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Tristan Merryweather: Cheltenham's Finest Supernatural Detective

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The Brag of Gold





































Tristan Merryweather: Cheltenham's Finest Supernatural Detective



The Brag of Gold



I



I awoke just past noon, stirred by the sharp knock-knock-knocking upon my door.

I didn’t make a habit out of sleeping until this hour. I wasn’t, after all, 21 anymore. On my recently-passed 34th, I had awoken with the dawn and been back in bed by 10; age robs from one long days and late nights.

The flat was a mess, as per usual. My housekeeper had not visited now for some weeks, lapse in her duties, though understandably. For a few weeks she had cleaned without pay on good faith, now though she would not rear her head until a guarantee of imbursement could be made. And until, it should be said; my outstanding debt to her was cleared. It was a sorry state of affairs, to be in debt to a housekeeper. More complicated men than I would have loan-sharks and bailiffs sniffing about their wallets, but I’ve a middle-aged fusspot about mine.

And so, I clambered across the detritus that littered my studio space. My desk, now buried beneath forms and papers some feet thick, was buckling in the legs and threatening also to refuse working. A sofa, a single seat clear, faced a television with a cracked and slanted stand. All about there were piled books, some fiction, some non-, all well-thumbed and a dozen times read. My maisonette kitchen, squeezed up against one wall as though attempting to retreat from the rest of the room’s nonsense, was at least relatively spotless. I kept my standards even when others were lowering theirs about me. I left the bed, wedged in its alcove, unmade.

The man knocking upon my door (he had repeated his initial introduction thrice-over by the time that I reached him) was short and a little rotund. He was bald to boot, slim glasses balanced upon the edge of his round nose. He was, I must note, for it is devilishly unfair to talk a man down so, impeccably dressed in sharp, pressed suit. I opened the door to him wearing just my pyjama bottoms and stood there for a moment attempting to weigh him up. His demeanour - haughty, cautious, and aware - made it clear that he came from either privilege or had achieved it. He was clearly ill-at-ease being in such a place, regarding such a man as I. He was not a corporately made man. He was too short, and a touch too overweight to be considered a high-flyer. His suit was well put together but not so expensive that his job was astronomically paying, neither was it the sort of job whose position demanded the very best. There were cat hairs on his leg, but they were from Jasper who lived downstairs. The man did not own a cat, he was not the sort. He was unmarried as well, his job I assumed taking up too much of his time for him to concern himself with keeping anything alive (in the case of a cat) or fulfilled (in the case of a wife).

‘Good mor... afternoon.’ I scratched at stubble some days grown. ‘You’ve the look of a bailiff about you, or a half-expensive lawyer. Is my housekeeper suing?’ It was not an unreasonable question; her husband was an insurance agent.

‘No... sir,’ he took a good long second weighing up my title. I was a sir to men of business, even if I’d done little to achieve the formality. ‘I’m neither of those things. May I, may I come in?’

He didn’t want to, and if truth be told I didn’t want to let him, but I moved aside and welcomed this Jason Alexander-esque form into my slowly dwindling comfort. He took a look about, decided against sitting upon my single clear seat, and stood in the centre.

‘I do hope that you’re a client,’ I sighed, not holding out much hope that that would be the case. ‘You’re quite overdressed compared to what I’m used to though, I must say. Can I fetch you tea? I should have a clean mug available.’

‘That’s quite all right, Mr. Merryweather, I will not be staying.’

Unsure of whether there was a clean mug available or a spare one at all, I crossed to the kitchen and flicked the kettle to bubbling life. ‘Ah, you know my name then? Should I assume also that you know my profession, mister-?’

‘Higgins, Bullen Higgins. I have been made vaguely aware of your profession, shall we say.’

I smiled. ‘I sense from your tone that you do not hold it in high esteem, sir.’

‘My employer is prone to his... eccentricities shall we say, and he is quite convinced of the need for your... unique services.’

He was a middle-man then. I disliked this sort, for they were never quite clued in enough to have all pertinent information, and were never so desperately in need themselves to explain their situations fully. I poured water into a stained mug. ‘And who is your employer, if I may ask? If he has need of me, he could have come himself.’

‘He would not, he does not...’ Higgins sighed, unable clearly to say that his employer would surely not debase himself to visit such a place himself. ‘That is to say, he was rather too busy to visit himself. I am his personal assistant.’

‘Personal assistant?’ Drop of milk, two sugars with a dash extra for luck and rotten teeth. ‘You’ve not the look of one, sir, quite unexpected indeed. And so, you are Bullen Higgins, and your employer is?’

‘Jasper Delaney.’ Higgins paused for effect, but it pains me to say that I had not the foggiest notion of this gentleman, and so Higgins had to explain. In rather exasperated tone he managed. ‘The breeder, sir! The champion breeder and trainer, the toast of Charlton Kings! Surely, sir, you’re a born and bred Cheltonian, are you not? You must have some notion of Mr. Delaney’s achievements!’

‘A breeder and trainer of horses?’ This was met with an eye roll that I’m sure Higgins thought I did not notice. ‘I’ve no interest in the sport, and have therefore no knowledge those behind those fine beasts. What issue is it that Mr. Delaney requires my assistance with?’

‘He will tell you himself! You are to meet him this afternoon at his estate in Charlton Kings.’

I sipped my tea and asked the most obvious of questions: ‘Would not a phone-call or email have sufficed?’

‘Your phone line rang and rang, sir, and our half-dozen emails went unanswered!’

