Here’s a sneak peek at my new project The Coffin Bell.

            In 1829, in an effort to combat a rampant scourge of misdiagnosis of death; Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger invented a device that would allow the unfortunate not-so-dead corpse to signal those above that they were, in fact, alive.  A bell, affixed to a wrought-iron bracket, would be attached to the finger of the alleged corpse in an effort to be saved.  At first, the doctor was on his way to not only becoming the world’s first millionaire inventor, but he was certainly on the path to potentially save lives.  Many lives for that matter, because the paranoia of being buried alive or in fact, burying a loved one alive, had spread across all of England; not unlike the black death.  However, it was later discovered that many of the victims were actually in a coma and therefore unable to ring the bell to save their own lives.  Thus, Dr. Taberger halted the production of the bell and fell into poverty.  He died from an overdose of arsenic at the age of 57; buried with his own bell attached to his gravestone.

1854

2:32 A.M.

Reginald

            Reginald Winslow sat, bored and miserable on a rickety wooden desk chair; hollowed from termites and weak with age.  The cream-colored stain having long since worn from the seat.  He had debated to himself several times whether or not he should toss it into the fire, but Mr. Phelps might not think too highly of it.  He was allowed to burn only one single log an hour.  This rule did not include the only settee in the entire 20 by 20 square foot caretakers shack.

            He sat, breaking up the dried earth from his boots while his wool socks warmed on the stove.  He had been walking for most of the evening.  Sometimes on the path and sometimes not.  He carried a gnarled stick to fend off wolves; and the occasional grave robber; bent on pilfering jewels – buried along with London’s wealthy dead.

            A wolf howled from beyond the hills and the moon shone through the single small window – smeared wet with mist.  He picked at his teeth and attempted to relight the dottle in his pipe.  Other than a few flakes of dust, his pouch was empty.  A thick fog moved in; creating a dense, choked atmosphere.  Quickly, he became aware of something.  He bristled and instantly sat up straight.  He dropped the lit match into the fire and stood – placing his ear against the door.  He heard something; he was certain of it.  It rode along with the fog like a voice across the water.  At once he assumed it was Mr. Phelps coming to check on him.  The man loved to whistle.  Reginald promised him that he wouldn’t drink on the job any longer.  It was disrespectful to the dead to wander about the graveyard toting a whiskey bottle.  This was a lie, of course.  His whiskey was secretly warming in a flask near the fire.  It was the whiskey that helped him keep warm on those long lonely nights, especially when the dole of logs was getting low.  He opened the door and peered out into the fog.

            “Mr. Phelps?”  Mr. Phelps did not answer.

            The sound increased in volume and Reginald became aware of an uneasiness.  A dreadful feeling that poked and prodded at the back of his neck.  He stepped out further into the fog and directed his hearing towards the western gates.  Mr. Phelps continuously instructed him, every day prior to the beginning of his shift, to ensure that the gates were smartly locked and secure.  He turned his slightly misshapen ear towards the north.  The sound was an echo; a stone cast into an empty chasm.

            Retreating into the shack, Reginald pulled his socks and boots on and hoisted the leather rucksack over his shoulder.  On the trail towards the western gate; he leaves the shack with a shiver and pulls his cap tighter.  Thirty yards ahead the first group of graves came into view.  Martin Albright, Frederick Thompson, Angelina Sams – they were there to greet him as usual.

            Martin Albright had lost his life suddenly when he had stumbled off the west bridge and into the river.  Being too drunk to realize that he was drowning, his body let go of all interest.  His estranged wife had identified the body but said that it was only possible that it was her husband and she was glad he was dead.  Fredrick Thompson had been driving his handsome a bit later than usual when a man in dark clothes with a dark hat and a dark bag hefted himself into the cab with an even darker purpose.  He pulled a knife on Mr. Thompson.  Unfortunately, Mr. Thompson had but a shilling to account for.  Because of this, the knife entered his heart.  Angelina Sams died from the noose.  Justifiably so.  She had taken a candle from her dining room and lit her husband on fire while he slept.  Rumor has it he was having an affair.  This rumor has yet to be substantiated, but before his skin caught fire, the woman had severed his manhood and gave it to the family dog as a table scrap.  Reginald could recite from memory the cause of death for each of his departed friends, somewhat of a tour guide for the dead.  It was a skill that Reginald was quite proud of. 

