Sir Desmond Stirling – the man, the myth,the legend…

November 27, 2018

I am the foremost author of stylish thrillers and occult novels in the world. That’s not how I describe myself, I hasten to point out, that was in The Reader’s Digest Guide to Modern British Authors. Of course, they were right, even if one says so oneself. I may be a humble scribe, but I do rather think there’s something frightfully common about false modesty. And the hack who called me a ‘Purveyor of pot-boiling prurient piffle’ in the Times Literary Supplement is an alliterative arse.

Now all of you – well, those of you who aren’t too old to have moved with the times (unlike my good self who has always been a la mode e.g. driving sports cars, listening to ‘jazz’, having much younger girlfriends) – are able to read my newly-published memoirs The Devil Talks The Hindmost. It is available at Amazon – indeed, all major rivers, one should think – and is jolly reasonably–priced. Too reasonably, if you ask me. One doesn’t want to encourage the poor to loiter around their hovels reading (if they are capable), and besides, the lifestyles I write about will just make them dissatisfied, and next thing you know, the hoi polloi are throwing an almighty tantrum and it’s the General Strike all over again. Still, gives Plod a chance to practice their water-cannon skills.

I digress…

Buy my book. I have a standard of living to keep up. Holidays in Cap d’Agde don’t pay for themselves.

You will learn about my family, my friends, my wives (all five of them – mad, scrubber, dead, ex-man, and lesbian), my schooldays, my fight against Satanism, my campaign for Nudism, and other adventures throughout my long and distinguished life. But not my wartime experiences – they’re still covered by the Official Secrets Act…

Do you wish to hear a Master of the Satanic chiller at work? Then pop over to http://www.whatnoise.co.uk and you’ll be overwhelmed at the privilege of finding a ‘download’ (no, not the foggiest) of yours truly actually penning a new novel in front of your very ears.

My ‘Twitter handle’ (honestly, the modern world, one despairs) is @sirdesstirling. Follow me if you wish to be drenched in my pearls of wisdom. And frankly who doesn’t?

Start from the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start…


Sir Desmond Stirling created and written by Anthony Keetch

(c) Anthony Keetch

Yours Truly on the Wireless

January 7, 2023

For all who are starved intellectually and culturally, why not feast yourself at the gourmet table of my epistles and soak up the gravy of my wisdom? My voice has been scientifically proven to arouse passions in both women & men; erotomania in the former, patriotic fervour in the latter…

Click here for an aperitif.

Carrion Christmas (contd)

December 1, 2022

A Derek Playfair Mystery

by Sir Desmond Stirling

Chapter 4

‘No no no no’

There was the sound of a script being thrown to the ground, and Knowle St Giles erupted from his little pool of light in the stalls. He stomped to the stage.

‘Northfield, I told you,’ he shouted, ‘this scene has to go. It slows down the action and will give the kids the screaming ab-dabs. Hell, it creeps me out. We can’t have our audience literally wetting itself. Not with two shows a day, we’ll never gets the damn seats dried.’

Northfield marched downstage, his eyes blazing. I was jolly glad I wasn’t their target. The spot automatically fixed itself on him.

‘And I say it stays!’

‘I’m the bloody director!’ roared St Giles. ‘And I say it goes!’

Northfield actually stamped his foot. ‘No! 

St Giles looked around. ‘So what do the rest of you think?

Most of the cast looked horrified at being put on the spot. They stared downwards and mumbled noncommittally. Only the two girls – Denise and Duracella – rushed downstage. 

‘We think it should stay!’ screeched Denise.

‘It’s integral to the story,’ said Duracella.

Knowle was obviously taken aback by this support, but he stood his ground.

‘And I say it goes,’ he stated firmly. ‘It’s inappropriate and it drags the show to a standstill.’

Northfield lifted his hand and made a strange gesture at St Giles. 

The director folded his arms. ‘That’s my final word. Now, we’re running out of time. We’ll take the end of the act as read and we’ll pick up from the top of Act 2.’

He returned to his seat.

Northfield stood still, downstage, still picked out by the spot. The two girls looked at him. He dismissed them with a gesture. They fled offstage where the rest of the cast had already retreated.

Northfield closed his eyes and started muttering something to himself, much as he had done in the bar the night before. Abruptly, he stopped, glared once more at Knowle, and stomped offstage.

I slunk back into my box, both embarrassed and fascinated by that little contretemps. Most theatrical tiffs are rightfully dramatic but then forgotten about moments later. But the fury on Northfield’s face had unnerved me. If he had an agent he’d have been on the phone to him right now. But as he didn’t have one I hadn’t a clue what his next move would be. He was an amateur after all.

I agreed with Knowle St Giles. It was an upsetting scene, far too strong for the little ones. And as I told all my clients, for good or ill, the director’s word is law. Even when they’re shits.

I needed a drink but I didn’t want to attract attention by moving – we’d had quite enough drama, thank you very much – so I settled back in my box and contemplated all that had happened so far. This wasn’t over – not by a long chalk.

The second act proceeded. It started smoothly enough. To my surprise Northfield took part – I’d expected him to withdraw in a sulk, amateur that he was. But he seemed less sure of himself. He struggled with lines and moves, almost as though he’d never properly rehearsed the second act.

We then had Sparkwell’s comedy routine with his vent dummy. She was supposed to be a gypsy crone. It was probably the most hideous vent I’d ever seen; a hook nose, snaggly teeth, and pop eyes, she looked more like an evil witch than a fortune-teller. Still, his vent skills were frightfully good and the banter amused. But obviously this sequence required audience participation so Knowle pretended to be a child who’d been pushed up to the stage to have his palm read. 

And this is where things turned unpleasant. Knowle didn’t clamber on the stage, he remained at the front of the stalls. 

His contribution to the banter was disinterested, but as most children tend to clam up in that situation it didn’t hurt. But when it came to his fortune being told, a chill shot through the theatre, and I’m convinced the lights darkened.

“Shall I tell ‘ee yer fortune, young master?’ cackled the old crone. ‘Cross me palm with silver then.’

‘He doesn’t have any silver,’ said Sparkwell to his dummy, exasperatedly. ‘He’s a young lad. He might have a Malteser.’

‘Me powers only work when I’ve been paid,’ the fortune teller replied. 

‘You’ve got a good Union then,’ said Sparkwell. 

I guffawed quietly to myself. Very topical! Unions were currently causing havoc with their ridiculous demand for fair wages and safety. The dads in the audience would appreciate that joke, even if they would have to explain it to their wives.

‘Go on, it’s Christmas,’ said Sparkwell. ‘Give him his fortune.’

‘Very well,’ screeched the old crone. ‘He can owe me.’

And this is where it went jolly weird. The dummy closed its eyes and let out a long moan. When it next spoke the voice was quite different. I was initially impressed by Sparkwell’s versatility, but not by what the dummy said. 

It pointed its boney finger down at Knowle st Giles, the eyes lit up a fiery red, and in a man’s voice, familiar but not Sparkwell’s, said…

‘It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid,

Oh yes there is, for your crimes you must be paid,

Father Christmas won’t be visiting you this year,

Instead you’ll end up with your throat cut, underneath the pier.’

Knowle looked up sharply.

‘Not funny, Sparkwell!’

Sparkwell looked as shocked as I felt. ‘I didn’t say that, Mr St Giles, that wasn’t my voice!’

‘Then whose voice was it if not yours?’ Knowle asked, scathingly.

Sparkwell shook his head. His mouth flapped open, but no words came out, much like his dummy now which lay slumped in his lap, the eyes their usual wooden blue.

The rest of the cast were peering out from the wings to see what the delay was.

‘Come on, we’re running out of time,’ snapped Knowle impatiently. ‘Let’s get this over with, and Sparkwell, don’t push your luck.’

Sparkwell snatched his hand out of the dummy and staggered offstage, looking with fear at his dummy as if he’d never seen it before. 

I for one was convinced that Sparkwell was telling the truth and that that hadn’t been his voice. But whose…? I recognised it, I thought, but couldn’t readily identify it.

Knowle clapped his hands and shouted, ‘Onwards!’ The musicians struck up a tune -well, of sorts – and the Dress recommenced. I caught a glimpse of Northfield in the wings. He was smirking.

The rest of the Dress passed uneventfully. It wasn’t very good. The cast were distracted and nervous. They gabbled their lines, rocketing themselves towards the finale as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps they did? Only Northfield seemed composed although his performance was mediocre at best. Even when his villainous Demon King was vanquished he showed no emotion, just a bored contempt, like a disgraced politician who knows that the punishment being meted out is nothing to worry about and that his place in the House of Lords is assured.

But I was very proud of Compton. He performed marvels with rather naff material and unhelpful circumstances. I just hoped he was going to get through the run without diving into the nearest whisky bottle. I doubted that I would manage it.

After the Dress finished, I didn’t hang around for the notes. I sent a message backstage to Compton that I would see him in the foyer. I had plenty of time until my train and while I couldn’t wait to flee Heelmouth and start my Christmas partying properly, I felt uneasy about abandoning poor old Pauncefoot. 

While lurking in the foyer I met the manager of the theatre. He was a dwarf called Grendel O’Malley. He’d been part of a famous troupe called the The Pocket-Size Pals and, during a summer season headlined by Hope and Keen with Clodagh Rodgers, he’d fallen in love with a local girl and had remained behind, easily earning himself that manager job as no one else in the business wanted to live in Heelmouth.

I introduced myself and he invited me into his office for a snifter. I warmed to him immediately. He had a twinkle in his eye and an obvious love of the theatre. I asked him for his thoughts about the panto. He shook his head.

‘People here are desperate for theatre and they’ll flock to see this,’ he said. ‘But it’s not much cop, is it. Your chap is good,’ he added hastily, ‘but otherwise…’

‘Some of the casting is a bit rum,’ I suggested tentatively. ‘That Northfield cove…’

Grendel snorted. ‘They had no choice.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘No Northfield, no show.’ He enjoyed my puzzlement. ‘He’s paying for the whole thing.’

My eyebrows whizzed up so high that they briefly joined my Afro.

‘He’s the producer?’ I gasped. 

‘Not quite, but he’s the main backer.’

‘Then why…?’ I quickly filled Grendel in about the confrontation during the Dress. ‘Northfield could’ve pulled rank far more than he did.’

Grendel poured me another drink. He was rapidly becoming my favourite theatre manager of all time. ‘I’ll tell you something even odder. Northfield chose Knowle `St Giles as director.’

I goggled at him. ‘But they obviously can’t stand each other!’

Grendel laughed and slugged back his drink. 

‘What on earth is going on here?’ I said. ‘What have I dumped poor old Compton in?’

Grendel looked pensive. ‘The whole thing makes me very uneasy, but I can’t put my finger on why.’

I made a snap decision. ‘Could I have a seat for tonight?’ I asked Grendel. ‘I was planning to get the train later, but 12 hours extra won’t hurt me.

Not only did the little darling offer me a comp, but also arranged for a telegram to be sent to my hosts, explaining my delay. I don’t know why I had decided to stay for the first night, I just had… an inkling…  

Something heavy was going down and this cat wasn’t splitting!

Fortuitously I had booked an extra night at the hotel, not intending to stay, just so I didn’t have to check out too early. I freshened up, put on my lilac velvet dinner suit with matching cummerbund, my enormous bow tie, polished my 3 inch stacked heel Chelsea boots, gargled with brandy, and I was ready for the first night. There was a pre-show drinkies do for local dignitaries to which Grendel had invited me. I hadn’t told Compton I would be around. I didn’t want to add to his first night butterflies by my unexpected presence. 

While I was titivating myself ready for the evening, my brain was whirring at the events so far. Nothing made sense, and I was worried that I was approaching the whole situation from the wrong angle. I may be a groovy chap with a modern outlook, but I’m still a hard-headed businessman. I may dig peace and love, but I don’t buy into the whole ‘Age of Aquarius’ jazz. While Northfield was one creepy dude, he was no more than a clever conjurer. I couldn’t see what his motives were for paying for this panto, I guessed it was for some self-aggrandisement. Maybe it was just to impress the chicks? Nothing impresses an actress more than paying for a show in which she can star, but Northfield didn’t strike me as a cat who was motivated by the ‘happenings’ in his British Homes Stores Y-fronts.

The pier had been lit up properly and looked gayer and more enticing than it had done the night before. The snow had stopped, but there was a thick crunchy layer on the ground, and more threatened later. A steady stream of people were walking towards the theatre so it looked like there could be a gratifyingly healthy audience.

Grendel was in the foyer, smart in his – presumably bespoke – dinner jacket. He grabbed me and led me into a corner.

‘Knowle St Giles gone missing,’ he hissed. ‘Left the theatre after giving notes, and hasn’t been since.’

I shrugged. ‘Probably had enough and quit town. He’s an amateur, I could sense it a mile off, and doesn’t care if he’s letting his cast down.‘

Grendel still looked worried. ‘It’s outrageous. A director not staying for his first night.’

‘They’re probably better off without him.’ I said. 

Grendel led me to the theatre bar, a tiny little room, ringed by portholes overlooking the sea. Fairy lights were draped across the bar, and a young barmaid was pouring glasses of Babycham. She was a pretty little thing, her attractive face marred by a frown of concentration as she measure out the drinks. I flashed her the Playfair smile and she inevitably melted. 

There was a small group of people in there, the local dignitaries, I assumed. The first person I met introduced himself as the local chief of police, although I gathered that he was actually the local sergeant with just a constable beneath him. I couldn’t imagine that Heelmouth warranted a full force. About 50 years old, a small moustache above his pursed lips, he was wearing his uniform with gleaming buttons and boots so polished I could see a reflection of the contents of his nostrils in them. Self-important, I surmised, but not good enough to earn promotion.

Next, I was introduced to Dr Hamish MacHamish, the local GP. A handsome man in his mid-50s, silver mane of hair swept back from his face, twinkling eyes, perfect – if obvious – casting. His wife, a somewhat blowsy woman, with ill-applied make-up, was already drunk. I hoped she would fall asleep during the show and not heckle. I saw the doctor surreptitiously shake his head as the barmaid approached with the tray of Babycham; however, his wife without turning her head reached out and grabbed a fresh glass.

There was also the Mayor and his wife, a couple of such wretched tedium and mousiness that I refuse to bore you with a description. They were exactly what a town like Heelmouth deserved.

