How strange? A ten-minute thriller with intriguing results…

We are all seeking that magical moment of recognition!

     But, is it what you really aspire to?

            … Or is it deceptively twisted into something else?

 

“Ancient Egyptian Dilemma”

By Stephen James

 

 As humans, the fascination, lure and excitement of an unexpected paragon discovery is an extremely powerful attraction. Many of us live in hope of a personal triumph which awaits just around that next corner. The chance of a lifetime. A financial windfall. Fame on an epic level or perhaps simply meeting the best person possible, for that very first time! It spells intrigue with a capital I. Blinded by this ‘Gold Fever’ attraction, often there is scant regard for the consequences…

Born in the north of Spain, a mild-mannered man was cruising peacefully through life, minding his own business and treading on nobody’s toes. He was forty-one years of age and abstemiously handsome. Initially from the small town of Aguilar de Campoo, Alex Harames had moved south with his wife Olivia of fourteen years. They now lived in Málaga, a substantially larger metropolis by the coast, but still below a million inhabitants. Olivia had urged Alex to install a substantial backyard in-ground swimming pool to entertain their four young offspring. After price negotiation, a contractor had been commissioned for the undertaking incorporating a five-week window for the scope of works. An excavator arrived days after the deposit had been paid and digging began. Alex took the day off from his job as a helicopter pilot, who flew guests staying at the ritzy Conquistador Ambassador Hotel out over Gibraltar and the narrow straits between Casablanca in Morocco ─ all the way to Seville. A career he loved. As work proceeded, the shallow pit grew to become a large hole. He stood by watching his backyard disappear into the tray of a dump truck, picturing the finished result. Suddenly he noticed something glinting in the sticky reddish-brown soil.

“Stop for a moment! What is that I see?” he called out sharply to the supervisor. The extensive hydraulic boom halted immediately. Alex and the workmen peered down with modest expectation. An obscure discovery was made. Partially uprooted was the inverted head and shoulders of a bust, about triple life-size. Fortunately, a thick layer of clay had separated the metal teeth of the machine’s bucket, suffice not to damage or scratch the statuette. Very carefully it was brought to the surface via a chained cradle and prudently cleaned. It appeared to be Egyptian. The face was of a man’s, depicted as heavily into his thirties. The features looked unlike the usual style of statue originating from Egypt. Comprehensively embossed with gold-plating, though tarnished and dull-looking from what must have been centuries of burial, the enchanting piece appeared genuine. A small section of the bottom corner and a portion of the statuette’s face had been broken away. Excitement followed, Alex thought he may have stumbled upon a small jackpot. His wife Olivia said it must be just some old knock-off artefact, perhaps a turn-of-the-century replica. To her, it made little sense that a relic of this size would have any reason to be this remote from its home-of-origin, but pragmatic Alex thought otherwise. An Egyptologist arrived from Madrid to verify the hieroglyphic engravings for authenticity. The significant statue was deemed worthy of further study. Alex figured his discovery, if genuine, would more than pay him dividends. His almond-shaped eyes rolled like the tumblers of a slot machine ─ the pupils aligning like a pair of winning tokens. After all, the golden coating alone must have been worth a fortune. After heuristic identification, all would be revealed…

The Spaniard escorted his prized carved stone to the Museum of Cairo. It weighed several hundred kilograms, costing him more in transportation than he’d bargained for. A relatively short jaunt east by ship across the Mediterranean, perhaps, but nonetheless with his passage included, the time and bills soon mounted up. He maintained a strong belief that his investment would prove rewarding. Alex stayed for a week, enduring an endless array of associated red tape to ensure that the M.O.C. authorities knew of his self-appointed ownership. Once satisfied, he returned to inspect his near-completed swimming pool.

At the museum, a buzz of intrigue soon followed. Hieroglyphics on the bottom perimeter were worn but just visible enough to see that they were pertinent in assisting with the ID. After many weeks of investigation, which incorporated Archaeomagnetic dating, it was identified as Freesias Chrysies Mahmood, a 4600-year-old Pharaoh. The little-known king had ruled for seventeen years before being cursed and put to the sword by his own people for iniquity and adulterous behaviour. Mahmood had been part of the Old Kingdom or 3rd Dynasty ─ through to 6th Dynasty, just following the unification of the upper and lower parts of the Nile River Basin. The only facts known of him were levelled around his constant philandering with neighbouring Queen Shamanic Ninaracia, ruler of Khartoum. His most-favoured of his eight wives, Ribuckalmahn is said to have orchestrated the murder. This, of course, had no way of being proven, other than her image on the few remaining tablets held by the museum bearing her in hierarchical proportion with a blade at his throat. In these depictions, Mahmood has a Canid (the African golden wolf) head, suggesting he was soon headed for the afterlife. These engraved images of Ribuckalmahn are dated prior to his death, said to be 2596 BC. In an unusually non-Egyptian typification, Freesias Chrysies Mahmood’s mummified corpse had been laid face down in his sarcophagus – as if in shame.  Alex’s unearthing had proven to be a vital missing link in the story’s chain. The giant alabaster statue had been fabricated when he was at the zenith of his rule. Included in the etchings around the base were depictions of Khartoum’s Queen Shamanic Ninaracia, in poses of submission to him.

Word of its historical value was sent back to him in Spain. Elated Harames caught the next available plane to Cairo, leaving Olivia to care for the family. His parting words were: “Just relax in our new swimming pool my darling, and await my return. We are rich beyond our wildest dreams!”

When he arrived and stood before his prized relic, beside which sat the sarcophagus, several ancient artefacts, along with some skin and hair belonging to the Pharaoh, housed in the sterilized chamber, Alex could hardly contain himself. It stood on a pedestal a metre or so off the ground. He gazed at the austere, triple life-sized and frozen-in-time expression on his bust. The golden face was identical to the other artefacts. All carbon dated and DNA tested for authenticity, these priceless treasures were part of the museum’s extensive collective of ancient memorabilia. The Spaniard was keen to discuss his discovery’s future…

“You have given back to the world a priceless link in our country’s fractured historical puzzle, Mr Harames,” remarked Director Ptolmec Kissentsta ─ head of research. “My research informs me that the curse placed upon Mahmood’s disrespected soul is what caused the disappearance of his magnificent effigy, some four-and-a-half millennia ago!” The seasoned scientist peered frugally over his silver-rimmed spectacles. “Can we come to a realistic agreement for him?”

