thing of some concern to me. Whether Holmes knew it or not, James Monro was likely the single most powerful Policeman in England.

“Very well!” said Holmes, snapping back at Monro like a whip “I shall tell you what I know, or have guessed. Firstly, you will confirm for me that the body of Joseph Cohen, an American financier with ties to the Fenian movement, is currently gracing a slab in a Cheapside mortuary?”

Monro stared.

“That is the case” he said. “He was found…”

“Early this morning” said Holmes “at his rented rooms. He appears to have asphyxiated, does he not? Of particular note is the grin the corpse was found wearing.” Holmes waved away Monro’s next question “I am in the business of knowing when strange things happen in this city, Assistant Commissioner, and you must agree that Cohen’s death was most strange. Of course, he was poisoned.

“You have also recently lost your surveillance on at least one known Fenian. Is this not the case?”

“Yes…” said Monro, and Holmes nodded curtly. Monro seemed aghast that someone outside of his Special Branch might know so much, but then he hadn’t had all that much exposure to Sherlock Holmes.

“I do not, in fact, know this. But I suspected as much as now you have confirmed it. The two events are connected. I believe we will find that the Fenians have made a terrible mistake. One that you may, or may not, have helped them make by seeding this idea in the first place, the better to gather in a greater number of malcontented Irish.

“I believe the Joker will attempt to enact this country’s most famous failed act of terror. Plans are afoot to celebrate Her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee with a service at Westminster Abbey. The Joker obviously plans to blow her up.”

[+]limbodog[S] 0 points1 point2 points 1 day ago (0 children)

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I must admit, it wasn’t obvious to me but once Holmes began to draw the pieces together I could almost see how he had come to the conclusion.

“What I say now will never leave this room,” said Holmes “because it implies a great deal about how the government operates with regard to the eternally vexed question of Ireland, a subject I prefer not to involve myself in. In simple terms, Special Branch set a trap which was supposed to incriminate as many Fenian sympathisers as possible. Your ideas man, however long he has been a part of the movement, was assisted to plan this audacious crime and make it seem all too possible that it could succeed. A symbol of English rule like Westminster Abbey, the presence of Her Majesty and almost all the Cabinet – how could they resist? Of course your man reported back to you their every move, but recently something went wrong. Your organiser has disappeared, the money man who was to provide funds and a channel to bring American dynamite into the country vanishes and the Fenians are forced to turn to a man who, it appears, can furnish their every need.

“A man they do not fully understand. Instead of assisting them, they find him entirely ruthless and utterly without conscience. By the time they realise that they will not survive the day of the explosion, it’s far too late.

“The Joker sees this as his opportunity to seed complete chaos, not only in England but across the Empire. While this country is in turmoil, I have no doubt that rebellious factions in every colony will seize the opportunity to light similar fires in every nation where the Union Flag flies.

“Imagine it, Assistant Commissioner. A world in flames, with one man responsible.”

Silence descended on 221b Baker Street.

“He’s got to be stopped…” I heard myself say.

Holmes smiled.

“Easily,” he said “Give me Lestrade and a twenty officers and we can have him wrapped up prettily for you. Of course, if we fail then in years to come children will sing rhymes about the 20th of June instead of the 5th of November.”

Holmes and I stood in Parliament Square, watching plain clothes policemen move amongst the crowd.

“He’ll be watching” said Holmes.

“We’ll collar him” said Lestrade, confident.

“We’ll have to, ” said Holmes “because he’s not one to leave things to chance. If he can, he’ll set off the explosion himself. But for the moment, he won’t stint himself. He’ll want the best seat in the house for this event. Watson, where would you go for entertainment on a day like today?”

“The Royal Aquarium” I said, without hesitating. Holmes grinned fiercely at me.

“Indeed,” he said “the Royal Aquarium. Shall we make our way there?”

The Royal Aquarium is often known as “the Tank” or simply “the Aq” and stands opposite the Abbey and within sight of Parliament. The impressive Portland stone faced frontage has a number of balconies or areas where a man might stand, hidden from sight, while yet afforded a clear view of everything going on in the area. In one such alcove I fancied I caught a flash of purple.

“That’s him” said Holmes, pointing out the vantage point with his cane, and then he was off at a sprint with Lestrade hard on his heels.

For all his lassitudes when boredom overtakes him, Holmes is a Greyhound of a man when speed is called for and even Lestrade’s rodent speed could barely keep up with him. I, many degrees slower, did my best not to lose sight of the pair but I caught them at the door. Lestrade had, from somewhere, conjured a brace of uniformed constables and together we sought out entry to the Joker’s perch.

I have remarked before about the remarkable gaps in my friend’s knowledge, where he has simply felt no need to retain a piece of information that other people would find it inconceivable a man so intelligent would not know it. More frequently remarkable is his tendency to know things that the ordinary man in the street would never dream of having memorised. In this case, the interior layout of the Royal Aquarium was as well known to him as the interior of 221b Baker Street and I later discovered he has a number of public buildings memorised in this manner. Holmes led us up narrow and hidden staircases and into one of the towers standing either side of the great curved glass roof. It was there, with the police spilling into the space behind us, that we first beheld the madman.

