If it’s to be, it’s up to me!

Sometimes you just have to make your own happiness!

 One such time is the subject of this ten-minute thriller…

     If you enjoyed this story, become one

        of the “Readers of the Lost Arkives!”

 

 

“Only Ten Hours Till Happiness”

by Stephen James

 

What a fantastic but sometimes elusive word happiness is. I’m sure you would all agree. I have written this gripping little narrative around the very meaning of this most powerful of words. Many people wait all their lives for it — others watch it come and leave and come yet again. Some are engulfed with an oversupply, to which they mistreat its value, perhaps losing it forever. Either way, whichever one you are; never think it is too long, or too far away, or simply not worth the wait…

 

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!”

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Can they hear you scream if they don’t know where you are?

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

  What happens next in this tumultuous ten-minute thriller?

     To discover more adventures,

         check out “Readers of the Lost Arkives!”

 

 

“Tell Me This Isn’t Really Happening”

By Stephen James

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it didn’t go down…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple Treat – Ten-minute thriller time! Story Three

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

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

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

Link to Story One; Link to Story Two

 

 

 “Falling Back to Harsh Reality”

by Stephen James

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He believes he knows what is going to happen next…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple Treat – Ten-minute thriller time! Story Two   

A Time Traveller’s Trilogy of Torment continues.

Can life’s sequence of unfolding events be true?

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

 

 

“Dare to Dream the Truth?”

by Stephen James

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple Treat – Ten-minute thriller time! Story One

Have you ever wished you could travel through time?

Meet someone who can do just that…

A Time Traveller’s Trilogy of Torment!

 

 

“…Beyond Dreaming”

by Stephen James

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyelashes flew apart. “Try me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Proceed!” shouted a dark featureless voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be sure to catch story two soon…

More stories at “Readers of the Lost Arkives!”

Gold or Gone… in ten-minutes!

You never know where your next life-long

      friend will emerge from!

            So never lose faith and never give up…

 

“A Second Chance at Success”

By Stephen James

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monsieur Kapitän, he’s awake now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it a curse…or illicit murder? The ten-minute thriller reveals.

Is the curse of death and murder one and the same?

    Can an inanimate object hold such power?

         … or is she really alive?

 

“The Black Widow of India”

By Stephen James

 

I am one who believes in the theory that; to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. This may or may not be true. Either way, fear of unknown powers has always haunted mankind. The mystic supernatural and spectral paranormal beliefs and disbeliefs have been ever-present throughout time, in all the fetching four corners of global society. What has always intrigued me, is the odd fact that a person who can enter a dark forest alone under the blackened cover of night, can be the same person who freezes at the sight of a mouse. Or an individual who can go into battle wielding a sword, facing the highly-possible chances of certain death, can wince at the sight of a spider…
Such is life. Go figure?

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?

Can you ever really trust the people who love you? The next ten-minute thriller!

How well do we really know those people we love?

     Is blood really thicker than water?

          Or… is it just a weird strawberry thickshake?

 

“Chords of Revenge”

By Stephen James

 

Music, so it is wisely declared by some, is the delicious wine that fills the empty cup of silence with happiness…
Or perhaps it is simply just me who believes this to be true. If you are somebody who enjoys the arts in any of its forms, then I am sure you will relate well to this intriguing story about the joy and splendour, bridged with reward, as well as the mistrustfulness’s and jealousies, which can evolve from the genius of musical composition…

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…”

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

We are all seeking that magical moment of recognition!

     But, is it what you really aspire to?

            … Or is it deceptively twisted into something else?

 

“Ancient Egyptian Dilemma”

By Stephen James

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

     Think you’re pretty resilient?

         Okay… this challenge is meant for you!

                Dare to make it to the end?

 

“Gone with the Angels”

By Stephen James

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the dreadful day arrived. The loss was devastating…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Snowbell was nowhere to be seen…

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

There’s nothing like an unsolved mystery to keep your

     inquisitive nose poked toward the what-ifs!

          Sleuthing is for anyone who dares…

                Or is it?

 

“An Axeman to the Rescue?”

by Stephen James

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Police investigate?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be there, sir, on the button…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it happened…

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

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

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

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

Another ten-minute thriller! “Mister Imperative”

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

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

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

appointments to be kept, deadlines to meet!!!

