Meanwhile, at the estate agent’s…

“I want a refund!” Murgatroyd slapped the property deeds onto the estate agent’s desk.

Stuart Briggs, the estate agent behind the desk, flinched.  Refunds were not company policy.  He cast a glance at the document.  The bill of sale was attached by a paper clip.  Damn it.  The customer was still within the ‘cooling-off’ period.

“Is there a problem?” Briggs smiled.  “Perhaps a cuppa and a sit down…”

Murgatroyd bristled, his eyes flashing with anger.

“Liar and fraud!” he declaimed.  Briggs reddened, mindful of others in the office.

“Now, now,” he squirmed.  “I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t sort out.  Calmly.”

He gestured to a chair but Murgatroyd only stood up all the straighter.

“You told me the house was haunted,” Murgatroyd sneered.  “I have been made to look a fool.  It was the selling point my entire business was based around.  I invited special guests, experts in the field, celebrities!  Yvonne from the television!  Only to be made to look a fool.  There was not one whiff of supernatural activity the entire weekend.  Don’t you realise what this has cost me?  Now, they are posting online, in their blogs and forums, saying what a rip-off my bijou hotel is, what a disappointment.  So,” he folded his bony arms, “I want my money back, and be grateful I don’t sue you for misrepresentation and loss of potential earnings.”

Panic showed in Briggs’s eyes.  “Let’s not be hasty, Mr – ah, Murgatroyd.  I don’t recall ever claiming the property to be haunted.”

Thunderclouds darkened Murgatroyd’s brow.

“What I did say,” Briggs smiled, “was the old place is cursed.  There’s a difference.”

Murgatroyd shook his head.  “What good is that to me?  People don’t want curses; they want ghosts.”

“Potato-tomato,” Briggs was dismissive.  “If you package it right, you could be sitting on a gold mine.  You see, a hundred years ago, the owner of the mansion was dragged out into the street by a mob of angry locals.  Charges of necromancy, witchcraft, or some such bollocks.  He was probably just an old perv.  They tied him to a tree in the town square and burnt him.  With his dying words, he cursed them, the town, and the mansion – no one who crossed its threshold would ever know a moment’s peace.  Of course, that was a long time ago.  The town has been remodelled several times.  The town square replaced by a shopping mall.  Why, this very office is thought to be built where the tree used to stand.”

Murgatroyd laughed, like bowling balls rolling down a chute.  Briggs found his shirt collar suddenly constrictive, his tie coiling and rising, twisting around his throat like a serpent.

“Fools!” Murgatroyd exalted.  “Did you think I was gone for good?  Did my dying words mean nothing to you?  I waited; patiently, I waited.  And now, a full hundred years since my demise. I am back to destroy all that you have built, all that you hold dear.  Starting with you, Stuart Briggs.  It was your ancestor who lit the torch that started the fire.  How fitting that you should be on the very spot!”

Murgatroyd made a gesture with skeletal fingers.  Briggs’s desk ignited.  Briggs backed away, arms up to protect himself, but already the smoke was starting to choke him.  He coughed and spluttered and pleaded for his life.

But Murgatroyd turned on his heels, his black cloak swirling behind him, fanning the flames.  He stalked from the estate agency and through the shopping mall.  The glass frontages of the shops shattered as he passed.  The slightest gesture from his slender hands brought down ceiling tiles, cracked electricity conduits.  Sparks leapt from snaking cables.  Fires sprang up in all directions as people ran around screaming, the exit blocked by falling concrete.

When the town was utterly destroyed, Murgatroyd strode all the way back to the mansion, where he had waited, dormant, for a hundred years, waiting for a suitable vessel to come by, and then that idiot hotelier had come along to take possession.   Murgatroyd chuckled.  Take possession!  What the hotelier did to the house, I have done to the hotelier. 

He paused to take in the gothic monstrosity before him.  The jagged turrets,  The sharply arched windows.  Perhaps I should burn it down at last, he mused.  Or perhaps now, that the descendants of my enemies have been dealt with, I shall find a moment’s peace.

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Filed under horror, Short story

Ready or Not

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Gabe brought drinks to the table and resumed his seat.  Nick barely acknowledged him.  “Come off it, Nick.  I can read you like the good book.  Something’s burning your ass.”

Nick’s shoulders heaved out a sigh.  He shook his head slowly.  Then, following a hefty swig from his goblet, he steeled himself and began.

“You know I was seeing that girl?”

Gabe nodded.  “Rosalind?”

“Rosemary.  Well, things have taken a turn.”

“She found out who you really are?  I’ve always thought your disguises were a little transparent.  Or perhaps it’s the whiff of sulphur.  I keep telling you, a dab of frankincense behind your ears…”

“No, no.  She knew who I was from the start.  That’s not the problem.  See, she turns up at my place last night, look of triumph in her eyes.”

“I don’t get it,” Gabe frowned.  “What could she possibly –oh.”

“Oh is right,” Nick sighed.  “Pregnant!”

“And you’re sure it’s yours?”

“Hey!  I only go with virgins, you know that.”

“I suppose… Well, forgive me for saying, you don’t seem overjoyed by impending fatherhood.”

“Well, it’s not that.  It’s everything that comes with it.  It’s not the money.  I have access to untold wealth – do you know how many billionaires are in hock to me?  It’s just – well, it all seems a bit sudden.  I don’t know if I’m ready to be a father.”

Gabe scoffed.  “You’re thousands of years old.  Perhaps it’s time to settle down.  Be more responsible.”

“But that’s just it.  I haven’t done half the stuff I wanted to do, and having a kid, well, it’s a bit like giving up, isn’t it?  Making room for the next generation.”

“That’s one way to look at it,” Gabe conceded.  “But having a child – or as you so succinctly put it, a kid —  do you think it will have its father’s hooves? – Well, you could say having a kid is your next big challenge.”

“It’s just happening so fast, you know?  There’s so much to plan and prepare.  An army of demons to recruit, for one thing.  I always thought, when it happens, I’ll be ready.  I’d have time to get everything in place.  What I didn’t want is for Armageddon to be a rush job.”

“Come on, you’re good at thinking on your feet.”

“Yeah, but it’s the pressure.  I want the best for my son, of course I do.  Now there’ll hardly be time to forge him a coronet for when he ascends to the throne of Hell.”

He drained the rest of his drink.


Nick stood and gathered the goblets.  “I’ll get these.”  He slunk off to the bar.

A human woman approached the table.

“What are you doing here?” Gabe hissed.  “If he sees you…”

“Relax!” Rosemary grinned.  “Just pay me what you owe me and we can get on with our lives.”

Gabe passed her a bulging envelope.  She pulled out the cushion from under her coat and laughed.

“I can’t believe he fell for it,” she grinned.  “And I can’t believe you, an angel, could be so devious.”

“Well,” Gabe smirked, “it’s not the end of the world.”

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Filed under Short story, horror, humour, fantasy

Dwayne’s First Shift

“And this wash basin is for the staff.  Always be washing your hands.  It’s a good look and the customers like to see it.”

Dwayne nodded.  Already, his scalp was starting to itch beneath the hairnet he was being forced to wear.  Around his neck, a lanyard dangled his staff i.d. card.  Already it was beginning to feel like a millstone.

“These are the cheat sheets,” Wanda, his supervisor, pulled battered and peeling laminated sheets of A4 paper from behind the steamer.  “In case you forget how to make a macchiato or a skinny mocha, or whatever the hell it is.  But don’t worry; you’ll have it all down pat in no time.  This is a high pressured job and you have to think fast.  Thinking fast means learning fast.  Can you do that?”

Dwayne blinked as though in slow motion.  Wanda lifted his chin with her finger to close his mouth.

“This is Louanne.  You’ll be shadowing her for the first half of the shift.  And then you’ll be flying solo.  OK?”

Dwayne, sensing some kind of positive response was required, nodded.

Wanda rolled her eyes  in Louanne’s direction.  She left them to it.  Louanne turned to Dwayne and smiled.  Dwayne gaped.  Louanne was gorgeous.  Even in the dull brown uniform and hairnet.  The pink of her hair shone through, the glint of her piercings.  She was an angel come to Earth to serve hot beverages.

The angel squinted at his name tag.  “Dwayne?  Let me show you how to work the cash register.  This one can be a little bitch but if you treat her right, she’ll open right up for you.  It’s just a matter of pushing her buttons right.”

Dwayne drooled.  He watched Louanne’s fingers dance on the keypad, bracelets jingling,  A tattooed snake curled around her forearm, disappearing tantalisingly into the sleeve of her polo shirt.  Dwayne was in love.

“So, what do you do, Dwayne?  I mean, what do you really want to do?”  Her smile was like sunshine through clouds.

Dwayne twitched out a shrug.

“I mean, serving coffee is not my big dream,” Louanne’s laughter was like little bells.  “I’m studying to be a veterinarian.”

“Nice,” Dwayne’s voice caught in his throat.  She loves animals!  She is perfect!

“And what’s your deal?” She cocked an eyebrow.  She’s interested!  In me!  Dwayne couldn’t believe his luck!

“Um, I ah,” Dwayne’s cheeks flushed hot.  His throat was so dry all of a sudden.  “I, well.  Um.”

Louanne’s smile broadened.  “It’s OK if you haven’t figured out who you want to be yet.  It’s cool.”

“Can you show me how to open the till again?”

“Sure.”   She did.

By the third demonstration, Dwayne was confident he’d got the hang of it.

By the end of his shift when his confederates burst in, armed to the teeth and roaring blue murder, he was on the point of reconsidering his career path.

While Skip and Bonner took control, locking Wanda in the storeroom and keeping the customers cowering on the floor, Dwayne opened the till and took out the cash.  Louanne, her dainty hands raised in surrender, sent him a pleading look.  She backed away, her escape cut off by the cake display.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said, eyes brimming.

And for a moment, he allowed himself to believe her, allowed himself to believe she liked him, she was truly interested in him, she really would one day be a vet and help all those poor, sick animals.

“Yes, I do,” he said, steeling himself.  He nodded.  Bonner grabbed Louanne from behind and dragged the blade of his craft knife across her throat.

“Pity,” said Skip, giving Louanne’s body a kick.  “She was kinda hot.”

“Na,” said Dwayne, forcing himself not to look down.  “She was just another stuck-up bitch.”

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Footing the Bill

Alex let himself into the flat, his fingers slick with sweat on his key.  Still a little winded from his run, he pulled off his trainers and headed to the bathroom.  His path was intercepted by Graham, eyebrow arched.  Alex recognised the look.  His breath caught in his throat.

“A word,” said Graham, looking down his nose.

“Can’t it wait until I’ve showered,” Alex tried to dodge past but Graham countered.

“Now,” he snapped.  “This can’t wait.”

From behind his back he pulled out a pair of top-of-the-range headphones.  Alex’s mouth twitched.

“Found these under a cushion on the sofa,” Graham droned.  “Which I wouldn’t have done if you’d taken your turn on the cleaning rota.”

“I was going to get around to it.  After my run.”

“It’s not about the cleaning.  Well, not this time.”  Graham brandished the headphones.  “Where did these come from?”

Alex’s shoulders twitched out a shrug.  “Amazon.”

Graham exhaled in impatience.  “I don’t mean where did they come from.  I mean how can you afford them?”

Alex pulled a face.  “They were on offer –”

“That’s not the point.  I’ve noticed some other things too.  Those trainers you’ve left so haphazardly on the floor where I might trip over them.  They’re new too.  This lycra top you’re sweating through.  I haven’t seen that before.”

Alex threw up his hands.  “What have you been doing, taking inventory of my stuff?”

Tears welled in Graham’s eyes.  “You’ve got someone else, haven’t you?”  He pressed the headphones against Alex’s damp chest.  “A sugar daddy!  Buying you treats!  But what’s he getting in return, eh?  That’s what I want to know!  Or rather, I don’t.”

Before Graham could meltdown completely, Alex placed his hands on his boyfriend’s upper arms and forced him to make eye contact. 

“There is someone,” he admitted.  Graham wailed.  “But it’s not like that!  Come on, I’ll show you.”

He dragged the sobbing Graham into the bedroom.  On the dresser was a laptop – a new model, but Graham hadn’t noticed that – Alex opened it.  His fingers danced on the keyboard.  A website lit up the screen.  “Here!”

Graham squinted at it, not understanding what he was seeing.

“Feet?” he sniffled.

“Yes!  Feet!  I send in pictures of my tootsies and men send me money or buy me things off my wish list.  Imagine!  My scrawny plates!  But someone’s getting off on them.”

Graham was horrified and fascinated in equal measure.  “And that’s all it is?  Your feet?”

“Yes.  They never see anything else.  They don’t even know my real name.  And I know nothing about them.”

“How peculiar!  You’ve got horrible feet.”

“Not according to the users on this site.”

“All veined and bony.  And your toes are too long.”

“All right, all right, I’m not asking you to pay to see them, am I?”

Alex dropped into a crouch and pulled a box from under the bed.  “Here.  For you.”

“What’s this?”  Graham eyed the package with suspicion.

“That console you wanted.”  Alex pulled him into an embrace.  “I really can start paying my way now.  As long as there’s weirdos in the world.  I’m sorry I didn’t tell you from the start.”

Graham grimaced.  “You stink.  Go and get in the shower.  And I might join you…”

Alex laughed.  “But no free peeks at my money-spinners!”

“Oh, no,” Graham chuckled, chasing Alex into the bathroom.  “My mind is on higher things.”

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Filed under LGBTQ, Short story

The Wrong Shirt

Ah, at last!  Someone human!  I’ve been given the run-around by your automated assistant thing for the past half hour.  I’ve clicked I don’t know how many pictures of traffic lights to prove I’m not a bloody robot.

I understand your frustration.  How may I help?

I just need to return a shirt, that’s all.

I see.  May I ask why?  Did you order the wrong size?

No, no!  The size is fine.  Well, I imagine it is.  I haven’t tried it.  It’s still in the packet.  No, it’s the wrong colour.

I see… You ordered the sky blue.

Yes, I did.  But this one isn’t sky blue.  It’s more of an indigo, leaning towards purple.

What does it say on the packet?

It says ‘sky blue’ but –

There you are, then.  May I close this query as ‘satisfied’?

What?  No, wait!  It says ‘sky blue’ on the label but the shirt itself is very dark.  It’s not what I wanted.

I’m afraid there is nothing I can do, if there’s nothing actually wrong with the item.  Our terms and conditions are very clear.

Nobody reads the terms and conditions, do they?  Look, I’ll send you a photo and you can see what I mean… There.  Got it?

Yes… well, sir, I can tell you, it certainly looks sky blue to me.

What?  You’re having a giraffe!  Or you need your eyes tested.

When did you place your order, sir?

What?  I don’t know.  Last week some time.

Ah, I see here it was a week last Wednesday.

Well, it’s still under wossname, isn’t it?  Isn’t there a cooling-off period?

There is indeed, but I’m afraid, sir, you have fallen foul of the Province’s electoral system.

The what?

The day after you placed your order, there was a referendum, sir.  It was to decide once and for all what defines the colour ‘sky blue’.  For important, nationalistic reasons, like the flag, and the covers of our passports.

I don’t get it.  What’s that got to do with my shirt?

It just so happened that on the day of the referendum, the sky was particularly overcast and grey.  It looked like rain, and that deterred a lot of the voters.  Then as the day drew on, there was a resplendent sunset, and with it an upturn in voters, selecting the red-pink-orange end of the spectrum.  Most people turned up at the polling stations on their way home from work, when the sun had gone down, and so the majority of votes went to the hue of your shirt.

This is bollocks!   What did people do?  Look up at the sky before they went to vote to remind themselves what colour it is?

It would appear that way, sir.  But since the referendum, we have to legally refer to that shade as ‘sky blue’.  It’s what the people want.

But it’s fucking ridiculous!

Oh, don’t get me started!  Do you know what it’s like to live somewhere governed by absolute morons?  I’m only doing this job because they’re rounding up the intellectuals.

Never mind all that.  I just want to send the shirt back and get a refund.

I can offer you a credit note.

I don’t know.  I had my heart set on a sky blue shirt.  That’s my sky blue and not fuckwits’ sky blue.  No offence.

I have credited your account, sir.  Keep the shirt.  Burn it, for all I care.

Oh.  OK, right.  Cheers.  Thanks for that.

Now, is there anything else I can help you with?

No… Oh, hang on!  I need to get a present for my wife.  What can you recommend in ladies’ clothing?

Do you want pre- or post-Cultural Realignment, sir?…  Sir? 

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A Picnic for Mothers’ Day

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten!  Every year it’s the bloody same.”  Jemima felt like she could squeeze her smartphone until it splintered.  “And don’t give me that guff about the date changing every year.  I send you enough reminders.”

She listened, waiting for her brother to mutter some expletive.  But, to his credit, Damon remained silent.  Well, good, thought Jemima.  He hasn’t a leg to stand on.

“So,” she returned to her list, “you’ll organise the transport.  There’ll be you, me, and Mum of course, oh, and I thought this year we could take Belinda along.”

She heard Damon’s intake of breath and decided to pre-empt his objections.

“I know what you’re going to say, she’s only our half-sister from Dad’s previous marriage but, well, Mum brought her up as one of us.  As much as she could anyway, with Belinda being off at university and starting her own life.  But it’s the nice thing to do, to include her in the occasion.  Her own mother—”

Grumblings from Damon cut her off.  Jemima made noises as though listening but as soon as he paused for breath, she jumped back in.

“I’ll organise the picnic.  Yes, yes, I know all about your allergies.  I won’t use the same place as last year.  And I thought we could ask Belinda to sort out the flowers.  Nothing too fancy… No, not a bloody wreath!  You have a sick sense of humour at times.  I’ll leave it to Belinda’s judgment.  You just focus on getting us from A to B… What do you mean, where’s A and where’s B?  A is where Mum is.  Belinda and I will make our own way there.  And B is the cliffs overlooking the beach.  It’ll be a full moon that night and I think it will make a lovely spot for a picnic…Well, you can use your GPS.  Honestly, do I have to think of everything?  Right, so we’re agreed.  Rendezvous with Mum at midnight, then it should only take an hour or so to get to the coast, which leaves us plenty of time for the picnic and we can get Mum back before the cemetery gates open at nine…  Yes, I know it means you won’t be drinking.   Tough.  And it’s probably for the best.  You know how maudlin you get, and it’s not fair on Mum on her special night out.  If there’s any problems, send me a text.”

Jemima rang off before Damon could launch into a string of invective with his recurring theme of how he had always loved Mum best.

“He being a little shit as usual?” Belinda raised an eyebrow from the couch.

