“Blue Lights” is a short story that will debut in an anthology called Corsets edited by John Hartness and published by Dark Oak Press & Media, in which each story prominently features a corset. Rather than being the typical bodice ripper, “Blue Lights” takes place on the moors of Dartmoor in the late 1800’s and tells the story of three gentlemen who discover a bloody corset in their carriage.
“Blue Lights” Preview:
I never used to believe in ghost stories. We lived in the late nineteenth century after all. It was the industrial age. The dawn of modern science had taken precedence over such silly tales. I was an up-and-coming force in the banking industry—positioned lower than I desired, but optimistic about my prospects. That is, until 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. His angry, pitiless eyes, however, were what people noticed most.
Seeing the captain brought back memories I had forced back into the recesses of my mind where only dark things lay, resurrecting visions of a face I had hoped would remain forgotten. Blue eyes, blond hair, soft curls. Hers should have been a joyous memory.
I noticed Wilson just as I purchased my ticket. He should be dead, I thought. He would be dead, I reminded myself, if I had possessed the courage a man should. He would have stood trial for murder, but for me. Instead, it appeared he would be boarding my train.
Coincidence, I told myself, even though I knew never to trust a coincidence.
In hindsight, I should have turned around and asked for a refund on my ticket. Instead, I placed myself behind a portly gentleman in a tall hat to keep the captain from noticing me. I followed him until he entered his railcar a few down from mine. I boarded my own car, hoping the captain would disembark at a stop separate from mine.
I took a seat next to the window and waited for the train to start. I soon forgot about the captain, and a more excited, anticipation-filled flutter took over my stomach. I pulled an ivory envelope out of my pocket. It was written on the Duke of Exeter’s own stationary with his blue and red coat of arms prominently displayed on the envelope’s flap, and it was addressed to me. I opened the envelope and re-read the contents, just to make sure I indeed had the correct day.
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 be at the Newton Abbot Train Station on Friday, October 12, 1883 at 2:00pm sharp. A carriage will arrive for you.
Harold J. Meadows
Secretary to George Holland, Duke of Exeter
I felt the same shivers now as I did when I first received the letter. Someone had finally noticed my hard work and loyalty. I had taken every effort to ensure my interview ensemble looked perfect. I borrowed a friend’s top hat, which was much finer than my bowler. I spent more than I could afford on a pair of fine, black leather shoes. I wore my best midnight-blue, silk waistcoat, and I decided to travel in a thinner jacket than I should have with an October cold spell threatening. My warmer, second-hand jacket was slightly too big in the shoulders. I preferred the duke see me in fitted clothing. It would only be for a day, I counseled myself, and I could warm up 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 tried to shake it off. I needed my mind clear in order to present the best possible image to the duke.
I 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 that wasn’t contaminated by smoke and manure.
“Where are you headed?” asked the gentleman sitting next to me. I used the term gentleman loosely. He was missing a few teeth, and his clothes were probably on their fourth owner. I could smell his unspeakably foul breath all the way from where I was sitting.
“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 wouldn’t forget anything 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 him, 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 in 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. It’s the final resting place for ponies that get trapped.”
The thought horrified me.
“Almost got stuck there myself once,” he continued. “You get a foot caught in the mire, and it sucks you in. The harder you fight, the more it pulls. You’d best keep to the heather. That’s where the dry ground is.”
“Thank you for the advice.” I turned my gaze back to the window, hoping to avoid talk of drowning ponies and people.
“And avoid the blue lights.”
Once again, I involuntarily gave him my attention.
“Across the moors at night, sometimes you’ll see the flash of a lantern, only it’s not gas or a candle. The lights are greenish-blue, floating across the ground. Legends say they’re the spirits of the poor souls who lost themselves in the moors and died. They say 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 laughed a bit on the 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. How such dreaded landscape can be so tempting is beyond me.” He leaned back against his seat and closed his eyes, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the train ride in peace.
I stepped off the train and took a whiff of fresh air—something I hadn’t smelled in London. A light mist settled over the ground, and I marveled that it wasn’t foul or suffocating. For the first time, I questioned whether I wanted to continue seeking city life, and I felt more confident in my decision to interview. The wind blew straight through my coat and waistcoat, and I started to wish I had dared to wear my other.
I grabbed 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. It was simply a coincidence.
Then I saw someone I feared more than Captain Wilson: Lord Castleton. The diminutive, grey-haired gentleman wearing an impeccable suit and shoes stepped off the first-class railcar. His mustache hid his arrogant sneer. The earl inspired fear among those who weren’t part of the peerage—normal folk without any titles who were just trying to make life work. Castleton had 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 had turned his assets into serious cash flow and became one of the richest men in all of England. Castleton was an unbeaten force who 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 that he once found my trigger point. She suffered for it. Her name was Mary—a name I vowed never to repeat.
What were 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. At that moment, 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, deciding not to let fear prevent me from the interview. I positioned myself behind a pillar to stay unnoticed while keeping an eye on them.
