How to guarantee a long life?

Hi Readers! Well, the editing and polishing continue, and I am really happy with the progress and the shape of my next novel. As I endure this repetitive task, I remind myself that if we stopped the act of repetitive tasks in our life… we simply wouldn’t have life! Breathing is a very important one that comes to mind! This one little act ensures the longevity of our life, so I take comfort in the fact that small things certainly do make a big difference.
Here is a little something to entertain you while I remain focused on my mission…
I was looking back over some of my past posts and there is a short story that reminds me of a good friend of mine. This friend has Triskaidekaphobia. Some of you will know what this is, but just in case you don’t, it is the fear of the number thirteen. Peter, you know who you are! For those brave enough to risk flirting with this infamous number, if you haven’t already, have a read… Lucky Number Thirteen?
Will keep you posted! Enjoy another week everyone.
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Can they hear you scream if they don’t know where you are?

An accident at sea… no-one knows where you are!

  What happens next in this tumultuous ten-minute thriller?

     To discover more adventures,

         check out “Readers of the Lost Arkives!”

 

 

“Tell Me This Isn’t Really Happening”

By Stephen James

 

                When confronted with life’s most challenging proposition of all: “Am I ready to die yet?” Is the answer yes or no? A rhetorical question, perhaps? But… what if I do have a choice about my decision here? Try to imagine a circumstance so dreadful — that it is simply the most unbearable place on Earth right now, and… “I’d rather be dead, than living right here, right now!” This would really test a person’s resolve, would it not? The following story is based on a true one and it tolled on my imagination bell. In it, the hero, a certain Mister X was exactly that. The characters are friends of mine, but I have rattled the plot and changed a few details, including their names. Their privacy is important.
The gusto of the drama still remains the same…

 

The pair had originally met in obscure circumstances. A young spirited couple, thrust together like two world’s colliding, as quoted in INXS’s famous song; ‘Never tear us apart’. A hard worker, Ronauld was never shy of contacts. At home in Brisbane he knew what to get, and where to get it. He was the go-to man. Liara, on the other hand, was from another universe to most westerners. The wild heartland of enormous Borneo island — home to the Dayak race, has been well documented over the decades. Pretty-faced Liara was born of Dayak parentage and she was proud to be one. Here, thousands of tiny islands strewn their way around its extensive coastline. Now in the new millennium, it still remains somewhat untamed. Kalimantan, as it is officially called by its inhabitants, can be as dangerous as it is beautiful. They had first met here, some time ago, and were returning for an even greater and more widespread tour of her homeland for him to experience — open his eyes.

In no time, they had a six-week tour of Indonesia booked. Two people, two rucksacks, two strong personalities, two searching hungry minds. Ronauld and Liara couldn’t wait for the flight’s day to arrive. Finally, the day came… they boarded. From the aircraft’s window, a thousand islands scattered like blotches of forest growing from the ocean, sprawled out, littering the blueness as far as the eye could see. They were close… then, at last, the tarmac…

With her prehistoric escarpments rising from the unstable sea floor, Indonesia lay her forests and small-town marketplaces down as a gauntlet of challenges to be met. The first two weeks went so swiftly by, Ronauld and Liara could barely catch their shadows and Liara showed him a much greater depth of her homeland. The young couple’s budget was not on limits anymore. In this country, your money is worth ten times more. But they were not so foolish as to waste. Their souls grew closer. The arguments, well, practically non-existent. The pair openly confessed their love for each other in front of all who joined in on their merriment. Their reliance upon each other became solidarity. Each called the other a pillar of stone, facing back, so strong and dependent.

This would very soon be put to the ultimate test. A boat trip was planned…

Liara and Ronauld, who seemed to make friends with everybody that they came in contact with, boarded the first stage of their island-hopping five-day tour. A ferryboat to cross the span of water from Lambo Laoosutre to Papo Djkartrahn Island. The mid-sized vessel’s name was The Lady Senwiggi. This ferry was old, rusty, and very basic, with extensive passenger overcrowding.

From down near the water’s level, the island’s perspective is distinctly different than the view from the air. Needless to say, once filled to beyond her maximum capacity, the rudimentary relic-of-a-ship steamed off towards the horizon. It was mid-afternoon, the sunset’s colours would be majestic soon. The excited crowd were soon overlapping one another’s privacy. As the port disappeared out of view for the passengers, a dozen different dialects crisscrossed the fundamental ferryboat’s decks and covered seating areas. Several hours into the voyage saw a change in weather conditions, which raised some concern. Like an unwelcome sea witch, a hot north-easterly began to pitch the waves to an uncomfortable level. They collided in episodic fashion. Her tonnage was not high, and her keel sat rather shallow in the water. The Lady’s stability was not cooperating with the unpredictable cross-current wind very well. The vessel began tossing and turning, which caused some passengers to stumble and fall. Women grabbed their children from anywhere near the railings. Some had already fallen overboard. Nature had thrown them a curve ball, with everything she had. In a heartbeat, the sunset cruise across a seemingly tranquil passage of water had turned into a nautical nightmare…

The Lady Senwiggi started to falter, the constant listing eked the ocean into her hull. Every portal to the daylight was a potential drain into her empty belly. The bilge pumps were suffering under the strain. She sat dangerously low in the water. A freak wave surged below her troubled hull. It hoisted the rusting vessel up like a paper cup and pounded her spine into the blackness of the depths. She groaned like a tortured metallic sea creature, fighting in deep water. The majority of passengers became dislodged from their seats. They lay across tables and on the floor. Many sustained heavy bruising. Again and again, the swell lifted the old steel ferry, as passengers, bracing for the impact, glared into each other’s faces with the raw gasp of drowning filling their eyes. That eerie weightlessness point at the very apex of the wave, then, the freefall to instantly come to a stop at the bottom. Any person who had been managing to hold on to something, now wasn’t. Screaming figures careered down the alleyway between the seats, their heads crashing into one another, their bodies ravaged by on-board debris. With such aggression did the ocean pound the humble ship, it broke the spine of her, then, flipped her onto her back like a drowning cockroach. In a moment of luck, perhaps good, perhaps bad, Liara and Ronauld had decided to have a restroom break several minutes before the weather had angered. In this particular vessel’s restrooms, one single large room branches off to both separate sets of cubicles. Ronauld was waiting in the larger room for Liara when the largest wave had struck. The Brisbane boy stood clasping a stairwell pole attached to the deck above. After the ship was thrown back into the catcher’s mitt, he felt his entire body rotate around. It had saved him on impact. He scanned some horror-filled faces. But where the hell is Liara?

Ronauld felt the gushing surges of water rising up past his knees. Most streams were pouring from above, emptying from her lower hull. He could feel the suction of air rushing past to displace it. In an instant, he knew the ship had been inverted. To him, the burning question was; how long did they have? He made his way to the ladies’ cubicles, continually calling out loudly, “Liara! Liara!”

The sickening screams of terrified injured passengers scrambling along on the ceiling surrounded them. Like panic-stricken human-sized drowning rats, kicking, scratching and fighting, they squeezed through every available crevice. After a minute’s delay — her distressed voice called back, “Ronauld, is that you? I’m in here!” The water continued to rise.

He grappled toward her voice, in the near-blackness, past bedraggled furniture and scurrying people. Many were children. A half-full drink bottle bobbed in the water. He grabbed it. Again, he shouted. “Liara! I’m coming in to get you! Are you hurt?”

Another enduring minute lapsed before her voice became clearer. He fought against the swirling obstacles and rushing water, the doorway was still a metre-or-two away. He heard her. “I’m okay. Just shaken! Hit my damned head on the door!”

At last, they saw each other — but the light was nearly all gone. He helped her to her feet and showed her the way out. The water was above waist-high, soon they would be swimming. Now in the larger room, it became apparent that the exits were completely blocked by the twisted remains of furniture and cargo. It was jammed in like a beaver’s lodge. An explosion of loud calls for help had returned nothing. Liara and Ronauld also now realised that they were the last remaining two inside. They could not hear any voices in the water outside either. Suddenly, a haunting silence fell. All the demonic weather had calmed, and the sea also began to settle. With salty water now deeper than they could stand up in, forcing them to tread water — nothing felt settled where they were. The distressed pair began looking for a weakness in the lodge. The sea-level was ominously close to the deck above their heads. The pair hustled about in heavy wet clothes, to exhaustion, eventually finding a couple of large floating wooden boxes. They climbed aboard one each and reached out to link the other’s finger’s — preparing to die. It felt cold and was now pitch-dark. Each could hear their own breathing. Trapped like this, when she did sink, they had nowhere to go. Hours drifted past. They fell asleep. Both minds hopefully questioning; Perhaps the fatigue will act like anaesthetic?

But it didn’t go down…

Morning brought with it her joy of sunlight— and with that light, an observer from the air could now identify the situation. Their entombed rear section of The Lady Senwiggi had come adrift, leaving behind the ship’s sunken main structure. This self-contained pod of air and buoyant debris had carried on a current. It was miles from anything. Liara’s eyes opened and initially, her mind remained in confused disbelief. Why am I not dead? Was that a horrible dream? The external sun was so bright that it managed to illuminate the water and allow a glow, just bright enough to see by. She saw his silhouette and paddled over. “Ronauld. Wake up, Ronauld!”

Her companion shook his mind into consciousness. “Amazing… Liara my love, we made it! We made it!” He passed her the drink bottle and they surveyed their wounds. If he could just find a way out, they could spend time on the flat section of the hull above them – perhaps flag down a vessel or plane. But his celebrations were short-lived…

A complete underwater search of their portion of the ship revealed precisely; four more full drink bottles, some unlabelled tins of food, a large knife to pierce the tins, several backpacks — none of which were theirs, and some wet cigarettes. As for managing to force their way out, Ronauld could see through the murky depths that large segments of the debris were the very thing keeping them afloat. Masses of it were wedged under the decking between the railings, like outriggers. Besides being impossible to remove without a tool of some kind, if too much was removed, they could go down without knowing what was outside. A good guess would be a huge expanse of seawater — somewhere in the middle of the Celebes Sea. Another important thing about the hull’s current integrity, was that air was finding its way in from somewhere and he daren’t disturb its entry. Hope was the only thing they had. They sensed help wasn’t too far away now. The pair saved their strength and took care of each other until the darkness took everything away.

The next day unfolded in much the same way. The tins of food had been ravioli soup, braised steak and vegetables, peaches, and peas. They conserved water and discussed plans about what they would do when rescued. Swept along with the current, their entombing life raft began to slip further and further off the map. The sound of a light plane roared overhead but it was miles away.

Four more days dragged by, but with no more passing planes. That constant drip, drip, dripping sound that had been with them since the start. The mental side of things – a serious challenge for both. Although shielded from the blazing Indonesian sun, the interior elements were beginning to break down. The stale air was hard to breathe. Their salt-infused skin was dry. They were trapped like a pair of chrysalids waiting to pupate, slowly beginning to dehydrate, but had to keep positive and believing. Don’t worry, we’ll be all right, once we are saved.

Days turned into nights, into days and into nights and back again…

By the eighth day, to Liara, it felt almost prejudicial that she could actually see, because, vision is hope — but she no longer had any. “Tell me this isn’t really happening…” she pleaded, astounded to still be alive. She paddled over to him. “I no longer want to go on. I’ve had it… I’m losing touch with reality. There is no way out—” her words faded into tears.

Ronauld also felt the pressure-cooker situation. The food rations had finished yesterday, and they were down to the last two-litre water bottle. Both had become terrified from loneliness and the fact that they most likely will not get rescued. Neither wanted to confess to the other. The harrowing ordeal had garnished more tax than it deserved. He took her hand. “Now is not the time to quit on me, Liara. And besides, where are you going to go without me?” She forced a fake laugh.

The non-stop sound of dripping water was incessant. As was the monotonous ocean lapping around the walls. This was a living hell, in constantly damp clothes that were now rotten and threadbare. Their limit was surely not far away.

Three days of thirst and hunger later, and, like the water — her laughter was well-and-truly all used up. “I cannot go on any longer. I mean it! Like this, it could take weeks to die. Ron, should we commit suicide? Is that an option?” They held each other’s faces. She’d never seen him cry before.

He hated hearing her words. It was bad enough that his own mind kept rolling the same headline, Ronauld did not want her to help him make the same decision. “No. Don’t even suggest such a thing!” His voice sharp, almost unsupportive.

She couldn’t help it. “I have heard of people who knew it was the end… They… they hugged each other so tightly that the other couldn’t breathe. In a way, it would be a beautiful way to go… embraced together.” She wept. “I am hating every minute of this. It is like waiting to go slowly.”

“Do not speak of death!” He knew that voluntary simultaneous drowning would also be a very difficult one to pull off.

Her eyes met the knife. “Let’s cut our wrists then!”

“I know someone will come. Hold on darling. Just hold on for me.” Earlier, he had caught a fish which was one of several that had found its way inside. He’d killed it with the knife. “Here honey,” he gave it to her to eat raw. “The nutrients will work wonders—” She ignored the food – death now her only friend.

“Please, Ronauld, die with me now, quickly. Or watch me do it in front of you…”

“Don’t make me have to make that choice, Liara!” He watched her wrap somebody’s leather belt from the knapsack tightly around her chest. He sobbed. “I’ll only do it — if I absolutely have to.”

“Then, I shall choose for you! I can’t even feel the sea’s motion anymore,” she said, weak from the elements. She expelled her air, buckled the belt, and jumped in, near the deep stairwell area.

“No way!” He followed but with lungs full of air. Grabbing her tightly as they bottomed out. She began to crush him in bear hug style. He was not prepared and blew the lot out in a festoon of bubbles. Her grip was determined. It was as if she had saved just enough strength to do this and kept them under. Ronauld stared up at the last three minutes of his life, disappearing above his head, in a wobble of silvery bubbles. He hugged back, beginning to think about death and stopped kicking. His mind kept waiting for that moment when you could no longer hold nature back. That moment when your lungs give in to the fight and instinctively inhale. All that liquid rushes in and shuts the whole system down. It’s the wrong thing but it’s too late now…

Then, he thought about the last thing she’d said. There was no movement of the sea. They were no longer drifting. Their personal lagoon had been a spirit level for the entire eleven days, but he detected a distinct angle. He wrestled her free and burst to the surface, took a huge gulp of musty air and dove back for her. Ronauld unbuckled the belt despite her resistance and hauled her to some oxygen. Liara sucked it in so hard, it sounded dreadful. She’d been seconds away from inhaling the sea. He pushed her back on her box and ordered, “Wait!” Ron manoeuvred over to a spot where you could now climb down and stand up with your head just above the water. It was the most illuminated area. “I think we’re run aground.” She watched his elation grow.

He dove down into the water, trying to peer through the maze of debris. Turtles caught his eye. The murky water was too difficult to discern much else. Then Ronauld saw what he’d hoped for. He surfaced for another valuable breath. “If I’m right…” He dove during her answer.

He peered through the weakest debris, noting which pieces would need to be removed and observed sand washing into the superstructure. They were in fact, ashore. He could take the risk of digging them out. If they lost the ship now, it didn’t matter. He surfaced holding a steel bar. Her question was ready:

“Ronauld! Tell me what the hell is going on?” It took all her strength to be angry.

“I can see silty sand coming in through that side section. I’m going to keep diving until there is a clear hole, big enough for you to try and swim through. Now eat your fish!”

He dove with robot-like precision. Carefully retrieving articles one by one. Explaining to her between rests. Ron persisted for hours without fear, ignoring the fatigue. A turtle swam in through his passage. It surfaced near Liara. She knew he must be close. In the end, he’d carved a twenty-metre underwater swim through the debris. The weight transference inadvertently caused a huge list sideways, which suddenly triggered a heavy cupboard to fall. It landed in the escape route’s way, on an angle. Beyond it lay seaweed, sand, and safety. Ronauld wrestled with it. The steel bar was positioned as a prop which held the item at bay. The gap seemed just wide enough to fit through, if you expelled everything your lungs had got left. Your next breath would have to be freedom. If you ran out before then — it would be voluntary suicide. She’d get her way…

He went back for her. “Let’s go, Hon!” he barked from the water. “You’ll only get one chance, okay? If you fit through the hole without expelling, I would suggest you do it. She’s narrow — but it’s all I’ve got to offer.”

Liara rolled in and he guided her through the underwater maze. She kicked gently. The seconds ticked. Liara trusted Ronauld, she had to. However, the petite Dayak could hardly believe that a few hours ago, she was ready to give in — her threshold had been crushed, and now she must do the swim of her life — in order to save it. When they got to the cupboard, she squeezed through first without expiring her air. She turned to help pull his substantially larger frame through. She watched his bubbles vanish and hoped to God he would fit. Liara pulled on Ronauld’s hands so tightly that he felt her true inner strength and resolve. He squirmed, wrestled, and fought. With a badly lacerated chest, and lungs already bursting, he made it and swam on to the next section, with nothing on board. Ron had reached the same oxygen-void point, as she had before — when he had ripped the belt off in order to save her. He now knew what it felt like to be that close. His mind had gone blank and his vision faulty. They kept going. Two entangled decaying corpses, that didn’t make it, stared emptily back at them. He fell hopelessly, coughing and spluttering from inhaled water. The exit finally appeared. Liara helped him to his feet. The lovers staggered onto the gravelly beach. All around was perfect. It was nature in the raw. Not a soul in sight. But where? A jaded walk to higher ground showed the desolation of their tiny island. Merely a slightly larger prison…

What will happen? Will their fate be predetermined? Or, will the fist of temptation, once more, knock loudly on their door of doom — inducing them, in order that they may they succumb to the easy way out again?

Triple Treat – Ten-minute thriller time! Story Three

A Time Traveller’s Trilogy of Torment. The finale.

What does it really mean? … to have a “Gift”

Readers: It is essential that you read the two previous stories before you continue here…

Link to Story One; Link to Story Two

 

 

 “Falling Back to Harsh Reality”

by Stephen James

 

                Time-traveller William Steed Cosgrove gets his wish: However, the secret he seeks to unveil has a nasty twist in its unearthing…

Dispelling two centuries in his wake and tumbling backwards through time, he feels a slightly different sensation to the usual numbness — as though his cells were shrinking even smaller than an atom. As materialization occurs, his eyes are no more — nor his ears. His awareness is as always but this milieu is far from familiar. He is not even breathing. His heart feels like it is pumping. It would have to be for him to even be alive, but not in a way he has ever experienced during previous travels, nor even while he was a normal human being. A strange continuous movement is discernible in this obscure environment; a sensation of being bound, gagged, blindfolded and virtually deaf, in the middle of the ocean. Is it suspended animation? Darkness is everywhere. No water. No food. No air. Why am I not suffocating? Is it because I am already dead?

At first, he feels petrified — followed by calming helplessness, and then, an odd alien security. Is this what death actually feels like?

There is no sense of time in this place. He never falls asleep. He is never actually awake. The gentle rocking motion seems to calm his emotions. It is not so bad after all but where is everyone?

In the outside world of reality, which surrounds William, the cosmos’ clock continues to tick. Hours turn into days — turn into weeks — turn into months…

Its novelty soon began to wear tissue thin. Cosgrove’s mind was still carrying the dreadful thoughts of the future, or was it the past? He had no notion of time or anything for that matter. This latest confined space felt lonelier than the cold bleak walls of Newgate prison, where he’d waited to be sentenced for murder. He somehow knew that his existence would be for all eternity — he never expected it to be like this though. His mind, alert as always and still forty-two years old, senses a conjoining with something very familiar. More time scurries past. Suddenly, through his eyelids and ears, Will senses an invasion of privacy, because there is someone else beside him. Noises become louder and the cramped confines of his ‘Heaven’ are no longer what they used to be. He realizes that he can actually manoeuvre his odd form about but still has no sense of touch available. He hears a faint heartbeat alongside his own.

“Angelica! Is that you beside me?” he calls out in a peculiar gurgle — his voice resembling the devil. He reiterates, “Angelica, is that you darling, can you hear me? I am so sorry…” he felt himself sobbing. No reply was forthcoming — he couldn’t blame whoever it was for shunning him. More time in obscure solitude, teased by a person who refused to communicate, passed consistently by.

Then, after nearly three-hundred sunrises, the implausible day came…

The light was so bright that William’s eyes, which somehow were able to almost focus, caused him to scream in fear. He could hear another scream similar to his own. A dreadful smell now entered his nostrils which he somehow was able to smell. He felt tiny, helpless, and insignificant and could for the first time in ages, see his own body — it was covered with blood! He recognized his mother’s sighing voice. She was a few metres away. He could see her sweat-covered face. Beside him, a gigantic human being had hold of his sister Janet. To William, it felt as if ‘Heaven’ was replaying a video of his birth. When he attempted to speak it came out as a high-pitched scream. It abruptly dawned on him that he had in fact just been born.

He heard a man’s warm voice say, “Mrs Cosgrove, you have a boy and a girl, and they are both simply beautiful!”

Next, he heard her reply. “Oh, I am so happy. Thank you so very much, Doctor Steed. You know how much an expectant mother worries, don’t you?” Her tears of joy were obvious. “How can I ever thank you for what you have done?”

“Oh, you don’t have to,” he reinforced. “It was midwife Janet Thompson here who did most of the hard work! I simply supervised the whole process.”

“Then my mind is made up,” his mother replied, forming an enormous smile — directed at his dad. “We shall do them an honour then, shan’t we, Bill?”

His father nodded. “Yes, of course dear.” He kissed her forehead.

This euphoric occurrence quickly removed all of the dismay of unknowingness he had been enduring for the past nine months. In his heart, William knew that the second chance he had prayed so desperately for, was about to be granted. He knew also that in forty-two-years from now, when Raymond Buttigieg’s Jaguar is approaching that stop sign, there could be a fortuitous opportunity to wait a lot longer. Yes, it was wrong, but this little piece of history he definitely would alter. Why else had he been granted a second roll of the dice?

As the years toppled by, the young William enjoyed reliving his birthdays with his sister. He went to school in his stupid shorts and long socks. He had a newfound respect for all those tiny little things our lives offer, the likes of which so many of us discount as mundane. William Steed Cosgrove went through puberty all over again. He met Angelica for the first time, just as before, at their High school formal, after the conclusion of their final year. He couldn’t wait to get out and start a wood-machinist apprenticeship, but pretty young Angelica had her sights set on University. It was around this stage of his life when he began to control his lucid dreams.

At twenty-two, the qualified tradesman landed a job and a wife — he couldn’t have been any happier. Although she had forewarned him of her inability to bear him any children, Cosgrove was so much in love with her, that he brushed the topic aside like a pesky mosquito. Besides, he already knew. Up until now, the British born time-traveller has yet to experience the incredible metamorphosis of his ‘gift’. He is just an ordinary young man in an ordinary vocation in life, who is perhaps about to find out what changed it all…

When William is twenty-seven, he is diagnosed with a small carcinogenic tumour at the base of his brainstem. Three specialists consulted and calmed his uneasiness by telling him that; although it is not a common disorder, many such cases have been cured by several sessions of radiation treatment. It was far simpler than attempting surgery and results in the past have proven it to have a higher success-rate as well. William remembers what he went through, however, during the treatment he was sedated to relax his muscles, consequently, was not privy to what happened. He also is aware that the treatment was successful, in his case, therefore, for the second time around he naturally agrees to it. On both occasions — he was not aware of the electrical thunderstorm which developed whilst his brainstem was being subjected to radiation. The synchronization was a million-to-one chance of coinciding, however, it did. Although it went unnoticed, during his stint in the radiology room, a freakish bolt of lightning struck the radiotherapy centre’s transformer room, just outside its communications department. A few seconds of flickering lights followed by a micro-blackout occurred, but it had all returned to normal immediately afterwards. The centre’s in-built generators instantly kicked in. The bolt had knocked out the digital timing system by those few seconds. The highly-focused staff had their hands filled with his care and never even noticed the clock’s difference made by the surge. William became subjected to an abnormal highly-magnified bout of radiation. Nobody was aware of what had happened to him. Once again, history repeated itself and his recovery was a success — just as before. He also missed the discovery.

