William Couper is a writer from Scotland. As well as horror, he writes fantasy, and science fiction.  He will even do some non-fiction when the fancy takes him. His work has appeared in anthologies, including  Cthulhu Lies Dreaming, In the Blink of an Eye, and Built from Human Parts. He is partial to a good (or okay) film, playing computer games, and a bit of Magic: The Gathering.


by William Couper


The armchair was comfortable, and the room was warm, but he had been walking along the street moments before. He had been mid-step when suddenly he found himself sitting in this unfamiliar room, holding a cup of tea. From foot about to strike the pavement to ensconced in the lavender-scented armchair in what seemed like an eye-blink.

“…aying is that Evan should be applying himself more. After all that time at the university and he’s coming out with such pitiful grades. If I was his mother, I’d have a stern word with him,” the woman said then stopped. She frowned and put her own cup down. “Andrew? Are you listening to me? Are you okay?”

He stared at her. She was in her late forties or early fifties, plain-looking, with a blotchy complexion. Her hair was short and brown with flecks of silver and white, worn loose, its natural waviness kept it away from her face. Her long, spider-leg thin fingers domed over her tea cup.
She had a general air of neatness and comfortable primness. The concern in her watery-blue eyes was clear, as was the familiarity.

He had never seen this woman before in his life.

He wanted to say Andrew was not his name, but the shock of finding himself in the room rendered him speechless. All he could do was stare at the woman; try to find anything he could recognize about her. He failed.

She scuttled forward and he fought the urge to rear away. She clutched the cup in his hand, eased it out of his grip and put it on a small table at his knee.

“I thought you were going to drop your tea,” she said as she returned to her own seat. She shook her head and gave him a reproachful smile, “You don’t want to drop scalding tea in your lap, do you?”

“No,” he managed to choke.

“You’ve been unusually quiet today, Andrew. You are normally such a chatterbox. Practically fizzing to tell me all about whatever’s on your mind.”

He looked around the room. It could have been a room belonging to an endless number of middle-aged women all over the world. It was light, bright, cozy; pictures and ornaments were dotted around, and a clock ticked quietly somewhere. There was no television and, less obviously, no telephone.

One of the pictures caught his eye. It was one he knew well. Him at nine-years-old, standing in front of his mother on the beach. His mother’s hands on his shoulders, either to protect him or to steady her. It was the second of a set, in this one he was the subject, with his mother’s head and shoulders cut off. The one he had seen most when he was growing up was a wider shot and showed his mother smiling behind him.

He stood up and crept towards the photo, eyes narrowed.

“That was a lovely day, wasn’t it? It had been so rainy for wee…” the woman said, and he tuned her out.

How had this picture found its way here? More important: why was he wearing a different colored t-shirt? It was the same design on the front, but instead of being on a white t-shirt it was blue. He was not mistaken; the particulars of the photograph were ingrained in his mind from years of seeing it every day. The change was unmistakable.

When he turned his attention back to the woman, she was still talking, mentioning names he did not recognize, incidents he had no memory of.

“Who are you?” he asked.

She stopped talking and offered him a puzzled smile, yet he could not help noticing the deadness in her eyes. A cold, alien regard.

“Is that any way to speak to your mother?” she said.


Two days earlier, he was sitting in his office, taking an idle moment to stare out of the window. There was not much to see from this floor of the Whitehall building. He tapped his chin and considered doing something about getting a new office. It might take a while, but he had managed to leverage much bigger things in his time there.

His office phone rang. He considered ignoring it, but even he had to have limits on the ways he abused his knowledge.

“Lynch, I need to talk to you,” Sir Oliver Tunwell grunted. “And be more prompt about answering your damn phone.”

Tunwell hung up without waiting for an answer. Arrogant old boar. He was one of the most senior civil servants in Whitehall. He had bristled when Lynch had attained his position, leap-frogging a list of candidates Tunwell had in mind. He had been targeting Lynch for the five years he had worked there. A litany of tiny impertinences, slights, and inconveniences he thought would crush Lynch by increments, drive him from the job. Tunwell had not done his due diligence, did not understand Lynch’s resilience and patience.

