2 – The Strath

At one time the Strathmore Hotel was well thought of. A striking granite building, on the edge of a sprawling green with views towards the hills across the river, it was an attractive setting.

In Victorian times it was a coaching house, welcoming wealthy, weary travellers as they made their way down the valley. In the early part of the 20th century, tourists from the south – walkers, fishers, shooters and golfers patronised the hotel, their laden wallets and purses sustaining a staff of 50 odd.

Over the decades, the hotel had become run-down and uncared for. In recent years The Strath had been best known as a drinking den, and not a particularly welcoming one.

The bar was shabby and furnished with a haphazard selection of unmatched tables and chairs. Some the sort of vernacular-style, dark wood you might expect in a Scottish country pub, others looked as though they’d been pilfered from the local school – metal frame chairs with rubber stoppers at the base of the legs, leather-effect seats and back rests. Many had been sliced causing the yellow foam inside to spill out. The pool table had a rip in it and a distinct roll to the bottom right corner, the dartboard had lost its wire and the TV showed a picture with a constant horizontal line of interference about two inches thick, roughly midway up the screen.

The drinkers didn’t seem to care. The better heeled in town began avoiding the place some years ago and now the Strath’s public bar had a hint of the Wild West about it.

David Lowe and Lachlan Slattery hated the place, though they visited it almost every day.

Both were 24-years-old, both had grown up in town and both struggled to understand why they were still there.

David worked for a small firm of solicitors on the high street, Petrie and Clarke. He had done for the last couple of years since being thrown off a graduate training programme he’d never wanted to be on in the first place. He did nothing of any consequence at work. He wasn’t training as a solicitor. He was merely an office boy. He answered the phone, took messages, organised filing, made coffees and looked after the petty cash. He showed no ambition to progress and his parents despaired.

Lachlan had done basically nothing since being awarded a first class degree in philosophy by Edinburgh University three years previously. He drank a lot, smoked almost as much, read quite a bit and listened to music. David thought him the most intelligent person he’d ever met and Lachlan thought he was probably right.

Days and months blended into one another for the pair and nothing seemed to change. They talked about moving away, about starting a business, about starting a band. They talked, but they didn’t act.

This day was panning out in a familiar fashion, David had clocked off early and met Lachlan on the walk to the pub. They’d sneaked through the swing doors, sidled up to the bar, procured lager and taken it to a table in the far corner under the battered dartboard. It was a tired script.

But this day was to be different. After a half an hour or so, things actually began to change.

David and Lachlan had been sitting in silence for a few minutes, concentrating on the last couple of inches of liquid in their glasses. Glancing across the room, David noticed the door swing open and a very strange looking character entered the pub.

It was a man, thin and stooped and dressed entirely in black. He shuffled into the room, un-noticed by the rabble around the cigarette machine or the bruisers propping up the bar. As he moved further in, the man seemed to unfurl himself like a bat preparing to leave its roost. He was enormous, well over 6 feet, and he was much younger than David had thought on first look. His face was pale but his eyes shone in his head like those of a cat. They were piercing blue, un-naturally blue.

David suddenly realised he was staring at this stranger with his mouth half open, he also realised that those burning blue eyes were looking straight back in his direction. The man was heading their way.

By the time he reached them, the stranger had somehow obtained a glass of red wine, but he certainly hadn’t got it from the bar.

“You won’t mind if I join you,” he answered his own question.

“It looks like we’ll have little choice in the matter.” Lachlan replied. David assumed his friend hadn’t watched the man’s theatrical entrance.

“Thank you kindly, my name is Conrad by the way,” the stranger replied with seemingly honest gratitude. “Now, I can see I have sat down with two gentlemen of considerable potential.”

“What on earth do you mean by that?” Lachlan snapped impatiently.

David gazed into his empty pint glass, trying to conceal the pang of terror that suddenly consumed him.

“I don’t know what would lead you to think we have potential,” Lachlan continued. “David’s got a shitty job at a bookkeeper and I’m yet to earn a single pound in my life.”

“Oh dear, oh dear. Why are people so obsessed with earning money?” asked Conrad. “Why must everything be about money? I for one, think the best work is done when there is no financial incentive… Now, I’ve just seen you’re in need of another drink.”

“Yes, I think I am,” said David whose nerves were shot. He looked towards the bar to assess how quickly he might be served. As his eyes returned to the table he wasn’t as astonished as he should have been to see his empty pint glass was once again full.

