Excerpt for Tristan Merryweather, Cheltenham's Finest Supernatural Detective: A Miner Dispute by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









Tristan Merryweather, Cheltenham's Finest Supernatural Detective



A Miner Dispute



Alex Retter





Also Starring Tristan Merryweather:

The Brag of Gold







Tristan Merryweather, Cheltenham's Finest Supernatural Detective

In

A Miner Dispute





I



It was the heady days of 2012 when I became, you'll be shocked to hear, a celebrated contributor to his Majesty's Courtroom. Now, we have so far ascertained that I am not a man of particular legal bent, and I certainly don't have the money to be buying myself into such a position. You may then wonder just what I, your beloved detective of all matters paranormal, may have done to deserve such remarkable accreditation.

The years twixt these days and those in which you previously found me (potless, indebted to my housekeeper, and soon to be in the services of the rather skewed-of-mind Mr. Delaney) are filled with all manner of instances which are remarkable only in their mediocrity. Since we are now well versed in the manner of my occupation, such tales may not hold a particular amount of amazement for my dearly devoted readership. This particular case, however, may just do so, for it gives not only a fair few thrills but also a little insight into yours truly.

So, to recap. I am Tristan Merryweather, Tristan Julian Merryweather, thank you very much. My friends, those who I keep, would likely describe me as a rather pretentious fellow with two left feet and a nose as long as the M1. I, on the other hand, would characterise myself as a delightful dandy, one with a wonderful sense of both men's fashion and of the finest teas in all of Christendom. This particular morning for example, I was enjoying a cup of the old Oolong over a plate of imported Dutch biscuits. Of course, men cannot afford such luxury without a source of respectable income, and I was, as of June 2012, rather well-moneyed. The folk who make up Cheltenham's more posh quarters would still have looked down their noses at me of course, but in relative terms I was rolling right in it like a pig in muck. Yes sir, these were good days to be Tristan Julian Merryweather. Except for still having that damn middle name, let's not mention it again, eh?

I was even dating, yes, dating! My romantic endeavours have been a matter of fluctuation over the years of my charming adulthood. I would describe their occurrences as consistent, while those amongst my (unfortunately rather numerous as we will soon discover) detractors would prefer the term sporadic I fear. My current target of courtship was a delightful and enchantingly scholarly lady by the name of Marianne Spudwell. Though she sounded as if she may have dropped from the pages of a fairytale, she was to me instead one right out of one of my more pay-per-view dreamscapes. She was a librarian, a woman of letters, and was quite smitten with yours truly. Marianne was also rather beautiful, but such things are arbitrary when intellects meet in such a smorgasbord of mutual attraction.

I settled onto my spotless sofa for a morning of absolutely nothing in particular. My flat was spotless at present. My bed, lodged in its alcove beneath the window, was made, its sheets freshly pressed and changed, while my television sat upon a dustless stand without blemish or crack to note. Even the kitchen pushed up on its far wall, usually the epicentre of particularly stubborn dirt, was sparkling a radiant incandescence which put one in mind of those marvellously arranged abodes you see in up-market property magazines. The housekeeper had come just the day before and had done, as per usual, a wonderful job in remarkably little time. My guilt to come over taking advantage of her generosity was at this point nothing to my mind but impossibility.

The reason for my current largesse was down to a peculiar case which had taken place some miles north in the picturesque masterpiece which is the village of Broadway. This is a tourist-trap village whose centre has been given over to all manner of boutiques selling all sorts of local goods, from jams to jodhpurs, antiques to apricots. While over there I made note of the remarkable amount of Asian tourists, enthralled as they were by the perfectly trimmed village green and the spotless local sandstone from which each and every one of the buildings about it were built. On a summer's day the local traders make a killing on ice creams and their well-sourced crafted fare, a little slice of English heaven though suffering from perhaps a small bout of overcrowding.

Though, of late Broadway had been suffering with a little bit of a problem. See, the local authorities had had reported to them several cases of these vital tourists being accosted on the village's outskirts by some dastardly fellows who had taken to, apparently, throwing stones and pieces of detritus at passing cars. Now, this sounds of course like a matter for the regular constabulary. I cannot abide such wanton disregard for public safety myself, but such matters are quite some way out of my remit to investigate. That was, however, until the head of the parish council, an old associate, got in contact and insisted that the problem was indeed one which fell under my specific area of expertise.

So off I went over to Broadway. After I had entirely stuffed poor Joan (my beloved Datsun Cherry) with enough local produce to run a four star B&B, I undertook a swift and thorough investigation of the highest professional standards. I came to discover that these incidents were largely restricted to happening post-twilight, out on the village's northern side. A stakeout ensued, and for three nights I lay out there in the bushes and the ditches, my eyes and ears pinned like a cautious rabbit for any signs of bother. Just as I began to lose any hope, at last my quarry revealed itself to me. A Bugbear. No, I do not mean to say that it was a problem, but rather a creature known as a Bugbear.

Now, Bugbears are a particular species of Hob. In my previous writing we discussed Hobs briefly, namely the local populace who live in the abandoned railway tunnel just outside of Cheltenham. Bugbears are a more specific offshoot, more a type of Bogeyman than your common, knobbly sort of Hob. This Bugbear, however, had a taste for remarkably specific comedy, and had disguised himself in the same regard. See, he was a bug-bear. He had made himself like a giant hornet, two great wings affixed to his hairy back. He was flying at speed into passing cars, cracking windscreens, denting doors, and scratching paint at will. Once I stopped laughing (which took, I'll admit, some time) I dispatched this beastly nuisance forthwith! I told my associate on the old parish council that I had disposed of his Bugbear using my trusty crossbow, and he was most pleased at that. In actuality I have a keen disinterest in blood-sports of any type, and so had instead captured the Bugbear in a jar (not an easy task, let me tell you) and then released him in a local junkyard. There he could scratch and dent and chip to his little heart's content. Another job well done, a tourist trap saved, and a local economy salvaged. It was just another day for your favourite supernatural detective.

