Meanwhile, at the book signing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her parents pulled an apologetic face.  Martin waved.

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

“In the ocean,” said Marigold.

“And where are we now?”

“Birmingham.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to see Tinsel!” she roared.

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

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

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

Marigold was beside herself with rage.

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

“It’s just a story,” said Martin.

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

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

A collective gasp almost sucked the air from the room.

Marigold turned to confront her parents.

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

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

Martin climbed down from the table.

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

That seemed to appease the parents at least.

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

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

manatee

 

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Christmas Police

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

“Karen Greenford?” this man intoned.

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

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

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

“Ms Greenford, when is his birthday?”

“What?” Karen blinked.  “Who?”

“You have Christmas decorations in your windows.”

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

A brief looked flashed between the men.

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

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

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

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

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

“Mince pies…”

The other man made a note on his tablet.

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

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

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

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

“Is this a recording?  A DVD?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right!” Karen agreed.

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

“I haven’t touched a drop!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody Scrooges, she sneered.

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

Lovely, grinned Karen, already misty-eyed.

I love a traditional Christmas.

arresting-santa-clause-hi

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A Walk on the Cliffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steeling himself, he turned.

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

“Sandra?”

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

“Wedding?”

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

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

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

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

Who the hell did I chuck off the cliff?

cliff

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Meanwhile, in the Laboratory…

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

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

“And now, the first switch.”

Igor pulled down a large handle.

“The second!”

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

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

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

“Yes, master –”

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

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

Igor’s shrug accentuated his hump.

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell is this?” he gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Master?” he hardly dare approach.

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

mad scientist

 

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The Morning after Hallowe’en

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

Not who, he corrected himself.  What?

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

There was no sign of life.

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

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

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

Fools!  Damned fools!

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

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

Something moved on the stairs.   The friar froze.

“Who’s there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pumpkin

 

 

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A Bowl of Broth

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

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

“I’ve been thinking…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

broth

 

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Sheep-watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taran didn’t understand.  “Another sheep –”

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

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

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

The mayor encouraged everyone to cheer.

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

dragon-eyes-md

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Fridge People

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven alone knew what might be lurking in the oven.

fridge

 

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An Exterminator Calls

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

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

“Trouble, love?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve got to go!” she hissed.  “Brian’s got a man in; you’ll be discovered!”

“Bloody hell!” wailed a voice from beyond the brickwork.  “What’s he doing working from home anyway?  When are we going to have some time to ourselves?”

“Calm down, Colin!” Jane urged.  “He’ll be back in a minute.  Get your arse into gear and get the hell out.  We’ve had a good run but now we’ll have to think of an alternative arrangement.”

“Six months I’ve been living here,” said Colin.  “Six months of having it off with his wife, behind his back, under his nose.”

“Colin!  Will you get a move on?”  Jane cast a panicked look to the window.  Brian could be back at any second…

“I’m starving, chick,” said Colin.  “Make me a sandwich or pass me some biscuits, would you?”

“Brian’s gone to fetch the bloody biscuits, Colin!  Get out of there now.”

“Oh, hold on.  I’ve found something.  Did you put this here?  Hmm, nice… Bombay mix, is it?”

“Colin!  What – no!  Don’t eat anything, Colin!  COLIN!”

At the window, Brian watched, a smirk stretched across his face.  He phoned the exterminator.

“It’s worked,” he said.  “And whatever’s on the invoice, I’ll pay double!”

biscuits

 

 

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A Night Out

Charlie ducked out of the club and turned up his collar against the damp night air.  Another disappointing night.  There simply weren’t the pickings anymore.  Oh well, the students would be back in town in a couple of weeks and suddenly the sea would have plenty more fish.

A figure stepped from the alley between the club and its neighbour, an all-night kebab shop.  Eyes glinted beneath the figure’s hoodie.

“Oh, you’re not leaving already?”  The voice was rich, deep and more than slightly mocking.

Charlie shook his head to signify he wasn’t interested but the man in the hoodie blocked his path.

“I was watching you,” the voice continued.  “Across the bar.  You were looking for something – for someone.  Looks like you didn’t find him.”

Charlie shoulders twitched in a shrug.  “There’ll be other nights.”

“There’s still this one.”  The hooded head jerked toward the alley.  “And it’s still young.”

“And so are we!” Charlie laughed.  “All right then.”

He followed the stranger into the alley.  The walls were wet and slippery; on one side, the pulsating music, a dull, humming throb that got into your bones; on the other, the spicy aromas of the kebab shop, the tang of overcooked fat, the stench of death.

Charlie unzipped the hoodie, revealing the stranger’s incongruously frilled shirt, like something from a costume drama, from a time long ago.  The stranger’s hands, pale and skinny, reached for the buckle of Charlie’s belt.   His mouth nuzzled against Charlie’s neck while his long fingers searched in Charlie’s underwear.

Panting, Charlie sought to pull back the hood, to get a look at the man he was snogging.  The stranger froze, stepped back.

“If you don’t mind,” he said in steely tones, “I’d rather keep it on.”

Charlie laughed.  “I’ve been with worse, mate.  Don’t worry about it.”

The man took another step back.

“Bloody hell,” said Charlie.  “What are you, some kind of vampire or something?”

“Actually,” the man straightened, “I am.”

He swept back his hood to reveal a high forehead, the blue-black hair in a sharp point, the eyes red rimmed and hungry, the cheekbones sharp as the fangs teasing the thin line of his lips.

“It’s not a problem, is it?”

“Not for me,” said Charlie.  “You do what you want, mate.  Just not with me, OK.  Not being funny but it just won’t work.  I’m a – a – Undead too.”

He lifted his Britney T-shirt to reveal the stitches and scars of an autopsy.

“Impressive,” the vampire traced the Y shape with a pointed fingernail.  “But not my thing.  I need the blood of the living.”

“And I need their life-force to keep me going.”

“Oh well, no harm done.”

