Sneak peek: Escape From Vultures’ Moon

Here’s the opening sequence to the third book in the Vultures’ Moon series, currently out with my beta-readers.  I await their verdict.

Jed and his Horse watched the fireworks soar high above the rooftops of Tarnation. Bursts of colourful sparks painted the early evening sky with fleeting, fiery flowers. From this distance, you couldn’t hear them but the gunslinger was sure the townsfolk were all a-whooping and a-hollering at each and every whizz-bang and folderol.

Pioneers’ Day. A public holiday that was a welcome respite from the toil and hard labour of eking out a life for yourself on the frontier world of Vultures’ Moon. Jed didn’t begrudge anybody a day off but, inevitably, once night fell and the fireworks were done, the menfolk would adjourn to the saloons and instead of rockets, fists would fly and Jed would be hard pressed to keep the peace. Yup, come morning, Sheriff Dawson would have standing room only in the Tarnation jail.

“That reminds me,” said Horse, tracking the explosion of a rocket, “That shooting star we saw the other night.”

Jed scratched the stubble on his chin. “I remember,” he said, although he did not need to utter a word; Horse seemed always to know what Jed was thinking. “It was green.”

“And I said it wasn’t a shooting star,” his steed continued, “and you said it most likely was, and I pointed out it couldn’t be, and you tried to account for the green hue –”

“I remember!” Jed interrupted Horse’s monologue before it could develop into a one-act play. “I said it was on account of atmospherics or some such.”

“You’re a scientific genius,” said Horse. “I say we should go and check it out.”

Jed grunted. His old friend Doc Brandy would have known exactly what had fallen from the sky – but the doc was dead and buried and no longer in a position to divulge any information.

Horse’s eyes flashed as he conducted computations. “Judging by the parabola… I should say it landed due west of here. Twenty miles, give or take.”

“Landed?”

“Yes. It wasn’t a shooting star. I thought we had established that.”

Jed couldn’t be bothered to argue. He tugged on the reins – something he rarely ever did or had to do.

“Ow!” Horse complained – but it was a complaint born of annoyance rather than physical discomfort.

“Let’s get to town,” Jed said flatly. “See if we cain’t head off a good deal of the trouble afore it kicks off.”

Horse rose into the air and swooped down into the valley, a little too sharply for his rider’s liking. The gunslinger had to hold onto his white hat as they made the descent but his face remained impassive and his square jaw remained set. There was no way Jed was going to betray his own annoyance.

“We could go tomorrow,” Horse suggested. “Your diary is clear.”

“Go?”

“To find our shooting star.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t no –” Jed stopped himself. He didn’t want to give Horse the satisfaction of knowing he was irritated. “Maybe,” he said in such a way to indicate it was his final word on the matter.

For now, thought Horse.

He trotted toward the town, coming to a halt at the end of Tarnation’s Main (and only) Street.

“What the – ?” Jed dismounted.

The bangs and flashes were still going on but they were no longer decorating the sky.

“These ain’t no fireworks…” the gunslinger drew a pistol. “Scan ahead.”

Horse obliged.

“Well?” said Jed. People were running in all directions. Running and screaming.

“Let me run it again,” said Horse. “Some kind of gunfire – I’ve never encountered this type before.”

“Analysis can wait,” Jed urged as a man in a plaid shirt fell face down in front of him. “Who’s doing the shooting and how many?”

“Well, that’s just it, Jed,” said Horse. “Apart from the fleeing and the dead, I can’t detect anyone at all.”

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Meanwhile at the Salon…

Nick turned the sign on the door around to ‘Closed’ and pushed the bolt home. Another busy day at the salon was over and the till was brimming with banknotes. He’d transfer the takings to the safe in the office and leave the sweeping up for the apprentice to do in the morning.

He turned off the lights and was just reaching for his jacket when the telephone rang.

“We’re closed,” he told it but it kept ringing. The call went through to the answering machine.

“Nick! Pick up! I know you’re there…”

Nick’s heart sank. It was the Boss. He took the call.

“Sorry, Boss; I was just sweeping up.”

“Don’t bullshit me; we both know you’ll make poor Warren do it in the morning.”

