Demon Drinks

“Having another?” Bexhor hitched himself onto the bar stool next to Cardoom’s.  Cardoom drained the suds from the bottom of his glass.

“Don’t mind if I do!”  He wiped a clawed hand over his pointed chin.  Bexhor beckoned to the barmaid.

“Another one of these for my friend, I’ll have the same.”

The barmaid barely seemed to acknowledge him but she set to fulfilling his order.

“Rough day?” Bexhor clinked his glass against Cardoom’s.  Cardoom grunted.  “Tell me about it.  We’ve never been so busy.  I’m run off my cloven hooves.  I’ve got to go back up there later, do another shift.  But I thought I’d slip in here for a crafty one. It’s not like they can send me to hell for it, is it?”

He laughed; Cardoom didn’t.

“I mean,” Bexhor continued, “Things are worse than ever up there,” he nodded at the ceiling, meaning the world beyond.  “I mean, there’s all the usual stuff: the killings and the maimings and the rapes – I mean, that’s what I signed up for.  But it’s all the low-level stuff – it really takes it out of you.  You know what I mean.  All the pettiness.  All the bitching.  I blame the internet – The boss thought it was one of his better ideas at the time but I think even he’s beginning to regret it.  We just can’t cope.  We haven’t got the staff.  Take tonight, for instance.  I’ve got to go up there, find some miserable wanker in a bedsit and inspire him to attack a celebrity for no reason at all.  And what’s he done, this celebrity?  Expressed concern about refugees!  Now, you know me, I can’t abide a do-gooder but that lot – they’re savage.  They shout down any sign of compassion and are up in arms at the first sign of correction.  It’s getting out of hand.  The selfishness, the small-minded, bigoted, xenophobic nastiness – Makes me feel like a spare part, if I’m honest.  Time was you could whisper in an Englishman’s ear and he’d go and rob a bank or drop his chewing gum on the pavement – I love it when they do that – but now, if they get so much as a whiff of brimstone, they turn on you, and it’s piss off, red skin, take your horns and your pitchfork back where you came from.  I’m telling you, if things carry on the way they’re going, I’m thinking of going over to the other side.  That’s right.  At least, up there, you’re on the right side – frankly, I don’t want to associate with British society anymore; I just hope I won’t be fighting a losing battle.  We’re victims of our own success, you see.  Wrong-doing and wrong-thinking has become the norm for them and woe betide anyone who thinks otherwise.  People who deviate from the new norm are the outlaws.  Doing good is the new doing evil.  Makes you think…

“Fancy another?  I feel like staying here and getting rat-arsed, if I’m honest.  That lot can do my job without me.  Hey!  I wonder if we’ll get redundancy?  We should you know, by rights.  Should be more than enough to invest in a set of wings and a halo…  Hey, love, same again.  And a packet of crisps and all.  Cheers.”


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A Twitter friend asked me to write him a story for his birthday.  Not sure this is what he had in mind, but here it is!

Ciaran slumped against the living room wall.  Everyone else was singing Happy Birthday to his sister – his twin sister; her face was illuminated from below by the candles on the cake, reminding him of those times, years ago, when she would hold a flashlight beneath her chin and scare him with stories about ghosts and escaped killers.  The flames danced in her eyes as she basked in the attention.  Ciaran scowled.  She always loved attention.

Puffing her cheeks out like a glassblower, she extinguished the candles in one hearty breath and received a rapturous round of applause for her efforts.  Make a wish, the guests urged.  Ciaran watched his sister smile a secret smile all to herself – or perhaps it was for his benefit.

Their mother busied herself with a cake knife and a pile of side plates, carving slices and passing them around the assembled friends and family members.  She was laughing, scoffing at Aunt May’s protestations about being on yet another diet, while her husband surreptitiously filled her glass with more champagne.  Ciaran turned his back on this scene of conviviality.  Keep your cake, keep your champagne, he snarled.  Keep your bloody birthday too, sister dear!

His mother flitted by on her way to the kitchen to replenish the canapes.  She paused for a second and exhaled heavily, blowing a wayward strand of hair from her brow.  Steeling herself, she moved on.  Ciaran followed.  He watched as she transferred plates of vol au vents from the refrigerator to a serving platter, which she dressed with sprigs of parsley for garnish.

He stared at her, willing her to remember, willing her to march back in there and stop the party.

Suddenly, his mother straightened.  A shiver ran down her spine and she frowned.  Then, the moment was gone and she breezed back to the party, holding the vol au vents high as she backed through the door.

In a sulk, Ciaran hovered at the sink.  He could hear his sister calling out for a game.  Musical Chairs was mentioned and so was Postman’s Knock.  Ciaran muttered to himself.  How childish, he thought!  Wasn’t it about time she grew up?

His mother returned.  She poured herself a generous glass of wine and downed half of it at once.  She stood at the sink and gazed at the night sky.  She raised the glass in toast.

“To you, son,” her voice caught in her throat.  “Happy birthday.  Your sister would have loved to have you here.”

Ciaran gasped.  Oh, no, she wouldn’t, he wanted to scream.  But of course, he couldn’t.  The ‘accident’ his twin had arranged had put paid to that, put paid to him forever.

And now all that lovely, undivided attention was hers.

Except for quiet moments like this, when their mother retreated into herself and remembered.


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“I’m sorry, darling.  There is no other way.”

Cyril gulped, his eyes fixed on the barrel of the gun his wife was pointing at him.  He raised his hands slowly.  “Celia, please –”

“It’s no use.  Now, hand over the finger and I’ll be on my way and no harm done.”

Cyril looked pained.  So that was what it was all about.  That blasted finger.  More trouble than it was worth, he was sure of it.  And they had only escaped from Nepal by the skin of their teeth.  And for what?  So his wife of twenty years could betray him as soon as they got back to their Buckinghamshire mansion?  After all the adventures they had shared?  After all the scrapes they had got into and the fun they’d had getting out of them again?

Not on his nelly.

“Oh, do hurry up, Cyril.  Pull the finger out.”

The chuk-chuk of a helicopter over the house provided the distraction Cyril needed.  As Celia’s eyes flicked to the ceiling, he karate-chopped her wrist.  She fired the gun – blasting a priceless Oriental vase to smithereens.  Cyril twisted her arm and threw her over his shoulder.  A glass-topped coffee table gave way beneath her and the gun flew across the room.

Husband and wife scrambled for the revolver.  Cyril stamped on Celia’s hand.

“Ow,” she recoiled.  “If only you’d shown this much energy in the bedroom, I might not have had to look elsewhere.”

The remark struck him like a blow to the sternum.  “You’ve been looking elsewhere?”

Celia smirked.  “Might have.  Might not have.  Oh, don’t be such a tiresome bore, old chap.  My lift is here.  Give me the finger and let me go.  I’ve got a buyer lined up already and I’m going to be rich beyond my wildest dreams.”

Cyril reached in his blazer pocket.  His fingers closed around the golden digit, the fabled finger of the Great Cham.  It was said that one kiss of the finger would grant you your heart’s desire.

But there was always a price to pay, a terrible cost.

And now, as he looked down at his treacherous spouse, wiping a trickle of blood from her lip with the back of her hand, he realised what price he must pay.

He dropped the artifact to the carpet.  Celia seized it and laughed in triumph.  She got to her feet and gathered up her bags.  Powerless, Cyril could only watch her go.  It was as though he didn’t know her at all and never had.

“Tell me,” she turned at the door.  “You kissed it, didn’t you?  You kissed the finger.  What did you wish for?”

Cyril sighed.  His shoulders slumped.  “I wished for you to be happy, my love.”


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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.


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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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!


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.


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