Look Upon My Works

Krapinsky placed the palm of his right hand flat against the panel.  A light scanned it and turned green for a positive identification.  The door split in two, each half sliding apart to admit him into the secured area.

There was someone there, a shadowy figure looming over Krapinsky’s work station.  Krapinsky tensed.  Clearing his throat, he inched forward.

“What are you do –”

He relaxed when he recognised the stoop-shouldered form of Ossie, one of the janitorial staff.

“Hey,” he greeted the custodian, “You shouldn’t be in here, Ossie.  My shift is about to start.  Whole lotta classified shit about to go down.”

Ossie shrugged but did not move from the bank of monitors at Krapinsky’s desk.

“Is radio,” he grunted.

Krapinsky pulled a face.  “In a way, yes.  But that’s a very limited way of looking at it.  It’s much more than a radio – in the sense that you mean.  You’re not going to pick up the hit parade on this baby.  In fact, you’re not going to pick up anything at all.  This is for transmission only.  The receivers are in the other wing – Say!  I’ve probably said too much already.  Now, go on, scoot!”

But the janitor remained where he was, staring intently at the equipment.

“You send message.”

“Yes.  That’s what we do here.”

“To who you send message?”

“That’s hardly your concern.  Now, please, get out of here.  If my supervisor catches you, she’ll fire you on the spot.  Me too, probably.”

“Is no matter,” Ossie’s drooping moustache twitched.  “I finish here now.  I finish everywhere.”

Krapinsky frowned.  “What are you tal – Oh, wait, that’s right.  Today was your retirement party, wasn’t it?  How did it go?  Did you save me some cake?”

Ossie ignored the question.

“If you don’t mind me saying,” Krapinsky persisted, “you don’t look old enough for retirement.  I hope they gave you a good package.”

“Is sufficient,” Ossie conceded with a sniff.  “Will cover funeral expenses.”

Krapinsky’s jaw dropped with understanding.  “Oh, Ossie!  Oh, man, I’m so sorry.  Here, take a seat.”

Ossie managed a chuckle.  “I not pop clogs this minute.  But you send message.  You send message for me?”

Krapinsky shook his head.  “I’m sorry, man.  You should go to Western Union or somewhere.”

It was the janitor’s turn to shake his head.

“You send message to space.  This is what you do here.  You send message for me.”

Krapinsky laughed.  “You want to send a message to deep space?  Who to, Ossie?”

Ossie frowned.  “Who you send to?”

“Point taken.”

“You send message into space.  Message travel far.  Many, many years.  Centuries.  But who get message, no one know.”

Krapinsky grinned.  “I guess cleaning this place for years has let you in on our little secret.”

“How long, Mr K?  How long message go before it fade?”

Krapinsky pulled a face.  “Indefinitely, I guess.  This is new technology.  We’ve found a way of wrapping the radio signal in these quantum sub-particles – we call them ‘lamarrs’ – after the actress, you know?  She was a pioneer in wireless technology.  Theoretically, any message transmitted in this way will travel on for ever.  The signal will not degrade.  You see, out there, everything that was ever broadcast: radio, television – is out there, travelling out of our solar system, but by the time it reaches anywhere they might be able to receive it, it will be nothing but sporadic, meaningless nonsense.”

Ossie grunted.  “I know television.”

Krapinsky laughed.  “OK, then; I’ll humour you for a second.  What’s this all about, Ossie?”

The janitor sighed and lowered himself onto a chair.

“Have no family,” he began.  “No kids, nobody, no nothing.  And I never made nothing of my life.”

Krapinsky cut him off.  “Hey!  That’s not so.  You’ve been keeping this place spick and span for what – twenty years.  That’s an important contribution.”

“And tomorrow somebody else will do it.  I never made nothing.  Never wrote nothing, created nothing.  When this – (he tapped the side of his head) – thing inside me, pulls plug, that is end of Ossie, gone forever, finito, kaput.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“But you send message for me.  Message outlive me.”

“Well, yes, the message will outlive everyone you know.”

“Message will go on after world end.”

“Well, yes, it will.  Although, when you consider the asshole currently in the White House, that might not be a long time coming.”

“And when the sun, he burn out and solar system is destroyed…”

“Yes, the message will still be out there, journeying through the universe, when nothing else of us remains, when there is no other indication that humanity ever existed at all.”

Krapinsky blinked.  It was a sobering train of thought.

“And some time, some place, somebody will get message…”

“It’s very possible, when you consider the probability of intelligent life elsewhere.”

Ossie jumped up with a start.  “I look busy.  Supervisor, she come.  Here.”

He handed Krapinsky a folded scrap of paper and bustled out with his mop and bucket.

Krapinsky logged onto the system.  What could it hurt, he reflected?  Along with transmitting the highest achievements of civilisation, the works of Shakespeare, Mozart, Da Vinci and so on, what could it hurt to include a few words from Joe Public, an ordinary guy, in case some far-off alien race believed we were all over-achieving geniuses?

He unfolded the paper and prepared to type.

In an almost child-like scrawl, the janitor had written, My name is Osman Diaz and I was alive

 hedy

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It’s…

“It’s the eighth outbreak within a week,” Elizabeth nodded at the television.  Victor affected a nonchalant grunt, keeping his gaze on his crossword puzzle.  A sheen of sweat coated his forehead.  “And each one is occurring farther south.”

“Hmm?” Victor squirmed behind the newspaper.

“You don’t think…”

“I don’t!” Victor snapped.

Elizabeth arched an eyebrow.  “Why are you so tetchy, darling?”

“I’m not bloody tetchy!” Victor realised he sounded exactly that.  He reached for the remote.  “Let’s watch something else.  Something light.”

Elizabeth placed a hand on her husband’s arm.  “Darling, I know you.  You can’t hide anything from me.”

“I – I’ve got nothing to hide.”  Victor forced himself to look into his wife’s eyes and found he could not.

“Darling… You did – get rid of the – you-know-what.  Didn’t you?”

Victor threw down his paper and let out a roar.

“All right, all right!  Get off my back, woman.  I may not have been entirely honest with you.  No, you’re quite right: I didn’t get rid of it.  I merely – abandoned it.  Somewhere remote, up North.  And I thought that would be the end of it.  Clearly, I was wrong.”

Elizabeth shook her head.  She put the TV news back on.

“That – thing – spreads evil wherever it goes.  Look, Victor; this is on you.  The vandalism.  The violence.  It makes mindless brutes of everyone it encounters.  See what they’ve done to that ambulance!  Those shop windows!  Each other!”

“I didn’t know, did I?”

On screen, a map of the country showed the location of each outbreak.  The path of mayhem and destruction couldn’t be clearer.  Victor’s thing was working its way south.

“We’ll leave!” Victor announced.  “Pack an overnight bag.  We’ll travel light.  We’ll leave the country.  The continent!  We’ll move to Antarctica if we have to.”

“No, darling,” Elizabeth seized her husband’s hands.  “It’s no use.  It will find us.”

“It will buy us time.  I need time to think.”  Victor’s eyes darted.  His heart raced with rising panic.

“We must stand our ground,” Elizabeth looked grimly at the television.  “We must be ready for when it arrives.”

Victor wailed.  “It’s hopeless.  There’s nothing to be done.  We have to run.”

“Darling,” Elizabeth’s tone was even but commanding.  “We have to be prepared.”

Victor gibbered.

“We have to face it,” Elizabeth shook him by the shoulders. “That thing must be destroyed once and for all, or we shall die in the attempt.  Victor, darling, love of my life, you must pull yourself together. Your creation is returning to its creator.”

Victor nodded.  “I’m sorry.”

Elizabeth stroked his cheek and uttered three words that filled him with dread.  “It’s coming home.”

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Demons

Blaylock went through the incantations under his breath as he packed his bag.  He would have to be word-perfect; one slip of the tongue and – well, he didn’t like to think of the consequences.  He weighed bags of salt in his hands.  Would four be enough?  Was there to time to pick up more on the way?  Perhaps the villagers would have some.  It was in their interests, after all.

The Book of Araminth… The weighty tome, rumoured to be bound in human skin, from whence he drew all his arcane knowledge, dare he risk bringing it with him?  Dare he risk leaving it behind, where the wrong hands might come across it?  But to carry it with him – it could only slow him down should the need to run arise.

He decided to take the book to the outskirts of the village where he would stash it in some outbuilding to be retrieved when his work was done.

The Sacred Daggers of Muzardo… so sharp they hurt the eyes that looked upon them.  Blaylock had rolled them in oilcloth, each handle nestled in its own little pouch.  He ran over the formation that must be used to pin a dark entity to an altar: a quincunx, first the centre where the fiend’s heart would be (if these creatures could be said to have hearts), then the corners, top left, bottom right, bottom left, and top right… Or was it top right and then bottom left?

Blaylock couldn’t remember.  He consulted the Araminth.  He’d been right the first time.  It doesn’t pay to second guess – and out in the field, there would be no time for second attempts.

The village had been plagued with hellacious outcasts for weeks.  The villagers had tried everything in their power.  The local holy man had been found, with his insides on the outside, impaled on his own steeple.  The monsters were preying on the young; it was the usual pattern: possession, corruption from within, using the host body to commit atrocities, damning the souls of the possessed into the bargain.

And now, in their desperation, Blaylock had been enlisted.  As a last resort.  It was invariably the case, when consulting a professional demon hunter ought to be the first port of call.  It was as though his clients only truly believed they were battling the dark forces of Hell when everything else had failed.

Well, Blaylock smirked, adjusting his black hat, it meant he could keep his prices high.  Desperate people in desperate times would rain money on their saviour.

He left his greatcoat unbuttoned to allow easy access to the weapons and the vials of holy water in his belt.  He strapped the Sword of Uthorn to his back and hitched the strap of his carryall over his shoulder.

He was ready.

At the door, he paused.

What if you’re not ready? A voice plucked at his mind.  What if you can’t do it?  You’ll probably stumble over the words, you tongue-tied fool!  You won’t have enough salt to draw the pentagram.  You’ll cut yourself on the daggers.  You’ll let those people down.  All those people who have put their faith in you – they’re all going to die, they’re all going to be dragged down to the bowels of Hell, all because you aren’t good enough.  You’re not good enough.  You’re worthless.  Useless, worthless, piece of shit.

Blaylock turned from the door and sat on a chair.

The one demon he couldn’t defeat had him in his clutches, and down in the valley, the village burned and the people screamed.

demon

 

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Meanwhile, in the school hall…

Mr Shelley got to his feet to greet the next couple of parents who were slowly shuffling toward his table.

“Good evening.”  He flashed his teeth in a professional welcome.  “And who do you belong to?”

The woman, in a white dress that was more like a shroud, tottering on ungainly platform soles, opened her eyes wide and pierced the teacher with a stare.  Her face was pale and gaunt and her hair added two feet to her already considerable height; a black cloud over her head, shot through with a streak of white at each temple, like bolts of lightning.

“Victor,” she intoned.  She blinked, slowly, releasing the teacher from her gaze.

“Ah, yes, of course.”  Mr Shelley gestured to some chairs before taking his own seat.  “Please.”

Victor’s mother’s eyes rolled to the chairs and then rolled back again.

“We prefer to stand.”

“Suit yourselves.”  Mr Shelley felt obliged to stand up again.  “Well, as you probably know, I have Victor for Science.  He’s a remarkable boy.  So inquisitive!  So intuitive!  You must be made up.”

Victor’s father’s heavy eyebrows dropped into a frown.  A low groan emitted from somewhere deep within him.

“Made up?” Victor’s mother repeated.  “You mean to insult us?”

“What?  No!  What I mean is, you must be tickled pink – er…” he took in the general pallor of the mother and the disturbing greyness of the father’s complexion.  He reconsidered.  “You must be over the moon.”

“The moon?” the mother pointed at the ceiling.  “It is the wrong time of the month to concern ourselves with that.”

She made a sound that could have been a chuckle, or could just have easily have been the lid of a coffin creaking open.

Mr Shelley laughed uneasily.  “You must be delighted with Victor’s progress.  His test results are off the charts.  I’d say this year’s Science prize is in the bag.  The Nobel Prize too, the way he’s going.”

Victor’s father let out a rumble that could just as well have been a bowling ball falling down a staircase.  Victor’s mother patted his arm.

“Hush, darling,” she purred.  “I am sure the nice teacher is doing his best.”

Victor’s father’s broad, square shoulders rose and fell in a shrug, like a pair of tombstones disturbed by an earth tremor.

“If that is all?”  Victor’s mother widened her eyes again and held out a pale hand.  Mr Shelley took it and it felt like a frozen fish.  Victor’s father slowly extended his hand.  Mr Shelley took it and shook it.  It came loose from the cuff of the large man’s boxy jacket, making a disconcerting popping noise.

“Oh, my God,” Mr Shelley was aghast.  “I had no idea – you had a – your prosthetic hand – I – I’m sorry.”

Victor’s mother snatched the appendage from the mortified teacher’s grasp and secured it in her husband’s pocket.  Her eyebrows arched imperiously.  “There is nothing fake about my husband,” she declared.  “Come, darling; perhaps the needlework teacher will prove more helpful.”

She guided her husband by his tree trunk of an arm and they shuffled away across the hall – but not before she had given the Science teacher a final withering glare.

Mr Shelley lowered himself onto his chair.

“Drink after?” the voice of his colleague from Geography, Mr Stoker, roused him from his stupor.

“Hmm?”

“Who was that pair of horrors?” Stoker nodded at the empty chairs.  “Did they think it was the Halloween disco?”

“What?  Oh.  Victor’s parents.  Bit odd but, well…”

“I don’t think so, mate,” Stoker shook his head.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you know?  Happened before you started here, I suppose.  Your star pupil’s folks died last year.  Some horrible accident.”

“Oh?”

“And that’s not the worst of it.  Day after their funeral, their graves were robbed.  Both bodies nicked!  Never seen again!  What a world, eh?  There’s some right sickos around, I’m telling you.”

Mr Stoker wandered away, muttering to himself.

Mr Shelley felt sick.  He resolved to speak to his Head of Department first thing in the morning.  See if he could get Victor transferred to another class.

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Nail Soup

Old Widow Scoggins heard a knock at her front door.  She forced herself out of her armchair and, leaning over her walking stick, padded across the threadbare carpet, wincing as her joints twinged in protest.  She managed to open the door to reveal a grubby young man, grinning up at her.  His face was dirty, but his smile shone, and his eyes shone, and the old woman couldn’t help smiling back.

A visitor!  How long since I have last had a visitor, she wondered?  Lately, there was only one visitor she was expecting, and she expected him to be tall and bony and wearing a hood.

“Sorry to bother you,” the young man bowed graciously.  “But I was wondering if you could spare a little boiling water for my nail.”

Old Widow Scoggins frowned.  The young man produced the object in question.  It was a nail, to be sure.  About two inches in length and it looked clean enough.  Wouldn’t the young man be better off asked for water to bathe in?

Seeming to understand her confusion, the young man laughed.  “Have you never heard of nail soup, mother?  It is the finest, most delicious dish.  Tell you what: if you let me have the water, I shall let you taste a bowlful of the finest fare I know.”

Without waiting to be invited, the young man brushed past the old woman and headed to the stove.  He shook his head in disappointment.  “Have you no cooking pot larger than these?”

Old Widow Scoggins, intrigued by the prospect of the soup, directed him to a cauldron over the fire.  Usually, she used it to boil her linens.  “Will that do?” she asked.

The young man let out a cry of delight.  He fetched water from the well around the back of the cottage, filled the cauldron and kept the fire well-supplied with wood.  Before long, the water was coming to the boil.  He held up his nail, gave it one last look, and dropped it into the seething cauldron.

“Now, we wait,” he stepped back.

Old Widow Scoggins nodded.  The young man was providing a morning’s entertainment, if nothing else.  The silly sausage!  Soup from water and a nail!  Ridiculous!  But I don’t get many callers, so I’ll see this through to the end…

After half an hour, the young man dipped a ladle into the cauldron.  He blew on it and took a tentative sip.  He pulled a face.  “Needs…something…”  He cast his eyes around the kitchen.

“Salt?” suggested the widow, offering the cruet.

“Bad for you,” said the young man.  “No… something more substantial… Do you have a carrot?”

“I do!” The old woman produced the vegetable.  The young man dropped it into the pot as it was.  A while later, he took another taste.  He wrinkled his nose.  “Something else…An onion?”

The old woman provided the onion.  He dropped it in without peeling it.

A while later, he took another taste.  He shook his head.  “Something else…Parsnips?”

The old woman rummaged in her larder.  “Parsnips!” she cried in triumph.  The young man slung them all into the water.

Two hours passed and still the soup was not ready.  The smell was delicious and the old woman’s stomach rumbled in anticipation.  Perhaps there was something to this nail soup nonsense after all.

“One last thing…” the young man decided.  “Kindly hand me your largest knife.”

Old Woman Scoggins fetched him her carving knife.  She even managed to dip into a curtsey as she handed it to him, handle first.  He laughed and accepted the knife with a bow.

“What’s the last ingredient?” she asked, eager to taste the soup at last.

“Meat,” said the young man, and there was a trace of sadness in his smile as he slashed the old woman’s throat.

At the bottom of the garden path, a tall, bony figure stood watching the cottage.  He was due to visit the widow that day but, he reflected as he leant on his scythe, it looked like someone had beaten him to it.

cauldron

 

 

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Not All Bears

Horace brought his toast with marmalade and his mug of tea into the living room.  He lowered his considerable backside onto the dilapidated sofa and then scanned the vicinity for the TV remote. Ten to one I’m sitting on it, he rolled his eyes, but no: there it was, on the coffee table.  He flicked channels to the local news, hoping he hadn’t missed the weather report.  He was hoping to tend to his bees that afternoon and didn’t fancy being out in the rain.

On screen, the presenter bore a look of restrained alarm as he announced the escape from a nearby zoo of a grizzly bear.  “The public is warned not to approach the animal in any circumstances,” he addressed the camera.  “Advice from the police and zoo officials is to remain indoors until the bear is captured and returned to its secure environment.”

The toast turned to ash in Horace’s mouth.  Typical media sensationalism!  Alarmist nonsense!  What made them think the escapee would pose a danger?  The poor thing was probably terrified.  The zoo was surrounded, Horace knew, by busy dual carriageways.  Buses, lorries, endless streams of cars.  All that noise!  The stink of pollution!  The grizzly wouldn’t know whether he was coming or going.  He’d be confused, terrified!  He’d need reassurance and careful coaxing but what would he get?  He’ll be cornered – men from the zoo in their jeeps, thinking they were on safari, will chase him into a confined space, a car-park, perhaps or a subway.  And then – cowards! – they will shoot from a distance.  A tranquillising dart, if he’s lucky.  Something deadlier if he’s not.

Can’t have grizzly bears roaming around, willy-nilly.  Oh, no.  That would never do.

It was always the way.  Shoot first, hold enquiries later.  Rather than trying to make the animal feel at home and integrated into a place he never wanted to come to.

As he watched the rolling news reports, Horace reached under the collar of his shirt and scratched.  Soon be time for another waxing, he realised.  He was already at pains to shave his face four times a day.

Something heavy thudded against the back door.

Horace padded through the kitchen.  He opened the door.  Blocking out the afternoon sun was the towering silhouette of the escaped grizzly.

“Dave,” Horace said flatly.  “You found me.”

“Need a place to stay,” grunted Dave.  “Keep my head down until the trail goes cold.  Got the Filth on my tail, haven’t I?”

Horace stepped back so Dave could squeeze through the doorway.

“Nice gaff you’ve got here,” he sniffed appreciatively at the kitchen bin.  “We all miss you – at the old place.”

Horace closed the door and pulled down the blinds.