It was only a few minutes until curtain up when a young policeman entered the bar and approached the Sergeant. He whispered something into his superior’s ear. The Sergeant looked startled. He in turn whispered something to the Doctor who nodded. They both made for the exit. The Doctor turned before leaving and excused himself, claiming that duty called and he hoped to see us all in the interval.

Grendel looked mightily peeved at losing two of his dignitaries.

Actually, he lost three as I slipped quietly out after the two men. 

I exited the theatre foyer. The Doctor and the two policeman were staring over the railings of the pier at the beach below. They walked back down the pier, yours truly in their wake. I followed them as they made their way onto the beach where a small crowd of people were gathered by one of the pier supports. As the three men approached the crowd parted… to reveal someone laying prone on the beach, covered in a light sprinkling of snow. I hurried to catch them up, arriving just as the Doctor squatted down and turned the body face upwards. 

It was the director Knowle St Giles!

Chapter 5

Knowle St Giles lay dead on the beach, his corpse dusted with snow reddened by the blood which flowed from the wound in his throat…

The Sergeant asked if anyone recognised the victim.

‘I do,’ I said and identified him.

‘We must stop the show,’ the Sergeant said. ‘We need to interview all the cast.’

‘Nonsense, man,’ I said. You’ll cause a freak out, and then all the audience will flock down here to rubberneck, destroying the crime scene.’

The Sergeant flung away his cigarette and grudgingly agreed. He told his constable to ring the police station at the next town along to get some reinforcements. The constable said he didn’t have any money for the phone box on him. The Sergeant let out an exasperated huff and started to berate his minion. I abhor parsimony so I stumped up a tuppenny piece.

The Doctor stood  and wiped his hands on his handkerchief.

‘His throat was slit,’ he proclaimed, somewhat redundantly.

‘Can you tell what sort of implement was used, Doctor?’ I asked. ‘Or will that require a full autopsy?’

I could tell the Sergeant was annoyed by the ease at which I was taking over the investigation, but frankly I’d probably been involved in more murder inquiries than he ever had in this dreary little town.

‘A sharp knife it will have been,’ the Sergeant stated, ‘Don’t need an autopsy to tell us that.’

‘Not a knife, Sergeant,’ the Doctor said gravely. ‘That cut was made by claws!’

I was so glad I’d changed my plans. I would have been furious if I’d missed out on all this. A juicy murder mystery trumps crackers and turkey any day.

‘You were at the Dress Rehearsal, Playfair,’ said the Doctor. ‘Did anyone threaten the victim?’

‘Just a dummy.’

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. I quickly explained what had occurred.

‘Sounds like this Sparkwell fellow is the main suspect,’ the Sergeant claimed.

I shook my head, dislodging the snow which had landed on my Afro.

‘No, if anyone in that company is responsible, I would stake my entire agency on it being Northfield,’ I countered. ‘I’ve no idea how, but he’s a clever cat. And a dangerous one.’

The constable returned from the phone box and informed his boss that policemen from the neighbouring town were on the way along with an ambulance, and also that the CID had been informed.

‘We don’t need CID, thank you very much,’ barked the Sergeant. ‘I am more than capable of solving a murder on my own patch.’

I doubted that, but said nothing. The Doctor suggested that we get out of the cold and back into the theatre. The Sergeant told the poor Constable to guard the body until the reinforcements arrived. The Constable’s lips trembled, whether from the cold or the thought of being left on this dark beach with a freshly-murdered body.

The Doctor, the Sergeant and I returned to the theatre bar. I told Grendel what had occurred. He looked shocked and immediately poured us all tots of whisky.

‘How’s the show going?’ I asked Grendel.

‘Well,’ he said, unable to hide his surprise.

He took me to the back of the auditorium. Not a bad house; not full, but healthy. Compton and Sparkwell were indulging in some badinage on stage. It all looked more colourful and joyous than it had that afternoon. Perhaps they just needed releasing from the baleful presence of poor old St Giles to unleash the proper pantomime spirit? I wondered what would happen when they reached the Demon King’s big scene. If, as I suspected, Northfield knew that Knowle was no longer an obstacle would he perform the full unexpurgated routine? And what would happen then…?

A shiver ran down my spine. I knocked back the whisky.

I checked my watch. By my estimation, that scene would occur in about 35 minutes time. I knew there was no point in recruiting the Sergeant’s help. He was a typical provincial Plod, unimaginative and close-minded, who had already dismissed me due to my threads and hair.

I watched the panto unfold, heart in my mouth. When Northfield Loveday made his first entrance, I gripped the rail at the back of the auditorium. This wasn’t the mousey man I had met in the bar last night. In his stage rags and ornate make-up he exuded an evil aura. The audience sensed it too, and the sense of fun which had pervaded the theatre chilled.

I was drenched in sweat despite the arctic temperature. What was going to happen?

Northfield moved to centre-stage and raised his arms. The lights dimmed, leaving the stage bathed in an eerie glow. Northfield clicked his fingers and suddenly he was ringed by a circle of flickering black candles. Nifty effect… if it was an effect.

As happened this afternoon, I was convinced that the temperature dropped sharply; suddenly I could see my breath as it left my mouth.

Northfield threw off his stage rags to reveal his gleaming crimson-lined robe, far superior to anything afforded by a flea-bitten production such as this. Northfield threw back his head and started to chant loudly in what I presumed was Latin. Too many years had passed since I was an altar boy so I hadn’t the foggiest what he was saying, although judging by the murderous expression on his face, it wasn’t ‘Why does a brown cow give white milk when it only eats green grass?’

A small red light appeared on the stage floor which quickly grew.

‘Come, my acolytes, come dance for me!’ roared Northfield, at which point several members of the cast – led by Denise and Duracella – rushed onto stage in the altogether and began to cut a very suggestive rug around the red light on the stage.

Now I’ll admit I was the first in the queue to see Hair, opera glasses ready, and I’m looking forward to the first night of Oh Calcutta, but this was a bit much for a provincial panto. You could see everything, and the writhing didn’t exactly draw one’s attention away from the wobbling parts. I expected to hear at the very least a lot of tut-tutting from the audience, never mind a bellow of disapproval, but instead the audience collectively leaned forward, licking their lips. Dirty provincial peasants!

I was distracted by a commotion coming from just behind me. It was the Sergeant.

‘Hello hello hello , what’s all this then?’ he yelled and started to march down the aisle. ‘None of that! This is a respectable town. Put your clothes back on.’ I think he even waved his truncheon. Everyone ignored him. ‘I’m telling you, cover yourselves up, you filthy animals.’ At which point he fell over, tripped, I suspect, by an audience member sticking their leg out into the aisle. I started to go to his aid, but Grendel stopped me. He pointed at the stage. The red light had become a hole in the stage floor from which emanated clouds of filthy smoke, the stench of which we could smell even from the back of the auditorium. The naked dancers got even more frenzied as Northfield’s big red hole widened. The Demon King’s chanting became more strident and his eyes glowed eerily.

‘Now we know why Northfield went to all this trouble,’ I whispered to Grendel. ‘It was for this. Some sort of mad ritual.’

Grendel nodded. ‘And it needed the presence of an audience. Look at them.’

The audience were swaying rhythmically from side to side, arms aloft, moaning quietly to themselves.

‘He’s hypnotised the lot of them!’ I gasped.

‘He may be an amateur,’ admitted Grendel, ‘But not even many pro’s can do that.’

Someone shushed us.

I dragged Grendel into the foyer. ‘But why here? Why now?’ I puzzled aloud.

‘Think about it,’ urged Grendel. ‘Why Heelmouth? There’s no River Heel. It must be a corruption of Hellmouth.’

‘You mean…?’

‘I’m guessing that directly below this theatre there is a direct opening to Hell itself!’

Chapter 6

I gasped at the little man’s deduction. It seemed ludicrous, but I couldn’t deny the evidence of what I had just seen.

‘So what can we do?’ I was unafraid to admit I felt out of my depth here. I had solved many murders and robberies in my time, but, vulgar as they were, they were rooted in the here and now. For all my beads and general grooviness, I was still a hard-headed businessman, ill-equipped to fight the forces of darkness.

Grendel shook his head. ‘The nearest I’ve got to black magic is playing Sneezy in Snow White at the Bodmin Alhambra a few years back.’

‘Let’s see what’s happening onstage,’ I suggested.

We crept back into the auditorium. The audience were still swaying and moaning in their hypnotised state. Foul-smelling smoke was filling the theatre as it escaped the hole on the stage which was now a diameter of about six foot. Northfield stood on the edge of the chasm, beckoning with his hands, a manic smile on his face.

‘Come, I command you, Krampus’ he cackled. 

 Grendel gasped. ‘Krampus!’

I was none the wiser.

‘He’s a sort of Christmas Daemon,’ Grendel explained. ‘Like the dark side of Father Christmas. When I was a kid, we were told that if we weren’t good, not only would we not get any presents, but that the Krampus would gobble us up.’

‘Hmm,’ I said, ‘I can well imagine that there are enough naughty people in a Heelmouth audience to feed the average daemon.’

Northfield was still cajoling his Hadean brute. ‘Unshackle yourself from the uterus of Hell and crawl through the infernal cervix to this craven world,’ he urged. ‘I have food for you.’ He gestured at the audience.

I didn’t like the sound of that.

An unholy roar erupted from the chasm and a giant scaly claw appeared, covered in a red warty skin with leather talons, clinging to the rim. Northfield’s face grew even more manic. He shouted something to his acolytes, and they increased their frenzied dancing.

‘I have to do something,’ I yelled at Grendel above the racket.

‘But what?’ he asked, quite reasonably.

‘Not a clue,’ I replied, and started to make my way down the side aisle towards the stage. I didn’t look behind me to see if he was following. I couldn’t blame him if he weren’t.

I was halfway down the aisle when I noticed a new arrival on stage. It was Compton.

My heart sank. Compton was staggering, clutching a large, half-empty bottle of whisky to his amply-padded bosom. The events of the past 24 hours had cracked him and the foolish chap was suckling at the nipple of the bottle again. 

Compton ground to a halt and tried to focus on what was occurring in front of him.

‘I don’t remember this from rehearsals,’ he slurred. He looked out at the audience and waved. 

‘Hello, everybody, it’s me Mother Goose again.’

The audience, still in their hypnotic fervour, ignored him.

This peeved Compton. He waved his bottle at the. ‘Oi, don’t ignore me, you rude sods. I’m the title character, for Christ’s sake.’

Usually I’d be very cross at this outrageous behaviour which would’ve got him sacked, not just from the show, but my agency. But at least his ranting was distracting Northfield.

‘Begone!’ the villainous magus hissed. He turned his attention to the owner of the claw again. ‘Come, Krampus, be born into this feeble world. I have carrion for you to feast on. A whole theatre of carrion!’

‘Don’t you ‘begone’ me, you bitch,’ Compton spat at him. ‘It’s all your fault. You’ve ruined this production, you steaming great amateur and your hopeless tart, whatzername.’ He suddenly spotted Denise as she writhed around the chasm. ‘Ooh, she’s got no knickers on!’ He peered myopically at her. ‘Not impressed by that arse at all. Seen better cushioning on the Woolwich tram.’ He swigged from the bottle. ‘Is this a private orgy or can anyone join in?’ he giggled. 

Northfield was getting angry. ‘Silence, you prattling ham, or I will destroy you.’

Compton pulled a mock-shocked face at the audience. ‘Did you hear that? The nerve! Who are you calling a ham, you… you… dabbler.’

At which Compton, swinging his bottle, his torso bulked up with massively artificial knockers, rushed into Northfield, who unprepared for this onslaught, tried to push Compton away, but lost his balance and, with a horrified scream, fell into the chasm. 

Compton fell back on his well-upholstered arse and sat, dazed. 

I then saw with a thrill of horror that the Claw was still there and the the Krampus was getting an even firmer grip on the stage. 

The dancers continued their dervish whirling for a while, then Duracella saw that Northfield was no longer there. She screamed and rushed to the edge of the Pit, staring forlornly down into the infernal abyss. With an even louder shriek Denise joined her. Duracella made as if to climb down into that dreaded hole, but before anyone could stop her, the Krampus flexed its repellent fingers and knocked both girls down and they plummeted after their doomed Master.  

I leapt onto the stage and shouted into the wings at the DSM (Deputy Stage Manager for those of you who aren’t in the Biz) and yelled, ‘drop the song sheet’. He looked somewhat shell-shocked, poor darling, but give him his due, he did exactly that with the quick-thinking and fortitude which is the backbone of the British theatre.

‘It’s from the carol concert last Sunday,’ he yelled at me. ‘The panto didn’t have one.’

I gave him the thumbs up, and the sheet dropped with a thud.

I hauled Compton up on his feet and shouted into his befuddled ear, ‘Come on, old love, we’re getting this lot singing.’

I hot-footed it downstage (avoiding the fiery Pit and the claw which was getting more of a grip on the stage) and with a quick soft shoe shuffle (haven’t lost it, even though it’s years since I last trod the boards) I shouted, ‘Come on everybody, it’s time for a sing-song!’

I gestured frantically at the musicians in the pit (who I don’t think had noticed all the kerfuffle on stage thanks to their decrepitude and, if my prior experience of musicians is anything to go by, inebriation). They stared at the song sheet and struck up. I glanced backwards at the sheet, approved of the choice, and grabbed Compton. I snatched his bottle off him and when he protested, told him he’d get it back when we’d finished the song.

He lurched downstage and, his wig still akimbo, started to sing, all the while giving the audience encouraging hand gestures to join in.

‘Oh come all ye faithful…!’ we began, both of us in different keys, with the band in a further one that I suspect had never been previously identified by any respectable musicologist.

‘Joyful and triumphant!’

The audience, conditioned in their trance to respond to instructions from the stage, began to chant along; neither joyfully nor triumphantly, it must be said, but…

‘Look!’ I shouted at Compton, not that he would have twigged what I meant. ‘Krampus is losing his grip!’

I’d had an inkling that a bit of Christmas joy might do the trick.

‘Come on everybody,’ I loudly urged the audience. ‘With gusto, boys, with gusto!’ I encouraged the band.

‘Sing, damn you!’ I ordered Northfield’s acolytes who were still thrashing about in their birthday suits.

‘Oh, come let us adore him…!’

We sang our hearts out; I with the desperation of someone who wants to defeat the powers of darkness, Compton with the enthusiasm of an old piss artist.