I performed a swift optical hunt for my laptop and, unable to locate it, assumed that I had not touched it in some time. My phone was set up with an older, more commonly used, email address, and had replaced my laptop for my internet-surfing needs. The phone, however, was somewhere on the sofa. I had spoken to my old mum just the evening before, and it was likely that some folder or book had knocked it to ring on silent. Still, had Higgins not come a-knocking when he did I may have slept right into the uncharted waters of between two and three pm, and I was therefore a little thankful.

‘Well, well, is that so? I can only apologise to yourself, who I assumed drafted the emails, and to our friends in GCHQ who were surely spying upon your unanswered calls with baited breath. Now, you say I am to meet your employer? Very well, very well!’ I was actually rather desperate to meet this Delaney. I had not worked in some time, and jobs were few and far between. Most were performed for the hippy-dippy lot who paid in spiritual advancement and philosophical advice. This king of Charlton Kings may just provide me with the needs to pay off my poor housekeeper, and that was awfully important indeed.



II



Charlton Kings, for those not in the know of South Gloucestershire geography, is a suburb just south-east of Cheltenham. While it is its own parish, it is in truth a minor extension of the town itself. It is home to rather splendid buildings in the Tudor fashion, and to sweeping views about the grand Cotswold countryside it sits upon the edge of. Charlton means in the old tongue a landowner’s enclosure, while the Kings was added some time after the establishment of a Royal Manor in Cheltenham, back when the term hundred was still used to mean ward. It is quite likely also that Charlton Kings has itself existed for longer than Cheltenham proper. There are houses of thatch and timber in the Kings that are quite absent amongst the regency of the town, and Cheltenham was once nothing more than a single street and market. What a stroke of luck it was that the great spa waters were discovered beneath our fabled township, for now she is as striking and glorious a place as one is ever likely to visit! Living here as its own complications, it must be said. I think that I’d rather enjoy it were I a passing tourist rather than permanent resident.

Up I was in Charlton Kings for this visit with our established stranger, Mr. Delaney. I was dressed not in fashion in black satin waistcoat and grey jeans. I attempted not to look my foppish self, but without the time for neither haircut nor shave, I still appeared quite dandy. My locks fluttered in a spring breeze as I strolled up London Road with its trees either side, and I then took the left path when the road forked about the Holy Apostles church. Charlton Kings's high street is a modest set of whitewash independents and pubs, the most notable of which being the London Inn. Adorned as usual in hanging baskets planted with colour, it beckoned as I passed with promises of strong ale and lively company. Resisting this temptation (for professional and financial concerns) I continued all through the village until I was out the other side. I did drive, it should be mentioned, but Joan (my darling '81 Datsun Cherry, named for Joan Baez) was currently short on fuel and I short on the funds to quench her thirst.

Up out of Charlton Kings I came upon a large and imposing house, the last before one reached the open countryside in earnest. Set behind brick walls and iron gates, it called to mind the gaudy modern-cum-classic style that so many millionaires with small imaginations conjured up. Making a note in my mind to keep this opinion well seated, I was admitted through the gates by way of intercom, and made my way up the gravel drive. The house itself was as I expected: being in that it was a standard construction of four walls and a roof. The only notable aspect was its size, being large enough I imagined for a dozen nuclear families. I'd always had the picture in my mind of breeders living in great country manors with thatched roofs and timber detailing. Mr. Delaney was clearly a more modern man. I expected, based just on his architectural tastes, that he had come from a simple and common background before striking rich.

Mr. Delaney met with me in one of his living rooms. As impressive yet uninspiring as the outside, the interior of the house was all made up in bridal white. From leather sofas to plush carpets, my eyes stung in the way that they would looking upon fresh snow under clear skies. The man himself was taller than I, and held himself in a way that made his physical prowess clear to those that looked upon him. He wore a black suit without tie, which spoke both of a certain casualness and a lack of formal regard towards yours truly. His cufflinks were two red robins, the symbol of our town's football club, further intensifying my view that he was a common man at heart. His concern for physical strength beyond just normal levels of fitness contributed likewise. Men of intellect and good breed rarely concerned themselves with such things, preferring instead to ensure that their brains were the most well developed part of their bodies. Not that I am above such distractions, not at all, but I do not hold a particularly strong emotion bond with any sporting team, though I will rarely say no to an afternoon spent watching the tennis over a glass of white. Mr. Delaney was a little simpler than to develop his own mind, I thought. A bookshelf tucked into one corner was heavy with books on horses and all manner of related subjects, but this was professionally understandable.

A rich Gloucestershire accent rounded out this first impression. Reeling from a handshake too hard to have not been purposefully imposing, I stammered a tentative, 'Mr. Delaney? A pleasure.'

'Likewise, Mr. Merryweather. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, my assistant did try to contact you earlier in the week.'

'He told me,' I sighed. 'I can only apologise. Is the need that desperate? I assume that you know what it is that I do?'

'You were recommended by a friend of a friend, being as you are, she tells me, the only detective of the supernatural in Cheltenham. I put little stock in such non-, such things myself, but I thought it would do little harm.'

'I rarely do harm, Mr. Delaney, as little as I can help it.'

'Sit, please. Do you get much work, Mr. Merryweather? I can't possibly imagine there being a constant demand for your services.'

I sat, and then insisted on being called by my first name. In our dark hues Delaney and I were the only things in the room that did not match; it was a strange feeling, being so out of place. 'I'm sure that you'd be surprised. Most of my work it must be said is done on Cheltenham's periphery. I am often called to Stroud, for example. You know how people are there, sir, much more superstitious and willing to believe things that others may not be. The issue is that they rarely pay in anything other than hand-woven hemp and loose change.'