“Make yourself at home,” he sighed.

bear head

 

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Meanwhile, in the stables…

“Joss?” Padraig loomed in the stable doorway.  “What do you think you’re doing at this time of night?”

In the stall, the boy Joss merely sneered.

“I asked you a question, young man.” Padraig stalked across the straw-strewn floor.  He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and wheeled him around.  Anger flashed in Joss’s eyes.  “I swear, if you show me your teeth one more time…”

The boy’s expression softened but Padraig was unnerved.  There was malevolence in those almond-shaped eyes; he had always thought so.  And something altogether impish about the point of his chin and the sharpness of his earlobes.

“Just cleaning out Old Smokey, is all,” Joss affected to smile, as if it was the most natural thing for him to be doing, as if it wasn’t three o’clock in the blasted morning.

He gave the horse a pat on its hind quarters and then showed his palm to Padraig.  “Well, would you look at that?”

The boy’s hand was coated in black powder.  He held it out for the farmer to see.  Padraig recoiled.

“You don’t seem altogether surprised,” Joss approached, holding his dirty hand like a device to ward off demons.  Padraig backed away.

“You – you shouldn’t be here.  Cleaning the stables ain’t your job.”  He stammered and stuttered.

Joss nodded, as though something he suspected had been confirmed.  “This is why you don’t want me in here.”

“Wh – what do you mean?” Padraig’s back was pressed against a wooden pole that kept the ceiling from rushing to the floor.

“You ain’t nothing but a lousy horse thief!” Joss jutted his pointed chin.  “And you can’t even take the trouble to dye them properly.”

“What?” Confusion clouded the farmer’s face.  “No – you’ve got the wrong end of the wrong stick there, boy.  Go back to the house and we’ll talk in the morning.”

“What?  So you can have time to concoct some cock-and-bull story?  I don’t think so.”

In his stall, Old Smokey whinnied and began to stamp.

“Easy, boy,” Joss whispered soothingly.  “Called to me, he did, in my dreams.  And I had to come.”

“Come away!” Padraig urged.  He reached for the boy’s sleeve.  Old Smokey reared up onto his hind legs, neighing shrilly, like a scream of outrage.  Farmer and boy fell back, landing in a heap – a heap of Smokey’s doings, to be precise.

They watched in nervous fascination as Old Smokey kicked his way out of the stall, demolishing the wood with kick after kick.  As the horse bucked and reared, black dust flew from him, revealing the silvery white hue that was his natural colour.

Joss’s eyes widened.  He got to his feet and approached the agitated animal with his hands making placatory gestures.

“Joss!  No!” Padraig cried.  “You’ll be killed!”

The farmer watched in terror as the boy he and Mabel had adopted – had found on their doorstep – leapt onto Smokey’s back in one agile movement.

“Oh, no; it is you who shall be killed, rather,” the boy’s lips parted in a malicious grin.  Smokey threw the last of the dust from his tail and mane, revealing them to be all colours of the rainbow.  From his skull, a bump extruded, extending and stretching and solidifying into a golden horn, straight as any spear and just as deadly.

“Jossy, please!” Padraig sobbed.  “Let me explain!”

But how could he, how could he explain, when he could barely understand it himself?  Old Smokey had appeared in the stable the same night the child had been left at the farmhouse door.  There had been a note, scrawled by an unknown hand:

Care for the beast until its master cometh to claim it. 

That had been fifteen years ago and now – now, as he looked at the boy he had reared as his own, mounted bareback on the unicorn he had been sheltering all these years, now, as boy and beast bore down on him, and the tip of the horn slipped into his guts like a knife into butter,  with the boy laughing and the animal snorting, and the lifeblood coursing out of him, Padraig could not be clear what the note had meant, and which was the master and which the beast?

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An equal opportunities abduction

Hansel heard the music.  It was like someone whispering his name, someone in the distance, someone he couldn’t see.  He lifted himself from his bed, planting his crutch under his arm and lurched over to the bedroom window.  He couldn’t see anyone, but the music was still there.  Above the bustle of the market place, the hubbub of the traders, the gossip of the housewives, and the rolling wheels of Hamelin commerce, the music reached his ears, like the aroma of a freshly-baked pie left on a windowsill to cool…  It was delicious.  It was irresistible.

He pulled a jersey over his pyjama top and a pair of breeches over his pyjama bottoms.  He thrust his stockingless feet into his boots.  There was no time to lace them up, no time to ask his mother’s assistance in that operation.  At nine years of age, Hansel had yet to learn how to lace his own boots.  He would rather let his mother fuss over him, fuss over his useless stump of a foot, that swollen mass of flesh with its squashed-button toes.  Like an elephant’s, he always thought.  Perhaps, when I’m older, I’ll go the whole hog, the whole elephant, and sprout a trunk and flappy ears and everything.

He tottered down the stairs, trying to make as little noise as possible.  Mother was in the kitchen, making bread.  He could hear her singing to herself as she pounded balls of dough on the floury board.  Her song was soft and formless as idly she sang, and Hansel remembered the lullabies she would sing at his bedside when he was younger, or even now, when he was sick and febrile.

He unhooked his hat from the stand in the hall and let himself out, pulling the brim down low and hunching his shoulders.  He didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want to be recognised.  He kept close to the wall as he tapped his way around the perimeter of the marketplace.  The music was faint, but it was still there, urging him on.  Pulling him in the right direction.  Through the market and out of the gates.

“Good morning, Hansel!” boomed the butcher at his stall.  “Off to school?”

Hansel reddened and ignored the man.  He quickened his pace.  Behind him, the butcher shrugged and busied himself with wrapping sausage links for Frau Schnabel.

Outside the town gates, Hansel took the lane that led to distant hills.  Atop the largest of those hills stood a lone tree, a giant of its kind, leafless and foreboding.  But the music told Hansel to wend his way there.

He had reached the foot of the hill when the townsfolk caught up with him.  They were angry and armed with farming implements and household knives, alerted to the disappearance of their children by the panicked schoolteacher who had reported an empty classroom.

“Where is he?” they roared.  “Where is that pied bastard?”

“He’s up here somewhere,” opined the butcher, brandishing a bloodied machete.  “I’ll shove that pipe of his right up his arse.”

“We’ll show him,” vowed several grim-faced traders.  “Taking our children.”

“Do you think they’re all right?” fretted Frau Schnabel, her sausages forgotten, dropped in the dirt.

“I knew we should have paid up,” said the town clerk.  “For getting rid of the rats.  I knew we should have paid him what he asked.”

“And bankrupt the town?” scoffed the butcher.  “His price was too high.”

“And taking our children?  Is that a bargain?” Frau Schnabel gave the butcher a shove.

The townsfolk were arguing among themselves and getting nowhere, but Hansel could still hear the music.  He continued on his way.  The music was inside him now, steeling his nerves, strengthening his muscles.  Even his useless foot was alive, with the music coursing through every nerve, every fibre.  Hansel lumbered up the path that wound around the incline until, at long last, he reached the tree.

A door appeared in the trunk.  Hansel pressed against it but it would not move.  There was no handle, no knocker, not even a keyhole.  Hansel collapsed against it and sobbed.  Too late!  Too late!  Oh, it was just like the games in the playground!  He was always left out, never allowed to join in with the races and running around.  And now, all the children had gone into the tree, and he was left out, left alone, with his crutch and his useless foot.

And then he saw it.  A button to the side of the door.  A square, silver button with a picture of a stick-figure man in a chair, and the chair had wheels…

Hansel pressed the button, holding his breath.  The door slid aside and soft light washed over him.  The music drew him over the threshold and Hansel hobbled in, as the townsfolk arrived at the tree.  The door slid shut, cutting off their commotion, leaving him with just the light and the music.

The townsfolk cursed the tree.  They tried to chop off the silver button.

“You see?  You see?” the butcher cried.  “If we had given in to his wishes, this devilry would be everywhere.  Silver buttons!  Ramps!  Doors that swing in both directions!  Too costly, I tell you!  We did the right thing.”

But Hansel’s mother, with flour up to her elbows, was not convinced.  She flattened herself against the door, which was already fading into the bark, and wept.

The Pied Piper’s proposal would have meant her son, her sweet and lovely boy, would have stood a better chance of making a life for himself in Hamelin.  And now he was gone, and it was all she could hope that wherever he was, wherever the mysterious Piper had taken him, the other children were at last letting him play.

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The Meating

Dom waited in the wings of the village hall stage.  He had been to grander affairs, but he had been delighted to accept the invitation from this remote settlement – it only seemed fitting: the hamlet was not unlike the setting for his film.  He had been feted at Cannes, had wowed them at London’s Fright Fest.  His latest picture was scooping up awards like a ravenous demon harvesting souls.  And, while it may not be the most glamorous occasion, somehow this unknown, unremarkable accolade touched him more deeply than the newly-announced BAFTA nomination.

He could hear the hall filling up.  There was a buzz of conversation and the air fairly prickled with anticipation.  Dom’s palms were sweating.  He wiped them on his trousers.  The last thing he wanted was to give the local mayor or whoever a damp handshake or, God forbid, for the trophy to slip from his grasp and shatter on the floor.

Applause crackled into life as the host of the event strode on from the opposite side of the stage and greeted the audience.  There was a squeal of feedback from the rudimentary p.a. system.  Dom winced.  It was cringeworthy – he wouldn’t bother posting updates of the event on Instagram.  Perhaps it would be better for his burgeoning reputation if no one knew about this backwater beano.

He realised he hadn’t been listening to the undoubtedly fulsome introduction.  His name was being called.  The host was beckoning him onto the stage.  The applause redoubled in volume.

Dom, his throat suddenly dry, stepped out, waving cheerily.  Spotlights glared, causing him to squint.  Dazzled, he reached the podium.  The host shook him by the hand and bade him welcome.

The audience settled.  Dom coughed.

“Thank you.  Thank you for that brilliant reception,” he smiled at the crowd, although he couldn’t see them.  “It’s gratifying to find recognition for one’s work, wherever it may be.  Let me tell you, the sun-drenched beaches of the South of France pale in comparison with the picturesque greenery you have around here.”

He paused.  No one clapped.

“And it thrills me to my core,” Dom continued, “to know that my little project is earning the respect of the industry, the fans of the genre, and most importantly, the general film-going public.  Good people, like you.”

He paused again.  Still no one clapped.

“Let’s cut the bullshit, shall we?” said the host.  He made a gesture and the spotlights snapped off and were replaced by the houselights.  Dom’s eyes widened when he saw that every member of the audience was wearing a cowl.

“Your film,” sneered the host, “has caused us quite a lot of bother in these parts.  Folk snooping around, sticking their noses in our business.”

“What?” Dom blinked away the sweat that was pouring into his eyes.  “The village in my film is not real.  It’s fictitious.  I made it up.”

“Oh, it’s made up, is it?” the host snarled.  “And I suppose the ritual you show in such vivid detail is a child of your imagination as well, is it?”

“Well, yes.  Yes, it is.”

“And yet you depict our customs with documentary accuracy.”

“What?  What is this?  What customs?”

“Mr Bland, your film, The Meating, contains graphic scenes of ritualistic sacrifice, where the Chosen One is stripped of flesh while still alive.  Attendants at the rite then partake of the flesh in the belief that the Chosen One’s attributes will become their own.”

Dom blanched.  He was suddenly aware of the long and curvy blade in the host’s hand.  He backed away only to be prevented from escape by a brace of burly stagehands, each with a knife of his own.

“This is crazy!  It was just a film!  What, do you all want to become film directors, is that it?  You think by eating me alive you’ll all win an Academy Award?”

“Oh, no,” smiled the host.  “I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.”

He made another gesture and a table was wheeled on.  Strapped to it was a figure Dom recognised.

“Judy!”

“You arsehole!” Dom’s wife wrestled against her bonds.  “I told you not to credit me with the screenplay.”

The host handed Dom the long and curvy blade.

“Afterwards, when it’s done, we’d all like you to take a look at some scripts we’ve been working on.”

Dom looked across the crowd.  Every person clutched a manuscript; every eye had an expectant look.  There must be over a hundred of them.  But perhaps one, just one, would show promise…  After all, the whole world was waiting for Dominic Bland’s next project…

His fingers tightened around the handle.

Judy screamed.

 

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The Detective’s Wife

“Sorry, love; I didn’t think you’d still be up.”  Detective Inspector Barry Funt found his wife in their kitchen, nursing a mug of camomile tea.

“You look stressed out,” she rose to help him take off his coat.  “You’re working too hard.  That’s your trouble.”

Funt rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.  “We’re so close.  I can almost taste it.”

Mrs Funt grimaced.  “I’m not sure I’d want to taste a high-profile murder case!”

Funt grunted.  He wasn’t in the mood for levity.  He nodded at the kettle.  “Just boiled?”

Mrs Funt busied herself with a mug and teaspoon.  Barry lowered himself onto a chair at the table and propped his head in his hands.

“All it takes is one slip-up.  Just one,” his speech was interrupted and his words stretched by a yawn.  “They always make one.  Eventually.  But this bugger is clever.  Covers his tracks every time.  Never leaves a trace, not so much as a hair.  But we’ll get him.  Don’t you worry.”

Mrs Funt fetched the milk carton from the fridge.

“But we have had a kind of breakthrough.  The victims are all linked after all.  Bit tenuous but it’s there.  Turns out they all worked for the same children’s home at one time or another.  Some of them had moved away, changed professions – that’s what made it so hard to make the connection.  But they all did, back in the day.  We’re tracking the last few on the list, in case he goes for them next.  Or in case he is one of them.  You hear all sorts, don’t you, about what goes on in some of these places, don’t you?  No wonder our man is unhinged.  Anyone would go stark raving doolally-tap in those circumstances.”

Mrs Funt stirred the tea.  She tapped the spoon on the rim of the mug.

“Makes me look back and think how grateful I was to have decent parents.  Wish I’d appreciated them more at the time.  You don’t, though, do you?  When you’re a kid.  You don’t know when you’re well off.”

Mrs Funt placed the mug before him.

“Sorry, love; me going on.  When your own – I mean, you went into care, didn’t you?  And you turned out all right!”

Mrs Funt turned her back and wiped the counter top with a damp sponge.  It didn’t need it; Mrs Funt knew how to keep a place clean.

“Of course, we’re looking into all the kids who lived there.  Going back decades.  Of course, some of them have changed their names – got themselves adopted, or married, or what-not, so they’ve been harder to trace.  But my money’s on someone with insider knowledge, someone who knows how the police operate.  That’s how he keeps one step ahead of the game, all along the line.  Might even be a copper!  Imagine that!  A copper running rings around the force.  But he’ll slip up eventually.  They always do.”

Mrs Funt froze.  The window over the sink showed a pale reflection of her face, an inscrutable mask, severe beneath the wig she always wore.  Since the experiments

“What makes you think it’s a man?” she asked without turning around.  Her hand slid into a drawer; her fingers closed around the handle of the bread knife.

Funt grunted again.  “Dunno, love,” he shrugged.  “Not being sexist.  But you get a feeling in a case like this.  Copper’s instinct or what-have-you.  No, our man’s a man.  I’d stake my reputation on it.”

Mrs Funt’s hand relaxed and withdrew.  She closed the drawer.  She went to her husband and stroked his thinning hair.

It’s a good thing you’re so crap at your job, my love, she smirked to herself.  Leaving sensitive files around the house.  Talking about cases over the dinner table.  I reckon everything I need to find the last ones on my list is in the briefcase you so carelessly dropped in the hallway.  Two more!  Just two more to go and then, perhaps, I can put what was done to me behind me for good.

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Meanwhile, at the wedding…

“No!  No, you can’t marry her!”  Steven cried from the far end of the aisle.  In the pews, every head turned to see the source of this interruption.

Barry, the groom, shook his head and sighed.  “Ste, mate…”  He took a few steps but Zara, his intended, pulled him back.

“Don’t go to him!  Don’t listen to him!” she hissed.  Behind her veil, her lips curled in a snarl.

But Steven was striding toward the supposedly happy couple and the celebrant, whose lips were pressed together in professional silence.

“She’s not right for you,” Steven announced, his voice rising to the vaulted ceiling.

“You dare!” Lazlo, father of the bride, got to his feet.

“She’s not, mate!” Steven urged.  “Look around you.  Ask yourself a few questions.  Why did she insist on having the ceremony after dark?”

Barry scoffed.  “We have an early flight, so we’re jetting off straight after the do.”

“That’s bollocks, mate.  And why here, in this building?  You do know it’s not – whatsit – consecrated land any more, don’t you?”

Barry shrugged.  “It’ll look good in the photographs; won’t it, babe?”  He gave Zara’s hand a squeeze.

“Oh, will it?”  Steven whipped out his smartphone and snapped a few shots of the congregation.  “Look.”

He thrust the screen in Barry’s face.  “Look, that’s a good one of your mum and dad.  Your brother.  All your lot.  But look…”   He swiped to the next photo.  Barry’s jaw dropped.  In high definition, the pews of the old church stood clearly.  Clearly empty, that is.

He shoved the phone away.  “You’ve got some app or something that’s doing that…”  But he didn’t sound convinced by his own words.

“Mate…”

Behind them, Zara’s family were on their feet.  Their black outfits, more suited to a funeral than a wedding, seemed to fan out, like cloaks.  Like wings.

“Here, love,” Steven thrust a garland of garlic at the bride.  “Something for your bouquet!”

Zara recoiled, hissing like a startled snake.  She tore off her veil, revealing a screaming maw, brimming with needle-like gnashers.

Her father flew to the rafters, screeching and spitting.  Steven pulled out a machete and lopped off the celebrant’s head.

“Here you go, mate,” he handed Barry a wooden stake.  Barry looked at it and blinked.  He seemed to come to his senses and plunged the sharpened stick into his fiancee’s heart.  Zara gaped, dumbstruck, and exploded in a cloud of ashes.

“Now we’re cooking,” grinned Steven, standing back-to-back with his best mate.

“What are you doing the rest of your life?” laughed Barry.

And then the fun really started.

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Dinner Date

Cathy forced herself to stop twiddling with the cutlery.  She had been waiting long enough.  Too long.  How long does it take to go the Gents’?  Depends on what he’s doing in there, she supposed, but even so.  Half an hour.  Half an hour he had left her at the table, looking like she had been stood up.

A hot flash of panic flushed through her.  What if he’d done a runner?  What if he’d climbed out of the window and was already miles away?  It happens.  But would it happen to Cathy?  How could it?  All right, so she had been late.  Three quarters of an hour.  He’d said it didn’t matter.  Perhaps it had mattered after all.

A cold shiver shuddered through her.  What if he’d had an accident?  What if he’d collapsed?  A heart attack!  Or he’d fainted and cracked his head on the edge of a wash basin on his way down?

Cathy scrunched up her napkin in anguish.

Well, sitting there like a lemon wasn’t going to resolve anything.  There was one way to find out for sure.

She rose from her chair and stalked over to the door with the toilet symbols on, trying not to look rushed or panicked.  Just a normal woman, walking normally to the Ladies’ for normal business.

She shoved the door open and found herself in a short corridor with three doors.  One bore a symbol of a woman, one a man, and the third was marked ‘Private’.  Cleaning materials, she supposed.  She pushed the Man door open and gingerly peered inside.  It was empty.  And the window was shut.

She tried the Woman door.  The Ladies was also empty.  Its window was also shut.

Where, then…

She froze.  Sounds emanated from behind the Private door.  Sounds she recognised with a sinking feeling.  Sounds of a couple going at it.

Could it be?  Could it be Wayne and some trollop?  Having a quickie!

She reached for the handle.  Do I really want to see this, she asked herself?  Wouldn’t it be better if I just left, got a cab, blocked his number?

Cathy had to be sure.  She reached for the doorknob, her heart racing, the sound of her blood pumping in her ears.

