House Hunters

The young man pinched the bridge of his nose.  It had been a long day, during which the lesson had been reinforced: you just can’t please some people.  He tried to maintain an air of professional patience while his clients, an elderly couple, dithered and prevaricated.

“I don’t know,” said the old woman.

“I don’t know,” said the old man.  “It’s just not ticking the boxes.”

“No,” said the old woman.

“No,” said the old man.  “The last place you showed us was better.”

“Yes,” said the old woman.

“Yes,” said the old man.  “That place ticked a few boxes.”

The young man couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  “The lighthouse?” he gasped.  “The decommissioned lighthouse?  You hated it.  You said it was too remote.”

“It was,” said the old woman.

“It was,” said the old man.  “And we’d never get any peace.  All those waves crashing about on the rocks.”

“Ooh, no,” said the old woman.

“Ooh, no,” said the old man.

“Let me get this straight,” wailed the young man.  “You’re saying this eighteenth century coach house is worse than the decommissioned lighthouse – and you hated the lighthouse.”

“Yes,” said the old woman.

“Yes,” said the old man.

“So,” the young man could feel one of his headaches coming on, “Let’s review.  You don’t like this place, you didn’t like the lighthouse.  What about the first place I showed you?”

“Which one was that?” said the old woman.

“Which one was that?” said the old man.  “Oh, yes.  The barn conversion.”

“Ooh, no,” said the old woman.

“Ooh, no,” said the old man.  “It didn’t have the wow factor.”

Give me strength, groaned the young man.

“I think it’s your best bet.  Not too noisy, not too quiet.  You’ll get on with the other tenants.”

“Ooh, no!” cried the old woman.

“Ooh, no!” cried the old man.  “We can’t be doing with that.  We can’t be doing with sharing.”

Despite his best efforts, the young man was wilting visibly.  The old man nodded to his wife and drew the young man aside.

“Listen, sonny.  Me and the Mrs have been together all our lives.  Since primary school – before that, even.  And we’ve never spent any time apart.  It’s always been just me and her, her and me, and that’s the way it’s going to be forever and ever, amen.  They want to split us up, put her in a home.  Well, I’m not standing for that.  Oh, no!  But if you’re not up to the job, if you can’t provide the service we’re paying you for – well, we won’t waste any more of your time.”

The young man closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  “So, what’s it going to be, the lighthouse?”

“No,” said the old woman.

“No,” said the old man.  “It’s been a long day.  We’re tired.  You’re tired.  Here will do fine.”

“What, here? But you –” The young man stopped himself.  They had come to a decision at last.  Best not to question it.

“It’s fine, love,” the old woman smiled.

“It’s fine, son,” the old man smiled.  “As long as we’re together.  That’s what matters.”

“Right,” the young man clapped his hands.  “There is just the matter of my fee.”

The old man swiped his finger across his phone.  The device beeped agreeably.  “Bank transfer complete!”  He showed the young man the screen.

“Right,” said the young man.  “Brilliant.  This is it, then.”

“This is it,” said the old woman.

“This is it,” said the old man.

He reached for his wife’s gnarled hand.  The old couple closed their eyes and smiled while the young man sliced open their throats with a razor.

The old couple slumped and toppled into a pool of their commingling blood.  As they died, the young man took out his phone and checked his bank balance.

“Nice.”

He took one last look around the coach house.  Not a bad place in which to spend the rest of eternity, he reckoned.  Especially when you get to share it with the love of your life.

At the door, he called back to the old couple, wondering if they could hear him.

“Happy haunting!”

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Merridew

In my Hector Mortlake books, the plot is interspersed with stories told by other characters.  Here is an extract from the latest, the third adventure, during which Laird Baird recounts a strange encounter from his childhood.

***

When I was what the native speakers around these parts would call a ‘wee boy’, I attended the little school down in the village.  The establishment was an indulgence of my father’s, a kind of patronising, philanthropic gesture.  In reality I believe he was trying to ensure that the next generation of tenants in the crofts on his land were at least halfway literate.  I was sent there, I suspect, to see if my father’s money was being well spent, and it was my sorry lot in life to endure complementary tuition every evening at the feet of my governess, the formidable Miss Trout.

All that is background to the crux of my tale.  One afternoon – I must have been seven or eight years old at the time, if you can imagine such a thing – I was late home from school.  There was no particular reason for it; I was merely dawdling along.  Lollygagging, you might say.  Footling about.  Idling away the time.  I was reluctant to get to Miss Trout’s lessons, which seemed to consist of knocking the local accent out of me.  I was beaten as soundly as a rug, infested as I was with the vowel sounds and cadences of my classmates.But never mind any of that.

There I was, as I say, ambling through the valley, absently admiring nature’s beauty in small details: the hairs on a thistle, the splash of heather across the grass – when my eye fell upon a circle in the sward.  The grass was of a darker colour describing the circumference and the blades seemed to be growing in a different direction to the rest.  I knew what it was at once.

A fairy ring!