“No fun had either!” laughed Charlie, pulling his shirt straight.  “Tell you what, Sniffers is still open across town.  We could double up, try our luck there.”

The vampire zipped up his hoodie and linked his arm through Charlie’s.

“Double trouble!” he chuckled, “I’ve never done a three-way.”

They stepped out into the street.  The vampire’s grin glinted in the streetlight.  “I’ll get us a cab.”

alley

 

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Breakfast in Bed

Rebecca woke with a start.  She froze, listening hard.  She held her breath.

Someone’s in the house!

She hitched herself onto her elbows and wondered whether she should get out of the bed and hide underneath it – or the wardrobe, perhaps… Or the window.  She could climb out, then there was a short drop to the garage roof, the neighbour’s fence…

Who am I kidding?  She lay back, head reeling.  How much did I have to drink last night?

Footsteps on the stairs struck terror in her heart.  She whimpered; the handle on the bedroom door turned.

“Morning!” came a chirpy voice, a man’s voice, as a tea tray came in followed by the man in a cardigan who was carrying it.  “Oh, good; you’re awake.”

He held the tray over the bed until Rebecca sat up, then he placed it on her lap.

“Croissants and jam, coffee black, grapefruit juice, just how you like them.”

Rebecca gaped in horror.  “How did – how do you know?  How did you get into my house?”

The man smiled patiently, the circular lenses of his spectacles resting on the ruddy apples of his cheeks.

“There’s no need to get upset, love,” he whispered.  “It’s only me.”

Frowning, Rebecca shook her head.  “No, no, no!  I don’t want this!  I don’t know who you are!  You could be trying to poison me for all I know.”

She flung the duvet aside, sending the breakfast tray clattering to the floor.  She tried to swing her legs to the floor but the effort made her swoon.  She fell back onto the pillow.  The man stooped over her and covered her with the duvet.  He stroked her face.

“There, there,” he cooed.  “No harm done.  You’re just a little confused.  What kind of husband would I be if I minded a bit of confusion after all our years together?”

Rebecca’s mind reeled.  Husband?  Years?  This was all news to her.

She searched the man’s face for something – anything – she might recognise.  He looked kindly enough, she supposed, pleasant… but who the hell he was and what the hell his name was, she had no clue.

“The doctor spoke to us about this, remember,” the man retrieved a syringe from the bedside table.  “And those nice people at the dementia club.”  He tapped the barrel of the syringe and pushed the plunger with his thumb.  A spray of droplets sprang from the needle’s tip.

“There’s a good girl,” he smiled as he took Rebecca’s forearm.  “This will help you calm down.”

As the needle went in, Rebecca stiffened.  Images flashed across her mind.  A hand over her mouth, a dark alley, the boot of a car.  And that voice, that same soothing voice, calling her Sally and saying how glad he was to have her back.

croissant

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Lucky Sandra

“I’m lucky!  Lucky to be alive!” Sandra breathed in the salty tang of the seaside air.  Behind her, her fellow passengers grumbled, wishing the silly bint would hurry up and step off the coach so they could get off and begin their holidays.

Sandra and her friend Tanya collected their luggage from the underbelly of the coach and took a taxi to their B&B.  Sandra drank in the sights as they passed: the glittering promenade, the noisy funfair… Tanya suspected the cabbie was taking the scenic route to fleece them of an extra few quid, but Sandra wasn’t listening.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” she kept gasping.  “After all these years.  I want to visit all the old places – if they’re still standing, while I’m still standing.”

Tanya was less than enthusiastic.  The trip had been planned as a diversion, a getaway to help her get over the terminal gasps of her failed marriage, but Sandra had hijacked it somehow and made it all about herself.  She had visited this very coastal resort as a small child.  The place held many fond memories of her father – before The Accident that had robbed young Sandra of what the neighbours called ‘a steadying male influence’, much to her mother’s annoyance.

“No men in your room after ten o’clock,” the landlady wagged a finger.  “Unless you bring one back for me an’ all.”

Sandra and Tanya cackled obligingly and headed out to explore the promenade.

“In here first.”  Sandra pulled Tanya toward a newsagent’s.

“But we’ve got newsagents at home,” Tanya protested.  “I want fish and chips.”

“We’ve got fish and chips at home,” Sandra countered in a mocking tone.

“Not like here,” Tanya pouted.  “They always taste better at the seaside.”

Petulant, she waited outside while Sandra went in.  Supposed to be my holiday, Tanya frowned.  Supposed to be doing what I want to do…

An elbow nudged her from her moody musings.

“Here you go, Tan,” Sandra offered her a scratchcard.  “Got us one each.  I’m feeling lucky.”

They found a bench, unearthed 50p pieces from their purses and rubbed away at the cards.

“Huh,” Sandra was deflated.  “A measly two quid.  Oh well, got my money back, I suppose.  Hold on while I go and cash it in for another couple.”

“No – you hold on,” Tanya caught her arm.  “Look,” she paled before Sandra’s eyes.  “I’ve…won!”

“You never have!”

“I have!  Look: a hundred thousand smackers!  I’m going to be sick.”

Sandra snatched the card and pored over it, searching frantically for some error or small print that discounted the win, but no, it was true: Tanya had won the top prize.

“Of course, by rights this is mine,” Sandra sniffed.  “I paid for it.”

Tanya reached for the card but Sandra held it at arm’s length.

“Oh, don’t be like that, San.  I’ll give you half; of course I will.  Goes without saying.”

She lunged for the card; Sandra pushed her away.

A seagull swooped down and snatched the scratchcard from Sandra’s grasp.  To the women’s dismay, it flew off, soaring over the beach.

“Ah well,” said Sandra, but there was a gloating glint in her eyes.  “Easy come, que sera.  Looks like we’ll both remember this place for what we have lost.”

“Oh, give over,” wailed Tanya.  “Perhaps we can go after it.”

“Too dangerous,” Sandra shook her head.  “Like when I tried to wade out after my dad on his wayward airbed.  A strong current took him; a cheeky seagull took your money.”