It was eighteen months later when the maturing Cosgrove endured his inaugural anti-matter trip. Brief encounters of the past, lasting a week or so, became palatable stimulation, and, just as it was the first time, William shared his stories — only to become the topic of mockery. He soon learned to shut his mouth. The decades go by in an exact duplicate of how they did when he first experienced them. Now a seasoned time-traveller with the predetermined end in mind, William confronts each issue with a newfound flair. He is almost cocky, when on that night, he closes the final few pages of Sir Arthur’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ before falling asleep — knowing what is awaiting. He even grins at the hangman as the noose is draped around his neck…

Then, comes the night he watches “Casablanca” for the umpteenth and one time. It felt now like the time-traveller was simply going through the motions. He laughs even louder than before at ‘Les Misérables’. When the Jaguar is approaching the stop sign, however, Will begins to become very nervous. He knows that this is the most important moment of his entire life. Janet makes her comment about the ladies — just as before. It is a foggy night — just as before. The broken-down bus is parked there — just as before. He hesitates — just as he did before, but something is different. There is no bystander calling out to him. Had he gotten something wrong? Then the bystander’s voice cries out.

Filled with euphoria William shuts his eyes to celebrate. And falls asleep but just for a nanosecond, but during that nanosecond, he starts to dematerialize — just as before.

He believes he knows what is going to happen next…

His gift of eternal life should whisk him off to the future, then, just keep sending him back to his conception, inside the safety of his mother’s womb. But he is very wrong. This time he materializes on a Saturday morning, just as the sun is filtering its way through a cauliflower-filled sky. William is sitting down by the sea. He is observing the waves as they tumble towards the gentle sandy slope of the beach. The water splits its way around a cluster of large stones. He feels abnormally fatigued as he sees the odd seagull drop from the sky into the blue-grey water. There are very few people around him, just the odd sandcastle builder here and there, and four swimmers. William does not recall this particular event, and so, believes it must be in the future. He knows it is the south of England because, on the horizon, he can clearly identify the iconic Isle of Wight’s offshore rocky disciples, inclusive of the lighthouse, commonly known as ‘The Needles’. There is a nip in the sea air — he can just feel it on his face and thinks; ‘I guess that’s why I am sitting under this blanket.’

Cosgrove’s attention is stolen by a woman’s silhouetted figure approaching from his left. She had just parted ways with a man, who was making his way back to the wooden stairs leading up to the esplanade. William’s heart-rate increases with anticipation. He squints with hopeful intention, to discern whether or not it is his beloved Angelica but does not distinguish the walk. She waves to him. He goes to wave back but cannot raise his arm. He thinks; ‘Blessed time-travelling is far more tiring than I ever remember.’

After several minutes, the kind-faced woman stops right in front of him. Her hands remove from her pockets, as she crouches quietly in front of him. They rest on his blanketed knees…

“That was Stan. He came to see how you were doing. You remember Stan, don’t you?”

William begins to reply — with speech croaky and fragile. “The only Stan who I remember was Phyllis Buttigieg’s brother.” He hardly recognizes his own voice.

The woman looked back. “Stanley is still a little embarrassed… now that he is my fiancé. I told him not to be but at least he came. Now, are you ready to go back, or would you rather spend a little more time here at the seaside?” The softly-spoken lady was applying some pink lipstick — a small compact mirror was keeping her well within the lines.

Cosgrove stared at the woman in an extremely confused manner. “Go where?” his husky tone asked, attempting to get up, but failing miserably.

“Why, back to the convalescent home, of course, where you live!”

He rasped back. “Can you show me the mirror please?”

She spun it around. “Here you go miss—”

A pair of shrivelled lips lets out a grievous shriek. “My God!”

The scorched reflection was almost disfigured beyond recognition, but Will could still discern who he’d become. The truth struck William with the equivalent force that the semi-trailer had hit Ray’s Jaguar. He was propped in a wheelchair, entombed inside his twin sister’s quadriplegic body. He writhed with self-hatred at what his ‘gift’ was responsible for. The complexion’s pitted and furrowed skin resembled a pinkish creased plastic. Beneath a polka-dot scarf, clods of greyish unkempt hair sprouted in hotchpotch fashion like spinifex grass. William couldn’t release his eyes. His abhorrence intensified. Because suddenly, it also had dawned on him, that he was the hooded denizen figure, whom, in two-hundred years from now, he’d met and wheeled away to safety. The one who was sitting in front of the hellfire burning building, near the crumbling Big Ben and polluted Thames River! Worst of all, at this moment, Cosgrove realized that who he was now, was for all eternity…

Triple Treat – Ten-minute thriller time! Story Two   

A Time Traveller’s Trilogy of Torment continues.

Can life’s sequence of unfolding events be true?

Readers: It is essential that you read the previous story before you continue here…

 

 

“Dare to Dream the Truth?”

by Stephen James

 

Here is the second instalment of this intriguing trilogy. Just one more to follow. Remember to read all three stories in their correct order for the continuous storyline of this adventure. The third story is only a few more days away.  If you “follow” my posts you will receive an email alert so you can enjoy reading more of my short stories. 

William Steed Cosgrove stood beside his lathe watching it rotate at blinding speed. He was a master-craftsman who took his trade very seriously. With the advent of sophisticated computer programmed tools forcing his kind into extinction, Will felt privileged and proud that his bare hands could fabricate any timber or synthetic into any shape, large or small — any style, any finish, or into any class of joinery. It was nearly knock-off time at the factory. As the powerful machine whirred to a halt, he was recalling his life’s rear-end journey — since the travelling began. His wife Angelica was a data streamliner/radar operator at Odiham, the RAF base at Hampshire. A woman of high intellect and he was more than grateful that she saw more than just a pretty face in him. She was a considerate and understanding woman who knew that what was happening to her husband, was a far cry from a joke. Angelica also had her master’s degree in IT. Often bamboozled by her conversational pieces, at times he would simply nod and agree. The charming couple were very much in love…

A number of months had passed since Cosgrove’s last disappearing act peppered the pages of the Illustrated London News, following his altercation with the law back in 1867. He had known all along that the degree of pressure which he had applied on his forefather’s throat was way too insufficient to terminate him. For some strange reason, he had avoided erroneous justice. It was a close call and the harrowing feeling had never left him; therefore, he’d decided to seek professional help. Weekly visits to Southampton began.

Doctor Evan Vladminsky, the author of no less than seven published manuscripts, on the topics of lucid dreaming and astral projection, was the mind-specialist instated to explore his subconscious. William had endured lengthy consultations with the top-end psychoanalyst, in an attempt to discover the reason for his incredible time-cheating experiences. When he had tried to explain the truth to the medic, his improbable exposé was naturally scoffed at.

In return, the psychotherapist forced his insistence upon Cosgrove, with lengthy clarifications about the disorder. Vladminsky’s criticism to accept it as reality was harsh and doctrinaire. The man’s autocratic personality always left William with a feeling of inadequacy. The final explanation summary went like this: ‘Simply put Mr Cosgrove, this phenomenon called lucid dreaming, is merely a person’s ability, when in the midst of a dream, to be aware that one is, in fact, dreaming. The clarity can be overwhelming… even false pragmatisms can occur. So much so, that the individual shall attempt to control how the dream unfolds. In certain patients such as yourself, the condition transpires because you have a larger brain structure in the anterior prefrontal cortex. This condition basically causes you to have a higher state of thinking and self-awareness. You proved this to me with your test success rate. Now…would you like another consultation?’

Frustrated yet again, Cosgrove returned home after another expensive albeit fruitless session. Nobody believed his stories, but it was far worse than that. Although the time-leaping experiences could be quite mind-expanding, they could also be quite traumatic. The prescribed sedation tablets were not making any difference, and his textbooks were complicated to read. Will knew he was a lucid dreamer — having discovered at a young age how to control their course. He also knew the obvious difference between a nightmare and reality. What was happening to him in recent years, he was unable to alter the course of. He just wanted someone aside of Angelica to know about it. As per usual they discussed the matter over dinner. The empathetic long-haired brunette, whose girl-next-door looks did everything right, except flatter her astute business acumen, began clearing their plates.

“Are you going to read tonight, darling?” she asked. “I have some study to catch up on, if I am going to be the successful applicant for that position I’ve told you about. I reckon it is between Phyllis and myself. But it’s a toss-up. She is more experienced than I.”

“No, Angie… my head is still swimming with encyclopaedic terminology, after Dr Vladminsky’s dictatorial extraction of my hard-earned cash! Think I’ll catch a Yankee sit-com or movie instead. You go ahead, dear. I know how much your career means to you. Phyllis Buttigieg might well be more experienced, but you are far better looking!” He kissed her. “I’ll clean this lot up.”

Angelica laughed, then trundled into the bathroom to freshen herself up.

The mild-mannered gentleman from Brockenhurst donned his favourite Winnie-the-Pooh pyjamas and curled up on the couch with his remote control. As he watched the old black-and-white film ‘Casablanca’ for the umpteenth time, his mind was hopeful that the momentousness of that last journey may have marked the end to it all. He missed the film’s end — whereby Humphrey Bogart pulls out his revolver and threatens Police Chief, Claude Rains, to let Ingrid Bergman and her husband fly to freedom. William had quickly slipped into a deep restful slumber on his couch. He could probably have hit the mute button and have them lip-syncing to his own dialogue anyway. Angelica sat at her laptop, in the office, at the opposite end of their southern Hampshire bungalow. By 10.30 pm his form had vanished into the night once more — she never noticed his peaceful body evaporating, like tiny particles of matter, into the realms of space-time. As this occurred, the cushion and couch he’d lay upon slowly resumed back to their original shapes…

Within seconds, William arrives in the future to the night they go out to celebrate her job success. It is exactly four weeks to the day. Angelica is now a grade five computer analyst and the head of her department at RAF Odiham, as it is colloquially known. Co-worker Phyllis had been the first to congratulate her. Upon Phyllis’ suggestion, her and her husband Raymond were paying for and accompanying the Cosgrove’s to The Whistle Loudly Theatre Restaurant, to see a comedy version of ‘Les Misérables’ with bubbly etc included. The invitation had also been extended to Will’s spinster identical-twin-sister, Janet. They were all very close — with Janet having twice dated Phyllis’ brother Stan. The only proviso was that William drove, because he was the only teetotaller amongst the five of them. As a sweetener, Ray had offered forward the keys to his new Jaguar XF, if he was prepared to chauffeur the celebrators to the show and back. Naturally William approved…

The show was a marvellous success — they laughed till their sides ached. Everything was going beautifully. They enjoyed late-night café lattes and cappuccinos after the play’s conclusion. By 11.00 pm the happy group were buckled into the sleek silver Jag saloon. The car was filled with chattering mirth as it cruised down the M5. William listened to his wife’s joking comparisons with the play’s characters and some of her work colleagues. Perched in the back of his mind was the thought of how wonderful it was, knowing that this night would soon to be happening for real, and how much Angelica was going to enjoy it. She couldn’t stop thanking Ray and Phyllis for their generosity — especially considering the fact that she had beaten her friend to the high-paying departmental head position.

“Not a problem. It was a pleasure to laugh so much together,” replied Ray. “I tell you what, Cosgrove, why don’t you simply drop us off first and take the Jag home. I can pick it up tomorrow.”

‘Are you sure about that, Ray?” asked Will, smiling at the thought and looking at his reflection in the driver side’s tinted window. “She purrs like a cat, hey mate?”

“Don’t forget to drop me off first, Willy,” added Janet to the conversation. “It is a bit foggy out there and I’m getting tired now. Oh, do get a wiggle on Willy, I need to go to the ladies too!”

The sleek cosy car had stopped at a stop sign, after peeling off the major highway. A broken-down bus was parked on the left, where the road swept gradually around a bend, making visibility awkward. William sat with the engine idling for quite some time, to be certain it was safe — eyes darting from side-to-side.

“Of course, I’m sure, Cosgrove,” enforced Ray Buttigieg, patting his hand on William’s shoulder. “I’d trust you with my life old man! What on Earth is a silly old motor car compared to that, hey what?” The beautiful car was in fact practically brand new. “All clear on my side—”

As the car gradually lurches forward across the lane, a warning voice from outside the car calls out. “Stop! Don’t go yet!”

Cosgrove glances right for a second — distracted by the loud call. Inopportunely, he begins falling asleep for a nanosecond, but during that nanosecond, he commences dematerializing. The helpless William is watching as his body begins evaporating. Its atomised foot, no longer able to switch to the brake pedal, allows the heavy car’s automatic transmission to continue rolling it forwards. Through the mist, a speeding semi-trailer is on a collision course. The truck-driver stands on his brake pedal locking-up all twenty-two wheels. Simultaneously, as its huge stainless-steel bulbar ploughs into their car with a perfect T-bone strike, burning black rubber engulfs the Jaguar. The multitude of airbags inflate instantly, resembling a car filled with oversized frogspawn. The force is so immense that the luxury sedan is swept down the road like gutter debris. It stops like the crushed meat in a metallic sandwich, at the rear of a parked FWD, roughly one-hundred metres up the road. A petrol-fuelled fireball erupts. The whole process, only taking seconds, is observed through two despairing ghostly eyes by a disappearing William Cosgrove. Three of the occupants die within several seconds of the enormous impact — identical-twin-sister Janet, somehow survives. A minute later, the pill-filled and half-intoxicated semi-trailer driver is spotted fleeing the scene, by the calling-out bystander…

In a change from the norm, William returns instantly to the couch from four weeks prior. The usual week-or-so away has become modified. His breathing is rapid. His face is white. His hands are shaking. His shock-filled bloodstream is gushing like Niagara. He now knows the horrible future that awaits. He looks down at Winnie-the-Pooh’s innocent little white face, on his pyjama shirt, staring back at him — but cannot smile. It is midnight. Angelica has gone to bed. She must have noticed the TV still on, broadcasting the second Bogart feature in-a-row, but him not there and realized he was timing-out (as they flippantly called it). She has left him a note saying, ‘See you when you return darling’. But… William cannot work out whether to go and wake her, to inform Angelica about the car crash.  He is tormented by the ugliness of the truth. It was the future — only a matter of weeks away!

William switches off his TV set to regain some composure. He can hear Angelica’s gentle snore emanating from down the hallway and rubs his perspiring face, thinking hard of a way to alter the future. He remembers that he is a lucid dreamer and decides to fall back to sleep — to perhaps steer his body into another time-travel. However, he did not know whether he would return to the actual crash and die with her or what? This option was a gamble he would also be prepared to take. Somewhere else perhaps? A good era he was hoping to retravel back to, would be the past, to be reunited with her. Perhaps at a time when they first met or when they first got married, anything but where he was currently at. It seemed worth a try. Unfortunately, he had never experienced a double-travel, like the one required, before. With difficulty, Cosgrove slowly drifts into unconsciousness…

Unlike before, during portal transference, he manages to steer the plot through its roller-coaster, and relives the horrifying accident — but overshoots the runway, unable to awaken where he’d prefer it to be. Cosgrove rematerializes behind the trunk of a giant oak at the graveyard site of St Catherine’s Church, several days after the accident. He is dressed in black. He glances past the tree — watching Angelica’s coffin being lowered in. Their neighbourhood priest is speaking kindly of her. Two other graves with awaiting coffins are there. William hears people, also clad in full black attire, whispering behind their hands. “His wife and best friends too. And what about his poor sister? He and the truck-driver both fled the scene somehow, you know—”

At this moment, he would gladly have opted for that hangman’s noose! This is by far the saddest moment of his life. He holds back his tears, observing with discontentment, whilst staying clear of the massive sobbing crowd. Afterwards, he makes the long lonely walk home.

Days of gloomy solitude and grief-stricken moping at home follow. The man is crushed by feeling the guillotine of guilt, on his conscience, for killing them. Cosgrove’s torment and stress levels are unbearable. He is not eating, shaving, or even washing himself. His mind is exploding — he doesn’t know how to cope with this circumstance. William wishes he was a drinker. Having decided that he cannot continue without her, he sees no reason for his existence and decides to take his own life. One evening William contemplates; ‘Yep, suicide is the only option. How shall I do it though? What is a plain and simple way to do it? What is a painless and fast method?’

He speaks out loud to the hallway mirror. “Death by gunshot is the only way. It’s fast, painless, and above all, reliable. Do it in one hit. Over and done with quickly, just like she was.”

Will knew that his friend, Ray Buttigieg, was a grouse and deer hunter who owned several shotguns and rifles. He’d seen them enough times.  One weapon in his pride collection’s armoury was a large-bore pistol. That night he goes to their home to steal it. Their house is dark and still — he’s inside within minutes, wrapping the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum Revolver up in a towel, then, placing it in a travel bag. A handful of cartridges follow. He returns home and sits down to begin writing a mournful suicide letter. Why — how — where — when — etc, so that nobody else is responsible for his death. He places the letter in an envelope and puts it on the dining room table, in plain view. At the stroke of midnight, Will sits down and picks up the revolver and points it towards his face. His eyes stare eagerly down the big hollow black barrel. He braces himself. He must get it right the first time. His eyes flick across to the wall clock, then, focus back on the gun. ‘Open or shut? Does it matter?’

Will’s interlocked thumbs begin easing back on the trigger. Deep breaths… waiting… waiting… waiting… His sensitive ears can hear the mechanism clicking. Hands begin trembling. He knows he is a fraction of a second away from that projectile terminating his life, and very soon he should be joining his beloved Angelica. Just as the trigger nears the point of no return, his body dematerialises. The undischarged revolver slides right through his pepper-sprinkled hands and drops to the dining table. Cosgrove is yet once more, vanishing off in time…

This time, he re-emerges two-hundred years way into the future, same age — same man, who is seeing the planet for what it has become. Violence is rife. The unbreathable air is locust-thick with airborne miscellanea.  Fires burn and smoulder all around him. He can clearly see the skeletal remains of Big Ben’s clocktower — looming over the Thames River like some ancient relic of the past. The river’s water is polluted with toxic flotsam and jetsam. It is England, this much he knows but it is unrecognizable. The suicide letter is in his pocket — somehow it came with him. He is confused but still wishes to end it all. People all around him are groaning in pain, some bear ugly scars as if their flesh had been scorched and blistered by mustard gas. Nearby, a hooded denizen figure sits in a wheelchair staring at the flames of a raging hellfire, at close range. William steps toward the lost soul and steers the incapacitated victim fifty metres away, to safety. He knows he’s not supposed to alter history, but this poor creature seemed unable to manoeuvre their mode of transport. He steps into the burning building but the moment some flames touch his body he begins to vanish, yet again…

Is he learning anything about what this irregular anomaly is? As he diminishes, William contemplates the possibility of travelling all the way back to when he was a child, to find out what it was that made him so different from every other human being. Why does he have this horrible ability?

Watching the remnants of his hands fade away, Cosgrove now realizes, that this gift which he has been given is; that he is a man who can never die. At any point he is about to die, his body and soul miraculously dissipates to safety.

With all the grotesque memories that have plagued his recent life… is it really a gift?

Triple Treat – Ten-minute thriller time! Story One

Have you ever wished you could travel through time?

Meet someone who can do just that…

A Time Traveller’s Trilogy of Torment!

 

 

“…Beyond Dreaming”

by Stephen James

 

Here is the inaugural instalment of this intriguing trilogy. There are two more to follow. So, be sure to devour all three stories in their correct order for the continuous storyline to be interpreted correctly. I shall post the second a few days later — and the third a few more days after that. Click on “follow” and you will receive an email alert to let you know as soon as the next story appears. 

 

As William Steed Cosgrove, a forty-two-year-old wood-machinist stepped down from the Hansom cab, its soft suspension sagged under his powerful frame’s weight. His buckled shoe hit the ground in a shallow puddle. The glistening sheen of the pavement flagstones, under the morning’s mist of rain, made their charcoal tones look like billion-year-old volcanic rocks. Several horse-drawn carriages skittered across them leaving tiny rooster-tails of water. This was the year 1867. It was Baker Street, in the heart of London, England. Exactly 9.42 am, on a Thursday, was the time. William had folded-shut the back cover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ scarcely nine hours previously. Being a Sherlock Holmes junky, he had stayed up late to finish it — riveted to the word-maestro’s incomparable text. After which, the whodunnit’s challenging plot had drawn circles on the walls of his mind, suffice to give him a rough night’s rest. Everything was fine, except Will Cosgrove lived in Brockenhurst in South Hampshire, over seventy miles away, in 2015…

“Don’t remember seein’ you get in, kind sir,” remarked the driver, leaning down from his platform at the back of the cab — hand cupped. “Let’s call it twopence-halfpenny, my good man.”

He paid the cab driver, noticing the stout image of Queen Victoria engraved on the pennies as they dropped. Will raised his top hat and planted his gentleman’s cane between the flagstone joints, politely asking, “what year would this be, driver?”

“That’s a strange question. Why, it’s 1867 of course! What… ‘ave you been sick or somethin’?”

“In a way, yes. Thank you, friend. And a very good morning to you.”

The blinkered horse — tail held high, clip-clopped off with a gentle trot. Fine-looking William strolled off as if he knew exactly what was going on. The truth; he didn’t know but couldn’t let the public determine it. He’d never owned a suit with tails in his life. He was married to a woman but couldn’t for the life of him remember her name. And… this was not the first time he had fallen through time; however, this was the furthermost in years that he had gone. The bleak weather forced him quickly to the undercover awning of a cake shop, where a well-dressed woman stood fidgeting with her bonnet’s dampish flowers. Her parasol rested against the shop’s window beside her string bag. Cosgrove glanced past her pretty-featured face, in order to catch a glimpse of his own image in the glass. His mortal form had materialized, inside the stationary Hansom cab, several blocks away, therefore, he had no idea of how old he was. The face staring back looked barely old enough to shave. Each time in the past during his time-leap journeys, he’d always felt the same mentally — in fact, his knowledge of modern-day life remained entirely up to speed. But there were no cellphones here and no credit cards to flash around. The era he was currently in seemed to be moving at a sloth’s pace. At this second, he was a man in his twenties comprising the wisdom of forty-two years’ experience. An onlooker could be forgiven for believing this to be a Godsend, but Cosgrove was mindful not to intervene with history’s line of chronology. He knew that he was not really supposed to be there. It all felt like a very realistic dream, however, it wasn’t. And that sloth pace was about to change…

“Good day madam,” he offered to the attractive brunette, their eyes meeting in the rain. “Let us stand clear of that breeze. I see your shopping is a trifle damp.” William’s devour-rate of historical novels had put him in good stead of the required language. He removed a handkerchief from his coat’s pocket and offered it to her. Their hands shook twice as she grasped the white cloth.

“Very kind of you sir,” her polite cockney accent replied. “I have just fetched a present for my father. He’ll be fifty tomorrow, you know. I bought him a charming new fob watch from Harrington’s. Solid gold it is… took my last savings, but you only get one proper father, don’t you?” She glanced her chestnut coloured eyes towards the string bag. “You from around ’ere then, are you?”

“Not entirely,” he nodded in reply. “William Steed Cosgrove… at your service miss!”

