The Gates of Magumembo lay agape behind the party of artefact expeditionary members. The exposed chasm between the towering rock faces, offered a biblical backdrop, beyond which sprawled Africa’s majestic, untamed, wilderness landscape. They’d clambered down the stone steps and gathered at the jaws of the repository.
“Typical, there’s always one more fence!” remarked the imperiously beautiful Jacinta Rhodes, with flippancy. Her intrigue was confronted by a large rectangular slot, big enough to feed her arm into, in the thick bronze barrier door. On its face, six obscure words gave nothing away. “My bet is, the key that opened the gates is the same key required to open this. Let’s hope so, anyhow.” Her clue-seeking eyes, wandering across to the words beside the huge ring handle.
“Why don’t you try to translate that inscription, yar, and I’ll go back and get the key,” offered Johannes Van der Meer, tilting his head forward to meet her eyes. “It’s a heavy bugger, I will require assistance, of course.”
Archaeologist and Chief Cook, Percival Straughn, stepped forward. “I’ll help you carry it, Diamond Jim. I’d love to get the feel of that Centuries-old platinum in my bare hands, for the first time.” Percival’s crystal clear and British-to-the-core accent rolled out from beneath his handlebar moustache. He was the only member of the remaining twelve wearing a pith helmet.
“Granted Professor!” nodded the expedition leader. “Bring all the trucks in. That way we can unload all the photographic and documentation equipment. Take a rope and a crowbar—”
Van der Meer interrupted, “You don’t have to explain, Jacinta. This part is my forte — it comes with the territory, yar! But first, we shall bring the key, so that you can explore the catacombs for the treasure. It could be tricky and may take some time, yar. Check the oil lamps… pitch dark in that tomb. Won’t be long.” He squeezed Straughn’s shoulder. “Come on Percy, let’s move it, yar!” They sprinted back up the ramp, to the stone steps.
Right from the outset, over two years ago, this scientific mission, which Doctor Rhodes had convinced her beloved Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, to fully fund, was one in search of a different kind of wealth. She’d made it clear that there were no intentions of plunder. Hers was a plight of notable discovery. One merely of documenting the find and gathering photographic evidence, interested in the platinum reserves — only to record their significant value to the world’s historians. Jacinta had stressed this expedition’s importance to the University, and of how she longed to become their leading teacher of archaeological studies.
She fondled the words with her fingertips, as she began to explain to the rest. “It appears to be a complicated mix of languages, most likely Zulu, and possibly one of the Bantu dialects, but I am not certain.” Rhodes removed her Fedora hat and began fanning her face in the semi-shade. “The inscription says; QAPHELA ISIQALEKISO – LOWO ONGENA ANGEKE ASHIYE.”
“Well, Doctor Rhodes. Are those languages you know?” asked Harry “Helping Hands”.
“I am not very proficient at Zulu. Well, not this version, at least. I believe it says; BEWARE THE CURSE – THE ONE WHO ENTERS WILL NOT LEAVE.”
The ten began murmuring like a pack of unsettled jackrabbits catching the scent of a fox.
“If the key unlocks this door… Do you want to risk it?”
Compelled to agree, they all turned to observe the other two’s progress. The rope had been launched over the twenty-metre-high bronze gate with the key’s head poking out above it. He had scrambled up the rope and stood atop, whilst Percy buoyed the other end. Diamond Jim seized either side of the key’s head and rotated it in the giant lock. They watched the two fifteen-hundred-ton gates drawing together, now all knowing, that the key could not be removed when the gates were open. Once sealed, they saw him extracting the metre-long platinum key and placing it on top of the gate. Next, they watched him wedging in the crowbar, tethering the rope around it, and tying the other end around the centre of the key’s shimmering cut-outs. DJ lowered it groundward, using the friction of the top of the gate, to ensure it landed delicately. Any damage to its teeth’s integrity may cause it not to unlock the other door. They grasped an end each — the solid platinum key was quite heavy. Small-framed Straughn struggled to cover the distance from the gates to the depository entrance, requiring a five-minute reprieve. Once they arrived, he sat perspiring in the shade of an enormous stone statue, while burly-built truck mechanic, Harry Murdoch, assisted Diamond Jim in inserting it into the lock. They turned it clockwise. The mechanism clicked. They twisted the ring.
Jacinta held out her arm to quell their eagerness. “Be careful where you place your feet, everybody, and keep your eyes peeled. We don’t want to have to carry anyone out. Do we?”
Three members shouldered the weather-beaten bronze door. It resisted at first, then slowly opened with a loud squeak. Desert filth and insect-droppings fell all around them, and a musty odorous irritation crept from the blackness. Oil lamps were lit. Water bottles were checked. Jacinta drew her Luger pistols, and the dozen looked sternly at one another’s expressions…
“In the name of historic preservation!” enlightened Rhodes, in a gallant and confident tone. “Keep close behind me, stay together and for Christ’s sake, keep your wits about you. If any of you notice anything remotely untoward, shout out. Is that understood?” They all nodded. Her eyes engaged with Johannes. “Stay with me darling, until we make a discovery. Then, you and Percival can take the key to open the Magumembo Gates and bring the trucks in. There’s little point in us getting too excited until we are certain there is a reason to be. It appears fairly obvious, that the key can only be extracted from either lock when the barricade is closed, so only one can be open at a time. We won’t know for sure unless we test it right now. Does that make sense, Jim?”
“Perfect sense, my love!” he said, holding her at bay, eyes planted straight into hers. “I am so happy for you at this moment, Jacinta darling. I know exactly how much this means to you.”
Before entering they tried to extract the massive key, without success. The door was heaved shut and the key gradually withdrawn. Jacinta and Johannes nodded to each other. Her theory was correct — though dangerous, they would have to explore the vault for an hour or so with the door sealed behind them whilst he retrieved the logistics trucks. They entered the labyrinth. The dark internal surrounds typified what a person’s imagination would dream up when picturing a thousand-year-old burial chamber — be it bodies or treasure that is concealed within. Sheer stone walls, inscribed with words similar to those on the door, reached from floor to ceiling. The cobweb-covered walls were damp and oily looking. A strange smell of death mixed with ammonia could not be avoided. The group edged forward, in single file, past wooden stakes as thick as a man’s forearm; each with an impaled human skull atop. The stone floor was littered with human skeletal remains, which appeared to be lined up in sacrificial order. The glinting tips of hundreds of Assegai spears hung off every wall.
“Do you think those poor sods’ possible demise was from the curse, yar? or are they the descendants of the Rivombo who perished en masse?”
Jacinta pondered. “It’s difficult to tell. When I do a study of them, we will know more.”
They crossed a bridge and rounded several corners, and there it was, shining under the dim glow of their lamps, but unmistakable in its silvery lustre. A trove of magnanimous proportion, from floor to ceiling, stacked like crude miniature roof tiles.
“Magnificent!” exclaimed Jacinta, stare locked wide apart. “This is what we’ve waited over two years to feast our eyes upon. Back you go, Jim. See you soon.” They kissed.
Minutes later she heard the bronze door slamming shut.
From the top of the gates, Diamond Jim began hauling the platinum key up after Percival had tied it securely from where he stood, twenty metres below. A confused Percival watched, as the Dutchman, instead of resting it on top of the gate, in preparation of his accomplice climbing the rope to assist with its insertion, he lowered it down the other side. Next, he disappeared down the rope leaving it there for when he would return…
“What’s going on?” yelled the dumbfounded archaeologist, but to no avail. “This wasn’t part of the arrangement!”
On the outside, Van der Meer extracted a small mirror and commenced deflecting the sun’s rays, using Morse Code, towards the distant binoculars. He could still hear Percival’s faint shoutings for twenty minutes after his real companions arrived to pick him up. They loaded the precious key into the well-travelled truck and drove to the foothills, to their well-secluded camp. His seventeen associates, looking like desert pirates, were sitting around on director’s chairs. A quiet smokeless fire smouldered beneath several cooking pots. Whisky bottles were crashed together in merriment.
An unattractive bearded Bolshevik descendant, Vladimir Matkovic, crunched Johannes with a bear hug as he leapt from the military-looking vehicle. The driver and another fair-haired man with deep-set eyes carried the key. They sat with the others to discuss the next move.
Although he was the group’s leader, Vladimir’s immaculate words came gently, not overly rushed. He was a man with a lukewarm attitude, but his eyes commanded attention and respect. “So, my Netherlands colleague, it has been years since we last spoke. Tell me, what exactly are we dealing with here?”
“Doctor Jacinta Rhodes does not suspect a thing, yar. Together we unlocked the codes and discovered this magnificent key. It alone would be worth a fortune. It opens the gates and the vault door. Only one can ever remain open at a time, yar. The bullion of platinum is intact, in a tomb-like fortress. A few minutes inside, in plain sight. The expedition team are inside the tomb as well.”
“Terrific work, you scoundrel. I knew you were the one who could secure her trust!” said Vladimir, in his strong Russian accent. “It will be worth this arduous slog through the wilderness. I am so very proud of you. We must share a vodka immediately!” He turned to the blond man who was smoking a pipe. “Demetriou, please, some of our finest for comrade Van der Meer!”
“What about the others, Vlad, who are still trapped inside?” asked Diamond Jim.
“Well it looks like their fate is in our hands then, doesn’t it?”
Johannes clasped the stout glass of clear vodka. “Oh yar. But do we go and get them now, it’s mid-afternoon? They only have enough oil for those lamps for a few hours. And, the lamps, yar, are stealing their air by the minute!” He was thinking about the skeleton-littered floor.
Vladimir Matkovic gave his beard a rub, uttering through a controlled laugh. “I think it will be best to leave it until morning, let them sweat on it for a while. Some air will be entering. I am sure the clever Rivombo people would’ve had that covered.”
Johannes stared into the fire with an enraptured but concerned frown…
Inside the dark damp vault, Jacinta began to goggle with a similarly captivated stare, when confronted by the opulence in precious metal. Her Gypsy eyes lit up like a pair of greedy sapphires as her fingers fondled in disbelief. Her hand held the oil lamp close to the cold, grey, metal slabs. By the second, her demeanour appeared to drastically alter, and her fellow scientists feared their leader had contracted platinum fever.
“We must take it… take it all… fill the trucks!” she shouted through the wobbling glow. “Jim will be back soon with the key to open the blockade.”
“Don’t be foolish, Jacinta! Have you gone mad?” replied Murdoch. “Remember what our mission is all about. And what about the curse?”
She laughed. “Not mad, just realistic! This is just sitting here for no reason. Think about your salaries. They are a pittance, by comparison to what we could carry out of here in our trucks!”
Harry Murdoch argued back, “Do not jeopardise the trip by gluttony. If you overload them, and the trucks break down, we are done for. Africa’s bush will show little mercy for greed, and you can’t eat or drink this stuff!”
Jacinta replies, “I am willing to take any risk. Let’s face it, the whole expedition has been a risk… and you took that.”
Mutterings of realization began brewing amongst the awestruck individuals. They began picking up the hefty chunks of platinum, whilst discussing their paltry few-hundred-dollar-a-year incomes. But eventually, they all agreed to steal a realistic amount of the riches…
As they set to work loading the plates of metal by the door, Harry suspects a rat. “Why is Jim taking so long? Wasn’t he and Professor Straughn merely opening the gates, to start bringing the trucks in, with our supplies?”
“Don’t worry Harry, he’s completely trustworthy,” replied Jacinta — her hand resting against his leather vest. “We are bonded by love and mutual respect. He won’t be too long.”
But Jim does not return, and the lamps are rapidly chewing up the oxygen. Tension mounts. Tempers flare. Accusations fly and time passes. They realise that there is something wrong and Jim has vanished, along with the key to their freedom. The exhausted team decide to extinguish the lamps to conserve their precious paraffin oil and see if any daylight is entering. A dust-filled beam pours through a tiny hole at the vault’s highest point. It is enough to keep them alive in the dark. They desperately needed to sleep.
“Tomorrow we shall devise our alternative plan,” said Rhodes, with confidence. “Perhaps something has happened to DJ, and we have gotten it all wrong. Little else can be done right now. Do we all agree?” All did.
It was a long and uncomfortable night — broken only by a match flame, lighting one of the near-empty lamps, in the morning. Under the solitary glow, mechanic Harry Murdoch inspects the lock and gradually discovers a way to possibly reverse the mechanism. It is worth a chance…
He sets to work, improvising with smaller pieces of platinum, as picking devices. The giant tumblers finally align. They heave the door. A cheer arose as the daylight floods in. They storm through but Jim is still nowhere in sight. The trucks have not been brought in, but the crowbar is protruding from the top of the enormous gates, with the rope still visibly hanging over the other side. They commence loading the proportion of platinum at the top of the ramp, in preparation, just in case he returns, but Jacinta now recognizes that she has been double-crossed. Suddenly, her keen ears detect the sound of trucks mustering outside the Magumembo Gates…
Johannes and Demetriou use the rope to climb to the top. They haul the key up and hoist it into position. They turn it and scale their way back down, as the huge gates parted. The clattering noise they make is horrendous. Diamond Jim has heard it before. All eight of their own trucks, plus the seven expedition ones, filed in. The scene is perfectly silent. An amount of bullion, the size of twenty tea chests is sitting outside the opened vault door, waiting to be loaded. Everyone is dead, except for Doctor Rhodes. She is nowhere to be seen.
The eighteen men stood facing the mesmerizing pile of stacked plates and bleeding corpses. The group, led by Head of Investigations, Vladimir Matkovic, are disguised Interpol Field Agents who have been assigned to save the platinum from being stolen by Romanian, Jacinta Rhodes, who has been an international artefact thief, just like her great-grandfather, for her entire adult life.
Matkovic is cautious. His eyes begin to roam the area searching for an inkling. There is not a breath of wind, nor a hint of movement. “Careful gentlemen. She’s still inside the chamber, I’d say.”
“What should we do, Vlad? Should we put the bullion back, yar?”
“No!” a female voice shouts from over their shoulders. She’d been behind the enormous stone statue where Percival had sought shade. “First raise your hands. Then, load as much as you can onto my truck, you lying bastard. I suppose you think you and your brigand friends are gonna get your filthy hands on my bullion?” Two fully loaded Luger pistols were aimed at the group. “Now, turn around very slowly.”
They inched around — hands raised.
“Don’t be a fool, Jacinta! We are Interpol, yar, not thieves. You’ll never get away with it!” shouted Van der Meer, tilting his leather hat back. “You’ll die out there!”
“Really? Don’t move a muscle Jim. Well, I believe differently… and I’ll shoot anyone dead who doesn’t cooperate. Just to prove I mean business…” She pointed one of her 9mm Lugers at Vlad’s chest and shot him at near-point-blank range in the heart. “You will be next lover boy!”
“Load it yourself.”
“Tut-tut, handsome!” She shoots a second Interpol Policeman. “Now get at it, Jim. I never did tell you what the real final clue was.”
“Oh yar, Doctor Rhodes, and what exactly was that?”
“IN IPSO VITA REALI FUR. ABSTULIT A VOBIS IN TEMPORE.”
He snarled, “Still clueless, yar, darling!”
Jacinta translated, “The real thief is life itself. It has robbed you of your time!” she laughed. “Because you are going to be here forever. But that won’t be very long. Unless of course, the Rivombo return!”
The relic hunter’s truck was loaded with sufficient supplies to get her to civilisation, and millions of dollars’ worth of platinum. Next, Jacinta methodically shoots holes in all the vehicles’ radiators, leaving them all stranded.
“Great-granddaddy, you would be so proud of me!” she cackled raucously while driving away. Rhodes had gotten away with another raid. Now, the only thing between her, and a life of staggering wealth was the gruelling length of the mighty Limpopo River…
It was January 1934 and the temperature had soared into the excruciating. The non-stop distant rumblings of jungle drums, beating their rhythmical pattern, overshadowed every sound. Eager young relic hunter — Jacinta Rhodes, couldn’t believe her luck when she stood at the Gates of Magumembo, observing the sheer cliff faces, deep within southern Africa. The cerulean sky stretched endlessly above, punctuated only by five small clouds quickly evaporating in the oppressive heat. Her distinctive silhouette, with legendary desert khakis and trademark sable fedora hat, stood motionless. Lodged between a giant thirty-metre-wide gorge, with inch-perfect tolerances, sat two enormous solid gates. These gates held a treasure behind them, according to the ancient map she was holding in her hand. Guided by the elaborate messages, inscribed upon eight ancient papyrus scrolls, they had finally arrived!
Though a Romanian national, her father was a British sailor who’d married a woman from Bucharest at the turn-of-the-century. Born a year later, the unfairly attractive young adventurer was a living fireball of beauty and passion, with a face of blazing loveliness and a Mediterranean temperament to match it. Her right-hand man for the expedition, a Dutch-born stentorian speaker, Johannes Van der Meer, couldn’t help himself — but he did, anyway… The pair had become lovers — thrust together for the extensive journey and galvanized by each other’s charm. He couldn’t resist her romantic Gypsy magnetism — she couldn’t resist his handsome ruggedness.
