Death by DVD

police-line-do-not-cross-tape-at-crime-scene-1

(850 words)

Horncastle Suicides, a special report by Genevieve Messier for the Horncastle Times. January 2018.

Horncastle, a small Roman town dating from the ninth century, and situated in the Lincolnshire Wolds, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, lies at the confluence of three waterways – the river Bain, the river Waring and the Horncastle canal. Today, many of the old wharf buildings lining the canal and the river Bain, once traversed by barges laden with grain, timber, and coal, have now been converted into smart, desirable apartments and town houses.

Horncastle boasts a plethora of antique shops, from the smartest emporia of expensive furniture and rare porcelain, to a converted church, shared by a number of dealers, with a myriad illuminated cases displaying bright, enticing jewelry and knick-knacks, to the chaotic and mind-boggling maze of bric-a-brac and junk that is Archer’s.

But this picturesque town and its surrounding villages hold a dark secret. In the past two years, since January 2016, there have been 12 suicides, predominantly of young people under the age of 21. An astonishing SIX times the national average.

Genevieve Messier spoke to Mary Todd.

Mary, your son, Saul, was just seventeen years old when he died. He was a pupil at the local grammar school. Are you able to tell me about it?

Yes, it was in February 2016, nearly two years ago. He’d gone to school, normal like, he didn’t seem upset or anything. When he didn’t come home I thought he’d gone to Wayne’s. That’s his best mate. About eight o’clock I phoned Wayne’s mum, Karen. She said Wayne was there but Saul wasn’t and that Wayne hadn’t seen Saul at school neither.

That’s when I got worried. I texted him, then later I phoned his mobile but he never answered, so I called the police. I spent a sleepless night, as well you can imagine. Then the next morning they came to tell me they’d found him in the woods, down the river just past Tesco’s. He’d hanged himself with his school tie.

I’m so sorry Mary. Did he leave a note?

Yeah, he did. It was under a pillow. It said he realised there was too much evil on Earth and that on ‘the other side’ it was just light and love, and that he wanted to join his friends there.

It was several months later that a rumour about a ‘suicide DVD‘ began to emerge. The police have denied any knowledge of it, but Genevieve Messier spoke to Susan Brown (not her real name), a pupil at the local Grammar school, where it is understood five students have taken their own lives in the past two years.

Susan, what do you know of this ‘suicide DVD’?

Well, some say these kids killed themselves cos there’s nothing to do round here and no work, or else cos their parents wouldn’t let them go into Lincoln of a weekend. But what others are saying is that there’s a DVD. You watch it and you just want to kill yourself afterwards. But you have to write a suicide note about how it’s horrible on Earth and lovely in Heaven, and how you just want to go there, now rather than later. Then you have to pass the DVD on to someone else, before you … top yourself. And that person is sworn to secrecy.

Have you seen this DVD?

No I haven’t! But a mate did. Kelly Ann.

What did she say?

Well, she said once the DVD starts, you can’t pause it, so she kept going out of the room and looking in from time to time. Anyway, it starts off showing all these horrible scenes from concentration camps, and the music’s really sad. Makes you want to cry, y’know. Then there’s film of these people disfigured by the nuclear bombs, and then these kids with awful injuries and mutations from gas attacks. Modern ones, y’know.

She could’ve turned the DVD player off though?

No, she said she wanted to see what happened. Anyway, after about twenty minutes, there’s all these coloured lights flashing on the screen, and this weird pulsing music. It’s really hard to look away, she said. Then it finishes off with instructions about how to hang yourself, how to do the knots and all that. Or if you don’t want to hang, they tell you about what pills to take, and how many.

Why didn’t Kelly Ann take it to the police?

Well, she’d been sworn to secrecy, y’know, so she had to pass it to a friend, Saul, his name was.

How did she feel when she heard he’d killed himself.

I dunno. She’d committed suicide herself by then.

Thank you Susan.

Just a fortnight ago, another young man, nineteen year old Jake Tyler, was found hanged in woodland by a disused quarry on Tetford Hill. The police are continuing to investigate this mysterious outbreak of suicides and would ask anyone with information to contact them.

For confidential support call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch – see www.samaritans.org for details

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Chateau Courdermaire

chateau

(850 words)

13th June 1952

Dearest Mama,

Well, we’ve all arrived safely and the chateau is lovely! Stephan drove us from Surrey in his motor car. We took the ferry from Portsmouth and the crossing was quite choppy. I’m afraid yours truly spent much of it leaning over the handrail! Anyway, after a couple of hours’ drive from Le Havre we found the place, with some trouble actually. You see, it was dark, and the chateau, although most impressive from the front, is actually only one room deep, and is sideways on from the road, so not what we were looking out for at all! Anyway, we sought directions in Ville de Courdermaire, and the fellows there had a laugh at our expense. Apparently we weren’t the first to drive past Chateau Courdermaire without noticing it!

It has a sweeping gravel driveway and Stephan’s motor car looks grand parked on it. I am taking lots of photographs!

Well, there are ten bedrooms on each of two floors. We selected rooms on the first floor as they are better appointed. I have a lovely four poster bed and an en suite bathroom, and I look out over sweeping lawns in front of the chateau. Imagine! Oh, I wish you could be with us mama, such a shame that your legs are bad.