“Aw, you brought friends” he said, sounding both disappointed and put out at the same time.

He was clad in a purple frock coat, with elegant pale purple gloves on his hands and a purple top hat with green band about it sitting on his head at a rakish angle. At first I thought his face unnaturally pale, his eyes ringed with black as if he had never had a night’s sleep in his life. Of course, this was theatrical makeup but the effect was unnerving to say the least. These details paled beside his smile, and the scars that flanked it, and the red makeup that he had used to highlight this gruesome injury.

Holmes and I have seen such scars before. Years before we had occasion to rely on the service of “Laughing” Jack Belknap who has been similarly marked because he had given the Police information on a series of housebreakings later attributed to the Chelsea Headhunters.

In one hand he was holding a cylinder of metal topped with a small box. He noticed my attention and swept off his hat, bowing. His theatricality cost him dearly, because Holmes took the opportunity to knock the box from his hand by bringing his cane down on the Joker’s wrist, at which point the Police officers tackled the Joker to the floor and, had Lestrade not been there to see that the prisoner was not mistreated, I’m sure they would have taken the opportunity to injure him further. After Lestrade had broken up the scuffle, the Joker shot Holmes a look of pure venom, which my friend did not notice.

The Joker spoke only once more that day. As he was being dragged away he caught Holmes’s eye and gave him a sour grin.

“You’re no fun” he said.

Once Lestrade and the Police were off the roof, Holmes showed me the object the Joker had been holding.

“I believe he intended to detonate his bomb with this,” said Holmes “although quite how, I cannot say. As you see, the device is not connected to anything. I had hoped that the Joker might prove to be an interesting opponent, but it seems he is as mundane in his methods as he is outlandish in his appearance. He may also be insane.”

He paused for a moment and looked out over London.

“I would venture that, when interrogated, he makes a number of fanciful claims that he is largely unable to substantiate. It would be reassured if you were to look in on him and make recommendations to the Yard. There is another Doctor I might consult with…a scientific fellow who has friends on Paternoster Street. He strikes me as being a Doctor who might fathom the possible purpose of this device. Outside that, I see no need to involve myself further.”

Holmes was as good as his word. A day or so later he handed me the “detonator” and disassembled it before me. It was just an empty casing.

“A fantasist” said Holmes, and that was the last he spoke of the case.

But it was not the end of my involvement.

I saw the Joker on two occasions following this. The first, at the behest fo Sherlock Holmes, was to make my recommendations to the Yard. I found the villain chained to a desk in a small interview room.

“I don’t need a doctor” he said.

“I’m simply here to ensure that you’re fairly treated” I said. He seemed unconvinced.

“He sent the sidekick” he said “it’s humiliating, that’s what it is. Oh, well, never mind. They’ll put me in some hellhole of a prison to rot away my days.”

“They’ll hang you” I said. “Members of your gang have agreed to provide evidence to the Crown in order for leniency, and according to Insepctor Lestrade they have enough to make certain you’ll get the rope.”

“You don’t hang people” he said, shrugging it off.

“Perhaps not at the Tyburn, these days, but we certainly do in Newgate Prison.”

There was something in his eyes, then, which made me think he’d finally started to listen. It wasn’t fear. It was the same look I have seen in the eyes of some soldiers who, faced with horror or certain death, become something akin to horror themselves. It is the look of a man prepared to do anything to prolong life. The Joker had it then.

“We’ll see” he said, and though I questioned him for some minutes he did not speak further.

The second time I saw him was much later. Months later, I think. I had occasion to consult a colleague who, at the time, was working in the Bethlehem Hospital. Holmes and I were dealing with a type of brain injury I had never seen before, but I knew Dr. William Hope as one of the best men for brain injuries in Britain. We consulted, then talked at length as doctors often do. Finally he said

“We’ve an old patient of yours in here, John. Would you like to see him?” I agreed immediately, wondering how one of my patients might have been so unlucky to end up in Bedlam, and was taken to a cell. At first I didn’t see him. He was slumped in a corner, apparently oblivious to the world. He had been stripped of his makeup, of course, and his hair was mid brown and had apparently been cut by a butcher using a cleaver.

“We had to shave his head before the surgery, of course” said William.

“What surgery?” I asked.

The patient, as William Hope referred to him, had been sent to Newgate to await trial and made at least two attempts to escape. One was thwarted by prison staff. The other ended when he was found in an alley some hundred yards from the prison, comatose.

“We never did understand what happened to him, but the patient insisted he had been drugged by some fearsome six foot tall Chinaman dressed as a golden mandarin. Or somesuch nonsense.

