Coming in 2025

The John Walker Imaginarium

A Record of the Unworldly and the Strange – “Time Shift”

  1. Altered Destiny

  2. Prisoners of Time

  3. We are Scientists not Philosophers

  4. A Chance to Speak

  5. One Foot in Bedlam

  6. Hai-Yun’s Limited Time

  7. Where is the Book

  1. Records of the Unworldly and the Strange

  2. My Home is not my Home

  3. Nothing Fly’s through the air except Birds

  4. The Two Shilling Novelist

  5. State of Bewildering Loss

  6. The Booted Men

  7. Call me Blix

The John Walker Imaginarium

John Walker had no idea that when he started playing with fire it would alter his destiny. Explosive alchemy was one thing with which he was familiar, but his research led him to darker realms. The ancient books he unearthed revealed a world he could not have imagined and led him to places he would rather not visit upon. The words that tangled his mind and furrowed his brow were just the beginning. The catalyst was unexpected and became the most urgent of imperatives. He found himself in mists of wonder, in worlds of inspiration and undeniable fear that would rake his soul and sear his heart with desperation.

Part One – John Walker

‘The traction of time is immutable. We journey in one direction though space to our inevitable conclusion and wither then? There are minds more philosophically superior to mine to posit that conundrum and illicit answers, I certainly would not grasp the weight’ A satisfying ripple of laughter spread through the audience. ‘Gentlemen! Today follows yesterday. Tomorrow will surely follow today. The days pass…the hours pass…this minute will pass. And what then? Where does that moment…nay…where does this moment go? Does it reside in some pocket of time known only unto itself? Are we prisoners of what was, to become the gaolers of who we will be? And what of tomorrow? Who can mark time with accuracy and predict? Madame Rose-Lee would have us believe that crossing her palm with silver would unlock the secrets of tomorrow, but to what purpose? Should she even have the wherewithal to have such insights’ – another cheerful smattering of ha-ha’s, appreciating his tone and whit. ‘For the young lady who seeks her future husband in a crystal globe will hear what she wants to hear, I will warrant you that.

‘But think of this, gentlemen. The observant and awake amongst us’ – a knowing chuckle from the audience – ‘will attest to the fact, for such it appears, that I am here…talking to you now. That is indisputable. But what if, instead of coming here to talk to you fine gentlemen today, that I had taken a longer breakfast with my lovely wife. We had talked of the ways of the world, shared snippets of gossip as she is wont to do’ another grumble of recognition from the appreciative crowd, ‘and then afterwards repaired to my study, whereupon I engaged in my dissection of the latest paper on scientific excellence? You would now be sitting in wonder gazing at an empty stage’ There were nods, and perplexed faces wondering where this fascinating discourse was leading.

He paused.

‘Now imagine, if you will, that halfway through a paper on the composition of the rings of Saturn – pure speculation: not a shred of evidence; absolute tosh! – that I remembered that I should be here…talking to you fine gentlemen and that somehow I could be. What if I re-lived the morning? Did not share a leisurely breakfast with my wife but came straight here, as I am now. That somehow, I went back in time…to change time…to put right what I had wronged. That I have, in effect, lived two mornings? And some may suggest have two breakfasts’. There was a nervous laugh from some. ‘That I had travelled in time? To another pocket of space? And here lies the eternal paradox…would that, does that then suggest that there are now two of us? And that in some way time has been diverted into two separate lanes? That somewhere you gentlemen are sitting awaiting the arrival of my good self who is even now chuckling at the suggestion that Saturn is surrounded by a ring of coagulating dust? You may not even exist but be mere figments of my own personal journey’.

John Walker listened intently, hung on the every word of this eminent professor on science and cosmology in the modern world. Charles W. Peacock, attired in regulation black frock coat and crumpled white shirt, his aging craggy face and gimlet sharp eyes beneath a shock of silver hair, had been a firebrand on the fringe of the scientific community for many years; his outlandish theories too exotic for those of the establishment for fear of tearing down the hegemony of ritualised meaning. But he was beginning to gain ground and with every twisted nuance he presented, more were willing to listen, and more importantly provide him with funding needed to explore.

The crowd at the York branch of the Institute for Scientific Inquiry became restless. Conversations of animated expostulations suddenly flared and papers flagged at the stage demanding attention and further clarification as his words began to form substance into perceived meaning.
Peacock spread his arms wide in the aspect of a priest calming an unsettled congregation, and without word instructed the baying mob to relent and attend to his discourse. ‘Gentlemen! Is this not a place to posit such questions for civilised debate? Where we can investigate the imponderables like gentlemen…and not like politicians?’ Some laughed at this and one portly chap with a red face shouted ‘He’ll be going back for a third breakfast and I’ll still be in bed by supper!’ Roars of laughter and slapping of knees echoed around the chamber.

Peacock surveyed the scene with a smile of resignation. He had met many who were closed to possibilities many times before and thought to himself that the wilds of Yorkshire may not be ready for such discussions. He wondered how he had upset them so much, and what it was they feared in his words.

‘Gentlemen!’ he called above the crowd, ‘It is not, nor ever has been my intention to offend but merely to raise a philosophical conundrum wherein we can explore the effects of scientific probabilities, that one day time travel will become something of an exploration in the furtherance of a better and more stable society.’ His words were being lost as people grumbled to one another.