“Oh, so it’s my money now we’ve lost it.”

Brightening, Sandra leapt to her feet.  “I fancy those fish and chips now,” she announced.

“I hope it bloody chokes you,” muttered Tanya.

gull

 

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One-to-One

“You wanted to see me, Janice?”

Team Leader Janice Fairbrother glanced away from her monitor and beckoned him in.  “Yes, come in, John; pop yourself on a seat.”

Smedley pulled up a chair and waited for Janice to finish typing.

“Just pinging this off… and there!”  She pressed SEND with a flourish and then turned to Smedley with an earnest expression.  “I’ve called you in because it’s been quite a while since we had a one-to-one.  I’m sure downstairs can manage without you for five minutes.”

Smedley nodded.  He kept his palms flat on his thighs, willing them not to sweat against the polyester trousers he was obliged to wear.  He could guess what this was about but when someone is about to open a can of worms, you don’t hand them the can-opener.

“Are you happy here, John?”  Janice’s eyes sought his, giving her a more bovine expression than usual.

“It’s OK,” he shrugged.

“Getting on well with everyone?  I like my team to be happy bunnies.”

“They’re OK.”

“Hmm.  Well, I’m not one to beat about the bush.  When I see a spade, I call it one right away, no messing.  It’s just that I’ve noticed – and Head Office has noticed – you’re not your usual chirpy self down on the shop floor.”

“Hmm.”

“Now, we don’t expect you to be all-singing and dancing, doing flipping backflips every five minutes – Health and Safety would be on my back in no time.  Janice, they’d say, this is a frozen food shop not a flipping circus.  But we do expect certain levels of courtesy, John.  Service with a smile.”

“Yes, I know – I’ll do better.”

“You look tired, love.  I think you’re taking too much on.  Working two jobs is affecting your performance.”

“Oh, now, look –”

Janice threw up her hands.  “Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life, sweetheart.  But my priority is the team.  The business comes first.  Now, I expect that’s what your other boss says as well.  So it’s nothing you haven’t heard before.”

“No, it’s –”

“So think on!  And get those pearly whites on show.  Your face won’t crack, I promise you.”

She turned her attention to her monitor and set her fingers tapping.

Smedley stood.  He put the chair back where it had come from.  As he made his way through the building, his phone buzzed.  It was his other boss.

“Is it done?”

“Yes.”

“Get yourself out of there.”

“On my way.  I was thinking about quitting anyway.  Just one question.”

“No questions; you know that.”

“Spies and diplomats, I can understand.  But the team leader of a shitty frozen food shop?”

“Let’s just say it’s personal.”

The line went dead.

Smedley had enough time to retrieve his jacket from the locker room.  As he walked away, the entire upper storey of PriceFreeze went up in flames, the windows bursting outwards in a shower of flame and glass, as the device he had concealed under the chair in Janice’s office detonated right on cue.

Smedley got his pearly whites on show.

Many miles away in a top secret location, Nigel Fairbrother deleted an email refusing him a divorce.

Freezer

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Warren makes Peace

“I can’t believe you have done this!” Steven’s voice cracked with anger.  Warren panicked.

“Keep your voice down!” he hissed.

“Make your mind up,” Steven complained.  “You bring me here because you say you want to talk and now you’re telling me to pipe down.”

“It’s just that the walls are thin and my mother’s in the next room.”

Steven laughed.  “You still live with your mother?  Christ.  Then don’t you think you should have found somewhere – I don’t know – a little more private for this – whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.”

“I – I – wanted to – needed to talk.”  Warren put his fingertip on the upturned glass.  Overhead, the dim blue light from which Steven’s voice was emanating flickered in time with Steven’s laughter.

“Oh, I think we’re beyond the moving-the-glass stage, don’t you?  And if you want me to spell out a message letter by letter, I remind you I fucking hated Scrabble.”

Warren despaired.  Things weren’t going well – the opposite to the way he had hoped, the way he had rehearsed and rehearsed.  Where was Steven’s gratitude, for one thing?  Warren supposed the dead have little to be grateful for.

“So, what do you want to know?” the blue light flickered.  “What it’s like over here?  Frankly, there’s not much to tell.  It’s all one big fat load of nothing.”

“No – no, there’s some things I want to tell you.  Things I never said when I had the chance.”

“Christ.  Not this again.”

“Look, I know I was a pain in the arse sometimes.”

“Putting it mildly!”

“And I’m sorry you had to block me on social media and everything.”

“So you said.  You were becoming obsessed with me and – look at you now! – you haven’t changed!  You just can’t let me rest in peace, can you?  You just had to summon me with your little incantation and your little trinket thingy.  Take a hint for once in your life.”

“But you still came!”

“I didn’t have much choice.  Don’t take it as encouragement, for fuck’s sake!”

“Listen!  There’s not much time.  To make up for all the hassle I caused you, let me do this one little thing.  And then you’ll never have to speak to me again… Unless you want to.”

“I won’t!  What thing?”

“I’ve been studying.  The amulet, the incantation, they’re just the start of it.  What would you say if I could bring you back?  You could live again!”

“I’d say you were round the fucking twist.”

“Possibly – but look!”  Warren sprang across the room and whipped the duvet off his bed.

“Fuck, no!  No!” The blue light flared angrily.  “Tell me you didn’t.”

“Ta-daa!” Warren grinned.

“You dug me up!  You went and fucking dug me up!  What, you couldn’t have me when I was alive so now you – You’re sick, man.”

“No!” Warren blushed.  “It’s not like that.  This is for you.  Let me complete the ritual and you’ll be right as rain.  And you probably won’t hunger for the flesh of the living at all.”

The blue light swooped over the bed, scanning the desiccated corpse, shrunken in its Sunday best.

“But – people know I’m dead.”

“Go abroad.  New life somewhere else.  It’s the least I can do.”

The blue light circled Warren, scanning him.

“It’s crazy!  You’re crazy!  But you’d go to all this trouble for me?”