'Well, let me tell you, if this problem of mine can be solved by you, Tristan, I will pay considerably more handsomely than that. I have had several professionals out already, but none believe me when I relay the issue to them. My doctor suggested that I may be suffering anxiety as a result of the upcoming festival, the nerve of the man!'

I made another note: to not doubt Mr. Delaney's mental fortitude. 'What is this problem, if I may ask? I should after all be told before I can deem whether my services will be required.'

Delaney frowned. He was a handsome man, that much was clear. Attractive in a brutish, almost thuggish sort of way, but without the look of a man that had had to physically fight to get to where he was. He was balding but was too rich and powerful to concern himself with attempting to hide it, instead shaving the crown of his head and allowing his greying hair to continue in strips alongside it. There was a scar over one of his thin eyebrows, but it could have come from a horse's kick rather than an assailant's fist.

'It would be easier to show you, I think,' he said, rubbing his slabs we humans call hands together.



A short time later I found myself riding shotgun in a Land Rover as Delaney tore down a country track. We had left the road and were now hurtling through the open countryside with bushes passing by on either side. I assumed that Delaney was taking me to his horses, rather than his problem being in fact his insatiable need to kill.

His complex was not as state-of-the-art as I had been expecting. A good dozen acres of fields revealed themselves as we crested a rise in the track, and those fields were manicured and divided into a series of spacious paddocks. The stable building was clearly a new build, but it was not so fancy that the general muck and stench of a normal horse's abode eluded it. There were other buildings too, arranged in a complex about which swarmed a host of helpers and assistants in jodhpurs and wellington boots. I appreciated at least the effect that jodhpurs had on the few present young ladies' bottoms, but I was nothing if not a professional and kept my eyes firmly affixed on the more mundane surroundings.

We stood at a fence and watched a few of Delaney's horses prance about one of the paddocks. They were quite magnificent. Tall and proud, each looked as well built as their owner. A mare trotted by with perfect form, clearly showing off to this layman newcomer.

'They are quite impressive animals,' I said. 'Have you won many competitions, sir?'

'Yes,' Delaney replied. He had the same tone of voice that Higgins had had, suggesting that I should have known such things and that my question was a stupid one. 'Blackjack over there,' he pointed to a lean stallion, tan on brown, 'won last year's Champion Hurdle. And this mare here,' pointing to the one that had pranced by us, 'is an up-and-comer. She triumphed in the Mare's Novice, and I hope that she will have continued success. Of course, my horses have raced elsewhere. Galileo's Telescope placed top-six at the National, while Chinook has paid back his breeding fees at Ascot.'

'So it is not an issue of your horse's health then,' I suggested. 'They all seem to be in fine spirits. Would you mind awfully showing me the issue, if you are able to do so?'

'We must wait,' Delaney said. 'It will not be long.'

And so we waited. And then we waited a little while longer. Not being a particular fan of horse-racing or particularly knowledgeable on the science behind it, I was growing a little bored when at last Delaney pointed out into the fields. 'There!' He exclaimed, interrupting a daydream that I had been having involving jodhpurs. 'That stallion there, do you see him?'

I shielded my eyes and looked outward. The paddocks dipped over a slight crest a little ways off, and coming over that now was another strong and proud-looking horse. I nodded. 'I see him, sir.'

'Did you see him before, though? Look at his markings, they are quite striking.'

Delaney was correct. The stallion was jet black but for a single white line that travelled all of the way along his spine. His eyes too were surrounded by white, giving him a rather haunting quality. 'I agree, sir, they are. Now that you mention it, I've not seen him before.'

'That is because he is not out in the fields!' Delaney snapped, gripping the fence so hard I thought it may snap like a twig. 'That is Nelson's Peak! He is currently being kept indoors after he developed a sore upon one leg! This is not the first time, either! My staff have reported to me on several occasions seeing a horse in the field, only to find them seconds later in their stables, or in another paddock! That, Tristan, is a shape-shifting horse!'

I frowned and looked out towards the impersonator. It looked like a real horse, and was certainly moving as one would expect. 'Are you quite sure, sir?'

'I am certain! You see now why my doctors have accused me of mental illness, but it is not just me that's seen him.'

As I watched, Nelson's Peak turned and trotted back down through his paddock, out of sight. I thought for a good long moment. There were a set of creatures that took the appearance of horses, but further investigation would be required to ascertain if that was the case. It was possible too that Delaney was slightly unhinged, but if others had reported similar experiences, well, that made the whole thing much more believable.

'Tell me, sir,' I started, keeping my tone rather muted as not to betray the sudden excitement that flashed up in me as a fire. 'Are there any bodies of water nearby? It does not have to be a large one, just a good-size natural pond or small lake?'

'None,' Delaney hissed, he clearly now being rather incensed. 'There is a stream a few fields over, but it runs right through without collecting in a pond.'

'And have there been any unusual sightings of people, sir? A new member of staff perhaps who was employed without your knowledge? A volunteer even, perhaps a man or woman who comes on the weekends just to muck out stables. This person would be under the radar, rarely talking to others or even walking about the yard.'

'I employ all of my members of staff personally,' Delaney said, now a little calmer. 'They are all experts in their field with proven track records. Even the ones who just muck out. I have spoken to all of them on several occasions, most of them at length.'

It was not a Kelpie then. Scottish creatures, Kelpies inhabited lochs or pools, often appearing as horses to passer-bys or as humans to others. It was said that, in their human forms, they retained their hooves and were quite devil-like in appearance. Some thought of them as demons, but they were more likely spirits, albeit ones that were said to have a taste for human flesh. However, without a notable body of water in which to conceal themselves in close proximity, they would not make a place their home. Besides, we were a little too south for a Kelpie, even a wandering one or half-breed.

