The parameters of the anthology were simple: write any kind of story you want under 9,000 words as long as a corset is prominently featured in the story. I’m not to big on romance, so instead of a bodice ripper, my story immediately turned to classic horror.
“The Blue Lights” takes place on the moors of Dartmoor. (That’s Baskerville territory for Sherlock Holmes fans, and yes, research devoted to The Hound of the Baskervilles came in handy.) It follows three men riding in a carriage across the moors. The carriage enters a patch of smoke from a controlled burn, and upon exiting the smoke, the men look down and notice a bloody corset sitting in a once-empty seat. The anthology is currently on sale on amazon.com in both trade paperback and kindle versions.
I’ve included a little teaser of my story below. Enjoy!
THE BLUE LIGHTS
Never trust a coincidence. Looking back, I wish I heeded that advice. I was an up-and-coming force in the banking industry, I knew what many often called coincidences almost always led to a trail of embezzlement. Why I couldn’t apply that knowledge to regular life, I’ll never know, just as I’ll never know why I didn’t sprint the other way the moment I saw him.
I first saw Captain Lawrence Wilson at Paddington Station in the crowd of people. He stood just over six feet tall, and his yellowed, pitted face drew him unwanted attention. I suspect, however, most people noticed his angry, pitiless eyes more than his complexion.
Seeing the captain brought back memories I had forced back into the recesses of my mind where only dark things lay. He resurrected visions of a face I intended to keep forgotten. Blue eyes, blond hair, soft curls. Her voice reminded me of wind chimes—especially when she said my name, John. Unfortunately, her pleasant memory no longer brought me joy. Instead, thinking of her only made my stomach feel twisted. I took a few deep breaths to steady myself, and pushed her memory away yet again.
I noticed Wilson just as I purchased my ticket. He should be dead, I thought. He would be dead, but for you, I reminded myself. He would have stood trial for murder, if I possessed a shred of courage. Instead, I watched him board my train—alive.
Coincidence, I told myself.
I should have asked for a refund on my ticket. Instead, I lingered back, staying out of the captain’s sight until he entered his railcar a few down from mine. I boarded my own car, hoping the Wilson would disembark at a separate stop.
I took a seat next to the window soon forgot about the captain. An excited, anticipation-filled flutter filled my stomach. I pulled an ivory envelope out of my pocket and grazed my fingers over the Duke of Exeter’s blue and red coat of arms prominently displayed on the envelope’s flap. I opened the envelope and re-read the contents.
The Duke of Exeter has heard of your fine work, and he would like to invite you to interview for the position of managing his assets and personal affairs. Please arrive at the Newton Abbot Train Station on Friday, October 12, 1883 at 2:00pm sharp. I will send my carriage for you.
Harold J. Meadows
Secretary to George Holland, Duke of Exeter
I felt the same shivers as I did when I first received the letter, excited that someone finally noticed my hard work and loyalty. While this position would take me away from the contacts and business partners I built in London, it promised a higher salary and the potential to return to London with even better prospects. I took every effort to ensure my interview ensemble looked perfect. I borrowed a friend’s top hat, which would make a better impression than my bowler, and I spent more than I could afford on a pair of luxurious, black leather shoes. I wore my midnight-blue, silk waistcoat and my best coat. I considered wearing my warmer, second-hand jacket—especially considering the current October cold spell, but it sagged in the shoulders. I preferred the duke see me in fitted clothing, and I could handle the cold for a day. I intended to warm up later at the hotel, hopefully in celebration of a new job.
A quick flash of her face in my memory jostled away my elated fantasy. I forced it out of my mind and stared out the window as the train pulled away from the station. I rarely left London, and I relished the chance to see a world free of congestion and never-ending buildings. I yearned to breathe air uncontaminated by smoke and manure.
“Where are you headed?” asked the gentleman sitting next to me. I used gentleman loosely. His chapped lips covered his five remaining teeth, and multiple patches dotted his jacket and trousers. He probably bought them fourth-hand, I surmised.
