On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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“What you have to understand is nothing was actually stolen. And nobody laid a finger on him. I just want to be clear about that.”
Denning shifted in the uncomfortable plastic seat, as the police officer across the desk nodded while jotting down today’s date on a yellow form.
“So you said, sir,” the policeman replied. His name was James Rowney, and he was the duty desk-sergeant for the evening shift. Denning watched as he ticked a couple of boxes, then looked up again impassively. Rowney was a stockily-built man, with a bristly black moustache. He was all hard edges, and had an air of quiet efficiency and control. He also looked like the sort of man who didn’t tolerate any nonsense.
Just the sort of copper the Brits love, Denning thought.
“And what was your name again, sir?” Rowney asked, pulling Denning from his thoughts.
“Ah, it’s Henry Denning,” he replied, unconsciously sitting up slightly straighter in his chair. “I’m on vaca– holiday at the moment. I’m a tourist; a U.S. citizen.”
Rowney was already writing, and his eyes flicked up for just a moment.
“I’d managed to guess that, right enough, sir,” he replied without missing a beat, and Denning felt his cheeks flush. “And where might you be staying while you’re on holiday?”
There was no trace of sarcasm in the sergeant’s voice, but the British were known for their very dry sense of humour. Denning shifted once more.
“I have a room at the inn just up the road; the – what do you call it? The bed and breakfast place.”
“That’ll be the Crossroads, I take it?” Rowney asked, and Denning nodded. “Mrs. Wilson does make a very fine breakfast, so I’m told, sir.”
Denning blinked, then smiled tentatively. “I’m sure she does. I just arrived a few hours ago.”
Rowney tapped the end of his pen thoughtfully against the yellow paper. “And already you’ve come in to see us, sir,” he said. His uniform was black, with silver buttons each bearing an insignia of some kind. There was a metal badge, also silver, on his left breast pocket, and he wore a plain black tie over a starched white shirt. He leaned back slightly, and his jacket creaked.
“Perhaps you’d best start at the beginning, sir,” he said, and Denning nodded once again before clearing this throat.
“Well, I… I arrived earlier,” he said. “Around five PM. But by the time I’d found where I was staying, checked in, and had some dinner, it was nearer to seven. I decided to get some fresh air. So I went for a walk.”
Damned fine meal, Denning thought, stepping out of the boarding house with a small smile on his face. The meandering drive from London had taken several pleasant hours, and he was only at the beginning of two whole weeks touring the UK.
He was a professor of European History, teaching at the University of Michigan. He was currently on sabbatical, indulging a years-long dream of a solo driving holiday around western Europe and the British Isles, exploring out-of-the-way places and generally immersing himself in the local culture. He was forty-three years old, and the greying hair at his temples served as a reminder that there would come a time when taking such a trip would no longer be sensible. In the end, it had been surprisingly easy to arrange, and the university would still be there when he got back.
Denning was a tall man, dressed in the universally recognised smart-but-shabby manner that said academic in any language, and he walked with his hands thrust into his trouser pockets, looking eagerly around without pretence or embarrassment. This little place was exactly the sort of destination he’d had in mind.
There had been no sign on the exit road from the freeway – motorway, his mind corrected – but Denning had taken it nonetheless. It was late Summer, and the leaves on the trees were just beginning to take on hints of the season that most of his students called Fall, but which the people of this country would always name as Autumn. He’d driven no more than another half a mile before seeing the welcoming wooden signpost at the side of the road.
Nether Heath, 1 mi – Please drive safely
The village, or perhaps small town (the definitions of each were fluid around here) was delightful. No building was more than three storeys high, and mostly of stone, or even charming red brick. The street lamps were ornamental, set in curved iron and painted forest green, and he had already passed two of the iconic red telephone booths, and a post box painted gold. It bore a plaque, and apparently the colour of the paint was in tribute to a local girl who had gone on to win a gold medal in the 2012 Olympic Games.
There was no mobile phone signal whatsoever, but the Crossroads where he was staying had serviceable wi-fi in the lounge, and he had little reason to go online. His email account could wait. He was here to explore.
Denning took a deep breath of the early evening air as he strolled down a quaint street with no destination in mind. After another minute or so he reached a junction where the street joined a square, with a well-tended set of flowerbeds in the centre. The plants were a riot of colour, and several of the local residents milled around the area as they went about their own Friday evening business.
A swell of laughter from the opposite corner of the square caught his attention, and he noticed an inviting-looking pub, with several men and women standing outside the doorway under a haze of tobacco smoke.
A beer sounds pretty good right now, he thought, and he was just about to head in that direction when someone ran straight past him, jarring his shoulder painfully.