An old drunk two tables away was slightly more amazed. He’d been watching this odd meeting since Conrad had sat down. He may have consumed a quarter bottle of Whyte & McKay but he could still recognise there was something strange about the liaison taking place two tables over.

“I saw that, I saw that,” he shouted. “That glass. It filled itself from nowhere. There was nothing, then it was full.” The man was causing a scene and the whole pub turned to see what was happening.

“Calm down sir,” said Conrad. “Nothing of the sort happened.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” the drunkard splurted out.

“Certainly not. But really, how could a glass fill itself of it’s own accord?” Conrad looked sympathetically towards the drunk and then towards the crowd of men standing at the bar. He shrugged his shoulders as if to ask them for back up.

“He’s right you old piss head,” a surly looking man with a bushy moustache addressed the distressed drunk. “Your eyes must be playing tricks.

“See,” said Conrad. “Glasses can’t fill themselves… They can empty themselves though. Oh yes, terribly quickly.”

Just then the surly character shouted.

“What’s happened to my beer? I only just ordered it and now it’s finished. Which of you bastards drank it? Did you have it?” he turned to his most immediate neighbour.

“No I did not,” the neighbour replied. “And, wait a minute, someone’s had my pint too.”

All seven of the men at the bar looked down at the glasses in their hands and were dismayed to see each was absolutely empty.

“Who was it?” Each began accusing the others. “Whoever it was owes us all a pint.”

“I bet it was you.” The surly man grabbed a short skinny character with a checked shirt by the collar and lifted him up.

“Hey, put him down Bill,” said another grabbing the surly man’s arms.

“Get the hell off me.” The surly fellow was at breaking point. A fight seemed on the cards. David glanced up at Conrad who was watching the unfolding scene with a grin on his face.

At that moment the fruit machine in the far corner, which nobody had been playing, began to spew pound coins all over the floor. The barman dashed towards it and began pressing buttons. Still the money poured out. Then he took out the plug from the wall but the pound coins continued to flow. He changed his approach and began to scoop the coins up and put them into his pockets.

While the barman was distracted the surly fellow leaned across the counter and began pouring himself a pint. The others followed suit. The Whyte & McKay drunk saw an opportunity, got up and stumbled towards the bar. Almost there he tripped, apparently on nothing, and tumbled into the surly man, knocking his newly acquired pint out of his hand and all down his front.

“That’s it.” Surly Bill had now totally lost his rag. He kicked the drunk in the stomach.

“Hey. You bastard!” Another group of younger drinkers at a table close to the door decided to get involved. One, bigger than the rest, strode over and squared up to the man with the moustache.

“Kick an old man when he’s down will you?” the challenger said. “Try taking on someone your own size.”

“Fine,” said Bill and he immediately took a swing at the younger man. The challenger ducked and the punch missed. The young man then rose and struck his adversary right on the moustache.

Now all hell broke loose and a proper brawl ensued. Pint glasses began flying around the room, though later nobody would admit to having thrown one. Pool cues and chair legs materialised in people’s hands and the pub was filled with shouting. Nobody seemed to know who was fighting who or what the objective was.

“Let’s go,” Conrad said to David and Lachlan. “We’ve done all we can here.”

The pair, feeling more than a little confused, rose and followed their new acquaintance. They stepped over the fallen drunk and tried to avoid the broken glass and the flying fists as they made their way to the door.

The trio emerged into the fresh air and began walking away. As they rounded the corner David could hear the approaching sound of a police siren.


1 – The Interloper

Gordon Petrie liked his small town existence. As a solicitor he held a position of prominence in the community, was well known by everyone and, for the most part, respected. He was generally happy with the decisions he’d made in life and was glad he hadn’t gone to work for a city law firm. He liked being a big fish in a small pond.

Gordon’s principal client was Roy Cooper. He was usually described as a businessman but it was a generous title. He had a finger in many local pies but some of those pies had been made using controversial recipes.

Gordon met Roy for lunch every Thursday in The Old Ford Inn – An attractive country pub where the food was of a considerably lower standard than the décor would suggest. The pair always sat at the same round table, to the right of the main door under a hunting print.

Their meetings were ostensibly to discuss business but they tended to skirt work-related issues, dwelling on topics they thought to hold greater import. Both men considered themselves intellectual but anyone with a modicum of academic ability would have quickly identified they were by no means as clever as they thought.