For Jacinta Rhodes, though, this story began many years prior…
After settling in the central mountains, a millennium earlier, a tribal descendant of the early Tsonga people known as Rivombo, had stumbled across a magnificent greyish-white metal. This metal was platinum, and the Rivombo settlers had mined the ore and discovered a method of smelter for the dense metal’s very high melting point. To these natives, the majesty of this white gold was far higher than its modern-day monetary value. To them, it represented tribal supremacy and everlasting strength. They wore it around their necks and wrists into battle, believing the shimmering silver metal would protect their spirits and guide them into the afterlife if slain. The success of this tribe, in battle, had spread their bloodlines far and wide throughout southern Africa. The secret mine, where they extracted the rich ore had never been disclosed. Kept secret also, was the ancient stone vault which stored their reserves, high in the mountains.
The secret of these riches was not leaked until the fifteenth century. In 1498, during a search for African riches, namely spices and gold, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer and once Viceroy of India, had been one of the first Europeans to see the mouth of the Limpopo River. His tiny 27-metre ship, a carrack called São Gabriel of 178 tons, anchored there. A crew had sailed up the river and met with the Sultan of Mozambique. This turned to hostility when suspicion of their true objective was revealed. Vasco da Gama absconded with his life and knowledge. His scribe created the eight scrolls of secrecy, which exposed the whereabouts of the treasure trove. He never returned — his destiny remained in India. Over the many decades that followed, several attempts to procure the bullion have resulted in dismal failure and death, following resistance by the Rivombo descendants. Without the map or scrolls, would-be treasure hunters were completely in the dark.
The legend, according to the scrolls, had described in Portuguese Latin, the route to the discovery of a rare and beautiful, silvery-white, precious metal being worn by the natives. Luckily for Jacinta, these had been illegally procured by her artefact-seeking great-grandfather during one of his many trips to Lisbon. The hunt was on.
The scrolls she had. The map she had. The treasure’s secret she wanted to unveil.
Each scroll had a puzzling question written in an old form of Portuguese. She was fluent in Swahili, Hebrew, and also Bantu, which are widely spoken in Africa… and fortunately for Miss Rhodes, she also held a master’s degree for this ancient language known as Vulgaris Latin, achieved at The Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iași. This skill made her one of only a handful of people in the world capable of deciphering the cryptic questions.
It had been an epic journey to this point. Africa in its rugged central core is slow to negotiate. In 1934, it was even slower…
After two thousand kilometres of rock-strewn landscape, their seven old 1920s Ford AA trucks were terrain-battered and tired. When the expedition started, there were ten such light logistical trucks. After two broken axles, three shredded gearboxes and one seized motor, the mechanic, Harry “Helping Hands” Murdoch had cannibalized the wrecks for salvage purposes. The metal skeletons of the remnants now lay in the burning heat, to be pecked clean by human vultures. Fuel was scavenged from outposts and the occasional dirt-runway airport. They hunted wild game and gathered indigenous fruit to supplement their crude supplies. Water was sourced from the river.
For the last two years, they had travelled through the rugged Highveld Plateau, following the north-east flowing zigzagging path of the river, but a mistake had been made. Miss Rhodes’ attempts to interpret the clues, for the whereabouts of the gates, on the second last scroll didn’t correlate with the map, and she had guessed. The map had indicated a turnoff from the Limpopo River, but she had misread the instructions, taking the much wider Mokolo River. The expedition’s doctor, Louis Jean Voîtures, had also died of malaria three months ago. The loss of such a vital member of their expedition, and having to backtrack, had been costly in time and morale was now at an all-time low. The roads they had to negotiate were nothing more than red dirt pathways, beaten wide by the constant file of elephants and other beasts, wandering along the broad shoreline. But feisty Jacinta was determined to succeed.
They had to return to the fork at the Mokolo and Limpopo Rivers. The term Old Man River personifies the Limpopo beautifully. The ancient body of slow-moving water has glistened out here in the African sun for aeons. The source was in the high lands where the Marico and Crocodile Rivers began. For hundreds of kilometres, the Limpopo and Marico Rivers ran side by side. A confused interconnected patchwork of water and landmass, almost too difficult to navigate had cost them vital time as well as supplies. Their journey had become fraught with many dangers. As if the extreme weather, wild animals and remoteness were not enough to contend with… there were also the native tribal warriors. Out here, running from the Assegai is a way of life. These range-weapon spears, used by the Zulu and Nguni people, since time began, are as mysterious as they are deadly.
Now, this courageous woman stood at the doorstep of victory…
Jacinta had made up for her error, by guiding the expedition’s remaining contingent of eight males and four females, using a mysterious sixth sense. She knew her destiny and followed her trusted hunches. The others had no choice, but to believe in her… tolerances had been strained to their maximum. Now here, a fever of bristling enthusiasm twitched each adventurer’s heartstrings. The weary dozen comrades were staring at the immense bronze gates, fabricated from Benin bronze nearly a thousand years ago. At a staggering twenty metres tall and fifteen wide, each gate must have weighed over one thousand five hundred tons. The five hinges securing them, each the size of a man but twice as wide, alone would have weighed several tons. There were no handles, nor locks to speak of. It looked impregnable. Not another soul was in sight. It was a non-baleful but somehow unnatural sensation. Jacinta’s sweat-soaked felt hat hung from its cord on her back, her eyes strained on the text.
“So, what does it say, yar?” barked Johannes, suffocating in his own excitement. His big hand nearly tearing the fragile document from her grasp.
“Quiet, Diamond Jim,” she replied, using his preferred heroic explorer’s title. “I am having trouble reading the last eight words.”
“Thought you would’ve had it memorized by now, yar my darling!” he laughed, placing an arm around her tiny waist.
“Jim, this document is over five hundred years old. This form of Vulgar Latin is no longer used. You have seen it on many occasions. The handwriting is poor and has severely faded. There are some letters missing. Believe me, I am doing my best. Even through my magnifier, it is difficult.”
“I helped you solve the other clues which brought us here. We were all counting on your genius Doctor Rhodes!” His sarcastic wink was both swashbuckling and irritating.
“Alright, mister cleverness — help me with it. To my best ability, I think it says; RESPONDEO TALE SIT IN EJUS SINGULIS DOCUMENTIS CONECTITUR NUMERUS PLACE.”
“Yar! Which exactly translates to…?” Diamond Jim had no dialect knowledge, outside of Dutch and English, the latter by which they always used, to converse to one another.
“Roughly it means; EACH DOCUMENT HAS ONE ANSWER IN ITS NUMBERED PLACE. But that makes very little sense to me right now. I have read all the documents hundreds of times and translated every word. To begin with, there are no such numbers inscribed.”
Bamboozled also, Johannes stared at the greenish-golden gates in all their vastness, in search of another clue. There were heavily eroded engravings and markings embossed on the towering solid bronze gates. Like the twelve apostles who sought to represent the fundamental faculties that embody our divine nature, the eleven other faces joined with his and feasted their eyes over the huge stockade. The gates offered nothing, creating more questions than answers. The towering rock faces beside each gate were attractive, in their own way, with their jagged relief of multi-coloured faces. Eroding words of wisdom were engraved by the Rivombo ancestors on the smoothened surface in huge metre-high letters. Up close, Jacinta translated their thought-provoking incitements to regale the rest. The team sat in the shade of a sprawling Acacia tree and inspected the rolls of papyrus, looking for an overlooked answer. They pondered until nightfall.
They had set up camp by a convenient loop in the river some distance away.
That night Jacinta couldn’t sleep. The humidity was unbearable and the air, thick with insects, made it almost impossible to breathe. She sat in her tent with the oil lamp slowly burning, as was the riddle in her mind. Hours passed by with the relic hunter, still wearing her boots, eventually dozing off with the collective of scrolls across her chest. She dreamed most of the remainder of the night, then, just before light, burst awake, stirred by the solution…
“Of course,” she said, fumbling to place them back in order. She refilled her oil lamp, relit it, and looked at the very first word on the first document and read it aloud. “CLAVIS.” It had never made sense as to why it was there in the first place. Then on the second scroll, she inspected the second word and sounded it aloud. “EST.” Then the third from the third. “INTUS.” …and so on. Miss Rhodes scribbled the words down in their respective order on her notebook and said them out loud. After reading the scrolls on numerous occasions she had been mystified by these out-of-place words but not thought much about them. Now they made perfect logic, but did they?
Diamond Jim rushed inside her tent. “What are you uttering?”
She repeated them to him. “CLAVIS EST INTUS SOLDANO MOZAMBIQUE CONJUNCTUS EST CLYPEUS.” Her tired face looked a shadow of its former Romanian splendour, but it was forgivable, given the hour. “I have solved the final clue!” She showed him how she had figured out where each word of the phrase came from. “And it converts to, THE BOLT or KEY IS INSIDE THE SULTAN OF MOZAMBIQUE’S SHIELD.”
“You astonish me, I am lost in admiration.” He kissed her filth-ridden face. “Considering the fact that he died over four centuries ago — now all we need to find out is what the heck to do next!”
They stepped out from her tent, to be greeted by the morning’s awakening sunlight; its rays creeping over the mountain range behind them. Jacinta circled Jim as he lit a cigarette to think, his back was to the Gates of Magumembo. They were joined by the others who had woken to their dawn chatter. Van der Meer rubbed his ample jaw, shook his head, and said, “I got nothing. How about you?”
She looked in his eyes and said, “What if I’m wrong, again? Perhaps it is not spurious!”
“Is that more Latin, yar?” he asked, exhaling a cloud of spent tobacco. “It’s not like you to be wrong. How unusual.”
“No, silly it means genuine. What if the whole thing is a wild goose chase?”
“Then I guess we’ve had a good time becoming this wretchedly filthy, yar?”
Then she saw it…
As the sunlight wandered its way from the two dividing clifftops to the valley floor, filtered through his cloud of smoke it reflected a perfect image of a gigantic shield-carrying warrior etched on the left cliff face. On the right was a female. The words of wisdom had been carved below their feet. In this hue of light, they were obvious, but almost before she could mention it, the increasing brightness began dissolving the carved relief’s shadows.
“Look!” she blurted with a smile as bright as the very sun itself. Jacinta’s finger pointed over his shoulder. “Side-by-side, on the escarpments either side of the gates. And if I’m not incorrect…” she hesitated, noticing a glint at the very summit. “There is something shining up there.”
Within the hour, Johannes had scaled to the top, using his bare hands. He stood on a narrow ledge holding onto a deliberate metal hook. Through his mind passed the words; Those ingenious devils, they thought of everything.
The contingent stared aloft as he vertically withdrew an enormous platinum key, over a metre long, from a cavity at the top of the carved shield. The magnificently fabricated piece of engineering had an intricate zigzag pattern of ridges and notches down the blade, each the size of his hand. Its circular head, about the size of a large dinner plate, bore an engraving of the Sultan. This was the bit that Jacinta had noticed when the sun struck it. With every ounce of strength he had left, Jim held it aloft. They cheered with vigour.
Harry “Helping Hands” Murdoch cupped his palms and yelled from below, “Can you see where it might fit, to open the gates?”
Diamond Jim pointed to where the two massive gates met. From up here, roughly one hundred metres above ground, he could tell they were easily wide enough to walk out on. At the meeting point, he could just make out a slot. He shouted back. “I can see the lock, but it will take two of us to get it across. Come on up and help me Hands.”
Percival Straughn, a demure archaeologist with the team shouted, “What can you see on the other side of the gates, DJ?”
“Two gargantuan chains fixed to the gates’ centres. And, what looks like a fortress or at least the remains of one. There’s a set of steps leading to a doorway and thousands of bones. They appear to be human.”
Harry Murdoch packed a tin of grease in his knapsack and steadily scaled the vertical cliff. The two men precariously wandered out along the top of the gates, carrying the large heavy metal key, twenty metres up from the rocky ground below. The entry point was smeared with grease and the key was tilted to vertical and lowered into place. The tip fed slowly in, tight with the tarnish of grit, built up over time in the lock’s grooves. The two men pressed it down and heaved the head clockwise. They could hear the tumblers meshing inside the enormous barrel.
“Such technology, for so long ago,” said Harry. “It is fantastic.”
“What is fantastic, Hands, is the fact that it still works, yar!” replied Jim, hearing it click home.
At that moment, they had to brace as the gates gradually groaned open. Both men witnessed the taut chains winding back, their unseen ends feeding into the rock face nearby.
Murdoch barked over the noise. “Must be an intricate spring, pulley, and counterweight system. Ingenious. Let’s turn it back and see.”
They wrenched the key back to its original position. The gates stopped, then began to return shut once more. With an agreed nod, they turned it back to clockwise. The Gates of Magumembo opened to their full extent. The excited members hurled a rope over the top to enable each man to climb down, against the other’s weight. The twelve rushed towards the giant steps to prepare to funnel through the doorway — their mouths watering at the prospects of what lay ahead. The fifty steps led down a corridor about the width of a half-decent road. Everything was carved from stone. By 8:30 am, the sun’s heat was intense. Below, in the shadows, a large closed bronze door could be seen. An inscription was just visible at this distance. At which point, Jacinta, still puzzled as to where any inhabitants might have been, went first.
During the entire expedition, not one solitary member had noticed the party of seventeen, following barely an hour in their wake. This group, which had its own wealth agenda, stayed just out of sight every step of the way. They had traced Jacinta’s mistake like a shadow of hungry scorpions in a desert. Right at this moment, a host of powerful binoculars were watching from the foothills, their weapons cocked and ready.
Our daring anecdote will continue…
by Stephen James
In the early part of December, here in the small town of Rigolet on the St Lawrence Seaway side of Canada, your breath practically freezes before it leaves your mouth. Rigolet is in the province of Labrador, which lies to the east of Quebec — a mere handful of kilometres below 55° latitude. Daylight hours are short. Unquestionably a beautiful setting and nestled in a sheltered cove, on the banks of Hamilton Inlet — gateway to gorgeous Lake Melville, the once fur-trader outpost of Rigolet is the most southerly Inuit community in the world. The modern era’s population hovers around the three-hundred to three-hundred and forty mark, depending upon how many visitors stay after the magnetism of its beauty is replaced by the repulsion of unbearable chill. There are no main roads leading into this tiny town, in fact, the only land-based accessibility is via a web of snowmobile trails. By sea, it is connected seasonally via a coastal ferry from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. A tiny airport sits just out of town. Although there are still coniferous trees surrounding the village, a few kilometres northeast into Hamilton Inlet, the terrain changes drastically to a sub-arctic tundra. The fifty-fifth parallel has few sympathies for the timorous…
First established in the year 1735 by a French-Canadian maritime merchant, explorer, and seigneur around the fur seal industry, Rigolet’s remoteness was its own Achilles heel for preventing rapid development. These early times were hard, and the indigenous people of the land were meek but protective. As a result, many of today’s families in Rigolet are descendants of European settlers and the Labrador Inuit. In this town, everybody knows your name.
One such person was thirty-eight-year-old Marjorie Vitello-St Claire. This woman may not have been the most beautiful woman in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but her heart certainly could have been. She was well proportioned and kept her jet-black hair long. Her accent had a French flavour — her looks had an Italian one. Marjorie always hated her first name and had even considered changing it to something far more exotic, like Marjella or Marjonique; to keep in tone with her stand-out surname. But out here in the snow-lands, it didn’t really matter all that much. Being one of only five per cent of the population who wasn’t an Inuk — I guess she felt fairly diverse or exotic anyway. From birth, Marjorie had lived here in this outpost of the Canadian wilderness with her mother and father who had forged an alternative lifestyle since the early 70s. He’d taught in the primary school where young Maj had learned to read, write and become multi-lingual in French, English, and several of the native Eskimo tongues known as Inuktitut, used by the locals. Her mother once worked at the local co-op store — both parents died in an avalanche five years ago. It took over a week and a party of sixty-two townspeople to locate their frozen remains and buried snowmobiles. Always having been a hard worker, a trait she adopted from her father, Maj had not taken a sick-leave day from work for eighteen years. The two weeks she was absent, when she had to find and lay to rest her parents, was naturally considered as bereavement leave. Her boss, Gerald Struper had often told her to take a break now and then, perhaps go to visit one of the big cities like Toronto or Montreal. Marjorie would always answer; “Big cities are for people to hide in! Gerry, I have nothing to hide. You knew my father and you also knew his motto. ‘If you can still walk… you can still work!’ My evenings and weekends are for quiet pleasure.”