And with a crescendo of ‘Oh Come let us adore him…’ the claws of the Krampus lost their grip on the stage and slipped into the Pit with a hideous scream. The hole in the stage closed up immediately and within seconds there was no trace that it had ever been there.

The audience started to snap slowly out of their collective trance and stare around in a confused fashion. Fortunately, this is England so there was no hysteria. Everyone just assumed they’d fallen asleep which is a natural thing to do in a theatre. They rubbed their eyes and looked at the stage, wondering where the story had got up to.

Northfield’s wretched dancers slowly came to their senses, realised they were on stage without a stitch on, and ran sheepishly into the wings. 

Grendel approached, looking it has to be said, somewhat shell-shocked. I expect he would’ve said the same about yours truly. 

‘Well…’ was all he was able to say.

‘I know,’ was my wholly inadequate response.

We took in the audience, slowly coming to life again like wasps after a frost. They all gaped at the stage, unsure if the panto had finished. 

I nudged Grendel. ‘ I think you’d better make an announcement, old thing.’

He looked at me, horrified. ‘What do I say?’ 

I shrugged. ‘Something like… one of the cast has been taken ill. Off them a replacement ticket for later in the run.’

‘What run?’ asked Grendel. ‘The villain has fallen to everlasting torment.’ 

‘Oh, I can find you someone,’ I replied airily. ‘And if we get enough black coffee down Compton’s throat, he can take over the direction.’

Epilogue

‘BANG!’

‘The first cracker I’ve pulled in donkey’s years,’ squealed Compton, rummaging excitedly for his paper hat.

Grendel and his lovely wife Nutella – blonde, 6ft 2, a former Miss Whitley Bay (1962) – had kindly invited Compton and me for Christmas lunch in their sweet, but bijou bungalow overlooking the sea front; the pier and its theatre an omnipresent vista from the window. I’d contacted my original hosts who were sweetly sending their chauffeur to fetch me later on, although I knew I’d have to cough up one hell of a tip to mollify the poor peak-capped sod for losing his Christmas Day to the M1.

The previous evening we’d left the local Plod to clean up the mess. The audience were all so dazed that they were of no use as witnesses. Grendel and I were a bit vague in our statements too, partly because we weren’t sure what the hell we’d seen, but also because we didn’t want to be dragged to the funny farm. 

But they had a corpse and two missing actresses to investigate, not to mention Northfield Loveday himself, although preliminary investigations had turned up no records of anyone with that name. I wanted to tell the Fuzz to cool their boots, that this case was one that they’d never crack, and they might as well just file it under ‘Freaky Unsolved Shit.’

After my enthusiasm of the previous night, the future of the panto was now uncertain. Half the cast had scarpered, the villain and the principal boy and girl had all vanished mysteriously, and the director had had his throat sliced open. You can’t buy that kind of publicity, but assembling a new cast over Christmas and rehearsing them would take time. It would be new year by the time the show was ready. 

But then Compton reminded me that he had his one-man show ‘Out Damn Spot – and Other Shakespearean Dogs!’ If he did it in drag and added a few sing-songs it would make an ideal Christmas entertainment, particularly for the good burghers of Heelmouth who wouldn’t know any better. Frankly, if it kept Compton off the sauce, it was fine by me. His brief fall from the wagon last night didn’t seem to have troubled him – not even a trace of a hangover! 

There was a toot-toot sound from outside.

‘That’s my ride,’ I said , removing the napkin from my shirt and my paper crown from my head. I stood up. 

‘Well, it’s certainly been a different Christmas, I can categorically confirm that!’ I stated unnecessarily, shaking hands with Grendel and kissing his red-hot stunner of a wife. Down boy, I sternly warned myself.

‘Thank you, my darlings, for your hospitality.’

I hugged Compton who had a mouthful of mince pie which he hastily swallowed.

‘Happy new year, old thing,’ I said. ‘Send me telegram when you’ve decided what you’re going to do. Otherwise, give me a bell when you get back to London.’

‘Oh, I think I’ll stay here for a while,’ Compton said in a voice not quite his own. With a shiver, I realised it was a pitch-perfect impression of Northfield Loveday’s voice. ‘I have unfinished business.’ And I could’ve sworn that, briefly, his eyes glowed. 

The car horn sounded again. I looked at Compton who gave me a big kiss on the lips, quite his old self. 

‘Have a dolly new year with your posh chums,’ Compton said in his own voice, picking up another mince pie from the plate.

Grendel saw me to the door while Compton helped Nutella with crockery gathering.

‘Keep an eye on him,’ I warned Grendel as I collected my suitcase. 

‘Any reason?’ My new short chum asked.

‘He’s been through a lot,’ I replied. ‘Don’t want him back on the sauce.’

Grendel nodded, and we shook hands again. 

‘I think we’re going to meet again, my diminutive chum,’ I told him. ‘We make a good team.’

Grendel beamed. ‘Happy new year, Derek,’ he said. 

The chauffeur took my case and held the car door open for me. A 1937 Bentley, very nice. Should be a smooth enough ride for a snooze. 

If only I could get that glow in Compton’s eyes out of my mind…

THE END

You can hear Sir Desmond narrate this story here

.

Written by Anthony Keetch

(c) Anthony Keetch 2022

Carrion Christmas

December 1, 2022

A Derek Playfair Mystery 

by Sir Desmond Stirling

Chapter 1

December 1971

I stepped off the train and took a deep breath. Even though the smuts of the steam, I could smell the nearby sea. Groovy!

There were no cabs waiting on the concourse outside the station so I arranged for my luggage to be delivered to my hotel, and decided to take a brisk walk. A glimpse of the sea first, check into the hotel, then on to the Hamilton Deane Memorial Theatre where my old chum and client, Compton Pauncefoot, was about to give his Dame in panto.

Mother Goose in Heelmouth wasn’t the hottest of dates for an actor, but Pauncefoot’s star had long waned thanks to a liking for the sauce and one Gross Indecency charge too many. But I dig the old boy who has been on my books since the agency first opened, and I can hardly take a moral stance on Compton when my own rampant libido has got me into hot water on many an occasion!

Heelmouth is a small seaside town which hardly bursts with tourists at the height of the season, but even so my heart sank at the sight of the High Street, paltry decorations dangling forlornly overhead. The battleship grey sky didn’t help, but the few shoppers were hardly glowing with festive cheer as they scuttled from shop to shop. The 1970s may have only recently started, but I felt as though that as I’d disembarked from the train I was now back in those grim days of post-war 1950s when fun was strictly frowned upon and free love could end up costing you a lot of bread.

I admit I felt rather guilty about poor old Pauncefoot spending the Yuletide season in this dump. It wouldn’t help the old boy in his pledge to steer clear of the booze either. I had only been in town for 10 minutes and was craving a stiff one.

I’d trolled down to the sea front to take in some tokes of ozone, but the wind threatened to blast my ‘fro to smithereens, so I checked into my hotel, a somewhat crumbling pile on the seafront, rather misleadingly called The Grand. Inside was, surprisingly, better than it’s exterior threatened. True, the decor was supremely un-hip with well-worn carpets, dented suits of armour, tarnished horse brasses, and wallpaper that Mary Whitehouse would choose, but as pads go it could’ve been worse. I ought to give them the name of my personal interior designer, Butch McGonagal; let him freak out with some Lava Lamps and hessian wallpaper and the place could be seriously cool. 

The foyer was dominated by an enormous Christmas tree, swathed with decorations which looked to my trained eye like genuine antiques. I briefly wondered if they’d miss any if I got sticky-fingered.

The receptionist, an older woman with terrifying eyebrows and her hair scraped brutally back, looked at me without the hint of a smile.

‘Derek Playfair,’ I informed her. ‘Theatrical agent and playboy adventurer. You have a room for me.’

She looked at her ledger. ‘Oh yes, Mr Playfair,’ she said. ‘Just the two nights?’

Hell, yes, I thought. I was planning to skedaddle pretty damn pronto the following evening immediately after the Dress Rehearsal, but I’d booked an extra night so I didn’t have to check out too early.

I’d feared the worst from my room, but frankly I’ve slept in worse pits. A pleasingly large bed – and one never knows when that might come in useful (particularly when actresses are far from home). The view of the sea in its grim majesty was very acceptable. No en-suite but I don’t mind a shared bathroom; one never knew whom one might encounter when nature calls in the middle of the night!

My luggage was waiting for me but I decided not to unpack. Rather I thought I’d check out the bar. A quick snifter after enduring British Rail and before meeting old Pauncefoot. After all it wouldn’t be fair to knock them back while he’s on the wagon.

I took a quick glance at myself in the mirror to make sure I wasn’t looking too travel-weary. I was rather pleased with what I saw. A man in his 50s who could pass for younger, broad shoulders, a lithe waist, my hair – by Maurice of Frith St – and ornately sculptured moustache and sideburns revealing flickers of grey, enough to give me a hint of distinction without being too ageing. I was dressed pretty casually for me; orange flared corduroys, an old Mr Haddock shirt, and my winter coat made from genuine Ecuadorian Poodle fur. The ladies of Heelmouth didn’t know what was going to hit them!

The bar was gloomy and dark, wood-panelled, the sort where one could lurk in the shadows unseen, just as I like. One can observe while avoiding recognition, then descend on anyone who aroused interest.

Apart from a few ragged strands of tinsel and a medium-sized Christmas tree, tilting slightly as though it had had a few, the only other decorations were posters from previous productions at the Hamilton Deane Memorial Theatre. It was surprising how many of the big stars of today had played there: Sid James as Macbeth, darling Wyngarde as Toad of  Toad Hall, Peggy Mount as Cleopatra… Oh, how I would’ve dug seeing these magical performances!

I rapped on the bar and a gnome-like barman promptly popped up.

‘What can I get you, sir?’ he asked in strong Cork accent. 

‘Ah, begorrah, top of the morning to you,’ I cried, immediately putting him at his ease. ‘And what be yer man’s name?’

Top tip: alway ask a menial’s name, it makes them think you care.

He told me his name was Dermot and again asked me what my poison was. I asked for my usual Cinzano & Tizer (whisked, not twirled) and glanced around the bar. I realised I wasn’t on my own; a solitary man sat at a table in a dark corner, poring intently over a large and ancient-looking book. I was intrigued but didn’t have the time to strike up a conversation with the curious chap.

Dermot handed me my drink and I took a sip. It was excellent, and I commended him.

He nodded and scuttled to the further end of the bar, polishing the surface as he went.

I glanced again at the cat at the table. His lips moved as he read. I found this initially endearing, until he raised his hands, eyes still glued to the book, and I was convinced I saw a crackle of light dart from one hand to the other. I blinked – and when I opened my eyes of the man there was no sign. Where had he gone? He’d had no time to leave the bar. I walked over to his table. No man, no book, just an acrid smell in the air. 

‘Dermot,’ I called. The barman looked in my direction. ‘Another drink, sir?’ 

I shook my head. ‘That guy who was sitting in this corner… did you see him split?’

A puzzled look crinkled the little Irishman’s forehead. He stared where I was pointing. ‘What guy, sir?’

I quelled a pang of impatience. ‘There was a guy sitting at that table reading a book. You must have seen him.’

The barman shook his head. ‘Sorry, sir, it is very gloomy there and I was busy polishing my optics. Probably a guest.’

I decided not to get heavy with him or I was going to be late. I gulped down my drink, flung a bob on the counter as his tip, and with a final glance at the now empty table, I left the bar.

I trolled towards the theatre. Night had fallen since I had arrived. The Christmas lights, shaped like stars, were twinkling half-heartedly, those whose bulbs hadn’t blown anyway.

The theatre was at the end of the pier. Oldest pier theatre in England, they claimed, but hey, who was I to quibble the toss? The pier was draped with fairy lights; otherwise it would’ve have stretched unenticingly into the gloom of the dark sea. I walked along the pier, looking over the side into the black water, where the reflections of the lights were swallowed by the gloom. 

I had arranged to meet Compton outside the stage door at 5pm. It was behind the theatre at the very tip of the pier. The sea breeze was pretty wild out here and I wondered how many actors had got blown off the end – and not in a good way. I checked with the decrepit stage doorkeeper and he assured me that rehearsals had finished five minutes before, and that the cast would be out very soon. I propped myself up against the railings and wished I still smoked; a fag would warm up the hands nicely.

I’d didn’t have long to wait. With the squawking at ear-rupturing levels so characteristic of mummers, the cast burst out of the stage door. each one competing with the other to be loudest in their plans for the evening. Frankly, with their dress rehearsal scheduled for the next afternoon, they should by rights be grabbing a light supper and an early evening. 

I examined them with interest, not entirely for professional reasons. Firstly, two young chicks were the first to appear. One was blonde and pretty in an insipid way, screeching unattractively about nothing in particular, just because she obviously felt that she only existed if she was making a noise. As an agent I’d encountered so many of the type and had taken great pleasure in saying no to them. Principal girl, I surmised.

The other woman was slightly older, saying nothing, looking at the blonde girl with a wry expression on her face which I couldn’t quite read. Was she laughing at the younger woman, or lusting after her? She intrigued me, and if I’m honest I felt the usual Playfair twitch in the old pantaloons. I really dig the ‘Burn the Bra’ brigade and going by her demeanour she was one of them.  Principal boy was my guess. 

They were then joined by a much older cat, a long lugubrious face, strands of hair plastered over his scalp, a nose like an erupting tomato. He was clutching a large box. Comic, I assumed.

‘Coming to the Wimpy, Sparkwell?’ asked the older woman. A brief look of annoyance crossed the blonde’s face, but the older man nodded, and the three of them set off.

I watched them walk away, but then Compton appeared, swathed in a long lilac scarf with a matching fedora. He saw me, stopped, raised his arms in mock-surprise and, squealing, did a little soft shoe shuffle then rushed into my arms. 

‘Darling man, you came all this way to the sphincter of England!’ he cooed. He looked so genuinely pleased to see me that I was glad I’d made the effort. ‘You’re looking very dolly.’

‘Wouldn’t have missed it,’ I told him, quite truthfully. ‘How’s it hanging?’

He pulled a face. ‘Don’t ask.’

Professional concern kicked in. ‘That uncool, eh?’

‘I don’t know where to start,’ Compton said, dramatically. 

‘Save it for supper,’ I said. ‘Can you recommend anywhere? It’s on me so the best place in town.’