The schoolmistress, Miss Gander, had warned us of these things, declaring them to be as deadly as a body of water that has a kelpie in it.

Naturally, as a seven-year-old boy, I was thrilled to bits to find such a phenomenon but the teacher’s words echoed in my mind.  I must not set foot in it or dire consequences would befall me and it would be my own stupid fault.

In the interests of science, namely to see what would happen, I scoured around for a pebble to toss into the centre of the ring.  I was not a bad shot and quite the champion hopscotch player in the school’s tiny yard.

Nothing happened.

My little stone just sat where it landed, exactly as one would expect.

After five minutes of watching, I gave up and turned my back, resuming my homeward course.  I had not gone more than a dozen steps when I was struck on the back of the head by a stone – my stone!  I wheeled around but could see no assailant.  The circle in the grass lay empty.

A chill ran through me and I was covered in goose pimples from the crown to the toe, as though I had very recently been plucked.  An icy breeze curled around my bare knees, tugging at the kilt I was obliged to wear.  On that breeze, or in it, for aught I could tell, came girlish laughter.  I spun around again.

“Who’s there?” I stammered, my throat suddenly dry.

The breeze stopped.  I stood stock still, too terrified to move or to run away.

“Show yourself!” I commanded, doing my best to sound as fearsome as Miss Trout.

The breeze whooshed around me; I tried to swat it away like a swarm of midges.  The air shimmered.  A twisting column filled the fairy ring and a figure appeared – the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.

My height she was, but her slender, elongated limbs made her seem taller.  Her hair was green as luscious grass and bedecked with garlands of daisies.  Her skin was pale.  Opalescent, you might say, and her eyes were large, like perfect emeralds.  Her garments seemed to be fashioned from mist sewn together with cobwebs and studded with dewdrops.

This beautiful creature giggled and my head swam and my heart swam and my entire being was giddy with bliss.

If you have ever been in love, you will have some slight inkling of what I experienced.  I was a seven-year-old boy – what did I know of falling in love?  Now, at ten times that age, I am not sure I know any more on that subject than I did then.

But I knew, deep in the core of my soul, I loved her and I always would.

“I am called Merridew,” she said without speaking.  “What be you?”

“I’m Jonathan,” I somehow managed to get out – or perhaps she plucked it from my head like one of her daisies from a meadow.

“Shall we play?” she smiled and all my insides melted like butter yielding to a heated knife.

We chased around the valley and rolled down the slopes.  We paddled in the burbling brook and hopped from stone to stone.  We blew dandelion clocks and made wishes – until a cold thought struck me: I must have been gone for hours.  Miss Trout would have reported my absence.  Father would be both worried and furious.  He would have men out searching for me, beating the bushes as though I were a recalcitrant grouse.

“I have to go,” I announced, and we were both flooded with sorrow.  “But I’ll come again tomorrow.”

“Aye,” said Merridew sadly.  “If tomorrow comes.  You must tell no one about me, or you will see me no more for as long as you live.”

She stepped into the fairy ring and vanished.  I thought I caught a glimpse of gossamer wings at her shoulder blades but too soon the vision was gone, evaporated and lost, like the sudden awakening from a delicious dream.

I ran home at full pelt, as though that would diminish the punishment I had coming.   Miss Trout was waiting for me on the front steps.  How hideous she was in comparison with my new friend – my new love!

“You are just in time,” she declared.  She marched off to the classroom.  Puzzled, I checked the hall clock.  I was only ten minutes behind my usual homecoming.  How odd!

Needless to say, I took in nothing of Miss Trout’s lessons that evening.  I have some vague memory of her rapping my knuckles with a ruler for something or other.  Nor did I get any sleep that night as I relived the afternoon I had spent with Merridew and I anticipated, with unbearable eagerness, seeing her again the following day.

How the time dragged!  And how I longed to tell someone – anyone! – about my fairy friend.  But she had told me not to and so I did not.

Well, not directly, anyway.

The last hour of the school day was given over to drawing.  Miss Gander doled out coloured chalks for our slates and we were instructed to depict our favourite flowers.  Which seven-year-old boy does not have a favourite flower?  All of them, I imagine.

I lost myself in that hour, the chalks skidding and smudging across the slate until its entire surface was covered.  Miss Gander, touring the room to inspect our efforts, took up my slate and frowned.

“Jonathan Baird, what is this?”

It was my turn to frown.  “Do ye no like it, Miss Gander?”  How Miss Trout would thrash me for that!

“It’s – it’s – beautiful!” the teacher gasped.  “But it’s no exactly what I asked ye to do.”

She showed me my own drawing.

The face of Merridew smiled at me from the slate.

“It’s just lovely.  And the detail!  And technique – how did ye –”

But Miss Gander’s questions were drowned out by a chant that arose from the other bairns.

“Bairdie’s got a girlfriend! Bairdie’s got a girlfriend!” they repeated, to my vexation, embarrassment and mounting fury.  I snatched back the slate and, with tears springing from my eyes, erased the picture with my sleeve.

