Tag Archives: Short Fiction

Psychopomps – A Tale Of Stolen Souls And The Creatures That Consume Them

2 Sep

I can feel it closing in on me, hunting me down; no matter how hard I try to escape, I can’t out-run it, or evade it. I can’t even hide from it. I know that once one of them gets your scent, that’s it. Over. It’s just a matter of time. I don’t know how long it will take before it harvests my soul, but it will, and I’ll never see it coming. No one ever does. That’s what makes the psychs so terrifying. That and what they leave behind once they’ve taken what they are seeking.

***

We’d known about psychs for years, but we’d always thought they were just ancient scare stories which had become codified into mythologies and then faded away as the world developed. Psychs, or to give them their Sunday name, psychopomps, was the term that those who studied long-lost cultures gave to the spirit guides who were said to lead the souls of the dead to whatever hereafter a culture happened to believe in. For the Greeks it was Hermes who took the souls down to the banks of the river Styx and handed them over to the ferryman. For the Roman’s it was Mercury; for the Vikings it was the Valkyries who led men who died in battle to the eternal feasting hall of Valhalla. So many names, yet without fail each and every culture had one. That should have been our first clue that they might actually be real. All those names, they all referred to the same thing. Or maybe that should be things.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, all those different names from so many different peoples and traditions had been consigned to the history books; few beyond the rarefied air of academia had ever heard of most of them, but we shouldn’t have been so hasty. There was truth in those ancient stories, and it was so terrible that it was no wonder people had chosen to mythologize them rather than admit they were real. It seemed that the psychs needed death and destruction, they needed those souls they took, they feasted on them.
In the past, they’d wait until someone’s body died, and then they’d sweep in and capture the departing soul before it could get away. They didn’t guide the souls they collected to some eternal afterlife, though, they held them captive, living off their fear, their pain, their misery until the soul they’d imprisoned evaporated away to nothing. Simply gone from the collective consciousness of the world, never to re-surface, never to be re-incarnated, never to inhabit another human body and awaken an intelligence within it.

That was before; then they changed. At first, there were just rumours: odd disappearances; tales of empty, soulless bodies, still alive but not human. Then we found out that they were real. The first clue was the empty vessels they left behind. They acted on instinct, fighting, attacking, feeding on any humans they could catch. They were brutal, savage husks that had once been human, but with their souls gone, there was no humanity left within them.

When they made their first appearance, there was talk of a virus, of zombies, of an upcoming apocalypse, but that wasn’t what happened, or what was really going on. Instead, it was the psychs. Hell made real right here on earth. No one ever quite worked out what made them change, why they started taking souls from the living rather than from the dying, but there was one reason which sounded more plausible than the rest. This was the one that said that now, with so many people on the planet and so much suffering, the psychs were becoming confused. Everywhere, there was death and destruction, so many souls being released from their earthly vessels all at once. When a psych was trying to capture a soul, waiting for the exact moment of departure before they’d pounced, they’d be distracted by the possibility of another, then another. With all these souls swirling round in the æther, they found it hard to concentrate on their chosen calling.

So much human suffering, so many dying needlessly each and every day. The psychs couldn’t cope, so instead they switched their attention to the living, harvesting their souls instead. It was easier and there were few distractions. All they had to do was select a victim and then take what they most dearly wanted, what they craved. Why they chose the ones they did was unknown, and unknowable, yet there was something about living souls that was different from dying ones. Their energy was different, it allowed the psychs not just to survive, but to thrive, to multiply until it seemed like they were everywhere, stealing souls and leaving behind the still-living human body to hunt those who still retained their humanity.

In many ways, the reasons the psychs had been released from their past confines was irrelevant. What mattered was that they were here, moving amongst us, unseen and unfelt until they locked onto you. Then you would feel something change deep inside. You’d feel your soul start to tremble within your body, and the closer the psych got, the more terrified your soul became. How it knew the psych was closing in, or what would happen to it once it had been harvested, was beyond me, but when I felt the change within me, I knew what it meant. From that moment on, I knew the fate which awaited me. I just didn’t know when it would happen. And ever since that moment, I’ve been running, trying desperately to escape the inevitable.

