The Intruder

The princess quickly pulled the veil over her face.  “Guards!  Guards!” she cried, despite the protestations of the young man who had climbed over the garden wall.

“No!  Wait!  Listen!” he made calming gestures.  “I can explain.”

“You are aware, are you not, of the statutes?  No man may look upon my face and live!”

“It can’t be that bad,” the young man scoffed.  “No, wait.  Listen.  I didn’t mean that; that was a joke.  But honestly, Your Highness, I didn’t see anything.  I am not here for you.  I don’t give a hoot what you look like.  I’m not interested.”

Behind the mesh, Royal eyebrows dipped.

“My beauty is famed far and wide.  Many highborn men have forfeited their lives in the trial to win my hand.”

“Yes, yes,” said the young man.  “We’ve all heard the stories, love.”

The princess was aghast.  No one had ever spoken to her in this manner.

“You dare!  You have the temerity, the audacity, to call me your love!”

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot.  It’s just an expression.  Where I come from, we all call each other love all the time.”

The Royal shoulders shuddered.  The princess dreaded to imagine what kind of squalor had given rise to the scruffy youth before her.  His clothes were patched and ragged and his face, though not unpleasant – rather handsome, in fact – was dirty and unshaven.  His arms looked strong – why, if he were to force himself upon me, to carry me away, there would be little point in resisting…

The princess brought herself up sharp.  And where the hell were those guards?

“You say you have not come for me.  For what then have you scaled my walls and penetrated my private garden?”

“Steady on there, Mrs,” the young man laughed.

“Apples!  You are after my apples – what’s the word?  You are scrumping!  Guards!  Guards!”

“Relax.  I don’t give a fig about your apples.  If you must know, I’m here on an assignation.  Within these walls my true love resides.  Stony limits cannot keep love out.”

There was a fire in the young man’s eyes; the princess was certain none of the highborn men who had ventured their lives to win her hand had ever looked at her with such passion.

“For whom have you come?  For whom do you risk your neck?”

The young man blushed, rather endearingly.  “Why, for your brother, the Prince.  You see, once he smiled at me, that special smile – you know the one?  The smile that burns through your eyes and into your very soul and you just know.  You know?”

“I can’t say that I do,” the princess scowled.  “For my brother, you say?”

Curse the fool!  Why should the Prince have everything?  Was it not enough that he would inherit the kingdom?

“Your Highness.”  Two burly men with gleaming breastplates and curvy scimitars bowed before her.  “What is your will?”

“You took your time,” she snapped.  “This youth.  He is an intruder.  Seize him and execute him.”

“No!” cried the youth.  “Why?”

The princess removed her veil and grinned.

veil

 

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Rogue Returns

Rogue Pardew rode his horse along the main street.  Nothing much had changed during the twenty years of his absence.  Old Jem’s Mercantile stood where it did, with tin baths and buckets displayed on the porch, shovels standing in a pail like flat-headed flowers in a vase.  Brindley’s Funeral Parlour looked as grim as ever – if things were truly the same in Coyote Creek, old man Brindley was most likely the richest galoot in town.  Undertakers never went short of business; it was the same all over, Pardew had found during his decades of exile.

But now I’m back right enough, he set his square jaw, to right a wrong that ought to never have been done in the first place.

But first, a drink.  What the preacher man would call a libation suckled straight from the devil’s teat.

Whisky.

He hitched the horse to the post outside the Scarlet Woman and pulled his hat down over his brow.

Twenty years is a long time, he reflected.  Folk come and go.  Some of them most likely gave old man Brindley some business and were pushing up the daisies on Tombstone Hill.

Even so, Pardew didn’t want to take chances on being recognised, least ways not afore he’d done what he’d come back to do.

He pushed the saloon doors inwards and stepped over the threshold.  Jake was on the piano, tinkling away just like the old days.  Card-players were grouped around tables, intent on their hands.

And there behind the bar, Frankie was polishing a glass with his apron.  The barkeep’s hair was still slick with a centre parting, Pardew observed, but there were streaks of white at Frankie’s temples, the only concession to the passage of time.

Frankie raised a luxuriant eyebrow as Pardew approached.

“Whisky,” Pardew kept his voice to a soft growl and the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes.  He slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter.  If Frankie recognised him, he gave no sign; he just poured the drink and asked no questions.  Professional discretion, Pardew reckoned.  Even so, he didn’t want to risk being spotted.  He tossed back the whisky shot, feeling it burn the back of his throat and the subsequent kick to his belly.  He turned to go but found himself face-to-face with a fella in a red shirt.  The fella had a beard now but Pardew recognised the close-set eyes at once as those belonging to his old acquaintance, Wyatt Bell.

Bell was jawing tobacco.  He looked Pardew up and down and, with a contemptuous sneer, spat on his boots.

“Well, look what the cat drug in.”

Pardew tipped his hat.  “I don’t want no trouble, Wyatt.  I ain’t here for that.  I ain’t here for you.”

“Plenty folk round these parts got scores to settle with you, you lowdown rotten snake.”