'How about violence, sir?' I asked, keeping still my cards rather close to my chest. With stolen glances I scanned the stables some paces away, watching the few members of staff milling about at their various duties. Did any of them seem to be distracted, perhaps overworked? I may have known precious little about the art of the horse race, but I would have had to have been blind to not know about the upcoming Gold Cup Festival. Such prestigious events would have put pressure and stress upon any and all in the racehorse business, the sort of strain that could quite easily cause one to lose track of reality for a few moments.

'Violence?' Delaney scrunched up his long, wide nose as if it were a sheet of paper. 'No, no, none of that! I run a tight ship here, Merryweather, just what are you trying to imply?'

I held up my hands, defensively. It crossed my mind in that moment that, if he had wished it, Delaney could have most likely crushed my head between his gigantic hands. I'd have been a peanut to his nutcracker, entirely helpless. I swallowed hard. 'I did not mean to imply anything, sir, it was a question, that is all. Do you believe that there is some supernatural force at work?'

'I don't usually go in for such nonsense, but I am more ready to believe that than I am to agree with my doctor. Men of my stature do not lose their minds.'

If only that were true, eh? 'Very good, very good. Many of the strange and wonderful creatures that exist in these parts are prone to a little violence, Mr. Delaney. They may not often commit it themselves, but they are capable of spreading it quite readily.'

'Oh?' Delaney cocked an eyebrow, the one split by the faint scar. 'And what sorts of creatures are those, Merryweather?'

'Oh, sir! What a question to ask!' Now this was the sort of inquiry that inspired one to positively revel in one's accumulated knowledge, if one was so inclined to such arrogances. Being as I am inclined, I flexed my collective intellect on the subject. Just a little. 'There are Imps aplenty. Do you know much about Imps? Those in these parts a little bit more gremlin-like in appearance, and share similar inclinations for mischief. These days, the modern era being what it is, our Imps positively love to indulge themselves in the breaking of machinery. Farmers are often flummoxed by them, sir, often waking of a morn to find their tractors sabotaged! They live on and in Cleeve Hill, in the small caves that run beneath it. I, thankfully, have had little cause to deal with them in recent years, but they rear their sweet pointed noses from time to time.

'Now, sir, what about Hobs? Some people get all twisted with Imps, Goblins, and Hobs, believing them to be one and the same. They are different, though only slightly! Hobs are actually spirits, sir, and a particularly exasperating sort at that. They are as likely to be helpful as they are to be an inconvenience, sometimes helping out the farmer in his field before ransacking the farmstead! Can you guess where they live, sir, when they are not about causing mischief?'

I read upon his expressionless features that Delaney was perhaps regretting asking the question in the first place. It was clear from the lackadaisical manner of his response that he felt as if he had opened a floodgate only to find the ensuing water drowning him. 'I have not the foggiest, Mr. Merryweather.'

'Up in the old railway tunnel, do you know it? Just a stone's throw from the racecourse itself.' Running through the heart of Cheltenham there is the clear pathway of the long since abandoned Honeybourne Line. It once ran from north Warwickshire all of the way down, through the centre of Cheltenham, and then off out towards Bristol and other such centres of industry. Today, its pathway through the town itself is no longer laid, but is rather a flat and rather pleasant cycling route which serves as handy pathway from town centre to railway station. Outside of the town the line is still laid with track, and a whimsical and glorious steam train runs the line as a throwback tourist attraction and heritage initiative. Twixt the racecourse station (from where the steam train runs) and the start of the paved pathway, the trackless line runs beneath a low hill through dark and musty tunnel. It is boarded up, of course, and it is in that short and dank hole that the Hobs of the town muster. Delaney had not come across it, it seemed, for he shook his head as I described it to him, and, I noticed, rolled his eyes to just the slightest rotation.

'Ah, well, sir, let me suggest to you that you never venture inside of it. Hobs are perfectly pleasant, especially if one plies them with clothing, which they highly value, but they do not take so kindly to interlopers in their own backyards. As I am sure you yourself do not, sir, none of us wish to have strangers sniffling about our parishes, do we? Now, I shall not bore you further, sir, but I should mention likewise the sheer number of creatures in this land who prefer to make water their home. Why, there is the aforementioned Kelpie, the Knucker, the Neck - which is different to the knucker, despite what some people may think, though only slightly - the Eachy, and the Grindylow. Used to be that a good number of dear England's folkloric creatures were northern bound, but these days some strange force brings a great number of them further south. Oh, and of course, there are Centaurs out in the Forest of Dean, but I would not concern myself with them, no, sir.'

'And, dare I ask, what force is it that brings them south, Merryweather?'

I was a little surprised that he decided to ask, but I suppose that man's curiosity cannot be stifled. 'Ah, I believe it to be the ley-lines beneath Worcester, sir, and the residual force of them that we feel down here. I shan't bore you on that subject, sir.'

'Appreciated, Merryweather. Ley-lines, good grief! That sounds like the sort of mumbo-jumbo the mystic sorts in Stroud go on about, complete and utter non... well... we shall see, I suppose. Do you believe that my horse may be... may be something... nefarious?'

I cocked a wrist in dainty fashion, the curls of my fringe flapping rather foolishly over my short forehead. I have a pretty regular face, if I say so myself, though I have a slightly elongated chin and too aquiline a nose, but it is my forehead that does not quite fit. 'I seriously doubt it, sir. Most of the more... detestable creatures of the land reside in more unsavoury places. I have a few suspicions already, but I require a little more time and a little more investigation! Now, I shall need to see the horse, the original, and I would not mind having a little chat with a few of your employees.'