I was therefore, plush of pocket and in indulgent mood. Life, on that sunny June morning in 2012 could not have found me in better mood. O, how naive of me to assume that such comfort can last. For if I had known what was about to befall me I would have been looking forward with a more recommended level of trepidation. See, at that exact moment (it was ten past 11 in the morning, just in the middle of Homes under the Hammer) my phone began to buzz-buzz with the promise of new adventures peeking over the horizon.

I peered down from my cup of tea and read the name flashing up on the screen. And then I grimaced and nearly choked on my Oolong. For you see, dear reader, it was my childhood vicar calling me in that exact moment.

This does not sound like a problem, does it? Most would probably be quite keen to speak to the granddaddy of their spiritual awakening. Even most atheists (like, I must admit, yours truly) would treat one the men of the church with a modicum of respect. What I am trying to say therefore, is that most people of rational and sound mind would, at the very least, pick up the phone. I did not do such a foolish thing. I sat there watching the buzzing and the shaking until, at long last, it stuttered to a halt and the screen returned to its usual dark sleep. I breathed a great sigh of relief.

I suppose I had better explain the rationale behind this remarkable display of vulgarity towards such a venerable figure. Father Mayhew was an old and beloved friend of my family's. My parents had been regulars at his church for a good long year before I came along in the spring of '82 to forever ruin their nights of rest and house of silence. I was quite a devout youth, you may be surprised to learn, and was a regular at both Sunday school and the monthly children's club. It was all indoctrination, of course, but relatively harmless and ultimately a good source of the moralistic fibre which contributed to my being such a decent and lawful citizen. Well anywho, some years after my leaving home (which we will come to, one of these days) I received a call from Father Mayhew with a matter of the supernatural disposition. His beloved church had become home to that most common of beasties which choose to place themselves in the houses of God; a Church Grim. These are akin to most Grims, appearing as black dogs, the owners of terrifyingly sharp tooth and claw, dangerous enough to rend the flesh from all of your delicate bones! Thankfully, Church Grims like nothing more than causing a good old ruckus, and turn their natural weapons of agony only to those who endanger the church in which they settle themselves. Still, having a great big black dog roaming about the place does not a welcoming Christian environment make, and so off I went to try and relocate this particular interloper.

This was not the reason why I was desperately attempting to avoid contact with Father Mayhew. See, after the Grim had been dealt with (peacefully and without loss of blood or limb) all manner of supernatural creature came to hear of it. By their understanding, this house of the Lord was a friendly and welcoming place to their ilk, and over the intervening years a good number of them descended upon the place. This has happened, by my count, at least six times since the whole Grim business, and ever since it had started I had never heard from Father Mayhew again. The only time I attempted to contact him myself I was told, my way of my parents, that he wanted positively nothing to do with me. He could only be calling, therefore, if he was in particularly irritated mood, and that my poor old lugholes were the target of his biblical frustration.

My phone began to buzz again, and I did not need to glance down to guess at who was calling. I sighed. I could ignore him forever, I thought, and pretend as though I had never had a childhood vicar at all. Or, I supposed, I could be a grown-up about the entire situation and take his wrath on the chin like a brave and noble soul.

By the time my phone began to ring for the sixth time it was drowning out the television, so I answered it.

'Hello, you've reached Tristan Merryweather, Cheltenham's Finest Supernatural Detective. I'm not in right now to take your call, so please leave a message after the...'

I almost got away with it too, but then the rattling voice of Father Mayhew came trundling down the line and stopped me dead in my tracks. 'Tristan.'

I remained as quiet as the grave.

'Tristan.'

'I... er... ahah... hello, vicar. What can I...ah... do for you? Long time, eh?'

'And whose fault is that, Tristan?'

'Well... ha... I suppose you could say that is both of ours, eh, Father?'

'Could you now? We've not spoken since the incident with that... that... Grim.'

'All's well that ends well, eh?'

I had to hold the phone a little ways from my head as the vicar erupted. I remember the sheer din of his raised voice from my youth, when he occasionally became particularly impassioned by some sermon or another. 'All's well that ends well?!' He hollered down the line. 'Tristan, in the prevailing six years since that... that... incident, I have had five or more... creatures turn up on my doorstep demanding everything from a bed for the night to spiritual guidance! I've had Gargoyles and Hunkypunks, ghosts, wisps, and Screaming Skulls!'

'A Screaming Skull, really? What did it...'

'TRISTAN!'

I swallowed hard and took a rather shaky gulp of the Oolong, my fourth cup of the morning. 'Yes, Father?'

'My church, your church, has become a beacon for each and every bizarre, demonic denizen of this county as if I had put up an advertisement! It's a bloody,' I peaked an eyebrow at such wanton use of language, 'miracle that I've not been torn limb from limb!'

'Aha, come now, vicar, there are relatively few beasties out there who would do you harm...'

'Tristan.'

This time I decided that it would be best for my auditory health in the long run not to further interrupt, and so I elected to remain silent.

'I did not call you to argue, or to berate you, Tristan. For all the... inconvenience you've caused me over the years you are still the son of two very close friends of mine. Speaking of which, when was the last time you went home? Your dear mother tells me that she's not even spoken with you in quite some time.'

