The Holiday Stone: Chapter One

The Holiday Stone: Chapter One

Below is a sample from my most recent work, The Holiday Stone. It is available on Amazon and elsewhere here.

I was returning from a journey to Barcelona, another exhausting stop on my steadfast quest to find certain apocryphal scrolls pertaining to a lesser known Saint in a pre-Catholic cult of Christ. My search yielded nothing but a sense of disappointment and, I admit, embarrassment. The universities there, while welcoming, eschewed any theories I posited, refusing to even entertain the possibility that this chapter in the non-canonical Bible truly existed. The professors there were too courteous to laugh directly in my face. They had the decency, by God, to wait until I had turned my back. I do not regret the trip, however, as I am used to such suspicion and skepticism. I do, however, regret returning so early, as a few days on the beach would have surely restored my harried and frayed nerves after so much tedious study. If that had been the case, then I would not have come home in time to act on that fateful letter from Doctor Woodstrom. 

I remembered the good Doctor, of course. He had instructed me in the fields of human anatomy and physic when I was just a fledgling medical student, but it wasn’t until I took his elective course in experimental medicines that we actually bonded. We would sit in his office over tea and brandy and discuss his research into ancient methods of healing, which naturally led us to conversations on shamanism and associated atavistic mysteries, until our shared scholarly passion for occultism (heretofore a solitary, clandestine enthusiasm) became our primary obsession. The surprising seriousness with which this esteemed man of science indulged the fantastical imagination and dubious theories of one of his medical students gave me an indispensable confidence in the value of these pursuits, but my studies after receiving my degree led me far afield, and I had quite lost touch with Doctor Woodstrom. 

So it came as some surprise when I received word from him in that unseasonably crisp springtimeof 1904. I assumed, frankly, that he would long since have passed away, for I knew his nature to be that of a physician, through and through. A good doctor’s energy is all too frequently focused on the health of his patients at the expense of his own. I myself was on the verge of becoming an old man, ever so slightly jaded by the vicissitudes, and those university days seemed very far away, but Woodstrom had always been a good-natured and gentle man…a friend to me, in his way, and I must say that I was not unhappy to hear from him. 

I tidied myself up, dishevelled as I was after having spent the day traveling. I took a bath and sent for a simple meal of sausage and sliced bread from the delicatessen below my apartment. I thought to read the letter as I ate, but I instead found myself nodding into a doze over the newspaper. I put myself to bed, saving a focused reading of Woodstrom’s letter for less weary eyes. 

In the morning, I consumed the letter more attentively over coffee and boiled eggs, rereading it several times. It wasn’t an unfriendly or anguished dispatch, but it worried me all the same. It read as follows. Bear in mind whilst reading it that English was not the Doctor’s first or even second language:

My dear Simon Holiday,

I hope this letter finds you well. In my memory you have always been my most promising student as your principal notion was to unearth core truths beyond what has already been discovered. I was saddened to hear that you had abandoned your study of medicine and man’s health, although I have heard rumors that you have been intrepidly following other pursuits. Would these perchance be the same pursuits we had once discussed in my office so long ago? If this be the case then I am in need of your assistance. I am currently in the American state of Louisiana, engaged in various fields of study at Elbridge University. I have secured a position for you here if you would so choose it. If you do, I would ask desperately that you bring that artifact left to your inheritance, as it might hold yet some valuable secret. I guarantee that you will find here what you have been searching for all over Europe. Please respond without delay and I will arrange the necessities of your voyage and your room here in New Orleans. 

All the best,

Professor Woodstrom

I turned his words over and over in my mind. He was speaking with discretion about my interest in the occult and yet very openly about where I could find the answers that I have been looking for. The apparent fact that Woodstrom had some intimate knowledge of my movements around the continent was exceedingly curious. That realization did little to settle the growing unease within my stomach. And yet the suggestion that Elbridge University might hold within its library the apocryphal scroll that I had so fervently been searching for these last few years was too great a temptation to ignore. 

But what of the favor he asked of me? I knew at once the artifact he was referring to, yet I could barely recall how he came to know of it. Eventually, I remembered that I did bring the object to his office for his expert inspection. We dipped deeply into the brandy that night and conversed into the small hours until his room was so thick with cigar smoke that I could hardly see. I forget now, of course, the details of our conversation, but the subject throughout was the nature and provenance of the Stone.

The Stone had always been to me a wretched memento that haunted my belongings. I expect that it had haunted my father’s house as well, before and after his passing. I had long since sealed it in a velvet pouch and locked it in the bottom of a chest of winter clothes so that I might only chance to remember its existence once or twice a year, upon wardrobe rotation. It was to this chest that I returned from a wasted day of research at the library. 

The texts that I had borrowed, I knew, would offer little to no information that I had not previously gleaned, and my eyes wandered from the script, thinking back to my cursed heirloom. After fortifying myself with a double brandy, I unlatched the chest and rooted underneath coats and scarves until my hands felt velvet. I took the pouch to my study and set it down on my desk. I refilled my brandy and, thinking on old times once more, lit a cigar. I unsheathed the object and weighed it in my hands, inspecting it closely. 