Jemima rolled her eyes.  “He’ll get over it.  Honestly, I’d say we go without him but he’s the one with the van.”

Belinda nodded.  “Still, it’ll be good to see Mum again.  Thanks for including me.”

She reached for Jemima’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

Jemima’s face darkened.  “Damn it; I forgot to remind the little shit to bring the shovels.”


Filed under horror, humour, Short story

Professor Deathstroke

“You can’t leave that there.”

Professor Deathstroke turned to see who had spoken.  A woman in a dark uniform with yellow stripes around her hat, a traffic warden.

“Move it now,” the traffic warden continued, “Before I write you a ticket.”

The professor was incensed.  “Do you know who I am?” he seethed.

The traffic warden looked him up and down, taking in the wild hair, the red-rimmed eyes, the plastic jumpsuit.  “Confused, are we?  Where’s your carer?”

“How dare you?” the professor’s shoulders heaved.  “I am the embodiment of evil.  I am the reason why Mankind should never dabble with science.  I am –”

“You’re illegally parked, is what you are.  What is it, any road?  Some kind of funfair ride?”

“Funfair?  FUNFAIR?  Madam, what I have in mind will be neither fun nor fair.  Perhaps you’d care for a demonstration of my vehicle’s capabilities?  A quick blast from the lasers will wipe that supercilious look off your chops.”

“Threats now, is it, sir?  Oh dear.”  The traffic warden clicked her ballpoint pen.  “Name?”

“As if I’d tell you!”  Professor Deathstroke folded his arms in defiance.

“Not to worry, I can get your details from the registration – oh, dear.  I take it this ‘vehicle’ isn’t registered.  No licence plates.  No tax disc… Oh dear, oh dear.”

She wrote copious notes.

“Dirty great lobster, clogging up the high street…”

“Crab!” the professor cried.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s not a lobster, it’s a crab.  Don’t you know your crustaceans?”

“Listen, mate, the only crustaceans I know are King’s and Charing.”


“Never mind.  Look, it’s been a long shift.  My feet are killing me.  Just move your crab thing and I’ll say no more about it.”

“Oh, no,” said the professor.  “I’m not leaving it there.”


“The situation, I mean, not the giant robotic crab.  That’s staying where it is while I pop into the little Tesco for some bits.”

“Then you leave me no choice.”  With a sigh of resignation, the traffic warden unclicked her pen and tucked the pad into her satchel.  She telescoped until she was the size of an office block, her eyes glowing bright blue.  She picked up the giant robotic crab and hurled it into the air.  It arced out of sight, pincers flapping.  In the distance, a splash as it hit the lake at the golf course two miles away.

The traffic warden dusted off her hands and shrank to her usual size.

“Impressive,” the professor had to admit.  “How would you like a job?”

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Filed under humour, science fiction, Short story

Meanwhile, in the presidential office…

“Who are you?  How did you get in here?  Who sent you?”  The questions spilled from the president’s lips, colliding and merging until all that came out was babble.  He rose from his chair, raising his hands slowly to show they were empty.

At the door, the figure in black stood still, the silencer of a particularly nasty-looking gun trained on the president’s heart – although it was rumoured he didn’t have one.

“Whatever they’re paying you, I can double it.  Treble it!  I’m sure we can cut a deal.”

The figure in black didn’t move.

“If it’s not money, what would you like?  Anything at all!  Your heart’s desire!  I’m a very powerful man.  I can get you anything.”

The figure in black’s head tilted ever so slightly and then straightened.  The grip on the gun tightened.

Sweat was coursing down the president’s high forehead and into his eyes.  He squinted.  His hand moved to wipe his face but a whizz from the silencer exploded the nearby bust of a predecessor into smithereens.

The figure in black pulled an envelope from a back pocket and tossed it onto the desk.  The president glanced at it.

“What’s this?  A list of your demands.”

The figure in black indicated that the president should pick up the envelope and examine its contents.  A gun can be so eloquent.

The president snatched up the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper.  He frowned.

“What’s this?  A blank sheet.”

A voice filled the room, filled the president’s mind, although it did not seem to be emanating from the figure in black, but from everywhere.

“Write,” the voice was soft, deep, and yet feminine, “Write a presidential order, effective immediately.  You will renounce all use of fossil fuels.  You will convert and urge others to convert to a vegan lifestyle.  You will halt deforestation.  You will clean your filth from the oceans.  You will –”

The president sat down heavily and crossed his arms.  “You might as well just shoot me.  I’m not going along with your hippy-dippy bullshit.  I haven’t got time for this.  We are at war, in case you haven’t noticed.  The Easterners are encroaching on the borders of our allies.”

“Foolish mortal,” the voice intoned, harsher now.  “Unless you comply with my demands, you won’t have a planet to fight on.”

“Innocent people are being killed and you’re wasting my time with this garbage?”

“You must act now to prevent irreversible damage.  This cannot wait!”

“Oh, blah blah blah.  I’ve heard it all before from the science lobby.  That little Swedish girl.  Is that who sent you?”

“I am Gaia,” said the voice.  “And I’m just cleaning house.”

“Well, Miss Gaia, if that’s your real name, while you’ve been standing there all self-righteous, you did not notice I pressed a button under the desk.  In about three seconds this office is going to be awash with agents.”

The door was kicked open.

“Mr President?” a man in a sharp suit approached the desk, while others poured in, pointing guns in all directions.

“She was – she was right there!” the president gibbered. 

But there was no trace of the figure in black.  The shattered bust was in one piece, not a mark on it.

“Not my place to say, sir,” said the man in the sharp suit, “But I think you’ve been overdoing it.  Time to get some rest.”

The president picked up the blank sheet of paper.  He nodded.

“That’s the problem with burning the candle at both ends,” the man signalled his team to stand down, “It burns real bright but pretty soon you’re left with no candle at all.”

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“I’d like to return this, please.”  The woman placed a plastic bag on the Customer Services counter.

Jacqui behind the counter barely glanced at the bag.  “What is it?” she said.

“It was my husband’s.  Well, he bought it from here just a week ago.  So it’s still within warranty, or whatever you call it.  The receipt’s in the bag as well.”

Jacqui nodded.  She picked up the plastic bag and peered inside.  She shook her head.

“No, I’m sorry, love.  Can’t accept it.  Because it’s been used, you see.”

“Well, of course it has been used.  Why would he buy it if he wasn’t going to use it?”

“No, love.  There are certain things we can’t accept as returns if they’ve been opened.  Toothbrushes, underwear, you know.”

“But he only used it once!”

“Doesn’t matter.  You can see the thread at the end.  It’ll have his DNA all over it.”

“Well, of course.  That’s where he screwed it into his knuckle.  Look, I’ll be honest.  I need the money back.”

Tears sprang from the woman’s eyes.  Jacqui’s eyes darted in alarm.

“Okay, love, calm down.  Would you like to speak to my supervisor?”

She waved a manicured hand to beckon Tracy from the nearby hearing-enhancer section.

“Good day, modom,” Tracy oozed.  “How may I assist you this day?”

The woman handed the supervisor the plastic bag.  “It was my husband’s.  I don’t want it in the house any more.  I want a refund.”

Tracy the supervisor peered into the bag.  “As I’m sure my colleague has explained, we can’t accept items of this nature as returns.”

The woman let out an alarming wail.  Customers trying on the hearing-enhancers winced.

“Is the unit faulty?” Tracy struggled to maintain a smile.  “Would a replacement –?”

“No!  A replacement’s no good to me.  I need a refund.  I need the money!”

Well, at least the woman wasn’t wailing any more.

“An alternative, then?” Tracy offered.  “Something for yourself.  One of our hair-alterers, perhaps?  Or eye-changers?  You could have a different colour for every outfit.”

“No!” the woman snapped.  “Just the refund.  Oh, I told him not to buy the bloody thing, but he never listened to me.  Look, he said when he’d got it, when he’d attached it, I won’t need another power tool ever again.  You’re always complaining about me cluttering the place with my drills and saws and sanders and what-not.  Well, this superfinger will do the job of all of those.  I can hammer in nails, screw in screws, drill holes, you name it.  Oh, he went on and on about it.”

“It sounds as though he was happy with it.”

“Oh, he was.”

“So why is he returning it?”

“He’s not returning it, I am,” said the woman with a sniff.  “He’s dead.”

Jacqui and Tracy adopted suitable expressions according to their corporate training.

“I see,” said Tracy.  “Well, then of course.  Jacqui, put through this lady’s refund at once.”

She turned on her heels and strode away.

Jacqui’s manicured fingernails danced on the register, tapping in codes and overrides.

“Can I ask, love?  What happened?  To your husband?  If you don’t mind.”

The woman rolled her eyes.  “The daft twat was so chuffed to have his superfinger fitted.  He wasn’t thinking straight, you see.  Time and time again I’ve told him not to pick his nose.”

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Meanwhile, at the School Reunion…

“My God!  You haven’t aged a day.  What’s your secret, you absolute cow?”

Alex and Belinda screeched like tickled parrots. They hugged, pecking at the air inches from each other’s cheeks.

“You’re the cow,” Belinda countered. “I bet you could still fit into your old school uniform.”

Alex smirked. “It’s not that kind of party.”

They gazed around the function room.  The DJ was playing the Top Twenty from their last year at school two decades ago.  It was strange to be there, back among people they hadn’t even thought about for twenty years.  And it was kind of sad, to see the ravages of age on what had been taut young bodies.  The thinning hair.  The thickening stomachs.  The stoops, the wrinkles, the crows’ feet…

“Here we go!” Melissa returned from the bar, bearing three glasses of sparkling wine.  “Cheers!”

They raised their glasses and then took hefty swigs.  They pulled faces.

“Doesn’t get any better,” Melissa observed.  “Remember when we used to sneak in here when we were supposed to be on study periods?”

The other two nodded.  They crossed to a table in a comparatively quiet corner.

“Come on, then,” Alex nudged Belinda.  “Out with it.  The secret of your unfading youth.”

Belinda shook her head.  She kept her gaze fixed on the tiny bubbles rising in her glass.

“Well…” she began.  “If I tell you, it must go no further.”

Alex and Melissa crossed their hearts and adopted solemn expressions.

“It’s a glamour,” Belinda’s hand circled her face.   “I can change my appearance, or at least get you to see what I want you to see.”

“I don’t get it,” frowned Melissa.

Belinda leant over the table and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper.  “Can I trust you?  Well, I suppose if I can’t, I can always cast a spell of forgetfulness and it will be like this conversation never happened.”

“Binny, what the hell are you going on about?”

Belinda told them.  She spoke of her adventures after leaving school  How she stumbled across a secret society running in parallel to our own, a society of magicians, and how, through a strange quirk of fate, it transpired that she, Belinda, was the Chosen One, and it was up to her to defeat the ultimate enemy and save the world.  Both of them.

Her story told, Belinda sat back to judge the effect it was having on her former classmates.

They seemed to be taking it all rather in their stride.

“Something similar happened to me,” said Alex.  “Only it wasn’t magicians.  It was a secret society of alien hunters, running parallel to our own.  Through some strange quirk of fate, I turned out to be the Chosen One, the one who could crack the code, deter the fleet of extra-terrestrial destroyers, and face down the ultimate enemy, and save the world.  Possibly the universe too.”

Belinda pouted sourly.  She despised one-upmanship.  Unless she was the one doing the one-upping.

They turned their attention to Melissa, who got to her feet.

“Excuse me,” she said, nipping into the crowd of disco-dancing revellers.

She returned a couple of moments later, a little dishevelled and breathless.  She gulped her sparkling wine, then became aware the others were staring at her.

“Sorry, sorry,” Melissa blushed.  “Had to be done.  One of the barmen.  Bloodsucker.”

Two pairs of eyebrows raised.

“You may as well know,” Melissa shrugged.  “When I left school I stumbled into a secret world of vampire hunters that runs parallel to our own.  It turns out I’m the Chosen One, blah, blah.  You know how it goes.”

“Impressive,” said Belinda.

“Cool,” said Alex.

“Does your world have a council of elders?” Belinda ventured.

The other two nodded.

“They love their hierarchies,” Melissa nodded.  “The bloodsuckers, I mean.”

“So do the alien fighters,” said Alex.  “Bureaucracy like you wouldn’t believe.”

“It’s the same in the magical world,” Belinda sighed.  “You’d think magicians, alien hunters, and vampire killers would do things differently.”

“Hey up, ladies!” A male voice intruded.  The beaming face and ballooning beer belly of Barry Shelton loomed over the table.  “It’s mad, isn’t it, this?  All these old faces.  Listen, I’m compiling a newsletter we can send out to those who couldn’t make it tonight.”

He produced a pen and notepad and stood poised.  The three women avoided his gaze.

“Just a few words,” Barry prompted.  “Even if you’re just at home, bringing up the kids.  Which is a full-time job, I appreciate that.  Probably the most important job, if you ask me.  So come on, who’s going to get the ball rolling?  Binny?  Surely you’ve made something of yourself, of all people.”

“No, but I could make something out of you.”  Belinda’s hand twisted in an arcane gesture but Alex and Melissa bundled her away to the Ladies.

“Nice to see you again, Barry,” Melissa called over her shoulder.

They shut themselves into a cubicle and laughed.  It was like being back at school, bunking off Maths for a cheeky cigarette.  Back before they had responsibilities, before they were Chosen, before they were clichés.

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Malcolm goes home

Malcolm waved Brian’s hand away and downed the last of his pint.  “No, not for me,” he shook his head.  “Better make a move.”

Brian waved his own empty glass.  “Just one more for the road.”

“Sorry.”  Malcolm pulled on his coat.  “Early start tomorrow.”

Despite the protestations of Brian and his other co-workers, Malcolm left the pub and headed to the bus stop.  He was glad to get away from their incessant football chat, their ogling of the bar staff and female clientele, their off-colour jokes, and nasty-minded political views.

On the top deck of the bus, youths were playing competing hip-hop tracks out loud on their phones.  Malcolm tried to shut his ears to the tinny, monotonous tss-tss-tss of the beat and the aggressive boasting of the vocalists.

Walking down the street where he lived, Malcolm was splashed by a passing car.  He couldn’t be bothered to make an obscene gesture for the benefit of the driver’s rear-view mirror.  Malcolm stamped his way up his front steps and let himself in.

In his hallway, he shrugged off his coat, dropping his briefcase next to the umbrella stand and ignoring the growing stack of fast food leaflets and special offers on conservatories that was building up on the floor.  He kicked off his shoes and waddled to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

While he waited for the water to boil, he moved through to the living room.  He grabbed the remote control from the coffee table and aimed it at the television.  The news channel winked into life.  More bad weather, more toxic patriotism, more lying politicians.  Malcolm flicked through the channels until he found some cartoons.

Back in the kitchen, he made tea and thought about food.  Brian and the others would no doubt be planning kebabs about now.  Malcolm’s stomach flipped.

From the fridge he withdrew a couple of protein packs.  He tore the foil wrapper from one and bit off a chunk as though it was a bar of chocolate.  Instantly, he felt better.  He put the protein onto a tray and put the tray into the oven.  While it was cooking, he went upstairs to change.

In the bathroom, Malcolm’s fleshy exterior dropped into the bath tub in wet clumps.  His skeleton dissolved under the shower.  Malcolm sighed in relief.  The likes of Brian complained about having to wear a tie.  They didn’t know the half of it!

Able to relax at last, Malcolm oozed down the stairs.  One tentacle opened the oven door to check on his dinner.  Another snaked into the living room, seeking the remote control.

His calculations told him he need only work at his thankless job for another forty Earth years.  By then, he would have saved up enough human currency to be able to afford the supplies he needed to repair the communication device.  Then, at long last, others of his kind would come and collect him.

How do Brian and the others do it?  Malcolm liquefied, spreading to cover the entire living room floor.  How do humans tolerate it, surrendering the best years of their short lives to such slavery and exploitation, and then when they grow too old to work, they just wait for death?

There are other ways to live.  Malcolm knew this for sure.  And as soon as his kind came to pick him up, he’d go back home and live one.

And that was a more satisfying prospect than any post-pub kebab.

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Lost Cat

“Hello?” the old woman frowned at the couple on her front doorstep.

“Hello,” smiled the woman of the pair.  “I’m Cosy.”

“And I’m Twee,” said the man.  “May we come in?”

The old woman hesitated.  “I – What for?  What is this concerning?”

“Concerning this!” the man produced a sheet of paper from behind his back.  He placed it on his ballooning beer belly.  The old woman leaned forward and squinted.

“That’s my Attila!” she gasped.  “I put those posters up all over town.  He went missing three weeks ago, you see.”

“Ah, well, that was your first mistake,” grinned Cosy.  “Cats can’t read.”

“And your second mistake was this scattergun approach,” grinned Twee.  “When what you should have done was come to us.”

“Come to you?  Why?  Who are you?”

“We’re Cosy and Twee,” said Cosy.

“Private investigators,” added Twee.

“Oh…” the old woman was nonplussed.  “Perhaps you had better come in.”

She stepped back.  Cosy and Twee both tried to go through the doorway at the same time and got stuck.  They laughed like drains.  Twee stepped back and Cosy staggered into the hall.

“Oh, you!” she giggled.  “What is he like?”

“A barrage balloon?” ventured the old woman.

Cosy breezed through to the living room.  Twee shut the front door. 

“Could I trouble you to put the kettle on?” he bounced his belly off the old woman, bumping her in the direction of the kitchen.

When the tea was made and poured, the old woman tried to get down to business.  “So, you think you can find him, then?  My Attila?”

“Piece of cake,” said Cosy.

“Ooh, yes, please!” said Twee.

“Ignore him,” Cosy advised.   “Honestly.  It’s like working with the Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

“Your poster mentions a reward?” Twee prompted.

“Well,” the old woman fretted, “I can’t afford to pay much, but Attila means the world to me.”

“Aww,” Cosy simpered.  “We’ll do it just for expenses.”

“You will?” the old woman chewed her lower lip.  “That sounds… expensive.”

Twee laughed for no apparent reason.  He heaved himself out of the armchair.  The upholstery audibly sighed its relief.

“Have you got a more recent photograph, love?” he smirked.

Cosy swatted at him with the back of her hand.  “Buffoon.  We’ll get your cat back where it belongs, Mrs.  Don’t you worry.”

She bundled Twee to the door.  “Can’t take him anywhere,” she rolled her eyes.

When they were gone, the old woman double bolted the door.  She sat in the armchair, staring at the television’s blank screen.  She had put the posters around town, hoping someone would come along and provide a little company.  It can be a lonely life for the elderly, with the spouse long gone and your contemporaries dropping like flies.  If she’d known the only ones to take the bait would be that couple of arseholes, goofing around like they were on a daytime TV drama, she wouldn’t have bothered.