I had to actually think on that myself. When was the last time I ventured out to my parents' house in the shadows of Leckhampton Hill? I was there at Christmas... two years ago. Goodness, surely it could not have been that long, could it? Still, I was not an entirely neglectful son, Mum called me on a semi-regular basis and we always spoke at a good length. I always posted off birthday and Father's and Mother's Day cards as well...

'A while, I'll admit, vicar,' I said sheepishly.

'Indeed.'

'We're still close mind... it's just that their old house is... well... I have memories see...'

'Tristan, there are men in prison who make it home more often than you. I'm not asking for my sake, son, but for your parents'.'

'Yes, father. Is that... uh... why you're calling?'

'No.' I had feared as much. My luck does not extend so far as that, apparently. 'Tristan, would you like to guess after what fate has currently befallen my church?'

'Well... I've not seen anything on the news regarding sudden subsidence or biblical lightning strikes so...'

'Oh, this is not the work of God, Tristan, far from it. Indeed, I do not, as a man of the rational Church of England, usually go in for such beliefs, but I have reason to fear that there may be something hellish currently residing in my bell tower.'

'Oh?' I could not quite decide whether to be fearful or excited, and so I instead choose to be somewhere awkwardly in-between. Generally stimulated, I suppose you may call it.

'Yes,' Father Mayhew positively growled. 'I would like to come here and do something about it.'

'Well, I will have to check my schedule... see I'm rather tied up with work, and...'

'Tristan.'

I picked my keys up from the table.



II



I gave Joan the day off and set off on foot up into the Suffolks, a region of Cheltenham which one could certainly describe as affluent. It has its streets which do not quite fit in of course, but by and large it is a hotpot of boutiques, well-reviewed restaurants, and the sort of shops which make one wonder just how they come to remain open, such is the esoteric nature of their business. I do quite like it up here, I must admit. I was just a stone's throw from dear Mum and Dad, and I knew these quarters as well as the rapidly spreading lines on the back of my hands.

The Suffolks is a very, very small area, no more in truth than a collection of streets defined by the above parameters. Most Cheltonians, I imagine, would not consider it its own ward. It is squished in-between Montpellier and Leckhampton, sandwiched right up alongside Park. Still, I am nothing if not a stickler for classification, and I consider these short streets to have their own unique flavour. On my way up through them I passed by an Italian restaurant which has taken over a small, pleasant church. I allowed myself a moment of fantasy, imagining what may happen if my own family church were to be absorbed by some conglomerate. I had this little image in my head of Mayhew turning up on my door begging for succour. I would laugh and cast him aside like the heartless soul I am! The sky grumbled with threats of divine smiting.

It was a shame that the weather had come in a little. Under bright skies the tall townhouses and charming cottages of the area were rather splendid. From the tight lanes of the Suffolks I came to a wide street lined by eclectic boutiques and crossed then onto Great Norwood Street. This is my absolute favourite road in all of Cheltenham. It is long and straight, wider than most residential streets. It is three-storey townhouses at first, their cast iron window boxes sat above the antique and vintage boutiques on their ground floors. Away, towards its end, a row of pastel-painted cottages catch the sun and shine, their flashes of colour drawing the eye downward. There, when one looks outward, one then comes to see the high steeple of Saint Philip and St. James Church. To most this is a glorious sight, one which puts them in mind of good British tradition and the typical eye for aesthetic sightlines which our most venerable town planners are known for. I, on the other hand, was put suddenly into a fit of belly aches and heart flutters upon seeing the steeple rising from the horizon. This was, you'd have guessed, the marker for my destination. I took Great Norwood Street very, very slowly indeed.

These were old mining lines, strangely enough. See, back in the 19th and early 20th centuries (how curious, to those whose halcyon days fell in the last century it is to refer to it as now a matter of history, not the present) Leckhampton Hill in particular was mined by a dozen quarries all delving in search of the remarkable quantities of limestone which make up our area's geology. In such abundance was it, that it was given its own name: Cheltenham Freestone. Our most splendid of Regency buildings were crafted from it, giving to our town its characteristic feel which so many come to revel in each and every year. Looking up at the hill, as one can do from Great Norwood Street, the faces of those quarries can still be seen today, with their harsh methods painted clearly on the ragged faces of exposed stone. The streets hereabouts were once tramways, which does perhaps explain their largely straight and widened nature. The railway is but a short walk, and the stone which came down from the hills would have been transported there on little carts going to-and-fro. It's quite remarkable to think about, given the town's modern image as being predominantly middle-class. (This is of course untrue, for like any town Cheltenham is fuelled by the efforts of its abundant working-class fellows, whose toils one could cynically argue go a great way towards the affluence so desperately hoarded by their richer neighbours.)

I stopped to peruse a little plinth providing information on this history. It was at the strange apex of five streets all meeting at once. This was a clear infrastructural necessity, for any road planner would have been quite mad to design it as so. I could only assume that at some point these had been the tracks of the tramways, and as such had to remain as inconveniently lain out, such was the historical importance of their now-covered pathways.

I was stalling, in truth, for the church now was much, much closer, and my feet inside their tight little booties were beginning to feel quite leaden. I was dressed in such a way to display to Father Mayhew that I was enjoying my own level of comparative wealth, lest he believe that I was being dragged through the doldrums of borderline poverty. I had perhaps overcompensated. In addition to my pointed booties I was wearing skinny little jeans and a silk waistcoat, a ruffled white shirt beneath. I looked, in truth, as though Russell Brand and Meatloaf had met, gotten on famously, and had decided to cement their newfound affection immediately by way of one of them giving birth to a child. I feared also bumping into Mum and Dad, for I knew them to shop occasionally in the quirky shops on Suffolk Road. Whether or not they'd recognise me I was not sure, but I suppose that a parent can always spot their child, even if they are completely unrecognisable to others. It's one of the many gifts of parenthood, one assumes.