Nick blushed.

“So, how’s business?” the Boss continued. “Plenty of punters?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” said Nick, glad to have something positive to report.

“That’ll be the new haircut,” the Boss enthused. “They all want it.”

“Er…”

“Nick… You have been cutting the hair like I told you? Short around the back and sides and a big floppy quiff on the top. Like one of those little biscuits you used to see with the coloured swirl of sugar… What were they called?”

“Iced gems,” said Nick. “Listen, Boss –”

But the Boss was in no mood for listening. “No, you listen. I say that all men shall have this iced gems cut, and that is what shall happen.”

“But – sometimes they want something else. I let them choose. Hell, they can have a mullet if they want one!”

The phone in Nick’s hand glowed red hot as the Boss struggled to contain his temper.

“Let them CHOOSE? LET THEM CHOOSE?”

“Yeah,” said Nick. “You know, like ‘free will’ and all that.”

“Free will?” The Boss laughed. “Oh, that’s priceless! Free will is just an illusion. Surely, after all these millennia, you realise that? Create the illusion of free will and Man will do exactly what you want him to. Free will, my Aunt Fanny! How many have been in to ask for a mullet, or anything else? They all want the same haircut, whether it suits them or not. They’re no better than sheep, shepherding themselves.”

At least the Boss sounded as though he had cheered up a bit.

“So, what’s the point?” said Nick, leaning against the desk. “Why are you pissing about with haircuts and not smiting your enemies left, right and centre?”

“Oh, Nick. Nicky, Nick, Nick. It’s an allegory. Or a metaphor. Something of that nature.”

“Symbolic?”

“Yeah, that’ll do. It makes all the dangerous ones easier to spot. Those who don’t follow the herd shall be known by their hairstyle. And then – pow! – a-smiting I will go. Can’t have Man thinking for himself. Next thing you know, he’ll be saying we don’t exist.”

Nick suppressed a shudder.

“Oh, well, I’ll let you get on,” said the Boss. “I expect you’ve got fires to stoke, souls to torment, that kind of thing.”

“Yeah,” said Nick. “Night, Boss.”

He hung up and shrugged his jacket on. He reached his cap from the peg and set it at a jaunty angle so that it covered his horns.

Fire-stoking… Soul-tormenting… Nick turned off the lights.

Warren could do all that in the morning.

 iced-gems-2-fw

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Delivery After Dark

Just after sundown, the float left the depot and rattled through the town. Bottles shivered in crates as the driver negotiated speed bumps – how antiquated! Someone should dig these things up. Traffic calming measures were a thing of the past now that most people flew everywhere. Or ran on foot…

The driver got out and filled a wire basket with six bottles of the top quality stuff. Garden gates and hedges were no barrier. He sprang over each one, landing nimbly at the doorsteps and depositing the delivery, before trundling away to the next street to repeat the process. He liked to play a game with himself: to get away from a house before the heavy shutters over the doors and windows rolled up and the occupants stirred themselves from their coffins to face the night ahead.

There! In a bush, eyes flashed as the float’s headlights hit. A human, a feral human scavenging for scraps.

Run, the driver urged silently! Get out of here before they sense you. I’d chase you myself but I’ve got a job to do. I can’t afford to have the boss on my back again. He’ll bite my head off.

The human – a male, pale and starving – stalked away, disappearing into shadows. There were fewer of them around these days. Having been dispossessed of their towns and cities, they had fled to the heart of the countryside. Hunting expeditions had routed huge numbers of them, for sport and for cultivation. And now, the last remaining few were returning to the civilisation they had once controlled, haunting the streets and alleyways under the cover of daylight, desperate for food.

The driver completed the rest of his round wondering about the stray. If he was lucky, he’d be captured and delivered to the dairy where he would at least survive for a couple of years. If he was unlucky, he’d be chased down and savaged, drained of every drop where he fell. This kind of thing was frowned upon – the blood should be screened, the Vampire Authorities advised. It should be cleansed.

But sometimes there was nothing better than a good old-fashioned hunt.