The stalwart stood by what she said. She’d worshipped her father and lived by his code of ethics. She had retained his name and sported it proudly, as a badge of honour. Marjorie’s world had come apart on that cold January day when their fractured distress message came through, then faded out completely. Time, as always, moves quietly on…
The tough intelligent woman had only ever travelled as far away as Happy Valley-Goose Bay, roughly one-hundred kilometres due west. This journey took several hours by winding snowmobile trail, or five to six on the once-a-week MV Northern Ranger ice-breaking coastal ferry, season and weather permitting. Marjorie had a younger cousin, Emily Kutak-St Claire, who lived in this nearby Canadian military airbase township. At eight-thousand people, to Marjorie, this was a huge bustling town. Four times every year she would visit for a day, by catching the ferry, then, drive her Ski-Doo back home via the wilderness trails. She even knew her way in the poor sub-Arctic light. Many are the times, dissident Maj would overextend her return snowmobile trip, to stop and observe The Great Northern Lights — arriving late, but invigorated, by their magnificence. She would only do this if the climate was placid and kind. In contrary, Emily showed no interest in Rigolet. After her uncle and aunt passed away, the tiny hidden hamlet held very little interest for her; a senior flight instructor at 5 Wing Goose Bay for the Royal Canadian Air Force. She had married into the forces and lived by its motto “Working Together” thus, gave it her everything. Emily often commented about meeting Maj’s husband, John and why he avoided her. Marjorie’s reply was always, “If you wish to know him, you’ll have to come to Rigolet, cousin, he’s as stubborn as you are.” Faithful Marjorie held little hope for this to ever eventuate — but did not mind.
On the most recent visit to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, in September 2018, Marjorie had to make the roundtrip completely by snowmobile. The thirty-year-old-plus MV Northern Ranger, which was due for decommissioning at season’s end, had been stranded by mechanical problems at Makkovik, on Newfoundland’s northern coast. Season upon freezing season, she had hauled her passengers and cargo with tireless esteem, in workhorse fashion, where lesser ships would fail miserably. Like a grand old lady, she lay proudly with a broken gearbox, in the subzero water, still commanding the full respect of her faithful twenty-one-strong crew. They stayed aboard for three days, till she once again groaned into action. This inconvenience to the community cost valuable time and money, in this highly susceptible municipality. In the same vein as the old ice-breaker, dogged mainstay Marjorie, navigated her snow scooter towards her cousin Emily’s house unaccompanied. Highly unrecommended is the practice of solo travel of any kind, especially when some of the surrounding slopes are reaching that critical 40° angle, which is what causes these icy landslides. A warning had sounded on the radio for all travellers to be careful. But this was one stubborn Arctic mule who had made it clear to all that she owed her cousin a visit. This particular Saturday morning fell on 15th September, which was Emily’s birthday — and simply couldn’t be missed. After saying goodbye to John, next, she crouched in front of her pure white miniature Samoyed dog, to pat him good-bye. “Now listen here to me, Igloo. Take care of everything whilst I’m away, and don’t you go chewing on any of the furniture, okay!” He was curled up in a ball on his mat with his black nose extended — resembling exactly his namesake.
The four-year-old ball of fluff did not like early starts to his day. He accepted his pat, poked out his pink tongue, whined his acceptance of her instructions, and went back to sleep.
“Be like that if you must,” she said, smiling, “there are some treats in your bowl for later. And I have filled three water dishes. I love you.” Igloo reopened his eyes and blinked away some dust. He huffed through his nostrils — because the affectionate dog did not enjoy being without her.
She started off at daybreak and headed for the trails. Hours later, Emily and her husband Phillipe, met her at the Birch Brook Nordic Ski Club at nearby Gosling Lake. After hearing that she would have to do the marathon effort, for what was now the sixth time, this was considerably closer geographically, therefore gave them more time together. The other five occasions were due to it being mid-winter, which is non-seasonal for the ferryboat. By the time Marjorie had arrived, her cousin and Phillipe had finished seven ski-runs each and were ready for lunch. It had just finished snowing and the sun had materialized. They enjoyed a feast in the mist at Trapper’s Cabin Bar & Grill, catching up on all the local Goose-Valley gossip. The group spoke for several hours but Marjorie’s frown seemed to linger between discussions. Her eyes continuously glancing down towards her smartphone at the photograph of her handsome Samoyed dog. He was the screensaver…
“You don’t seem to look very happy Marjorie. Is everything alright?” asked Emily, her hand cupped on top of her cousin’s. “You appear as if you’re waiting on a call or something. No problems at work or anything? How is the old crew from school going these days?”
“No, no, thank you for asking, Em’—” Their eyes reconnected. “Everyone in Rigolet is doing just fine. I am just a little concerned for Igloo. He frets whenever I leave him.”
“John is there for him,” interrupted Phillipe. “Why don’t you simply give him a call? You could ask how the little fella is doing!”
Maj grinned. “I might do just that. Do you mind?” Both sets of shoulders shrugged, and both heads nodded, as they finished off their lunch.
At that moment a newsflash interrupted the music which was accompanying their meal. It mentioned that a severe snowstorm coming from the west was about to strike the vicinity. The announcer began alerting all cross-country skiers to stay close by for at least six hours.
“Maybe you should stay overnight with us, Marjorie,” Phillipe offered. “You can always return in the morning… after it settles down. Why don’t you let him know right now?”
Marjorie stood up and wheeled away from the table — her fingers slipped out of her gloves then swiped her phone into life. She paced around muttering into the device for a few minutes. The other two finished their meals and prepared to escort her back to their Four-wheel-drive. There would be just enough room to fit Maj’s ageing Ski-Doo in its rear, if they stored their skis on the roof rack. She pressed the logoed end call button and turned to face their smiles.
“See you in March, kiddo! Unless of course… you come to Rigolet for Christmas this year, that is!” said Marjorie, giving her young cousin a hug. “Got to head back I’m afraid. Haven’t got time for a lengthy explanation.” Her eyes flicked at the outdoor speaker.
“Are you crazy?” answered Emily.
“No, I mean it. Come for Christmas this time.”
“That is not what I meant, Maj. I was referring to the snowstorm, you silly thing!”
“Old Bess will outrun it. I’ve had Hiern Kuitkon from the local service garage tweak her up a bit.” She walked over to her 2001 model MXZ 700. Its battle-scarred black faring and bodywork proudly highlighting as the backdrop for the caricature white wolf her father had painted on it. “I’ve had this reliable dog up to over 200 kph. On the flat of course!”
“Even more crazy!” spiked Emily. “Okay, okay, we might come to Rigolet this year… if you stay alive! But no promises though. You do understand, cus’ — work and everything.”
“Of course,” she replied, but had little faith. “See ya!” She strapped-up her helmet.
Marjorie wasted no time, the Ski-Doo fired into action. It disappeared from sight in seconds. She had no intention of doing that speed, but it was nice to know her machine was capable. After two hours she had forgotten all about the newsflash — preferring to enjoy nature’s pictorial gifts.
Suddenly it all changed…
The thundering roar came down the slope faster than a speeding freight train. It resembled a bleached pyroclastic flow. Marjorie twisted the grip off the MXZ’s throttle to extract maximum power, then realized that in her hast to leave, she had not refuelled. More speed meant a thirstier engine, but the dice had to be rolled. Marjorie’s heart was bursting from her chest, as she glanced over her shoulder, at the metres-deep avalanche chasing her tail. Above her engine’s roar, her ears clearly heard the sound of giant conifer trees popping like matchsticks. The strong memory of her parents’ tragedy began hammering her mind. Bess quickly reached 190 kph — but the gaining wall of snow was not far away. It was coming from her left at an angle and she could see a steep uphill ridge in front of her. On its slanting face, the trees were more plentiful, meaning a slower pathway for the Ski-Doo but possibly less momentum for the charging snow-slide. Her emotions were in tatters. Her body was perspiring despite the cold. Her brain raced: Do I head for higher ground like mum and dad tried — or do I risk turning right to go around where the gradient is steeper?
She knew, if the snowmobile ran out of fuel on that downslope, it would mean Christmas for her this year would be spent with her mum and dad. “Gotta go for the higher ground!” she shouted inside her helmet. Marjorie weaved upward through the trees with needle-threading precision. The vehicle was on fumes. It began to splutter. “C’mon Old Bess, don’t die on me now!” she pleaded, rocking it from side-to-side to milk the last few drops from her. “Just a few more hundred metres, please!” Bess conked out and Marjorie turned to face the terror. She now knew she’d made the correct decision, but just how correct was it?
Within three minutes of the earth-quaking racket catching her, the snow had covered her neck-deep but swooshed on down to her right taking the steeper route. Black Bess was completely covered. Marjorie hauled herself free and swiped her cellphone to life. She gasped, “Help me please!”
A thick Eskimo accent replied, “Hiern Kuitkon speaking. Is that you Marj Vitello-St Claire?”
“It is, Hiern. I’m afraid I’ve had a very close call. The old girl saved me… but she’s buried in the ice, and I am a bit lost. Can you get a GPS bearing off my phone? I think I am somewhere near Silver Horse Pass. A fair way up the mountain. I’ll try to dig her out, but I’ll need fuel or a tow or…”
“I heard about the avalanche. You’re damned lucky. Be there in less than thirty minutes, Maj. Hold on!”
Hiern Kuitkon kept his word. He arrived with three others and some fuel, to bring her back to town. Although she wasn’t badly hurt, the ordeal had shaken her to the very core. As if nothing had happened, the strong-minded woman fronted for work on the following Monday morning. She played down the trauma to her boss, never even mentioning what had been so important that it had made her leave Trapper’s Cabin Bar & Grill in such a hurry and risk the blizzard.
Once again as it always does, the days moved on…
Gerald Struper had nothing but praise for her but knew little else about the woman — her private life was almost an undisclosed story. He and the townsfolk knew her husband’s name, but few could describe his nature or what he did to earn a living. Whenever their noses poked in her direction, Marjorie would always deflect them answering; ‘John is a very quiet man who needs very little attention. He is productive on the inside and hates crowds. We are kindred spirits. You know — twin flames. Soul mates. In it for life, like the beavers and the whales!’
At night she would often snuggle in front of the warm fireplace clutching a glass of red wine, beside her would always be Igloo, panting gently. A smile would adorn her character-filled face. Her husband’s love letters sitting in a shoebox beside her. He was in the office at the converted fisherman’s shed, which was attached to the far end of the property. From here, in summer, a clear unobstructed view brought the fabulous Hamilton Inlet’s pristine water into perspective. It is a hypnotic vista. Many were the hours that she had spent sitting in the office doing her own form of literature. Her weekend leisure time was usually spent hiking or visiting the Net Loft Museum. Marjorie loved being able to stroll the eight kilometres along one of the longest Boardwalks in North America. All the way to Double Mer Point. She would walk hand-in-hand with her hubby, observing the Humpback and Minke whales breaching in the nearby inlets of these waters.
Each Monday to Friday morning, following breakfast, Marjorie sees herself peeping through the double-glazed glass front window of her ancient fisherman-style home in Wolfrey’s Lakeview Drive. She meets her reflection with a smile before letting go of the curtains, made for her by her mother. Next, she kisses her loving husband goodbye, before venturing out, to face another lengthy day’s work at the Strathcona House Interpretation Centre. He works from home. Her commencement time is 7.00 am sharp and she finishes at 4.00 pm. With a thirty-minute stroll each way for exercise, it means her daily ten-hour routine begins and ends in the dark for the most part of each year. The attractive woman says every time after kissing him goodbye. “It’s only ten hours till happiness—” then adds. “I’ll be home soon, darling.”
She has gone through this mid-week routine, for the entire five years, ever since she became involved with John, subsequently meeting him at the wake after her parent’s funeral back in 2013. He and Igloo had become her saviours, in what was the gloomiest period of her life.
Today was no different. It was 16th December 2018. A hearty breakfast was followed by her favourite brand of coffee — sipped from her favourite mug. The one with a cartoon of a patient at his doctor’s surgery. Beneath it the caption reads; “I’m not that worried, Dr Jingleberry… X-rays always look so negative!”
Marjorie always grins at the joke — as her coffee brightens up her morning. Lunch is prepared and placed inside the snap-seal box which fits so neatly inside her knapsack. She quickly wipes the benchtops and washes the breakfast dishes by hand. The local radio station is barking out a weather report, suggesting an extra layer of clothing because a cold front has moved in overnight and dropped it to minus 20° Celsius, with a wind-chill factor, which by 9.00 am is most likely to push that to minus 35°. Marjorie crinkles her nose through the steam, rising from the sink’s hot water thinking; it is nothing I haven’t endured before — but I may skip my exercise this morning. Perhaps even leave a little later than usual!
Sadly though, the truth remains that this extremely honest and devout woman holds a dark secret, after all… Marjorie Vitello-St Claire is living a lie. She’s a victim of extreme loneliness. There is no loving husband standing beside her — there never has been. Marjorie has been dreaming the same dream almost every night throughout her entire adult life. She carries the façade into her everyday life. She even talks to the fresh air filling that void beside her. Maj’s love letters are written in her own hand. The name John is simply her favourite. Her mother’s hand-me-down bed pillows suffer from the constant crush of her pleading embrace. She even lays the breakfast table for two…
Twenty minutes later, after patting Igloo, Marjorie shouts, “Goodbye sweetheart!” and blows a fake kiss. She walks out her front door — getting bitten by the arctic wind. It slams behind her. “Not another Christmas alone…” she whispers out loud to herself.
A fur-circled face greets her from across the street. It’s a man standing by his front gate. It squeaks shut. The stranger is tall and straight. She has never seen him before. He smiles and waves then says… “It’s only ten hours till happiness.”
Stunned by his echoing words, Marjorie stops in her tracks, then, rushes over to say hello. Her fawn-like eyes welded to his. “Where on Earth did you hear that term?”
“I just made it up, moments ago,” he replied, with a deep Saskatoon timbre. “My name is Johnathan Liberator. I’m a novelist — from near the South Saskatchewan River.” His mitten grasps hold of hers. “Only moved in two weeks ago. I’m looking for a bohemian life. I was considering using it as a title for my latest book. Who are you?”
This man had a warm friendly persona. It matched his deep rich voice.
“Well,” she said, with a grin that could charm a rattlesnake, “I guess you could call me Miss Bohemian!”
He pulled away his fur-lined hood. His jawline was masculine. His eyes were perfect and sincere. “So, is this Miss Bohemian married?”
“Oh no…” she answered, then, reinforced. “Not anymore!”
By Stephen James
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?
by Stephen James
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…
by Stephen James
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?
by Stephen James
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?”
By Stephen James
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…
By Stephen James
When he left the backstreets of Oslo some thirty-plus years ago, Lars Smirkesdrom had no idea of the turnaround his life would be taking. The orphaned child, raised by a widowed Swedish émigré who drove taxis for a living, also gave him her name — calling him Lars after her late husband. Due to low income, they existed in squalor in rented accommodation, as Norway is and always has been, a very expensive country to reside in. He clawed his way through school, only to discover himself back on the streets when poor results left him shy of further tertiary education. Only his English marks were reasonable. The brilliant education system of Norway assists wherever possible, but his flagging results severely thwarted his chances. His mind seemed to be filled with a strange dream dispiriting the boy’s ability to concentrate. However, determined Lars refused to become a failure. After his step-mother’s passing, when at the tender age of sixteen, he made his way across to Bergen, the second largest city, with her dowry of just under five-hundred Kroner. Here on the western coast, Lars eventually took a lowly job at the Fish Me Fishmarket, to commence scrounging his way through night school where he blossomed. Smirkesdrom slept with the stench of fish on a mattress in his boss’s garage. This manual work made him physically strong to match his Nordic box-jaw features. He stood tall and proud, knowing now what his confused child’s mind was all about. With the small amount of leftover Kroner, he purchased books about the North Pole, Antarctica, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. His burning desire to visit these frozen wildernesses accelerated with each book. Smirkesdrom devoured them at the hasty rate that a regular child devours cookies. The man had a steel-trap memory which seemed to remember every word he read. This all occurred during the early 1990’s.
Within six years, Lars had received his master’s degrees in fluvial hydrology, cryosphere modelling, geomorphology, and glaciology at the University of Bergen. In his limited spare time, he had not only climbed all seven mountains surrounding the city of Bergen but also travelled all the way to Skarsvåg, one of the northernmost villages of Norway. It was here where Lars met his future wife, Imogen Aundörsen. She was a Danish solicitor holidaying with her brother — they were married within four months. Here also at Skarsvåg, was where the dogged Norwegian fell in love with his first polar bear. So taken by these massive mammals was he, that animal conservation became yet another string in his multi-talented bow. He also visited the three main Islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, roughly centred on 78.4° north latitude and 20.7° east longitude, to study the Great Northern Lights. Another trip saw him visit the Kodiak Archipelago, to indulge in the huge brown Kodiak Bears there.