Earlier, Jane came to me. ‘Come and see what I’ve found, mother!’ She was so excited. Well, down in the cellars there is a billiards table. You can imagine how Percy and Stephan took to that! They are down there now, as I write, showing Jane and Alexander the ropes!

The sun is sinking now, and I must start preparing supper. I am steaming a huge salmon and serving it with roasted vegetables from the village shop.

I will write again soon.

Much love,

Mary xx


25th June 1952

Dear Mrs. Henderson,

I write as the caretaker of Chateau Courdermaire to bring you news of a most awful incident, for which you have my deepest sympathy, madam. I hope the authorities will soon be in touch with you, but I wanted to let you know myself, as soon as I could. There is no telephone hereabouts and and the only thing is to write, although the post can sometimes be quite unreliable, especially to England, but I know I will have done my duty in informing you to the best of my ability.

Well, I am so sorry to say that your daughter, Mary, was found in a disused ice house this morning. It lies at the edge of the front lawn and is ten feet deep, and mostly full of water. It appears she may have wandered at night, tripped and fallen in. It is low and the entrance is open. We believe she may have been sleepwalking.

A messenger was sent to the local gendarmerie. They attended post-haste and announced that your dear daughter had drowned through circumstances unknown.

Again madam, you have my deepest sympathies.

Sincerely,

Agathe Lemaire


23rd June 1952

Dearest Mama,

I write again. Things here are a little odd. I have encountered the owner, a grand old gentleman by the name of Comte Ducard. He called one evening to ask if we were happy with the facilities here – we are! He resides with his brother locally when guests are staying at the chateau.

Anyway, Stephan has been behaving strangely. He seems enervated and pale and has been taking to his bed in the daytime. He also complained about some insect bites on his neck and is now accustomed to wearing a cravat. I have urged him to see the local medic. But you know Stephan, ‘No point in bothering the local quack, I’ll see a proper doctor when I get back, if needs be!’

The chateau has a series of dilapidated attics and also a strange ‘floor between floors,’ only about two thirds of the normal height. It has just one door at either end of the landing, both locked and nothing to see through the key holes.

At night I have awoken to footsteps both above and below my room. I’ve called out, but no one answers and the footsteps stop. Most probably this isolated French chateau is stirring my fancies!

This morning the fellows at the boulangerie seemed quite agitated. They told me to lock my door at night and to hang garlic over it, even giving me some and refusing payment! Can you imagine?! It seems superstition is still rife in the French campagne!

Well, today we were planning on driving to the coast, but once again, Stephan has taken to his bed, so we can’t go. He does look very pale. I do think he should see a doctor.

Well, I hope you are well mama, and your legs aren’t troubling you too badly.

I will write again soon.

Your loving daughter,

Mary.

P.S. I saw in the mirror just now that I have insect bites on my neck too. I cannot believe it is contagious. Perhaps it is the bedding? I will speak to the caretaker, Madame Lemaire, about it.

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… but Can You Hide?

mini gun

(600 words)

To Whom It May Concern

First, the good news. If you are reading this, you are still alive. Now, the bad news. In 24 hours’ time you probably won’t be!
You see, you took something that didn’t belong to you. Oh yes, you likely thought, ‘I’d better take this briefcase to lost property,’ didn’t you? But then curiosity got the better of you. ‘I’ll just take it home first, have a quick look inside, maybe I can find the owner’s phone number. It’ll be quicker that way.’ Pull the other one!
Well, wherever you are. At home, in a seedy cafe, maybe in a dirty, smelly little toilet, there’s something you need to know. YOU are now the target in an assassination game! You have 24 hours to hide or be killed, probably in quite a nasty way.
You see, the briefcase had a chemical powder on the handle. Nothing that’ll harm you (much). You can’t see the stain it made on your hand but it IS visible through special glasses. The ones worn by our agents. And by the way, it takes a few days to wash off!
The briefcase has a hidden camera. Ha, you didn’t expect that, did you?! A number of images have been taken of you and posted on secret websites. The ones used by our spies. Yes, there are such people and, furthermore, they need ‘live’ training exercises from time to time. Hence this little ‘challenge.’
So, as you are reading this, you may feel a little frightened. ‘Is this real?’ you are asking. Or maybe you’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is one of those silly TV pranks. I’ll be on the telly! Better brush my hair!’ Sorry! It isn’t. REALLY!
So, when you’ve finished reading this letter, you will have to start thinking and running. And by the way, just like the old TV program, this letter has a coating, which once exposed to air, will dissolve it within three minutes. Perhaps you’d better read a bit faster!
Well, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this (it’s all rather hush-hush), however I think it’s only fair. But between you and me, there are twenty agents vying for a job. A very prestigious job, a bit like James Bond. They have your picture, your hand(s) will glow when seen through their special glasses and they know where the briefcase is right now. So ‘they are coming to get you,’ as they say in the old horror films!
Well, every other day for two weeks, a briefcase, just like the one you ‘borrowed,’ will be left on a train somewhere. The successful agent will be the one who accrues the most points over the fortnight. The agents get points for both their speed in locating the ‘target’ (people like yourself!) and the originality of his/her ‘dispatch.’
For example, it could be a poisoned dart from a blowpipe (yes, we’ve borrowed a few ideas from our jungle ‘cousins’!), it could be a ‘crazed Japanese,’ slashing you across the throat with a ceremonial sword, or perhaps a noose thrown over your head from a passing motorbike, before you are dragged to your death along the road. I know the agents are having fun with their ideas! They’ll each have a partner on hand to film your demise!
Anyway, the clock is ticking so you’d better get moving. The good news. The hunt will be called off, and you’ll be a free man (or woman) if you survive 24 hours! Good luck, you will (definitely) need it!