‘Sir!’ A young man impeccably attired in a fiercely embroidered waistcoat with highly polished golden buttons and manacled chain, stood up and demanded to be heard. His aquiline nose and sharply defined jaw jutted at the beleaguered Peacock. ‘This is surely a discussion for the weak of mind and the furtherance of suspicion and witchcraft!’ Grumbles of agreement. ‘We are scientists, not philosophers, and the presentation of your case undermines the work we here hope to achieve. Travel through time is no more plausible than traveling to the moon, unless you adhere to the novelistic fantasies of that Frenchman!’ More laughter and much more robust. He brushed aside a flop of dark hair with a theatrical waft. ‘I will not waste more of my precious time…’ he emphasised these last words much to the continued amusement of his confederates, ‘and will bid you a good day and farewell. And, sir, I hope in your next visit, if there ever will be a next visit, you prepare something a little more…ah…plausible and less fanciful!’ With that he strode away dragging all in his wake as a fisherman nets a catch of squabbling sprats. All, that is except John Walker who surveyed the empty chamber and a bewildered Peacock.

Shafts of sunlight gilded the broad chamber in delicate pools of amber as John emerged from his quiet corner. This was why he was here. The moment he had been waiting for. A chance to speak. He was unsure what to say as each step hesitantly brought him closer to lectern and the professor intently focused on gathering his papers. For want of something to say John coughed. Peacock’s head raised sharply; his startled expression almost comical.

‘Excuse me, sir…’

‘Ah! Yes. Of course. That didn’t go as expected. Not sure what I said that upset them so much? What do you say, sir?’ Peacock set his inquisitive face towards John who was unsure if he was to answer. In truth he did not know what to say, and he hurriedly prattled…

‘Erm…forgive me sir, but I have read most of your papers and pamphlets and for the most part I agree with a lot of what you have to say which is why I believe you are the man to help me. Well, I presume too much, perhaps but…’

Peacock stood up straighter, cocked his head to one side and smiled benignly. He raised his right hand. ‘Please, sir, slow down, and begin again. You have read my papers?’

‘Yes…every one’.

‘And you say that you find my work agreeable?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And what of today?’

‘I found it…illuminating. Intriguing. And entirely apposite to my own research. Well…it’s…’

‘So, what ails all the other gentlemen here today? Why so sensitive?’

‘For those I cannot speak, but it appears they like not what you say for fear that it be too fantastical. Perhaps they fear ridicule.’

‘And you do not?’

‘I have lived with ridicule all my life, sir.’

‘Hmm! The bedevilment of being a scientist, I fear. One who breaches the boundaries of the known, in any case.’ Peacock looked John up and down, thoughtfully. ‘What is your story, sir?’

‘I am an alchemist…well, that is to say I have studied…’

‘Ha! Fire and brimstone! They talk of witchcraft and look who we have here! Merlin himself!’ There was a twinkle in Peacock’s eyes as he broadly attended to the empty room, his voice echoing wildly. John smiled nervously, unsure of his response. Peacock held out a hand as if to welcome a friend, ‘Call me Charles.’

John took the offering ‘I am John Walker of Stockton’.’

‘Well John Walker of Stockton, why don’t we find a pleasant hostelry and you can inform me of all your research while I eat. You hungry? Of course you are. Come on’.

Charles packed up his papers and stuffed them into a leather case and without a glance backwards strode from the room, John hurrying after him.

They sat in a quiet corner of a low-ceilinged Inn. Sturdy oak pillars dissected the room at irregular intervals, encouraging smoke from a tangle of customers to eddy and swirl as people passed. Gas-lit from gently hissing, steel-wrought lamps the golden penumbras offered a warm and welcome refuge from the bustle of life outside. The food was sturdy and simple, the ale clear and nutty-sweet, and it wasn’t long before John began to feel more relaxed. The deep throaty rumble of a passing steam coach still unnerved him, but even this was something to which he was becoming accustomed.

‘So, tell me…why such an interest in my papers?’

John looked at the glint in Charles steel-grey eyes. ‘Well…I don’t really know where to start…’

‘Come on dear boy, don’t be shy. Tell me why a pneumatic engine journey from Stockton is so necessary for you. Lord above knows, I need all the support I can get and if you are an acolyte I can count on, we may be able to do good business you and I: The scientist and the alchemist! Hmm…may have to work on that…’

‘I’m not sure that’s where I want to go…’ John sighed. ‘The thing is…I’m not from here. Well, by here I mean…Oh! You’re going to think I have one foot in Bedlam. This is all very difficult. I’m not sure anyone would understand…’

‘What man…out with it…come on…try me! My mind is like an open field awaiting the seeds of possibilities.’

John sighed again. Thought about the best way to explain to this eminent scientist what had occurred, what is happening to him. Then he began his tale…

‘About this time last year I discovered a book: The Records of the Unworldly and the Strange. An ancient Chinese text by an equally ancient alchemist by the name Tao Gu. I was searching for a chemical solution to a lifelong conundrum of how to create fire from slivers of wood, an instant flame, if you will, something that would dispense with flint and steel and be available to all. Of course, the hieroglyphs of the Chinese language escaped my understanding, so I sought help from the community of travellers from the Far East who perform with a circus, who in turn entertain once a year in our town. Serendipity? Perhaps. Some may say otherwise.