***

Suddenly, I feel my soul jolt, as if it has been electrocuted. It somersaults and twists inside me; I can feel the fear which is gripping it expand and take over my body. I know the psych is close. I turn this way and that, but I can find no trace of it, no indication of which direction it’s coming from. My soul starts screaming, the fearful, ungodly sound echoing through my body. Looking around, I wonder why no one else is reacting to the horrifying sound, but then I realise that only I can hear it. I am the only one who can hear my soul screaming, terrified by what is about to happen to it. Then I feel it, like an ice-cold hand on my chest. No, not on my chest: in my chest; thrusting deep within me. My soul wails and then it’s gone. The icy feeling disappears from within me, and with it goes something else. I look round and no longer do I see people. Instead, I see prey, and there are so many of them. I lick my lips with anticipation of what is about to happen. With my soul no longer present to keep my body in check, it does what it has always wanted to do and it attacks.

I watch, unable to resist, unable to stop it. As the blood starts flying, I feel my consciousness, all the things that made me me, start to fade, replaced by new, alien thoughts and unnatural urges. As I bite into my first victim, I feel a sense of elation run through me. Inside, the last of the old me blinks out and all that is left is my body, still living, still recognisable from the outside, but so different on the inside. For everything that was me has gone. The psych that stole my soul has seen to that. My body without my soul is not me, and neither is my soul without my body. I have been torn apart by something that I’d always thought never existed, that I’d thought were just old wives tales, but nonetheless they are real and I am no more.

***

I haven’t written a short story in a while (I’ve been concentrating too much on novels recently), but this mark a bit of a return to that art form. I’ll be the first to admit it is a bit of a weird one. I don’t usually do spiritual stuff, but this one definitely ventures into that realm. It was inspired by an episode of the British comedy panel show, QI, where I first came across the term psychopomp, meaning a spirit guide that lead the souls of the dead to the afterlife. What, I wondered, if such things existed and instead of waiting for people to die, they started targeting the living. And what would they leave behind?



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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

Getting Away With It – A Short Detective Story

15 May

A PDF of this story can be downloaded from here.

Constable Wainwright glanced up as door of the small office he shared with five others burst open. This was the moment he’d been dreading ever since he’d finished his report and sent it upstairs to CID. He could tell from the way Detective Inspector Ross was gripping the paperwork that he wasn’t pleased and he couldn’t blame him.

The DI threw the file across the desk towards the younger man. ‘What the hell’s this?’

‘It’s my report on the witness statements from yesterday’s shooting, sir.’

‘And you think it’s complete?’

‘It’s as complete as I could get it, sir.’ Constable Wainwright had just a touch of defiance in his voice.

‘So remind me,’ the DI’s brow furrowed as he pursed him lips and crossed his arms, possibly in response to the younger man’s tone, ‘How many witnesses were there?’

The constable shifted his gaze downwards, knowing what was coming next. ‘Eleven.’

DI Ross put his hands on the desk and lent forward. ‘And not one of them saw the guy that did it?’

Constable Wainwright could almost feel his superior’s breath on his face. ‘They all saw him.’

‘And when you say they all saw him …’

‘They were in the room when the shooting happened, sir.’

The DI straightened up again. ‘And was it a big room?’

‘No, sir. Just your standard church hall.’

‘Were any of them drunk or high or anything?’

‘No, sir.’

‘It wasn’t dark in there was it? I mean they weren’t watching a film or something like that were they?’

‘No, they had the lights on, sir.’

‘So they all saw the man walk in, shoot one of them dead and then walk out again?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And the shooter wasn’t wearing a mask or a disguise?’

‘No, sir.’

‘How close were the witnesses?’

Constable Wainwright picked up his notebook and flicked through it. ‘Between six and ten feet.’

