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Old August 24th, 2012 (05:09 AM). Edited August 24th, 2012 by Cutlerine.
Cutlerine
Gone. May or may not return.
 
Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: The Misspelled Cyrpt
Age: 21
Gender:
Nature: Impish
I apologise for the way my entries are clustered together in one post like this - when I posted them, the forum decided they constituted a string of double posts, and automatically merged them. Now I can't separate them.

One-Liner:

Chapter Eighty-Four: The End [K]

Spoiler:
And now, dear readers, I must write faster, and bring this tale of mine to a swift conclusion, for even as I put these words to paper the old man is reaching across my shoulder to steal my penci—



My First Catch:

Illumination [T]

Spoiler:
There was one thing I never really appreciated until the time actually came to catch a Pokémon – something I'd never even considered might be a problem. Something that I should've thought of right away, and yet never realised until I actually held the ball in my hand.

That thing is how difficult it is to hit a small, fast-moving target with a Poké Ball.

I mean, it had never seemed to be a problem for anyone else. On TV or on the Internet, famous Trainers asked about captures always said things about how their targets put up a good fight, or how they kept breaking loose of the ball before it locked – but none of them ever mentioned how hard it was to hit the damn things in the first place. And because no one ever mentioned it, I never realised it was an issue.

In case you're wondering where this is going, it's basically me making excuses for failing the first time around. Yeah, that's right: I failed. My Snubbull and I spent three hours chasing a Sentret around a muddy field, broke about fifteen balls on rocks, and gave up when it got dark and I still hadn't managed to hit the stupid thing even once. Sure, Simone – that's the Snubbull (not my choice of name, by the way; she was a rescue Pokémon from the New Bark Town shelter and came pre-named) – bit it once or twice, when she could get close, but that just made it run faster.

That was another thing I'd never taken into account: the fact that the Pokémon might try and run away instead of fighting. Listening to the interviews with people like Red Pastelle or Falkner Stanchley, you'd think that every wild animal in the world was out to kill you the moment you stepped outside – but it took me two days to even find the Sentret, and even then it showed absolutely no desire to attack. If it felt anything at all, it was terror, not fury.

All of that was revolving slowly in my head as I prepared for the second attempt – the wild fear of the Sentret, the mud, the inaccuracy of the ball. I hadn't moved on from the Trainer's Lodge on Route 29 since the failed capture, and I wasn't the only one: more than a few of the other new Trainers were as disillusioned as I was, and had been spending most of their time, like me, throwing tennis balls at increasingly small targets in an attempt to improve their aim. We weren't even battling that much – I mean, we were all beginners, and our fights were generally over in about five minutes; they just weren't that interesting, and we were all coming around to the discovery that there were a hell of a lot more skills involved in being a Trainer than just fighting.

In fact, it was a week until I finally thought I might try again. A group of the others had decided to get together to see if that would increase their chances, but I just couldn't join them: this was my first catch. It was meant to be special, the start of a long and glorious road to great and noble things – the kind of thing you did on your own, just you and your Pokémon. So while they marched off into the meadows south of the road together, I went north, heading for the trees that cloaked the foothills of the Crags. I wasn't just being contrary, either – I'd put a lot of thought into this, and remembered that in the trees there were some Pokémon that weren't nearly so good at running away as the Pidgey and Rattata of the fields, things like Exeggcute or Pineco, that lacked legs and would probably be easier to corner.

I was nervous, of course. Not only was this my first catch, but I'd failed on the first attempt, which raised the stakes still higher; if I couldn't catch anything now, it would be tantamount to admitting I was totally unfit to Train – especially if the others in the group returned to the Lodge in the evening with a pile of filled balls. I imagined walking in to the lounge, seeing Rattata and Sentret that weren't there in the morning, and knowing that the Snubbull waddling along at my side was the only Pokémon I had, and a shiver ran down my spine.

But I was excited, too – who wouldn't be, in my situation? I was only thirteen back then, and I bounced back from defeats pretty quickly; it had been a week since I'd lost the Sentret, and my morale had recovered well enough. The sun was shining, there was a breeze and, as I walked through the forest, I felt sure that I'd find something I'd be able to catch. I had thirty Poké Balls, a tin of dog food for Simone and three sandwiches for me; all seemed to be right with the world.

At about one, I stopped and ate, prising open the can with my penknife and offering it to Simone; she yelped enthusiastically and buried her heavy jaws in the meat within. I know now that that was a mistake – full Pokémon are slower, less alert and more sleepy than hungry ones – but back then it didn't matter; I had no idea that I should've waited until after the capture.

As I munched on my sandwich and Simone gnawed pensively on the now-empty tin, I cast my eye around the area. It was trees, for the most part – trees and dirt, with the occasional shrub. It was a quiet ancient place, a place where anything could happen - a gnarled tree could uncurl and show itself to be an old man, a unicorn could canter calmly through the glade.

A kid could even catch his first Pokémon here, without any wonder.

I stood up and brushed crumbs from my lap, and in some way the sanctity of the forest seemed to disappear. The magic had dissolved in that one simple action and I stood still, gaping stupidly at nothing, until Simone barked and pressed her wet snout into my leg.

“Huh? Oh. Yeah. We're here to catch Pokémon.” My voice sounded curiously alien to my ears; it was the forest, I think, its vast mulchy presence deadening all sounds.

I shivered and walked on, keeping an eye out for any signs of movement; because of that, I didn't notice the Pineco until I'd walked into it.

My head connected with something hard with a thok, and, staggering back a step, I saw a large pine cone hanging from the underside of a branch. The only hint I got that there was anything more to it than that was the pair of worried eyes staring out at me from its core.

I looked at the Pineco, and the Pineco looked back.

Its eyes slid down to Simone, swiftly looked away, and shut tightly.

Nothing happened.

I stared at it for a while longer, but it didn't move; perhaps, I thought, it was hoping I hadn't noticed it. I looked at Simone, who had got bored and was investigating a stately-looking black beetle with a look of extreme distrust – no help coming from that quarter, then, because I would have to speak to her to get her attention, and I didn't want to startle the Pineco.

I was about to risk it and go for a ball when the Pineco opened one eye, noted I was still there and exploded in a startling but harmless burst of bark and chitin, and I was left standing there with a Poké Ball in one hand and a piece of wood in the other to contemplate the fact that it had chosen to kill itself rather than be my friend.

Of course, I now know that Pineco don't die after exploding – they just shed their shells violently and run – but at the time it was probably the most depressing thought of my life. I thought about going back – there was still time, after all; there was always time – but decided against it. I couldn't face failing today, I just couldn't. And it wasn't like I was a bad Trainer, either – I had Simone and I was doing all right with her. If anything, the Pineco had just been rude, and not a little melodramatic. Yes, that was what I wanted to believe; the Pineco believed itself wasted on me, and had chosen to express it in a particularly crass and insulting manner.

“Yeah,” I said aloud. “I can do it. Of course I can. I mean, it was just being annoying.”

“Woof,” interrupted Simone, tugging at my shoelaces. “Woof woof.”

“What?” I looked down and followed her with my eyes as she scampered over to a nearby tree and jumped up and down, nose in the air. “There's something up there?” I asked, and chose to interpret her answering bark as a 'Yes'. “OK,” I said, picking her up and putting her on my shoulders, where she dug her claws into my backpack and hung on like a limpet. “OK, let's see what it is. Quiet, yeah?”

She licked my ear by way of confirmation, and I started up the tree. It wasn't a hard one: years of wear and tear had snapped off a branch low down, from which I could easily reach the higher ones, and being pretty well versed in the noble art of tree-climbing, I reached a broad fork about two-thirds of the way up without much difficulty. Here, I sat down on a branch and set Simone on the wood before me, to get an update on where we were going.

She wasn't too confident walking around up there – understandable; Snubbull live in plains and scrubland where they almost never even see a tree, let alone climb them – but I'd brought her up trees before, and it didn't take long for her to get her confidence back, running along to the end of the branch and stamping on something. A moment later, she withdrew her paw, checked that whatever she'd crushed was dead, scooped it up and brought it over to me, holding it out so I could see.

“A beetle? What...?” I trailed off, mentally connecting the squashed beetle in her paws with the one crawling around in the dirt a few minutes ago. “You had me climb up here just so you could squish a bug you didn't like?”

Simone woofed sheepishly, if that's possible, and hurriedly tossed the beetle out of the tree.

“We're on a serious mission!” I berated her. “I have to catch a Pokémon!”

“Woof.”

“Don't give me that, I—”

Swish.

Something hit me between the shoulder blades like a cosmic hammer, and suddenly I was falling. A branch rose out of nowhere, hit me in the stomach; another fall, another branch, another bruise, another—

I slammed down onto the forest floor, winded. I could barely breathe; stars danced before my eyes, in and out of the leaves and dirt – and then a dark shape passed overhead, the adrenaline kicked in and reality snapped sharply into focus. My eyes flicked to the right – dirt. To the left – Simone in the tree. Up – diving Noctowl.

I rolled over as fast as I could, trying to get back on my feet. Above me I heard frantic barking – of course, Simone couldn't get down. There was nothing at all between me and the Noctowl now bearing down on me once more.

I tried to sit up, to throw myself out of the way – but it fell fast, in a hard rush it had perfected on hundreds of Rattatta. I'd barely got my breath back before its talons scythed into my stomach and knocked it out again. Red fireworks of pain erupted all across my belly, and my voice mingled with the Noctowl's as I screamed.

It jerked back at the sound, tugging its claws out of my shirt and tangling them in my jacket; it staggered wildly onto my leg, wings akimbo, and somehow I managed to sit up, fingers closing around a stick, and swing at it—
The Noctowl's wing, huge and brown and muscular, snapped out and hit my wrist like a freight train. I doubled up, dropping the stick and crying out; this wasn't an owl, I remembered dizzily, it was a Pokémon, much stronger, an animal2...

A big brown head suddenly filled my vision, beak open in a screech too high-pitched for me to hear; a moment later, I felt it take a chunk out of my cheek and I lurched backwards, shrieking. I couldn't fight back, there was no way I could fight back; my hands flew to my face and dimly, through a mist of tears, I saw a pair of huge red eyes fill my vision, expanding slowly, irises and the dark pit at their centres. I relaxed; my hands dropped to the dirt and all my wounds drifted far away, out into a void where they belonged to no one. I didn't think, I didn't feel; I just saw those eyes, shining like newborn suns.

