This week’s flash fiction challenge was again issued by Terribleminds’ Chuck Wendig: FIVE RANDOM STORY SEEDS (up to 1500 words). I chose to randomly pick one of the five ‘seeds’ and got #3: A mysterious journal is found.
I decided to write a short story based in the world of one of my planned works-in-progress – working title, The Wizard of St Giles.
Journal de la lumière
© 2016 Karen J Carlisle
Rain pattered on the closed shutters. Fingers of light clawed through the slats, piercing the gloom of the townhouse. Muffled hooves clopped along the boulevard. The world moved on.
Inside, all was silent. Ghost-like drop cloths obscured years of memories. Furniture. Keepsakes. Research.
Gone was the endless parade of hopeful students. Gone were the servants. Gone was… Francois.
His sudden demise had changed everything. The Sûreté had given up on the investigation but there were so many unanswered questions.
Elizabeth’s footsteps echoed through the foyer, clattered on the steps spiralling down to the dim service passage. She lit an oil lamp, wiped her fingers on her skirt – the soot invisible on the black silk – and shuffled into the darkness.
Keys jangled in her hand as she regarded the locked door. The cellar had been Francois’ domain, his personal research laboratory. Only once had she ventured into its depths.
She closed her eyes. His anaemic face still haunted her nightmares, frequented her daydreams.
So pale… A tear crept down her cheek.
Somewhere in the cellar was a box of mementos. Francois had gone to retrieve it on the day he…
Elizabeth fidgeted with the keys. She had tried to ignore it when his research had been entrusted to the university, tried to forget it when his possessions had been packed away, tried to obliterate the memories.
Her brother, Xavier, was arriving this afternoon, to escort her home to England; this was her last chance. What had he been doing?
Elizabeth took a deep breath. The key clicked in the lock. She had to know.
Narrow stone steps led into the cramped cellar. Mountains of crates and jumbled paraphernalia lined the walls. Her eyes glanced over the dark stain on the floor, near the overturned chair, and avoided the deep gouges in the splintered wood of the workbench. She had to find that box.
Elizabeth skirted the cellar edges, examining labels, rummaging through contents until she found a curious tag, attached to a pale crate by a rosary:
To: Father Xavier Andrews,
Elizabeth bit her lip.
Xavier? Why would Francois address a box to her brother? She cracked open the crate. A faint odour of rotting flesh clawed at her eyes. She wrinkled her nose and peered into the crate. It smelled like dead rat.
Books filled it to the brim, many untitled. Book after book was retrieved from the depths, flipped through and stacked in a pile beside the box. Most were in Francois’ hand.
Elizabeth delved deeper. Her throat tightened. The stench clung to the books. Her fingers brushed against bristles. Her hand flinched, skin crawled. She swallowed and lifted another book, hoping not to find a dead rodent. She had to know.
What was in the box?
Wedged near the bottom of the crate was a rough hessian pouch, bound to a yellow leather bound journal with a rosary. Elizabeth extracted the pouch from the rosary binding and pulled its strings, to reveal the contents. Dried berries and delicate flowers trickled from the pouch. A wave of nausea drifted over her.
Elizabeth retreated, beyond the emanations of the desiccated confetti, and unwound the rosary from the journal. The leather was soft, and smelled of Mayflowers. A portable mirror was inlaid inside the back cover. She turned the pages, her fingers only touching the pages as long as necessary.
It was written in dual hands: one was unfamiliar, seen in an occasional entry or scribbled in a margin. The other was Francois’ studious scrawl, with enthusiastic gouges into the paper. Elizabeth smiled, remembering the passionate gleam in her husband’s eye as he chased an enigma.
She dabbed her eye and scanned the pages, full of experimental notations, technical diagrams until she found an entry, dated a few months ago:
Nikola has managed to procure the needed equipment. The Sûreté followed him again today. We have now taken precautions to secrete the machine and are in accord. We tell no one of our experiments, not even Elizabeth. It must remain secret. I will not risk her imprisonment for mon décisions téméraires.