She twisted and pulled.  Out tumbled two bodies.  One of them was a waiter, his trousers around his ankles.  The other, in a similar state of undress, was Wayne.

“You’re gay?” Cathy gasped.

The men picked themselves up and adjusted their clothing.

“My dear,” said the waiter, “This is not how it may appear.”

Cathy ignored him, focussing all her outrage on her date.

“How could you?  With me sitting out there!”

Wayne frowned.  “Do we know each other, young lady?”

Cathy was aghast.  The look on Wayne’s face was one of bafflement.

“Listen,” the waiter continued.  “Every year, we do this.  On our anniversary.  We come to this place, the place where we first met, and we find a young couple, and for one hour, one sweet and precious hour, we are able to enjoy each other again, enjoy the pleasures of the flesh denied to us for the rest of the year.”

Cathy scowled.  “What is this bullshit?”

“It’s true,” said Wayne, albeit with a voice that was not his own.  “Your beau will be restored to you in due course.  And he will have no memory of this encounter.  I suggest you return to your seat and order yourself a stiff one – a drink, that is.”

The thing inside Wayne smirked and pulled the waiter closer to him, planting tiny kisses on his neck.

“Thing is,” said the waiter, “Had you not been late for dinner, this could have been you.”

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Bear-faced Liars

The detective on the doorstep flashed his warrant card.  At his shoulder, his partner did the same.

“Mr Bear?  We’d like to have a word with you.”

“Oh?” Daddy Bear’s eyebrows went up.  “What about?”

“A girl has gone missing.” He held up a photograph of a pretty face framed by a shock of golden hair.  “We wondered if you might have seen something.  Anything.  Her mother, as you can imagine, is frantic with worry.”

“I can imagine,” said Daddy Bear.  He called over his shoulder.  “Love, have you seen a young girl around here recently?”

“You what, love?”  Mummy Bear came from the kitchen to join her husband in the hallway.  She was holding a tea towel and drying a breakfast bowl.

“Young girl,” said Daddy Bear.  “These policemen are asking questions.”

The corners of Mummy Bear’s mouth turned down and she shook her head.  “Can’t say that I have.  Sorry.”

“Muuuuumm!” came a high voice from the living room.  “I’ve got glue on me!”

Mummy Bear rolled her eyes.  “Kids!  I told him to let it dry.”

She handed her husband the bowl and the towel and padded into the living room.

“It’s a bugger to get off it you don’t leave it to soak,” said Daddy Bear.

The detective frowned.  “What is?  Blood?”

“Porridge,” said Daddy Bear.

“Can we come in for a minute?” the detective stepped forward.  Daddy Bear shrugged and stepped back.

The detective and his partner headed into the living room where they found Mummy Bear trying to tug a chair leg from a young cub’s fur.

“What happened here, then?” the detective took in the scene.

“Bloody cheap furniture,” said Daddy Bear.  “Swedish rubbish, I think.”

A thud from overhead made everyone look at the ceiling.  A panicked look passed between Mummy and Daddy.

“Probably the bed collapsing,” Daddy Bear smiled uneasily.  “Swedish too, I expect.”

“What have you got against the Swedish?” the detective’s eyes narrowed.

“Nothing!” Daddy Bear stammered.  “It’s just that the instructions are so difficult to follow, and you try using an Allen key with paws the size of dinner plates.”

A second thud, louder than the first.

“She’s awake!” cried Baby Bear.

The detectives ran up the stairs.

“Shit,” said Daddy Bear.

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The Makeover

The car pulled up in the clearing.

“You can take off the blindfold now,” said the p.a. flatly.  She got out and opened the door.  Winnie climbed out of the limousine, blinking against the sunlight.

“Here she is, folks!” the host boomed, encouraging the rest of the film crew to clap.  Winnie blushed, her pale green cheeks dotted pink with embarrassment.  The pink turned to red when she saw what had happened during her absence.

“What.  The Hell.  Have you done to my house?” Her jaw dropped, and her eyes widened as she took in the abomination ahead of her.

The walls were fashioned from bricks of gingerbread, glazed and gleaming.  The window panes were transparent sugar sheets and icing, like drifted snow, lay on the sills and on the roof.  Candy canes stood in a vase on the doorstep and the front door was studded with boiled sweets of every colour.

Winnie put her hand over the camera that was trained on her reaction.

“First thoughts?” the host thrust his microphone under Winnie’s chin.

“It’s – horrible.  It’s not what I asked for at all.”

“We played a wild card!” the host laughed, ignoring Winnie’s distress.  “Our design squad has gone for a fairy-tale aesthetic.  Old woman in the woods, lives in an edible house.  It’s a classic!”

“It’s horrible,” Winnie repeated.  “It’s a cliché.  What will people think?”

“They’ll think there lives a woman with style and a sense of humour.”

“They’ll think I’m a wicked witch!”

“Nonsense!  No one thinks that way anymore.  It’s all ‘new-age practitioner’ now, isn’t it?  Alternative medicines?”

Winnie grunted.  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.  Now, piss off, off my property.”

She shoved the host aside.  He rolled his eyes at the camera, pretending to flinch as the front door slammed.

He waved the crew into the bushes.

“Now, viewers,” he addressed the camera with conspiratorial glee, “we’ve installed a brand-new oven in Winnie’s kitchen and we’ve placed hidden cameras in every corner.  Here come two innocent little children; let’s hang back and see what happens…”

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Sis-Boom-Bah!

The pitch cracked open.  The turf was forced apart from below as the crack widened.  Dirt and stones burst from the rift.  Somewhat redundantly, the referee blew his whistle – as if the game hadn’t already come to a halt.  Players, cheerleaders, coaches and linesmen picked themselves up.  The entire stadium watched in fascinated terror as a figure arose from the cleft, a gaping fissure that had not been there only seconds ago.

The figure sprouted up, like a beanstalk rushing to the clouds, until it towered over the arena.  Slender it was and scaly, its skin the deepest green, its eyes like furnaces burning red.  Horned it was, with a sharply angular snout and rows of fangs that gleamed in the floodlights.  It stretched out leathery wings in a show of might, plunging row after row of spectators into the darkness of its shadow.

The crowd held its collective breath as above them the long head turned, and the bright eyes scanned the scene.

And then a voice, from deep within the creature, like thunder on the boil.

“Who summons me to this place?  Who has disturbed my slumber of a thousand years?  Who DARES?”

No one moved.  No one breathed.

The creature sneered.  “Will none of you address me?  Fools!  Prepare to be incinerated!”

The nostrils flared.

“Excuse me?” a voice cut through the silence.  “Mr Dragon, sir?”

The creature’s eyes darted, seeking the source of the shrill, small voice.

“Down here!  Hi!”

The creature stooped and stared.  A fiery glow washed over the tiny mortal, Cherri Malone, as she waved red, white and blue pompoms.

“Is there some kind of a problem here, Mr Dragon?  Only we’re down to the last quarter and our boys are winning.  We’d like to finish the game, if’n you don’t mind.”

Sinuous and serpentine, the creature’s neck swooped around the human girl.

“Game?” the deep voice rumbled.  “You woke me up for some game?”

“Sure!  Well, not on purpose.  But it’s the last game of the season and we’re in with a shot and –”

“SILENCE!”  The creature’s roar caused the cheerleader’s hairdo to collapse.  “Why have you called me?”

“Nobody called you, silly!” Cherri giggled.  “You just showed up and crashed the party.”

Confusion clouded the creature’s countenance.  “Are you sure?  I could have sworn I heard my name… Ritualistic chanting, the lot.”  His gaze swooped around the stadium.  “Did no one call for Sis-Boom-Bah?”

“Oh…” Cherri swatted at the behemoth with a pompom.  “Now I get it.  Your name is Sis-Boom-Bah?  Well, ain’t that a co-inky-dink?”

“Hmm.  Oh, dear, I do feel rather foolish now.  I must apologise.”

The creature stamped an enormous, taloned foot, squashing the turf back into place.  “Please, please continue.  I shall be on my way.”

“No, why don’t you stay and watch,” Cherri grinned.  “There’s popcorn.”

“Temptress!” the creature grinned back.  “Raw will do.  I can cook it myself.”

With that, the creature climbed up onto the roof and stretching out in a reclining posture, settled down to watch the rest of the game.

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The Widow and the Snow

“It’s sticking!” Davey cried, his nose pressed against the window.  Janet pulled him away and drew the curtains.

“Never mind that!  Bed!” she barked, steering the boy toward the stairs.  As he got ready for bed, he babbled about the falling snow and asked her how deep she thought it would be by morning.

“The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you can go out in it,” she reminded him.  She pecked his forehead and turned out the light.

With Davey tucked in, she went downstairs.  The snow was coming down in earnest; the forecasts warned of a countrywide white-out for the weekend and it looked like, for once, they had got it right.  Already the garden was blanketed, already the world outside was muted.  Peaceful and pretty.

Janet steeled herself.  Knowing Davey, he would be up at first light and would hurl himself outdoors without dressing properly.  She put his wellies, his scarf, his bobble hat at the foot of the stairs, hoping to be able to intercept him.

Then she began the preparations for the ritual.  Her late husband’s hat, scarf and gloves, secured in their own suitcase, were fetched out from under the stairs.  Also in the case was the fragile scroll of parchment – there would be time to rehearse the incantation, she hoped.  One day, she knew, she would have to teach Davey the words, the rhythms, the gestures he would need to make it work.

Finally, she fished in the freezer for the Tupperware box that contained the final ingredient.  It would need a few hours to defrost.

Janet shivered, but not from the cold.  Hugging herself, she sat by the kitchen counter, looking at the items she had laid out.  As was usual every year, she wondered whether she should give it a miss.  It was time to move on, time to let Harry go, once and for all.

But Davey needed his father.  The chances of sufficient snowfall were few and far between.  And he was so looking forward to it, to seeing his dad again.

She prised the lid off the plastic container.  The vial glinted at her, its precious contents, like smoke, like pale green smoke, swirled as though to greet her.

“Hello, Henry,” she muttered.  “This is the last time.”

The smoke curled and roiled as though angry.  Janet could imagine her late husband’s voice, pleading, begging.  Find clay! Henry would urge.  Find clay and make me from it.  The snow is too fleeting, too transitory.  Make me from clay and I can stay around.  Davey needs his dad.

Janet snatched up the vial.  Her thumb toyed with the stopper.

“What about what I want?” she whispered.  “What about my needs?”

The smoke glowed angrily.  The glass grew hot in her hand.

“This is the last time, Henry,” she held the bottle to the light.  “When the snow melts, I won’t be putting you back in.  I’m sorry.”

Knocking at the back door startled her.  She almost dropped the vial and that would have been an end to it, her husband’s life-force dashed on the kitchen tiles.

It was Gerald, her neighbour.  Her handsome, hunky neighbour.

“Just checking in!” he grinned.  “Brought my trusty shovel if your path needs clearing!”

Janet hid the vial behind her back.  “You’re very kind,” she pouted.  “Do you remember, inviting me to dinner one night?”

“It still stands,” Gerald beamed, his blue eyes bright in his snow-reddened face.

“Good,” said Janet.  “Because I think I’m ready.”

Behind her back, her thumb flicked the cork from the bottle and the contents dispersed into the air.  Davey would be disappointed, but it was high time he learned that the past is like snow and you shouldn’t try to hang onto it.

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Meanwhile, at the Garden Centre

“Excuse me,” Saunders approached the woman in the green body warmer.  “Do you work here?”

The woman – the photo-card on the lanyard around her neck revealed her name was Katherine – pulled her attention away from the bedding plants she was crouching nearby and blinked at Saunders from beneath an unruly fringe.   “For my sins,” she smiled, rising to a standing position.  There was soil on her cheek, Saunders noticed, and her teeth were large and square like a horse’s.  Otherwise, she wasn’t in bad shape, he assessed.  It must be all the outdoor working and the lifting of heavy things like those flat, unwieldy bags of fertiliser.

She waited, her equine smile unwavering.  Saunders looked her up and down.  The green wellies, the chequered shirt, and the dungarees beneath the padded, sleeveless jerkin.  He supposed she had to wear this garb as some sort of uniform.

Katherine blinked.  It seemed unlikely the tall man currently towering over her was going to say any more so she helped him out with a prompt.  “How can I help?”

She looked up into his bland, expressionless face.  “Was it the pansies you were interested in?  Or…”

Saunders stared at her.  “Pansies?  No.  I do not wish to purchase any plants.  My query is something of a contrary nature.  I do not wish to buy any plants at all.  Quite the reverse.  You see, I have a plant of which I wish to be rid.”

“Ah.”  Katherine shook her head.  “I’m afraid we don’t do that kind of thing.  We don’t buy ’em, we only sell ’em.  I mean, we have our suppliers, of course, who keep us stocked up – but perhaps you’d like to speak to the manager?  Is it a lot?”

“Is what a lot?”

“The plants you want to sell.”

Saunders shook his head but his blank features remained unperturbed by the impatience in his voice.  “No, no; you are not understanding me.  There is just the one plant.  Just one.  And I have said nothing about selling it.  I wish to be rid of it.  I wish to destroy it.  I have made several attempts but it seems fortified against every attack.  No blade can harm it or even make as much as a scratch on it.  It is impervious to fire and I suspect it thrives on the various brands of weed killer I have rained upon it.  I have tried everything I can think of but I fear I have reached an impasse.  Please say you will help me,” he nodded at the lanyard, “Katherine.”

“Well,” Katherine exhaled an upward puff to dislodge her fringe.  “It’s a bit of a head-scratcher.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “What kind of plant did you say it was?”

“I did not,” Saunders retorted.  “Mainly because I do not know.  It is unlike anything I have ever seen.  I can find no listing for it in any work of botanical reference you can think of.”

“Hmm.  Have you tried Wikipedia?”

Saunders hung his head.  Katherine bit her lower lip.

“Perhaps you can describe it to me.  Then I’ll have some idea what we’re dealing with.”

Saunders let out a sigh, as if he knew it would be a waste of time.  “It’s tall,” he began, measuring the air.  “Easily as tall as me.  Its trunk is as thick as my chest and appears scaly, like it has its own suit of armour.  The leaves hang like dead snakes but they emit a noxious aroma periodically; the stench of rotting carrion.”

“Hmm,” said Katherine, trying to picture the plant.  “And where did you get it?”

“That is just it.  I did not ‘get it’.  It just turned up.  It is a blight in my garden, Katherine.  Everything else is dying.  It is a blight on my life.”

Katherine pursed her lips.  “I don’t suppose you have a photograph.”

“I do not; but perhaps you would do me the kindness of visiting my garden and taking a look for yourself.”

Alarm bells rang in Katherine’s mind.  She snatched up a nearby trowel, ready to defend herself.  “That won’t be possible!” she snapped.  “We don’t do house calls.”

“A pity,” said Saunders, gloomily.

His head split open from crown to chin and a long, green shoot sprang out, shaking off its human form and snaking around the garden centre worker before she knew what was happening.  Tendrils coiled around Katherine’s waist and throat, pinning her arms to her sides and binding her legs.  A leaf slapped across her mouth like a sticking plaster.

“A pity you could not be more trusting,” Saunders’s voice tickled her ear.  “Now I shall have to ingest you right here and regurgitate you for Mother when I get back.  She was so looking forward to a solid meal for a change.”

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A Midsummer Night’s Murders

“It’s a right bloody mess, that’s what it is,” opined Detective Inspector Goodfellow, surveying the scene.  The morning light cast shadows of tree trunks over the site, like prison bars.

“Verily,” agreed Detective Constable Selkie.  “Although there is more to do with dust than blood.”

“That’s what you get,” Goodfellow held a handkerchief to his mouth.  “With the fairy folk.  Kill them and they turn to dust.  Like something you’d find under your bed.”

“So many… It looks like the whole of Oberon’s court.”

“A bloodbath – a dust bath.”  Goodfellow’s toe struck something shiny.  He stooped and retrieved it with his pencil.  It was a tiny, intricate thing, glistening in the sunlight, bejewelled with dew.  “Oberon’s crown…” Goodfellow marvelled.

Selkie shook her head.  “The King is dead.  Long live…  Who?  Who stands to sit on the throne now?”

Goodfellow shrugged.  “Titania’s diadem.  Over there.  Mustardseed’s wings… Someone really went to town on this bunch of fairies.”

“But who?”

“Our job to find out.  Duke Theseus is keen to keep this thing under wraps.  Swift resolution before the rest of the Underworld finds out.  Last thing we need is that lot waging supernatural war against Athens.”

Selkie nodded.  “Those youngsters who were messing about in the forest.”

Goodfellow shook his head.  “Already questioned.  They were all off their tits on love potion.  Courtesy of…” he dropped into a crouch, “this little chap here.”

Selkie held her breath lest she blow away the dusty form of Puck.

“Know him?”

“He had form.  Now he is formless.”  Goodfellow grimaced bitterly at his own humour.

“I don’t get it.  All those lives, snuffed out.  It makes no sense.  Who could possibly have a grudge against the fairy folk?”

Goodfellow held up a hand to silence his partner.  He took stealthy strides toward a thicket.  Selkie followed, taking care not to step on any dusty corpses.

A child was sobbing on the ground, hugging his knees, his turban askew.

“Oh, you poor thing,” cooed Selkie.  “He must have hidden in here to escape the carnage.”  She beckoned to the boy, telling him everything was going to be all right, no one was going to hurt him.

The boy looked up, warily.  He gave a wet sniff and surrendered himself to Selkie’s arms.

“A changeling…” Goodfellow realised.  “Oberon snatched him from India, it looks like.  Poor little chap.”

“We’ll get him down the station and have social services have a look at him.”

Selkie headed back to the car.  The boy watched Goodfellow over her shoulder, his eyes expressionless and unblinking.

Too late Goodfellow noticed the dusty handprints the boy was leaving on Selkie’s back.

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The Last Man in the World

The last man in the world woke up.  He cursed his fate; perhaps one of these nights, he would die in his sleep and not have to face yet another bloody day of solitude.  A nice, quiet heart attack would suit, in the wee small hours, so slight he wouldn’t feel more than a pinch but enough to finish him off, once and for all.

And then what?  If I, the last man in the world, pop my clogs, what next for this poor, benighted planet?

Not my problem, the last man in the world shrugged.  Whatever transpires, planet Earth will be a lot better off, finally cleansed of its human infestation.  The Earth will be able to heal itself at last, and Mother Nature will be able to reassert herself as the dominant force.  Thinking of the fresh air and the renewed greenery almost made the last man in the world wish he’d be around to see it, to breathe it, to run around barefoot in it…

He got out of bed.  He considered having a wash – which was the closest he had come to actually washing himself in… how long?  He couldn’t remember.  And who cared?  There was no one around to complain about his b.o. or the halitosis that wafted through his unbrushed teeth.

And you might feel better

A small voice popped into his head.

Better in yourself if you have a wash.  Refreshed.  You don’t have to go the whole hog, just spruce yourself up a bit.  Change your socks at least.  Drag a comb across your bonce.

“What’s the point?” the last man in the world cried out, silencing the small voice for a moment.

You want to watch that

It piped up after a brief but deafening silence.

Shouting at me like that.  If I stop talking to you, there really will be no one left.  And then where will you be, eh?  Well and truly on your lonesome.  And that way, madness lies!

“Shut up,” the last man in the world grumbled.  He padded across the apartment to the kitchen and put the kettle on.

No sugar in mine

“Make your bloody own!”

He stood by the kettle, listening to its rumbles growing to a roar and an eruption of steam.  He made camomile tea but left it on the counter and it went cold, forgotten.