Well, at last my beleaguered feet brought me before the hallowed halls of St Phillip and St James. A grand old church this, larger than most you tend to find in major towns, and without any trappings of the modern age. Victorian Gothic, adorned with a tall saddleback steeple, it sits now as it has for close to 200 years. In the depths of its crypt is constructed a columbarium, a grisly gallery of the dead which I have longed to explore but never been permitted to do so.

I was lingering about the steps when, not surprisingly, Father Mayhew burst forth from the doors. Well, he pushed one aside and stood there menacingly, but in my mind's eye he tore through those gates with biblical intent. Mayhew looked largely as I remembered him, now creased with the rumbles of old age. A tall man, he stood perhaps an inch higher than my six feet, and was still lithe and hollow-cheeked. A beard, which I recall being brown in my youth, was now grey and wiry, as was the halo of hair about his spotted crown. His eyes, so capable of warmth in mid-sermon, were surrounded by deep wrinkles and darkened bags, and were sheer and narrowed as he saw me standing timidly there. To my surprise, after a moment of glaring, he smiled in a way which stretched his thin lips to almost clear transparency. Just as I was setting my face to smile in return, Mayhew stretched out a finger and beckoned me, rather threateningly, to follow him back inside.

I swallowed hard and skipped up the steps into the halls of the church. The interior of these hallowed halls is much as I imagine it to have been for many a long decade. White columns line the aisles, wooden pews lined out in rows expectant for the bottoms of parishioners. A neatly laid floor, with those strange iron grates in which I've never quite understood the purpose of, led up twixt the pews to the transept and the sanctuary beyond. There were all those trappings one comes to expect from a good old CoE church, from christening pool to high lectern. From above the altar the stained-glass image of Jesus (I've always assumed, for the image there, like yours truly, is adorned with long hair and aesthetically pleasing garb) stared down upon his oft absent son.

I followed Father Mayhew to the head of the aisle and stood before the lower alter. I felt ridiculously childish, as though I'd been called to the front of class by a teacher. This happened with relative frequency while I was a schoolboy, as I had a bit of a predilection for acting out and raising my voice when it was least appreciated. I became known for my outrageous answers to posed questions while a pupil of my CoE-run primary, often exasperating my teachers as their rigidly-set curriculum was questioned precociously. My dear mum was to blame for this. Often times she would look over my homework and scoff, proclaiming my learning to be utterly irrelevant to adult life. I was nine or ten and everything was irrelevant to adult life. Anyway, I would take these opinions of Mum's and present them to my teacher as if they were my own. All harmless fun in primary school, but goodness did I get sent out into the corridor plenty of times at secondary before I learned my lesson. After that it was just whole helpings of general bad behaviour which got me admonished. A particularly spectacular instance came while in R.E, as dear Katherine Parkinson and I passed notes of a lusty teenager nature to each other. I shall never forget the way in which poor Ms. Graffies's eyes bulged as she read the scrawled hormonal scribbling after she'd caught us. Teenagers today do not know how fortunate they are with the advent of the easily accessible mobile phone.

I realised, breaking out of my reverie, that Father Mayhew was yet to say a word to me. He was just stood, one hand on the altar, watching me with narrowed eyes. I smiled gingerly. 'Well, let me begin,' I said, 'with an apology.' I supposed that that was what he wanted to hear.

'That would be for the best, Tristan.' His voice still held the sort of power which would propel with ease to the furthest of the eaves, still thickly laced with a broad Gloucestershire accent.

'I am most sorry, vicar, if my assistance in the past has turned to inconvenience in the prevailing years.'

'And?'

'And for failing to visit, or call, or email, or anything of the sort for quite so long.'

'And?'

'And for purposely avoiding contact as best I could in order to avoid having my lugholes bent.'

'And?'

'And, er... for...'

'Oh, forget it,' Father Mayhew waved a hand dismissively. 'You always were awful at apologies, Tristan. You used to tear about my church like a child possessed. Trying to force just the word "sorry" from you after you'd knocked something over was nearly impossible. I shall have to be content with what meagre amount you can manage.'

'Very kind of you, father. Am I forgiven, or must I throw myself on the mercy of the Lord?'

'You are of course forgiven, son, though I'd have liked an apology for your lapse in visits to your parents.'

I laughed, my nerves beginning to lift. Despite my drifting away from the church through the years of my adulthood, I was still receptive to the calming atmosphere of the Lord's house. 'Ah, of course! How foolish of me to forget such an unforgivable offence! I speak to mum quite often, father, it's not as if I've acrimoniously split from them permanently.'

'Still, not even going home for Christmas last year, what dealings had you which were so much more important?' Mayhew had softened as well, I noticed. The lines about his eyes had faded from chasms to only creases, and in the lightening tones of his voice I recalled the same warmth which had once preached to me.

'I was working,' I lied. Last Christmas had seen me get up at 10, drink brandy, go out for lunch, and then combine an evening of television with napping until I fell into a deep slumber by 11. It was, in hindsight, one of my more tragic Christmases.

'If only you were working here! Do I need to remind you of the sheer malaise you've caused me over the past few years? Ever since that Grim I've had nothing but trouble.'

'I don't suppose that any of these creatures ever saw fit to enlighten you as to their sudden interest?'

'Oh yes, they did. They seem to think that, because we dealt with that flipping dog so peacefully, that my church is welcoming to those of the... the... less-than-natural disposition. Those bl... ruddy Hunkypunks turned up with their suitcases and their bibles, thinking that they may sit in on Sunday service.'