“She is not!  She is not!” I cried.  My stomach tightened like a fist and I hoped I had not said too much.

After school, I ran and ran, my face still hot with emotion, to the valley and the spot where I had found the fairy ring.

But of course, it was not there.

I have not spoken of it until now.  I tried to live my life in the manner expected of me.  I studied, I grew, I married, became a father and all the rest of it – all out of duty – but nothing, no joy, no feeling ever came close to that meeting with Merridew.

I devoted my time and all the resources I could muster to finding her again.  This library was accumulated over the decades that have elapsed since that lovely afternoon.

But it has all come to naught.  And now my grandson has disappeared – or perhaps he has been taken as punishment for my transgression.  And I fear I shall see neither him nor Merridew again.

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The Wise Knight

“Lance for hire!  Lance for hire!” The man in the burnished armour rode toward the marketplace, proclaiming his availability.  The villagers gathered eagerly.  The children were especially excited by the diversion.  They clamoured to see the stranger and watched with mounting anticipation as the knight dismounted and took up position at the well that marked the centre of the settlement’s only thoroughfare.

He lifted his visor and peered at the faces of the crowd.

“Has no man here employment for me?” he looked from villager to villager.  “No daughter in need of rescue?  No wrongdoing in need of vengeance?”

The villagers could not meet his eye.  They were embarrassed and suddenly their shoes were more interesting.

At last, the reeve stepped forward and cleared his throat.  “Actually, there is something,” he said.

“Oh?” said the knight.  “Go on.”

“For many moons,” the reeve continued, despite the warning glances of his neighbours, “we have been plagued by a vicious beast.  It preys on us; there is not a family here that has not suffered some loss.”

“What manner of beast?” said the knight.  “The slaying of beasts in my specialty.”

“Ah, that is the question,” sighed the reeve.  “For no one has ever seen it.  No one who has survived the sight of it, that is.”

The knight stroked his chin.  “Is there aught else you can tell me?  At what hour does this beast strike?  In what manner does it kill its victims?”

The reeve shook his head and looked sad.  “Again, I have no information.  There seems to be no pattern to its attacks.  It takes the young as well as the old.  The women as well as the men.  The hale as well as the ailing.  There is no warning.  It comes to all.”

The knight frowned.  “You speak in riddles, friend.  You speak of Time.”

The reeve’s eyebrows leapt upward.  “Time does indeed take everyone in the end.”

“And you would like me to stop Time for you?  Is that my charge?”

The villagers looked at the knight with renewed hope shining in their eyes.

“Will you?” said one child.

“Can you?” said another.

The knight’s gauntleted hand tousled the first child’s hair.

“There is only one way to deal with Time,” he said.  “You cannot stop it.  You cannot kill it.  All you can do is fill it with as much life as you can muster.  Spend Time fully, until it runs out.  And when it runs out for you, as it surely must do, you may even welcome it.  And you may go to your rest satisfied in the knowledge that you made the most of the Time that was given to you.”

The villagers mulled it over.  The knight had a point; they hadn’t looked at the matter that way before.

“So you will not help us, Sir Knight?” said the reeve.

“There is no help I can give.”

The knight got back on his horse and rode out of the village.  The inhabitants went back to their business.

Half a league on, a fearsome dragon sprang in front of the horse, causing it to rear up with a scream and unseat the knight.

“How do you do?” said the dragon, licking its lips.  “My name is Time.”

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The Runaways

Spoon answered the door.  His face fell.

“I knew this time would come,” he said flatly.

Lady Ladle held out her arms.  “You don’t have a hug for your mother?   After all this time?  After she’s come all this way?”

Spoon didn’t move.

“Who is it?” called Dish from the living room.

“Nobody,” said Spoon.

“Cereal’s getting soggy,” called Dish.

“In a minute!” Spoon replied.  He stepped out of the apartment and pulled the door shut behind him.  “You should go,” he said coldly.

Lady Ladle reached a hand to touch her son’s concave face.  Spoon froze.  A tear sprang to his mother’s eye.

“How did you find us?  Was it that cat?  I bet it was that cat.”

“It wasn’t the cat.  He was asking about you only the other day.  He’s got a new album out.  Mozart violin concertos.”

“Whoopee.  The little dog, then.”

Lady Ladle blushed.  “Yes.  A spoonful of snacks and he blabbed.  Said you were living up here now.  And that you were still with… him.”

“He has a name.”

Lady Ladle snatched her son’s hand.  “You can come home.  Right now.  With me.  Put this sorry business behind you.  Please!” she implored him.  “Your father – he’s not well.”

Spoon recoiled, shaking his head.  “You won’t guilt me out of this, Mom.  I love Dish and he loves me.  Why don’t you come in and say hello?”