Compton giggled, all three of his chins wobbling in unison. ‘Sweetheart, this is Heelmouth. There is no best, just least terrible. And for that, it’s either the Wimpy Bar or the chippy on the front.’

‘Your fellow cast members have gone to the Wimpy,’ I said.

‘Chippy it is then,’ he replied firmly, and slipped his arm in mine. ‘This way.’

But I resisted his pull. Another figure had just emerged from the stage door. 

It was the vanishing man from the hotel bar!

Chapter 2

I dunked a fat succulent chip in tartare sauce and took an appreciative nibble. 

The ‘chippy’ Compton had taken me to was the nearest thing to groovy I’d seen in Heelmouth. Brightly lit, festooned with these hip new PVC decorations, a neato artificial tree smothered with tinsel and flashing lights, even the background noise of a wonky tape playing Christmas carols at variable speeds didn’t mar the jollity. 

And the chips were far out too. 

I raised my glass of Lucozade and toasted Compton. ‘To a successful run, darling, and I promise to get you something cool in town in the new year.’

‘Thanks ever so,’ the tubby thesp replied. ‘A telly would be nice.’ He popped a scampi in his mouth.

‘I’ll do my best,’ I promised. ‘I’m spending new year with the Grades, I’ll twist his arm.’ 

I mopped up some of the HP sauce with a slice of Nimble. ‘So what’s going down with Mother Goose? Is she about to lay a great big egg?’

Compton considered. ‘It’s hard to pinpoint really. Our director Knowle St Giles is down from Cambridge.’ He sniffed. ‘I’m sure he’s very clever and all, but an amateur and wouldn’t recognise a joke if it slapped him in the face. There’s nothing wrong with the cast, it’s just…’ He pulled a face. ‘It’s just not hanging together.’

‘Who was the cat who left the stage door last?’ I asked.

‘Oh that’s Northfield Loveday,’ said Compton. ‘He’s the Demon King.’

‘Any good?’

‘That’s the odd thing,’ said Compton. ‘I have a feeling he’s never been on the stage before. Clueless about the basics. Can’t tell his downstage from his wings, but…’

‘Yes?’

Compton looked over his shoulder and lowered his voice. ‘He frightens me. When he’s on stage it’s as though he actually is a Demon King. Not like that Method rubbish… no, when he does the black magic stuff… it… it gives me the shivers.’

Oh, my interest was very piqued now! 

‘His stage magic is tickety-boo too,’ continued Compton. ‘I haven’t the foggiest how he does it. He sets his own tricks, won’t let the ASM – a very dolly lad – do it. And Sparkwell – that’s the comic, he does a marvellous vent act in Act 2 – he can’t for the life of him work out how he does it all and Sparkie is a magician too. Children’s parties, you know.’

‘How does he hang offstage?’ I asked. 

Compton shrugged. ‘He never socialises. No drinkies after work, keeps himself to himself.’

‘Where’s his pad?’ 

‘Your hotel, the Grand,’ Compton replied. ‘Although how he can afford it on this fee.’

I ignored the slight dig. I couldn’t blame him; I’d got Compton’s bread as high as I could go, but his weekly fee was less than I lay out on champagne each week.

‘There was a bit of a rumpus in rehearsals this afternoon,’ Compton continued. ‘We’re over- running and Knowle told Northfield to cut his big black magic scene right down. You know, the bit before the interval where he goes full-on cackling bad guy. He’s giving it all this Latin hoo-hah. Red gels, smoke bombs, the lot. Well, Madam throws a massive strop and refuses. Said it was integral to the plot and had to be authentic and why couldn’t we cut out Sparkwell’s vent act? Knowle said, and quite rightly, surprisingly for him, that the vent routine was a highlight. The dummy is an old gypsy crone and she does horoscopes.’ He put on a cracking old lady voice. ‘You will meet a tall dark stranger – and he’ll give your chimney a right good poke with his brush.’

We both guffawed. I must say this panto had seemed like a dutiful drag but now it was promising to be a gas. 

‘What about the two birds?’ I asked.

Compton sniggered. ‘Denise, the principal girl is very sweet, but… ‘ he threw his hands in the air, ‘Act? Not a word in her vocabulary!’ He leaned forward and whispered, ‘she’s Knowle’s latest crumpet.’

‘And the principal boy?’ 

‘Duracella?’ Compton put on a mock-shocked face. ‘Not as other girls.’ He mouthed silently ‘If you get my drift.’

Damn! I’m cool with chicks digging other chicks, but only if I can watch.

I coughed up the dosh for the fish and chips, leaving them, even by my standards, a generous tip, and invited Compton back to my hotel for coffee. He declined. 

‘A long day tomorrow,’ he apologised, ‘what with the Dress and that. And I’m not getting any younger, it takes it out of me – and I’d have rather have it put in!’ He giggled and kicked his left leg back.

We parted outside the ‘chippy.’ I was rather proud of him; he looked well and had obviously been  avoiding the booze. If he could do the same with the sailors this close to the sea, then he should have a successful season.

I’d contemplated a stroll along the sea front, but a light grating of snow had started, so I headed straight for my hotel. Never mind the coffee I’d offered Compton, I craved one mother of a brandy. I passed a small group of carol singers, swathed in scarves and woolly hats who were giving the world their unique interpretation of A Partridge In a Pear Tree outside Woolworths. 

I hit the hotel bar which was now lit by fairy lights which just emphasised the gloomy corners.

The bar was busier than it had been this afternoon. Small groups of people dotted the place, women knocking back fluorescently yellow Snowballs, men on the ale or Scotch. The air was ripe with the stench of Twiglets.

Dermot, a Father Christmas hat perched on his head, offered me a complimentary glass of steaming mulled wine which I gratefully knocked back while waiting for my brandy. 

I checked out my fellow drinkers for any likely crumpet. I never felt I’d visited a town unless I’d pulled, and it would be a shame to waste that splendidly big bed. Sadly, all the women seemed to be accounted for, clinging rather tipsily to whichever estate agent or sales rep they’d chosen as their paramour. Did they not realise what a carnal opportunity was standing mere feet from them? Oh well, their loss…

Then I saw him. Northfield Loveday, the creepy Demon King who had so put the willies up Compton and not in the usual way.

He was in the same corner as before, poring over the same musty old tome. He wasn’t going to escape me this time.

I marched to his table, pulled back a chair and sat myself down, before he could object.

‘Mind if I hang out?’ I asked.

He looked cheesed off, but couldn’t tell me to scat without a scene – and I don’t mean a cool one.

I examined him thoroughly. He didn’t look that threatening, more like an assistant bank manager, too frightened to go home to a rolling pin-wielding old lady. About fifty or so, balding with greasy strands scraped over a boiled egg of a head. Not tall, not short, not fat, not thin, not… anything really.

Then he looked at me.

Oh man, those eyes. I’d never seen anything like them. Twin pools of fire which burned their way into my very soul. They seemed to scald my own retinas, but I just couldn’t avert my gaze; I had to keep looking…  felt as though I was plunging into them, losing my self from the bar and sinking into…

‘Jeepers creeper!’ I shook my head. ‘Where did you get those nifty peepers,’ I struggled on, as nonchalantly as I could manage. ‘What’s the book?’

He quickly shut the book. ‘Just local history,’ he said.

‘My name’s Derek Playfair.’ I proffered my hand which he reluctantly took. ‘I’m Compton’s agent.’

He looked blank. 

‘Compton Pauncefoot,’ I explained. ‘Mother Goose? Capiche?’

He nodded, disinterested.

‘I’m watching the Dress tomorrow as I can’t make the first night.’ I explained. ‘Compton says your act is pretty ace.’

‘My act?’ Northfield looked annoyed. ‘It is more than an ‘act.’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘Yeah?’ 

I was trying to maintain a lack of eye contact. 

‘Who reps you?’ I asked. 

A flicker of annoyance crossed his bland face. ‘What’?

‘Who is your agent?’ I spelled out, my own irritation at amateurs trickling out.

‘I don’t have one,’ he replied, placing the book in a Safeway bag.

‘Well, if you’re as good as Compton says maybe I can help out.’

Northfield stood up. ‘I have no intention of remaining in this infantile industry. This is strictly a one-off.’

I was puzzled. ‘Then why do it? This one job?’

An odd smile appeared. ‘I have my reasons.’

A chill inexplicably hit me. I am a hard-bitten West End agent. I have stood up to Hollywood producers, Binkie Beaumont and Shirley Bassey without turning a hair of my immaculate coiffure. But this little man unnerved me in a way that not even Michael Winner could.

I decided to make my exit. ‘Good luck for tomorrow,’ I said. ‘I’m looking forward to seeing your tricks.’

I couldn’t have said more of the wrong thing; not even if I’d alluded to Charlie Hawtrey’s syrup or Thora Hird’s boob job. Northfield glared at me, those wretched eyes lighting up like Vesuvius.

‘Tricks?’ He roared. ‘Tricks?’

He stood up. ‘I’ll show you a trick!’

He muttered something under his breath, clicked his fingers, and the Christmas Tree burst into flames. 

Everybody freaked out! Chicks were screaming and the guys were shouting. No-one actually did  anything so I raced to the bar, grabbed the ice bucket and flung the contents at the tree. I yelled at Dermot to give me the soda syphon. 

The flames disappeared.

The Christmas tree was back to normal. There was no sign of any fire. The branches didn’t even look singed. The bar went silent. Then everybody decided en masse to pretend that nothing had happened, and conversation and drinking resumed. 

I looked back at Northfield. He was gone. But how? There hadn’t been enough time for him to get through the crowds to the exit… 

That darned cat was weird!

Chapter 3

I awoke the next morning, fully refreshed after a good night’s sleep. The sea air had certainly cleared the old tubes. I’d half expected a night of trippy dreams after the events of the previous evening, but the good old Playfair psyche had swept the whole matter under the subconscious rug.

After the bizarre incident with the Christmas tree in the bar, everybody had just gone about their business as though nothing had happened. Whether it had just been my imagination, or if Northfield had somehow wiped their collective memories I had no way of knowing. My adventures were usually of the more prosaic kind, and even if the events seemed supernatural, they usually turned out to be caused by some down to earth miscreant, often in a luminous mask. 

But for the life of me I couldn’t see how Northfield had performed his ‘trick’ last night.

After a light breakfast of porridge, fruit juice, toast, Ricycles, fried eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and lashings of coffee – nothing too much as I have a figure to watch – I took a stroll along the front. The snow was still sprinkling down, but not heavy enough to properly settle. This was a relief as I wanted to split the minute the dress rehearsal finished, and I didn’t want to be delayed by snow on the tracks. Perhaps if British Rail spent less bread on Jimmy Savile and more on snow ploughs, we wouldn’t have that problem!

I bought a ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hat for my secretary Japonica, several sticks of rock, a baby’s dummy made of sugar for my latest squeeze – top glamour model, sultry Suga Smax 28-22-46 – but the snow suddenly got wilder so I took shelter in a cafe called the Del Rio.

The decor was very olde worlde as indeed was the waitress who served me. She stared at my with-it hair with shock, then downright hostility. My request for an Espresso was greeted with a blank look, and her distaste as she asked her equally hatchet-faced colleague if they did ‘expressos’ did not fill me with glad tidings. I settled for a cup of Camp coffee. 

I had noticed that at the table next to me were the two girls I’d seen leaving the stage door yesterday. What had Compton said they were called? Denise and Duracella.

They were huddled together, looking more conspiratorial than gossipy. My ears, trained at picking up snatches of conversation of theatre audiences or producers, honed in on their parley.

‘I can’t bear it any longer,’ said one of them. The blonde, I think. Denise? 

‘It’s only for a short while longer, doll,’ replied the other.

Doll? Were they both sippers at the sapphic cup? I thought that Compton had said that Denise was the director’s crumpet.

‘I hate it when he paws at me,’ Denise continued. ‘He’s clumsy and and his hands are clammy.’

‘We’ve been spoilt for all that by the Master,’ giggled Duracella. ‘After him, no one else can compete.’

They both sighed.

Master? Spoilt? What kind of shenanigans we’re going on down here in sleepy Heelmouth? I didn’t even expect to find the swinging Sixties locally, never mind the Saucy Seventies!

Scooping out some wax from my lughole, i positioned myself as near the girls as I could. But almost as if they knew I was earwigging,  they lowered their voices. All I could hear were certain whispered words.

‘Dress… ceremony… sacrifice… Master…’

Then one of the girls said something that I couldn’t quite believe. It was only when the other repeated it that I knew I hadn’t misheard.

‘Hail Lucifer!’

The two girls left shortly after this, presumably to prepare for the Dress. I sat there in silence, processing what I had heard. There was some heavy stuff going on here in this little seaside town and I was way out of my comfort zone. 

I lunched at the Wimpy Bar, my mind whirring with all that I’d experienced since arriving in Heelmouth; was it really less than 24 hours ago?

I walked along the pier to the theatre, almost bent double against the snow storm. I was relieved that those Victorian cats were so handy with screwdrivers, otherwise I’d be worried that the pier wouldn’t stand up to this weather. I approached the box office. Yet another sour-faced old bag barked at me that the show hadn’t opened yet. I switched on the Playfair charm and explained who I was. Her demeanour softened slightly, but her mouth was still curled in disapproval. These seaside dudes did not approve of 1971 fashions! She reached up to a pigeon hole and retrieved an envelope and handed it to me. I walked away and slit it open. It was a note from Compton.

“Darling thing,

Bless you for coming although what you’re about to endure I have no idea. There is something queer going on but I can’t put my finger on it – I’m out of practice at fingering queer things! (What am I like!?). I hope I’ll see you after the Dress, but I’ll understand if you need to toddle off pronto.

Your loving client,

Compton”

The vinegar-faced trout had told me to take a seat in the dress circle, but I detoured and found an empty Box. It was perfectly situated; I could see not just the stage but also the whole auditorium. The Director was in the middle of the stalls, a young girl by his side. They were huddled together, and she was checking a list while he barked instructions at her. She looked terrified, poor thing, and barely old enough to have left school.

The cast were gathered on the stage, shuffling nervously which contrasted with their gay apparel. Compton looked splendid in his frock, a bright ginger wig erupting a foot above his head, his face plastered with make-up like he’d been embalmed. The fake boobs were impressive. I wished I  encountered some like them attached to an actual chick. He suddenly spotted me and gave me a discreet wave.