Getting rid of Tunwell would have solved a lot of problems for Lynch, but such a feat was beyond his abilities to achieve. So, he would have to deal with the blustering sack of wind until he altered his position. Lynch, with that patience so many found insufferable, was making subtle inroads, finding ways to get rid of the old man that would not come to fruition for years.

Three floors up, Lynch found the man standing with his back to the door, staring out of a huge window that gave a view of the Thames and the Palace of Westminster. A view that Tunwell’s bulk almost blotted out.

Tunwell made no indication he had noticed Lynch enter. Lynch rolled his eyes.

Like some ancient stone door worked by a mysterious mechanism, Tunwell turned slowly to face Lynch. His large drooping eyes were flinty, clear, and direct, an amazing achievement for a man who had made drinking a hobby over the past four decades. An enthusiastic hobby.

“Sit down, Lynch,” he said.

Lynch nodded, although he would rather not have walked further into the overwhelming brume of aftershave Tunwell surrounded himself with. Lynch lowered himself into the seat opposite Tunwell with hard-earned, practiced grace.

“I’ve always thought you were a criminal little oink, Lynch,” Tunwell said.

“You think you’ve found out something interesting about me after half a decade of looking?” Lynch said, allowing a confident smile to spread across his face.

“I know who you are, Paul Lynch, and I wouldn’t be so complacent about it if I were you.”

“If you had actionable information about anything you think I’ve done that’s criminal, I would be talking to the police right now. I think I’m as complacent as I need to be.”

“I found out about a Paul Lynch from Hackney. Got into a lot of trouble for being a nasty little burglar. Believed to have worked all over London. Then five or six years ago, he seems to have simply vanished.”

Lynch knew the story well; he had lived it.

“At about this same time, a good friend of mine, Sir Fraser Cardonald, was found dead in his Kensington flat. Extremely tragic, but fortunate for you, as you slid into his position.” Tunwell’s jaw tensed when Lynch’s only reaction was to tilt his head, smile unmoved. “Interesting fact, the police think, that at around about the same time as his death—they aren’t sure whether it was before or after—Fraser’s house was burgled. The normal things you would expect scumbags to take, like televisions, PCs and other electronics were left untouched. But Cardonald’s safe was found open and emptied. The police don’t know what was taken, but I suspect I know.”

Lynch recognized what he had found that night. The papers, files, and flash drives contained a wealth of information and his path to get out of the life he had been living up to that point. He had blackmailed and cajoled his way into the job and had key records expunged.

Lynch shrugged. “A nice story, Sir Tunwell. I’ll keep it mind. Can I go now? I have work to do.”

“I’m going to get you, Lynch. You’re going to make a mistake one day and I’ll be there to make sure you’re punished.”

“Keep me apprised of your progress, by all means.”

The thunderous expression on Tunwell’s face was hilarious, but Lynch did not start laughing until he was well out of earshot.


“My name isn’t Andrew. It’s Paul,” Lynch said to the woman.

She blinked in response, surprised.

“And my mother died seven years ago,” he went on. “If this is some kind of elaborate practical joke…”

“Where is this coming from? We were having such a pleasant conversation. Do you need to sit down again? I know you’ve been under a lot of stress at work.”

“I don’t need to sit down, I need to get out of here. There are important places I have to be.”

She kept on talking, kept on questioning, but he ignored her and headed for the door. Before he stepped out his eye was caught by a porcelain statuette of an elephant. It looked like one his mother had, almost identical, except on this one, the trunk was raised as though it were trumpeting.

He found himself in a corridor, darker than the room, even though there were tall windows at either end and lights hanging from the high ceiling. The dark mahogany panelling on the walls and the deep crimson wallpaper above it could not have absorbed the light and left the corridor so dim, so unwelcoming. Chilly air plucked at the skin of his face, almost enough to knock the breath from him. The musty smell crammed into his head like a living thing.

It all seemed to be designed to confuse and distract him, even the choice over which end of the corridor to go down befuddled him. From this angle, the corridor could turn both left and right at either end of the corridor. If that were the case, this was like no house he had ever been in. No one would build a house with such a strange design.

