A Strange Request

Drawing of a skull. Caption reads: "You want Ned's head?"

A Strange Request short story by Iris Carden

The tall, gaunt woman in the long black dress swept through the quiet outer Brisbane street. 

She smiled slightly on overhearing a youthful voice say, “Boomer goth.” The teenager had no idea.

Entering the nondescript bookshop, the woman ignored the bored cashier and walked purposefully to the back wall of the shop.  There she slid the final bookshelf aside, walked through and closed the door behind her.

In the real shop now, she was surrounded by strange objects. Foetuses of various animals, including human, floated in formaldehyde in jars.  Herbs and spices, some mundane, some exotic, some toxic, were clearly labelled in jars on shelves either side of a curtain behind the counter.  Medallions of occult symbols, made from a variety of metals occupied a glass cabinet beneath the counter.  Vials of blood, venom and other liquids were in a small refrigerator to the side of the shop.  Crows in cages and giant spiders in glass boxes were on shelves against the opposite wall.  The whole shop was cluttered, dark and had the vile smell of damp. 

A black cat, which had been lying lazily on the counter, jumped up onto all four paws, legs straight, back arched, tail upright, and hissed before darting to a hiding place in a dark corner.

The woman looked disdainfully at a mummified monkey’s paw. Then she turned her attention to the weaselly little man, with a bald head and long grey beard,  perched on a stool behind the counter.

“You are Augustus Wishlet.” It was a statement, not a question.

“I am,” he replied.  He noticed her walking stick more than her.  It was a black wooden stick, with a handle formed of a silver snake’s head.  The snake had green stones, possibly emeralds, as eyes, and its tail wound round the length of the stick.

“Arabella March. You’ve heard of me.” Again it was a statement.  Bram Stoker had ensured the whole world had heard of her.  Stoker hadn’t been entirely truthful, particularly with respect to her death, but had ensured she was always shown the utmost respect, if not outright fear. She had moved from England to Australia to avoid some of the notoriety. It had made sense of a kind as all her problems had begun with a man moving from Australia to England.  Disappointingly, she found Stoker’s book had preceded her. 

Augustus nodded, sweat beads forming on his bald head.  “How may I help you, Miss March,” he tried to sound casual, but polite. This was not a person he wanted to risk offending in any way.

“I’m told you can get absolutely anything, no matter how obscure.”

“Oh yes, I do have that reputation, and so far no-one has given me a request I couldn’t fulfil.” The emerald eyes seemed to glint at him.

“I need the head of a hanged man. A bare skull will do.” She said it as casually as if asking the greengrocer for a head of cabbage.

Did that snake head move? 

“That’s not an easy request to fulfil. There haven’t been any hangings in Australia since the late nineteen sixties. I suppose it’s possible to rob a grave, but it would take a significant amount of research to find the right one, and it would not be easy to find someone to undertake the job. Then of course, there’s the matter of decomposition and whether the skull would still be intact after so many years.” He sounded doubtful, but was also clearly terrified.

“This is very disappointing. I was informed you could get anything.”

“Well, it is a strange request.  I’m sure I can acquire an appropriate skull, but it may take some time, and quite a bit of money. I would have to find and hire the right person, and for that person to find and exhume the right body. People with that particular skillset are rare, and they charge a great deal.” 

That snake absolutely did move. He was sure of it.

“Money is not an issue, but time most definitely is. I require it before the next full moon.”

“I can’t guarantee that’s possible.” Emerald eyes seemed to glare malevolently.

“There’s an easier, most likely faster, alternative,” Arabella said thoughtfully.  “There is a famous skull that has been in private circulation since the nineteen seventies. You could persuade the current owner to sell.”

“You want Ned’s head?” the small man gasped.

“Ned’s head would do the job nicely,” she replied. “He was definitely hanged, and definitely deserved it. Yes, Ned would be perfect for my purposes. Do you know who has it?”

The head of the snake was no longer on the top of the walking stick, but had moved up on to Arabella’s hand. Its eyes glinted at Augustus menacingly.