‘An elderly gentleman looked at me rather strangely, made a few unintelligible sounds and ran away when I requested help. But a young lady, a tumbler on the high wires no less, spoke to me in broken English and said she would assist if she could.’ John took a small sip of his beer. Charles noted the pause and hesitation with a raised eyebrow but said no more and waited for the story to unfold.
John continued: ‘Her time was limited as the circus by its very nature is nomadic, so when they up-sticks and moved I followed and visited until the distance became too great. I have a business, you see. A pharmacy. I have customers. I need the money.’ He took another sip. ‘She – Hai-yun – was extremely diligent in her approach to the translation. She even taught me a few characters along the way, and slowly over a few months I began to piece the narrative together. I would look forward to our visits, our time together. She was quick to laugh at my efforts to mould her speech to my stolid, English dialect and would occasionally break into a joyful dance for no reason. I was captivated, I have to say, and the closer the translation came to being complete the more distractions I would seek to delay the process. To stop time, to prolong my need to visit. But then, my pharmacy…

‘I last saw her on the outskirts of Durham. I had taken lodgings for the night in a tavern and had gone along to watch the performance. How she danced on those silken, silver threads I will never know: She was elegance and strength, and light as floating feathers…I’m sorry, I have left my true story. I’m sure you do not need to understand my feelings. I return to the matter in hand.’ Another sip.

‘No apologies, old man. This is all very interesting. I see you are a gentleman who speaks of loss and perhaps would like to travel back in time to change the future…’

‘No, no, no. You misunderstand. I spoke too freely of Hai-Yun. She is not the tale, and yet truly is part of it. Although not the reason I sought out your good self. No, there are greater complexities at work…’ John took another sip to collect his thoughts and refocus. Hai-Yun was, in truth a concern and a motivator in his quest for understanding, but he needed to start with the simplicity of his situation, in all its mad distortions.

‘The words of Tao-Gu were, at times cryptic and nonsensical. Hai-Yun struggled with some of the translation in finding direct comparison with his meaning, if meaning there was…but we continued. In the end I found my solution to igniting sticks of wood, my Friction Lights if you will, quite by accident. But what happened next is why I’m here today.’

At this point Charles pulled a tubular brass object from a pocket inside his jacket and held it up like a conjuror revealing his favourite trick for John to see. There was a gear mechanism on the top, small sturdy cogs aligned in perfect symmetry. With a practised flick of his thumb the cogs whirred and a flame ignited. Charles blew it out with an air of satisfaction. John had seen similar items and was no longer shocked and yet at the same time disappointed. ‘Where have you been?’ Charles asked, almost mocking in tone.

John took a deep breath, ‘This is what I’m trying to tell you. The book was…is…full of strange elements, ideas, concepts that didn’t reveal themselves until it was too late. I tell you, Charles. There is more to this life than you see before you…much more. So much more that your gentlemen of the Scientific Institute would blow several gaskets all at once if they knew…Alchemy is a strange thing in itself…a philosophical conundrum of transformation married with chemical resolutions which often fail to form meaning, so it was with little surprise that the writings of Tao Gu eluded my febrile mind. For the most part…’

‘So…show me this book. Let me see what I can make of it. I assume you have it with you? Otherwise, why seek out my knowledge?’

‘I will reach that point, but you must understand…well…Look, I do not intend to be rude and neither too hasty. You will understand…Some months after Hai-Yun had begun translating I had an alarming visit from two gentlemen who said they would speak with me. They were attired in long, black coats and one of them, the leader it appeared, carried with him a silver-shod cane, the top of which was carved a bright, ivory handle in the likeness of a wolf’s head. He was the only speaker. His eyes were shaded with black, round glasses to the effect that I could not see his gaze, only my own startled reflection: it was most unsettling; “Where is the book?” He asked. His voice devoid of humanity. I replied that I did not know of which book he was inquiring. His thin mouth spread into a contemptuous facsimile of a smile, “are we going to be difficult?” While he said this his companion stepped into my pharmacy and started to look more with his hands than his eyes, turning things over, looking in drawers, raking through my papers. When I objected, I felt the pressure of that black cane across my chest: a veiled threat; “I would let him have a look.” The voice was insistent. I pushed my self away from him only to suddenly find myself on the floor in a daze with a throbbing head. When I looked up all I saw was the wake of their long-coats as they raged through the door and away. Papers and chemicals were everywhere, broken tubes splintering the floor with shards of sparkling glass, drawers open and spewing their innards.

Mr. Davenport, a neighbour and friend rushed in asking if I was well and who were those men? I was unsure of both; I was even unsure if I had been unconscious but felt as though too much had happened for me not to have been. I told Mr. Davenport not to fuss and that they were after potions which they were unprepared to pay for and got aggressive. Of course, the fine fellow did fuss and took all good care of me, but my mind was a whirl of concern and queries, and deeply troubled mystery.’

‘Who were these…ruffians?’ Charles appeared outraged. ‘what of the book of which you speak?’

‘I still don’t know, but it was not our only meeting. The book was with Hai-Yun, thankfully, but then I started to worry of her welfare. Fortunately, they had not yet made that connection.’

‘Dear fellow. What an ordeal!’ Charles nodded to the barmaid and she brought over 2 more tankards of beer. John took a long draught and a deep breath to steady himself. ‘What is it you are caught up in? And what is in this book? Really?’

‘In answer to both questions…I’m not sure. Well, that is to say, I don’t fully understand. Oh, it has been a very difficult few months….’

John took a moment or two to collect himself, to order his thinking in a way he could begin to explain what had happened without any of it sounding fantastical. He surveyed his unfamiliar surroundings, so much like home and yet…the subtle differences were startling in their appearance: Gentlemen, for the most part were comfortably attired the same and yet they wore more accoutrements, small gold watches, large brass protectors on arms or legs, openly scabbarded blades and intricately designed pistols the like of which he had never seen. The top hat, worn short and long was the fashion, or necessity, with goggles of some kind strapped around the band for drivers of the many horseless vehicles. Bowler hats with curved brims and larger brimmed hats of leather. And in a quiet corner of this common room was a woman! On her own! Her fiery red hair held back by a knot of black lace. And she was wearing trousers! Worn, tan leather trousers with boots to the knee, equally worn. Even she, he noted had a sword beside her and a pistol in her broad belt. She looked at no-one as she ate, and no one took heed of her presence, either.