“I don’t want no trouble neither,” the barman interposed, patting the trusty rifle he kept within reach.

“Tombstone Hill, afore sundown,” Bell spat again.  “I got me a bullet with your name on it.”

“Well, well, well, if it ain’t Rogue Pardew,” said a hoarse but decidedly female voice at Pardew’s shoulder.  “I knew you couldn’t keep away from my womanly charms indefinitely.”

Pardew barely glanced at the buxom showgirl, but it was enough to show him Miss Liza had gained quite a bit of weight and quite a lot of tattoos since he’d been gone.

Pardew didn’t respond other than to tip his hat – Miss Liza was still a lady, after all.

“I knew you’d come crawling back, Mister!” the ageing showgirl called after him, her crumpled feathers bristling.  “Show your face in here again and you just might find yourself gelded.”

Pardew pushed his way out of the saloon, aware that every eye in the place was upon him.  Word would get round like wildfire.  Guess who’s back in town, folk would nudge each other.  I figure I might not live long enough to make that appointment with Wyatt after all.

He strode along Main Street, ignoring the faces at the windows he passed and the folks who pulled their children indoors when they saw him approach.  I ain’t here for that, I ain’t here for you, he wanted to tell them, but he had no time to shoot the breeze and put folk in the picture.

At the end of the street, surrounded by a neat little yard and a prim picket fence, stood Coyote Creek’s schoolhouse, red and proud with white around the door and windows.  It was just as he recalled it all those years ago and it made him feel like a child again.

Quit that, he scolded himself.  You’re a man now and you must do what’s got to be done.

Steeling himself, he went inside.

And there she was, behind her desk, the schoolmarm, Miss Clementine, not looking a day older.

“School’s out,” she said without looking up.  The cocking of his pistol got her attention right enough.

“My, my!” she rose from her chair.  “Ethan Pardew as I live and breathe.”

“Don’t you say a word!” Pardew kept the gun trained on the teacher and hoped she couldn’t see how his hand was shaking.

“Finally come to turn in your homework assignment!” Miss Clementine laughed and it was all Ethan ‘Rogue’ Pardew could do not to piss his pants.

“Somebody should have done this years back,” he stammered.  “Maybe then the kids of this town would have stood some kind of a chance.  Maybe I would have stood a chance and wouldn’t have turned out so bad, like I did.”

Miss Clementine arched an eyebrow as though waiting for a child’s tantrum to blow itself out.

“Dear, dear, still making up your stories, I see.  Still letting that imagination of yours run wild.”

A shot rang out and Miss Clementine spoke no more.  Her eyes rolled up trying to see the hole that had appeared in her forehead and then she crumpled over her desk.

Rogue Pardew blew on his gun barrel before he re-holstered the weapon.

He walked slowly back to the saloon, feeling lighter as though a great weight had been lifted.  Maybe I’ll get myself shot or lynched or tarred and feathered – Perdew was beyond caring.  Or maybe folk’ll give me a second chance; hell, it was worth the asking.

One thing he was sure of, as sure as eggs, that Clementine witch would be putting her hands on no more little boys from now on.

Rogue P

 

 

 

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‘Til Death

The reporter held a finger to his earpiece and turned to the camera.  Behind him, a crowd jostled to share his shot.

“Quite a number gathering here at the law courts.  So far, they’re a good-natured lot and the police are having an easy time of it.  So far.  With me now is Janet from the equal rights organisation, Sweet F.A. – Freedom for All.  Hello, Janet.”

“Hello.”

“What makes this particular issue so important to you that you come down here with your placards and your banners?”

Janet scowled.  “When I could be at home with the kids, do you mean?”

The reporter’s smile faltered.  “Um, no, I –”

“We’re here for everyone,” Janet cut him off.  “We want this law brought onto the statutes.  The test cast going on behind us in these hallowed halls of justice will decide what kind of country we live in.  Is it a country in which anyone and everyone is free to find love and have it enshrined in a legally recognised contract?  Or do we live in a country that continues to discriminate against and alienate many of its citizens?”

The reporter pulled his ‘I’m impressed’ face.

“Strongly held views there.  Thank you, Janet.  With me now is the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

“You – that is to say, the Church – take a different view.”

“Well, of course we bloody do!” snapped the Archbishop, giving rise to an upsurge of boos and an increase in placard-waving.  “I am all for fairness and equality – Check out my voting record on issues of gay rights and all the rest of it – but this, this is a step too far.  The marriage ceremony clearly states, ‘’til death do us part’ – Anything else is abhorrent.”

“So…” the reporter angled his body away from Janet, who was quietly seething in her kagoule.  “What you’re saying is no one in Heaven is married?”

“Ah, that’s a different matter for another time.  What we’re discussing here is the notion that the dead, here on Earth, have no right to get married.  They’ve had their chance while they were among the living.  Now it’s time to rest in peace and await final judgment.”

“Bah!” Janet jeered, forcing herself back into frame.  “You need to modernise and get with the times.  They’re still very much with us!  They’re not resting in peace.  They’re still walking about!”