But, at what cost???

“Mister Imperative”

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

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

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

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

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

Until he glanced at his fuel gauge…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Well, I hope you are enjoying your weekly read…

   Thrillers come in many forms:

      Espionage, murder, conspiracy, whodunnit and romance.

         Romance? Packs a powerful punch sometimes!!!

 

“The Secret Letters”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When suddenly she saw them…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Matter of Perception Really!”

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

    Here’s another coffee cup challenge for you…

         Ever wondered why paying attention is so important?

 

“A Matter of Perception Really!” 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got your attention this time, didn’t I?

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

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

“Oh, no thank you. I’m married.”

“Sure! Where? When? How?”

“I thought you’d never ask!”

“My favourite word… how did you guess?”

Male.

Female.

Transgender.

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

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

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

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

“Okay! How much do you charge?”

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

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

“I can’t. War wound you see…”

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

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

Cheers, Steve.

 

Third ten-minute thriller!

Buckle up for this little sizzler!

“Lucky Number Thirteen?” 

 

People will go to extraordinary lengths for revenge when challenged by deceitfulness or humiliated internally. Pride is a powerful magnet to the steely heartstrings of the desperate individual. Especially one in complete denial of his or her own misguided treachery.
You’ll soon see what I mean…

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…

Are you being watched?

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

“Don’t Look…

          You’re Being Followed”

 

By Stephen James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At times the discussions bore unpleasant heat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she saw him…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Daddy… is that really you?”

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

Valerie Marie dropped her shoe and burst into tears…

Ten-minute thrillers!

Thought I would start something new to keep all of my avid followers amused, pending the publication of my most recent mystery/ crime thriller. Stories with a twist are always a lot of fun. A quick fast read with a mug of coffee to start or end your day. Here is a “Ten-Minute Thriller” to tantalize you with the sort of thing to expect. This is the first of many. There will be one every week for you to enjoy absolutely free. Please share with your friends if you enjoyed the read. Feedback would also be greatly appreciated.

“A Fight to the Death”

By Stephen James

At a time when the plague of greed was paramount…
The foolhardy rantings of a diabolical madman, who instilled sufficient lies to persuade his cohorts to follow, demolished the peaceful harmony of society. It desecrated the very fabric of common decency. Think of the smell of death wafting through the cold night air’s shadows, chilling your every fibre into a sleepless paranoia of fear. How would it plague your mind ─ not knowing who or where your real enemy is?
But I am getting far too ahead of myself. This story begins way back in time…

When Harry Cayuga emigrated from England with his bride Shirley, way back during the freezing-cold winter of 1922, the happy newly-weds had no idea exactly what was in store. Harry, a qualified carpenter, just like his own father before him, had adhered to his Yorkshire-born dad’s advice, taken the generous one hundred and fifty-pound incentive and purchased two second-class tickets to Australia. The steamship Aryanise had delivered them safely to the docks at Sydney, and from there they had caught a train to Melbourne. The capital city of the state of Victoria had been chosen because its weather most-closely matched that of the north of England from whence they’d come. Shirley, now six months pregnant, had pushed for the opportunities on offer in the Land Down Under as it was referred to by the British of the day. Umbilical-to-his-family Harry, had at first objected to the lifestyle upheaval, but eventually came around after his father’s kind financial enticement. Shirley Cayuga gave birth to identical twin brothers on 20th February 1923, she named one Eric after her own father. Shirley’s parents had long since left England’s hustle ‘n’ bustle, and settled in the delightful hamlet of Baiersbronn, nestled in the Black Forest of Bavaria ─ not far from the French border. This was the town in which the couple enjoyed their wedding and honeymoon. Harry had the pleasure of calling his other son Harold in honour of himself. In a strange sort of irony, the two jet-black-haired boys both shared a common middle name. That being Derek because their parents both liked Vaudeville star Derek Sherrington, the popular celebrity of the era. Baiersbronn was so picturesque and romantic that it had proved to deliver the very seed of the twins’ inception.