Soon, those who had exited the train had left the station, leaving me, Captain Wilson, and Lord Castleton. I stood in the middle of the station, watching the two of them refuse to acknowledge each other—and me—while we waited for our rides. Castleton stood as far as 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 be at the Newton Abbot Train Station on Friday, October 12, 1883 at 2:00pm sharp. A carriage will arrive for you. I was at the correct place. I checked my pocket watch and then the station’s clock, which read 2:05pm. I was here at the right time. I re-pocketed the envelope and turned around, confident the carriage would arrive soon.
To my dismay, the captain took an envelope out of his pocket and double checked it as well. The coat of arms embossed in the envelope’s flap bore quite a resemblance to the duke’s. Though Lord Castleton never pulled out an envelope, something told me he might have been waiting for the same carriage.
As we waited, I kept reliving memories I wanted to forget. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Her name was Mary Meadows, and I thought at the time that I loved her. She was Lord Castleton’s governess, which was a prime, but difficult position. His three children, while trained in all manners of etiquette, were vastly untrained in matters of kindness and obedience.
The pit in my stomach grew. All three of us knew what happened, but none of us would ever talk about it. The captain was too smart to say anything. Lord Castleton was too powerful to worry about it. I was too scared. Fear keeps lips tight.
We waited much longer than expected. The wind had picked up, and I again wished I had brought my warmer coat. I checked my pocket watch. It had been an hour and a half, and the air had grown colder. The captain looked visibly impatient. Lord Castleton showed little emotion. I pulled out the letter again, just to reconfirm the time and date.
Finally I caught a glimpse of a carriage bearing the duke’s coat of arms pulling up by the station. It was a glossy, black landau with its top kept down. I took hold of my luggage and stood up. So did the other two.
I should have made a run for it. Instead I waited.
The coachman approached and introduced himself. He was younger, possibly in his early twenties, with black hair and focused brown eyes. “Lord Castleton, I presume.”
Castleton nodded. “I expected the Duke of Exeter’s carriage to arrive in a timelier manner.”
“I apologize, my Lord. We had some trouble with one of the wheels.” The coachman opened the carriage door and ushered Castleton in. He turned to the captain. “Captain Wilson?”
Wilson handed the coachman his bag and entered the carriage as well. He paused for a moment, looking as though sitting in such close proximity to Castleton might make him vomit.
What were the chances that Lord Castleton, Captain Wilson, and I each boarding the same carriage? My instincts insisted this was not a coincidence.
The coachman turned to me. “John Blackburn?”
I should have shaken my head and pretended I was someone else. Instead I nodded. Statistics be damned; I needed the job.
He held the door open for me. “I’ll take your bags, sir.”
An involuntary shudder vibrated down my arms and back. I had no desire to share a carriage with either man. I finally stepped inside, convincing myself that at least the conversation would be short, if not non-existent.
Castleton sat in the back of the carriage on the left corner, facing forward. Wilson sat on the seat across from him facing backward. I sat next to the captain, giving in to station and allowing the earl to have his own seat. Wilson scooted farther against his side of the carriage, and I hugged my own side. It was the loudest silence I have ever heard.
The coachman hopped on the carriage and grabbed the reins. He turned around. “I apologize, Captain, but I’m going to have to 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.
“We’ve got a two hour carriage ride,” said the coachman. “Let me know if you need anything.”
I honestly didn’t know if I could survive looking straight into the eyes of both Castleton and Wilson for two straight hours. Fortunately, all of us avoided eye contact.
The carriage 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 might raise the top of the carriage. Soon I caught a glimpse of the moors. They looked like rather unremarkable rolling hills that seemed to produce their own unnatural fog. A few of them had odd-looking, smooth rocks of granite at their peaks. These where called tors, someone once told me. I wondered how such barren, treeless country could look so 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.
The long trip gave me time to ponder why each of us was visiting the duke on the same day. Maybe Castleton was staying with the duke over the weekend. Wilson probably had business with him. And I was there to discuss my potential employment. Yes, it all made sense. This was simply a coincidence.
My thoughts left my conceived ideas pertaining to each of our visits and unfortunately settled the last time I saw them. Mary, the governess. Her beauty grabbed more than my attention. It also grabbed Castleton’s. Rumor had it that she spurned his advances. I think that might have spelled her doom—even before the whole thing started. She was a stubborn girl who always adhered to her principles.
“We’ll be taking a shortcut to make up for lost time,” the coachman announced. He turned off the main road. The carriage bumped and jostled across the uneven terrain, and the seat cushions did little to shield us.
“I can’t imagine why the carriage’s wheel needed fixing.” Wilson’s mumble broke the silence.
Ahead a line of fire and smoke rose into the sky. The coachman was leading us right into it. He 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 stung. I shut them and covered my mouth and nose with a handkerchief to keep some of the fumes out.
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?”
I’m not sure what surprised me more: the coachman’s silence or Wilson’s pale, gaping look. He stared, wide-eyed down at the seat next to me.
I looked down as well. Horror filled my throat. On the seat cushion—empty only a few moments ago—lay a pinkish-beige corset covered in dried blood.