The DI took a couple of large steps backwards. ‘About this far then?’

Constable Wainwright bit his lip nervously before replying. ‘Yes, sir. That would be about right.’

So …’ The DI paced around the room for a minute before returning to the constable’s desk. He stood there, hands on hips, looming over the younger man. ‘So why the hell haven’t you done a photofit?’

This was the bit the constable hadn’t been looking forward to explaining to those who ranked above him. ‘Well … that’s where things get … errr … what you might call complicated, sir.’

The DI raised his eyebrows and moved his head ever so slightly forward: other than that he remained motionless. Constable Wainwright took this as a cue to continue. ‘All the witnesses agree the gunman was about five eleven tall and had short dark hair with no beard or anything like that. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, the kind that bikers used to wear, black denim jeans and Doc Martins. He held the weapon in his right hand; a semi-automatic by the sounds of it. There’s some disagreement as to what exactly he said but it was either “You know who I am, don’t you?” or “You know why I’m here, don’t you?” or possibly both. There was an accent, possibly south London; almost certainly fake …’

‘Yes. Yes. I know all that from your report,’ DI Ross looked like he was about to explode, ‘But what did he actually look like?’

‘Well …’ The constable rubbed the back of he neck nervously and flicked through his notebook again. ‘Nine of them said he definitely wasn’t black.’ He felt the urge to glance up at the DI to see if he could guess what his superior was thinking but he did his best to resist . ‘Four of them thought he was probably white but three others thought he could have been Arabic or Asian or …’ He turned the page. ‘Or maybe South American.’

The DI leaned on the desk again, and stared at the constable. ‘Thought he was probably white? What sort of a description’s that? Surely you either know or you don’t.’

Wainwright took a deep breath. ‘They were a bit vague on the age too.’

DI Ross slumped into the chair opposite the younger man and massaged his forehead with one hand as if trying to ease a headache. ‘Just how vague are we talking about here?’

‘Definitely an adult but he could have been anything between twenty and sixty.’

‘And none of them could tell you what he looked like?’

‘No, sir.’

The DI considered this for a moment. ‘That’s got to be bullshit! It happened right in front of them. How can they not know what the gunman looked like? Either one of them did it and the others are covering it up or it was someone from outside the group and they’re not giving us the description for some reason. One way or another at least some of them must be in on it.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘And why would that be?’

‘It’s because of the reason they were there. They were having a meeting.’

DI Ross dropped his head downwards as he folded one arm across his chest and pinched the bridge of his nose with the thumb and fore finger of his other hand. ‘They’re not twelve-steppers of some kind, are they?’

‘No, nothing like that.’ Like the DI, Constable Wainwright knew the code of anonymity for groups like AA always made their lives more complicated than they needed to be when it came to investigating crimes. ‘It’s more like a self-help group.’

‘For what?’

‘For a condition they all have. It’s called …’ The constable consulted his notebook, ‘Prosopagnosia.’

The DI leaned forward. ‘Proso what?’

‘Prosopagnosia, sir. They’ve all got it pretty bad apparently; that’s why they have the meetings. It helps them deal with it.’

‘And what’s the hell’s this prosopagnosia thing when it’s at home?’

‘It’s also called face blindness, sir.’

‘So they’re blind?’

‘They’re not blind. They can see perfectly well; it’s just that they don’t recognise or remember faces.’

‘They what?’

‘They don’t do faces. And it means they’re not great at things like age and race too so it explains why they were so vague with those as well.’

The DI lent back and ran his hands through his hair before linking his fingers behind his head. ‘So basically you’re saying that even though eleven people saw exactly what happened, none of them can tell us what the shooter looked like because of this face blindness thing?’

‘That’s pretty much what it boils down to, sir.’

‘Would any of them be able to recognise the gunman if they saw him again?’

‘I asked. They were all pretty certain they wouldn’t, sir. The twelve of them have been meeting as a group for the last three years and they don’t even recognise each other unless they’re wearing name badges.’