“Immortality perhaps. Maybe a journey into the afterlife?” joked Alex.

“That privilege is one only for the Pharaohs, Mr Harames,” laughed Ptolmec. “Let us speak in United States dollars, shall we?”

Alex rubbed his fingers across the hieroglyphics around its base trying to feel the sheer age of his sculpture and read into its history. He wasn’t a greedy individual but knew what it meant to the Cairo-based museum. A great deal of money was offered for the relic, which he accepted. An advance of fifty-thousand American dollars was paid for expenses, with the remainder to be transferred to his bank account after he returned home to Spain.

Alex phoned Olivia with the good news. “Yes, I have accepted several million for old King FCM,” he boasted. “You won’t mind if I stay in Cairo for a week or two to celebrate, darling? There are some formalities to go over, plus photographs for the museum’s records etc. You and the kids can come over if you like.”

“If you really feel it necessary to stay, Alex, go right ahead. I fully understand how elated about the whole thing you must be feeling. You were right all along and I was wrong. We shan’t come. Just enjoy yourself but be careful and don’t tell anyone. Okay?”

“Nobody knows anything, Olivia. It has been all kept very secretive. Ptolmec Kissentsta, the director of research is a wonderful man who, due to its value, insisted upon complete discretion. I am simply going to relax for a while in a high-class hotel. Maybe take a day trip excursion on the Nile…”

“Sure. Have fun,” she blessed. “See you when you return. I’ll arrange a party for us!”

He smiled like a cat with its mouth full of mouse. “Bye Darling.”

After two days of officialdom and governmental formalities, Alex Harames decided to take his Nile River cruise. The mystique of Egyptian culture had begun to tug at his emotions. The country was immersed with ancient tradition, much like his home of Spain, only in a different way. Now that money was no object, he decided to see as much as it had to offer in his remaining few days. The enormity of this ambling river was overpowering. The pyramids took his breath away. The endless chain of eateries, bazaars and coffee houses engulfed his exotic culinary desires. The antediluvian fabric of a humble society, so old and yet so untamed. The contrary of his hotel room – so clean and upmarket.

One evening, Alex saw an enticing promotional leaflet in the foyer’s stand. It caught his eye. It read: Explore the charismatic sights of Khartoum! Home of the Gateway to the story of Scheherazade in… “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” ─ don’t miss out.’  He folded it up and pocketed the glossy brochure. He was hooked like a majestic Black Marlin.

Sitting at a bar in an older part of downtown Khartoum, feeling like a man with the world at his feet, Alex was approached by an exotic woman. She was ferociously attractive, with eyes like burning sapphires and a waistline you could fit a dog’s collar around. Alex was mesmerized by the female stranger, who made herself at home at his table. In a miasma of smoke and wild African music, they shared half a bottle of blue agave Tequila, her black-as-a-raven’s-feathers hair shone under the full moon. Her silken dress did little to camouflage what supported it. Through his mind raced the words of the promotional leaflet. Through his veins rushed the hot blood of a Spaniard. Through his conscience ran the spirit of what had gotten him there in the first place. However, he never told her anything about the almost-priceless golden sculpture.

Intelligent but foolish Alex couldn’t resist the smoothness of her bronzed flesh…

Her name, or so she told him, was Rhianna. A woman from a nearby town. They romanced for five days straight and enjoyed breakfast afterwards at a small café not far from the bar where they’d originally met. His betaken mind remained empty of any thoughts of Olivia. Forsaking his cell phone, he had even forgotten to call her or even return the ones she was sending. Rhianna had him totally and utterly. Alex was spending his money on her with reckless abandon. On the sixth day, Rhianna, after breakfast said:

“You haven’t told me that much about yourself, and I really don’t know exactly what it is that I find so attractive about you.”

“Nor I you,” he replied, barely able to shake his vision from her beauty ─ cheating hands clasping tightly around her wrists.

“Do you think we might have a future together?” enquired the naïve local.

“Let me think about it. You are headed uptown today, aren’t you?” He stared wantonly into her oblivious blue pits of adultery, trying to rationalize what the hell he was doing. “I’ll see you this afternoon at the usual spot, at 5 pm. I shall tell you everything, Rhianna. Yes, I do think I love you!”

“And I love you too, Alex.” She kissed him hard on the lips. The vixen disappeared towards the marketplace, vanishing like a gust of hot desert wind.

But at 5 pm Alex was not waiting for her in their usual spot…

Within an hour of her departure, Alex was brutally murdered at the café by three men. So swift and silent was the strike, that the offenders escaped without identification. The men had thrust him without provocation or any seemingly apparent motive, with blades of steel. Alex was dead before he hit the ground. In a touch of incredible irony, when his post-mortem DNA was checked, it was discovered that Alex Harames was of a very similar chromosome code to the one preserved in the remains of Freesias Chrysies Mahmood. Undisputedly, he had to be a 4600-year-old, to the power of God only knows how many times, great-grandson. It appears that the pitiless curse of his many-aeons-past grandmother, Queen Ribuckalmahn, is flourishing and still being brutally adhered to.

When Olivia received the Cairo Police’s tragic news, albeit, without knowledge about his infidelity, she contacted Ptolmec Kissentsta, only to discover that the splendid statue had vanished into thin air on the same night as his death. Perhaps it had returned to The Valley of the Kings?

The full remuneration payment was stopped. Alex’s bonanza had left Olivia with no money, no husband and no explanation…

 

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Ten-minute thriller, ten-second fantasy or momentary spectre… You decide!

This account should tug on the heart-strings of even the frostiest of individuals.

     Think you’re pretty resilient?

         Okay… this challenge is meant for you!

                Dare to make it to the end?