I arched an eyebrow high, they were very compliant my eyebrows, capable of great feats of contortionism. 'Christian Hunkypunks, eh? Well now, that's quite a turn up. Did they happen to mention to which clan they belonged?'

'No, they did not. Strangely enough, Tristan, I was more preoccupied with chasing them from the property than engaging them in casual conversation.'

I wrote down a mental note on my old "must look into at a later date" notepad in my brainbox. Denizens of the supernatural plain turning to the religions of our world? That was most concerning, for their sake rather than ours. Most of those beasties still go in for the old ways, the gods which we have forgotten in our disregarding of history.

'And that Screaming Skull!' Mayhew continued, by this point well entrenched in what I assumed to be a rehearsed outburst of built up persecution. 'It tore about the rafters,' he pointed skyward to the vaulted roof, 'chattering and hollering the sort of obscenities usually reserved for a drunken tavern disagreement! It even managed to worm its way into the Sunday school one morning and terrified half of the children!'

'Half of the children?'

'The other half thought it was hysterically funny.'

'Well, such wanton use of language is quite amusing, father.'

'It wasn't funny at all! Have you ever seen a bone-white skull, wreathed in unholy fire, tearing about a house of God screaming and swearing like a drunken sailor?'

I thought, in that moment, that I would quite like to, but to admit this would not have been the answer that Mayhew was seeking. 'That sounds most terrible indeed, father. Why, just the thought of it gives me the shivers something horrible.'

'Ah!' Mayhew waved a hand with surprising force. 'You'd have been here chasing the thing around with a broad grin stretched across your chops I imagine. I rue the day you decided upon your current employment, Tristan, I really do. What on Earth possessed you to consider such an unsavoury path in life?'

Ask my parents, I thought to myself. My father had wanted me to follow him into the medical profession (he's a gynaecologist, and let's not mention that again) while my mum was quite decided that a lifetime of civil servitude would suit me right down to the ground. They did not want me, I recall, falling in with the hippy-dippy sort from Stroud. Of course, being as it was exactly what my parents did not wish, I did exactly that. I used to lie and tell them I'd spent my Saturdays in the library, not, as I had been, attending talks on crystals and fairies.

'Well, we all need to work, do we not?' I replied, slightly admonished.

'I shan't complain further, Tristan, as for now...'

'Ah, yes! I believe you said something on the phone of a... a... demonic presence? Sounds dreadfully exciting.' I was pumping myself up a little, for I'd never dealt with a genuine, honest to God, demon before. Such a situation would be, much to my chagrin, slightly out of my ballpark. Thankfully I had friends to whom I could refer my dear vicar, should the need arise.

'Come with me,' Mayhew said, and he led me thusly from the altar, back up the aisle.

We came to the foot of the steeple, where a small door led to a tightly wound staircase which ran skyward. Here, we stopped, and Father Mayhew looked at yours truly as if I was now to know instinctively just what the problem was. After a moment of this awkward silence, he pointed to the flagstone floor.

I had to get down on my old knees to inspect. There I found a series of smudges, dark little puddles which led in a short stride from the church proper to the aforementioned doorway. Footprints, I realised. Blackened marks where something which appeared to be very, very hot indeed had trod.

'An... er... incident with a poker?' I asked hopefully.

'No,' Mayhew replied. 'They're footprints, Tristan. Hellish, blackened feet, as if something with fiery heat has trod across the floor. I dare not ask what could leave such a distinct mark.'

Demons presumably. My mind began to flick through its various gears, opening up my encyclopaedia (which I imagine to be a gigantic old-fashioned volume, bound with silver clasps and written in looping, intricate penmanship) and flicking through its mottled pages. Did demons exist? There are all manner of creatures of lore that take the appearance of what we assume to be a demonic visage, but were they inspired by demons, or are our depictions of demons inspired by them? And if there are demons, is there a devil? I suspect that Mayhew would indeed confirm that there was, but I was not quite so sure. If there is a devil, after all, then there must be other angels, those loyal folk who kept to God's word and were not cast down from Heaven. And if there are angels, then there must then be a God. I was most unsure on this entire issue, having been, since my early teens, predominantly atheistic.

'I doubt with utmost sincerity, vicar, that it is a demon. I am sure that there is some perfectly adequate explanation for these scorched prints. Here, hand me that iron rod there,' I gesticulated toward what I assume was a fire-poker, led out of place in the corner.

'Why?'

'I saw it on a television show once, or was it iron for ghosts? Ah, to hell with it... sorry, vicar... I shall take it just in case I come under attack.'

I expected this nonchalance to my personal safety to impress my old vicar, but he seemed entirely nonplussed by my staggering bravery. Still, he handed me the poker without argument, before taking a step back to let me go unmolested into the church's steeple. Away from his eyesight, I'm afraid to admit that my face fell by a few degrees, and in my chest my little ticker began to go thump thump thump, as it so relentlessly is wont to do.



III



I took my time in climbing those steps, and my reasons for doing were two-fold. Of course the first was that there were a great many, and I have never been a man of particular athleticism (it may not surprise you to learn this, oh my dear readers of low-expectation), and I was quite out of breath after the first two-dozen. The second was that I was rather fearful of what I may find at the top. I have been miraculously fortunate in my investigations to have been very rarely in mortal peril, and I have not yet become accustomed to the notion that it may be waiting behind any corner waiting to pounce upon me.

There was, upon the worn steps, the pitter-patter marks left behind by the feet of whatever had clambered up recently. There were burnt patches on the stone, some in their centre and others upon their edges. It looked, to my trained eye, as if whatever had made the climb had been so small that it had been forced to scale the stairs as if they were a great Everest. I held my poker in strong hand, keeping it firmly affixed in front of me in case the beastie leapt out suddenly.