Then a pale blur flew out of nowhere, knocked the eyes away and crushed the breath from my body. The Noctowl shrieked, wheezed – and Simone, from atop my chest, squealed.

There was silence for a long time – for a very long time, it seemed, though it couldn't have been more than a minute or two. Then, my stomach and face burning, I pushed the heap of fur and feathers off my chest and pulled myself up into a sitting position.

The Noctowl lay to my left, looking dazed; to its right, Simone pedalled her feet slowly in the air, a dreamy expression on her face. I heard something from above, and looked up to see a nervous-looking pair of Hoothoot in a ramshackle nest in the top of the tree, cheeping anxiously at their parent on the ground below. So that was what it was: we'd got too close, woken the Noctowl and it had defended the nest. Stupid, I thought dully. Everyone loses for no reason at all.

I felt my stomach and cheek gingerly, and though they hurt even more than the rest of me, I was relieved: they were just little cuts, that was all – nothing major. Add that to the fact that I didn't seem to have broken anything in the fall, and I guessed I was pretty damn lucky.

That cheered me up a bit, and so did the realisation that I'd just defeated my first wild Pokémon – and a strong one, too. OK, so Simone had fallen fifteen feet onto it rather than using any moves, but still. I'd beaten it fair and square, and after all that I was damned if I wasn't going to catch it.

I recalled Simone to her ball – she didn't look like she could walk back – and pulled out another from my bag. Then, with mounting excitement, I dropped it on the Noctowl, causing it to dwindle into a mote of red light – which promptly expanded again as the big bird twitched in its sleep.

I frowned. Guess it's too strong for a perfect catch, then.

I got it on the third ball, and put it triumphantly in my pocket. There. I'd caught something – by myself, not with the group. I, Riley Alderman, had caught a Pokémon, and in one glorious instant all my pain melted away to be replaced by swelling pride. Had I had the energy, I'd have jumped to my feet and danced around in joy; as it was, I cheered quietly and waved my hands a little.

I completely forgot about the two Hoothoot, of course; looking back, I think they were near full-grown, probably fledged, so hopefully they got on OK without their parent. At the time, I just got up, slowly and painfully, and started the long walk back to the Lodge, silently celebrating and wondering vaguely if Noctowl could carry rabies.

That was that: my first successful catch. It wasn't how I'd expected it to be, nor was it any of the Pokémon I thought it'd be. I got hurt a lot worse than I'd anticipated, and Simone went a lot further to help me than I'd thought she ever could. I guess you could call it a formative experience – if nothing else, it really rammed home exactly how steep a learning curve being a Trainer was. I'd thought I was doing all right, but I realised then that I had a long way to go.

On the way back, I met into the group who'd gone south into the tall grass. Most of them had new Poké Balls clipped to their bandoleers, but I knew none of them would have anything as impressive as a full-grown Noctowl.

“What happened to you?” one asked, as I limped by on bruised legs.

I held up the Noctowl's ball.

“That did,” I replied tiredly, and walked on, knowing that they were all staring at my torn clothes and slashed face and wondering what on earth I'd caught. A secret smile crossed my face: if I wasn't mistaken, I'd just become cool.

Things were looking up, it's true. But there was one thing I hadn't thought of before I'd caught the Noctowl - something I'd never even considered might be a problem. Something that I should've thought of right away, and yet never realised until I actually let it out at the Lodge.

That thing was how hard it would be to get the damn thing to obey me.




Comedy:

A Letter of Complaint to J. H. Aswith's of Tunbridge Wells [T]

Spoiler:
Falkingdale House
10 Mortmonceau Street
London
SWC 4PB

J.H. Aswith
Studio 42
The Old Priory
24 Redgeford Road
Tunbridge Wells

Dear sir,

I am writing to you with the aim of lodging a formal complaint about the installation you made on my tropical island volcano lair during March of this year.

Faced with but a single unlikely hero, the systems completely and utterly failed to function in any manner even close to that which was advertised. The inability of the slow-burning lasers to kill a hero strapped to a table I will admit was due to cunning use of mirrored sunglasses on the part of said victim, but the penetration of the 'indestructible' blast doors with a makeshift crowbar cannot be put down to anything but poor craftsmanship: while the body of the doors remained intact, the hinges were easily broken with a couple of blows. This 'fatal weakness', as the aforementioned unlikely hero put it, is a defect that seems to be common to all the defence systems I employed you to install.

The swinging axe-blades, for instance, while admirably sharp, were held in place by cheap rope that the said unlikely hero easily burned through with a cigarette lighter. He was also able to wedge the walls that close in apart with an old brick, which the mechanism ought to have been able to overcome – I draw your attention to the advert which claimed the walls could 'pulverise concrete in thirty seconds'.

Furthermore, the hero and his accomplice, a surprisingly feisty young heroine, managed to escape the shark pool by means of the drainage pipe – the hatch covering which was held shut by nothing more than a simple rusty wheel. I am sure you must agree that the stiffness of a pin cannot be relied upon to act as a locking mechanism, and question why it was that you installed such a device.

The most unacceptable oversight, however, is the inclusion of a long, straight pipe leading from the rear veranda of my lair directly to the interior of the nuclear reactor providing power to my doomsday device. As a result of this, the unlikely hero was able to drop a grenade into the reactor – a grenade, I might add, purloined from my own armoury, the lock of which was installed by you with the proviso that it was impossible to pick. In consequence, this single grenade destroyed my entire lair, caused the eruption of the volcano, ruined my doomsday device and severely devalued the property. The cost of the damage, in conjunction with that incurred by paying out compensation to the families of the seventy-three henchmen who perished in the blast, has financially ruined me, and the radiation rendered many of my remaining employees sterile.

I could not even escape the wreckage, as the jet-powered escape pod you supplied me with failed a mere five seconds after take-off, dropping me into the lava flow and resulting in extreme disfigurement on my part. I now find myself prone to maniacal cackling and sudden bouts of swearing vengeance on those who destroyed my life's work; my psychiatrist, the eminent Dr. Charles Dupont, is of the opinion that my mental disturbance is a direct result of the trauma that you are in no small way responsible for.

The only product that I purchased from you that functioned as advertised was the helicopter that the unlikely hero and feisty heroine stole from my launch pad and used to escape my devastated island. Obviously, this sort of failure to provide is completely unacceptable, and I demand a full refund of the cost of erecting the lair, as well as $2,000,000 in compensation, which will adequately cover the cost of replacing henchmen and remedial plastic surgery, and allow me to return to full-time work as a criminal genius within a year.

Please find enclosed a letter from my lawyer.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. James P. Evil, M.D.



Horror:

The Last Story in the World [T]

Spoiler:
They were here.

That was how her story would begin, thought Nadia: in media res, dropping the reader straight into the twisted wreck of her life, forcing them to piece together bits of knowledge here and there as they went along. No time for backstory, no time for explanations; she was Nadia, the others were gone, and there were monsters.

They were here.

The apartment block was shot through with night like a widow's dress; once, there had been electricity, but now there was no prolonging the day. Too many dead, she supposed – no one left, except her. Her story was a dark one, with only one character and a thousand fearsome antagonists.

They were here.

Nadia felt like she was drenched in silence. She'd spent days – weeks – hell, maybe months; she had no way of knowing – in the apartment, moving quietly, never talking, eking out the food and hoping against hope that one day a human voice would break the silence.

They were here.

She'd been a writer once – not a professional one, a scribbler, an amateur wordsmith. And in her head, a vast story had spun out over the endless night with a cast of millions, dying and chewing and fighting and screwing and falling over themselves in an effort to make it out the other side.

They were here.

Now she could hear the soft, heavy drag of flesh across carpet outside, and a new story started with three short words she had been dreading since she'd first barricaded the door:

They were here.

Nadia pressed her ear cautiously against the door and listened. The thing was snuffling now, and in her mind's eye, honed by years of writing and weeks of isolation, she saw its muzzle pressed deep into the carpet, searching for the scent of food, of flesh and sweat – the scent of Nadia.

She recoiled sharply, crawling backwards away from the door as fast as she dared. The room was dark as pitch, but she knew the layout by heart now: table on the left, chair just ahead, and to the right, the sofa.

Nadia planted one hand firmly on the sofa arm and eased herself up onto her feet, holding her breath. Quiet now, she told herself. Quiet quiet quiet. Stay calm and make no noise.

Outside, the monster rumbled, and Nadia's heart jumped, slamming hard into her ribs and almost knocking her over. Steady, she thought. Steady, Nadia; stay steady. She stole across the room, bare feet silent on the carpet – she had learned already that shoes were far too noisy – and into the kitchen, closing the door behind her.

Something thumped against the front door.

Nadia choked on her tongue, held in the resulting cough and clenched her fists hard. Ragged fingernails left little crescents in her palms, and she thought she felt blood – but when she touched it, there was nothing there but skin.

Too jumpy, she told herself, fighting the urge to scream. Calm down. There's nothing here yet.

Through the kitchen, into the bedroom. She'd perfected this plan a long time ago; there hadn't been much else to do. The story went on, she thought; the heroine kept running, the monsters kept chasing, and all the knights were dead.

Somewhere in the dark a shot rang out, and another – and then silence. Nadia didn't even notice, because the thing had broken down the door in a violent splintering of wood, all the louder after the long silence, and involuntarily she screamed.

It was a tiny scream, a small wavering cry that she bit back as soon as she heard it, but it was enough. The beast let out a bizarre sound halfway between a snarl and a cackle, and the scraping and thumping grew faster and louder—

Crack!

The sound of the kitchen door splitting brought her back to her senses in a rush, and Nadia turned and ran. Past the bed, slide open the window, onto the balcony, up on the rail and—

She stopped. It was a long way to the next balcony, she thought, and a very long way down. The street below was too dark to see, but she knew this was the seventh storey, and that meant one missed step would result in a long drop and an all-too-sudden stop.

Claws on linoleum screeched out from the kitchen, and the story wrote out another line in Nadia's head – she knew that the asphalt was kinder than the teeth – and without any hesitation she flung herself out over the street—

—and her fingers closed around cold metal, the balcony railings firm within her grasp. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes, and she scrambled up and over, barrelling into the apartment and slamming the window behind her.

Silence.

Chest heaving, breath rasping, mind racing, standing rigidly in an unfamiliar sitting-room – and silence.

Then, wrote Nadia in her head, she heard it.