As global warming became taken a bit more seriously, Lars Smirkesdrom’s work took him to the far north of many countries; those being the ones he had read about when unloading multiple catches at the Fish Me Fishmarket in Bergen as a youth. By 2008 he had documented and predicted the shrinkage of many Alaskan, Canadian and Greenland glaciers as well as many in his home of Norway. The selfless scientist also had extensive knowledge about ice shelf shift and the icebergs that are produced. After spending countless years, pursuing his passion for saving endangered species of wildlife, particularly the very threatened polar bear, Lars’ work took him deep inside the Arctic Circle. These gargantuan sheets of ice are the homes and livelihoods to all of these vanishing creatures. As a fully-trained glaciologist and geologist, tracking the movement of Arctic ice-flows, huge rogue ’bergs, centuries-old glaciers, and monster ice shelf shifts with minimal regard for his own forthcoming, this dangerous profession had reinforced his character. It strengthened and matured this humble orphaned boy from the backstreets of Oslo. It is during a savage winter in 2009 on the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, part of the Ellesmere Island Ice Shelf at Nunavut, Canada, when our story ignites…
After millenniums of frozen solidarity, Ellesmere Island has now fractured into numerous smaller shelves, with Ward Hunt being the largest. This four-hundred-square-kilometre shelf is also on the move, and the icebergs released by the breakup now pose a potential danger to shipping and offshore development in the region. However, the danger is far greater than that, because the massive loss of microbial ecosystems caused by the release of the freshwater, may also have far-ranging ecological impacts. The breakup of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf is tied to steady and dramatic increases in the average temperature of the region over the past decades — in correlation with volcanic activity as well as human intervention. Smirkesdrom was out surveying the episodic (variable) travel speed of Ellesmere’s Mittie Glacier with his trusted sled-hauling team made up of five Alaskan Malamutes and four Northern Inuit Dogs. The faithful hard-working animals were his extended family. Lars loved them all. He slept with them. He ate with them. He spoke to them. The sensitive scientific instruments, along with all their survival equipment and rations weighing many tons were bundled snugly aboard. He preferred to work for weeks at a time, alone. Then, he would return home to visit Imogen where they now lived at Churchill, on Manitoba’s Hudson Bay. Lars guided his dogsled team down a steep slope, in his back, the unrelenting one-hundred kilometre-per-hour Katabatic wind was biting like a shark-infested sea. Katabatic is the name given to a drainage wind; a powerful wind that carries high-density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity. They do not always travel at high speed, but today’s bitter chill had the inertial force of a freight train. His dogs were having trouble holding their footing in the snow. Visibility was poor. They had been mushing for seven hours — a respite was overdue. Lars looked for a sheltering wall of ice and called to his lead dog;
“Whoop Genghis Khan! Wooh boy!” he shouted through the blizzard. They pulled up beside the partial shelter, but the wind still whistled in an angular fashion, albeit with far less velocity. “We shall take some time to re-energise. I bet you are all rather hungry — as I am!” They woofed and howled in doggy excitement, as he patted the tops of their heads between each pair of eager ears.
Lars began unpacking their dry food as well as the packages of frozen chicken. He fired-up the multi-gas-burner-stove to heat some snow in a large metal pan. Once warm, he dropped the packs in, to thaw, creating their favourite — chicken soup, after which they drank the soup-water. The team feasted ravenously, while Lars set up his radio to give a routine check-in call to the base, located over four-hundred kilometres away at Eureka on Ellesmere Island. He ate whilst speaking…
“Roger that, Alphonse… I’d say I require about, oh another forty-eight hours, to complete the cross-referencing factors. And yes, the boys and I are doing just fine. A bit chilly right now, so we are having supper. I can’t wait to see you guys, once more! I shall be heading off, in about eight hours, to the Loop Moraine’s crack zones for my final measurements, after this blessed Katabatic hopefully slows down. It is picking up a lot of loose snow — I can hardly see a thing.”
“Okay, Lars. We will organize the CH-47 (Chinook tandem-rotor heavy-lifting helicopter) to pick you up, immediately after you send the signal from LM. Over—”
Lars eventually signing off… “Excellent, Alphonse. Tell Erik that he was correct about the new doggy treats, the boys have got far more endurance now. Smirkesdrom over and out!” He shouted over the howling gale-force wind, then continued eating after hauling out a crumpled photograph of a starstruck Imogen under the Aurora Borealis. He was sitting on his sled. Although he couldn’t distinguish her face, his eyes smiled at the picture from behind his goggles.
In split-seconds it happened…
Genghis Khan was first to react, followed by the other eight. All at once a frenzy of yelping and barking stirred Lars’ concentration. The dogs were going ballistic — hanging off their harnesses, teeth exposed by folded-back gums. He glanced up. Smirkesdrom’s breath vanished from his lungs. A huge polar bear stood upright on his hind legs, only metres from them. Suddenly, he heard the full brunt of its chuffing roar. The massive brute started hissing and champing his teeth — Lars knew this to be the sounds made by an angry or hungry bear. He feared for his dog-team, knowing that the smell of their chicken must have drawn the bear in. It had to have emerged from the teeth of the downwind. In the whiteout, Smirkesdrom’s eyes could scarcely focus on the carnivore’s outline against the snow. Only its black nose was clear through his goggles. He could tell from the steep angle its growl was coming from, that this creature stood at least four metres tall. “Easy now, my Big White Teddy friend. (this was his pet-name for these splendid beasts) Take it easy. Nobody’s going to hurt you…” His Norwegian voice calm but directed. Lars was eye-to-eye with it — he knew that fear would only let him down.
Somehow, it seems the polar bear had the upper hand in this one. It dropped back down on all fours and Genghis Khan pounced at the bear’s throat. A terrible mistake…
“No! Get back Genghis! Get back!”
It was not the first time this team had been confronted by a hunting Polar. Now, after five years together, it was their sixth confrontation. But this one was particularly big. The lead dog’s natural territorial-zone instincts, coupled with the protection of his master took over, swamping his canine mind. The black and white Alaskan Malamute collected a front paw far larger and heavier than his own head. The powerful claws had torn clean through the harness. The hefty force swept the dog aside like a furry rag doll severing a bloody gash in his neck. He laid still and stunned. The Northern Inuits raced in, persuaded by wolf-like predispositions. The bear reared back up onto his hind legs. At right-angles to the sled, these dog’s still-tethered harnesses held them at bay — their combined strength nearly toppling the sled and precariously thrusting Lars onto the snow, at the immense white beast’s planted hind paws. His goggles flew aside. He was well within its striking range.
The helpless glaciologist stared up. “My God, look at the size of you, my boy!”
The bear let out a lung-crunching roar. The other eight dogs fell silent. Smirkesdrom’s mind, racing for a solution, knew that the blood-splattered Genghis was what the bear desired, and he lay in the way. His pulse-rate hammered. He glanced at his oldest dog, breathing feverishly, several metres to the left. His provisions did not carry a rifle, and besides, Lars would never use one on a wild animal if he had it anyway. Genghis’ head raised from the snow. He whined and struggled to stand but couldn’t. It looked like the end…
Lars felt the cold no more. “Easy teddy,” he said gently, using eye contact. “Take it easy and we’ll all be happy. I know what you want—”
The eight-hundred-kilogram white bear thundered an even louder growl. Lars, on his hands and knees, backed away slowly. It took a violent swipe. He felt the rush of wind, as five claw-tips ripped his parka. Then a second swipe nicked his face — he felt as if hit by a baseball bat and could have easily suffered a broken neck. The force spun him away landing face up near the sled. All ten lives balancing on a knife’s edge. Smirkesdrom seized an armful of spilt thawed chicken packages and hurled them at the starving creature. Then grabbed some more…
In an unusual standoff scene, the gigantic bear flicked his massive head from side-to-side, then flopped onto the snow to commence gorging on the raw meat. Lars had lost a Siberian Husky once before, about two years ago, under similar circumstances, but managed to spare Genghis’ life by some quick thinking. He gave the endangered bear over twenty kilograms of the dogs’ provisions, talking to it constantly, in awe of its magnificence, before watching it lumber off through the snow. Next, he picked up the Malamute’s injured body and wrapped him up in his spare parka. “You’ll be travelling back on the sled, old mate. There will be no more showing-off on this mission, for you!”
The bonded team rested — as per the original plan. Betrayed by emotion, Smirkesdrom struggled to sleep. There is no daytime/night-time up here. The weak sun merely moves in a circular orbit, up and down around the horizon showing itself, before bobbing down behind one of the vertical sheets of ice, about the height of The Empire State Building. It is something you get used to. Lars had taken a good long look at his dominant Malamute and decided that he would survive the rest of the assignment. They set off after another meal…
After travelling for five hours in the direction of the Loop Moraine’s crack zones, Lars pulled the entourage to a halt. “Whoop Buster! Wooh boy!” Second-in-line Buster had resumed lead dog duties. The Northern Inuit was really a wheel dog, but he knew how and when to stand up to the plate, having heard all the commands a thousand times before. “Goodness gracious me,” whispered the concerned scientist, from atop the crest of a colossal plateau. He knew where he was, but it had altered dramatically since his last visit. He raised his goggles, allowing his eyes a clearer scan for the safest route down the near-perpendicular icy face. The relentless and reinvigorated Katabatic wind vortexed its way over to his extreme right. A clear picture of the highly-condensed snow-filled air spoke to him. On the left, it was a lot less powerful but the face there was much steeper. He decided on the right using a traversing angle to reduce the slope. “Mush, Buster! Mush! Mush!”
An hour of freezing hell later, they neared the bottom, then suddenly, the world fell away from beneath them…
His expedition had survived a fearsome, Big White Teddy, near-death experience, only hours before. But this challenge was nothing, compared to the one he had to face, after tumbling into a deep crevasse with his dogsled team and landing precariously on a plateau of ice barely the size of his lounge room floor. Below that, the chasm’s bottom fell away — hundreds of metres in the darkness. This was every ice traveller’s nightmare; dark, silent, motionless, freezing, injured and alone. Lars unconscious. The only noise was the whining coming from his nine companions. Wounded Genghis had been tossed out on impact, but he was a tough dog — Lars’ parka helped to cushion his injuries. One by one they scrambled out of the tangled mess of harnesses and strewn provisions. It took Smirkesdrom over an hour to regain consciousness, then search and fumble for the radio. He stared up at the dim light streaming down from the narrow jaws of the ravine, hoping the transmitter was still working and praying that the signal would reach the rescue squad. His mind thinking; ‘I reckon… perhaps old Genghis would have drawn the sled to a halt.’
A faint signal reaching Eureka base commenced; “Hello, its Lars here, Alphonse. I never made it to the moraine loops. I have made a terrible error of judgement — must have had my damned eyes closed.” He calmly gave his situation and GPS coordinates to the scientific team. A discussion followed.
Before signing off — “Roger that location, Lars. It will be a few hours till we arrive. I meant to warn you yesterday, that Crevasse 835 LM had extended another fifteen kilometres east. But I figured you would be coming in further from the west— my humblest apologies, sir. Alphonse out…”
He envisioned; The steep route would’ve been the correct one!
To his enthrallment, miraculously, all nine dogs had survived the more than eighty-metre fall. Only two broken legs between them. They all huddled next to Lars to keep him warm and alive until the CH-47 Chinook helicopter arrived. After fourteen hours of motionless wait, finally, rescuers managed to airlift his freezing body back to civilization. The catastrophic fall had shattered his spine. Wheelchair-bound forever, Lars never complained, claiming the fall had been his own fault. A far greater fall for him, was the one from grace, with his wife Imogen walking out because of her inability to deal with the total paralysis. This shattered his heart…
The fear of confronting life alone, and a reconvened outlook, gave birth to Smirkesdrom still travelling the world, but this time not to save his beloved polar bears. Throughout recovery, he wrote a self-help book titled; ‘The Winning Way’. Lars Smirkesdrom now holds free lectures to the hopeless and underprivileged of this world, to motivate and inspire them on to achieve greater things. During these seminars, he refers way back to his childhood woes and lessons learned. He speaks highly of the ice wilderness’s beauty. He teaches kindness to animals. Then, he thanks the wonderful sled dogs for saving his life. Never does he grumble about the poor hands which he got fortuitously dealt thrice in life: Orphaned at four, a quadriplegic at forty-seven and thirdly abandonment. Donated royalties from the multi-million selling manuscript he wrote — along with five other great works to date, have funded a foster home for ill-fated children in Norway…
By Stephen James
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:
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…
By Stephen James
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…
By Stephen James
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!
By Stephen James
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…
By Stephen James
“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.”
“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…
By Stephen James
A poorly-paid Hindu miner swung his pick at the wall, deep down in the oil-lamp-lit chamber of the Ramji Bangla-Masood diamond mine in the Rayalaseema region in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It was a lucky strike, missing the enormous rough gemstone by millimetres. At his feet, but yet difficult to discern in the poor light, lay the largest black diamond ever discovered. Still clinging to a house brick of worthless ore, the near-spherical back of the widow offered a faint glint of her ravenous beauty. Then, his well-trained eyes caught the immense crude shape leaning against his ankle forcing a shriek of exasperation. It challenged a cricket ball for size supremacy. He knew he would be rewarded for the find. A mere pittance compared to the rock’s true value, but to Shamata, it was more than he could have ever have prayed for. He summoned his foreman. The unusual stone, totally opaque in appearance, was brought to the surface. Unfortunately for Shamata, he died in an obscure undisclosed circumstance the following day ─ never receiving a solitary rupee from Ramji Bangla-Masood Diamond Mine Company for his remarkable discovery. Was it murder?
It had just turned 1893. The country, known then as British India was in the middle of its crown rule period known as British Raj. This century-long rule which terminated in 1947, followed immediately after the country’s pillage by the East-India Company, 1757 ─ 1858. This financial giant of a company was an ugly autocratic organization funded on the back of the opium industry, trading mainly to China. After the Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British government assumed full control, dissolving the trading company. Queen Victoria’s Imperial rule destroyed India’s local handloom industry to fund its own industrialization. India finally gained her own independence in 1948. And the rest, as they say, is history…
Even back then this flawless coal-coloured stone was worth a fortune. Carefully revised ready for cutting, the uniquely-shaped jewel had a main pear-shaped section with eight auxiliary stumps attached ─ hence the name. The gemstone’s enchantment grew when it was seen to have the need for very little cutting-waste. Only a fool would have cut it down to a more traditional shape. Within a year of delicate and intricate fashioning, its pendeloque-cut contained over four-hundred facets, and boasted nearly five-hundred carats. The ‘legs’ each contained thirty facets. The Black Widow was immediately implemented for sale, in an attempt to recuperate the mining company’s losses, which had steadily built-up as the mine began to run dry of stones. She fetched £125,000, the equivalent of roughly £13,000,000 in today’s money. Traditionally, opaque stones are not as valuable as clear one’s, however, her unique shape and size forced the value up.
Now proudly owned by Sir Riley Pompous-Stwitt, and worn by his wife on occasion like an imitation-paste fake, the prized bauble was never taken seriously because many believed it to be too large to be real. Sir Riley Pompous-Stwitt was the owner of a merchant shipping company containing twenty-eight cargo vessels of varying sizes. In an obscure turn of events, fifty-two-year-old Riley passed away in the arms of his lovely wife Mildred in 1903. At the time he was in perfect health. According to Mildred, now the owner of the twenty-eight-strong steamship fleet, the last thing he heard was an eerie whisper. She described it as obscure. This bizarre phenomenon continued, with the unique diamond going missing the following day. Rumours surfaced about her selling it on cheaply to fuel her gambling habits. This she categorically denied. Fourth and final chapter of the ill-fated Pompous-Stwitt’s saga, was the regular monthly sinking of her fleet. Tee-totalling Mildred committed suicide as a pauper…
Lost for over three decades, the rare gem turns up in Turkey. It was during the winter of 1936 when a Russian diplomat, on appointment to Ankara, discovered the Black Widow in a second-hand shop sitting on a window shelf, flanked by two snow-globes, a tardy historical ashtray and a chunky dolphin-shaped paperweight. At first sight, Ambassador Trikarchstrov who was with his wife, strolling past at the time, stopped to admire the ashtray. It was engraved with a Gallipoli memorabilia poem in brass, but appeared to have not been polished since Armistice Day. She drew his attention to the black jewel which had a price tag of fifteen lire on it, saying the necklace would be nice to wear when she accompanied him to the next conference. They purchased it without knowledge of the gemstone’s true value. She wore it to the symposium, getting compliments in abundance, only to have suffered a dreadful car accident when being driven home. Adding venom to the VIP’s twin deaths at the hands of a speeding truck driver, was the callous stealing of the necklace from around Mrs Trikarchstrov’s throat by their chauffeur. This man, an Afghani by birth, now working for the Turkish government, had emerged unscathed after the truck T-boned the car’s rear section. He fled the scene with it in his keeping. So enigmatically dramatic were the circumstances, including the hostile accusation of an assassination conspiracy, that the missing rare diamond was completely overlooked.