Monsieur Nikola Tesla? She remembered a tall man – polite, with fastidiously trimmed moustaches and an incessant drive to work into the early morning hours. He’d worked in the laboratory for months, then a week ago he missed dinner. She had never seen him again.
Elizabeth turned the page. A folded note fluttered to the floor. It was a diagram of the cellar, showing a secret alcove beyond the crates by the far wall. She retrieved the oil lamp and squeezed past the barricade.
A pair of sconces protruded from the blank wall. Elizabeth eyed the crates behind her, and frowned. Surely, any light would be blocked by the barricade.
She re-examined the wall. There should be a door, but there was none. No handle, no seams. She consulted the map. The left sconce had been drawn in a different ink. She yanked on the fixture.
Cogs whirred. Gears clunked. A section of wall detached and slid to one side. Elizabeth peeked inside. A shrouded shadow loomed in the corner of the chamber. Again, the stench invaded her nostrils. She edged the lamp closer. Hawthorn berries and dried Mayflowers wreathed the large canvas-covered intrigue.
Elizabeth held her breath and grabbed the canvas. It slipped to the floor, revealing a contraption – a metal cylinder propped on a mahogany box by four brass columns. Wires protruded from each end of the cylinder, coiling up to two terminals mounted on top of the cylinder. Coils sat between the four columns attached directly to the box. Insulated wires hung loose near three metal switches on the front of the box.
An Electrical Current Machine! She had heard about them. They were dangerous – and illegal. What were you up to, Francois?
She ran her fingertips over the machine, tracing the smooth metal, glass and polished wood of the box-base. A side panel moved under her finger. More papers were wedged inside. Elizabeth examined the diagrams.
Curious. She smiled. No one would know if she just…
The instructions were easy to follow. Elizabeth attached the two wires to the two top box switches, and flipped the (naked) bottom switch. The contraption hummed. Was it a form of steamless generator?
Elizabeth licked her lips and flipped the left switch. A spark of electricity bridged the gap between the terminals. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
Her eyes widened. She consulted the notes, took a deep breath and flipped the remaining switch. Another spark, of brilliant blue, leaped the gap. It crackled and hissed but remained intact. The chamber smelled like the crisp air after a thunderstorm. Elizabeth grinned.
“But what does it do?” she cooed. She snatched up the journal and devoured the words.
Nikola was followed again today. There are more of them now. Paris is no longer safe for him. He has secured passage and will arrive in America on the 6th.We will work separately as long as we are able. Perhaps one of us can find the answer.
A click in the cellar caught Elizabeth’s attention. She shivered and glanced over her shoulder. The cellar was dark. She was alone.
Alone… The dark had a way of playing tricks, but not to worry; Xavier would arrive in a few hours.
She returned to the journal: The next entry was less than a week old.
I was attacked by – something fiendish. I have not seen its visage before. The apparatus acted strangely in its presence – flickering and sputtering – as if the creature were consuming the energy. Fortunately, Nikola arrived and fought off the creature. We searched the entire house. It was gone.
Thankfully, Elizabeth was having tea with friends. All was secure before she returned.
Nikola was tardy, as his boat ticket had been stolen. It can’t be a coincidence. We have taken precautions- hidden the machine and protected the journal A box of Hawthorne has been ordered.
Another click, and a shuffle. Elizabeth flinched. It was closer this time. She peeked around the edge of the doorway. The cellar was dark. And silent. The contraption’s buzz faltered. The blue spark flickered.
The journal fell from Elizabeth’s hands. A chill breeze wafted past her cheek. She peered into the darkness.
Elizabeth retrieved the journal and wrapped the rosary around her fingers. Another breeze caressed her neck. The lamp flame died. The contraption’s eerie glow filled the chamber.
The spark faltered. Elizabeth gripped the pale wooden beads of the rosary and held her breath.
The contraption’s hum faded. Its spark fizzled.
A chill drifted into the chamber.