The driver parked the float in a layby. He treated himself to a bottle of his own goods, peeling off the foil cap and savouring the coppery aroma of the rich red liquid. His tongue traced the tip of his fangs in eager anticipation of the delicious drink to come.

Go on, run, he lifted the bottle in toast to the feral human. If I see you tomorrow night, I just might come after you myself.

milkman

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Serial Offender

Writing a series is different from writing a stand-alone story. Well, duh. I currently have three series on the go, and I flit from one to another, fitting in one-offs in-between.

Blood & Breakfast was initially intended as a one-off, a kind of spoof on Norwegian Noir but set in my home town. I chucked in what little I knew then of Norwegian culture and away I went. I even started learning the language. A second draft brought the police detectives assigned to the case to the fore, and the story came to be seen largely through the eyes of newcomer Detective Inspector Brough.

I enjoyed writing these coppers so much I decided to give them more cases to investigate. And so the Brough & Miller series came to be. Their seventh story, Zorilla At Large! is due out any day now,

I like to write in different genres and challenged myself to write a Western, following the conventions as best as I could. It soon became clear – during the writing of the first page, in fact! – that my Western was going to be different. It occurred to me that my hero Jed’s horse was a Horse – a highly enhanced life-form with amazing capabilities. A bit like an iPhone with four legs, or Siri with a saddle. As I explored Jed’s world, a new planet was born. I’m currently working on the third Vultures’ Moon novel. It feels like the last in a trilogy (being the third – duh, again!) but whether there’ll be any more after this one remains to be seen.

Kiss of the Water Nymph is the only book I have written with a series in mind from the get-go. Hector Mortlake is a late-Victorian novelist, travelling the world with his man Cuthbert and getting embroiled in all kinds of Hammer Horror/Jules Verne adventures in the pursuit of inspiration for his fiction. His second exploit, Xolotl Strikes! is also imminent on the e-book shelves.

Writing later instalments means you have already created the main characters and the set-up, so you have to bring something new to the party. I dip into the lives of Brough and Miller and their co-workers at six-monthly intervals and catch up with what’s happened to them. The world of Vultures’ Moon becomes richer with each visit. The trick is not to keep writing the same story but to take what I’ve already created and develop it, revealing new aspects and ideas while retaining enough familiar elements to make it recognisably part of an extended narrative. That’s what I mean by writing a series is different. Why I didn’t just say that at the outset, I don’t know. I could have saved us both a lot of time.   Soz.

So, while most people binge-watch series on Netflix and by other means, I binge-write them. I hope you’ll find one to suit your tastes and interests. Repeat customers are the best customers.

Thanks for reading. Keep doing it.

owl-with-tablet-md

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Supervillain World

“Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” said the tour guide with a sad smile. “I guess it’s the superpower we all possess. But back then, somebody must have thought it was a good idea – and by good, I mean profitable, of course. We’re moving through to the highest security sector where the worst ones were incarcerated. No photography, please, and I would request that we observe a moment of silence for those who perished when it all went pear-shaped.”

The group of tourists nodded solemnly. A teenager at the back wondered why they were all so po-faced all of a sudden, but it didn’t occur to him to switch off his mp3 player long enough to find out. He traipsed behind the group, wanting it all to be over. Stupid educational trip! What the hell kind of theme park was this anyway? Whose bright idea had it been to lock up all the world’s supervillains on a single island? That was just asking for trouble. And whose brighter idea had it been to turn the prison into a tourist attraction? Come and gawk at the baddest of the bad guys! Like it’s some kind of zoo.

The group passed under an archway. Steel doors, three feet thick, clanged shut behind them. The metal was scarred with burns and pockmarks from the uprising, which, looking back, must have been inevitable.

Brainio, the super-genius, was thought to have been the instigator, communicating with the others with his telepathic abilities. His super-sized cranium had made his head an easy target for the treacherous Blast-o-path, who shot him down with a plasma dart as soon as they tasted fresh air.

“Had they formed a united front, they would have gotten off the island,” the tour guide droned on, her voice a bored sing-song, “And they would all be at large right now. But, being selfish megalomaniacs to a man, they each wanted to be the only one to escape, the only one to survive. I guess you can’t get along with your plans for world domination if you have serious competition all after the same planet.”