Time, as we all are aware, waits for nobody…
A further nineteen years which included World War Two’s intense theatre, slipped by, without the rock showing its beautiful alluring charm to society. Thought to have been missing for over forty years, the once-legendary Indian treasure unexplainably turns up in France during 1956. Popular actress Amelia Bourgeon juá Aqua purchases it by auction for the sum of 260,000,000 francs. The glamour-queen, beehive-wearing, superstar managed to wear the prized neckless on several occasions. Her pizzazz completely stole the gem’s attention. When shooting a movie on location at Switzerland’s Jungfraujoch, an accident happened. Soaring views over Aletsch Glacier from the railway station, which is carved into Mt Jungfrau Mt Mönch and the Eiger north face, attracts thousands of sightseers annually. The waterfall scene became too much for Amelia Bourgeon juá Aqua who plummeted to her death in tragic circumstances, swallowed by the passion of the moment. Her irretrievable body, now part of the mysterious web of legends that encompasses this unusual place. She was not the first.
The jewel, housed nearby, was nowhere to be found when her premises were searched. The fortress-like security had everything locked like Knox. It had not been stolen. The Black Widow of India disappeared again for just shy of twenty years…
The tabloids couldn’t keep a lid on things. Media-hype blew out of all proportion. ‘The black phantom diamond’ was more popular when it was missing than it was when it was around. Rewards were offered but nothing surfaced, until, private antique collector Astropheles Contropholous, found a pottery tea kettle he liked. It was three-hundred-years old and its lid was jammed firmly shut tight. He got it cheaply because of this fact. In his excitement to draw pleasure from glaring soulfully at his teapot, the Greek billionaire accidentally broke the pot on his kitchen table. His house, on Lake Chesapeake, erupted when the big black widow spilt out onto the table. He knew what it was the moment it rotated to a standstill and faced him straight in the eye. Its chain trailing out the back resembling a thickish thread of interwoven spider’s silk.
Now on permanent display, guarded by the very latest 1973 technological devices available at the time, the enraged carbon arachnid sits in his armoured basement. It is set up for privately invited guests only. Behind a series of glass windows, were glass shelves, each one adorned by a magnificent piece. Astropheles would visit his collection daily, every piece had a story attached, and each meant far more than whatever it was that he’d paid for the item. The extraordinary amount of money he spent on security was not to protect the monetary value, it was to safe keep their stories. Astropheles donated most of the contributions from visitors who offered money for his time and efforts, to the local special school. He loved all his treasures and said the widow seems to move about at night. He maintains it has been caught on infra-red CCTV. He never showed his legend-fluffing promotional video-footage to anybody, simply because, he never would part with any, therefore all their secrets were locked inside his heart. The new accidental-owner was not a greedy man, therefore did not deserve to be punished, nor was he a flaunting type. He wasn’t a womaniser. He had no enemies.
Well… that certainly would be the case in fairy-tale-land…
Sixteen months later, after a wonderful journey of sharing his wealth and joy with the world, everything changed. Winter of 1974 brought a new twist in the spider’s tale. For no reason other than plain outright daredevil, gentleman thief; Bamberg Astmoton had decided he must go for the legendary rock before spring has turned, to prove to himself that he was indeed, the finest jewel thief in the country. What brash young Canadian, Bamberg Astmoton had no idea of, was that, at exactly the same time, not five miles away, Joanna Chase was planning an identical heist. On the identical day. Both had chosen Saturday 7th December to hit the Contropholous stronghold. Astropheles had a much-publicized trip to Las Vegas planned. He would be away for forty-eight hours.
The few remaining guards were to Bamberg simply pawns to make his job more exciting. Joanna Chase had other ideas. Her plans were quieter, lighter, one step behind, to become one step in front, less visible… a smaller cat.
Bamberg scaled the walls easily without being seen. It was midnight. The ruggedly attractive thief wore complete black. He felt the guards’ presence as if by sixth-sense. He moved silently and cleverly, out of view of the CCTV cameras. His briefcase of high-tech tools flashed in the moonlight. The door locks were like a child’s toys, as were the alarm systems and laser-protected shelves’ control systems. Bamberg needed very little light to see. Joanna watched his every move. She was already there. Joanna was completely at home with these magician-like moves. Her shadow was even smaller than his. The last thing he knew was, by replacing the identical weight of the stone with his dummy weight, when he had his hands on it, the rest would be simple. Without this, an alarm was sent by micro-code to the head guard, now outside, smoking. His escape route was planned to perfection. He just can’t afford any mistakes. There it was in front of him, staring back saying ‘Please steal me!’
The gem was lifted with surgeon-like care – the dummy slipped into position as though it were alive. Eyes snap-frozen. Ears wide-open. No sounds or mistakes. Time to leave. Bamberg Astmoton knew that the laser light web, which crisscrossed the entire home would change its code in fifteen minutes. It would be reinstated. The alarm’s disablement was only a temporary one. His gloat had to be a momentary one and there was no such thing as a ‘selfie’ back then. He whisked his way towards the rear where waiting, was the famous glass elevator shaft, which followed down the cliff to Chesapeake Bay. It was where only two guards were placed and where he had a small boat waiting.
But he didn’t get there…
Waiting at the top of the see-through glass shaft was Joanna. “Put it back,” she said, firmly.
“Are you mad? Where did you come from?”
“Put it back!” she said, a sterner reinforcement in her tone.
“Why should I? Are you the police? We both have to be gone in…” He checked his Rolex. “In less than eight minutes, or…”
“Look. I’ve caught you red-handed. You don’t know who I am,” said the woman, her voice melting with an ambient glow through the glass walls, into a spell. “If you try to escape, I may be forced to shoot you. If you put it back, then, I may be enticed to fall in love with you!” She stepped closer. He stopped completely. A small gold revolver sat firmly as a gravestone in her shapely hand.
“Now, that’s very flattering miss?” he waggled the priceless gem like a pebble. Its chain flopped, resembling a swing below his wrist. He noticed her suffocating beauty in what light there was. “I may not want your love!”
“You’re wasting time, Bamberg, I have you in a catch-twenty-two situation. Put it back and I’ll let you go. I’ll even give you my number. I think you are breathless!” Joanna’s nitro-glycerine body formed an alluring focus. “You don’t want to get caught.” She already had him at; Put it back!
The charming thief had no plan B here. He had no time to stall. He indulged himself with twenty-more-seconds of her beauty, turned and replaced the black diamond on its podium. Their paths crossed, she winked, placing a card in his gloved hand. Her face could stop a tornado.
“Miss Chase,” she said. “Miss Joanna Chase… Now, say nothing and go!”
Stunned by it all, Bamberg scampered towards the elevator shaft and dropped his nylon rope. He secured it, just as planned, minus the gem. He waved. “Au revoir!” In a way, he had stolen it. And gotten away with it. For a few seconds at least. He puttered off into the night.
Upon return, Astropheles was distraught. He couldn’t handle the drama of the reported intrusion. For three days he festered. The muddled-minded Grecian jumped into Chesapeake’s freezing bay, in the height of winter.
Three weeks later, the Canadian dials the number next to her name…
“Yes, hello… Who is this?” her voice still like Swiss chocolate.
“It’s me, Astmoton.”
“Oh, I’m so glad you have called. Christmas is spent but I can see you for New Year’s Eve?”
“I’ll come at seven. Where?”
“45 Dear Lake Pass Drive. Come at five…” Joanna had a wicked laugh. She hung up.
At precisely five, he stood in her doorway. The buzzer enticed a reply through a speaker. “Is that you Bamberg? I might keep my word.”
“It is I,” he said, a little trapped by it all. Was she a cop? Was this her clever way?
“Good. It is now unlocked.” Her tone through the speaker warm and inviting. “Please come and make yourself at home. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Sequestered by her timbre, he pushes the door and proceeds, his footfalls still feline. In his mind, he hoped she was some book writer, after the ultimate thrill story. In his heart, he hoped it wasn’t the FBI or similar. She met him in the lounge, seated. A magnificent lacy dress with tight satin midriff pleats washed down the leather chair like a waterfall. He started at the bottom, where her shoes rivalled a dancer’s and worked his way up to her neck. Her hands clasped together in her lap. He strode up closer. She lifted the pendant around her neck and revealed its widow bauble. Her significant smile nearly knocked him over. “I couldn’t steal it. If it wasn’t there now, could I? No offence meant or anything.”
“You spicy little minx. You had me put that back. Just so that you could steal it as well?”
“Kiss me you fool! What does it matter which one is the cleverer thief!” Joanna stood up like she meant business here. “It is ours now.”
Bamberg leapt into her arms, attracted by everything about her. They hugged so tight that in a strange turn of the wrong page, both somehow choked to death on the chain, there and then. Again the widow vanishes from the scene. In July 2018 the stone was discovered by accident in a diamond mine in India called Ramji Bangla-Masood. Long since closed, the mine is now a theme park for the daring cave-loving types. It sat in the same rock wall, covered with rubble-mud, back to where it came from over a hundred millennia ago. A New Zealand girl on tour picked it up.
Released again, against its spidery will…
What bloodshed will she inflict during her next century’s travels?
By Stephen James
When Brixton struck that final chord, then twisted his G-string, allowing the note to feedback through his amplifiers, he knew the crowd was his. The maturing rock performer took a well-earned bow. He had given his all and the standing ovation’s cheers and whistles were deafening. Moments prior, the moth-eaten but ruggedly handsome idol’s mesmerising work had just had the entire forty-thousand-plus gallery punching the air in perfect unison, to his hypnotic Texas Blues guitar rhythms. Brixton Pierce was one of the best around, no question about it, and when he stretched his vocal cords beyond their sensible limit, his clever self-taught ‘Swamp King’ timbre echoed perfectly with his music. Between verses, his manly fingers moved around the guitar’s neck so skilfully, it seemed inhuman. The tips of his left hand caressed the fretboards with the delicacy of a pollen-chasing bumblebee. His bar-room-brawled right, with the homespun muscle-shell plectrum, firmly clasped between forefinger and thumb, striking the steel strings with venom. Every note perfect. Every limit pushed. Every sound loud…
But deep down in his heart, he wasn’t complete. This backing band behind him wasn’t his original line-up. Only his best friend, bass guitarist Lefty Skankhorn, remained alongside. Their name was different now and the band had two female backup vocalists. It’s an old story; rock and roll musician has a fight with the band, therefore, they part ways. This story has a whole lot more to it, as you will discover. When Brixton pulled out of his bow to thank and introduce the other players, he rattled-off their correct names and instruments etc. Then finished:
“…And we are known around the various digs as ‘Brixton and the Murderer’s Ghost’. So, tell ya friends how much fun ya had now.” It was what he used to finish every show with, back when the others were together (this being the old band’s name). The stunned audience began clapping, hoping it had been a deep-rooted message or hidden rock star innuendo. The new band was called ‘Brixton has Murdered his Ghost’.
“Good-bye and God bless you all!” said the other stymied musos into their respective mics.
Brixton Pierce vacated the stage on cloud nine. Another great performance to a grateful audience and the guys didn’t miss a beat. His Les Paul Gibson, in the shape of a purple coffin, had resonated in a million different languages and squeezed out distorted webbings of notes, in bizarre fuzzed sounds. His fingertips were fried. He was also oblivious to his Freudian-slip to an ocean of sweaty torsos, their lungs screaming for more in the very-familiar auditorium known as Sound City Dome. He played here more than anywhere else. Brixton Pierce was adrenalin-powered at this moment. His mind had completely forgotten about the unfortunate death of his manager, Phil, and also the death of his wife. The now thirteen-month-old double-murder case had stalled to a slower than snail-paced limbo, due to the bamboozled police’s inability to convert the minuscule amount of evidence into a convincing arrest for prosecution. No murder weapon was found. All of the crime scene photographs seemed to offer no clues. Being the one left standing over the bodies, moments after, with their flesh still warm, Brixton had become the leading suspect after a cleaner had called the authorities. The distraught Scotswoman was the second person to enter the murder scene’s vicinity.
An awkward thirty-five-minute verbal stoush erupted in the dressing room after the show. Pierce’s new band’s manager, Brian S, as he liked to be referred to, asking where the hell the maturing rocker’s head was at. Brixton guzzled from the neck of a bottle of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whisky, passed to him by a hopeful blonde groupie who had again secretly forced her way in. The scantily dressed twenty-six-year-old, whose fountain of naturally blond hair ─ thick as Bougainvillea, tressed in bunches to her waistline, and was the shade of ripening wheat. The girl’s name was Nadine and her wading-bird legs seemed longer than realistically possible and out of scale with her large well-rounded breasts. She was beautiful beyond reproach. The other band members did not like her meddling into the group’s personal affairs. They didn’t approve of Nadine’s fondling hands, each time she brushed past the superstar. Backbone and right-hand man, bass player, Lefty Skankhorn, called her Barbie Doll even to her face, but the temptress pouted his comments into oblivion. Brian S said she was a slut and not a good vibe to bathe the band in. Brixton called her Nady Sexy Lady and told them she was just harmless eye candy. When the dust settled on the heated discussion, a combined promise of the band’s future became heralded as their chief priority. The other instrumentalist left along with the two backup singers. New manager Brian stared at the brooding virtuoso guitarist.
Brixton sat, picturing the scene in that very same dressing room, where his dead wife, Cassandra, lay naked donning only her wedding ring, alongside the body of his previous manager, Phil Slipphiery. He too was wearing precious nothing but his solid gold Omega watch. Both corpses bore the gunpowder burns of a near-point-blank, instantly fatal, gunshot entry wound at the heart. Brixton’s head rang loud with the lead-up week’s ugliness. His ears burning at her words of; “You are never here, bigshot! If you don’t stop touring, Brixton, I might have to find somebody else to cut my grass!”
Shrewd manager, Phil Slipphiery, had paid everyone the same measly amount, despite Brixton being the founder and mainstay. He had written and arranged all of their music and coined their lyrics too. Pierce was cool with that in the pop group’s heyday, believing showbiz to be a combined effort of talented synergy. After all, it was Phil who had packed the giant stadiums year after year, thus had a lot to thank him for. However, when once the pop group’s differentiations had escalated out of control, to the point of separation, he felt his nose slipping out of joint. He’d threatened: “Take a hike you promotional nightmare. I’ll play my own songs with good quality session musos and manage them all by myself!”
Phil Slipphiery had responded with: “Then I shall hit you with a crippling contract-breaking lawsuit!” Stressing further with disdain: “You dumb guitar-plucking hillbilly… you should have read the fine print! You will be left with nothing but your ego!”
Manager-dynamos, Brian and Phil were in fact brothers. Brian S’s previous clients, ‘The Thieves of Indiscretion’ had lost popularity due to the progression of music trends through the years, eventually disbanding altogether. He had propelled them to five top ten songs, three of which had charted in the number one spot. In the end, trapped like lamp-driven moths in the worn-out nineties grunge sound, they had fallen to fresh idealess cover songs. Out of coincidence, blended with convenient collaboration, Brian took over the ‘Brixton has Murdered his Ghost’ reins during the aftermath of his brother’s and Cassandra’s tragic passing ─ minus the contract’s ambiguous fine print. Snookered and stranded, Brixton was left little option but to comply…
Nadine sat quietly brushing her dazzling woven locks in front of the enormous bulb-clad mirror, out of earshot. Brixton’s head hung low. Speaking with the same haunting ‘Swamp King’ vocal tones used to sing with, he said with alacrity to Brian, “It’s frigging hard to keep myself focused and wired in, mate. You can imagine what it’s like. You have been in this business as long as I have. Always keeping fixated. Giving the crowd your all. Reading the knee-jerk, bullshit, negative, tabloid press. Trying to constantly come up with a great new sound!” He looked exhausted.
Brian, sucking hard on his Spanish filter-tip urged, “Leave it all up to me. But, don’t forget Brixton… that love triangle which you, Phil and Cassie were involved in throws an ugly beam of light on your image. Are the police still harassing you, champ?”
“Yeah, I gotta go visit them tomorrow at ten. And it wasn’t a frigging triangle, pal!”
Brian blew out a huge ball of cigarette smoke in Nadine’s direction. “Whatever… Are you feeling concerned or scared?”
“They reckon they may have a new flaming lead. My neck is practically in the proverbial noose!”
“Dumb detectives, wouldn’t know a criminal if he walked in off the street. Bet you are pretty angry still, Brixton?”
Pierce’s response came sharply. “Hell yeah! You know they full-on suspect it was me… I loved the bitch.” He swallowed a huge, neat, heart-stopping-for-most slug of his best friend Jack and dropped the half-full bottle on the carpet. “Should probably have given up the industry after all. Like she wanted me to. Damned hooked on the adrenalin-filled junk, wasn’t I?” Nadine flew from her chair to retrieve the dribbling golden liquid.