 

“Gone with the Angels”

By Stephen James

 

Just as this story’s title would suggest, the conjured thoughts of an individual’s tragic loss, immediately spring to mind. There is probably no greater test for the durability of our resolve than overcoming the loss of someone close to us. Sometimes it knits the survived even closer. And sometimes it rips them apart. See how you go with this one…

The day Gwendoline and Jerry Forsythia gave life to their first-born, a healthy cheeky-faced boy with hair the colour of barley straw, they envisaged a life of happiness lying ahead. They named him Timmy after her father, Timothy Edwin Strolling. The baby was large for a newborn, much like her father was a colossus of a man, hence the naming in his honour. Timmy learned things very quickly, soon becoming able to talk to his parents with astonishing maturity. Visiting family members fussed over his attractive bright personality. Two years later, their home in South Carolina again experienced elation, when a gorgeous baby girl was brought home from the hospital. She had fair hair and an olive complexion. The tiny tot was the spitting-image of Gwendoline. Timmy stared down at her in the crib in disbelief of her loveliness. It was the spring of 2013. The young Forsythia family forged a simple but loving life together. Their needs were humble, but their love provided the family with strength and resilience. This strength ensured attentions were not side-tracked by the materialistic pressures that burden mainstream modern society. Theirs was a template which prospered through kindness, was strengthened by trust, and flourished where others struggled. The town of Lexington painted a perfect back-drop for their virtues to uphold. Most of the townspeople knew Gwendoline, as a point of actual fact, her father Timothy had once been the Mayor.

Four years on, Gwendoline felt a third bump in her tummy and grew excited. But she was not prepared for the years ahead…

Pretty-faced Amy had a huge collection of stuffed furry animals ─ all in bright colours. Her father, Jerry, spoilt her as a reward for his lack of time spent with the child, due to his work commitments as a police officer. How could he not? Her two blond ponytails poking out sideways, aside of that face of perfection, left him spellbound. Sapphire-blue eyes twinkling with innocence ─ melted his paternal heart. She oozed an unrivalled infant allure. Add to this a soft-as-honey voice, as bright and happy as a thousand dancing fairies. Yes, little Amy was the centre of his orbit. In her room frolicked this imaginary farmyard of synthetic companions. Amongst them were twelve teddy bears, three giraffes, a dog, a cat, two elephants, four unicorns, a hippo, a gorilla and three other types of monkeys all in varying poses. Jerry would often have to wait his turn in line to converse with her under her bed. He would climb beneath the lacy valance and squash in beside her, sharing the cool glow from her mushroom-shaped light shining on all their little faces. She played with them all equally, except for one who conjured slight favouritism. This creature was like none of the others, which tucked easily under her tiny arm. It was a huge pure white Polar bear named Snowbell. She was the very first cuddly toy Amy ever received. The infant did not remember first getting Snowbell ─ because, at the time, Amy was only one. All she had been told was that her brother Timmy had saved up all his pocket money for two years to get the great big soft bear. He was the one who had told her that the Polar bear was really alive. Every night, she and the whole collection would have a big discussion about who did what today and with whom. Amy used a different voice for each animal and never got any of them mixed up. Her mother would stand by the bedroom door watching her beautiful little daughter chattering away with her furry best friends.

Spotted pink wallpaper surrounded a richly-pink bedspread which now straddled a big person’s bed. She was so very proud after her fourth birthday when her mum and dad had allowed her to upgrade to a proper ensemble. Naturally, her sheets were also of the lightest shade of pink, in an effort to throw some contrast into her room. Amy’s bedroom was always kept immaculately tidy, regardless of how much time she spent placing the creatures on and off her bed, or on the carpet next to her doll’s house. Timmy had helped his father construct the house, also adding his own touch of paint. The little girl did not share a lot of time with her three dollies, saying they were not that nice to cuddle. She much preferred the stuffed animals. Each day when Amy would go to kindy, she would take with her a different friend, but since Snowbell was nearly as big as Amy, she had never made the journey. Before leaving, the charming infant would place each wide-eyed face at the toe of her bed and tell it to wait for her to get home. Whichever’s turn it was to go with her was tucked carefully under her arm. Cautious to keep them clean, Amy sat the lucky one at the back of her classroom until it was time to be picked up by her mother. On arrival back at home, she would dash straight for the group to talk about her day. “Time to go back on your shelf!” she would smile, like the first day she had met it. Then turn to place its fuzzy feet or bottom carefully into position. “Now you can sit here, Mickey,” she would say to the crouching monkey. “You can stand over here, Shaggy Bear,” as the one without swivels took his place on the third shelf. “Where would you like to sit today, Big Ears and Big Nose?” as the two grey elephants were scooped up in her arms. Each name was called, and each answered her obediently, in his or her voice. Snowbell, who took up the most room always came last. Sometimes the gigantic Polar bear would be allowed to stay on her pillow, if she’d been good that day.

Jerry would come home late sometimes and play with her and her friends. He loved Amy so much that his patient demeanour allowed her to explain what they had all been up to, sitting on the shelves he had built in her room. These shelves increased in number as her fluffy family grew.

Big brother Timmy protected his sister from anyone or anything that tried to upset her in some way. The boy did not baby her, knowing full well as when it had been his turn to learn, the rules for all applied equally. If she fell, he let her cry. After she’d finished crying he would sit and explain where she had gone wrong. If she lost something he guided her on where to find it. If she ever asked a question of him, Timmy would first think then answer in her way of understanding things. As time rolled its merry way along towards her fifth birthday, and the bump in their mother’s tummy grew to a beholding sight, autumn covered the small town in her blanket of golden-brown leaves. Timmy would take his intrigued sister for a thirty-minute walk most afternoons, hands clasped tightly together, her voice asking question after question of him. Each time, the siblings took the same route, most times little Amy would ask the same questions. She adored nature, especially the small wild animals which made the surrounding parklands their home. Her pouting little face would stare up at the gigantic trees, searching for movement. Amy was enamoured by the beauty of their enormity, but was overwhelmed as to how and why all the leaves let go after changing colour. One of her favourite games was watching and waiting, till a bunch fluttered down past her face. Through a priceless smile, she would giggle and try to catch the feathery golden airborne treasures. Any caught were brought home to show Gwen and Jerry when he arrived. After which they were shared-out amongst the toy animals, who all commented back to her about the pretty colours from the edge of her bed.

As winter swapped places with autumn, the next metamorphosis, comprising of a fat layer of white snow collecting upon everything, spurred the infant’s inquisitive nature into action. “Where does it all come from, Timmy? Why is it white? Who makes it all? Can we take some home to show Mummy?” The lad struggled to find answers for her. Together they strolled past the awesome frozen beauty, coats and gloves, at Amy speed. Timmy shared this time with his little sister ─ sensing something was wrong. He knew they may not have long together.