I kept a straight face even though I wanted to wince from his unspeakably foul breath. “Devon,” I replied, unsure of the duke’s exact location. “Somewhere near Dartmoor.”
“Ah! Beautiful territory. I’ve traveled there quite a few times myself. Planning on going out on the moors?”
“Not likely.” I hoped my indifference might keep him quiet. I wanted to mentally run through my accomplishments and make sure I remembered everything that might help me secure the position with the duke.
“You be careful if you do decide to go exploring. The moors look innocent, but they’re dangerous. I lost a pony in there once.”
As much as I wanted to ignore the man, I couldn’t help but give him a quizzical look. How did one lose a pony? Did it run off? It probably feared the chap’s breath, I reasoned.
“It fell into one of the bogs,” he explained. “Couldn’t pull him out. Sank to its death. That’s why they call the moors the Dartmoor stables. The final resting place for ponies that get trapped. And sometimes people.”
The thought horrified me. I knew of bogs, the low-lying swampland on the moors filled with decayed peat and who knew what else, but I never thought about their dangers.
“Almost got stuck there myself once,” he continued. “You get a foot caught in the quagmire, and it sucks you in. The harder you fight, the more it pulls.”
“Then how did you escape?”
“First, you don’t panic. Panic will kill a fellow. Use slow movements, and keep your body low to the ground.” He bent over and illustrated an almost swimming position. “Try to get one foot free, even if your other sinks a bit. Crawl—or swim—out. Whatever you do, don’t stand until you reach solid ground.”
I nodded to placate him.
“Of course, it’s best to keep away from bogs altogether. You’d best keep to the heather. That means dry ground. If you see too much moss, or the earth isn’t stable, well that’s a sign you’re nearing a bog.”
“I appreciate your advice.” I turned my gaze back to the window, hoping to avoid talk of drowning ponies and people. And what did he mean by unstable earth?
“Oh, and avoid the blue lights.”
Once again, I involuntarily gave him my attention.
“Across the moors at night, sometimes you’ll see a greenish-blue flash of light floating across the ground. Legends say they’re the spirits of the poor souls who lost themselves in the moors and died. Their lights lure you in, and you never come out. You’d best stay away from them or risk becoming one yourself.”
I kept my face serious, but I chuckled a bit inside. “I assure you, sir, that I have no intentions of venturing out on the moors—especially at night.”
“That’s what they all say.” He sighed. “I’ll never understand how such dreadful landscape can tempt so many reasonable chaps to their deaths.” He leaned back against his seat and closed his eyes, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the train ride in peace.
The train finally stopped at Newton Abbot Train Station. I took my bag and stepped off the train. I inhaled. I could still smell the engine’s burning coal, but I also caught a faint undertone of wet grass and soil. A light mist—clean, grey, and so unlike London’s toxic yellow fog—hovered over the ground. I felt more confident in my decision to interview. The breeze picked up, blowing straight through my coat and waistcoat. I rubbed my arms, wishing I dared to wear my warmer jacket.
I picked up my luggage and headed to the station to wait for the duke’s carriage. I leaned against a post watched the other passengers disembark. My heart fell into my chest when I saw Captain Wilson leave his car as well.
Coincidence, I reminded myself, this time with a hint of doubt.
I turned my back to Wilson and instead faced the first class rail car. A diminutive, grey-haired gentleman wearing an impeccable suit and shoes caught my eye. His mustache hid his arrogant sneer. I took an involuntary step back. I feared this man, the Earl of Castleton, more than I feared Captain Wilson. Castleton inherited the title and the vast amount of land that came with it, but little cash to keep it up. In a matter of years, he turned his assets into ample cash flow and became one of the richest men in all of England, though not through purely honest means. The earl inspired fear among the commoners—normal folk without any titles trying to make life work. Castleton took what he needed from whoever crossed his path.