This Thursday was apparently the same as any other. Roy had already told Gordon of his desire to acquire some land adjacent to workshops he owned to the south of town and had ordered lasagne. Gordon had listened to Roy’s plans for gaining this land and had mentally noted they were not legal. He changed the subject and began to clumsily tackle something else. The pub was seemingly empty and his words were at a volume that would have been unsuitable if anybody else had been present.

“I believe, Roy, you share my convictions with regards the NHS.”

“I think so Gordon. Scrap it you say?”

“Yes indeed Roy. It’s a lumbering oaf of an organisation that inhales money and provides ever-decreasing levels of service.”

“In my younger days when I had more socialist views I may have had some vague thoughts that it was a good system.” Said Roy. “But when my mother died I lost any sort of faith. If she’d been in a private hospital she’d be alive today”

At that point something very unexpected happened. From a table in a darkened corner, where both men would have sworn nobody was sitting, rose a figure. It was a man, but rather an odd looking one. Over six feet tall, he moved across the room towards the men in an awkward and intimidating manner. He was skinny to the point of appearing unhealthy; his face was drawn and gaunt though his eyes sparkled lucid blue as if he was wearing coloured contact lenses. He wore a long black leather coat covering black, skin-tight jeans and a red woollen sweater. On his head rested a black beret over jet-black hair. He looked about 40 years old.

“Yes your mother died a most unfortunate death.” Said the stranger.

“Excuse me?” Roy was taken aback.

The stranger re-adjusted his beret and straightened his back, apparently gaining at least another three inches in height.

“My apologies for the intervention gentleman, I certainly didn’t mean to shock you. You see I’m a visitor to town and had been enjoying a small glass of wine in the corner when you came in. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversations and opinions. Many of which are most informed I must say.”

Roy was clearly pleased with the stranger’s compliment but had not forgotten the interloper’s opening gambit.

“Right, right. Whatever. But what could you know of my mother?”

The stranger turned his head away for a second, evidently agitated, then brought it back to face the confused pair. With much creaking and cracking he lowered himself into a crouching position. He positioned his mouth inappropriately close to Roy’s ear.

“She was admitted to hospital suffering from kidney stones.” The stranger spoke in a grainy voice almost as if it was coming from a slightly tuned-out radio. Gordon couldn’t place the accent. He certainly wasn’t British. Maybe a well-educated Pole he reasoned. “It should have been routine but her charts were muddled and she was given the wrong drugs. She received penicillin but was allergic to it. The dose was administered late in the evening and by the time the doctor on ward rounds noticed the mistake it was too late. Oh dear, such a shame.”

“So you’re a doctor and you must have worked on her ward,” said Roy.

The stranger looked offended.

“I most certainly am no doctor,” he snapped. “I am, you could say, an overseer. I fill a number of different roles.”

Roy was becoming distressed.

“So you’re a coroner or work in the general register office?” He asked.

“No and no.” The stranger chuckled. Roy’s anxiety was clearly amusing him.

“You’re insane, that’s what you are. Leave us alone,” said Gordon. The stranger rose back to his feet.

“Yes, maybe I’m insane,” he said. “Or perhaps I’m the only source of sanity in the entire universe. Humans quantify sanity on a very narrow set of criteria, who or what is to say they have made their judgements accurately?” “I, for one, see the merits in the human view of insanity. It ensures a certain equilibrium is maintained.” As he spoke the stranger’s voice grew louder and deeper and he seemed to grow another couple of inches taller. He was towering over them and his face seemed to be lit up, though no lamps were pointed in his direction. The unfortunate pair had never seen such a man.

“As an overseer, one of my roles is to ensure an equilibrium is maintained.” He continued. “As such, I monitor deaths very closely. I could tell you, for instance, how you will die.” The stranger was staring down at Roy.

”No you couldn’t and I would very much appreciate it if you left us alone now please,” Roy pleaded.

Gordon noticed a flash across the stranger’s vivid eyes. He was hoping desperately that Graeme the barman would re-appear but there seemed to be no sign of him.

All of a sudden the interloper smiled and the aggression in his features eased. He reached over to an adjacent table and grabbed a chair pulling it up to the table where Roy and Gordon sat.

“Gentlemen, I am very sorry. I have had a long journey and am feeling tired, I speak out of turn.” He said. “Now. I’m staying in town for a few days and am in need of lodgings. Could either of you recommend a hostelry?”

Seeing an opportunity to get rid of this most unwanted table-mate Gordon spoke.