The only member of the cast who didn’t look nervous was Northfield. He stood impassively upstage, apart from the others, eyes closed, fingers pressed together to make a church, his lips moving imperceptibly. Rehearsing his lines, I presumed.

Knowle St Giles approached the stage. He was a typical Oxbridge type; chubby, chinless,  floppy fringe of greasy hair, an arrogance borne of years of entitlement but without anything to back it up. I’d encountered the sort many times before; not bright enough to be a Tory MP so forced to become a theatre director instead.

‘All right, sweethearts!’ St Giles had to shout, not having the requisite voice needed for authority. I suspected that all through rehearsals Compton had had to dredge up huge reserves of restraint not to put the little squirt right.

This is your Dress Rehearsal,’ he yelled, his voice getting hoarse already. ‘Your very last chance before the first night tonight.’ He paused. ‘Just… just… do it right.’

Not for the first time in my life and definitely not the last, I wished I had a gun.

St Giles sat down, the cast disappeared into the wings, the house lights dimmed, and the orchestra started up. I say orchestra… it was a trio of three elderly pensioners, comprising an organist,  drummer and a little old lady dwarfed by her double bass.

They struck up a medley of songs, with each musician playing a different one. Then the left tab swept open, followed thirty seconds later by the right one. 

The show was adequate. The cast did their best against a packed Christmas stocking of odds, which included precarious scenery, a threadbare script, a band with less groove than a blank record.

Denise was, as Compton said, pretty but hopeless. Duracella had splendid legs, a singing voice that could keep ships way from dangerous rocks, and, I admit, her romantic scenes with Denise gave me the right horn.

Sparkwell Polliphant was too old for Buttons, but his vent act skills were impressive and his dummy – an old gypsy crone  – was funny and uncanny.

Compton was a splendid Mother Goose. He had energy, a voice that didn’t just reach the back of the stalls but continued down the pier to the front, and even without a responsive audience, his comic timing was sharp enough to carve the toughest of old turkeys. Some of his gags were rather risqué and after each zinger, he’d glance in my direction with a raised eyebrow. 

Northfield was the puzzle. His magic tricks were spectacularly good – I hadn’t the foggiest how he did them – but otherwise he was a dead loss. He mumbled his lines, made no effort to act, and was an unedifyingly unscary villain.

But then we reached the climax of Act 1, the scene where the Demon King reveals his true colours. Compton had told me that the director had insisted the scene be cut down, much to Northfield’s ire. I wondered what what going to happen.

The atmosphere changed. The temperature dropped and the theatre wasn’t exactly the palm house at Kew Gardens to start with. The lighting switched to an eerie mauve, the best the lights had been throughout, and Northfield erupted from the centre-stage trapdoor. He was dressed in the most spectacular robes, an ebony black satin, trimmed with a black fur and with a vivid scarlet satin lining. Northfield raised his arms outwards and started chanting unintelligible words with a vocal force I would never have credited to him. This was no longer the mousey man who looked so out of place on stage; this was a genuinely scary wizard.  And if he unnerved me, what the hell would he do to the kiddiewinks?

I watched in awe as Northfield continued his ritual; this was not a part of the mundane script, and it felt as though the theatre itself was rumbling. I wanted to flee, not just the theatre, or the pier, but Heelmouth itself. 

Northfield’s chanting got even louder, his eyes blazed and I could have sworn I saw lightning crackle around his form. An evil-smelling black smoke swirled around him, and the Demon King – Northfield no more – burst into hysterical laughter…

To be continued…

To hear Sir Desmond narrate this story, click here.

Written by Anthony Keetch

(c) Anthony Keetch 2022

Hallowe’en!

October 31, 2022

 

Hallowe’en, one would think, is a ripe time for those of us who churn out stories of the macabre for the masses. Apart from the opportunity to flog more books, there is the chance to appear on spooky-themed editions of our favourite televisual programmes – Call My BluffGive Us a ClueSongs of Praise and so on. 

However it has often been an ill-starred time of the year for yours truly. Mayhaps it’s the denizens of the paranormal getting their own back for the indignities I hurl at them in my books?

One Hallowe’en I was asked to read a short story of mine to a local school. Excellent, I thought, give me a child and I will make them a consumer for life. 

Unfortunately they were younger than I expected. Under-eights. Never mind, I thought. Mine were that age and they lapped up my bedtime yarns. Besides nightmares are good for children and bed-wetting is perfectly normal.  So I ploughed on and read my gruesome short story BLOOD ON STAN’S CLAW. Some of the little boys enjoyed it, but at least three teachers fainted. It was the scene when the titular character gave birth rather bloodily to a goat which then ate its mother which caused the problem. I’ve never heard screaming like it.

At first I was delighted. It’s the effect that every horror writer craves. But perhaps not weeping. I sensed all wasn’t well when I realised the floor was awash with Jimmy Riddle. Then the headmistress marched to my podium and clocked me one. 

I don’t usually hit women, but my reflexes kicked in and I went all Hai Karate on her. We’re soon on the floor pummelling each other with fists. Children were crying, teachers were shouting, three boys were clamouring for the end of the story.

Then inevitably sirens were blaring. The Headmistress – a Dolores Lynch (Miss) – and I were handcuffed, bundled into a panda and taken to the nearest nick. Not charged, just cautioned. After many hours in a cell nursing our bruises we were released. I invited Miss Lynch to join me for a conciliatory night cap. She accepted.

Best night in the sack ever! Who’d have thought that a middle-aged spinster headmistress of a primary school could be so passionate? And, frankly, dirty…?

Happy Hallowe’en, listeners – and may all your tricks be a treat!

To listen to Sir Desmond perform this, click here

Brother, can you spare a half-crown?

July 23, 2021

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You can’t disagree with Her Majesty, it’s treason!

Begging is now apparently socially acceptable so why not buy me a snifter? Or two….

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July 18, 2021

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For free! And out of huge generosity on my part and not as a tax dodge…

‘The Tell-Tale Nipple’

July 18, 2021

Chapter 2

I was having a very unproductive day in Kew. I wasn’t gawping at the pansies, you understand, but having a rummage at the Records Office.

An idiot nephew of mine lived in the neighbourhood and I’d originally asked him to check some files for me, but his confused babbling soon convinced me that I’d be better off doing the leg work myself. 

But answers found I none. Either the de Scornly lineage had ceased at Wipers as previously believed, or else no one had ‘fessed up to de Scornly parentage on birth certificates. Whichever was true, proving the veracity of the ghostly Sir Jasper’s claim was turning out to be a thorny pickle .  

I hadn’t mentioned nipples to my wretched son-in-law, Darren Frognall. Chaps don’t admit they’ve been staring at another chap’s chest; besides, I felt I needed to absorb the gen that Frognall was in possession of a superfluous boob and work out how it might fit into this perplexing jigsaw. I was surprised that my daughter hadn’t mentioned that her husband had this anatomical discrepancy – or even that it wasn’t used during the wedding when the vicar asked if anyone had any just cause why the marriage should not go ahead. I would have thought that while a third knocker may be a positive boon for a wife, it would be a definite black mark for a cove, particularly when the existing two are already rather pointless. 

My mind was a whirlpool of hypotheses and suspicions as I left the leafy suburb. I have the cerebrum of a master storyteller and I was shuffling my ideas into a coherent shape, much like when I am assembling one of my best-selling novels. I was so distracted by the labyrinthine possibilities in my vast brain that I found I had automatically driven to chez Frognall. This struck me as particularly serendipitous. Salut, subconscious!

I found Frognall at home, sitting in front of his ‘word processor’ which is an electronic typewriter for those who can’t afford secretaries. I didn’t allow him to get a word in edgeways. I told him nothing of my theories; I just suggested – firmly, with no room for manoeuvre – that he spend that night with me in the Haunted Room.

He unsurprisingly didn’t look too thrilled at the idea, but I was adamant. I claimed that I needed a witness to whatever might happen there when I next confronted the ghost of Sir Jasper, and I pandered to his ridiculously bloated ego by saying that everyone would believe a writer of his calibre (the straight face I managed to maintain was one my great achievements). He said that he doubted that Sir Jasper would even show up if there was a third party present. I secretly agreed with that, but for reasons I kept to myself.

Later that night, once I’d infiltrated his throat with a couple of stiff ones, we had settled ourselves back in the Haunted Room at the top of my club, Abbadon’s. I’d managed to sneak Frognall in by thrusting a wad of crisp oncers in the Night Porter’s outstretched paw. 

Frognall looked around the Haunted Box Room with distaste. For a man who waxed lyrical about the ‘grittiness’ and ‘truth’ of the council estate, he was remarkably prissy about his surroundings. Those of us who’ve been to war can find comfort in anywhere that doesn’t have snipers trying to get in. Unnoticed by him, I quietly locked the door behind us and pocketed the key.

Nothing had changed since I’d left the room. But why should it? It was only the previous night that I’d had my spooky encounter there, although it seemed as though a year had passed. I hadn’t slept much in the past 48 hours and my weariness was threatening to catch up with me.

But I had plans for this evening. And it had to wait until midnight…

Frognall was uncharacteristically silent. Usually one can’t shut him up. He’s either boasting about his awards or films deals, or else he’s banging on about how ‘awfully’ some poor billionaire has behaved. I rarely listen when anyone else is talking as my own thoughts are quite good enough for me, but this evening Frognall’s nonsense would’ve passed the time. Rather than enduring the silence and Frognall’s shallow breaths, I filled the gaps myself, regaling us with amusing anecdotes about the war or past sexual conquests. Several Tit-Bits columns worth of material, but none of of it raised even a titter from the Bolshy Bard. Not even when I bemoaned the loss of Rhodesia from the Commonwealth did it provoke one of his communistic tirades. What could be troubling him?

At last the clock began to strike midnight. Frognall seemed to wake from his torpor and said, ‘It’s looks like a no-show from your ghost so we might as well call it a night.’

I said nothing. He went to the door and turned the handle. It didn’t open of course. Irked – dare I say panicky – he demanded I open the door. But I wasn’t letting him away that easily. 

‘You must think me a pretty feeble fellow, young Frognall,’ I told him. ‘A 24 carat semolina-headed dolt. I saw right through you from the start of this business. This is just your clumsy and, frankly, inexpertly-plotted way of getting yourself a knighthood. So much for the being the Trotsky of Terror. Typical lefty, you rail against the Establishment while being desperate to be part of it. Look at that painting!’ I pointed at the portrait above the mantlepiece. ‘I thought it looked familiar. Couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but of course it does, it’s you!  And the ghost last night… that was you too, wasn’t it? Don’t bother denying it.  A quick visit to Bermans, some frills, a flouncy wig and improbable crepe hair – lo and behold! Darren Frognall, the Castro of Creepiness, becomes the mythical Sir Jasper de Scornly.’

He denied nothing, but neither did he admit it. 

‘I will admit there was some remarkable sleight of hand. That son et lumiere, for example. How did you manage that? Mickey Finn in my drink? Hypnosis? And then there was the nipple. Very ingenious. But too rubbery to be convincing.’  

I ripped open his shirt, grabbed the extraneous nipple and tugged. His eye crossed in pain.

‘Oh that was real, was it?’ I continued blithely, quickly removing my hand from his chest lest he get any ideas. ‘But I’ll admit, I’m impressed at the lengths you went to. The back story, the costume, the conjuring… just a shame you don’t put so much effort into your ghastly books.’

Oh, I was enjoying this!

But why wasn’t he responding? I expected rebuttals or outrage or at the very least some sort of bluster. The cove wasn’t even looking at me while I was ridiculing him. He eyes were open very wide – almost with terror – and he seemed to be staring at something behind me…

I whirled around. 

The ghost of Sir Jasper de Scornly stood there, eyes blazing, his sword raised as though to strike!

Ah, bang went that theory. Bugger!

My brain raced nineteen to the dozen as I processed this latest development. I had been quite convinced that Frognall was behind this whole charade, but here we both were faced with the spook himself. I glanced back at Frognall. He’d gone quite white, and while his eyes were fixed on Sir Jasper his hand was clawing uselessly at the door handle.

The ghost stared at me. ‘What news, Sir Desmond Stirling? Have ye found me spawn?’

I pointed back at Frognall. ‘Yes, he’s here.’

I heard a loud gulp from behind me.

Sir Jasper stared at Frognall. ‘This lily-livered whelp?’

‘That’s not my fault,’ I spluttered. ‘I just found him. Don’t blame me, he’s from your gene pool.’

‘And what makes ye think this bowl of cold broth is of me bloodline?’2

I turned to Frognall. ‘Show him your nipple?’

He stared at me, wide-eyed. ‘What?’

‘Open your shirt and flash him your extra boob,’ I hissed, irate at his dim-wittedness, unsurprising as it was.

When he didn’t respond, I impatiently began to undo his buttons. He pushed my hands away and opened up his shirt half way down. He held his shirt open and turned his head away, like a virgin awaiting a vampire’s bite. 

‘Don’t be coy, lad,’ the phantom growled. ‘The de Scornly pap is an appendage of pride.’

The ectoplasmic lout peered hard at Frognall’s chest. With the tip of his sword, he poked the third nipple. Frognall winced, the big Jessie. 

‘That’s the de Scornly tit, all right,’ the ghost uttered. 

‘So what now?’ I asked, seeing as how Frognall was still speechless with terror.

Sir Jasper returned his sword to its sheath. ‘I can give ye proof of your lineage. It will regain ye the family title.’

‘Any land?’ asked Frognall, perking up, the greedy shit. ‘Or treasure?’

‘The de Scornly lands were carved up and scavenged a long time since,’ Sir Jasper replied, ‘Along with the family wealth.’

Frognall tried not to look too disappointed. 

‘So what proof, exactly?’ I asked.

Sir Jasper smirked. ‘Belay ye,’ he said. ‘First ye have to prove ye’re worthy?’

‘Wasn’t the family udder sufficient?’ I asked.

The ghost shrugged. ‘That proved the bloodline. But I’ve yet to see any evidence of the pedigree, I need to believe he has me me fire in his veins!’

Hmm, he’s on a hiding to nothing there, I thought, knowing my son-in-law as I do. All underpants and no clockweights that one. Not the foggiest what my daughter saw in him, but after years in a nunnery, anyone with the merest whiff of the Y chromosome will suffice, I presume.

But the wretch was family, one supposed, so I felt I should show some support, however dishonest.

‘Whatever you want him to do, he’ll do,’ I claimed, ‘even if he hasn’t given me grandchildren yet.’