MI6

PS. I know what I’d do. But I’m not telling 😉

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Here’s Looking at Your Kid

pythagoras 2

(650 words)

“Well, did you hear about Gary?” Nadine’s face was flushed, as if drunk.
“No.”
“He’s just beaten the telesales record for the year and he’s only been here a month!”
It was July. “What?!”
“Well, Malcolm just posted the sales on the board. Go and look!” She laughed. “Speak of the Devil!”
Gary appeared, grinning from ear to ear. He was a ‘ginger,’ and sported a neat beard. A fan of Prince Harry perhaps? “It’s true folks, I’m the number one salesman, sorry, sales person!”
“What’s your secret, Gary?” I asked, feeling a little shy, now he’d proven himself to be such a potent newcomer.
He looked directly into my eyes and I noticed his, a pale blue, like the birds’ eggs me and my brother would take from nests, still warm, when we were kids. They opened wide. “Well Flora, the trick is to stop them hanging up. I’ll try a few angles, quickly, see if I can find out what makes them tick.” His translucent blue eyes bored into mine. I couldn’t look away. “Like you, Flora, what’s your number one interest?”
I spoke from the heart. “Well, my twins. I just want them to do well at school. Get good results, not be bullied, that kinda thing.”
“So, you’d be interested in software that’d help with their studies, of course?” The blue eyes continued to gaze into mine.
I felt light-headed. “Yes, if it covers the National Curriculum, I suppose I would.”
I looked down at a pink software sales slip. Seemed I’d signed up for Maths for Movers!, and English for Champs! “Where’s Gary?” I asked Nadine.
“He just went. Are you OK?” She sounded concerned.
“Yes, sorry, my mind’s gone blank. One minute I was talking to Gary, then ….”
“Who was Pythag … Pythagoronous?” asked Andrew, aged ten.
“Pythagoras! He discovered the rule about the square on the hypotenuse, what you were supposed to have been watching! Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Yes, it was saying something about his followers. Did they have Facebook then?”
“Don’t be silly! This was over two thousand years ago! Those were the Pythagoreans, they followed his teachings. Some of his ideas were accepted and some weren’t. They’re still going.”
“Huh?”
“Also, Pythagoras invented the musical scale. There, bet you didn’t know that!”
“I’m hungry!”
“Didn’t Kathy call you for tea?”
“No, she’s in a bad mood. Something to do with her boyfriend.”
Bloody Kathy! We’d hired her to work in our kitchens four days a week – we ran a small cafe, adjoining the house. She was supposed to fix the kids’ lunch and tea too, but recently she seemed to spend more time arguing on the phone with her new boyfriend than working. I’d have to have a word with her. My stomach felt queasy at the thought. I wasn’t one for showdowns. “Where’s Ally?”
“Watching that English software you gave us.”
Just then Kathy came into the lounge.
No time like the present! “Look Kathy, er, we need to speak ….”
“If it’s about John, it’s all over. I’ve found out he’s a ….” She looked at Andrew. “Well, not to mince words, a pervert!”
“What?!”
“He’s a smooth talking conman, sells software for school kids that comes with a free virus! Lets pedophiles control kids’ webcams and send them instant messages!”
I had a sudden thought. “This, ‘John.’ He doesn’t have ginger hair and a beard by any chance.”
Kathy’s jaw dropped. “How on earth …?!”
Allison, Andrew’s twin came into the room, naked from the waist up, save for her ‘training’ bra.
“Oh my God, did you just get a message to strip off?” I exclaimed.
Allison looked horrified. “What are you on about, mum?”
“There might have been a pervert using your computer to spy on you!”

“Oh, what?! I spilt coffee on my top, I was just going for a clean one. Anyway, I should be so lucky!”

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Oh, Moo-ah Moo-ah!

oumuamua

(500 words)