The thing had slithered out onto the balcony, she knew; she heard it hiss in the night air, heard its thick tail slap against the concrete, a sound like a baby thunderclap. Now it was retreating, back into her apartment, and Nadia sank down onto the floor in relief. She was shaking, she saw: her hands, silhouetted against the moonlight-drenched curtains, were trembling like leaves in the wind.

She should leave the similes behind, she told herself. This was no time for stories. She had to stay alert.

Crawling over to the wall, Nadia heard it lumbering slowly back the way it had come, poking at something in the bedroom – her stuffed toys, from the sound – and turning over cookbooks in the kitchen. Was it looking for her? Did it think she might be there still, hiding from it in some obscure nook?

The story went on:

It was then that she noticed the blood.

Nadia lifted her hand, the monster next door suddenly forgotten, and realised that it was sticky with something that glinted darkly in the dim light. She swallowed, heart trying to climb out of her mouth, and felt on the floor to her left.

There was slick smoothness where the face should have been.

She might have fainted for a moment – just for half a second, not even long enough to hit the floor. The gorge rose in her throat, but Nadia held it back, the monster next door swimming vaguely into her head; she couldn't make noise, it would be fatal to make noise—

Nadia found herself on the other side of the room, wiping her hand on the carpet. She didn't know how she'd got there, but didn't question it; the thing hadn't heard, and she was away from the man on the floor, and that was all that mattered.

She forced her breath to slow, fingers curling tightly around the threads of the carpet. Be quiet, Nadia, she ordered herself, reason just about holding off fear. Be quiet. Be quiet and nothing can find you, no monsters will get you, you won't get hurt...

Perhaps she was mad, but the story couldn't be stopped; it lurched on through her head with the unstoppable might of a rolling boulder, and she could not blank out the words that rang in her ears, read out in her own voice:

As she regained her composure, she began to think about her situation. She thought about the monster in her sitting-room, and remembered that she had heard it come up the stairs. That meant that it had not come from the next-door apartment.

Nadia's heart skipped a beat – and for once it wasn't a turn of phrase. It actually stopped for a moment.

And that meant there was another one in here with her.

Nadia was on her feet—

There were red eyes in the dark—

Yellow teeth flew forward—

Nadia tripped.

It was a classic horror-film moment, the story went, the heroine runs, but she loses her footing and falls to the floor as the steady paces of the killer draw nearer—

“Stop!” Nadia screamed, voice broken and raw with long disuse. “No more words!”

The thing paused, thrown by the sudden noise, and Nadia scrambled to her feet, stumbling forwards past heaps of unfamiliar furniture, heedless of the noise. Crash – a cutlery drawer; thump – a lamp; crack – a cupboard door.

And the throbbing thunder of the monster's roar behind her.

Front door, hallway, something crunching under her foot, down the stairs. The world flashed by in a disjointed collection of images: torn carpet, the hall window, the newel post and a hunk of meat.

She could hear the first monster now, alerted by the noise, heaving its bloated belly over the furniture as it rushed after her.

Around the landing, down the next flight of stairs, into the sixth-floor hall. The doors to the two closest apartments were ajar; a thought flashed through Nadia's mind with the speed of Time's scythe and she slammed one shut before slipping past the other and into the dark room beyond.

All at once, the sound of her footsteps was gone; now, crouched behind a sofa, eyes fixed on the crack of light at the edge of the door, Nadia could hear nothing but her own breath rasping in her throat and the two monsters bounding down the stairs, wheezing like old men. Perhaps they had been asthmatic, she thought distantly, back when they were still human.

They had reached the bottom now – she heard the rhythm of their footsteps change, and their pace slow as they paced towards her. She hoped they'd be fooled; she prayed they'd be fooled. If they hadn't heard the door slam – or if they had but knew she was only trying to trick them—

She heard the other door open, and sighed silently, tears of relief starting from her eyes. The trick had worked. They were in the other apartment.

Sounds drifted through the wall to Nadia's ears: tails scraping, claws clicking; breath stuttering and flat fleet slapping. Now they were pushing the furniture around, wondering where she had hidden herself; now they were snorting and rumbling at each other, as if discussing the hunt; now they had discovered something to eat, and a ghastly chewing sound emanated from the apartment.

In the dark, said the story, seizing on the detail and building a mountain of horrific images from it, she couldn't see how pale she had gone; it didn't matter. She could feel how afraid she was anyway.

Now was the time. She couldn't stay here; she had to get somewhere else – anywhere else – before they thought to come in here, and right now they were distracted by their meal.

Nadia swallowed, and crept towards the door.

Next door, the chewing and tearing continued – almost as loud as her pulse, thought Nadia. In fact, it was a wonder that anything could drown that out; she was sure they must be able to hear it, jackhammering away behind her ribs.

She slunk past the open door, as wary and quiet as an alley cat passing the animal pound. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see them shuffling, tipping their heads back to swallow mouthfuls of something meaty – but she kept her gaze straight ahead, not trusting herself not to scream if she looked directly at them.

And then she was past. The stairs lay before her, and Nadia let out a soundless sigh of relief as she set her foot on the first step with a loud creak.

It seemed so loud in the silence, like a belch at a funeral. Her whole body tensed, each muscle instantly ready to flee – but there was nothing to run from. She leaned forwards, trying to see what the beasts were doing, and caught a glimpse of them through the door, still engrossed in their meal.

Never had the walk up the stairs seemed so long. Every step was an eon of anticipation; each tiny shift of the carpet beneath her sent waves of paralysing dread through her, as if the act of simply existing would bring them down upon her.

The story was getting to her, too. Nadia was beginning to think she might have been a little more affected by the isolation and the dark than she thought; she should definitely be in control of her internal commentary, not a powerless bystander swept up in its flow. By the time she reached the top of the stairs, she was sweating from the effort of holding back the words, and as she crept back to her apartment, her concentration slipped and let a half-sentence through:

—the end was in sight—

Nadia shook her head and pushed through the splintered remnants of her front door. They wouldn't come back here, she thought. They'd already searched here and she'd run; surely they'd continue the search elsewhere.

She passed through the kitchen, picking her way through the pots and pans strewn across the floor; she passed the fridge, long since dead, and the cupboard where she kept the last of the food and water.

The bedroom. The door was still intact here; this would be her fortress now. In fact, she thought, she didn't want to leave it ever again, and she went back to the kitchen to gather up her remaining supplies, to hide under the bed. She didn't count them – she didn't need to. She knew how much was left, and that it would be enough to last a day or so.

She shut the door, and sat down cross-legged on the floor; she shut her eyes, and in her mind's eye saw the remnants of the man and woman downstairs. She saw them turn and pace steadily towards the stairs; she saw them creeping across the landing and up to the hall.

Nadia's eyes opened wide and she bit her lip so hard she drew blood.

They had always known where she was, she realised. All this time, she had been thinking of them as monsters, but she knew better in her heart. There was still a spark of intellect behind those bloody, twisted faces, and they had known where she would go.

“No,” whispered Nadia. “No, they can't...”

She wanted to get up, to move to the window, but she had to stop and listen. The story dictated what would happen, she told herself, and she couldn't defy it.

She saw them push aside the fragments of the door and drag themselves through the sitting-room. They were in no hurry; after all, this was the climax of the chase, and according to all the rules, they had to approach with measured paces while the heroine fretted helplessly.


The first impact shook the door; the second saw a blunt, bony muzzle poke through the woodwork.

Quite simply, this appeared to be the end.

And then it was gone: the story had ended. For a moment, Nadia was frozen in surprise, and there was another thumping blow on the door – and then she came to her senses, feeling more alert and alive than she had for a long time. It was stupid: there was never anything in the story. It was just the product of a fevered mind with no stimulation. She had been a little crazy, but she was all right now—

The monster came through the door.

Nadia flung herself out of her thoughts and across the bed, springing up and sprinting out onto the balcony as heavy jaws closed at her heels. Both beasts were behind her now; she felt their hot, rank breath on her neck, and with a certain quiet detachment she realised she had no hope of making the jump to the next balcony again. There was no time.

A phrase came into her head, a fragment of the burnt-out story: she knew that the asphalt was kinder than the teeth.

“The end,” said Nadia aloud, and dropped away into the dark.



Mystery/Suspense:

The Bizarre Case of the Silver Ring [T]

Spoiler:
I suppose I ought to have seen this coming. People like her don't come to people like me; they go to someone like Holmes, someone with class. But I didn't think of it at the time, and took the case – and now I'm about to join the ranks of the undead.

I estimate I have about three seconds before I die – not that it will last long. After all, I'm going to come straight back again, albeit in a form more suited to battling Her Majesty's armed forces while the forces of darkness steal the throne.

And all because of that one woman. I remember her well – she's here in the room, I think, quietly gibbering in the corner. She looks different now; when she came in, she had an air of power about her, a quiet confidence that when she gave an order, everyone around her would jump to obey. It was enough to make me look up sharply when she came in: people like her didn't turn up every day.

I eyed her from behind the desk. I wasn't as arrogant as Holmes – I didn't force people into my cramped bedsit. Instead, I had a little office in Cheapside; nothing too glamorous, but I liked to think it was that much more professional.

“Are you Mr. Wemmick?” she asked.

“Yes, I am,” I replied. Clients usually say that, and for the life of me I can't think of why. They just came through a door with my name on it, for God's sake.

“My name is Isobel Emsworth,” she said, and paused as if waiting for me to react; when I showed no sign of recognition, she carried on, slightly disappointed. “You were recommended to me by a friend, who says you're quite as good as Mr. Holmes and much cheaper.”

I raised my eyebrows. Holmes. Always damn Holmes. The whole of London was obsessed with the man; if I ever got my hands on that John Watson, there would probably be blood spilt.

“Well, your friend certainly has good taste in consulting detectives,” I told her. “Please, sit down and tell me what it is you need.”

Miss Emsworth – I was almost certain she was unmarried – looked at the chair, decided it was just clean enough and sat down fastidiously on the very edge of it.

“I would have chosen Holmes at the start,” she said, “but I wouldn't want that Mr. Watson to write about the case in . It's rather a private matter.”

“Yes,” I said patiently, “but what is the matter? I assume you haven't come all the way here for the pleasure of it.”

She looked a little nettled at that. I expect it wasn't everyday that people dared to speak to her like that – and maybe I'd regret doing so once I found out who she was. I didn't care. She was mentioning Holmes too much for my liking.