He gulped, still staring at the snake rather than at the woman who was looking down on him. “The collector who has it, is very wealthy, and very attached to the skull.  He won’t give it up for any price.”

“Well, then,” she said, “you must use your other skills to acquire it.”

“Impossible,” he said. “This man’s security is state of the art, and, well, he’s known to be a practitioner with even greater powers than yours.  If I attempted to steal the skull, I would be just as dead as Ned himself. I am afraid that Ned’s head is the first request that I cannot fulfil.”

The snake’s head was now on the counter, with its tail following around the stick and over the customer’s hand. The emerald eyes stared, menacing and unblinking, at the shopkeeper.

“You are sure you cannot acquire this object for me?”

The snake slithered its way across the counter and was starting its way up the man’s arm.,

Quivering in fear, pouring sweat and unable to look away from the dark green eyes, he answered quietly, “I’m am not able to.”

“Then give me the name of the person who currently possesses it.” Her voice seemed to float into his mind from a great distance, while the snake reared up, and looked at him face to face, only centimetres apart.

Augustus, transfixed, said quietly.  “I can’t tell you his name, if he found out, he would kill me.”

“Tell me, or I will kill you myself,” she answered, “or I will have Worm do it. She has clearly developed an interest in you.”

“I cannot tell you his name.  He would know and he would kill me.  But you know him already.  Everyone knows him. He is very rich and very famous. You must have seen his yellow billboards everywhere.”

She nodded.  “Worm, we’re leaving.”

The snake instantly returned to its place on the walking stick, and was perfectly still, as if Augustus had only imagined it moving. Arabella turned to leave.

“Oh Miss March,” a suddenly much braver Augustus said to her back. “There’s a fee for information here.”

She turned to look back at him.  “What information?” she asked. “You said yourself you were unable to give me his name.

She opened the bookshelf door and left.

Augustus took a large handkerchief from his trousers pocket and patted down his sweaty head.  He went to the bookshelf door and locked it, checking to be sure it was secure.

He drew aside the heavy black velvet curtain behind the counter, revealing the door to a large room-sized safe.  He opened the door and entered.  In the safe were his most valuable possessions.  In the centre of the room was a pedestal, topped with a glass box that contained an old, very worn, human skull. At the back of the skull a chunk of bone was missing, having been removed during the autopsy after the hanging. Most of the teeth were missing, having been taken by souvenir hunters years before. 

Beside the pedestal, was an old worn leather armchair. Augustus sat, and the cat, having emerged from her hiding place, leapt into his lap. The cat knew that this was their routine at the end of the day, and she curled herself into a silky fur doughnut to purr and be stroked, as her master went through his afternoon ritual of conversing with the skull.

“That was close, Ned,” Augustus said.  “Honestly, I was so scared for a moment there that I almost handed you over to her.  But you and I, we’re so much alike.  We’re both thieves, out of necessity, and neither of us want to kowtow to people like her, people who think money and power put them in charge of us.  I couldn’t give you to  that monster. I couldn’t ever do that to you.”

 Augustus thought a moment, and smiled smugly.  “Can I tell you a secret?  I might have lied a little bit. Well, actually I might have lied a lot. I don’t like rich people who think they own everything and everyone.  You understand that, don’t you?  Of course you do. So now, there’s a billionaire  who’s about to get the surprise of his life.  Oh that old witch woman’s going to come back here furious when she finds out he’s not what I said and he doesn’t have you, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, won’t we? By then, we’ll have thought of something.”

Just as it was every other afternoon, this was an entirely one-sided conversation. Ned, whose real humanity had been irretrievably lost to folklore and whose skull had been lost and then found at least twice before Augustus had finally acquired it, was unable to speak.  Augustus, however, was absolutely certain he could feel a response: that the hanged man agreed with him entirely, and was glad to be safe in his care.

Orsinius Wishlet Stories

Lost and Found was originally a one-off story, until the day I had the idea for A Wish Come True. After that, Orsinius and the world built around him just kept coming back to me.

Series 1 Stories:

Series 2 Stories:

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.


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