The last man in the world decided to put some music on.  It would help him to ignore that small, nagging voice in his head.  But the more he scanned the rows and rows of albums he had collected over the years, the less able he was to make a selection.  Nothing appealed.  Nothing took his fancy.  Pieces he had loved for years had taken on the appeal of cold vomit.

It was the same with films.  Nothing in his collection seemed worth watching.  Nothing suited his mood.  Unable to choose, he stood dithering at his shelves for an hour.  At least that killed sixty minutes, he supposed.  He went back to bed.

It’s too soon.  You’ve only just got up.  You haven’t done anything.  You should get up.  Move about a bit.  Tire yourself out.

“Leave me alone,” the last man in the world put a pillow over his face.  “Just let me lie here in peace, damn you.”

Sleep would not come.  Why would it?  The small voice was right: he had not used enough energy for the slightest amount of physical fatigue.  Energy?  That was a laugh; the last man in the world lacked the energy to do anything.

But I am so tired, he wailed.  Tired of the same thoughts going around and around in my head.  I just want them to stop.

Hang about!

The small voice interrupted the last man in the world’s thoughts before they could begin another cycle.

“What?”

There’s still running water

“What?”

In the taps.  You filled the kettle – There’s still electricity to boil the water! There’s still power for all the music you no longer listen to and the films you don’t want to watch

The last man in the world lifted the pillow from his face.  “What do you mean?”

Think about it.  If there’s power and there’s water, there’s somebody else!  Out there!  You’re not the last man in the world after all

The last man in the world shook his head.  “Automated systems.  Same goes for the food delivery, before you say anything.  It’s all drones and such.”

But the small voice would not be appeased.

Wouldn’t hurt to go and have a look.  Get some fresh air, feel the sun on your face

“Get lost!” the last man in the world snarled.  “Get out of my head!”

He clamped the pillow to his face and thrashed around on the unmade bed.

What are you afraid of?  Are you afraid you’ll find others out there?  Other people who think and feel the way you do.  Or are you worried that you won’t?  That you’ll find out once and for all that your truly are the last man in the world.  Instead of just carrying on as though you are.  It’s pathetic.  You’re pathetic.  You’re not the last man in the world; you’re depressed, that’s all.  Pick yourself up off this bed this minute.  Put your shoes on and march through that front door

“Or else?”

Or else I’ll stop speaking to you

“Promises, promises.”

And then you really will be all alone

“All right, all right!”  The last man in the world hurled the pillow across the room, sat up and snatched his shoes from under the bed.  “If it’ll make you stop nagging,” he muttered, tying the laces.

You’ll feel better

The small voice promised.

The last man in the world stood.  He froze.  He looked across the apartment.  The front door seemed an impossibly long way away.

old-man-in-sorrow-md

 

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The Elephant in the Room

“Gosh!  Will you look at this, you chaps?”  Hemming shone his torch into the room.  Over his shoulders, Pearce peered and Covington cowered.

“I don’t think we ought –” Covington jabbered.  In terror, he buried his face into the shoulder of Pearce’s blazer.   Pearce shrugged him off.

“Grow up, Covvy,” he sneered.  “We’re forty-eight not fourteen.”

“Even so, I don’t think we ought – Out of respect and all that.”

Hemming rounded on him; Covington recoiled, squinting from the flashlight.  Hemming too was glaring.

“Forty-eight and still entirely without balls, eh, Covvy?  I’ll say this only once and then what you bloody do is up to you.  Squiffy’s with me, aren’t you, Squiffy?”

“Bloody am!” Pearce confirmed with a grave nod.

“This place is ours now – well, the Consortium’s.  So we have every right – and what better way to show our respects than to raise a glass to the Old Bastard in his own office?  Which is now technically our office, and which is soon to be the fourth floor of a multi-storey car park and part of the largest retail park in the whole bloody county.  Wahey!”

“I should cocoa,” Pearce agreed.

“So come on in or bugger off; it’s entirely up to you.  See if I care.”  Hemming strode into the room and perched on a stack of boxes.  “About here, his desk was, wouldn’t you say?”

“Rather!” said Pearce, joining him.  Hemming gripped a bottle of champagne between his knees and twisted the cork.

“Bring those glasses, will you, old boy?”

“Rather,” said Pearce.

Covington remained in the doorway and peered at the scene.  In the gloom and after the passage of three decades, it was difficult to believe this room had been the Old Bastard’s lair.  Stripped of all furniture and denuded of decoration, the office seemed paradoxically smaller.  Or perhaps, Covington reflected, it is we who have grown?  Hemming certainly had – mostly around the middle – and he, Covington, had always been what people used to call ‘portly’.  What had once been dismissed as puppy fat was still hanging on his frame – doggedly, you might say, what!  But Pearce.  Good old Sheridan ‘Squiffy’ Pearce was as lithe and taut as he had ever been.  A bit weathered around the eyes, perhaps, with the odd fleck of white in his moustache, certainly, but of the three of us, he was certainly the best preserved.  And it made Covington feel a kind of warmth, to think they had stayed in touch, throughout all these years.

“I say, Hemming,” he called from the doorway.  “Do you ever hear from Whatsisface these days?”

“Who?” Hemming grunted, still twisting the bottle neck.

“Whojimmyflop – Perkins!”  Covington wracked his memory.  “Good old Percy Perkins!”

Hemming let the name sink in.  He shook his head sadly.  “No, can’t say that I have.”

“After it happened, he sort of disappeared,” nodded Pearce.

“That’s right,” Hemming agreed.  “Got sent down.  Quite right, too, after what he did.  Dreadful shame, though.  I always liked Percy Perkins.  He was a good egg.”

“Um…” Covington, who had only arrived at the school the term after ‘it’ had taken place, inched a few footsteps over the threshold.  “What did he do exactly?  Your friend, Perkins.”

Hemming and Pearce glanced at each other, enjoying the memory of a secret shared.

“Oh, I suppose it won’t hurt to let you in on it,” Hemming conceded.  “After all this time.  And you are part of the Consortium, after all.”

He jerked his head, beckoning Covington to approach.  Hemming lowered his voice so Covington would have no choice but to draw nearer.

“Did you never hear the story about the elephant, Covvy?”

Covington’s eyes darted as his mind raced.  His jaw dropped.  “You mean – but that – that was just a legend, wasn’t it?  Something to tell the younger boys.”

“On the contrary!  It was all true.”

“Rather!” confirmed Pearce.

“And it happened right here, in this very room.”

Covington’s eyes widened as they appraised his surroundings anew.

“That’s right.  In this very spot it stood.  Right where you are now.”

Covington’s mouth worked and his eyebrows dipped in a frown; it was a while before he could get any words out.  “But – how?  Where?  It’s impossible!”

“How: we shall never know,” Hemming shook his head.  “Perhaps Perkins was some kind of magician.  And as for the where – well, there is a safari park not far from here – which is why our retail park is so well-placed.  Shop till you drop and then take a leisurely drive through some animals – their enclosures, I mean, of course.”

Pearce nodded sagely.

“Of course, the whole thing was hushed up,” Hemming continued.

“Utterly,” added Pearce.  He even placed a finger on his lips as illustration.

“It’s reckoned it’s what triggered the heart condition that eventually finished the Old Bastard off.”

“No!”

Hemming and Pearce nodded gravely.

“Of course, we – the boys, the staff, even the groundsmen – were under strict instruction never to talk about it.  Not to breathe a word.  The Old Bastard was keen not to have his reputation undermined.  If word got out that he had been made a fool of – well!” Hemming gestured expansively as if the dire consequences were self-evident.

Covington wasn’t listening.  “I suppose if you took those windows out and got a crane – a bloody big one, mind you – Er, how did they get it out again?”

“What?”

“Perkins’s elephant!”

“They didn’t,” laughed Hemming.

“I should cocoa,” Pearce joined in.

“He couldn’t, you see.  So the Old Bastard kept it in here.  And no one was allowed to say a word about it.  You had to pretend it wasn’t here.  So, when he called you in for a talking-to, or a telling-off, or what-have-you…”

“Six of the best,” Pearce interjected.

“You had to squeeze into a corner and pretend it wasn’t there.  We all got used to it, after the novelty had worn off.”

Covington’s frown deepened.  “But what about the smell?”

Hemming smirked.  “I suppose the elephant got used to it.”

At last, his efforts to liberate the cork proved successful.  Pearce cheered, eagerly holding up the glassed.

“Wahey!” Hemming cried as he poured.

The trio clinked their glasses together and raised them in a toast.

“To Percy Perkins!” proposed Pearce.

“To the Old Bastard!” cried Hemming.

“To the elephant!” suggested Covington.  They drank heartily to all three and to each other and to their Consortium.

Later, as they staggered down to their cars, Covington nudged both Pearce and Hemming.

“You were having me on, just then.  Own up!”

“What?” Pearce was puzzled.

“No, we really want you in the Consortium,” grinned Hemming.

“Not about that.  About the elephant.  I don’t see how it was possible.  Nobody puts an elephant in their headmaster’s office.”

“Don’t they?” Hemming pulled a quizzical face.

“I mean, I think it’s a good story and all that, but, as you said, the Bastard was Old and had a heart condition.  I think perhaps your friend Peter Perkins –”

“Percy!” Pearce corrected.

“I think he did something else.  Scared the old man some other way.  Perhaps – perhaps – he knew something – and he threatened to blab – perhaps.”

Hemming and Pearce stopped in their tracks, all humour evaporated.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hemming, his lips tight.

“Some things you just don’t speak of, old man,” said Pearce.

Sensing they were no longer in the party mood, Covington let himself into his car.  As he drove away, he glanced in the rear-view mirror.  His friends were still there but they were not watching him drive away.  They had turned their backs and were gazing up at the headmaster’s window.

What had happened in that office?  Covington would never know.  What was so bad that the entire school would enter into a conspiracy to scare an old man to death?  Carrying on as though there was an elephant in his office and he was the only one who couldn’t see it!  It was absurd!  What had the so-called Old Bastard done to deserve that?

A shudder of realisation ran down Covington’s spine.

All those boys, those poor boys…

It was no wonder Covington’s chums had strived for years to gain the means to knock the building down.

elephant

 

 

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Meanwhile, on the Chat Show…

Johnny: Good morning, Chad, Angelista.  Wonderful to have you on the show.  How are you enjoying the British weather?

Angelista: It’s cute.

J:  That’s one word for it!  You’re here to tell us about your new film; and it’s something that might strike a chord with some of our older viewers because it’s – well, why don’t I let you tell us?

A: Yes, why don’t you?

Chad: If I may: it’s a very British story from the 50s.

A: The 60s.

C: Right, the 60s.  Started out as a puppet show.

A: Stop motion animation.

C: What?

A: It’s not puppets, it’s stop frame animation, when they move it a little bit then take a shot, then they move it some more and so on and so forth.

J: Ha-ha, right.  But in your new version, you’re not puppets?

A: Not all of us, no.

C: We’re real.  Few prosthetics here and there.  I had to wear a fat suit.

A: Not that you need it.

J: Ha.  So, what attracted you to the project?  What made you want to be involved in a reboot of Pogles’ Wood?

A: The cash!  Hah!

C: And the chance to work with Kenny.

A: Monty.

C: Monty.  Marvellous director.

A: Fabulous.

C: And the time is right, you know.  For these stories – these marvellous stories to be told again.  But with a modern twist, you know.

J: Tell me more.  Will the purists be up in arms?

A: Well, we hope not.  We hope we’ve come at the material with respect.  Last thing we need is some nonagenarian nerds slagging us off on Twitter.

J: Ha!

C: But you’ve got to move with the times, right?

J: So, the title has been changed – to Pogles’ World?

A: That’s right.  We’ve opened the story out.  They’ve got a whole planet now.

J; And Mr Pogle…

C: That’s me.

J: Mr Pogle has a spaceship.

C: Right on.  The special effects on this project – so awesome.  They really raise the bar on this one.  Hoo-ee!

J: Right.  And Mrs Pogle?

A: I – unbeknownst to my husband – am Chief of the Secret Police.

C: But then I find out.  Hoo-ee!  Then the sparks fly.  We’ve got chases and shoot-outs like you’ve never seen before.  It’s going to rock your socks off, I promise you.

J: Right… And as Pippin, there’s a relative unknown, isn’t there?

A: Who?

J: Playing your son.  Pippin.

C: That’s right.  Jonathan Hartley-Farrington.  Awesome kid.  Never acted before.  They chose him from over thirty thousand kids.  He’s just a natural.  You’re going to love him.

J: But he died on the set.

A: True.

J: On his first day.

C: Great shame.  Waste of potential, am I right?  But they’ve CGIed him into the rest of the movie.  You can’t see the join.  Can’t have the Pogles without Pippin, can you?  And wait till you see Tog!  You know Tog, right?  That kind of squirrelly thing – what is that, I don’t know?  Well, in this one, Tog is a robot.  State of the art.  Got three midgets inside of it.  So convincing.

A: Two.  Don’t exaggerate and don’t say midgets.

C: Honestly, you’ve going to love it.  And the film is dedicated to Jonathan’s memory, which is a nice touch.

A: Because that’s what Pogles’ World is all about: family.

C: It is?  I thought it was about the environment.

A: Did you even read the script?

J: So, um, guys.  Nitty-gritty time.  What was it like working together again for the first time since your very public, very messy divorce?  Was it awkward?  Was it hard?

A: Nah.

C: Not really.

A: We’re professionals.

C: They pay me to be nice to her.

J: And your kids?  Were they around the set much?

A: Are you kidding me?

C: We don’t want our kids to see any of this stuff.  We’ve gone hard on this one, gone for the R rating.  What is that here, 18?

A: Violence and gore.

C: And a little bit of sex.

A: A very little bit!

C: Tramp!

J:  So, it’s not a family film, then?

A: Manson Family, maybe.

C:  It’s what the public want.  We had focus groups all over the States.  They want explosions and chases and all sorts of derring-do.

J:  You didn’t think to consult a British audience?

A:  No?

C:  Why would we?  The States is where the money is at.  We’re bringing the story to a new audience.  Sure, we’ve made some compromises.

A:  We’ve got Sly Stallone narrating.

C:  But it’s a real thrill ride.  I can promise you that.

J:  Right.  Well.  I look forward to stumbling across the DVD in the pound shop.  Angelista, Chad, thank you.

C:  Pogles out!

A: Get me my agent.

CUT TO COMMERCIAL.

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Meanwhile, in the coffee shop…

Bobby steeled himself as he waited to be served.  So far, things were going in his favour.  Stefan, his favourite barista, was on the till, taking orders.  It would be easier to speak to him.  If he’d been making the drinks, Bobby would be lucky to get a nod and a smile.  Making the drinks… Bashing the beans!  Did they call it that?  Was that barista talk for making coffee?  Probably not.  Focus, Bobby, focus!  Keep your mind clear so you can pop the question – Oh, God, no!  Not that!  You’re not popping the question.  Nothing as serious as all that.  You’re just asking a question, and, with a bit of luck, you won’t be popping anything.

Keep it light.  Keep it simple.  Keep it direct.  Then, if he says No, you can move on, collect your coffee from the other end of the counter and make a dignified exit.  Then hitch a ride on the next rocket that’s being fired directly into the sun.

It’s just a drink.  You’re only asking him for a drink.  Although… ‘a drink’ sounds a bit like ‘a date’, doesn’t it?  Best to rein it in a bit, eh? ‘Fancy a couple of beers?’  Is that better?  Or is that too blokey?  Too laddish?  You don’t want to friend-zone yourself; you want to make it clear there is room for romantic involvement.

What if he doesn’t drink?  What if he can’t drink?  He might have some kind of condition.  What if he’s a recovering alcoholic?

Stop.  Wait.  Think about it.  You’ve stalked his Instagram enough times to know he enjoys more than the occasional tipple.  All those pics of bleary-eyed nights out.  With his friends.  All those people with their arms around him.  Who are they?  What if one of them’s his boyfriend?  Which one?  That tall one with the hair.  That’s who I would choose.  I bet it’s him.  I bet he’s Stefan’s boyfriend.

Coffee, then?  That’s innocent enough.  No pressure.  Or is it too friend-zoney?

Wait!  You twat!  What are you thinking?  He doesn’t want to go for coffee – he works in a bloody coffee shop.  And he won’t go to one of the competitors’ places – he’d probably get the sack for disloyalty or something if he did.  And here, he probably gets staff discount.  And he’s probably sick of the stuff anyway.  It must be like working in a sweetshop –

“Yes?  Oh, hello!” Stefan beamed at his favourite customer.  “Your usual?”

“Um…” Bobby nodded, feeling his cheeks turn red.  “Please.”

Stefan’s fingers danced on the keypad.  Bobby fumbled a fiver across the counter while Stefan scrawled on a cardboard cup.

“Anything else?” Stefan waited with bated breath.

“Um, thank – no – you,” Bobby blustered, flustered and tongue-tied.

“Loyalty card?”

“Um…” Bobby fished it from his wallet, his fingers flabby like uncooked sausages.  Stefan smirked and stamped the card.  Twice.  He handed it back and his hand brushed against Bobby’s.  Bobby let out a laugh of shock and thrill.

“Nice to see you,” Stefan grinned, holding eye contact.

“Nice to you too,” Bobby burbled.

And that was it.  The moment was gone.  Bobby faced another week of agonising, of building himself up, only to chicken out all over again.

“Americano!” cried the girl at the service end of the counter.  “Americano for Bobby?”

“Um, that’s me,” Bobby shuffled along and reached for the cup.  He couldn’t get out of there fast enough, ignoring the splashes of hot liquid that escaped from the loose-fitting plastic lid and scalded his hands.  Out in the street, he gulped lungfuls of cool air.

What a twat what a twat what a twat!

His stomach lurching, he dropped the coffee into a litterbin and skulked back to the office.

In the coffee shop, Stefan’s grin was all the wider.  At last, he had dared to do it.  He had finally plucked up the courage to jot his phone number on Bobby’s cup.  Perhaps today was the day Bobby would get in touch…

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Two phone calls on Valentine’s Day

“Look, I know it’s you.  I know it’s you who has been sending me all these things.  Don’t bother trying to deny it.  It’s got to stop.  All the flowers, the boxes of chocolates, the junk jewellery.  I don’t want aeroplanes writing my name in the sky.  I don’t want serenading.  I don’t want any of this.  I just want to be able to go about my life without fear of a gypsy violinist jumping out from behind a hedge and playing soppy music at me.  It’s embarrassing.  I don’t want you calling me at work.  Or at home.  I don’t want any of this.  I don’t want you.  That’s the bottom line.  I.  Don’t.  Want.  You.  Why can’t you get that through your thick head?  Are you listening to me?  I know you’re there; I can hear you breathing.  I can see your curtains twitching.  That’s another thing: always watching me from across the road.  Bet you’ve got binoculars trained on my house at all times.  Bloody pervert.  And don’t bother with the old ‘I’ll kill myself’ routine.  You can’t blackmail me into feeling something for you.  And if you really loved me – like you keep saying you do – you’ll respect my wishes and bloody well leave me alone.  I can’t take it anymore.  It’s too stressful.  I’m sick of this. You’re making me ill.  Am I getting through to you?  I better be – or – or – Hold on – something’s wrong – Can’t…breathe.   My chest!  My arm!  Can’t…  Get help!  Please!  Send an ambulance; you know where I live…Ah!  Please!  Help me!”

“Hello, Ambulance, please.  There’s a young woman having a cardiac arrest.  And over the road, her neighbour is committing suicide.  If you get there in time, you can help her.  And you’ll find my organ donor card in my top pocket.  I know we’re compatible – I know everything about her – promise me you’ll give her my heart.”

angry-woman-on-phone

 

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The Bank Queue

“How can I help you today?”

Steinar the Viking looked at the diminutive woman who was smiling up at him.  Her circular spectacles gave her the appearance of an owl – a bird of ill omen.