The Archbishop gave a patronising smile.  “A few isolated incidents –”

“Bollocks!” Janet roared.  “Things are changing.  The Dead are back.  They’re part of society and – newsflash! – they’re still people, mate.  And as such they should be afforded the same rights that the rest of us take for granted.”

The Archbishop sneered.  “Like claiming benefits?”

The reporter, with a pained expression, apologised to the viewers at home for the bad language.

The crowd, on Janet’s side, yelled at the Archbishop.  The police finally had reason to hold them back.

“So you can see,” the reporter tried to finish up, “Debate is still lively on this issue and –”

He was cut off by the sound of every alarm in the law courts blaring out.  People streamed and stumbled from the building, blundering into the crowd.

“Run!” they urged.  “Just fucking run!”

The reporter grabbed a wide-eyed woman and thrust the microphone under her chin.  “What happened? Can you tell us?”

“It’s all kicked off,” she whimpered.  “The – the dead one – the bride – got out of her restraints and took a chunk out of a copper, who turned – I mean, changed – it was the blink of an eye – and sank his teeth into a solicitor.  Within about thirty seconds, half the courtroom was turning on the other half – it happened so fast.”

Sirens wailed.  A helicopter circled like a noisy vulture.

The crowd gasped and screamed, some of them at last having the sense to run away.

In the doorway stood the judge, his red robe already in tatters, his pale grey wig askew.  His jaw hung slackly and his chin was smeared with gore.  From deep within him a low growl arose, hungry and ungodly.

“Well done,” the Archbishop rounded on Janet.  “This is the country you live in!”

zombies

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The Attendant

The lavatory attendant didn’t need a watch to know what time it was.  His regular customers – for want of a better term – were like the clockwork figures on the town hall clock back home; they always arrived at the same times, unless of course their trains were delayed, and then the attendant would adjust his internal clock accordingly.  Here was the overweight businessman who always squeezed into the left-hand cubicle; here the long-haired fellow who was too old for the ponytail he sported; the student with his shoulder bag brimming with books; the youth in the tracksuit who never washed his hands.  We are all creatures of routine, the attendant mused, and I am no different.

Eight years ago, he had had to become accustomed to a new routine, a new job, a new life in a different country.  But that was a long time ago.  Would he go back to practising medicine, he asked himself?  No.  The one thing he had decided when he had fled the ruins of his home town and the smouldering corpses of his family and neighbours: there would be no going back.  Of any description.

He sprayed and wiped the washbasins and waited for The Man.

Sure enough, at precisely 8:10 the outer door opened.  The attendant glanced in the mirror above the sinks.  It was The Man all right.  The pinstripe suit he wore, the newspaper tucked under his arm, the umbrella…it was him.  There was no doubt in the attendant’s mind.

He had been watching The Man for months, slyly, discreetly, until he was certain there was no mistake.  It was most definitely the Man.  The Man who had led the raid that had turned the attendant’s whole life upside-down and deprived him so cruelly of all those he had loved.

While the attendant emptied a bin, The Man installed himself in the right-hand cubicle as he always did.  The attendant knew he didn’t have long,  He flicked the lock on the outer door to prevent interruption.  He sidled up to the cubicle door and spoke in his old language.

I know it was you.  I know!  And I’m not taking any more of your shit.

From the other side of the door, there was nothing.  Silence.

The attendant blocked the sinks with paper towels and turned on the taps.

“I say!” came a voice from the stall.  “Is there someone there?  There doesn’t seem to be any paper!  Could you help me, please?”

The attendant froze, the gushing taps in synch with the galloping thoughts flooding his mind.

“Hello?” said the Man.  He’s good, thought the attendant.  Better English than me.  Not a trace of an accent.

“Hello?” the Man repeated.  The door jiggled a little.  “I say!  The lock is jammed!  I’m stuck!”

With a smirk, the attendant tiptoed through the outer door and locked it behind him.  He affixed an OUT OF ORDER sign – water was already seeping under the door.  He took off his hi-vis tabard and dropped it in a litter bin.

“Not like you to be knocking off early,” observed Terry at the gate.  The attendant kept walking.  It was time to seek out new routines.

There would be no going back.

gents

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The Favourite

The young woman approached the middle-aged man on the platform.  She peered into his face and smiled.

“Mr Bennett?”

The man bristled.  Here we go again, he steeled himself.  Another former pupil presenting themselves for a trip down Memory Lane.

“Yes,” he confirmed.  He glanced along the track, hoping the imminent train would curtail the interview.

“Hello, sir!” the young woman laughed.  “It’s me!  Donna!”

“Ah, yes, of course.”  Bennett smiled although he had no clue.  “Donna.  How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Donna looked him up and down.  “You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Um, I don’t know.  Bit thinner on top and a bit thicker around the middle.”

Donna laughed.  “You was always my favourite.”

“That’s good of you to say.”

