SNAKE IN THE GLASS by Chris Green
No one sees him arrive. No-one spots the silver Solstice slide silently through the streets on its way to the big house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street. It is night-time in the sleepy town. Seeing the sleek Pontiac Solstice outside the house the following morning, townsfolk might be likely to put its presence down to the visit of a wealthy race-goer. There are plenty of these around at this time of year, the racecourse being less than ten miles away. Yet, if truth be told, the locals ought really to see the car’s arrival as portentous. American muscle cars are not that common in these parts, even on race days. BMWs and Audis, along with the odd Bentley are the signature vehicles of the high rollers who visit. More significantly, the last time he appeared, it was under the cover of darkness. Three years ago he arrived by night in a black Camaro.
But, were it not for the feeling octogenarian soothsayer, Nicholas Ell gets when he senses trouble ahead, no-one would be aware that he was there. Nicholas no longer gets out much but on her morning visit, his cleaning lady, Magda discovers the old man in a state of agitation. She asks him what is wrong.
‘It’s happening again, Magda,’ he says. ‘I feel it in my bones.’
‘What’s the trouble, Mr Ell,’ Magda says. ‘What’s happening?’
‘All over again,’ he says. ‘Just like it did that time before. We have to do something.’
Although Magda has got to know Nicholas quite well, she has no idea what the old man is referring to. From the fact that he is shaking like a leaf and frothing at the mouth, she imagines that it is important though. She has worked for him long enough to know what she has to do to focus his thoughts. After a medicinal Snake in the Glass, a mix of Jack Daniels and Cointreau that Nicholas swears by, he manages to explain about the mystery man’s return and what it might mean for them all.
Word of the renewed threat spreads quickly through the small town’s informal networks. Despite the devastation he caused three years ago, no-one in the bar of The King Billy seems to know very much about the interloper. What was his name? Who was he? Where was he from? Why was he here? The feeling is that despite his penchant for American cars, he may not be American. He appears to have had an unusual accent, perhaps Central Asian. Tracey Looker, who lives in the candy coloured rock house with the owl sculptures in the garden is not sure where it is but she thinks he might have come from Shambhala. This is however on the basis of one brief encounter.
‘I’m sure it was a place with not many vowels,’ Shaldon Rain says. Shaldon works in the town’s Scrabble factory and in her spare time plays the flugelhorn in an experimental jazz band.
Shaldon and Tracey are the only two present who caught sight of him on his previous visit.
‘Perhaps we might get the opportunity to find out something about him this time around.’ Sol Reiter says. ‘Has anyone actually seen him yet?’ Sol Reiter, something of an entrepreneur in the town recently sold his virtual zoo to Idée Inc. for a tidy sum. He plans on spending more time at home with his capybaras and has taken to breeding albino ferrets.
‘We don’t think he’s been spotted yet,’ Darius Goy says. ‘We’re still going by what Nicholas Ell said.’ Darius is the town’s archivist, an authority on the painter, Lucien Freud and a staunch Captain Beefheart fan.
‘Are we even sure it’s him?’ Sol says. ‘You wouldn’t think he would have the chutzpah to come back here after what happened three years ago.’
‘Old Nick usually gets it right,’ Darius says. ‘Did you know, Nick has predicted every Eurovision Song Contest winner since 1958? He even foresaw the four-way tie in 1969.’
‘That’s as maybe, but he is getting a bit doddery, Sol says. ‘He must be nearly a hundred.’
‘Eighty six,’ Darius says.
‘After the trouble our unwanted visitor caused, surely he would stay away,’ Tracey says. ‘He must realise that he is likely to get pulled in if he sets foot in the town.’
‘But, is anyone aware of what he looks like?’ Sol asks. ‘He didn’t exactly mingle last time.’
‘Tracey saw him,’ Darius says. ‘And Shaldon. They would be able to recognise him and there must be a photo or two of him in the archive. From CCTV footage or something. Besides, presumably, he’s up at Obsidian Street. We just need to keep an eye on the place and the movements of his car and we will know where he is. I’ll let Inspector Boss know.’
‘Do you know, it all seems such a long time ago now?’ Sol says. ‘It’s amazing how easily we forget the bad things that have happened in the past and become complacent. Leah bought a book on Mindfulness. Maybe I ought to get around to reading it.’
‘All I remember is that everything went silent,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘Like the flick of a switch, suddenly there was nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing, voices, television, traffic. All gone. It was so quiet, I wondered if next door’s dog was dead. Then I wondered if perhaps I was dead. Deadly silence. For days. And then I found out it wasn’t just me. No-one in the town could hear anything. Everywhere deadly silence. Inside. Outside. On the streets. Not even the bleeping to let you know when you could cross at the lights. I remember it very well. Being blind, not being able to hear was especially traumatic for me.’
‘I appreciate how that might be a problem,’ Darius says. ‘I was listening to Trout Mask Replica when it happened.’
‘Conversation was the thing I missed most,’ Tracey says. ‘Lip reading is incredibly hard.’
‘The thing is to this day, no-one knows how he managed to do it,’ Darius says. ‘I mean, how can you get rid of sound?’
‘Science isn’t good at explaining those kind of things,’ Sol says.
‘Science fiction is better with explanations,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘I expect Ted Sturgeon or Philip C. Dark would have the answer. Or even that Chris Green fellow.’
‘Who?’ Sol says.
‘Chris Green. He writes speculative fiction,’ Shaldon says. ‘You might have read Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’
‘No. Can’t say I have,’ Sol says.
‘Look! I’ve just remembered something,’ Tracey says. ‘It may be nothing but Shambhala is the place we think of as Shangri La. I remember looking it up on the Internet.’
‘That’s a mythical kingdom,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘In Tibet, I think.’