It was Lady Ladle’s turn to recoil.  “You stick a knife in my heart,” she sobbed, holding a handkerchief to her mouth.  She tried another tack.  “When I think of you, in there, spooning – with him!  Listen, son; you were young.  Those were crazy times.  You got caught up in the moment.  Everyone went a little bit crazy when that silly cow tried to launch herself into outer space.  There was something in the air.  Let’s chalk this up to youthful mistakes, shall we?  Come home!  Find a nice spork girl.  Someone top drawer.  Think of your inheritance!”

Spoon shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Mom.  Dish and I belong together.  And that’s all that matters.”

He turned to open the door.

“But – your father…”

Spoon looked back with a sneer.  “Tell him to go fork himself.”

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The Marine Biologist’s Wife

“Here we are then,” Alan pulled up in front of Marc’s house.  “You sure you won’t come to the party?  Put in an appearance?  Stay for a quick one?”

Marc made apologetic faces.  “Can’t.  Tess is coming back tonight.”

Alan nodded.  “The lovely Tess.  Well, no Marine Biologists’ Ball is going to entice you away from that happy reunion.  How long has she been gone?”

“Two months,” said Marc.  “Two long months.”

“That’s some spa treatment!  Must have cost you a fortune.”

“She’s worth it,” Marc opened the door.  “Have a great weekend.”

He got out.

“Won’t be a patch on yours!” Alan laughed.  He reversed and drove off.  Marc stood and watched his workmate go, waving even when there was no chance Alan could see him in the rear-view mirror.

Marc skirted around the lonely seafront property, making his way to the back door below ground level.  Overhead, clouds darkened the sky and beyond the boundaries of the garden, the sea rolled like molten slate.  Marc let himself in, making sure the door was locked and bolted behind him.

Automatic lighting sprang to life as he moved.  He checked readings on the equipment he had ‘borrowed’ from the lab over the past few months.  All being well, he should be able to start returning it, piece by piece, after the weekend.  His life’s work would be done and he – and Tess – would be able to enjoy the rest of their lives together in bliss beside the sea.

She had always been the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  He still couldn’t believe his luck, that she had agreed to marry him.  She could have been an international supermodel, with the world at her feet and the pick of the male population.  But no, she had chosen him.  Plain old Marc.  Who would have guessed marine biology could be such an aphrodisiac?

The experiment had been her idea.  After the boating accident that had disfigured her beauty, she had begged him to help her, to restore her face, to preserve her appearance for all time.

There are species of jellyfish that are to all extents and purposes immortal.  They do not age and they do not die – unless you kill them.  Make me like them, she had said, her voice rasping through the bandages.  Make me beautiful forever.

And so Marc had set to work, conducting research, carrying out trials.  Tess, in agony, had begged him to hurry up, but there was always one more test to do, always one more calculation to make.

Finally, she had taken matter into her own hands and injected herself with the serum he concocted before he agreed it was ready.  Wild, foolish Tess, whose vanity always got the better of her.

Now, home from work, Marc was as eager as she was to see the results.

He pressed his hand against the tank.  “I hope you’re not going to be disappointed, my love,” he said.  “But we must never give up.”

A womanly shape shimmered in the water.  Tess climbed from the tank, her hair drenched, plastered to her face.  She stood before her husband as he peeled her tresses from her cheeks.

“Is it…bad?” she stammered.

Marc’s eyes were round with wonder.  “You’re you again!” he gasped.  “You’re beautiful!  You’re a goddess!”

“Thanks to you, my clever darling,” Tess reached up to touch her face.  “We shall be rich beyond our wildest dreams.”

She drew him into an embrace, enfolding him in her arms.  Marc’s heart attack was instant and fatal.  His skin boiled and his flesh dropped from his bones.

He had forgotten about the sting.

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An epic begins…

Here is the opening to my epic fantasy, NAVARIN, THUNDER AND SHADE, in which I wander into Game of Thrones and Tolkien territory.  Ish.  I hope you’ll want to read the rest.

 

The wizard was dead by the time they got there. He had put up a good fight; it was the green and purple blasts from his hands that had drawn them to the scene, the deadly flashes lighting up the woods and the evening sky like one of the Duke’s beloved fireworks displays.

Broad inspected the wizard’s assailants – what was left of them – ragtag outlaws sprawled in a ring around the deceased magician. “He killed the lot,” he said, grimacing at the twisted remains. The attackers were contorted and scorched as though they had been hit by forceful fire.

“There’s not a mark on him,” said Shade. “They didn’t get near him. Didn’t get the chance.”

Broad raised a quizzical eyebrow; there was no need to give voice to the question.

“What killed him?” Shade said it for him. “Exhaustion, I’d say. Must have used all his energy fighting off these rascals. He just ran out of life.”

“Poor chap,” said Broad. “I wonder why he just didn’t turn them into frogs or something. Why did he obliterate them?”

“They don’t do that frog thing really,” said Shade. “Perhaps he was protecting something. Something these fellows were after.”

“So it wasn’t a random attack in the forest?”

“You know I don’t believe in random,” said Shade. He gestured to the nearest outlaw corpse. Beneath the grime and tatters glinted the armour and insignia of the Duke’s men. Broad gaped; Shade was always the first to pick up on these things. “Have a look in his poke.”