Perhaps I really should get a cat after all, she wondered.

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Josie’s Valentine Surprise

Josie pulled her front door closed behind her and quickened her step.  The next-door neighbour was in his front garden and Josie was hoping to get past him, out of her gate and along the road before he noticed.  It would mean going the long way around the block to get to the bus stop but it was worth it to avoid one of Mr Davies’s interminable monologues, which often bordered on racism and invariably were entirely pointless.

“Morning!” Mr Davies spun around, a malevolent gleam glinting off his spectacles.  He had heard the latch on Josie’s gate.

“Er, morning,” Josie muttered, avoiding eye contact.  “I’ve got to um—”

“You haven’t seen my kitten, have you?  Little Dorrit?  He’s a bit young to be out on his own.  But he’s a bit of company and –”

“No!” Josie cut him off.  Deciding that was a little harsh, she forced a smile.  “I’m sure he won’t be far.”

Mr Davies nodded.  Then his face broke into a grin. “I expect he’ll be along soon.”

“What?  Who will?” Josie could have kicked herself for engaging.  She gestured down the street.  “My bus…”

“The postman,” Mr Davies wiggled his eyebrows.  “Probably that’s what’s keeping him.  Struggling under the weight of all the cards he has to deliver.”


Mr Davies gasped in mock horror.  “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what today is!”

“Um… Monday?  Look, I really have to –”

“Valentine’s Day!” Mr Davies declared.  “And the postman’s late because he’s struggling to carry all the cards to your door!  I bet you get tons, don’t you?  Cards.  From admirers.”

“Not really.  Now, I really must be going.  If I’m late again, my boss will be giving me my cards all right.”

Mr Davies chuckled.  “Good one.  I like that.  Give you your cards.  You’re a very witty young lady.  Not just a pretty face, eh?  Eh?”

“Bye!” Josie hurried away.  There was no point going the long way around now.  There were only seconds to spare before the bus was due.  She hooked the strap of her bag higher on her shoulder, trying not to imagine Mr Davies’s gaze crawling all over her as she strode away.

Oh, it was quite sweet really, she supposed.  Mr Davies was just a lonely old widower.  Only passing the time of day.  Harmless, really.

And today’s exchange had reminded her of the date.  There was a post box on the corner near the office.  She’d be able to drop in an envelope before she went in for another interminable day of dealing with tedious invoices and requisitions.

As she got off the bus, her fingers closed around the envelope, giving the padding a squeeze.  Good.  There was no way anything was going to leak out.  Josie had put extra tape around it to make sure.

Too late for the Valentine’s post, she shrugged, but that couldn’t be helped.  She wished she could be there when Mr Davies opened it.  She hoped he’d be happy to be reunited with his kitten.  Well, most of it.

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The Scan

“Ah, Mr Probert, come in, come in.”  The radiographer welcomed the patient into the consultation room.  “Pop your coat on the chair and then lie on the bed for me.”

Mr Probert shrugged out of his anorak and shuffled to the bed.  He tried to position himself on it without disturbing the paper sheet that was protecting the upholstery.

“Just lie back,” the radiographer smiled behind her surgical mask, “and lift up your jumper for me?”

Mr Probert did as he was told.

“Now this might be a bit cold on your tummy,” the radiographer warned.   She applied gel to Mr Probert’s exposed midriff.  Mr Probert, ever the stoic, lay still, focussing on the ceiling.

“Right,” said the radiographer, “Let’s have a look-see.”

She pressed the scanner to Mr Probert’s belly and moved it across the pale surface, keeping her eyes on the monitor to the left of Mr Probert’s head.  “Hmm,” she said.   And “errr…”

Mr Probert lay still, fearing the worst.

“There’s definitely something…” the radiographer murmured to herself.  She did a second pass with the scanner.  On the screen, the image became clearer.  Something beneath the surface gave a sudden movement, like a fist beneath a rubber sheet, stretching Mr Probert’s skin.  The radiographer sprang backwards.

“What the hell is that?” she cried, unprofessionally in Mr Probert’s view.

The thing inside Mr Probert continued to cause ripples and stretches.  The radiographer watched, transfixed in morbid fascination.

The skin split.  The thing shot out and attached itself to the radiographer’s throat.  The radiographer flailed around, colliding with equipment and furniture as she failed to dislodge the thing that was gnawing through her flesh.

When it was over and the thing, now sated, returned to its hiding place, Mr Probert rose from the bed.  He popped his burst belly closed and donned a set of scrubs and a surgical mask.  He replaced the protective paper with a fresh sheet.

He opened the door and popped his head into the corridor.

“Who’s next, please?” he grinned.

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Faces and Fortunes

The cameras flashed incessantly, making the movie star squint.  He put a hand up as a shield but the flashes were coming from all directions.  He hurried along the red carpet, ignoring all catcalls and questions.  A limousine was waiting.  The movie star nipped into the back seat and breathed a sigh of relief to be behind the tinted windows.

“Drive!” he urged.

The driver drove.

The movie star’s p.a. was also on the back seat.

“You know, Brad,” she drawled, without looking up from the tablet she was scrolling through.  “You’re going to have to say something sooner or later.  Sooner, preferably.  Throw them a bone.”

Brad looked pained.  He poured himself a generous whisky from the car’s bar.

“It’s none of their business,” he grumbled.  “And why is there no ice in this car?  What do I pay you people for?”

The p.a. pouted.  Her scrolling finger came to a stop.  She tapped on a link.  “Here,” she held out the tablet.  “This is exactly what I’m talking about.  You can put an end to all the speculation by just coming clean.  Yeah, you’ve had a bit of work done.  So what?  You’re just keeping yourself looking your best for your fans.”

Brad shook his head.

“Listen, just admit to a bit of tightening around the eyes,  the occasional face peel.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  You’re just looking after your best asset.  Your face is your fortune after all.”

The limousine pulled up outside Brad’s mansion in the Hollywood hills.

“I’ll think about it,” Brad conceded.  He gave the p.a. his whisky glass before he got out.  “Goodnight.”

The p.a. closed her eyes and shook her head.  She and the driver watched the movie star key in his entry code and disappear through a side gate.  He didn’t turn to wave.

“He’s changed,” the p.a. diagnosed.  “Take me home, Simon.”

Brad marched straight to his wine cellar.  At the back, a secret door gave access to a private room he had had stricken from the plans.  No one knew it was there.

He paced up and down, making the man chained to the room’s only chair eye his progress nervously.

“A little tightening around the eyes!” Brad scoffed.  “As if I’m going to admit to that.  When this,” he circled his hand to indicate his entire face, “is a masterpiece, a miracle of cosmetic surgery.”

The man on the chair hung his bandaged head.

“Listen,” Brad lifted the man’s chin.  “It’s not forever.  I’ll have my guy do the repair job on you.  Then, if you promise not to tell anyone, you can have your old life back.  I’m getting tired of the movie business anyway.”

The man on the chair grunted, jerking his chin out of Brad’s hand.

“I have to be sure,” Brad told him.  “I have to be sure you’ll let me go and there’ll be no repercussions.  I keep telling you it was an accident.  An accident followed by a mix-up.  The doctors thought I was you and you were the nobody who’d crashed his car into the famous film star.  It cost me a fortune to buy them all off.  But I had access to your bank accounts by then, of course.  Don’t worry; I’ve made all that money back and more while you’ve been sitting down here.  Really think we’ve got a shot at the Oscar this year.  You’re on the up and up, my friend.”

With that, Brad turned on his heels and strode from the secret room.

Alone again, the real Brad shrugged.  An Oscar!  Well, well!

He lifted his hand to scratch his mangled nose.  He hadn’t found the right moment to tell his captor he’d been free of his ropes for months.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to go back into the heady world of stardom just yet, if at all.  For the time being, he was enjoying the solitude of this unorthodox retreat.  And he still had the run of the mansion while Fake Brad was out.  And, he conceded, he seems to be doing a better job of it than I ever did.

Let’s see how long we can keep up this charade before the cracks really begin to show…

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Ridley was hiding in the closet in her friend’s parents’ bedroom.  Holding her breath, she peered through the horizontal slats.  The room was in darkness, but the moonlight streaming through the window was hitting the bed like a spotlight, illuminating the gruesome sight of Jennifer, lifeless on the duvet, her throat a seeping gash.  Jennifer’s blood had stained the bedclothes a glistening crimson.  Ridley tried not to look at it.  She had to keep her wits about her.

Jennifer had been a friend since kindergarten.  True, she and Ridley had drifted apart during high school, but that had been the point of this evening’s gathering: a chance to reconnect with old friends, to catch up, to have a party while Jennifer’s folks were out of town.  Ridley imagined the horror and grief that were to strike Bob and Sheila Finkel when they got back from the Hamptons, or wherever.  Their only daughter butchered!  They would surely never be able to sleep in this room again.  They would surely want to move house.

There were dead kids all over.  Shona in the freezer, Marek in the garage, Derek behind the couch, and Eva in the washing machine.  All of them slashed to ribbons.  All of them old friends.

I can’t think about that now, Ridley steeled herself.  I have to focus on my own survival.

There’s always one girl left, you see.  Always one final girl who gets out alive.

A silhouette appeared in the doorway.  Moonlight glinted off the butcher’s knife blade.

“Ridley?” hissed a whisper.  “Are you in here?”

The figure stepped into the room.

“Ridley!” Louder this time.  Ridley did not move.

The figure crept around the room, around the horror on the bed.

Wait for it, wait for it… Ridley knew the moment to emerge was near.

The figure was at the window, peering out, a tangled mop of hair gleaming in a silvery halo.  Hah, thought Ridley.  That’s ironic.  It’s the only way you’ll get a halo, Maya, old chum,.  After the way you treated me in high school.  Tur

ning everyone against me.

While Maya’s back was turned, Ridley gently pushed the closet door open wide enough to slip through.  Soundlessly, she stole across the carpet, pulling the grinning skull mask over her face.

She pressed the edge of her blade to Maya’s throat.

“Surprise, bitch!” she cackled.  “Happy high school reunion!”

Maya didn’t have time enough to scream before the slashing started.

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Life in the Old Dog Yet

Oswald shuffled along the hall to the kitchen.  The door was ajar.  He could hear his daughter and her husband engaged in a heated discussion.

About me, I shouldn’t wonder, thought Oswald, dismally.  Since he’d moved in, his son-in-law had been perfectly vile.  Complaining about everything and nothing.  Making insinuations.  “Oh, I’m sorry, my lord.  We shall have to treat you kindly if we’re to get anything when you’ve popped your slippers.”

It broke Oswald’s heart.  They didn’t know how frustrated he was, being uprooted from his own house, the home he’d shared with Elsie for almost fifty years.  He knew he was an imposition.  He knew he was in the way.  He knew he was a burden.

They’re talking about putting me in a home, I know it.

I’d rather be dead.

But he had to stay put, eavesdropping.  He had to know what he was up against.

“Well,” his daughter, Debbie, was saying, “he can’t help it.  Not at his time of life.”

“Costing us a fortune in bloody air fresheners,” her husband, Damien, countered.  “His guts can’t be right.”

Oswald blushed.  His hands tightened into fists as much as his arthritis would allow.

“And the interminable whimpering and whining,” Damien went on.  “All through the night.  I’m surprised the neighbours haven’t complained.”

“Oh, they quite like him,” Debbie put in.  “He keeps them entertained over the garden fence.”

“Huh,” Damien huffed.  “I don’t find it funny in the slightest.  The children won’t go near him. They say he frightens them. Look, love, he’s well past his prime.  Time to put the old fella out of his misery.”

Out of your misery you mean, you nasty pup.  Oswald sniffed back a tear.

“I mean, it’s disgusting.  He’s weeping out of every orifice, and he moves so slowly now, every step is agony, you can tell.  It’s the best thing for him.  One quick prick and he’s out like a light.  He won’t feel a thing.”

Just like you, you unfeeling bastard.  Oswald wished he’d brought his walking stick from his room.  He wouldn’t go down without a fight.

“Well,” he heard Debbie say, “If you think it’s for the best.”

“I do, love.”  Damien pecked her cheek.  “I’ll see you later.  And we’ll—” he made a whistling noise.  Oswald could imagine Damien drawing his finger across his own throat in a slashing motion.

He waited until he heard Damien’s Ford Focus drive away.  Taking a deep breath, he breezed into the kitchen.  “Morning, love!” he smiled.  “I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?  It’s about time I made myself useful.”

“It’s all right, Dad,” Debbie took the kettle from his shaking hands.  “You have a seat and I’ll make the tea.”

Oswald lowered himself onto a chair at the kitchen table.

“Damien’s out early,” he observed.

“Busy as ever,” Debbie organised cups.  “He’ll see you later.”

Oswald nodded.  While the kettle boiled, he squinted through his spectacles, taking in the kitchen, drinking in every detail as if seeing them for the final time.  His gaze fell on the tatty basket in the corner.  Shep’s basket.  Shep the smelly, dribbly, wobbly old mutt…

A great weight seemed to lift from Oswald’s chest.  He sat up straight and laughed.

They were talking about Shep!

What a silly old fool I am!

“Taken the dog out, has he?” Oswald jerked his head at the basket as Debbie brought the cups to the table.

“Shep’s walking days are over,” she sighed, pulling out a chair for herself.

“It’s funny, love; I heard you talking before I came in.  For an awful moment, I thought you were talking about me!  I am a silly old sausage, aren’t I?”

Debbie reached across the table and squeezed her father’s hand. She gave him a sad smile.

“Of course we were talking about you, Dad.  Shep hasn’t written a will.”

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The Astronaut’s Anniversary

The alarm beeped.  Jeff, who had been lying awake for hours, rolled over and slapped it into silence.  Groaning, he got out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom.  By the time he had shaved and showered, Wendy, his p.a. was already at the door to his hotel suite.

“Morning, Jeff!” she chirped, offering him a coffee-chain cappuccino.  He grunted in response.  Wendy made herself at home, perching on a sofa and scrolling through her iPad with an expensively manicured finger.  “Just want to go through the programme of events for the day.  The car will be here in…three point five minutes.”

Jeff grunted.

Wendy looked up from the screen.  Her jaw dropped.  “You’re not even dressed!” she gasped.

Jeff shrugged; the gesture was lost beneath the folds of his hotel dressing gown.

“Come on, chop-chop!” Wendy flicked her fingers in a bid to shoo him into the bedroom.  Jeff didn’t move.  Wendy gave her wristwatch an anxious glance.  “Two point five minutes… Come on.  Is there something wrong?  What’s the matter, Jeff?  Didn’t housekeeping bring your suit back from the dry cleaners?”

Jeff didn’t reply.  Wendy began to panic.  She fought it down.  She smiled.  “Look, you can tell me.  I’ve heard it all before.  If it’s nerves, that’s OK.  I know a guy can get you a little help, shall we call it?”

Jeff closed his eyes.

“Look,” Wendy rose from the sofa and approached.  “I know you’re tired.  But it’s just today.  I’ll move a few things around.  We can have you finished and on your way back home just after lunch.  Things will die down again.  But today is the Big One.  It’s fifty years since you came back from the moon.  It’s your golden anniversary.  So of course people want you on the radio, on breakfast television.  And there’s that champagne reception…”

She was back to scrolling through her list again.

Jeff lowered himself onto a chair at the dining table.

Fifty years.  They had passed in the blink of an eye, it seemed.  Jeff put his face in his hands, the hands that had steered the lunar module, the hands that were now liver-spotted, with craters between the knotty veins.  Like the lunar surface…

He cast his mind back to that fateful mission.  He had never spoken of what had happened up there.  Others in the team had written autobiographies, fluffy, empty tomes, full of cliches.  And lies.  Not a single one of them had told the truth.

They would be there later, at the champagne reception, gleefully receiving the keys to yet another city.  Laughing it up, saying how lucky there were.  And how fragile the Earth looks from up there, and how we must protect it, and blah blah blah.

Until the signal.

When the signal came, the true nature of their mission would be revealed.  Not the mission given them by NASA, but the mission they had received from the Masters of the Moon.  The time was drawing nigh.

A buzzer sounded.  Was it Reception calling to say the car had arrived?

Or was it the signal?

The Earthlings were about to discover just how fragile their world really is.

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The Pendant

“Must we go?” Stella tried one last bid for freedom. “I could have one of my headaches.”

Oswald shook his head.  “We did that one last year.”  He zipped up her dress and planted a kiss on the nape of her neck.

“One evening, that’s all.  We’ll see in the new year with the old biddy and then make our excuses.”

“Oh, I suppose so,” Stella attached diamond earrings and turned her head so they caught the light.  She turned to present herself to her husband.  “Will I do?”

“You’re a knockout,” Oswald gasped.  “I still can’t believe my luck.  I’ll wait in the car.”

Stella gave herself one last appraisal in the full-length mirror.  Yes, Oswald was indeed a lucky man.  And it was a good job he kept her in the manner to which she had become accustomed.  The earrings were new.  So was the bracelet that matched them.  The only thing off-kilter was the dreary old pendant the old biddy had sent her for Christmas. An ugly, lumpish thing adorned with coloured glass.  Stella took it off and replaced it with her glittering new necklace.  There!  That was better.  If the old biddy asked about the pendant, she’d say it was being assessed by the insurers, something like that.

“Hello, Aunt Imelda,” Oswald pecked their hostess’s cheek, which was as wrinkled as an old apple.  “So kind of you to have us over.”

“Nonsense,” Imelda patted his pudgy hand with her liver-spotted, blue-veined one.  “We are still family.  And it’s about time I met the latest addition.”  She turned to the young woman in red silk, dripping with diamonds.  “You must be Stella.”

“Guilty!” Stella laughed.  She squeezed the old woman’s fingers, afraid they might snap like dry twigs.

“Beautiful,” the old woman’s eyes crawled up and down Stella until their scrutiny made her itch.  “Oswald, you have done well this time.”

“This time?” Stella frowned.

“Didn’t he tell you, he has been married before?”  The old woman hooked her arm in Stella’s and led her to the dining table.  “You’re a vast improvement on the previous model.  You are blessed with good genes, I can tell.  Excellent breeding stock.”

Stella’s mouth hung open.

“She’s pulling your leg,” Oswald chuckled.  “Aunt Imelda, as incorrigible as ever.”

“Sit beside me, my dear,” Aunt Imelda indicated a chair.  “But—oh!  You’re not wearing the gift I sent you!  Did it not arrive?”

“Yes, it did,” Oswald put in.  “A lovely gift.  So generous.”

“What’s the matter, dear?  Didn’t you like it?”