“My brother died recently,” she said, though she didn't sound particularly upset about it, “and he had in his possession a rather valuable family heirloom at the time.”

“An heirloom that has since gone missing?” I asked.

“Yes,” confirmed Miss Emsworth. “A silver ring. It's been in my family for generations, and since he is now deceased, it should have been passed on to me – but when I came to collect his effects, I couldn't find it.”

“Are you sure it isn't just lost?” I asked. “A great many people think things have been stolen when... well, when they haven't.”

“Quite sure,” she replied. “The thief stole the whole finger he was wearing it on – cut clean off at the base.”

I sat back, surprised. Who on earth would cut off a finger to steal a ring?

“I see,” I said slowly. “Very well, I suppose I can investigate for you. In strictest confidence, is that correct?”

“It would be much appreciated,” answered Miss Emsworth. “When can you start?”

“I think I already have,” I told her. “Where does your brother live?”

---

As it turned out, he lived in the heart of Belgravia, on Eaton Square – the mention of which made the cab driver immediately suspect me of being at once very wealthy and very stupid. In consequence, he spent most of the trip mentioning quite loudly how expensive it was to maintain a hackney cab, and to keep a horse, even if it was a magical construct, and how he had an exceptionally large family to support. Since I didn't have enough money to spare to get him to shut up, I sat and suffered in silence until we reached our destination, where I exacted a small vengeance by putting my sleight-of-hand skills to good use and taking a shilling of his payment back out of his hand without him noticing.

The house itself was large and grand, and part of a terrace of large grand houses; if Miss Emsworth was anything like as rich as her brother, there might be quite a good fee in this case. I surveyed it happily for a moment, then knocked on the door – which was answered so suddenly that it almost seemed like the servant behind it had been lying in wait for me.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “My name is Silas Wemmick – consulting detective.”

“Like Sherlock Holmes?” asked the man curiously.

“Yes,” I replied through gritted teeth. “Just like Sherlock Holmes. I've been engaged by Miss Emsworth to search for a missing ring.”

The light dawned on him, and he nodded in comprehension.

“Ah, I see,” he said. “Please, sir, come in.”

I followed him into an elegant hall, where he offered me something to drink; I declined in favour of seeing the room where his master had died immediately. He led me upstairs to a spacious bedroom, and pointed out a large armchair near the bed.

“He was found there,” he told me. “I don't know what happened, to be sure. He was in the best of health the night before, and in the morning – dead!” He shook his head with a kind of ghoulish delight; evidently he hadn't liked him all that much. “His body is still being examined at the Royal London Hospital.”

“Why would the finger be cut off, do you think?” I asked, crouching over the armchair. There was a patch of dried blood on the arm and a drop on the carpet beneath, and the cushions were buckled with familiar use.

The man chuckled quietly.

“Why would it be cut off? Had you ever seen Mr. Emsworth, sir?”

“No. He was overweight, then?”

“Very much so,” replied the servant. “I doubt the ring could have been removed by any other means.”

The armchair told me as much: the size of the depressions in it indicated tremendous weight. I stood up and walked across to the window to judge how easy it would be to get in from outside.

“Did anyone come in that night?” I asked. “Through the door, that is.”

“No, sir,” he replied. “The locks and bolts were all in order in the morning. I would know if anyone had come in through the doors.”

“Which leaves the window,” I muttered to myself. “Not too hard to get to, but risky.” It faced the square; anyone coming in that way would be easily spotted. “What other ways in are there?” I asked aloud.

“The back door is also in order, and the windows there look onto the yard, which is surrounded by a wall,” he told me. “No one could get in there, not even from the other house – Mr. Emsworth liked his privacy, sir, and was a little paranoid at times.”

How rude he was, I thought. They hadn't even ascertained his employer's cause of death yet and here he was talking about him like this.

“I see,” I said. “I don't suppose you know if anyone particularly wanted the ring? Someone who might have been willing to steal it?”

“Let me think... No, sir. I'm quite sure there wasn't.” He looked at me. “Will that be all?”

“I suppose so. For now.”

I left the house in a pensive mood. I was almost certain the intruder had come through the window – under the latch were a series of fresh lines scored in the paint, as if someone had forced it open with a screwdriver or small crowbar. What I wanted to know now was who had done it, and whether or not they had also killed Emsworth; I needed, I decided, to visit the Royal London Hospital to see how he had died.

I would have gone there, too, and in all probability would have continued the investigation as normal, had not I hailed a cab and got in to find a man aiming a gun at me.

“Shut the door,” he said. “Sit down.”

I complied, acutely aware of the balance of power, and watched him as the cab began to move. He was a military-looking gentleman with a stiff white moustache and a lined face; I suspected he had spent many years working with guns, and knew well how to use the weapon he held.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Can't tell you,” he replied. “National secret.” He indicated the closed curtains. “Who's employing you?”

“Miss Emsworth. Mr. Emsworth's sister.”

“Doesn't have a sister. It's a trick.”

“What?”

Things were all beginning to get very confusing; I prided myself on having quite a sharp mind, but I didn't understand what was happening.

The man stroked his moustache pensively, and put down his gun.

“Look,” he said, “I'll be frank with you. Emsworth was a colleague of mine.”

“Really?”

“Yes. First Sorcerous Fusiliers, accountable directly to Queen Victoria herself.” He straightened up a little when he mentioned Her Majesty's name – force of habit, I assumed.

“Ah. Now that you mention it, I do believe there was a magic-tap by his bedside.”

“Yes. High quality – straight from Stonehenge. Damn good stuff.”

I sighed.

“Where is this going, Mr... I'm sorry, I didn't get your name.”

“Hawksworth. Colonel Hawksworth.”

“Colonel Hawksworth, if Miss Emsworth is not, in fact, Miss Emsworth, and Mr. Emsworth is a military wizard, what exactly does that mean for me?”

“It means you need to drop the case,” he told me. “We were on the trail of a band of warlocks – necromancers, doncha know. Seized a ring of power from them – Anglo-Saxon runes, powerful stuff – in a raid last week, but he was cursed. Took hold last night.” He shook his head. “Damn shame.”

I waited to see if he would say any more, but he didn't. Since he was being so uncooperative, I tried to figure things out for myself.

“So you broke in and stole the ring yourself, suspecting the warlocks would get it back?”

“Correct. And I was right – this Miss Emsworth turned up the next morning, claiming it was a family heirloom.”

“Right. So Miss Emsworth is a necromancer?”

“Don't be stupid,” said the Colonel. “She's a corpse, doncha know. Freshly reanimated, quite well restored, higher brain functions mostly intact – but a corpse for all that.”

I smiled pleasantly.

“Colonel, these are bizarre accusations. If I'm not mistaken, necromancers haven't been found in London since 1760 – more than a hundred years ago.”

“You know your wizarding history,” replied the Colonel approvingly. “Damn fine thing, that. Appreciate it in a man. Wemmick, is it?”

He jumped from topic to topic incredibly abruptly; I was finding it difficult to maintain the conversation.

“Um, yes. Silas Wemmick – consulting—”

“Consulting detective, yes, I know. Here, let me give you some proof.” The Colonel rummaged in his pockets and produced a silver ring and a little enamelled badge that proclaimed him to be a Colonel in Her Majesty's Own First Sorcerous Fusiliers. I inspected them, then handed them back.

“I see. In that case, I suppose Miss Emsworth was sent to make me recover the ring?”

“Yes. I suppose they thought the other detective – that Holmes chap – would have seen through it all.”

“Did they now.” I pictured myself casting Miss Emsworth into the mouth of Hell for a moment, then returned to the present. “Yes, her reason for not going to Holmes was fairly flimsy... All right. Will you want me to go home and forget about it, then?”

“No,” he said. “You need protection. They're not going to stop looking for the ring, doncha know. And if you refuse—”

“They'll know I'm in contact with you. Of course.” I sighed. “For how long?”

“Until they're arrested. Or killed,” he added reflectively.

“So where are we going?” I asked.

“We—” began the Colonel, but got no further, because at that time something hit the carriage and it bucked on its wheels as if charged by a rhinoceros, knocking us both out of our seats. I sprung back to my feet and tore aside the curtain to stick my head out of the window; the cab driver was gone, the carriage was trailing bluish flames and the horse appeared to have been replaced with a perfect replica, only without any skin.

“Bloody hell!” cried the Colonel, grabbing his gun so violently that he almost shot his moustache off. “They found us!”

And that was how I ended up here, in the basement of a ramshackle tenement in Hackney. As it turned out, Her Majesty's forces weren't all that well-prepared, for the Colonel was swiftly overpowered by the skeleton driving the cab; I was going to jump out and make a break for it, but there was some sort of invisible barrier blocking the doors and windows, and I couldn't leave.

Once we arrived, I was treated to a villainous speech about how our captors were going to use the ring to raise an army of the dead from London's graveyards and overthrow Queen Victoria, and then prepared for ritual execution and then zombification. I shan't recount it all; it was very melodramatic, and rather trite. But all in all, it was rather a startling turn of events, and rather a busy day for a Wednesday.

And that led to me being here, three seconds away from death. I suppose there's a slight chance of a deus ex machina, but I'm not feeling too hopeful.

Wait. What? The ring of power doesn't appear to be doing anything. I'm... still alive.

“What?” cries the necromancer. “What treachery is this?”

“My good man,” says the Colonel, chuckling slightly, “did you really think you would get the better of a Sorcerous Fusilier that easily?”

He lifts his bound hands apart, the rope crumbling into nothing, and raises one high – revealing a little copper band on one finger.

“This is the real ring of power,” he explains. “You dark wizards are all like magpies – fooled by a piece of shiny silver. Now I know where you've been operating, there really remains nothing more for me to do than to kill you all and preserve the crime scene for later investigation.”

So saying, he hurls a few bolts of lightning about, which had the effect of atomising the necromancers and re-killing their minions, and leads me back outside.

“Sorry about that,” he says as we walk. “Sting operation, doncha know. Had to look real.”

I nod.

“Quite all right, Colonel. I suppose I have to sign some sort of secrecy contract?”

He looks at me askance.

“Good Lord, no!” he cries. “Quite the reverse. Feel free to spread the word. Get the public on their guard against the black arts. Do them good to have someone other than the French to complain about for once.”

“Er – as you wish.”