Broad approached the body and stooped over it, one hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case. The wizard was half-lying on the shapeless sack, his fingers clutching it, bunching the neck. Broad had quite a wrestling match on his hands before he could free the bag and peer inside.

“Nothing.” He sounded disappointed.

“Well, this is a waste of time,” said Shade. “I’d stamp my foot if I could.”

Broad glanced at his strange companion. It was true: Shade was fading fast, was hardly corporeal at all. He was like smoke in the shape of a man, and the smoke was thinning, becoming transparent. Broad could make out the stripes of the tree trunks behind him. “And there’s nothing for you…”

Shade managed to shake his head. “We were too late. He was long gone.”

Too late to save the wizard. Too late for Shade to feed.

Broad sprang up and did a quick tour of the outlaws. He found one slumped against the trunk of an oak, with breath still rasping through a hole where his throat used to be. “Here’s one!” he cried. “He might be enough for a snack.”

Shade floated over as though wafted by a breeze. Broad turned his back and walked off; it made him uncomfortable whenever his companion fed. But we all have to eat.

“Just don’t make that sucking noise,” he pleaded without turning around.

“I don’t suck,” Shade was indignant. He swooped over the dying man.

“Matter of opinion,” Broad muttered. He tried to think of something else while Shade replenished himself. He was being ungenerous; he knew that. If it was not for Shade, Broad would have died many years ago, but would death have been worse than being joined to the weird creature for the rest of his days? Sometimes, Broad thought it might not.

“Hurrah!” cried Shade, turning cartwheels across the clearing. He bounced around, full of vim and vigour until a baleful look from his human companion prompted him to contain himself. He was always the same after a feed, so full of life. “His name was Jolf,” he reported. “He was in the Duke’s guard and was going to ask somebody called Rosahild to marry him. Well, I guess that’s never going to happen.”

“What else? Was he in the know, this Jolf? Why was a pack of guards disguised as outlaws and attacking a wizard?”

Shade shrugged. “Jolf was along to make up the numbers, to add a bit of muscle. He wasn’t party to the finer details.”

Broad surveyed the scene again. Finer details. Absolute bloody shambles, more like, with emphasis on the bloody. The Duke was renowned for, among other things, his hatred of wizardry. Was that behind this attack gone wrong?   Or was that the intended result, the death of the magician? Or was there something else?

“You’re thinking again,” Shade teased. “I can tell. You get that crease in your brow.”

Broad swatted at him and the backs of his fingers came into contact with something like lumpy fog. Shade was always more solid after a feed. He struck a pose.

“Yes, yes, muscles, you said,” said Broad. “Very nice.”

Shade stuck out his tongue. “They won’t last, I know. Not like yours, Mister Carcass of Beef.”

But Broad did not want to be drawn into one of Shade’s bickering matches. He walked away so he could look back at the scene from a distance and try to take it all in as a whole, to picture the way it might have played out. The wizard had been surprised. Surrounded. These two blocked the path in front, those two must have crept up behind. These four must have dropped out of the trees…

“We should get moving,” Shade advised. “While it’s still dark and I’ve got my strength – well, technically speaking, good buddy Jolf’s strength.”

“Shouldn’t we bury them first?” asked Broad. “The wizard at least.”

Shade pulled a face. His features were temporarily those of the late guard Jolf. “Waste of time. Let the wolves have them for supper.”

“Doesn’t seem right,” said Broad. “Doesn’t seem respectful.”

Shade let out a long-suffering sigh. Humans and their ways. “You’re too squeamish about your dead,” he scolded. “They are gone, all gone. What’s left is just meat. Honestly. Let the wolves benefit not the worms.”

“But someone should say something, at least.”

“What? Like don’t come back and haunt us? Don’t get up again? It’s hollow superstition; I keep telling you. Dead is dead is dead.”

A howl, not as far off as Broad would have liked, settled the matter. They would get moving to avoid being an entrée for the banquet that lay waiting for the wolves. Instead, thought Broad, we shall be more of a running buffet.

He paused to retrieve the wizard’s poke and, murmuring apologies, hurried after Shade who, with Jolf’s long strides, was already some distance ahead.

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A Sense of Belonging

Faisal was sweating.  The a/c on the overcrowded train wasn’t working, and the bulky overcoat he was sweltering in didn’t help.  They’re looking at me – Everyone in this carriage is looking at me!  Panic stirred the already-jittery butterflies in the pit of his stomach.  He felt sick and his throat was parched.  There was a bottle of water in his backpack but no room to manoeuvre.

They’re looking right through me, right through my overcoat.  They know!

Breathe!

Asif had told him: If your nerves get the better of you, just breathe.  Count to ten.  Breathe. Stay focussed.  Calm yourself.

After a seemingly interminable approach to Birmingham’s New Street station, the train juddered to a halt with a lazy screech.  Commuters squeezed from the doors like so much lumpy toothpaste.  Some of them glanced at Faisal and nervously hurried on their way.