‘Might that help to explain how he managed to make everything go quiet?’ Tracey says. ‘Might he have magical powers?’
‘Mumbo jumbo’s all very well but how does it help to know that?’ Darius says. ‘Rather than rely on a number of unreliable accounts, perhaps we could piece together what actually happened three years ago.’
‘I remember his visit well,’ Tracey says. ‘I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t hear my Oscar burbling away. Oscar’s my parrot. He’s an African grey.’
‘My band was on stage at Max’s at the time,’ Shaldon Rain says.’When the audience couldn’t hear what we were playing, they started throwing things at us.’
‘We don’t want anything like that to happen this time around,’ Sol says. ‘Now, Think about it, guys! Have any of you noticed anything out of the ordinary yet?’
‘Well, there is the silver Pontiac outside the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street,’ Tracey says.
‘Apart from that,’ Sol says. ‘If we’re going to get to the bottom of this, we have to keep our eyes open.’
But why does he want to come back?’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘What do you imagine he might be up to this time?’
‘Old Nick didn’t say.’ Darius says. ‘But whatever it is, he has to be stopped. Inspector Boss should be on his way by now. I’ve told him to come armed.’
‘I don’t like to mention it but it seems to be getting rather dark in here,’ Shaldon Rain says.
‘You’re right,’ Darius says. ‘The light does seem to be fading. And it’s not even midday.’
‘It’s dark outside too,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘So dark, I can’t see outside. Not even the window. It’s pitch black.’
‘I can’t even see you, Darius,’ Sol says.
‘I hope Boss gets here soon,’ Darius says.
‘But the police probably won’t be able to to see anything either,’ Sol says. ‘There’ll be bullets everywhere.’
I don’t know how I come to find myself in Barton Stoney. I am on my way to see the film director, Leif Velasquez in Gifford Wells, twenty or so miles south of here. Leif wants to make a film of my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman. In trying to avoid the race traffic on the ring road around Barton Stoney, I suppose I must have taken a wrong turn. There appear to be no road signs in the town and the one-way system is unfathomable. I keep going round in circles. To make matters worse, there is a madman in a big silver muscle car speeding through the streets and doing dangerous handbrake turns. No-one seems to be taking any notice of him. Where are the police when you want them?
I park the car and put my head around the door of a pub called The King William to ask for directions out of town. What a place! It’s bedlam. Everyone in here appears to be possessed. Or at least very, very drunk for this time of day. A woman in a brightly coloured dress and shocks of flyaway red hair starts banging on about Shangri La. A mythical valley of great bounty in Tibet, I recall, a metaphor for the perfect way of life, satirised in a song by The Kinks. I can’t make out the connection with anything that might be happening in The King William. A man brandishing a club of some kind grabs hold of me and starts raving about some terrible occurrence that took place here years ago. As if I might care. I can’t understand what he is trying to tell me anyway. He waves his arms about madly and says the police are on their way. He doesn’t say why. Is he the landlord? I don’t know.
There are about a dozen more revellers in here, all mad as hatters, it seems, or at least drunk as lords. Are the police coming to arrest them for affray? Is that what all this is about? Maybe they are going to arrest the crazy driver. Perhaps he has a history of terrorising the town during race meetings. It’s impossible to get any sense out of these people. They are all clearly three sheets to the wind.
As a writer of fiction, I’m constantly on the lookout for new material for a story. It occurs to me that there might just be something for me here. Let’s start by giving these people names. I’ll call the pale-skinned woman with the neck tattoos, Shaldon Rain. I’ve had that one kicking around waiting for a character for some time. She looks to me very much like she might be a flugelhorn player with an experimental jazz band. I have an instinct for these things. The stocky one with the lank hair and the big nose looks he might be Jewish. He can be Reuben. No, what about Sol? Sol Reiter. This would make the one he’s arguing with, Darius Goy. That’s been in the locker for a while. Darius looks like a Captain Beefheart fan if ever I saw one. The one with the white stick can be Pearson Ranger. This is the name of an estate agent’s I took down a while back when I was looking to move house. Informality is important in my writing. The King William can become The King Billy. I think I’d like to make more of the mad driver. He needs to be more sinister. He is responsible perhaps for an unexplained phenomenon that affects the whole town. A title for the story is going to be more difficult and how should I brand it? Chris Green or Philip C. Dark? Both these matters will need some thought. Nothing obvious comes to mind for a title without giving the game away. I may have to just come up with a short random phrase. The Art of the Matter? Bridge of Clocks? Detectives in Summer? How about ……. Snake in the Glass?
I can hear police sirens. I think it’s time to make my exit.
‘We’ve been up to the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street, Mr Goy,’ Inspector Boss says. ‘And we’ve spoken to your muscle car fellow. He’s called Velasquez by the way and he’s from California. It turns out he has bought the place to turn it into an independent film studio.’
‘He says he came across Barton Stoney several years ago,’ Boss’s sidekick, Jagger says. ‘He was second director then for a movie called, Silent Witness. An apocalyptic thriller. Some of you may have seen it. It was about a town very much like this one where everything suddenly went quiet.’
‘Some of you may even have been in it,’ Boss says. ‘Velasquez says he hired some locals as extras. That crazy old man in the other big house was in it. The one who keeps predicting the end of the world.’
‘Nicholas Ell?’ Darius Goy says. ‘But he doesn’t go out, Inspector.’
‘This must have been before he became a hermit, Mr Goy,’ Boss says. ‘I haven’t personally seen the film but apparently Nick Ell had quite a big part.’
‘Velasquez already has a house in Gifford Wells,’ Jagger says. ‘So, he’s practically a local. I don’t think he will be any bother, Mr Goy.’
© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved