Recovery

“Of course, this is a noted black spot for accidents,” the policewoman said with a sniff. “Famous for it.” She reached into the pocket of her luminous jacket and pulled out a tissue.

The couple standing behind the barrier watched her blow her nose and examine the contents of her paper handkerchief. They had been waiting for hours since the collision. They were lucky to have got out of the car; they knew that. But they weren’t talking about it. They stood shivering in the dark, silently thinking of anything other than their brush with mortality.

“There is a story,” the policewoman was suddenly inspired, “- you’ll like this. There is a story of how a couple, just like you, had a crash, bit like yours, on this very stretch of motorway. And when the recovery vehicle came and put their car on the back, they got in with the driver, but it was dark and foggy – bit like it is now – and they didn’t know there was roadworks ahead and they plunged right off the end of the elevated section, splat! Finito, over, done with, gone. Splat.”

The couple shivered – more from the chilly night air than the insensitive copper’s story.

At long last, flashing yellow lights signalled the arrival of their breakdown truck. The policewoman supervised the hauling of what was left of the crumpled car onto the back of the truck and helped the couple up into the driver’s cab. Minutes later, she was waving them off. Lucky, she considered. They could have been in a much worse mess.

“Recovery not here then?” Her colleague roused her from her musings.

“He’s just taken them,” she waved down the empty road.

“What are you talking about?” the other officer said. “They’re standing right there.”

The policewoman stared along the hard shoulder. Two shiny foil blankets were shimmering in the mist. “Er…”

“Here he is now,” the policeman waved down the recovery vehicle that had hove into view. He supervised the securing of the car wreck and the installation of the couple in the cab, while his colleague, dozy cow, stared blankly at the fog.

In the first truck, the driver asked his passengers how they were feeling. But when he received no answer he glanced to his left and saw the seats were empty.

Meanwhile, the second recovery vehicle hurtled on into the night. On the passenger seats, the couple screamed and begged the driver to slow down, their eyes widening and their terror mounting as the end of the road loomed ahead.

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Update

Yesterday I sent the latest draft of my new book, COFFIN DODGERS, to my test readers.  It’s always an anxious time, waiting to hear what they think of it.  It’s the fifth case for my detectives Brough and Miller.  I didn’t think when I wrote their first (Blood & Breakfast) that I would have a series on my hands but here we are.  There’ll be at least another one too…

The Brough and Miller books are fun to write.  I’ve mentioned before how I was three quarters of the way through writing the last one (Murder on the Knees) before I knew who was the killer.  This one is different.  It’s not so much a whodunit as a how-dun-it or why-dun-it, because the identity of the perpetrator is revealed early on. Alongside the investigation, the private lives of the detectives continue to be eventful – I enjoy writing these characters and I think the books have a style of their own: fast and funny and definitely the sweariest things I produce, something that is addressed within the story itself in this new one – but I don’t want to spoil anything.

When the verdicts are in from my test readers, I’ll prepare the manuscript for submission to the publisher.   Once it is on its way, I’ll dive into my next (non-Brough and Miller) book.  Ideas are already coming to the boil for that one…

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Doorstep

Briony opened the door and almost immediately shut it again but the man on the doorstep was too quick. His foot jammed against the post.

“Briony, please!” his face appeared, scrunched up, in the gap. “I’ve come a long way.”

That voice – that Californian accent recognised the world over – at one time would have given Briony a shiver down her spine. But now it was the last thing she wanted to hear.

“Go away, Joe,” she told him. “I’m busy.”

“Can’t I come in?” he pleaded. “Your neighbours are staring at me.”

“Let them,” Briony folded her arms. “You should be used to being looked at, Mr Movie Star.”

“That’s different. I’m not there when the audiences see my work. Listen: I just want a minute of your time. Please, let me come in.”

Briony’s mobile vibrated. A text message from Sally over the road. “Do you know Joe Starr is on your doorstep?”

“Yeah, sad face,” Briony sent back. She was startled when the phone rang and she almost dropped it. “Hello?”

“It’s me – don’t hang up!” The famous actor was calling her from the doorstep. Millions all over the world would kill for a call from him.

“Piss off, Joe!” Briony hung up but she could still hear him from the front step.

“You used to love my calls,” he wheedled, “Our little midnight chats. We had something special.”

“Let it go, Joe.”

“And our Skype calls – they were pretty hot. No one turns me on like you, babe. I think it’s because you really get me, you know? You talked to me like I was a real person – which I am, of course I am. And I don’t get that from anyone. Everyone just wants the movie star, the good looks, the glamour. But you, you talked to me like I was the boy next door. And you listened – I’ve paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to shrinks who don’t listen as well as you. Please, Briony, let me in. Oh, wait.”

She heard him agreeing to pose for photographs with various people in the street. The excited chatter of her neighbours was growing. Soon there was quite a commotion.

Briony managed to close her front door and slide home the bolts and attach the security chain.   She looked at her signed, framed photographs of Joe Starr on the mantelpiece.

Oh Joe, she sighed. Why did you have to be real?

How she wished she’d never followed him on Twitter!

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Sparky

Sparky hopped up onto the kitchen counter at the old woman’s whistle.  His claws and leathery tail clattered on the hard surface. He panted eagerly while she sliced the loaf.

“Thank you, Sparky,” she said.   She pierced the first slice of bread on a long-handled fork and held it out towards her pet. Sparky inhaled, filling his lungs, and then he stretched his mouth as wide as he could and exhaled a steady jet of flame. Within seconds the surface of the bread was browned to perfection. The old woman pulled it from the prongs and turned it over so that Sparky could cook the other side.

“Thank you, Sparky,” she repeated. “Now, one last blast for the butter knife.”

Sparky obliged. The hot knife sank into the slab of butter. The old woman smacked her gums in anticipation. Sparky would be lucky to get the crumbs.

She set him to boiling water for a cup of mint tea while she munched and crunched on her toast. Sparky’s mind wandered as he heated the pot. A recurring memory – or perhaps it was a dream – idled its way into his thoughts.

We were mighty beasts once, the dream reminded him. We soared through the skies and laid waste to our foes, searing the flesh from their bones, vaporising those who challenged our dominion.

What happened to us? The voice of Sparky’s ancestors spoke mournfully in his mind.  Why did we let Man clip our wings?

Centuries of collusion and domestication has reduced out once noble species to little more than a house pet, a working beast – a kitchen appliance!

The water in the pot began to boil. Sparky whistled through his slanting nostrils to summon the old woman from her armchair.

“You’re a good boy, Sparky,” the old woman croaked as she shuffled in, bent almost double by the aches and agues of old age.

She sang as she infused crushed mint leaves in the hot water. Sparky curled up in his basket and dreamt of freedom and the open sky.

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The Message

“Captain, I’m picking up a signal on a covert wavelength.”

“Hmm?” Captain Splot was roused from his daydream by his communications officer. “What’s that, Yoohoo?”

“Captain, I’m picking up a signal on a covert wavelength,” Lieutenant Yoohoo repeated patiently. She was accustomed to the Captain’s absentmindedness. He was always like this when they had gone without adventure for several parsecs.

“Origin?”

“Unknown. Automated translators are working on it now.”

“Good. Let me know as soon as you know what it says.”

“Aye, sir.”

Splot returned to his musings. It had been the dullest mission to deliver grain DNA to a distant settlement where they were as yet unable to download and print off their own food. Now, homeward bound, boredom had set in. The captain was giving serious consideration to deviating from their course and popping over to the Wayward Sector just to annoy the Barclom. They would send out a few ships to intercept and Splot would have a feisty bit of target practice on his hands.

He hailed his trusty Chief Engineer. “How’s things, Mister Murk?”

Murk wiped his proboscis and held it out of the way of his com-link. “All shipshape, Cap’n. I’ll get us home in good time, never you fret.”

“Hmm,” said Splot and a twinkle came to his eye, “Mister Murk, how’s our fuel? Have we enough for a little diversion?”

“I don’t know, Cap’n. How little a diversion might it be?”

“Oh, just, you know, the Wayward Sector…”

“Wahey!” enthused Mister Murk. “I should say so, Cap’n.”

“Set a course for the nearest Barclom outpost, Mister Murk.”

“Aye, sir!”

Splot settled back in his chair and rubbed his hands in anticipation. They were asking for it, the Barclom. Just by existing. Just because they were there.

Lieutenant Yoohoo materialised at his elbow with the translation of the message; it was an invitation to a formal dinner from the Barclom high poobah. “It’s been transmitting for aeons, Captain. The Barclom have wanted peace all this time.”

Splot took the message and deleted it. If the Barclom hadn’t the sense to use open channels, they deserved what they’d got coming.

Formal dinner! Where was the fun in that?