“I really was your friend, you know.  I just didn’t know how to show it until now.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

The blue light hovered in front of Warren and took on Steven’s form.

A sharp knocking on the bedroom door was followed by Warren’s mother’s voice.

“Warren Makepeace!  You better not have anyone in there, do you hear me?  We’ve talked about this.  You promised me you wouldn’t do anything unnatural.”

blue light

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Boruba Makes a Deal

Garlo Baint sneered.  His stubby tusks caught the light of the low-hanging lamp above their booth.  Across the table, Boruba Meinfarb maintained a poker-face.

“It’s a good offer,” she repeated.

Baint grunted.  “So you keep telling me.  I do not like to be rushed.  Another round of drinks.”

He signalled and a waiter materialised, bearing a tray.  Baint tossed him a few coins without looking and the waiter withdrew.

“I’m thinking I could get more…” Baint stroked the wiry hairs on his chin.  “More than what you’re offering – if…”

His eyes flickered.  In an instant, two henchmen appeared and seized Boruba’s wrists.

“…If I sell you on the open market.”

“You duplicitous hog,” Boruba spat.  “The deal was to free my sister.”

“And so I shall.  Then we shall see if she will stump up the cash to broker a similar deal for your release.”

Boruba sighed.  How could I be so dense, she scolded herself?   I should have guessed Baint would double-cross me.  I should have listened to Zed.

The waiter returned.  “Is there a problem here?” he intoned.

Baint waved him away.  “Keep your nose out or lose it.”

“Very well,” the waiter nodded.  Boruba rolled her eyes.

“No, it’s not very well!” she cried.  “These men are trying to abduct me for the slave trade.”

“Against your will, madam?”

“Of course, it’s against my bloody will!  Do you think anyone willingly becomes a slave?”

“Should I alert the manager?”

“That would be lovely.  Thank you.”

“Hey!” Baint got to his trotter-like feet.  “This ain’t no ladies’ tea party.”

He reached for his weapon but the waiter was quicker on the draw.  He pulled out his own plasma-blaster and bashed the tray off Baint’s brow into the bargain.

“At last!” said Boruba.  The waiter peeled off his face to reveal her partner-in-crime-busting, Zed Bronco.

A couple of Hongoolian martial arts moves later and Baint and his henchmen were trussed up and under arrest.

“My hero,” said Boruba.  She pecked Zed’s cheek.

“One question,” Baint snorted.  “Do you even have a sister?”

The slavering slaver went ignored.  Linking her arm through his, Boruba steered Zed toward the exit.

“I just might have to post a review praising the service in this place,” she cooed into his ear.

“Permit me to give madam a tip.”

“Oh, Zed!” she slapped his arm.  Laughing, they went to their hotel.

boar

 

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Indoor Watch

Billy Rain hated Indoor Watch.  Indoor Watch was boring.  There was no one to talk to, for one thing; you just had to stand stock still in a corridor like one of those suits of shining armour Lady Fireblast had on display throughout the castle.  Empty armour could do this job just as well, he grumbled to himself, and I could be out there in the sunshine.  Perhaps having a bit of a paddle in the freshwater pond he knew was beyond the castle grounds.  The very thought of it made his toes itch.

A sudden noise roused him from his wishful thinking.  Instantly alert, he pressed his ear to the thick, oaken door he was supposed to be guarding.  Behind it was the apartment of Lady Fireblast’s daughter, the Infanta Svetlana.  It was Billy’s rescue of her from a gang of hoodlums on the High Road that had won him his post in the Guard.  That day had changed his life forever.  So too for the Infanta: she had not been seen in public since the attack.

Beyond the door: silence.  Billy Rain hesitated.  What if the Infanta was in trouble?  What if some accident had befallen her?  What if an intruder had climbed in to accomplish what the thwarted hoodlums had not?

Steeling himself – which was ironic, considering he was already clad in armour – Billy Rain turned the handle, shaped like a dragon’s head, and pushed the door open.

The chamber was dimly lit.  Heavy drapes blotted out the sunlight.  The air smelled stale and… of porridge!  Billy Rain slipped in a puddle of it, landing with a clang on the flagstone floor.  A silver platter lay nearby, along with the remains of a shattered china bowl.  The wall and the back of the door were newly redecorated by a splatter of creamy oats.

As though someone had dashed their breakfast against them…

Billy Rain began to suspect the intruder was a Goldilocks figure – Don’t be silly, Billy!  Affrighted of storybook characters!

He got to his knees and then to his feet, using the staff of his pike as an aid.  A pair of blue eyes stared at him from the shadows beneath the four-poster’s canopy, two turquoise gems resting on velvet.

“Your Highness,” Billy cleared his throat and bowed as much as his armour would allow.  “I didn’t mean to wake you.  I heard a noise.”

The Infanta did not respond.  But then she wouldn’t, would she, he remembered?  Ever since her rescue, Svetlana Fireblast had not uttered a word.  The castle was rife with rumour.  She’d be better off if those louts had murdered her, the poor lamb, the lesser folk gossiped.  Instead of being shut up in her room, shut up in herself, all dead on the inside.

Billy Rain approached the bed.  The Infanta was propped up on pillows, her face pallid and expressionless, her mouth slack and her eyes – those brilliant jewels – unmoving and unblinking.

“I thought happed I’d better check it out,” said Billy.  “The noise.  Looks to me like somebody didn’t want their porridge.”

Behind him, the door slammed shut.  He almost jumped out of his armour.

A draught, happen… But no; all the casements were shut and curtained.  Billy Rain was at a loss.

The Infanta didn’t seem to know he was there.  He dared to wave his gauntleted hand in front of her eyes.

Nowt.

He sighed and reckoned he ought to get back to his post.  And to think, I’d been mithered about being stuck indoors for a few hours!

The door wouldn’t open, pull on it as he might.  He tried to prise it open with his pikestaff but the weapon was torn from his grasp by an unseen hand.  It flew across the room and directly into the forehead of a portrait of Lady Fireblast.