Reginal tipped his cap and turned towards the pond and stopped quickly in his tracks.  He strained his neck somewhat and eyed the whitewashed grave of Walter Badlove.  Walter passed away at the tender age of 13; his young body destroyed by tuberculosis – or so the doctor’s thought.  His parents, well, mostly his emotionally delinquent mother, had believed that the doctors were wrong.  Her son was alive and merely sleeping, and she would tell them as such, as often as they would listen.  Though after twenty-two days, she conceded that it might be likely he was not.  In order to appease the woman, a Taberger bell was attached; in the off chance that the boy truly was alive.  However, that was fifteen years ago.  If he had been misdiagnosed and was buried alive, he wasn’t alive any longer.

            Even so, the noise that had brought Reginald from the warmth of the stove, was the bell attached to little Walter’s headstone.  It was ringing – not aggressively of course; like the bell on Witches Bridge.  That bell rang like a church bell under the slightest breeze.

            Reginald turned and faced Walter’s grave.  The small bell hung from rusted wrought iron.  He stepped closer.  The hairs on his arm stood upright.  There was the slightest breeze wafting through the glen.  Surely that’s the source.  Or perhaps it was all his imagination.  He stood – planted in place; watching the bell as it didn’t move.  It was at that very moment, somewhere behind him, that the sound of another bell was heard quite clearly.  Then another, and another.  Reginald turned back to young Mr. Badlove’s grave just in time to witness the bell ringing, louder then he thought possible. 

            Without another thought, Reginald Winslow ran.  He ran towards the front gate; faster than the rats he chases down Berkshire Lane.  Once outside the cemetery walls; leaving the gate open of course, he kept running; through the park – towards Whitehall – towards London, where Mr. Phelps slept soundly next to his wife – unaware that there could possibly be anything out of the ordinary.

            William Phelps slid across the wooden floor in slippers too large for his feet, his bedclothes wrinkled from heavy slumber.  He took a match and lit the candle nestled in the small alcove next to the bedroom’s door.  The knock upon the front door was startling enough at any time of the day, but at 4:30 in the morning, it was especially alarming.

            “Who’s there?”  He yelled from the inside.

            “It’s Reginald, sir.”  The caretaker’s voice was muffled.  “There’s a problem at the cemetery.”

            Mr. Phelps’s head tilted.  A problem at the cemetery?  He thought to himself as he grasped the door handle.  In truth, there was never a problem at the cemetery.  It was the one thing that he could actually count on.  Dig a hole.  Put the body in it.  Cover the hole, then leave me alone.  Those were his rules.  Along with locking the gates and staying sober, William Phelps cared to know nothing else.

            “Reginald?”  He opened the door and noticed a strange odor emanating from the gangly caretaker.  “What in the bloody hell is that smell?”

            Reginald instinctively checked his current condition then shrugged. His hygiene was not important at the moment.  He removed his cap.

            “Mr. Phelps, sir”  He bowed somewhat.  “I’m sorry to wake you at this hour but I had no other choice.”  Reginald, while having trouble catching his own breath, explained to Phelps what he had witnessed at the graves near the western gate.  William stomped angrily away from the front door; fully aware that he would have to investigate the situation himself.  He would not alert his wife.  Elizabeth would not be interested in the least.

            “Reginald, how many times have I told you?  The more you insist on abusing your body with that poison, the more likely you will experience hallucinations such as these.

            “Yes, sir.  I understand sir.”  Truth be told; Mr. Phelps never once offered Reginald that advice.  Mr. Phelps was not one for advice: sound or otherwise.  “I would agree with you on any other occasion sir but…”

            “But what?”  Mr. Phelps shouted.  “Out with it!”

            “I haven’t touched a drop this evening sir.”

            Mr. Phelps smirked at his subordinate, not knowing whether yet to believe him.  Either way, he needed to investigate.  He pulled on his boots and wrapped a wool muffler around his neck.  It wasn’t all that cold but he hated the cold – the bleak stiffness of the never-ending rain.  It soaked into his marrow and made him forever chilled. 

            The two left the warmth of the lavish dwelling and stepped into the rain.  Without hesitation, a calash pulled up; driven by a large black man Reginald only knew as Moe, and they jumped in.  Reginald hated riding in cabs.  The speed unnerved him so.  He held onto his cap as they turned one corner after another until they arrived at the west gate of the cemetery.

            “How many times have I told you to lock the gates at night?”

            Reginal rubbed the scruff of his chin and reflected upon the logic of this statement.  He thought better of responding and followed Mr. Phelps out of the handsome.