“Bassingthwaite. Miss Emily Bassingthwaite to be precise. Interesting middle name, that is!” The striking girl’s cheekbones raised with the radiance of her smile. “Where’re you from then?”

At that very moment, before he could answer, a carriage pulled by four groomed Appaloosa stallions drew up beside them. It distracted their focus. On its blind side, a scruffy hooded man skulked in the mist — keeping low behind the horses’ withers. In an opportunistic blur, the nimble thief snatched Emily’s bag and ran a nine-inch knife blade across her stomach. She slumped against the shopfront — tiny hands clasping her blood-soaked dress. In a flash, he was gone…

A stern voice shouted from the carriage window. “Get the scoundrel! Go on son!”

In two minds, Cosgrove swung his eyes to the voice. His strong hands were supporting her hips, but his conscience knew this was meant to be, and his presence wasn’t. There were no policemen in sight. He considered the blade and his own belly but saw little choice.

“I am a doctor!” blurted the voice. “You chase him, boy and I shall look after the girl!”

William had been a good-quality soccer player all through school and represented his local Hampshire Hurricanes at club level, right up until he turned forty. He tossed his top hat and cane aside and took off like a cheetah. From the corner of his eye, he saw the thief vanish around a brick wall leading into a narrow laneway. Scores of people were funnelling-out from its entrance, many being cannoned aside. As they parted, it forged a path for his pursuit. Out the other end and down the street, across between horse-drawn traffic he chased. Ducking, weaving, skidding on cobbles, and side-stepping pedestrians he pursued. Will Cosgrove’s buckled shoe sounds echoed off the grimy brick walls. The adroit thief’s head spun around over his shoulder. Only a few yards away now. A sudden change of direction found them entering another very narrow lane. The walls towered high on both sides. In this alley, there was nothing but darkness. He caught a glimpse of the blade in the villain’s right hand. They were in a dead-end laneway.  It was now or never…

“Back-off or die!” screamed the filthy unshaven individual, turning to face Cosgrove. The look in his yellowy eyes glared as mean as a snake. Knife in one hand — his booty in the other. The threat was real.

William said nothing as he leapt at the man’s waist in a rugby-style crash-tackle. His strong, angry, wood-machinist hands wrapping around the thief like a resolute anaconda. Their combined weight hit the slippery flagstones with an almighty crunch. The knife spun out of his hand. The bag’s contents, strewn around the grappling men, soon revealed the magnificent gold watch and chain. It spilt free from its leather case. The two men rolled on the ground scratching and thumping one another, their faces only inches apart. A small crowd of facial expressions began to appear through the hazy moist light at the lane’s open end. Still no police. Cosgrove, although slightly lighter in stature occupying this younger body, had adrenaline and determination as his allies. He quickly subdued the criminal by applying a choke-hold from behind. But what next?

William couldn’t help thinking about how important it was not to alter the course of history. Between each of his heavy gasps for breath, he wished his mortal form would dematerialize and send him back home to his bungalow at 14 Beaglehunt Street in South Hampshire, where he knew his wife was at present occupying their queen-size ensemble by herself. Alas, something he had learned about with the previous travels, was that he was always away for a period in excess of at least one week. So, that option was not about to happen.

An elderly gentleman and his wife began to wander towards them. He called out. “Who’s down there? Show yourself at once!”

“No!” shouted William. “It is not safe for you! Call for the police at once, please. I have a criminal in my keeping… an attempted murderer, in fact!”

The old man scurried off nodding, in his funny little dottery way. Then something extremely strange occurred. The apprehended man, who was tugging with his own wiry arms, spluttered a sentence past William’s forearm. “You’re a Cosgrove, aren’t you? I can tell—” he coughed.

Confused by the utterance, William gritted his teeth. “You disgraceful contemptable lowlife! What did you just say?”

The man coughed, “I said you are a Cosgrove. I could tell the moment I saw your eyes—”

“Shut your mouth… you damned criminal scum, or I’ll see an end to you!”

“Look at me,” gasped the choking individual. “Stare at your own eyes!” he wheezed.

Impossible; thought William to himself. Then, suddenly remembering his twin sister Janet’s self-compiled genealogy book which she had pestered him to read, he remembered her documentation about a nineteenth-century vagrant from the capital, named Arthur Cosgrove. Time felt like it was standing still. It rained no more. Will’s warm breath’s vapour gathered in a cloud before his eyes. The vagabond had stopped breathing. Cosgrove’s immediate thought was; But I have hardly got any pressure on you — there’s not a chance in hell you could die from just this?

William let his flaccid body settle on the cobblestones. He leaned over the corpse to look. There was no mistake. The now-visible eyes and face, having had the hood fall away during their fight, was a doppelgänger for his own. What wasn’t apparent, was the fact that he had died of a heart attack, brought upon by his efforts to overcome his suppressor. This homeless individual was riddled with Vibrio-cholerae, by virtue of London’s barely-existent sewerage system. His poor respiratory tract and weakened heart had simply given in. Within minutes, two constables appeared from the shadows above them. The tall one’s truncheon rested on William’s shoulder…

The weeks of hell dragged slowly by for incarcerated William. The cold crudely-painted walls of Newgate Prison were his new home. Emily Bassingthwaite, who had survived the cowardice attack, came to visit Cosgrove on many occasions. She grew very close to him and he remained moderately hopeful.  However, way back in this harsh period of history — the law was still the law and scruples were somewhat unscrupulous. Unfortunately for Will, life was decidedly cheap. No medical autopsy had been performed on Arthur. It was still regarded as manslaughter.

On her most recent visit, she opened-up her jar of truth. “This is preposterous, Steed,” she vented sympathetically through the bars. “I have explained the circumstances thoroughly to the authorities, but—”

He frowned back. “Why do you call me by my middle name, Emily?”

“Because I like it! and… I like you, very much!” she qualified.

“Accepted my dear. However, as far as they are concerned, I killed a man and for that, they will hang me. Let’s not forget, that this is 1867 and the laws were quite rudimentary back then—”

“What in Heaven’s name does that mean, Steed?” she interjected, pouting her puzzling smile which was as beautiful as her contented one.

“It means… it means… it means that I am as confused as you. But, if I had answered your very first question when we originally met — when you asked; ‘Are you from around here then?’ The truth, well… the truth you simply wouldn’t have believed.”

Her eyelashes flew apart. “Try me?”

“Guard!” he called out in a loud firm voice.

“Yes, what is it, prisoner Cosgrove?” answered a uniformed gentleman, whose dark whiskers and sideburns, all joined in one, stuck out like a woolly daffodil around his face.

“Pray, let this good lady into the confines of my cell, sergeant. We have much to discuss.”

“Okay. But be mindful, I’ll be watching you very closely, sir!”

“Oh… open the blasted door!” yelled Emily. “Can’t you see that I love him, and—” She hesitated, knowing it wasn’t quite that simple, before possibly making a fool of herself.

William Steed Cosgrove, figuring that he had nothing to lose by telling this charming young lady everything about where he came from, started from the beginning. He had attempted to explain it to the authorities. They merely laughed at his pathetic attempts to be committed into a lunatic asylum. Over two hours later, Emily reassured, “I do believe you, Steed.” Her smile was priceless.

He finished… “Even though I cannot remember her name — let alone who she is, I do have an unborn wife, somewhere out there… So, that is why I cannot permit myself to fall in love with you.  The worst part is; now that Arthur Cosgrove has died prematurely, I don’t even know if I’ll ever even be born. How dreadful is that? In a way, the longer I stay in prison — is the longer I stay alive!”

“As I have told you before, my father is one of the best criminal barristers in London, Steed. You recovered his watch. That meant a lot. At least let him try to get a pardon for you.”

“Greatly appreciated, my dearest Emily, but lawyers definitely do not work for free. I have no money whatsoever! Believe me, from past experience and where I come from, this I know to be one of life’s coldest and hardest facts.”

Emily burst into tears. “He’ll work hard for you — for me, Steed darling. If you tell me that you love me, of course, that is.” Her cute, cockney, Eliza Doolittle accent melted his stubborn armour.

“Time to leave miss!” roared the guard, grabbing her by the upper arm. The door swung shut.

“Go ahead then, I am very fond.” He guiltily kissed her through the cast-iron bars. “Let’s see what he can do.” William could not bring himself to say what Emily was so desperate to hear. She parted ways, blowing him a kiss, which he returned.

Within ten days the Assize judge’s gavel had crashed firmly against its block…

Will lost his speedy trial, despite Bassingthwaite’s legal prowess and strong pleading appeals for leniency. Judgement was passed. Cosgrove’s hanging date was set for November 23rd at precisely 10.00am sharp. The day arrived quicker than a liar’s promise. Heartbroken Emily could not bring herself to attend. The daunting walk played havoc with his mind. William had read a great deal about the punitive penal system before the lead-up years to his folklore hero, Sherlock Holmes’ emergence on to the literary scene. He knew that these gallows were going to be the short-drop strangulation type. The type held in public areas outside the prison walls, as an exhibition for the public’s enjoyment. The passing of The Prisons Act of 1868, whereby, far more humane methods of capital punishment (the long-drop neck-breaking type) were introduced, was not until next year.

He stood at the Newgate Prison gallows — thick hairy noose of rope around his neck — coils resting behind his ear — entire body trembling. His feet were perched on a stool which was about to be kicked out from under him. A large crowd of festive onlookers began cheering. A juggler stopped his balls practically mid-flight to observe the hanging. William’s heart was pounding so hard that it hurt; This was not what time-travel was all about, surely?

“Proceed!” shouted a dark featureless voice.

Suddenly, his body atomised into microscopic particles, then, vanished completely into thin air leaving an empty swinging noose…

His amazing escape caused quite a commotion amongst the Londoners. Over several weeks, dramatic articles sprawled the front pages of the Illustrated London News. Exaggerated versions of the truth surfaced — the unsuccessful manhunt, eventually brought to an end. Emily, however, always knew the truth.

William Cosgrove rematerialized in his own bed to the accompaniment of his wife Angelica’s gentle purring sleep. Conan Doyle’s book sat on the bedside table with a bookmark at the beginning of the penultimate chapter. He glanced at the glowing digits of his radio alarm clock, they read; 10.53 pm. He thought; still two chapters to go? Strangely, he had not returned to the exact time as he’d left — but William now knew the unpredictable ending to ’The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

The following day at his sister Janet’s house, the siblings sat staring at the self-published genealogy book, open at page 191. “What is it, Willy? And, why are you so eager to find out?”

“Shhh,” he said, thumbing down the page. “Oh my gosh… listen. Walter Henry Cosgrove who was our bootmaker ancestor, married a woman by the name of Emily Bassingthwaite, in 1869. The family tree shows they had seven children. It says Walter had a brother come-gaolbird named Arthur. This old census document you photocopied, states that he died at the hands of a mysterious killer, way back in 1867!”

Janet frowned back. “So, exactly why is that so important to us right now?”

Be sure to catch story two soon…

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“Wicked Woman… Truthful Thief… Lawyer Liar”

By Stephen James

 

                Oh, what a tangled web we weave — when first we practise to relieve? Well, that is what mushroomed, from this fellow’s necessity to visit the toilet — one brisk Argentine night. For an unlikely young hero, in this mini super-drama, the fusion of fact, fiction, fundamentality, and freedom, forms a very thick soup…

 

It was a busy night at 125 Oakmont Drive, on 23rd March. The inviting aroma of Latin cooking filled the night air. Outside, a thief was removing the pane of glass for his entry. Inside, Stephanie Summers had a knife at her rich husband’s throat. He was completely at her mercy. She had tolerated his womanising. She had enjoyed his money. She was basically over him! Stephanie watched him squirm with fear as she toyed with his life. This blade was nine-inches long. Within seconds, petty house burglar Carrington Warren is through the window and into their lounge room. He cannot help but see what is going on. Surprise keeps the silence. Carrington makes full eye-contact with Stephanie. Her return glare spoke of a woman who had reason to end her woes, and nothing would stop her. She flicked her nod at him, to say; just steal and leave swiftly mister. Carrington at first hesitates, then opens his mouth to speak. “I need to use the bathroom first, Mrs Whoever-you-are.” He started moving gingerly toward the restroom door offering, “I wasn’t quite expecting this!”

“Just go!” Her voice cut his eye-line free. Her head returned to its focus.

Carrington Warren flushed and lowered the lid. He returned to thank her — then leave quietly. Stephanie stood over the body. Its throat was cut. The nine-inch blade, stuck in the table beside the corpse, gave her a look of condemning guilt which she avoided. “I didn’t do it!”

An acidic smell of death hung in the air.

He summed-up the evidence instantly, knew she couldn’t possibly be trusted and forced an answer. “Sounds unlikely… but it could be likely. Either way, what’s next?”

“Rufus and I would often play it… a little rough. But never to this extent.”

“Your husband. Your murder. I didn’t even see you do it. So, I’m outta here!”

“I’m telling you. You fool. Don’t you see? While you were in the bathroom, I reconsidered and let him go. I didn’t want you to turn me in!” her solemnity begging… “I went into the kitchen to cry. I heard a man’s voice and a scuffle. When I returned… well, you can see what I saw!”

He had no idea who she was. “Look, lady. I don’t want to get mixed up in any of your personal problems. I got enough of my own to worry about already, without this crazy kind of business.” Like an inexperienced and pressurized victim of; wrong time – wrong place mania, he grabbed the knife to try to withdraw it from the table. It stayed put, the handle now wobbling.

“Oh, but you are mixed up. For all I know, you may have been the one who planned to come here and kill him. My letter opener just so happened to be quite handy at the time. There is NO WAY a woman could ram that knife blade in quite that firmly.” A tongue of rasp intention spat back.

At this point, Carrington understood one thing. She was right. He noticed this as her fingers peeled a pair of sheer, silken, arm-length, gloves away from each hand and threw them into the burning log fire. The only fingerprints on the handle were his, and whoever it was, who she reckons killed her husband. Stephanie had a wicked look in more than just her eye — she personified the meaning; Usually true when once she had a lover and seldom a strayer. But, when it came to financially fleecing them, she had no clones and no disciples. He knew one other thing; If the pair of them were going to make this one stick, he had to believe her flimsy story. What if there was another real murderer, whose prints are under his? It would be proof, right? They needed each other…

“I swear to you lady, I was in there the whole time. I did not kill your husband,” said Carrington, pointing at the bathroom door. “My brother-in-law, Danny, is a criminal lawyer. You don’t seem too upset?”

“The wealthy bastard won’t leave too many unhappy lamenting people behind.”

Warren’s eyebrows perched to a sharp incline. “You sound bitter.”

“It’s a long story. You wouldn’t be interested. What’s his name?”

Carrington squared her off. “What’s who’s name?”

“Your brother-in-law, Dumbo. You said he could help us.” She seemed nice when she needed something. “Don’t you think the cops will want to talk to us both?”

“It’s Danial Torres.” They both collaborated and dialled the two numbers…

By the time the police arrived, Danny was already at the scene. His Italian suit cheated the room for intricate detail. Calm and poised — the lawyer’s strut was of an alley cat’s. He instructed them never to speak unless he was there. The police were systematic, and a thorough forensic investigation followed. Every microscopic detail was taken into account by both parties. Danny was brilliant. He knitted the beholden-to-evidence couple’s alibis together so tightly, they couldn’t close the case. Even Carrington’s fingerprints were plainly smudged from a pulling-up motion, not a thrusting-down one — as would have been required at that angle, to kill him. There was also a mysteriously untraceable set of prints under his. They celebrated his courtroom work with dinners at the Ritz. ‘The Three Musky Tears’ they called themselves, and they lived it up. Stephanie was the heiress, so she provided the money. Carrington was simply washed along with the whole situation. He only paid a fine for breaking-in because he didn’t actually steal anything. He became the fortunate piggy-in-the-middle-playboy, by accident. Summers and Warren shared the house. On the flip side, there was Danny ‘The Wizard’ Torres, the wayward people of Buenos Aires’ crooked lawyer, who did all their bookwork and legalese, plus kept their noses clean. Stephanie Summers’ inherited Oakmont Drive mansion was located in Downtown El Puerto, not a place noted for its frothy coffee shops nor its Sunday school picnics. Here, the law hovered like dragonflies. At times, the pair were hounded by the police, about the unsolved murder case. The enforcement agency had smelled a rat. It was a matter of which one and how big. Always watching their tails was the sharp-witted lawyer. His underhanded brilliance kept the Argentine law at an arm’s length away.

After waking up one morning with a splitting headache, then, sending some outlandish olive-skinned man home, Stephanie met Carrington by the thirty-metre lap pool. A high-cut yellow bikini was exaggerating her curves. Her face began grinning like a successful used car salesman. Even behind the mask of her blurry, booze-filled, cheeky eyes, it did not prove too difficult to read. He knew she had been putting out. He hated it. Because, ever since the whirlwind started to spin, he had fallen steeply for her. He had become wound up in a story which narrated like a Mills & Boon novel. It had murder. It had conspiracy. They had money to burn. They lived life on the edge. She was evil. And her attractive wickedness had performed open heart surgery on him — he loved her. But he was not her hero in this book. He felt like a minor character. All he wanted was the girl, never mind the rest. She sat next to him — feet submerged on the top step. Contriving Stephanie, of course, knew everything that was going through his naïve mind. She even decided to sunbake topless just to tease him. Her Cheshire Cat smile forcing him to speak:

“Stephie, I have always wondered,” he struggled. “Who actually did kill Rufus on that night?”

“That much, I do know…” she laughed like he was silly or something. “I’ve always known.”

“Why have you not ever admitted this before?”

“Not important to us right now. Is it?” She splashed water on him.

“Stephanie, I’ve not been totally honest with you. When… when we first met, I had no idea it would have developed into this… this… this merry-go-round. The parties and the err, kafuffle are a lot of fun.” His words stumbled — gulping throat dehydrating. “But I want you, Stephanie. You’re all I ever wanted.” It was out there.

The big house sprawled around their privacy. Stephanie kept the silence alive by not verbally replying. She slid into the water, totally undressing at the same time, quiet as a melting ice cube. Her lips begging him in. She was not expecting what happened next…

Within two hours, Carrington Warren had turned the jezebel reprobate inside out. The unsung wanna-be burglar made the wildcat’s boat rock so much, that she promised him everything — except marriage, that was taboo. He naturally complied. His circle was complete, and he could now become the hero of their crazy unfinished story. They put it on public display, but the police didn’t like this. An item, quite this soon? The case still not closed? A body but no conviction? A reinvigorated haze of suspicion fell on them like the shadow from a plague of locusts. They were lucky to have his sister’s husband, Danny, to sweep up the locust carcasses. Danny Torres could make poison taste and sound like honey. In court, his lies sounded better than any truth. Charisma blazed a trail — he merely followed its path. At first connection, Stephanie had immediately gravitated to him when he’d looked her square in the eye and told her, he knew she was innocent; ‘Put your faith in my hands and I’ll get you both off’, he had lied straight at her. To Stephanie, anyone that good could be of use. It wasn’t rocket science. In Latin America, boldness goes a hell of a lot further than manners. She rolled with everything the lawyer promised, as though it were laced with gold.

A mobile phone call broke the chatter one evening. They were out dining. A party of six were halfway through their main courses, when Stephanie sprang up in her seat saying, “I must take this!” Her finger was pointing up to alert the guests. She wheeled away from the table speaking softly into her device. Five annoying minutes elapsed. Back at the table. “Unbelievable!” She regained their full attention. “I’m going to France… Tomorrow!”

“Ye-gads, this is great. I can’t wait to pack,” Carrington thrust his wine glass high.

“Not you, ah, Carrington dear. This is business. You know; boring meetings, endless signings of doctrines, decision-making. That kind of stuff. I’ll be about eight days.”

It hit him like a windmill blade. “What the heck do you do in France, Stephanie?”

“It appears that I now own a vineyard near… the bridge.” She looked at them blankly, forgetting the name of the Millau Viaduct. “Rufus apparently had it as a tax dodge. Some people are making it difficult to claim full ownership. Danny will be coming with me, to sort it all out.”

The windmill blade just became a whole lot bigger: The middle of romantic France. A vineyard. Eight long days. She will not be able to keep her legs together. His name felt like it had just slipped from top-billing in the novel. “This is great news!” He lied, but not too convincingly.

Later that evening, at 125 Oakmont Drive, Stephanie spoke as the outfits jockeyed for position in her suitcase. Her organizational skills were shameless. She could have left that night. Angst, as thick as a railway sleeper, hung between them. They retired to bed at ten. She lay on the bed with wide eyes but without speaking. In her heart, she knew she had hit another jackpot. His night was sleepless.

He waved goodbye at the airport. Danny and Stephanie trudged away laughing. Two days later, a call lets Carrington know that all is going well. Lots and lots of signature work. Not too many vinos. Five days into it, and this time, the call lets him know that they are having a well-earned break tomorrow. Sightseeing and hang-gliding at the iconic, world’s highest cable-stayed bridge and finally, some wine tasting. Don’t worry, Danny will always be there for us. He has a wonderful insurance policy for me to sign. Carrington Warren feels happier, relieved that she’s safe now and hangs up.

The next day, on the other side of the world, a gloating Stephanie Summers is soaring high above the valley. Below them is the Gorges du Tarn, a beautiful river which hosts the Millau Viaduct. The view is breathtaking. The uplifting feeling of flying is exhilarating and she has won again. Danny had worked his magical tongue-twists yet again. The warm updrafts were strong but predictable. They landed nearby the helicopter which had been leased to take them back to the summit of the cliffs, and then later, to a gala dinner at the winery.

“It is still early. Let’s do one more run!” She grabbed Danny’s groin. “You got the balls for it, Danny boy?”

“Pack these back up please, Janêne,” he said, to the French female chopper pilot, his hand pointing to the kites. “We are going back to the skies!”

This was their third run. Getting up there is one thing. Staying up there is another. At the top of the thousand-foot cliff, visible was a fog which had drifted across, partially blocking the huge bridge’s spans. It looked like a massive steel dinosaur skeleton looming in the mist. They leapt together and began circling skyward, crisscrossing past each other, sometimes within audio range. At one such occasion Danny yells across to her:

“We should have been an item, you and me!”

“What?” she shouted back. “Are you mad? You are already married, Danny. What are you saying? Things are great, just the way they are!”

His glider wandered off momentarily, then reapproached hers. “Yes, they are Stephanie. It’s just that… I think you and I have outgrown the others. Don’t you? Look at our strength together.”

Her face, even filled with buffeting airstream, was smiling. Stephanie knew Danny, in a way, was right. Carrington’s sister Kay was even more timorous than he was. No wonder Danny was bored. Her mind calculated… Stephanie had only really agreed to be with Carrington for convenience. She soared in the whistle of the wind, contemplating the debonair lawyer’s semi-proposition. He wheeled away on a gust. Suddenly, everything altered. Stephanie began to spiral out of control. Her hang-glider vanished into the Gorges du Tarn fog. The body took two days to find…

The news hit Carrington hard. He was against it in the first place. But her loss crippled him into desolation. He moped it out, at 125 Oakmont. Eight days later Danny shows up. Two heavies wearing suits are beside him. He pours himself a neat single malt scotch on-the-rocks. Face wearing a broad grin. “Well, old boy. Time to chuff-off!”

“What do you mean?” fired Carrington, surprised at the remark.

“What I mean is… Everything has been signed over to me. Silly bitch was too busy being greedy to read the fine print! That so-called ‘wonderful insurance policy’ she scribbled on, was the rights to both of her entire estates — as the chief beneficiary!” He was so matter-of-fact. “Ta-ta!”

“You killed her! Didn’t you?” Carrington stepped at him, but the two suits blocked his path. “You cut her wretched kite’s strings!”