Then the dreadful day arrived. The loss was devastating…

One night, after Amy had been separated from her brother Timmy, she found herself crying in her bed. She sat up and began calling for her mother, but she wasn’t answering. Again and again, she cried out, with little success. Their parents’ bedroom door, although shut, was only across the hallway. She had been told not to disturb them in the middle of the night – unless it was very important. Well, loneliness is very important, especially for a little girl.

Her mother had told her that the angels had separated them forever. A nasty wicked witch called leukaemia had cast a spell, shattering the tight-knit family. They had all fought it hard but the spell was too strong. This had happened only last week and the confused little girl wasn’t handling it very well. And so, Snowbell absorbed the bulk of her tears this particular night, along with an hour’s discussion about how unfair it all was. After Timmy had left, Gwen had told her that Snowbell had said that she felt a very special soul come down from heaven and pass into her big chubby white body. Amy cuddled her polar bear’s broad neck and fell asleep whispering into her big curvy ear.

For this first terrible traumatic week, she was permitted to stay at home from school. It was a very difficult adjustment to have to make. She missed his voice. She missed his hugs. She missed holding his slightly-bigger hand. She was missing everything about him. Life to Amy felt cold and empty now. When it was time to resume classes, she had decided not to place her animals out anymore. Only Snowbell was allowed access to her bed. The rest stayed still on the shelving. None of the creatures sat at the end of her bed waiting for her to come home from school.  None of her creatures went with her to school. Gone were the lengthy discussions with her father under her bed, sharing the glow of the spotty red and white mushroom light. After Timmy left, at school, she never spoke a word to the other children about him. Gwen and Jerry tried desperately to console the heart-broken child. Even the promise of a new baby sister, about to arrive any minute, failed to rekindle the once-eager youngster’s enthusiasm.

At six o’clock one evening after the family had finished eating, Gwendoline was heading down the hallway with some clean folded washing. She hesitated outside Amy’s door looking in, hand on her pregnant tummy. She turned and called back to the dining table. “Did either of you place all of these animals back at the end of the bed?” her expression was a frowning stare. “And take Snowbell away for any particular reason?”

“No. It wasn’t me,” replied Jerry. Her stare shifted a little.

“No, I didn’t either,” came the second answer. “Why Mummy?”

“Because, much as I would like to believe they are real… How do we explain this?”

Jerry joined his lovely wife by the door and Timmy stood between them. Their eyes were treated to a picnic-like meeting of colourful fur balls all facing one another. How on earth did they get from the shelf to the bed? The creatures seemed to look happier than usual…

“Honestly Mummy,” said Amy’s distraught brother. The last remaining image of her pretty little smiling face before passing away, as if life was such a party, locked deeply-within his mind. “You know I would never touch them without asking her. Especially now that she has gone with the angels!” The merciless disease had taken her.

The remanence of the family stared, wiping away their rolling tears, through the open doorway into the empty-of-her-presence room’s pink aura. On the wall, staring back, hung a large photograph of that same face which Timmy’s mind was seeing. He was a shattered mess.

But Snowbell was nowhere to be seen…

Buckle-Up readers… your next chilling ten-minute thriller!!!

There’s nothing like an unsolved mystery to keep your

     inquisitive nose poked toward the what-ifs!

          Sleuthing is for anyone who dares…

                Or is it?

 

“An Axeman to the Rescue?”

by Stephen James

 

                Solving murder is a specialist’s job. It certainly is not an enviable task, well… not for the layman or lily-livered fainthearted kind. Think if you wish, about the unknown possibilities or probabilities available, not to mention the sight ─ after discovery, many hours thereafter. Accusations, would-be, could-be, and may-bes begin to flourish as new evidence emerges.
Unless that is, of course, there isn’t any…

A lean brindle and white Staffordshire bull terrier dog lay across a mound of soil. He wasn’t fidgeting in any way. Just… lying there. It was a scorcher and he looked tired. The metre-high mound carried a wisp of bush-couch that really could have used the same water as this poor old dog. He was miles from anywhere. The time is now, but this tale goes back a long way. Thargomindah is an outback town in Queensland Australia. The last official census, back in 2016 declared 270 to be the population. The shire of Bulloo, where the fractionally-just-above a whistle-stop town rests, is 1,100 kilometres west of Brisbane. Time moves slowly out here. Visitors are scarce. Everyone knows practically everyone, and their memories go deep. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s dusty.

… And, a traveller who suddenly caught sight of the animal, pulls up in the red outback dust. The drifting cloud swamps the dog, but he doesn’t flinch an ear. He steps out, FWD door is left open. “What’s up fella? You look a little lost.” He offered his inverted hand. “I have a drink for you.” He unscrewed his drink-bottle, saw it was low and poured it into his palm. The dog lapped feverishly till the bottle was empty. The stranger ruffled the dog’s ears with the palm of his hand. When done, the good-Samaritan tried to encourage the pooch off the mound and into his truck. No dice. A growl sufficed to tell him to move on. He left his five-minute-friend, to head for town. The dog watched him leave then re-rested his head between his paws.

Half-an-hour’s drive sat his truck outside The Bent Horseshoe Motel, where the traveller stood booking his next week’s accommodation, listening to the answers to his questions.

“You see, ‘e used to belong to Katie Mulling-Brown,” yarned the motel’s owner, cigarette in his mouth, beer in his hand. “She was the daughter of old Sid and Daphne Mulling-Brown. Never came back to town after she went missing. Some folks say he’s been seen layin’ out there somewhere. But, you’re the first to say he let ya touch him. Don’t know how he’d survive. Poor thing. His name was Axeman. She had an imagination, did young Katie. Stay away friend, that’s all I can say. Rumour has it she was murdered… Nothing’s been proven. No body. No evidence. Just a few stories about boy trouble. Hostile stuff and very loud arguments. She probably lives out at Cunnamulla now. Bloody dog’s most likely waitin’ for ‘er. Like I said before. It was over three years ago now, folks have all but forgotten. Most just ‘aven’t forgiven her for walkin’ out on her mutt!”

“Police investigate?”