“And I was a proper tearaway, wasn’t I, sir?  Always getting into scrapes.  Do you remember when Mrs Bagshot caught me and Trisha Fenton smoking in the toilets?”

“Um…”

“And when we was doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and you gave me an A-star for my Frisbee.”

Thisbe,” Bennett corrected automatically.  But Donna, true to form, wasn’t listening.

“Oh, we had some laughs, didn’t we, back in the day?  Are you still teaching?”

“Oh, you know,” Bennett raised his battered briefcase.  “Bit of supply, here and there.”

“Here,” Donna nudged him.  “Remember that supply teacher we had for Music and he ran away crying and you came in and put us all in Detention!  Talk about laugh!”

“Um…” Vague memories were beginning to stir in the murk of Bennett’s memory.

“And remember when Darren Slaughter brought his dog into Assembly because he knew the Head was allergic.”

“…Yes!”  A grin broke out on Bennett’s face.  “I do remember that!”

A train hove into view, crawling steadily toward the station.  Donna gripped the teacher’s arm.  Even through the thick corduroy of his sleeve he could feel her hand, icy and determined.

“Please, sir,” her eyes searched his.  “Ring in sick or something.  Or go and have a coffee.”

“What on Earth –”

“Please, sir!”

The train pulled in with a long, slow squeal.  The other commuters bustled for the doors, jostling past Bennett and Donna.  Bennett blinked.

The young woman had gone.  Vanished!  Or just lost in the huddle waiting to board the train.

Donna… somebody…

Donna Parker!

The memories rushed to the surface like bubbles in carbonated water.  Donna, the bright, down-to-earth girl, with the gift of the gab and a heart of gold.

Donna, who at the age of 20 had been pushed under a train by a no-good boyfriend when she’d told him she was pregnant.

Donna…

Bennett remembered donating a couple of quid for some flowers.

A chill ran through him.  It had happened at this very station.

The carriage doors beeped impatiently and closed.  The train moved on, leaving Bennett behind.  He headed to the café and ordered a double espresso but he merely sat staring at the steaming cup, too jittery to drink it.

Donna Parker…

After a while, he felt better.  He’d imagined it, he supposed.  Or confused the girl with someone else, some other Donna.  There had been quite a few, he seemed to recall.

He went to check the departures board for the next train but found all services were cancelled.

“You’ll be lucky,” said an operative pushing a broom across the deserted concourse.  “All trains are off.  The last one to leave here has come off the rails just up the line.  Terrible mess.”

platform

 

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The Tattooed Hand

Murphy sat back and rubbed his eyes, as though that would enable him to see the kid across the table in a new light.  Hard to believe this skinny, preppy streak of piss could rip a man to pieces with his bare hands but hey, here we are.

Hard but not impossible.

“Come on, kid.  Save us both a lot of time and effort.  It’ll go easier on you if you co-operate.  Make your confession.  You killed that guy; time to admit it.”

Beside the kid, a lawyer shook his head and put a finger to his lips.

“Kid?” Murphy prompted.  “We got the guy’s blood on your hands.”

The kid looked at his lap where his hands, clean now, were wrapped the one over the other.  He looked up and met the detective’s gaze.

“I already told you, I was walking past the alley when some guy rushed out, knocked me over and ran off.  That must have been how I got the blood on me and – there’s – this.”

He uncovered his hand and held it up.  Murphy took in the intricate design: a mountain of gaping, grinning skulls, with a sword at the summit.

“Nice ink,” he said flatly.  “Where’d you get it?”

“I – don’t remember.”

“Drunken night out, was it?  Wake up next day with a headache and a bunch of regrets?”

“No – no, I – don’t drink.  I’d never seen it before until your officers cleaned me up.  It was there.  Under the blood.”

Murphy’s eyes darted to the lawyer, whose pursed lips suggested the kid might be going for an insanity plea.

“That tattoo looks pretty old to me, kid.  Some of the lines are smudged and faded.”

It was true – but at the top of the pile, several of the skulls were sharp and pristine as if they had been recently added.

“I keep telling you, I don’t know how I got it.  It just – showed up.”

The lawyer leaned toward his client and murmured something the kid apparently didn’t like hearing.  In a flash, the kid leaped to his feet, his tattooed hand seized the lawyer’s throat and crushed his windpipe.  He discarded the body; the lawyer’s chin struck the table on its way to the floor.  Murphy was quick to react: he sprang back, drawing his gun.

“You better stay back, kid.  Don’t make things no worse for you.”

Uniformed cops burst in.  They grabbed the kid’s arms but he kicked out, knocking Murphy’s gun across the room.

“Your turn now, detective,” the kid cried out as he was dragged away.  “It’s your turn now!”

Murphy stooped to pick up his gun and was startled to see the kid’s tattoo blossom on the back of his hand, like blood seeping through a bandage.  At the top of the pile grinned another newly-added skull.

skulls tattoo

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Deal of a Lifetime

First of all, I’d like to thank you for inviting me into your lovely home.  It really is quite – well, let me put it this way: it has real potential.  It’s a real fixer-upper!  Is that what you have in mind?  Fixing this place up?  Or perhaps you want to move to something bigger?  With a better climate!  Somewhere where it’s hot all year round!  I can think of somewhere…

If it’s travel you’re into, the whole world is your oyster – if it’s pearls you want, you can shower yourself with them and any precious stones you can think of!  The only limit is your imagination.