And this was just inside. Outside there were stark differences. Machinery he could not have imagined was commonplace: transport systems fired by steam both public and personal. Two-wheel perambulators with wide tyres and raucous engines, four-wheel carriages, guided by gentlemen and ladies, all elaborately decorated with brass and copper and steel. And the public engines; workhorses of pure power riding on rails that appeared to criss-cross the towns, villages and country. Monstrous engine driven ballons of all shapes and sizes, ships of the air defiant in their inexplicable physics chugged and thrummed…It had been, and still was bewildering.

John pulled his leather satchel to him and opened the clasp. He drew out a folder in which was contained the manuscript of the Tales of the Unworldly and the Strange. He gently laid it on the table in front of him and kept his hands firmly pressed on its reality.
‘This is only in part. The rest is…well…’ he hesitated, not knowing what to say. Not knowing how to say may be more precise. He took a deep breath ‘the rest is at home.’

Charles appeared impatient, ‘may I?’

With some reluctance John removed his hands from the folder so Charles could open it up and take a look. When he did he looked at John with some confusion. ‘This is in Chinese? Your translation…?’
‘Is at home…’

Charles knotted his brow as he flicked through the pages. ‘My dear man, I appreciate your faith in my knowledge, but I am neither linguist nor translator and I fear that you have been misguided in your quest to seek me out’. He closed the folder and handed it back to John who quickly put it back into his case and secured it.

‘The book is only part of it. And yet it may be the most important part, for me that is.’

‘Yes, that maybe so. But you know I am a man of science, theoretical science, empirical study, philosophical concepts to help mould our futures: I quest for finding the actual in the possible; the fanciful into fact. I cannot translate this.’
‘I know. But I believe I am your fanciful turned fact, your actual. A link to something you have dreamt but not yet seen…until I sought you out this day.’

Charles waited. For once he felt it important not to interrupt and allow the tale to unfold.

‘You see, Charles…this is not my home. My home is not my home…I’m from far away. From somewhere else. Another time, perhaps…another space, or place in space…or somewhere in-between. I don’t know! It’s been months and I am lost. I am here yet should not be. It’s not possible…and yet…here I am…’

Charles did not move. He stared hard at John. He sighed…and waited.

‘I was working on my impossible task…which here you find laughable and childish with your instant hand-sized fire-machines; your flares!. The words in the book were strange. I wasn’t sure if the translation was correct, or if I was reading things correctly but it all seemed a little disjointed. Words, descriptions, chemicals, heat in strange measures, and words of alchemy describing the motes of change, the expectations, the workings of possibilities. I don’t know. I was working blind and not really knowing or understanding where any of it was leading. I remember a strange smell. It was like roses mixed with almonds and oil, and something else that I just couldn’t place. It was not unpleasant but if filled me with some degree of unease. I could feel my spirits lighten, or was it my head? I’m not sure now, but things seemed to be ‘lighter’? Not brighter. In fact, a haze began to cloud my vision. Then…all I can say is there was what appeared to be a silent explosion. No sound just pure white light and…energy! Yes! Energy, that’s what it was and I was propelled without going anywhere, or so it seemed. Then, all was dark, and I passed out.

‘When I came back to my senses all was as it should be, or so I thought. Phials, tubes and jars all in place upon my workspace, the hard floor beneath my feet solid and reassuring. The sonorous thock of my clock measuring the day in equal segments of time…Then I noticed…A thunderous rumble caused a gentle quake at my feet and for a fleeting moment the sun was blotted from my window, quickly to return as if a curtain had been drawn aside. I heard chuggering sounds of metal and thudding of rubber on stone. Somewhere a whistle blew a hearty and deep call. There was a bustle of people sounding like a busy Saturday morning before a festival or carnival. I walked through the familiar surroundings of my apothecary to open the front door onto a scene I could never have imagined…the machines on wheels transporting people traveling at some speed I then found astonishing.

Buildings of greater size and shape, their windows large and welcoming with signs of strange commerce all so familiar and yet…there was something not quite right. Horses were few. I saw two, ridden by women in gentlemen’s’ jodhpurs: most daring, I thought. And the clamour of all those people…all dressed…well…like I see here…everywhere. Someone asked me if I was going to open my shop soon, that they were looking forward to testing my potions. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was happening. I went back inside and closed the door, locking it firmly. This was, is my world yet it is not. I don’t understand…but…here I am.’

Charles drew breath and looked at John with a mixture of suspicion and intrigue. ‘So…let me guess this correctly. You are from another place just like this and you travelled here by means unknown and unheard of. You are an alchemist with an interest in fire and you also search for past, futures and the beyond which brought you to my talk.’ He pondered a little more before further conjecture. ‘and you hope that I may be able to help you make some sense, and perhaps help you get home…wherever home is?’

‘Yes. That is an accurate summation, I suppose.’

‘Tell me…what is…your world…what is it like?’