“Yes, The Strath Hotel on the square has comfortable and affordable rooms. It’s just a few minutes walk if you turn left out of the front door here.”

“I’m much obliged,” said the stranger. “I’ll go there forthwith.” The stranger stood and turned for the door. Roy and Gordon had to hold in sighs of relief. After taking a few steps the stranger turned back.

“Delighted to make your acquaintance.” He said. “No doubt we’ll bump into one another again at some point.”

I sincerely hope not thought Gordon.

“No, we definitely will,” said the stranger as if he’d heard Gordon’s inner monologue. “And Roy, that land you’re hoping to acquire. I have a feeling you just won’t have the guts to go through with it.” And with that, he left and the door slammed behind him.

“That encounter was most odd.” Said Roy in a stage whisper. “Who in hell was that chap and what in god’s name was he talking about.”

“I have no idea and frankly don’t care. I was on the verge of getting physical.” Gordon displayed that common male characteristic of extreme bravery after the moment for it has passed.

“Anyway let’s get out of here.” Roy had lost his appetite.

At that moment Graeme reappeared behind the bar.

“Where have you been?” Snapped Gordon in a tone that seemed rather unnecessary to the barman.

“Major issues in the basement,” replied Graeme. “I’ve never seen it before but all of a sudden the bungs on the un-opened barrels blew out, beer was spraying all over the place. It took me 15 minutes to get it under control. Very strange, never seen that before.”

Gordon hurriedly settled their bill and the bemused pair left the pub. It certainly hadn’t been their most enjoyable Thursday lunch meeting.

“Do you have a moment to go and look at this land?” Asked Roy as they made their way back towards their cars.

“I suppose I do.” Gordon was far too confused to think of a reasonable excuse as to why he couldn’t.

“We’ll take my car,” said Roy.

Gordon climbed into the passenger seat of the Nissan Patrol 4×4. It was the sort of motor that people who live in the countryside claim to need.

It wasn’t a long drive. Just over the river and down a dirt lane. Roy was clearly still perturbed as he was driving too fast. Even through the end of the 30mph zone he was doing nearly 60. They left the main road onto a dirt track and Roy showed no sign of slowing down.

Gordon recognised the vehicle was designed for off-road driving but this was a little much. Rattling over the rough surface, stones flew out from behind the machine’s huge tyres. The suspension was working overtime as they approached a hairpin bend right, still travelling at an excessive speed. A copse of trees meant it was impossible to see around the bend but Roy ploughed on. He swung the wheel as though competing in the Monte Carlo rally.

Unfortunately, around that bend travelling in the opposite direction was Georgie Bruce driving his tractor to collect some hay bales for his cows. The tool for carrying these bales was a huge, five pronged fork mounted to the front of the tractor pointing out at 90 degrees to the cab.

As Roy was driving too fast and the farmer wasn’t really paying attention, a collision was unavoidable. Roy threw his car to the left and George did the same with his tractor, but it was too late. There was a horrifying sound of crunching metal and smashing glass and Gordon’s head was thrown forwards.

Gordon got himself under control and looked right to assess the damage. What he saw was not pleasant. The two rightmost spikes on the tractor’s hay bale fork had smashed through the Nissan’s windscreen and had continued right on through Roy’s stomach. Roy was looking down at his predicament in disbelief.

“This is bad,” he said.

Each fork was some three inches wide and both had pierced him.

At that moment the farmer made an unfortunate decision. Evidently unaware of what had happened to Roy he attempted to reverse. Gordon shouted but wasn’t heard above the tractor’s engine. He attempted to open his door but it was wedged against the hedgerow on the edge of the track.

As the farmer began to move backwards he turned the wheel. This caused the spikes embedded in Roy’s body to wrench across his stomach ripping the skin. Roy let out a bloodcurdling scream before passing out. Gordon turned away as Roy’s midrift was torn apart, his intestines spilled out into his lap. Gordon, desperate to get out, clambered over to the back seats and jumped from the rear driver’s side door. He was immediately sick.

The farmer, now recognising something more serious than a mere prang had occurred got out of his cab and ran forwards. He opened the driver’s door to the Nissan and recoiled. But, he went back and felt for Roy’s pulse. There was none.

“He’s dead,” said Georgie.

Gordon wiped the vomit from the edge of his mouth and looked towards the farmer. As his eyes rose he could have sworn he saw a tall man in a leather jacket disappear into the woods behind the tractor.