Perhaps you just fancy the idea of limitless funds in your bank account.  That’s OK, too.  Then you can dip into it whenever you like.  You can splurge to your heart’s content; it’s never going to run out.

And you can put that money to good use.  Charities!  There’s a lot of need, a lot of suffering in the world these days – same old same old, am I right?  But think of the good you could do!

You’d be famous!  Or, if you don’t like that sound of that, your donations could be completely anonymous and only you would know.  Imagine the secret thrill of knowing you had changed someone’s life!

Honestly, the possibilities are limitless.  You would want for nothing.  You’d be set for life!

Of course, I am honour-bound to draw your attention to the small print.  Nothing much to worry about.  The usual blah-blah.  In exchange for anything you want, I get, upon your death (and let’s hope that’s a long time coming, am I right?) your immortal soul to do with as I wish.  Are we clear on that?

Now, are you ready to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime deal?  Or do you have questions?  Questions are good, questions are welcome.

What’s that? You want what?

Oh, no, sorry!  Can’t help you with that.  I’ll have my pen back, if you don’t mind!  Inviting me in here, making me go through the whole spiel.  If you’d told me at the start all you want is to be rid of your depression, you could have saved me the effort.

There’s nothing in this deal for me.  You already know all the torments of Hell.

Bloody time-waster!  I’ll see myself out.

devil-md

 

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The Night-Watchman

“Oh no, you don’t, sunshine.  Stop right there!”

At the sound of the night-watchman’s voice, the slender figure in black raised its hands.  The beam of light from the night-watchman’s torch danced around the scene.  At first glance, everything seemed to be intact – then how had the bugger got in?

High above the intruder’s head, a skylight was ajar, letting in the chilly night air.  A rope ladder dangled like a broken pendulum.

“Don’t you bloody move!” the night-watchman threatened.  He sidled to a nearby control board, twisted a key and pressed a red button until it turned green.  The skylight whirred and clanked into place.  “Right, sunshine,” the night-watchman shone the full beam of his flashlight into the intruder’s face.  Only the eyes, blue and squinting, were visible; the rest was covered by the coarse wool of a balaclava.  “What the hell do you think you’re playing at?”

“Three guesses, grandad.”

A young woman’s voice.  The night-watchman chuckled.  “You’re from the university, aren’t you?”

“Might be.”

“You kids and your idealistic nonsense.  Animal liberation, is it?”

The intruder didn’t reply.

“Look, love, you’re barking – up the wrong tree, I mean.”

“I’m not your love!”

“You should be so lucky!” the night-watchman laughed.  The young woman gasped, aghast.  “What I’m saying is, you’ve got it wrong.  There are no animals here.  Not even a mouse.  This is a strictly controlled environment.  Air quality, temperature, light – well, it was until you forced your way in.”

The young woman jutted her chin in defiance.  “Don’t feed me your lies, grandad.”

“Now you’re being ageist!” the night-watchman interjected with a look of faux offence.

“I’m sorry,” the intruder faltered.  “But I don’t believe you.  Everyone knows what goes on in here.”

“Do they?”

“Yes!”

“Are you sure about that, lo –  I mean, are you?”

“Well, it’s wrong, isn’t it?  Everybody knows that.”

“Wrong?  Wanting to feed people is wrong?  I may only be a part-time security bloke but even I know there’s a food crisis going on.  I don’t claim to know all the science behind it but it seems to me the boffins here are heroes.”

“Bah!” the intruder crossed her arms.

“No, hear me out.  They’ve come up with a way to provide meat for everyone on the planet.  Healthy, sustainable meat that doesn’t decimate the rainforests and – this is for all you bleeding hearts – doesn’t involve the harming of a single living creature.  Now, you tell me what’s wrong with that?”

The young woman opened her mouth, stretching the fabric of her disguise, but she couldn’t reply.

“That there,” the night-watchman directed his torchlight at her boots, “That tank you’re standing on fills this entire enclosure.  It’s the width and breadth and depth of a swimming pool and it’s full of ethical protein – or will be, when it finishes growing.”

The young woman looked down.  She was standing on one of the narrow metal walkways that crisscrossed the tank.  A pink substance, glowing faintly, pulsated beneath the clouded Perspex.

“It’s wrong!” she persisted.  “It’s Frankenstein food!”

“Think of it, love!  World hunger solved!  Deforestation halted!  Factory farming a thing of the past!”

The young woman put a hand to her brow and shook her head.

“Come on, love,” the night-watchman held out his hand.  “In the spirit of compassion, I’m going to let you go.  I’ll take you to the way out and no harm done, eh?”

“I –” the young woman’s knees buckled.  The night-watchman rushed to catch her.  He steadied her on her feet and helped her along the walkway.