“Tell ‘em whatever crap they want to hear. Just don’t admit anything…”
His defence came even more loaded. “I didn’t do it damn you, Brian! Sure, I had all the reason in the world… Frigging ass-hole was fleecing my money and screwing my childhood sweetheart. What do ya reckon? I’m over the flamin’ moon about going to prison, just because the cops can’t pin it on any other bastard!”
“Okay, okay, okay… settle down maestro. Why don’t you, you know?” Brian had flicked his eyes down towards Nadine’s all-fours position with impious intent. He made a fist and vulgarly raised his forearm. “No one will tell, now that the others have all gone home.”
Although he was whispering, she easily heard and smiled like a deer fawn. The prostitute-red mini-skirt she was wearing hid little of her thighs and both men could practically see her navel between her fighting-against-gravity breasts’ cleavage. Brixton looked at her and said, “You’re just a kid, Nady Sexy Lady, but you’re a good-looking one. Don’t get mixed up with me. You may live to regret it.”
The glamourous groupie seldom spoke, her figure did most of her communicating, but on this occasion, a voice reminiscent of evocative molasses did offer “I love you Brixton. I always have, ever since I was a little girl.” The girl rested back to a kneeling position screwing the lid back on to Jack’s neck, her engaging blue eyes invading his spirit. “I have seen almost every single one of your concerts. But, I will wait forever or until you are ready. If you ever will be. I would even kill for you. I have never taken a lover. I’m still a virgin you know…”
Two speechless male jaws dropped open like oven doors. Brian S stood up and left…
At the police station, the rock performer sat in clouded disillusion as a series of photographs were spread out on the table in front of him. “Look,” launched a fattish balding superintendent. “I can’t believe we missed something so bloody obvious.”
“Nothing’s obvious to me, DSI Spokane. I’ve seen these before,” replied Brixton, staring at the horseshoe of hair which wrapped around the back of his head.
“Well, let me explain,” said Spokane, sliding one particular long-distance image into Brixton’s view. “It is hard to see at first, so we had this corner-section enlarged, just after this arrived yesterday.” The Detective Superintendent flipped over a photograph which had been inverted and put to the side. Next, he began hauling a small black booklet from his briefcase. “It is this… and as you can faintly see in the other snapshot. It is resting on that side table under those music sheets.”
Brixton held the two pictures juxtaposed. He glared at the distance one first. His tired eyes squinted to focus on the microscopic image. “It looks like a notebook or similar type of writing book. But I don’t recognise it. What’s this all about?” He had begun to study the much larger but distorted, fuzzy, enlarged, printed photograph.
Then it appeared…
A slapping sound, as it hit the desk, accompanied the arrival in front of him, of the small book shown in the police photographer’s enlargement. There was nothing on its black cover except for an embossed golden cobra in the top right-hand corner. Brixton’s heart skipped a beat upon sensing its recognition. Cassandra had the identical image tattooed on her front upper pelvis. Through his confused mind raced one question: What in the hell?
“Open it,” said the calmly-toned Spokane.
The first page bore the title: ‘Chords of Revenge ─ The Diary of a Frustrated Cassie Pierce’. Brixton started engrossing his way through the vividly-worded explanations of her steamy ongoing love affair with Slipphiery. Six months of disgusting lust. It described how her feelings for the rock star had waned, once the intellectual mind of the conniving older brother had encapsulated her attention. This minutes-older brother was, in fact, Brian, the new manager. Anger speared its way through his heart. He had already been torn in half ─ now it felt like quarters.
Spokane continued on. “It all became quite obvious to us once the diary was handed in. Brian was the one who had pulled the trigger on her and his own brother in a two-pronged alibi attempt to score your talent, and cast blame in your direction to confuse us. As you can see, he was clearly the one who was having an affair with Cassandra. It is our belief that he somehow set up the entire crime scene situation after, and I’m sorry for having to elaborate, Mr Pierce… after making love with your wife moments prior. He must have telephoned his brother and shot and stripped his clothes off to make it appear as though Phil was the adulterer. Then, dressed himself and hustled away with the gun. When our DNA tests were performed on Phil, the sperm residue had a matching, almost conclusively perfect result. Who would have guessed that his identical twin would actually be that donor?”
Brixton snapped the diary shut. His pulse was racing. His face fell into his interlocked hands on the desktop ─ eyes weeping. He mumbled into his web of moistening fingers. “Who handed it in?”
DSI Spokane eagerly answered. “She was a tall woman with blond hair. Quite attractive, in fact. Gave her name as Nadine Faithful, you know, like that old-school singer…”
“You mean, Marianne Faithful I think,” Brixton interrupted.
“Yep, that’s the one. Anyway, when we asked why, where, when, how, etcetera… The girl just said she somehow picked it up a day after, before the crime scene had been cleared. How she got in and out is a mystery, and she’s refused to tell us without seeing you first. Go figure? Very soon all the facts will be revealed.”
Suddenly, passing by within metres, an escorted and securely handcuffed Brian Slipphiery enters the police headquarters, head hung low. Brixton and Spokane’s head’s spun in unison.
The venom in Pierce’s voice, no longer imminent blurted, “You rotten, lying, conniving piece of dog-shit!” He left his chair to confront the dual killer ─ face painted to its extremities with loathing.
A tall sexy woman, who’d followed in the entourage’s shadow, stepped between them ─ her hand touching his chest. “Over a year I’ve held onto it. Didn’t want to break your heart any further, if you saw it, I mean… I… I…” she said, trembling in her high-heels. “Pretty dumb, huh?”
He looked shell-shocked but relieved. “Talk about waiting until the eleventh hour!”
She uttered five more simple questioning words. “Are you ready this time?”
Brixton’s demeanour changed quicker than a used car dealer’s smile. His indebted reply took twenty seconds to materialize. “Never readier! This has given me an inspiration for a song! Okay woman… Let those wagons roll…”
By Stephen James
Born in the north of Spain, a mild-mannered man was cruising peacefully through life, minding his own business and treading on nobody’s toes. He was forty-one years of age and abstemiously handsome. Initially from the small town of Aguilar de Campoo, Alex Harames had moved south with his wife Olivia of fourteen years. They now lived in Málaga, a substantially larger metropolis by the coast, but still below a million inhabitants. Olivia had urged Alex to install a substantial backyard in-ground swimming pool to entertain their four young offspring. After price negotiation, a contractor had been commissioned for the undertaking incorporating a five-week window for the scope of works. An excavator arrived days after the deposit had been paid and digging began. Alex took the day off from his job as a helicopter pilot, who flew guests staying at the ritzy Conquistador Ambassador Hotel out over Gibraltar and the narrow straits between Casablanca in Morocco ─ all the way to Seville. A career he loved. As work proceeded, the shallow pit grew to become a large hole. He stood by watching his backyard disappear into the tray of a dump truck, picturing the finished result. Suddenly he noticed something glinting in the sticky reddish-brown soil.
“Stop for a moment! What is that I see?” he called out sharply to the supervisor. The extensive hydraulic boom halted immediately. Alex and the workmen peered down with modest expectation. An obscure discovery was made. Partially uprooted was the inverted head and shoulders of a bust, about triple life-size. Fortunately, a thick layer of clay had separated the metal teeth of the machine’s bucket, suffice not to damage or scratch the statuette. Very carefully it was brought to the surface via a chained cradle and prudently cleaned. It appeared to be Egyptian. The face was of a man’s, depicted as heavily into his thirties. The features looked unlike the usual style of statue originating from Egypt. Comprehensively embossed with gold-plating, though tarnished and dull-looking from what must have been centuries of burial, the enchanting piece appeared genuine. A small section of the bottom corner and a portion of the statuette’s face had been broken away. Excitement followed, Alex thought he may have stumbled upon a small jackpot. His wife Olivia said it must be just some old knock-off artefact, perhaps a turn-of-the-century replica. To her, it made little sense that a relic of this size would have any reason to be this remote from its home-of-origin, but pragmatic Alex thought otherwise. An Egyptologist arrived from Madrid to verify the hieroglyphic engravings for authenticity. The significant statue was deemed worthy of further study. Alex figured his discovery, if genuine, would more than pay him dividends. His almond-shaped eyes rolled like the tumblers of a slot machine ─ the pupils aligning like a pair of winning tokens. After all, the golden coating alone must have been worth a fortune. After heuristic identification, all would be revealed…
The Spaniard escorted his prized carved stone to the Museum of Cairo. It weighed several hundred kilograms, costing him more in transportation than he’d bargained for. A relatively short jaunt east by ship across the Mediterranean, perhaps, but nonetheless with his passage included, the time and bills soon mounted up. He maintained a strong belief that his investment would prove rewarding. Alex stayed for a week, enduring an endless array of associated red tape to ensure that the M.O.C. authorities knew of his self-appointed ownership. Once satisfied, he returned to inspect his near-completed swimming pool.
At the museum, a buzz of intrigue soon followed. Hieroglyphics on the bottom perimeter were worn but just visible enough to see that they were pertinent in assisting with the ID. After many weeks of investigation, which incorporated Archaeomagnetic dating, it was identified as Freesias Chrysies Mahmood, a 4600-year-old Pharaoh. The little-known king had ruled for seventeen years before being cursed and put to the sword by his own people for iniquity and adulterous behaviour. Mahmood had been part of the Old Kingdom or 3rd Dynasty ─ through to 6th Dynasty, just following the unification of the upper and lower parts of the Nile River Basin. The only facts known of him were levelled around his constant philandering with neighbouring Queen Shamanic Ninaracia, ruler of Khartoum. His most-favoured of his eight wives, Ribuckalmahn is said to have orchestrated the murder. This, of course, had no way of being proven, other than her image on the few remaining tablets held by the museum bearing her in hierarchical proportion with a blade at his throat. In these depictions, Mahmood has a Canid (the African golden wolf) head, suggesting he was soon headed for the afterlife. These engraved images of Ribuckalmahn are dated prior to his death, said to be 2596 BC. In an unusually non-Egyptian typification, Freesias Chrysies Mahmood’s mummified corpse had been laid face down in his sarcophagus – as if in shame. Alex’s unearthing had proven to be a vital missing link in the story’s chain. The giant alabaster statue had been fabricated when he was at the zenith of his rule. Included in the etchings around the base were depictions of Khartoum’s Queen Shamanic Ninaracia, in poses of submission to him.
Word of its historical value was sent back to him in Spain. Elated Harames caught the next available plane to Cairo, leaving Olivia to care for the family. His parting words were: “Just relax in our new swimming pool my darling, and await my return. We are rich beyond our wildest dreams!”
When he arrived and stood before his prized relic, beside which sat the sarcophagus, several ancient artefacts, along with some skin and hair belonging to the Pharaoh, housed in the sterilized chamber, Alex could hardly contain himself. It stood on a pedestal a metre or so off the ground. He gazed at the austere, triple life-sized and frozen-in-time expression on his bust. The golden face was identical to the other artefacts. All carbon dated and DNA tested for authenticity, these priceless treasures were part of the museum’s extensive collective of ancient memorabilia. The Spaniard was keen to discuss his discovery’s future…
“You have given back to the world a priceless link in our country’s fractured historical puzzle, Mr Harames,” remarked Director Ptolmec Kissentsta ─ head of research. “My research informs me that the curse placed upon Mahmood’s disrespected soul is what caused the disappearance of his magnificent effigy, some four-and-a-half millennia ago!” The seasoned scientist peered frugally over his silver-rimmed spectacles. “Can we come to a realistic agreement for him?”
“Immortality perhaps. Maybe a journey into the afterlife?” joked Alex.
“That privilege is one only for the Pharaohs, Mr Harames,” laughed Ptolmec. “Let us speak in United States dollars, shall we?”
Alex rubbed his fingers across the hieroglyphics around its base trying to feel the sheer age of his sculpture and read into its history. He wasn’t a greedy individual but knew what it meant to the Cairo-based museum. A great deal of money was offered for the relic, which he accepted. An advance of fifty-thousand American dollars was paid for expenses, with the remainder to be transferred to his bank account after he returned home to Spain.
Alex phoned Olivia with the good news. “Yes, I have accepted several million for old King FCM,” he boasted. “You won’t mind if I stay in Cairo for a week or two to celebrate, darling? There are some formalities to go over, plus photographs for the museum’s records etc. You and the kids can come over if you like.”
“If you really feel it necessary to stay, Alex, go right ahead. I fully understand how elated about the whole thing you must be feeling. You were right all along and I was wrong. We shan’t come. Just enjoy yourself but be careful and don’t tell anyone. Okay?”
“Nobody knows anything, Olivia. It has been all kept very secretive. Ptolmec Kissentsta, the director of research is a wonderful man who, due to its value, insisted upon complete discretion. I am simply going to relax for a while in a high-class hotel. Maybe take a day trip excursion on the Nile…”
“Sure. Have fun,” she blessed. “See you when you return. I’ll arrange a party for us!”
He smiled like a cat with its mouth full of mouse. “Bye Darling.”
After two days of officialdom and governmental formalities, Alex Harames decided to take his Nile River cruise. The mystique of Egyptian culture had begun to tug at his emotions. The country was immersed with ancient tradition, much like his home of Spain, only in a different way. Now that money was no object, he decided to see as much as it had to offer in his remaining few days. The enormity of this ambling river was overpowering. The pyramids took his breath away. The endless chain of eateries, bazaars and coffee houses engulfed his exotic culinary desires. The antediluvian fabric of a humble society, so old and yet so untamed. The contrary of his hotel room – so clean and upmarket.
One evening, Alex saw an enticing promotional leaflet in the foyer’s stand. It caught his eye. It read: ‘Explore the charismatic sights of Khartoum! Home of the Gateway to the story of Scheherazade in… “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” ─ don’t miss out.’ He folded it up and pocketed the glossy brochure. He was hooked like a majestic Black Marlin.
Sitting at a bar in an older part of downtown Khartoum, feeling like a man with the world at his feet, Alex was approached by an exotic woman. She was ferociously attractive, with eyes like burning sapphires and a waistline you could fit a dog’s collar around. Alex was mesmerized by the female stranger, who made herself at home at his table. In a miasma of smoke and wild African music, they shared half a bottle of blue agave Tequila, her black-as-a-raven’s-feathers hair shone under the full moon. Her silken dress did little to camouflage what supported it. Through his mind raced the words of the promotional leaflet. Through his veins rushed the hot blood of a Spaniard. Through his conscience ran the spirit of what had gotten him there in the first place. However, he never told her anything about the almost-priceless golden sculpture.
Intelligent but foolish Alex couldn’t resist the smoothness of her bronzed flesh…
Her name, or so she told him, was Rhianna. A woman from a nearby town. They romanced for five days straight and enjoyed breakfast afterwards at a small café not far from the bar where they’d originally met. His betaken mind remained empty of any thoughts of Olivia. Forsaking his cell phone, he had even forgotten to call her or even return the ones she was sending. Rhianna had him totally and utterly. Alex was spending his money on her with reckless abandon. On the sixth day, Rhianna, after breakfast said:
“You haven’t told me that much about yourself, and I really don’t know exactly what it is that I find so attractive about you.”
“Nor I you,” he replied, barely able to shake his vision from her beauty ─ cheating hands clasping tightly around her wrists.
“Do you think we might have a future together?” enquired the naïve local.
“Let me think about it. You are headed uptown today, aren’t you?” He stared wantonly into her oblivious blue pits of adultery, trying to rationalize what the hell he was doing. “I’ll see you this afternoon at the usual spot, at 5 pm. I shall tell you everything, Rhianna. Yes, I do think I love you!”
“And I love you too, Alex.” She kissed him hard on the lips. The vixen disappeared towards the marketplace, vanishing like a gust of hot desert wind.
But at 5 pm Alex was not waiting for her in their usual spot…
Within an hour of her departure, Alex was brutally murdered at the café by three men. So swift and silent was the strike, that the offenders escaped without identification. The men had thrust him without provocation or any seemingly apparent motive, with blades of steel. Alex was dead before he hit the ground. In a touch of incredible irony, when his post-mortem DNA was checked, it was discovered that Alex Harames was of a very similar chromosome code to the one preserved in the remains of Freesias Chrysies Mahmood. Undisputedly, he had to be a 4600-year-old, to the power of God only knows how many times, great-grandson. It appears that the pitiless curse of his many-aeons-past grandmother, Queen Ribuckalmahn, is flourishing and still being brutally adhered to.
When Olivia received the Cairo Police’s tragic news, albeit, without knowledge about his infidelity, she contacted Ptolmec Kissentsta, only to discover that the splendid statue had vanished into thin air on the same night as his death. Perhaps it had returned to The Valley of the Kings?
The full remuneration payment was stopped. Alex’s bonanza had left Olivia with no money, no husband and no explanation…
By Stephen James
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…
by Stephen James
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!”
“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.