“Nah. We only got one cop. He’s busy handing out the odd traffic ticket and enjoying a beer or two. We usually chip in for each other for any traffic offences, then Stan brings the cash into the bar! Everybody’s friendly ‘round here. Ya have ta be, matey.”

“All sound’s way too spooky for me, fella. I’ve come here to look for work. I’m just a bloody stockman. Reckon she may return after all. I sure hope so. Poor bastard,” said the man, thinking about the dog and how far back on the main road he had left him.

The motel owner offered a steely stare, then spoke beside his mouthed cigarette, eyes squinting from its tip’s swirling smoke. “Have a good stay, pal. Good luck finding work.”

“Thanks for the heads up, mate,” replied the weary roamer. “It’s a good story none-the-less!” He gathered his bag and trudged off to the humble lodgings, thinking; People don’t get murdered all the way out here. Too many spies to get away with that!

At six-fifteen the following morning, the man was awoken by a noise outside his motel room’s door. He wiped the road grime from his eyes and opened the weathered door.

“What the devil?” he whispered. His early-morning eyes locking-on with the Staffordshire’s sallow dark pair behind it, tail wagging. “How did you know where to…? More importantly Why in Heaven’s name?” The dog circled the small floor rug and yelped quietly several times. More water and the man’s half-eaten dinner were quickly disposed of. “Now what?” asked the man, watching the estranged-minded dog leap into his truck’s rear tray, with a bark. “Got nowhere to go?” More barking. “Got something to show me?” He unlocked the cab, let the hound scamper aboard and headed back to where they’d met, under barked instructions. Once there, the battle-scarred animal leapt from the window and fussed over the mound. The stockman had nowhere else to turn. After his recently made acquaintance, his mind was now intimately involved. The humble man-of-the-land was as tough as goat’s knees ─ he had seen it all in his days and not many things could ruffle his feathers. This was a fellow who’d be very useful to have in your corner.

An hour’s digging of the mound did not reveal a body, such as the thoughts running the gauntlet of his mind had predetermined. The man whose massive frame made his shovel appear like a teaspoon, persisted, inspired by the panache of his yelping four-legged teacher. Carefully he tilled through the compacted soil. Watching. Waiting. Hoping. At last, an object appeared in the sun. But it was not what he had expected…

A little bit of finesse soon exposed a length of chain. At one end was a loop of links, at the other a tatty collar. Axeman pounced into life, seizing the collar between his teeth. “Poor old bastard,” he said to the dog ─ mind an avalanche with negative thoughts about how Katie must have dumped it and her dog, to escape her ill-fated love life. “Is this yours? S’pose you want me to take you for a walk now, hey fella?” Axeman did not yield his old chain. Instead, he leapt back into the FWD’s cab and nose-pointed through the windscreen. “I’m Jake, in case you didn’t know,” he mentioned, almost believing the dog could understand. “What the hell is it this time? Where to? What is it that you know?” Jake grew suspicious but believed the town’s lawman to be disinterested.

He followed the dog’s crude yapping instructions. In an area which comprises of about as many roads, as occasions when a lawyer undercharges you, a simple nose-pointing woof here and there easily guided them to a quiet destination. He shut off the motor. Jake accidentally bumped his truck’s horn. Axeman dropped the dirt-clogged leash onto Jake’s lap, who now sat fondling the chain while looking sideways out the window at a tired wooden house. It had a feverishly-rusting corrugated-iron roof. The house sat about eighty metres down a gravel driveway, beyond a locked three-barred timber gate. Man-mountain Jake felt fairly secure beside his new four-legged pal. However, it did not stop him from wondering why he had allowed himself to become involved. He took a heavy breath and stared. The canine whined with importance in his doggy voice as Jake looked down at him.

Within seconds the front door opened, revealing an unshaven man in his sixties, of average height and stature. “What do you want?” he shouted, without leaving the shallow front porch.

“I’m just taking a look around, friend!” Jake hollered back. “Looking for work!”

“You won’t find any here mister. Now, get going!” The veteran’s voice was aggressive and had an unpleasant dismissive tone associated.

Axeman growled, just out of sight, below the dashboard. “Easy fella,” said Jake, cautioned by the dog’s response to the man’s rudeness also.

“What’s going on, Pop, is it trouble?” asked a much younger man who’d arrived alongside the older man. He was carrying a rifle. Axeman elevated his angst, staying out of sight.

“I know when I’m not welcome!” yelled Jake, starting his engine. “So long gentlemen!”

Back at his room, at The Bent Horseshoe Motel, he lay on the bed thinking – Axeman by his side. Do I go to the police and tell the only person in town who seems likely to listen? Or is this animal simply planting false ideas into my head? Stan, I believe his name was…

“We’ll go and see him tomorrow, fella. It is the best way,” he said, patting the grungy old mutt on his head. Axeman whined as if agreeing. “But for tonight, you wait here. I am going to the local. Check out if I can scrounge up some work.” Axeman shot a short sharp yap back and rested his head between his paws. Jake dozed off with the chain and collar on the bed beside him.

At 6.00 pm, after showering, Jake drove through the heart of the outback town and chose one of the pubs. A weathered sign hung on an angle from its searing roof swaying in the hot evening breeze displaying the name; The Last Watering Hole Hotel. He heard its internal rowdiness before climbing from his cab. A stale smell of spilt beer wafted from the door. It brought back memories for Jake, who’d been off the wagon for over a year, since his wife Mel had passed away. It was casual work that had brought him here to these ramshackle digs, not liquor. In his dinner-plate sized hand, the burley-shouldered stockman carried Axeman’s collar and chain. It coiled around his wrist. He’d figured it might come in handy, if any trouble started. The murmur settled slightly when his massive frame ducked through the doorway, but soon rekindled when he smiled heartily to the locals, hat in hand. Across the room, Jake noticed a policeman’s uniform. Inside it stood the cantankerous stranger who’d sent him packing hours earlier. He was joking around with a small group of dirty-looking men and two rough-edged women. Their raucous laughter rose above the rest of the bar’s occupants. The policeman did not acknowledge any recognition. Jake simply figured that he must have not seen his face earlier, and so, saw the opportunity to introduce himself more formally and on more amicable terms. Perhaps book a meeting for tomorrow to inform him of his odd findings. He approached the group. “My name’s Jake MacOrigan, sir. Don’t know if you remember, but earlier on today we met.”

