Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and eleven.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Pendragon Variety Podcast.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Thomas Blackhall, master frontiersman and student of the occult, is summoned to assist with a ghastly countenance.
Flash Pulp 211 – Cast Off: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 2
Thomas had taken on two days rustic travel to answer the invitation, and he was somewhat vexed to discover the barefoot woman in ragged clothes muttering about the large house.
The structure was something of an oddity, as was its builder and occupant, a man named J.B. Wilkes. The behemoth sat upon a wide sprawl of grass, but it was a cultivated calm, as all about the trim circular patch raged the workings of a lumberyard. To the east a ribbon of water, locally called the White River, ran thick with incoming wood and the shouts of timber drivers. On the far side of the ring road, which hedged the lawn, were barracks, utility buildings, and the hastily erected tents that indicated an industry on the rise.
The frontiersman’s principal concern, however, was for the dead child laying upon a construct of sawhorses and planks at the center of the the home’s velvet-filled sitting room. Wilkes stood close at his shoulder, which was nuisance enough, but the shriek of sawmill and the pound of hammers were providing an unpleasant dissidence to his considerations.
“She insists,” Wilkes had replied, at his request to seal the windows, so he’d had no option but to ponder the faceless boy on only a half-night’s sleep, and against a gauntlet of distractions.
“Nothing more than a charlatan,” said Thomas, flatly, then he set to readjusting his focus.
The lad, no older than ten, had obviously been slain by the fall of an axe, the head of which still protruded from his chest, though the handle had snapped in the effort. His round face was thoroughly rotted, and the unkempt row of his leftmost teeth clearly visible through his cheek, and yet Blackhall could smell no decay, and neither did the child’s hands, belly, or toes, indicate such decomposition.
“You say he was like this when he was discovered?” asked Thomas, turning on his current employer in an effort to avoid the stink of the burning herb the bush witch was wafting about the room.
Earlier, as he’d approached his destination, he’d noted an encampment of youths running wild not far from the grinding wheels and crushing hooves of the lumber carts and their pulling teams, but it was only once he had entered that he’d realized the source of the ruffians.
Wilkes nodded. “Well, perhaps not quite so dead – apparently he was speaking gibberish, shouting at some of the workmen when they found him. They can’t be blamed for their panic, but I’ve already lost men to the talk of mystic doings, and they need some confirmation that there is no long term curse at hand, or a danger likely to be repeated – not that I have belief in either, but perhaps your presence will bring some closure to their uneasiness.”
Blackhall grunted, wincing again at the perpetual clamour. The smoke’s reek was doing little assist his mood, but at least the charlatan had slipped from the room.
“So,” he said, “am I right in my understanding that, though no one knows how it came to be, this young wash-boy wandered from his post in the kitchen, and, after some time, returned with this countenance?”
“Yes,” replied Wilkes, as he tended his cuff links.
It was then that the supposed impostor returned, planting her feet firmly in the door frame and demanding attention.
“Yes,” said Thomas, “What is it then? Your roaming about the house all morning has accomplished naught but wear on the rugs, so I do certainly hope that some sudden burst of insight has emboldened you to dispose of your sham and return once more to whatever dirt plot you no doubt poorly maintain between deceptions.”
“Do you know who I am? Fausta The Hearer – my services do not come cheap, and I was not called from my home to be insulted.” She turned then. “Do you wish to hear what the spirits have told me, Mr. Wilkes?”
Their mutual employer’s lips were tight with displeasure, but he nodded his interest.
She cleared her throat, and accompanied her speech with swept arms.
“Those beyond tell me that there is an ancient box, said to be cursed. They whisper that the boy found it here – in this very house.”
Blackhall raised his brow sharply, turning to observe the man at his side.
“A trinket,” said Wilkes, “given to me by one of the natives. I believe they thought it might convince me to let them hold onto this choice parcel, but I’d worked hard to talk the price down and its location upon the river is prime – I appreciated the trifle, but it certainly fell short of persuading me not to roust them. Besides, some came back seeking employment, and now carry an axe for half the cost.”
Though he attempted a casual tone, his posture had taken on a notable tension.
The ache at Thomas’ temples had grown loud, and he rubbed briefly at his brow; The Hearer, however, was firm in her insistence.
“You must retrieve the artifact,” she said, “only then can we lift the taint that will forever haunt this house – this entire camp!”
“There’s no bloody curse, and you’ve no idea what you’re dealing with,” said Blackhall. “I do require the box, though.”