John took a moment before he responded: ‘It’s like this one in so many ways…and yet, not. When I first opened the door on where I find myself now, the sounds, the sights, the mechanical engines and machinery was bewildering. We have nothing like that. Horses are our main form of transport but not for everyone; we have no engines of manufacture or transport. Nothing flies through the air except for birds. There is relative peace and quiet, not the strange cacophony I experience here. And that’s just the obvious…clothes are so much the same and yet not so, women have much more…’ he struggled for the word, ‘freedom and status. You openly carry weapons. The cities are positively medieval in how they are run. There is a sense of feudalism. You have a King! Where is the Queen? And money…there is little poverty here, or at least very little I have seen. Can that be true? Where are your workhouses, the destitute, the beggars, the poor man who has to work 12 hours for a couple of pennies? I have seen ships here that are so large they defy practical science!’ He sighed, ‘My world is…simple…’

Charles sat back and viewed John through shaded eyes. ‘It sounds like you want me to imagine a world without mechanical advancement. A world where people strive to survive in poor conditions, where there is simplicity, as you say…show me.’

John looked at Charles and a strangled thought flew through his mind, a silent scream of frustration searching for escape but finding nothing but impenetrable walls of denial. His response was measured, ‘How? I don’t know how. What can I show you? I have nothing to prove…I have no proof. If you look at me I am just as if I have always lived here, in this place, this world, but I assure you that that couldn’t be further away from the truth. All I have is here. All I had is…somewhere else…’

‘How do I know you are not mocking me…sent by one of Laybourne’s lackies to discredit me by going along with this charade?’

John was a little bewildered at his accusation. Everything he said was true. How could he question him? ‘I have spoken truthfully. I know of no one called Leybourne. I know of no one here…except my neighbours who have welcomed me, although I’m not quite sure how I have come to be part of their lives…’

‘John…you have a fascinating story, but you must understand I am a man of facts, of proof unquestionably so. Show me something that speaks to me of this ‘other’ place. I cannot go on what sounds fantastical.’
‘But you, yourself, you are a man who promotes the possibilities of the fantastical.’
‘Indeed. But I need proof otherwise you’re just another two shilling novelist looking for endorsement from my reputation to sell more books.’

John’s heart sank. He wanted to fight the argument to make Charles believe that what he was telling was truth, but what evidence did he have? A book written in Chinese and what appeared to be an impossible tale. Everything he possessed was ‘here’, somehow, and it all made sense in this world.

Charles’ attention appeared to flick, as if a lever had been switched. He smiled warmly but blankly and thanked John for an entertaining evening. He handed him a card as he stood up. ‘Look, dear man, I’m sure you have a story to tell, and I’m sorry you’ve lost contact with your girl, but until you can provide me with some evidence I fear we have nothing more to say to each other. I am a very busy man and other needs call me. If you should have anything that would convince me, this is where you’ll find me…or at least where you can contact me. I really want to believe you, but…well…you know the rest.’ And with that he was gone leaving John in a state of bewildered loss.

John’s dejection carried him to his room in a tavern near the city walls. He stumbled through the rain drenched streets in the half-light of early evening, vaguely noting the shimmering cobbles, the passing carriages and gentle hubbub of city life. Lanterns ignited without the need for an army of lamplighters with flints and tapers to illuminate his passage: Another element of this world he could not fathom. He was a phantom! A man who should not belong in the world he was inhabiting. He had no status, no family, no knowledge or understanding of who he was or where he should be. In a strange land where all was familiar, he was as invisible as he was ignorant.

It would appear that whatever history he was living in, it wasn’t too dissimilar to his own. York still has, had, has – there is always some confusion – impressive walls of the ancients enclosing the city that spoke of past battles, of kings and knights. And yet, the guard houses on the city gates were very well maintained and closed after sundown to be manned by constables of the city guard. No one entered of left without scrutiny and if your business was not deemed ‘correct’ you were sent on your way.

He felt some comfort in this whilst at the same time concerned of the need for such arrangements. Even as he walked the city bells tolled to announce the barring of ways. As he neared the Inn he watched the guards, clad in dark blue with silver flashes at their shoulders and swords at their waists, as they prepared for the night ahead. The heavy wooden gates glided silently and freely, giving a satisfying thud as they stopped, and a piston whirr as Iron bolts were automatically engaged. It all seemed dream-like; seen through someone else’s vision. He turned towards the promise of warmth as amber light shrouded the road outside the Inn. Warmth and food, but no answers.

John sat at a small desk in the corner of his room and in the comforting glow of a wall lantern he looked at the card Charles Peacock had given him. There was an address, Skeldergate, somewhere in York, and underneath was a strange set of words and symbols – CWP.551*~~+Sci – that meant nothing. He took out a notepad and a pre-loaded pen from the desk and decided to compose a letter.

“My dear Charles

Firstly, I must thank you for your time and patience today. I understand that my tale must sound like the ramblings of a madman but everything I have stated is truth. I will find proof, evidence with which to convince you of my predicament. When I do so, I hope that you will join me on my quest for you are still the most eminent and open-minded person I have heard since arriving here.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if you believe the theories you expound you will not close your mind to my story. I am no writer, novelist or otherwise, just someone like you, looking for answers. When we meet again and I have proven my worth, it’s possible that our findings will shock even the hardest of minds: I am living proof.

Do not fear what you see.

Yours in all sincerity

John Walker”

He folded the note, placed it in a cylindrical tube upon which he had written the address, and then placed this in an enclosed pipe by the door. He pressed a shining, brass button and with an almost imperceptible hiss the letter tube passed out of his room and on its secretive journey to its eventual destination. He did not expect a response.

With no more motivation for staying he had resolved to depart first thing in the morning and packed his small travel bag accordingly. His satchel remained untouched, the book intact and yet in want of attention. He sat heavily on the bed unsure of his next move…

He must have fallen asleep. For his visions of darkened streets and watchful eyes were disturbed by an insistent pounding through the centre of his head. A persistent thud that recoiled and shattered with every weighted delivery and drove him to the edge of exhaustion as he clawed his way back to wakefulness. He eased himself into a position where he could rouse his dormant mind and fight for consciousness, prising the sandy glue from his eyes until the haze of sleep began to clear.

