Red Hair and Gold
Ducking into a passageway, Josh flattened against the wall.
“I would have hid myself against him.” He gathered essence of Tudor brickwork and timber framework around him like a cloak.
A figure pushed a clanking wheelbarrow across the end. He ignored the covered alley and the person hiding within.
Josh sagged. Phew, that was close.
Creeping to the entry, Josh peered through the encroaching dusk, checking up and down the cobbled street. Monsters of his imagination lurked in every shadowy alcove. With no lights, the overhanging levels of the ancient houses changed the street at ground-level into an inky abyss.
When he had wandered through the York tourist hot spots earlier today, this street had stunk—if you had a nose trained to detect the stench of evil. The street, which locals called ‘The Shambles,’ was an old butcher’s market; its cobbles soaked in blood for over a thousand years made it a perfect place to summon monsters.
Seeing no one, Josh slipped a hand into his jacket pocket and drew out his torch. It clattered against his knuckledusters.
Taking a chance, Josh flashed the light along the cobbles to check that the City Council hadn’t planted a bollard anywhere about here.
The light caught on a newssheet; black lettering shouted:
Copper Thieves Target Electricity Substation!
Josh glanced up—that explained the unlit streetlights.
A scrape behind him. He twisted, lifting his torch. The night-stick aimed for the back of his head instead hit his ear and neck.
The pain drove him to his knees as he warded off a second blow
It struck his arm.
He dropped the torch and groped for his knuckledusters.
The third wallop from the night-stick flattened him. His nose crushed against the cold cobbles.
He clung to consciousness as hands, under his arms, dragged him along. His assailant huffed as he hauled Josh’s dead weight over the top of the wheelbarrow.
Retaining enough wits, Josh stayed still—no attempt had been made to restrain him with the coils of wire he lay across. The barrow was too small to carry his length so his toes scuffed the ground.
The barrow weaved and swayed through Newgate Market; Josh could see the empty stalls looming out of the dark.
They stopped briefly and foul smelling air wafted out of an opening door. The attacker picked up the handles and pushed Josh into the men’s toilets on Silver Street.
A low voice chanted. “Jabez Wilson. Jabez Wilson. Jabez Wilson.”
Josh was tipped off the barrow—he managed to roll face up and squinted around. His attacker picked up a battery lantern and studied him.
By that light, Josh could see another man standing over a table set with an open book, a wine bottle, and some chocolates in scarlet wrappers.
“Your spell worked!” the attacker said. “It’s a red-headed man!”
The muttering stopped. The chanter set his wand on the table. “You doubted me, Ryan?”
“No! Not at all!” Ryan stepped back holding up his hands. “I’d never doubt you, Sid.”
Sid glowered at Ryan. “Address me as Magus!”
“Yes. Sorry. Magus.” Ryan scuttled to replace the lantern.
The foul air in the toilets, mingled with the earlier scent of evil, acted like smelling salts on Josh. Through lidded-eyes he studied the rest of the set up. Copper wire trailed over the edge of the barrow. Sid Magus had smashed a toilet, which accounted for the worse-than-usual stench in the men’s bogs. Beside the broken ceramic sat a drugged-out chicken in a cardboard box—no, not a chicken. It was a cockerel. Underneath the cockerel…
Josh scrambled to his feet. “Do you have an archbishop’s license to experiment with basilisks? Though I have to say, substituting sewer methane for the usual volcanic hydrogen sulphide was inspired.”
His captors stared at him. Almost choking on the stench, Josh strode over to the broken waste pipe. “Shoo!”
The cockerel blinked at him. Josh clapped his hands and the bird staggered to its feet. Underneath the bird was indeed a toad’s egg. Josh produced a plastic shopping bag and a disposable glove from his pocket.
“What’re you thinking?” he said. “You can’t create basilisks in a built up area without a grade three alchemy laboratory and a containment structure of a Solomon’s seal or above. As per Defra regulations.”
“Regulations?” Sid struck a pose. “What are you talking about? I alone have rediscovered the Ancient Arts of Alchemy and Magic. I have immersed myself in the—”
“Sorry to break in on your Evil Monologue, but as a Church Inspector of Cræft users, I’ve heard it all before.” Josh picked up the egg with a gloved hand and placed it in the shopping bag. Dropping the glove in after, he tied the handles. “I know people who run correspondence courses about this stuff.”
Ryan perked up. “Really?”
“Oh yeah, plenty of covens—”
“Dabblers!” Sid hissed, snatching his wand up from the cluttered table. He raised it above his head in a dueler’s pose. “Causa Mortis…”
“Braccae tuae aperiuntur.” Josh dug his hand into his other trouser pocket.
Sid frowned as he mouthed Josh’s words.
Josh belted him one on the chin with his knuckledusters. Sid slid down a cubicle divider, dropping his wand.
Josh smirked. “I said, ‘Your flies are undone’.”
Ryan sidled towards the door as the wand rolled towards Josh.
Scooping it up, Josh turned to Ryan. “Look at this! He’s not even trying. What self-respecting Master of the Dark Arts uses a cow thigh bone for his wand?” Josh snapped the wand over his knee and dropped the pieces to the floor.
“No!” Sid screamed. He raised his hand. “Ignis—”
“Not in here, y’prat!” Josh swept up the docile cockerel and sprinted for the door. Ryan took a second to grab Sid’s book from the table and followed.
A damp blast blew them out of the toilet door. Smoke roiled out behind them.
“Of course, magic is dangerous.” Josh jumped to his feet. “That’s why you need Inspectors.”
The lights left on for security in the local shops showed a convention of confused, red-haired men milling around, as a scorched Sid crawled out of the smoke-filled toilets.
Josh snatched Sid’s book from Ryan’s hand. It fell open at:
On turning base metal Copper into Gold.
Mix the blood of a red-haired man with ashes of a basilisk …
Red Hair and Gold is a part of Vanessa Knipe’s Witch-Finder/St. Van Helsing series. If you enjoyed this short story, please check out more of Vanessa’s work, published by BooksForABuck.com, your source for affordable electronic fiction.
A Date with Darkness*
*Tales from the Theological College of St. Van Helsing