As youngsters, Eric and Harold were inseparable. They shared a bedroom, ate together, played together, walked to kindergarten hand-in-hand with their mother, and whenever necessary ─ told little white lies to mum and dad to defend the other. As they steadily grew up this pledge never waned, if anything it tightened. Their teachers often remarked to their peers about the incredible bond between the brothers as if they shared a common soul. The outskirts of St Kilda, where the family rented a humble abode, proved to be a rugged upbringing for the without-sibling pair of healthy boys. The suburb had been selected for its healthy beachside environment. Melbourne was a multicultural city. It always had been right from its earliest inception as Australia’s potential Capital city. Most groups in this era, including the small children, were encouraged to stick to their own kind, but talkative-pair, Eric and Harold wanted to acquaint everyone in their first year of Primary School. Sometimes welcomed and sometimes scorned, the persistent pair accepted life for what it offered, black-eyed days and all. Each day, Harry would trundle off to work on one of the many housing construction-sites surrounding St Kilda’s fast-developing fringe areas. Never a drinker, in the evenings he would play with his sons and encourage their education, an area of absence in his youth, until their bedtime. After he’d tucked them in, he would discuss the family’s future in Australia over a late cup of tea with Shirley.

Which never came…

By 1929, with the boys scarcely six, a dreadful disaster overcame the world. After America’s initial stock market crash, the black cloud of depression spread like an out-of-control epidemic. It engulfed the western world, thrusting it into a suppression of industry never before encountered on such a grand scale. Labelled ‘The Great Depression’ for obvious reasons, the jobless numbers soon began to challenge the employed. Harry’s career, collateral damage like so many stalled to a crawl, then his company crumbled altogether. Australia was hit as hard as the rest, with queues of men lining up for hours for hand-outs. Harry became one of them. The dowry left by his father, which they were rebuilding during the late 1920’s, after it at first shrank whilst they established a foothold in the country, had been reduced to a poultry twenty-five pounds. A reasonable sum for the time, but it would barely see the year out.  Shirley found some work as a domestic for a wealthy banker but the meagre one-day-per-week wage did little to assist matters. They grew hungry and desperate. Arguments soon overwhelmed the once-happy family. In his frustration, Harry left himself with little option other than to take to the bottle. A shattering mistake. It led to more intense arguments. As the year dissolved into 1930, it appeared the one and only highlight was a thoroughbred called Phar Lap. The horse’s winning ability gave all Australians something to cheer about. He blitzed the field every race, also claiming the Melbourne Cup of that year, and it appeared that there wasn’t a distance he couldn’t win at. This became Harry’s saviour. He’d bet his last savings on ‘Bobby’ and did quite well. It fuelled his drinking habit, fed his family and quelled the quarrels temporarily, for a year. However, the odds were getting shorter and the handicap-weights were getting heavier. Shirley hated his new ‘punter’ lifestyle but with no other option, kept her mouth shut and fumed silently to herself in private. They ceased to be affectionate during this period. The last straw broke on 3rd November. Harry bet all his remaining reserves on Phar Lap in the 1931 Melbourne Cup and lost the lot. Phar Lap came 8th carrying a ridiculous combination of sixty-eight kilos. It nearly killed the horse.

They now had nothing…

It was all too much for Shirley.  She decided to leave him for the security of a life with her parents in Europe, which was less affected by ‘The Great Depression’. With her she took Eric, leaving Harold with his father. It seemed only fair not to strip him of everything. Devastated, the boys waved goodbye just after sharing Christmas 1931 together. For Harry, it meant doing whatever he could to support young Harold. They share-housed with other unfortunates. He laboured on the roads. He quit drinking. He even stole for him. After peaking in 1932, the depression slowly lifted. Father and son became a unified force. Young Harold did not hate his mother for leaving but struggled with forgiveness for her. His memories of childhood faded as the boy became a man. With the passing years and drop-off of letter writing, the two men galvanized strongly. Education had been substituted for a carpentry apprenticeship, and at sixteen, young Harold Derek Cayuga had it all before him. That was until September 1939 and the outbreak of war…