By Stephen James
At sixteen years-of-age, now with the soft fleshy parts of his mouth starting to turn as grey as the hairs which sprouted from this very area, Howard took the morning’s square of sunshine to reflect back on his life. Warmed by this bright patch, on the timber decking of his master’s back porch, the crossbred chocolate-Labrador and German-shepherd dog knew his days were beginning to have numbers at the end of each. He must use them wisely. Time was precious. Life had dealt him a good hand but that’s not always the way things were.
It was England in the 1970’s. Born the runt of the litter, the puppy with one ear slightly bigger than the other, neither managing to be the standing-up type, which Shepherd’s carry so proudly atop their strong heads, Howard had to fight for his mother’s attention. She was the purebred Labrador. Dad was a near-pure Shepherd police dog. At twelve weeks, he found out about loneliness for the first time when all of his eight brothers and sisters were long-since claimed by new owners. No one wanted the ugly one. Howard moped, in between tripping over his giant paws, the likes of which he wondered if he would ever grow into. Finally, after fourteen weeks, a young girl picked him up and solved his problems with a gigantic hug. She took him home to her house in Wiggington-on-sea, in England’s far south. Sixteen-year-old Gail Moreton made Howard feel special and he returned her kindness with loyalty for three years. He wasn’t ugly anymore. Howard was strong and handsome. His trademark; slightly larger ear looked more like a character-by-design inclusion, rather than a mistake by his gene pool. The Moreton’s backyard suited his frivolous needs to perfection – until she became an air-hostess and Howard had to leave.
He hated the pound. It was in nearby Scoosbury, a much larger town and the conditions were cold, stark, noisy and miserable – the worst months of his short life. Uncaged for only one hour per day, the smart canine grasped one of these exercise-breaks as the opportunity to escape. He broke loose from his handler and scaled the wire-mesh fence to freedom. But where?
Instinct directed him back towards Wiggington-on-sea, where at least he had a memory of happiness. Drinking from streams and eating from rubbish bins and the odd generous hand-out, the journey took him just under a week. Collarless, Howard sat with a wagging tail beside the village green after having a good roll. He watched the traffic feeding its way through the narrow streets, in front of the rows of bay-windowed shops. He knew the large patch of grass well because this was the place that Gail would bring him on weekends. She was nowhere to be seen but he knew he would have to move on with life. The doggy days don’t stop rolling just because he’s alone. Howard trotted across the lush green couch to pause at the big white marks, on the big black hard stuff, which all those noisy bubbles with humans sitting inside them moved along. The big white marks had some magical power that made the noisy bubbles with humans inside come to a standstill; now he could move safely across the big black hard stuff. He didn’t know why – but it was the same every time. Gail had taught him good road etiquette.
He waited. A stroller pushed by a woman of forty, her toddler by her side, started things. The noisy bubbles came to rest and the dog headed off towards her. Moments later a man also in his forties joined the stroller’s group. Back in the 1970’s, everything moved slower. The cars were made of metal, not plastic. Fewer crowds. Less paint on the roads. Things seemed somehow much simpler. There were no mobile telephones. It wouldn’t be long before he would find a new owner. Howard was liked around here. He met them in the middle of the crossing. Tail wagging.
And then it happened…
A speeding car mounted the kerb, finding its way between the nine stationary vehicles without regard for the zebra-crossing’s pedestrians, of which, Howard was one. The dog froze in the oncoming lane as his path crossed with theirs. The father dashed to save his family, managing only to collect Howard. The dog’s life had been saved from certain death. The car beat him to his family. The man spun away with only Howard beside him. The car drove over the man’s foot before winding its way out of town. The driver was never stopped. Realizing what had just happened, Howard took off. He knew where Gail’s doctor’s surgery was and how to get there before anyone else.
The small crowd of panicking onlookers became quickly parted when Doctor Meredith appeared with his nurse. Sadly, the only thing he was able to do was to care for the man, whose name was Simon Stryker, by getting him safely to the hospital. This tragic moment of stupidity had cost Simon his entire family: Wife Stephanie, toddler-of-two Phillip, and pram-bound youngest Ursula. Howard never left his bedside. After several months his ankle gradually mended, albeit, with a significant permanent limp. But Simon Stryker’s heart was destroyed. His empty house no longer laughed each night. His back porch’s timber-decking became the place where Simon would sit to allow his heart to bleed. The friendship between Simon and Howard grew very strong – but nothing could replace his loss. It ate him away. The dog didn’t exactly know what a broken heart meant, however, he did know something had to be done. As the seasons stole their years away, the thankful, floppy-eared, brown with black bits, canine, changed Simon’s outlook. He walked further each day to build up his ankle. The dog would always keep Simon out for longer periods, noticing his master’s far-happier demeanour during the marathon evenings. These were the difficult hours for lonely Stryker, isolated by memories. Fighting when he already thought he was beaten. His house echoed at night…
When Howard turned eight, his master turned forty-six two weeks later. They had been together for four years, two months, five days and obviously a few hours. Simon had started working again as a milkman. Before, he had occupied an office job, this voluntary change gave him the exercise he required to return to the man he once was. Well, physically at least. Simon grew from strength to strength and knew he had Howard to thank for it. The downside for the dog was the fact that his personal time with his master had thinned-out somewhat, to a few shreds in the evenings and time on the weekends. The trade-off seemed well worth it. Simon had acquired a horse for weekend recreation. He had become quite friendly with a mother of one boy who rode from his shared paddock. The woman’s former husband-to-be had stood beside her at the altar. Only to turn at the moment of truth, then rush off to the arms of her sister. Her fatherless son is now six. Rides in the nearby forest suited Howard’s needs to within a millimetre of perfection. The lady seemed kind. Her name Sally had a nice sound to it. The pace was well within his grasp. The outdoors were his Gods.
By birthday ten, his chocolate blotches were beginning to have a dusty look about them and the spring which was in his step in limitless supply had lost a few of its coils. He never lost his reliability though. Always there when required. Howard lived for the weekends now, the two horses and their happy riders, beside them, a small pony being ridden by Sally’s son Julián, and Howard riding shotgun at the rear. The smells in the forest, to Howard, represented the morsels of a smorgasbord banquet to a hungry person. Life just couldn’t get any better…
That was until a year later when Sally acquired a female German-shepherd from the animal shelter. Howard visited whenever he was invited. When her first litter of six yielded one runt with a funny ear and an inquiring look in his eyes, Howard’s memories rushed back like diving gannets. At each visit, the puppy-numbers dwindled but Howard couldn’t count anyway, so it didn’t matter. At last, he did notice the last remaining puppy, which took a while to get selected. He knew the ropes. Life is a tough teacher but she’s rewarding – if you hang in there and listen.
Which brings us to the beginning of our story. Now in his twilight years, Howard’s favourite spot was without a doubt the sunny patch of the deck. At this time of year, if the shadow of the giant oak hadn’t stolen his warming platform, by the time the children crocodile their way past the front gate after school, it would be one of those enormous hour-things, before Simon came home. His pooch’s brain had reflected back while waiting, with not much other than his life to think about. I suppose, if you think about it, as humans, it is exactly the same for us. Memories are all we take. He dozed off… Awoken by the keys hitting the glass dish by the door. A sound he knew well. Howard’s tail thumped against the boards, as always. Now, to stretch and go get a pat. Tomorrow was horse-riding day. He wanted to fit in as many as he could get his paws on. Neither the dog nor his master thought either owed the other a single thing in life. They were a unified entity now. Each was grateful for the results. Sally would be coming over at eight in the morning sharp.
At the nearby derelict castle, the group had paused for refreshments. Simon had a surprise, he decided to kneel in front of Sally. Howard heard his master’s voice be joined by Sally’s in merriment and a hug. He saw her put a tiny yellow collar on her finger. It had a sparkle attached. A beautiful sunny day gave birth to warmth. He watched them kiss with the ancient, crumbling, grey stones as the backdrop. On the return trip, highly-involved Simon and Sally did not notice the wandering pony, belonging to Julián, taking the old route back to the village outskirts where his home was. The wooden bridge was not to be trusted under a laden animal’s weight. They now only used the new much-longer route to cross the small river. In moments, in a hail of Howard’s barks, the young boy had allowed his pony to climb the beaten old track which meanders onto the bridge. He scampered up the track to repel the pony. Creaks of distressed timber hit their ears. The bridge twisted helplessly. It was a four-metre-drop to the water. Clearly, the jutting rocks and swirling pools created by them were for observation purposes only. How could the boy have been so absent-minded? Sally screamed. Simon rode to the water’s edge, just beside the bridge pylon in time to witness the rotting structure give way. Julián fell to the stream still in his saddle. Howard followed the pony until they broke the surface, leaving behind a huge splash. The current began to carry its three latest guests. Against the rocks, the mass of his pony crashed its rider uncontrollably, before coming to rest in a shallower section. He was still pinned to the stirrups semi-submerged and gasping. Cuts covered his body. The pony was kicking a losing battle with time. Stunned, Simon was lost for an answer. Howard paddled over to the boy and gave him something to grab hold of. He was one-half water-dog and used his powerful paddling motion to keep Julián’s head above water. The boy hugged him tightly. Howard coughed and spluttered. The heroic dog was taking in plenty of water but fought for the both of them. Simon dived straight in. After several moments fighting against the pony’s thrashing, the boy’s feet were pulled free, allowing the pony to find its way, very much worse for wear, to the bank. It staggered out and lay on its side coughing up water. Simon now had Sally’s son in his arms on their marriage-proposal day. He looked close to death. Wary to move an injured person, in this case there was no choice to be made, and so, Simon carefully carried the traumatized youth through the water to the grassed bank. Howard scrambled up the bank on the closer-to-town side and barked madly. Simon nodded, knowing what he meant by his actions. It was twenty minutes, if he ran fast, to get to Doctor Meredith’s surgery. Howard was gone without giving Simon a chance to think. It was the right move because neither Simon nor Sally wanted to leave the boy, in case… he didn’t make it. The sixteen-year-old dog ran like he was two. He was there in nineteen minutes. The return trip took twenty-seven. Doctor Clive Meredith drove. Howard’s only way of showing him where to go meant he had to run along in front of the car. When Howard reached the spot where the distressed couple lay alongside Julián’s pulverized body, he collapsed with exhaustion. He didn’t feel the pain of his ageing doggy bones as they began stage one, of the recovery process. Meredith was a medical man of far beyond his unsung small village role. He was one of only three others to choose from in Wiggington-on-sea. His remarkable skills, the very same ones which saved Simon’s foot from amputation, were utilized to stabilize the boy suffice to take him to hospital. The doctor’s hands worked feverishly to prepare the severely-injured boy for the trip in his car. The intense situation afoot was fully-occupying the human’s mindsets.
Moments before loading him in, nobody noticed the true hero slipping away. The gruelling run to town and back had been Howard’s last. As the loyal hound watched on, he had a fulfilling feeling in his ageing doggy bones. He had saved Julián’s life at the expiration of his own.
What Howard didn’t know was that the scrawny runt of the litter he’d sired had been claimed by Gail Moreton. After years of flying back and forth, she had returned and changed her job to become a receptionist in the village. Out of love for her first dog, she had called her new puppy, Howard. News in the small village soon travelled to her ears. Gail, Sally, Simon, Julián and Howard Jnr often visit his grave site right beside the newly-replaced bridge.
… A brass plaque on it simply reads: “Howard’s Bridge”
The smell of jasmine blossom wafted like the wind was saturated with its perfume. A darting wind. A heavier smell when its gusts washed past your face. The entire street was full of backyard vines, all crisscrossing their way from neighbour’s fence, to neighbour’s fence. It was always the same in November, here at Kingfisher Bay, in Queensland’s south-east. The hamlet of houses, yet to be taken by the greedy developers, had water views of the Pacific from most of its streets, those that didn’t had lots that were far larger, and still extremely nice, with a one-minute stroll to the beach. The sort of scene any raconteur could describe for hour upon hour. The townspeople refused to sell out to any builder for fear of commercialisation of their paradise. It was 1991 and here, on the east coast of Australia, it is summer. Hence the full-bodied jasmine blooms.
A resident for forty-two years, Rosemary-Ann Sunlark had known most of the residents somehow, at some time, somewhere or another. She had seen babies born, people get married – people leave and arrive. She knew all the stories and had been there whenever her friends’ passed away. Rosemary-Ann knew the truth behind the murder of schoolteacher, Jackson Silverspade, going back twelve years. She had kept her mouth shut to protect his daughter from evil. It seemed somehow right, to allow Silverspade’s cancer-ridden brother to take the rap. He’d very nobly volunteered. A long involved drama right in the middle of the small town-let, which at that time provided the residency for one-hundred and thirty-two houses, most quite small. Rosemary-Ann had been born at Kingfisher Bay herself, just prior to the 1950’s. During the 1970’s, when young and toasty-hot, the black-haired stunner would walk with a strut, not a walk. A strut. She glided along with the poise of a panther, with its tail high. Her trim figure making light work out of the atmosphere. The limited men of the town followed her everywhere, to get a glimpse of her sexy walk. They all asked her out but she teased them all with almost kisses and scantily-clad clothing. Never committing to any of the men in or around town. She eventually met and married a man from outside. Her strut, once used as a lure, became more of a prance. Her hair is not so black anymore. It’s been this same salty mist since as long as she could remember, now. Time had moved on. The village has expanded to one-hundred and fifty-one now, plus an extension to the town’s shopping mall.
Inside her house, at 17 Honeythief Road, Rosemary-Ann edged past her hallway mirror. She hadn’t opened the curtains or folded back the bed or even put the kettle on yet. The light in the hallway was only being provided by a small shard, streaming through a crack, made by the tall window’s offline drape, which was behind her. She paused at her reflection in the poor light, happy to see herself looking better than she’d expected. Rosemary-Ann was still wearing her nightie. She thought; I’ll start with this one behind me, meaning the curtains.
Rosemary-Ann turned and reached for the divide in the brocaded pair. As they parted and the sunlight poured in, a flash seemed to go off in the hallway. She had never been glancing over her shoulder before, to notice how bright it became when the rays hit the glass. She smiled, thinking; The things you learn.
Rosemary-Ann could now clearly see her head-to-pelvis reflection in the morning’s best hue.
“Do you like what you see?” she said, then frowned, thinking; I didn’t say that… She did.
She took a step closer and said, “What?”
“Do you like what you see?” Again both she and her reflection said. Only, to Rosemary-Ann it felt like she was the image and it was speaking.
Her answers, she was controlling. “Sure, I can’t complain. Pity about Brian… but, what can I do about it now? Are you my conscience talking, or something?”
“Oh, If only it was quite that simple!” said the reflection. Rosemary-Ann lip-sinking perfectly. “Come a little closer and we can talk some more. It’s been a while.”
She took two more paces forward, duplicated perfectly by her own image. She smiled from nervousness, as much as anything. Her mind racing; I have heard about crazy wild situations out there – people hearing voices, etc. But this was unexplainable.
She noticed on closer inspection that the image in the mirror did not have a perfectly clear outline. It appeared to be fuzzy, almost like a double-image. Rosemary-Ann began a fifteen-minute conversation with herself about all kinds of things she had done in the past. Naturally, because it was her in the mirror, she knew all her own answers. However, some made her angry. She finished and stormed off with: “Right …so, in that case, I shall probably see you tomorrow!” She remained away from the hallway for the rest of the day. Rosemary-Ann could hear sobbing when she sat to watch her favourite TV show that evening. She felt invaded.
Forced to leave by the hallway door to go shopping, the following day, Rosemary-Ann could not help herself and took a peek at the mirror as she passed by with her back turned to it. The mirror stopped her in her tracks with; “Not like you to turn your back on someone. Especially yourself!”
She immediately turned to face the mirror properly. “I haven’t got much time this morning.” She raised her handbag, convincingly. “Shopping, you know. Busy life. Find a man or something…”
Her image forced her to smile at that one ─ as if it weren’t true or something. Then fired back with an odd question. “Don’t you think it is time to let me out of here?”
“If you confess to all of those things that we both know you were responsible for…” Her hands were firm on her hips now. “I can escape from being trapped in here!”
“Who the hell are you?” barked the middle-aged well-proportioned widow.
“I’m here because of everything that happened twelve years ago.”
“What do you mean, trapped?”
“You probably don’t believe in the forces of fruition. Do you?” Her reflection’s voice had become severe and she looked even younger today than ever before. “It is this power which controls a soul’s destiny. Now speak the truth about Jackson Silverspade, so that I can be set free. Yes, I am you but I am trapped inside this mirror. I have been in here for twelve years. Have you not noticed how much younger than you, I am?”
“I probably just need glasses now. What am I talking to you for?” She slammed the door behind her, in a huff, and pranced off in the direction of the mall.
Rosemary-Ann maintained wearing her darkest sunglasses all the way into her kitchen, to avoid confrontation with the mirror. She placed the four grocery bags down on the cottage-style bench and began singing to herself to break the silence. A day in the garden would make her forget the silly things she said to herself this morning. Flowers would brighten her home. The well-meaning woman with a skeleton in her closet was moving around her house like she was on a cushion of air. Her footfalls, so light they barely raised the dust. She went out quietly.