Feeling somewhat confused, I take my leave and wander home. Unless I am very much mistaken, I've just lived through the strangest and most pointless day of my entire life. Then again, that's wizards for you, as my grandfather used to say: grand, mysterious and completely nonsensical.


Short Story/Character:

Ruminations of a Baked Comestible [T]

Spoiler:
I'm writing this in maple syrup on the side of the plate, in the hope that someone might come in and read it. Of course, I'm pretty sure that if they do come in, they'll look at the man slumped in the chair behind me before they look at the plate, but I'm nothing if not optimistic, and I've got quite a bit of time on my hands.

I'd have thought that someone as fat as this guy would've eaten me by now, and the fact that he hasn't and that I'm lying here getting cold indicates something's gone wrong – heart attack, maybe. After all, I've been in his fridge, and there's a lot of junk food in there, including the rest of the packet I came from.

Oh, here I am going on about everything but myself, and I bet you're all confused, aren't you? Well, have a look at the waffle lying next to this writing on the plate. That's me. You can say hello if you like; I haven't a mouth to speak Human with, but rest assured that if I'll reply in kind. I'm a polite waffle, me – my mum, a waffle iron in a factory in Basingstoke, always said as much. Well, I say 'always' – we were actually only acquainted for a few seconds before the conveyor belt swept me away to be put in the packet. Ah, well. Everyone leaves home eventually – it's just that some leave sooner than others.

I expect you're wondering how I'm writing a message in the syrup. It's quite simple, really – I'm mildly telekinetic. Don't look at me like that. I mean, you're reading a monologue written by a waffle named Bobby. It really isn't that much more far-fetched to say I have psychic powers into the bargain.

Now I have all that explained, what shall I write? I'm not really sure. I've had a very limited experience of life. I lived in a supermarket in Slough until Monday. Then I spent a day in a fat man's fridge, and I fully expected to be chewed up and swallowed by the end of today, since my Best Before date's up tomorrow. But something's happened, and now the fat man's just sitting there, staring into space. I can't see him very well – no eyes, you know – but I think he might be dead.

Ah. It's just occurred to me that you're probably not taking this seriously. After all, I can't talk to you to prove it's me writing this, and I know you humans have a little trouble believing in sentient food, particularly as it doesn't make any sense according to your science. (I'm telling you, psychic powers. They explain everything.) You might think the fat man here has written this in the syrup before downing a packet of pills and a bottle of Jack Daniels in an effort to bid the world adieu – but honestly, what sort of suicide note is this? Who in their right mind would write a monologue from the point of view of a waffle named Bobby as their last message to the world?
Oh, sorry about that. Got a bit morbid there – didn't mean to offend. You're not a child, are you? Actually, while we're on the subject of children, can I ask a question?

What are they, exactly?

I mean, I know they're innocent and need to be protected – that much I've worked out from what I overheard in the supermarket. (Not that I could hear much, wrapped in cellophane.) I also know that they apparently love the delicious taste of new Zorbo brand strawberry-flavour milkshake mix, but I read that on the back of the packet and frankly I don't trust adverts I find on packets of anything, let alone milkshake mix. So if you could tell me what exactly children are, I'd very much appreciate it. Obviously you wouldn't be able to tell that I appreciated it, but I would.

I suppose you might be wondering what I plan to do now. After all, no one will want to eat me, and I'm probably going to get thrown away once someone finds this. I've heard that people often tell children – there they are again; what are they? – to eat everything on their plates, and let me tell you, there's good reason for it. No foodstuff wants to end their days on a landfill site with worms burrowing through their innards, especially not artificial ones like me. We were created for you to eat, and we'd like nothing more than to be swiftly moved on from cooker to mouth to stomach, with minimum fuss. No faffing about, please: just down the hatch.

That's one reason I'm writing this, I think. I don't want to die a slow death of decomposition – and I don't even want to be famous, either. Don't make a big thing of me being sentient; I don't want to write books or become integrated with human society. I just want someone to eat me. There. I've made a formal request, in writing – can't say fairer than that.

All right, I'm running out of maple syrup – and out of space on the plate, actually. If I wasn't so precise with my telekinesis, I'd have run out a long time ago, I can tell you. Anyway, I don't have the syrup for any more digressions. I'll just say goodbye and have done with it.


Parody:

Wrapping Things Up [T]

Spoiler:
“Now that we are all gathered,” said Mr. Parrot, “I shall reveal... the killer.”

“Yes, we'd gathered that much,” snapped Jack irritably. “Get on with it, won't you?”

The storm had abated since the murder, and no lasting damage having been inflicted on the ship, they were once more on course and set to reach Bournemouth by eight. By a happy coincidence, Mr. Parrot had also concluded his investigations, and had gathered everyone – Jack, Lindsey, Sam, Major Hawthorne, Susan and Elise – in the parlour so as to reveal their results before they made landfall.

“At first,” continued the little Belgian, apparently unconcerned by Jack's outburst, “it seemed that the obvious suspect was Mr. Adlington, who stood to gain a considerable sum of money by his brother's death, and who was also conveniently unaccounted-for at the time of the murder.”

“Now, just wait a moment—” began the accused, starting from his seat, but Parrot kept talking.

“But then I investigated his cabin, and determined by the stress marks on the pages of his book that it was very likely that he had been reading at the time,” he said. “And certainly he arrived at the dining-hall far too quickly to have come from Mr. Adlington's cabin after killing him; he was perfectly punctual, and his brother was killed as the dinner bell rang.”

“How do you know that?” asked Lindsey.

“Because he not only wrote the date in his diary but also the time,” Parrot replied. “When he was found, he had half-completed a diary entry marked at six fifty-five – and from the amount he had written, he would have to have been killed at least four or five minutes after.”

“Well,” said Sam Adlington, settling down. “Well, I'm glad that's me out of the way.”

“Quite. Well, as you can imagine, this made things more complicated – but ah! Set the little grey cells in motion, and complications can be overcome.”

“We didn't come here for lessons in detectivery,” interrupted Jack. “Just tell us who killed Harold!”

“I am getting to that,” said Parrot, a trace of irritation crossing his brow. “But you must understand how I came to the conclusion.”

“Jack, let him be,” said Elise. “I think it's rather fun – us all gathered here to hear how the detective solved it. Just like a story!”

Jack grumbled, but subsided, and Parrot continued.

“I made a second search of Mr. Adlington's cabin,” he said, “and took from under the dresser this.” He held up something small that glittered silver in the light. “An earring,” he proclaimed. “Set with a genuine pearl – its authenticity confirmed by Miss Weatherford. Your jeweller's skills were invaluable, madame,” he added.

At this acknowledgement, Elise bobbed in her seat and practically burst with excitement.

“Mr. Adlington had no use for such a thing – nor did it have a partner in the cabin. But while we were playing bridge that evening I noticed that Miss Ramsey had exchanged the pearl earrings she was wearing the day before for a ruby pair.”

All eyes fell onto Susan, who stared back, frozen, for a moment – then suddenly let out a scornful laugh.

“So! We were lovers. There's nothing sinister about that.”

“Quite right,” agreed Parrot. “But 'Miss Lennox' might think otherwise – as Mr. Adlington's wife!”

There was a general intake of breath and murmur of astonishment around the room, and Lindsey looked like a fox caught in headlights.

“You admitted owning a revolver for reasons of self-defence,” Parrot told her. “You were also five minutes late to dinner on the evening of Mr. Adlington's death. And most of all, you knew he was having an affair.”

“Stop!” she cried, and the assembled company held its collective breath—

“But, of course, you did not kill him,” said Parrot, apparently unaware of the tension he had just destroyed. “Mr. Adlington was poisoned, not shot, and you could not have done that.”

“But how did you know she was his wife?” asked the Major. “Damned if I can see.”

“The mark of the wedding-ring on their fingers,” Parrot explained. “Observation, that is all, Major.”

“I see. But why were they hiding it? Rum sort of marriage where it's all kept in the dark, doncha know.”

“Because they did not want their marriage to be generally known about, for Mr. Adlington was acutely aware of the risk he ran in inviting Mr. Porterman, a known kidnapper and extortionist, aboard his ship.”

Another gasp, another murmur; this time, however, Jack was the object of everyone's stares.

“What the devil!” he exclaimed. “I never—”

“Mr. Porterman, though you did in fact have legitimate business to undertake with the late Mr. Adlington, I knew as soon as I saw you that I had seen you before – and I was correct. I had seen your photograph in The Times, twenty-six years ago when you were arrested for kidnapping the daughter of Lord Gloucester. You have changed your name since then, but not your face.”

Jack stared in mute apoplexy, mouth flapping uselessly in silent indignation for a moment. Then, with an almighty effort, he managed to force sound out of his throat once more.

“All right!” he cried viciously. “So I am. Another secret you've outed. But it has nothing to do with the situation at hand!”

“I had to reveal it to explain a detail,” Parrot said. “A murder has been committed, and one must approach things properly.”

“Yes, by revealing the killer, not the reformed kidnapper,” snapped Jack. “Look, I was never going to harm anyone here. I'm a changed man – I'm here on business!”

“I know,” replied Parrot, holding up a pacifying hand. “I know. And you are right: I should return to the murder. Where was I? Ah yes. The line of thought that had led me at first to suspect Mrs Adlington—”

“Just keep calling me Miss Lennox,” interrupted Lindsey in a hoarse, cracked voice. “He's gone now.”

“The line of thought that had led me at first to suspect Miss Lennox then reversed itself,” said Parrot. “During the afternoon, before Mr. Adlington's murder, I observed him speaking with Miss Ramsey on the upper deck. Major, I believe you were with me – and you, Miss Weatherford.”

“That's right,” affirmed Elise. “They were there.”

“Perhaps you did not see it, but I perceived that harsh words had passed between them, and that Miss Ramsey stalked away abruptly at the end of their meeting. This memory returned to me as I was considering the revelation about Miss Lennox and Mr. Adlington, and I realised that Miss Ramsey, in her prodigious make-up box, almost certainly had a bottle of peroxide. During the search of the cabins, I confirmed this, and it was indeed almost empty – so it began to seem that it could be possible that Miss Ramsey, in revenge for Mr. Adlington breaking off the affair, decided to kill him with poisonous hair dye.”

“But – but I didn't!” cried Susan. “Really, I—”

“Yes, I know,” said Parrot. “There was no trace of peroxide in the syringe – or indeed on anything in the room.”

“How many of us exactly do you plan to accuse of having killed him until you get to the point?” asked Jack.