“OH, really? Where did we meet, Mr MacOrigan?” asked the officer, shaking Jake’s outstretched hand. His stare fixed firmly on the coiled links and thick studded-leather collar.

“I think I may have been at your place by a coincidence. But it doesn’t matter now. My mistake. Can I see you about something tomorrow?”

“Sure. Name’s Stan. PC Stan Mason, it stands for Police Chief, not Police Constable, okay? I’d say you were over at my brother, Vincent’s. Not a very friendly guy. He’s my older brother, we’re often mistaken by passers-by. Nine in the morning do you?’ His eyes still fixed incongruously downwards.

“I’ll be there, sir, on the button…”

“Where did ya get that from, Mr MacOrigan?” He nodded at Jake’s arm.

“It just turned up. I found it. I only liked it because it reminded me of a dog I once had. Keeps me thinking of him. Nostalgia reasons. No other. Why Stan?”

“My brother was a friendly bloke… till our sister’s son came to town several years back. What a handful he turned out to be. Victor moved in and Vincent changed. Never came out much. He won’t even talk to me! The deranged kid used to walk a dog around here. Exact same chain. I’d know it anywhere… It was his girlfriend at the time’s dog, though. Haven’t seen the girl or the dog for quite a while. See, she took off to Cunnamulla and took her mutt with her. Naturally, Victor is upset. Nobody bothers them and they rarely come to town. Works for us all.”

The stockman felt an urgent suspicion mounting in his brain but his manner was smooth to cover it. “It all sounds like a movie storyline to me. I just arrived in town to look for work. No point in meddling in new-town politics. I’ll see you at nine and we’ll discuss some other minor issues.” They shook hands and Jake wheeled away to leave.

“Jake!” The tubby middle-aged cop said. “Whatever you do when you leave, just be careful.”

“Thanks, I’ll take your blessing, grab some tucker here and crash for the night. Been a long day.” He knew this afternoon’s rest would serve him well. He was damned glad the dog was still back at The Bent Horseshoe Motel ─ that one he couldn’t explain. Not enough time. For certain something just wasn’t right. He discerned she may still be alive. The big question was, where?

Jake grabs a hasty over-the-counter meal, then saunters out, jumps in his truck and heads back to the house, several kilometres out of town. He knew the way and couldn’t think of anywhere better to start. What would be behind the gate? Would they both let him in? He smelt the stench of an ugly capital T ─ in trouble. If there is any sign of a girl, would she even be alive? Or dead? Or what? Or is this a wild goose chase? I must try…

He climbed the triple-barred gate and began sneaking toward the low-lit structure. Silence was his friend. As was the darkness. Jake figured as he tiptoed; I’ll have to find a rear entrance first, tread carefully and be ready for anything.

As he found the faint glow of a moth-filled porch light, a whimper caught his ear. The feeble attempt at calling-out emanated from a secondary structure further into the darkness. The call grew louder. Jake took a gamble on the house’s occupants versus the unknown situation happening inside the scruffy cobwebbed back shed. He had no time for fear. He scurried for the wall. A glimpse through a smeary window showed him just enough. Inside, under candlelight, Jake could make out the silvery metallic outline of a cage. It was a two-metre by three-metre enclosure, approximately. A woman was inside but nobody else was around. She looked dirty, tired and unhealthily thin. She had the same dog collar around her neck which was in his hand. It was chained to the cage’s bars. Same chain also. Her shabby clothes were practically non-existent. Relief flushed his body with keenness ─ she’s alive! Katie Mulling-Brown was being held captive by the young man and his demented father. He shuddered at the thought of what they may have done to her…

Jake stabbed his elbow to break the window and climbed through. He could see a large padlock’s curved chrome bar feeding snuggly through the door’s metal loops. The young woman, who was lying on her side, wobbled her head up and gave him a gratified half-smile. Jake reached for a crowbar which hung neatly beside some other corroded garden tools. He put it down when his eyes found a huge axe. His mind raced. This will blast straight through it.

The sound it made when he crunched through, in one massive blow, would have woken-up ‘The Ghost of the Lake at Thargomindah’. (But that is a whole other story).

Next thing, a door behind him allows a shard of light to pierce the candle’s glow. A thud across Jake’s neck knocks him to the ground. He falls heavily and immediately a further succession of thuds by what felt like a sports bat or similar piece of wood, like a rifle’s butt. Jake could hear two distinct male voices but it was a blur what they were saying. He felt dizzy and his breathing was subdued with a cloth rag. The girl called out. “NO!” Jake had not been sufficiently careful.

Then it happened…

A crash-of-glass brought the rest of the window in. Four brindle feet hit the shed floor. An angry canine had come to help. The power of his jaw locked-on to the arm which carried the rifle. It fell free of his grasp. The dog’s momentum had knocked Victor off his feet. Vincent tried to hinder Axeman. The dog, having no part of that, went ballistic between both men using his ferocious gnashing jawbones to their absolute pinnacle. Victor went for the gun. Axeman latched on. Both were forced to cower in the corner or suffer blood loss. In gingerly fashion, Jake scrambled to his feet and ripped the cage door open. He could see another much-smaller padlock, holding her leather collar duplicate tightly around her neck. A bowl of water sat just out of her reach. She looked terrified. Jake twisted the lock in his bare hands, in due course, managing to tear the steel ring completely away from its bindings. Katie dove straight for the water. Her immersed face guzzled as if death was only minutes away. He gave her time, using it wisely by seizing Victor’s rifle. He checked its breach was loaded. The dog’s growling was deafening. “You right to go?” She nodded. He picked her up and shouted, “Axeman! You keep them here till I give you the word! Then follow us. Got it?”

Axeman spun his body in acknowledgement, knowing he could trust him completely. A brief pause in his growling sent Jake on his way, He placed her inside the truck and grabbed his worn-out mobile telephone. It was just un-prehistoric enough to have a camera. He returned to fire-off pictures of the shed’s interior until his battery faded. “C’mon boy!” he called. Axeman backed away very cautiously, his yellowy eyes affixed on the men’s bloodied limbs. Jake shouted, with venom in his tone – eyes of resentment. “If either of you tries to follow. I’ll kill you stone dead. Is that perfectly clear?”