The guide pointed out each cell as they passed. Here was Ice-Monster’s, where the temperature had been lowered until the walls shattered like glass. Here was The Atomiser’s – he had snuck out, oozing between the molecules of the building. And so on, and so on.

They arrived at an obelisk on which had been carved the names of the dead – the unfortunate tourists who happened to be gawking at the inmates at the time of the outbreak.

The teenager at the back saw everyone’s head bow in respect. He unhooked his earbuds and did likewise. The guide surveyed the group with satisfaction. This bit always got to them, without fail.

While everyone was distracted, contemplating the horror and the loss that took place on that very spot, the tour guide rose in the air until she was high above the group. She emitted a head-splitting, skull-shattering scream until they all crumpled to the floor, unconscious.

Then she swooped down and helped herself to their wallets and pocket books. Oh, look, an mp3 player. Neat!

She tugged the device from the young man’s grasp and slipped it into her pocket.

World domination was never the aim for Ban-Shee. Having survived the super-carnage by deflecting everything that was thrown at her with sonic waves, she was happy to lead a double life, supplementing her meagre wages as a tour guide with the pickings from the ghoulish assholes who visited the island in their droves.

Serves them right, she shrugged. People died here. This is not a place of entertainment.

She set to cleaning up. The group would come to, in their boat in the middle of the bay, and not remember a thing about where they had been or what the hell they were doing.

After that, there’d be just enough time to retouch her make-up; there was another party booked in for two o’clock.

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Letting You Go

“What do you mean, you’re letting me go?” Rory strained to see in the darkened cellar. The man in the hood had his back to the single, low-hanging light bulb. “Have they sent the money?”

The silhouetted man shook his head: no.

“Then you’ve come to some other kind of arrangement? You’re going to pick up the money when you drop me off. I’ve seen how they do it in the films.”

A gloved hand rose to the hooded head. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Ror’ but well, see for yourself.”

He held a piece of paper for Rory to read.

“You’re standing in the light.”

The man stepped aside. Rory skimmed the words.

“Is this a joke? Is this some kind of tactic to break my spirit?”

The man pocketed the letter. “It’s authentic. Truth is, Rory old son, nobody wants to pay the ransom. Not your family, not your employer, nobody.”

Rory mulled this over. “Oh.”

“So, we’re letting you go.”

“Is that a euphemism? Does it mean you’re going to kill me? Make me sleep with the fishes?”

“It means what it says. We’re letting you go. You’ll be driven out into the countryside – blindfolded, of course – and then we’ll drop you off. We’ll even give you money for a taxi.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The thing is, Ror’, we’ve had enough. We’ve treated you humanely, kept you fed and watered. We’ve even let you win at cards.”

“But – but – what did I do wrong?”

“Nothing! Don’t think that – well, actually, you are a bit boring.”

“Boring!”

“All those pointless anecdotes, none of them amusing in the slightest.”

“Well, that’s your fault!” Rory protested. “You should have gagged me.”

“You say that now. Look, it’s for the best. This is where we part company.”

“But it’s been three months!”

“Three long months…”

“Oh, please! Untie me so I can beg properly. Don’t send me away! You can see in that letter that nobody wants me around. Nobody misses me. Let me stay here with you. I could join the gang – it is a gang, isn’t it? I could help you with the next kidnapping.”

The hooded man shook his head. “That’s not possible. I’m sorry.”

“But – but – but why?” Rory’s lip trembled and tears spilled from his eyes.

“We’ve just got our eyes on someone better.”

“Oh, I see,” Rory nodded. “Not good enough for you, am I?”

“Don’t be like this, Rory. It’s not personal.”

“Well, it feels personal to me!”

“Oh, Christ. You’re too sensitive, that’s your trouble.”

The man pulled Rory to his feet and bundled him up the stairs. Another man in a balaclava was waiting with car keys at the ready.

“All right, Rory!” he said.

“No!” Rory pouted. “I am not all right! I thought you guys were my friends.”