“She was a wicked woman, Carrington. You knew that. Killed her husband, too. Oh, but you both knew the real truth. Didn’t you? You are such a truthful thief. You always were.” He laughed.

“I say she didn’t! And I also say that you are a lawyer liar! But either way, you have just killed her — for the money!”

“Yes, my boy. If you insist! A wicked woman, a truthful thief, and a lawyer liar… what a bunch of misfits we were. All in the line of business. You know how things are? Well, she’s my second really big fish. You should have gone to school, Carrington, instead of becoming a two-bit-burglar! Here’s ten-thousand US, arsehole! Take him away boys!” He wasn’t beaten – just relocated.

Three months later, it appeared that Carrington was back at his trade. The rooftops didn’t nag him, and the odd house yielded enough for a living. It was a far cry from his heyday — back at 125 Oakmont Drive with the other Two Musky Tears. Life moves on… He removed the window from a stylish Cape Cod house. He was on the roof, meaning, it was most likely a bedroom. The humble thief rolled through, onto the carpet. A man holding a semi-automatic pistol poised at a short woman met his stare. He was about to pull the trigger. This is not possible; his timing is really getting bad — or is it? The man drops the gun and dashes to the kitchen. Calmly, Carrington picks up the gun, goes into the kitchen and shoots the man. Next, he dashes off to the restroom, through his mind goes the words; No, Danny, she didn’t kill Rufus. I did. Didn’t you ever hear of gloves etched with false fingerprints? And… You deserved this Danny, my sister Kay would never hurt a fly, and this is payback time!

He had just calmly but calculatingly broken into Torres’ house, to square the ledger. The truth in fact was, that Carrington was a truthful thief. However, unassuming Mr Warren also quietly ran a small-time contract killing business on the side — not so pleasant.

There’s no love lost between business partners, I suppose…

Faded… Jaded… Masqueraded?

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“Faded Feathers”

By Stephen James

 Innocent feathers… pretty to look at, soft to touch, but hard to fathom. We all have said or done things we are probably not prepared to brag too much about. The strength of the human mind to retain explicit details of our high and our low points is truly amazing. Offloading the truth to others — as well as forgiving them when they reciprocate can be a rewarding redemption. Let us see what happens to this individual.

 

Beverly Martin sat in her front parlour; hot midday sun streaming through the threadbare curtains. There was nothing remarkable about her appearance, she just looked like any lady you might meet of her elderly years… but Beverly’s past holds a dark secret! She smiles through her wrinkled mouth, as she looks in the far corner where a hideous blue vase was sitting with some faded old feathers propped up, in no specific arrangement. Her mind began to wind back the clock…

A well-proportioned girl, just turning twenty years walks into the Grace with Lace Burlesque Nightclub, located in Sydney’s Rocks District. It was 9.30 pm. A clear view of the famous lit-up harbour bridge, from its old Sydney town surrounds, gave the popular watering-hole a romantic backdrop, extending into the early hours of each morning. It wasn’t sleazy, having a good honest reputation with a variety of local clientele, as well as a strong influx of once-a-year customers who came from all over Australia to feast on the scantily-clad high-quality dancers. The year was 1961. Leggy Beverly had learned to dance the new-vogue style of jazz-ballet — currently sweeping the nation on the heels of the movies and theatre productions about jazz-dancer Gwen Verdon, and the infamous Bob Fosse. After school dance lessons, paid for by her Auntie Molly, drilled her technique and flexibility into a master-class level. She was a natural and felt a shoo-in for the position she had read an ad for in the 17th October Sydney Morning Herald’s classifieds. Young Beverly had only had one previous boyfriend, whom, as was fitting for the era, she had refused to allow past second base — hand-holding and kissing. Aunt Molly had shown her some sexy manoeuvres, and besides, the advertisement had clearly said; performance training would be provided. She entered, paying the five-shilling cover charge.

“Do you know where I can find Wally Luciano?” the girl politely inquired of the stout barman, nervously twirling her sooty-black hair whilst speaking.

He looked her up and down, as if she was a prime cut of beef, stalling before he answered. “I may know where to find ‘im, lovie,” rolled out the side of his mouth. “Course, it’ll cost ya!”

Beverly eyeballed his facial stubble and clutched the top of her old-fashioned Charleston dress’s straps to force a better cleavage. The hand-me-down from her aunt was all she had outside of linen-factory clothes, which is where she’d spent her post-school years. “I don’t have any money. That is why I’m here,” she said, forcing an older-womanish pout.

He laughed. “Just kidding, toots, I know why you’re ‘ere—” then pointed with the white tea towel he was using to clean some glasses. “The boss is right through that door.”

Beverly’s plump full lips parted again, their preceding smile dazzling the barman. “Thank you very much indeed, my handsome friend.” She sashayed off like a Greek Goddess.

After an hour-long interview, apparently, Wally must have liked what he saw — she got the job. “Start on Friday night but be here for tuition tomorrow, at 8.00 am sharp. Clarise will help you to get started — she’s been my number one girl for seven years now. Do as she says, okay? Ten pounds fifteen shillings a week and you keep half of your tips. Split them equally with the bar staff. Is that clear?” The handsome Italian hotel owner winking at her to seal their salutation.

“As crystal,” she nodded back.

Beverly was an honest girl who knew what hard work was all about. The bawdy burlesque outfits did not faze her one iota. Her shapely body, enhanced by the colourful lacey negligees and suspender-belts sent the men wild. They screamed for topless — so, she obliged. The talented dancer utilised the glamorous showgirl feathers and boas cleverly, to tease the onlookers. It wasn’t long before she became the crowd favourite, soon having to accommodate encore after encore. She donned the stage-name of; Cleo the Temptress Jewel of Denial, often wearing Egyptian-flavoured outfits. With her stunning black hair cut in pageboy style, Beverly was at the doorstep of a huge career. Her kicks were high. Her tips were hefty. Her physique grew strong…

As the baton became passed on, then so was the sexual relationship between her and Wally Luciano, who had grieved for only one month after the sad passing of Clarise. Discovered in her dressing room only minutes prior to taking the stage, Clarise’s cold limp figure clutched desperately to his photograph. One grace-saving fact was that the forty-year-old mentor had absolutely no knowledge of Beverly and Wally’s six-month-old affair. The Sydney police suspected Luciano of foul play — but a thorough investigation yielded no abetting evidence, therefore, no charges were laid.

The parlour-sitting old lady had a vivid memory of those blossoming years, under the guiding hand of Clarise. She stared at the drooping feathers that had helped launch her career, their memory lurking boldly in the chronicles of her mind. They had been kept for nostalgic reasons. A tear wept from the sides of her wrinkly hazel eyes, upon recalling Clarise’s strong husky voice, still barking tuitional instructions to her the day before. She wiped the tears away to continue reminiscing…

As the years progressed, Beverly introduced singing to her shows. Blessed with a near-perfect soprano tone and a sharp memory for lyrics to match, the curvy twenty-five-year-old soon outgrew Wally’s Grace with Lace Burlesque Nightclub. He begged her not to leave.

“Please, Bev darling, I’ll pay you anything you ask… don’t quit the show. I don’t have anyone else like you to draw those crowds in. My club will go under without you. I beg of you, stay with me?” he was on his knees. “Don’t you remember who gave you your start?  Marry me, please?”

Her mind was made up. “Sure, you did Wally, and I’m grateful to you. But this is not about the money,” she lied. “This place is too small and I have a public who needs me… you wouldn’t want to hold me back, now. Would you?”

His voice quivered. “But what about us?”

“There is no US!” she laughed. “Show-biz is show-biz, and we are all simply pawns in the game. You of all people should know that!” Her eyes locked in an accusatory fashion with his.

“I didn’t kill her!” he bleated back.

“I believe you! But this is good-bye Wally and thanks for everything.” She took her Marseille woven clutch bag and her favourite feathers and left.

Beverly had already accepted an offer from The Majestic Theatre Company of Sydney. She was to commence in the chorus line, with an occasional support-singer/dancer role — knowing that it wouldn’t be very long before the cracks of opportunity would open for her. And, they did…

The scanty underwear gave way to grand costumes. The expert stage productions were highly professional, with a full orchestra and state-of-the-art lighting. The months leapt by in Springbok-like fashion and along with them, her talents did not cease there. Oh no, her promiscuous prowess percolated through the years, delivering a string of co-starring roles, in the wake of a dozen broken-hearted producers and leading men. Beverly never quite achieved the top-billing, which her ego truly believed she so richly deserved. Until she began an affair with Hugo Michaelson. This multi-talented musical arranger had sat in the audience of one of her shows during the cold winter of 1972. He was awed by her looks and melodious capacity and flabbergasted at the fact that she was yet to score a showcasing role. Fifty-one-year-old Hugo met her in her dressing room after the performance.

After formal introductions, he eagerly said, “Miss Martin, I have written, produced and choreographed a brand new major musical called ‘De la Peña… Genius of the Floor’.” Michaelson grinned with pride, before continuing. “It is about the life and times of the legendary South American performer George De la Peña and I would like you to play the leading role of his ballerina wife, Rebecca Wright. You would be perfect for the role.”

“I’m significantly more than just interested, Hugo,” she replied with a single nod, uncrossing her legs to sit forward. “Who is starring as Mr De la Peña?”

“That will be Lincoln Kirov. You will both have an understudy to work with, naturally.” Kirov was a titan of the theatre and needed no explanation. The man’s credentials were more impeccable than his Giorgio Amani suits.

“Naturally!” Beverly agreed, with spark in her voice, having been an understudy on numerous occasions, but having never had one herself. “And whom might they be?”

“Lincoln’s is Jeffery Abercrombie. Always has been. He knows Kirov’s work like a shadow. And yours will be Juliet Thallon… she was originally going to co-star.” Hugo’s eyebrows shot up. “That is until I saw you.”

“Is it being performed in the Majestic?”

“Certainly, Miss Martin. We are opening here in six weeks, then travelling the entire country for two years. The best theatres in every city. Last show is at Bennelong Point.” He folded his arms and smiled. “So, will you sign a contract if I bring it here tomorrow night?”

Her hand shot out. “Let’s do it over a late dinner, after the show!”

He shook it. “Done!” His smile grew broader. “I’ll watch you again — just to make sure I have the right girl for the part… if so, I’ll join you here at the same time, okay?”

Beverly restrained her excitement, offering a bashful solitary nodding smile. Then, showed him the back of her door for the last time. A happy-dance followed. The subsequent day, after the contract was signed, their secret but full-blown love affair commenced in supersonic flight. Their secret, kept tighter than a movie-star’s complexion, saw them move around from hotel room to hotel room like a couple of spies. Hugo Michaelson was the musical genius in his family, however, his wife Margot was his wallet. She had the family money of her late father, which had been responsible for putting him there. She was also his accountant. If she ever found out, he would be finished. The production became a box-office success, mainly due to Lincoln Kirov’s billing, which bolstered beautifully with Beverly Martin’s encouraging recitals. Her beautiful black tresses returned to the middle of her back and were on full display. Now comfortably in her thirties, party-animal Beverly spent her money like it flowed from the perpetual fountain of youth. She was travelling the country in style but as a concubine, and it did bother her…

One night after making love she offered… “Why don’t you leave Margot? You and I could really become something. Why, with your talent and my panache, we are practically unstoppable!”

“You have mentioned this proposal many times before, Beverly dear. But it isn’t quite that simple. She has me over a barrel. Things are complicated between us—”

Now kneeling on the bed, she barked. “For Christ’s sakes, Hugo! You told me yourself, that you don’t love her anymore!” Her hands found her hips. A scowl found her face. Anger filled her brain.

“Beverly honey, it is difficult—”

“Difficulties are made to be overcome! This is bull-shit! What am I? Your wife-to-be! Your convenience! Your lover… or your prostitute!” Fire blazed in the songstress’s teary hazel eyes.

He hadn’t seen her like this before. “Shhh dear, it’s nothing of the sort. Go to sleep. I’ll see myself out.”

“You bastard! I shall quit the show!” she seethed.

“If that’s the way you feel… Juliet can always do it!”

Beverly’s own words to Wally Luciano of; “Show-biz is show-biz, and we are all simply pawns in the game. You of all people should know that!” rang like a proverbial gong inside her head. She watched him quietly leave. The hotel door thudded, as a champagne bottle crashed against it.

In the weeks to follow, Juliet Thallon filled the role of Rebecca Wright admirably with five months on the road left, covering Brisbane and finally Canberra, before returning for one Grand Finale day of three sessions at The Sydney Opera House. On the eve of that day, a mysterious letter arrived at Margot Michaelson’s Sydney residence. It was not mysterious to Beverly because she wrote it. The letter was neither signed nor bore her name:

Dear Mrs Michaelson
     It pains me to write this. For the past few years, I have been conducting an illicit love   affair with your husband, Hugo. I realise this news will extremely distress you, however,     I believe you should know the truth. This is no fault of yours. It is with regret that I am writing to inform you as I now feel the need to clear my own conscience of what has been going on.
   He has told me on several occasions that he no longer loves you but does not have the courage to tell you, let alone leave you. The man is a mouse, although I do still love him and can’t help myself doing so. You don’t know who I am, but I have heard all about you.   I hope you can find a way to forgive me and try to understand. I am sure his own conscience is making him pay.
          A remorseful friend.

This nasty spiteful letter was simply to provoke a hornet’s nest into a frenzy.

After the Opera House curtain calls were accepted, on Saturday 23rd November 1974, Hugo returned to his dressing room for the final time. He had previously participated in a celebratory toast. His dead body was discovered by the security guards at 11.58 pm. They had been knocking for some time. Known as a man who required space to himself, they’d been slow to react. Once again, the investigation came up empty-handed. Unable to cope with the loss, Beverly disappeared into seclusion for forty-five years. Until now…

The fallen-from-grace entertainer, now nearing her eighties, leaned back against her favourite cushion, allowing the sun to bathe her face. Her re-cycled from old-bed-sheet curtains doing precious little to block out its rays. The thick layer of dust on the welfare accommodation’s window ledge resonating her soiled integrity. Beverly thought about the delicious drink made from Atropa Belladonna, that lethal but untraceable poison she had twice used for vengeance. How she’d drank a toast of wine with both victims, only hers contained added blackcurrant juice not the lethal toxic berries of Deadly Nightshade. With Clarise and Hugo’s murders weighing on her conscience, she was encouraging the grim reaper to take her to wherever it was that multi-murderers, such as herself, ended up. These two ugly heinous secrets, she would take with her. Beverly had been quite famous, even performing in front of Lady Isaac Isaacson and Sir Garfield Cuthbert-Allington. The wry smile on her face was a fake one, as she lifted the wineglass of Deadly Nightshade to her lips to draw the final sip. Beverly now realising her faded feathers merely represented lost love and a lonely life… instead of fame and fortune…

 

 

Gold or Gone… in ten-minutes!

You never know where your next life-long

      friend will emerge from!

            So never lose faith and never give up…

 

“A Second Chance at Success”

By Stephen James

Adversity, as it would appear, unquestionably extracts the very best from most champions, regardless of their inclination. In this short, fictional, life-and-death story, I certainly hope you barrack for the hero with the equivalent level of passionate enthusiasm as I did when contriving it.

 

When ace Spitfire pilot Tyrone McAllister pressed the firing button to discharge the final few seconds’ worth of machine-gun rounds at the BF 109 Messerschmitt in his sights, he wasn’t prepared for the next thing that happened. It was 1941 and his fighter-plane was over the English Channel. A dogfight between twenty-two, brave but heavily-outnumbered, RAF pilots was drawing to a close. Fuel was low on both parties, as was ammunition. The battle against thirty-seven of Germany’s finest warbirds had worn-on for over an hour, and had only come to fruition when the bomber-guarding planes had long-since left their duties to engage with one another. All deployed planes had diverted to a separate airspace to avoid collision with the slower heavier returning bombers — thus rendering them with minimal protection, but it was identical for the Germans too. Unbelievably, the allies had squared the ledger number-wise, to eleven apiece, with Squadron Leader McAllister personally responsible for six of the kills. The Australian-born gifted pilot had number seven in a merciless position, diving for an escape route toward the water, in an inverted barrel-roll. The G-forces became unbearable as Tyrone closed in close enough to be positive of a successful airstrike. With only a few spurts left in his four Browning machine-guns, the courageous flight-officer knew he would have to return to base immediately, and did not wish to leave his portion of the squadron outnumbered. He had previously emptied his twin 20 mm Hispano cannons during the assault on the Luftwaffe bombers. He also knew that his foe, with superior dive-speed, would be gone if he waited any longer before squeezing the Dunlop gun-firing button located on his spade grip handle.

Sqn Ldr McAllister waited for the precise moment, then let him have it…

The BF 109 Messerschmitt took the full brunt of the Browning .303 bullets which drained his every last round. Tyrone, as per usual, said a prayer for his much-respected adversary. “God rest your soul if you don’t jump out pal… C’mon bailout for me now, please. Bail out now!”

But this was just the beginning of his tale. He heaved the Mk VI Spitfire’s joystick against the almost disobedient moan of her straining Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The man’s blurring mind pleading a second prayer, with centrifugal forces nearly stalling the savage V12 brute mid-dive. Her wings were screaming under the strain. Moments after the ace pulled out of the nine-hundred kilometre-per-hour dive, he shook himself back into a reality check. The exhausting hour-long ordeal had left him with a lather of sweat which adhered to his flying suit like watery glue. Fear had saturated his veins with an intoxicating degree of adrenalin. The continuous bombardment of G-forces rendered his vision blurry and had stolen his usual clarity of thinking. He climbed to 26,000 feet. McAllister’s teal-blue eyes searched for his loyal and every airman’s best friend, the horizon line — and finally found it. The sun was low in the sky. The green fields of England loomed in the distance. The command to retreat was given. The pilot took a brief minute to reflect upon his two life-loves. His mind cast its way back to 1936, two years before he had even considered becoming a combat pilot. His first love, a beautiful, young, budding, British actress, Annabelle Strike, had been watching in the crowd, cheering him on to the finish line at the Berlin Olympic Games. His second love — that of being a world-class 5,000 metre runner had blossomed to reality, on the big stage. Although he did not win a medal, this eighteen-year-old athlete had proved himself a worthy contender by making the semi-finals. The look on his beloved Annabelle’s face was all the wiry young man had needed to empower him onto the next scheduled summer games in 1940, where London had won the right to host them. Needless to say, he never competed in those games — as history tells us they were cancelled due to the Second World War. He did, however, marry Annabelle whose face filled his mind at this precise moment in front of his Spitfire’s acrylic bubble canopy. His fatigued mind forged a wry grin onto his battle-wearied face. The brave squadron leader’s memory held a clear-cut vision of that day when the world had yet to be at loggerheads, and the only combat for him was on that running track in Berlin. He had been comprehensively beaten by Hans Frocklemüller, the elite German middle-distance runner. Hans eventually went on to claim the gold medal the following day in the final. He’d never forgotten the kind words of encouragement offered by Frocklemüller when he offered his big hand to haul Tyrone off the track. McAllister had engineered his personal best by just under four seconds, to try to reel in the leading pack. The Herculean effort had shredded his body to utter exhaustion, causing an ungainly staggering collapse, just metres past the finish line. The, then skinny, young up-and-comer had merely stared in awe of the maestro-of-the-track and just moments before they embraced, had replied; “You just wait Hans, in the next games in London, I will leave you in my dust!”

Frocklemüller’s reply of; “I certainly hope so my young comrade… your spirit deserves it. I certainly hope so!” was exemplified by several solid pats on his back. The two bonding athletes had no notion whatsoever of the war which was to follow three years later, and how they would never meet again to compete.

The powerful memory was rich in his heart. But it was short-lived…

In this battle-retreating daydream of less than two minutes, his life changed forever. A burst of cannon-fire tore through his Mk VI Spitfire’s fuselage.  He had been caught by a rogue bandit coming out of the setting sun. The large calibre shells tore through the hydraulic tubing, gauges, levers, switches and vital operational mechanisms of his aircraft. It all happened so quickly that he never even felt the two that had buried themselves into his right leg. One in the thigh and one in his calf. He checked his gauges — some were working but not the altimeter. The P8 compass was fine. He checked his rear-vision mirror — a small stream of smoke, perhaps burning oil. He increased the throttle — the V12 Merlin was still responsive but for how long? He scanned the skies for the enemy BF 109 — a dot was vanishing triumphantly in the distance. He tried the radio — it was dead. Altitude was his friend now because Tyrone knew he may have to glide home. He knew his plane was nearly empty, plus, the distinct smell of fuel was filling his cockpit. He put her into a steady climb and began counting to estimate his ceiling, but realized his cabin pressure was non-existent. The spray of cannon shells had put pay to that. The icy air was freezing through his gloves. He said out loud behind his oxygen mask. “I reckon that’s about 30,000 feet Annabelle. Should just be enough to limp ‘er home by, when the prop gives up. See you soon Darling.” His voice shivering. His right leg now burning with pain. So this was it.

When the Spitfire levelled out, Tyrone had a clear view of both the British and French coastlines. The dogfight had drifted all combatants due-west and his final engagement had happened over the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey — these distinctive outlines he also well-recognized. Occupied by the Nazis, neither of these were a desirable landing option. The distinctive silhouette of an approaching Spitfire would be shot out of the sky in minutes. His target was Exeter RAF Base in Devon, over a hundred and twenty miles or two-hundred kilometres away, with little fuel left. Thirty or so minutes he’d estimated. A risk he had no option but to take. He turned her nose north-west to home but his elite warbird did not respond. Again and again, Sqn Ldr McAllister nudged the joystick towards the left to tilt her home. The controls were suddenly not responding and to make matters worse, the tailplane elevators and rudder movements were locked into position now. She was airborne but severely wounded. The compass showed him a gentle drift to the right and there was nothing but the English Channel below. Bailing-out was not a viable option…

Next, the Rolls-Royce spluttered to a halt. The three tips of his propeller rocked to a standstill. Tyrone was on a course for Nazi-occupied France. The quick-thinking ace attempted to straighten her out using the main wing flaps and it worked, however, he knew full well that this delicate adjustment was costing him altitude. Altitude he could ill afford. The flaps were retracted. He wondered how much blood he was losing and laid his head back, expecting to first faint and then slowly die. The wind whistled through the gaping holes in the aluminium fuselage skin. He was not scared but felt very alone. Annabelle’s face once again filled his mind — he convinced himself not to give up because he owed it to her to stay alive. The dark blue water beneath him transformed into dark green fields. The sun now disappeared. The undercarriage fortunately lowered and a flattish field was searched for. With visibility at dusk level and surrounded by silence, he felt like he was gliding in on the back of a wounded bat. He estimated it must be about five minutes from touchdown. Beauvais was the name of the closest city he was approaching, although Tyrone had no knowledge of this. He merely wanted the surrounding paddocks. He stalled her using the main flaps to wash-off airspeed and raise her nose. Minutes ticked by. Closer… closer… closer, she dipped and yawed, eventually ploughing into the fields of Montreuil-sur-Brêche without being shot at. The fighter-plane skewed around like a rum-sodden sailor, before tipping onto her bent propeller.