“Well, people don’t have to think for themselves nowadays, do they?”
“How d’you mean?”
“Well, in the ‘old’ days they didn’t know the Earth was round or that it went round the Sun. Or that the circumference of a circle is pi times the diameter. People, ancient people, like the Pythagoreans, had to work it all out for themselves, actually reason stuff out! Now you just look it up online and think, ‘oh, yeah.’ You don’t question it, you just accept it as the truth.”
Sue laughed, blue eyes twinkling and the dimples in her smooth brown cheeks making her look adorable. “So who are … were the Pythagoreans when they were at home?”
“They followed the beliefs of Pythagoras, that the universe was ordered around ratios of whole numbers, look never mind all that. I’m just saying that this so-called interstellar rock, Oh-Moo … whatever, it’s got a bloody silly name, could be an alien artefact, a spaceship even.”
“But it says on the news it’s a rock. Similar to asteroids in the outer solar system.” She stretched her long tanned legs out along the sofa and reclined. “Anyway, it looks like a rock!”
“That’s an artist’s impression, you idiot!”
“Oh, are you sure?”
“Yes, of course I’m sure. No one’s taken a photo of it. For God’s sake!”
“Well it looked realistic.”
“Yes, ever wondered why governments would commission fantastic artists to paint a couple of highly realistic rocks, when they know fuck all about what it really looks like?!”
Sue put her hands over her eyes, as if wishing to shut out any doubt.
“Look it’s travelling at nearly 30 kilometres a second, that’s how they know it’s not from our solar system, it’s too fast. Then the brightness varies a lot, that’s how they know it’s spinning.”
“Why would a spaceship spin?”
“I don’t know, it might be damaged, derelict even. Or just some kind of unmanned probe.”
She drew her knees up, showing a flash of pale lemon knickers. “What, you mean like a probe to Uranus?” She giggled.
I ignored her. “Anyway, how many asteroids are eight times as long as they are wide?!”
“How should I know, I’m not interested in space stuff!”
I sighed. “Look, there’s a guy on Twitter, reckons it’s bright pink and likely titanium. That sound like a rock to you?”
She stood up, smoothing back her shoulder-length blonde hair. “Look, you ever thought, people are just making it out to be whatever they want it to be?”
“Huh, maybe. Who knows?” I clicked on Sky News on my laptop. “Bloody hell, hey, listen up! They’ve just detected another one, out beyond Neptune, same speed, same size, same rotation. You reckon that’s just a coincidence? Multiple comets, asteroids or whatever, coming from another star system?”
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough.” She smoothed a hand over her breasts, opened the fridge and extracted a bottle of lemon-coloured nectar. She poured out a large glassful. “You want one?”

 

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Shameless!

rr5guitar2

(700 words)

Cooee! Over here! I’m waiting and ready for you! Look! Don’t you admire my hourglass figure? True, not as slim as some, but then again, I’m not so young any more. But I think I’m wearing pretty well, wouldn’t you say?
Don’t you admire the gold bands I wear on my neck? My rich mahogany body, the intricate rosette I wear at my waist?
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve not always been faithful. You watched me go off to the Czech Republic with another, and you didn’t even try to stop me. And worse, it was with a woman! An oriental wench, twenty years older than me! I blush when I remember that there‘s even a video of us together. For that I beg your forgiveness.
So, reach out for me. I’m longing for the caress of your fingers, the excitement of your skilful touch, waiting to abandon myself to you, I don’t care! It may sound shameless but I want to surrender to you!
Don’t listen to her, look at me! See, I wear bands on my neck too, but of better quality, and above them, a piece of precious ivory. And, ‘tis true we are of similar age, but see how much younger I look, my face smooth and unblemished. I know you adore my curvaceous body, and I thrill to the touch of your hands upon my waist.
And I have breeding. I was born in far off Japan before I came to London, when young. My father was a skilled craftsman. Look at her! She can’t even tell you where she was born, and her father was just a humble factory worker!
I’ve always remained faithful to you, never run off with any ‘floozie,’ like her. And I hear she even let herself be caressed in public, whilst being filmed, no less! Honestly, she has no shame!
So come, my dear, grace me with your gentle touch and I will sing so sweetly for you!
He entered the music room, looking round at the instruments hanging on the walls and stood on stands. For some reason, the first two he ever acquired caught his attention. Yes, there was his Saxon, bought from a mail-order catalogue for £30, what 43 years ago? Orange-faced, and a body of dull brown mahogany. Of anonymous ‘foreign’ manufacture. Nevertheless, its tone had improved with age. He’d had the frets filed too, and changed the tuners himself. He’d even had a golpeador fitted for flamenco.
Then there was his Takumi. Bought from Ivor Mairants Music Centre in Soho, perhaps three years later than the Saxon? £150. Ivor himself had demonstrated it, playing Variations on a Theme by Mozart by Fernando Sor. His thumbnail had been broken, so the bass was soft.
He remembered taking it to a luthier in Muswell Hill to have the ‘action’ lowered, the man working on it with a cigarette in his mouth. A long cylinder of ash defied gravity, hanging directly over the instrument as the man slackened the strings. He’d stood, expecting it to fall, then been told to return in a couple of hours, before discovering the fate of the ash.
Then he thought of his partner twenty years ago. How she’d gone on a guitar orchestra tour to the Czech Republic and taken his Saxon, her own instrument needing repair. Later, she’d paid for extensive rework on the Takumi – the top sanded down and French polished; silver dots laid along the edge of the neck, the saddle lowered and the ‘tie block’ changed to incorporate bridge pins, in order to get the strings as low as possible. Quite recently he’d had the French polishing redone.
Then his eye caught the exciting contours of his Jackson Randy Rhoads RR-5, an electric model with an asymmetric V shape. It had a longer, thinner ‘fin’ on the top, to rest the arm on, and perfect balance with a strap. It was finished in cream with a black pinstripe, with gold hardware, and a gold ‘V’ shaped tailpiece, where the strings went through the body. A pricey and ‘flashy’ instrument. Yes, he would practice on that one today. Sorry girls!

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Souls and Arrows

robin-hood

(1000 words)

Old Man

He looked across the village green to a small huddle of folks, dressed in T-shirts and shorts, mostly. They surrounded a boy, tall and skinny, his long brown hair flopping over his face. The boy, holding a long bow, reminded him of a lamppost gone wrong. Seemingly without effort, the boy drew the bow and loosed an arrow, standing motionless as it thudded into the centre of the distant target, joining two others there. A ripple of applause went around the small crowd watching.
Yes, he’d do. He’d do very nicely!