'How long will this take, Merryweather? The festival is next week!' Delaney's face had turned a rather startling shade of crimson. I suspect that the cause was the potential loss in income an imposter horse (combined with my fee) may cause.

I held up a hand reassuringly. 'I doubt anymore than a few days, sir. However, depending on the imposter, if that is what we are dealing with, the dealing with it may take a little longer. Besides, sir, I thought that you said Nelson's Peak was sidelined with a sore, surely he shan't be running regardless?'

This insinuation was met, rather alarmingly, with a firm finger being pressed with sword-like thrust upon my sternum. I twisted my mouth a little and looked down at it, noticing with some level of nervousness that Delaney's digit was very close to the buttons of my waistcoat. If one were to fly off into the mud, it may never be recovered. 'I can work miracles with my horses, Merryweather,' Delaney growled. 'But I cannot work with shape-shifting monsters at all! Now, you get to work, understand?'

'Savvy,' I replied rather sheepishly.

'Do you charge by the hour?'

I usually did not, preferring instead a flat fee, but with this being my first job in months, and taking my very exclusive debts into account, I decided that perhaps an hourly rate would be a more profitable course of employment. 'Indeed, sir, about half the price of a plumber.' Most men dream of Ferrari's and large houses; I dream of a clean flat.



III



After an afternoon's well-deserved rest (I do not work often, and therefore find the merest hint of it to be dreadfully exhausting) taking in the hospitality of my lauded host, I returned to the operation centre of Delaney's empire. Upon closer inspection I found his stables to be a combination of remarkably high-tech training facilities and good, old-fashioned, housing for his various horses. My knowledge of the horse world is, as I am sure you have by this point come to learn, awfully limited, and so I had no idea why there were chambers where horses went to be apparently oxygenated. That is the only term I can think for the room in which the beasts are placed, wherein they are then treated with high levels of oxygen as it is pumped in. I suppose that this must be for the aid of aches and pains, but I know several masseuses who would have been capable of generating the same results. Oh, there were horse-treadmills and horse-dieticians, horse-scales and horse-clothiers, and none of it made even the smallest lick of sense to yours truly.

After my afternoon of tea and sandwiches I had come to the conclusion that I must have been dealing with one of two different creatures. That is, of course, if Nelson's Peak had truly learned to be in two places at once. I still kept hold of the potential effects of stress upon the poor fellows in Delaney's employ (and on Delaney himself) but I am nothing if not an optimist, and an over-worked workforce riddled with anxiety does not a paycheque make. And so, upon my return to the grand training estate, I began the first of my investigations.

Primarily I had to ascertain that the striking stallion I had seen that morning in the field was indeed one and the same in terms of appearance with the "real" Nelson's Peak. The horse was stabled in the grandest of all the blocks, given the sort of square-footage that we humans may think of as a penthouse apartment. There were three rows of stables sitting at a 90-degree angle to the more high-tech building. They ran in parallel lines out towards the fence which led out into the vast paddocks. One of these entire blocks was home to Nelson's Peak, and it was into this uncharted environment I now ventured.

Inside, the single-storey building was split into three compartments by shoulder-high partitions which could each be opened and closed at will. A strip of hallway ran along the length of all three, while windows and stable doors in each compartment let in enough light for any creature to see by most easily. There was, as I had expected, the overwhelming smell of straw, of dirt and sweat, and of horse (a strange and entirely incommunicable scent, a little like the mixture of wet hay and musk). There was, I note, a queer absence of the stench of manure, this particular beast being apparently a little too important to be allowed to wallow in it.

Approaching the furthest of the three compartments, I came upon two people stood in rather muted conversation. The first of them was a tall fellow dressed in green scrubs and short boots. He was an aged man, perhaps 60, with a mane of silver hair perfectly matching the fine layer of, rather horse-like, stubble about his jaw. He was devilishly handsome, I must note, the true definition of a "silver-fox". All elements of the man's appearance seemed to scream affluence and self-importance, and he wore the marks of his aging as easily as he did the clothes which clearly denoted him as a veterinarian. Beside him there was one of the young women I had seen, and taken some notice of, earlier in the day. An attractive woman around the same age as yours truly. She had a clever look to her dark eyes, and her hair fell in loose chocolate curls about her slim shoulders. Her face was plain and browned, while her arms seemed to be strong and able, the sort of limbs one would imagine of a woman in such a physical position. I will admit to being rather attracted to her as soon as my own eyes fell upon her, but I doubted immediately that such a career-focused (and obviously very competent, judging by her employer) woman would take anymore than a first glance at my foppish, rather foolish self.

They clocked me simultaneously, and after they had stopped their faces from bursting out in laughter, they both smiled politely and cut short their conversation. Reaching them, I glanced over the wall by which they stood into the stable proper. There stood a mighty and proud beast, a lean and powerful stallion at least six and half feet tall (I am aware that horses are measured in hands, but I know not the exchange rate). It bore the same markings as the one I had seen that morning prancing about the paddock: midnight black but for the stripe of white along its spine and the pools about its eyes. It, he I should say, saw me and fixed his disconcertingly abyssal eyes upon me, his nostrils flaring ever-so-slightly at the smell of this layman newcomer. I nodded awkwardly, not quite knowing the proper customs one should show to such an esteemed horse.

'Good afternoon, good people,' I said pleasantly. 'How is the patient?'

What a bloody foolish question it was, but the vet decided to humour me. I wondered if Delaney had told his staff of my planned investigation, and whether or not they had been ordered to show me any modicum of respect whatsoever. I sincerely hoped so. Both of these two before me were attractive enough to set my heart to racing just a tad quicker, and tad quicker heart meant a leaden tongue. 'Good afternoon,' the vet purred. His accent was not the rough and ready drawl of our West-Country, but rather the smooth and cultured drone of the Home Counties. 'You must be... Maygold, was it?'