The DI stood up and paced around the room again. ‘So we’ve got eleven eye witnesses and even if we somehow get lucky and find the guy who did it, none of them would be able to pick him out of a line up?’

‘That’s the gist of it, sir.’

‘This is ridiculous!’ The DI returned to the desk. ‘And you’re sure they’re not pulling your leg or anything like that?’

‘I’m pretty sure, sir.’

‘Why?’

‘Because the one I spoke to when I first arrived didn’t recognise me when I took his statement later and all I’d done was take my hat off. Two of the others managed to confuse me with Constable Hussan.’

A surprised look appeared on the DI’s face. ‘Hang on, you’re white and he’s Asian isn’t he?’

‘Errr … Middle-eastern, sir. One of them explained it to me. We’ve got the same hair colour and style, and we were both in uniform.’

DI Ross scratched his head. ‘I don’t get it.’

‘Because they don’t recognise faces, they learn to recognise people by other things: hairstyles, the clothes they’re wearing, how they walk, the sound of their voice and so on.’

The DI sat down on the chair again and buried his head in his hands. ‘And almost everything we do to find and convict a bad guy is based around having an accurate description of their face meaning we’re screwed.’

‘Pretty much, sir.’

‘Christ!’ There was silence for almost a minute before DI Ross spoke again. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to explain this one to the Superintendent.’ There was a hint of resignation in his voice.

‘I’m glad it’s you that has to do that, sir, and not me. This guy’s going to get away with shooting someone in a roomful of people – the way I see it, whoever he is he’s pretty much committed the perfect crime.’

The DI stood up and straightened his tie. ‘Right. I’d better get this over with.’

He picked the constable’s report off the desk and he thought about what the younger man had just said: the perfect crime. As he turned and walked away, he allowed a small smile to creep across his face: it most certainly was. It had first occurred to him that it might be when his wife told him about the odd condition one of her work colleagues had and the support group he went to to help him deal with it; he’d started thinking about it in earnest when he found out they were sleeping together; he’d been almost certain of it by the time he’d decided to kill his wife’s lover just to punish her for leaving him after all those years. Now he’d shot him dead in front of all those witnesses and he knew for sure he was going to get away with it.

***

Author’s note: Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is a real condition and people who have it are unable to recognise others by their facial features. Until quite recently, it was thought to be a rare condition that only occurred because of some kind of damage to the brain. However, in the last few years it has become clear there’s a second form where people don’t develop it but instead they have it from birth. It’s been estimated that around 1% of the population fall into this category. People who have face blindness from birth may never even realise they have it because to them not recognising people by their faces is normal and let’s face it, have you ever asked someone how they recognise others?

I was in my late 30s before I realised I had prosopagnosia but looking back it explained some of the odd incidents I’d had in my life when I’d failed to recognise people I really should have. Face blindness can occur across a spectrum ranging from mild to severe and I’m closer to that end so it’s quite surprising I didn’t realised I had it sooner. Not long after I found out I had it, I witnessed an assault and I had to tell the police that while I could tell them exactly what happened before they got there, I couldn’t tell them what the person who did it actually looked like (I knew who he was because I saw the police drag him off the victim, my information told them the assault was unprovoked). Needless to say, I got some very odd looks when I explained this to the officers who interviewed me. Luckily the guy pled guilty (this was because he didn’t know I couldn’t actually point at him in court and say ‘he was the one that did it’ – just knowing I’d seen what happened was enough), so it wasn’t too much of a problem but it got me thinking that this could be an interesting premise for a story, especially if I took it to the extreme end of what might be possible. That was when I started wondering: what would happen if a crime was committed in a room full of people like me with fairly severe prosopagnosia? How would the police ever track down who did it when all their procedures are based around making an identification from facial features?

If you want to test your facial recognition abilities or to find out more about prosopagnosia, visit http://www.faceblind.org/.

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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.