“You’re bleeding,” he observed, as red drops landed on his hand.  “Must have cut yourself when you forced that skylight.”

“I’m – sorry –” the young woman sounded dazed.

“You just be sure to tell your friends at that university not to trouble us again, OK?  You can do that for me, can’t you?  And let that be an end to it.”

The young woman nodded weakly.  The night-watchman took her through an airlock and the car park beyond.

“Releasing you back into the wild, love,” he laughed.  “Off you go!”

“Sorry,” the young girl was downcast.  She shuffled away.  When she was some distance from the compound, she straightened and laughed to herself.  Job done!

The night-watchman returned to his office and put the kettle on.  Kids, eh?  They mean well but they should do their homework first.

On the bottom right screen of a bank of monitors, unnoticed by the security guard, the intruder’s blood seeped through a tiny crack in the Perspex.  Beneath the lid, the pink mass darkened and trembled.

And an appetite for human blood was born.

torch

 

 

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Accept or Decline?

Alistair’s phone pinged on the bedside table.  His sleepy arm groped for the device and Alistair squinted, trying to focus on the message.

You have a friend request

He had to read it three times.  A friend request!  He hadn’t received one of those in a long time.  It was part of the problem.

He lay back and rubbed crusty sleep from his eyes.  Light washed over his face as he held his phone aloft like the lamp on a dentist’s chair.

Who on Earth would be sending me a friend request?

There was, he knew, only one way to find out.

He swiped the notification aside, thereby opening his email app.

To respond to your friend requests, please log into your MyLife account.

Alistair pressed the link.

MyLife… He thought he’d deactivated that account years ago.  Oh, well…

The MyLife log-in page filled the screen.  Alistair typed his email address into the username box, having to redo it three times until his fingers work up and gave their full cooperation.

Please enter your password

Oh.

Damn it.

What the hell could that be?  How was he supposed to remember every goddamn password?

He tried the usual.  He tried variations of it.

A warning flashed red:  You have one more log-in attempt before your account is locked

Shit.

Alistair admitted defeat and pressed the ‘Forgot password?’ option.  He had to re-enter his email address and wait for a reset link to come through to his inbox.

Two minutes later, it did.

Now, what to choose for the new password?  Did it matter, he reflected?  It’s not like I’m going to need it again.

He typed.

Goodbyecruelworld

It was rejected.

Passwords must contain at least one numerical character

OK.

Goodbyecruelworld69

Please confirm your password

Alistair obliged.  The box disappeared and his MyLife homepage swelled to fill the screen.  Alistair felt a surge of recognition as he scrolled through names and faces, pictures of people he used to know.  So-and-so’s eldest had just graduated.  Such-and-such was getting pissed in a Majorcan nightspot.  Whojimmyflop was ‘feeling annoyed’ and, evidently, craving attention.

Ha ha!  They were all there, still living their lives, still chronicling every event, every mood swing, every cup of coffee.

Alistair was tempted to give the odd post his approval.  Would anyone remember him?  Would he be able to forge anew links with old school chums, distant relatives and his erstwhile friends?

His thumb hovered over the update button.

How’s YourLife? the screen prompted him.

Alistair shook his head.  It all came flooding back, the reason why he’d sought to distance himself from social media in the first place.

None of it was real.  Nobody really gave a shit.  People just keep posting edited versions of themselves, photos filtered, to show how great a time they were having, to show that they were still living.

Oh, So-and-so has checked into a fancy restaurant.  Such-and-such is at his kid’s football match.  Whojimmyflop is debating getting a haircut and is canvassing opinions.

Big deal!

Who are all these people?

Alistair would bet they weren’t all as happy as they pretended.  He’d bet So-and-so was overweight and that’s why all his selfies are taken from a high angle to hide the chins.  He’d bet Such-and-such only got to see the kids every other weekend and only then with supervision.  He’d stake his house that Whojimmyflop was a shut-in who spent all day in his pants, pounding at the keyboard, posting gifs of kittens and trolling celebrities.

No, I’m better off out of it, he decided.  Better off out of everything.  He had come to that decision long ago when pulling the plug on social media had resulted in his total isolation and crippling agoraphobia.

He reached for the bottle of pills.  Time for some real deactivation, he thought grimly.

But the bottle was empty.  Puzzled, Alistair sat up and leaned over – perhaps he’d knocked it over and all the pills were on the floor… He couldn’t remember taking them.

In his hand, the phone buzzed insistently.

You have a friend request

“All right!  All right!”  Alistair tapped the glowing icon of a little person waving hello.

You have one friend request from Saint Peter. 

ACCEPT or DECLINE?

hand

 

 

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Father’s Day

“It is Father’s Day, Taryn, the twenty-first you have seen.  Therefore, you must come forth and take your place in the chamber.  This is an honour bestowed on only the very few.  It is the moment for which you have been prepared your entire life –”

Taryn crumpled the letter and tossed it into the hearth.  The flames seized it hungrily, turning the parchment bright orange and then black as it was devoured.  If only that were an end to it, thought Taryn.  If only things were that simple.