            “Yes, Mr. Phelps sir.”

            At the entrance, Reginald listened intently – with both ears, taking each step as lightly as he could.  The loose gravel would not make that a very easy task.  As quiet as that was, he took notice of nothing out of the ordinary.  No bells were ringing.  They reached the intersection at Walter Badlove’s grave and stopped.  Reginald looked around as if something had quickly been lost.  Mr. Phelps was not pleased.

            “I swear to you, sir.  All these bells were ringing.  If I had to guess, I would say that every grave was ringing sir.”

            “Mr. Winslow.”

            “Sir.”

            “If it is your intention to drink yourself to a point of hallucination every evening, that’s fine with me.  Our customers don’t care.  Just please do me a favor, would you?  Leave me out of it please.”

            If there was one thing that Reginald knew about Mr. Phelps, it was that one could not impress upon him a matter that which he was not familiar with.  Despite this complication, it would be in Reginald’s favor for William to witness the ringing first hand.  Frustrated, Reginald reached down and retrieved a loose stone from the trail with the intention of tossing it at one of the previously ringing headstones.  As if on command, the menacing sound of a bell’s jingle could be heard from the grave of Felicia LeClair.  She had died at the hands of her abusive mother when she was 17 years old; exactly 22 years ago.  The bell on her headstone was ringing with some ferocity that could not be attributed to the wind.

            William Phelps turned his face to the sound.

            “Is that what you woke me for?”  He sneered at Reginald.  “The wind and rain are to blame you fool.”  The caretaker put out his hand and felt not a drop.  Phelps was not blind to this observation.  They both quickly noticed that there was only a slight breeze.  Phelps pulled his coat tighter then instantly snapped his focus to the gravestone directly to his right.

            Kathrine Nichols had been walking down Savile Row on her way home one cold afternoon when she came upon a man sitting upright against a cold door leading to Wellshire’s Butchery.  He was holding his ankle and had a grimaced look upon his face.  It appeared that he had dropped a stack of books as well.  Kathrine stopped to help the man to his feet when she felt a burning pain in her abdomen.  She doubled over and screamed at the dagger stuck in her liver.  She looked up to find the man had vanished.  She took his place in front of the butchery and bled to death.  She was only 30 years old.  She and her sister Martha had owned a dress shop four blocks away.  She had been dead now for a mere 4 years.  Her headstone was one of a handful that was not outfitted with a bell.  Clearly, she would not be found buried alive.  However, the obvious sound of a coffin bell was coming directly from the ground in front of the stone that bore her name. 

            William Phelps took a frightened step back; visibly shaking.  Before either of them had an opportunity to understand the situation, the cacophony of bells could be heard from all directions.

            “Reginald.”

            “Sir?”

            “Run and get Constable Hildebrandt.”  Reginald cocked his head slightly but remained in place.  Phelps expressed his urgency.

            “Reginald!”

4:47 A.M.

Quintin Phillips

            The always sharpened blade of Quintin’s shovel penetrated the cold earth like melted butter.  He was not very bright, but his utility services could certainly be counted on.  Luckily, his was not the lone shovel at work.  Twenty men of varying size and ages dug at the ground of several graves.  The bells had oddly stopped ringing.  The silence was music to Mr. Phelps’ ears.

            The name engraved on the plaster headstone atop the grave that Quintin Phillips was currently disturbing was Wilhelmina Horvath.  The cause of her death 7 years ago is unknown.  She was found naked floating in the Thames.  It was assumed she had drowned, though there was no sign of foul play. 

They were to simply discover evidence of death; whatever that meant.  Quintin thought that there was evidence of death all around him.  The smell of death rolled towards them on the wind – on the very hills themselves.

“Q” as his mates referred to him, has been a gravedigger as long as he could remember.  He carried his shovel as early as seven years old.  He learned the trade, along with the drink, from his father; an abusive drunk that placed the well being of the dead far about that of himself and his mother.  But still, digging a hole in the earth alongside his father made him happier than anyone.  Now he wished his father hadn’t taken a knife to his mother.  He wouldn’t have had to wrestle that knife from him; that same knife that he plunged into his father’s neck.  Quinten shrugged as he usually did and threw another shovel full of cold dirt to the side of Ms. Horvath’s grave.

His frozen hands blistered and bled as the shovel finally struck wood after an exhausting hour of digging.  With instructions from the ornery constable, who had been standing near the grave the entire time, they were to only open the lids.  There was no sense in bringing the box up if they were truly dead.