“Well, um, yes, of course, it’s lovely.  But,” Stella grimaced, “I’m afraid it’s not really me.  Not my look, I’m sorry.”

“Oh?”  Aunt Imelda took her seat at the head of the table.  “Oh.”

Dinner was a frosty affair after that.  Oswald tried to crack a few jokes but neither his aunt nor his wife were listening.

At long last, the midnight hour approached.  The ticking of the grandfather clock sounded louder in the absence of conversation.

“Such a shame,” Aunt Imelda observed.  “You had such potential.”

“I beg your pardon?” Stella frowned.  “Ozzy, what’s she going on about now?”

“I’m sorry, my dear,” Oswald took a position behind Aunt Imelda’s chair.  The old woman reached up to pat her nephew’s hand.

“Such a shame,” she repeated, her eyes glinting in the candlelight.

The clock struck twelve.

The lights went out, the candles extinguished by a draught from nowhere.  Stella screamed and fell silent.

Oswald relit the candles.

“A dance, Imelda?” he offered his hand and bowed.

“At least!” cried Imelda, springing from her seat.  Rejuvenated, she twirled around the room, making her nephew giddy from her exertions.  Her hair shook loose, no longer white, but a luscious raven black.  Her hands, pale and flawless as alabaster, stroked Oswald’s sweaty cheek.

“Don’t be sad, Ozzy,” she pouted.  “If she had been right for us, she would have worn the pendant.”

Oswald gave a sigh.  Imelda was right.  She was always right.

On Stella’s chair, the red silk dress collapsed in on itself, and the diamond jewellery dropped to the floor. The husk that had once been a beautiful woman crumbled into dust.

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Big Designs

The wolf grinned at the camera.  His long, pink tongue briefly caressed the tip of his fangs.

“Hello!  And welcome to the first edition of Big Designs.  Today’s contestants are all brothers; triplets, in fact, but, as we are about to find out, when it comes to building houses, their ideas could not be more different.  Let’s meet the first one.  Hello, Piggly.”

The first contestant waved a nervous trotter.

“Hello, B.B.,” he squeaked.

“Good to have you on the show.”  The wolf fist-bumped the trotter with his paw.  “Explain, please, to the viewers at home, the concept behind your build.”

He smiled encouragingly.  Piggly’s eyes darted.


“Go on.”

“Well, it’s quite basic, really, my design.  Using sustainable materials.”

“Good, good.”  The wolf winked at the camera.  “Sustainable gets my vote.  What exactly are you using?”

“Um, just this really.”  Piggly stooped to gather up a fistful of dried grass.


“Um, yes.  It’s very versatile.  See, you can weave it together to make walls, furniture too.  Or you can just sort of strew it around the floor as a rough-and-ready carpet.”

“Hmm… And it’ll be strong, your house of straw?”

“How do you mean?”

“Will it be able to withstand the elements?  A strong gust of wind, for example.”

“I should think so,” said Piggly, although he didn’t sound convinced.

“Well, good luck,” the wolf’s grin widened.  “Now, moving across to the next plot, we find, hard at work, Piggly’s brother, Wiggly.  Say hello to the viewers at home, Wiggly.”

The second pig was a little startled.  His snout quivered and let out a grunt.

“Tell us, please,” the wolf spoke in unctuous tones, “the concept behind your build.”

“Well, um,” Wiggly took off his hat and scratched his head.  “It’s all made from found materials.  To keep costs down.”

Found materials?  Care to expand on that?  What have you found and where did you find it?”

“Well, um, B.B.  Just here in the woods, lying around.  Sticks, mainly.”


“Yes.  They’re durable, flexible and above all, they’re free.”

“Well, we all like a freebie,” the wolf winked at the camera.  “You say durable, but will your house be able to stand up to, I don’t know, say, someone on the roof?”

“Why would there be someone on the roof?”

“I don’t know; I don’t write the questions.”

“I am confident my house of sticks will withstand anything short of a nuclear attack.”

“Even a great wind?”

“I’m sorry?”

“With a nuclear bomb, you always get an almighty wind.  Or, it could come from another source.”

“Such as?”

The wolf’s grin faltered.  “Look, I can see I’m distracting you from your building.  Good luck.”


“We move on to the third plot, where—oh, my word!  Can you see this at home?  Isn’t this just the sweetest little house you’ve ever seen?  It looks almost finished.  But where’s the builder?”


“Let’s see if he’s in, shall we?”

The wolf stepped up to the newly painted front door and knocked.  “Mister Pig, Mister Pig,” he sang.  “Let me come in!”

“No!” came a squeak from the other side of the door.  “Not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.”

“Oh, dear, viewers.  Looks like someone is camera shy.”

The wolf pushed his snout through the letterbox.  “Mister Pig?  May I call you Jiggly?”

“No!  Piss off!” said the third pig.

The wolf grimaced.  “We can bleep that out.  But the viewers want to see inside your lovely home.  You’ve chosen the traditional material of red bricks.  Why is that?”

The pig’s answer was muffled but laced with aggression.

“I’m afraid,” said the wolf, “Unless you show us around, you’ll be disqualified from the competition.”

A loud oink issued from the letterbox.  The wolf backed away.  He put a claw to his earpiece and consulted with the producer.

“What?  That’s crazy.  I’m not sure we have the insurance for that—”

He listened.

“Oh, all right.  But I’ll be having words with my agent, you can be sure of that.”

Moments later, the wolf was on the roof of the little red house, having scaled a ladder.  “Mister Pig!” he bellowed down the chimney.  “Let me in!”

The producer’s voice crackled in his ear.

“You what?  That’s insane.  I’m not climbing down the fucking chimney.  I don’t care if it is good telly—Oh, all right, but I want danger money.”

He sat on the chimney stack and lowered himself into the flue, back legs first.

The camera stayed put, the house filling the frame.  There was a splash and a terrifying howl of pain.

Then, silence.

A moment later, the front door opened.  The camera zoomed in on the grinning face of the third contestant.

“Hello, viewers,” Jiggly grinned.  “And welcome to the first edition of my new cooking show.  First on the menu: boiled wolf.”

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The Hero

“What’s this?” Sherry called from the bedroom.  “I said, what’s this?”

“What’s what?” Albert called back from the living-room. “I haven’t got x-ray vision, have I?”

“This.”  Sherry walked in, holding a suitcase. 

“Suitcase,” Albert shrugged.  “That’s not coming.”

Sherry placed the suitcase on the dining table.  “Could come in handy.  Fill it with your socks or something.”

“I said leave it!” Albert snapped, his voice cracking.  “Coming in here, going through my stuff without a by your leave.”

Sherry held up her hands in surrender.  “All right.  Excuse me, I’m sure.  What about a cup of tea?  Calm you down.”

“You’ve packed the kettle.”

Sherry laughed.  “Have I?  I’d forget my head if it wasn’t nailed on.  All this other stuff,” she glanced around, “the furniture.  Van from the charity shop’s coming after lunch.”

Albert gaped.  “You’ve no right!  No right!”

“Now, Albert, you know you can’t take it all with you, like some Egyptian pharaoh.  Just a few bits and pieces to make your room feel like home.  Photographs and what-not.”

Albert shook his head, tears streaming down the wrinkles of his cheeks.  “My life, reduced to a couple of boxes.”

“Oh, I don’t see it like that.  See it was the start of a new chapter.  You’ll make a lot of new friends.”

You’re not bloody going.  It’s me that’s going to be stuck in that place, just waiting for the grim reaper, and wishing he’d get a bloody move on.”

“Oh, Albert.  You do say some things.”

“I’ll say something I might regret in a minute.  Go on, clear off.  Get out of it.   Bloody do-gooders.  That’s a laugh.  You’ve never done anybody a scrap of good in all your days.”

“Albert!”  Sherry looked aghast.

“Different in my day.  We went out there and we helped people.  Sorted their lives out, good and proper.  Not just shut them away in little boxes.  We fought for what was right.  We stood for something.  We were respected.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sherry glanced at her wristwatch.  “Just decide what you’re taking, because I’ve got Mrs Wilkins in twenty minutes, and there’s never anywhere to park.”

“Nothing,” Albert jutted his chin.  “I’m taking nothing.”

“Sorted, then.  I’ll be back after Mrs Wilkins.”  Sherry breezed out of the house, muttering about stubborn old men.

Albert struggled to his feet.  Leaning on his stick, he hobbled to the dining table.  His arthritic fingers fumbled the catches on the old suitcase.  At last, he got it open.

One last look, one last touch.  His fingers closed around the bright spandex of his old outfit, his old cape.  Yes, we used to help people.  We were heroes.  Not like these busybodies the council sends around.

He dropped his stick and screwed his eyes shut.  Come on, come on, he tried to summon his old powers.  Let me fly, just one last time, out of here and far away, before she comes back to stick me in that home.

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The Mouse and his Friend

Using a match as a walking stick, the old mouse hobbled across the field.  The circus was packing up.  He had almost missed it.  Dodging to evade the boots of stevedores who were pulling down the big top, the mouse let out a squeak, like the rusty wheel of a child’s toy.  He panted until he got his breath back and scurried to the train where the animals were housed.

A lion stirred in its sleep, catching a whiff of the mouse on a breeze but, deciding the morsel was too small to bother with, rolled over and slept on.

I wonder what will happen to them all, the mouse wondered.  Even the lions’ fate concerned him.  They’ll be sold to zoos, most probably.  Not ideal but better than the alternative.  You couldn’t release circus animals back into the wild, after lives of captivity and servitude in the name of entertainment.  They wouldn’t last five minutes.  No, a zoo was their best prospect.  A zoo was better than ending up as a rug or a coat, or a pair of shoes.

He skirted past the reptile carriage.  Was Zorella the Snake Woman still performing her tired old act?  Who would want to see her geriatric gyrations as she wound constrictors around her sagging curves?  The mouse shuddered.  She used to feed my cousins to her snakes.  I’m not hanging around here to end up as a python’s supper.

At last, he came to the elephants’ carriage.  He could hear the snores of the pachyderms from outside.  Good.  He could sneak in, locate his old friend and rescue him.  Easy as that.

He squeezed through a knothole in a plank and found himself on the straw-strewn floor of the carriage.  The smell of the elephants was overpowering.  I used to be used to this, he reminded himself, holding his little hat over his snout.  He tiptoed through the straw until he came to the stall at the end.  He climbed up to the barred window and peered in.

A dark, amorphous shape was snoring in the shadows.

“Psst!  Hey!” the mouse hissed as loudly as he dared.  “It’s me!  It’s your old pal, Timothy!”

The dark shape stirred.

“That’s right,” the mouse encouraged.  “I’m back!  I’ve come to take you away from all this.  And not a moment too soon, it seems.  The law’s changed, you see, pal; you probably know this already.  After tonight, they’re no longer permitted to use animals in circuses.  It’s going to be all acrobats and magicians from now on.  Trapeze artists.  Clowns.  But no animals.  Circuses are going cruelty-free!  It’s wonderful!”

The dark shape sat up straight.  The shadow of a trunk uncoiled and reached up to the bars.  Timothy, recognising the gesture from the old days, hopped onto his old friend’s trunk.

“But I’m worried, see.  What’s to become of you?  I don’t think we should stick around to find out.  I’m going to get you out of here.”

His friend’s head dipped in sorrow.  Timothy heard the clank of chains.

“It’s all right!  I’ve got a friend.  A human.  She’s nice.  An animal rights activist.  She’s stealing the keys from the ringmaster’s office right now.  She’ll be here any minute.  And then we’ll be able to fly away.”

Timothy’s friend shook his head so vigorously, the mouse had to hold on tight to the trunk.

“Everything’s going to be all right, my friend,” the mouse gave the trunk a reassuring pat.

“No,” said the elephant, speaking for the first time.  He stood up, the chains around his feet rattling.  He shook his head, dislodging the blanket that had covered him.

Timothy gaped in horror and surprise.

His friend’s magnificent ears, the very things that afforded him the power of flight and had made him the most famous elephant in the world, were gone.  Docked by the circus owners in a senseless act of spite.  Probably to prevent their competitors getting hold of him.

“No…” Timothy dropped to his knees and wept.  “What have they done to you?”

Broken-hearted, the elephant slumped in sorrow.  There was no magic feather to solve his problems this time.

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Rat in the Kitchen

“I can’t BLEEP believe this!” Stewart Gibbons, celebrity chef, ran his hands down his craggy face.  “A BLEEP rat!  In the kitchen!”

The restaurateur squirmed.  “It is a little unconventional—”

“It’s BLEEP unhygienic!” Gibbons roared.  “I’m appalled.  Never in all my years have I come across something so BLEEP disgusting!”

“Actually,” the head waiter piped up.  “Rats are rather clean animals.”

The restaurateur nodded.  “Intelligent too.  They get a bad rap.”

“Because they live in the BLEEP sewers,” Gibbons shook his head.  “Get that rat the BLEEP out of here, give this place a deep clean, and then we’ll talk about what’s wrong with your BLEEP menu.”

“Er,” the restaurateur demurred.  “That’s not going to be possible, I’m afraid.”

Gibbons couldn’t believe it.  “Oh, this is the part of the show where you’re still a bit stubborn, a bit bold?  Trust me, as soon as I make a couple of changes, you’re going to change your tune.  Now, get that rat out of here or I’m calling the BLEEP exterminator my BLEEP self.”

“Mr Gibbons,” the restaurateur wrung his hands.  “There is something you don’t understand.”

“I don’t give a flying BLEEP.  I understand the restaurant business and that’s all I need to know.”

“The rat stays, Mr Gibbons.  That’s all there is to it.  Change the napkins, rearrange the tables, if you must.  But the rat stays.”

“Then we’re done here.  My show has a formula we stick to every episode.  I come along, get appalled, shout a bit, throw my weight around.  You stand up to me (or try to) but I eventually win you around, the customers are delighted, business is booming, fade to black.”

“I have seen your show, Mr Gibbons.  I applied to have my restaurant featured on it.”

“So, do what I BLEEP tell you and we’re good as gold.”

“No, Mr Gibbons, it is you who must do as he is told.”  The restaurateur nodded.  The head chef stole up behind the TV presenter and whacked him across the back of his head with a rolling pin.  Gibbons’s eyes rolled back and he crumpled in a heap.

The chef lifted off his toque, revealing a bright-eyed rat with an ironic expression twitching its whiskers.

“Oh, dear,” said the rat, surveying the scene.  “Well, at least with him out of the way, we can see about realising my dream of having a chain of rat-chef restaurants all over the world. Now,” he rubbed his little pink paws, “we can’t have bodies lying around in my kitchen.  It’s BLEEP unhygienic.”

Everyone laughed—or at least the rats under their hats and toupees did.

Fade to black.

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Here Be Dragons

“Sire!  Sire!  There is a dragon on the loose!”  The breathless page managed to gasp. 

The King barely looked at him.  “Not this again!  I am tired of hearing about dragons.  The next person to warn me about a dragon attack is for the chop.  Now, be off with you.”

“But, Sire!  The dragon is stomping through the forest.  If we don’t send help, he’ll raze the village to the ground.”

“Still here?” the King narrowed his eyes.  “Listen, people have been warning about dragon this and dragon that for years.  It’s all just hot air.”

The page was looking out of the window.  He could see dark plumes of smoke on the horizon.

“The forest is on fire!  The dragon is burning the forest.”  He watched, agog with dismay, as the trees parted and the huge, scaly beast trampled on the thatched roofs of a row of peasant cottages.  Mercifully, it was too far away for the page to be able to hear the screams.

“He’s approaching the castle wall!  Sire!  Come and see for yourself!  There is no denying it!  We are under dragon attack!”

“You’re exaggerating!” the King affected a yawn.  “Besides, that wall has seen off all invaders for centuries.  You don’t think some pesky little lizard is going to get through that, do you?”

The page’s jaw dropped and his eyes followed the upward trajectory of the dragon as it extended its leathery wings and rose above the perimeter wall.  High in the sky, it let out a deafening screech and bathed the courtyard with a jet of flame.  The page stepped back, the heat threatening to singe his eyebrows.  He threw himself at the King’s feet.

“O, Sire!  Please, you must do something!  Call out the army!  The wizard!  Anything!  Please!”

The King kicked him away.  “I’ve had enough of your nonsense, you addle-brained ninny—”

His words were cut off as a huge claw reached in through the window and wrapped itself around the King’s waist.

“Ah,” he said, “we seem to have a dragon problem.”

“Are you going to do something about it, at last, Sire?”

“Well, um, yes, of course.  I shall instigate a plan to see a reduction in dragon attacks over the next thirty years.”

But it was too late.  The dragon yanked the King from the castle and bit off his stubborn head.

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The Toymaker’s Son

“Yes?” the old toymaker blinked at the man on the doorstep.  “If it’s toys you’re after, I’m afraid my shop is closed.  The market has dried up.  Children today would rather have electronics.  Screens to gawp at rather than living in the world!  Tchah!”  He shook his head with disgust, his mop of white hair like a fall of snow.

The man smiled patiently.  “No.  That’s not why I have come.”

He stepped back so the old man could get a better view.  He spread out his arms and raised his eyebrows.

“Don’t you recognise me, father?”

The toymaker’s mouth fell open beneath his drooping moustache.  He squinted through the wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his bulbous nose.

“It—can’t be!”  He clutched the doorframe for support.

The man nodded rapidly.  “It is!  It’s me!”

The toymaker gasped. The black hair had lost its gloss and was streaked with grey. The blue eyes had lost their brightness and were lined with cares, but it was his boy all right. The old man’s eyes darted up and down the street.  “You had better come in,” he urged, stepping back.

The man chuckled and entered the old shop.  He glanced around at the empty shelves, strewn with cobwebs.  Once they had been laden with cuckoo clocks of inventive designs.  Railway sets, lovingly fashioned from pine… Animals that could move their eyes, open their mouths, flap their wings and paws… All gone. On a side table, an empty fishbowl. On the floor, an abandoned litter tray. The toymaker was truly alone in his retirement.

“Should I put the kettle on?  Do you drink tea?”

“Stop fussing, father!” The man helped the toymaker to a chair.  “I’ll see to the tea.  But first, we must talk.”

“Yes!” the old man clutched his long-lost son’s hand.  “You must tell me about your life, and why now, after all this time, you have returned to the place where you were…born.”

The man shook his head, his eyes closed.

“Where to begin?”  He paced around the shop, creating a mess of tracks on the dusty floorboards.  “I travelled.  A lot.  I’ve seen the whole world.  I tried to continue my career in showbusiness, but it turns out I have no special talent.  I wrote a book telling the story of my life, but it was dismissed as improbable fiction.”

“Ha,” the old man nodded.  “The world can be tough.  But tell me, have you a wife?  Children?”

The man pinched the bridge of his nose.  “She left me.  Turned the children against me.  Said I was neglecting them while I was working all hours, trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.  I think the last straw was when I was unable to satisfy her in bed.  She wanted another child, but I was unable to – to –”

The old man nodded in understanding.

“So, tell me, what can I do for you, after all these years of absence and not a word from you?”

“I’m sorry about that.  I always meant to, but, you know.”

“Yes, I do know.  So come on, out with it.”

“The Blue Fairy!” Desperation coloured the man’s face.  “Do you know how to get in touch with her?”

“I haven’t heard that name in years,” said the old man.  “Perhaps I can help.”

“I don’t know if you can.” The man hung his head.  “I have debts, father.  Some bad business decisions.  Swallowing me up like that whale—you remember that, don’t you?”

The old man smiled wistfully.  “I remember my brave boy coming to rescue me from the belly of that beast.”

“And so you’ll help me find the fairy?  Only she can grant my wish.”

“And what is your wish, my son?”  Although the toymaker already had a good idea.

“I can’t hack it out there,” the man wailed.  “I want to be a puppet again.”

The old man stood and shuffled to the kitchen.  He busied himself with the kettle while his son sobbed in the shop.  Through the window he could see the night sky.  One star loomed larger than the others.  The old man drew the curtains.

Tchah, he thought.  We must be careful what we wish for.

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Coming soon, in time for Christmas

Coming soon (November 11th, 2021, to be precise) and exclusive to Kindle, all my Christmas-themed short stories collected together for the first time.

Trees, presents, myths… they’re all here, along with lashings of dark humour and more than a sprinkle of gruesomeness. Not for the fainthearted, TWISTED CHRISTMAS is an antidote to all the clichés that are trotted out year after year.

Available at a bargain price, too!

Get your pre-orders in now!!

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Christmas Jumpers

Aunt Mabel watched the family unwrap their presents with a glint in her eye.  The family, however, was not so enthusiastic.  Rather than the ravaging rips that had shredded the paper from their other gifts, Aunt Mabel’s presents were approached with caution.  A careful easing of the sticky tape here, the gentle untying of a ribbon there.  The family needed time to prepare their expressions of pleasant surprise and astonished gratitude.  It was an annual charade and they faced it with dread.

“Come on!” Aunt Mabel jollied them along.  “It’ll be time for the Queen’s speech at this rate.”

The family exchanged glances full of trepidation.

“On three,” said Dad, swallowing hard.  “One!  Two!  Three!”

They set to extracting the gifts from the wrapping.  Every year, Aunt Mabel knitted everyone jumpers for Christmas.  Every year some monstrous abomination fashioned (if that was the word) from yarn.

Aunt Mabel clapped, eyes shining with pride as the family held up their respective abominations to their chests.

“Now, what do we say?” prompted Mum.

“Thanks, Aunt Mabel,” the children, Bobby and Susan, chorused.

“Aw, you’re welcome, chickens,” Aunt Mabel crowed.  “Come on then, let’s see them on.”

The children froze.

“Perhaps later,” said Dad, draping his new jumper over his arm.  “After dinner.  We wouldn’t want to get gravy and all the rest of it on these lovely jumpers.”

“Pah!” scoffed Aunt Mabel.  “The wool’s acrylic.  Any spillage will sponge right off.  Now, come on, chop-chop!  Let’s see them on!”

She shooed them into the kitchen to get ready.  She cued up the iPad to play some cheesy sousaphone march.  “Let’s be having you!”

She settled into her seat and clapped along with the music.

In the kitchen, the family spoke in harsh whispers.

“You go first,” hissed Mum.  “She’s your bloody auntie.”

Dad gaped.  “She is not!  She’s yours!  Isn’t she?”


“What’s keeping you?” Aunt Mabel’s face appeared at the serving hatch.  Everyone jumped.  Aunt Mabel returned to her seat.

“Come on,” said Dad, pulling his new jumper over his head.  “Sooner it’s done, the better.”

Susan was crying.  “I don’t like it.  It’s scratchy.”

“Ssh-ssh!” Mum helped her to put her jumper on.  “Two minutes.  That’s all.  Then you can get into your princess dress.”

Susan perked up, but Bobby wasn’t happy.

“Can I?” he pouted.  “Can I put my football top on?”

“Yes!  After this!” Mum thrust his jumper at him.  “Anything for a bit of peace.”

“Now, line up in order of age, eldest first,” said Dad, bravely moving to the door.  “We can do this.”

His family nodded with sombre resolve.  They held hands.

“At last!” Aunt Mabel cried as Dad led the parade.  “Oh, you look positively darling!  Give us a twirl.”

Dad, whose jumper had a reindeer on it with a light-up nose, rotated on the spot.  Mum did likewise, the Christmas tree on her jumper had bells that jingled.  Bobby stomped around in a circle.  His jumper had a steam train with actual puffs of smoke emerging from its funnel — that couldn’t be right, could it?  Or even safe!  Susan pirouetted around and around, as did the ballerina stitched onto her front.  Before long, the entire family was spinning and spinning, their jumpers flashing, jingling and smoking.  And becoming tighter and tighter, the collars and cuffs constricting.

Susan screamed.

They clawed at their jumpers, gasping for air.  Livid rashes sprang out on their hands and faces, and their eyes widened with terror.  Unable to stop themselves, they thrashed around the living room, crashing into furniture, toppling the tree, and knocking over the television.

One by one they collapsed with exhaustion, the rash eating away at their skin until there was none left.  Four skulls grinned humourlessly at the streamers of tinsel that spanned the ceiling.

Aunt Mabel stood up and turned off the music.

“Ingrates.”  She gave the nearest corpse a kick.  She put on her coat and gathered up her sack.  She had more jumpers to deliver, and the Martins over the road could do with taking down a peg or two.

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Edie Makes a List

Edie sat at her kitchen table and opened her notepad.  With two vertical strokes of her biro, she divided a page into three columns.  At the top of the left column, she wrote WHO.  At the top of the middle column, she wrote WHAT, and at the top of the right column she wrote WHERE.

In the WHO column she listed all the people she was buying Christmas presents for that year.  At the top of the list was her son, Brian.  He was a good lad.  Always busy.  Working hard for his family.  Edie understood that.  Of course, Brian would phone her more often if he had the time.  Of course he would.

Next her thoughts turned to Brian’s wife.  Spiteful cow.  Martine.  But, Edie supposed, she’d better put her on the list or there’d be hell to pay.  Reluctantly and a little aggressively, Edie added the name to the list.

Next: Brian’s kids.  Edie’s grandchildren.  Her heart swelled with pride at the thought of them.  Jason was the eldest. He’d be starting school by now.  Then Stacey.  She’d be a proper little madam by now… Edie faltered.  The third one — Malcolm, was it?  Don’t be daft.  You can’t have a baby called Malcolm.  But…he was a baby last year.  Or was it the year before?  Edie had lost track.  She tried to remember exactly when they had each been born.

Blimey.  Jason would be leaving school soon.  Doing his exams.  And Stacey would be starting at the big school.  And little Malcolm or whatever his name was —


It wasn’t Malcolm, it was Melanie.  A darling little girl.  Who must be starting school.. I bet she’s a proper little heartbreaker already, Edie thought fondly.

She sat back.  Not much of a list.  All her friends were gone and she had lost touch with all her nieces and nephews and all their offspring.  Didn’t some of them move to Canada?  Somewhere like that.

Oh, well.  Not to worry.  Makes the job a lot easier.  And I can focus all my money on Brian and his family.

Ignoring the twinge in her back, Edie got to her feet and reached up into a cupboard for a metal tea caddy.  It was scratched and faded with spots of rust along the bottom edge.  She placed it on the table, sat down with a wince, and pulled off the lid.  The caddy was full of five-pound notes, one-pound coins, and fifty-pence pieces.  Edie had been squirreling money away since New Year’s Day.  She tipped it out.  A tidy sum, she rubbed her hands.

Oh, she knew she shouldn’t keep cash in the house, but she couldn’t be doing with those new-fangled bank machines.  You were more likely to be clobbered using one of them than in your own home.  Stands to reason.

She counted the cash.  Eighty-six pounds fifty.  Oho!  It was going to be a marvellous Christmas!

Now, what to get?

In the WHAT column of her list, next to Brian’s name she wrote AFTER SHAVE.  In the WHERE, she wrote CHEMIST’S.

She skipped Martine for the time being (spiteful cow).  Jason…Was he old enough to shave yet?  Or would he prefer socks?  Socks it is!  But sensible ones for school or colourful ones for fun?  Edie had seen some on the market with Christmas puddings on.  Perhaps Jason would like those.  She wrote down SOCKS and MARKET and moved down the list.  Stacey… What would Stacey like?  A dolly?  Some make-up?  Edie could imagine Martine’s face. ‘What are you doing, giving my daughter make-up?  Making her look like a hussy!’  Edie chuckled.  She wrote down MAKE UP and CHEMIST’S.

Little Melanie… A teddy bear!  Who doesn’t love a teddy bear?  Perhaps there’d be some nice ones on the market.  As long as their eyes don’t come out.  Could be a choking hazard for a little kiddie.

Edie’s pen paused.  Eventually she wrote ??? and MARKET??

Tired, she stashed the money away.  The shopping could wait until the morning.

She shuffled to the living room and lowered herself onto the armchair.  It had been Stan’s chair, in pride of place next to the electric fire.  But, well, Stan wasn’t here anymore, was he?

Edie settled back, her eyelids sagging and her head drooping.

It wasn’t until March that Brian got a visit from the police.  His mother had been found after one of the neighbours complained about the smell.  She looked peaceful, the officer said.  Not like she had suffered.

Brian and Martine went around to clear out the flat.  Brian was astonished to find carrier bags brimming with socks and bottles of aftershave.  Martine found the notepad on the kitchen table.

“Look at this,” she sneered.  “Nothing next to my name, of course.  She always was a spiteful cow.”

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Trick or…


“What?” Diana frowned., a protective arm on her five-year-old, who was covered by a bedsheet with eyeholes.  The child was clutching a plastic bucket fashioned to look like a grinning pumpkin, gripping it tightly as though it were a lifesaver.

Mr Lewton smiled humourlessly from his doorstep.  “You said ‘trick or treat’, didn’t you?  I choose the latter.”

Diana let out an exasperated sigh.  “Nobody chooses trick.  Look, just give the cute little ghost some candy and we’ll be on our way.”

“Excuse me?” Mr Lewton tilted his head.  “’Candy’”?  I’m afraid we don’t have any of that here.  This is England.  We have sweets.  We have confectionery.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Diana.  “Are you going to give the kid some sweets or not?”

“Tell me.” Mr Lewton folded his arms, one shoulder resting against the door frame.  “Do you encourage your offspring to accept treats from strangers the rest of the year?”

“Of course not!  But it’s Halloween.  It’s supposed to be a bit of fun.”

“We never did it in my day,” Mr Lewton sniffed.  “I blame the Americans.”

“So do I,” Diana nodded.  “But the kids see it on the telly, don’t they?  All of his friends are doing it.  Look,” she lowered her voice and leant forwards, “I spent fucking hours making that costume.  Please!  It’s been a long evening.  It’s damp.  My feet are tired.”

“So, go home.”

“We will!  You’re the last house.”

“Lucky me.”  Mr Lewton glanced over his shoulder, as if untold riches stood in his hallway.  “I could let you have an apple, I suppose.”

“Er, no.  Thank you.  But no.  It’s just that you hear all sorts of stories, don’t you?  People who put razor blades in apples.”

“Really?  I hadn’t heard.  What about a cake?  Homemade, fresh this afternoon.”

“Um,” Diana’s nose wrinkled.  “Again, you hear all sorts.  Laxatives baked in.  Or worse.”

Mr Lewton nodded.  “Well, if you won’t take my apples and my cakes aren’t good enough, then I’m afraid that brings us right back to square one.”

“It does?”

“Yes.  Trick, please.  I have no treats to offer.”

The child hung its shrouded head in sorrow.  Diana’s eyes widened with panic.

“Look!  Anything!  A breath mint!  A dog biscuit!  Please!  I don’t want my Lawrence to get upset.”

“Aw, diddums,” said Mr Lewton.  “Well, if you can’t administer a trick — which is false advertising, by the way, not to mention the demanding of confectionery with menaces—”

“There is no trick!” Diana cut him off.  She was wringing her hands and gazing at the sky.  The clouds that had filled the late afternoon with drizzle and premature darkness rolled away and at last the moon was laid bare.  A full-fat moon, bathing the scene in creamy light.

“No…” Diana despaired, staggering backwards.

Lawrence’s bedsheet was slashed to shreds from within.  A thing of fur and fangs and claws leapt for Mr Lewton’s throat.  Mr Lewton tried in vain to put his front door between himself and the ravening monster.

“What—” he gasped, toppling to the carpet.  “Is this – some kind of —”

“Trick!” Diana nodded.  She covered her ears while Lawrence fed.  She picked up the plastic bucket and gathered the spilled sweets from the path.

A cloud glided in front of the moon.

“Come on, Lawrence,” she called into Mr Lewton’s hallway.  “Let’s get you home.  There’s a good boy.”

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Wheatley’s Restaurant

“You see it’s not all pointy hats and warty noses,” Sharon laughed.  She took another gulp of Chardonnay.  “Modern day witching is breaking away from the stereotype.  I mean, you see it everywhere, don’t you?  Especially at this time of year.  The tall pointy hat, the black cat, the broomstick.  Frankly, I find it offensive, to me and to my beliefs.”

Across the table, Walter’s smile was wearing thin.  He had demolished the bread from the basket and was beginning to regret agreeing to this blind date.  He cast around for the waiter.  What was taking so long with the starters?  The sooner this evening was over and done with, the better.

This one calls herself a witch!  Ha!  It would be funny if Walter wasn’t so desperate.

“I mean, look at this,” Sharon was leaning forward and holding out her pendant necklace.  Walter played his part and feigned interest in the nondescript lump of whatever-it-was dangling from the slenderest of chains.  “This is my lucky crystal,” she announced proudly.  “As long as I’m wearing this no harm shall befall me.”

Walter nodded.  “It’s nice,” he lied.  It wasn’t; it looked like fossilised cat shit.

Sharon refilled her own wine glass.  “I mean, you seem like a nice fella, so I’m going to do you a special deal.  Free, gratis, and for nothing.  On the house!  Any little problem you want fixing, I’ll sort it for you.  Least I can do after this lovely meal — if it ever comes.  I think that waiter’s got lost.”

She laughed, like a cockerel being electrocuted.  Walter sent a look of pained apology to the couples at the neighbouring tables.

“So, come on then.  Let’s have it.  Don’t be shy.  Any little problem.  Anything at all.  And I’ll be happy to get it sorted.”

Walter blushed.  His shirt collar seemed tighter.  “I – uh –”

Sharon winked.  “I get it.  Say no more!  Say. No. More!”  She gave the side of her nose a conspiratorial tap.  “When I’m finished, you’ll never need to send off for those little blue pills ever again.”

Walter was aghast.  Frightful woman!  He would get up and walk out right then if — if only he weren’t so desperate.

“What will you do?” he squeaked in a strangulated voice.

“Well, that’s trade secrets!  But I will divulge that I shall be burning a few herbs and wafting them about by moonlight.”

“And that will do it, will it?”

“You’ll have no complaints.”

“And what if — No.”

“Go on, love; you may as well say it now.”

“What if my problem were of a more serious nature?”

Sharon’s shoulders and somehow her face shrugged.  “Like what?”

“Like, I don’t know, say, I’ve got a demon that needs banishing to the infernal realm.”

Sharon frowned.  “Are you taking the piss?  Because if you are, I can hex you right on the spot.  And don’t think I won’t.”

“No, please!” Walter reached for her hand, but she snatched it away, nursing the Chardonnay to her chest.  “I don’t know where else to turn.  I’ve read up on it.  It seems the only way is to offer a human sacrifice, and then the demon will go back whence it came.”

Sharon’s nose wrinkled.  “You’ve been watching too much telly, sunshine.  Like I said, modern witching isn’t like the films.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the little girls’ room.  Give that waiter a hurry-up while I’m gone.”

She trotted out to the toilets, seriously considering climbing out of the window.

When she came back, the restaurant was silent.  Blood was everywhere.  The other couples were slumped in ungainly postures, their throats ripped wide open.  At the centre of the carnage was Walter, shirt off, his torso awash with the blood of his victims.  He turned his yellow eyes to Sharon.  A forked tongue darted between his lips.

Sharon screamed.  The waiter appeared at her elbow.

“Is there a problem, madam?”

“No, not really,” she said, tipping him a tenner.  “It just would be nice to meet a man who wasn’t possessed by one of Satan’s ravenous horde.”

The waiter wrapped her coat over her shoulders.

“Don’t say that!” he laughed.  “If it wasn’t for you enticing them here, we’d soon go out of business.  Are you sure you won’t stay for the feast?”

“Nah,” said Sharon.  “I phoned an Uber while I was in the bog.  Broomstick’s in for a service. See you next week.”

He held the door open until she had gone.

Shadows crept from around the room.  Figures formed, beasts of horn, and fang, and claw.  They set to feeding on the newly slaughtered humans.  At the centre, a bewildered Walter whimpered.  The demon had left him.  Now if he could just tiptoe out before anything noticed him…

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Customer Service

“Hello, Customer Service, this is Liam speaking.  How may I assist you today?”

“Alright, yeah.  Is this Customer Service?”

“Yes.  How may I assist you today?”

“Can you help me?”

“I shall certainly try, madam.  What seems to be the problem?”

“Seems?  There’s no ‘seems’ about it, sunshine.  It’s my husband.  There’s something wrong with him.”

“Oh, dear.  Well, I don’t see—”

“He’s not his usual self.  He’s got this look in his eye.  Like something ancient.  Just watching.  And waiting.  It’s quite unnerving, to be honest with you.  And when I tell him to stop bloody staring, he shakes his head, a bit like a dog drying itself, and he says he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.  And then five minutes later, he’ll be at it again.  Just watching and waiting for I don’t know what.  I’ve had to leave the room on several occasions, which is not always convenient, because I don’t like to watch Emmerdale on the little telly.  It’s not the same.”

“So, you want to buy a bigger television, is that what you’re saying?  I can recommend some of our latest models.  They’ve got Netflix built in, so you won’t need to clutter your coffee table with too many remotes.”