At random, he went left, expecting the woman to come out of the room and try to persuade him to rejoin her. She stayed in the room, talking. Talking as though someone were still in there with her.

He passed more doors, but did not waste time on them. He was too eager to get out to think about exploring. Even with his patience, he knew this was an urgent situation, time gnawed at his brain, insistent. Get out, mull it over and then find out who had done this to him.

The corridor did feed into another that went both left and right. He growled in annoyance.

He looked out of the window. He was on the second floor of a townhouse, one that could have been anywhere in the wealthier parts of London, like Kensington or Sloan Square. He was far too high up to simply open a window and drop out. It was a bright summery day, much like it was before he found himself in the room with the woman. He wondered if it was the same day.

During his five years working in the civil service he had made a lot of enemies—Tunwell being one—but had he angered someone enough to drug and kidnap him? Lots of people theoretically had the resources to set it up, but it was audacious and dangerous for such careful people. People who were clever enough to find other ways to deal with him if they were so motivated.

The idea of a rival arranging an elaborate torture was possible, but he consigned it to being unlikely. Not many more explanations came to him, so he stopped thinking about it, his immediate problem was escape. Once he was free he would find an explanation and deal with the culprit.

Another glance out of the window, he thought he could see a street off to the right. He set off, along the strangely murky corridor, until he came to another corridor, another decision.  Something was off about this corridor. It went left to right.

He backtracked and looked out of a window. A straight exterior wall, yet the new corridor clearly should have jutted out. He examined this new corridor and walked about ten feet along it, where he should have been out in open air. There were windows on the right-hand wall of this corridor, too. More straight wall, impossibly cutting through where he had just been.

A door rattled behind him. The solid, old-fashioned brass knob jumped and twisted in its housing. The whole door creaked and bent as something strong hauled on the knob. A deep low grumble came from within that could have said, “Paul.”

A lifetime worth of knowing trouble on an intimate basis was not needed to understand how perilous his situation was and he jogged away from the door, the mystery of how the house was put together forgotten. His immediate safety more important than what he considered esoteric mysteries.

There was a decorative table at the next corner.  On it was a toy, an action figure he recognized from his childhood. His smile at the familiarity fell away when he saw there were insects embedded in the plastic surface. He was about to pick it up, but he recoiled.

“I don’t know where you expect to go, Andrew,” the woman said.

She stood at the end of the new corridor, head bowed and shrouded in shadows. The whites of her eyes glittered from her concealed face. Her hair looked longer, more straggly, any life in it gone since he had seen her in the room. Something about the arrangement of the shadows told him she was smiling. An ugly, fearful gesture.

“I’m getting out of here. You can’t keep me in this bloody maze!” he shouted, his breath bursting out in a plume in the frigid air. “Make things easier on yourself and show me the way out. If you do it now, I won’t press charges.”

She laughed. “Oh, Andrew, you’re so funny. I forget what a comedian you are sometimes.”

“I’m not messing around and I’m not Andrew. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”

“Do you?”

Her voice came from right next to his ear, accompanied by an unbearable press of numbing chill. The woman’s face was an inch away from his and he cried out in shock. Her features were thinner, sharper, as though the flesh beneath had been stripped away or shrivelled, and the skin was grey, almost translucent. A blast of sickening fetor erupted from behind her teeth, bared in a grotesque smile.

He stumbled away from the vision. He looked back down the corridor: no one there. He crashed into the wall, tipped over the small table and sent the tainted toy tumbling along the floor. All the while, his gaze fixed on the woman’s huge, yellowed, intent eyes.

Her laughter was cold and sharp.


“…aying that Evan should be applying himself more. After all that time at the university and he’s coming out with such pitiful grades. If I was his mother, I’d have a stern word with him,” the woman said and stopped. She frowned and put her own cup down. “Andrew? Are you listening to me? Are you okay?”

Lynch looked around the cosy room, the photos looking down on him, the tea in hand, and the woman, healthy and human-looking, expectant. He blinked and was not surprised by the tears.  He wept as the woman took the cup gently from his palsied hand.