'Merryweather,' I replied, hoping that the slight offence I felt was not showing upon my slightly long face. 'Tristan Merryweather, sir, at your service.'

'Dr. Marshe,' replied the dashing vet, 'with an E, in case you require it for your... report.'

Should I perhaps have been carrying a notepad? I could not decide whether such a thing would have made me seem more ridiculous or perhaps more professional. I turned to the woman. 'Amanda Wotten-Holsey,' she said, smiling sweetly. Of course she had a double-barrelled name; it was almost as synonymous with horse-people as bridles and gilets. I suspected that she called her parents "mummy and daddy", as in "mummy and daddy are summering at their villa in France". I am a dreadfully stereotypical person, but my first impressions were generally (very generally) quite accurate. Her accent held a little Gloucestershire hint, but it had been rolled out and smoothed like pastry upon a cultured work surface.

'A pleasure to meet you both. Am I to assume that Mr. Delaney has informed you of my purpose here?'

They shared a quick glance. 'We are,' Marshe with an E said, 'though we are a little unsure about it.'

'I do not doubt that, sir, not in the slightest. I am here only to offer a fresh perspective on the current... curiosity. So, this is Nelson's Peak the proper?'

'Indeed,' Marshe turned to look over the horse. 'A fine animal, no doubt, though you can see that he is currently a little out of sorts.'

'Yes, of course,' I replied, looking at Nelson while attempting to work out just how one can tell such a thing from the implacable face of a horse, nature's most irreverent animal. I did however take notice of the bandages wrapped about the beast's front left leg, covering almost entirely the length beneath his knee. 'Will he be recovered in time to race next week?' I asked.

'It'll be touch and go,' Marshe replied, 'but this horse has come back from worse. So, what is it exactly, Merryweather, that is going on? I have heard that Nelson's Peak has been spotted gallivanting about the lower paddock, despite being under strict instruction to not be allowed outside.'

'That certainly seems to be the case, doctor.'

'Ridiculous,' Miss. Wotten-Holsey said, rather sharply. 'They only people that have seen him are Mr. Delaney and that dopey girl Sara. If you ask me they are both imagining it.'

I nodded slowly, 'I have seen this imposter with my own eyes, miss, this very morning. Seeing him now, up close, the markings are very similar. Are there any other horses with such striking pattern?'

'No,' she replied, once again being rather short, as if she did not have enough time to waste some speaking with me, 'none similar. Dr. Marshe and I cannot be here at all hours of the day, nor can we be constantly watching Nelson, we do have other responsibilities, you know. I suspect that somebody is letting him out on purpose, perhaps just to infuriate Mr. Delaney.'

I kept on nodding, kept at it until I realised that I had nothing else for 30 seconds but stand there looking like the Churchill Dog. I stopped abruptly. 'And what of other horses? Mr. Delaney mentioned that several of your other charges have been seen in the fields, only to be found moments later elsewhere. Have you encountered anything of that sort?'

Miss. Wotten-Holsey shook her head, but the good doctor bit his bottom lip and paused for a long moment before finally saying. 'You know, now that you mention it... last week I did have a rather similar moment to what you have described. I was checking on Briar-Rose's eye, which was slightly swollen, in her stables, and when I stepped outside I could have sworn that I...'

'That you what, doctor?'

'Well, a very similar horse was off in one of the paddocks, running about as if an hour had passed, but I could have sworn it was only a few moments. I have explained it off as nothing more than just a trick of the light that I mistook one horse for another... but, well I suppose it may have been the same one. I am not entirely convinced by this... monster talk that is floating about.'

'Oh, I would not concern yourself too much, doctor,' I said calmly, 'it is unlikely to be a monster.'

'You don't actually believe in this sort of thing, do you?' Miss. Wotten-Holsey hissed rather incredulously. She stared up at the vet, who was some inches taller than her, with a look upon her soft features which suggested that she may have lost in that moment a good deal of respect for him. In the deeper recesses of my mind, those which deal with the more mundane comings-and-goings of the day, I wondered if they were perhaps involved in any way. I wouldn't have, in all honesty, blamed either of them. Neither wore a wedding ring, but I would have guessed that Marshe had been married at least once.

'Well, not entirely,' Marshe stammered, 'but I am open minded, and people are always talking about...'

'This is ridiculous,' she snapped. 'Talk to Sara, Mr. Honeyweller, she'll be able to tell you more, I'm sure. She goes in for all of this nonsense. I have work to do.'

And off she went, stomping down the hallway in her knee-high riding boots, a bucket swaying from one of her strong hands. I turned back to the vet and pursed my lips as if to apologise for getting him in a little trouble. He shrugged.



I paused in my crossing of the yard for two reasons. Primarily I stopped to steal a glance out south, towards the far paddock in which I had seen this apparent imposter that morning. From what I could see of it, the short stretch before it fell over its short drop, I could not see any beasts roaming. I had a few questions in mind for this Sara, the girl who "went in for this sort of thing", but I feared that I would require the presence of the imposter in order to answer them to my satisfaction. Secondly, I had stopped in my tracks to scrape mud from the bottom of my boots. I was entirely overdressed for my locale, my pointed boots more suited to a gentleman's club than a mucky paddock. Delaney had offered, that afternoon, to loan me a set of wellington boots, but I had foolishly refused. My chief concern had been the effect they may have had upon my entirely overpriced slim jeans, but I was paying for that oversight now with a spoiled pair of booties. This job would have to pay well, or else both my cobbler and my cleaner would be at my door demanding payment.