“You’re not listening!  It’s my husband what’s the problem not the bloody television.  Once I woke up in the night and he was just sitting up in bed, doing that watching thing, his eyes was glowing red, like dying embers.  And there was this smell, like rotten eggs.  And I told him, I said, that’s the last time we order from that takeaway and I had to open a window and spray him down with Febreze.  Only this time he didn’t shake his head like a drying dog.  He didn’t snap out of it.  He just took no notice—that’s husbands for you, I suppose—and carried on with his watching and his waiting.  He’s up there now, just sitting on the bed, and I’ve told him he’ll wear a hole in that wall if he keeps staring at it.  Are you still there?  Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, madam.  I’m still here.  But I don’t see how I can—”

“I want to speak to your supervisor.”

“Madam, I can assure you.  There’s nothing we can do about your – situation.”

“Put your supervisor on!”

“Very well.”

“Hello, this is Sandra.  I’ve been monitoring this call.”

“Hello, Sandra.  Well, you’ll know I’m at my wits end.  I don’t know what to do.”

“There’s nothing you can do, madam.  You’ll just have to sit it out.  Either he’ll open up a vortex to the infernal realm or he’ll snap out of it.  But meanwhile, while you’re waiting, can I interest you in our entertainment package? It includes a set-top box with over a hundred hours of memory.  You need never miss an episode of Emmerdale again.”

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Devil Woman

Hal towel-dried his hair and, wrapped in his robe, sat at the dressing table.  There was the usual glut of messages from his fans and admirers.  Cards and flowers—I could give up the music biz and open a florist’s (one of his go-to quips for the Sunday supplement interviews).

It had been a great gig.  They’d called him back for three encores.


This moment of self-congratulation was interrupted by a knock at the door.           

“Sorry!” he called out.  “I’m not receiving visitors tonight.  Got a long drive to Norwich.  Sorry.”

He listened.  No further knocks were forthcoming.  He shrugged.  They were usually more persistent.           

He set to removing his contact lenses.  While he was occupied, a stream of green smoke flowed in under the door, rising unseen behind him.  Hal put on his glasses and was startled to find a woman reflected in the mirror.  She was dressed in long skirts and ragged shawls.  A bandanna barely tamed the corkscrew locks of her long, black hair.  Enough earrings to rival a shower curtain.  Bangles all up to her elbows.  Hal turned to face her.  He had been trained to keep calm in these situations.  When a fan takes things too far.           

“Hello!” he said.  “Who might you be?”           

“Call me Zaza!” the woman spoke with a bizarre note of triumph.  “I have come for what is mine.”

Hal was nonplussed.  “I can sign an e.p. for you.  I don’t do skin, if it’s a tattoo you’re planning.”           

The woman —Zaza— sneered with derision.           

“Harold Webster,” she used his original name.  “Years ago, you were washed-up.  A has been.  A long time since your last hit record.  You were at your lowest point.  You were considering ending it all.  At least, after your demise, record sales would sky-rocket.  But then, along came a young man.  He played you a song he had written.  You recorded that song, and it flew straight to Number One all over the world.”           

Hal nodded.  “Satan’s Sister.  Great track.  I don’t see what it’s got to do with you.”           

Zaza twisted her thin lips into a smile.  “I gave that young man the song.  He consulted me.  Would do anything to break into the music industry.  We made a compact.  And now I come to collect.”           

Hal was puzzled.  “I still don’t understand what it’s got to do with me.”           

“That young man… disappeared just before your record was released.  You know what I mean.  You denied him his success, his fame and fortune.  His life!”           

Hal stiffened.  “Now, look here, you can’t come into my dressing room insinuating all sorts.”           

“Come off it, Webster,” the woman cackled.  “You had the success that I’d promised Johnny Starr.  Because you had him taken care of, his debt transfers to you.”           

Hal scoffed.  “You daft old bat.  I’m calling security.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?  Are you sure you want the world to know that your big comeback and the decades of success that followed were all due to the murder of a promising young songwriter?”           

Hal paused, his hand hovering over the telephone.“What do you want?”           

Zara’s smile broadened.  “Your soul,” she said brightly.  “You’ve had your time.”           

It was Hal’s turn to grin.  “Oh, no, I’m just getting started.  Satan’s Sister—is that you?  Is that who I’ve been singing about all these years?”           

Zaza actually blushed.  “I inspired him you might say.  You owe me.”           

Hal snatched up a marker pen and scrawled across the plastic case of a c.d.  He held it out.           

“This is all you’re getting.  My soul!  That’s a laugh.  You should have a word with your brother.”           

Zaza’s jaw dropped.           

“Yes,” Hal chuckled.  “How do you think I’ve kept my youthful appearance all these years?”

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Harry’s Birthday Surprise

“Mr Chambers?”

Harry blinked at the two men on his doorstep.  They were wearing smart suits and their sensible haircuts screamed ‘religious nutters’.

“I’m sorry,” he said, moving to shut the door.  “But as you can see, I’m in the middle of getting ready.”

A gesture indicated his dressing-gown and the towel turbaned over his wet hair.

“Of course,” smiled one of the men.

“It’s your birthday,” smiled the other.

“Happy birthday!” the men chorused.  Harry was startled and more than a little perplexed.  The men took advantage of his confusion to step past him and enter the hallway.  They strode through to the living room as if they owned the place.  Harry, his turban toppling, burst in.

“Now, look here!  Whatever it is you’re peddling, I’m not interested.  Kindly get out of my house.”

He pointed at the exit in case they had forgotten where it was.

“Oh, we’re not selling anything,” one man smiled.

“We’re collecting,” the other one smiled.

“Well, I already gave at the office,” said Harry.  “And only last month I dropped a binbag of clothes at the charity shop.  Nuke The Whales, or something like that.”

He crossed his arms, worried that his dressing gown might fall open if he became any more agitated.

“You misunderstand,” said one man.

“You’ve got it wrong,” said the other.

Their eyes glinted.  Harry instinctively shrank back.

“You won’t remember,” one of the men drew closer.

“Years ago,” the other man joined him.

“On your birthday.”

“A special gift.”

“A kindness.”

“A wonderful opportunity.”

Harry was backed against his shelving unit.  His knickknacks rattled as he trembled.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You will,” said one man.

“When I click my fingers,” said the other.

“And count backwards from three.”




Both men clicked their fingers in Harry’s face.

Harry flinched.  Then he blinked.

Images flooded his mind.  A montage of memories he didn’t know he had: a laboratory, gleaming white; a medical man with the kind face of a TV grandfather; an implant; a spinning vortex; a countdown, three, two, one—and the clicking of fingers.

Harry clutched at his chest.  It was there that the device had been implanted, just above his heart.

“The professor is dead,” one man said sadly.

“The experiment is over,” the other man added.

“All test subjects are being recalled.”

“The implants are to be removed.”

Harry’s eyes widened with terror.  “No!” he cried.  He tried to push past them, but the men seized him by the wrists and wrestled him to the carpet.  They sat on his back.

“You’ve had a good run,” said one man.

“Better than most,” said the other.

Harry squirmed and wriggled beneath them.  “What will become of me?” he panted.  “Will I become old?  Will it happen all at once?”

“Unknown,” said one man.

“We’ll soon find out,” said the other, producing a scalpel.

Harry screamed.

“You better lie still,” the man with the scalpel advised.

“Be a brave little soldier,” smirked the other.

“My friends will be here any minute!” Harry blurted.

“This won’t take long.”

“Not long at all.”

“You’ll still have time to dye your hair, whiten your teeth, moisturise your skin, and book a Botox appointment.”

Harry sobbed.  “It’s too cruel!  Too cruel!  Can’t you leave mine in?  No one would know.”

“We’d know,” both men said.

“But I’m in good shape.  I’m in my prime!”

“Mr Chambers, you have been in your prime for over twenty years.”

“Now nature must resume its course.”

Harry closed his eyes.  They were free of crow’s-feet but for how much longer?

He woke to the insistent ringing of the doorbell.  He rose from the living-room floor and staggered to the front door.

Two figures were discernible beyond the frosted glass.  Laughing.  Carrying balloons and bottles of champagne.  Gavin and Graham!  Harry had never been more pleased to hear them bitching about him.

“I don’t know how he does it,” Graham was saying.

“Never seems to age a day,” said Gavin.  “I hate him.”

Harry opened the door.  His friends gasped to see him.

“Happy birthday, old man,” grinned Gavin.

“Looking good,” said Graham.  “Loving the touch of grey at your temples.”

“Very distinguished,” said Gavin.

“It’s about time you grew up,” said Graham.

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“Ugh!” cried Denise, spotting the spider in the bathtub. Her heart racing, she cast around for something to help her. There was the long-handled brush Steve used to scrub his back… That would do. She would give the monster a good twatting with the flat side of the brush.

She raised the brush high, preparing to bring it down.

“Wait!” said a small voice.

Denise froze.

“Please!” said the voice.

Denise looked all around. “Steve? Is that you? Messing around!”

“It’s me,” said the voice. “Down here.”

Denise gaped in disbelief. In the tub, the spider was holding up its front two legs as if in surrender.

“Hello!” it waved. “My name’s Spinner. What’s yours?”

Denise backed away.

“No! Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to hurt you. Honest I’m not. Just put that thing down and we can have a nice friendly chat, OK?”

Denise looked at the brush as if she’d never seen it before. She pointed it at the talking spider.

“Have I banged my head or something?” she gabbled. “I don’t remember… Then perhaps I wouldn’t remember, would I? If I’d banged my head. Or perhaps I’ve eaten something funny.”

“No, no, you’re fine,” said Spinner. “I’m sorry if I gave you a fright. But I’ve come up through the drain and now I find I’m stuck here. If you could help me out, I’d be very grateful.”

Denise shook her head.

“Look, you could open the window, hold out that brush thing, and I’ll climb onto it. Then you can shake me out of the window. It’ll be fine. I won’t get hurt.”

“Sod that!” Denise was appalled. “I don’t want you anywhere near me. You might run up the handle and up my sleeve or something.”

“I won’t! I promise! Look, I’ll do you a deal. You help me out of here and I’ll grant you a wish.”

“What? So, not only are you a talking spider but you’re a magic one as well! Wait until Steve hears about this.”

“No!” Spinner waved in frantic alarm. “You mustn’t breathe a word of this to Steve. You know what he’s like. He already thinks you’re halfway to the funny farm. He’ll be sending for the men in white coats and then where will you be?”

Denise thought about it.

“All right,” she decided. “And no running up my arm, OK?”

She lowered the brush into the bath. Spinner crawled onto it, clinging to the bristles.

Denise lifted the brush and carried it to the window. She poked the head end out into the air and tapped it against the window frame. Spinner was dislodged.

“Thank you…” he called as he sailed away on a current of air.

Back in the living room, Denise resumed her seat on the sofa next to Steve.

“You took your bloody time,” he grumbled. He pointed the remote at the television where Netflix was on pause.

“Sorry!” said Denise.

“Ssh!” Steve hissed. “I’m trying to concentrate here. And I hope you remembered to take your meds.””

Denise looked at him, looked at the flabby, seedy mess he had become. Oh, she knew she was past her prime too, but it was the way Steve was on the inside that disgusted her the most. If only she could be rid of him! He had become bitter, mean-spirited, and quick to fly off the handle…

That made her think of Spinner. The friendly spider owed her a wish.

“Keep still!” she advised. “You’ve got a spider in your hair.”

“Eh?” said Steve, without looking away from the television.

“Hold still and I’ll get it,” Denise set her jaw. She beat at Steve’s head with the flat end of the bath brush she had been holding all this time. She kept on beating him until she heard a crack and there was blood pouring from his wounds.

And something else, something that was not blood. Hundreds of tiny spiders gushed from the hole she had made in Steve’s skull.

Denise jumped up to open the door.

“Out you go, my little friends,” she sang. “Remember, you all owe me a wish.”

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Scream Again!

Children’s author, WILHELM SCREAM, has been at it again. He has also written his second book, this time turning his attention to werewolves. The follow-up to BAD BLOOD: A Tale of Two Vampires is PARDON MY WEREWOLF! A Hairy Story — and it’s available now!

When lowly kitchen boy Luca Turnspit is recruited by the Queen to be a companion for her lonely son, he learns the Prince’s dark secret in no time at all. The pair strike up a friendship but their hopes for the future are endangered by the arrival of a man from the past and by local cat-owners who have genuine concerns and flaming torches.

A fast-moving and funny story that is only a little bit gruesome, PARDON MY WEREWOLF! is suitable for readers of all ages.

Available in glossy hardcover, floppy paperback and on Kindle, for all you technological whiz kids.

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Filed under horror, humour, Novel

The Return of Morgana

“The time has come!” Morgana’s green eyes flashed.  “Time for me to return to the surface and resume my rightful place as queen.”

Her maidservant dithered.  “Um, Your Highness,” her fingers wrestled with each other as her tongue wrestled with words.  “How can you be sure?”

“You question me!” Morgana’s nostrils flared.  “How dare you!  Do you think I am unable to count?  Fifteen hundred years I have spent in this hellhole, this underground chamber, banished here by that fool Merlin.  But even his magic has its limits.  I have been patient, served my time, I have watched and I have waited.  And now, the curse is lifted.  Come, bring me my cloak of midnight.”

“Um,” the maid hesitated.  “Right away, Your Highness.”

She scurried to the antechamber.  She had been using the cloak of midnight as bedding.  She shook it out, dislodging centuries of biscuit crumbs.

She carried it reverentially to Morgana and draped it over her narrow shoulders.

“Excellent!  And now, my diadem of doom!”

“Um, at once, Your Highness.”

The maid darted away, to the rudimentary kitchen.  She had been using the diadem of doom as a biscuit cutter for all these years.  She blew away flour and wiped the crown on her apron.  She carried it to Morgana, walking slowly, the way she had seen the Archbishop do, at Arthur’s coronation, oh so long ago.

Morgana lowered her head to receive the diadem of doom.

“Perfect!” she straightened.  “And finally, my staff of discord.”

“Um…” the maid cast around.  She couldn’t remember for the life of her what she had done with the staff of discord.

“Why are you dawdling?” Morgana roared with impatience.  “Bring me the staff of discord.”

“Um, I am doing,” stammered the maid.  She bit her lip, her mind racing.  She dashed to the tiny bathroom.  There was the staff of discord, being used to prop up a washing line.  Greying, threadbare underwear dripped into the tub.  The maid unhooked the staff of discord, letting her knickers drop to the floor.

She carried it back to Morgana, who snatched it from her grasp.

“How do I look?” the evil witch rotated slowly. 

“Terrifying, Your Highness,” the maid had to admit.

“Excellent.  Now, up we go.”

She bashed the staff of discord on the floor and shot up and through the stony ceiling.  Up and up she went, through hundreds of feet of solid rock.  At long last, she reached the surface and felt fresh air on her pale skin for the first time in a millennium and a half.

Down below, the maid did a bit of tidying up.  She made a fresh batch of biscuits.  She wrung out the washing.  It would probably need doing again if she couldn’t get it thoroughly dry.

“Those biscuits smell nice.”  Morgana’s voice startled her.  The evil witch had returned.  She sat and took off the diadem of doom and shrugged off her cloak of midnight.

“You’re back early,” the maid observed.

“Well,” said Morgana.  “I went up there to wreak havoc, generate a bit of despair, generally fuck things up.  But I found they’ve already done it.”

“What do you mean, Your Highness?” the maid inched closer.  “Surely there is something you can do to cause a bit of misery.”

Morgana shook her head.  “Like what?  The whole world is in meltdown.  It’s got ten years at most.  And no one seems to care!  They’re all fighting among themselves—honestly, the levels of hatred up there, you would not believe.  The pettiness!  The pollution!  The corruption!  And Merlin thought I was the danger!  Summon him.  Get that old wizard on the crystal.  Tell him I want another five hundred—no, make it a full thousand—years down here.  Give those morons another chance to build an earthly paradise.  And then, oh, then!  Then I’ll go up and ruin it for them.”

She threw back her head and attempted a cackle, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” the maid offered.  “The biscuits will be ready soon.”

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“What are you doing?” Emma stopped in the doorway, hands on hips.  Her husband, Mark, was flailing around with a sheet of canvas and some ropes.

“What’s it look like?”

“Like you’re fighting the monster in a low-budget science fiction programme.”

“Oh, ha, ha.  You could give me a hand, you know, instead of standing there.”

“I’d need to know what you’re doing before I can help.”

“Hold this,” Mark handed her a rope’s end.  He dropped the canvas and got to his feet.  “This, my darling, is the best idea I’ve had in a long time.”

“Am I the only one that can hear warning bells?”

Mark rolled his eyes.  “Ye of little faith.  I know you get fed up being shut up in here with me, all day every day.  So…”

Emma looked at the disarray in the living room and shook her head.  “You’re making a mess for me to tidy up to distract me from how bloody annoying you are.”

“No!  This is somewhere for you to come to get away from me for a bit.  Well, it will be once I get it put up.  This will be your haven of peace.  There’ll be all your favourite books, your music.  I’ll rig up the teasmade.  You’ll only have to come out for—you know, nature’s call.  But I’ve thought about that, too.”

He held up a bucket.

Emma scoffed.  “If you think I’m—answering nature’s call in that, you can piss off.”

“All right, then.  You can pop to the downstairs lav.”

“Very gracious of you.  I don’t understand.  What good will sitting in a tent do?  I think you’ve lost your marbles.  It was only a matter of time.”

“Look, while you’re in here, you won’t be disturbed.  I’ll keep out of your hair.  I know I can be a bit irritating.”

“A bit!”

“But whenever you want a break from me, you just come in here.”

“Why should I?  Why shouldn’t you come in here every time you get on my nerves?”

“Because, my darling, you deserve a break.  A rest.”

“And what will you be doing while I’m squatting in here, having my much-deserved break from you and your annoying ways?”

“Oh, just, you know, the chores.  So when you come out, you won’t have to worry about the kitchen, the bathroom.  Things like that.  I’m so good to you, admit it.”

Emma sneered.  “I suppose,” she said, begrudgingly.

Within half an hour, they got the tent set up.  Emma fetched a pile of books she’d been meaning to read for ages, made a pot of coffee and settled under the canvas with a packet of biscuits and a mountain of cushions.  She had to admit it was making her feel better.  It reminded her of the pillow forts she’d make as a child.  And Mark wasn’t so bad, was he?  Yes, he could be annoying, but he was thoughtful too.  It was one of the reasons she’d fallen for him.

            Hours later, she crawled out.  Standing straight, she stretched her arms and yawned.  She went through to the kitchen to make more coffee.  The place was spotless but leaning against the coffee maker was a folded sheet of paper with her name on it.

            Cold dread seized her by the heart.