An unsettled feeling grew in my stomach. Castleton could make anyone do his bidding with the right motivation. I’m ashamed to say he once found my trigger point. She suffered for it. Her name was Mary. Mary Meadows—a name I vowed never to repeat.
I pondered the chances of Lord Castleton and Captain Wilson arriving at the Newton Abbot Train Station at the exact time as me. Coincidence, I told myself.
They glimpsed at each other, and each immediately looked the other way. Then, Captain Wilson saw me, and his face took on a paler shade of sallow.
I should have marched up to the ticket booth and purchased a return ticket to London. Instead I opted to stay, refusing to let fear keep me from the interview. Soon, the rest of the passengers left the station, leaving Captain Wilson, Lord Castleton, and me—each of us refusing to acknowledge the other as we waited for our rides. Castleton stood as far as he could to the right, smoking a pipe while he waited. Wilson stood to the left, staring out at the landscape. He pulled out a pipe and filled it with tobacco. He felt around his pockets for a light, but found nothing. Instead of troubling either of us for one, he dumped the tobacco and put the pipe back in his pocket.
I took out the invitation once again and read the instructions. Please arrive at the Newton Abbot Train Station on Friday, October 12, 1883 at 2:00pm sharp. I will send my carriage for you. I craned my neck and read the sign above the depot: Newton Abbot Train Station. I checked my pocket watch and then the station’s clock, which read 2:05pm. I re-pocketed the envelope and turned around, confident the carriage would arrive soon.
To my dismay, the captain took an envelope bearing the duke’s coat of arms out of his pocket and double checked it as well. Though Lord Castleton never pulled out an envelope, I suspected he waited for the same carriage.
As minutes passed, I kept reliving memories I wanted to forget. Mary’s blond hair. Her blue eyes. I thought at the time that I loved her. Lord Castleton had employed her as his governess, a prime, but difficult position. His three children, while trained in all manners of etiquette, knew nothing of kindness or obedience.
The pit in my stomach grew. All three of us knew what happened, but none of us would ever talk about it. The sly captain knew enough to stay quiet. Lord Castleton’s wealth and power cushioned him from worrying about the law. As for me, shame and fear kept my lips tight.
We waited for an hour-and-a-half. The wind turned icy, and I again wished I brought my warmer coat. I checked my pocket watch. The captain looked visibly impatient. Lord Castleton showed little emotion. I pulled out the letter again to reconfirm the time and date.
Finally I caught a glimpse of an open-air cart bearing the duke’s coat of arms pulling up by the station. I took hold of my luggage and stood up. So did the other two.
I should have run for it. Instead I waited.
The coachman, a young, slight man with black hair and focused, brown eyes, approached and introduced himself to the earl. “Lord Castleton, I presume.”
Castleton nodded. “I expected the Duke of Exeter’s carriage to arrive in a timelier manner.” He eyed the cart with disdain.
“I apologize, my Lord. We were going to bring the landau, but one of the wheels gave us some trouble.” The coachman opened the cart’s door and ushered Castleton in. Castleton took a seat in the back on the left corner, facing forward. The coachman turned to the captain. “Captain Wilson?”
Wilson handed the coachman his bag and climbed onto the cart as well. He paused for a moment, looking as though sitting in such close proximity to Castleton might make him vomit, and finally took the seat across from Castleton facing backward.
Even in the cool weather, beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I wondered what strange chances caused Lord Castleton and Captain Wilson to board the same vehicle as me, and a chilling thought entered my mind. What if the duke knew our secret?
The coachman turned to me. “John Blackburn?”
I paused, unable to breathe. Should I pass off this encounter as coincidence or turn back to the station? After a deep breath and a long exhale, I nodded and handed the coachman my bag. I needed the job, and I refused to allow coincidence to interfere.
He took my bags and held the door open for me.
Even with my decision made, an involuntary shudder vibrated down my arms. I dreaded sharing a cart with either man. I finally stepped inside, convincing myself that neither would attempt conversation. I sat next to the captain, giving in to station and allowing the earl his own seat. Wilson scooted farther against his side of the cart, and I did the same. I never heard such loud silence.
