TIME SCALES by EW Farnsworth
Sheriff Fatty Millstone’s masseuse Helga first suggested the children’s stories in the park. He was not convinced the venture would be productive, but he spread a blanket on the greensward just where the ox-bow of the river turned back upon itself. Four “special needs” youngsters sat in a half-circle around him while others wandered into the growing crowd of rapt listeners. By the end of that afternoon, fourteen boys and girls sat watching the moon-faced man spin his marvellous tales. The children’s parents listened too—at a distance so as not to break the sheriff’s magic spell.
“And that is the tale of Cthulhu the ancient being. He looked most like an octopus in his head and his tentacles, and he was the most intelligent being on earth.”
A precocious boy nearest Millstone waved his hand in the air. “Is Cthulhu still alive?”
“Some people believe he is alive, only hiding. Next time, I will tell of his self-imposed exile and the meaning of his return.”
A girl shook her red ringlets, her face almost as red as her freckles. “I think the creature deserves to live in peace after his torment. But if he came again, how would we know it?”
The sheriff smiled and shook his head. “That’s precisely the point. No one knows. If you like, I will be here again next Sunday. You can tell your friends they are welcome to attend.”
Helga came forward to shepherd the four special needs children to thank Fatty for telling his tales. “Sheriff, thank you. I must admit I enjoyed your stories as much as the children apparently did.” She was careful to adjust her kerchief so no one could see the tentacles peeking out from her hair. She took care that the children’s octopus features remained covered as she led them away across the lawn and out of the park.
The park was empty in another half hour, so the sheriff rose and folded his blanket. Darkness and cool air was transforming the green public paradise. Soon the fog and mist would wrap the area in mystery. Fatty’s last gesture was to dip his own tentacle into the water where the octopus dwelled in his castle. The two made contact for a moment. Then Millstone retracted his appendage and tucked it in its space.
Resident crows began cawing as the sheriff made his way home down Picklock Lane. He wondered whether he should drop by the Cracked Bell Pub for a pint, but he had a long list of personal tasks to attend to. A light rain was falling, rapidly making the smooth cobbles slick.
Fatty had a remarkable sensorium by which he noticed unusual activity ahead in the shadows. He was not surprised by the appearance of a hunch-backed gnome in his path. The man levelled a pistol at the sheriff as he said, “Your money, or your life!”
The sheriff laughed out loud at the irony of the situation—an armed thief holding up the top law enforcement officer of the precinct.
“You certainly picked the wrong person for your hold up. I never carry money or anything of value—except today I have a blanket I used as my platform in the park. You are welcome to that if you like.” He extended his offering with his tentacle.
A distant street lamp shone on the gnome’s disappointed face. Fatty’s grip on the blanket relaxed so it fell to the street. Deftly, the sheriff used his tentacle to disarm the thief and bind his hands.
“How did you do that, Mister?”
“Never you mind. As you are under arrest for attempted armed robbery, you should tell me all about yourself—and what made you become a highwayman. As I am the sheriff, I have all the time in the world to listen. If you are hungry or thirsty, we could stop by my favourite pub.”
“My bad luck to stick up the sheriff. Since you are offering, I would be grateful for food and drink, but I have nothing to pay for it. And did you not just say you don’t carry money?”
“I run a tab at the Cracked Bell Pub,” the sheriff explained as he picked up his sodden blanket and led the robber to the raised tabard indicating the cracked bell.
Customers crowded the bar and the tables except the one where the sheriff led his prisoner. He ordered two pints with bitters and two white sausages with salted French fries. When Fatty released the man’s hands, the gnome devoured his portion as if he had not eaten in two days. None of the other customers in the pub took any heed of the sheriff or his guest. The sheriff let the gnome gain strength from the sustenance.
“Now that you have eaten, tell me about yourself. Go slow. We have till closing time for you to finish your tale.”
The little man said his name was Purdy Waite from Kent, back of the Cathedral. His family were a mix of fishermen and fishmongers fallen on hard times on account of the plague. He claimed not to have had any success in the highwayman business as he had no experience. “That gun you took off me has never been fired even once.”
Fatty brought out the weapon and a cursory examination proved the gnome had told truth. The gun was not even loaded, so the sheriff pushed it across the table and indicated that the little man could pick it up. Waite wasted no time sticking the thing in his belt.
“Are you going to tell me how you managed to take that weapon away from me in the dark?”
“A sheriff must harbour a few tricks, or he won’t last long in this evil world.”
“Ain’t that the truth! My mother and dad could have used your assistance when three desperate brigands raided our home and stole everything my family had and left them dead and me just barely alive.”
“How long ago did this happen?”
“Four days ago in the evening.”
“Would you recognize the three brigands if you saw them again?”
“I will not forget their cruel faces for the rest of my life.”
The sheriff beckoned to a red-haired man, who appeared instantly at the table. “Mr. Colin Trueheart, I want you to draw as Mr. Waite describes three murderous thieves. When you agree the likenesses match his memory, I want the pictures used as illustrations for his tale of mayhem back of Canterbury Cathedral. I will keep your pint glasses filled till you are done.”
It took only two hours for passable representations to be drawn in charcoal on poster board. “I cannot believe how well Mr. Trueheart has done,” the gnome said.
“Now repeat the entire story of how those three men conducted their raid of your family home. The artist happens to be a newspaper reporter always looking for a story.”
Another hour passed before Trueheart had written the complete story. Fatty asked Waite to sign a statement attesting to the accuracy of the story and the three likenesses. Trueheart then rushed out of the pub toward his office with his copy and illustrations. Meanwhile, the sheriff asked the tapster to post what they had consumed to his tab and escorted Waite to his home where he slept in the guest room till morning.