I found Sara, after asking about, in the third stable block. Upon entering this series of compartments I saw that each of them was given over to a horse each. There were no favoured mounts here, rather all three beasts having to share their living quarters like the equine version of flat-mates. Still, they each seemed to be rather well looked after, as one would certainly expect from a man of Delaney's fortitude. There was a white and chestnut stallion, a bay and chalk mare, and a second stallion, this one a golden brown sort of tone.

Sara herself was a short woman of some middle-20 years. She did not have the look about her of a "dopey" woman, whatever such an offensive description would personify itself as. Not as pretty as Miss. Wotten-Holsey, I admitted to myself, but rather more demure and plain. More my type of woman to tell the truth. Despite my own indulgences in terms of appearance, my silly hair and my dandy clothing, I favoured being offset by a woman of more... well, "normal" tastes. Ah, it sounds as though I think only of women as accessories, does it not? My preferences are difficult to describe while maintaining my assumed chivalry. Before digging myself further into a hole, I shall continue. The point is rather moot, being as I was a single man, and a rather dated one at that.

'Sara?' I asked, strolling down the hall towards her.

'Yes?' She turned and cocked an eyebrow at me. 'Ah, you must be Merryweather, eh?'

'That I am,' I affected a slight bow, 'I thank you for remembering my name correctly.'

'Hard to forget, ain't it?' She smiled sweetly. She was blonde-haired and pale-skinned, shorter in stature than her fellow employee and slightly rounder about both the bust and hip. I had to swallow some mild attraction, one more subjective than the last but just as palpable. Being single for quite so long (I believe that, at this point, it had been two years) had robbed me of any ability to charm, especially once my throat was dried and my gut all twisted with nerves. There are men more professional than I, but there are those in much less specialised professions. 'You're the... investigator, aren't ya?' Sara asked.

'That I am, Tristan Merryweather, Cheltenham's finest supernatural investigator, at your service.'

'Sara Lawrence,' she stuck out a dainty hand for me to shake, which I did despite its rather grubby quality. I could not quibble at this; if I worked in such a physical capacity I doubt that I would bother to wash my hands every five minutes. 'You're here about the horse, right?'

'That is correct. I understand that you have seen our apparent imposter?'

'Several times,' she smiled a little sheepishly, as if she may be worried that she wouldn't be believed. 'The doctor can laugh it off and pretend he didn't see it, and Amanda wouldn't know anything out of the ordinary even if it punched her right on her little upturned nose.'

I laughed, a real ho-ho sort of chuckle. 'I got that impression from her, I must say.'

'Ah, I don't mean to be catty, Mr. Merryweather, she's alright really, when she isn't talking about money or her mummy and daddy and their villas...' I cocked an eyebrow, a little bit too pleased with myself, '... but she can be a little... well, irritating, I suppose.'

'Oh, we are all guilty of that, are we not? I expect that my manner is most infuriating to a great number of people.' I knew this for a fact, as it turned out, having been rather forcefully enlightened on the topic on several occasions. 'Still, you saw the imposter horse, posing as Nelson's Peak?'

'Not at first,' she propped up the broom she had been holding against the wall and folded her arms beneath her bust. I sighed very quietly. 'It was Maiden's Gallows first, this mare here. I had just finished brushing her when I went outside and saw her out in the field. I thought that I must have imagined it, but the same thing happened twice more until I mentioned it to Mr. Delaney.'

'Oh? And how did he respond?'

'He called me foolish and whimsical, a term I'm sure that you've heard before.'

I scoffed, rather enjoying the assumption. 'Indeed, I doubt you'd be shocked to know.'

'Not at all,' she smiled again, a slightly lopsided smirk which sat well with her features. 'But he didn't take no notice until it was Nelson being impersonated.'

'I see. Yet, you saw other horses also being copied?'

'Aye, that's right. Saw a donkey too.'

My eyes widened without my meaning them too. 'A donkey? Where, when?'

'A few weeks back. I thought once more that my imagination was running riot, but I swear that I saw it. It was a little thing, as donkeys are, a grey one with a silver tail. Stood out in the far paddock it was, just standing there, watching me.'

'Watching you?'

'I could have sworn that it was. Once it saw me staring, agog, it ran off over the hill and disappeared.'

'Did you give chase?'

'I did, but by the time I got down there the animal had entirely vanished.'

I smiled, nodding slowly while my eyes fixed themselves on the wall behind Sara's head. It was a little rude, and I think she took notice by attempting to drift back into my eye-line, but my mind was suddenly working overdrive. 'I see, very interesting.'

'You don't suppose it was the same creature, do you? What sort of beast pretends to be both horse and donkey?'

I turned my attention back to her and smiled. 'Only one, Sara, only one!'



Now, by this point I was rather made up about the identity of our equine interloper. Still, being as I am of course one who leans towards a supernatural answer to all life's strange questions, I still had to make my mind up entirely. The most obvious answer, to anybody else, was a case of the mix-ups, my aforementioned suspicion that the staff were a little over-worked and prone to bouts of forgetfulness. This is what many would call an Occam's Razor, and that is a term used to say that the most obvious answer is usually the correct one. Thank the Lord that I am not such a simple man, or else Mr. Delaney could have been driving himself mad before too long.

So, before I could proclaim myself the new patron saint of this fine establishment, I had to do a final piece of sleuthing in order to be entirely settled. I found Delaney, looking his usual pumped up and brooding self, stood lookout over the paddocks.