Boy

He’d noticed the old man standing at the periphery of the crowd. It was hard not to. Although the sky was filled with cumulonimbus clouds, towering up to distant anvil-shaped plateaus, the air was full of the warmth of summer. He, himself, wore a red T-shirt, green shorts and sandals. The old man, on the other hand, wore a black trench coat and top hat. Maybe it was some kind of costume. Yes, of course, that was it!
He handed the bow and arrow to the next competitor, wishing him luck, as the old man approached.
“You shot them arrows real good!” The old man spoke with an American accent.
He noticed the old man’s thin lips and green eyes, the pupils just black slits. Like a snake, he thought. “Thanks.”

Old Man
“What’s your name, son?”
“It’s Sam, er, Sam Torresi.”
“How d’you learn to shoot so well?”
“My grandad owns an archery shop, he teaches me ….” He hesitated, unsure whether to confide in a stranger. He pushed his unruly mop of hair back from his sweaty forehead. “I’m at theatre school in town now though … so I’m out of practice.”
“Theatre school. Hmm. Well I figure I can help you out there, son.”
“How?” The boy looked wary, but interested. Good!
“Well, so happens I can make you an offer that’ll get you what you want.”
“I’d like to be famous. In the movies!”
“Exactly! And I can get you just that!” His thin lips formed a smile, showing yellowed, smoker’s teeth.

Boy
He regarded the old man’s face. The cheeks were hollow, the skin tawny, but curiously unlined, as if he’d had an endless series of facelifts. “Yeah, as if! Look are you selling something?”
“I guess I’m sellin’ … dreams.” The old man reached into his coat and pulled out a photograph and a wrinkled, folded-up letter. “You ever hear of Elvis Presley?”
He reached out to take the documents. Momentarily he touched the old man’s hand. It was like ice. He read the inscription below the smiling handsome face. ‘To Tom, thanks for making my dreams come true, affectionately Elvis.’ The letter had the same handwriting and talked about shows and recording dates.
“How do I know this is real? And who are you?”

Old Man
“They call me The Colonel. I knew Elvis’s momma and poppa, Gladys and Vern. I managed him for over twenty years!”
The boy regarded him with curiosity. “But then you’d be real old, I mean real old!”
He laughed. “When you have money you can have … things that ordinary folk don’t know about.”
The boy blinked, silent now. Almost hooked!
“Look, let’s cut to the chase. I’ll make you famous. In return, I’ll give you a deal. You shoot one of your arrows, only one mind. If it hits the bullseye then there’s no charge.”

Boy
He knew he couldn’t miss, but played along. “What if it doesn’t?”
The old man removed his top hat and held it against his chest, revealing long wispy grey hair. Suddenly he looked very old. “You meet me here, in this exact spot, in eighty years’ time, eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. Then you pay the price I ask.”
He imagined the green transformed, white with a blanket of snow. Heated tents adorned the field and coloured lights hung from poles. In the centre was a huge Christmas tree, covered in sparkling white lights and glittering baubles. Crowds of warmly dressed folk laughed and smiled, drinking hot beverages and mulled wine. And the old man stood there, in his black trench coat and top hat. As black as death. He shuddered. “OK.”
The old man followed him to the now-empty target range, and watched him retrieve the bow and an arrow from a tent. No one paid attention to them.
“Remember, Christmas Eve, eighty years from now. Right here. Eight o’clock in the evening. Only if you miss, mind!”
He nodded and stood straight, at the shooting mark, the arrow in place. The old man smiled. He hesitated, then grinned back. What the old man said didn’t make sense, but he nevertheless couldn’t help but believe him.
He drew the bow and, feeling a strange mixture of nervousness and confidence, sighted the arrow just as his grandfather had taught him. He took a deep breath. Just then, a huge black bird swooped down in front of him, flapping its wings and disappearing off over the field, making him flinch as he released the arrow. With a sinking feeling in his guts he saw he’d missed the bullseye. “That wasn’t fair. I’m taking it again!” He looked around but the old man was nowhere to be seen.
He returned the bow and arrow to the tent. Huh, never mind, the whole thing was nonsense!
On coming out, a man was waiting. He looked vaguely familiar. His face was flat, not handsome. “Hi, I’ve been hearing good things about you!” The man proffered a card.
He felt surprise, but, yes, he was probably top of the class in most acting disciplines. His singing and dancing were coming along too. “Yeah, sure.” He took a proffered card from the man’s hand and examined it. “Quentin Tarantino, hey, I’ve heard of you!”
“We’re auditioning for a live action version of Young Robin Hood. It’ll be a warts an’ all account!” Tarantino smiled and winked. “You’ve every chance of being chosen.”