Sir Jasper’s considered. ‘All me trouble started when some scoundrel grassed me up to me pater.’

I gasped. What utter rotter would do that?

Sir Jasper continued. ‘Me father was such an old fool I could have had me way with the maid right under his nose and he wouldn’t have noticed. But but someone told him everything… about me debts, me whoring, me being banned from court for initiating the Prince of Wales to Brethren of Lucifer himself.’

You know, in other circumstances Sir Jasper and Your Truly could’ve been the best of chums.

‘But what bounder blabbed?’ I asked. ‘Was it one of your brothers?’

Sir Jasper blew a contemptuous raspberry. ‘Those frilly-pantied mollies would never have dared. Ye know why? Because I would’ve slit their buttocks asunder with me epee and they knew it.’

‘Well, who then.’ I inquired.

The phantom snarled. ‘Me oldest enemy, a foppish knave who cheats at games and tattles about ye behind yer back. I challenged him to a duel after I caught him knee-trembling me valet. The cur didn’t show up. Instead he rode to me father and blabbed it all. That I was a gambling, whoring dastard who was blackening the family name.’

He had a point though.

‘I should’ve introduced the insolent puppy to the point of me sword before leaving the country but he’d scurried into hiding.’

‘So who was this appalling blabbermouth?’ I asked.

Sir Jasper spat out the name. ‘Lord Herbert Pilchard!’ He pointed his bones finger at Frognall. ‘And ye must kill his descendant.’

Frognall looked appalled, but not as much as I felt. The Pilchards were an old if undistinguished family, whose aristocratic standing had diminished over the years, descending into the middle class and trade, albeit as founders of the old Pilchard’s of Luton chain of shops.

And how do I know this, darling reader? My late mother was a Pilchard.

And Frognall had just been charged with killing Yours Truly!

*****************

Well, this was an utter dog’s breakfast and no mistake!

My brain computed the next move. First thing we had to do was get the hell away from this blasted spook. Once I’d explained the situation to Frognall he would realise that there was no way he could kill yours truly, his father-in-law and national treasure. 

Or could he? 

The grasping toad had the whiff of aristocracy in his scent and I doubted that anything would deter him from a title. 

Perhaps I ought to kill him first?

No, my daughter would never forgive me and besides, I’m too old to get banged up in chokey, particularly for offing a weed such as Frognall. Plus, I wouldn’t want anyone thinking it was professional jealousy. The only writer who brought out the green eye in old Stirling was darling Sven Hassel even though I soon realised I could never scale the literary heights on which he’d planted a flag.

It was at this point that I heard my mouth – which, I confess, has been known to act somewhat ahead of my brain – open and the following words fall out of it.

‘Actually, I think you’ll find I’m the last of the Pilchard line.’

Hmm, not the course of action that I would have chosen. Thank you very much, mouth. Let’s just hope you have something frightfully clever up your sleeve.

‘Of course,’ I continued blithely, and I’ll admit I was fascinated to know what I would come up with. ‘Seeing as how Frognall here is married to my daughter, any child he spawns will actually be continuing the Pilchard line, then by rights he should do away with himself too – just to be sure.’

Yes, that might work. Let’s hope that Frognall wasn’t daft enough to point out that Alison is actually my stepdaughter by one of my previous wives, can’t recall which one.

‘But surely…’ began Frognall before I clamped my hand over his Bolshie cakehole.

The ghost of Sir Jasper looked at the pair of us, his shark-like eyes revealing nothing. Then he proffered Frognall his sword. 

‘Here, prove ye’re a de Scornley. Smite the blaggard!’

Oh well, I’d had a good innings, and if it were true that one’s life flashes before one’s eyes prior to  one’s demise then I was about to enjoy it all over again and this time without any unpleasant consequences – apart from the inevitable death. I opened my shirt revealing my still manly chest – so unlike Frognall’s feeble and overcrowded torso – closed my eyes, and prepared myself to relive all the many roaring parties and equally roaring legovers. 

I’ll admit that I was fascinated to see if Frognall could actually go through with it. For all his fiery left-wing blabbering, I’d long marked him down as a jelly-kneed wimp when it came to action, a Trattoria Trot who rails against the establishment mainly because he’s not invited to be part of it. Would he have the orchestras to actually do me in? 

Frognall gingerly accepted the tendered sword. He felt the tip of the weapon, flinching slightly at its sharpness. He licked his finger which I thought was frightfully unhygenic. He practiced a couple of feeble swipes in the air. Any hopes for a quick clean death soon evaporated. This was going to be messy. 

Frognall was avoiding my eyes all the while. I wondered how he was going to explain my slaughter, not just to Plod, but to his wife. I think she’s quite fond of me in her own stony-faced way.

‘Do it!’ urged the phantom, his face made even ghastlier with blood lust. ‘Dispatch the swine!’

Frognall took a deep breath and raised the sword above his head. I closed my eyes, and prepared to meet my Maker with whom I intended to have more than a few sharp words about the poor design of the Prostate.

I heard the swoosh of the sword as it sliced the air…

‘Ow!’ came a loud cry. ‘Bloody hell!’

I opened my eyes. Frognall’s swipe of the sword had missed yours truly and sliced open the ghost’s shirt, perforating the chest below. It was a superficial scratch, but blood trickled down…

A ghost… bleeding?

Suspicions that had been coalescing in my mind coagulated into one almighty clot of an idea. I leapt forward and grabbed the spook by the shoulders. He was too, too solid flesh! I ripped off his wig, his hat and then the beard… only to reveal…

‘Snotty’ Gove!

‘Snotty!’ I exclaimed, resisting the quite natural urge to slap the little tick. ‘What on earth are you playing at?’

Frognall stared at Snotty. ‘But that’s my fan,’ he yelped, ‘the one who gave me the pamphlet with the history of this Club.’

I turned to Frognall. ‘And don’t think you’ve got away with nearly offing me either, young man.’

‘I guessed it was all a sham,’ spluttered Frognall. ‘That’s why I deliberately aimed the sword at him and not you, Dad.’

Dad! Dad! Talk about adding insult to nearly an injury. But I’d deal with my ratty little son-in-law later. ‘Snotty’ was the centre of my attention now. Clutching his scratch as though he’d lost a pound of flesh, the little twerp squealed like a baby pig. That he’d planned the whole plot for ages, that he wanted revenge for how I allegedly maltreated his father at school, particularly the whole ‘losing a leg’ thing – which was emphatically not my fault, Gove Major was quite within his rights to refuse to climb up on the school roof to plant the Schoolboys for Mosley flag, but how else could he be punished for burning my toast? And how was I supposed to know that the tiles on a 300 year old roof were loose? 

I must admit I was grudgingly impressed with Snotty’s scheme. The story, the research, the special effects, the hypnosis… that he knew all about Frognall’s third man-boob and pathetic yearning for a title. I asked how he accomplished the vision I saw of de Scornley’s story. A Mickey Finn he slipped into my whisky flask and some reasonably accomplished hypnotic suggestion as I had accurately summised. 

An extra flicker of suspicion occurred to me. ‘Were you in on all this?’ I demanded of Frognall. He shook his head, and I could see from the bewildered – nay, shell-shocked – expression on his eminently punchable face that he was telling the truth. 

‘That pamphlet about the history of the Club,’ Frognall asked, ‘Did you make all that up too?’

Snotty shook his head. ‘No, it’s in the official history of the Club. Sir Jasper was a real person.’

‘What about Scunthorpe? Was he in on your little scheme?’ I demanded of Snotty who replied in the negative. Apparently, the toothless retainer believes fervently in the Ghost of the Box Room. Snotty got the whole story out him him one quiet evening, and it was his genuine terror that triggered off the whole wheeze in Snotty’s devious little mind.

‘We’ll say no more about these shenanigans, Snotty,’ I declared. ‘I won’t press charges against either of you, as long as I get to write the whole sorry saga up. You hear that, Frognall? This is my story!’

I was already mapping the book out in my head. I had contemplated making it the next in the Derek Playfair Mysteries, but perhaps it was finally time to put yours truly at the heart of the story. The Flabbergasting Exploits of Sir Desmond Stirling! Hmm, no, sounds too much like a diet book.

Although I wouldn’t have admitted it to this dismal pair, my nerves were somewhat frazzled and I felt in need of medication. 

‘Right,’ I clapped my hands. ‘ I deserve a drink or three and it’s your rounds. Let’s wake up the bar staff and get blotto.’

Frognall scurried to the door, eager to be the first one out. Snotty scooped up his wig and sword and seemed to be about to say something…

A clap of thunder roared overhead, so loud the room seemed to shake. The portrait of Sir Jasper de Scornly fell from the wall and a sharp gust of icy wind blew out all the candles. Then there was silence, broken only by Frognall’s panicked shallow breathing.

I retrieved the torch I had brought along as back-up from my pocket and switched it on. 

‘Very clever, Snotty, but the joke is over now,’ I said, shining the beam onto his face. His pop- eyes stared wildly, a greasy sheen of sweat reflecting my torchlight back at me.

‘That wasn’t me,’ he squeaked. 

A bloodcurdling chuckle filled the room, seeming to emanate from everywhere and nowhere in particular. I was staring at Snotty at the time and unless he was a master ventriloquist as well as his other conjuring talents, then it definitely didn’t issue from him.

Before I could comment, Frognall and Snotty had hoisted their skirts and scarpered like the big girls’ blouses they were! I gave a wry chuckle.

‘Good night, Sir Jasper,’ I said. ‘We’ll leave you in peace now.’

I left the room and closed the door. As I walked away, I thought I heard… something.

‘Ye’ve not heard the last of me, Sir Desmond Stirling…’

‘The Tell-Tale Nipple’

June 29, 2021

Chapter 1

‘So tell me, Sir Desmond,’ I am often asked, ‘do you actually believe in the things you write about?’

By ‘things I write about,’ I presume they mean ‘the supernatural,’ as opposed to pretty girls and sports cars and Nazis and dashing Englishmen – all of which I not only believe in but have surrounded myself with throughout my life. The Nazis were obviously not by choice, but giving them a jolly good hiding was something I would have lamented to miss out on.

But as for the eerie and the magical and the paranormal, not to mention the forces of darkness, the jury – composed of one man just and true eg Yours Truly – is still out and sifting through all the evidence, unsure whether to believe the upstanding ‘copper’ of scientific rationalism or the smarmy ‘defence lawyer’ of myths and legends. 

I was having this very conversation the other night with chums at my club  (Abaddon’s, just off Frith Street – don’t try and find out exactly where; none of you would cut the mustard for membership). We’d just enjoyed a splendid supper of Tripe Kedgeree followed by Prune Charlotte, and had settled down with brandies and cigars in the Smoking Chamber. 

We’d just endured some magic tricks performed by ‘Snotty’ Gove, a repugnant little oik who only clung onto membership because most people never even noticed he was there. I’d been at school with his equally oily father who had been my fag until an unfortunate incident which resulted in him losing a leg which was categorically not my fault. 

There was no doubt that ‘Snotty’ was reasonably proficient at conjuring, but his banter was tedious, and the very least he could’ve done was clean his fingernails when doing sleight of hand with cards.  After he’d produced a Jack of Spades from ‘Chinny’ Chapman’s left nostril, it was rather forcefully suggested that ‘Snotty’ put his cards away and give it a rest.

Now, I’m often asked to regale my fellow members with a suitably gruesome yarn, and that evening I obliged with an old favourite about a garrotted nun who stalked an orphanage by night, auguring doom for any wretched child who glimpsed her.

I’d finished my story to much appreciation. I’d so put the willies up old ‘Chinny’ Chapman, that he’d had to guzzle an extra tablet to cope with his palpitations.

And it was then that ‘Snotty’ Gove piped up.

‘I say, Stirling, old bean. Do you actually believe the nonsense you come up with?’

I graciously ignored the word ‘nonsense’ – after all, my ‘nonsense’ has given me a very comfortable living indeed, not to mention many a coveted guest slot on Call My Bluff. I replied that my mind was open on the subject; that while many people whose opinion I trusted (the Duke of Kent, Uri Geller, darling Suzi Quatro) were staunch in their belief in the supernatural, I personally had yet to encounter any rock-solid evidence that even that boffin Dawkins couldn’t dismiss.

At that moment, Scunthorpe the waiter – a tall cadaverous cove who’d worked at the Club man and boy since the last war, maybe even the Crimean – approached and asked if our glasses needed refreshing. A redundant question! He was topping us all up when ‘Snotty’ Gove  asked Scunthorpe if he believed in ghosts.

‘I don’t believe in them, Sir,’ he replied, his curious slurring speech caused by his tongue having to keep his upper dentures from falling out, ‘I know they exist!

‘What makes you so convinced?’ I asked him, intrigued. People do so fascinate me, even the lower orders.

He looked down at me from his great height, watery eyes betraying a vehemence I’d never seen in them before. Or maybe I just never bothered to look at the staff properly, unless they were pretty gels. ‘When I were a lad,’ he slushed, ‘I saw a Ghost with my very own eyes. And I’ve never forgotten it.’ So chilled was he by his own memory that he forgot to support his dentures and they splashed into ‘Chinny’ Chapman’s whisky. Hurriedly Scunthorpe fished them out and popped them back into his cavern of a mouth. Fortunately, Chinny had lost consciousness and was unaware his drink had been in contact with another chap’s gnashers.

‘Where did this encounter take place?’ I asked, quite seriously. I never mock those who believe, no matter how ludicrous. 

Scunthorpe glanced upwards and pointed at the ceiling. ‘Why here, Sir Desmond, in the…’ he gulped and his dentures threatened to slip down his throat, ‘in the Box Room.’

I was puzzled. I thought I knew the club’s layout pretty well, but I couldn’t recall a Box Room. 

‘Is it that door on the top landing?’ asked ‘Snotty’ Gove. ‘One passes it on the way to the roof.’

In the summer, I’d spent many happy afternoons on the roof terrace sunbathing in the buff. Had I noticed a door? Come to think of it…

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘But I’ve never given it any thought. Probably thought it was a broom cupboard. Or the staff khazi.’

‘It’s been locked these many years,’ explained Scunthorpe. ‘Ever since my own… encounter. Will that be all, gentlemen?’ He turned to leave.

‘Hold your horses, Scunthorpe,’ I said, ‘You can’t leave us in suspense. Tell us more. What sort of ghost was it?’