'There you are, Merryweather,' he said, turning his rosy and gargantuan face towards me. 'Well? Have you figured it out yet, or are my deep pockets being entirely wasted on you?'

I'm an intuitive man, and so I figured that he was still not entirely trusting of me. I'm amazing like that, you'll learn. 'I believe I am rather close, Mr. Delaney, and I believe that you are indeed being faced with a problem of supernatural origin.'

'Good Lord,' he sighed. 'What is the world coming to? Fairytales coming true and folklore coming real, it's enough to drive a man insane.'

'It's best not to think too hard on it, sir! Else, like you say, your head may get turned about. It's best just to accept it and move on. Chances are that you'll never encounter such a thing again, even living here, in close proximity to a few of our mythical interlopers.'

'That'll I'll bloody well do, Merryweather, with the aid of a few stiff drinks. Now, how are you going to fix this problem?'

'May I ask, sir, what you think the problem to be? Now, I know that having an imposter horse about is slightly... unnerving, but is this creature giving you any real gip? I mean, it is doing nothing else but sharing the fields for now.'

Delaney's finger was once again at my sternum, and once more my heart was skipping beneath its layers of satin and cloth. 'That "for now" is what concerns me, Merryweather. Monsters in our stories never just turn up for the grass, they always want something. I am in no mind to be paying off creatures and Imps and Goblins and what-not. I pay my employees, and this bugger has signed no contract! I want it gone! If the news gets out then my paddocks will become stuffed with... well, with other people like you, not to mention the press and curious onlookers. I shall not have any revelations about the existence of monsters happening upon my property, understood?'

I nodded, rather swiftly like. 'Err... loud and clear, nothing wrong with protecting your interests, nothing at all!'

'Good. So, what is it?'

'Well, I am yet to confirm it entirely.'

'Then bloody well get on with it!' Delaney's roar must have been heard in Gloucester, and it was so sudden and fierce that I am sure my fringe was blown back from my forehead.

'Very good, very good!' I stammered. 'I'm right on it, sir! I require one final test to confirm my suspicions.'

'And that is?'

'I wish for somebody to mount our imposter, somebody who the real Nelson's Peak would trust upon his back on any other day.'

'The jockey is in Birmingham, but he trusts the girls well enough, will that do?'

I grimaced at the idea, considering what it was I expected to happen should somebody climb aboard the mighty beast. Still, if there was no other option, then it would have to do, and I would have to live with the unfortunate sight that I suspected would follow.



A short time later myself and the staff were gathered by the side of the far paddock, watching as poor Miss. Wotten-Holsey went sheepishly approaching "Nelson's Peak". I felt dreadfully sorry for her, despite my initial, and rather cruel, appraisal of her. The horse, to its credit, was not attempting to run away from her, but was rather stood with head slightly cocked, watching her approach with the sort of look on his face that suggested he knew precisely what was going on.

'Now, what's going to happen here, exactly?' Delaney asked me, shuffling his arms further into the ruffles of his thick coat.

'Well, sir,' I said, biting the knuckle of my index finger, 'I'm hoping that she will be able to climb aboard rather easily. Is he comfortable being ridden... err... bareback?'

Somebody scoffed, I think Sara. 'Comfortable?' Delaney shook his head. 'I'd not go that far, he's probably rather unaccustomed to it. Still, this is not actually Nelson's Peak, is it?'

'No,' Dr. Marshe said quietly. 'He is stabled where I left him.' I do not think that he could quite believe what he was seeing. I wondered what was going throw Miss. Wotten-Holsey's cynical mind. 'She's not going to be injured is she, Merrygold?'

I rolled my eyes. 'It's Merryweather, doctor. And no, I don't think so, though... perhaps it wouldn't hurt to...' I took my hand from my mouth and cupped it, creating the accustomed hand-megaphone that people are wont to do. 'I know that you're rather fragile, Miss. Wotten-Holsey!' I shouted. 'But he shan't hurt you, will you, horsey? You be good and be careful with her, you hear?'

The horse, to my, and I expect my fellows amazement, seemed to nod, just slightly. That in itself should have been all the confirmation I needed, but it really was too late at this stage to stop the dear woman in her tracks. She reached Nelson's Peak and clambered, with the aid of him stooping ever so slightly, aboard. This was not a particularly easy task, even for a woman of her notable height, but she hauled herself up by the horse's mane (which cannot have been pleasant for the horse, real or not) and managed to swing a leg over his back. A few moments later and she was sat, looking dreadfully uncomfortable, upon him, hanging onto her mount for dear life.

'Well?' Delaney said, blatantly unimpressed.

'Well, now... give him a little kick, ride him as you would normally!' I called.

For a few moments I allowed doubt to creep into my mind, as though perhaps I had been wrong all along. Miss. Wotten-Holsey gave Nelson's Peak a little tap, a little flitter of the mane, and off they went at a stroll about the paddock, it seemed to all watchers as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

'Is he... Nelson, normally prone to throwing a rider?' I asked upward to Delaney.

'No,' he snapped back. 'He would never do such a thing. You really know very little about highly-bred horses, don't you, Mr. Merryweather?'

I was just about the respond to the positive, when, to everybody's shock, Nelson's Peak bolted with just enough force for Miss. Wotten-Holsey to lose her grip upon his mane. She toppled backwards, and, just as the "horse" slowed to a sudden halt, was thrown sideways from him onto her backside in the grass. Off went "Nelson's Peak", trotting away as if he'd committed no sin whatsoever. To his credit, I thought as we all ducked through the fence and went running to her side, he had been rather gentle in his removal of her. It could have been much worse if he'd decided to kick and rear up, and so I said a silent, grateful, thank you as we scurried over.


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