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The Visitation

Sabino+Canyon+National+Forest,+Tucson+Arizona,+NuventureTravels.com,+Saguaro+Cactus,+Desert

(900 words)

“Head for the hills, ‘cos I’m looking for thrills …,” sang Hamish, his Scottish burr prolonging ‘thrills.’
“I could use some of those,” laughed Julia, a short, stocky woman in her sixties.
I hoped she didn’t have me in mind.
The sun was sinking, lengthening the shadows of saguaro cacti, towering here and there along our way. Ahead, in the distance, across miles of flat, arid, semi-desert scrubland, lay a low range of hills, our destination.
Normally we’d have had a bumpy journey in an SUV but the prof’s plan had us dropped off on this side of the centre, giving us a chance to ‘acclimatise’ before our two week residence, by plodding through the hot desert for hours. Every few minutes he’d take out a notebook and write mysterious observations, sometimes pulling out a tape measure and gauging the length of a cactus arm or the height of an inconspicuous shrivelled brown plant.
It was still warm, the motionless dry air oppressive, and I was hot and sweaty. Damn Hamish! I shifted my backpack into a more comfortable position – this gear weighed a ton – and assessed the party. There was Professor Hamish McPherson, our erstwhile leader, then Julia Surey, a paramedic – no stranger to carrying defibrillators up flights of stairs, judging by her biceps. Then Valencia Lopez, a slight, brown, forty-something scientist from Paraguay, John ‘Garry’ Garau and myself, Sam Piccarreta, both in our thirties and qualified animal psychologists.
“I saw something move!” exclaimed Valencia, pointing across the endless flat dry scrub that stretched to the distant horizon.
“Could be a coyote,” said Hamish.
She took out some binoculars, scanning the desert. “It looked bigger, more upright.”
After a minute Hamish spoke. “Come on, we should get to the centre before dark.” As always he spoke quietly, insistently. A kind, easy-going man who preferred to lead by example, he nevertheless had an unstoppable drive when it came to getting what he, or the team, wanted or needed.
I looked at Val, wondering. I’d never heard her mention a husband, or a partner of any kind come to think of it. She wasn’t bad looking. I watched the sway of her narrow hips as we started again, imagining running my hands over her naked thighs. Come on Sam, snap out of it! The desert was getting to me and I’d only been here five minutes!
It was almost dusk when we reached the high wire fence surrounding the centre, a network of squat concrete buildings, set against a deepening turquoise sky. Soon stars would begin to peek through the dwindling light, preparing for their lonely, cold sojourn. A large sign stated Big Cat Conservation Trust. Hamish rang a bell, a gate opened and a man appeared.
Hamish greeted him without introduction. “How are the animals tonight?”
“They seem restless, very restless. It’s strange. I’ve never seen them quite like this.”
“Huh, that’s odd.”
We peered down into a sunken enclosure where a pair of Lynx lived. They were both patrolling the walls, agitatedly, but in opposite directions, rubbing their faces together briefly on each pass.
There were forty big cats here – lynx, cougars, bobcats, ocelots and jaguars, mainly in high-walled outside pens, furnished with platforms and shelters. Some had lived here since the centre was built seven years ago, but mainly they were released back into the wild after a year or two.
An enormous crack of thunder startled me awake in my small room. That was unusual. Then another, almost overhead, making my heart pound. Outside, the cats were yowling. Then a sound we didn’t often hear – heavy pouring rain crashing down on the roof and outside, turning the dust into mud. I could smell the scent of it through the air conditioning, and knew it’d wash the world outside clean. The plants would be grateful I thought. No, that’s silly, plants can’t think. Not as we know it, anyway. I drifted back to sleep to the rhythm of the rain.
The next thing I knew was a frantic pounding on my door. My clock said 06.42. What the hell?
“Sam, Sam, something awful’s happened!” It was Valencia. Her face was streaked with tears and she could hardly speak. The others were gathered on the veranda. The sun was up and the heat of the day was already building.
She led me down some steps and hit a number pad. The door into the jaguar enclosure opened. There they were, or what was left of them. Maia and Gaia. Their eyes were missing and their bodies had been stripped of flesh in places. Neatly incised down to the bone. “They’ve had their blood taken.”
“What?!” I could see the remaining flesh was whitish. “Are there any others?”
“They’re all like this, except for the ocelots”
They were kept indoors at present. “Oh my God!”
Back on the veranda, the professor spoke. “I’ve radioed it in. The police will come out later this morning.”
“I don’t understand.” Valencia was crying. “Who would do this?”
“Whoever, or … whatever, did this, they weren’t from … around here,” said Hamish.
“What’ll happen?” I asked.
Hamish smiled wryly, “They’ll say it’s natural causes … or cults.”
I gazed out across the desert and gasped at a purple bloom. As if the life taken from the cats had been transferred into the normally drab and desolate vegetation, a sea of flowers was springing into existence.

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Golden Tips

Darjeeling_Tea_Garden_worker

(1000 words)