“This individual who ran past you; how would you describe him, sir?” Rowney asked, and Denning took a steadying breath. The young man’s appearance was crystal clear in his memory.
“About twenty years old, or so,” he replied. “Male. Caucasian. He had a… what you call a Cockney accent, I think. He was about five-foot-ten, maybe a hundred and sixty pounds.”
Denning saw the sergeant perform a quick mental calculation before jotting something down on the form. “And how was he dressed?” Rowney asked, and Denning sighed.
“Grey jeans, tan boots. Dark red jacket; one of those insulated things everybody seems to have now. Do you know the kind I mean?”
“Indeed I do, sir,” Rowney replied, not looking up as he continued to write. “My wife has one herself.”
“Ah,” Denning replied, momentarily thrown by the unexpected personal insight. “Well… I see. Oh, and his hair was in a ponytail. Brown hair. Green eyes. He just ran straight past me. He was in a hell of a hurry.”
Rowney nodded, now meeting his gaze again. “This gentleman collided with you, did he? But I trust that’s not what you’d like to report.”
“Hmm?” Denning asked, momentarily puzzled by the question. He’d been lost in thought about the young man, and his green eyes. How wide they’d been, at the end of it all.
That kid was more afraid than I’ve ever been in my life, he thought, and he frowned.
“Sir?” Rowney asked, raising one eyebrow just a fraction, and Denning shook himself from his reverie.
“Sorry,” he replied. “And no, I wouldn’t take up your time about something like that. It was what happened after. “
Rowney nodded, and after a moment, Denning continued.
“Damn it,” Denning cursed under his breath, staggering two steps to the right and automatically clutching his shoulder with his other hand.
A middle-aged man who was loading grocery bags into a nearby car glanced in his direction, but then both men were distracted by a shout from a little way across the square. Denning turned to seek the source of the commotion, and he immediately found it. The guy stood out like a sore thumb. Twenty-something, hair in a ponytail, and a wine-coloured hiking jacket. And then there was the knife.
The blade gleamed in the evening sunlight. It was small, but it was big enough. Denning felt his stomach turn over. The kid was holding a pocket knife—
Penknife here, his mind supplied. They call it a penknife.
—and he was standing right in front of a small woman of perhaps fifty years old. The woman was looking alternately at Mr. Ponytail, then at the knife, and back again. Her expression was one of surprise.
“Mister Ponytail, sir?” Rowney asked, his eyebrow again creeping northwards, and Denning felt his cheeks flush once more.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what his name was. I just… I’m not sure where that came from.”
“I understand, sir,” the sergeant replied. “Do go on.”
Denning immediately broke into a run, and reached the area near the middle of the square in moments. He came to a halt several metres away from the woman, abruptly realising he had no particular plan of what to do next. Ponytail glanced briefly at him, looked him up and down, then returned his attention to the woman.
“Gimme your fucking bag, love,” he said, his voice unnervingly quiet and menacing. His green eyes glittered, and his pulse was visibly thumping in his neck. The blade moved in a figure-of-eight motion in the air, and Denning felt the hair on the back of his own neck stand on end.
The woman looked at him appraisingly, and Denning only now noticed the elegant leather handbag slung over her shoulder. Her arm was folded over it protectively.
“Listen, don’t do this,” Denning said, and he was surprised to hear the sound of his own voice. Ponytail turned his head slightly towards him, his eyes never leaving the woman.
“Fuck off,” he spat. The woman said nothing.
“Look… I can give you some money,” Denning said, keeping his voice even, though a large part of his mind was asking what exactly he was doing. “Just put the knife away, please. This lady hasn’t done anything to you.”
Ponytail snorted, now looking over at him again. “And who the fuck are you, mate?” Denning opened his mouth to reply, but the kid spoke over him. “Piss off, or I’ll cut you.”
To emphasis the point, Ponytail jerked the blade towards him, and Denning instinctively shrank back several steps, pulse skyrocketing.
Jesus, he thought. He raised his hands defensively, and was considering shouting for help when he was startled by movement in his peripheral vision.
The woman stepped forward, closing the distance between her and the kid.
Ponytail brought the knife back around quickly, now holding it closer to his chest, and his expression was one of amazed confusion.
“What the fuck are you about, gran?” he sneered, but his voice was no longer entirely steady. The woman simply looked at him, from barely two feet away. At almost exactly the same moment, Denning and the kid both noticed that the three of them weren’t alone.
About thirty people stood around them in a loose circle. Men and women; boys and girls. All clearly local residents, interrupted in the middle of their evening. They were all looking at Mr. Ponytail, and they were all silent.