“Be gone, wench,” Steinar sneered.  “It is with the teller I wish to speak.”

The woman – whose name badge revealed her to be ‘Diane’ – smiled.  “Perhaps you could use the machine.  It would save you queuing.”

Steinar looked around uncertainly.  The bank was a brightly lit place with posters of smiling people, tickled pink to be granted mortgages and savings accounts.

“Paying in, are you?” Diane nodded at the sack slung over his shoulder.

“Spoils,” Steinar grunted with a nod.  “The booty of a hundred pillages.”

“Cash, then…” Diane’s fingers danced on an iPad.

“Also the jewels of a thousand virgins – although, they are virgins no longer, if you know what I mean.”  Steinar winked at the bank employee.  For a second, Diane’s customer-service smile faltered.

“Jewels… We can offer you a safety deposit box at a reasonable monthly rate.  There is a minimum twelve month rental on that, though.”

The queue inched forward.  Steinar was just one person away from the head of the line.

“Would that be of interest to you at all?”  Diane blinked.

“Nah…” said Steinar.  “I’m just paying this lot in.”

“You could deposit the lot in a drawer,” Diane nodded at a handle on the wall.  “Perfectly safe.  The funds will be counted later and added to your account.”

“No,” Steinar stood firm.  “I must get the slip stamped or the Chief will skin me alive.”

“Oh, we can’t have that, can we?” Diane sympathised.  “Just trying to save you waiting, that’s all.”

“It’s fine,” said Steinar.  “I don’t mind waiting during works time.”

Diane nodded and moved to the person behind him.  Steinar was at the front of the queue now.  There were five tills ahead but only two of them were staffed.  He glanced over his shoulder at the others waiting behind him.

“Typical, isn’t it, eh?” he rolled his eyes.   The other customers would not meet his gaze.

“Next, please,” said a teller, sounding bored.  Steinar approached in three strides and heaved his sack onto the counter.  The teller was crestfallen.

“Didn’t anyone tell you you could use the ATM?”

Steinar let out a roar.  He snatched a pair of axes from his belt and, twirling them expertly, lopped off the teller’s head.

The people in the queue tutted.

“I apologise, everyone,” Diane addressed them, “but as soon as Pearl comes off her break, we’ll open another till.  Meanwhile, has anyone thought about using the machine?”

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Tina and Julie

“What’s this in aid of?”  Julie stood before Tina’s desk, her chest heaving, her face red.  She was holding out a sheet of paper torn from the wall above the sink in the staff kitchen.

“What it says,” said Tina, keeping her eyes on her monitor.  Julie let out a roar of contempt.  She held the paper as though it were a scroll and read it out in a declamatory tone.

“A message from the cups,” she began.  She rolled her eyes and cleared her throat but Tina wasn’t watching.  Tina continued to type – or affected to.  Julie went on.  “‘Please don’t leave us unwashed and lying around like neglected children.  Put us to beddy-byes in the dishwasher.’ What is this shit, Tina?”

“People need to wash up their cups,” Tina shrugged her narrow shoulders.  She pressed her thin lips together so Julie wouldn’t see them tremble.

“But this!” Julie brandished the poster.  “This passive-aggressive bollocks.  We’re not children, Tina.  Look at this: there’s a clipart picture of a cup and saucer with googly eyes.  And it says THANK YOU with about twenty exclamation marks, for crying out loud.”

“I’m not prepared to discuss this with you, not while you’re being so emotional, Julie.”

Julie roared again, out of frustration this time.  She turned away and Tina held her breath; perhaps Julie was about to leave – but no, she merely closed the door.  Gently – which surprised Tina.  Usually Julie went in for the all-out slam.  Tina’s eyes darted around for potential escape routes.  She didn’t like having the buxom frame of Julie between her and the exit.  Julie pulled up a chair and sat.

“Is this about me?  Is it?  Some kind of dig?”  Her voice was even, measured, all anger abated.

“Not if you wash your cups,” Tina sniffed, keeping her eyes averted.  Perhaps she should switch on the intercom then everyone in the outer office would hear and could come to her rescue if Julie turned ugly.  Uglier.

“Not that bit.  This bit.  The bit about the abandoned children.”

“Neglected.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t say ‘abandoned’, it says ‘neglected’.”

“Same difference.”

“Oh, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” Tina sprang to her feet and snatched the paper.  She tore it into pieces, sobbing with fury.

“Tina!” Julie reached out.  “Tina – love.”

Tina recoiled.  “Don’t you ‘love’ me!  You never loved me.”

Julie shook her head.  “I knew you working here was a mistake.  Listen, I’ve told you before.  I gave you up for adoption because I couldn’t give you the life you deserved.  I was too young.  No prospects.  But look at you now: office manager, team leader.  I am proud of you, you know.”

Tina sniffed.  She rooted in the sleeve of her cardigan for a tissue and blew her nose.

“Look,” Julie smiled, “You’ve got to know me.  I’m not the mothering sort, am I?  Although it’s not me leaving the mugs out.”  She leaned in, confidentially, “I reckon it’s that Janice in Accounts.”

Tina looked up from behind her crumpled tissue.  “Really?”

“Bet you any money.  You see, if you want to know something, just ask.  No need to dress it all up in silly notices, is there?”

“No,” Tina giggled.  “Feel silly now.”

“Well, there’s no need, is there?”  Julie moved to the door.  “Send her in, shall I?  Janice?”

“Just a minute.”  Tina composed herself and sat up straight.  She pointed an imperious finger at the chair Julie had just vacated.  “I’ve had a word with HR about you cooking your fish in the microwave.”

tea

 

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The Emperor’s Feet

The Emperor lifted his feet obediently.  The slave slipped off the imperial slippers and lowered the imperial feet into the bowl of water.  The temperature was just right, on the hot side of warm.  The slave, after long years of performing the task, knew what he was doing.

“Josephus,” the Emperor intoned.  “How many times have you washed our feet?”

Josephus did not look up from his work; beneath the surface, his hands massaged the Emperor’s arches.  “I know not, sire.  I lack the schooling to do the sums.”

The Emperor would not be satisfied.  He set to calculating for himself.  “Once a day equals three hundred and sixty-five times a year – and you have been with us for…” he pursed his lips.  “How long is it now, since my South-Western campaign?”

The slave froze.  He knew exactly how long.  “Twenty-eight years, five months and thirteen days,” he said flatly.  “Sire,” he added as a bitter afterthought.

“As long as all that!  Fancy!  So… Twenty-eight years times three hundred and sixty-five…”  The Emperor fell to muttering as he tried to perform the mental arithmetic.  “And five months, you say – that’s five by thirty…”

“Do not forget, sire, those days I washed your feet twice.  Holy days.  And those times your returned from battle besmirched with mud and blood.”

“Ah, yes, quite, quite.   So,  add on – let’s say a dozen holy days per year… My campaign in the Northern lands – that dragged on longer than expected – ye gods!  Now I’ve lost track of where we had got to.  Balls to it – I’ll have one of the scribes work it out.  Ah!  You do a good job, Josephus.  You are a miracle worker with the pumice stone.”

The imperial head lolled backward as the Emperor gave himself over to the foot massage, closing his eyes and letting his thoughts drift.  All his calculations dissipated like bubbles in the soap suds around his ankles.  He sighed as Josephus gently lifted his feet from the bowl, swaddling each one in a soft towel and rubbing them dry, taking especial care with the imperial toes and the spaces between them.  The feet dry, Josephus powdered them with perfumed talcum, a fragrance that reminded him of his homeland in the Southern continent – it had not just been slaves the Emperor had brought back with him.  Again they rushed to the forefront of his mind, the memories of his homeland as vivid now as they had been all those years ago.  The screams of the women, the men hacked to pieces, the children slaughtered…

As he fastened the straps on the Emperor’s sandals, criss-crossing them around the imperial calves, Josephus blinked away his tears.  How many more lands, how many more lives, would these feet trample like grapes?  How much blood would they wade through?  How many heads would they kick?

Had I not been unmanned by the castrator’s blade, I would have the necessary fire within me to do something to bring an end to this bloody reign!

“Is there something wrong, Josephus?”

The Emperor’s words brought him out of his thoughts.  Was that a note of concern in the old man’s voice?

“Tomorrow I shall trim your toenails, sire.”  Josephus rose, picking up the bowl and the towels.

“Good man,” said the Emperor.  He watched his trusty servant bustle out of the chamber.  Good old Josephus, he mused!

If he wasn’t so good at his duties, I would have granted his freedom years ago.

RomanEmporer-800px

 

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Out with the Old

The old man hauled himself out of bed for one last time.  Every joint creaked in protest as he pulled himself as upright as he could manage.  Gone were the days when he could reach up to the ceiling, or bend low and touch his toes, when he could bound down the stairs with a song in his heart and all the joys of spring in his every movement.  Ah, those seemingly endless days of summer, basking in the sunshine, the invigorating heat on his skin.  And then, the cooler, more reflective days of autumn, with the darkness encroaching earlier and earlier, as foretastes of what was to come.

He had enjoyed it all, every moment, every one of his three hundred and sixty-five days.  His time on Earth was short, but that is true for everyone, and he had filled it with life.  The world would continue to turn without him, people would continue to love and to hate, injustices would persist and the few would continue to exploit the world’s resources for their own benefit, while the many struggled and died in hardship, and damage is inflicted on the planet on an unprecedented scale…

Perhaps he could have done more to improve things.  Perhaps in those energetic spring months, he could have rallied the people, he could have stirred up the will to change in the hearts of the oppressed.

But he didn’t.  He always thought there would be time for that hereafter.

And now, on his last day, which was more of the dark than of the light, all he had left was hope.  Hope that his successor would be the one to effect the change the world so desperately needs.  Hope that mankind will take the first step to achieving its potential.  Hope that –

He returned to his bed.  Outside were parties and fireworks, the sounds of people glad to see the back of him, keen to welcome what was coming after.  Perhaps this time they would realise it is not the year that brings them woes, it is themselves.  Their lives are theirs to shape.

As the clock struck midnight and the old man closed his eyes for the last time, and the final grains of sand trickled through the hour glass, he heard a new-born baby cry.

old year new year

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The Happy Carrot

“Hello, is that the Happy Carrot?”

“Yes.  How can I help?”

“Well, we’ve probably left it a bit late but I’m enquiring about booking our Christmas do.”

“Ah, yes, ha ha.  You have a bit.  We can squeeze you in on Thursday – how many in your party?”

“Um, well, there’s me, and Carol, and Liz, and Linda, and Pete off the vans, and Manjit, and Rob, and – possibly – Dave.   But there’s a question mark over Dave.”

“So, seven or eight?”

“Yes – but as I say, there’s a question mark over Dave.”

“We can do you a table for eight at seven, but we will need to move you on at nine.  Is that OK?”

“That’s great!  Fine, thank you.”

“And would you like to pre-order from our Christmas menu, to save time?”

“Um, yes.  Hang on, I’ve got it written down.  Carol and Linda want Option A; Liz, Pete and Mary want B – but no coriander on Manjit’s; and Rob wants C with extra chips.”

“And you?”

“No, I don’t think Rob wants me.  Not even on the side!  Ha!”

“What do you want to order?”

“Oh, yes, I’ll have the B as well but could I swap the tomatoes for extra green beans?”

“That’s no problem.  And your other guest?  Steve?”

“Who?  Oh!  Dave.  Well, as I say there’s a question mark over Dave.  He’s a bit faddy, you see.  He doesn’t think you’ll be able to cater for him.”

“Oh.  Well, we can try.  We can do gluten free.”

“Oh.  It’s not that.  He’s a – he’s a – one of those what-do-you-call-thems?  He’s a mortist.”

“Ah.”

“So, you can’t do it?”

“I’ll have a word with the chef.  But are you sure he wouldn’t be happy with seitan or some other form of substitute?”

“No, he says there’s no point to it.  He wants meat, freshly killed meat, barely cooked.”

“I’ll be honest, we don’t get much call for it.”

“What if he brings his own?  Would you be able to warm it up for him?”

“What are we talking here?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know what they eat, do I?  Bit of pig, maybe.  A chunk of cow.  Half a bird?”

“I’ll be honest – I don’t think… I mean, we’d have to use separate utensils and everything.”

“If it’s too much trouble… Bloody fussy eaters!  Why can’t they have what the rest of us have?  I mean, it’s not natural, is it?  Having all that flesh, rotting away in your intestines!  We haven’t got the guts for it, have we?”

“You don’t have to tell me.  Listen, I’ll have a word with the chef and I’ll call you back, OK?”

“That’d be brilliant.  Do you know, we had him round for Sunday dinner once.  Dave, I’m talking about.  Well, I made a special effort.  You do, don’t you, for your guests?  Well, I went online looking for recipes.  And I thought I’d make him a stew.  But as for buying the – stuff, well, I didn’t know where to go, did I?  So, in the end, I bashed the cat’s head in, skinned it and chopped it up.”

“Ugh.  And how did that go down?”

“Well, he wolfed it down, didn’t he?  Then he asked what it was and when I said ‘Tiddles’ he ran off to the bathroom, didn’t he?  Said I was mental.  And I said, what’s the difference?  If we’d had a pet pig and sacrificed that for his Sunday dinner, he wouldn’t have minded, would he?  Ah, that’s different, he said.  But I can’t see it.”

“They do have some funny ideas, those mortists.”

“Weirdos.  I’ll tell Dave it’s no go. I’ll say you’re all booked up and I’ll get the rest of the team to keep shtum.”

“That’s probably for the best, isn’t it?”

“I mean, what he does in his own home is different, isn’t it?  If he wants to make himself ill, that’s his business.”

“Quite.  So that’s seven for Thursday at seven.”

“Lovely.  Thank you!  Bye!”

cartoon-carrot-hi

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Tinsel the Christmas Manatee

The manatee pup yelped for its mother and swallowed most of the wave that crashed against his face.  Overhead, black clouds raced each other in front of the moon and in the distance, thunder rumbled, growing ever louder, ever nearer.

The pup flapped his flippers, striving in vain against the tide.  Around him, debris and litter carelessly dumped by the human inhabitants of the bay were also buffeted about by the choppy water.  He could not be far from the shore, he reckoned.  Perhaps he could find a helpful rock or sandbank on which to wait out the storm.

The thunder was at its loudest.  The pup imagined a huge monster roaring, opening its enormous jaws to devour him.  He gave a squeak and dove as deep as he dared to go.  Something caught him, yanked him back.  The claws of the monster!  The pup thrashed around but the thing tightened around his head.  Gasping, clawing his way to the surface, the pup realised it wasn’t a monster but more of the rubbish thrown into the ocean by the humans.  It was a length of string, shiny, with metallic strands that glinted like the scales of silvery fish.  The pup’s head broke the surface just as a bolt of lightning struck the thing around his neck.  In a flash, he was illuminated, revealing his skeleton.  Breathless, the pup floundered, all his strength gone and the water closing in…

He awoke in bright daylight, his snout full of sand.  He blinked his wide-set eyes.  I’m on the beach, he realised.  And I’m still wearing the shiny stringy thing from last night…

“Help!  Help!”  It was the voice of a human child.  The manatee didn’t know how he could understand but the child was in distress.  The manatee plunged back into the waves and swum out to the flailing human.  Gently, the pup took the human cub’s arm in its jaws and towed the child back to dry land.

Two adult humans ran up, a male and a female, laughing and clapping.

“He saved me!” the child spluttered, throwing his arms around the manatee.  “It’s a Christmas miracle.”

The manatee did his best to appear modest.

“You should be careful near the water, Timmy,” he said.

The humans screamed.

“I’m as surprised as you are,” the manatee confessed.  “I’ve never spoken before.  I remember last night – the storm – I was struck by lightning.  This tinsel I’m wearing, damn near killed me.”

The human child clapped its hands.  “That’s what we’ll call you: Tinsel, the Christmas Manatee!  You’re my hero!”

“Oh, I didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t have done,” the manatee looked embarrassed.

“Nonsense!” the child’s father shook the manatee by the flipper.  “Thank you for saving my boy.  I’m going to write your story so everyone knows about you.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” said the manatee.  “I’d much rather you expended your efforts into tidying up around here.  The amount of rubbish I have to swim through – it’s affecting my fishing ground.  And the run-off from the chemical plant up the coast is killing my family.”

But the humans weren’t listening.  They had linked arms and were walking back to their beachfront home.

“You could write a song!” the woman enthused.  “A good Christmas song will set us up for life.”

“I’m thinking a series of picture books,” said the man.  “And you’ll be in them, Timmy.  You and Tinsel are going to have all sorts of adventures.”

The boy turned back.  “So long, Tinsel!” he called.  “See you next Christmas!”

“Not if I see you first,” muttered Tinsel.  He wobbled back to the water’s edge and let the tide carry him out to sea.

Humans!  Their priorities were always wrong.

tinsel

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Meanwhile, at the book signing…

Martin thought the line would stretch out to the crack of doom.  Dozens upon dozens of eager parents with their eager kids, all holding copies of his latest picture book, waiting for a magic moment with him, an autograph, a photograph, with the man who created the international best-selling hit, Tinsel the Christmas Manatee.   He checked his smile was turned up to full and beckoned the next fan forward.

He opened the cover and, pen poised, asked what name.

“Marigold,” said a red-faced girl with an earnest expression.

“To… Marigold…” Martin narrated as he inscribed, “Best wishes…from Martin Murdock and Tinsel…Kiss, kiss.”

Behind her, Marigold’s parents went aww and ahh.  Their daughter was not so easily impressed.

“Where’s Tinsel?” she asked.  “I want Tinsel!”

Her parents pulled an apologetic face.  Martin waved.

“It’s OK,” he said.  “Tinsel can’t be here today.  You know where Tinsel lives, don’t you, Marigold?”

“In the ocean,” said Marigold.

“And where are we now?”

“Birmingham.”

“Exactly.  We’re a bit far from the ocean, aren’t we?  You don’t want Tinsel to get ill, do you?”

Marigold narrowed her eyes.  “Tinsel is magic.  It says so.  In Tinsel and the Christmas Fun Run.

“Ah, yes.  But that was just a story.  And I hope you’ll enjoy this new story just as much.”  He tried to hand back the signed copy but Marigold swatted it away.

“I want to see Tinsel and I want to see him now!” she stamped her foot.

“Come on, darling,” said Marigold’s mummy.  Marigold shrugged free of mummy’s hand.

“I want to see Tinsel!” she roared.

“I want to see Tinsel!” cried the next child in line.  In no time at all, every child in the bookshop had joined in the chant.  The manager hurried over to Martin and whispered urgently in his ear that he had better take charge of the situation or the event was over.  And that means: no more sales.

Martin tried to placate the crowd with gestures.  He climbed onto the table and waved.  He appealed for quiet at the top of his voice.

“Ssh!  Ssh!” he put his finger to his lips.  “Right.  Now, listen, everybody, boys and girls.  Tinsel isn’t here because Tinsel is a water-dwelling mammal.  Besides which, Tinsel isn’t real.  He’s made up.  I made him up.  I had the idea.  I wrote the stories.  I drew the pictures.  But it was only when I put ‘Christmas’ in the title that the character really took off.  It seems people will buy anything if you say it’s for Christmas.”

Marigold was beside herself with rage.

“What do you mean?  Tinsel isn’t real?”

“It’s just a story,” said Martin.

“So, there’s no magic manatee who teaches orphans to swim, who rescues shipwrecked sailors, and who delivers presents to all the children at the seaside?”

“Of course not!” Martin snapped.  “There is no Tinsel.  There is no magic.  It’s your parents.  They buy you everything and tell you all sorts of lies to make you behave yourselves.”

A collective gasp almost sucked the air from the room.

Marigold turned to confront her parents.