A knock at the door startled him.  It was Vestus, the priest.  “Are you decent, boy?” the old man cooed from outside.

Fuck off, Taryn cursed under his breath, along with several other indecent thoughts.

“The hour is upon us.”  Vestus pushed the door open.

“Hoi!” Taryn protested.  “I’m getting dressed!”

Vestus kept his milky eyes averted, a smile bending the wrinkles of his cheeks.

“To think that one of mine, one of my own, should be chosen!  It is a miraculous thing!”

Huh, thought Taryn, pulling the white robe over his head.  This is what being a good student gets you.  This is what knuckling down brings.  This is where bettering yourself gets you.  Bloody ‘chosen’.

Vestus risked a glance.  “You look – radiant, my boy!”  The eyes began to water.  “People are going to remember you for all time.  The radiant one, they will call you.  The golden boy.”

“Father Vestus…” Taryn sat on the bed.  “What if – what if I don’t feel like it?  What if I don’t want to go?  What if –”

The old priest’s knotted claw seized Taryn’s hand.  “You are bound to be nervous, my boy.  It’s perfectly natural.  But once you have drunk of the sacred elixir, all that will vanish.  All doubt will evaporate like the morning dew – which reminds me: we have to get a move on.  We cannot keep the elders waiting.”

He shuffled to the door but before he could reach it, Taryn flung himself at the hunched back and brought the priest to the floor.  Taryn clasped his hands around the old man’s bony neck and squeezed the life from him.

Minutes later, in Vestus’s hooded garb, Taryn shuffled out of the hut and through the streets.  The crowds were gathering for the annual sacrifice to the Father.  It was all Taryn could do not to run.  He kept his head down and his pace slow and made his way to the city gates.  They were unguarded – everyone and his dog was heading for the temple.

Taryn slipped out and took his first breath of freedom.  It would not be long before the alarum was raised.  Someone would find the old man’s body when they came to investigate the delay.

Taryn quickened his step.  Over the mountains lay another city, another life.

And the first thing he would do upon arrival would be to inquire what were the local customs when it came to Father’s Day.

temple

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Beware! The Peckish Dead are abroad!

With his third adventure now available, here are some thoughts about unlikely hero, Hector Mortlake.
The Man
Working as a hack writer, Hector Mortlake when we first meet him is single and seeking inspiration.  He embarks on a trans-European journey and, inspired by Chaucer, decides to collect tales from his fellow travellers with a view to deciding a winner.  Hector is a bit of a prig but basically a decent cove.  And he’s gay, which, at the fag end of the 19th century is not quite the thing to be.  He meets a younger man named Cuthbert on the Orient Express and they team up to defeat a horrific Water Nymph.  Hector enjoys lording it over his new valet although it is quite clear the pair are devoted to each other, and it is Cuthbert who most often ‘wears the trousers’, so to speak.
Hector’s past is much of a mystery – he’s remaining tight-lipped about his background but I suspect details will be teased out in future novels.  We know he has aspirations to move in higher social circles and would love to earn enough from writing to be able to retire.  Unfortunately, it does not appear that he is good enough!
The other love of his life is his car, Bessie, an early Mercedes Benz.
Bessie
The Books
We first meet our arrogant narrator in KISS OF THE WATER NYMPH – an account that turns out to be his first bestseller.
Kiss+of+the+Water+NymphHis second exploit, XOLOTL STRIKES! turns out to be his first flop, despite being as outrageous and outlandish an adventure as the first.
xolotl
Now, his third and craziest tale is available to the public – will Hector achieve his goal and re-top the bestseller list?  Or will he be consigned to the bargain bucket of poorly-selling fiction?
peckish
Victorian hack Hector Mortlake and his trusty valet Cuthbert are at it again. This third outing takes them to the Scottish Highlands – but that’s just the start. A mysterious portal and a ghostly gang of ghouls threaten to separate the pair for good. With a host of new characters and their craziest story yet, Hector and Cuthbert deliver high adventure and shameless innuendo in equal measure. Fans of William Stafford’s inimitable style will not be disappointed.

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Quilp’s Quest

“Are you sure you were not followed?”  Professor Quilp’s eyes darted up and down the narrow street before he closed the door, bolting it and turning the hefty key in the lock.

I gave him every assurance that I had stuck to his instructions to the letter, doubling-back, zigzagging my way through the bustling souk, even turning my coat inside out at one point.

He nodded but I could tell he was too agitated, too worked up to be satisfied.

He ushered me into a darkened study; the only illumination came from a green-shaded desk lamp.

“Did you bring it?”  The prof was practically salivating.

“Of course!” I felt in my pockets.  Panic struck me.  I patted myself down while the professor trembled with anticipation.  Then I remembered my coat was inside out!  Seconds later, the item was produced.  Quilp snatched it from me and held it under the lamp.

“What is it?” I had to ask.  To me it looked like a worthless washer of the kind you can buy for a dime a dozen at any hardware store, but the professor was smacking his lips with delight.