The tiny French hamlet with its stone walls, fourteenth-century buildings, gravel roads and clustered haystacks must have seemed like a dream-come-true to the very lucky pilot, who unclipped his Sutton harness and took an enormous sigh. His gloved hands cupped a pair of weary eyes. Having spotted several enemy military vehicles, when coasting in, the Australian-born ace knew he had to attempt the fastest exit possible. Or worse… the remnants of fuel vapour left in her tanks could erupt and blow them to kingdom come! Two fumbling hands managed to force back the acrylic canopy in its sliding tracks, but he had lost all feeling in his right leg. Tyrone failed to haul himself free from the cramped cockpit. Suddenly, he heard a clambering sound, which was joined by the fearsome barrel of a German Luger pistol at his temple, seconds before Tyrone uttered what he thought were his last few words… “I’m going to die in here, aren’t I?”

“Englander… out now! Oder sie sterben!” shouted the chiselled-featured enemy officer. “Schnell! Schnell!” The pistol forced his head back against the firewall.

Tyrone screamed back — hands raised — fingers pointing frantically to his legs. “Beine! Beine sind gebrochen!” It meant broken legs and was enough to convey the message.

The officer waved his Luger in the air, shouting to two uniformed men carrying Mauser Karabiner 98k rifles. “Unteroffizier, holen die bahre mit — schnell!”

It was the last thing Tyrone heard before he blacked-out and slumped against the joystick. The two under-officers returned promptly with the stretcher. The three Germans hauled his flaccid body from the wreckage and carried him to a nearby tavern. He was barely alive…

Squadron Leader McAllister woke up several days later, in a gloomy room at that same country tavern. He was considerably cleaner now — free of the filth of battle but riddled with the remnants of morphine. A woman was sitting on the bed applying a wet cloth to his burning forehead. She had a French look about her. She smiled. He smiled back. He was under some bed-linen. His eyes flashed down to where he thought his right leg used to be. The pretty woman’s eyes glanced away. Tyrone shut his. She had merely cast her eye-line towards the door where the German officer had just arrived, its heavy oak panels blocking his uniform from the bed. All she said was…

“Monsieur Kapitän, he’s awake now.”

McAllister’s eyelids flashed swiftly apart, like separating lovers.

“Danke dir, Michelle,” he replied, still out of view. “You may leave us now.”

Michelle got up, nodded at Tyrone and slowly backed away to the door, without breaking any eye-contact. He swallowed hard contemplating the facts. Still, the Nazi officer did not enter the make-shift ward. Instead, seemingly eschewing the patient, he spoke with calm across the room in a strong accent. “So, my Spitfire pilot. It would appear that you have probably flown your last mission, yar?”

Tyrone envisioned the bleak harshness of a P.O.W. Camp. His face broke into a nervous sweat. He gritted his teeth. “Why didn’t you just shoot me there and then, Captain? Why this? I would have probably preferred to die — instead of failure.” He’d yielded his plane to the enemy.

The Hauptmann laughed from behind the door. “Still have that same spirit I see—”

An uncomfortable silence filled the next three minutes, as the confused Sqn Ldr tried to piece the odd statement with the semi-recognizable tone. He had already used up his first two strikes, shot down and crash-landing — thus, daren’t say anything to further jeopardize his circumstances.

“Your legs let you down, yet again!” sparked the stern voice, breaking the silence as it emerged from behind the inn’s bedroom door. “But do not worry, 5,000 metre runner, Tyrone McAllister, I have had them saved for you!” He stared his enemy right in the eyes — face unyielding but smiling. “By my own Bavarian hands, plus much help from her.”

“Hans Frocklemüller! It is you. I can’t believe it. After all these years, we meet again!”

“You were extraordinarily lucky on many counts,” Hauptmann Frocklemüller replied, offering his hand to shake. “I am the surgeon-general for our battalion. Hauptmann is my true rank but she calls me Kapitän. I am only here for a short time… and you arrive at my doorstep. I have saved your legs and you may well even walk once more. Tyrone, we are enemies for the moment, but somehow, I feel we shall be friends for life.” He called Michelle back in and whispered to her at the end of the room. She nodded obediently.

“What is going on?” asked the bewildered Sqn Ldr.

“I have made some arrangements and she will take care of you,” he winked. “But not a murmur to anyone. Do I have your word on that?” Their hands locked like a vice.

Tyrone’s eyes stared with determination. “Of course, Hans… but?”

“Say no more on it. Look me up when once this disgraceful war is over. Is that a promise?”

“This is as good as any gold medal I could have taken from you,” said Tyrone, with a hint of a tear in his striking blue eyes.

Hauptmann Frocklemüller laughed. “I think that I always had your measure, airman!”

“Perhaps you are right. Good luck and thank you. I’ll definitely look you up!”

Several months later, after spending time with the French underground, by virtue of Michelle dú jeu Bois, the near-rehabilitated RAF officer made his way to Switzerland and eventually, back to England. His now-accomplished actress wife Annabelle was patiently waiting. Tyrone went on to fly a further sixteen assignments, claiming five Luftwaffe bombers and nine more fighters, before reaching the rank of Wing Commander — then switching to become a land-based fighter attack strategist.

After the conclusion of The Second World War, three years on during the Christmas of 1948, Mr and Mrs McAllister along with their five-year-old son, Hans, flew to Geneva to link-up with Dr and Michelle Frocklemüller. With him, in a beautiful velvet case tucked tightly under his arm were his two latest loves. One was the Distinguished Flying Cross he had received for bravery — the other was a gleaming gold medal for winning the men’s 5,000 metre, in the rescheduled 1948 London Olympic Games. In the years that followed, his autobiography became a global bestseller and later, a feature film. It co-starred Annabelle as herself…

Can your viewpoint alter in the next ten-minutes?

We all think that nothing of serious importance happens in life’s daily drudge…but merely going for a stroll can lead to quite the unexpected!

 

“I’m Watching You!”

By Stephen James

 

For anyone entering Heaven for the first time, the gates are always open. For anyone trying to leave hell at any time, they are always locked. Our eyes see plenty but our mouths stay shut. Our ears hear the wickedness of the world but our tongues prefer to taste the sugars of success. Our noses sniff out trouble but we feel the touch of a stranger to be a step closer to a friend. Oh, yes… Our alert senses feed us greedily with so much information, choices simply have to be made.
                This unfortunate observer had to make some ugly decisions…

 

The wooded surrounds which blanket the many-hectare state-owned forest outside Crossbow Falls was teaming with wildlife. Here, at this fishing village, on the Texas shoreline rim bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, life is peaceful. Well, it was back in April last year after a good season’s catch had repeatedly filled the bellies of the fishing boats. The men all drank heartily at the Crossbow Inn and the women-folk tolerated their boisterous mischief. It was set up in a Davy Crockett-meets-William Tell styled motif. The centuries-old village had a Cajun atmosphere about it, not violent, just very, very, old-fashioned. Lessons were taught an eye for an eye. You took your punishment when you were wrong. What happened in the bedroom – stayed in the bedroom. A few hundred miles around, is where the incomparable Rio Grande empties its daily unwanted burden into the gulf.

I had wandered off course accidentally. Crossbow Falls, or even its surrounding forests, was not my usual neck of the woods. I am an out-of-towner from upstate Texas; more a mountain-lover than the water’s edge, who just so happened to be visiting. Just out of town about two miles past Hogey Johnson’s farm, there is a winding track leading Creekside to a broken-down hardwood pier. Nobody goes there anymore because rogue alligators from the nearby Florida wetlands are fairly common. Here, the trees meet the water. I had decided to wander the Creekside gravel road and see where it took me. Diving seabirds hauled-off their prey, each catch swinging like a helpless prisoner in their powerful clutches. As each struggled for freedom, the morning sun’s glint lit up the creature’s scales with a silvery reflection. Mangroves reached out on their tiptoes as far as they dared. Trickling water lapped the shoreline. The view across the gulf was breathtaking. Silence filled the air. Aside from several dilapidated timber structures, there was no sign of mankind. I found a beautiful spot to take a short nap. Dappled in semi-shade beneath a glorious fat-trunked evergreen, with one of its branch-tip’s touching the water, a lush covering of grass had my name on it. My makeshift mattress curved its way up a grassy knoll comprising of two tiers. Later on, I had my choice of either one to sit on and watch the water. Asleep in moments…

A man’s voice woke me up. It’s macabre timbre, a tad shy of the clattering-sound made by a cargo ship’s anchor chain being hauled up, broke the silence. A woman’s voice soon accompanied it but hers was suffering. My ears pricked to feel the wind brush my face. Good, whoever this pair is, I am out of earshot for them. I kept still. The hillbilly-drawl, not clear, continued on like a stick in a bucket. Do I eavesdrop?

Her cries grew louder…

I moved slowly in the grass to keep quiet. Step by step, crawling up the slope, to where a scruffy shrub blocked the view suffice to see closer, without being seen. An old beaten-up truck sat in a clearing. I’d not noticed it arrive when asleep. I settled in to listen. A woman of good health was sprawled out on a large boulder, on her back. Her wrists were tied with old-school rope to four posts hammered into the ground. She could just move. Her clothes had been removed and she was crying.

“Your answer?” He asked, inches from her face, coiled-up whip in his hand. A rifle sat leaning up against the boulder. A sledgehammer cast aside was crawling with ants.

“You know I can’t tell you the answer to that horrible question, Vernon,” she screamed.

“You cheap bitch!” he cracked the whip next to her face, the tip split her cheek. “You make me look a dog-gone fool in my own town, Sarah-Jessica. That, I cannot forgive!” Again with the whip… but this time, he launched it across her body. Her scream so loud it startled the nesting sea eagles, but nobody else could hear. This place was completely deserted, except for us. He whipped her six more times, then kissed her. “Goodbye, Sarah-Jessica!”

I had woken up at a bad time, in a bad place. My nerves started to tingle. This situation did not look good. In front of me, almost as far as you could spit, this bearded hayseed — as big as a house, was about to terminate his woman. She, it would seem, has been accused of being unfaithful. Is this really how these people carry on? I was totally powerless to prevent it, and any attempt to run away would disclose my presence. KEEP STILL.

Vernon picked up a leather medical-style bag and ripped it open. He seized hold of four knives in his huge hand and tossed the bag to the ground. He circled her punished physique three times. The whole time his mumbling jargon waffled-on about how hard done by he was now. And, how is he supposed to live without her now? He placed the eight-inch-bladed daggers across her belly and held them in place with one hand. He smiled like a hangman.

I watched in total disbelief, as Vernon took the first knife and thrust it into her but not into a vital organ area. She had been squealing so much that it seemed impossible to exceed the previous ones but this brought it out. “You deserve it! You filthy whore. Cry in hell!” Her cringe spilled the other three knives to the ground.

I checked left, then right, then left again. Not a soul in sight. It was still just us. In the process, my nose filled with the indisputable coppery smell of freshly-drawn blood. Quite sickening. I watched on, as he drank from a large glass container and wiped his chequered flannelette sleeve against his chin. This man looked and smelt so dirty, it was as if water was illegal or something. Did he sleep with fish? He seemed in no hurry. I, on the other hand, was contemplating the best and fastest escape route possible. Either way, I had to return via the gravelly road, which went right past in full view of this creature from the netherworld. The hottest burning question was… when to go?

Vernon selected his second blade. He flipped it in his right hand, always catching the handle, regardless of its rotations. He forced it slowly into her side. “I’ve always liked to have a drink with you, Sarah-Jessica. Pity it’s our last!” He swigged on his glass container. “And, of course, it doesn’t really matter how long we spend here together. It’s not as if you’ve got any place to go, afterwards.”

I yawned, more out of fear than anything else, I guess. A sea otter let out a shrilling call from the undergrowth on the riverbank behind me, my heartbeat fluttered. This was not my brain’s idea of A1-time-passing. Although, what was happening in front of me was mildly intriguing, possibly only because of the fact of my complete stealth — uncertainty became my ever-present companion.  Decision time fell upon me, in guillotine-like fashion! The risky gravel road stood beckoning… or was descending away, and slipping into the gulf and perhaps off to the patches of beach, which I had noted a bit further around upon arrival, a good one? Now that’s my last option. I could smell the alligators from here. Like it or not, I had to see it out and wait for him to leave…

The local-yokel stared up at the sun, shielding his dirty face from its powerful rays. He staggered several alcohol-effected rotations on the spot. He picked up his third tool-of-chastisement for Sarah-Jessica and began banging its blade against his trouser leg. Vernon sneered at her flagging expression, his eyes reflected the soul of a deep-seated lie. But they were the black hollow eyes of a shark. One of these people was evil. If it was the woman, then the man is vengeful. If it is the man, then he is evil and vengeful, and she is an innocent victim. Needless to say, he would get his way. He circled the boulder with stiff strides. The strides of an unhappy man. He began talking to a person who no longer was hearing. She was dying.

“Of course, I would have taken it all back, if?” Vernon placed the third dagger nearer her heart but still not fatal. He leaned on it. “…If you had told me what his name was… and why you killed him!”

I could see her pain, though now, she had lost the ability to feel the physical trauma or at least it appeared that way ─ because no words or screams were forthcoming. The sounds of the forest, to my ears at least, had fallen silent, almost with her. She now had over twenty-inches of steel in her, the wounds all bleeding and I had witnessed the entire process! I had been here every inch of the way. Locked away inside my mind was this wicked sacrifice. I knew that I could never share it. I hunkered down to watch the fourth knife finish her off. Vernon went to where Sarah-Jessica’s staked-out naked body could still be seen breathing. Her eyes were still open, alas, they would be seeing very little, right now. The shattered-mess-of-a-man sat next to her on the boulder. He took another big guzzle from the container, popped the cork back in, and dropped it to the floor.  In a deliberate trait to stall the entire process, he began to shave his beard with dagger four. Vernon tilted his head up, maintaining his; now you’re sorry, eye contact with her; just get it over and done with, idol stare. He stroked the clumsy blade down the side of his face again and again. His hand always stopping the blade when it neared the necklace, crudely made from reptilian teeth, which surely looked stuck to his skin in a balm of sweat. It took an eternity. When you have cheated death yourself, as indeed, I have on a number of occasions, you can sense when it is nearby. My keen sharp eyes and live-by-your-wits nature have come to the rescue a few too many times for me to deny what a fine tightrope we all walk. The seconds ticked agonisingly by. They became minutes. He kept shaving. Her eyes were closing. My breathing slowed. The wind changed direction. I felt suddenly vulnerable and shifted my weight. I was terrified. What would he do next? A nearby twig snapped under my foot. Did he hear that?

“Who’s there? Come out and show yourself. If you’re game.” The hillbilly stood up, knife still in his hand. His eyes were affixed right at mine, my only screen was the scruffy shrub. I remained statue-still. “This is a family argument going on, fair and square. Now, show yourself, or take yourself elsewhere.” He scanned the vicinity, coming closer and closer to my hideout. Vernon stopped suddenly, he heard Sarah-Jessica speak:

“Jarryd Walhavern, it was,” she coughed. “Because, he told a lie about you. That’s why I killed him. Sorry if I let you down.” Her head was raised from the boulder. It wobbled with her words. I could now see how pretty she actually was. And how broken she now appeared. Eyes like frozen flames. The last thing I heard her say was, “Yes, your own brother-in-law. There was no affair…”

He turned back to watch the last few moments of his wife’s innocent life trickle out the door. It was nothing to do with how she’d answered his stupid questions. He had already made up his mind long ago. The control lever inside his head had swung across to the premeditated mark. He thrust the knife into her heart and held it there. “Liar!” he shouted at her corpse. Like all killers think: He was right and she was a liar, of course.

In the strangest of circumstances, with discreet secrecy, I had watched the entire diabolical episode pan out, in complete disbelief. Was this fiendish creature of the same breed or race? I felt confused not understanding anything about the what, or the why.

Suddenly, in the remoteness could be heard the wailing sounds of the law. Within seconds, distinct human voices yapped like distant foxhounds. My cue had been sounded. The protective surrounds of my vantage point were no longer required and I was not going to speak of this to any soul. This much I promise you. My long pointed nose shan’t be sticking itself anywhere that it shouldn’t. Well, not in the near future, anyway. I scurried away towards the water to dance with the ‘gators. It was the risky route but…

This immediate vicinity was definitely no place for a timber-wolf like me to be loitering. I had seen enough!

Evil behind the mask – curse or fate?

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy…

                 Be grateful for what you have!

 

“Behind the Noble Mask Lurks Evil?” 

By Stephen James

 

                We all love a juicy tale of tyrants or martinets and their downfalls, don’t we? Well, if the fingers of your mind are well lubricated – slip your mental hand into this five-pronged glove of an anecdote! The theme is in fact based upon the skeleton of a true story, but I have nitro-injected it somewhat for your folk-law reading pleasure…

Commodore Richard Connachtie stood watching as the last remaining vines were being judiciously planted in their soldier-like rows. Each gnarly-looking trunk had already felt the sun’s glare for well over one-hundred and fifty summers, albeit in the south-eastern French valley of the northern Rhône district. Carefully removed and transported to the ideal stony granite soils which surrounded his newly-erected castle, overlooking the Hawkes Bay cliffs of New Zealand’s north island, here and now, in 1861, they could flourish and yield him his premier wine of choice. That deep rich red being Syrah or Shiraz to some. The bay was named by Captain James Cook in honour of Admiral Edward Hawke who decisively defeated the French at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759. The irony of a British ex-naval statesman planting French grapevines here was simply a coincidence, but the outcome of Richard’s story is far from a simple one. His elaborate twenty-four bedroom castle had taken fifteen years and a crew of thirty-five skilled tradesmen to erect. This massive acreage had been secured for a song, via the fledgeling country’s Native Settler and Land Purchase Commissioner Sir Donald McLean. (The land alone would be worth very many millions of dollars in today’s money). Richard turned his gaze to his castle’s reaching solid stone walls, complete with battlements, and stroked the goatee section of the bold musketeer moustache which bridled his weak lower jaw. Nature had exchanged him a handsome face for a plain uneventful one; the trade had left him with courage. This valour had left him with a slight limp. Time had made him wealthy. He felt good inside…

In an act of chivalrous ego during October of 1861, Commodore Connachtie carried his new young bride of just twenty-one years across the castle’s threshold, much to her delight. A wedding of Biblical proportions had just eclipsed in the grounds of Connachtie Castle. He was at the maturing age of forty-seven years and desperately required a sired male offspring to carry on the family name, along with the inheritance of his fortune – gathered from astute investments throughout his peppered and well-travelled life. The young woman glared up at the towering vaulted ceilings as her piercing green eyes swept through the massive structure’s confines en route to his boudoir. Her name was Beth Murdoch, eldest daughter of a politician from the capital city Napier and she had never before set eyes inside the Gothic-styled building until now. The one-hundred and eighty-five guests were left drinking at their tables as the long shadows of dusk settled on the exterior stone walls. Beth’s two younger sisters, all still virgins, just as she was, sat amongst the gentry pondering their own futures.

Within seven years the Connachtie clan had swollen to become a family of eight. All was good except for one factor– the Scottish descendant had become surrounded by seven females. Frustration had eked its way into Richard’s heart from Beth’s failure to bare him a son. Though the ruddy-faced landowner loved his six daughters immensely, especially the twins, his once-gallant shoulder-length Cavalier locks and facial hair were now greying with despair. Richard began spending long hours locked high up in the turret which enjoyed captivating views over his vineyard – an area of the castle forbidden to Beth’s audience. From here, through his trusted brass spyglass, the retired seadog could observe his bulging Syrah vines, plump from regular seasonal rain and painstakingly groomed by Jônuet Du Mauriér, his Belgian wine-master. The servants became concerned about Connachtie’s health and his General Practitioner began to make more frequent unannounced visits. Dr Royce Chancellor was as much a family friend as their doctor, having delivered all the offspring as well as saving Beth’s life when a bout of pneumonia threatened to take her away. The foolish fair-skinned young woman had wandered off to the property’s far end to search for solace at her favourite viewing spot near the cliff-faces of Hawkes Bay to watch the hordes of nesting gannets. There, clad in little other than a silken dress, her flesh and raven tresses had quickly become saturated from an unleashing freak storm which chanced upon her as she wept incessantly from the wounds of her husband’s invectives. His tirades bore deep scars into her soul…

Another non-pregnant year evaporated, leaving the couple passionless other than during their workmanlike endeavours to fulfil his dream.

At last… a son was born late in the year of 1870. Jubilant Richard seemed to become reinvigorated with his zest for life. A huge garden-party was organized to celebrate the occasion, drawing guests from all parts of New Zealand’s north island. Dignitaries funnelled in to share copious goblets of Connachtie Castle Gold-label Hermitage Syrah and view the newborn brat. Unfortunately, with them came a dreaded strain of influenza, taking the three-month-old baby’s lifeblood within four days. The Commodore was struck with desolation and sank into a depression lasting nine months. He spoke only at mealtimes to Beth throughout this period, during which she hardly ate from the lavish spread of food their staff had prepared on a daily basis. As the days ground away, her weight diminished. Beth’s next eldest sister, Jean, was summoned in to care for her nieces. Having been close to the family, she was the obvious choice to play the role of surrogate mother. On Friday 2nd December 1871 Lady Bethania Connachtie drew her terminal breath – she was just thirty-one years and four months of age. Dr Royce Chancellor assessed her body but found no diseases, infections or illness, declaring that she had perished from a besotted broken heart.

A second, albeit somewhat smaller wedding saw the coming together of Jean and Richard, within six months of Beth’s passing. The retired Commodore justified it as a natural progression of events, warning the rumour-mongers to hush their mouths or be subsequently waylaid. He’d overheard several kitchen-staff members talking of discriminate observations, including Jean’s frequent visits to the turret to share his appreciation for the grapes, for many years. Fair-haired Jean, although four years her junior, had stood three inches taller than her sister, Beth. She was a high-spirited woman whose good-looks spurred her outgoing nature like paraffin on a fire. Within two years of marriage to the ageing Richard, she had him wrapped tightly around her contriving ring finger. No longer did she pay lengthy visits to his observation turret – much to the dismay of the now silent, however, still uncertain about her loyalties, castle staff members. Much of their discussion revolved around night-time eeriness and strange sightings. Many claimed that they could hear noises along the castle walls resembling the cries of a distressed woman. Little did Jean realize that in her haste to cocoon her wealthy prey, she had inadvertently signed a prenuptial agreement, along with her certificate of marriage. The cleverly worded clause, compiled in a text way beyond her scholarly abilities spoke of disqualifying her from any part of his fortune, if she failed to produce a son. He had told her it was the deeds to his land and her name needed to be added. Betrayed by her own captivating-looks, the beauteous young woman had signed with a scramble. Time moved on…

In a bizarre turn of events, despite the expectations of the proud Jônuet Du Mauriér, the vintages of 1872, 1873 and 1874 were disastrous. Unfit for bottling, barrel after barrel of the repulsive, shellac-tasting, burgundy vinegar had to be hauled off to be donated to the wharf workers down at the Port of Napier. Many fell ill from their own greed.