Parrot beamed.

“Why, all of you, of course,” he said. “I am a detective, and naturally one must do things properly.”

Jack sighed.

“Carry on, then.”

“The syringe, as a matter of fact, was not tainted with any sort of poison that I recognised,” said Parrot. “I laid out a little for the birds, and finding them unharmed, licked it myself – and found that it was full of nothing but water. The so-called murder weapon was nothing but a bluff, an attempt to throw me off the scent!”

Elise gasped. No one else joined her.

“There was no poison in Mr. Adlington's glass – that much we know, since Miss Lennox had poured him the drink earlier. So the poison must have been administered by someone who entered the room as the dinner bell went, injected him with poison, planted a false syringe and left. That would have had to be someone who was late to dinner, of course – and the only people who were late to dinner were Miss Lennox – and Miss Weatherford.”

“Oh!” cried Elise. “But there are some people you haven't accused yet. Does that mean you don't think it was me?”

“Please, be patient. The master is at work.” Parrot indicated himself, just in case no one had worked out who the master was. “Miss Weatherford has in her possession a small container of iocaine powder – a deadly poison that is odourless, tasteless and dissolves instantly in water.”

“What on earth is she doing with that?” asked Sam.

“That is the question I set out to answer. It could easily have been made into a solution and injected into Mr. Adlington – but why would Miss Weatherford do such a thing?”

“I'm sure I don't know,” confessed Elise. “Why indeed?”

“Perhaps it is because her father was financially ruined by Mr. Adlington's company, and she has taken it upon herself to exact revenge,” suggested Parrot.

“So it's her!” cried the Major. “No other reason why she would have the iocaine powder.”

“Finally reached a conclusion, eh?” said Jack. “About time.”

“The only problem,” continued Parrot, “is that Miss Weatherford was not even aware that it was iocaine powder until I informed her of it.”

“Oh dear,” said Elise. “Is this going to come out now?”

“I'm afraid so. You see,” Parrot said, “the iocaine powder was sold to her in London as sherbet; if I had not chanced to walk in on her while she was about to consume it, she might very well have perished.”

“You...?” Lindsey stared at her.

“Yes, most people are surprised. I don't look like the sort for sherbet addiction, but...” said Elise, shrugging.

“Astounding,” said the Major, shaking his head.

“Yes. Who'd have thought it?” asked Sam.

“Miss Weatherford would hardly be likely to poison herself as well as Mr. Adlington, so she could not have done it,” Parrot went on. “And since I had discounted everyone else, that left only Mr. Porterman and Major Hawthorne.”

“At last!” said Jack.

“Mr. Porterman certainly could have killed Mr. Adlington, given that the business deal he had come here to discuss with him fell through after the discussions they had had a few days prior to the murder, and he freely admitted he would like to see him dead for it.”

“It's a figure of speech!” roared Jack, leaping to his feet. “I never touched the man!”

“That is assuredly so,” agreed Parrot. “There is no evidence other than this that you killed him.”

“So... it was the Major!” cried Susan. “But why?”

The old man was sitting very stiffly in his chair, eyes fixed on Parrot and grey moustaches quivering gently.

“The Major had a large array of poisons at his disposal,” Parrot told them. “There is nothing inherently suspicious about that, of course, since he works as a purveyor of rare toxins to the landed gentry. But he had a deep-seated grudge against Mr. Adlington that makes it all the more likely: he is his father!”

The news shook the room, and everyone burst out into excited chatter; a moment later, Parrot called them to order and continued:

“Mr. Adlington's diary revealed all. He had started suspected the Major of being his estranged father in disguise. They had been long separated – the Major had wanted his son to go into the family business, which Mr. Adlington had rejected and gone on to start his own – and the Major, so Mr. Adlington thought, had returned to see whether or not a reconciliation might be possible.

“However, the Major could not abide the decadence of his son's lifestyle – the ship, the mansion, the affair – and in his rage, killed him. The poison was secreted in Mr. Adlington's drink. But as we know, Miss Lennox prepared the drink – but she used ice cubes from the refrigerator. Ice cubes that had been prepared by the Major: ice cubes that had poison frozen in them, to melt slowly and kill Mr. Adlington at a time when the Major had an alibi!”

The Major rose to his feet in one fluid, powerful movement, like an avenging fiend.

“Now see here,” he began, in a thunderous voice, but Parrot was not to be stopped.

“But that is not all!” he said. “Because the Major did not kill Harold Adlington!”

Everyone froze.

“What?” asked Jack.

“Yes, the Major is innocent,” said Parrot. “For you see, there was no trace of poison at all in Mr. Adlington's drink!”

“Then why the bloody hell did you suggest it?” demanded the Major. “What the deuce is going on?”

“But who could have killed Mr. Adlington, if all of his shipmates were innocent of the crime? It came to me in a single blinding realisation: no one else could have done it, so I must be the killer!”

His companions stared at him.

“What?” asked Elise.

“How?” asked Sam.

“Of course, I had ample opportunity to steal one of the Major's poisons,” Parrot continued, “and though I was on time for dinner, it was only because I had the foresight to paint it on the legs of a fly and release it into Mr. Adlington's cabin. The fly, resistant to the toxin, eventually landed on him – where I discovered it later when I investigated the scene. Its feet had been fused to his skin with the reaction between the skin and the poison.

“But why, I asked myself? Why would I, who had never met Mr. Adlington before, have killed him? The answer was simple: it was a perfect crime. I, the detective, would never be suspected by myself as a potential suspect. Intoxicated by the thought of killing someone and getting away scot-free, I sprang into the crime – but that very intoxication was my undoing, as in my heady rush I forgot to implicate someone else to throw myself off my scent.”

His companions continued to stare.

“Mr. Parrot, you are absolutely insane,” Susan told him.

“That is very probably so,” he said gravely, “but I do not think it will mitigate the sentence. No, I am guilty – I have found me out – and must be treated as such. When we reach shore, I shall call for a policeman and have myself arrested – and only then will my vicious crime begin to be avenged!”


Sci Fi/Fantasy:

The Con [T]

Spoiler:
“Rum do this, isn't it?” asked Colonel Montgomery.

Given that we were currently hiding under a rocky outcrop to prevent ourselves from being roasted alive by a dragon, I was inclined to think he was understating matters a bit, but I nodded anyway. It was certainly bad situation, if a bit worse than he said.

I peered around the rocks and looked out across the burning field; there was no sign of the unicorn we'd been after, but the dragon was definitely still there, circling overhead and occasionally loosing jets of flame at things that caught its eye. I had no idea how many of the hunting party was left, but none were immediately visible.

“Colonel,” I said, “did you say the person organising this big game hunt was a personal friend of yours?”

“Yes, know him well,” he replied. “What of it?”

“Do you think you could perhaps pass on the message that I was an excellent guide, and well worth hiring again?” I asked pleadingly.

The dragon roared, and fire blasted out around the edge of the stones; we ducked close into the centre and watched the grass blacken on either side of us. The flames also incinerated the Colonel's pith helmet, but that was all right because he wasn't wearing it at the time.

“Because, to be honest, I think this is the fewest people I've ever lost on a hunt,” I pressed on.

“But we've had four confirmed deaths already!” cried the Colonel.

“Yes,” I said. “Good going, isn't it?”

“Good grief!” he murmured, distractedly running his hands over his rifle. “Four dead and it's good going...!”

“I think we probably ought to make a move,” I told him. “I can't imagine we're going to be able to stay here much – oh, God!”

The dragon was banking around again, thorny black wings spread as wide as Buckingham Palace, and bearing down upon us from the north – where there was no barrier between its fire and our faces but a single stunted hawthorn tree—

The Colonel and I parted immediately, flinging ourselves to either side of the boulders; a moment later, blue-white dragonfire set the ground ablaze and covered the rocks with soot. I didn't wait for the dragon to reignite its breath, and kept running, heading for the cover of the trees beyond the field. Behind me I heard an ear-splitting roar, and then intense heat seared my heels – but I was in the trees now, and under the cover of their branches the dragon couldn't see me.

“There,” I said with satisfaction, inspecting my boots and finding them only slightly singed. “Job done.”

It wasn't as if dragons were anything new for me. Three out of the last five big game hunts I'd led in the Austrian mountains had been terminated by the sudden intervention of dragons; sometimes a few people had asked if I thought they might be able to bring them down, and I usually said yes – they might. Unfortunately, they never actually did. Elephant guns worked fine on unicorns and trolls, but flying dragons were just too fast to hit.

“You!” cried another man, rising up from among the bushes. His hair was wild, his coat was burnt and there was blood on his face – but he was undoubtedly alive. How many was that, then? Six left in the party? Excellent, I thought. A personal record.

“Hello there, Mr. Johnson,” I said warmly. “How are you enjoying the trip?”

Overhead, the dragon roared, and I heard the sound of frenzied gunfire followed by Colonel Montgomery screaming.

“Damn,” I murmured. “I suppose six survivors was too good to be true.”

“Will you pull yourself together?” shrieked Mr. Johnson. “We're being slaughtered here!”

“I'm perfectly pulled together,” I said, heading deeper into the forest and away from the dragon's roaring. “In fact, I'm calm enough to be heading in a tranquil sort of way back to the motor-car. You do remember that we agreed to meet back there if we should become separated?”

“Are you listening to yourself? Everyone – everyone is dead...!”

“Not everyone,” I chided him, pushing past a bramble bush. “I mean, you're here, and I'm here, and I'm fairly certain that there are five others somewhere – at least, I haven't heard any of them scream. They might have died stoically and silently, I suppose, but people don't tend to do that when they get burned to death.”

There was a whoosh of flames from somewhere to our left, a glow through the trees, and another scream.

“There you go,” I said. “Not stoic or silent at all.”

“Good God!” exclaimed Johnson. “What possessed Mr. Fforde to hire you?”

“The fact that I'm English,” I replied. “Generally, these British parties like to be guided around here by a fellow countryman – someone who understands the importance of a cup of tea and knows the rules of cricket.”

“How are you taking this so lightly?”

“Because this is my third hunting party this summer and everyone's dead so far,” I replied. “In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not actually very good about it.”

“I'd gathered that, thanks,” replied Johnson sourly.

We emerged from the other end of the woods and there before us was the motor-car: one of Mr. Ford's finest, with a cart attached to haul anything that anyone managed to kill.