The hooded man made a helpless gesture. The man in the balaclava took Rory’s arm. “Come on, mate; let’s be off. We don’t want any fuss. I’ve cleaned out the boot; you’ll be quite cosy in there.”

“You’re too kind!”

“Do you know, if you weren’t so bloody sarcastic, people might like you better.”

They took Rory out to the car and folded him into the boot.

“Is he going to be all right, do you think?” Balaclava asked Hood.

“I’m past caring,” sighed the hooded man. “Give me the keys. And next time, I’m picking the victim.”

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In Stables & Instability

Mama is keen to see me married. I am the last of her brood to remain at home. Her other sons have all taken brides and are scattered around the country. Reginald is stationed somewhere in the North, a place whose name I cannot recall but I suspect is altogether ghastly. Frederic is in London where his wife has family and he tutors in Music and French. Roderick is abroad. His wife is quite sickly and they are touring in the Swiss Alps where it is hoped the fresh air will prove restorative to her poor lungs.

And so I alone am left. Papa has quite washed his hands of me and we no longer speak. He takes his meals alone in his study while Mama and I dine at the long table where once so many places used to be set.

Occasionally, Mama will put forward some errand to get me out of the house. I am loath to go. I do not wish to deliver her letters or place orders on her behalf at the haberdashery, yet once I am in the saddle and the air brings colour to my cheeks, I enjoy the ride out at least. Satan, our black stallion, has the power of ten of his kind. His hooves dance across the sward and we fly over stiles and hedgerows; and I arrive home again in a state of breathless exhilaration.

Mama has letters for me to deliver. It seems she is organising a ball to which half the county is invited. This is a foolish move on her part for I am able to vet the guest list by failing to deliver certain envelopes. The Warrenders’, for example. Their invitation shall end up at the bottom of a well. They have a truly horrendous daughter, somewhat akin to a gargoyle in a crinoline. Mama is keen to make a match between us for the family is superbly connected. I had rather boil my head in aspic than kiss her pig’s trotter of a hand.

I am being ungallant. I tell Mama I shall perform my task to the utmost of my ability but fall short of clicking my heels together in a salute. She tells me to be off, calling after me to pop into Farthingale’s haberdashery for some more of that pink ribbon she likes. She says I know the one she means.

I stride across the courtyard to the stable where Francis has Satan saddled in readiness. He asks the nature of my errand today and when I tell him, he is quite downcast and petulant. Come, come, I coax the stable hand into a stall he has lined with fresh hay. He need not worry, I tell him; as long as I am charged with delivery of the invitations, my courtship and subsequent wedding shall never take place.

Some hours later I return to the drawing room, my cheeks still flushed in breathless exhilaration. Mama castigates me for forgetting her ribbon. I apologise and set out again, calling to Francis to make preparations for another ride.

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Tumbler

“Let me go and I’ll grant you a wish!”

Kevin peered at the little man in the upturned tumbler, his tiny, perfect hands pressed against the glass. The voice was high-pitched and barely audible. Kevin marvelled. The little man’s clothes were more detailed and more delicate than anything any of his action figures sported in their mass-produced, factory-made costumes.  And now he was at Kevin’s mercy.  Well, that’s what you get for trespassing in our garden! Kevin laughed.

The little man’s expression implored his captor to do the decent thing. Tiny tears, smaller than dew drops, coursed down his ruddy cheeks.

Kevin sat back on his calves and tapped his chin as though considering the best course of action to take.

“Think about it!” the little man urged. “Anything you want and I shall provide it.”

Kevin laughed. “Why should I believe you? If you can do magic, why don’t you magic yourself out of the glass?”

The little man shook his head. “You’re a smart lad. It doesn’t work like that. I can’t use my powers to my own advantage.”

“But surely, granting my wish so I will set you free is to your advantage.”

“Indirectly, yes, I’ll give you that.”

“I need proof,” Kevin decided. “Prove to me you have magic powers and then I’ll make my wish.”

“And then you’ll let me go?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Might be good to have my own personal magic man in my pocket.”

The little man waggled a finger. “It doesn’t work like that. One wish per person.”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “Who makes up these stupid rules anyway? All right. Show me proof and I’ll think of a wish.”