Some time had passed once I reached the top. A strong door, built for men slightly lower in stature than I, barred my progress further. I took a shuddering breath and, with all my limited strength, pushed open the doorway and burst through like a member of a SWAT team member on mission. I threw myself into a minute chamber lit by ensconced windows, a great majority of the space taken up by a rickety set of stairs which led to a trapdoor in the low roof. I held my poker like a sword, swinging myself from side-to-side, my eyes rapt and searching the musky corners for sign of my prey.

What I found was rather different indeed.

Apparently startled by my sudden, and rather violent, appearance, a tiny creature cowered in the corner, arms raised defensively against what it assumed would be my imminent assault. It was no taller than my delicate knees, and was so slender that I thought it may turn invisible were to stand side-on. A bulbous head, rather onion in shape and size, sat upon its flimsy-looking body, making me wonder for a moment how it kept itself upright. Its skin, if it had such an organ, was black, but the entire extent of the creature was wreathed in flickering, glowing fire. The corner it now cowered in was illuminated in orange, but the tall burst of flame leaping from its large head was a sheer electric blue.

'Goodness!' I gasped, immediately lowering my poker. 'I'm so sorry, dear fellow! I thought that perhaps there was some dangerous beastie up here lingering, but I never expected to find you. You look scared half to death!'

'Well,' the creature said, a small gap in its fire appearing while it spoke, 'what were you blooding expecting?' Its voice was high and harsh. I was reminded for a moment of my mum's old fashioned kettle which whistled when boiling.

I placed the poker firmly out of the way. I looked the creature in the eye, of which there were two, nothing more than almond blips in the flames which were constantly flickering and sparking. 'I'm afraid that the vicar put into my mind that you may be something of the... demonic variety. Those footsteps upon the stairs, you see...'

'A demon?! How... how... insolent, sir!'

'Yes, yes, I know. Please, Mr... there's no need to become animated.'

The creature harrumphed and folded its skinny little arms across its chest. 'I am doing no harm here, sir! I came to await the arrival of a certain expert on the supernatural, who I was assured the vicar was a close associate of.'

I looked down at myself as though my body had suddenly appeared out of thin air. 'Oh, I... I assume that you may be referring to me.' I felt the overwhelming need to apologise suddenly, as if I had, by my own existence, done something terribly wrong.

'You?' The creature looked me up and down and pursed its mouth. 'I... I... I see. Well, sir, I suppose that we are now equal, are we not? I am not what you expected, and you are not what I did. Allow me to introduce myself on neutral ground. I am Frizzle Bumberspark, understudy to Catchal Hollowflame; Master of Law.'

'You are a Bluecap, Mr. Bumberspark, I believe. I have some knowledge of your existence in these here parts, for you see, I am the supernatural investigator Tristan Merryweather.'

'Indeed, sir.' Frizzle bowed deeply, the wispy blue flames on his head kissing the floorboards as he did. 'I am of the Cotswolds Bluecaps, as you may have assumed.'

Bluecaps, I recalled from my mighty encyclopaedia, were sprites most commonly found in mines in the northern quarters of our fair country. I had heard of the Cotswolds population, but had assumed that they had moved north after most of their homes were shut down quite some time ago indeed. Of course, an awful lot of the northern industry is now gone, shut down in the seventies and eighties by unscrupulous politics, damn shame. Where the majority of these Bluecaps now called home I was not sure, but obviously I was entirely incorrect on the Cotswolds populace entirely abandoning these counties. They, when in work, assisted in all aspects of the trade, and for doing so were paid the same as the lowest level of employees, namely, a pound a day for honest, hard work.

'Did you say, Frizzle, that you were understudy to a master of law?' I asked, for the notion of this level of society amongst Bluecaps was entirely unheard of to me.

'Aye, sir!' Frizzle replied, becoming now a little more animated. It was a most peculiar sight, for he seemed to move as if under a strobe light, each jerk and twitch of his spindly limbs sudden and flickering. Each of these movements too caused the flames engulfing him to wisp and hiss. The effect was quite hypnotic. 'I am a young Bluecap, though I may not appear so to your eyes. I have been now in the employ of my master for the past six months! We have been embroiled in but one case for that entire time, it has not yet come to court! Even the King of the Cotswolds Bluecaps, his Great Majesty himself, is demanding a swift resolution. I am most worried, sir, for if my master were to be disgraced, I too would have to shoulder a portion of the blame. It is imperative therefore, that our case comes before the Court of Stone as soon as is possible.'

I nodded, understanding a few of these terms despite the surprise they rendered upon me. Kings and courts and all sorts of legal and personal consequences, it all sounded mightily important. 'So, where do I come in? Surely you've not waiting up here all of this time assuming that I am... an expert in matters of Bluecap law, surely? And what, may I ask, are the details of this particular case?'

'Ah, you see, sir, it is not a criminal matter, for such things are rare amongst our society.'

'If only I could say the same of my own, Frizzle, yet alas I cannot.'

Frizzle nodded, causing his blue flames to jiggle back and forth in liquid motion. 'As I have heard. My own case is a matter of hearsay and deception, I am afraid.'

'Oh? That is... quite unexpected. Have you been done some great wrong by a member of my own kind?'

'An old matter, only now being brought to the attention of our legal system! Thank the Underlord for our lack of limiting statutes, or it would never have happened at all! You see, after the closure of the mines in this area, a number of my fellows travelled to the northern mines for work. My people toiled in the mines of Durham for several decades, sir, and always with prompt and proper payment. Over these years my kind amassed total payments in the region of 150,000 pounds.'