They can see!  They know!

Faisal was caught up in the tide of travellers, surging up the escalators like salmon heading upstream.  So many people going about their daily business with the same dead look in their eyes.

Faisal and the Group were about to change all that.

It was Asif who had introduced him to the Group.  “I’ve noticed you,” he’d said, “Coming out of the mosque.  You’re a bit of a loner, aren’t you?  Keep yourself to yourself.”

Faisal, blushing, had looked away.  Asif had large brown eyes and long, curling eyelashes that, on a woman, would have been beautiful…  Faisal shifted uncomfortably.

“I want you to meet some of the guys,” Asif had led him aside.  “They’re good people.  They’ll give you what you lack.”

“Oh?” Faisal had met the beautiful stare.  “And what’s that?”

Asif had smiled and lowered his voice.  “A sense of belonging.”

The Group met in secret, in someone’s uncle’s warehouse.  Faisal was made to swear he would not breathe a word of any of it to a living soul.  That was easy – he had always kept his thoughts private and wasn’t close to anyone.

But now there was Asif…

They drilled him for weeks.  Every step of the plan, every move was rehearsed and practised.  There was even a stopwatch.  The date was chosen and the time.  The early morning rush hour.

“That’s when we’ll have the most impact,” Asif’s dark eyes were wide with anticipation.  “One moment.  Our moment – and it will be bright and shining and glorious.”

Faisal squeezed through the ticket gate – not easy, given the overcoat and the backpack.  He waddled to his appointed spot on the concourse, near a sandwich shop, careful not to catch the eye of the security staff in their peaked caps and hi-vis tabards.  Unsuspecting commuters jostled past, caught up in their individual drudgery.  Faisal wiped sweat from his brow.  The seconds ticked away.

Across the way, other members of the Group were in place, all in overcoats, all checking their watches.  And there was Asif, over at a handbag kiosk.  His eyes met Faisal’s.  Asif smiled.  Faisal’s nausea flipped his stomach and the feeling became something else, something that turned his legs to jelly.

For you, Asif…

Faisal shrugged off his backpack and took out the device he had carried from home.  He pressed a button and – Boom! – a disco version of I Am What I Am blasted out.  Around the station, members of the Group shed their overcoats to reveal leotards in vivid colours with sequins and feathers.  The flash mob began and Asif was right: it was bright and shining and glorious.

New-Street-Station-13

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The Knife

The tinkle of the little porcelain bell his mother kept at her bedside summoned Rick to her chamber.  He hurried to her door without delay – the bell always signalled something important.

He knocked softly.

“Come in.”  His mother’s voice wheezed.  The effort to call out cost her a couple of minutes of wracking coughs.  Rick cringed to hear it.  Mother was surely in her last days – but then, he had thought so for as long as he could remember.  Still she clung to life.

But today she had rung the bell.

He pushed the door open just enough to admit his slender frame over the threshold.

The room was in darkness, as always.  Thick curtains kept the daylight at bay and the air was thick and stale, hot and pestilent, as though every cough that had ever issued from her birdlike body was still there, hanging in front of his face.

She beckoned him to her bedside.  Rick could hardly bear to look at her but the sight of him had the opposite effect on her.  His mother seemed suddenly invigorated.  She managed to sit up.

“Son!” she gasped.  If she didn’t actually use her voice, the coughing would sometimes let her off.  “How you’ve grown!  I forget – the days go by and I forget.”  She reached for his hand but Rick contrived to keep just beyond her reach.  “Here!” she stretched to reach something from the bedside table.  Bottles of medicines and jars of pills plunged to floor.  Her hand seized on a parcel, like the talon of an osprey snatching a fish from a stream.  She sat back, panting until she recovered from the exertion, and then her spindly fingers plucked at the parcel, unwrapping the cloth that enclosed the contents.

“It is time,” she announced, her watery eyes gleaming with pride.  “You are old enough now.”

Rick recognised the object at once: his father’s knife!  He had seen it before, on illicit incursions into his mother’s room, while she was sleeping, and had marvelled at its sleekness, its beauty, its silent power…

“Take it!” She offered up the knife on the cloth.  Rick did not need to be told twice.  His fingers closed around the hilt and he twisted his fist this way and that so he could examine the blade from every angle.  The weapon felt light in his grasp; his mother seemed to read his thoughts.

“Do not be deceived!” she warned.  “It feels like a feather but it has the power to take a life in one stroke.  And that is a heavy responsibility for a young man’s heart.  Use it sparingly – it were better not used at all – but the having of it is enough.  You are a man now, my son, and it is fitting your father’s blade should be yours.”

Rick was barely listening.  He was captivated by the blade’s edge.   How many ribs had it scraped against?  And whose?  How many throats had it sliced?  How many eyes had it gouged?  Cheeks slashed?  Bellies broached?

It looked completely new, unused.

But that could not be true.  Tales of his father, who had died while Rick was coiled in the womb, danced in his memory.  It had been a knife that had taken his father’s life.  But whose?  For surely the victor in any combat claimed the loser’s blade?  And yet, here it was, unmarked and solitary.

Rick found his mother’s eyes were on him.  With hawk-like acuity, she looked into his soul.

“Ah, your father… It is time you heard the truth.  Your dad fell on his own knife and bled to death before I found him.  Stupid twat.  I’d told him to fix that bit of stair carpet countless times but did he?  Did he bollocks!  Now, be a sweetheart and fetch me forty Superkings before the shop shuts.  You’ll be all right going through the precinct at this time of night with that penknife in your pocket.  Go on; piss off out of it.  Make your mother proud.”

Rick stuffed the knife into his tracksuit bottoms and strode out with his head held high.

white-knife-hand-md

 

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The Legend of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Me

Like most people I first came into contact with Tarzan via one of the many versions of the character.  In my case it was the Ron Ely TV series, closely followed by the Johnny Weissmuller films.  In fact, it took me quite a while before I approached the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a writer who has had a profound effect on my imagination and the kinds of things I write about in my books and short stories.

Now this new film, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN has a go at bringing the Lord of the Apes to a modern audience  – and it succeeds, without having to contemporise the setting or impose some latter-day values onto proceedings.   Where other recent versions have made Tarzan a kind of environmental warrior, this one lets the character’s duality come to the fore.  It’s not just a question of man/animal but decent/uncivilised.   Here we see the horrors wrought by so-called civilisation, as white male capitalists commit atrocities in the name of financial gain.  In this case it’s the Belgian exploitation of the Congo Basin, enslaving the locals, double-crossing a chieftain, kidnapping a not-so defenceless woman, in the pursuit of blood diamonds.  Tarzan aka John Clayton III aka Lord Greystoke aka Alexander Skarsgard aka one of the fittest men on the planet, is at first reluctant to leave his stately home and go back to Africa, having adapted to life in a shirt and tie and an impeccable cut glass accent.  Once back though, his former instincts resurface and his specially developed abilities are soon called into play when feisty wife Jane (Margot Robbie) becomes a pawn in the machinations of boo hiss villain Rom (Christoph Waltz).  Samuel L Jackson is along for the ride, providing most of the humour – it is through his eyes that we mostly see Tarzan in his element.  The growing friendship between the two men also provides one of the film’s most feel-good moments.

For the fans, the script is peppered with references to earlier versions, acknowledging the character’s place in cultural history for over a century, although these are throwaway moments that do not puncture the film’s integrity and the world it conjures.

The action sequences are fast-paced, the animals excellently presented – even the ostriches are scary.  The resolution is satisfying and apt.  The good end happily and the bad unhappily – which, Oscar Wilde tells us – is what fiction means.

_B4B1734.dng

Alexander (Skarsgard) the Great

Years ago, I had my own idea for a version of Tarzan.  It eventually became my novel JUNGLE OUT THERE, which is still out there as an ebook.  In my story, a character called Man, his aristocratic wife Lady Jane, and their adopted son, Baby, move to a semi-detached house in Dedley – a fictionalised version of my own home town.  In the book, I poke a lot of fun at the characters, but more importantly, I satirise the way we live today.  Have a butcher’s at the book here.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s work has more directly influenced my science fiction.  My wild west sci-fi trilogy set on the cowboy planet VULTURES’ MOON owes much to his Barsoom novels and also his Westerns.  (The film version of JOHN CARTER is my all-time fave!) Mosey on over to the first in the series here.

Above all, the cinematic quality of Burroughs’s writing – some of it published while film was still developing its own language – has influenced the way I write.  Nothing is too sensational or fantastical.  If you can imagine it, you can write about it.  And genre fiction is nothing to be ashamed of!

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Blowing my own trumpet (not like that!)

It’s not every day you achieve a life goal.  Today I achieved two of mine at one fell swoop with the publication of my 26th novel, YOUNG GIFTED AND DEADLY.

young gifted and deadly

Why 26?

I decided about 22 books ago that I would set myself the challenge of writing a book for each letter of the alphabet and, by Jingo, I’ve done it!  There’s a list below this if you don’t believe me, the A to Z of my fiction.  I’m pretty pleased about it, I can tell you, and rather proud of myself.  The awkward letters, like Q, X and Z, ended up sparking some of my most inventive work.  See below for further details.

And the second life goal?

It’s been a lifelong dream to get a book in print, an actual book you can hold in your hands and turn the pages in the old-fashioned way.  From today, you can order a paperback version of YOUNG GIFTED AND DEADLY, and I hope you do, all those people who’ve been resisting my work because you’re holding out for hard copy.  Well, here it is!  Get reading and let me know what you think!

What’s next?

I’m already working on Book 27, which will complete the Hector Mortlake trilogy (see K and X on the list) and then I’m going to focus on scripts and screenplays for a bit.

But first, I’m going to raise a glass to myself.  I think I’ve earned it.  Yay, me!