The little man tapped his chin in direct imitation of Kevin’s gesture. “Let me see… I could change the weather for you. How would you like that?”

Kevin glanced at the cloudy sky. He shook his head. The weather was changeable at this time of year. How would he know that the little man was causing it?

“Do you like animals?” the little man asked.

“I love them!” Kevin cried. “I know! Turn me into an animal so I know it’s true. Then you can grant my wish and I’ll let you go; I swear I will. On my mother’s life, I swear it.”

“Very well.” The little man pushed up his sleeves and made some arcane gestures. Frustrated, he shook his head. “It’s no good. The glass is getting in the way.”

Kevin laughed. “You can’t fool me. If I lift the glass, you’ll get away.”

The little man looked insulted. “I would never! Now that I have engaged to grant you your wish. I have honour, young sir.”

Kevin looked suitably abashed. “OK. I’ll lift the glass just a little but at the first sign of you trying to escape, it’s going back down again. I once cut a spider in half doing that.”

“You’re a brave boy indeed,” said the little man. “Ready when you are.”

Kevin nodded. He tilted the tumbler backwards. The little man basked in the rush of fresh air. He repeated his arcane gestures. Kevin began to itch. The garden around him stretched and grew as he shrank and shrank to the size and shape of a flea.

The little man’s hand darted out and pulled the flea under the glass with him, just as the tumbler fell back into place.

“Now do you believe me, you nasty little bug,” the man shook the flea. The flea nodded its head vigorously.

“Now make your wish!” the little man commanded. He cocked his head. “You wish to be restored, is that what you want?”

The insect nodded again. The little man dropped it to the grass. All at once, the ground fell away, as Kevin stretched and expanded until he was his natural shape and size again.

Using one of the words he’d heard his father utter when someone cut him up in traffic, Kevin lifted his foot and brought it down on the little man, crushing him to death.

“Kevin!” came his mother’s voice from the back doorstep. “Why have you got a glass on your head?”

Kevin laughed and spun around. The tumbler tumbled; it smashed on the path.

Kevin’s mother was lying dead in the doorway.

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Meanwhile, at the Library…

The doors swung inwards to admit Jones to the library.  He nodded in greeting to the woman walking out but she didn’t respond; too busy putting the books she had borrowed in her shopping bag, Jones realised.

He approached the first machine in a bank of five, pulling from the pocket of his overcoat the book he wished to return.  Three options glowed on the screen: BORROW, PAY, and RETURN.  He selected the last – or rather, tried to.  He touched the rectangle on the screen; it was meant to represent a button, but nothing happened.  He tried again, a little more firmly this time.  Again: nothing.  He pressed the pad of his fingertip across the word RETURN.  Nothing.  He prodded and pushed and tapped and kept trying but could not get the machine to respond.

Faulty, he diagnosed, and shuffled along to the next machine.  Here it was the same story.  He moved on to the third, and then the fourth.  At last he came to the fifth machine and he could still not get the system to respond to his touch.  He wiped his fingers on his trousers but that made not one jot of difference.  He wiped the screen with the sleeve of his coat.  He may as well have not bothered.

He looked around for someone to assist but, like policemen, the library staff never seemed to be in evidence when you wanted them.  Other library users approached the machines.  Jones tried to warn them that the machines were on the blink but they ignored him.  They touched the screen and processed their books with no trouble at all.  Jones could not believe it.  He hurried to a machine he had seen working perfectly, but when he tried, it refused to acknowledge he was there.  What a waste of time!  Jones longed for the old days before all this computerised, automatic rubbish, when someone would stamp your books for you and you could have a nice chat about the weather and the price of fish.

With a grunt of frustration, Jones marched toward the exit.  He rammed the book back in his pocket.  If they wanted the book back, they could bloody well whistle for it.  As a final insult, the silver square on the wall wasn’t working.  Jones had to wait for someone to come in from outside before he could slip through the automated doors.  He sidled past the woman who had activated the switch on the other side.  She looked vaguely familiar to Jones but he couldn’t place her.  She looked upset, too, poor cow, and was clutching a letter.