On the bed, the Infanta did not, could not, move.  But her eyes were shining a little brighter.

“You did that?” gasped Billy Rain.  “And I reckon you chucked your breakfast at the wall an’ all.”

Svetlana Fireblast said nothing, did nothing.  But the porridge on the wall began to shift and crawl.  Billy Rain watched, transfixed, as a message took form.

WHY BRING ME BACK?  I WAS RUNNING AWAY

Billy Rain’s jaw dropped and his knees buckled.

What the hell was he supposed to do now?

blue-eyes-hi

 

 

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The Baron has a visitor

“You will hardly know we are here.”  Lord Holdfast was strutting around the state room as if he owned the place –  My state room, Baron Dumplypump grumbled in his seat at the head of an otherwise empty table.

“But ten thousand men!” he cried, exasperated.  “I have neither the room nor the resources to accommodate –”

Lord Holdfast cut him off with a patronising smirk.  “That has all been taken care of.  We have been commandeering provisions from farms and villages en route and as for the sleeping arrangements, we shall pitch our tents on common land.”

“Then why, prithee, do you need me at all?” Dumplypump blustered, setting his chins awaggle.

“My men need to rest,” Lord Holdfast deigned to perch a slender buttock on the edge of the table, “and your stronghold is ideally situated, being within coo-ee of Fireblast’s territory.  And, since we were passing, I thought the opportunity ripe to pop in and invite you to join us.  What do you say?  Your army joined with mine; Lady Fireblast won’t know what’s hit her!”

The baron performed a good impression of someone mulling it over when, in truth, the idea had already occurred to him.  To join with Holdfast and unite against the scourge of the Eastern Realms!

As always in these situations, it did not pay to appear too keen.

“I think…” he said, as archly as he could, “…that is an excellent idea.  But I do not wish to appear inhospitable.  I shall send casks of ale to your men to bid them welcome.”

“Capital!” Lord Holdfast stood.

“And you shall dine with me this evening, My Lord.”

“You are exceeding generous, Dumplypump.”

“Osterban, please.”

“And I am Terkus.”

The men nodded curtly to each other.  Lord Holdfast clicked his bootheels together and strode out.  Baron Dumplypump let out a girlish giggle.  He rang for Nebbish, his chamberlain.

Having given the servant his orders, the baron slipped into his private chamber.  He drew aside a velvet curtain to reveal a tall looking-glass in an ornate frame.

“My Lady?”

The surface of the mirror seemed to shimmer and a shadowy figure appeared, slender and sinuous and with glowing eyes like emeralds.  Out poured the Baron’s news, his words tumbling over themselves like horses in a stampede.

“Excellent!” said a voice like scraping on the glass.

“And the poison in the ale should be taking effect right about now,” Dumplypump tittered.  “I cannot wait to see Lord Stuckup’s face when he finds himself alone and surrounded by thousands of my men.”

The image in the glass grew as the figure stepped closer.  It took on the shape of Lord Holdfast and an arm reached out and seized what it could find of the baron’s flabby neck.

“Treacherous toad!” Holdfast spat.  The baron choked and spluttered.  Holdfast stepped from the frame and drew his dagger.

“Wait, wait!” Dumplypump cried.  “We can still work together!  We can take that bitch down!”

Holdfast’s nose wrinkled as though the baron had emptied his guts on the flagstones.

“I don’t think so.  You see, this was all a test, my fat, flabby friend; and you failed.  I don’t have ten thousand men; I have barely half a dozen.  Those casks of ale were sent back to your own troops.  A modest bribe to your man Nebbish allowed me access to this room.”

Dumplypump gaped.  “All is lost!” he quailed.  “I’ll get you for this!” he roared as Holdfast shed the cloak that had been his disguise.

“Oh, yes?” Holdfast arched an eyebrow.  “You and whose army?”

castle tower

 

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Space Nuptials

Boruba Meinfarb adjusted her veil and gazed at her reflection, now hazy, in the full-length mirror of her dressing room.  To her, the veil seemed redundant, a sentimental throwback to her intended’s heritage on Old Earth, when, in more barbaric times, men would wed their brides unseen.  Ridiculous now to cover her face when Zed Bronco had memorised her features – if the sketches he kept sending her were any proof.  The drawings had helped to win her over, eroding her resolve.  Zed Bronco was many things but he was also loyal and his affections unwavering.  And good-looking to boot!

A comms link booped.

“Ready for you, Miz Meinfarb,” intoned the voice of the robo-minister.

“Right.”

This is it!

She smoothed the bodice of her arctic-white dress, noticing her hands were clammy.  Why am I so nervous?  Beings get married every day.

Steeling herself, she entered the wedding chamber.  An android rolled up on caterpillar tracks, offering to give her away.

“Bug off!” she snapped.  She began her slow and steady progress along the aisle, at the head of which her groom was waiting.  Even with his back to her, Zed Bronco cut a dashing figure.  Her heart fluttered.  He had rented an intelli-fabric Tuxedo that shaped itself to show off his  physical attributes, its colour changing with his moods.  At present it was a serene shade of blue.

How is he so calm, Boruba frowned?  I’m like a Hongoolian jumping bean on a griddle.

The rows of seats she passed were sparsely attended.  Robotic witnesses for hire sat patiently, their smiles painted on.  Neither she nor Zed had what you might call friends.  It had always been just the two of them in their on-and-off relationships, professional and personal.

At last, she reached his side and the soft organ music which she only now realised had been emitting from the belly of the robo-minister faded to silence.  Zed glanced sideways and his wedding suit flashed red – just for a nano-second but Boruba grinned.  He is nervous!

“Dearly beloved,” the robo-minister began, his teeth glowing, the chromium dome of his spherical head gleaming.

“Never mind that!” Boruba cried, drawing a plasma-blaster and shooting the robot’s head off.

“What the flub?” Zed sprang back, his suit oscillating between yellow and green, the fabric as confused as he was.