For exasperated Richard Connachtie, the year of 1874 turned from black to gold, when at long last he stared into the eyes of a baby boy on 16th August. Little did the self-proclaimed ‘Sovereign of Hawkes Bay’ realize that this child was not of his blood-line. The elusive golden-haired Jean had begun an illicit affair with the ruggedly handsome gatekeeper, Morris Hokkapinni Johnson. Johnson was a half-cast Māori with exquisite horsemanship skills, whose job it was to escort Lady Jean into town down the winding mountain roads of gravel. He steered her private single-horse-drawn-vehicle with the precision of a surgeon. Trusted by Richard, the broad-shouldered, coffee-coloured, mild-mannered employee fell victim to her advances. So pale were the features of the immoral wench that the newborn’s complexion bore little evidence to suggest it not to be of Connachtie’s spawn. The ingratiated nobleman’s ego powered him on to splurge gifts of opulence for his fair young wife. Her crocodilian cheating smile eluded any inkling of suspicion. Until once again disaster struck the estate, when, during the harsh winter of 1875, a rare-for-the-area snowfall dumped sufficient deposits in the higher country to cause a mini-avalanche. At the time, her Ladyship was travelling to the secret lodgings in town, where her romantic interlude with Johnson continued. Over a million tons of freezing snow swept her sulky off the side of the twisting road, killing her and her lover. At the time, Morris’s hands were clutching the reins and her arms were draped around his waist. The horse miraculously survived, pulled to freedom by a witnessing passer-by. Coincidentally, Lady Jean was also thirty-one at the time. When word reached the castle, the Connachtie children bore unsympathetic grins, as did many of the estate’s workforce. Sixty-one-year-old Richard felt the strangling arms of a gremlin’s choke around his throat and convinced himself that a back-up heir was necessary. He had begun to take notice after overhearing some parlour-gossip, that Richard II, whose one-year-old eyes were nothing like his own, also the boy’s flesh was smooth and olive in hue, also not like his own. A replacement wife had to be found – one not from the blood-stock of Beth Murdoch or her sister Jean, these women he proclaimed as the jinx to his welfare. After climbing the narrow spiral staircase upward to his turret, where he brooded in selfish pity, Commodore Connachtie, head muddled with embarrassment, decided that the search for a suitable match must begin at once…

Richard sent his daughters across the Tasman Sea to gain an elite education in the thriving colony of Australia. There they would be safe and out of his way. By 1876 his plight was in full swing. Far too vain to accept anything other than a beautiful virgin, all his energy became devoted to the sub-thirty-year-old aristocratic ladies-in-waiting, who had frequented his previous garden-parties. Care of Richard II was palmed off to Eliza Murdoch, the third-in-line sister, and still a spinster. This selfless woman had offered her services, along with permitting him to be as promiscuous as he pleased, and was more than agreeable to any prenuptial agreement but Richard would hear nothing of it, for fear of the Murdoch scourge. Pressure resulting from the express rising costs of the building’s upkeep mounted like pigeon poop. This, coupled with the children’s schooling costs affected his mind. Assets began to be sold off to offset living costs. Months drifted by without the addled ex-Naval officer being able to select a suitable life-partner. Before any had the chance to offer him anything that remotely resembled love, he had them plotting to get their hands on what remained of his rapidly-shrinking finances.

Eliza would stand for hour upon hour in the main foyer – arms clasped around her nephew, listening to the haunting whispers of her sisters. At the end of another arduous day of potential wooing, frustrated Richard would storm in through the enormous double-entry doors; after which, he would verbally abuse her and then covertly persuade her into his four-posted brass bed. To keep the peace, humble-natured Eliza forestalled his autocratic desires with little objection. On a sexual basis, the hobbling, maladroit, Scottish descendent repulsed her but her sense of moral responsibility overrode her personal tastes. Eliza’s eyes were on the young son of her deceased sister, and she was privy to Jean and Morris’s love-affair, right from the beginning. All three sisters had been very close. Eliza had no need for gold-digging either, her ailing father, Senator Horace Murdoch had already told her that he had bequeathed his family estate to her – his sole remaining heir. She would be well taken care of when he passed. The politician had squirrelled his adequate salary away in stocks and bonds after sadly losing his own wife, Jayne, to a heart attack at the age of fifty-two. Eliza’s time was shared between toing-and-froing between her father’s upmarket house in Napier and Connachtie Castle.

By the time Richard’s sixty-third birthday had slipped by without so much as a formal evening dinner, he had given up his attempts to secure a new bride. His state of mental stability was on the rocks and he preferred chasing wildfowl with a shotgun around his surrounding estate, to chasing women forty years his junior around town. Eliza fit the role of secretly applying sexual gratification (along with a procession of the town’s well-paid prostitutes) without threatening his dwindling fortune. They had a convenient agreement, whereby the boy was kept at the opposite end of the castle, told how busy the man whom he believed to be his father always was, and only permitted to visit when formally asked.

One summer’s day in February, three-year-old Richard II climbed the spiralling hardwood stairs and entered the private turret. He wanted to get closer to his maligned father. This was a terrible mistake. Just tall enough to reach the unbolted brass door handle, he pulled the lever down. When the oak door slammed against the wall, the toddler was confronted by an angry Richard senior, in a very embarrassing pose with one of his ladies-of-the-night. In a flash of demented rage, he swooped upon the child and cast the infant down the winding hardwood timber staircase which led to the turret – killing him instantly. The naked whore ran down to try to save the boy but his skull was in disarray. Panic-stricken Richard leapt from the turret window to his own death. A very black day in the castle’s history. He left behind his seed in Eliza’s womb without knowledge. In September of that year, a baby boy was born to her. She named him Morris and blessed him with the Murdoch surname…

The freshly-educated children returned from Australia, having still never soiled their hands from hard work, only to find a very different Connachtie Castle awaiting them. The sprawling vineyards were like a hundred acres of unkempt hair. Many staff members had left. The building had fallen into a state of disrepair and steadily the magnificent furnishings had been auctioned to cover running costs. A bitter succession of legal battles for the rights of ownership wrangled for decades. The lawyer’s fees began to cripple the Connachtie siblings. Having been supported totally by their father’s dowry all of their lives, the daughters were clueless to the workforce’s requirements. Finally, after the turning of the century, a compromise was settled upon with the sale of the estate to none other than Eliza Murdoch. The aspiring middle-aged woman had managed to educate herself after the sad passing of her father, Horace. She had prospered magnificently with his handed-down shares and real estate portfolio. Now as a fully-fledged geothermal engineer, she became highly acclaimed in the scientific research department, helping map and predict earthquakes on both the north and south islands. Eliza opened the castle up to care for orphans and mistreated children. Generously financing the entire operation personally, she left its organization in the very capable hands of her one and only son, Morris, sired by Richard. Our story does not end there…

Eliza had taken the uneducated jezebel under her wing after the black day in February 1877. She sent the woman off to a succession of special mature learning classes where she developed accounting skills with honours. After meeting a dapper young man from Auckland in 1880, she married and gave birth to five successive sons. Young Morris ended up marrying the prostitute’s only daughter who had been born several years later. Together they ran the orphanage. By the turn of the next century, the much-seasoned stone structure had more stories to tell than William Shakespeare.

In 2004, the Murdoch family’s progenies donated the entire estate to the New Zealand national Trust and it is now simply a tourist attraction – with a female ghost called Beth, who skirts its cold sandstone walls in the evenings, calling for Richard…

Here is the first ten-minute thriller for 2019… Dive in !!!

Thinking of becoming a writer yourself?

After reading this story ─ you may want to reconsider…

 

“The Bestseller”

By Stephen James

 

                Think you’ve read them all, do you?
I shan’t tantalise this story with an inviting paragraph of elevator-pitch. Just hoe straight in. See how long it is before your penny drops. I see both the humour and the horror in it. I hope you do too…

“I can’t take it anymore!” screamed the confused man, who sat with his hands clasped firmly over his eye-sockets. He was rubbing so hard, that his wife’s concern, pitched her out of her comfort level. She came to protect his sanity.

“It is alright honey, another opportunity will fall your way.” Her hand found his shoulder.

“Thanks for the throwaway advice, woman. Next thing you’re gonna say is… ‘We’ll be able to dig our way out. Take it easy. Blah! Blah! Blah!’ Well, I don’t care anymore about them! And, I don’t care anymore about the money! And, I don’t care anymore about you!”

The moderate house had a dangerously-silent chill suddenly engulf its every fibre. All the years of pent-up frustration had consumed this usually mild-mannered and intelligent man, turning him into a psychopath. He burst from his chair and turned on his wife in a rage. He was behind her in a flash, arm around her neck. She wore him like a cloak. Her heartbeat cannoned against her ribcage. His hands found their way to her throat. They were alone. She fought desperately, grabbing for his eyes and tearing at his hair. He locked his fingers with unnatural expertise. They began to squeeze the lifeblood out of her. She coughed a gargling last-gasp and fell limp into his arms. The poor woman spoke no more words. He had murdered her out of pure frustration. He hated himself at this point and knew life would never be the same again. One stupid act. One huge price to pay…

His hands, though not strong ones, had easily enough power in them to pick her up and carry her to the bedroom. Here, he placed her on the bed and called the police. “Hello. Yes, thank you. I wish to report a murder.”

 

THE END

 

“Well, what did you think of it?” Sparked Barney Petkovic, arms folded, a grin you couldn’t bargain for your kid to have on Christmas Day. He had just finished narrating the final two chapters of his novel from his computer to his wife. “I’ll bet you never ever would have picked that ending.”

His wife of one score years clearly was taken aback. Mary had been his rock all through his literary journey. Mary was a gentle but forthright woman. She loved seeing him this happy.

“It truly threw me. I love your paraphrasing’s style and descriptive parameter layouts. At the main part of the story, I was beginning to think it was almost a vicarious biography of your life, cleverly told through somebody else’s eyes. On deeper thought… No, it is nothing like a biography.” She twirled in theatrical adoration. “But, in all honesty, after you spun things around in that ending… A mountain, then a valley, a forest, then quicksand, twist, turn, turn, twist… I was left breathless…”

Barney had even considered changing his author’s name. Some wise-cracking friends had told him that his books would sell better if his name had more flair. He hoped one day his words would do his talking for him and was exploding with expectation. This was a masterpiece. He knew it was good. He was positive that nothing had ever been written like it before and the likelihood was, that nothing would ever be written like it again. It stunk of bestseller. They were on a goldmine, all he had to do was select which company had the privilege of producing his work.

“This will shut all my critical non-believers up. Hey, Mary? I can’t believe how I pulled it off. The sub-plot is so cleverly hidden right in front of the reader’s face.”

“All you need now is a brilliant synopsis to really punch a hole through the stone walls of the plethora of potential begging editors who will quickly want to get their mitts on it. Let’s get straight to it, shall we?” Her eagerness seemed as profound as his own.

“I’ve already prepared it,” he gloated, flicking a mouse command to open a magnificent three-hundred-word précis. “I have sharpened this collection of paragraphs so much, it could cut through the coldest of stones.” He scrolled through the concoction of literary genius. It described in crisp clever word usage his story, minus the ending, knowing, wondering, hoping, and teasing her to read it ─ he was red hot and ready-to-go!

“May I?” She asked, in an irresistible tone, her hand on the back of his ergonomic chair.

“Oh, very much, yes! I’ll open a bottle of champagne. You get ready. Give me five minutes but please, don’t start until I return. I want to read your expressions!” He dashed off.

She sat back and gently rubbed her eyes in preparation of her injection of English language wizardry, which she trusted would erupt from her husband’s penmanship. He already had four previous self-published creations, all of which were quite well accepted by the writer’s platform he had established over the years. Mary thought about the toiling hours she did on her own computer, to help with the enormous behind the scenes work, which goes into creating a novel. Eight-and-a-half years they’d been at it. She had been behind him all the way with her sharp ideas and brilliant memory. Nothing had quite really hit the big time. Not yet anyway…

When he returned, with the fizzy reward for his efforts thus far, her eyes sprang open in surprise. She had been immersed in thinking about the last ten years of their lives together: The publishing work. Her own job, done in tandem with being his personal PA. That interfering woman who came between them nine years ago and befriended Mary out of a lot of money. The fact that Barney couldn’t hold a real job down. His bosses always saying his head was in the clouds and he wasn’t concentrating properly. Belittled by his personal peer group, especially the women. All of these traits were traits of one of the characters, albeit, no reader would know it was Barney who was cleverly woven into the plot in cryptic genius. She admired his ability to fool the public. It was what good novelists did best of all. And after her eyes sprang apart, he kissed her nose and said, “I think we should down one first.” He handed the slender glass of bubbly liquid.

Weeks flew past and turned into months…

He had started by sending the manuscript off for perusal to the biggest publishing houses in the country. Several per week with enticing email heading grabs. The excited couple had gone through all of the correct procedures without a reply. They knew it would only be a matter of time. It was too good not to be grasped. The world is short of quality storylines, after all, that is what you constantly hear. Why else are there so many sequels and remakes and rewrites ─ only on steroids?

Then, gradually the months grew into seasons…

The fire in Barney’s belly had taken a dousing. He began to self-judge about the quality of his work. Truth was… nobody had bothered to read it yet. Publishers are so snowed under, that very little of the works submitted even get a look in. He was simply a statistical part of the make-up of the mind-bogglingly huge galaxy of writers who get flicked. This was not how Barney took it. The feeling of dejection began to absorb his mind. They began calling literary agents. None were interested. He pulled a few strings with an old buddy who had become a solicited author. No luck there either, they were only taking drafts from previously-established authors. Mary began to sense how much of a failure Barney was thinking himself to be. “Of course you will write again! Don’t ever say you’ll chuck it in dear,” she would constantly reply to his mood swings.

After over a year of unsuccessful attempts…

The Petkovic’s had pressed every single available button to become recognized, at least with the courtesy of an email. They had several horrific arguments. He felt utterly destroyed, because the world, for some stupid reason, didn’t want to leap out of the blocks to feast upon the delicious fruits of his painstaking efforts. Barney had sunk to an all-time low and lost his job, yet again. He had decided to investigate matters at blood-cell level. He must challenge his ego and rationale, to make sure that he and Mary weren’t simply imagining how good it was. One morning after a sleepless night, Barney felt ready to revise his document. He had breakfast with Mary and sent her off to the hospital, where she worked as a nurse. Barney fired-up his laptop occupying an astringent expression on his chubby face. It began at six-forty-five that morning, immediately after she’d departed for work. He had been so unhappy and had to dive back into his pages to see where he had gone wrong. Hour after hour he sat reading. All four-hundred-and-sixty-two pages had to be devoured before she arrived home… The manuscript had to be dissected, consumed and examined for weakness. There had to be a reason? He barely ate any lunch, it was a coffee-powered day. As fast as he dared to swallow the pages, he immersed himself into the twists and turns, searching for poor choices and sentence quality, but there were no weaknesses. The novel was infectious. He could hardly believe that he was actually the person who wrote it. Barney couldn’t believe it when he concluded reading the manuscript. It was even more powerful now than it had been on that night they celebrated the finished article. His tired mind began to spin in a whirlwind of frustration. He had read the book like the world’s number-one cynical critic ─ all the way through.

Mary walked in the door and stood near him. She was tired but always supportive. It seemed obvious he wasn’t alright. He spoke first. After everything that had happened, he fumed with angst.

“I can’t take it anymore!” screamed the confused man, who sat with his hands clasped firmly over his eye-sockets. He was rubbing so hard, that his wife’s concern, pitched her out of her comfort level. She came to protect his sanity.

“It is alright honey, another opportunity will fall your way.” Her hand found his shoulder.

“Thanks for the throwaway advice, woman. Next thing you’re gonna say is… ‘We’ll be able to dig our way out. Take it easy. Blah! Blah! Blah!’ Well, I don’t care anymore about them! And, I don’t care anymore about the money! And, I don’t care anymore about you!”

The moderate house had a dangerously-silent chill suddenly engulf its every fibre. All the years of pent-up frustration had consumed this usually mild-mannered and intelligent man, turning him into a psychopath. He burst from his chair and turned on his wife in a rage. He was behind her in a flash, arm around her neck. She wore him like a cloak. Her heartbeat cannoned against her ribcage. His hands found their way to her throat. They were alone. She fought desperately, grabbing for his eyes and tearing at his hair. He locked his fingers with unnatural expertise. They began to squeeze the lifeblood out of her. She coughed a gargling last gasp and fell limp into his arms. The poor woman spoke no more words. He had murdered her out of pure frustration. He hated himself at this point and knew life would never be the same again. One stupid act. One huge price to pay…

His hands, though not strong ones, had easily enough power in them to pick her up and carry her to the bedroom. Here, he placed her on the bed and called the police. “Hello. Yes, thank you. I wish to report a murder.”

Barney Petkovic had flipped. He realised he had just swapped twenty years of marriage for twenty years of prison. Go figure?

There is one upside to this tale, so relatable to all writers. Barney’s novel did go on to become a bestseller. One of the small publishing companies Mary had contacted came back with a mouth-watering offer. The police allowed it to proceed. The incredible irony of the plot mirroring his life catapulted the manuscript to unparalleled success. People simply love a scandal, don’t they? Barney Petkovic still types from his cellblock. Prison life has opened his mind to deprivation.

His fifth instalment, in the current third series, is already satisfactory for copy-editing…

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.

Another ten-minute thriller! “Mister Imperative”

I hope you are ready for this week’s story…

   I love a good hurry story, don’t you?

Hot-blooded egos… places to go, people to see,

appointments to be kept, deadlines to meet!!!

But, at what cost???

“Mister Imperative”

“Never get you ambitions confused with your capabilities!” say the cautious. “Always aim higher than your target!” encourage the wise. “You snooze… you lose!” inspire the eager. You be the judge on which best fits this quirky little storyline…

The time was 7.15 am. The place was Gold Coast Queensland. The date was 19th March 2008. An early morning storm had funnelled its way through the state’s south-east corner. No serious damage ─ just a couple of ghost gums down, the remanence of flash-flooding, and the odd sheet of dislodged corrugated iron roofing sheet still flapping against wherever it had landed. Apart from these expected fragments of collateral damage, the drizzling had begun to subside, thus the busy week-day could resume as normal. It was warm but still overcast. The still-wet roads glistened. Early-morning suburban coffee shop owners had set up their beckoning-signs, along with the outside furniture. Excited, pavement-hustling commuters started to infiltrate their way from the dry-comfort of their kitchens to their cars and bus shelters. One such commuter was Terry Skylark-Smith. At this exact moment, he stood in his rented house’s kitchen gulping down the strong cup of instant coffee he had made to cure last night’s mild hangover. ‘Imperative Terry’ his mates all used to call him – because everything he pursued was attacked at full-throttle.

Terry was very proud of his hyphenated surname. “Got a touch of class about it!” he would often be heard saying, when new acquaintances bothered to make the inquiry. His current girlfriend, Layla Vanstone, had already left for work at six. She was a nurse. Thirty-two-year-old Terry, a qualified computer systems analyst had fallen victim to a company downsize situation, received a small payout for his five years of loyal service, and hit the dole queue with alarming dissatisfaction. In his eyes, he figured himself to be one of the best in the business. A resource of compelling magnitude to any firm lucky enough to inaugurate his services, whose previous lucrative positions had all surfaced through word-of-mouth recommendation. At this point in time, things had dried-up somewhat. Still suffering the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis, Australia, like most economies, was reeling on the slow road to recovery. Nevertheless, he knew the importance of being gainfully employed, therefore had buried himself deeply amongst the scant echelons of career opportunities on offer on the job search websites. Never one to stoop to the lowly stigma of being kept by a woman, Terry had secured an interview at 8.00 am sharp, at Elphinstone and Montgomery, a trusted financial planning corporation. He knew that there would be the usual Noah’s Ark queue of applicants lining-up outside the enrolling officer’s door, so a good impression must precede his stupefying qualifications, in order to land the position. Terry had spoken in person the previous day with Gustave Elphinstone, the son and now chief human resources person at the huge company. “As you are more than aware young man, things are the tightest they’ve been for decades, especially for an investment firm such as ours,” he’d stipulated, in his unique honey-soaked timbre. “If you are as worthy as your resume speaks, you have a good shot with us. I don’t have to tell you how important it is for us to secure the dedications of the correct person for the job.”

Gustave’s gracious and direct, but punctual, manner mirrored Terry’s own. Armed with his good-looks and outrageously-priced Amani suit, imperative Mr Skylark-Smith rode with a master-class surfboarder style on a wave of confidence, he knew he would win the jostle against all the other applicants. He glanced at his cellphone after texting; wish me luck, to Layla, only noticing there and then, quite how late he’d left it to make the close-to-peak-hour trip into Ashmore. His house was at Currumbin Waters, usually a good forty minutes at best to get to the growing business mecca, near Surfers Paradise. The astute-minded systems analyser had asked for the earliest appointment possible, hoping to beat the extra clog created by the school kid’s traffic. Terry was a very competent driver. He had to be. The Gold Coast’s M1 is one of the premier traffic-choked highways in the entire state. Wrestling with the busy motorway’s early-morning mayhem had become but mere gravy on his meal during the previous five years spent working for his previous employer. He knew all the craftiest techniques to get the upper hand on all the mobile chicanes out there (one of his favourite sayings). Terry exploited these practices to their maximum.

He downed his coffee, grabbed his jacket and slender briefcase, swiped the car keys from the hallway table, and scurried to his awaiting scarlet-coloured 2006 BMW 5 series. Need a good run, he thought to himself, inserting the motivational self-speak audio disc into its slot. Before he had even made it to the arterial road, the pleasant sounds of Marjorie Pullman’s positive mantras were filling his ears with annotations on how to be the best you that you can be. As luck would have it, Terry, carried on the sturdy back of belief of the voice’s reassuring affirmations, whisked his way towards the main carriageway ahead of time. His smile widened, adventurous mind picturing the cover-girl looks of Marjorie Pullman, whose arousing velvety voice pitted perfectly with her beauty, whom he had seen speak live at the Convention Centre six months prior. He blended onto the three-lane M1 and immediately crossed into the fast lane. The usual procession of tradesman’s utility trucks and white vans littered his path, their rattling ladders and toolboxes blanketed by Pullman’s downy intonations. Ducking and weaving ─ weaving and ducking, Terry interlaced past them with the seasoned precision of a rally-driver, the speed-limit was one-hundred kilometres-per-hour, and he was entitled to it. At last it thinned-out a little allowing one hand to grasp the wheel, the other grooming his blue-black hair.  A string of caravan hauling holiday-makers crawling along in the far left lane posed no problem.

Until he glanced at his fuel gauge…

“Oh no!” the hurrying driver said out loud, noticing his car was about to attempt to get there on mere fumes. “Damn bloody hell. I knew I should have checked yesterday. What are we gonna do Marjorie?” he asked, half-expecting the wizard-of-success to supply an easy answer. Do I risk it or stop for petrol? Cost me ten minutes at least! His thoughts angered, doing the calculation.

A service station waved a tempting arrowed sign in his vision about two-hundred metres ahead. He optimistically guesstimated, deciding to speed past its entrance ─ the bowsers looking at him like an oasis in the Sahara. Suddenly the rows of tail-lights up ahead began to illuminate. “Darn it. Brake lights!” Most of the vehicles he had flown past began to drift back past him at the logjam. Some drivers even grinning at him. They had observed his unmistakable scarlet blur shoot past five or ten kilometres back. The BMW’s digital dashboard clock now read 7.40 am. Skylark-Smith knew that there was a carpark out front of Elphinstone and Montgomery, but he also knew how far he still had to go. The time and distance simply weren’t going to add up. Another fact he was fully aware of was that crawling traffic made his car a good deal thirstier. He wanted this job. He simply had to get there. He came to a standstill. Pressure began to mount in his head. His pulse raced with rage. The steering wheel became a drum. He hated this and no longer cared about Marjorie bloody Pullman!