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone.  Do NOT come looking for me.  It’s too dangerous.  If I can locate more supplies, I’ll come back.  What we have left will not last long between us.  I hope you can eke things out until the world becomes safe again.  Until then, stay safe, my darling.  I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband to you.  All my love, Mark x

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Say My Name

Bartleberry returned to the table and spread his napkin over his thigh.  His date looked unimpressed.

“Where do you keep disappearing to?” she asked.  “Your food will be cold.”

“I’m sorry.”  Bartleberry refilled her glass with wine.  “The men’s bathroom.”

“But that’s twice in half an hour.  Are you ill?  Do we need to take a rain check?”

“I’m fine!”  He smiled to reassure her.  “How’s the fish?”

“It’s good.  Want to try it?”  She held out her fork.  A disconcerted look replaced Bartleberry’s smile.  He got to his feet.

“Two minutes,” he pulled an apologetic face and darted to the men’s room for a third time.

His date sighed.  She put her fork down and summoned the waiter.

Bartleberry came back, looking a little dishevelled, in time to see the waiter helping his date into her coat.

“No!  Helen, please, wait.  Let me explain.”  He slipped the waiter a fiver.  The waiter withdrew, smirking.

Helen sat heavily and crossed her arms.  “One minute,” she conceded.

Bartleberry sat.  “Listen, I have to be straight with you.  My name is not Martin Davies.  It’s—something else.  And whenever someone says my real name nine times in a mirror, I have to go and murder them.  It’s the rules of my existence.”

Helen frowned.  “So, all those times at the cinema when you miss the middle of the film?  That time at my parents’ when you just walked out?”

Bartleberry nodded.  “I was out murdering teenagers.  I’m sorry.”

Helen shook her head.  “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“It just never seemed the right moment.  Except it’s been happening more frequently recently.  They’ve made a new film about me, so all the kids are daring each other to summon me.  And so I have to go and kill them.  It’s playing havoc with my work life too.  I was just about to strike a deal with an important client but I had to excuse myself.  When I came back, he’d stormed out.  This is costing me money.  And it’s causing resentment from you.  I can see that.  But I can’t stop.  It’s my curse, Helen, and you either accept it or move on.”

Bartleberry hung his head and waited for her response.

Helen’s eyes were brimming.  She reached across and wiped a tiny speck of blood from Bartleberry’s cheek with her thumb.

Bartleberry sprang up.

“Again?” Helen wailed.  “I thought we were having a moment.”

“I’ll be right back,” said Bartleberry, striding towards the mirror in the men’s room.  “Someone’s just read this story out loud and said my name nine times.”

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Filed under fantasy, horror, humour, Short story

I’ll Have What You’re Having

“Robbie?”  The slender figure on the post office steps stood up straight and waved from behind the railings.

Robbie faltered.  Damn it.  He knew he shouldn’t have crossed the road.  He should have kept walking.  Pretended to be on a phone call or something.

The guy was too tall, for one thing.  His profile had not mentioned he could tower over the average basketball player.

Robbie felt trapped.  He would have to go through with it.  One drink.  Just one drink and then he’d nip to the Gents, text Shona the signal and five minutes later, she would call with an ‘emergency’ he just had to attend.

“Frem?” Robbie approached.  “Am I saying that right?”

“Yes, very good.”

“Is it Dutch or something?  Where are you from?”

“Oh, a long way away.  You wouldn’t have heard of it.”

Frem smiled and Robbie noticed how smooth his date’s skin was.  Unblemished.   Unwrinkled.

Frem came down the steps to shake Robbie’s hand.  His palm was dry but cool—cold, almost.  Probably from holding the railings, Robbie reasoned and, now they were both on the same level, he found he could look the stranger in the eye.  He and Frem were exactly the same height.  Must have been an optical illusion, Robbie thought.  Perspective, or something.

“There’s a decent pub on the corner,” Robbie smiled back.

“Sounds good.”

Odd, thought Robbie.  I’ve only heard him say a few words but his accent seems to have changed.  He sounds local.  He sounds like me.

They strolled to the pub in an awkward silence.  Inside, Robbie suggested Frem find a table while he got the drinks.  It was only fair, if he was going to duck out after the first round.

“I’ll have what you’re having,” Frem grinned, moving to a quiet corner. 

Robbie ordered two pints then he had to scour around to see where Frem had gone.  Frem waved from a table near the fireplace.  “Over here!”

Robbie frowned as he set the glasses on the table and took his seat.

“Your hair.  It seems darker in here.  Perhaps it’s the lighting.”

“Perhaps,” smiled Frem.

In synchronous movement, they sipped their beer.

“So, what do you do?” Frem asked.

Robbie’s nose wrinkled.  “Nothing exciting.  I’m an office junior.  You?”

Frem’s nose wrinkled.  “Same.”

They sipped again.  It looked almost choreographed.

They chatted about trivial things.  Favourite films, music and so on.  Frem seemed to have identical tastes.  Robbie began to suspect something was going on.  He asked what was Frem’s favourite book.

Frem pursed his lips and Robbie noticed a mole on his cheek.  Just like mine…

Watership Down!” Frem said decisively.

Robbie gaped.  “That’s mine too!”

So, Frem wasn’t just repeating what Robbie had said… Robbie started to relax, feeling like they really had a lot in common and perhaps they could make a go of it…

His phone flashed.  A text from Shona.

“R U OK?”

“Excuse me.”  Robbie got to his feet and hurried to the Gents.

“Fine,” he texted back.  “He’s v. nice.  Could be the One.  I’m getting good vibes.”

“B careful,” came the reply.

“Yes, mum!” Robbie sent, adding a winking face.

He spruced himself up in the mirror, stopping to peer at the mole on his cheek.  What a coincidence that Frem has one too.  In the exact same spot!

He went back to the table and stopped short.  Sitting on Frem’s chair was a perfect replica of Robbie.  Every detail down to the way he had only just primped his hair.

“Sit,” said Frem in Robbie’s voice.

“No!” Robbie panicked.  He turned to run and found another copy of himself blocking his way.  His eyes darted around the bar.  Everyone looked exactly like him, even the barmaid. 

Robbie fumbled his phone, speed-dialling Shona.

“Help!” he screamed.  “You’ve got to help me!”

“There, there,” his own voice spoke in his ear.  “Everything’s going to be all right.”

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Fish Out of Water

“Well, that’s it for another year,” Albert, his hands on his hips, surveyed the expanse of sand before them, although more litter was visible than actual beach at that moment.  “Another season over and those filthy townies have gone back where they belong.”

He stabbed at a discarded drinks carton with his litter-picker.

Beside him, his grandson Eric was thinking about telling him yet again that if it wasn’t for those filthy townies coming here to spend their money, the promenade would have been boarded up years ago.  Like it or not, Merville Bay depended on filthy townies to keep it afloat.

True, Eric pincered an empty crisp packet with his clawed stick, they could take their rubbish home with them.  Or use the receptacles provided.  But, on the whole, he was always sorry to see them go.  Merville Bay would be as good as dead for the next long, cold, wintery months, and Eric had no hope of coming across any handsome strangers for exciting, if short-lived, encounters in the dark under the pier.  Not for the first time, he considered moving to the city for the closed season at least, where there would be others like him, and improved odds of finding The One.  But there was Granddad.  He couldn’t cope with Grandma on his own.  Eric couldn’t abandon them just to go and get his jollies in a nightclub.  Or wherever one goes to get one’s jollies.  He wasn’t entirely sure.

Eric’s contemplations took him farther from his grandfather.  Lost in his thoughts, he almost tripped over a prone figure, face down in a rock pool.  With a gasp, Eric dropped his rubbish bag and stick and crouched at the person’s side. 

It was a young man, shirtless, his skin gleaming with a pearlescent sheen, faintly blue.

“Hello?” Eric called.  “Can you hear me?”

He reached a tentative hand.  The young man’s skin was cool to the touch.

Drowned! Eric groaned.  That’s why he’s a bit blue.

The young man stirred, coughing out strands of seaweed. He pushed himself up on his hands and turned to look at Eric, his eyes shining, the brightest aquamarine.

“Hello,” he smiled, his voice little more than a gurgle.

“H-heh-hello,” Eric blushed.  The stranger was the most handsome man he had ever seen.

“I knew you’d come,” the stranger grinned.  “If I waited long enough.”

“Me?” Eric glanced over his shoulder in case someone else had happened by.

“Yes!  Eric, isn’t it?  You’re feeling lost, aren’t you?  Like a fish out of water?”

“Well, um…”

“It’s all right,” the stranger placed a hand on Eric’s, sending a thrill running through his body.  “I’m here now.  I’m Orion.  Pleased to meet you.”

“Um, likewise.  Listen, do you need help?  I can phone for an ambulance.”

“Help?” Orion, even frowning, was gorgeous.

“What was it?  Beach party?  Few too many?  All your friends left you behind?”

“Nothing like that,” Orion waved dismissively.  “I am here on purpose.  And my purpose is you.  I’ve been watching you for some time.  You’re not like other men, are you?”

Eric bristled.  “What do you mean?”


“No, I mean what do you mean watching me?”

“Relax!  All you have to do is take my hand and come with me.  You may have noticed I’m a little different too.”

Orion splashed in the pool and Eric noticed for the first time that instead of legs, Orion was equipped with an iridescent, muscular tail.

At lunchtime, Eric’s grandfather hobbled over to the rock pool with a thermos flask and a sandwich box.  Eric was nowhere to be seen.  There was no sign except his abandoned rubbish bag and pointed stick.  And a trail of footprints leading from the pool to the water’s edge, where they were lapped away by the encroaching tide.

Good for you, lad, the old man grinned, looking out to sea.  I always thought there was nothing around here for a boy like you.

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Public Relations

The Queen stepped out onto the balcony, flanked by two guardsmen who kept their crossbows trained on the crowd below.  She waited for the jeering and the booing to subside, then she raised a gloved hand as though the peasants were falling silent at her bidding.  Her gaze took in the hundreds of upturned faces.  She recognised members of the nobility, her own courtiers, among the lower ranks, the barons, the reeves.  And of course, there was always the peasantry.  The poor are always with us, she reflected.

She smiled but there was more sadness in it than joy.  Indeed, it had been calculated and rehearsed to appear that way.

“My people,” the Queen began, her voice clear as a bell.  She had always been expert at public speaking.  “You all know about my annus horribilis.”

“Put some cream on it!” one wag catcalled and was rewarded for his wit by a bolt through his brain.  The Queen waited until the guard reloaded.

“This has not been an easy year for any of us,” she continued.  The guards scanned the assembly for anyone playing an invisible violin.  “My own son has betrayed us and brought shame on my family, on my house, on my country.  On us all.”

Grumbles rumbled through the throng.  Everyone had heard the stories.  Oh, it was well known that Princes would live things up, taking advantage of the wealth and resources available to them to party and carry on.  But it was also accepted, that once those Princes succeeded to the throne, they would be expected to put aside their partying and cavorting and devote themselves to a life of duty and service.

Except Prince Andros had gone too far.  At first there were rumours but these rumours grew into stories. Witnesses had come forward and spoke of orgiastic gatherings.  Black masses.  Human sacrifice to some forbidden agent of darkness…

How the Queen expected to gloss over this and restore her subjects’ faith in her—well, that was why everyone was gathered.  Appetite for revolution had never been stronger.  It was make-or-break day for the monarchy.

The Queen gave a signal and two men bound in chains were marched into the courtyard, prodded by pikestaffs into position.  The crowd gasped.  Even with the filth of the dungeons on them, it could be seen that the men were identical.

“Behold!” the Queen said, somewhat redundantly.  Everyone was already beholding.  “One of these wretches in my unfortunate son, Prince Andros.”

The crowd booed and wished they’d brought something to throw.

“The other,” the Queen shouted them down, “is an imposter.  A changeling.  It has only recently come to light that my dear infant son was switched in his cradle, his nanny drugged.  My child was replaced by a lookalike, a servant of the dark forces that plague our land.  But now, at last, my child, my flesh and blood, has returned, having lived a life of penury and toil.  So you see, the terrible deeds of Prince Andros were not perpetrated by a genuine member of my family.  We are thankful that the plot has been overthrown before the people could do something they might regret.”

She cast a knowing look at the crowd.  Some of the nobles had the good grace to look away, guilt on their faces.

“Take him away!” the Queen commanded.  Guards seized one of the chained men.  They dragged him to the field of execution, where a gallows and the hangman waited.

“No!  Mother!  No!” the man wriggled and protested, but the Queen had already dismissed him.

She turned to the second man.  “Release him!” she ordered.   “He must resume his place at my side and his preparations to rule.”

The guards unwound the chains, and unfastened the gag from the man’s filthy face.

“Welcome, my son.  Come inside, I bid you.  Here there is food, and we’ll have you cleaned up in no time.”

The people cheered. Some threw their hats in the air.

But not too clean, the Queen mused, turning to go indoors, lest anyone see the scars left by my surgeons.

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Meet Wilhelm Scream

There’s a new author in town!  The time has come to introduce you to WILHELM SCREAM, writer of new book, BAD BLOOD – A Tale of Two Vampires.  Mr Scream can’t wait for you to read it, or for your children to read it, because it’s meant for them really, but if you sneak a peek between the covers, he won’t mind.  In fact, he encourages it.  It wouldn’t be the first time a grown-up has enjoyed a kids’ book now, would it? 

Personal details about Mr Scream are difficult to pin down.  Some say he crawled out from under a rock.  Others say he hatched from an egg.  You may have other ideas.  But he’s harmless enough and only seeks to entertain with his tales of the macabre.

The only known portrait of Wilhelm Scream. He won’t sit still long enough for another.

BAD BLOOD is about two neighbours who happen to be vampires.  Or two vampires who happen to be neighbours.  Vincent, the scruffy one, plots to get rid of Vlad, the well-dressed one, while Vlad only wants to look good and to help Vincent survive in the modern world.  Add to the mix a television programme about antiques, an automaton made from mud, and a couple of vampire hunters, and the scene is set for a fast-moving and funny story suitable for anyone above the age of 9 human years.  It’s not very gruesome, honestly!

Cover art for the hardcover edition

BAD BLOOD will be available as a glossy hardback, a floppy paperback, and even an electronic version you can read on a tablet.  Mr Scream tried reading a tablet once but all it said was ‘ASPIRIN’. 

Mr Scream is not going to stop at vampires.  He is already working on his next book which will be about werewolves, and he has a germ of a plan forming in his twisted mind for a third book which will probably be about a mummy or something equally horrible.

Mr Scream awaits your reviews.  In fact, there he is now, standing in your back garden, staring at your house.  Like I say, he’s harmless.  No, really.

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Filed under horror, humour, Preview, Update

A Drink with James

“Is something wrong?” James’s forehead wrinkled with concern.  “Have I got something on my nose?”

He released Jonathan from their handshake and self-consciously wiped his fingers across his face.

“No, no!” Jonathan laughed.  “I apologise for staring.  It’s just that—”


“You look exactly like your profile picture.”

“And that surprises you?”

“Well, yes!  I’ve turned up for dates and been confronted with some doddery old geezer whose profile picture was taken thirty years ago.”

“So, you prefer younger men.  Is that what you’re telling me?”

James gestured to a nearby table.  They sat.

“No!” Jonathan gasped, turning red.  “I prefer honest men.  That’s what I’m saying.  I don’t care how old they are.”

“As long as they’re old enough, right?”

“Yes!  Of course!”

James chuckled.  “I’m teasing you!”

He pulled out his smartphone and began tapping away.

“Oh.”  Jonathan sat back.  “If I’m boring you…”

James laughed.  “Will you relax?” 

He showed Jonathan the screen.  “This place has an app.  I’m just ordering drinks.  Better than all that jostling at the bar.  They bring your order directly to you.  You feel like a king!  What’ll you have?”

“Erm… Do they have any of that designer cider?  You know, it comes in different colours.”

James scrolled through the menu.  “They do.  It comes in red, pink or purple.”

“Um, purple.  Please.”

James placed the order.

“I don’t know, in my day we just ordered cider and blackcurrant.  But it’s all marketing now, I suppose.”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”


“Just now.”

“It’s all marketing.  Dressing things up so they can charge more for them.”

“No.  Before that.”

“Did I?”

“You said ‘back in my day’ or something to that effect.”

“Did I?”

“What do you mean by that?  When was ‘your day’ exactly?”  Jonathan peered closely across the table.

“What are you staring at?”

“I’m trying to see if you’ve had work done.  Grandpa!”

James was aghast.  “Work done!  I haven’t had any work done!  How dare you!  Cheeky varlet—I mean, whippersnapper—I mean—”

He clamped his mouth shut as Jonathan got to his feet.

“Look, I’m not sure what game you’re playing,” he tossed a five-pound note to the table.  “That’s for the cider.  I’m done.”

He strode away.

James slumped.  A barmaid approached, bearing a tray.  She set two glasses of purple cider on the table.

“You all right, love?” she chirped.  “Can I get you anything else?”

“No,” said James, bitterly.

He’d be having words with that travel agent.   Come to the future, they’d said.  It gets better, they said.  It’s easier for gays to find love, they said.

What a load of bollocks.

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The Beard

Knocking on the bathroom door made Norbert jump.

“Just a minute!” he called out.  “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“No, no,” came a voice from the other side of the door.  It was Stephanie, Norbert’s girlfriend.  “There’s no rush.  In fact, while I’ve got you in there, I thought perhaps we could have a talk.”

Uh-oh, thought Norbert.  He could picture Stephanie’s pretty face scrunching into a frown.

“Norbert?” she prompted.

“Yes,” he called back.  “Guess I’m a captive audience.  What do you want to talk about?”

“Well—oh God, this is awkward.”  Stephanie pressed her furrowed forehead against the door.  “But we’ve been seeing each other for six months now.”

“Oh, dear!” Norbert wailed.  “Have I missed some kind of anniversary?  I’m so sorry.  We’ll go out for dinner.  Name the place!”

“No, that’s not it.  I mean, dinner will be lovely.  There’s that new Albanian place in the precinct.”

“Sounds delicious!  Make a reservation.”

“Later.  But there’s something I need to ask you.  Perhaps it will be easier to answer me with this door between us.  As I said, it’s been six months.”

“Yes, you did say that.”  Norbert steeled himself.  He knew what was coming.  He combed beard oil in, massaging it to every hair, every curl.

“Six months and you’ve never laid a finger on me, never mind anything else.  Is there something the matter?  With me, I mean.”

Norbert gave his reflection a pained look.

“No, no!  Not at all.  You’re perfect.  Look, you must be patient with me.  That’s all I ask.  Can you do that for me, Stephanie?  Be patient?”