It was heavier than one might expect, a burden in both practicality and metaphor. Having the thing too near my eye, however, sent a shiver down my spine and I quickly set it upon my desk. I filled my pipe with tobacco and lit it, feigning insouciance for the benefit of no one but my own unsettled self, blowing smoke rings at the artifact as the flickering lamp-flame imbued it with an eerie semblance of animation. 

It was a large stone of crystalline green amber, cut to resemble a tetragonal prism, though flat along the bottom so that it could freely stand. Suspended within the crystal was a necrotic human hand, half skeletal and minus its ring finger entirely. The flame of my lamp danced within the green gem, casting a rainbow of prismatic colors upon my face and the walls around me. I could not help but think that the stone itself was beautiful, ethereally hypnotic in its array of glittering imperfections. The dessicated palm ensconced within the stone cast the mineral beauty into higher relief, creating an effect so mesmerizing and disquieting that the beholder might quite evade the relic’s gruesome implications. 

So I stared at the Stone, pondering the Doctor’s proposition. I was loath to admit it, but my research had reached an impasse in Wales. Perhaps some time in America would not only benefit my studies, but also restore the vigor and joi de vivre that had been so lacking in me as of late. A trip would do me good, on professional, personal, and constitutional terms. I had made up my mind. I pushed the garish object out of view as I drew up a letter of acceptance. 

As I wrote, the shadows on the periphery of my vision made a flickering mockery of my rational faculties, somehow indicating to my atavistic unconscious the trepidations of a spectral presence. Perhaps it was merely a trick of the lamp’s inconstant flame, its dancing refracted within the crystalline amber— but I could have sworn I saw those wretched fingers ever so slightly twitch.

***

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Castle of Blood [Sample]

Castle of Blood [Sample]

The Dark Castellan series is in full swing. Here are some sample passages from Castle of Blood. If you would like to pre-order the book, please do so here. Enjoy.

 

i

Diary of Henri Le Brun

Paris, France

Entry, March 23rd, 1903

I had been making my usual nightly routine of a brisk promenade through the Parisian streets as usual when I came home to a disquieting dispatch from a former colleague from the Sûreté Nationale. I admit that I was not keen on immediately opening the letter as I had largely left policing matters behind me after I had suffered a series of palpitations that had left me unconscious for several days and required bedrest for many weeks afterwards. The physician that now attends me is adamant that I take course to invite morning and evening air into my lungs and to avoid any strenuous activity as well as any business that might cause my heart undue rigor. The contemptible doctor also tells me to avoid red meats and keep to a diet of fish and dark vegetables and red wine. The man has robbed me of the pleasures of cigars and brandy and has recommended that I switch to cigarettes and should I have want for spirits, to embellish the pour with mineral water.

The letter remained on the chair where I had dropped it until late evening, after I had supped on an unsatisfying meal and after delaying the task for as long as I could, I opened it and read the contents, wishing afterwards that I had left it sealed. The letter was addressed from a magistrate from the Ministry of the Interior and one that I knew quite well and one of the few that I still held any fondness for. That would one François Soulages and if the note had not been written and stamped with official letterhead and seal, I would have been happy to hear from him. I will transcribe the letter here for future referencing.

Monsieur Le Brun,

Hello my friend, it has been too long since we have last spoken. I pray that you have been recovering well although I was saddened to hear that you would not be returning to your duties any time soon. The ministry suffers a lack of personality with you gone and your absence is deeply felt by all who worked with you. I wish that I was writing you to describe personal matters as much has happened in my life and I would be eager to hear the events of yours, however, there is some business I must attend to and it would seem that you might be uniquely capable of solving a particular problem that has been plaguing the ministry. There appears to be a dispute in a rural municipality concerning the slaying of bovine farmstock. Generally, as you know, these matters are resolved to be the mere whims of nature, the culprit revealed to be a hungry wolf or daring badger, but the frequency of requests to send a magistrate to the village is staggering. I’ve wired the nearest municipal director of police but it would appear that lines of jurisdiction would be violated if they were to intercede, making this one of those petty national matters. My offices are currently lacking in manpower, much less an officer that would be able to make a trip so far into the country. I am disinclined to ask anything of you, as your service to this country has long been demonstrated and I know you have suffered for it. But I do not know Henri Le Brun to be a sickly man, but a robust investigator keen for the next challenge. Perhaps the countryside would also do you well. I will not force the issue should you refuse it, but it would mean a great deal to an old friend if you were to travel to Lons-le-Saunier prefecture and meet with the local brigadier of the constabulary to help aid any investigation into the wrongful harming of livestock in the surrounding area. I hope that you will take the opportunity and await your response.    

Mag. Francois Soulages

The insult of the letter was nothing less than an open palmed strike to my face. I dispensed the original copy to shreds and deposited it in the fireplace, alighting it with a match that I then took to a petite cigar. The flame took the page suddenly and after a flash, it cindered in black webs before dying into white ash. I felt as impotent as the fire and having lost my taste for the cigar, snubbed it out. I will read now to take my mind off things, as I feel my heart is agitated.