A brilliant move not yet needed, was the old driving up the emergency-stopping lane. He knew this section had a fairly broad one. Terry squeezed his car in between a pairing of nose-to-tail angry motorists, nearly scraping their vehicles to get by. He manoeuvred out to the shoulder of bitumen and planted it. His grin returned as he pulled up behind a like-minded Harley-Davidson rider ─ the impatient pair coasting past dozens of frustrated faces. An even bigger smile swept across his face upon seeing the reason for this delay up ahead. The police were attending a crash. In front of it was clear sailing. His illegal manoeuvre had to be thwarted. Terry quickly ducked back in to blend with the gradually-accelerating exasperated mob. He zigzagged his getaway-path to leave them in his wake. In the process, his car clipped the front of another commuter, focussed Terry never even noticed. The angry driver watched the headlamp and indicator of her quaint little lime-green sedan tumble past her side window. She shook a fist but Terry was gone, swerving through the traffic and honking his horn, there was some serious time to be made up. The BMW was up to about seventy at least. The turnoff was only about five kilometres away now, but the dashboard clock reading 7.52 am glared him in the face like a ‘YOU HAVE JUST LOST YOUR BIG CHANCE SPORT’ neon sign. Its digits seemed to be moving swifter than he was. Again it began to bottleneck on the approach to his turnoff. Back down to a low-gear crawl, he was trapped in the wrong lane. His heart began to hammer…

Gustave Elphinstone sat at his pure white desk waiting, wondering and rehearsing his questions, but not panicking. He was fully-aware of peak-hour and its problems. He liked the sound of this Terry Skylark-Smith fellow, who had ticked every box, and had pencilled him in for the role. The interview felt like a formality, but company protocol still needed to be adhered to. As far as he was concerned the position was his to lose. The two had hit it off on the telephone. All he wanted was a reliable, well-mannered, capable person. Suddenly his phone rang. He answered. “Human resources section, Gustave Elphinstone speaking. How may I assist you?”

“Mr Elphinstone, I must apologise. It is Terry Skylark-Smith here. You know the usual, sir. The M1 is going to make me late. Please keep my seat warm. Shan’t be too long!” He spoke in a rehearsed apologetic voice, which displayed all the inflexions of grief.

“Not a problem, Terry. Thank you for letting me know. I can’t expect you to control the influences of other drivers. Just the influences of our computer systems. Hey what?” he joked, to settle the future employee’s nerves.

“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down! I’m probably about ten minutes away, depending.”

“If the car park is full, take my spot. It is on the far left. I came in early with Sir Frank Montgomery to prepare for the interviews. You’ll see my name-plaque near the rose garden. Bye.”

“Thank you sir. Bye.” Terry grinned. He knew he was in!

Marjorie Pullman was back through his speakers once more. She calmed the final ten minutes of his eventful trip. At last, he had made it. The impressive building loomed before him. Research had demonstrated the firm’s success and it was showing here. Terry fed his flashy vehicle into the plaque-marked spot as Gustave had asked. He stared at the fuel gauge and clasped his hands together as if thanking by prayer. His eyes turned left. Montgomery’s gold Rolls-Royce dwarfed his red car, plummeting the would-be big-shot back to Earth. Next, his eyes spun right to notice the empty space marked with a plaque of its own stating Chief Financial Advisor. “Must be where the other Rolls sits, huh Marjorie? I’ll bet the three of them sit in a row here. Probably gold silver and…”

Imperative Terry didn’t guess the last colour. Instead, the quaint little lime-green sedan, now with only one eye coasted past and filled the spot. A mousey, little, bespectacled woman wearing a business suit climbed out. I guess they all came in with the boss. Must be one of the other applicants… he thought to himself. But said, “Hello miss. Going for the job are you?”

She didn’t answer the question straight away, instead, asking him one. “Excuse me,” she hesitated, sounding like she was about to ask for a piece of stale cheese. “Are you aware that your car collided with mine on the way here, young man?” She pointed at the missing headlamp.

Terry pulled on his Amani Jacket, laughing. “Don’t be daft lady. You can’t pin that old one on me! That could have happened anytime or anywhere. Nice try, by the way, I admire your spirit, toots! But you probably just don’t know who you are talking to now. Do you?” He cockily flicked his head and straightened his tie. “Good luck with your interview. You’re going to need it!” He pressed his bleeper to lock the doors and strode off. Her pointy-faced head dropped.

After sitting and waiting beside six other nervous-looking candidates for no more than three minutes, a tubby middle-aged woman called him into Gustave Elphinstone’s office. It had been barely enough time to get his text-message away to Layla, saying; the job’s all mine! The big white desk looked like the landing-deck of an American aircraft carrier. Terry’s jaw dropped like an anvil. Behind it was Gustave’s smiling face and a mousey woman wearing glasses and a Judy Montgomery: Chief Financial Advisor logoed broach pin. She said. “Yeah, you never know who you are talking to. Do you Mr Skylark-Smith. Next please!”

“The Secret Letters” – the next ten-minute thriller!

 Well, I hope you are enjoying your weekly read…

   Thrillers come in many forms:

      Espionage, murder, conspiracy, whodunnit and romance.

         Romance? Packs a powerful punch sometimes!!!

 

“The Secret Letters”

 

Every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser. It’s not necessarily the size of the prize which determines the outcome. More importantly, it’s how we play the game that counts. “Hogwash!” declare the ones who lose. “You really believe that old cliché?” question the ones who are victorious. “Absolutely!” triumph those who enjoy life’s magnificent ride. “You never know what’s around the next bend.” Quote the optimistic aspirants. Well, let’s see what unfolds…

Vera Discordia had abandoned high school prematurely, her personality make-up simply not cushioning well with the discipline required to achieve competent grades. Her disappointed mother, vesting to the acceptance of her only daughter about to sashay through a career path of meagre paying jobs, simply gave up. What her mother had failed to realize, was that attractive Vera imitated her lackadaisical mum’s every personification. The family house had been a disregarded disastrous mess for years, with laziness presiding strongly, in order for television soap-opera’s to rule the entertainment roost. The Discordia family home in Bridlington, a lower-class suburb of Brisbane became far too compact for two grown-up female shirkers to reside under the same roof. She soon moved into a flat of her own.

With no realistic hint of a career in sight, long-legged buxom Vera decided her only option was to marry a man of high income but low vision, and utilise a string of pregnancies to lock him into a lifetime of mundane routine, which could sustain her in the comforts she so richly deserved. A fruitful qualifying process encouraged a steady procession of unadorned-looking hopefuls to woo and swoon their way into her boudoir. The keen individuals were practically tripping over their own feet to taste the sweetness of Vera’s accomplished bedroom skills. Her only other skill remained in her uncanny ability to segregate the pack from one another’s notice, in order to juggle her week’s expectant brigade of aspirants. On the odd occasion when a risky overlap did occur, Vera cleverly waved good-bye, shouting words to the tone of; ‘Thank you for cleaning my windows, Sam! Same again next month!’ The satisfied but unaware individual would keep walking toward her gate with a shake of his head, nodding a polite hello to the oncoming male passer-by.

For months her highly congested sex-life flourished without a decent contender. Her filament of potentials glowed a disappointing quality of luminescence. All earned a similarly pathetic income to herself ─ most lying to her face until after the fact, in which case they were not offered a return application. Vera was exceedingly fulfilled with sex ─ but somewhat empty of hope…

Up until honest and unassuming Harvey Purstians, a hard-working electrician whose gifted good-looks were fading with each hair that parted ways with his rapidly smoothing head. It was adding ten years to him and he knew it. Harvey couldn’t believe his luck when he reached home-base after just two expensive restaurant meals, which he’d happily swallowed the bill for. Smitten with the blonde after just three weeks, the shy tradesman dropped her off in his white van, leaving in her hand a small square fuzzy case. “Not tonight Vera,” he appealed. “Got a huge day tomorrow. Will you…”

“Of course I will!” She hugged, pressing her firm bosom against him for a double reassurance.

Fifteen years and five children later, the Purstians’ household was awash with dirty laundry, uncleared dinner plates, and over a decade’s worth of dust rested upon every horizontal surface. Vera had not learned any lessons from Harvey, who never complained. She had burned-out her third TV set by this time and was busily working away on the fourth. As fastidious as a one-man ant colony, Harvey could be seen well into the evenings beavering his way around the house straightening things up. Alas, it was a losing battle, he simply could not keep up with the extra load of housework adding to his already long day. On his side of the wardrobe the polished shoes, all lined-up like sleeping soldiers reflected a stark contrast to Vera’s, stacked precariously up in bonfire fashion. His neatly-ironed shirts butted-up together above the row of pressed slacks folded over hangers on the rail directly below. Beside them, her dresses, knotted in balls of fabric could hardly be discerned from her blouses and pantsuits occupying the over-stuffed shelving. The three-drawer bedside table housing his neatly folded underpants in the top, perfectly aligned, colour-coded and tucked one inside the other socks in the second, and a plethora of monogrammed H U P handkerchiefs (the U stood for Ungears ─ his father’s first name) in the bottom, mirrored hers. But only in external appearance, minus the dust layer and coffee mug rings. Within Vera’s three drawers was a mishmash of clean and dirty bras and knickers, twisted amongst her stockings and now seldom-worn lingerie. She never went near his side, and he daren’t venture into her drawers for fear of what might come out.

Their five offspring looked forward to school, the three older girls even staying on for extra tuition to avoid the filth of their home. The two young boys, figuring it was pretty cool to have a mother whose surroundings rivalled their own apocalyptic bedroom, kept their schedule. It was common for the clean washing to remain on the clothesline for days until Harvey would retrieve it late in the evening. Dysfunction prevailed and heads turned the other way to keep things peaceful. Foolish Vera couldn’t care less. She had won the partner of her dreams and he was keeping her in the lifestyle to which she was accustomed. The torrent of twice-a-day steamy love which had magnetised them together at the start of their relationship had evaporated, however, her curvaceous figure remained sharp, as did her pretty facial features and long blond locks. Now manager of his own company, at a rented workshop, with a staff of four tradies and an attractive brunette secretary, the quietly-spoken electrician went about his business of making an above average income to support his clan. Late in the evenings he would drag his weary feet through the front door then remove his shoes, only to collect a shallow peck on the cheek for his efforts. He would immediately shower, then over some idle chat he would eat his evening meal on his lap to a background of reality TV and bickering youngsters. After which, Harvey would wash the dishes and retire to his office to catch up on his small company’s income tax bookwork. Often, when in there, he would sit reflecting back on his exciting life.

It was mid-morning on a Wednesday. Super-bitch Vera suddenly became bored with the reruns of ‘Days of our Lives’ and in a frantic upheaval of guilt, decided to tidy her half of their bedroom. She hummed away as if second-naturedly going about her chores. Standing back to admire her handiwork, the once-bombshell noticed something odd about Harvey’s bottom drawer.

“That won’t do,” she muttered, noticing it was protruding open more than an inch. “Poor old bugger, must have been really tired last night.” She pictured his now forty-year-old handsome face with its garnish of crow’s feet creeping into the sides of his Caribbean-blue eyes.

Vera slid the drawer halfway out to press down on the wads of monogrammed cotton, all perfectly folded into quarters, in an effort to allow the drawer to shut fully.

When suddenly she saw them…

She frowned with a quiz, before lifting the handkerchiefs onto the unmade bed. Layered halfway between the white squares was a stack of pink envelopes. On the front of each was gracefully inscribed the name Dily Velp. It was clearly her husband’s handwriting. Vera knew that the name of Harvey’s shapely secretary, equipped with her own high-calibre of efficiency and orderly acumen, was Delores but was oblivious to her surname. In a rage, she seized the thick handful of beautifully inscribed envelopes and spread them across the sheets. A flick of her eyes counted thirty-five. Her blood began to boil. Her breathing intensified. Her eyes, at first wide like a mouse’s, squeezed to become slits. Her fingers began to tremble. Was it guilt? Or was it jealousy? What was she feeling at this moment?

Vera picked one up and thrust it to her chest while staring at the blank cream bedroom wall. Next, she glanced at her fierce reflection in the wardrobe mirror, then down at the name, her flared nostrils collecting the scent of her own favourite perfume at the short distance. Without creasing the paper, she slid out a three-page love-letter and commenced to read it. Starting at the top with Dear Dily, the letter flowed a magnificent appraisement of affection with a poetic appeal. The perfume burned deeply into her air-passages, as one after another, she flurried through the beautifully worded paraphrases of lust and desire. She read twelve separate letters. Vivid descriptions of love-making and passionate kisses idling across the pale pink pages in wispy lettering enraged her jealousy. She wanted to set fire to the bed she shared with this betraying womaniser and torch his inscriptions of wilful yearning along with it ─ but needed to keep the evidence to shame him.

She dismissed any guilt, believing her tutorial to the incompetent balding twenty-five-year-old as a smorgasbord of intercourse he would never have received without her. After all, it bore them five precious young ones, didn’t it? What more could he want? Her emotion couldn’t be jealousy, because he was totally in the wrong here! No, this was disdain in her veins. That philandering bastard!

Her heart was fuming and all she could think of was how many more were there? The sent ones that she couldn’t read! Vera tucked each poisonous promise back into its rectangular shroud and planned her divorce. What would be the outcome? How much would she get? Who would have custody? Again she stared at her sorry reflection but wasn’t liking what she saw…

When Harvey plodded in that night, Vera thrust the letters at his face. “Explain this you cheating arsehole!” she shrilled, as all bar one, fell to the floor tiles.

“Oh, you found them,” he answered dimly ─ eyes looking to the floor at the scattered pink mess at his feet. “I was going to tell you all about them when I thought you would be ready…”

Appetite whet for revenge, she cut him off sharply, grumbling a barrage of incendiary remarks. “I give you the best years of my life! Tolerate your boring electrical conversations! I have beared your children, yet managed to keep myself attractive for you to look at! Never even looked sideways at another man… and believe me, there’s been offers out there! Perhaps I haven’t been the best housewife in the world. But you’re alive at least. Well, aren’t you?”

Vera’s veins were fully swollen, she looked mean as a snake!

“Sure honey,” he limped back, feeling kicked in the groin. “What’s this all about, anyway?”

“What’s this all about?” she yelled, waving the solitary last letter still between her fingers. She briefly paused before impaling him again. “I know our romance has stalled momentarily. But this sought of disgusting behaviour was not on my radar when we got married! What is she to you Harvey?”

He forced a sheepish grin. “Shhh, the children, dear. Did you read any?”

“Of course I did Einstein! Never mind them. What do you reckon I am going on about?” Vera pulled the love-letter from its envelope as if she was drawing a six-shooter from its holster. She flicked its pages open in front of his face. “Now, before we discuss our divorce. Who is Dily Velp you prick?”

Poor Harvey was feeling like a rabbit cornered by a fox. His eyebrows became angled at the top and his bottom lip protruded. He took the incriminating-looking communiqué from between her crimson nail-polished fingers, glanced at his own revealing handwriting and spoke softly. “Dear is obvious. D is Darling. I means me. L stands for Love. Y, of course, is you dear. V is for Vera. E remember is for Enid, your second name. L is Lucy, your third Christian name. And P stands for Purstians, your current surname. I wrote them all for you over the last ten years but thought you might laugh at my corny mushy eroticisms. I didn’t mean to upset you, sweetheart.” His expression was priceless.

Vera’s mouth fell agape like a sideshow-alley clown awaiting its next ping-pong ball…

“A Matter of Perception Really!”

I hope you are getting a feel for my mini-thrillers!

    Here’s another coffee cup challenge for you…

         Ever wondered why paying attention is so important?

 

“A Matter of Perception Really!” 

 

Just because you are looking at something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are taking too much notice. As mortals, selective control of our senses is abundant; we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, touch the things we like the feel of, and prefer to believe the things we choose to like best, to be correct in most cases.

A sweltering day in the small desert-fringe town of Horseshoe, New Mexico had left the ground dry and hard. The inhabitants were irritable. A slow arid breeze wasn’t helping. Swirls of dust collecting on that breeze felt like sandpaper against any soft surface. Time seemed to be slowing down. It was as if the sun had paused to hover at its most potent heat-point in the western sky. The eerie silence was deafening. As the pressure of the uncomfortable afternoon built, parched onlookers swaggered along their own paths not daring to raise the attention of any would-be enemy…

Two strangers of complete disproportionate credentials were approaching each other across the gravelly road. This road was extremely broad from shoulder to shoulder, but just by coincidence they happened to both have decided to share the exact same portion of brown dust. At a short distance, with senses raised the pair of individuals began to slow their movements. It was as if each had decided to size-up the on-comer. Patience required, heads slightly raising and lowering, the weight of aggression gradually began to build within the unlikely far-smaller of these two potential combatants. He was trying to appear cooler than a polar bear’s backside. And so, the circling commenced. The looks grew steelier. The flaring of torsos now very evident of an ensuing contest added zeal to the many observing-at-a-distance females. A clock-tower ticking at fifty metres sounded like a metronomic hammer driving an endless railway spike into the ground. Without reason, the less-aggressive larger being suddenly took it upon himself to back down. An expressionless stare started to meander in the opposite direction with its hulking body slowly following. This was observed as a cowardly move by his minuscule but wiry opponent, who by this time had begun a fidgety shuffle as if securing a solid foothold on terra firma. Now with his back being the only view visible, it appeared that the antagonistic bluffing behaviour of this pint-sized challenger had prevailed. The giant waddled off, seemingly disinterested in engaging in an exhausting battle during such a searing afternoon. Shorty was having no part of fainthearted behaviour irrespective of the temperature, he wanted a fight ─ so it was a fight he would have to start, regardless of this weak-minded foe who was now several metres away and retreating at a rapid rate of knots.

A challenge deserves to be met. A charge was initiated. The first contact deserved to be made from behind. After all, it appeared only fair considering the size discrepancy involved here. Shorty scampered swiftly across the ground landing his inaugural blow to the back of the withdrawing spineless one’s head. It was barely felt. The gigantic stride continued. Another blow and another, but this time far harder caught the attention of the docile adversary. His head stung but his legs did not buckle. Like a storm turning a calm sea into a frenzy, the huge frame spun to permit a beady stare to meet his irritating enemy. They eyed each other up in hushed tension. Their silence was suddenly severed by the sound of the mission bell echoing from its tower in the city’s centre square. Amid two ticks of the clock tower’s roaming second hand, the grappling pair suddenly embraced. Hissing fury bridled pure physical strength as the war between two complete strangers erupted. Blow after blow, cannoning off seemingly without effect was infuriating the giant. He picked up his energetic little rival and tossed him away like a feather. Back up in seconds and feeling no pain from the fall, shorty launched another attack. This time with the momentum of full speed available, he seized his chosen enemy’s midsection and latched on driving with the power of his legs. The entwined couple began rolling in the burning desert grit. Over and over they tumbled, striking, kicking, biting and scratching one another whilst scraping every extremity in the process, neither prepared to recede or allow an inkling of fear to be on display. Tiny weeps of blood dripping to the ground were absorbed by the dust in seconds. Clinched together like two rampaging stags fighting for a doe’s affections with locked antlers, they spun and heaved at their opponent’s body. Fatigue started to overcome the brute. He stopped for recovery holding his lesser-strength nemesis at bay. The clock-tower sounded the hour with four clangs of its bell…

The relentless sun was showing no mercy to the foolish display taking place in the centre of the quiet street. Fortunately for our two contemporaries, this bout of ego-driven belligerence was occurring on a Sunday, hence the traffic was practically non-existent. Perhaps for the enraged duo, an interruption via car or truck would have seen an end to the boldfaced brawl. The bell ceased its marking of the hour.

In an instant, they were back at it. Both had sensed at the interval that only one would be walking away. The gauntlet had been laid in no uncertain terms that this was to be a duel to the death. Both bodies were quivering in the heat. Sheer power began to force dominance towards the favour of the large. On the ground once more in the choking dust, he seemed primed to afflict the fatal last strike but missed. A victory chance gone begging. In truth, after ten minutes there was still no clear showing of either being dominant. If anything, the only thing dominant here was the silent hatred that both had deep inside. A clever manoeuvre by the half-sized main aggressor enabled him to break the shackles and circle in preparation for the next assault. His speed and agility were clearly superior. Lunge after lunge was beginning to impede the sluggish movements of the big guy. But, he was not done with yet, there was his pride at stake here. A virtue of principle to be won. No tiny being can possibly be permitted to saunter into his territory and demand that he step aside!

A huge grey cloud steered its way across the blazing golden ball. It altered the light slightly. The twiddling bystanders felt the change of temperature and a host of glances tilted toward the heavens. Could this bring a termination to the entanglement of arrogance on display before them? It had little effect. If anything, in fact, it seemed to re-empower both ─ well beyond their second-winds by this time. They crashed together like two atomic particles for what seemed, a last gasp of hope, at the obliteration of the others meagre existence. A trip on a stone brought the large one to his back in an agonising thud. The little guy, now straddling, had his opportunity to suppress life via strangulation or dish the fatal blows. The merciless foray began. A blur of tiny impacts ground their way onto the bulky head. Again he refused to yield. Legs kicking, he summoned every last shred of energy to force off the expectant smaller combatant. A quick twist regained a foothold back on the grimy road. He backed away to recompose. At a momentary pause, a stalking promenade of respect for the other’s tactics kept them apart a slight distance. Gyrating at a similar speed at opposite sides of an invisible wall of separation they lowered and raised their centres of gravity in an effort to seek the upper hand.

The grey cloud moved on to shade another part of New Mexico…

Out of nowhere, an old black Cadillac careered around a nearby corner, it’s suspension compressing to maximum, under the heavy car’s mass. A bearded man with fire in his eyes wrestled behind the steering wheel. He had ‘couldn’t-care-less-fugitive’ scrawled across his face. A huge cloud of desert dust followed in the car’s vortex. With reckless abandon and total disregard, it shot by narrowly missing the fighters by inches. The focused pair appeared to not even notice. Both were running on empty.  Both driven by nature, who was in complete control now. By twenty past four, this exhausted couple had well and truly had sufficient time to analyse the other’s strengths and discern loopholes or weaknesses. They had seen and felt each other up close. Different species from a different side of town, with nothing in common ─ except for the will to win. It was zero hour. A glowing aura of pride awaited one, and a miserable humiliating death in front of his kind lay in store for the loser. Which was it to be?

As they came together for the final time, the fierce brutality magnified. Ripping, tearing and mutilating at will as if nothing else in the world mattered. And for them, it didn’t. Legs became severed in the process. Within a matter of moments, a big motionless carcass lay cold in the dirt on its back. Our honoured victor hobbled away. The arduous microscopic sumo-wrestling match ceased. The tiny ant had defeated the large beetle…

Did I fool you? I hope so. If you did not break into even the tiniest of smiles, perhaps you either misread the closing few lines, or maybe did not get my message. If either is true, then try this on for size: Look back at the story’s title and ask yourself about perception. Take our little protagonist for example. Ask yourself, how does he view the world? Can an ant see an elephant? Can an elephant see an ant? Strange, one might say, how two such dissimilar creatures both bare the same three letters in their names, isn’t it? It’s all about perception, and speaking about three-letter-words, let’s look at another. Try this on for size: SEX?

Got your attention this time, didn’t I?

Yes, the odd little three-letter-word that has helped sell more magazines, books, movies, TV commercials, billboards, soap operas, sitcoms plus whatever else you wish to name. Why, it has overthrown presidents and even affected royal families. Powerful little sucker, isn’t it? How on earth can one silly little word have quite so much influence on us humans? Well, look back at my depiction of the word and notice it is punctuated. What does this mean? Adding this conjures-up all sorts of different perceptions again…

Allow me to supply several answers to this tiny riddle. How you portray them may vary depending upon your own personal gender. Remember; voice inflexion also changes what is being asked. Say the word in your mind prior to each answer, and the word was SEX.

“Oh, no thank you. I’m married.”

“Sure! Where? When? How?”

“I thought you’d never ask!”

“My favourite word… how did you guess?”

Male.

Female.

Transgender.

“Not with you, pal. You are not in my league!”

“Certainly miss! But aren’t you being a little forward?”

“Thanks for offering, but you’re the wrong… well, how can I explain?”