“I can’t do this, baby,” Boruba pouted sadly.

“But – but – it’s always been you and me and always will be!” Zed protested.

Boruba tore off her veil.  “I can’t do this!”  A sob escaped her.  “Run, Zed!  Save yourself!”

“What?”

“It’s all a lie, a trick to lure you here.  Go!  I’m so sorry!  I love you, I truly do!”

It was too late.

The witnesses surrounded them, shedding their metal casings to reveal the henchmen of Zed’s greatest enemy, Dorudine Bigshot.  All the colour drained from Bronco’s Tux.

“You sold me out!  How could you?”

“It’s what we do, baby.”  Boruba tossed him a weapon.  “But I regret it now.  What say the two of us blast our way out of here and get a new start?”

“Go on then,” Zed shrugged.

They stood back to back and started shooting.

space bride

 

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Disciplinary

“Where were you, Billy Rain?”

“Um…” Billy Rain, newly arrived in the throne room, dipped his head.

“Well?”  Lady Fireblast drummed her fingers on the arm of the Golden Chair, the seat of power in the Eastern realms.

“I – um – overslept, My Lady.”  Billy Rain’s cheeks flushed.  “I heard the cry of the cockerel right enough but happen I went back to sleep again.  It won’t happen again.”  He bowed low, bracing himself for a scolding as searing as dragon’s breath.

“In Billy Rain’s defence, My Lady,” the reedy voice of Wormshank, Lady Fireblast’s monkish advisor piped up, “he was on Late Watch until the very early hours, guarding the castle from – well, My Lady does not need me to list her many foes.”

Lady Fireblast sneered.  Nictitating membrane flickered across her emerald eyes.

“Even so,” she kept her tone even, her words measured, “it is important that we are punctual in all things.  What if you were leading my army to war today, Billy Rain?  Would expect the enemy to wait for you on the battlefield like a jilted date, or would you expect him to make encroachments on our lands without your interference?  I am quite sure the likes of Lord Holdfast and Baron Dumplypump – not to mention the Fiends from the Fjords – would not scruple to take full advantage of your tardiness and then where would we be?  Lying on this very floor with our throats cut, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“My Lady,” Billy Rain cleared his throat.  “I am not a soldier.  I am a blacksmith’s son from a backwater village –”

Lady Fireblast cut him off.  “Spare us the humble beginnings speech, I beg you.  We have all heard it many times.  Grateful though I remain for the rescue of my daughter from the ruffians who accosted her on the High Road, impressed though I still am by your unrivalled swordsmanship and strategic thinking, be warned, Billy Rain the blacksmith’s son: your bluff, roguish charm will only get you so far.  You shall lose a week’s pay and there’s an end to it.”

At her side, a liveried servant banged a gong: Lady Firebrand had spoken.

She rose gracefully from the Chair and stalked from the room; the long train of her iridescent gown shimmered and slithered like a dragon’s tail.

Billy Rain’s eyes met those of Wormshank.  Both men let out a sigh of relief and laughed.

“A week’s pay when I were only half an hour late!”  Billy Rain wailed.

“You got off lightly there, my son,” the monk patted his shoulder.

“Aye, happen I did,” Billy Rain set his jaw.  “I don’t suppose this is a good time to ask for the afternoon off.”

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Space Bar

The hooded figure slid into the booth.  Zed Bronco barely looked up from the goblet of Hongoolian mind-wipe he had been nursing all evening.  Deep in the shadows of the cowl, red eyes glinted like embers.  A gauntleted hand pushed a package across the table.

“It’s all there,” hissed a voice from somewhere within the robes.

“I’m sure it is.”  Bronco left the package untouched.  “What makes you think I want it?”

“You need it,” came the rejoinder.  “You need this job.”

“Hell I do.”  Bronco swigged the lees of his drink and got to his feet.  The gauntlet seized him by the wrist.

In a nanosecond, all that remained of the hooded figure was the severed hand still gripping Bronco’s arm; the rest had been blasted to oblivion by Zed’s plasma-pistol, drawn before either of them had chance to see it.

I still got it, Bronco smirked to himself.

He peeled the dead fingers from his wrist and tossed the hand over his shoulder.  Already, the bar was resuming its customary atmosphere, as though this little disruption had never happened.  Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the package and slipped it into his pouch.

Folk of all shapes and sizes parted to let him reach the exit.  He was sure every eye was on him, every murmur was about him.

Hey, isn’t that –

Didn’t he used to be –

“Zed Bronco!” A familiar voice brought him up sharp in the rain-and-neon-spattered alley.  “Remember me?”

Zed sneered.  There wasn’t enough mind-wipe in all the universes…

“I’ll take what you’re holding.”  His former partner, Boruba Meinfarb stepped toward him, one hand out, the other clutching a disrupto-blaster that was trained on his heart.  “And don’t even think about giving me the old innocent look.  Hand it over.”

With a display of reluctant resignation, Zed unhooked the pouch from his shoulder.  He tossed it to the puddled ground between them.

“Good boy,” Boruba stooped to retrieve it, keeping her eyes on him.  She straightened, hitching the strap over her neck.

“The great Zed Bronco,” she shook her head.  “Once the scourge of the Seven Sectors and now reduced to – what? – a drugs mule for organised crime.”

“Oh, no,” Zed smiled.  “It ain’t drugs.  What you got there is contraband of another kind.  I suppose it don’t matter me telling you – you’re going to be dead in a few seconds from now.”

Boruba’s jaw dropped.  Her hand trembled.

“You’re bluffing,” she accused, her voice shaking.

“We’ll see,” Zed smirked.  “There’s a lucrative market for exotic and endangered species in these parts.  What you have around your pretty neck is a fine specimen.  You ever hear of the Hongoolian camo-snake?  Can disguise itself as practically anything.  Including travel pouches like that one.”

He nodded.

Boruba’s free hand clutched at the strap.  Was it her imagination or was the thing already tightening around her throat?