“This, my boy, is the next part of the puzzle.  This is the ring from the staff of Amon-Ra.  This ring enables the staff-bearer to direct unfathomable power!”

“Oh.  Cool, I guess.  And where is this staff or Eamon Holmes, or whoever?”

“Amon-Ra,” the professor gave me a sour look.  “The staff is the ultimate prize of our quest.  First, we must translate the markings on this ring.  There’s a man at the British Museum who is mustard at that sort of thing – but he has, alas, been kidnapped and it falls to us to release him from his captors; we are not the only ones interested in acquiring the staff.  Then we must secure transport to Cairo, where a contact awaits with the other half of the map that reveals the location of the sacred daggers we shall need to fight off the demonic, hound-headed sentinels who guard the submerged temple of Bastet, which contains the scroll with the incantations to summon an army of scarab beetles that will devour our rivals and lead us to the Valley of Peril where we must solve the riddles of the Sphinx in order to pass through to the Forbidden Realm.”

He paused for breath.

“Gee, I don’t know, Professor,” I rubbed the back of my neck.  “It sounds like an awful lot of work to me.”

Our eyes met for a moment.  I thought Professor Quilp was going to yell at me or at least tell me how disappointed he was in my attitude.

Instead, he gave me a sad little smile.  He tossed me the flat little hoop.

“You’re right.  I’m far too old for this kind of thing.  Go, boy, into the kitchen.  I think you’ll find that doodad is just the thing for fixing the dripping tap.”

egypt-clipart-clipart-best-egyptian-clip-art-1229_2388

 

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Fuggoff

Dwight exited the landing craft with caution.  He waved to Delilah to stay back.  “No signs of life,” he scanned the shoreline.  “And under no circumstances lift your visor.  The air…” he paused to check, “…is toxic.”

Delilah didn’t care to be left behind.  She defied the orders of her commanding officer and stayed close behind him as Dwight picked his way across a grey and ashy beach.

“There’s no birds,” she whispered.  “I can’t hear any birds.”

Something skittered in the undergrowth.  Delilah yipped out a little scream.  Dwight shook his head.  “Keep your stun-stick primed,” he advised.  “No one has heard a peep from them in years but you never know.”

The foliage was sparse, as if it couldn’t be bothered.  Chunks of stone slabs showed greasy between the tufts of green and brown.  The explorers followed the slabs, like stepping stones across a bog, towards the tumbled wrecks of broken buildings, slumped sullenly beneath a lowering grey sky.

“What happened here?” Delilah wondered out loud.

Dwight shook his head again.  “Neglect,” it looks like.  “Just left to rot.”

They ventured further; the broken slabs became the ghost of a path, a square, a highway.

“Do you think they were happy?” Delilah craned her neck to look at the upper storeys.

“Who?” frowned Dwight.

“The – people.  Who lived here.  So far out.  All alone.”

Dwight shrugged and shouldered his stun-stick.  “I don’t give a shit.  Just keep your eyes open.”

“Um – might be a bit late for that, Dwight.”

He spun around to find Delilah with her arms raised.  A ragtag creature with a sharp stick and a wild look in its eyes was holding her prisoner.  Dwight tensed, his stun-stick at the ready.

“Fuggoff,” barked the creature.  “Gerrout oveer.  We doan wancha.  Fuggoff.”

He was joined by others, similar in stature and ragged state.  They were emaciated and filthy, their eyes dull and their expressions vacant.

“Fuggoff,” they repeated, building to a feeble crescendo.  Delilah squeaked with fear and disgust.

“We’re going,” said Dwight.  He reached for Delilah’s hand.  The chanting mob fell silent.  The first one grunted and shoved Delilah from him.

“Fuggoff,” he added.  “Bladdy forrinners.”

“All right!” Delilah hooked her arm through Dwight’s.   “Jesus.”

“I’ll just leave this here,” Dwight said calmly.  He reached into his suit.  The natives tensed.  Dwight withdrew a golden envelope made of plasti-metal and placed it on the ground.

The natives sniffed and grunted suspiciously.

“Come on,” Dwight urged.  He led Delilah back the way they had come, their pace increasing as they drew near to the craft.  Delilah looked over her shoulder while Dwight summoned the boarding ladder.

“Do you think they’ll read it?” she chewed her lower lip.  “Can they still read, do you think?”

“Who knows?” said Dwight, ushering her inside.  “We’ve achieved our mission.  It’s up to them now.   They tried to go it alone, outside of the Federation but, well, just look at it.  What a shit-hole.”

He pulled the door shut behind him and began the take-off procedure.  Delilah, helmet off, shook out her long, pink hair.  She put her arms around him and placed her chin on his shoulder.

“We’ve done our bit.  We’ve invited them back.  They can be prosperous again, if they want it.  It’s their choice.”

“It was back then,” said Dwight with a sigh.

The craft barely hummed as it rose through the atmosphere, away from the derelict world, to reunite with the mother-ship.

blast off

 

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