The door was wobbling on its hinges, or so it seemed, as every jolt threatened to burst its form before him. His head cleared with incredible alacrity as a sense of urgency to flee took hold. He looked around but there was only one way out…and that was through the pounding door.
With what seemed like immense force the door burst open, shards and splinters of wood showering the inner space beyond. John took a step back as in burst a woman, a slender sword held in front of her, her face masked by a green scarf. Her deep, green eyes looked crazed. It was the mass of red hair exploding from underneath a half-drawn hood that gave her identity away: she was the woman who had been sitting in the tavern.

‘Get your things! We have to go! Now!’ Her muffled voice was filled with urgency, tinged with fear and breathlessness. John froze, not knowing what to do. He was in a state of shock.

She ran past him, picked up his bags and threw them at him. He caught them clumsily and watched her quickly scan the room. Then she looked directly into his eyes. He felt as though she was about to rip him apart. ‘We need to go or you will not live out the hour!’
John thought this was ridiculous but was beginning to get caught up in her urgency and fear. He fumbled for his coat as she stood by the dismantled door peering down the corridor outside. ‘Come on!’

He followed her as she dragged him in her wake. At the head of the stairs he watched her step over a prone body frantically waving him on. He shuffled uncertainly and looked down at a shaven headed man dressed in regulation black with blood oozing from his broken face. More shock!

‘He’ll be fine’ she said. ‘He’ll have a sore head in the morning, though. Now come on!’

He clambered down the stairs after her and ran out into the chilled night air. She turned right and behind the tavern, keeping to the shadows. The city wall loomed threateningly above them. She froze. He did likewise. She pressed him against the wall with a surprisingly strong left arm. He couldn’t have resisted if he wanted to. Above them what sounded like a small army of hobnail boots clattered with some speed. Muffled voices gruffed unintelligibly. John couldn’t breathe.

She took hold of his coat and pulled him slowly away from the receding boots, being careful to keep as close to the wall as possible. She gradually picked up speed and they broke into a quick walk. John stumbled and knocked his knee against a small extended brick and cursed. She grabbed him again, ‘come on! Not far!’

In the distance he could hear those clattering feet again and swore they were getting louder.

She stopped. There was an almost imperceptible clip and a hiss of air on his face. She pushed him into a yawning darkness as a hitherto unseen entrance glided open. Once inside this dank and lightless place slow and quiet rumble shut out the night. The clatter of boots on cobbles grew louder and more insistent, yet at the same time far away, as if in another street. He listened, not daring to move as the dull cacophony passed.

‘we’ll chance a little light I think’. He heard a rasp and a flare burst into life, momentarily blinding him. He flickered open his eyes and saw the woman looking at him intently. ‘Victoria Blixen, that’s me! Call me Blix.

You are causing quite a stir, Mr Walker…’


Part Two

Charles Peacock

Charles Peacock moved with great purpose from one party to the next, never sure who he was really talking to but exemplifying his worth and meaning to those around him. Some shone back at him with an air of near-worship, whilst others gave him a sour downturn of barely concealed revulsion: he chose to ignore the latter and sought out the former. He had very little energy for naysayers, and believed the Leybourne’s of this world were destined to remain in the darkened embers of suspicious half-truths and outdated research, fumbling around in the dust for microbes of meaning, only to uphold an already known fact.

The glad-handing had been rewarding financially as he managed to encourage a number of people to back his continuing research into the strange workings of the cosmos and time and space, and what it all meant to the world as people understood it. One very fine lady with jet black hair and ebony skin had fixed him with piercing eyes as she offered him a large benefit, her bejewelled hand stroking his slightly frayed jacket collar to the effect that he felt she would devour him at any moment. He had only just managed to keep himself under control with the most defiant of will until some small, bustling chap with a balding head and a gold-chained monocle grabbed him by the hand and shook him free of his enchantment. Peacock smiled benignly, resenting the intrusion whilst at the same time welcoming the promise of a donation…small, but every little helps! The lady had moved away by the time he collected his focus. He watched as she prowled on the other side of the large chamber, her midnight blue, floor length dress giving the appearance of gliding effortlessly and swan-like.

He checked himself again, denying the enchantment once more as a distinguished gentleman with small round glasses and an air of intelligence smiled as he intruded his reverie. Peacock shifted his focus and rearranged his face of business with a rueful smile. The gentleman held out a small card with his name emblazoned in fine script and deep blue ink – Abraham Stoker: Theatrical Manager; writer; Journalist.

‘Mr Peacock’ there’s was an unmistakeable Irish burr to his voice, ‘I am not here to bestow money upon your good self and your endeavours, but rather to find a way for us to talk together at some leisure. I admire your work, your idea’s, and your research, and would understand more’.

Although Peacock managed to keep his face outwardly pleasant his inner being was irritated by this man’s request. Didn’t he realise the purpose of this soiree? ‘Well, sir. I thank you for your kind words and may suggest you attend my next talk. I will be discussing all my findings at the Fullings Estate near Whitby not four days hence.’

‘And I shall most certainly attend, Mr Peacock. But I would appreciate tackling your eminent grasp of the supernatural to enhance my own understanding for a project with which I am currently engaged.’

Peacock was a little intrigued, ‘Project? You too are an investigator.’