“Is this true, Mummy?” she put her hands on her hips.  “Daddy?”

“It’s just the silly man being silly, darling,” said Daddy, sending Martin a threatening look.  “Isn’t it, mate?”

Martin climbed down from the table.

“Yes, yes, of course.  Sorry, everyone.  Tell you what: half price off the books.  My agent won’t like it but hey, it’s nearly Christmas.”

That seemed to appease the parents at least.

Marigold snatched up her copy with a haughty sniff.  She tucked the book under her arm and took her parents’ hands in hers.

“I don’t care if Tinsel is a silly lie,” she announced.  “Now, let’s go and see Father Christmas and after that we can go to church.”

manatee

 

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Christmas Police

Karen opened the front door to find two broad-shouldered men in uniform on the doorstep.  They looked like cops except their outfits were red and trimmed with white.  The one on the left flashed his i.d. although Karen’s brain saw it as a Christmas card.

“Karen Greenford?” this man intoned.

“Yes?” Karen frowned.  “Only if you’re going to sing me Happy Birthday, it’s not my birthday, so…”

The man’s lips tightened in a grim smile.  “It is important to do things at the correct time.  You recognise this?”

“Well, yes, like I say, it’s not my birthday, so go back to whoever’s paying you and tell them there’s been a mistake.”

“Ms Greenford, when is his birthday?”

“What?” Karen blinked.  “Who?”

“You have Christmas decorations in your windows.”

Karen beamed with pride. “Lovely, aren’t they?  Did it all myself.  I love to feel all Christmassy, don’t you?”

A brief looked flashed between the men.

“When is his birthday, Ms Greenford?  It’s a simple question.”

Karen paled.  So this is what this is.  It wasn’t a singing telegram.  It was religious nutters.

“I’m sorry,” she backed off.  “I have something in the oven.”

She moved to close the door but one of the men blocked it with a big, black boot.

“May we come in,” he rumbled.  Before she could answer, Karen found herself pushed aside.  The men stepped into her hallway and looked around.  One tipped back his head and sniffed.

“Mince pies…”

The other man made a note on his tablet.

“There is something wrong with your calendar, perhaps,” he strode into the living room.  “You have perhaps turned two pages at once?”

He looked around at the decorations.  Paper chains spanned the ceiling.  A too-large Christmas tree dominated a corner and was already beginning to shed.  Every shelf was cluttered with ornaments: apple-cheeked Father Christmases, cutesy-pie reindeer with enormous eyelashes, a penguin in a Santa hat…

The men affected a professional air but their eyes betrayed their horror.  It was worse than they had thought.

On the television, framed with lengths of tinsel, played an American movie about a child learning to walk again in time for Christmas Eve.  The two men shared a look of concern.

“Is this a recording?  A DVD?”

Karen shook her head.  “It’s on now.  They’re showing them every afternoon in the run-up to the big day.”

“So, you are aware today is not the big day?”

Karen laughed.  “Of course it isn’t!  Don’t be silly!  Although I am ready for it; I’ve done all my shopping.”

“Ms Greenford, you have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas?”

“Yes!  Of course!  Is that what this is?  Carol singing?  Are we going to have a bit of a sing-song?  Hang on; I’ll get some mulled wine.  It’ll get us in the mood.”

One of the men stepped sideways to block Karen’s exit.

“Ms Greenford, there are twelve days of Christmas, none of which occur in November.”

“So?” Karen shrugged.  “Look, if you’re not going to sing to me about Rudolph or Frosty or Tinsel the Christmas Manatee, I’d like you to leave now, please.  I’ve still got lots of presents to wrap and cards to write and –”

One of the men held up his hand.  “Ms Greenford, no one is saying you shouldn’t be preparing for the holiday.  A good Christmas cake can take months to get right.”

“That’s right!” Karen agreed.

“But we have concerns that you are using up your allotted share of Christmas spirit too early.”

“I haven’t touched a drop!”

“You see, Ms Greenford, there is only so much Christmas spirit to go around.  People use up their ration too early and it leaves others with nothing when the big day comes.”

“Eh?” Karen was puzzled.  “What are you going on about?”

“Ms Greenford, use up your Christmas spirit early and, during that darkest week of the year, you will have no goodwill, no fellow-feeling for those less fortunate than yourself.  People go hungry, Miss Greenford.  People are lonely.  There is no Christmas spirit left for them.”

“We’ll let you off with a warning this time,” the second man touched the peak of his cap.  “But we’ll be watching.”

“We’ll know if you’ve been bad or good,” warned the other.  “We’ll see ourselves out.”

A little stunned, Karen stood rooted to the spot as the men went out.  The sound of the front door closing brought her to her senses.

Bloody Scrooges, she sneered.

She fetched a couple of warm mince pies and a glass of sherry from the kitchen, dropped onto the sofa and put her feet up.  On the telly, Tinsel the Christmas Manatee was teaching blind orphans to swim.

Lovely, grinned Karen, already misty-eyed.

I love a traditional Christmas.

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A Walk on the Cliffs

Andy packed his sandwiches and filled his thermos.  He had splashed out on new laces for his trusty hiking boots and a brand new pair of gloves to match his bobble hat.  He checked his backpack: map, compass, mint cake, water… It was all there.  Most of it he wouldn’t need; he knew exactly where he was going and could probably find his way there blindfolded.

He drove to the little town on the coast and parked.  He put three hours on his parking ticket and affixed it to the inside of the windscreen.  Nice day for it, he gave the sky an appraising look.  Powder blue broken here and there with feathery white.  Lovely.

He hitched his backpack over his shoulders and, clutching his staff, set off on the pebbly footpath that led away from the town and toward the sea.  The path rose and his lungs had to work harder as he climbed.  Must be getting old, old man, he laughed to himself.  After all, he had been making this trek for twenty-five years.

As he strode, enjoying a light breeze taking turns with the sun on his cheeks, he thought back to the first time he had visited the beauty spot.  Sandra had come with him, not quite kicking and screaming, but she had complained with every step.  Her new boots were giving her blisters.  Her clothes weren’t keeping the wind out.  She’d forgotten her sunglasses… and so it had gone on until they had reached the clifftop.

Even then she had failed to appreciate the majesty of the view.  The roiling waves far below like molten metal.  The seagulls wheeling in the air, their keening cries music to his ears, agony to hers.

It had been the last straw.  “There, you selfish bitch!” Andy had shoved her over the edge.  She plummeted in silence, too surprised to scream.  And when he peered over the edge, there was no sign.  The hungry waves had seized upon her, devoured her, erased her completely.

And so, every year, Andy came back.  Why?  Not to make sure, he told himself.  But out of respect.  He hadn’t bothered with women since then; he had been happy enough alone.  And on his country walks, he could be king of all he surveyed.  And he would rather have the screech of a seagull in his ear any day of the week than the nagging tongue of a woman, wearing him down, as the waves erode the rocks…

“Andy?” A voice behind him turned his blood cold.  If I turn, he thought, I will see her, pale blue with seaweed in her hair, and little creatures crawling from her eyes.

“I thought it was you,” the woman’s voice continued.  “I saw you park the car and asked in the café.  They said you come here every year on the same day.”

Andy froze.  She certainly didn’t sound as though she had been dead for twenty-five years.

Steeling himself, he turned.

A woman stood smiling at him with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes like grooves in the sand.  Her cheeks were ruddy from the walk up the path and rounder than he remembered.  In fact, everything about her seemed rounder – she’d put on weight, which is the opposite of what he would imagine the dead to do.

“Sandra?”

“Yes!” she laughed.  “Have I changed that much?  Let myself go a bit, I suppose, since the wedding.”

“Wedding?”

Andy was confused.  He looked over the edge at the waves crashing over the rocks as though an answer would be down there.

“Oh, Andy – you’re not still thinking about all those years ago?  Look, I’m sorry I stood you up, but in all honesty, it was never going to work between us, was it?  You were too outdoorsy for me – not saying there’s anything wrong with that!  If it makes you happy!  And I must say you’re looking good on it.  Trim.  Rather good shape for your time – our time of life.  Why don’t you come down to the Red Lion for a spot of lunch with us?  Trevor will be tickled pink to meet you, and you can hear all about the kids.  Donna’s just graduated and Simon’s in the army.  Andy?  What’s wrong?”

“Sandra…” Andy gaped.  “It’s so good to see you, I –”

His mouth worked like a landed fish, and as he traipsed after her to the pub one question burned in his befuddled mind.

Who the hell did I chuck off the cliff?

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Meanwhile, in the Laboratory…

“Quickly, Igor!  Throw open the skylight!  This storm will not last forever!”

“Yes, master!”  The hunchback threw all his weight into turning the wheel that operated the mechanism.  High above them, at the top of the turret, a panel slid open.  The doctor’s maniacal laughter was drowned by a thunderclap.

“And now, the first switch.”

Igor pulled down a large handle.

“The second!”

Igor obeyed.  “Let me guess: the third switch!”

“Now!” the doctor cried.  He clapped his hands together and rubbed them.  His eyes were wild and rolling as overhead lightning flashed.  A bolt struck the conducting rod.  A streak of hot blue energy flashed down the length of the apparatus, cracking and buzzing with electricity.

“The time is upon us!” the doctor yelled with glee.  “Igor, attach the electrodes to my creation’s neck.”

“Yes, master –”

Their work was interrupted by sonorous knocking at the castle door.

“Who could that be?” the doctor wailed.  “Who would be out on a night like this?”

Igor’s shrug accentuated his hump.

“Weary travellers, perhaps?  Got themselves lost.  Shall I let them in?”

“No!  Hang on, wait!  Yes!  Let them in!  They will do for spare parts.  But be quick about it!”

Igor shuffled off to answer the door.  While he was gone, the doctor made final checks to the equipment.  He allowed himself a snigger of excitement and anticipation.  He was going to be famous!  He was going to be remembered forever as the creator of eternal life.  He –

“Master,” Igor was back, appearing somewhat downcast.  “It wasn’t weary travellers.”

A man in a pinstripe suit stood dripping on the flagstones, his drenched raincoat draped over one arm and a briefcase dangling from his fingers.  He held out a business card.  The doctor snatched it and peered at the inscription while lightning flashed anew.

“What the hell is this?” he gasped.

“I’m afraid I’m shutting you down,” said the man in the suit.  “This equipment has not been PAT tested and until it has been, it is not to be used.”

“WHAT?” the doctor gaped.  “Are you serious?”

“I always am,” said the man proudly, “When it comes to matters of health and safety.”

The doctor tore the card into confetti and threw it in the man’s face.  Then he slumped against the table, crushed by defeat.

“It was the villagers who put you up to this, wasn’t it?”

The man remained tight-lipped but a smirk played at the corner of his mouth.

The doctor shook his head.  “Time was this place would be under siege with a mob armed to the teeth with flaming torches and pitchforks.  Now all it takes to halt the march of progress is bureaucracy.  What a world!”

“You can arrange for a tester to come out,” said the man.  “Could have one with you within a fortnight.”

“No, no,” the doctor lowered himself onto a stool.  “I shan’t bother.  Igor, show the nice man out.”

Igor did so and returned to find the doctor bowed and broken.

“Master?” he hardly dare approach.

“Society has monsters enough,” the doctor sighed.  “I am redundant.”

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The Morning after Hallowe’en

The friar emerged from the crypt, blinking against the morning sun.  It was later than he had expected; there had been no cockerel crowing to herald the dawn.  He found the bird – little more than a collection of scattered feathers now and the odd gout of blood.  Who would do such a thing?

Not who, he corrected himself.  What?

His heart quickened as he picked his way down the hill to the village.  From a distance, he could see the tiny settlement was quiet – too quiet.  No vehicles were on the roads.  No pedestrians bustled around.

There was no sign of life.

The friar thrust the back of his hand into his mouth, trying to stave off the horror rising in his gorge.

I must not get ahead of myself.  I must find out for sure…

But he knew it was true.  Despite his warnings, everyone was dead.

Fools!  Damned fools!

At the end of the only thoroughfare stood the general store.  Still shuttered but an arc of blood splashed in an upstairs window confirmed the friar’s fears.

Shaking his head in sorrow, with revulsion leaping in his stomach, the friar crossed to the saloon.  He found the doors unlocked but the place abandoned.  Debris of the night before was all around: empty glasses, discarded bottles, the odd upturned piece of furniture.

Something moved on the stairs.   The friar froze.

“Who’s there?”

Silence.  The friar held up his hands to show they were empty.

“I will not hurt you,” he smiled.  “Please.”

With a sob and a shuffle, a child peered over the banister.

“Peter!” the friar cried.  “Come down, child!  Let me look at you.”

The boy hesitated then descended.  The friar inspected Peter’s throat and wrists for injury and was relieved to find the skin unbroken.

“I’m hungry,” Peter snivelled.  “Mama – her bed – empty.”

More relief.  The child had not walked into an horrific scene.

“I shall find you something,” the friar shuffled to the kitchen.

“Not pumpkin!” the boy followed.  “I’ve had enough pumpkin.”

Despite himself, the friar chuckled.  More pumpkin might have saved them all.  He found some bread that wasn’t too stale and set about toasting it, rummaging in the cupboard for jam or some such.

“Father, where is everybody?” the boy chewed thoughtfully on the crust.  “Is it true?  Were they taken in the night?”

The friar nodded sadly.  “I am afraid so, my boy.  Despite all the warnings, they are gone.”

“But – but – that’s not fair,” the boy scowled.  “They did everything they were supposed to.  Dressing up as scary monsters.  Carving scary faces into pumpkins to frighten the evil spirits away.”

“Yes,” said the friar.  “But not at the right time.  You see, my boy, one must do all these things on the appropriate evening or else the magic will not work.  But we live in an age of convenience.  People want to observe the traditions but only if it is fun to do, and if it is convenient.  And so, everyone did their dressing-up on Saturday night.  And I’m sure everyone had a lot of fun.  But last night was when it mattered.  But no one bothered.  They were all partied out.  And they have paid a heavy price.  We have these traditions for a reason and they are not to be taken lightly.”

The kitchen door slammed shut as though shoved by an invisible hand.  The friar wheeled around.  The boy elongated until he towered over the holy man, his teeth bared, sharp and glistening.

“No need to sound so smug about it, Father,” a deep voice rumbled.  “You’re an irrelevance, a throwback.  Obsolete.”

“Perhaps,” sighed the friar.  He whipped a small pumpkin from his robe, a snarling face carved into it.  The thing that had been Peter recoiled, screeching.  “But I still know what works.”

pumpkin

 

 

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A Bowl of Broth

“Gran…” Little Red closed the book she had been poring over.

“Yes, dear?”  Her grandmother was at the kitchen sink, washing and peeling vegetables.  Already a pot was bubbling enthusiastically on the stove and the inviting smells of herbs filled the tiny cottage.

“I’ve been thinking…”

Grandmother chuckled to see the little girl’s serious expression.  “That sounds ominous!” the old woman laughed.

“In this book, there are old ladies like you…”

“Go on,” Grandmother dried her hands on a towel.  “And less of the old, if you please!”

“Living alone, in the middle of the forest.”

“What of it?  I’m quite cosy here in my little cottage and I’ve got you to visit me, haven’t I?”

“But these old ladies – in the stories – they’re mean.  Sometimes their houses are made out of gingerbread and they set traps for boys and girls.  Sometimes they make potions out of all sorts of horrible things and they use them to turn people into frogs.  And sometimes –”

“Oh dear,” Grandmother shook her head.  “You can’t believe everything you read in stories.  Now, clear the table.  It won’t be long before the broth is ready.  And you love my broth, don’t you, dear?”

Little Red’s expression was noncommittal, but she put the storybook away and draped a cloth over the table.  She fetched soup spoons from a drawer and the hand-carved salt and pepper pots Granny’s friend the woodcutter had made.  One was an owl, the other a wolf – but a friendly, little wolf, not a big bad one.

Grandmother carved an oval loaf into thick slices before giving the broth one last appraisal.

“Yum,” she sipped from the ladle.  “As good as ever.”

She served two steaming bowls and watched with pride as the little girl tucked in.

“That was delicious!” Little Red wiped her lips with the back of her hand.  She yawned.  “It’s funny, Gran, but your broth always makes me so – so sleepy…”

A minute later, she was out like a light.  Grandmother wrapped a blanket around the child and carried her to a cot by the fireside.

Some old women have houses made of gingerbread.  Some make potions to turn people into frogs.

And some, Grandmother stroked the sleeping child’s hair, make broth to stop the ones they love from leaving them all alone.

In an armchair by the fire, the woodcutter slept on.  Grandmother swatted at him with her tea towel to rid him of his cobwebs.

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Sheep-watching

Taran pulled the cloak around him.  It didn’t stop the shivers but it blocked out some of the biting wind.  Feeling sorry for himself, he rubbed his hands.  Beside him, the torch flickered; if it went out, he’d be stuffed.  It was hours until morning and he daren’t show his face back at the village before dawn.

We all must take out turn, his mother had admonished, although Taran had never seen her hobble up the hills.  He caught himself.  It was unfair.  Of all the people he knew, his mother was the hardest-working member of the community.  Everyone was in debt to her for something or other: some balm for a sick child, some potion for a nervous husband…

A rustling sound wrenched him from his thoughts.  He tensed.  His ears strained to determine the direction… There it was again.  Taran swallowed and reached for his staff.  The heft of it, and the nails sticking from the end, gave him comfort, made him a little bolder.

The rustling stopped.  He could hear the creature’s breath, gargling in the back of its dread throat.  It sounded close.  Too close.

Taran held his breath.  A pair of red eyes glinted, looking at him, looking into him.  Low laughter rumbled.

“And so you have come, my boy.”  The voice was deep but soft like velvet to the ear.  Taran frowned; he hadn’t expected the sheep-killing beast to have the power of speech.

A shadow stepped in front of the torchlight, the silhouette of a man.  Tall he was and broad-shouldered.  His hair was shaggy, flowing to the small of his back.  His hands were claws.

“Do not be afraid,” the shaggy man soothed.

Taran leapt to his feet, brandishing his spiked staff.  “I’ll not let you take no more of our sheep,” he vowed.

The man laughed.

“Oh, my boy!  The times I have heard that!  Do you know, this would be so much easier if they just told you the truth.”

Taran was puzzled.  “Are you telling me you do not take our sheep?”

The man stepped closer.  Long teeth glinted in the torchlight.

“Put the stick down and let me embrace you.”

“No!”  But Taran found he couldn’t move.  The man plucked the staff from his grasp and cast it aside.  His arms enfolded the youth and the heat of his embrace made Taran swoon and collapse.

He woke at midday, his head pounding.  Panicked, he looked around.  The torch had burned out and the scene was strewn with bits of wool and patches of gory red.

I have failed! Taran cursed himself.  He trudged back to the village, prepared to face the approbation of his elders.

But they cheered when he approached.  The whole village was there to welcome him, to celebrate his return.

Taran didn’t understand.  “Another sheep –”

His mother rushed forward and silenced him with a hug.  She planted kisses on his cheeks and neck.

“My boy, my sweet and lovely boy!” Tears coursed down her face.

The mayor clasped his hand and squeezed it tight.  “Well done, my boy,” he grinned.  “Now you are truly one of us.”

The mayor encouraged everyone to cheer.

What big teeth he has, Taran noticed for the first time.  What big teeth they all have!

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Fridge People

Trudy opened the fridge door.  A tiny voice gasped.  She slammed the door.  Had she really seen what she had seen?  She opened the door again.

“Hello?”

She peered at the shelves.  Behind half a head of lettuce that was turning brown at the edges, a little man poked his head out.

“The goddess!” he cried.  “Bringer of food and light!”