Head Cook and Bottle Washer was the name of the quaint little cafe I’d discovered. It looked empty, but I’d fancied a change from the noisy, greasy clientele, and the even greasier sausage rolls of Kell’s.
“Here you are, sir.” A girl placed a silver tray onto the blue chequered tablecloth in front of me and transferred a white porcelain tea pot and cup onto it, followed by a white plate with a pink rose motif. On it sat a large scone, dotted with dried mixed fruit. Then a small bowl containing butter, and diverse jugs of milk and hot water.
“I’m impressed!”
Her large green eyes looked into mine with a sincerity that made me feel slightly embarrassed. “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
“No, … no, that’s fine thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.” She smiled and walked away. I noticed she wore a smart brown uniform with a white apron, and matching white headpiece. This cafe might be small but they didn’t do things by halves!
I poured some tea out, noticing it looked good and strong, just how I liked it. I took out my phone. There was a message from Laura. Could I collect Shaun from school? She had a migraine. I looked at my watch, only 2 p.m. No problem. I buttered the scone and took a bite, starting to text a reply. Suddenly I stopped. This scone was gorgeous! Rich, fine-textured, and the dried fruit – sultanas, raisins, cherries, and others, more mysterious yet – were sweet and deliciously spiced. Why waste attention on a stupid text message?!
I looked around. There weren’t many tables, perhaps ten, mainly arranged along a kind of corridor, with three at the front of the cafe and three behind me at the rear. Only two were taken. A mother, father, and two small children, mouths full of cake rendering them temporarily silent, sat at the front, and behind me an old couple, whispering secretively, as if discussing a terrible family secret.
The girl stood at a counter looking attentive. “Was everything all right for you, sir?”
“Actually, it was delicious!”
“We bake our Scottish Lardy Cakes fresh every morning.”
“Well it was lovely!”
She smiled, as if genuinely pleased I’d enjoyed it.
“And the tea was lovely too!”
“Oh, yes, we import it from India, it’s our own blend.” She gestured to some small orange boxes on a shelf, high on the wall behind her – Head Cook & Bottle Washer Golden Tips.
I handed over the surprisingly reasonable price for my tea. “I’ll probably get some next time.”
“Yes, it’s very popular.”
That had been Thursday. So enamoured had I been with the place, and remembering an enticing array of cakes in a lighted compartment under the counter, I returned on Monday afternoon, having finished work early, to find it was closed. I felt a stab of disappointment and looked at the opening hours. Monday to Tuesday 09.00 to 12.00, Wednesday to Thursday Closed, Friday to Saturday 09.00 – 16.00. Sunday Closed. Hmm. They didn’t seem to open much.
I peered through the window. The cakes were gone but the tablecloths were in place, and the little orange tea boxes stood to attention neatly on the shelf. But with the lights off and no sign of life it all looked rather forlorn.
“Look Jilly, you must come to this fabulous little cafe I’ve found!”
“Where is it?”
“It’s behind the market place, down the little alleyway opposite the Cats Protection charity shop. They do this divine Lardy Cake!”
“Oh, I don’t usually go down there.”
“I don’t think many people know about it – yet! They do their own special brand of tea, imported from India, can you believe?!”
“Wow! OK, that’d be lovely. Meet me from work at one on Friday and we’ll go down together.”
Friday came and at 1.10 p.m. precisely, we both stood, staring into the cafe window. A sign said, ‘Sorry, Closed due to illness.’
I felt deflated, embarrassed, although it was hardly my fault. “Look, that’s their special blend of tea.” I pointed to the little orange boxes on the shelf behind the empty counter.
Jilly was fine about it. “It’s OK. Don’t Worry. Look, we’ll come next Friday, give him, or her, a chance to recover!”
“Good idea! I’ll have something else next time too. I saw Traditional Poached Eggs on the menu, with smoked salmon.”
I took a break from work on Tuesday morning. I told my partner I wanted to check I’d locked my car properly. The cafe was sombre, unlit, the staff presumably still unwell. Still, they’d be well again in another three days, surely?!
Friday came and I was ravenous. I’d skipped breakfast, looking forward to a fuller repast there, and Jilly accompanied me, dressed in a fetching grey suit, her blonde hair in a pony tail, and swinging a smart red handbag.
We stood, gazing into an empty window. Tables and chairs were piled up. The tablecloths and till were gone. There were no cakes behind the glass under the counter, now unlit and forbidding, and the shelf on the wall was bereft of the orange tea boxes. The place looked dead, desolate, abandoned.
“Look,” said Jilly, pointing to a small handwritten sign in the door. ‘Closed. Opening soon under new management.’
I stared in utter disbelief. I could taste the Lardy cake, smell the fragrant brown tea pouring from the white porcelain teapot. See the girl’s pleasant smile and her large green eyes looking into mine, seeking approval. I wondered what could have happened? “Oh, that’s a shame. Sorry to have dragged you here again.” Why hadn’t I bought one of their little orange boxes of tea when I had the chance?
Jilly sighed. “Should we go to Kell’s? I’m hungry.”
The thought of their greasy sausage rolls made me feel sick, and they didn’t use butter in their sandwiches either, just a flavourless pale-yellow spread. “Oh, all right.” The coffee wasn’t so bad.

 

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For She Had Eyes ….

A-couple-kissing-beneath-the-mistletoe

(1200 words)