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Brough & Miller ride again

This morning I reached the end of the first draft of my next book, which will be the fifth case for Dedley detectives, Brough and Miller.  And it’s their most gruesome one yet.  It’s called COFFIN DODGERS – I’ll post an extract once I’ve edited the manuscript.

It’s been a different way of working on this one.  I wrote it by hand in three notebooks while travelling on trains.  Not only is it a great way to pass the time on those interminable and invariably delayed journeys, but it was like a return to how I used to do things: first draft by hand, second on a typewriter (remember them?).  This method has slowed me down but I hope the plot is as fast-moving and funny as their other cases.

And now, the editing begins… This is where I find out if the story hangs together and the jokes work.  But not just yet.  I’m taking the rest of the day off.

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Mother’s Day

Jasper’s sisters greeted him on the driveway. Their eyes were bright with relief at seeing him. We didn’t think you’d come, they said. Two of them linked his arms. The others took his bags from the car.
They took him to the kitchen and fussed over him with tea and scones. For all their laughter and small talk, Jasper could see the strain on their faces. The stress of being back at the house was taking its toll. The eldest, Millie, was the worst at hiding her true feelings. Jasper took her aside while the others were playing a rowdy game of cards.
“It might not be you this time,” he tried to cheer her up. “It could be any of us.”
“Look at them,” Millie nodded to the others around the kitchen table, shouting and slapping their hands down whenever two cards matched. “How can I let it be any of them? I’m going to put myself forward. Let her take me. I’ve lived the longest. It should be me.”
“Mother won’t like that,” Jasper was tight-lipped. “You know how she loves her lottery.”
They both glanced up the staircase. Mother was up there, asleep in her four-poster bed. As soon as the sun went down, they would hear the tinkle of the bell from her bedside table. Then they would troop upstairs and say Happy Mother’s Day to her and she would plunge her gnarled claw of a hand into a velvet bag and pull out a numbered ball. Whoever held a ball with the corresponding number was the chosen one. The others would say their goodbyes and withdraw, glad it was over for another year, glad they had not been chosen.
“I have to,” Millie’s chin jutted resolutely. “Who knows, I might be the last? Mother can’t go on forever. This could be the last year.”
“We can hope,” said Jasper. “It seems terrible to say it – our own mother – but let’s hope she won’t wake up and ring the bell.”
As if on cue, the soft tinkling they had come to dread could be heard. Mother was awake and calling for her offspring.
Millie, with a noble expression, began to climb the stairs but Jasper pulled her back and bounded to the top.
“I can’t let you do this, Mill,” he called over his shoulder. Seconds later, he slammed Mother’s door shut behind him.
Millie went back to the kitchen.
“Is it done?” said Trish, the youngest.
“Has he gone?” said Bella with a hopeful glance at the ceiling.
“Brothers are so stupid,” said Althea. “Every year one of them falls for it. But Jasper was our last one. You don’t think –“
“Relax,” said Millie. “We poisoned the scones, remember. By now, they’ll both be quite, quite dead.”
She elbowed her way to a space at the table. Her sisters giggled and parted, glad it was over and they were free at long last. They didn’t know it but next year Millie would take their Mother’s place.
“Deal me in, girls,” she said, with a sly smile. She pinched Althea’s cheek. Her plump, juicy cheek.

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Meanwhile, at the museum…

The loudspeaker announced the museum’s closure for the day. The last of the visitors shuffled to the exit. The old attendant was not sorry to see them go. They were always sticking their fingers into everything – Oh, he knew it was what passed for progress these days: interactivity, they called it. Bright buttons to be pressed. Boxes to put your hands in. And smells – smells, for pity’s sake!

In his opinion, there was nothing wrong with bunging the lot in glass cabinets and then roping off those cabinets so that no one could get within three feet of them. Progress doesn’t necessarily mean better.

He slid the bolt on the front door home and proceeded about his rounds, ensuring doors and windows were shut and locked, lights were off and there was no one in the building. The curator had long gone. Knocked off at lunchtime, the attendant reckoned. Lazy article. Well, good. The attendant preferred to have the place to himself. He liked it quiet, without the irritating noise of irritable schoolchildren, or the clatter of women’s heels on the marble floor, the rumble of the coffee machine, the clink of cutlery on ceramic. Why they had to have a cafe was also beyond his understanding. Why couldn’t the museum just be a museum?

With the turning off of the main lights in the foyer, the building was swathed in shadow and as quiet as the tomb. The attendant smiled to himself. It was his time to enjoy the place without the intrusive presence of anyone else.