 

 
A The Assassin and his Sister

A Comedy of Murders – inspired by minor characters in Verdi’s Rigoletto

The+Assassin+and+His+Sister

 

21/05/13
B Blood & Breakfast

West Midlands Noir – The first case for Dedley detectives Brough and Miller.  In the first draft, the police hardly appeared at all but I found I enjoyed writing them and so reimagined the whole story.  My intended Nordic Noir spoof became the springboard for a series of comic crime novels, of which there are currently eight.

Blood+&+Breakfast

 

28/06/12
C Coffin Dodgers

Brough and Miller’s 5th investigation

 

 Coffin+Dodgers 01/07/14
D Drinkwater’s Daughter

A Tale of Highwaymen – historical fantasy, a love triangle and some folk ballads.

 

Drinkwaters+Daughter

23/10/13
E Escape from Vultures’ Moon

The third ride with Jed and Horse

 Escape+From+Vultures'+Moon 23/11/15
F The Footprints of the Fiend

Brough and Miller’s 3rd investigation

The+Footprints+of+the+Fiend

 

01/05/13
G Grey Ladies

Brough and Miller’s 2nd investigation

 Grey+Ladies 05/12/12
H Hospital Corners

Brough and Miller’s 6th investigation

 

 Hospital+Corners 06/11/14
I I Am The Cat

Dick Whittington’s companion tells his side of the story

I+AM+THE+CAT

 

25/09/12
J Jungle Out There

A suburban adventure in which a Tarzan-like figure and his family move to Dedley. A nod to the master, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but my Vultures’ Moon books owe a lot to his Barsoom chronicles.

Jungle+Out+There

 

21/10/14
K Kiss of the Water Nymph

The first Hector Mortlake adventure – If Oscar Wilde did Hammer Horror, it might turn out like this.

 

 Kiss+of+the+Water+Nymph 20/01/15
L Leporello on the Lam

My debut novel! The further Adventures of Don Giovanni’s Man.  Inspiration struck when I was watching a live broadcast of Mozart’s opera from The Met.  A month later, I’d finished the first draft.

Leporello+on+the+Lam

 

01/03/12
M Murder on the Knees

Brough and Miller’s 4th investigation

 

Murder+On+The+Knees

21/07/13
N Navarin, Thunder and Shade

A Fantasy – swords, sorcery and broth. Not so much a Game of Thrones as a round of musical chairs, my go at an epic fantasy and also my longest book to date.

Navarin,+Thunder+and+Shade

 

29/02/16
O Octavius Mint and the Indigo Dragon

The Adventures of an Action Hero who is all mouth and no trousers – sci-fi and smut!

Octavius+Mint+and+the+Indigo+Dragon

 

30/05/12
P Poor Jacky

The Ghost of Dedley Hall – My attempt at a Stephen King, I suppose, mixed with some historical melodrama.  Dedley Hall is based on Himley Hall, so you could go there, if you dare.

 

 Poor+Jacky 17/03/13
Q Quoits & Quotability

A Regency romp – Jane Austen with a gay protagonist.  I went all out with Q words and found it a liberating rather than a constricting factor in my storytelling.

 Quoits+and+Quotability 02/12/15
R The Rough Rude Sea

A Pirate Adventure – This fantasy gets its title from Shakespeare’s Richard II – but you knew that, didn’t you?

 

 The+Rough+Rude+Sea 01/05/13
S Someday My Prince

A Fairy Tale – my most Disneyesque novel and definitely the most kid-friendly!

Someday+my+Prince

 

10/05/12
T Trapping Fog

A Slice of Steampunk – Jack the Ripper gets a supernatural twist

trapping fog

 

02/06/16
U Under the Vultures’ Moon

Jed and Horse ride again in this sequel to Vulture’s Moon

 Under+the+Vultures'+Moon 31/08/14
V Vultures’ Moon

A Space Western – I wanted to write a traditional Western but from the off, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.  As soon as Horse hovered into the valley on the first page, I knew this was going to be a sci-fi story but one which follows the conventions of the Western.

Vultures'+Moon

 

02/10/13
W Where The Bee Sucks

A Tale of Magic and Shakespeare – A satire of Dan Brown’s books about Catholic art, using the cult of Shakespeare authorship instead and set in Stratford upon Avon rather than Venice or Rome.  The title comes from The Tempest.

Where+The+Bee+Sucks

 

08/01/14
X Xolotl Strikes!

The 2nd Hector Mortlake adventure.  Letter X gave me one of my best books – a little bit of research into Aztec deities and I was off.

Xolotl+Strikes!

 

06/10/15
Y Young, Gifted and Deadly

Brough & Miller’s 8th investigation.  My 26th book and the 1st to appear in a paperback edition.

young gifted and deadly

 

21/06/16
Z Zorilla at Large!

Brough & Miller’s 7th investigation.  Letter Z inspired a lot of this whodunit as it turns out.  This is my favourite of the Brough & Miller series – so far!

Zorilla+At+Large! 27/07/15

 

 

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