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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It was no surprise that the city smelled awful. The traveller had known to expect it, having been warned multiple times, but the degree and pervasiveness of the reek was something he would probably never forget.
He took a few deep breaths using his mouth instead of his nose, and pushed on. The Royal Mile was almost the same as he remembered it, though darker and with far more smoke hanging over everything. It was the price of progress, and in the year of our lord 1881, Edinburgh was synonymous with the word.
He glanced to the left as he descended, knowing that the Royal College of Physicians lay only fifteen minutes’ walk or so towards the distant docks and the Firth of Forth. The new premises, completed a mere 35 years earlier, after the organisation had jumped around the city for the last two centuries, were said to be very impressive. A centre of excellence and erudition, to be sure. But doctors were not the traveller’s interest on this night.
The weather was fair for the time of year, admitting only a blessedly small amount of wind, and he was dressed comfortably. It wasn’t far to his destination, and he ran through the directions in his mind for the hundredth time. It wouldn’t do to get lost here.
Horses trotted by, some pulling carts and some pulling carriages, and the hard cobblestones echoed to the shouts of traders, drunks, and all sorts. The occasional policeman was visible, bearing the standard equipment of a truncheon, a tin whistle, and a moustache. They turned a blind but appreciative eye to the whores congregating at the corner of Lady Stair’s Close.
Meat, manure, human waste, soot, and a thousand other scents mingled, and the traveller found himself wishing for a gale to blow it all away and give him a brief respite. His work constantly took him into such situations of discomfort by its very nature. At least his goal was now finally in sight.
He had left the Royal Mile behind several minutes earlier, and it was striking how quickly the surroundings fell into squalor. Now a full level below where the gentry would be seen to venture forth, these lower streets were narrow, dark as night, and filthy underfoot to a degree the traveller had rarely seen. He wished now for a portable source of light, but instead he simply paused to allow his eyes to adjust. After a long minute of unease, the contours of things became discernible, and with some difficulty he managed to pinpoint the doorway that was his destination. He walked quietly up to it, raised his fist, and knocked.
The sound of footsteps came from inside, and then the door opened, creaking on its hinges and scraping the rough floor. The room within was lit with several candles, and the young man who had answered the door looked at the traveller with guileless curiosity. He seemed to be around twenty-five years of age, and he opened his mouth to no doubt enquire as to his visitor’s purpose, but he never had the chance to speak.
The traveller reached up quickly and touched the younger man’s face, and then caught his unconscious body as it fell, manoeuvring the unresponsive weight back inside the building. He set him down on the floor as gently as he could, closed the door, and turned his attention to the other person standing across the room with a look of horror on her face.
“Who are you?” the woman asked, drawing back against the wall, but the traveller directed his attention towards the large bag on the nearby scarred dining table.
He picked it up, glancing at her briefly, and then opened it. She really did bear a striking resemblance to the unconscious man on the floor, which was understandable given that they were blood relatives. The tag sewn into the bag’s interior with fine stitching was printed in a bold typeface.
100% Vegan PVC-Z Leather Effect Fabric. Made in China.
The traveller shook his head, then reached for the first of the many books that the bag contained. As it happened, they were in order.
“A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle,” he said, before once again fixing his gaze upon the woman. “I didn’t realise this was out yet.”
Her eyebrows shot up, realisation dawning on her face, and then she scowled.
“Fuck,” she said, sitting down heavily into a chair.
“No thanks,” the traveller replied. “And you’ve already done that to yourself by bringing this here. Honestly, I have no idea how you people think you’ll ever get away with it.”
The woman extended the third finger of her right hand and held it up defiantly, but the traveller could see that there was no real fight in her. Caught red-handed, they almost always came quietly. And if not, then there were about thirty more charges in the neurostunner embedded in the fake wedding ring he was wearing.
The script was always the same. Sooner or later, some idiot got the bright idea to bring a great work of popular literature — emphasis on popular — back to one of their own ancestors, just a little while before the book was originally written. The naive intention was that upon returning to the present, which at this moment for the traveller was the 14th of July in the year 2073, generational wealth would have transformed their lives for the better. It never, ever worked.
And why in the hell was it always Sherlock bloody Holmes?
The traveller had held this particular copy of Holmes’ first adventure in his hands more than a dozen times in his career, always brought back to different years in the mid to late nineteenth century, destined for some low-life’s forefather. Or occasionally foremother. Did they really think the agency wouldn’t notice a change of author? The whole idea was preposterous. And yet, he was gainfully employed in running these people down again and again and again.
He sighed, putting the book back into the bag and then slinging the entire thing into her lap before striding over to stand in front of her. There was fear in her eyes now, and that was good, and appropriate.
“I’m arresting you for the crime of temporal copyright infringement,” the traveller said. “Now let’s go for a little trip.”
He took hold of her shoulder, firmly but not excessively so, then reached up towards his own face with his other hand. The pad of his index finger against his temple completed a circuit, and he felt the familiar displacement field shuddering into life around the two of them, bag and chair and all.
The woman looked up at him just as the Edinburgh of 1881 fragmented into a kaleidoscope of colours around them, and the traveller shook his head ruefully.
“You’re going away for a very long time,” he said.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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