Suddenly, Mr. Johnson raised his rifle, set it against his shoulder and fired; something whinnied, and for the first time I noticed that the unicorn had been grazing near the motor-car.

“Good job,” I said. “Excellent shooting.”

“Just help me get it on the cart and let's get out of here,” he said sharply, and we both went down to haul it up there. In a minute or two, we had it secure – unicorns are a little smaller than regular horses, being technically a species of goat, and rather light-framed – and Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Soames and Mr. Fitherswop-Nathrington had turned up as well, although Mr. Soames appeared to be suffering from a bad case of an incinerated arm.

“Excellent!” I cried. “You made it!”

There was a roar, and tongues of flame licked out over the forest.

“Oh, and you brought him with you too,” I said. “That's... just great.” I sighed. “All right. Everyone into the motor-car! Mr. Johnson, you drive – I'll get in the back and secure the unicorn!”

No one argued – after all, the unicorn was the only thing of value that had come out of this trip so far – and they all piled into the car immediately. Mr. Johnson started it up just as I jumped into the trailer at the back, and a moment later the dragon appeared over the forest, trailing fire from its mouth like the coach-horse of the Devil.

“Faster, Mr. Johnson!” I yelled, but he needed no encouragement: we were off, bouncing from wheel to wheel along the track with careless disregard for the maintenance of the vehicle's chassis; in the back, the unicorn almost leaped clean out of the trailer with the force of one of the bumps, but I pressed it down and got a couple of ropes around its body.

The dragon was closer now – close enough that I could see its eyes, glowing like stars with the fire that was building up within its skull; some people said there was no brain inside a dragon's head, just more flames – flames upon fire upon inferno, all ready to spill out between its teeth at a moment's notice...

I grabbed my own rifle and fired a couple of hopeless shots at it; I wasn't much good with a gun, and though the dragon was a big target both it and I were moving at high speed, so all I succeeded in doing was putting bullets in a pair of harmless trees. If it understood what I was trying to do, it was laughing behind the flames.

“Faster!” I shouted again. “The fire isn't three yards behind us!”

Mr. Johnson yelled something back at me that was lost over the hideous roar of dragonfire; the Model T lurched forwards down the track, bounced narrowly between two trees and tipped itself onto the long, steep descent towards Aunschelschwetz. We were on the home straight, I thought, moments before being hurled bodily against the back of the motor-car by a sudden and vast acceleration.

The good news was that our change of pace and declivity had taken the dragon completely by surprise; it flew straight overhead, overshooting us by about three hundred yards; being so big, it couldn't turn around very fast, which gave us a little breathing space. Mr. Johnson took advantage of this to accelerate, and I took advantage of this to start sawing the top six inches off his unicorn's horn with the little sabre saw I kept in my jacket pocket for such occasions. I might very well be losing my guide's fee, but I'd be damned if I wasn't going to make a little money out of this at least.

Now the dragon was banking round again, and we were tearing down the forest trail at speeds Mr. Ford had never imagined his motor-cars might ever attain; the steep slope, the engine and Mr. Johnson's fear of being roasted alive all combined to plunge us into an abyssal river of unrelenting speed. Yet still the dragon kept pace with us, great black wings pumping hard and glowing faintly pink with the boiling blood within; it must happen soon, I thought – it couldn't keep this up forever...

And then, with one last jet of fire, it tipped one wing down and circled away, spiralling upwards to crest the hill. We were too much effort; it was a big animal and if it expended any more energy trying to catch us it would outweigh the nutriment it derived from our corpses.

“It's gone!” I cried. “Mr. Johnson, slow down!”

I think he heard me. I really do. It was just that by this point there was no stopping the motor-car, and with the inevitability of taxes it ploughed onwards, off the track and straight into a colossal oak tree.

---

A week later, I walked into the drawing-room of a Mr. Sanders, a man who had expressed an interest in organising a big game hunt and who I had recommended myself to as an experienced guide. I had on an expensive yet battered suit, carefully ruined beforehand to give an impression of a man who has just walked out of an adventure, and carried a shiny new revolver at my hip to complete the image – all funded, naturally, from the sale of my unicorn horn.

“Ah, Mr. Hunt,” said Mr. Sanders. “Good to see you. I trust you found the place all right?”

“Yes, thank you,” I replied. “Lovely house you have.”

“Thank you. Drink? Of course you would, of course you would, eh?”

Once we were settled, he came down to business – rather abruptly, I thought, but he was probably trying to seem experienced and hard-bitten in order to match those qualities that he saw in me.

“So,” he said, “about this trip. Am I correct in thinking that this will be your fifth one this year?”

“That's correct,” I told him. “Fifth this year, forty-first overall. I've had a lot of experience in those parts – know where to go to bag a unicorn or a troll, or even a goblin if you're so inclined.”

In actual fact I had no idea where to find goblins. I'd heard they lived in the mountains near the dragons, but precisely because they lived there I'd never got close to them without being attacked by a dragon.

“Why,” I continued, warming to my theme, “just last week I led a Mr. Johnson – a banker, mind, no experience at this sort of thing – to shoot a record-breaking unicorn. Longest horn ever found, so I'm told – or it would have been, if the end hadn't tragically been broken off and lost in a car accident on the way back...”


Rescue Mission:

The Freeman Route [T]

Spoiler:
I suppose breaking into a Rocket hideout is meant to be difficult. In actual fact, it was disturbingly easy.

By this point, I don't think there's anyone who doesn't know that Professor Oak got kidnapped last month – by Team Rocket of all people. God knows what they were planning to do with him; he didn't really have all that much to offer them. But kidnap him they did, and since we go a long way back, I thought I'd do him a favour and bust him out of there. I mean, it's not like the cops were going to do anything. We have a saying in Kanto about the police: 'If it ain't tea, they don't care.' Sure, they'd cordoned off the lab, but since they didn't react when I smashed in a window, set off the alarm and climbed in, I was pretty certain that they were going to be as much help to Oak as a bull in a kitchen.

I'll admit, I had a bit of an ulterior motive in doing it: I wanted to see if I could. I knew there'd be guards and such outside the Rocket hideout, and that they'd have guns as well as Pokémon – so I'd decided that my usual team were out of the question; most of them weren't bulletproof, and I couldn't mount a frontal assault with only one with me. That left me with the option of bringing just one or two smaller, subtler monsters, and trying to sneak in – which was very appealing for some reason. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to save Oak, too. It's just that I wanted to infiltrate a criminal lair as well.

And so it was that I found myself crouching in wet grass in the middle of the Safari Zone at ten o'clock at night in September.

Ahead of me was a low concrete bunker, screened by undergrowth and by the spreading boughs of the forest trees; they'd picked a good spot, I had to admit. It had taken me two hours to find it – I knew it was in the woods, but considering the Safari Zone is actually bigger than the town it's located in and contains about a hundred acres of woodland all told, that didn't really narrow things down.

Actually, it hadn't been easy getting into the Safari Zone in the first place. It closed at six, so I'd had to break in here as well. I guess they'd probably have made an exception in this case, but where would the fun be in that? Instead, I'd sneaked over the fence using the one Pokémon I'd brought with me, conveniently missing the razor wire, and spent a long time dodging patrolling Zone guards. They weren't actually looking for me in particular, which made it a lot easier; after all, who'd break into the Safari Zone? There was nothing you could get in here at night that wasn't more easily and legally obtained during the day.

“All right,” I muttered to myself, watching the lone Rocket sentry move around the back of the building. “Vinnie, let's have some Haze.”

He bobbed silently next to me and rose up a little out of the thicket he'd been hiding in. His globular body expanded slightly – then contracted again, a steady stream of dense whitish fog rolling out of his pores.

“Good,” I said. “Keep it up.”

The fog kept coming, and soon the whole area was thick with it; it spread out close to the ground, built up and filled the air. The Rocket base disappeared, and I heard a yell from the distance, oddly muffled by the mist.

“Where the hell did this come from?”

I got to my feet and crept closer, Vinnie floating along beside me and pouring out more fog as he came. He could keep it up for hours, I knew; it was one of the least draining of his moves, and before coming I'd made sure to practise it with him.

“Don't know,” came a reply. “It's not normal – a Pokémon, maybe?”

“You think someone's here?”

The first voice sounded a lot closer now, which meant it was time to get out of their way.

“Vinnie,” I whispered, “stop Hazing now. It's time to fly.”

The fog stopped flowing, and he began to swell up, lighter-than-air gases building up within his body; when I judged he was big enough, I wrapped my arms around him and leaned forwards as far as I could. He swelled a little larger beneath my hands – and then floated upwards, and I felt my feet leave the ground. That was how I'd got over the fence, of course: Vinnie was a Koffing, silent, buoyant and extremely versatile. He could flood a room with smoke, conceal an infiltration with mist – or carry a small, light person onto the roof of a Rocket hideout.

For a few glorious seconds I drifted, weightless, through a sea of fog; it was like flying through a cloud. Then my feet touched cold concrete, and I dropped off Vinnie to land lightly on the roof. The whole operation had taken less than half a minute, and as Vinnie shrank back to his normal beach ball size, I was already looking around for a ventilator.

I found one near the middle of the roof: a square steel tube curled over on itself, the opening covered with a metal grate.

“OK,” I said, “can you do a tiny little Flamethrower for me? Not like the one you did when Danny sat on you, a really small one. On the corners.”

I tapped where I meant, and four tiny squirts of flame later, the grille was loose enough for me to pull it out of the way and lay it quietly by my side. That TM had been a good investment.

“Found anyone?” called one of the Rocket guards below.

“No,” returned the other. “Maybe a wild Pokémon got spooked or something.”

“Maybe.”

“That reminds me,” I said. “Vinnie! Keep up the Haze.”

He bobbed and icy mist started pouring out of him once more. Meanwhile, I lowered myself into the vent, looked around to see if it went anywhere, found it did and beckoned for him to join me. Giving out one last pulse of mist, Vinnie contracted to fit into the gap and followed me within. Once he was past me, I picked up the grille and leaned it against the opening, so that it would – hopefully – look like it was intact.

And that was it: we were in. The whole thing was far too easy, really. I mean, you'd have thought security would be tighter. They'd kidnapped a celebrity scientist, transported him to a secret base, presumably preparatory to making some sort of ransom demand – and then they didn't bother to guard him. I suppose they weren't worried about the cops, but they must have known that Oak had a lot of Trainer friends – everyone from the new kid superstar, Red Pastelle, to the venerable Professor Maxwell Blaine.