“Yes,” she said quietly, but Norbert could hear the sob thickening her voice.  “I mean, you would tell me, wouldn’t you?  I’d rather know the truth.  I have a right to know the truth.  If you’re…”

“If I’m…?”

“If you’re gay.”

Norbert laughed.  “Oh, no!  No!  Put that idea right out of your head!  Gay is the last thing I’d be!”

“So, you’re not just using me as a cover?  Arm candy so no one will guess the truth?”

“Of course not!  Silly goose!”  Norbert hoped Stephanie couldn’t hear the quiver in his voice.

“But it’s just that… six months!  You’re not like other guys.  And I like that about you, I do.  You’re sweet and gentle and kind.  There’s an innocence about you.  You take delight in everything, like you’re seeing it for the first time.  So yes, I can be patient.  Take all the time you need.  I’ll leave you to get ready.  See if I can book that restaurant.”

Norbert listened to her move away from the door.  He patted his face.  The glue had better hold.  The beard bristled as he sniffed.  Something smelled bad.  He applied half a stick of deodorant to his armpits, powdered his nether regions with talc and then drenched himself in after-shave.

That was the problem with having a reanimated corpse to get you around.  High maintenance wasn’t the half of it!

He used his dead-man’s hands to fluff himself out.  A quick appraisal of his reflection reassured him that he could pass as a normal human being.  It was imperative to his mission.  He must live among the humans, observing them, sending reports back to his home world, where everyone crawled around, their hirsute bodies like disembodied human beards.

If Stephanie were to discover the truth, she would have to go.

Then again, it might be a nice change to make use of a reanimated female body for once.

He could even join the circus.

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“Is he in there?” Martin tugged at Darren’s sleeve.  Darren, his face pressed against the window, shrugged his friend off. 

“I can’t see, can I?” he complained.   

“If he catches us, we’re done for!” Martin’s lip and indeed his knees trembled.  “We shouldn’t be here.  We should go.  Like, now!” 

“Ssh!” Darren flapped a hand.  “It was your idea to come.  Oh, let’s go and spy on the creepy old man, you said.  Let’s go to his house and see if he’s abducted any more children, you said. It would be a laugh, you said.  Well, I haven’t seen anything to laugh at just yet.” 

“Come ON, Daz!” Martin urged.  “Let’s just go and no harm done.” 

Darren, his head shaking, his lips pressed tight in determination.  “Just another few min—” 

His words were cut off by a hand on his shoulder.  He managed to turn around and see that Martin too had been caught. 

“Well…” laughed the creepy old man, his voice high and mocking.  “Look at what we’ve got here.  Two prime specimens ready for the plucking.” 

He stopped, his eyes darting, following something the boys could not see, his head cocked as though listening to a voice the boys could not hear. 

“You’re right,” the old man sighed.  “They are older than the ones we usually take.  I like them young, so they grow up knowing no different.  These two, they’ll always have memories of this place, their homes, their families.” 

He paused again, listening again.  He chuckled. 

“You’re right again, my little friend,” he grinned, apparently at nothing. 

Martin’s eyes sought Darren’s.  Both boys whimpered; they were in trouble and they knew it. 

“Let—let us go!” Darren pleaded.  “We won’t tell nobody.” 

“Which is it?” the old man cackled.  “You will or won’t?” 

“Please, Mister,” Martin sobbed.  A trickle of yellow warmed his leg. 

“What do you reckon, Tink?”  The old man cocked his head, listening again.  And this time the boys could see it, just about, a tiny speck of light hovering in front of the old man’s face, darting here and there, and tinkling ever so faintly, like distant sleigh bells. 

“Again, I have to say you’re right,” the old man nodded.  “No one is going to believe them anyway.” 

He released the boys’ shoulders.  Then he stretched up his arms, shedding his coat and trousers, all of his old-man clothes.  Off came the wig, the false nose, the hunched back.  And up into the sky shot a boy in green, his emerald eyes sparkling impishly beneath a shock of ginger hair.  He flew up and up until he was silhouetted against the moon and was gone. 

The boys watched open mouthed.  The tiny speck of light bobbed before them, the silvery bells seeming to scold them, and then it too was gone. 

Martin and Darren looked at each other.  They looked at the sky, at the blank and empty moon, and they were flooded with inexplicable sorrow. 

It felt, as they scurried home, like they had missed out on an awfully big adventure. 

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Hot Dog

“Come on, man; let’s bounce.”

Tyler, skateboard tucked under his arm, squinted in the sunlight.  Hunter didn’t move from the car. 

“We can’t just leave it,” he said.  “Poor little guy.”

“It’s not your problem.  Come on, bro.  I’ve got a voucher for frozen yogurt.”

Hunter shook his head.  “How would you like it?  Your owner leaves you locked in a hot car on a hot day.  No water, no air.”

“There’s nothing we can do.   And I don’t want to be seen hanging out by strange cars.  Not after last time.”

“We should tell somebody.  Like the mall cops.  Or an animal shelter or something.”

“Great.  Let’s do that.  At the Fro-Yo Funhouse.”

“Oh, wait.  He’s not breathing.”  Hunter pressed his face against the car window, cupping his hands around the side of his head.  “Oh, wait.  I can’t tell.  Can you see if he’s breathing?”

Heaving a sigh, Tyler went around to the other side of the car and peered in.  On the backseat, a heap of fur of indiscriminate shape… Tyler watched, he waited.  “No, I don’t think – Wait!  Yes, it’s breathing.  But just about. What kind of dog is it anyway? Is it even a dog?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to get a rock or a brick or something.”  Hunter cast around the parking lot. 

“No!” Tyler urged.  “You can’t smash the window.  I’m already on a community service order.”

“That’s right!  You could pick the lock!  You’ve done it before.  I’m sure the judge will understand you were on a mission of mercy.  That’s what this is!  A mission of mercy!”  He tapped the window.  “Hang in there, little buddy; we’ll get you out of there.”

Tyler sighed.  He dropped his skateboard to the kerb and reached in his pocket for the strip of metal he kept.  For Old Times’ Sake, honestly, your honour.

Within seconds, the lock popped up.  Hunter wrenched the door open.

The heap of fur sprang to life, launching itself at its saviours.  Within seconds, Hunter’s throat was ripped out and Tyler was missing a hand.  He stared at the stump in shock, watching the blood pump into the air like a lazy fountain.  He collapsed.

The owner of the car returned, laden with purchases.

“Hey, boy!” he cooed.  “Did somebody let you out?” He looked down.  “These guys?  Well, I guess they learned the hard way you need extreme heat to survive. And I guess you won’t want the treats I got you.”

The heap of fur whined petulantly.

“Only kidding,” said the owner, lifting the heap of fur back into the car.  “You know I can’t resist you.  Oh, what’s this?”  He stooped to pick up a piece of paper.  “A voucher for fro yo!  Oh, wait, it’s expired.  That’s a shame.”

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Only Child

Joan reached for the roll of aluminium foil and was dismayed to find it empty.  Damn it, Barnaby, it was brand new this week.  Damn that kid; he was always taking stuff without asking.  Wasting it on his stupid dressing-up games.

He was out in the back garden now.  Physically, at least.  In his head, he was on the International Space Station or some made-up planet.

Joan could see him through the kitchen window, running around and jumping.  Her aluminium foil had furnished him a cape that flashed in the sunlight.  He had also fashioned himself a pair of shiny trousers and was using one of her best saucepans as his helmet.

Joan’s heart twinged.  She was sorry Barnaby had turned out to be an only child.  She would have had another one at least.  But that was before — before her no-good husband had disappeared off the face of the Earth.  Probably run off with that floozy from across the road.  She had been noticeably absent since that time too…

She watched Barnaby drop and roll, firing off his ray gun or whatever else the length of plastic pipe was meant to be, blasting away at some unseen enemy.  Why did his games have to be so violent all the time? 

Well, with the foil and the saucepan out of commission, she would have to adjust her plans for dinner.  Perhaps they should go out.  Somewhere with a play area, a ball pit for the kiddies.  Somewhere Barnaby could run around to his heart’s content.  Somewhere he could interact with other children, other visible, tangible children that his overactive imagination hadn’t cooked up.  It would be good for him.

She opened the back door and called up the garden.  “Barnaby!  Barnaby, love.  Come on; we’re going out for dinner.  Pizza, if you like.  We could try that new Pizza Play House.”

Barnaby paused in his play-acting.

“Sorry,” he said to the friend only he could see.  “Gotta go.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” said the friend.  “I was winning.  That means I get to keep the body.  That means I get to go for pizza.  You stay here and we’ll have a rematch tomorrow.”

Barnaby pouted and stamped his foot, making no impression on the grass.

“It’s the rules,” his friend pointed out.  “If you don’t agree, then you’ll go the same way as your father.”

Barnaby’s friend scurried up to the back door, aluminium cape flapping like a flag of victory.

“Can we have ice-cream too?” he enthused.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve had any ice-cream.”

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Life’s a Drag

“You’re not going out dressed like that!”

Benny looked down at what he was wearing: Chinos, a white T, a denim jacket.  “What’s wrong with it?  I think I look cute.”

Tyreesa shook her head, causing her towering orange wig to totter.  Holding it steady, she got to her feet and looked down at her adopted son from the full height of her twelve-inch platform heels.

“The neighbours!  They will read you to filth.”

Benny threw up his hands.  “I don’t care about the neighbours.  I just want to be me.”

Tyreesa sucked her teeth.  “Where did I go wrong?” she asked the ceiling.

“You didn’t!” Benny replied.  “You always taught me that no matter what I shouldn’t be afraid to be my authentic self.”

“Yes, honey, but this.” A bejwelled fingernail moved up and down taking in his whole outfit.  “I don’t get what you’re trying to say.  Except maybe ‘meh’.”

Tyreesa’s partner, Chemise, walked in.  She flopped onto the sofa and proceeded to tug off her thigh-length boots.  “Give me a hand, Benny, darlin’?”

“In a minute,” said Tyreesa.  “We’re having a moment.”

Chemise looked from one to the other and back again.  She shook her head.  “You two.  Can’t go a day without there being some beef between you.  What is it this time?  He been borrowing your eyelash-curlers again?”

“I wish!” Tyreesa put a hand to her heart.  “Haven’t you seen what he’s wearing?”

Chemise blinked.  “Come on, Benny-boy.  Give us a twirl.”

Benny obliged, rotating on the spot, his arms held out.  “Ta-dah!” he said.

Confusion clouded Chemise’s beautifully contoured features.  “I don’t get it.  What’s he trying to say?  What’s the story here?  Is there a string and you pull it and all this turns into an elegant ballgown?”

“No!” Benny cried.  “This is it.  This is the whole lewk.”

“Oh, Benny,” Chemise was dismayed.  “This ain’t no lewk.  I don’t know what this is.”

“I’ve told him he can’t go out in public dressed like that.” Tyreesa crossed her arms.  “I need you to back me up on this one, Chem.”

Chemise wrinkled her nose and gave the boy another onceover.  “I don’t know.  He can get away with a lot, with those cheekbones.”

Benny grinned.

“Chem…” Tyreesa warned.

“Maybe if he added just a touch of blusher, a hint of lip gloss…”


“And if I do that, I can go?” Benny was practically bouncing in his loafers.

“I don’t see why not.”

“You’re the best!” Benny planted a kiss on Chemise’s cheek.  He ran upstairs to put on his make-up.

Tyreesa looked daggers at her partner.

“What?” Chemise squirmed.

“I’m trying my damnedest to bring up my drag-daughter just right and you go and aquaplane to his wishes.”

“It’s acquiesce, honey.  And he’s still growing, finding out who he is.  He’ll turn out just fine, trust me.”

Tyreesa straddled Chemise’s leg and set to pulling off the boot.  “You don’t think — I can hardly bring myself to say it — You don’t think he’ll turn out straight, do you?”

A shudder ran through her.

“Don’t even joke, honey!” Chemise looked pained.  “But whatever he is, we’ll still love him.  Won’t we?”

Tyreesa was glad her back was to her partner.  She chewed her lower lip. 

“Sure,” she said.

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The Snipper

“May I call you Bruce?” Old Man Garrett looked up at the VIP visitor, his eyes bleary.

“Quiet, you!” snapped a nearby nurse.  “Show some respect.”

The VIP waved the nurse away.  He lowered himself into the seat next to the old man’s.  “Oof,” he sighed.  “Must be getting old myself.  Perhaps there’s a room free for me here?”

Old Man Garnett chuckled.  “Reckon you could do better than this dump, Mr W – Bruce.  Or is it true what I heard?  You’ve given away most of your fortune to save the goddamn planet?”

Bruce smiled.  “I see nothing gets past you, Mr Garrett.”

“Why’d you want to go and do a thing like that for?  Other guys with your kind of means are building rockets and heading off to Mars or some dumb shit like that.  Why bother to save this planet when you could just up sticks and move to another?”

Bruce laughed.  “I never thought of it like that.  But that’s not why I’m here.”

“Oh?” Mr Garrett bristled.

“Yes,” Bruce fixed him with a stare.  “I believe there’s something you want to say to me.  Something you want to get off your chest.”

Mr Garrett cast his eyes around, to make sure no one was within earshot.  “Sort of like a last confession, do you mean?”

“If you like.  And it’s strictly off the record.  You may be aware I hung up my cape a few years back.”

Mr Garrett’s eyes widened.  “I knew it!  I knew you were the bat guy.  Well, how about that?”

“My time is short,” Bruce said brusquely, “And to be frank, I understand yours is shorter.  So, let’s waste no more time.”

Mr Garrett blinked.  A tear made a break for it down his cheek, dropping to freedom unnoticed and unwiped.  “Always thought you’d catch up to me sooner or later.  All right already, I admit it.  I did it.  I’m the Snipper.”

“Go on.  Get it all out.  Why did you — do what you did?”

“It was a long time ago.  You remember what it was like, back in 2020.  Whole world turned upside down.  I was a newlywed.  My Ginny was the sweetest angel you ever did see.  But our honeymoon was cancelled.   No flights going anywhere. No big deal, we thought.  What better start to a marriage than being forced to stay home alone and nobody to interrupt us.  Hoo-ee, those were glorious days!  And the nights, even better!

“But then we got sick.  We were among the first, during those first terrifying weeks.  I was knocked off my feet for the best part of a week but Ginny – my sweet angel – she got it worse.  Straight to the hospital, attached to one of those, whadyacallems, breathing machines.  And I couldn’t go in to see her.  My angel died alone, and I never got to say goodbye.

“And nobody was allowed to go to her funeral.  What’s that line ol’ Shakespeare had about the wedding meats being served at the funeral?  Something like that.  But nobody was allowed.  Not safe, you see.

“And all the way home, all I see is people not wearing their masks like they was told to.  Now, being exempt is one thing.  I ain’t got no problem with people who are genuinely, medically exempt – I just never thought there would be so many of them!  No, what got my goat was those assholes who had masks sure enough, but had them dangling down like some kind of fashion accessory — what’s the word?  Cravat?  That’ll do.  And their goddamn noses are poking out like that fella you used to see in the old-fashioned graffiti before it became all hip-hop and what-not.  You remember him, fella with his nose peeping over the wall?  Well, that’s what these assholes reminded me of.

“Months later, they’re still doing it.  As if their half-assed attempts to comply with the regulations was good enough.  And they go about their business with their damn noses poking out, and they’re spreading the virus as surely as if they had no mask on at all.  More so, probably, because they thought they were doing it right.

“So, I got me a pair of long-handled garden shears and I put together a costume out of my cycling clothes and a ski mask.  And I went around, snipping off those goddamn noses.  Every time I saw one, snip!  Off it came!  I must have done hundreds of those morons over that period. But how many thousands were infected by the ones I didn’t get? How many people died or lost their loved ones because those assholes couldn’t be bothered to wear a mask?” His voice cracked. “But I least I did what I could.   And the cops, and not even you, ever came close to catching me.”

Bruce, with some difficulty, got to his feet.  “Well, Mr Garrett, thank you for your honesty.  Now, it’s my turn to be honest with you.”

He leaned down and whispered in the old man’s leathery ear.

“Oh, I knew all right.  And I covered your tracks so the cops wouldn’t find you.”

He pressed something into the old man’s shaking hand and left.

Old Man Garrett opened his hand and looked at what he had been given.  It was a photo of Bruce in his familiar bat costume, and it was signed.  “To the Snipper, with thanks, B.W.”

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The Stranger

“Pardon me, but who are you exactly?”

“Well, I’m –” the stranger began but Mrs Evans cut him off.

“Leave him alone, Peter.  He’s all right.”

Peter Evans drew his wife aside and hissed in a loud whisper.  “What’s he doing in our house?”

Josie Evans squirmed with embarrassment.  “Quiet!  He’ll hear you!”

“I don’t care if he does!” Peter roared.  “I want to know who he and what he’s doing in my living room.  Are you knocking him off?  Is that what this is?  And you flaunt it, right under my nose!”

“Mr Evans,” said the stranger.  “I can assure you –”

“Shut it, you!” Peter snapped.

“Peter!  He’s our guest!  I’m sorry,” Josie wrung her hands.

“Don’t apologise to him!” Peter was aghast.  “You should be saying sorry to me.  On your knees, begging for forgiveness.”

Josie shook her head.  “It’s not like that.”

“Ha!” Peter emitted a bitter laugh.  “Then what is it like?  Why don’t you tell me exactly what the hell is going on here?”

“Mr Evans,” said the stranger, “You need to calm down.”

“And you need to piss off!” Peter was red with rage.  “Go on, get out of it.  Get out of my house and never show your smarmy face around here again, or so help me, I’ll –”

He stopped, his mouth working like a breathless goldfish.  He clutched at his left arm and pressed a hand to his chest.

“Peter!” Josie cried in alarm as her husband dropped to his knees, his eyes rolling white like the flesh of hard-boiled eggs.  He fell forward, planting his face at the stranger’s feet.

Josie stooped into a crouch and felt her husband’s neck for a pulse.

“Don’t bother,” said the stranger.  “He’s gone.”

“No!” Josie gasped.  “An ambulance –”

The stranger reached for Josie’s hands and helped her to her feet.  He looked her in the eyes and pressed her hands to her abdomen.

“It’s done,” he said, his voice warm and soothing.  “You are with child.”

Josie frowned.  She looked down at her hands.  Her eyes grew wide with amazement.  She knew, somehow it was true.  She was pregnant at last.

“Well,” the stranger winked, “My work is done.” 

He moved to the door.

“Wait!” Josie called him back.  “We never discussed terms.  Your payment.”

The stranger glanced at the prone figure of Josie’s late husband.  He smiled.

“You’ve already paid.  In full.  I’ll see myself out.”


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