I could hear she was quite young, nervous at meeting me, wanting to make a good impression on her first day, but afraid of my disability.
“Andy’ll show you the ropes,” said Sheila, my boss’s secretary. “Andy, this is Sonya.”
“Hello Sonya,“ I said, and smiled.
“Hello, Andy,” said a girl’s voice.
I continued, “Well, this is where it all happens.” I ran an audio and video library for a big HR department. “I do the audio, and you’ll be my eyes for the video!”
She laughed self-consciously.
Once alone together, I said, “Look, I know you probably don’t want to talk about me being blind, but let’s get it out of the way.”
Her voice showed relief. “That’s fine, if you want to talk about it.”
“Take a seat.”
We both sat on comfortable black leather office chairs. “Look, I’m really not much different to anyone else. I’ve lost a sense, but I’ve made up for it in many ways.”
“Oh.”
“Well, I know you’re wearing mascara, I hear the clicking of your eyelashes.”
“Yes, I do.” She laughed, and it was genuine this time, surprised, interested.
“And you have shoulder length hair, I hear it brushing against a jacket. It doesn’t catch, so it’s not so long.”
“Wow, that’s right. Can you tell what colour?”
“May I?” I put a hand out towards her.
“Yes.”
I felt her hair. It was fine, soft, shampooed and conditioned this morning. I wanted to smell it up close, but that would be going too far. “It’s auburn I think.”
“That’s incredible!”
I smiled, no need to tell her that Sue in accounts had told me that. “From your voice, I’d say you were, er, 27 or 28.”
She laughed. “29 actually. By two months!”
“I must be slipping!” No one had told me that, but the timbre and manner of her speech had. “Look, close your eyes.”
“OK. now what?”
“Imagine you’ve just sharpened a pencil with one of those sharpeners with a holder for the shavings. Now you unscrew it and smell the shavings.”
“Wow, I can a bit!”
“Now, imagine a burning match. Then you blow it out. Can you smell the smoke.”
“Sort of.” She laughed.
“And that’s just with your imagination! So, us, er, blind people, we can do most any jobs nowadays, especially with all the technology we have now. It can read the screens, make the letters huge, change the colour of the fonts on command. All that kind of stuff.”
“What do you see Andy, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t see anything, Sonya, just light and dark. I can tell if it’s day or night!”
“That’s a shame.”
“They found I had glaucoma twelve years ago. It left me blind in my right eye, but I still had some vision in the left. That’s gone now, but I’ve got over it. It’s not such a problem. I’ve got a dog, Sasha, and a white stick. Most people are helpful.”
“Thanks for telling me all that,” she said, and I could tell she meant it.
Over the next three months, we worked together quite closely and I found her to be friendly, cooperative and efficient. I didn’t pry but she told me about her life. A difficult childhood with alcoholic parents, a chance to go to university. A guy, Chris, there. Then a life with an itinerant musician, Al, who found a kind of fame, and moved on to other pastures, and other women. She’d been on her own for a year and a half now. That surprised me. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that she was attractive.
Christmas came and she sat with me at the works’ Christmas dinner. “It’s OK Sonya, you don’t have to,” I said.
“I want to. Here!” She handed me one end of a cracker. We pulled it and it exploded, hurling something plastic into my face. We burst out laughing and I could hear her retrieving it.
“What is it?”
“Oh, it’s, it’s ….” Her voice trailed off.
I laughed. “A magnifying glass!”
“You’re amazing! How ….”
“From the sound when it hit the floor … and your embarrassment.”
She didn’t say anything.
You have it, you never know. It might come in handy!”
She laughed. “Are you coming to the party tonight, Andy?”
“I don’t know, I’m not really a party animal.”
“It’d be good to see you. I’m bringing a friend.”
“Oh.” I felt desperately disappointed, imagining a strapping rugby-player type.
That evening I’d spruced myself up and called a cab. I didn’t really want to go but felt I ought to show my face. The thought of Sonya being there tipped the balance. I used my stick, having given Sasha a break from her duties, and took the lift up to the entertainment suite on my own. The doors opened onto a noisy, crowded scene. Music was playing loudly, Merry Christmas Everyone, and glasses were clinking over the hubbub of speech.
“Andy!” It was Desmond, my boss. “Really pleased you could make it. Look, I want you to meet someone.” He escorted me across the crowded room to a secluded alcove. Several familiar voices greeted me on the way. They sounded genuinely pleased to see me, although their pleasure was doubtless fuelled by alcohol.
Someone handed me a beer and I was introduced to Paul, an information science graduate, who wanted to discuss reorganizing the sales training material. After about fifteen minutes, I’d had enough. Were Sonya and her friend here yet? I wondered. “Excuse me, Paul, perhaps we could continue our discussion in the New Year?”
He was good enough to take the hint. “Of course, Andy, sorry, let’s get you another drink.” He escorted me back through the throng to the bar. Suddenly I felt a hand on my arm.
“Andy!” It was Sonya. “Let me get you a drink, what would you like?”
I felt in need of something strong. “Oh could I have a large glass of white wine please?”
I could hear the tinkling sound of it being poured.
“Oh, and this is my friend, Erica.”
I felt a soft feminine hand in mine and shook it, feeling relief it was Erica not Eric.
“It’s nice to meet you, Erica,” I said.
Sonya spoke close to my ear. “She can’t hear you. She’s deaf!”
I stood, bewildered. For once I didn’t know what to say or do.
Then they both laughed. “Sorry, bad joke!” said Sonya.
I laughed with relief.
“Look, do you know what’s hanging above our heads,” asked Sonya.
“What?”
She put a hand on my arm and I felt the warmth of her face, smelt a faint, lavender perfume and wine on her breath. Then her lips on mine, hot, pressing, lingering, a touch of a flickering tongue. We embraced and I heard a cheer go up around us. I felt embarrassed but I didn’t care.
“Look, you two go and dance, I’ll catch up with you later,” said Erica.
“I’m not very good at dancing,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” said Sonya. She laughed and kissed me again, this time on the cheek. “Merry Christmas!” then led me towards the dance floor.

To purchase the stories (up to June 2017) in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audiobook form, please see Shop.

If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 400 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.

Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 190!