Category Archives: Short story

Look Upon My Works

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

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

“What are you do –”

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

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

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

“Is radio,” he grunted.

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

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

“You send message.”

“Yes.  That’s what we do here.”

“To who you send message?”

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

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

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

Ossie ignored the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ossie frowned.  “Who you send to?”

“Point taken.”

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

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

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

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

Ossie grunted.  “I know television.”

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

The janitor sighed and lowered himself onto a chair.

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry.”

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

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

“Message will go on after world end.”

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

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

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

Krapinsky blinked.  It was a sobering train of thought.

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

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

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

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

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

He unfolded the paper and prepared to type.

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

 hedy

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It’s…

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

“Hmm?” Victor squirmed behind the newspaper.

“You don’t think…”

“I don’t!” Victor snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

Victor threw down his paper and let out a roar.

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

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

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

“I didn’t know, did I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor gibbered.

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

Victor nodded.  “I’m sorry.”

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

dread

 

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Demons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was ready.

At the door, he paused.

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

Blaylock turned from the door and sat on a chair.

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

demon

 

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Meanwhile, in the school hall…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We prefer to stand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Shelley lowered himself onto his chair.

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

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Oh?”

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

Mr Stoker wandered away, muttering to himself.

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

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Nail Soup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now, we wait,” he stepped back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cauldron

 

 

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Not All Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something heavy thudded against the back door.

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

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

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

Horace stepped back so Dave could squeeze through the doorway.

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

Horace closed the door and pulled down the blinds.

“Make yourself at home,” he sighed.

bear head

 

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Meanwhile, in the stables…

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

In the stall, the boy Joss merely sneered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An equal opportunities abduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Meating

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

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

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

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

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

The audience settled.  Dom coughed.

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

He paused.  No one clapped.

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

He paused again.  Still no one clapped.

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

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

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

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

“Well, yes.  Yes, it is.”

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

“What?  What is this?  What customs?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Judy!”

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

The host handed Dom the long and curvy blade.

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

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

His fingers tightened around the handle.

Judy screamed.

 

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The Detective’s Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Funt fetched the milk carton from the fridge.

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

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

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

Mrs Funt placed the mug before him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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