“Bye now!” Zed strolled away, whistling merrily.

“Zed!” Boruba wailed after him, too afraid to move a muscle.  “Zed Bronco!  You come back here!  Do you hear me?”

“Someone’s happy,” observed the cab driver as Zed dropped into his hoverpod.

“I am!” Zed grinned.  “I think it’s high time I took up playing poker.”

 

ray-gun-green-and-black-th

 

 

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The Exchange

Joe was met at the space-port by his host family.  They looked human enough.  Well, humanoid – if you disregarded their elongated, cigar-shaped torsos supported by three squat legs like a milking stool.  They smiled brightly, their large eyes shining.  The tallest of the trio – the father, Joe assumed – extended a clammy hand at the end of a spindly arm.  Joe shook it.

“Was that done well?” said the male.  “Your Earth custom?”

“Very well,” said Joe, hoping he’d find a moment to give his palm a surreptitious wipe.

“I am Gorb,” the male inclined his head.  “This is my spouse – the how you say chain-and-ball? – Flera.”

The female simpered and nodded.

“And our offspring, Teebo.  You will be sharing a room with it.”

Joe smiled at the youngest member of the family.  Patches of green blossomed beneath Teebo’s eyes, which Joe interpreted as blushes.

“You will be safe with Teebo,” Gorb explained with a chuckle.  “We do not choose our gender until our sixteenth rotation.  Prior to that we have neither sexual organs nor inclination.”

“Dad!” Teebo protested, flushing a brighter shade of green.

“We hope you will enjoy your stay with us, Cho,” Flera smiled.  “We will try to make you feel at house.”

“The boy is here to experience life on our world, our culture,” said Gorb.  “See how we do things in this sector, eh, Joe?  Right,” he clapped his hands.  “Let’s be going.  I’m sure Joe doesn’t want to spend his entire visit in the space-port.  Our family carrier is parked on the roof.”

The family waddled toward the exit.  Joe followed, struggling with his luggage.  Obviously not part of their culture to offer to help, he observed.

The doors swished aside and Joe was struck by the beauty of the lavender sky.  A pair of pallid moons shone their ghostly light on the elegant Hongoolian architecture of the city spread out before him.

“Yes, we rather like it too,” Gorb nudged him.  “This way.”

On the roof, row upon row of egg-shaped vehicles stood to attention.  Teebo beckoned Joe to the appropriate one and slid open a hatch in the side.

“Your suitcases,” Teebo grinned, reaching to take them.

“No!  Teebo, wait!”  Flera and Gorb cried out in panic.  “He hasn’t got the boots on yet!”

But it was too late.  Relieved of the ballast his baggage provided, Joe was already floating up into the sky, already out of reach of Gorb’s long and skinny arms.

“Whoops,” said Teebo, turning emerald.

“Poor Cho,” sobbed Flera.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Joe’s family was driving home, disappointed – to put it mildly.

“I really thought our exchange student was coming today,” Joe’s mother checked and rechecked the calendar in her phone.

At the wheel, Joe’s father gnashed his teeth.  “We send them our boy, our lovely boy, and what do we get?  A bloody puddle of goop!  It’s an insult, that’s what it is!  I’m going to contact our representative.  Don’t you realise the gravity of the situation?  This means war!”

luggage-md

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Silver Man

I wake.  Silverman senses this almost before it happens.  He waits at my bedside with my morning drink.  I sit up and thank him.  While I drink, he recites the day’s diary: appointments, meetings, tasks.  I pretend to listen then tell him to cancel everything.  I want the day to myself.

Not that I am ever alone.  Silverman is always with me, attending to my every need.

I raise my arms and he lifts off my night attire.  He carries me to the washroom where he bathes and dries me, gently but thoroughly.  I watch a TV over his shoulder: a running news channel.  The world is up to its usual tricks, I see.  People being horrible to people.  Why can’t they all be like Silverman?  Implacable, unshakeable Silverman.

He strides smoothly to the walk-in wardrobe to retrieve a pre-selected outfit.  I remind him that the day’s appointments are no more but, as ever, he has pre-empted my instructions.  He returns with casual wear more suited to my day of unscheduled leisure.  How did he know?

I look into his eyes, his pale, grey eyes.  He doesn’t blink or look away.

“Remarkable,” I tell him.

“Thank you, sir,” he inclines his head ever-so slightly.

The telephone glows.  Silverman answers.

“The young master is not to be disturbed,” he intones and I try not to chuckle.  He hangs up and I applaud his deadpan delivery.  He aims the remote at the TV at the foot of the bed.  My favourite film begins to play.

How did he know it was exactly what I am in the mood for?

I pat the bed but, as always, he declines the invitation.  He stands aloof while I enjoy the movie.  People doing unspeakable things to each other but in the name of humour.  People are funny things.

The movie is interrupted by banging on the door.  Silverman goes to intercept but he is pushed aside by a hassled-looking man, dripping with sweat, bursting into my apartment.  He pants, gasping out words, his hair wild and his eyes wide.

“You – should – be – at work!” he accuses.  He is blocking my view of the screen so I lean to port – or is it starboard?  I shall consult Silverman at a more convenient hour.  “Those – things – are going crazy.”

“Global Robots can look after itself for one day,” I snap.  “It’s what robots are ultimately meant to do.”

The hassled-looking man shakes his head in disbelief.  Silverman hands him a handkerchief he seems to have produced from nowhere; the man takes it and mops his brow.

“I shall go, sir,” Silverman nods.  But is he addressing me or our uninvited guest?

Before I can respond, he is accessing the control panel on the wall.  The movie stops, the lights go off and I lie down.