When the morning paper appeared, the front page was entirely devoted to the armed robbery and murder in Kent. The Hue and Cry had gone out, and before noon the three murderers had been apprehended as they emerged from the cathedral dressed as penitents.
The sheriff accompanied Waite to the police station nearest the cathedral where he presented Waite’s signed deposition and delivered the witness to the sheriff in charge of the case. Fatty made no mention of Waite’s attempt to rob him, and the gnome remained silent about the matter as well.
Only when the three murderers had been confronted by Waite did they confess to their heinous crimes. Satisfied that the law had a clear path to a just resolution, Fatty bade farewell to the gnome in these terms: “I am taking a chance on your good faith. If you disappoint me, I will see you suffer imprisonment or worse. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sir, Sheriff Millstone. I’ll not forget your kindness—the meal, the lodging and the trust. I am going to reopen my family’s business. Perhaps, I can provide fish, mussels or clams for a seafood feast for you and your mates at the Cracked Bell?”
The sheriff rubbed his chin with his hand and smiled. He abruptly turned and began his long journey home. The next morning’s newspapers were full of the story of the miraculous apprehension of the three murderers and their confessions. No mention was made of Millstone’s role in the case, but he did not care for fame, only justice.
Trueheart, who knew the truth, was incensed that Sheriff Millstone derived no credit. He wondered how he could set things right in the broader scheme of things.
“We should rejoice we helped bring evil to justice. You got scant credit for your reportage and drawings. If you want recognition, I could mention your role to Sir Hudibras.”
“Sheriff, like you, I do not need recognition.”
For the next four weeks, the wheels of justice ground slowly in faraway Kent while Sheriff Millstone continued his Sunday story-telling sessions in the park near Picklock Lane. His audience of children had swelled to twenty-five regulars, whose parents formed a separate group, as much enchanted by the stories of Cthulhu as their offspring were.
Events in Kent took a tragic turn when the three murderers escaped from jail and went looking for revenge against their captors—and the prime witness. Purdy Waite was found horribly mutilated from torture and dead in his parents’ home. Millstone deduced the gnome had probably implicated Trueheart and himself as the agents who had put the miscreants in jeopardy.
The sheriff warned the red-haired reporter to be vigilant till the murderers had been found and jailed. He himself wore his bullet-proof vest and packed knives and a pistol for protection. The Wednesday evening after the murderers’ escape, they confronted the sheriff on Picklock Lane as he walked home from his pub. The night was drizzly and the cobbles were wet. The fog was so thick, it was difficult for a man to see his fingers wiggling at the end of his arm.
“Sheriff, stand still. We are here to exact a reckoning for your perfidy.”
Millstone laughed fearlessly.
“Your laughter indicates you do not realize your life is about to end in a few moments. I suggest you say your prayers.”
“Did you allow Purdy Waite the same luxury before you massacred him?”
“The little man should have remained dead when we slew his parents.”
“Now that you have confessed to three murders, I think you should begin to offer up your prayers, but I suspect you are all out of practice.”
A shot rang out, and Millstone mentally triangulated where it must have been fired. In a flash, his tentacle lashed in that direction and connected to the arm that held the gun before the gunman could pull the trigger again. A terrible scream was uttered. “You broke my hand! How did you do that?”
The man’s companions were now frightened. “Rafe, are you all right? What is happening?”
“My hands are bound, Dirk. There may be more than one man against us.”
A slight commotion and the sound of a weapon hitting the cobbles caused Rafe to call out, “What’s happening, Dirk? And Colin? Where are you?”
A muffled moaning sound came through the fog. Another weapon hit the cobbles. Dirk found his voice. “I have been disarmed and bound. My legs are trammelled. All I can do is hop around like a fool.”
“If only you three could see yourselves through the fog!” Sheriff Millstone taunted. “I am going to place you three back to front for the long march back to the Kentish jail.”
The sheriff did as he promised. Soon the three murderers were bound in a row marching to the southeast.
As the unlikely group passed through the pea-soup fog, Rafe kept complaining about his broken hand and threatening to sue for police brutality. The three prisoners took turns falling down, pulling their comrades down too. As dawn broke, Fatty commandeered a farm vehicle, whose driver took him and his prisoners back to Kent. The murderers did nothing but complain about maltreatment.
At the Kentish police station, Millstone turned the three men over to his counterpart.
“I hope this time you will have better luck keeping your prisoners behind bars,” he said. Then he accepted the farmer’s offer to drive him back to Picklock Lane.
The story of the re-taking of the three murderers did not appear until the evening editions of the newspapers. The stories told by the outlaws were outlandish, even bizarre. The man called Rafe spoke of a creature with a giant tentacle coming at him in the thick fog. “I never hope to see the likes of him again. I feel safer behind bars than in the streets, I can tell you.”
His partners-in-crime Dirk and Colin told equally unlikely stories. Like their leader, they bragged about killing the gnome, earning the Magistrate’s special treatment: the murderers were ordered to be kept in leg irons until their trial.
The red-haired reporter had the good sense to ask whether the three desperate men had made it all the way to Picklock Lane. Sheriff Millstone winked over his pint and raised his hand for another for both of them.
“We would not want our citizens to get the impression we were being attacked repeatedly by ruthless criminals, would we?”
“It’s too bad about Purdy Waite, isn’t it?”
“Yes. He was just getting himself on his feet when he became a victim a second time. I am especially aggrieved he won’t be supplying the seafood feast he promised. But that is not his failing, is it?”