There are any number of reasons why a gentleman should be seen walking the streets of Port Naain carrying flowers. It is possible he might be a mourner on his way to a funeral, or alternatively attending a wedding. There again, he may be a lover about to meet his beloved, or an errant husband seeking to mollify an irate wife. Or he might even be a dutiful son visiting his aged mother.
But in Port Naain such sightings elicit a certain frisson of concern, and ladies have been known to cautiously move away from the gentleman in question. Even going so far as to hide behind market stalls or to slip, hopefully unseen, up gloomy alleys they’d normally avoid.
The whole thing started with rumours of unexplained disappearances. In one of two cases there were bloodstains left on the floor. A number of husbands were arrested and released on the strength of their excellent alibis. Then there was something of a sensation when a woman came forward to claim she’d seen the creature that was committing the crimes. Apparently she was a cook and had been going to discuss the menu for the evening’s meal with her mistress. Also she had intended to remind her mistress about the need for a new frying pan, the current incumbent of that proud office having a handle that was lose and a base that tended to wobble.
She knocked and entered the salon to see some feral creature crouched over the torn body of her mistress, with jaws slathered thickly with blood. She screamed and raised the frying pan to protect herself and the creature, perhaps assuming this was the prelude to an assault, grabbed a bunch of flowers from the table and fled. The cook, much to her own surprise, found the courage to pursue the creature out of the house and looked down the street. There was no sign of the brute, just a gentleman smartly accoutred in a coat of a greenish hue and a top hat. He was strolling casually away and disappeared down a side street.
The watch was called and they removed the body and made their own enquiries. Given the nature of this creature, described as a hunched, shambling monstrosity with great fangs and hands ending in claws like ‘bird’s-beak paring knives,’ (Well the witness was a cook) they assumed it was some vat-born thing or a magical sending.
Thus watch asked difficult and embarrassing questions of the less respectable mages lurking within the city. As an aside this is not difficult. Merely quiz them on matters of person hygiene or ask them about the fine details of social interaction and they are likely to collapse into confusion. But in this case their investigations produced no relevant results, although they did provide leads to a number of other interesting cases.
The case was finally solved thanks to the inadvertent efforts of Hettie Wheywright. She is a seamstress. Whilst she hadn’t risen to the level of owning a shop of her own, she had fitted out the parlour in her home as the fitting room so that she could work with her clients in an environment that was both discreet and discrete.
When a gentleman knocked on her door and proffered her a bouquet of flowers she was not at all perturbed. Admittedly she was too young to be anybody’s aged mother, and being happy married she was not expecting gifts from a lover. Also her husband, Welbegone Wheywright, far from erring, was in the kitchen fitting some new pot hooks.
On the other hand, as a seamstress, she was entirely used to gentlemen arriving and trying to win her over with flowers. In her experience the flowers were the opening gambit, an attempt to predispose her to look favourably on their plea. Inevitably they had forgotten their wife’s birthday, or her size, and were hoping Hettie could work a miracle and produce something that would salvage their domestic harmony. This she rarely failed to do, normally contacting the wife and asking her to come in to be measured for a new dress. As the measuring was underway Hettie would ensure that the wife was left with the comforting thought that the husband had been timely in his approaches, it’s just Hettie had been both terribly busy and dreadfully forgetful.
So when a gentleman with a greenish jacket, and his top hat held politely in one hand proffered her flowers, she merely stepped back into her fitting room to allow the gentleman in. Then she took the flowers off him and turned to put them in a suitable vase.
Now what you must remember is that Hettie had spent a considerable time over the years, acquiring mirrors. There were major salons with fewer full length mirrors than Hettie had in her fitting room. Welbegone was known to mutter under his breath about this as he carried yet another across the city from wherever Hettie had salvaged it. He would then tidy up the frame and screw the mirror to the wall. This meant that when a lady had her fitting, she could, at a glance, see her front, both sides, and rear simultaneously.
On the other hand, until you were used to it, seeing multiple reflections curving off to infinity could be somewhat disorientating. Hettie had finally asked Welbegone to take the mirrors off the doors, so that at least people had some point of reference. One of her clients had panicked when left along and it had taken three cups of hot sweet tea, fortified with copious quantities of brandy, to settle her nerves.
So when Hettie turned to put the flowers in the vase, although she had her back to her visitor, she could still see him plainly in her mirrors. Before her terrified gaze the polite gentleman with the green jacket seemed to unfold from within himself to become a hunched, blasphemous horror. The countenance, a mockery of humanity with a massively fanged jaw, seemed utterly malevolent; the hide was mottled with occasional leprous looking white patches. The claws dripped with some noxious substance. She screamed and turned to face it, still gripping the flowers. The creature opened its eyes wide and stared round in horror at the innumerable heinous creatures converging upon it; then it too screamed and fled. Welbegone burst into the room, white faced but wielding a lump hammer. Hettie, clutching a table to stop herself falling over, pointed out of the door. Welbegone looked out to see the creature bounding down the street. He set off in hot pursuit, shouting for assistance as he did so. Finally he and two watchmen corned the thing in the Gargiol Courtyard. They watched as it turned at bay and then slowly seemed to sag. As they watched, it shrivelled and decayed until finally all that lay on the ground was a wizened cadaver about the size of a large dog. It was at that point Hettie rejoined them; she was still clutching the flowers. But these too had died and were merely withered stalks, still held together by a length of pink ribbon.
For those looking for more stories from Tallis Steelyard, two new collections await!
Tallis Steelyard. Deep waters, and other stories.
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Discover the damage done by the Bucolic poets, wonder at the commode of Falan Birling, and read the tales better not told. We have squid wrestling, lady writers, and occasions when it probably wasn’t Tallis’s fault. He even asks the great question, who are the innocent anyway?
Tallis Steelyard. Playing the game, and other stories.
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Marvel at the delicate sensitivities of an assassin, wonder at the unexpected revolt of Callin Dorg. Beware of the dangers of fine dining, and of a Lady in red. Travel with Tallis as his poetical wanderings have him meandering through the pretty villages of the north. Who but Tallis Steelyard could cheat death by changing the rules?