He shook his head fearfully. The dentures rattled in his skull. ‘I’ve said too much, sir. I swore to the Club Chairman I would never talk about it. The Box Room door was firmly locked and has never been opened since. I’ll be sacked if I say any more.’

I harrumphed. ‘They’ll sack you over my dead body, Scunthorpe. And then I’ll haunt you. Come on, old thing, spill the ghostly beans!’

But, shuddering, his bowed his head and, tottering slightly, he left the lounge.

Shortly after this, Neville Sladen-Flame arrived after an evening of rampant leg-overs with his mistress, allegedly the wife of an Archbishop, and as he regaled us with a litany of all the dirty things she was happy to do, Scunthorpe‘s ghostly encounter slipped our minds.  

The rest of the evening passed in a merry blur, and I woke to find I had been put to bed in my room at the Club, naked except for socks. (In all my years as a Member, I’ve never found out who actually performs this chore. I presume they have dedicated staff whose specific job is to tuck up pie-eyed members.)

The following evening I dined with my daughter (Sub: check her name) and her ghastly husband, the wretched Darren Frognall – the self-styled Trotsky of Terror – the chump who churns out very ‘modern’ horror novels, set on ‘council estates’ (whatever they are), filled with unnecessarily descriptive eviscerations, and in which the villains are inevitably toffs or hard-working multi-millionaire industrialists. For some reason, MI5 haven’t banged him up for being a raging red, and instead he is my son-in-law. However, he keeps a good cellar and their cook is top-notch so I’m happy to spend the occasional evening at their bijou six-bedroom house in Hampstead. Conversation usually gets frightfully heated – which we both enjoy if we’re honest – and my daughter has an early night while we indulge in our own personal edition of Question Time.

On this evening, the conversation took a somewhat different turn. I mentioned over the Foie Gras what Scunthorpe had said the previous night. Frognall instantly went to his bulging bookcase and produced an old yellowing pamphlet. He said that he’d been given it by a fan at one of his book-signing appearances and had been meaning to show it to me for ages, but our political debates always got in the way. 

Turns out that Abaddon’s, my gentlemen’s club of which I have been a member as long as I can remember, wasn’t always the hive of genteel and civilised behaviour it now prides itself on being. When it first opened in the mid-eighteenth century, it actually housed a branch of The Hellfire Club during a brief attempt to franchise that particular den of iniquity! It hosted all manner of decadent shenanigans, far removed from the refined evenings I enjoy there these days. It was opened by a rum cove called Sir Jasper de Scornly, the youngest son of the Earl of Greenford, a minor toff who had been a great favourite at court, mainly because he was an utter weed who never rocked the boat and was always happy to cough up a few groats to George the whichever number when required. 

His third son, the aforementioned Sir Jasper, was a scoundrel of the worst kind. A drinker, a fighter, an unprincipled seducer of girls, boys and indeed anything with a pulse. If I’m honest he sounds far more convivial company that most of the current members… except for one thing. He liked to indulge in festivities of the supernatural. Not just seances and table-tapping – after all, who doesn’t? – but black masses, orgies, blood-soaked rituals, nun-on-goat action and opium-fuelled bacchanalias. Disgraceful! I have written about these depraved activities in enough depth to know how shameful they are, however enticing they may seem at first glance. 

Eventually, Sir Jasper crossed a line and his Club was shut down. But this is where the mystery deepens… the official records of the current Club only begin many years later when it reopened as a bastion of decency for gentlemen of a certain class. What was the deed that was a step too far? What was Sir Jasper’s ultimate fate? 

Rumours abounded that Sir Jasper’s Club lured many otherwise upright pillars of society into its wicked portals, even – and I’d not say this lightly- royalty was beset with temptation. Not just foreign royals from whom one expects such beastly behaviour – but even the then Pr*nce of W*les was ensnared into its lascivious maw. This simply wouldn’t do and steps would have been taken. Was Sir Jasper popped in a sack and bundled off to some ghastly armpit of the Empire, to live out his days in a drunken stupor, johnson slowly rotting thanks to some exotic variety of the clap, and then on the day he was finally whisked off to meet his Maker, buried ‘neath a banana tree, forgotten and unmarked?

The de Scornly family finally died out when the last fertile male came a cropper at Wipers during the Great War. The title was mothballed, and no freshly ennobled bloke has ever claimed it. Perhaps I could nab it when my time for ermine eventually arrives (Get a move on, Your Majesty, we’re neither of us getting any younger!)

But what did this have to do with Scunthorpe’s alleged spook?

At which point Darren Frognall made an extraordinary suggestion. 

I have very little time for my oikish son-in-law. His horror novels are boorish communist propaganda, and while Frognall may have perpetuated an image of himself as a ‘grizzled laureate of the streets’,’ I knew full well that he was the product of a minor public school in west London called St Nonceslas, that he’d inherited a tidy sum from an uncle in the tobacco trade, and that he’d invested heavily in an oil well in Abu Doli.

But his idea intrigued me. 

He suggested that I spend the night in the haunted room!

**************

I was surprised how readily that the Club President granted permission for my ghost-hunting mission. Naturally, he demanded that I promised not to write about my mission and equally naturally I lied and said I wouldn’t. 

Abaddon’s is notoriously publicity-shy, always guaranteeing sanctuary from the real world for the reprobates who comprise the membership. But losing the use of a room due to the superstitions of its simpleton staff must have rankled, so if I could clear up the enigma one way or the other, they would claim this as a result. I might even get free life membership if the upshot is to their liking.

A date was set for my night of ghostly vigil. I had hoped that Frognall would join me as an unbiased observer, but his lack of membership prohibited him, and the Committee refused to sanction any relaxation of rules to allow him to take part. Another stipulation – with which I agreed – was that no other member should know of my vigil. I didn’t want any of the rotters to play any tricks and scupper the serious scientific nature of my investigation.

I chose as my date the 14th February. I knew that on this date most of the members would be absent, being forced to take their wives, mistresses, boyfriends, favourite tarts and sundry significant others out for some kind of romantic occasion. It was also, I discovered from my research, the anniversary of the day that Sir Jasper de Scornly was unceremoniously booted out of the Club. If his spook was holding a grudge then surely that of all days would be when he would most likely manifest himself?

I went shopping for the apparatus I would need for my evening of ghost-hunting:  Candles, some holy water, an infra-red camera, a cracking bottle of Gleniskinnock whisky, a notepad and a pen. 

As the planned evening approached, my sense of anticipation tautened. I’m not easily frightened – I once parachuted into Germany dressed as nun; it wasn’t the war, I’d just lost a bet with the Duke of Edinburgh – but my pulse quickened when I thought of the night ahead.

I’d often unmasked those who were pretending to be ghosts (most recently my ex-wife and her girlfriend Pam at my alma mater Scarhelldeath Hall), but I was unprepared for what to do if the spooky rogue I encountered was the real McCoy. Would I keep my nerve? Or would I succumb to the heebie-jeebies like Scunthorpe had? It seems unlikely for a war hero such as myself, trained in the art of death by combat to go jelly-kneed at the sight of a ghost, but even the most lion-hearted of fellows has been known to bespoil their trousers when caught unawares. Perhaps I ought to doff the clothes and go knackers akimbo during my vigil? Hmm, could be a bit chilly in the Box Room and besides, one can be a tad vulnerable in such a state of sans trews.

The Feast of St Valentine’s dawned. I spent the day preparing for my long night of supernatural vigil. I had a splendid five-course lunch, snoozed most of the afternoon, then supped in my Club, followed by a brandy or two. The place was pleasingly quiet. I chuckled at the thought of my fellow Members having to endure a mandatory romantic evening with their trouble-&-strifes, followed by a duty knee-trembler. I did worry whether old ‘Chinny’ Chapman was in any fit state to indulge in carnal congress, but then recalled that his wife had run off with a bus driver a year or two before so he was excused the tedium of Valentines Day. In fact, I spotted him fast asleep in the Club Lounge, his pipe dangling precariously from his drooping mouth. I wondered how ‘Snotty’ Gove was spending the evening. I couldn’t imagine him in any kind of romantic or erotic circumstances, but ‘for every foot there’s a sock’ as my old Nanny used to say. Although in the case of Snotty’s pater there’s a somewhat redundant sock. 

The clock struck. 10pm. Time to start. I’d been given the keys to the Box Room earlier. Scunthorpe handed them over very reluctantly and had pleaded me with me to drop my investigation. I’d been very firm with him, even suggesting he join me in my vigil to face his fears. He shook his head in dismay and scuttled off to wherever minions go. It didn’t surprise me to find him off duty that evening. He never took time off, but he was in such a funk that he’d fled the building. I wondered where he went on his free time. He was such a part of the fabric of the Club that I couldn’t envisage him existing in the outside world. He probably went to the pictures or maybe something saucier. Like all good Club staff he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the local tarts and their specialities, and could always recommend the right person, whatever the required fetish. Maybe he was owed some commission?t

I climbed the stairs to the Box Room. I wasn’t feeling my usual tingle of anticipation before an adventure; rather I was aware of a gnawing in the pit of my gut, although that could’ve been the Spotted Dick.

I reached the door to the Box Room. Now I was aware of it I couldn’t see how I’d missed it so many times as I’d trekked to the roof for my nude sunbathing. I fumbled for the keys and I placed the Yale in the lock…

‘Go away!’

Who was that? I’d definitely heard that. Didn’t I? I stared around, but there wasn’t a fellow in the vicinity. I withdrew the key. Did I really want to do this? Wasn’t it a foolish way to spend the night when there was a very comfortable armchair downstairs with easy access to unlimited booze? 

I shook my head. What was I thinking? Old Stirling had never chickened out of anything before. There could be a bestselling book out of this. The Rolls needed a new gearbox, and my latest instalment of The Derek Playfair Adventures – a guaranteed money-spinner – had stalled in my brain.

I quickly turned the key in its lock and opened the door…

I entered the allegedly haunted Box Room. The air was stale, reeking of dust and damp. I fumbled for a light switch, but all my hand encountered was a cobweb. I dug out the torch from my bag and switched it on. The beam was powerful but limited; it illuminated a narrow strip of the room, revealing fragments of furniture. I’d brought along a large supply of candles and holders. I lit a brace of them in the corridor, then took them in. The flickering luminance didn’t enhance the room’s welcoming atmosphere, but I placed the candles on a heavy wooden chest of drawers, then quickly ignited another pair. I now had ample light by which to examine the Box Room more throughly. It was a small room, sparsely furnished. The aforementioned chest, a single bed, and a rocking chair. The wallpaper was dark and cheerless. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, thick enough to be mistaken for lace curtains, in which large spiders scuttled away as they were hit by the light from the candles. 

There was no window. 

I sighed. Not the most comfortable of rooms in which to spend a night. I tentatively patted the bed. A cloud of dust mushroomed up, enveloping me and triggering a coughing fit. Perhaps if I stripped the bed of its sheets, maybe the mattress itself would be less grimy. I grabbed the eiderdown and tugged, but it disintegrated in my hand. I was beginning to wonder if I should have tried bribing the less nervous members of the cleaning staff to have given the room a quick once-over before attempting my vigil. Oh well, too late now. I would have to share my night with the dust mites, the spiders… and who knew what else?

My mighty imagination has been a boon for me most of my life. My many best-selling novels sprouted from it, and it has been the source of the comfortable lifestyle which I have enjoyed since I first put nib-to-parchment. But it has a downside. Whereas the Man in The Clapham Omnibus looks at a shadow and merely sees an absence of light, we scribes see a black abyss of the unknown in which all manners of bogeymen writhe and breed in their ghastliness. I pride myself on being firmly in control of my imagination, never succumbing to the vapours which women and other feeble creatures succumb. But I cannot tell a lie, this room induced a queer uneasiness in me.

I brought my bag in the room and shut the door. To make the room a tad less Chez Lugosi, I lit a few more candles, but even the extra lumens didn’t improve the ambience, merely added more shadows. A couple of whiskeys and I wouldn’t even notice the unpleasantness, I told myself. I unpacked what I’d need from my bag, lugged the rocking chair to a corner of the room from which I could survey it all, and settled down. The chair creaked as I sat, and the rocking motion was abrupt. I felt as though I could easily tip backwards all the way to the floor. I resolved to find something to jam under the rockers to keep it still. 

A vision of the jolly cosy bedroom two storeys below popped into my head, the one in which I often stayed when I didn’t want to traipse back to the Old Rectory late at night, usually because I was somewhat newt-like. I gave myself a good finger-wagging. This night had the potential to be an adventure, a lucrative one, what’s more. Not something that the Stirling of old would’ve balked at, the Stirling that fought in the war, the Stirling that once wrestled an ostrich, the Stirling that had laughed when faced with a firing squad comprising Bolivian Satanists, the Stirling who had marched through central London at the front of the Nudist Pride March … even the Stirling that had given the correct definition of frottage on Call My Bluff.

As I gingerly settled back in the rocking chair, my wedged foot preventing me from ending up unnecessarily horizontal, I surveyed the room again by torchlight – which was when I noticed the portrait. It hung over the mantelpiece which topped a blocked-up fireplace. Competently painted, but no forgotten masterpiece, it depicted a cove in mid-eighteenth century clobber. The subject was a young man, floridly dressed, quite handsome, his expression spoiled by a supercilious air, the mouth twisted in a cruel sneer. But the eyes… one jokes about the eyes of a portrait following one around the room, but these seemed almost alive! I truly felt they were staring right at me, no, right into me, piercing my own eyes to read my thoughts, perhaps even my very soul! 

Did this painting depict Sir Jasper de Scornly himself? Had this been his bedroom back in the day? This was more like a servant’s quarters, but perhaps it was where he indulged his more outré carnal romps? Not that he struck me as a chap who had any qualms about keeping his peccadilloes quiet. And if the painting were of he, then his roguish reputation seems to have been vindicated. 

Frankly, I wasn’t spending the night being stared at by this wretched painting so I turned it around so all I could see was the back of the frame. Doing this disturbed remarkably little dust which, surprisingly for a man of my forensic astuteness, didn’t strike me as at all odd.

I returned to the rocking chair and wondered how I was going to spend the long night ahead. I produced the camera from my bag and set them up ready to be galvanised into action if necessary. I took a swig from my hip flask, contemplated making some notes… and next thing I knew I was fast asleep!