Wilkes’ increasing stiffness reached a breaking point.
“Both of you must remove yourselves immediately.” he said, “I would not have summoned you if it weren’t for the surly moans of my lumbermen, but I see now that you wish to muddy the waters further with your lies – in an effort to raise the issue of blackmail, no doubt.”
“Twice now I have been insulted,” replied Fausta, “I shall stand this no more – pay my fee, and I shall be away.”
“Fine,” said Wilkes, moving to gather the sum.
“No,” said Blackhall. In the span of the conversation, he’d retrieved a silver chain, at the end of which was latched a hook whose tip was of an intricate, winding construction. “I’ve no patience today for sorting half-truths and naked lies so you’ve left me with little option.”
Before any response could be mustered, he lay the barb across the deceased’s cold flesh, and gave a jerk.
As if Thomas were pulling a fish from water, the phantom rose from the surface of his body.
“Your name?” asked Blackhall.
“Jerry Mayhew, sir,” said the apparition.
Thomas noted Wilkes attempting a slow retreat, but also observed Fausta’s immobile frame blocking the exit. Her eyes were locked on the boy, as if attempting to determine the crux of the trick – and yet there were no strings, nor mirrors, to account for the cadaver-faced spook.
“Well, Jerry Mayhew,” said Blackhall, “were you murdered?”
It was obvious the phantom was in no small discomfort due to his summoning, but he was eager enough to talk.
“They didn’t know – I couldn’t – my tongue wouldn’t work to tell ‘em it was me,” the specter replied. “I ran up to Old Bill, trying to ask after Pa, but he laid me low before I could cork my weeping. Still, it’s murder enough what Mr. Wilkes did to me – tricking me into puttin’ my face inside his cube.”
His steam spent, the boy’s face withered.
“Might I return now?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Blackhall, dropping the chain onto Mayhew’s chest.
“What? There are still questions to be answered!” said Fausta.
Wilkes was only feet away from departure, but had been rooted by the display.
“The rest,” responded Thomas, “I can theorize well enough. He likely came across your name while searching out an answer to the nature of the relic, but held some evidence that you were a fraud, thus leaving you untapped. My guess is that you were hired as a placebo, to quiet the anger that rose up after the boy’s death. Surely there is some suspicion in the camp. I know, from the man sent to collect me, that I was summoned at the insistence of a vocal minority – likely the same ousted fellows mentioned earlier, with whom I seem to recall having some dealings in the past.”
He turned on Wilkes fully, addressing the man directly.
“Perhaps you thought I too was a counterfeit, or perhaps you were simply unwilling to say no to a rabble of underpaid, whiskey’d, hirelings, but you see now your mistake.”
“Yes!” answered the cowering man, “Yes, of course. What is there to be done? How might I rectify my error?”
There was a pause, during which Blackhall collected his traveling goods, arranged his coat, and pocketed his chain.
“First, the box,” he finally replied.
“Of course,” said Wilkes, sighing. Within moments he returned with a sack, which he handed across.
Thomas provided a quick inspection, and his practiced gaze surmised the authenticity of the piece.
“Now what?” asked his anxious host.
“There is nothing more for the matter beyond a proper burial. Time will do the rest.”
Even as he made his reply, Blackhall passed from the parlour, Fausta was hasty to slip aside and allow him passage, but just as rapidly returned to her former firm stance, and opened with a strong-voiced harangue regarding her remuneration.
With bulky pouch in hand, Thomas retook the veranda, no longer annoyed by the din, but instead simply pleased to be away from the slick meat of Mayhew’s corrupted visage.
Turning, he spotted the hooligan he suspected had conveyed the camp’s whispers to Fausta’s ear, through a yawning window. With a raised hand, he summoned the delinquent.
“Am I wrong to think that you’ve become recently acquainted with the lay of the mill?” asked Blackhall, holding up a palm heavy with coins.
The youth nodded, his eager eyes appearing strikingly like his mother’s.
“Run then,” continued the departing bushman, “find the father of Jerry Mayhew, and tell him plainly that it was Wilkes’ dabbling which left his son so scarred – that the blame for his premature death rests firmly upon this porch.”
The messenger’s heavy pockets jingled as he ran towards the furthest rim of the greenery, and into the muck beyond.
Having dispatched his courier before the boy’s parent could be bought fully into silence, Thomas shouldered his load, and made for the treeline.
Time would do the rest.
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