‘Dear lord, no. Purely a work of fiction. But a nod to the empirical world of truth adds a certain verisimilitude to the narrative, don’t you think?’

Peacock looked again at Stoker’s card and thought for a moment. More damnable writers! ‘I have your card, Mr Stoker, and I will be in the vicinity as I say. I will be in touch.’

At this Stoker nodded his head once, with some precision and stated ‘I think we may be able to find some common ground. It’ll be a pleasure. Thank you’. As suddenly as he had appeared he had once again gone. Peacock put his card in an inner pocket with the rest of the evenings collection and wandered towards a large open window to gather some air. The subtle hum of voices was beginning to recede as the evening was drawing to a close. Sweet smelling grass flew to meet him as he explored the enclosed walled garden and the light took on a dusky hue.

It was the deepness of her voice that took him by surprise. The smooth, mellow resonance capturing his attention in a way he would never have believed possible from something so soft and yet strangely commanding…’You tire of the evening?’

He turned slowly to be met, almost eye to eye by the woman in the blue dress, her dark eyes at once penetrating and playful. The smile at the corners of her mouth barely visible but he knew there was playfulness, and a sense of danger rippled through him. ‘Madam…’

‘Just call me Samira’

He stuttered a little ‘Samira…er…Charles…’

‘I know who you are. I have just bestowed you with a large sum of money…’

‘To which I am eternally grateful.’ He was beginning to recover at the sound of money.

‘Come! I would talk with you to see what you will do with my riches.’ She slipped a gloved hand around his arm, encouraging him to lead her even though he was aware that it was he who was being led. She smelled sweeter than the grass, he thought and was carried along in her wake, powerless to resist.

They glided silently into the garden and Charles could not remember if he had passed anyone along the way or even how they had managed to walk without uttering a word, being so utterly locked in her enchantment: there was no other way he could think of describing the effect she had upon him. The earlier rain had passed and as lamps were lit there appeared shining stars beneath their feet where glistening rays reflected.

‘I have a client, you see…’ Samira continued the conversation as if the transition had not even existed, ‘who is keen to have some understanding of what you know of these other worlds of which you espouse. That I may be someone else, somewhere else and yet be the same me.’ She laughed a little, a smattering of joy in the stillness of his empty soul. Whilst it made him smile it also unnerved him a little; he feared he may be being mocked but she had supplied him with a substantial remuneration.

‘Yes. That is something that I am currently…researching.’

‘And how far are we along with this understanding.’

‘It’s early days, and the theories need to be tested and analysed, and it may take some devilishly complicated physics to get to the real essence of the conundrum. You see, there are tiny fragments of atoms, smaller than atoms that exist around us, in us, through us, that make us what we are. But there is another world or worlds beyond this where things become complicated. Imagine if you hadn’t come here this evening, and we had never met, where would you be now? Who would I be talking to? Would I still be shaking hands with a small, balding gentleman?’ she laughed again, as he hoped she would: his stock in trade.

She smiled at him, and he bathed in her radiance, ‘All things are possible, then?’

‘Oh! Indeed!’

‘When could we begin to see something of evidence? To share with my client?’

He suddenly remembered Walker and the book and thought it a plausible avenue that she should hear. ‘I met with a gentleman this very afternoon who is similarly vexed by this issue, and he had about him something which I believe may help us take huge strides in our understanding. But there are indecipherables to be deciphered and riddles to untangle before I could say with any confidence that we understand…’

‘And you will see this gentleman again…?’

‘Oh, yes. Tomorrow when I will invite him to my event at the Fullings Estate and there, we shall begin our studies in earnest.’

She seemed to be content with his answer, ‘Very well. You must keep me informed. You have my details and know how to contact me. Please do.’ She solicited as she brushed something real or imaginary from his shoulder with her gloved hand, then let it rest there. ‘Charles, we will see each other very soon, thank you.’ She kissed him lightly on the cheek, smiled deeply with her eyes then turned and glided away with only the merest hint of temporal disturbance.

Peacock was left as someone who had just returned to reality after experiencing a dream of fantastic proportions and realising that he would rather live with the fantastic. The dream did not last long as he snapped himself into what he had just said, knowing that his main imperative was to now find John Walker…

It was midnight before he returned to his rooms in Skeldergate. Exhaustion was creeping upon him with the inevitability of the new day and he inched towards his need for rest. There were several tubes in his mail basket which he absentmindedly glanced at, not really reading the sender credentials, merely gazing at the collection of letters arranged to form words without their meaning registering: It had been an interesting day. He would need to contact John Walker, of that he was now resolved and played over their conversation in his mind, searching for some truth he could rely upon, something he could gauge and exploit, but all he managed to do was circulate the words and queries he had mulled a thousand times already.

Wearily he wandered to his bedroom where he collapsed into a fitful sleep full of dreams of Simara and Walker, and shaded demons laughing maniacally at his inactivity.

Charles had cursed himself for not being more fastidious in his inspection of the tubes, failing to notice the message from John Walker. He strode with determined purpose to the Inn under the wall where he believed he had been staying. The common room was empty except for the innkeeper.

‘I’m looking for a Mr Walker, I believe he is staying at this establishment.’

The Innkeeper eyed him with some suspicion, smoothing his brown, stained apron with slow precision. ‘Hmm…Walker is it? Are you a friend of his?’

‘Well…not entirely. More a business associate.’

‘When you find him tell him he owes me for a night here and for a broken door and damaged banister. Right ruckus we had here last night, thanks to him! Watchers crawling all over. Some poor bloke has his head dashed. Awful scenes. I only just cleared up the blood.’