That evening, as a film came to its closure, she heard the mirror calling her name. But it wasn’t her usual name. She was being called Rosepetal-Ann. This was the name that Jackson Silverspade had given to her when they had a two-year love affair. Again she heard the name and covered her mouth with her hand to stop saying it. She rushed around to confront the mirror. Her self-questioning more than healthy at this very second. “Why are you using that horrible name?” Her sanity beginning to be put through the mill.
“You don’t feel right because Silverspade’s brother, Charlie spent three years in a prison hospital before eventually succumbing to cancer. You should have told them, Rosepetal-Ann!” The mirror’s voice venomous and meaningful.
“Who knew he would last that long? It seemed the best for everyone concerned. Charlie was most adamant.” Her reply, monkish and uncharacteristically austere.
“There is also Brian to consider. How could you possibly live a lie like that and for that long? Oh, but he got what was coming to him. Didn’t he?” Her reflection’s eyes, locked in trans-like fashion, anchored her with a refusal to break the stare.
“Serves him right. Live like a weakling, die like a…”
“Exactly! Go and yell it in the streets, Rosepetal-Ann!”
“No! And you can’t make me!” She picked up a vase and flung its flowers to the floor. The cerulean blue, no-hard-feelings present from Jackson, was Czechoslovakian glass. The object twinkled, poised to throw.
“Don’t even think of it!” She shouted to herself, the vase trembling. “If you smash the mirror, I will die in here. I will never be set free…”
“Why should I care if you are free or not? You’re never nice to me!” Her arm struggled to propel the vase forwards.
“Please! I beg of you. Please don’t smash my mirror. It is where I live and where we can talk.”
“ALRIGHT!” she shrieked. Rosemary-Ann placed the vase back on the travertine table and began picking up the flowers. A mess had been made by the water from the vase on the tiles. She went away and fell asleep.
The next morning she had decided to go and see some of her friends in the village. Folks from the good old days – without opinions based on rumours from the past. Deep-seated relationships built from years of loyalty. The girls at the tennis club would be a great place to start. So what if she hadn’t shown her face around there for a year or two? They would always make an old friend welcome. Perhaps tell the odd truth to some here and there. Get it off her chest… so to speak.
So, a beeline was hastily made for the quaint Kingfisher Bay Tennis Centre, ignoring the ghost in the mirror completely on her way out. Her fairy-steps silent in her tennis shoes, her heart growing excited about the discovery of a new slant to her personality, now that she was at peace with her reflection. Rosemary-Ann walked like the wind, no tennis racquet in her hand. The jasmine wafted, the buzz of activity around the people could just be heard amidst the sound of balls being struck. Back-and-forth across the net, they hurtled. She went inside. They were all there. A huge greeting smile flashed across her face. But nobody listened to her stories. Had they all forgotten? Didn’t they care anymore? She sat right down beside her oldest friend, Marjorie Baker, and told her about her affair with Silverspade. She told her how, when threatened with; ‘Leave your wife for me, Jackson, or else, I might kill you!’ Jackson just laughed at her. No response from Marjorie. She turned to Phillip Hedin-glover and told him she had always wanted to have an affair with him. He didn’t even care. Rosemary-Ann spun in her seat and launched a conversation at Stacey McKenzie’s exposed earlobe. “Yes, it was a pity about Brian, because all his family was from across the border in New South Wales. Having to drive quite that much. Still, if only he had been less accident prone. I’m quite surprised they didn’t think it could have been murder!” Stacey erupted into laughter, for some reason. Even after opening up a can of rude old worms, to her so-called besties, Rosemary-Ann felt completely ignored. She watched a few games and remembered what it felt like to smash one past the opponent’s outstretched racquet. Then, volley one down the line for thirty – love. The chatter after competitions, about who beat whom, and why. How the boys all loved her short white dress and asked her for a game. She soon left. Somehow the townspeople did not quite seem the way they used to. She felt alone here for the first time in her life. Rosemary-Ann walked the long way home, via the central public gardens and across the little bridge, which spans the gorge. Many marriage proposals have been made on the little timber structure, with its gorgeous weathered old planks and handrail. The dramatic view over the crashing waves adds excitement to every second spent standing on it. It was the spot where Brian had asked her. Many memories rushed back; I have to talk to the mirror…
She whisked away like a startled deer and made haste for 17 Honeythief Road. A nice pot of tea will fix everything. Across the park, through the village square. Down the road, past the school she attended every primary year at. Weave between the gates of the alleyway behind the restaurant. This street backs onto hers. Nearly there.
“Ghost in the mirror! Ghost in the mirror!” she shouted, bursting through her front door. “We have to talk.” Her head was erupting with a million questions.
Rosemary-Ann didn’t have to open the front door, because it was already open. First, she stared into the mirror, the whole purpose for rushing back. There was no reflection. She went right up close, face against the glass. Her fingers splayed, one hand high, the other hand low. Her breath was not fogging up the mirror. “Mirror! Tell me what has happened?”
She backed away and stared, willing an explanation. She had not even noticed what was on the floor, just metres away. Her eyes were trained hard on the mirror but she was nowhere to be seen. She suddenly heard her own voice coming from deep within the glass. Her reflection started to materialize. Very transparent and with its usual double outline. She said, “Too late, Rosepetal-Ann.”
By itself, the mirror shattered into a million tiny pieces. Rosemary-Ann averts her gaze and finally sees what is on the floor. She sees her time is spent. She sees her own dead body with paramedics working feverishly. She sees that they are too late and she had died of a heart attack, on that first morning, when she met the mirror ghost. The flash she saw when the curtain opened was the brain’s view of cardiac arrest. Water still lay on the floor from the vase which was obliterated. It was still morning. She had visited the club as a ghost. No wonder they did not see her. She asked herself; were the conversations with her reflection, before or after she had died?
But, did she or didn’t she commit murder?
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!”
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 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?”
“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.
The tension of anticipation was collecting at an alarming rate when, head of his own construction business, Teddy Polaris, finally made up his mind to do away with his once-friend, now Chief Accountant of the firm, Oswald Brickfielder. Teddy had suspected for some time now that the lucrative firm’s figures were simply not gelling. He had called in an undercover auditor to verify the last few years’ transactions, and didn’t like what he saw. Nancy Spindloff had covertly posed as his new secretary, while feverishly scrutinizing the multi-million-dollar business’s materials invoices, travel expenses, insurance premiums and wage documentation etc. Put in simple terms; Brickfielder’s figures did not add up. Within three weeks, the Meg Ryan look-alike had revealed an ugly truth.
“Oswald has gleaned you of three and a half million over the last thirty months, Teddy. But it will be very hard to prove,” she said, arms folded, eyes not blinking, consonants sharp and deliberate. “You barely made a profit this year, Mr Polaris. The money has been transferred as a ghost salary for five staff members who simply do not exist. He funnelled it into a Bermuda bank account at regular monthly payments; even paid their artificial expense accounts. There is verification evidence on everything, except for these people’s birth-certificates. They even have fake social security numbers. He’s not a nice fellow.” Her lips had closed slowly after speaking.
“Thank you for enlightening me. It was just as I’d suspected.” He’d replied blankly. “You have performed admirably, and just as we had planned, when he arrives on Tuesday to address the summit, you and I shall have our petty argument. After which, I shall over-react and fire you. Is this clearly understood?”
Nancy had agreed. “Clearer than Oswald’s bookwork, sir.” Her perfect rosebud lips smiled at his nod as she accepted his more-than-generous remuneration.
Something not mentioned to Nancy, was the ongoing love affair between CEO Teddy and ten years his junior, Mrs Yvette Brickfielder. Likewise, Oswald had mentioned nothing to Teddy’s face, despite having caught them both embracing in the tower’s elevator some years back. Yvette had said that she had caught Teddy after he fainted. The smudge of lipstick on his chin happened by accident. When grilled as to why she was even in the Polaris Constructions Tower, Yvette quickly remarked; “To come to see you, of course, dear!” It now glared Teddy hard in the face that, the former best man at his wedding to his own wife Jane, had squared the ledger with both Yvette and himself, in a far cleverer way. Teddy knew only too well after yesterday’s long lustful lunchbreak with his secret lover, that the mere fact she’d mentioned that balding Oswald was going skiing next week, meant he was really headed off to the tall mountains of Bermuda. Tall mountains of Teddy’s cash that is!
When Tuesday arrived, the scheduled argument ignited like a tiny clockwork hand-grenade going off perfectly to plan, moments before the minutes were to be read. Teddy leered at her with artificial condescension. Nancy stormed out of the meeting, never to be heard from again. Stage two was about to begin…
The Polaris Constructions Tower has seventeen floors. The company’s motto was: Never introduce bad luck in the construction business. On the thirteenth floor, large stainless-steel padlocks sealed shut all the doors. As a result of this unwritten ethics code, no staff member was to ever enter these premises. A secret lay behind the innocent-looking doors. It was within the confines of these rooms where a lavish-style romance room, fully-equipped with all the necessaries, bar, bed, shower and closed-circuit TV cameras, waited for twice-weekly usage. The only sets of keys were held by Teddy and Yvette. One was in his desk, another was in his wall safe along with a loaded .38mm Smith & Wesson pistol, the combination of which, Oswald had privy to. He never abused the privilege of knowing the combination, but on this occasion, a trap had been laid for exactly this to happen. It involved the snaky prevaricator Yvette, who would giggle to herself each Monday and Friday after saying goodbye to her accountant husband, as she hung the gold-chained key around her neck. The key’s cold metal serrated edge tickled between her ‘too-perfect-to-be-realistic’ breasts. Through her mind would drift the words: ‘This key is the one which will unlock the freedom in my heart…’
Naive Yvette, who was a bottle-per-week platinum blond, had actually fallen for Teddy’s promise that he had fully intended to leave Jane before Christmas. What she didn’t know was that the expensive cosmetic surgery enhancements she was receiving to sizzle Teddy’s loin’s lustfulness, were paid for by her lover’s embezzled finances. It was an ironic loop. Another upshot that the silicone-filled Barbie-doll was unaware of, was the fact that she was soon to become the patsy in Mr Polaris’s murder plans. When Friday of the same week came around, as per usual, Oswald played dumb, kissing Yvette goodbye to head for the office tower. He had no notion of the fact that this was scheduled-in, to be his last day of breath. The plan had been laid. The bait would be arriving at around eleven o’clock. The ledger would be squared. His adversary would fall victim. The thievery would soon be avenged…
At precisely five to eleven, the elevator, filled with her favourite perfume, began making its way up to the thirteenth floor. Yvette’s smile grew heartier at the thought of what was to transpire over the following hour or two. She twiddled the key between her fingers. An excitement flourished. Her palms sweated with anticipation. She wore a short skin-tight white dress for impact. A morsel of a man with a manila folder tucked under his stringy arm joined her on the seventh. He was new to the firm. He liked what he saw so much that it turned his face green. He raised himself onto his toes for effect, but she never even noticed him. The shy little man darted out on the twelfth before the doors were fully open. After one more ping, the silver doors parted once more, and Yvette strode like the Queen of Sheba towards the padlocks. Through her childlike mind rolled the words: ‘One day half of this will be all mine. Poor foolish Oswald…’
Though Teddy Polaris was a wretchedly bad husband ─ he was an instinctively great lover. But want-it-all Teddy had grown tired of his mistress, it was time for a replacement, and he had Nancy’s cell phone number ─ if he dared go there. However, he fully intended to get his money’s worth first, before eliminating both problems this lunch hour.
Teddy tapped on the frosted window, as per usual, after externally re-locking the solid brass fixtures. Secret still safe. She opened it, as per usual. He leapt over the sill, as per usual. Her open arms caught him, as per usual. Together they slammed the window shut. His tie was off. Her dress hit the floor. His shirt fell open. Her underwear was discarded. His trousers soon formed an unnecessary obstacle to climb over. Her back crashed to the queen-sized ensemble. They crashed together like two railway carriages. Jiggery-pokery in full-swing to the background music. Heaven at last…
Forty minutes later, Teddy sent a text message via her phone while she finished taking her shower. It was a message deliberately left for Oswald on his mobile phone as if by accident, saying: Meet you at twelve in the usual place my darling bear! Our usual lucky number thirteen… I love Mondays and Fridays. Today I’m going to drain your energy dry! He pressed send. Intelligent Oswald was, he knew exactly what it meant. He knew the fire of deceit was burning brightly, he just didn’t know where the flames were.
Well… now he’d found out!
He’d always been angered by the sneakiness but tried to ignore it. To Oswald, she wasn’t worth fighting for anymore. But this hit him in the heart like a javelin. It pounded with enraged vigour. Hatred flushed through his veins. His blood felt like adrenalin fuelled lava. The forty-five-year-old potbellied numbers wizard became engulfed by revenge. It flashed through his mind that she’d done it deliberately, but quickly passed the thought aside knowing what a true coward he had married. His wife had obviously made a mistake. A really bad one. Just as Teddy knew he would be doing, Oswald rushed to the safe to seize the key and the revolver. His racing mind whisked his fingers through the combination. He flung the safe’s door aside as if she was behind it. His shaking fingers snatched up the key, spun the chamber to check that the .38 was loaded and slammed-shut the safe door. He tucked the gun-barrel into the back of his waistband and flew for the lift doors…
When they opened, Oswald was confronted by the familiar face of Jane Polaris. She hit him with a huge smile. “Good morning Mr Brickfielder!” It wasn’t returned. She noticed his sweating brow and angry eyes. “You seem to be rather anxious this morning. Is everything alright?”
At first he fell silent, but once the doors separated them from the hallway he spoke. “Are you off to visit Teddy, Mrs Polaris?”
“Yes,” she sparkled back. “He doesn’t know I’m coming. I plan to surprise him!”
“How thoughtful,” he rebounded, swallowing half of his rage and thinking: ‘How convenient, she can now do the dirty work instead of this weapon.’
“It’s our anniversary. Fifteen years, no less,” she beamed.
He calmed, offering, “Ted’s not in his office right now. Can I call you Jane?”
“But of course, Mr Brickfielder…” her smile lit up the elevator car.
“As a matter of concern for your surprise’s maximum effect, Jane, I happen to know exactly where he is this minute.” His hand patted her arm.
There was a pause as the scrawny little man returned with his manila folder to the lift on the seventh floor. Oswald rode with Jane, muted, all the way to the seventeenth, where the company CEO’s lavish office overlooked the Chicago skyline. The nervous spiderling scurried off.
Oswald furtively said, “Ted is in a special meeting on floor thirteen. He only goes there twice a week. I don’t really know why, he said never to bother him, but I’m sure for you it would be different. The door is locked but I have a key.” He held it up. Then pressed the button for thirteen…
While Yvette was washing the evidence of her sins from her sculpted body, Teddy had pulled out his other .38mm, the one kept on floor thirteen. This pistol contained the real bullets, not the blanks which were in Oswald’s. He had placed it inside a colourful Ming Dynasty vase on the bookshelf, but within easy reach. Teddy planned to switch them after killing his antagonist, to make it appear as if a disastrous murder/suicide had taken place. Yvette came out of the bathroom stark naked. Teddy was wearing just his underpants. He wanted his ex-best friend to really get an eyeful of vengeance before he pulled the trigger. Snake-in-the-grass Teddy took Yvette in his arms to contemplate whether to shoot her in the back or in the head. He kissed her for the last time. They were near the front door. Over her shoulder, he could easily read the classic wall clock. It was nearly twelve. She knew nothing of the next five minutes which would see her black heart stop beating. He listened for the jingling sound of the padlock. Seconds later, on perfect cue, he could hear the sound he had planned on. “Guess what, darling,” he uttered, with sex oozing in his voice to blanket the sound.
“What?” She replied wearing the face of a Jezebel. “Have you got more in you?”
Suddenly the door burst open…
Jane shouted at the top of her lungs. “Surprise!”
The coup de grace crescendo fell right on time ─ but with an additional uninvited participant! On seeing her nakedness, by a sheer reflex of anger, Oswald produced the Smith & Wesson. He repeatedly pulled the trigger. The gun discharged three loud bangs. Three bullets came out but missed. They shattered the Ming vase. The other gun spun to the floor. Jane’s face filled with distress. Something had gone horribly wrong with Teddy’s plan.
Wrong gun? Wrong bullets? Wrong blanks?
Everything went black and a silence fell. A peculiar repetitive clicking-sound filled the air…
Then the massive room filled with light. The film had broken just before its finale. A girl in the front row of the movie theatre screamed. She bounced out of her seat as if hit by one of Oswald’s stray bullets, covered in a shower of popcorn and looking like a lamington. A voice came over the loudspeaker. “We apologise for the disruption. Things will return to normal shortly.”
The crowded theatre erupted into laughter at her white-speckled apparel…