They left the premises and the town that night, driving past The Last Watering Hole Hotel on their way. Katie had been rescued by her own dog. Jake never did score any work in Thargomindah. They never even saw a lake on the way out of town, either. The gutsy stockman emailed the photographs to Stan, at nine o’clock the next day, with an explanation and an apology for not showing up. Axeman and Jake are now inseparable.

…And I believe Katie thinks quite a good deal of Jake MacOrigan, also.

“Howard the Saviour” – the latest ten-minute thriller!

Some stories happen without anyone even noticing…

     This is perhaps one such story.

          However… little unknown heroes can sometimes

                have an enormous impact!

 

“Howard the Saviour”

By Stephen James

 

Friendships spark at the most unexpected times. One minute we’re busy minding our own business, then, before you know it, a personality crosses your path, and life as you previously knew it has been altered forevermore. At times the new pathway is a rocky one. At other times, you wonder how you ever existed, before your new tune was being played. Let’s find out…

At sixteen years-of-age, now with the soft fleshy parts of his mouth starting to turn as grey as the hairs which sprouted from this very area, Howard took the morning’s square of sunshine to reflect back on his life. Warmed by this bright patch, on the timber decking of his master’s back porch, the crossbred chocolate-Labrador and German-shepherd dog knew his days were beginning to have numbers at the end of each. He must use them wisely. Time was precious. Life had dealt him a good hand but that’s not always the way things were.

It was England in the 1970’s. Born the runt of the litter, the puppy with one ear slightly bigger than the other, neither managing to be the standing-up type, which Shepherd’s carry so proudly atop their strong heads, Howard had to fight for his mother’s attention. She was the purebred Labrador. Dad was a near-pure Shepherd police dog. At twelve weeks, he found out about loneliness for the first time when all of his eight brothers and sisters were long-since claimed by new owners. No one wanted the ugly one. Howard moped, in between tripping over his giant paws, the likes of which he wondered if he would ever grow into. Finally, after fourteen weeks, a young girl picked him up and solved his problems with a gigantic hug. She took him home to her house in Wiggington-on-sea, in England’s far south. Sixteen-year-old Gail Moreton made Howard feel special and he returned her kindness with loyalty for three years. He wasn’t ugly anymore. Howard was strong and handsome. His trademark; slightly larger ear looked more like a character-by-design inclusion, rather than a mistake by his gene pool. The Moreton’s backyard suited his frivolous needs to perfection – until she became an air-hostess and Howard had to leave.

He hated the pound. It was in nearby Scoosbury, a much larger town and the conditions were cold, stark, noisy and miserable – the worst months of his short life. Uncaged for only one hour per day, the smart canine grasped one of these exercise-breaks as the opportunity to escape. He broke loose from his handler and scaled the wire-mesh fence to freedom. But where?

Instinct directed him back towards Wiggington-on-sea, where at least he had a memory of happiness. Drinking from streams and eating from rubbish bins and the odd generous hand-out, the journey took him just under a week. Collarless, Howard sat with a wagging tail beside the village green after having a good roll. He watched the traffic feeding its way through the narrow streets, in front of the rows of bay-windowed shops. He knew the large patch of grass well because this was the place that Gail would bring him on weekends. She was nowhere to be seen but he knew he would have to move on with life. The doggy days don’t stop rolling just because he’s alone. Howard trotted across the lush green couch to pause at the big white marks, on the big black hard stuff, which all those noisy bubbles with humans sitting inside them moved along. The big white marks had some magical power that made the noisy bubbles with humans inside come to a standstill; now he could move safely across the big black hard stuff. He didn’t know why – but it was the same every time. Gail had taught him good road etiquette.

He waited. A stroller pushed by a woman of forty, her toddler by her side, started things. The noisy bubbles came to rest and the dog headed off towards her. Moments later a man also in his forties joined the stroller’s group. Back in the 1970’s, everything moved slower. The cars were made of metal, not plastic. Fewer crowds. Less paint on the roads. Things seemed somehow much simpler. There were no mobile telephones. It wouldn’t be long before he would find a new owner. Howard was liked around here. He met them in the middle of the crossing. Tail wagging.

And then it happened…

A speeding car mounted the kerb, finding its way between the nine stationary vehicles without regard for the zebra-crossing’s pedestrians, of which, Howard was one. The dog froze in the oncoming lane as his path crossed with theirs. The father dashed to save his family, managing only to collect Howard. The dog’s life had been saved from certain death. The car beat him to his family. The man spun away with only Howard beside him. The car drove over the man’s foot before winding its way out of town. The driver was never stopped. Realizing what had just happened, Howard took off. He knew where Gail’s doctor’s surgery was and how to get there before anyone else.

The small crowd of panicking onlookers became quickly parted when Doctor Meredith appeared with his nurse. Sadly, the only thing he was able to do was to care for the man, whose name was Simon Stryker, by getting him safely to the hospital. This tragic moment of stupidity had cost Simon his entire family: Wife Stephanie, toddler-of-two Phillip, and pram-bound youngest Ursula. Howard never left his bedside. After several months his ankle gradually mended, albeit, with a significant permanent limp. But Simon Stryker’s heart was destroyed. His empty house no longer laughed each night. His back porch’s timber-decking became the place where Simon would sit to allow his heart to bleed. The friendship between Simon and Howard grew very strong – but nothing could replace his loss. It ate him away. The dog didn’t exactly know what a broken heart meant, however, he did know something had to be done. As the seasons stole their years away, the thankful, floppy-eared, brown with black bits, canine, changed Simon’s outlook. He walked further each day to build up his ankle. The dog would always keep Simon out for longer periods, noticing his master’s far-happier demeanour during the marathon evenings. These were the difficult hours for lonely Stryker, isolated by memories. Fighting when he already thought he was beaten. His house echoed at night…

When Howard turned eight, his master turned forty-six two weeks later. They had been together for four years, two months, five days and obviously a few hours. Simon had started working again as a milkman. Before, he had occupied an office job, this voluntary change gave him the exercise he required to return to the man he once was. Well, physically at least. Simon grew from strength to strength and knew he had Howard to thank for it. The downside for the dog was the fact that his personal time with his master had thinned-out somewhat, to a few shreds in the evenings and time on the weekends. The trade-off seemed well worth it. Simon had acquired a horse for weekend recreation. He had become quite friendly with a mother of one boy who rode from his shared paddock. The woman’s former husband-to-be had stood beside her at the altar. Only to turn at the moment of truth, then rush off to the arms of her sister. Her fatherless son is now six. Rides in the nearby forest suited Howard’s needs to within a millimetre of perfection. The lady seemed kind. Her name Sally had a nice sound to it. The pace was well within his grasp. The outdoors were his Gods.

