Well, I have just finished all of the year and a day of stories set in the Split Worlds! I am relieved, glad I managed to do it and rather tired! The last one is being hosted by a rather special friend of mine tomorrow. That’s the day Between Two Thorns comes out in the UK – don’t forget that if you come to either the Bristol or London Forbidden Planet launches you’ll get an exclusive, signed, limited edition Split Worlds story just for you.
This is the fifty-third – and penultimate – tale. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here. You can also sign up to get the stories delivered to your inbox, one per week for a year and a day.
The pub was quiet. Martin couldn’t decide if that was good or bad. There was a man sitting at the bar nursing a pint of lager and another in the corner, back to the wall, eyes on him as soon as he’d walked in. He was probably the one.
Martin bought a pint with no intention of drinking it and looked over at the man in the corner again. He was wearing a flat cap and thick coat.
Martin went over. “Are you waiting for me?”
“Depends. What’s your name?”
“You said no names.”
The man smiled. He looked like he was in his late fifties and didn’t get enough sleep. “You’re learning. Let’s keep this quick. You said you were interested in people who knew anything about stealing shadows. I’ll tell you one thing: you won’t find anyone in the Fortean Times.”
“Three other people got in touch from the ad,” Martin said as he sat down. “They were friendly enough but-”
“They know nothing,” the man hissed across the table. “I’ll tell you who steals shadows. I’ve been tracking these buggers for over twenty years. If you’re serious about this, you should know it’ll take over your life. I used to be married. Not anymore.”
Martin decided he’d have the pint after all. “It’s not me I’m worried about, it’s my brother-in-law. It happens to him every month. Has your shadow been stolen?”
“Worse than that. You ready for this?”
“Just tell me who they are.”
The man leaned across the table until Martin could smell his sweat. “Aliens,” he whispered.
“Oh for fu-”
“Listen to me!” The man grabbed Martin’s arm. “You’re in danger. You know enough to be asking questions but not enough to protect yourself. I do! I spent a year hiding inside a post-box once, watching one of the houses. That’s one of the safest ways. They’re scared of red things, so you don’t ever get spotted.”
“You think aliens are stealing my brother’s shadow every month?”
“Yes! For experiments. They steal teeth, eyelashes – sometimes they come and take your dreams whilst you’re sleeping. You need to get a mosquito net and cover it with foil. When you’re out and about-” he lifted the cap enough to reveal its tin foil lining “protect yourself like this. It’s a silent war and we’re the only-”
“I think I’ve heard enough.” Martin took three large gulps of the beer and stood up.
“I knew you couldn’t take it!” The man shouted at his back. “You’ll be dead in a year! Or worse – one of them!”
It was cold outside. Martin walked briskly towards the underground station and then went past it. He didn’t want to go home and sit in front of the telly. It was only a week until the next time Paul’s shadow would detach itself and go to that house in Pimlico again. He had to find the answers for himself; it was clear no-one else knew anything.
It was easy to find the house again. He didn’t want to knock on the door and confront anyone, not after overhearing how they made Paul forget everything, so he decided to wait at the corner of the street. He leaned against the iron railings of another garden and pretended to use his phone.
The light was on in a downstairs room but with the blind down he couldn’t see inside. From where he stood he’d be able to see whoever went down the steps to the basement and whoever came out. Maybe other shadows would turn up. Maybe he would see the people who lived there, if he waited long enough.
Then he saw a man in a car only a few feet away, watching the same house. He had to be there for the same reason. Martin stared at him just long enough for the man to notice, then put his phone away and knocked on the passenger side window.
The man inside wound the window down with the look of someone caught parking on double yellow lines.
“Do you know who lives in that house?” Martin asked.
Martin hesitated. “Have the people who live there done something to you? Or… someone in your family? Something… weird?”
“Yeah,” the man replied. “You too?”
Martin looked up and down the street. “My brother-in-law. Can I get in? I don’t want anyone else to overhear.” The door was unlocked and Martin got in. “So did they take your shadow or someone else’s?”
“Take my… what?”
Martin squeezed his eyes shut. “Shit. I’m not crazy. Look, this is going to sound insane, but once a month my brother-in-law’s shadow… detaches itself and goes into the basement of that house and gets into a bowl.” He covered his face. “I don’t know how they do it. God, I sound like a lunatic but I swear it’s true.”
The man had paled. “I thought I imagined it. I think I saw it go into the house. Christ.” He drew in a breath. “No-one’s done anything to me. It’s my wife. She’s been going to see a therapist there, Dr Tate. I don’t know what that quack’s done to her, but she’s not herself. She’s all… broken.”
“A therapist?” Martin was appalled. “There’s a weird lab in the basement, did you know that? They did something to my brother, to make him forget. Maybe they took something from your wife and made her forget too.”
“I’ve been looking for other people who’ve seen something similar but it’s so hard to find people who aren’t nut-jobs, you know?”
The man laughed shakily. “Yeah, I bet. I hoped I’d find someone else who knew what was going on if I watched long enough.”
“And you ended up with me,” Martin tried to smile but the man just nodded.
“Tate’s completely brainwashed my wife. She’s made her think all her friends and family are holding her back and Tate’s the only one who understands.” He sighed. “I thought maybe I could expose her as a con-artist or something, but I guess she’s a lot more dangerous than I thought.”
“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing we can take to the police or the trading standards people,” Martin said. “But it is such a relief to find someone else who knows something dodgy is going on in there.” He scratched his chin. “Hang on, if this Dr Tate is some sort of therapist there could be other people being screwed up too!”
“Yeah, I bet. I want to do something about it!”
Martin knew that feeling all too well. “We need to find other people who know what’s going on but haven’t had anything done to them, you know, directly. And once we’ve found them, we need a way to keep in touch that isn’t meeting up, just in case Tate realises we’re on to her and has one of us followed.”
“Well that part’s easy,” the man replied. “We can set up a secret rebel base online and then we just have to make sure no one uses their real name, so no one knows who anyone else is. You know, codenames and stuff.”
Martin frowned. “Secret rebel base? This isn’t bloody Star Wars!”
“It’s just a turn of phrase.”
“But I get what you mean,” Martin said, not wanting to alienate his only ally. “We could put adverts out there, not mentioning Tate or anything obvious, but stuff that would leap out to people like us, right? And we could stake out this place and see who else they’ve got their claws into. But who can we trust to get the web stuff done?”
“Me,” the man grinned. “That’s what I do for a living. I’ve got a domain I haven’t used yet. Give me a couple of hours and then go to ‘weirdshitsherlock.com’.”
“Okay, that’s a plan,” Martin said, wondering why he would have such a strange website. “You set it up, we’ll use that to keep in touch and I’ll think about ways to find other people like us. Oh, my name’s Martin by the way.”
The man laughed. “Really? Mine too.” He held out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Martin.”