Published April 2016 (Second Place, Writing Magazine competition)
Short Story: 'The Thief of Time'
The firelight lay heavily on my eyelids when the hammering came at the front door. I didn't immediately react; I am a young man but I take my rest seriously. However, the disturbance continued and I roused myself reluctantly.
It was one of the porters from the British Museum: a short, jowly man named Bellows.
“It’s Mr Sinclair,” he gasped, winded. The venerable Assistant Curator of Insects was his favourite and ever since Sinclair's fever Bellows had stood sentry over him as if vigilance was an antidote for fate's capriciousness.
“He's mad, sir! Mr Sinclair has gone mad!” he wheezed. “Will you come, sir? Will you come?”
Jerome Sinclair had been my friend for nearly a decade: of course I would come.
Bellows' carriage hurtled through the midnight streets indecently fast. What could have befallen Jerome? The horse's hooves beat an urgent tattoo against the cobbles. A relapse of his fever? Apoplexy from overexertion?
The carriage eventually slid to a halt in front of the South Kensington museum. Why was the old fool still working at this hour? I had warned him time and again that he needed rest, perhaps even retirement, but his mind was as stubborn as his body was frail.
“You can't live life with one eye on the Pit,” he'd winked, consuming an indecent amount of whiskey over cards one night.
Bellows had raced on ahead and waited between two prehistoric skeletons flanking a discreet oak door. The porter was ashen and sweating; Sinclair must indeed be seriously ill.
Was it the whiskey? Those horrible cigars? He was inordinately fond of both, despite my advice to the contrary. At home, the hours weighed too heavily on him and he partook of his vices too easily: an empty house lacked the distractions of his beloved museum.
Bellows moved to open the door, but I gripped his meaty shoulder.
“Is it the fever again? Speak plainly Mr Bellows,” I implored him.
He dabbed at his mighty head with a damp handkerchief.
“I cannot say sir,” he muttered thickly. “A bad business. A bad business indeed. He is very excitable, pointing at the shadows and blaspheming! I tried calming him but he became even wilder: it must be a brain illness sir. It must!”
It struck me that Bellows felt the same obsessive custody for the Museum’s curators as they did for their specimens. This illness of Sinclair’s was a personal affront to him, as if a unique fossil was crumbling away through inattention.
He opened the door, agitated. The corridor beyond was lit by gas lanterns and lined with dark panes of frosted glass set in closed doors. The furthest door was ajar: dim light and the sound of anxious breathing escaped.
“Where is it?” came a frightened whisper, almost a sob.
“Jerome…” I called softly as I entered. “How are you, old chap?”
It was as I had feared: he stood at his desk, clutching at it like a drowning man at driftwood. His watery eyes protruded in fear; his veins bulged from his neck; his white hair was stuck messily to his forehead with sweat.
No, not fever. A powerful shock.
“Where is it?” he whispered, gesturing at the only other pool of light in the room.
I squinted into the crowded shadows. A gas lamp illuminated a display cupboard with a drawer protruding from it.
Crossing to it, I saw that it was nearly empty, except for a specimen card inked with an incomprehensible Latin name and a vacant depression behind it.
“Jerome, old man,” I said reassuringly, returning to his side. “Please don’t worry; you’ll have mislaid it somewhere. Bellows and I will help you find it and then we’ll all have a snifter of brandy.”
“No!” he shouted, gripping the desk so tightly that I thought his knuckles would split his skin.
Bellows wrung his hands anxiously; his bottom lip trembled. I reached for Sinclair’s twitching shoulder. Had prolonged overwork and anxiety over this missing specimen led to this extreme mental fatigue?
“There it is!” he shouted hoarsely, violently pulling away from my hand.
A serrated, spindly leg reached into the light with deliberate purpose. It was ink black and over an inch long, suggesting that it belonged to some beetle of considerable size with an abdomen perhaps several inches long.
“Good god man!” I exclaimed in revulsion. “What is that thing?”
The grotesque leg edged into the light, growing longer and longer until, horrifyingly, an arachnid knee joint slid from the darkness. It was vastly bigger than I’d originally estimated.
“Choresine rapere…the Thief Beetle!” Sinclair gasped. “Coming for me!”
The curve of a huge shell slunk into view, glinting in the darkness. It was not the missing specimen from the drawer: it was far too large. It was grotesque; an abomination; a horror. Two luminous orbs, like impossibly distant nebulae, fixed an unwavering gaze on us.
Terrified, Sinclair collapsed into his chair, clutching at his chest.
“Jerome!” I cried, rushing to his side. The dark mass surged forwards, traversing the pool of light so quickly that I only glimpsed the glint of razor-sharp mandibles.
Sinclair jerked upright, throat gulping spasmodically.
“Fine,” he gasped, smoothing down his shirt. “I’m fine.”
The beetle slowed again, but those terrible eyes were much closer than they had been before. This stress would be quickly fatal for my friend I realised; we needed to leave now.
“Jerome…” I said, patting his shoulder with one eye on the creature. “Let’s get you home. Bellows, my dear chap, deal with that….thing.”
Bellows blanched with fear but held his nerve, seizing a heavy book and advancing slowly on the glowing orbs.
“For God’s sake man, don’t get any closer! Just throw it!” I called, pulling Sinclair’s limp frame upright and laying his bony arm across my shoulders.
Bellows threw the book with the practised arm of a retired sportsman. The arc it followed was true, but it passed straight between the glowing eyes and thumped into the floor without ever connecting.
We stared at each other in mute shock until Bellows, recovering his wits, hoisted Sinclair’s other arm over his own shoulder and together we began to drag our friend towards the door.
The ghastly beetle followed us: never increasing its distance, never pausing. The dreadful click of its legs on the floor chased us down the corridor.
“Faster, man! Faster!” I urged Bellows, but the portly man's face turning purple from exertion.
I noticed that the creature had now gained on us: only a handful of metres away when we dragged Sinclair through the door and slammed it shut behind us.
I lowered a limp Sinclair gently to the floor and loosened my top button in consternation; Bellows collapsed wheezing against the wall. What the hell was that thing?
I returned to the door and lay my ear against it. Silence.
Bellows must have missed his throw. It was dark enough that even a bowler of his prodigious skill would have struggled to achieve a hit. It must have passed by the beast, rather than through it. No matter: somebody else could deal with that horror in the morning. I had my friend to tend to. He had suffered a serious shock, but now he was safe.
A spindly leg reached out of the darkness between the fossils flanking the door and two soft green eyes swam into view.
“Save me!” Sinclair shrieked, struggling to his feet.
Those dreadful compound eyes, lit with ethereal fire, never shifted their gaze from my friend. He staggered away and the monster chased, decreasing its distance with each wild step he took forwards.
I pursued them, but Bellows struggled up too slowly: he was winded beyond utility.
Sinclair had already crossed the pavement before I got out of the museum; he was already beyond my help.
The road was busy for such a late hour: carriages crossed this way and that at speed. Sinclair dodged the first one as it splashed through a puddle and clutched his chest in pain at the exertion. The beetle squealed in gleeful anticipation; he turned his head to stare at the scuttling horror at his heels. The wheels of the carriage paused straight through the beetle; neither paused.
Distracted, he ran straight under the horses of the next carriage. As his thin body was mangled, the beetle leapt and bit deep into his calf with a nightmare trill of exaltation.
Bellows stood at my elbow, eyes wetting with loss.
“Merciful god,” he gasped. “Mr Sinclair...”
Even though the gathering crowd, I could tell that the creature had vanished and he had no wound on his calf.
The evening had been too much for the sturdy Mr Bellows and he collapsed to his knees.
“If only I were a younger man, eh?” he wheezed. “If only I were a younger man...”
A jointed leg eased out of nearby shadows and gently touched the floor with a click. Those two ghastly globes of burning marsh gas eased into view, the gaze fixed squarely on Mr Bellows. Slowly, under our terrified gazes, it advanced slowly.
Mr Bellows, stout and dependable Mr Bellows, struggled to his feet once more.
“I don't understand, sir,” he spluttered. “I don't understand.”
With that, he took off desperately and vanished into the night, the Thief beetle following close behind. Bellows hoped that through strenuous exertion he could escape death, but it only brought his end closer. Soon, it would catch him and bite into that flabby leg. That would be that.
I have my own pursuer, as do we all if only we could see. Mine is far away, but it will, even now, be advancing one slow step at a time. I could watch for it, I could try to run, but it will only steal away my hours and minutes until it inevitably strikes. I will enjoy the time I have left and never give it a moment's contemplation ever again.
Still, I wake most nights expecting to see those awful eyes staring into my own and those razor mandibles around my throat. I never sleep as soundly as I used to.
Michael Chapman informs us that he's been reading a lot of Golden Age sci-fi, and his second-placed story 'The Thief of Time' is a terrific homage to the pulp writing of a former age. The clue to its success is in the word 'homage' rather than 'pastiche': Mike has written a fabulous, fast-paced adventure set in a recognisably archaic world that has great appeal for contemporary readers because it's been written with great affection and intelligent attention to detail.
'The Thief of Time' is note-perfect, the dialogue is spot-on, the period atmosphere delightfully conjured and there isn't a superfluous word - Mike has packed a lot of story into approximately 1,700 words. There are only three characters, and each commendably fulfils the part Mike wants them to play. The narrator is well-meaning but wide-eyed and slightly pompous. Bellows the retainer, a former sportsman, is the vehicle for broad humour and pathos. Sinclair, around whom the story turns, is the archetypal eccentric academic, tipped over the edge by an alarming discovery. As for the monster, the giant beetle is perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere of Mike's antiquated museum, but sufficiently horrible for modern readers to go 'ewww'. The reader is spared nothing as the ghastly thing does its worst to poor deranged Sinclair, and Mike handles the ending with dramatic aplomb – it may be OTT in the style of pulp fiction, but it's highly effective, and hugely entertaining.