'Goodness!' I exclaimed, for such amounts of money were to me but a pipedream.

'Precisely, sir, a great sum! Alas, when we returned south following the closure of the mines it was discovered amongst our records that we were short-changed! You see, over the years we found that, through trickle and trickery, we had were short by over 30,000! Oh, it took many a year for this to be confirmed. We are beholden to the record keepers of the time, or else this treachery would never have been discovered. It is an ancient rite, sir, that Bluecaps are paid an honest wage for honest work! And these... these... charlatans of Durham have forsaken them!'

'And which charlatans are these, if I may ask?'

Frizzle's face twisted, causing the flames to bend and swirl about his void features in rather sinister fashion. His hollow mouth seemed for a moment to travel almost to the other side of his face. 'Those flaming mites of the North-West Bluecap Administration Bureau! It was they who arranged our employment at the discretion of the mine's owners, and was therefore their responsibility that we were paid. It falls not to the human owners of the mines, you see, but to the Bluecaps themselves to issue payment. The humans, if you'll excuse me, sir, are an awfully forgetful type of creature.'

I recalled the many occasions on which I had forgotten where I had placed my wallet, or where I had parked Joan, and had to agree upon that. 'You are not wrong, Frizzle.'

'So, once this deception was discovered we sought to bring a case against the North-West B.A.B, but they have tied us up in red tape! They claim that our workers were never registered members of our national guild: the B.A.R.F!'

'The Bluecap... Bluecap... er...' Whatever it was, I did not think that it was a particularly good name.

'The Bluecap Administration for Recruitment and Finances!'

'Well I assume they were?'

'Of course!' Frizzle slapped his hands against his sides, causing miniature explosions of sparks to burst forth and scatter over the floorboards. 'But we cannot prove it! You see... it is rather embarrassing, sir, but our legal resources are a little... well... they could be more complete than they are.'

'And why is that?'

'After the quarries and the mines in these parts were dismantled, many years ago, the only copy of our records that we had were... they were accidentally destroyed. Unfortunately we have been working mostly from memory ever since. This is adequate when dealing amongst ourselves, for every party agrees upon our own interpretation...'

'Ah,' I clicked my fingers, 'but not when dealing with those whose records remain intact. Goodness me! They could say anything they wanted and pretend that it was fact, and you'd be none the wiser!'

'Precisely! And the North-West B.A.B is refusing to share with us! Even the B.A.R.F has been no help whatsoever! We need our original records back, so that we may ascertain the exact truth of our own legal precedent! All we have is this,' from behind him in the corner he passed out a bound leather tome about the size of an A5 sheet. 'My father's diary, sir. He was one of the members who went north to work the Durham mines. I am not... well, I've had little time to peruse it, but perhaps you will find it of some use. We must see our people paid the amount we are owed!'

'But for that,' I suggested, 'you would need an intact copy of your workers' records. Does such a thing exist?'

'Yes, sir! And it must be you who returns it to us! Our masters of the old mines kept them, sir, in case they ever required them. Once the mines shut down they were lost, and we now do not know what became of them. You must find them, sir; the honour of the Cotswolds Bluecaps depends upon it!'



IV



There are few places which inspire in me as much feeling as the place to where I was now heading. I have, as one may expect, a strong emotional bond to my parents' house, to my own flat, to the pub in which I took my first drink, to my old school, to the place where I had my first kiss... the list actually is rather long, now that I come to think about it (my first kiss took place on a bench beside the lake in Pittville Park, for all those whose curiosity simply must be sated). Those places are, however, all the root of positive emotions, the sort one chooses to revel in from time to time. The town of Stroud, which I now took the winding, rollercoaster road to, ignited in me a solely sickly feeling one usually associates with a fever.

A former textiles town, Stroud had emerged from a period of destitute downturn in the early 20th century as the beating heart of the county's art scene. According to some it was the greatest centre for culture outside of London, although how one can make such a claim is entirely beyond me. Several artists, including Damien Hirst, have studios in the town, and it attracts a number of visitors which is, frankly, beyond any sane logic or rationale. I, perhaps, have a skewed view of the town; the symptoms of mistreatment and lacking imbursement despite my long-standing history with its residents. Being home to a great number of bohemian eccentrics, there was a longstanding and common belief in the oddities upon which I have built my living. As such, I found myself employed there with semi-regularity in the earlier years of my career, but my payment for such hard work had resulted only in my wardrobe becoming a gallery for hemp and tie-dye. These days, I tended to avoid the place as often as I could, and this had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I had (by my own count) at least three ex-girlfriends still living in the town.

So, arrived I did in that venerable town, parking as I always tended to in the multi-storey beside the cinema. What a stupid place to put a cinema, right next to the bus-stops in what must be Stroud's premium piece of business real-estate. I took tea in the small independent cafe a short walk away, before heading up through the town centre. Stroud's core is built upon a rather steep hill, making a journey of length through it something of a chore. As if venturing to it was not a chore unto itself!

I have decided that, from here on, I shall cease my bellyaching about the town in favour of neutrality. I can only hope that my words up until this point have not entirely ostracised any residents who may be reading.

Anyway, at the very top of the town, through a few back-alleys, there is a row of teetering, half-toppled little shops gathered about a pleasant green with single tree. These are quite pretty, all exposed beams, whitewash walls, and thatch roofs. From their frontage hang cast-iron signs advertising their business, and amongst them are (unsurprisingly) boutiques selling handmade clothes, crystals, sculptures of fairies, local ales and ciders, and second-hand bookshops. I headed, to my chagrin, into the one selling those bloody fairies. What is it with these shops, and why do so many of them exist, particularly in quirky, tourist-attracting towns? One sees them most often in seaside resort towns and villages, always with the same brightly-coloured, glitter infested, hideously cherubesque resin renditions. (This is not a complaint about Stroud specifically.)