Trudy was aghast.  Am I drunk, she wondered?  Have I inhaled something?  That new cleaning fluid I bought for the kitchen surfaces, that was rather pungent…

The little man came forward.  His skin was pale and mottled, his limbs disproportionately long and slender.  His belly was distended and his eyes were bulbous and blinking.

“Speak again, O goddess!” he pleaded, his hands clasping each other.  “Every dark-time I pray that you will return and bring the light.  The light comes infrequently but the goddess is generous, the food supply bountiful.”

“Who the hell are you?” Trudy cried.  The little man flinched as though in a gale.  Trudy apologised and whispered she would keep her voice down.

“My name is Gor,” the little man bowed.  “I have been chosen as representative of my people.”

“People?” Trudy gasped.  “How many of you are there?”

“We are few,” Gor said sadly.  “But we have one request.  Please, goddess, hear our plea.”

This is all too weird for me, thought Trudy, I only came to get a beer.  But somehow, she couldn’t turn away, could not close the door.

“We wish for more light,” Gor bowed his head.  “Please can you give us more light?”

“Um, no,” said Trudy, as if the little man were stupid.  “All me food’d go off.”

“Yes!” the little man enthused.  “Let there be rot!  Let there be decay!  For that is where my people come from.  We have grown from the slime of forgotten leftovers and we feed on the fresh bounty you provide.  But our world is dark and cold and inhospitable.  If there were more of us, we could start a new life elsewhere.  We have glimpsed the world beyond your shoulders.  Let us multiply, O goddess; let us out!”

Trudy shuddered.  These people – these things! – had come about from her slackness in cleaning out the fridge and now they wanted more. “You want to colonise my kitchen?  My entire house, perhaps?”

“Help us, O goddess; our babies shiver in the dark.”

Trudy shook her head.  “I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it.

She reached for the bottle of cleaning fluid, took out the fridge shelves and began to spray.

Heaven alone knew what might be lurking in the oven.

fridge

 

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An Exterminator Calls

Jane was unable to turn onto the drive until the big red van pulled away.  The driver honked in salutation as he sped away, the giant rubber rat on the van’s roof wobbling and quivering like an overexcited jelly.

Odd… Jane got out and locked the car.  She found Brian in the kitchen attaching an invoice to the fridge with a magnet shaped like a slice of lemon.

“Trouble, love?” she asked.

“Looks like it,” Brian shrugged.  “I’ll put the kettle on.”

While he made tea, he explained that since he’d been working more and more from home, he’d become aware of certain noises in the house.  Sounds of movement and scratching around.  In the end, it became so distracting he found he couldn’t concentrate on data entry or spreadsheets or anything and so he had called in an expert, an exterminator.  The man had found nothing as yet but swore blind he had heard something, something large, moving about behind the walls.

“He’s put poison down; that should sort it,” Brian scooped sugar into his cup.  “He’ll be back in a fortnight in case there’s any bodies to be disposed of.”

“Hmm,” said Jane.  She sipped her tea.  As usual when Brian made it, it was horrible.  Her mind was racing.  An idea flashed behind her eyes and she seized on it.  “I could murder a biscuit,” she sighed, knowing full well the biscuit barrel was empty.

“You’re out of luck there,” laughed Brian.

“Oh, please, love,” Jane wheedled.  “Pop down to the shop and get me some hobnobs.  I’ve been on my feet all day.”

“I work too, you know,” Brian wagged a finger.  “It’s not all daytime telly and scratching my belly, you know.”

After a couple of minutes of pleading, he relented, pulled on his anorak and, rolling his eyes, said he might even bring the chocolates ones if she was lucky.

As soon as the front door closed, Jane sprang into action.  She went to the living room wall and rapped on it with her knuckles.  She listened… The knock was returned from the other side.  Jane stuck her head in the fireplace.

“You’ve got to go!” she hissed.  “Brian’s got a man in; you’ll be discovered!”

“Bloody hell!” wailed a voice from beyond the brickwork.  “What’s he doing working from home anyway?  When are we going to have some time to ourselves?”

“Calm down, Colin!” Jane urged.  “He’ll be back in a minute.  Get your arse into gear and get the hell out.  We’ve had a good run but now we’ll have to think of an alternative arrangement.”

“Six months I’ve been living here,” said Colin.  “Six months of having it off with his wife, behind his back, under his nose.”

“Colin!  Will you get a move on?”  Jane cast a panicked look to the window.  Brian could be back at any second…

“I’m starving, chick,” said Colin.  “Make me a sandwich or pass me some biscuits, would you?”

“Brian’s gone to fetch the bloody biscuits, Colin!  Get out of there now.”

“Oh, hold on.  I’ve found something.  Did you put this here?  Hmm, nice… Bombay mix, is it?”

“Colin!  What – no!  Don’t eat anything, Colin!  COLIN!”

At the window, Brian watched, a smirk stretched across his face.  He phoned the exterminator.

“It’s worked,” he said.  “And whatever’s on the invoice, I’ll pay double!”

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A Night Out

Charlie ducked out of the club and turned up his collar against the damp night air.  Another disappointing night.  There simply weren’t the pickings anymore.  Oh well, the students would be back in town in a couple of weeks and suddenly the sea would have plenty more fish.

A figure stepped from the alley between the club and its neighbour, an all-night kebab shop.  Eyes glinted beneath the figure’s hoodie.

“Oh, you’re not leaving already?”  The voice was rich, deep and more than slightly mocking.

Charlie shook his head to signify he wasn’t interested but the man in the hoodie blocked his path.

“I was watching you,” the voice continued.  “Across the bar.  You were looking for something – for someone.  Looks like you didn’t find him.”

Charlie shoulders twitched in a shrug.  “There’ll be other nights.”

“There’s still this one.”  The hooded head jerked toward the alley.  “And it’s still young.”

“And so are we!” Charlie laughed.  “All right then.”

He followed the stranger into the alley.  The walls were wet and slippery; on one side, the pulsating music, a dull, humming throb that got into your bones; on the other, the spicy aromas of the kebab shop, the tang of overcooked fat, the stench of death.

Charlie unzipped the hoodie, revealing the stranger’s incongruously frilled shirt, like something from a costume drama, from a time long ago.  The stranger’s hands, pale and skinny, reached for the buckle of Charlie’s belt.   His mouth nuzzled against Charlie’s neck while his long fingers searched in Charlie’s underwear.

Panting, Charlie sought to pull back the hood, to get a look at the man he was snogging.  The stranger froze, stepped back.

“If you don’t mind,” he said in steely tones, “I’d rather keep it on.”

Charlie laughed.  “I’ve been with worse, mate.  Don’t worry about it.”

The man took another step back.

“Bloody hell,” said Charlie.  “What are you, some kind of vampire or something?”

“Actually,” the man straightened, “I am.”

He swept back his hood to reveal a high forehead, the blue-black hair in a sharp point, the eyes red rimmed and hungry, the cheekbones sharp as the fangs teasing the thin line of his lips.

“It’s not a problem, is it?”

“Not for me,” said Charlie.  “You do what you want, mate.  Just not with me, OK.  Not being funny but it just won’t work.  I’m a – a – Undead too.”

He lifted his Britney T-shirt to reveal the stitches and scars of an autopsy.

“Impressive,” the vampire traced the Y shape with a pointed fingernail.  “But not my thing.  I need the blood of the living.”

“And I need their life-force to keep me going.”

“Oh well, no harm done.”

“No fun had either!” laughed Charlie, pulling his shirt straight.  “Tell you what, Sniffers is still open across town.  We could double up, try our luck there.”

The vampire zipped up his hoodie and linked his arm through Charlie’s.

“Double trouble!” he chuckled, “I’ve never done a three-way.”

They stepped out into the street.  The vampire’s grin glinted in the streetlight.  “I’ll get us a cab.”

alley

 

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Breakfast in Bed

Rebecca woke with a start.  She froze, listening hard.  She held her breath.

Someone’s in the house!

She hitched herself onto her elbows and wondered whether she should get out of the bed and hide underneath it – or the wardrobe, perhaps… Or the window.  She could climb out, then there was a short drop to the garage roof, the neighbour’s fence…

Who am I kidding?  She lay back, head reeling.  How much did I have to drink last night?

Footsteps on the stairs struck terror in her heart.  She whimpered; the handle on the bedroom door turned.

“Morning!” came a chirpy voice, a man’s voice, as a tea tray came in followed by the man in a cardigan who was carrying it.  “Oh, good; you’re awake.”

He held the tray over the bed until Rebecca sat up, then he placed it on her lap.

“Croissants and jam, coffee black, grapefruit juice, just how you like them.”

Rebecca gaped in horror.  “How did – how do you know?  How did you get into my house?”

The man smiled patiently, the circular lenses of his spectacles resting on the ruddy apples of his cheeks.

“There’s no need to get upset, love,” he whispered.  “It’s only me.”

Frowning, Rebecca shook her head.  “No, no, no!  I don’t want this!  I don’t know who you are!  You could be trying to poison me for all I know.”

She flung the duvet aside, sending the breakfast tray clattering to the floor.  She tried to swing her legs to the floor but the effort made her swoon.  She fell back onto the pillow.  The man stooped over her and covered her with the duvet.  He stroked her face.

“There, there,” he cooed.  “No harm done.  You’re just a little confused.  What kind of husband would I be if I minded a bit of confusion after all our years together?”

Rebecca’s mind reeled.  Husband?  Years?  This was all news to her.

She searched the man’s face for something – anything – she might recognise.  He looked kindly enough, she supposed, pleasant… but who the hell he was and what the hell his name was, she had no clue.

“The doctor spoke to us about this, remember,” the man retrieved a syringe from the bedside table.  “And those nice people at the dementia club.”  He tapped the barrel of the syringe and pushed the plunger with his thumb.  A spray of droplets sprang from the needle’s tip.

“There’s a good girl,” he smiled as he took Rebecca’s forearm.  “This will help you calm down.”

As the needle went in, Rebecca stiffened.  Images flashed across her mind.  A hand over her mouth, a dark alley, the boot of a car.  And that voice, that same soothing voice, calling her Sally and saying how glad he was to have her back.

croissant

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Lucky Sandra

“I’m lucky!  Lucky to be alive!” Sandra breathed in the salty tang of the seaside air.  Behind her, her fellow passengers grumbled, wishing the silly bint would hurry up and step off the coach so they could get off and begin their holidays.

Sandra and her friend Tanya collected their luggage from the underbelly of the coach and took a taxi to their B&B.  Sandra drank in the sights as they passed: the glittering promenade, the noisy funfair… Tanya suspected the cabbie was taking the scenic route to fleece them of an extra few quid, but Sandra wasn’t listening.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” she kept gasping.  “After all these years.  I want to visit all the old places – if they’re still standing, while I’m still standing.”

Tanya was less than enthusiastic.  The trip had been planned as a diversion, a getaway to help her get over the terminal gasps of her failed marriage, but Sandra had hijacked it somehow and made it all about herself.  She had visited this very coastal resort as a small child.  The place held many fond memories of her father – before The Accident that had robbed young Sandra of what the neighbours called ‘a steadying male influence’, much to her mother’s annoyance.

“No men in your room after ten o’clock,” the landlady wagged a finger.  “Unless you bring one back for me an’ all.”

Sandra and Tanya cackled obligingly and headed out to explore the promenade.

“In here first.”  Sandra pulled Tanya toward a newsagent’s.

“But we’ve got newsagents at home,” Tanya protested.  “I want fish and chips.”

“We’ve got fish and chips at home,” Sandra countered in a mocking tone.

“Not like here,” Tanya pouted.  “They always taste better at the seaside.”

Petulant, she waited outside while Sandra went in.  Supposed to be my holiday, Tanya frowned.  Supposed to be doing what I want to do…

An elbow nudged her from her moody musings.

“Here you go, Tan,” Sandra offered her a scratchcard.  “Got us one each.  I’m feeling lucky.”

They found a bench, unearthed 50p pieces from their purses and rubbed away at the cards.

“Huh,” Sandra was deflated.  “A measly two quid.  Oh well, got my money back, I suppose.  Hold on while I go and cash it in for another couple.”

“No – you hold on,” Tanya caught her arm.  “Look,” she paled before Sandra’s eyes.  “I’ve…won!”

“You never have!”

“I have!  Look: a hundred thousand smackers!  I’m going to be sick.”

Sandra snatched the card and pored over it, searching frantically for some error or small print that discounted the win, but no, it was true: Tanya had won the top prize.

“Of course, by rights this is mine,” Sandra sniffed.  “I paid for it.”

Tanya reached for the card but Sandra held it at arm’s length.

“Oh, don’t be like that, San.  I’ll give you half; of course I will.  Goes without saying.”

She lunged for the card; Sandra pushed her away.

A seagull swooped down and snatched the scratchcard from Sandra’s grasp.  To the women’s dismay, it flew off, soaring over the beach.

“Ah well,” said Sandra, but there was a gloating glint in her eyes.  “Easy come, que sera.  Looks like we’ll both remember this place for what we have lost.”

“Oh, give over,” wailed Tanya.  “Perhaps we can go after it.”

“Too dangerous,” Sandra shook her head.  “Like when I tried to wade out after my dad on his wayward airbed.  A strong current took him; a cheeky seagull took your money.”

“Oh, so it’s my money now we’ve lost it.”

Brightening, Sandra leapt to her feet.  “I fancy those fish and chips now,” she announced.

“I hope it bloody chokes you,” muttered Tanya.

gull

 

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One-to-One

“You wanted to see me, Janice?”

Team Leader Janice Fairbrother glanced away from her monitor and beckoned him in.  “Yes, come in, John; pop yourself on a seat.”

Smedley pulled up a chair and waited for Janice to finish typing.

“Just pinging this off… and there!”  She pressed SEND with a flourish and then turned to Smedley with an earnest expression.  “I’ve called you in because it’s been quite a while since we had a one-to-one.  I’m sure downstairs can manage without you for five minutes.”

Smedley nodded.  He kept his palms flat on his thighs, willing them not to sweat against the polyester trousers he was obliged to wear.  He could guess what this was about but when someone is about to open a can of worms, you don’t hand them the can-opener.

“Are you happy here, John?”  Janice’s eyes sought his, giving her a more bovine expression than usual.

“It’s OK,” he shrugged.

“Getting on well with everyone?  I like my team to be happy bunnies.”

“They’re OK.”

“Hmm.  Well, I’m not one to beat about the bush.  When I see a spade, I call it one right away, no messing.  It’s just that I’ve noticed – and Head Office has noticed – you’re not your usual chirpy self down on the shop floor.”

“Hmm.”

“Now, we don’t expect you to be all-singing and dancing, doing flipping backflips every five minutes – Health and Safety would be on my back in no time.  Janice, they’d say, this is a frozen food shop not a flipping circus.  But we do expect certain levels of courtesy, John.  Service with a smile.”

“Yes, I know – I’ll do better.”

“You look tired, love.  I think you’re taking too much on.  Working two jobs is affecting your performance.”

“Oh, now, look –”

Janice threw up her hands.  “Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life, sweetheart.  But my priority is the team.  The business comes first.  Now, I expect that’s what your other boss says as well.  So it’s nothing you haven’t heard before.”

“No, it’s –”

“So think on!  And get those pearly whites on show.  Your face won’t crack, I promise you.”

She turned her attention to her monitor and set her fingers tapping.

Smedley stood.  He put the chair back where it had come from.  As he made his way through the building, his phone buzzed.  It was his other boss.

“Is it done?”

“Yes.”

“Get yourself out of there.”

“On my way.  I was thinking about quitting anyway.  Just one question.”

“No questions; you know that.”

“Spies and diplomats, I can understand.  But the team leader of a shitty frozen food shop?”

“Let’s just say it’s personal.”

The line went dead.

Smedley had enough time to retrieve his jacket from the locker room.  As he walked away, the entire upper storey of PriceFreeze went up in flames, the windows bursting outwards in a shower of flame and glass, as the device he had concealed under the chair in Janice’s office detonated right on cue.

Smedley got his pearly whites on show.

Many miles away in a top secret location, Nigel Fairbrother deleted an email refusing him a divorce.

Freezer

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Warren makes Peace

“I can’t believe you have done this!” Steven’s voice cracked with anger.  Warren panicked.

“Keep your voice down!” he hissed.

“Make your mind up,” Steven complained.  “You bring me here because you say you want to talk and now you’re telling me to pipe down.”

“It’s just that the walls are thin and my mother’s in the next room.”

Steven laughed.  “You still live with your mother?  Christ.  Then don’t you think you should have found somewhere – I don’t know – a little more private for this – whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.”

“I – I – wanted to – needed to talk.”  Warren put his fingertip on the upturned glass.  Overhead, the dim blue light from which Steven’s voice was emanating flickered in time with Steven’s laughter.

“Oh, I think we’re beyond the moving-the-glass stage, don’t you?  And if you want me to spell out a message letter by letter, I remind you I fucking hated Scrabble.”

Warren despaired.  Things weren’t going well – the opposite to the way he had hoped, the way he had rehearsed and rehearsed.  Where was Steven’s gratitude, for one thing?  Warren supposed the dead have little to be grateful for.

“So, what do you want to know?” the blue light flickered.  “What it’s like over here?  Frankly, there’s not much to tell.  It’s all one big fat load of nothing.”

“No – no, there’s some things I want to tell you.  Things I never said when I had the chance.”

“Christ.  Not this again.”

“Look, I know I was a pain in the arse sometimes.”

“Putting it mildly!”

“And I’m sorry you had to block me on social media and everything.”

“So you said.  You were becoming obsessed with me and – look at you now! – you haven’t changed!  You just can’t let me rest in peace, can you?  You just had to summon me with your little incantation and your little trinket thingy.  Take a hint for once in your life.”

“But you still came!”

“I didn’t have much choice.  Don’t take it as encouragement, for fuck’s sake!”

“Listen!  There’s not much time.  To make up for all the hassle I caused you, let me do this one little thing.  And then you’ll never have to speak to me again… Unless you want to.”

“I won’t!  What thing?”

“I’ve been studying.  The amulet, the incantation, they’re just the start of it.  What would you say if I could bring you back?  You could live again!”

“I’d say you were round the fucking twist.”

“Possibly – but look!”  Warren sprang across the room and whipped the duvet off his bed.

“Fuck, no!  No!” The blue light flared angrily.  “Tell me you didn’t.”

“Ta-daa!” Warren grinned.

“You dug me up!  You went and fucking dug me up!  What, you couldn’t have me when I was alive so now you – You’re sick, man.”

“No!” Warren blushed.  “It’s not like that.  This is for you.  Let me complete the ritual and you’ll be right as rain.  And you probably won’t hunger for the flesh of the living at all.”

The blue light swooped over the bed, scanning the desiccated corpse, shrunken in its Sunday best.

“But – people know I’m dead.”

“Go abroad.  New life somewhere else.  It’s the least I can do.”

The blue light circled Warren, scanning him.

“It’s crazy!  You’re crazy!  But you’d go to all this trouble for me?”

“I really was your friend, you know.  I just didn’t know how to show it until now.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

The blue light hovered in front of Warren and took on Steven’s form.

A sharp knocking on the bedroom door was followed by Warren’s mother’s voice.

“Warren Makepeace!  You better not have anyone in there, do you hear me?  We’ve talked about this.  You promised me you wouldn’t do anything unnatural.”

blue light

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Boruba Makes a Deal

Garlo Baint sneered.  His stubby tusks caught the light of the low-hanging lamp above their booth.  Across the table, Boruba Meinfarb maintained a poker-face.

“It’s a good offer,” she repeated.

Baint grunted.  “So you keep telling me.  I do not like to be rushed.  Another round of drinks.”

He signalled and a waiter materialised, bearing a tray.  Baint tossed him a few coins without looking and the waiter withdrew.