I awoke with a start from a deep but dreamless snooze. For a moment I hadn’t the foggiest clue of where I was, but as soon as the brain clicked into place I remembered. I fumbled for my watch. Was it nearly morning? Could I leave this unpleasant little room and go back to my own bed? 

1.17am. 

Damn!

I rather fancied a hot milky drink – a posset with plenty of nutmeg and rum – but I doubted that the Night Porter would traipse all the way up here with one, even if I had any means to contact him. I’d have to make do with another swig of whisky. I threw back my head to glug the warming nectar down my throat when I noticed…

The portrait had been turned back the right way. Those blasted eyes were staring at me again. And the cruel smirk seemed even more disdainful than before.

I snapped myself wide awake. I contemplated my next strategy. There were two possibilities: either someone had come into the room while I was asleep or something supernatural was afoot. I was sceptical about the latter which meant the former was more likely.

A chilling prospect.

Who could it have been? I cursed myself for not locking the door. I hadn’t even shut it properly, leaving it slightly ajar in case… well, just in case.

I examined the portrait again. The face almost seemed familiar, but frankly I’ve spent many a weekend in a chum’s country estate, and the places are chockablock with similar paintings and all the subjects, no matter which house, all look as though they’re all related. Knowing our aristocracy they probably are. 

I necked more whisky and put the hip flask on the mantelpiece. I went to the door, closed it firmly and locked it. I didn’t relish the idea of being locked in; after all, the first rule of warfare is keep an option for a tactical retreat, but neither did I want anyone sneaking up on me.

I tried the door to make sure it was firmly locked. On my way back to the rocking chair I reached for my hip flask…

It was gone.

*********

This was ludicrous! It had been less than 30 seconds and no one else was in the room!

I flopped back into the rocking chair in a puzzled huff. I stared at the portrait. I could swear the bugger was smirking at me. This was going to be a prolonged enough night without whisky deprivation to boot. I decided to examine the room thoroughly to see if there were any possible secret entrances. Wouldn’t be the first time a priest’s hole had been the answer to a few questions.

I tapped walls, lifted a rug (which disintegrated into a cloud of rancid dust), and even peered under the bed (a fossilised mouse and a chipped Edgar Allen). I examined the fireplace lest the blocking off wasn’t quite so thorough, but it would require a mallet and a brace of navvies to get though that.

I admit, I was stumped. 

I shivered. The temperature in the Box Room had definitely dropped. As a consequence I felt a twitch in my bladder and became aware that I would imminently have to thrust Thomas at the Twyfords. But I worried that if I left the room, I would be reluctant to return. Perhaps I would have to use the Gazunder I’d just found.

My blood ran cold. The portrait was most definitely staring at me! The eyes were blazing with light, malignancy burning from them as they gleamed wickedly at me. I gasped and rubbed my eyes. When I looked again, the eyes were normal. Cruel and piercing still, but not aflame as before.

I had to admit that something fishy was afoot. Either I was experiencing genuine paranormal activity or someone was arsing about – and if I found out who, they’d be in for a severe hiding.

‘Give me back my bloody booze, you rotten spook!’ I suddenly erupted. To hell with it, I was going downstairs to get myself a bottle of something. Abaddon’s prides itself that alcohol, a bed, and a scrubber are never knowingly unavailable. 

As I reached the door, there was a chuckle. 

I whirled around. I’d definitely heard that. It was a laugh. A man’s laugh, but not a good-natured one. It was a joyless, sarcastic sound. But where had it come from?

‘Was that you?’ I asked the portrait, my hand still on the doorknob. 

There was an eerie glow emanating from the portrait. I rubbed my eyes.

Standing in front of the portrait of what I assumed was Sir Jasper de Scornly was the man himself. It was as though the painting had come alive and stepped out from the frame. 

Reader, I am man enough to admit that only the staunchest clenching of my buttocks prevented me from from being involuntarily at stool.  While the logical circuits of my brain were computing the various rational likelihoods of what I was seeing, my instincts were screaming ‘Ghost! Run!’ I knew that I should be snapping away with my camera, but it was on the other side of room, requiring me to actually get nearer the fiendish apparition.

I gulped and tried to pull myself together.

‘Can I help you?’ I asked the manifestation, my voice at least an higher octave than listeners of my occasional spots on The Moral Maze would recognise.

The ghost smiled the ghastliest of smiles and crooked its finger, gesturing for me to approach.

I sensibly stayed where I was. Or thought I did. My legs had other ideas and despite my best efforts they forced me step by step into the arms of the Ghost!

The Phantom’s chilly embrace overwhelmed me; my head swam, I feared I was going to lose consciousness, and then I found myself… somewhere else.  

It was a large drawing room, a dark thundery sky outside, the room lit by a roaring fire in the hearth. Two men were arguing. An old cove in fancy dress, eighteenth century I thought, was wagging his finger at the other man – whom I recognised as the living manifestation of the Ghost. This must be Jasper de Scornly and his father. 

The older man, the Earl of Greenford, was a feeble beast, spindly of leg, a moth-eaten wig perched precariously on his chinless head, a blanket around his weedy shoulders. He was chastising his son with a distinct lack of authority. Sir Jasper towered over his ineffectual father, contempt emanating off him. If he were my son, a clip around the ear would be the least he would get, but the Earl would’ve needed a stepladder just to reach his son’s ear.

I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I presumed that the Earl was trying to persuade his son to behave less like an arse and more like the son of aristocrat, not that in my experience there’s that much of a chasm between the two. Jasper threw back his head and laughed at his father, his hands on his hips. They did actually do that in the olden days, I marvelled, it wasn’t just something invented by Douglas Fairbanks. It was a practise I resolved to adopt myself, particularly the next time the quack urges me to cut down on the drink.

I have no idea what the Earl said next, but Jasper suddenly whipped his sword out and held the tip to his father’s throat.  The Earl’s knees actually knocked and his lip trembled. Jasper abruptly sheathed his sword and swept from the room, curses obviously falling silently from his mouth.

I was no longer in the drawing room. I was witness to a rapid barrage of different scenes of Jasper up to no good; gambling, whoring, fighting duels, knocking back the grog in diverse taverns – indeed having a splendid time which I rather envied. Then things turned darker: occult rituals in a dank crypt, naked lasses tied to altars, chickens getting their throats cuts, a tubby man having the blood of the poor deceased bird rubbed into his corpulent frame… by the rapt way his fellow Satanists fawned on him I rather suspected he might be royalty. This was confirmed when the crypt was raided by soldiers and the chubby man was deferred to while all the other participants were manhandled somewhat roughly.

Then suddenly we were in the Box Room – yes, this very room in which I was spending the night – where Jasper was greeted by a young woman in servant’s garb. For the first time Jasper showed a tenderness as he kissed and embraced the young maid followed by such a right royal rogering that even I felt I ought to avert my eyes – which I resisted as I considered it my duty to watch all the Phantom was showing me.

Before I’d had time to catch my breath or indeed rearrange my underpants, we were swept to a bleak graveyard where a funeral was taking place. A coffin was lowered into an open grave while a vicar soundlessly intoned prayers.

 A group of mourners each flung a sod of earth into the grave, but then Sir Jasper appeared, striding determinedly towards the grave. Several mourners (his brothers, I wondered) produced their swords and chased him away. Jasper shook his fist at the men and leaped onto his waiting horse.

Next, we were at a dockside beside a rough grey sea. Jasper, bound and gagged, is pushed at sword point up the gangplank by the same men from the graveyard. They watch until the ship has sailed, only leaving when the ship has reached the horizon. After they leave, only one person is left at the dockside watching the diminishing ship. It is the maid from earlier, her cheeks stained with tears. She is very palpably up the duff. Following this we see – quite unnecessarily, I thought – the maid in childbirth which was quite gruesome, all blood and guts and slime, not what any fellow should be forced to witness.

The result was a baby boy. Sadly I don’t think the mother survived the ordeal. The child grew swiftly in front of my eyes, time speeding faster and faster as I watched him spawn a son himself who in turn spawned another boy and so on and so on… The acceleration of the visions became too much for me and I was overwhelmed with dizziness. I roared, pleaded for it to stop…

… and next thing I knew I was lying on the bed back in the Box Room, the very bed on which I had recently observed the maid giving birth so messily.

I sat up and shook my head. How long had all that taken? It felt like I had watched those centuries pass in real time. I glanced at my watch. 3.57am.  Was it still the same night?

A hand passed me my hip flask. ‘Thank you,’ I said automatically, but just as I was about to swig, I froze. I glanced up. The Ghost of Sir Jasper de Scornly was standing in front of me!

The spectre of Sir Jasper de Scornly stared at me, his fiery eyes burning deep into my soul. He looked as solid as flesh, but I knew that if I touched him he would evaporate like steam from a kettle so I kept my hands to myself.

‘Hello,’ I said feebly. ‘Jolly interesting life you had.’ Hardly Wildean, but the etiquette for addressing a ghost evaded me.

A hint of a sneer crossed Sir Jasper’s face, but I suspected that was his default expression. 

‘Verily,’ he hissed, ‘Me life was stolen from me, as indeed was me inheritance.’ He whipped out his sword from its scabbard. I ducked, but he pointed it at the window. ‘Five thousand leagues west of here, me bones lay rotting ‘neath a solitary tree. The feeble cross marking the grave has many years hence been the shit of the woodworm.’

‘Shame,’ I commiserated. ‘Still, you packed a lot of hijinks in your life, short as it may have been. Haven’t seen so much debauchery…’ I considered. ‘Well, for months…’

I hadn’t even finished before Sir Jasper had the point of his sword pressing into my neck, just to the right of my Adam’s Apple. ‘What is life for except for indulging the flesh in the pleasure it craves?’

‘Quite,’ I agreed.

The point of the sword was sliding down my front, opting buttons of my shirt. I was relieved it was just a British Home Stores shirt, not a bespoke one from Monsieur Herring of Mayfair. 

‘Me life was curtailed while there was still so much bodily gratification to explore.’ The spook brushed his free hand against what I hoped was a codpiece.

‘That’s a shame.’ I wasn’t quite sure what he expected me to do about it. It wasn’t as though he still had a body to gratify. Not a corporeal one anyway. I could point him in the direction of Dolores of Frith Street, but even she would balk at pleasuring a randy wraith, and she will usually do anything as long as one has washed one’s Johnson first.

‘I demand only one appeasement,’ Sir Jasper shouted, retrieving his sword from my throat. ‘The restoration of me bloodline – and the rightful ennoblement of the most recent of the spawn of me spawn.’ 

Yes, I’d suspected it might be something like that. Why else show me the procession of descendants of the little bastard who was born in this very room?

‘Genealogy isn’t my strong point, old darling,’ I replied. ‘rummaging through dusty ledgers and birth certificates and whatnot. Leave that to the librarians and other weeds. Making stuff up is more my forte.’

A smirk passed across the phantasm’s face.  ‘There is a simple way of identifying a true de Scornly…’ he said, and with that, he thrust open his garments and exposed himself to me.

I gasped! ‘You have three!’ I exclaimed. ‘In all my days as a nudist I’ve never seen that before.’

De Scornly sneered. ‘The third nipple has been passed down from de Scornly to de Scornly from time immemorial. Even me feeble father and me scurvy brothers possessed the Sacred Blemish.’

‘Yes, well,’ I began, ‘unique as it may be, and devoted nudist that I am, I can’t very well go asking random chaps to show me their chests. I’m not Dickie Wattis!’

The ghost’s eyes narrowed.

‘And besides,‘ I hastily continued, ‘even if the Nudist camps were allowed to open, it’s still winter. However hardy the de Scornlys may be…’

The wretched phantom emitted an unearthly shriek. ‘Find me progeny.’ He pointed a boney finger at me. I noticed his fingernail was filthy and wondered if it was from scrabbling at the coffin lid. ‘Or I shall haunt ye until the end of time, Sir Desmond Stirling.’

I shrugged. I wasn’t going to give this spectral oik the satisfaction of intimidating me. ‘I’ll do me best… my best, I mean.’ I pointed at the window. ‘Look, dawn is imminent and I need my beauty sleep and surely you need to return to your grave?’

Sir Jasper glanced at the flecks of light which were breaking up the night. ‘Return here when you have found me issue. I will be waiting for ye.’

At this the candles blew out and the room was plunged into darkness. I hastily re-lit the nearest candle. 

Sir Jasper was gone!

I had lied to the spook. Sleep was the last thing on my mind, and besides I had no intention of spending another minute in that ghastly little room. I raced down the stairs, left the Club (ignoring the puzzled look of the Night Porter) and searched for a taxi. Within minutes I’d flagged one down and instructed the driver to hotfoot me to Hampstead.

My son-in-law – Darren Frognall, self-Styled Mao Tse Tung of the Macabre – was not best pleased to be woken at what he considered an ungodly hour. Frankly, if he were in the army this would be almost time for elevenses. He stared at me in his improbably short dressing gown which revealed unsurprisingly skinny legs and a shamefully hairless chest. But he soon saw that I had important intel to impart, so he lead me into the kitchen and fired up the coffee percolator.

He offered me toast too, and then demonstrated a remarkable machine – unimaginably called a ‘toaster’ – which actually toasts bread! I haven’t made any toast myself since schooldays when we  held the bread on forks in front of the roaring fire prepared earlier by our fag (and if the fire wasn’t roaring, said fag wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week! Or in the case of ‘Snotty’ Gove’s pater, unable to stand). 

Eventually we were sitting down at the kitchen table with our coffee and freshly buttered toast, and I related my adventures of the previous night. Frognall listened keenly, with the surprisingly good sense not to interrupt a master storyteller at work. I had reached the point when Sir Jasper had revealed the presence of his descendants. A strange look crossed Frognall’s face and he leant forward, causing his dressing gown to fall open… revealing, just to the right of the centre of his pitiful chest, the presence of a third nipple!

To be continued…

Listen to Sir Desmond read this story out loud here…

Little Did You Know…

June 22, 2021

My idiot nephew Anthony Keetch has been interviewed on camera. I am mentioned in passing which is embarrassing.

The Tell-Tale Nipple!

June 4, 2021

You will be delighted to know that the first instalment of my gripping new yarn THE TELL-TALE NIPPLE is now available. And what’s more, you can hear Yours Truly actually reading it out loud. According to my idiot nephew, it can be found on YouTube or Anchor FM or Spotify and on other ‘podcast’ thingies soon too.

But, sadly, not the Home Service.