The interior of the shop was cloaked in a cloud of incense so thick that it was visible hanging in the air in thick, swirling tendrils. All the walls of the tight space were built with lopsided shelves of various materials, and upon each inch of available space there were sculptures and figurines. Amongst the fairies, with their glittering wings and flowing dresses, there were mighty dragons standing upon geodes, mermaids with glistening tails, centaurs, unicorns, and angels with wings outspread. I rolled my eyes at the overwhelming kitsch.

Though not, it must be said, as hard as I rolled my eyes at the man who was stood perusing said wares.

He was a little shorter than I, and slightly rounder about the middle. Still, he cut a more hulking figure beneath his velvet shirt, and I could not help but notice the way his satin waistcoat was tautly pulled about his broad chest. It was this irregular sense of inadequacy which fuelled my more keen moments of self-reflection, and for all the assurances to you, dear reader, that I am entirely comfortable in my own skin, there were certainly times when this was not entirely the case. This man (for I simply refuse to call him a gentleman) was, as agonising as it may be to admit, rather handsome. He had a strong jaw and a good straight nose, while all his features were crisp and youthful, perfectly proportioned upon his square face. While a luxurious mane of golden hair lay upon his head as thick and as straight as a mighty sunbeam. Yet, for all his ravaging handsomeness, he was a person of questionable moral character, and I prided myself upon being his better in this humble regard. His name was Heston Quentin Gregarian.

'Ah!' Heston said upon spotting me entering the shop. He had spied me in the mirror hanging behind the counter, and had no doubt spotted both the look of disdain spread across my thin features as well the rolling of my narrow eyes. 'Tristan Merryweather, Cheltenham's most detestable detective. And how are you, old friend?'

My brain worked in overtime all of a sudden, desperate for a comeback which would be as witty as it was biting. I was worryingly incompetent under such pressure that I was at great risk for a moment of standing there completely agog. At last I found a sentence amongst the jumble of words struggling to organise themselves, and I spoke in a clear and affected voice so as to not display my growing unease. 'Heston, our profession's very own mercenary for hire. I can only assume that you've ventured so far from your bubble for some dastardly intent? Who exactly are you trying to skin for cash and flesh both today?' It was entirely imperfect, but it is often the manner in which one says something rather than what it is they are actually saying. Just look at politicians for poignant examples of the point.

I was delighted to spy upon Heston's implacable features a similar strain of quick thinking which had moments before flummoxed me. 'I'm working, Tristan, as I heard you have been of late. Still bending over backwards to each and every demand the creatures from afar have been asking of you?'

'And you, I assume, are still fleecing men of low fibre?'

'At least they have funds to fleece, Tristan, what do you gain from acquiescing to monsters but a sense of self-importance?'

'I sleep well at night, Heston. I see no purpose in causing harm to others when a job does not demand it.'

'And that is why you slum it in a bedsit while I am left to decide which of my libraries I ought to spend the afternoon reading in. It is most excellent to have such open access to all sorts of tome and volume, Tristan. I imagine that your library card has worn itself out many a time by now.'

'Wealth is not everything, Heston.'

'Only to those who have never known its sweet kiss, Tristan.'

We spent then a good long second staring at each other with our best threatening faces. He was much too handsome to pull it off, and I was much too lean, I daresay. The sight of us too preening peacocks, in our silks and our satins, attempting to face off in this manner would have been rather amusing to anybody more accustomed to such a level of confrontation.

'One of you best be on your way out.' A voice from deeper in the shop's bowels came.

The woman who emerged from behind a curtain of dangling beads appeared to many, myself included, as some storied old hippy type who had found her style in the sixties and kept religiously to it. She was small now, bent over almost double at the neck, her white hair pouring over the crook in her back like foam riding upon a high wave. Pictures of her youth were placed at random about the shop, revealing her to have once been of great beauty. Now age in its cruelty had stolen that glory from her, but it could not rob her magnificent voice, which was as clear and as authoritative as it must have been 50 years hence.

'I'm leaving,' Heston announced, straightening his ruffles. 'I've got what I came for. I'll be seeing you, Tristan.'

'I'm not sure my stomach could stand it, Heston.'

'What is it between you two?' The little woman asked once Heston had slid past me and escaped my minor wrath. 'Honestly, men. If you weren't both so stubborn you'd see that you've an awful lot in common.'

I was gravely insulted, dear readers, let me tell you. Heston was a man whose cares stopped at the weight of his wallet, with no concern for the welfare and upkeep of our friends from beyond the veil. I do not hold myself in high regard in many matters, but in my morals I have unflinching certainty. 'We're nothing alike, dear Esmeralda. Honestly, we share but a chosen profession, nothing more.'

Esmeralda (I did not know her surname, and was unlikely ever to find out) clicked her tongue and rolled her clouded eyes. I was curious as to what Heston was there to buy, but I knew that he'd gain some satisfaction from my curiosity, and so did not ask.

'So what can I do for you?' The lady purred, leaning her sharp elbows on the glass of her countertop. 'You come to visit so infrequently, Tristan.'

'You've not been busy?'

'The odd tourist and bohemian, but the bulk of my trade is still to your lot. You're my favourite though, of course.'

Esmeralda says this to me each time that I come to visit, and I suspected that each of her other patrons heard it on a regular basis too. The more one thinks he is liked, the more likely he is to be parted from the cash. 'And you of course are my most favourite purveyor of all things relevant to my craft, dear Esmeralda, but I fear my shopping list is today but a scrap of paper rather than lengthy scroll.'


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