‘Oh!’ Charles was somewhat surprised at the Innkeeper’s apparent annoyance but couldn’t see what it had to do with him. ‘Are you sure Mr Walker…’

‘You want to go and have a look at the door to his room. Off its hinges! I run a respectable Inn here…never seen the likes…I only hope it doesn’t affect my trade, I can tell you.’

‘I don’t suppose you can tell me where he went?’

The innkeeper gave him an exasperated stare. ‘I think half the city Watchers will be interested in that as well.’ With that the innkeeper gave an upward nod and a figure in deep blue stepped out of the shadows behind Charles.

‘I think I would like you to come with me, sir’. The Watcher said.

This was an instruction not an invitation and Charles was horrified that he should be commanded in such a way. ‘What on earth for?! I am a scientist and have important business to attend’.

‘We won’t keep you long. Just a few questions about Mr Walker’.

‘Well, ask away’

‘You need to come with me to The Watchtower. This is above my paygrade, if you catch my drift.’

‘And if I refuse?’

‘Things could get very uncomfortable for you’.

‘Come on! Get him out of my establishment! I need to get all this cleared up and back to normal before people start coming for a nosey!’ The innkeeper was beginning to show his frustration, fidgeting and feverishly polishing the bar top.

Charles gave an exasperated sigh…’Very well’.

The Watchtower was, at best, functional. Bare, stone bricked walls for the most part with windows set just too high to see anything interesting other than the passing clouds. Charles was led along a thin corridor to a room with a small bench on the far wall, where he was directed to sit and wait; he duly obeyed.

The heavy wooden door remained open and occasionally a figure of dark blue would flash past as a Watcher scurried about their business. Pale light from a central rose high above him cast a dim, depressing pallor, heightening his unease and increasing irritation. The room was barely large enough for him to pace but sitting still was beginning to feel like entrapment. He stood up and strode from one side, one end to the other. Four steps either way. He stood at the door glaring up and down the corridor But those who walked past chose to ignore him. Or, he began to think, they had been ordered not to attend to him. He sat back down. He stood up again. Paced. Four steps…four steps…four steps. Then lost his patience, wondering why he was there in the first place and how could they possibly stop him from going about his normal life.

Charles puffed out his chest, thrust forward his chin and strode from the room, walking back the way he had been led. When he entered the main vestibule a Watcher rushed up to him and placed a firm hand on his chest, stopping him from going any further.

‘Excuse me, good man. I have no time to waste here, I have business to attend to. You can come to see me in my rooms if the matter is so urgent.’

A commanding voice behind him: ‘Mr Peacock. Please, come into my office.’ He turned to see a large individual attired in the blue of The Watchers, enhanced by a flail of silver leaf from his left shoulder to his right hip, at the end of which was strapped the regulation silver-backed pistol of his office. His eyes shone dangerously with a mocking humour Charles disliked instantly. His hair too short-cropped and silver-grey. His presence was as inevitable as it was unavoidable, and as such, Charles decided that to refuse would be seen to be discourteous.

The large Watcher lowered himself into a chair behind an impressive oak desk and motioned for Charles to sit in the less imposing and potentially frail seat before him: he felt very small and insignificant, which he supposed was exactly the way he was supposed to feel. He heard the door close behind him.

‘I am the Overseer of this city, Mr Peacock and I do not like disturbance. Your associate would appear to have assaulted one of my Watchers in the line of his duty and that is also something else which I feel very strongly about. It is suggested that Mr Walker was not unaccompanied…can you account for your whereabouts last night?’

Charles was not to be intimidated and sat up straight and tall, ‘Indeed I can and any thought of my part as accomplice in this matter is completely absurd. I am a gentleman of thought and consideration not thuggish violence!’ The Overseer was unmoved by Charles outburst and kept a steady, implacable observation of Charles discomfort. ‘And where were you at midnight?’
‘Midnight!? Where any good gentleman should be; asleep in my bed!’

‘Were you alone?’

‘Now look…that’s very personal and not a question…’

‘Mr Peacock’ the Overseer sounded exasperated ‘I do not dally with gossip but facts. Were you alone?’


‘And this is where my job becomes rather difficult, because Mr Peacock, how do I know you are telling me the truth?’

Charles thought then of John Walker and the challenge he made to him to prove his tale of different worlds and allowed his mind to fizzle in frustration. In truth, how could he give proof to something only he had experienced? ‘You have my word…’

‘Every ne’er-do-well I have ever encountered supplies a similar defence, and unfortunately for you, your word means nothing without evidence.’

Charles could feel himself becoming enraged as his word, the thing upon which those who knew him would always rely, was being brought into question. ‘In all my years I have never been so insulted!’

‘That may be so. However, you must understand that from where I sit a crime has been committed and I need to know who was involved. For all I know Mr Walker may have been abducted and you have him prisoner somewhere.’


‘Really?’ The Overseer raised an eyebrow; the first expressive change Charles had noticed. ‘I currently have Watchers searching your rooms and until they return I would have you stay here.’ The door mysteriously opened, and two Watchers entered and stood either side of Charles

‘The Watchers will make you comfortable.’

Charles was outraged as he was non-too-gently pulled to his feet. ‘How dare you?! This is ridiculous! I am a respectable citizen; I have friends in high places who could make your life very difficult!’

The Overseer winched his bulk to a commanding height and glowered down at Charles. ‘You should be careful who you threaten, sir!’ The insistence was low and piercing.

Charles was almost dragged back down the thin corridor to the room he inhabited before, now realising it was nothing but a cell as the heavy wooden door was slammed shut and locks snapped into place.

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