The coachman hopped on the front and grabbed the reins. He turned around. “I apologize, Captain, but may I ask you to move to the right corner of the seat by Lord Castleton. For weight-distribution purposes.”
The captain scowled at the coachman but obliged, leaving me the seat alone.
“We’ve got a two hour ride,” said the coachman. “Let me know if you need anything.”
I honestly didn’t know if I could survive looking into the eyes of both Castleton and Wilson for two hours. Fortunately, all of us avoided eye contact.
We wound through the country road, and I kept grabbing my hat to make sure it stayed on my head. The wind swirled around us, and I wished the coachman brought the carriage instead. Soon I caught a glimpse of the moors. They looked like innocent rolling hills that produced their own unnatural fog. I found it hard to imagine that such territory contained the bogs the stranger on the train told me about. Crooked granite rocks formed at some of the hills taller peaks. These were called tors, someone once told me. The barren, treeless countryside looked dreary. Not the London dreary, where rain and fog occurred daily in a bustling city, but the kind of dreary that settled around rural areas and seeped into the bones, making one feel alone on the rolling landscape. Maybe I liked city life, after all.
I kept my body twisted toward the front, staring ahead at the horses instead of at Castleton and Wilson. Each time I saw Castleton’s eyes, I remembered back to the day it all started.
Back in my youth, I had worked as clerk in a bank in which Castleton sat on the board of directors. I still remember looking at a list of deposits, withdrawals, and interest for the earlier week and then noticing that the actual receipts differed from the books. The numbers differed only by a few hundred pounds dispersed here and there. I chalked it up to a mistake in bookkeeping and continued about my own business.
A week later, my curiosity overcame my complacency. I again recalculated actual receipts verses what the bank had recorded and realized that again, the numbers didn’t match. I checked a few weeks later and found the same occurrence. I dug a deeper and discovered that each time, the discrepancies ended up in Castleton’s personal account.
I kept the information to myself for a few weeks—long enough for Castleton to discover my newfound knowledge. I found myself staring at a huge promotion in return for my silence. I accepted. I still can’t eat when I think about it.
I tried to think of something other than my past mishaps and wondered about Castleton’s and Wilson’s business with the duke. Maybe Castleton planned to visit with him over the weekend. Wilson’s position as an army captain could indicate any number of potential business opportunities. Again I convinced myself that coincidence drove this unlikely meeting.
My thoughts left my conceived ideas pertaining to each of our visits and unfortunately settled on why I despised them. Mary, the governess. Her beauty grabbed more than my attention. It also grabbed Castleton’s. Rumors said she spurned his advances. I suspect that spelled her doom—even before the whole thing started. Stubborn Mary always adhered to her principles.
“We’ll take a shortcut to make up for lost time,” the coachman announced. He turned off the main road. The cart bumped and jostled across the uneven terrain, and the seat cushions did little to shield us.
“I can’t imagine why the other carriage’s wheel needed fixing,” Wilson mumbled.
Ahead, a line of fire and smoke rose into the sky. The coachman turned around. “Don’t be alarmed. It’s called swaling. We do it out on the moors every so often in order to keep the underbrush from becoming too much of a nuisance.”
Soon thick, blinding smoke surrounded us. My eyes and windpipe stung from the fumes. I shut my eyes and covered my mouth and nose with a handkerchief.
Finally, the smoke began to clear.
“Confound it, man!” yelled Castleton. “Did you have to drive us directly into it? Is this even a road?”
The coachman ignored Castleton. I rubbed my eyes, waiting for the last of the smoke to leave. When I finally opened them, I saw Wilson staring wide-eyed down at the seat next to me.
I looked down as well. Horror filled my throat, constricting it more than the smoke. On the seat cushion—empty only a few moments ago—lay a pinkish-beige corset covered in dried blood.