“Good Samaritans like yourself, were they, sir?” Rowney asked without looking up, writing in neat letters in a lined area of the form. “People around here do believe in helping out when they can.”
Denning’s palms were clammy, and he rubbed them on his trousers. “I suppose so,” he replied. “But… it was strange.”
The sergeant looked up at him expectantly, and just for a moment Denning thought he saw some other expression flash across the man’s face.
“As my grandmother used to say, I’m all ears, sir,” Rowney replied.
Thank god, Denning thought, fighting the urge to laugh with relief. The kid would surely see reason now. He’d run off, and that’d be the end of it. The woman would be OK, and this would be just another anecdote from the sabbatical.
He was already beginning to craft the tale of how he’d gone to the aid of an innocent lady at great personal risk, when he heard Ponytail’s sharp and somehow whining voice again.
“You can all fuck right off,” he snarled, pointing the knife in turn at a silver-haired man in a suit, a young woman who looked like a schoolteacher, and an overweight teenager wearing what looked like the uniform of a fast food franchise. “Come on, then. Who’s fucking first?”
It was then that Denning noticed the little girl.
Her jacket was soft pink, with a hood hanging down over her back, and white reflective stripes down the arms. She had a mobile phone clutched in her hand, and her pale blonde hair was also tied back in a ponytail. She was standing not far from the woman whose handbag Mr. Ponytail was so interested in, and now, she stepped forward.
Ponytail saw the movement, and his smirked faded as the little girl took another step towards him.
“You’d better get out of here, darling, or you’re going to get hurt,” he threatened, but he had already taken a half-step backwards. The girl simply looked at him, without saying a word.
Denning frowned, looking first at Ponytail and then searching the other onlookers. Surely her parents are around here? he thought. Surely they would grab her, and pull her back to safety. The girl could barely be more than ten years old.
Ponytail twitched the knife in her direction, and Denning lurched forwards, hands raised, but the girl didn’t even flinch. There was no sound at all.
Denning saw the moment that Ponytail decided he’d had enough. He looked around at the circle of faces; all calm, and silent, and watching. He lowered the knife.
“Fuck this,” he said, mostly to himself, and then he turned and ran.
“All’s well that ends well, then, sir,” Rowney said, setting his pen down on the scarred desk surface after a moment, but Denning shook his head, now leaning forward.
“No,” he said. “That wasn’t the end of it.”
“Oh? And how’s that?” the sergeant asked, clasping his hands on top of the now half-filled form. He didn’t pick up his pen, which struck Denning as odd.
“The little girl, and the woman – the one he was trying to steal the bag from – they… pursued him.”
“Yes,” Denning replied, feeling jittery now. Agitated. The policeman’s endless calm and measured prompting were starting to get to him. “They ran after him.”
“Perhaps they felt they ought to make sure this Mister Ponytail of yours didn’t accost anyone else, sir,” Rowney said, reaching up to stroke his moustache absent-mindedly.
“It wasn’t that at all,” Denning replied, again wiping his palms against his trousers. “I think…” he tailed off, and shook his head. “They were chasing him. And I – she was just a little girl, and the woman was fifty if she was a day. I… went after them. I had to. You know how it is.”
Rowney tilted his head slightly, neither confirming nor denying that he knew how it was, and then made a small noise; something like a hmm or a huh. Then he leaned back in his chair, hands still clasped on top of the form on the desk, and nodded thoughtfully.
“You’d best tell me about that, then, sir.”
Denning didn’t expect first the girl and then the woman to run after Ponytail. He didn’t expect it at all. He stood paralysed with surprise for no more than three seconds before he found himself running after them.
Ponytail had dashed down a cobbled alleyway just beside a butcher’s shop, and four sets of feet slapped and echoed against the hard surfaces. Ponytail had a good lead, but Denning was finding it difficult to close the gap between himself and the other two. The girl’s pace was understandable; children run like the wind — but seeing the pear-shaped, middle-aged woman so fleet of foot was unsettling.
Must have been a runner when she was younger, he thought, as his breath whistled through his nose.
The alley opened out onto a lane, bordered by high hedges. Ponytail ran off downhill, where there was a road junction just visible around the curve about three hundred yards away.
“Just let him go!” Denning shouted, panting as he did so, but neither the woman nor the girl acknowledged the words. With some effort, he quickened his pace, and all three of them reached the foot of the lane only ten seconds or so behind Ponytail.
The road that met the junction was a sort of residential street, with garages lining part of one side. Ponytail was racing along in front of them, knees and elbows pumping with the easy athleticism of youth. Denning barely gave him a glance before skidding to a halt.