But back to my mission. I had no idea where I was going – Oak might be anywhere – but I wanted to get out of the vents as soon as possible, since crawling through them would make a ton of noise and I had a plan for getting through the corridors. Consequently, I took the first exit, dropped quietly down into what seemed to be the boiler room, and had a look through the window in the door. A long concrete tunnel stretched away on either side, punctuated only by the occasional tube light; I couldn't even see any doors.

“Whatever,” I murmured, and turned back to Vinnie. “OK,” I told him. “Haze again. Flood the place!”

He bobbed again, then floated up into the ventilation duct and began Hazing once more. A few moments later, I saw the first curl of mist through the glass pane in the door, and knew that the ventilation system was doing its job. Now all I could do was wait.

To cut a long story short, it wasn't fun. I was acutely aware of how helpless I would be if anyone found and attacked me; all I had was Vinnie, who was slow, weak and only really trained in supporting moves. If I met a Rocket one on one, and got him by surprise, then maybe I could do something, but if they came in a group...

The mist was pretty thick outside now; I heard a few people stumbling and swearing out there, but no one had tried to come in here yet.

“The hell is up with this fog?”

“Someone leave a window open or something?”

Vinnie wheezed from above my head, and I glanced up to see that he was almost completely deflated.

“Ah, crap!” I cried. “Stop Hazing!”

He did, and I caught him as he drifted down, unable to maintain a regular height.

“Damn,” I said. “Sorry. I totally forgot.”

“Where the hell am I, anyway?” someone asked from outside; I crouched beneath the window in the door and held Vinnie down as he started to inflate again. A moment later, I heard muffled footsteps move away, and I straightened up, letting go of Vinnie as I did. Since he was mostly full of air with traces of poison, he hadn't taken very long to recover; he wouldn't be able to fly high until he'd successfully regenerated his lighter-than-air gases, but he was at least airborne and mobile.

“All right,” I whispered. “You ready to go?”

Vinnie made a noise halfway between a hiss and a burble that I took to mean yes, so I pushed open the door and crept out into the corridor. All was quiet. The fog deadened the sound like a coat of fresh snow, and I noted with satisfaction that I could barely see anything at all. Now all that remained was to find Professor Oak.

I kept one hand on the wall, working my way down the corridor and listening for any voices in the fog; a minute or two later, I heard some and shrank back against the wall, hoping no one would see me as I eavesdropped.

“Ariana thinks this is a cover,” someone was saying. “Someone's in the building, trying to rescue Oak.”

“Really? I bet someone just left a window open and let in all that fog.”

“No, you moron, fog can't come indoors. It's too warm in here. Therefore someone's generating it artificially – from the inside.”

“OK, so there might be someone in here. What am I supposed to do about it?”

The first person sighed.

“Just go and look for people, and send them to the cell,” he said. “We need as many guards there as possible.”

“All right, all right,” grumbled the second person, and I heard them walk away. The first person was still there, I thought, and I really didn't want to move and give away my position to him. Despite the chill mist, a few beads of sweat appeared on my brow; if he found me, and if he was armed...

Then I heard retreating footsteps, and let out a silent sigh of relief. Undetected – and now I knew that Oak was being kept in a cell, wherever that might be. Still, it was better than nothing, I supposed.

I walked on and eventually found a corner; I turned it, and collided headfirst with a Rocket going in the other direction.

“Ah!” he cried. “What the—?”

Crap.

I couldn't move. I was held in the grip of the terrible realisation that I was probably about to die—

“Oh, right,” he said, squinting at me through the fog. “Lost your hat?”
Then it hit me. For a second I saw myself through his eyes: an indistinct shape in the mist, wearing dark clothing and accompanied by a Koffing. I could only look more like a member of Team Rocket if I had a Rattatta and a Zubat with me as well.

“Uh... yeah,” I said hesitantly. “Dropped it and with all this fog I can't find it.”

“Ah, it'll turn up. Listen, head down to the cells, would you? Ariana's on my back about getting more guards down there. Thinks someone's breaking in to rescue Oak.”

“Sure,” I said. “I'll do that.” Then, feeling that I might as well milk the situation for all it was worth, I added: “But which way do I go? I can't see a damn thing, and I've been wandering for forever.”

“Feels like it, doesn't it?” The Rocket laughed hollowly. “OK, keep one hand on the wall, take the first left and the second right, then you'll be at the top of the stairs.”

“What, so I'm down near the boiler room?” I asked, suddenly thinking of a way to increase my credibility.

“Yeah, that's it. Anyway, got to go. Need to find more people.”

“All right. Thanks.”

“No problem.”

What a nice guy, I thought. Shame he was a Rocket.

Now that I knew I could pass for a member of the Team in the fog, I made much better time, and even exchanged remarks about the situation with a couple of other goons I passed; there was no need to sneak around, and so I found myself at the top of the stairs within five minutes.

“All right, Vinnie,” I muttered, “we're going in. Get some gas ready.”

He bobbed, and began to hiss quietly to himself. He was a little dull, really; Koffing were useful, but owing to the fact that they were ninety per cent gas, they didn't have much in the way of brains, and tended to respond quite mechanically to training.

They were difficult to descend – not being able to see the steps was a serious drawback – but I managed it. At the bottom was a door, and beyond the door was a short corridor terminating in another door – this one sealed.

I knocked on it.

“Hello?” I called. “Another guard here, as requested.”

“All right,” came the reply from the other side. “I'll open it up.”

The door swung open with the slow creak of the extremely heavy, and I stepped in to see – amid more mist – four looming shapes around the room, presumably Rockets, and a fifth one sitting in the middle. My pulse quickened: it had to be the Professor. Now all I needed was a way to get him out.

Behind me, the door clanked shut again, and the Rocket who'd opened it spoke.

“Does it look like anyone's trying to rescue Oak?” she asked.

“Yeah, it does,” I replied. “This fog isn't natural, and spreading it through the vents like that... I think Ariana has a point.”

“Maybe.”

She lapsed into silence, and I took the opportunity to step a little closer to the Professor.

“So, this is Professor Oak,” I said. “Huh.”

“Yeah, I can hardly believe we got him myself,” one of the Rockets said, implicitly confirming that this was indeed the Professor.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Now, Professor, I want you to shut your eyes, take a deep breath and hold it until everything's clear.”

The Rockets started.

“What the—?”

“Vinnie! Gas everywhere!”

I squeezed my eyes shut and gulped down air, a split second before—

In an instant, Vinnie went from beach ball to burst balloon; a toxic purple miasma filled the room in an instant, and before the Rockets could so much as reach for guns or Poké Balls they were on the floor, coughing and spluttering.

“Now all back in!” I hissed, using up precious air; I got a mouthful of his gas by accident, and spat it out before I breathed it in.

And then the toxin retreated, dwindled – and was gone. Vinnie was once again normal size, hissing quietly to himself.

I looked at the Rockets, but detected no signs of consciousness; I checked the one next to me to see if I'd timed it right, and found to my relief that I had. No one was dead. They'd be throwing up blood for a week, but they'd all survive.

Now I turned to Professor Oak. I ordered Vinnie to suck the Haze out of the cell so I could see him – and there he was, looking pretty much as normal. He had a black eye, and he was bound and gagged, but this was the same old Professor Oak I'd always known. An immense surge of relief washed over me, and I couldn't help but grin as I cut his bonds.

“Siegfried!” he gasped, as soon as I'd got the gag off. “Well, this certainly comes as a welcome relief.”

My grin broadened. That was Oak for you: place him in a potentially fatal situation and he'd still maintain his peculiar brand of dry wit.

“Good to see you too, Professor,” I told him. “But for now we have to get out of here. More Rockets will be coming, since they think you need more guards.”

“Evidently, they're right,” he replied. “The security here is shameful. They can snatch an old man from his lab, it seems, but can they keep him?” He shook his grizzled head in despair at the inadequacy of his captors.

“Uh, yeah, there'll be time for that later,” I pressed, “but now we need to go.”

Someone fell down the stairs outside, swore violently, got up and knocked on the door.

“Another guard here,” she said. “Let me in.”

“Uh – yeah!” I called. “Just give me a minute to find the damn switch!”

“All right.”

Think, Siegfried, think. There had to be a way out... ah, of course! If the fog had got into this room, it must have been through the ventilation system – which meant there must be a vent here somewhere.

“There,” I said, pointing up at the far wall, near the ceiling. “That vent. Professor, are you ready?”

“I suppose.”

“Good. Vinnie, Flamethrower the screws on the grille!”

“Look, are you going to let me in or not?” asked the Rocket outside.

“One moment!” I called back. “Vinnie, hurry! And remember – a little Flamethrower, please!”

Four times the little blowtorch flame appeared; four times the corners of the grating melted, and with the last one it fell away. I caught it so it wouldn't make too much noise and pushed the chair over to the wall.

“Go, Professor!” I said urgently. “I'm right behind you.”

“What's going on in there?” asked the woman outside.

“Nothing,” I replied unconvincingly.

“Not even a breakout attempt?”

I paused.

“No?” I hazarded.

“I don't believe it... Hey! You there! I need help to get this door open!”

“Quickly, Professor!” I hissed; he was halfway into the vent now, but he was old and physically inflexible, and it was taking him a while.

“I'm going as fast as I can!” he replied.

Someone started banging on the door. Actually, not someone – something. I could tell because whatever was doing the banging was leaving claw-shaped dents in it.

“Get that door open!”

I abandoned decorum and jumped up onto the chair, pushing the Professor bodily into the shaft; he crawled a couple of feet ahead and the door buckled on its hinges.

“Vinnie!” I hissed. “You next!”

He floated swiftly up, and I followed, kicking the chair away as I went. I tried to replace the grille, but only succeeded in wedging it awkwardly into the mouth of the vent before whatever was slamming its talons into the door broke it down.

I didn't stay to see what it was. I followed Oak and Vinnie and crawled like the hounds of hell were after me.

---

See, I meant it when I said that breaking in was easy. The getting out was quite a bit harder.

Still, we managed. After some wandering through the vents, trying to retrace the path I'd taken earlier, we ended up back at the boiler room – from where we were able to get onto the roof. And from the roof it took only a little more Hazing and some floating around to get us out of there.

So, despite everything, it all ended well – except for the Rockets, of course. I think they were probably executed for failure.
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For information about A Grand Day Out, a bizarre short story in video game form, click here.