Jones watched her approach a desk – unmanned, of course! – but no, within seconds a library assistant appeared and smiled a welcome.  The doors closed then so Jones didn’t hear the conversation that took place.

“I’ve had this letter,” sniffed the woman, her eyes brimming with tears.  “My husband was always a stickler for getting his books back on time.  He loved the library; it was a favourite haunt of his.  But he – he – passed away, and what with all the arrangements and everything, I’m afraid it got overlooked.”

The library assistant took the letter and typed something into a computer.

“That’s quite all right, Mrs Jones,” she smiled.

trolley

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Apple

Hello, dearie. Buy an apple, dearie? Freshly picked this very morning they was. Look at ’em, all succulent and round. Like this big red one. No? Well, perhaps I could come in for a moment, dearie? I’ve come a long way. I’ve got old bones and my lungs ain’t what they used to be. If you get to my age, well, you’ll know – What am I saying? Through here, is it, dearie? My, my, you have got it nice in here. Ceiling’s a bit low, isn’t it? You must bump your pretty head on a regular basis. It doesn’t bother me – I’m old and bent but once – oh, once, I stood tall and proud in the knowledge that I was the fairest in the land. You might not think so, looking at me now, but I was. The fairest in the land.

I’ll just sit here, if I may, dearie, by the fire. This is a little chair! Kiddies’ chair, is it? Got yourself a kiddie running around, have you? And where’s the man of the house? At work, I expect. Left you to look after the kiddie, has he? What? What’s that? You’re unmarried! Well, I’m not here to judge, dearie – You have no children, you say? I don’t follow you. Why all these little bits of furniture?   I’m not being rude, dearie, but your backside – pert though it may be – isn’t going to fit on one of these seats, is it? How on Earth do you manage? I’m old and bony now so it’s no trouble to me. I won’t keep you for long, dearie. Just having a breather. It’s a long way back through the forest. Long way to come for nothing. Do you know, I haven’t sold a single apple? What a waste of a day it has been! And they won’t be as good tomorrow. They won’t be as firm and as crisp as they are today. Such a pity not to snap them up while they’re fresh. What’s here? Four –five – six – no, seven chairs… Listen, if you buy them one apiece I’ll chuck in the big red one for yourself free, gratis, and for nothing. What do you say?

Who are they all, dearie? If you don’t mind my asking. The people what sits on these seven chairs. Some kind of nursery, is it? Are you running a kindergarten on the side, dearie? Is that what this is? Well, apples is good for growing children. Keep the doctor away.

What’s that? They’ll be home soon? Well, I won’t keep you. I’ll be getting along. If you could just give me a hand, dearie. Help me get back on my feet. That’s it.

Are you sure I can’t tempt you? No?

I’ll tell you what. Because you’ve been so kind and hospitable to a frail old woman what’s come a long way, I’m going to give you an apple. The big red one! With no obligation to purchase. Go on – have a bite. That’s the way; go on.

What do you mean it tastes funny? Are you insinuating there’s something wrong with my apples, my lovely apples? How dare you! I’ve never been so insulted. I’ll have you know – oh, my dear! You have gone a funny colour. Here, lean on me, dearie. Let’s get you to a chair – a couple of chairs for your ample behind. Can I get you a drink of water, dearie? You’ve gone rather pale, if I might make an observation.

Oh dear! Well, if you’re more comfortable on the floor, dearie, you go right ahead. No, no, I can’t hear what you’re saying with all that frothing going on around your mouth. Steady now, you’ll get froth on my dress. Oh, for pity’s sake, just lie still, you little slut, and stop clawing at me or you’ll have me down with you.

That’s right – you recognise me now, don’t you? I can tell by the way your eyes is widening. Yes, it’s me. Took you long enough, but then again it is a fool-proof disguise.

I’m off back to the castle now, dearie, to slip into something more regal. I can hear your seven housemates coming up the lane so I’ll nip out the back way. Through here, is it, dearie?

Dearie? Oh, dear.

Not the fairest in the land now, are you? Not no more. And at last I can stop speaking like an insufferable old pleb. Toodle-pip.

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