He went to the staffroom to make a cuppa. He had long since given up fears that objects would come to life after closing time. He often laughed at the foolishness of his younger self when he had taken on the job decades ago.  Yes, he had been younger then, and so had Harriet, the eager student of antiquities who would come in at lunchtime with her sketchbook and pastels.

Their fiftieth wedding anniversary was fast approaching, not that Harriet would be aware of it. She wasn’t aware of anything much these days, and whenever he visited her she thought he was a policeman in his dark blue uniform with its silver buttons. And with every visit, his heart would suffer another crack, like one of those fragile prehistoric vases pieced together by archaeologists.

He could have taken retirement years ago and have nursed Harriet when her mind had started vanishing. But he hadn’t. He’d preferred to stay at work, where you knew where things were, where objects familiar from years of his presence stood reliably where they had always stood.

He stirred the tea in his ancient mug, chipped and faded, commemorating some long ago jubilee – Harriet had given him that mug. Perhaps I should lock it away somewhere safe, he wondered. Before it gets damaged or destroyed and becomes just another memory of something I used to have.

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Meanwhile, at the Doctor’s

“It’s my sinuses, Doctor. Terrible pressure behind my eyes. I just cannot shift this headache.”
The doctor nodded and smiled. Joe gave himself a tap on the forehead.
“Just here, you know?”
The doctor nodded and smiled again.
“I’ve tried steam, I’ve tried painkillers and I think it might be an infection. Do you think antibiotics will help?”
A few seconds passed before the doctor spoke in his soft, professional voice.
“And what makes you think it’s your sinuses, Mr Roach?”
Joe shifted uncomfortably on his chair.
“Well, I looked it up online,” he shrugged. His jaw dropped. “You don’t think it’s anything more…serious, do you?”
The doctor shook his head and smiled.
“I shouldn’t think so. Let’s take a look at you, shall we?”
Joe hitched his chair closer to the doctor’s. The doctor waved at a screen across a corner of the consultation room.
“Nip behind there and get undressed, will you?”
Joe sat back. “What? It’s just my head.”
The doctor laughed. “Let me reassure you; there’s nothing untoward about my request. Please.”
Puzzled, Joe went behind the screen and took off his clothes. The pressure in his head pounded, making him dizzy. As he undressed, the doctor spoke.
“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Joe. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
“Er…”
Joe stepped from behind the screen.
The doctor’s clothes were pooled on the floor. Standing over them was a huge insect, six feet tall. It was looking at Joe with its bulbous compound eyes. Its mandibles moved and the doctor’s voice came out.
“You’re one of us, Joe. Welcome to the Hive.”
Joe scrambled across the room, frantic to reach the door. He didn’t care that he was naked; he just had to get away.
The skin across his brow rippled and began to split.

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No Refunds

“You startled me!” the old woman gasped.  The young woman did not look apologetic in the slightest.  She waited while the old woman pulled down the metal shutter and secured it with a padlock.  It occurred to her that she could have offered to help but decided against it, choosing instead to remain aloof and businesslike.

The old woman straightened as much as her humpback would allow.

“What can I do for you, dearie?” Her face creased with a smile.  Her ancient eyes glinted like wet pebbles catching sunlight.

“I want a refund,” the young woman said, keeping her lips tight.  She pulled a padded envelope from her bag.  “It doesn’t work.”

The old woman glanced at the packet and shook her head.

“No refunds.  You read the terms and conditions when you placed the order.  You mustn’t have followed the instructions properly.”

“I did!” the young woman protested, her voice cracking.  “All that stuff about opening it at midnight and chanting to the full moon.  I did all of that; God knows what the neighbours thought.  And I waited and it didn’t work.”

The old woman shuffled away from her lock-up, keen to end the interview.  The young woman followed.

“Look, if not my money back how about a replacement?”

The old woman kept walking but the persistent young woman kept following.

“You must have more of this stuff,” she nodded back at the lock-up.  “Don’t make me get trading standards onto you.”

The old woman stopped.  She beckoned for the padded envelope.

“It looks tampered with.  Damaged,” she examined it from all sides.

“It arrived like that,” the young woman shrugged.  “There was some seepage.”

“Ah,” the old woman nodded, “that’s the problem.  You didn’t use enough.”

She hobbled back to the lock-up and fumbled with her keys.  This time, the young woman stooped to help her arthritic fingers with the padlock.  Moments later, the young girl was heading for home with a brand new phial of love potion in her bag.

Following her and closing in with every step was a confused and broken-hearted postman.

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