“Bleedin waste of time if you ask me,”  Quinten said to his fellows.  “Once you’re off, no comin back from it.”  Nimbly, he jumped and lands square on the top of the wooden casket.  With a pry bar and some extra effort, he opens a portion of the box.  Without any hesitation, he climbs out of the hole; his face white with fear.  His coveralls muddy with dirt and death.

“What is the problem now, Quinten?”  Asked the constable.  But he chose not to wait for an answer.  He removed his cap and peered into the grave.  The gasp that was produced from the copper’s mouth was loud enough to be heard on Church Street.  The lid had been pried open haphazardly and was left in splinters.  Quinten had fallen and he crawled away from the hole.

“Never gaze into an empty grave.”  He said out loud.

Quinten ran up the lane and out of the cemetery; never to be seen again.  Reginald took a step toward the void nervously.  The other diggers toiled away impervious to such distractions.  Mr. Phelps elbowed Reginald aside and glanced down into the broken coffin.

“Empty?”  He looked around at everyone yet no one at all.  He then turned in bewilderment to officer Hildebrandt, who was just as frightened.  “Whatever does this mean?”

In a fury of unbridled haste, Mr. Phelps instructed the other diggers to hurry.  And one by one; all the caskets were opened, and likewise, all the graves were empty. Seven graves in all; the previous occupants: missing.  Truth be told; perhaps missing wasn’t the correct word, as William Phelps was never in attendance during internment, so how could he possibly say for certain that the departed were actually placed in the coffin at the moment of burial.  He scratched at the balding area on the crown of his head.  Reginald did the same.  He always looked up to Mr. Phelps and was confident that he should follow his direction in all matters regarding life and business.  He chose not to mention the whiskey.   

10:15

On the following Thursday evening,

Susan

            Susan Donahue walked briskly through Kennington Park on her way to Cooks Road.  London was wet but not raining.  The wet hung in the air as a mist, turning her bonnet into a soppy napkin.  Her handbag clenched in her gloved hands as she lost her footing and slipped on the wet cobblestones of Cooks Road.  She most certainly would’ve fallen directly on her face had a hand not grasped her delicate arm in time.  She righted herself and immediately turned to see the frail old gentleman that had assisted her. 

            “My dear,” the man exclaimed.  “Are you alright?”

            Susan addressed the slight man.  “Yes, thank you.”  His hand still held her arm.  “I thought someone had pushed me.”  The man, who had introduced himself to her as Charles Beakon, escorted her across the slippery road and inquired.

            “What is a lovely lady such as you doing out at this time of night, in this weather, and in such proximity to the park?”

            “I was leaving the theater and unfortunately, there wasn’t a single carriage available.  I chose to walk.”

            The man named Charles was old but not ancient.  His suit, dark gray with a crisp white shirt front.  His bowler smelled of fresh linseed oil and sat comfortably on a slightly messy head of unkempt silver hair.  There was a fresh growth of stubble on his chin.  Susan had never seen this man before and yet she felt comforted by his presence and welcomed his request to see that she made it home safely.

The man was silent for a block and a half before he asked Susan how she liked her tea.

“Tea?”  She asked, surprised at the notion.  “At this hour?”

“I have a special blend that I keep in a flask for just an occasion.”

The old man unscrewed the top of an antique flask and handed it to her.  She was wary at first; being not much of a drinker and she didn’t think too kindly of drinking from a stranger in public.  She had stopped beneath the glow of a burning streetlamp and glared at the man.  He was at least six full inches shorter than her.  She held the flask to her nose.  This was absurd, what harm would a small sip of tea do to anyone.  It smelled of black licorice and orange peel; very inviting.  When the warm liquid reached her tongue, she was surprised at how delightful it tasted.  She smiled at her small companion and he smiled right back; indicating that he agreed to allow another sip.

Susan handed the flask back and the two continued up Cooks Road.  The mist that was only somewhat heavy had thickened and turned into a solid fog.  So thick, in fact, Susan could barely see anything in front of her.  She stopped, afraid.

“Sir?”  She called out for the old man.  “Charles?”  No answer.  She began to feel something strange on her skin, much like oil, as if the fog were spreading it.  An odd taste traveled to her throat; a taste she was wholly unfamiliar with.  Now, the fog had become so thick she could no longer see.  She panicked and dropped to her knees.  She called out again but was met with only silence.  The last thing she saw was the white glove that was placed over her mouth.  The lights went out.  Forever.

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