The last thing I hear before the door closes and I power down is Silverman assuring the hassled-looking man that I am merely a prototype and no threat to anyone.

butler2

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The Man in the Bowler Hat

The old man must have taken the seat opposite Sandy while she was fiddling with her mp3 player.  She looked up to find him watching her.  His eyes were benevolent, bright marbles beneath the canopies of his eyebrows.  White-haired he was and sported a thick but tidy moustache.  Dapper in his black suit and patent shoes; Sandy looked him up and down.  It was the bowler hat that really set him apart.  Sandy didn’t believe she had ever seen one before, not in real life.  The old films Nan was always watching were full of them: businessmen in bowler hats bustling to work in the City, like penguins in a nature documentary.  Umbrellas tightly rolled.  Newspapers sharply folded and tucked under a wing.

The old man smirked, enjoying her scrutiny.  Sandy blushed.  The luxuriant moustache twitched in a smile.  Awkwardly, Sandy returned it and looked away.

“Good morning,” the man said, his hands folded on the handle of his umbrella.  Sandy nodded, “Morning.”  She cast her eyes to her lap, wishing she had something to read, wishing she had accepted the free magazine from the lad in the hi-viz tabard at the station instead of hurrying past, jaw set and eyes averted.

At least I’d have a barrier, an excuse not to look at the old git.

Thankfully, the old git didn’t attempt to engage her in further conversation.  Sandy put her elbow on the narrow sill and rested her cheek on her palm and watched the countryside scurrying by.

The sky was grey and growing darker.  Raindrops clung to the glass like a beaded mesh.  I’m going to get drenched, Sandy realised, as the rain darted in earnest, volley after volley of arrows.

Her mind wandered.  She imagined the fields before they were fields.  As common land tended by bedraggled peasants, bent double in the rain.  As the sites of bloody, muddy battles where broad blades clanged against armour and men and horses screamed in agony.  As ancient woodland where fur-swaddled hunters stalked deer and rabbits.

The train jerked to a halt, the doors chirruping like crickets.

Sandy jerked upright, her palm slick with drool.  Dozed off, she realised… and the old man still watching…

“End of the line,” he smiled.  His voice was as warm as whisky.

Sandy blinked.  Feeling exposed, she pulled her coat around her and gathered the handles of her bag in her fist.  She gave a curt nod and stood.

“Wait, my dear!” the old man said, quiet but insistent.  “You will be drenched.  You’ll catch your death.  Here.”

He offered his umbrella, tightly wound like an upholstered walking stick.

“I couldn’t –” Sandy floundered.  “But thank you.”

“I insist.”

He placed the handle in her hand and suddenly he was on his feet and springing along the aisle.  He cast off his bowler hat and his hair, once arctic white, was chestnut brown.  He waved energetically from the platform, laughing and blowing kisses.  The moustache was gone; it had no place on a young man’s face.

Confused and suddenly breathless, Sandy lowered herself back into her seat, her joints creaking and protesting.  Her hands on the umbrella were pale, almost translucent, spotted with brown and corded with blue.

The train vibrated and shuddered, beginning the return journey.  Sandy turned from the window, reluctant to catch sight of her own reflection.

At least I haven’t got to wear a bowler hat, she mused.  She sat back, hands folded on the handle of the umbrella and waited for some bright, young thing to get on board.  Someone foolish enough to come out on a day like this without a brolly.

The sky was brightening and the rain was easing off.

I could be in for a long wait, she supposed.

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Space has no fury…

“Hey, baby, what’s up?” Zed Bronco rubbed his eyes and sat up in the cryo-bed.  His partner in work and in life, Boruba Meingarb was pointing the business end of a plasmo-blaster at his nose.  She tossed her blonde-green hair and curled her upper lip in a sneer.

“It’s over, Zed,” she frowned.  “We’re through.”

Zed laughed.  “Oh, baby, not this again!”  He put up his hands in surrender although the smirk on his chops suggested he was anything but sincere.  “Put that thing down before you hurt yourself and let’s talk.  Is the coffee on?”

Boruba glanced over her shoulder pad at the kitchenette – it was the momentary distraction Zed needed.  He kicked the gun from her hand and caught it, bounding to his feet in a fluid movement.  Boruba seemed more bored than surprised.

“I’ll make the coffee,” she sighed.

Zed sat at the table, his boots on the top while Boruba busied herself with beans and a grinder.  He watched the tense set of her shoulders.

“Listen, Boru baby.  If it’s about that barmaid on Reeglox V, that was all part of my cover.  It didn’t mean nothing.  And it got us access to the convention centre, didn’t it?  How else were we to pin down our target?”

Boruba didn’t answer, letting the whirr of the mechanism be her response.

“And I wasn’t trying to swindle you out of your share, baby; honest I wasn’t.  It was a clerical error.  I miscounted.”

Boruba shook her head as though clearing his words from her ears.  She watched the rich dark liquid filter into the pot.

Zed checked a few monitors.  “Where are we, anyway?  Why have you woken us up in the tail end of this godforsaken sector?  I should have known better than to let you set the coordinates!  Honestly, I’m a fool to myself.”

“Because I am female,” Boruba’s words were flat, her face expressionless.  She brought him a steaming mug.  Chuckling, he took his feet off the table.

She sat and watched him drink.  As his smug expression turned to confusion, anger and fear, her smile grew, stretching to a grin.

“What – have – you – done?”  Zed clutched his throat, dropping his coffee.

“Oops!” Boruba caught the mug before it could spill a drop.  He had always admired her superfast reflexes.  “I didn’t mean to put paralysing drugs in your coffee,” she purred.  She reached out to smooth a stray lock of hair from his forehead.  “I’m taking the shuttle,” she breathed against his cheek.  Zed’s eyes darted – the only part of him he could move.  “Don’t worry, baby, I’ve transmitted your location to all of your enemies.  I’m sure they’ll all be racing to be the first to get to you.”

“Hmmm!” Zed groaned, cried, and wailed all in one sound.

Boruba kissed her own fingertips and patted him on the nose.  “Toodles, baby.  I’d say it has been fun but one thing I ain’t is a liar.”

She slunk toward the airlock, affording him one last look at the curves he had so admired.

Powerless, Zed could do nothing but watch her go.

Typical woman, he thought.

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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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