“Sorry, I’m far too busy for that. My friend here is free right now.”

“Okay! How much do you charge?”

“How rude! No way, not even if you were the last guy on the planet!”

“Are you for real? What do I have to do to impress you enough to marry me?”

“I can’t. War wound you see…”

And, what about this one, the pièce de résistance: “Sure, but can I put your offer on ice for a couple of weeks? I’m stuck with this proper bitch. But once I have ditched her, we can get right at it!”

A little word ─ big meaning. Hope you got a chuckle this time and please remember my stories and blogs are all for pure entertainment, plus you could learn a little in their hidden meanings.

Cheers, Steve.

 

Here’s another ten-minute blast for you!

You never know who you can really trust… do you?

             I love this twist…

 

“Let your Imagination Inspire!” 

 

Some people search for everlasting love. Some people search for friendship. Others simply play a cold-hearted game of “Love ’em and shove ’em!”

“Death shall soon be your welcome friend after you feel the suffocation of loneliness eating away at your heart!” vexed the chiselled features of Grigori des Vislosky. He swallowed his wine-filled challis in one enraged breath.

“Perhaps so, my deceitful lover…” replied his beautiful wench, her tattered dress falling from her shoulder from the strength of his grasp. Auburn hair ablaze after love-making. “But soon you will regret the very sound of my name. For you see my handsome charlatan, ‘tis you who shall soon be walking alongside the shadow of the Grim Reaper!”

A pause in the blur of key-striking brought the device to silence. “I’m a genius!” she quoted aloud, clasping her palms in triumph. Only moments prior, the passions of impulsive finger-filled energy were caressing their small, circular, lettered faces of creativity with the grace of a concert pianist. She extracted bliss from her own written words.

Lady Dandelion as she liked to refer to herself was perched like Queen Victoria in her wicker chair. Naturally, as always by sun’s glorious set, in her hand swirled a tall gin and tonic. The veranda beneath her sandals had a light layer of dust and the slow-turning fan above did little to move the air. The woman’s true name was Hilary Dandling and she felt very rich.  Already on her fifth gushy novel and just two months beyond her fourth husband, Hilary had taken to writing, inspired by the works of Karen Blixen the Danish heiress who married her friend Bror Blixen-Finecke in Kenya, to save dignity. Nearing thirty years, back in the early 1900’s titled women who went unwed were frowned upon. Alas, poor Karen’s marriage to the unfaithful Bror failed dismally, but her story of honesty, strength, self-respect and courage is world renowned. Her best-known book ‘Out of Africa’ was a romanticized but true depiction of her early life. In Blixen’s pages, Lady Dandelion saw the uselessness of men. To her, they were merely toys of temporary entertainment. Her four husbands, by coincidence, had all passed away by a heart attack before reaching fifty. She grinned in artificial helplessness with tears rolling, as the body-bags were individually wheeled away. Hilary was nothing like the woman she so much admired. Her favourite saying of; “Who on Earth needs a husband when you’ve got money” placed her well amongst the small peer group who tagged along for hand-outs. What few of them realized, was that the bulk of Lady Dandelion’s meagre dowry was assembled from insurance payouts and not from her book royalties, as she would have them all believe. No one even cast so much as a hint of suspicion at her of murder…

Choosing to feed the role of eccentric authoress with all of the correct props, her novels were obsessively clunked-out on an ageing Olivetti typewriter. She wrote as slow as a politician’s decision-making, but it mattered not, because any increase in Hilary’s typing pace would have only served to dilute the already watered-down plots. She always wore floral cotton dresses. Her face never missed a day’s heavy make-up. She twisted her mother’s metre-long loop of pearls twice around her long neck. The sordid evening air, filled with her metronomic click ─ click ─ clicks, weaved its way through her flock of excessively-dyed, curly, raunchy-auburn hair, then on through her open front door. The scent of smouldering ashtray butts was collected by this breeze. Chain-smoker Hilary, of course, owned a scruffy little white dog, whose shaggy mop of fur lay coiled at her feet almost constantly. His only breaks from her constant chatter, to his pitching-to-attention ears, came when he would trudge off to the other end of the veranda for a nibble or a drink of water. Skokie the hairy cross-breed even followed the romance writer indoors to recharge her G and T, which was usually on the anniversary of each page’s completion.

“Another villain put to the sword!” she exclaimed, withdrawing the typed sheet, making a speedy ratchet sound as the accelerated roller spun around. Hilary stared at her freshest page. “See Skokie-boy, young and handsome Grigori des Vislosky may have been… but he is no match for the shy sweet Esmerelda! He thought his looks and lies would win her over. Ha!” She downed the tarty alcoholic splendour, ice-cubes and all. “Best go get another, Skokie, while I’m on a roll!”

At that moment her ancient but necessary mobile phone rang. Wicker chair squeaking and creaking under her weight, Hilary stared toward the nuisance sound, watching the chunky plastic handpiece vibrate its way along her coffee table. She began hoping it would simply cease irritating her. It did. Probably just another admirer, she pondered, immediately celebrating her resistance to the temptation of answering it by lighting another cigarette. Faithful as ever, Skokie waddled in behind her to her makeshift bar.

That night after four more pages; therefore four more G and T’s, weary Hilary flopped into bed to contemplate her novel’s dramatic conclusion. Her lung-shaking cough barked louder than Skokie ever could dream of. She wrestled with several ideas, but her tired brain, clouded from typing, was throbbing with opaque blandness from one too many of everything. It struggled to fire. At the foot of her bed, the scruffy little dog tweaked his eyebrows in doggy fashion at her tossing and turning. He was probably wondering why on earth his mistress did this to herself every single night…

Six months later, Lady Dandelion was at the Southern Manchester shopping mall, busily signing copies of ‘What’s Your Plan B?’ Although her mind lived extensively in the colourful rugged African landscape, her home address was 37 Old Pottery Road, Lancashire, England. Her grin widened with each endorsed purchase. Her wink at the menfolk became sexier, and the plum in her mouth grew ever larger. One well-dressed man stopped for a prolonged discussion. He was as handsome as her mind had pictured Grigori des Vislosky. She obliged the gentleman with an extensive tenure of her time. As he drew away to leave, the man leaned in closely.

“I’ve always admired your work, Lady Dandelion,” he flattered. “Would you be kind enough to do me the honour of accompanying me to dinner tonight? Only if you’re free, of course.”

“How thoughtful. What a kind offer,” she praised back, waving her hand at her false blush. “Why, I do believe I am available to oblige you with companionship this evening. Mr…?”

“Doctor Raymond Barrington-Derbyshire. At your service ma’am!” He bowed. His expensive voice crisping all the vowels perfectly.

“Medical doctor?” her eyebrows raising like a guillotine blade being hauled up to its apex.

“Medical specialist. And still single too.” He released from his bow.

She slid a business card across the table ─ her mind effervescing at the possibilities of true wealth. “Here’s my card Raymond. Surprise me at seven?” Hilary hoped she could stay off the sauce long enough to land this massive catch-of-the-day.

A silver Bentley pulled up outside 37 Old Pottery Road at three minutes to seven. A gloved chauffeur’s hand opened the door. At once Hilary appeared at her own doorstep, sober, titivated, elegantly dressed and fully manicured. She was way too keen but Raymond didn’t seem to mind. He met her halfway from her front gate, kissing the back of her hand on perfect cue. Caruthers fired-up the elegant silver beast. The big saloon purred away without so much as startling a mouse. Skokie’s stumpy tail wagged from the other end of his panting pink tongue. At long last Mummy…

A delightful evening was underscored with stimulating conversation and laughter, suffice to inspire a return date. And another. And yet another. It led to the whole shooting match. Before the year was out, Mrs Hilary Barrington-Derbyshire strode white-dressed and veiled, arm-in-arm down the lengthy aisle of the same church her other ill-fated four husband’s had paid for over the past seven years. She never said a word of it to her new specialist husband. His destiny awaited.

Hilary did not let Raymond down. From a physical perspective, the inaccurate adjective beautiful would be far better replaced with charming or attractive. Her sunny days of beauty had long since set. Back then, men fell at her feet, literally! Now with her enticing looks transformed into experience, she became a bedroom virtuoso of impeccable standards. Hilary’s almost wunderkind passionate performances, born from her novels, came to life with impresario management skills. “Don’t hold anything back, Raymond dear! Love me like you’ll choke on your own appetite for passion! Let your imagination inspire!” she would repeatedly say when dancing him around the bedroom like a doyenne.

“Where do you get your ideas for all of your incredible stories from?” the love-smacked doctor would reply, trying to divert her from his inadequacy, completely lost for answers to her dazzling skills.

“They’d been bottled-up for years. I hid inside my own sweet passion-filled mind. I restricted my desires, kept myself waiting! Waiting! Waiting! I observed the world via extensive travel, staying pure, in order to fulfil my chapters with what they deserved.”  She lied with the eloquence of a soap opera superstar. “I was born to meet a man like you!”

Raymond tolerated her booze, which had substantially backed-off, much to the enhancement of her storylines. He even stomached her lust for nicotine, with the view that it was all part and parcel of her chemistry. The flavour of which Dr Barrington-Derbyshire very much enjoyed. The truth of her lack-lustre sales became evident. This he also overlooked. Forty-two-year-old Hilary kept up her facade for two and a half more books ─ taking nearly three years to publish them.

But now it was time to claim all her winnings…

Friday was killing-day for diabolical Hilary. She had prepared the lethal dose of digitalis, enough to stimulate his heart into irreversible overdrive. The foxglove derived drug had been successful on her previous husbands. There was no reason to think it wouldn’t work on Raymond. He was due home at five. Hilary always chose Fridays, because her promise of ‘Friday afternoon delight’ to all her spouses, ensured that they came home on time, eager to please and compliant with all her requests. She sat by the double-sash window of their large house in Manchester’s dress-circle neighbourhood, to listen for the Bentley. This afternoon had proven very convenient also because Caruthers had the last Friday of every month off.  To allow her to work uninterrupted, Hilary’s dog Skokie was staying over at her favourite niece Carmen Mylanta’s house, some distance across town. Miss Mylanta always acted as the terrier’s carer when she took leave of absence for any reason.

The car arrived. The front door opened. The queen-of-farce wore her sheer sky-blue negligee to greet him ─ flesh exposing from all extremities. His favourite music streamed from the sound system. The charade of tomfoolery commenced. Blind-folds and riding-crops. Feathers and filigree masks ─ they used it all. As per her customary technique, the glasses of champagne sat chilled and inviting beside their bed. His with a golden stag emblem on a tiny chain around its stem. Hers with a similar golden swan emblem. More bottles lay in wait. Between primaeval romps, they both slurped heavily on the bubbly aphrodisiac stimulant. Very cleverly, between disguises and sex-acts, she had been dropping small amounts of digitalis into his champagne. Small enough to be indistinguishable, but deadly as it would collect in his digestive system, rushed to his bloodstream via the aerated alcohol. After six or seven glasses, he would collapse into a stupor then his vital organs would cease to operate.

Strangely, she was the one who felt life slipping away…

“Let your imagination inspire!” perked the doctor.

“I feel dreadful,” wimped the murderess, coughing with more than her usual barking smoker’s hack. “What is happening to me?”

“Touché Darling! I knew exactly what you were up too. You’re not as good an actress as you think, my little puppet! Silly woman. I swapped the little chains while you were busy in the bathroom,” said Raymond, wearing a nasty smirk. “You see my dear, you are a very infamous widow Hilary. However, something you aren’t aware of, is that I am an infamous widower! You will now become my sixth dead wife! My wealth has been assembled in much the same way as yours!”

With nothing more to do now but hasten her demise, she drinks the remainder of her perilous bubbly and dies in his arms. Raymond’s expression aglow now pulls the glass from her fingers. He is elated at outsmarting the trashy-love-story novelist. He closes her staring eyes, uttering, “All of your pilfered mammon is now mine… Good night Lady Dandelion!”

But a strange twist thwarts his plan…

Months later an ingenious police investigator discovers she has confessed to all of the murders of her previous four husband’s cryptically in her novels. All of her female protagonists had an uncanny mirror-like similarity to her, with each plot an echo of her own life’s conspiracy. Even Esmerelda in the fifth one was Hilary’s middle name. This name had been the catalyst. And so, as a result, her small fortune is confiscated by the police and a governmental executive decision was made to bequest the money to its correct beneficiary. Raymond received nothing. His suspicious case is being examined by the same detective. Hilary’s will had left everything to Skokie.

Niece Carmen Mylanta, who was caring for the scruffy little dog, now has executor rights to issue him a life of comfort. They were last seen in Acapulco on a Li-lo bed in a swimming pool, where Carmen and Skokie were accompanied by a sexy French Poodle…

 

 

Are you being watched?

       If you enjoyed that last little ride,                                                                          try this next dramatic heart-wrencher on for size!

“Don’t Look…

          You’re Being Followed”

 

By Stephen James

Who is the real protagonist? Good question! I hope you struggle to figure out your own answer to which way the finger is pointing, before being caught by its unexpected swerve…

Actress Irma Snodgrass had become a popular soap opera starlet back in 1967. Her chosen stage name, Crystal Chevalier had shone a brilliant light, improving her odds of landing roles, allowing Irma to take leaps over the opposition; painstakingly languishing on the casting-couch. She was a fine-looking woman, part and parcel necessities for the rapidly blossoming hour-long brand of afternoon bored housewife’s viewing. Misses Snodgrass had still not quite forgiven her new husband Archibald for handing her the awkward moniker. Hence the invention of her pseudonym. Archibald was a scriptwriter for the same network, but Crystal refused to admit that this had the scantiest influence in her ability to land the much-sought-after role. In her limited vision ─ it had been all her own doing. They had a child together in 1969, naming her Valerie Marie after Irma’s favourite actress Valerie Marie Winterstorm. Archie went along with it, though not appreciating the wishy-washy body of work Miss Winterstorm produced, caring more about the child’s welfare than her name. A television production-set child of the 70’s, Valerie soon learned how to cope with completing her year one school lessons and parent-tutored manners at the network’s studio.

The small family lived in a humble three bedroom bungalow in middle-class Los Angeles. A suburb called Sachiko. Raven-haired Crystal’s role developed into becoming the main protagonist; Private Investigator Zelma Hardachre, and with its importance in the show, her ego inflated to scale. Her salary grew also, and Ms Chevalier (as she liked to be addressed) did some commercials as well.

When youngster Valerie was fast-approaching her sixth birthday, the sad news about her father’s passing in a car accident, when en route to a film set at Las Vegas, found its way to her heart. Concerned for her child’s well-being, Crystal avoided subjecting her timid daughter to the rigours of a gala Hollywood funeral. The girl was looked after by her uncle Quentin for the afternoon, while her mother attended. During the devastating aftermath, for several months, Quentin Snodgrass became a rock of Gibraltar for the grieving pair of girls, whose affinity gradually knitted tighter. The home’s memory too strenuous, they moved to an upmarket dwelling closer to the centre of town. Crystal even asked for the Private-eye Zelma Hardachre’s character’s role to be down-written somewhat, in order to spend more time with her only daughter. This was greatly appreciated by the budding girl.

In an obscure twist of events, as Valerie grew up, her years spent guided by a single parent and fighting for survival in the cut-throat city, seemed to dilute her timorous nature. Valerie’s mother attempted several relationships but nothing seemed too serious, now nearly forty ─ as a woman in her prime, the business of her shooting schedule took precedence above all else. Her figure was lustrous. Her diet was impossible. Her temper became shortened. Her time spent learning her lines lengthened, but devoted Crystal Chevalier persevered best as she could.

Valerie was suddenly seventeen and beginning to notice the stares of men. Her inherited gene pool’s allure began encroaching faster than a blizzard. She was pretty. Stunning curves and a trim mid-section had transformed her previously-stick-like body. Crystal did not favour this but was powerless to prevent it. Fast-forgotten by her were the credentials that she’d applied to open the studio’s doors in the first place. The rules were strict and Valerie Marie abided by them. A good child she was…

Studios are supportive of soap operas ─ they even sustain the longevity of their stars. But it cannot last forever, and the evolving viewing audience’s desire for an influx of fresh new blood saw the shrinkage, demise and eventual cancellation of waning protagonist Zelma Hardachre. Crystal was fired from the show. She did not want to plummet back down to the depths of being Irma Snodgrass once again, but the women of the 80’s with their big hair, small waistlines and breast augmentation were blazing an ultra-competitive trail, too fast for her to chase. She resented her male producer, calling him a chauvinist. She was angry at the screenwriters for not making her character sexy enough to tread water with the new meat. She became autocratic in her disciplinary attitude towards Valerie.

Day after day. Night after night. The stern voice of unemployed Irma rang in her daughter’s ears. “No men! You simply cannot trust any of them!”

“But Mum,” she would plead… “I just want to go out on a date, please!”

“You are far too young and vulnerable,” came repeatedly back. “You are still only a schoolgirl, for God’s sakes! As I have told you so many times in the past, you cannot trust men. They are only after one thing. And once they’ve got it, they’ll cast you aside like an unwanted worn-out pair of shoes!”

At times the discussions bore unpleasant heat.

“Yes, okay mum, you’re the boss!” she would reconcile. Valerie respected her mother’s advice, knowing it would not be forever. Soon, when she was a bit older her chance would arise. “But I can’t help wondering what it would be like to have a boyfriend of my own.”

“Finish your grades first, girl. Then we’ll see.” It was always the same type of conversation.

In the 1980’s there were no smart phones or social media; therefore, her friends all had to be met personally. The few boys who hung around her group were stringently grilled by her mother. They were wary of the consequences of overstepping the line with her.

At last came 1990. For Valerie, now twenty-one, beautiful in her own right and working as a receptionist with a legal firm, living at home still, to repress her mum’s loneliness was a part of life. She was patient but could now come and go as she pleased. One day at the mall, dressed nicely as usual, she noticed a man following at a distance. Well, she’d figured he was, because each time she went into one shop he would float past but reappear moments later. This pursuer was not making eye-contact with her, and was too far behind for her to make out any clear features. All Valerie could tell was that the man was quite solidly built with dark-brown hair and expensive-looking sunglasses covering his eyes. His clothes were blueish. Whenever she moved, he moved. Whenever she stopped, he stopped. She began feeling extremely apprehensive. She increased her stride in an effort to shake him off. He allowed this to happen, then in a second his image once more hovered in her peripheral vision.  It persisted for over twenty minutes. Her heart began to pound harder and harder. Her mother was right. She felt like a piece of prime-cut beef being hounded by a very determined dog. Valerie, not one to panic, decided to seek the assistance of a security guard…

“Pardon me sir?” she inquired quietly, pointing to her wrist as if inquiring about the time and being careful not to face the stalker. The last thing she needed was to aggravate him. “Please play along with me and show me your watch. You see, there is a man following me. He has been lurking behind me for ages. It is spooking me out. What should I do?”

“A man following, you say?” said the uniformed guard, complying with her smartly-disguised request. He raised his voice for effect, just in case. “Nearly four-thirty-five, miss!”

Valerie nodded a thank you. “Well. What should I do? Can you do something about him?”

“Until he makes a move to harass or grab you, I can’t really do anything, miss. There’s no law against being in the mall. If I approach or detain him for questioning, he could have me up for harassment. Stupid, isn’t it? Let’s at least bluff him. Which man is it miss?”

They both peered round slowly. The skulking stranger was gone. Both sets of eyes did a quick scan of the busy mall but he had vanished. Valerie felt the weight of a huge encumbrance lift from her shoulders. Her bulging plastic shopping-bag seemed to weigh less now.

The guard smiled dismissingly. “You might have just been imagining it, miss.”

“No I wasn’t!” she rasped back. “I tell you he was no more than thirty yards behind me. A deep blue shirt and jeans. He has dark-brown hair. Oh, and he was wearing reflective Ray-bans too!”

The burly African-American guard’s communication radio started beeping. “Excuse me miss. I have to get this. Just give me a few minutes, will you?”

“Humph…” grunted Valerie, taking another look, but the coast was clearer than a politician’s conscience. She took-off, shaking her frustrated head, mindful of her five o’clock dental appointment near home. “Thanks for nothing, anyway.”

The main entrance was in view, so she made a beeline. On her own once more and with a pair of four-inch Prada heels scuffling underneath her tight-fitting, open-necked, Versace business dress, the upset girl couldn’t wait to get to her car. With each short step, her frightened little heart was increasing in pace. She could hear her own breathing. Perhaps her mother’s excessive warning over-kills had made her mind play tricks on her? The big glass double doors loomed. Not far to go now!

“Get a grip on yourself!” she vented, under her heavy breathing…

Other shoppers were staring at the fleet-footed twenty-one-year-old, dodging and weaving her way through the hoards. The plastic bag of shopping was banging against her hip. Her handbag, with its thin leather strap was continuously bouncing on her bottom. Her mind was filled with three stern words… Trust no one!

At last the entrance arrived, and as luck would have it the automatic doors were held apart by pedestrian traffic. Valerie kept her pace up, turning right into the underground carpark. Pursuing a trim figure, she’d always made a habit of parking at the furthest space away as possible. Today she wished she hadn’t. She kept scurrying along, praying that one of the white Prada’s wouldn’t break or come adrift. The focused girl could now see her car in the distance ─ like an island to a drowning swimmer at sea. Her shoes echoed on the hard concrete ceiling. The massive columns seemed to be hiding something. Her fear mounted as she suddenly realised how few people were down here. Her car felt like it was getting further away. Valerie was running out of breath. Slowing down.

Then she saw him…

She froze mid-stride. A stab of fear shot through her chest. The man, still wearing his dark glasses appeared from behind a parked van. Its sliding door was open. She caught a brief glimpse of a cage-like mesh separating the driver’s section. His eyes looked right through her. His cheek bore a long jagged scar. His hands were large. He said nothing. Valerie screamed but nothing came out. Terror dragged her eyes sideways. She went to take a step behind a FWD, catching her handbag’s strap on its wing-mirror. It snapped. Her bag fell open to the dirty concrete. Her precious mace spray now entirely useless. Do I retrieve it?

“I know where you parked. I followed you in,” his gravel-voice uttered ─ face breaking into a strange one-sided smile ─ finger pointing at her car. “I knew you’d come out this way.”

Valerie’s entire body was shaking uncontrollably. Her heart felt the harrowing ordeal of rape fast approaching. What an introduction to the world of sex, her mother hadn’t prepared her for this!

“What do you want?” she asked with a mouse’s voice. “Why are you following me?” Her stomach was ice.

“You are pretty aren’t you? No need to be scared.”

“I don’t know you, and I don’t want to know you! Back off! I’ll scream if you come anywhere near me!” Valerie removed one of her shoes, holding the stiletto in his direction. He laughed at it.

The man raised his sunglasses. His eyes were darker than his hair but the same brown colour. He reached down for her bag. She hated being trapped like this. Where are all the shoppers? She knew all her identification was in that bag. If he got it, she was doomed. What the hell game was this?

The intimidating man picked up her belongings, tucked them back inside and walked over to the van’s open sliding door. “It is you. I knew it! I just had to see how you’d look, all grown up!  Come… I’ve brought you a present.” The scar shrank up the man’s cheek as a smile broke. “You probably don’t remember me. I left when you were six. Your mum… Well, let’s just say, my brother Quentin was taking care of her long before we pretended I got killed. It was easier that way.”

“Daddy… is that really you?”

“I just had to be sure it was you.” He reached into the van and pulled out a giant fuzzy pink donkey. “Sorry I took Wonky Donkey, but she was all I had to remember you by, honey!”

Valerie Marie dropped her shoe and burst into tears…