“It was then that he made his confession. According to the notes that we were given, he insisted he was from the future and ordinarily resident in a place called Gotham. We understand that to be a pseudonym for New York City, but he seems to feel it is somewhere else. He populated this Gotham with a veritable feast of strange characters, none of which – of course – had travelled with him. He claimed that men could fly, unsupported by any device, and that there were people from other worlds living among the population.

“When he was not believed, he attempted to start a riot but very few of the other prisoners would support him and it was quickly supressed. Then there was an incident with another prisoner, and the patient thereafter became uncontrollable. That’s when he was brought here.

“We tried hydrotherapy among other methods and nothing really worked. He would go through periods of quiet and co-operation only to snap or take the most appalling action against staff or fellow patients alike. In the end, we opted for a surgical method of calming his excesses.”

I watched the slumped figure for some time. He did not move, or speak, and although pallid barely resembled the man we had briefly crossed swords with before. When I mentioned this to Holmes, he seemed a little moved.

“One day, Watson, surgery may advance and may be of use in honestly calming tormented minds. At the moment, such surgeries are little more than barbarity.”

“And the Joker?” I asked because I wanted to know whether my friend felt that the violent madman who had intended to kill the Queen and throw the Empire into turmoil deserved such an ending.

For a moment, Holmes appeared suddenly melancholy.

“Whether he really was from the future, or simply America, or even some fantastical lost plateau, it didn’t prepare him for us, Watson. Not for London.”

Writing Prompt: “Curse you, Space Witches! You may have foiled my plans, but you haven’t heard the last of Arch-Emperor Zatagong!”

Andy hit backspace a couple of times and removed the extra exclamation marks, hit Save and exported the whole project to a manuscript format. Within a few minutes, it was on the way to the publisher.

A twenty book contract had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Seven books in, he was more or less convinced he’d signed up for slow mental suicide and the worst of it was, the bloody books were flying off the shelves. Volume 7, “Peril at Perihelion”, was already being pre-ordered on Amazon. Accordingt to the publisher, there were legions of pre-and teenage girls out there who wanted more than anything to be Space Witches (and series heroine Nikolaze in particular). He wondered sometimes why he’d bothered with the degree and Masters in Literature. He wondered why he allowed himself to be entranced by the great Romances. So did his wife, usually becauise he was having a Monday and bemoaning his fate.

He stood, ignoring the creaks in his knees, and stretched. His workspace was wallpapered in books, edge to edge battered paperback spines with titles from the classical to the lurid, wombing him in his own reading history from the year before college to now.

There wasn’t a book in the rest of the house. The madness had to be contained somehow.

He shuffled into the kitchen and put the kettle on, blinking at the bright lighting and enjoying the silence. He checked the calender. He checked it again. Early. He’d finished a week early.

As the kettle rattled and bubbled, Andy walked slowly around the kitchen and ticked off tasks on his fingers. Peril at Perihelion revised, corrected and off to the publisher. Sarah was at her parents for another three days, the dog was with her and he had no pressing or urgent reasons to be anywhere. He smiled, and made himself a cup of tea.

The Book was always waiting. He’d been writing it since the last year of college, the fictionalised life of Nicola de la Haye, and in that time it had gone through many incarnations. Currently, it was a romance. A love story. Andy was pleased with it, because it had themes – the first time he’d ever written something with a theme (although there was some danger that the “On Solar Winds” series featuring the heroic Space Witches might end up with theme music, if his agent was to be beleived).

He could spend time on The Book.

He would spend time on The Book.

He turned on his phone, cleared out the invitations to buy two pizzas for the price of one on any given Tuesday, and sent Sarah a quick text celebrating the release of the latest magnum opus. Then he shuffled back to the office and opened up The Book.

He found himself scrolling through pages, impatient and irritated. Where normally he’d slipped into the book’s narrative like a weary man into a warm bath, every line of dialogue he’d given Nicola seemed to simper like the imperilled heroine of a penny dreadful instead of the powerful and charismatic castellan of Lincoln Castle.

Andy sat back, sipped tea and imagined her during the last siege in 1217. Nicola had been master of Loncoln and loyal to the King during an invasion by the French. Surrounded and besieged, she would have taken her turn on the walls, looking for signs of enemy activity, taking her chances with the ordinary troops, her ebon plasmatic battle armour reflecting nothing by the actinic glare of her plasmaglaive…

He stopped and put the tea down. Arch-Emperor Zatagong had no place behind the walls at Lincoln Fair. For one thing, he’d have sided with the French (only to betray them at the last moment, naturally…Zatagong would have held back his forces until the arrival of William Marshall and then either committed them to join in Marshall’s infantry charge or withdrawn completely leaving de Gant’s forces to be crushed, and then claimed it was his plan all along).

No, Nicola de la Haye was clearly more Space Witch material. She was intelligent, firece in a fight, loyal and brave.

He saved The Book and opened a blank project.

After a few minutes, he titled it “Vengeance on Venus” and started typing.

“So, Arch Emporer Zatagong! We meet again! Did you really think we’d let your latest scheme progress unchallenged?”

Yeah. That was more like it.

 

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