There were more people there. Some stood along the street, some in front of a garage, and there was even a car stopped, its driver standing out on the tarmac. A woman carrying the red satchel of the Royal Mail. A man with a large canvas bag. Two elderly ladies, one with a shopping hard-cart that had tartan sides.
But there was also a man in knee-high rubber boots, holding a fishing pole, with a woven basket in the other hand. A clergyman of some kind, in a black tunic and white dog-collar. A young woman in an elegant dress, its neckline high and ruffled. A man in a three-piece pinstriped suit and a bowler hat, with a pocket-watch chain visible across his waistcoat, and a brown leather briefcase clutched in one hand.
All silent. All watching.
Ponytail did a double-take, swerving to dash up a grass pathway leading to a small area of allotments, with his two pursuers still keeping pace behind him. Denning lurched into a run too, but he was no longer sure why he was following them. A part of his mind noted that the car stopped on the road was surely an antique; its swooping lines and staring headlamps very much the style of at least seventy years earlier. The thought was gone almost as soon as it occurred to him.
The woman and the girl were two hundred yards ahead of him now, and Ponytail perhaps a further three hundred yards beyond. At the pace they were going, Denning found himself darting past several small but well-tended gardens, and then out onto another cobbled street, with a single exit through a brick archway up ahead. Ponytail was already disappearing through it, followed closely by the woman and the girl, and Denning reached it a few moments later. The scenery flashed by as his pulse roared in his ears.
Another alley. An industrial building of some kind. A corner. Stables. A narrow doorway to an office. The back of a church. More hedges. The employee entrance to what smelled like an Indian restaurant. More cobbles.
And then Denning abruptly came to a stop. He was at the edge of an enclosed square, having just exited a cobbled, twisting alleyway. Ponytail was visible at the other side, also stopped, and the woman and girl were standing twenty feet from him, watching.
There was a soldier. His uniform was easily recognisable to Denning; the British Army of the First World War. He had a rifle fitted with a bayonet, held ready.
Ponytail was clearly unsure what to do. There didn’t seem to be any ready exit from this square, except for the occasional closed and narrow door. A large church stood at the north end, its own studded double-doors also closed. The light was starting to fade from the sky.
Re-enactment society? Denning wondered, but he felt cold despite his elevated pulse and recent exertion. The soldier said nothing.
“Fuck you!” Ponytail shouted, the knife still in his hand. The soldier didn’t even glance down at it, but he did adjust his grip on his weapon.
He can’t be going to–
Denning never had the chance to finish the thought. Both he and the kid with the knife flinched as a bell tolled in the church tower just across the way, briefly blanketing the whole square with a rich but mournful note.
“Shit,” Ponytail said, glancing around with eyes that were now too wide. “Just… fucking let me leave. Alright?”
The soldier stared at him for several seconds, then glanced at a point over Ponytail’s shoulder, behind where Denning and the woman and girl were standing. Ponytail looked warily down at the end of the rifle before risking a glance behind himself, just as Denning followed his gaze.
Another archway led off from the square, with a wide, cobbled lane.
Ponytail wasted no time in dashing off down it, but this time the woman and the girl didn’t move. The soldier lowered his weapon, and lazily turned his gaze to Denning as the kid’s echoing footfalls were just beginning to fade.
“That was good of you,” Denning said after a moment, just for something to say. Something was very wrong about this situation, but the man in front of him seemed relaxed enough. “He tried to steal this lady’s bag.”
He gestured towards where the woman and girl had been standing, but they were nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t even heard them move off. He looked at the soldier again, but the man simply returned his gaze, with perhaps just a hint of amusement. Denning only now noticed that the other man had the faint white line of a long-healed scar on his forehead.
“I… suppose I should be going,” Denning said, and the soldier shrugged, making a half-turn away from him.
That’s my cue, then, Denning thought, and he took a step in the direction of the alley that Ponytail had escaped down, then he stopped. There was only solid brick there.
His heart stuttered in his chest, and he spun back towards the soldier, but he was alone.
You’re just lost, his mind said, but he knew it wasn’t true. There had been an alley. It had been right there, less than a minute earlier. And now it was gone.
He looked frantically around the now claustrophobic and ominous square, but even the way he’d come had now somehow vanished. Just dark brick, bare and featureless, weathered with age.
“This isn’t right,” he said to himself, and his voice sounded unfamiliar. Then he heard a creak behind him, spun on his heel, and found an open door; wooden, and covered in faded blue paint, with a rusted iron handle. There was light beyond. He was running before he’d made a conscious choice.