“I’m thinking I could get more…” Baint stroked the wiry hairs on his chin.  “More than what you’re offering – if…”

His eyes flickered.  In an instant, two henchmen appeared and seized Boruba’s wrists.

“…If I sell you on the open market.”

“You duplicitous hog,” Boruba spat.  “The deal was to free my sister.”

“And so I shall.  Then we shall see if she will stump up the cash to broker a similar deal for your release.”

Boruba sighed.  How could I be so dense, she scolded herself?   I should have guessed Baint would double-cross me.  I should have listened to Zed.

The waiter returned.  “Is there a problem here?” he intoned.

Baint waved him away.  “Keep your nose out or lose it.”

“Very well,” the waiter nodded.  Boruba rolled her eyes.

“No, it’s not very well!” she cried.  “These men are trying to abduct me for the slave trade.”

“Against your will, madam?”

“Of course, it’s against my bloody will!  Do you think anyone willingly becomes a slave?”

“Should I alert the manager?”

“That would be lovely.  Thank you.”

“Hey!” Baint got to his trotter-like feet.  “This ain’t no ladies’ tea party.”

He reached for his weapon but the waiter was quicker on the draw.  He pulled out his own plasma-blaster and bashed the tray off Baint’s brow into the bargain.

“At last!” said Boruba.  The waiter peeled off his face to reveal her partner-in-crime-busting, Zed Bronco.

A couple of Hongoolian martial arts moves later and Baint and his henchmen were trussed up and under arrest.

“My hero,” said Boruba.  She pecked Zed’s cheek.

“One question,” Baint snorted.  “Do you even have a sister?”

The slavering slaver went ignored.  Linking her arm through his, Boruba steered Zed toward the exit.

“I just might have to post a review praising the service in this place,” she cooed into his ear.

“Permit me to give madam a tip.”

“Oh, Zed!” she slapped his arm.  Laughing, they went to their hotel.

boar

 

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Indoor Watch

Billy Rain hated Indoor Watch.  Indoor Watch was boring.  There was no one to talk to, for one thing; you just had to stand stock still in a corridor like one of those suits of shining armour Lady Fireblast had on display throughout the castle.  Empty armour could do this job just as well, he grumbled to himself, and I could be out there in the sunshine.  Perhaps having a bit of a paddle in the freshwater pond he knew was beyond the castle grounds.  The very thought of it made his toes itch.

A sudden noise roused him from his wishful thinking.  Instantly alert, he pressed his ear to the thick, oaken door he was supposed to be guarding.  Behind it was the apartment of Lady Fireblast’s daughter, the Infanta Svetlana.  It was Billy’s rescue of her from a gang of hoodlums on the High Road that had won him his post in the Guard.  That day had changed his life forever.  So too for the Infanta: she had not been seen in public since the attack.

Beyond the door: silence.  Billy Rain hesitated.  What if the Infanta was in trouble?  What if some accident had befallen her?  What if an intruder had climbed in to accomplish what the thwarted hoodlums had not?

Steeling himself – which was ironic, considering he was already clad in armour – Billy Rain turned the handle, shaped like a dragon’s head, and pushed the door open.

The chamber was dimly lit.  Heavy drapes blotted out the sunlight.  The air smelled stale and… of porridge!  Billy Rain slipped in a puddle of it, landing with a clang on the flagstone floor.  A silver platter lay nearby, along with the remains of a shattered china bowl.  The wall and the back of the door were newly redecorated by a splatter of creamy oats.

As though someone had dashed their breakfast against them…

Billy Rain began to suspect the intruder was a Goldilocks figure – Don’t be silly, Billy!  Affrighted of storybook characters!

He got to his knees and then to his feet, using the staff of his pike as an aid.  A pair of blue eyes stared at him from the shadows beneath the four-poster’s canopy, two turquoise gems resting on velvet.

“Your Highness,” Billy cleared his throat and bowed as much as his armour would allow.  “I didn’t mean to wake you.  I heard a noise.”

The Infanta did not respond.  But then she wouldn’t, would she, he remembered?  Ever since her rescue, Svetlana Fireblast had not uttered a word.  The castle was rife with rumour.  She’d be better off if those louts had murdered her, the poor lamb, the lesser folk gossiped.  Instead of being shut up in her room, shut up in herself, all dead on the inside.

Billy Rain approached the bed.  The Infanta was propped up on pillows, her face pallid and expressionless, her mouth slack and her eyes – those brilliant jewels – unmoving and unblinking.

“I thought happed I’d better check it out,” said Billy.  “The noise.  Looks to me like somebody didn’t want their porridge.”

Behind him, the door slammed shut.  He almost jumped out of his armour.

A draught, happen… But no; all the casements were shut and curtained.  Billy Rain was at a loss.

The Infanta didn’t seem to know he was there.  He dared to wave his gauntleted hand in front of her eyes.

Nowt.

He sighed and reckoned he ought to get back to his post.  And to think, I’d been mithered about being stuck indoors for a few hours!

The door wouldn’t open, pull on it as he might.  He tried to prise it open with his pikestaff but the weapon was torn from his grasp by an unseen hand.  It flew across the room and directly into the forehead of a portrait of Lady Fireblast.

On the bed, the Infanta did not, could not, move.  But her eyes were shining a little brighter.

“You did that?” gasped Billy Rain.  “And I reckon you chucked your breakfast at the wall an’ all.”

Svetlana Fireblast said nothing, did nothing.  But the porridge on the wall began to shift and crawl.  Billy Rain watched, transfixed, as a message took form.

WHY BRING ME BACK?  I WAS RUNNING AWAY

Billy Rain’s jaw dropped and his knees buckled.

What the hell was he supposed to do now?

blue-eyes-hi

 

 

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The Baron has a visitor

“You will hardly know we are here.”  Lord Holdfast was strutting around the state room as if he owned the place –  My state room, Baron Dumplypump grumbled in his seat at the head of an otherwise empty table.

“But ten thousand men!” he cried, exasperated.  “I have neither the room nor the resources to accommodate –”

Lord Holdfast cut him off with a patronising smirk.  “That has all been taken care of.  We have been commandeering provisions from farms and villages en route and as for the sleeping arrangements, we shall pitch our tents on common land.”

“Then why, prithee, do you need me at all?” Dumplypump blustered, setting his chins awaggle.

“My men need to rest,” Lord Holdfast deigned to perch a slender buttock on the edge of the table, “and your stronghold is ideally situated, being within coo-ee of Fireblast’s territory.  And, since we were passing, I thought the opportunity ripe to pop in and invite you to join us.  What do you say?  Your army joined with mine; Lady Fireblast won’t know what’s hit her!”

The baron performed a good impression of someone mulling it over when, in truth, the idea had already occurred to him.  To join with Holdfast and unite against the scourge of the Eastern Realms!

As always in these situations, it did not pay to appear too keen.

“I think…” he said, as archly as he could, “…that is an excellent idea.  But I do not wish to appear inhospitable.  I shall send casks of ale to your men to bid them welcome.”

“Capital!” Lord Holdfast stood.

“And you shall dine with me this evening, My Lord.”

“You are exceeding generous, Dumplypump.”

“Osterban, please.”

“And I am Terkus.”

The men nodded curtly to each other.  Lord Holdfast clicked his bootheels together and strode out.  Baron Dumplypump let out a girlish giggle.  He rang for Nebbish, his chamberlain.

Having given the servant his orders, the baron slipped into his private chamber.  He drew aside a velvet curtain to reveal a tall looking-glass in an ornate frame.

“My Lady?”

The surface of the mirror seemed to shimmer and a shadowy figure appeared, slender and sinuous and with glowing eyes like emeralds.  Out poured the Baron’s news, his words tumbling over themselves like horses in a stampede.

“Excellent!” said a voice like scraping on the glass.

“And the poison in the ale should be taking effect right about now,” Dumplypump tittered.  “I cannot wait to see Lord Stuckup’s face when he finds himself alone and surrounded by thousands of my men.”

The image in the glass grew as the figure stepped closer.  It took on the shape of Lord Holdfast and an arm reached out and seized what it could find of the baron’s flabby neck.

“Treacherous toad!” Holdfast spat.  The baron choked and spluttered.  Holdfast stepped from the frame and drew his dagger.

“Wait, wait!” Dumplypump cried.  “We can still work together!  We can take that bitch down!”

Holdfast’s nose wrinkled as though the baron had emptied his guts on the flagstones.

“I don’t think so.  You see, this was all a test, my fat, flabby friend; and you failed.  I don’t have ten thousand men; I have barely half a dozen.  Those casks of ale were sent back to your own troops.  A modest bribe to your man Nebbish allowed me access to this room.”

Dumplypump gaped.  “All is lost!” he quailed.  “I’ll get you for this!” he roared as Holdfast shed the cloak that had been his disguise.

“Oh, yes?” Holdfast arched an eyebrow.  “You and whose army?”

castle tower

 

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Space Nuptials

Boruba Meinfarb adjusted her veil and gazed at her reflection, now hazy, in the full-length mirror of her dressing room.  To her, the veil seemed redundant, a sentimental throwback to her intended’s heritage on Old Earth, when, in more barbaric times, men would wed their brides unseen.  Ridiculous now to cover her face when Zed Bronco had memorised her features – if the sketches he kept sending her were any proof.  The drawings had helped to win her over, eroding her resolve.  Zed Bronco was many things but he was also loyal and his affections unwavering.  And good-looking to boot!

A comms link booped.

“Ready for you, Miz Meinfarb,” intoned the voice of the robo-minister.

“Right.”

This is it!

She smoothed the bodice of her arctic-white dress, noticing her hands were clammy.  Why am I so nervous?  Beings get married every day.

Steeling herself, she entered the wedding chamber.  An android rolled up on caterpillar tracks, offering to give her away.

“Bug off!” she snapped.  She began her slow and steady progress along the aisle, at the head of which her groom was waiting.  Even with his back to her, Zed Bronco cut a dashing figure.  Her heart fluttered.  He had rented an intelli-fabric Tuxedo that shaped itself to show off his  physical attributes, its colour changing with his moods.  At present it was a serene shade of blue.

How is he so calm, Boruba frowned?  I’m like a Hongoolian jumping bean on a griddle.

The rows of seats she passed were sparsely attended.  Robotic witnesses for hire sat patiently, their smiles painted on.  Neither she nor Zed had what you might call friends.  It had always been just the two of them in their on-and-off relationships, professional and personal.

At last, she reached his side and the soft organ music which she only now realised had been emitting from the belly of the robo-minister faded to silence.  Zed glanced sideways and his wedding suit flashed red – just for a nano-second but Boruba grinned.  He is nervous!

“Dearly beloved,” the robo-minister began, his teeth glowing, the chromium dome of his spherical head gleaming.

“Never mind that!” Boruba cried, drawing a plasma-blaster and shooting the robot’s head off.

“What the flub?” Zed sprang back, his suit oscillating between yellow and green, the fabric as confused as he was.

“I can’t do this, baby,” Boruba pouted sadly.

“But – but – it’s always been you and me and always will be!” Zed protested.

Boruba tore off her veil.  “I can’t do this!”  A sob escaped her.  “Run, Zed!  Save yourself!”

“What?”

“It’s all a lie, a trick to lure you here.  Go!  I’m so sorry!  I love you, I truly do!”

It was too late.

The witnesses surrounded them, shedding their metal casings to reveal the henchmen of Zed’s greatest enemy, Dorudine Bigshot.  All the colour drained from Bronco’s Tux.

“You sold me out!  How could you?”

“It’s what we do, baby.”  Boruba tossed him a weapon.  “But I regret it now.  What say the two of us blast our way out of here and get a new start?”

“Go on then,” Zed shrugged.

They stood back to back and started shooting.

space bride

 

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Disciplinary

“Where were you, Billy Rain?”

“Um…” Billy Rain, newly arrived in the throne room, dipped his head.

“Well?”  Lady Fireblast drummed her fingers on the arm of the Golden Chair, the seat of power in the Eastern realms.

“I – um – overslept, My Lady.”  Billy Rain’s cheeks flushed.  “I heard the cry of the cockerel right enough but happen I went back to sleep again.  It won’t happen again.”  He bowed low, bracing himself for a scolding as searing as dragon’s breath.

“In Billy Rain’s defence, My Lady,” the reedy voice of Wormshank, Lady Fireblast’s monkish advisor piped up, “he was on Late Watch until the very early hours, guarding the castle from – well, My Lady does not need me to list her many foes.”

Lady Fireblast sneered.  Nictitating membrane flickered across her emerald eyes.

“Even so,” she kept her tone even, her words measured, “it is important that we are punctual in all things.  What if you were leading my army to war today, Billy Rain?  Would expect the enemy to wait for you on the battlefield like a jilted date, or would you expect him to make encroachments on our lands without your interference?  I am quite sure the likes of Lord Holdfast and Baron Dumplypump – not to mention the Fiends from the Fjords – would not scruple to take full advantage of your tardiness and then where would we be?  Lying on this very floor with our throats cut, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“My Lady,” Billy Rain cleared his throat.  “I am not a soldier.  I am a blacksmith’s son from a backwater village –”

Lady Fireblast cut him off.  “Spare us the humble beginnings speech, I beg you.  We have all heard it many times.  Grateful though I remain for the rescue of my daughter from the ruffians who accosted her on the High Road, impressed though I still am by your unrivalled swordsmanship and strategic thinking, be warned, Billy Rain the blacksmith’s son: your bluff, roguish charm will only get you so far.  You shall lose a week’s pay and there’s an end to it.”

At her side, a liveried servant banged a gong: Lady Firebrand had spoken.

She rose gracefully from the Chair and stalked from the room; the long train of her iridescent gown shimmered and slithered like a dragon’s tail.

Billy Rain’s eyes met those of Wormshank.  Both men let out a sigh of relief and laughed.

“A week’s pay when I were only half an hour late!”  Billy Rain wailed.

“You got off lightly there, my son,” the monk patted his shoulder.

“Aye, happen I did,” Billy Rain set his jaw.  “I don’t suppose this is a good time to ask for the afternoon off.”

dragon

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Space Bar

The hooded figure slid into the booth.  Zed Bronco barely looked up from the goblet of Hongoolian mind-wipe he had been nursing all evening.  Deep in the shadows of the cowl, red eyes glinted like embers.  A gauntleted hand pushed a package across the table.

“It’s all there,” hissed a voice from somewhere within the robes.

“I’m sure it is.”  Bronco left the package untouched.  “What makes you think I want it?”

“You need it,” came the rejoinder.  “You need this job.”

“Hell I do.”  Bronco swigged the lees of his drink and got to his feet.  The gauntlet seized him by the wrist.

In a nanosecond, all that remained of the hooded figure was the severed hand still gripping Bronco’s arm; the rest had been blasted to oblivion by Zed’s plasma-pistol, drawn before either of them had chance to see it.

I still got it, Bronco smirked to himself.

He peeled the dead fingers from his wrist and tossed the hand over his shoulder.  Already, the bar was resuming its customary atmosphere, as though this little disruption had never happened.  Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the package and slipped it into his pouch.

Folk of all shapes and sizes parted to let him reach the exit.  He was sure every eye was on him, every murmur was about him.

Hey, isn’t that –

Didn’t he used to be –

“Zed Bronco!” A familiar voice brought him up sharp in the rain-and-neon-spattered alley.  “Remember me?”

Zed sneered.  There wasn’t enough mind-wipe in all the universes…

“I’ll take what you’re holding.”  His former partner, Boruba Meinfarb stepped toward him, one hand out, the other clutching a disrupto-blaster that was trained on his heart.  “And don’t even think about giving me the old innocent look.  Hand it over.”

With a display of reluctant resignation, Zed unhooked the pouch from his shoulder.  He tossed it to the puddled ground between them.

“Good boy,” Boruba stooped to retrieve it, keeping her eyes on him.  She straightened, hitching the strap over her neck.

“The great Zed Bronco,” she shook her head.  “Once the scourge of the Seven Sectors and now reduced to – what? – a drugs mule for organised crime.”

“Oh, no,” Zed smiled.  “It ain’t drugs.  What you got there is contraband of another kind.  I suppose it don’t matter me telling you – you’re going to be dead in a few seconds from now.”

Boruba’s jaw dropped.  Her hand trembled.

“You’re bluffing,” she accused, her voice shaking.

“We’ll see,” Zed smirked.  “There’s a lucrative market for exotic and endangered species in these parts.  What you have around your pretty neck is a fine specimen.  You ever hear of the Hongoolian camo-snake?  Can disguise itself as practically anything.  Including travel pouches like that one.”

He nodded.

Boruba’s free hand clutched at the strap.  Was it her imagination or was the thing already tightening around her throat?

“Bye now!” Zed strolled away, whistling merrily.

“Zed!” Boruba wailed after him, too afraid to move a muscle.  “Zed Bronco!  You come back here!  Do you hear me?”

“Someone’s happy,” observed the cab driver as Zed dropped into his hoverpod.

“I am!” Zed grinned.  “I think it’s high time I took up playing poker.”

 

ray-gun-green-and-black-th

 

 

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The Exchange

Joe was met at the space-port by his host family.  They looked human enough.  Well, humanoid – if you disregarded their elongated, cigar-shaped torsos supported by three squat legs like a milking stool.  They smiled brightly, their large eyes shining.  The tallest of the trio – the father, Joe assumed – extended a clammy hand at the end of a spindly arm.  Joe shook it.

“Was that done well?” said the male.  “Your Earth custom?”

“Very well,” said Joe, hoping he’d find a moment to give his palm a surreptitious wipe.

“I am Gorb,” the male inclined his head.  “This is my spouse – the how you say chain-and-ball? – Flera.”

The female simpered and nodded.

“And our offspring, Teebo.  You will be sharing a room with it.”

Joe smiled at the youngest member of the family.  Patches of green blossomed beneath Teebo’s eyes, which Joe interpreted as blushes.

“You will be safe with Teebo,” Gorb explained with a chuckle.  “We do not choose our gender until our sixteenth rotation.  Prior to that we have neither sexual organs nor inclination.”

“Dad!” Teebo protested, flushing a brighter shade of green.

“We hope you will enjoy your stay with us, Cho,” Flera smiled.  “We will try to make you feel at house.”

“The boy is here to experience life on our world, our culture,” said Gorb.  “See how we do things in this sector, eh, Joe?  Right,” he clapped his hands.  “Let’s be going.  I’m sure Joe doesn’t want to spend his entire visit in the space-port.  Our family carrier is parked on the roof.”

The family waddled toward the exit.  Joe followed, struggling with his luggage.  Obviously not part of their culture to offer to help, he observed.

The doors swished aside and Joe was struck by the beauty of the lavender sky.  A pair of pallid moons shone their ghostly light on the elegant Hongoolian architecture of the city spread out before him.

“Yes, we rather like it too,” Gorb nudged him.  “This way.”

On the roof, row upon row of egg-shaped vehicles stood to attention.  Teebo beckoned Joe to the appropriate one and slid open a hatch in the side.

“Your suitcases,” Teebo grinned, reaching to take them.

“No!  Teebo, wait!”  Flera and Gorb cried out in panic.  “He hasn’t got the boots on yet!”

But it was too late.  Relieved of the ballast his baggage provided, Joe was already floating up into the sky, already out of reach of Gorb’s long and skinny arms.

“Whoops,” said Teebo, turning emerald.

“Poor Cho,” sobbed Flera.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Joe’s family was driving home, disappointed – to put it mildly.

“I really thought our exchange student was coming today,” Joe’s mother checked and rechecked the calendar in her phone.

At the wheel, Joe’s father gnashed his teeth.  “We send them our boy, our lovely boy, and what do we get?  A bloody puddle of goop!  It’s an insult, that’s what it is!  I’m going to contact our representative.  Don’t you realise the gravity of the situation?  This means war!”

luggage-md

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