Later: Novels do me no good, nor does the evening dispatch. I am ruminating ever on the act of pitying kindness from my former friend Soulages. That I have fallen so far as to become a wretched errand boy—no, a judge presiding over barnyard livestock—burns me to little end. I put these words down in the hopes that I might void the matter from my mind. I am ready for sleep and I do not want to dream fitfully, or cling to this resentment.

ii

Entry, March 24th

In the morning I felt very much the fool for having borne any hatred towards Francois. My morning promenade took me through the foggy channels of Paris—I’m afraid our spring has yet to catch up to the calendar— and I returned to my apartment to break fast with a few slices of toasted bread and a smear of camembert with a dollop of currant. I returned to this diary to reread the words and my feelings of disgust were reignited. I nearly thought to tear the pages from the journal and cast them into the fire but that ritual had done so little to quell my fury the night previous that I applied no effort to indulge the impulse. I am due for an appointment with my physician. He will want to know why I am so agitated. I think I will tell him of the troubling letter and leave out the details of the cigar. He will give authority over my refusal to accept the task and vindicate any guilt I might experience for such a blunt response. 

The damn physician is a quack! I’ll write it here the exchange so it will not trouble me later. I came to his offices so that he might examine my physic and when I made mention of the letter that Francois Soulages had sent me, the imposter agreed with the bloody magistrate! He said that in his studies of the mental physic, engaging in tasks with a defined goal would benefit the body as well as the mind. I argued with the man, saying that he had told me to refrain from any strenuous activity. His response, “Getting on a train and examining the remains of a few bovine carcasses does not sound like too much of a strain.” I had hoped that I had an ally within the doctor, but it would seem that I am as lonesome as I ever was in any of my efforts. I must sit down to luncheon and hope that the matter leaves my mind some quiet. 

I cannot focus on my book and I fear that this anxiety has not let the ham sandwich sit well in my stomach. I will take an early stride through town until my nerves and belly cooperate. 

Upon returning from my walk, I found another letter courier-expedited in my mail slot. It was another from François and this time, I ripped it open with haste so that I could sooner hate his pitying words. I read it once and then again more carefully. I set it down on the table and made myself a coffee and returned to it to read a third time. I shall clip the margins of the letterhead and paste it inside this diary. Transcription is too much of an effort for me as of now. 

Letter Insert

In the hand of François Soulages

Sealed with the stamp of the Ministry of the Interior, Paris

Monsieur Le Brun,

 I fear that my last letter may have been too hastily written and I may have incurred some insult upon you. It was not my design to wound the pride of such an esteemed officer of French security such as yourself as I well know the efforts you have plied to ensure the surety of our people. It is regretful that a mind such yours should be put to waste as your cunning has demonstrated time and again to ably penetrate the obfuscation of truth. Mark that it is for no little matter that I wish to employ you. Since I have last written, I have received no less than three more messages of livestock mutilation. As the first were bovine, these new complaints concerned swine. The nature of their mutilation might interest you in that their carcasses were displayed in such a fashion that no animal could have designed. Police in Lons-le-Saunier are still unsure of their legal recourse to intervene and it requires a third party to investigate. They have told me that they would assist you with what they can. I know that you are a man of little spoken affect, and none at all if the thought of response displeases you, but I ask that you reconsider your silence and position of acceptance. I have little agency to dispense any officers into a region so far as there are pressing matters in the north that have unfortunately usurped our resources. It would be no small favor if you inclined to accept. I await your reply eagerly. 

Mag. François Soulages

I have finished my coffee and my third reading of the letter. It strikes me that flattery must be the principal tool of the ministry these days which is a sad state of affairs. Flattery rankles less than passive insult, however, and I was not displeased to read the heaping praise Soulages poured over my abilities as an investigator. My coffee is finished. I shall do some tidying up and return to this journal when I have taken my evening promenade. 

My evening jaunt consisted of passing over a bridge, stopping at a butcher’s and peering through the window, and strolling through a park moistened by the evening fog. I was struck with a fit of rheumatism on my journey home, for it would seem that this air is yet too wet for my lungs. My heart had a flutter and I was made to stop and relax myself. Perhaps the city is not the right place for my recuperation. I admit, before scrawling in these pages, I skimmed the passages previous since my embolism. It would appear that I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner and the only sights I’m willing to see are limited to the butcher’s shop and a petit and often foggy park. I dared not look at the passages previous Celine’s passing. I cannot bear to. I poured myself a brandy and mineral water and stressed François’s issue into my temples. I could not deny that the new information held some new intrigue over me. I must think on this. 

Perhaps it was the brandy but I removed a leaf of paper from a folder and wrote a reply to François. There is no need for transcription but I kept my language cordial and made no indication of my previous mood. I accepted the offer and inquired about particulars concerning travel and dates and persons of whom I would have need of introduction. I sealed the letter in an envelope and brought it to a peddling courier. Walking back upstairs, I regretted it. I prepared a meal of fish and potato and relished no flavor. It is time for bed. God help me, I hope I have not done anything foolish.

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