The first thing he saw was the cluster of flowerbeds. Then he heard male laughter, and there was the pub, still looking warm and inviting. All normal. His forearms prickled with gooseflesh. He felt a droplet of sweat run down the back of his neck, and he turned slowly to look behind him, fists clenched.
Dark brick, in a solid wall adjoining the butcher’s shop.
Where the first alley was. Where the kid ran away from here.
Something inside him made him step forward and brush his fingers against the rough surface. It was solid and unremarkable.
There was silence for almost half a minute, except for the sound of Denning’s breathing. Sergeant Rowney simply looked at him, clearly pondering something. At last, he spoke.
“That’s quite a tale, Mr. Denning,” Rowney said. “But honestly, sir, I’m not quite sure what you expect me to do about it.”
Denning glared at him. “I wasn’t drunk, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said darkly. “It happened. There’s a young thief with a knife out there, and a soldier, and something very odd is going on.”
“I think you’ve perhaps just had a little too much excitement for one day, sir. I daresay that come tomorrow, you’ll feel much better.”
Denning slammed his palm against the old desk, surprising himself but not the implacable policeman across from him. “Damn it, man, don’t you think–”
“What I think, sir, is that you’re not from around here,” Rowney interrupted, and his voice suddenly had a booming quality that Denning didn’t like at all. “If you’ll pardon me for saying so, sir, we do things differently than you do back in wherever in America you’re from.”
“Michigan,” Denning interjected, unsure why he even spoke.
“Michigan, then,” Rowney said, pronouncing the word as if it had a t before the ch. “But I grew up just here. Not four streets over, in fact. I’ve spent every one of my years here. Do you happen to know much about our crime rate, sir?”
Denning blinked, then slowly shook his head.
“No, I don’t imagine so,” Rowney replied. “What you have to understand, sir, is that this is a quiet place. Nether Heath really doesn’t do with the sort of thing I read about in other places. Terrible things. A bit of attempted robbery like your Mister Ponytail was up to aren’t even the half of it.”
Rowney unclasped his hands so he could smooth down his moustache once more before continuing.
“Oh, there are teenagers up to their usual tricks, but that’s about all. And do you know why, sir?”
Denning only shook his head dumbly. Rowney raised his hand with one finger extended, and Denning noticed that the man had a slender gold chain around his wrist, with a small medallion of some kind attached to it.
“Well I’ll tell you, then, sir,” Rowney said. “It’s because we believe in treating others with decency and respect – as I’m treating you now, in fact. And if someone doesn’t quite fit in, well, we’d prefer they went away. That’s the long and short of it, sir, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”
“The long and short of it,” Denning repeated, simply nodding. He had no idea what the other man meant, but he had a strong feeling that he ought to agree.
“The wrong sort of people don’t often come here,” Rowney said, and his voice had taken on the air of someone sharing a great secret. “And when they occasionally do, they tend to just… go away. It’s always been that way in the Heath. That’s what you’ll find, sir.”
Rowney clasped his hands again and looked down at them contemplatively for a moment, and then he slowly stood up.
“I don’t believe any crime has been committed in this instance, Mr. Denning, but I do hope you’ll come back and see us if you have any further trouble during your stay. We’re always open.”
“I… of course,” Denning said, getting clumsily to his feet. His legs felt like they’d gone to sleep. “Well, thank you. And I’m… sorry to take up your time.”
“Never a trouble, sir,” Rowney said. His hands were at his side, and Denning didn’t attempt to offer a handshake. He simply nodded, casting one last glance at the medallion that was just visible under the sleeve of Rowney’s uniform sleeve, before turning to leave.
“It’s a left from the front door to head back to where you’re staying, sir,” Rowney said from behind him, and Denning took one last look back. The sergeant was looking at him without any particular expression.
He offered a weak smile, and then he left.
Rowney crumpled the partially-filled form and dropped it into the wastebasket underneath his desk, then looked up at the sound of a light knock on his office door. The door swung open a moment later to reveal a younger officer, holding a cup carefully in both his hands.
“Brought your tea, sergeant,” the younger man said, and Rowney nodded. The other man was named Milligan, and had joined the force only four months earlier.
“Much obliged,” he replied, and he took the cup gratefully.
“I saw the gentleman just leaving, by the way, sir,” Milligan said, and Rowney just nodded again. Milligan turned to the door and pulled it open to leave, before looking back at his superior officer once again.
“Getting a bit dark out, sir,” he said. “Think the chap will make it back to his lodgings alright?”
Rowney took a sip of tea, being careful to keep his moustache clear of the rim of the cup. Piping hot, just as he liked it. He sighed in satisfaction before setting the cup down and looking across at the younger man.
“I expect he’ll find his way,” he replied.
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