By birthday ten, his chocolate blotches were beginning to have a dusty look about them and the spring which was in his step in limitless supply had lost a few of its coils. He never lost his reliability though. Always there when required. Howard lived for the weekends now, the two horses and their happy riders, beside them, a small pony being ridden by Sally’s son Julián, and Howard riding shotgun at the rear. The smells in the forest, to Howard, represented the morsels of a smorgasbord banquet to a hungry person. Life just couldn’t get any better…

That was until a year later when Sally acquired a female German-shepherd from the animal shelter. Howard visited whenever he was invited. When her first litter of six yielded one runt with a funny ear and an inquiring look in his eyes, Howard’s memories rushed back like diving gannets. At each visit, the puppy-numbers dwindled but Howard couldn’t count anyway, so it didn’t matter. At last, he did notice the last remaining puppy, which took a while to get selected. He knew the ropes. Life is a tough teacher but she’s rewarding – if you hang in there and listen.

Which brings us to the beginning of our story. Now in his twilight years, Howard’s favourite spot was without a doubt the sunny patch of the deck. At this time of year, if the shadow of the giant oak hadn’t stolen his warming platform, by the time the children crocodile their way past the front gate after school, it would be one of those enormous hour-things, before Simon came home. His pooch’s brain had reflected back while waiting, with not much other than his life to think about. I suppose, if you think about it, as humans, it is exactly the same for us. Memories are all we take. He dozed off… Awoken by the keys hitting the glass dish by the door. A sound he knew well. Howard’s tail thumped against the boards, as always. Now, to stretch and go get a pat. Tomorrow was horse-riding day. He wanted to fit in as many as he could get his paws on. Neither the dog nor his master thought either owed the other a single thing in life. They were a unified entity now. Each was grateful for the results. Sally would be coming over at eight in the morning sharp.

At the nearby derelict castle, the group had paused for refreshments. Simon had a surprise, he decided to kneel in front of Sally. Howard heard his master’s voice be joined by Sally’s in merriment and a hug. He saw her put a tiny yellow collar on her finger. It had a sparkle attached. A beautiful sunny day gave birth to warmth. He watched them kiss with the ancient, crumbling, grey stones as the backdrop. On the return trip, highly-involved Simon and Sally did not notice the wandering pony, belonging to Julián, taking the old route back to the village outskirts where his home was. The wooden bridge was not to be trusted under a laden animal’s weight. They now only used the new much-longer route to cross the small river. In moments, in a hail of Howard’s barks, the young boy had allowed his pony to climb the beaten old track which meanders onto the bridge. He scampered up the track to repel the pony. Creaks of distressed timber hit their ears. The bridge twisted helplessly. It was a four-metre-drop to the water. Clearly, the jutting rocks and swirling pools created by them were for observation purposes only. How could the boy have been so absent-minded? Sally screamed. Simon rode to the water’s edge, just beside the bridge pylon in time to witness the rotting structure give way.  Julián fell to the stream still in his saddle. Howard followed the pony until they broke the surface, leaving behind a huge splash. The current began to carry its three latest guests. Against the rocks, the mass of his pony crashed its rider uncontrollably, before coming to rest in a shallower section. He was still pinned to the stirrups semi-submerged and gasping. Cuts covered his body. The pony was kicking a losing battle with time. Stunned, Simon was lost for an answer. Howard paddled over to the boy and gave him something to grab hold of. He was one-half water-dog and used his powerful paddling motion to keep Julián’s head above water. The boy hugged him tightly. Howard coughed and spluttered. The heroic dog was taking in plenty of water but fought for the both of them. Simon dived straight in. After several moments fighting against the pony’s thrashing, the boy’s feet were pulled free, allowing the pony to find its way, very much worse for wear, to the bank. It staggered out and lay on its side coughing up water. Simon now had Sally’s son in his arms on their marriage-proposal day. He looked close to death. Wary to move an injured person, in this case there was no choice to be made, and so, Simon carefully carried the traumatized youth through the water to the grassed bank. Howard scrambled up the bank on the closer-to-town side and barked madly. Simon nodded, knowing what he meant by his actions. It was twenty minutes, if he ran fast, to get to Doctor Meredith’s surgery. Howard was gone without giving Simon a chance to think. It was the right move because neither Simon nor Sally wanted to leave the boy, in case… he didn’t make it. The sixteen-year-old dog ran like he was two. He was there in nineteen minutes. The return trip took twenty-seven. Doctor Clive Meredith drove. Howard’s only way of showing him where to go meant he had to run along in front of the car. When Howard reached the spot where the distressed couple lay alongside Julián’s pulverized body, he collapsed with exhaustion. He didn’t feel the pain of his ageing doggy bones as they began stage one, of the recovery process. Meredith was a medical man of far beyond his unsung small village role. He was one of only three others to choose from in Wiggington-on-sea. His remarkable skills, the very same ones which saved Simon’s foot from amputation, were utilized to stabilize the boy suffice to take him to hospital. The doctor’s hands worked feverishly to prepare the severely-injured boy for the trip in his car. The intense situation afoot was fully-occupying the human’s mindsets.

Moments before loading him in, nobody noticed the true hero slipping away. The gruelling run to town and back had been Howard’s last. As the loyal hound watched on, he had a fulfilling feeling in his ageing doggy bones. He had saved Julián’s life at the expiration of his own.

What Howard didn’t know was that the scrawny runt of the litter he’d sired had been claimed by Gail Moreton. After years of flying back and forth, she had returned and changed her job to become a receptionist in the village. Out of love for her first dog, she had called her new puppy, Howard. News in the small village soon travelled to her ears. Gail, Sally, Simon, Julián and Howard Jnr often visit his grave site right beside the newly-replaced bridge.

… A brass plaque on it simply reads: “Howard’s Bridge”