The Axis forces led by Adolf Hitler needed to be stopped. Great Britain and her allies surged in to assist Poland, France, Belgium and Europe’s other invaded countries. USSR, USA, Australia and New Zealand combined with forces globally to thwart the threat. Initially too young at the outbreak, Harold quickly volunteered for the infantry when permitted, without a whim of dissuasion from his dad. Photographed in his proud uniform and donning a slouch hat, the nineteen-year-old set sail for battle in July of 1942. Harold became part of a special covert group of volunteers who supported the Canadians. He fought in the beach assault at Dieppe in France, where the Axis forces won very swiftly. The allies were lucky to escape alive, many died. He went to The Netherlands and served for month after month, toughening and hardening his resolve as the troops around him fell. Friends were made quickly and lost even faster. He had witnessed bloodshed at its most extreme and was a far cry from the lad who had learned to saw timber for his dad for a living. As a corporal two years on, he was sent back to France to engage at The Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II. It was launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg. It was one of the most significant battles of the entire six-year ordeal.

Just prior to his injection into the desecrated, snow-covered, wintery landscape, he had enjoyed a lengthy furlough from action. This temporary leave of absence saw him enjoy a much needed romantic interlude in the small French town of Vesoul. Julienne Du Manseau was a waitress at a small café. Pretty, dark-featured and petite, he fell for her elfin good-looks and pleasant personality like an anvil out the sky. Her sexy French accent only added further to her captivating charm. Harold promised Julienne that at war’s end he would return to Vesoul for her, and take her back with him to Australia if she desired it. She agreed to his offer. He carried her photograph next to his heart into battle and dreamed of her kisses when lying exhausted in the slushy freezing tent called home. He pictured her face in his mind all the time and convinced himself that it was the German army keeping them apart. It nourished his fervour. By 3rd January 1945, Harold had been away from home for over thirty months. He was mature beyond his years but longed for Melbourne, like a kid craves hugs.

Harold was now twenty-one. He had become resilient friends with Patrick Williams, a tall strong farm-boy from NSW who was in his regiment. They had shared many stories about their homeland during the halts in fighting. Pat seemed, like Harold, to be a bullet-dodger. “Just lucky I guess” they would often agree, upon the sight of one another, after a relieving embrace. It was only three months but to them, it felt like three years. Life was so knife-edged out there. The war was hell. Corporal Cayuga saved Pat’s life after a botched raid left him bayonetted in a sodden ditch. Harold shot the Nazi then carried his friend to safety under mortar fire. It went unnoticed but neither cared much for medals. Following that, machine-gunner Pat had a month’s reprieve from active duty but couldn’t wait to see his mate again. Once reunited, after the mobile hospital unit had patched young Williams up, Harold glared sternly. “Still dodged the lead… you lucky bastard! You’d do the same for me Pat,” was all Harold’s pockmarked-from-shrapnel expression said. And he was right.

Side-by-side they slugged out the long days together, always filthy, always upbeat, keeping each other sane. “You’re the best mate a bloke could ever have!” Pat would say every time their eyes locked…

One moonlit night after a bitterly cold day in mid-January, the two mates lay against a bullet-ridden shed wall sheltering from the wind. “Have I ever shown you this?” asked Williams.
“What is it?” replied Harold, taking a small square piece of cardboard from his friend.
“She’s my girl. Only known her a while ─ but we’re in love…” He smiled like a lottery winner.
Harold instantly recognized Julienne’s every feature staring back from the photo. He knew it happened when Pat was on furlough. He saw scarlet-red and immediately attacked Patrick physically, calling him all the abusive names for betrayal and disloyalty. Pat, totally perplexed, had to fight back. The two soldiers hammered each other to pieces, punching and choking comprehensively while ignoring their surroundings completely. It was boots and all. Bigger stronger Pat was getting the better of the jealous corporal. He held him against the crumbling brickwork and beat him to a pulp, trying to explain his ignorance to Harold’s previous involvement with the French lass but it seemed to matter not. When Pat let him go, Harold came back at him, but this time he’d drawn his bayonet. “You lousy bastard! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” he shouted swiping the blade at Williams’ throat. It was as if all the torment of his first twenty-odd years had exploded inside his head. The pair came together once more with Pat taking a stab in his belly. Ironically it pierced the very same point where he’d received the one which put him in intensive care for weeks, just prior to his tryst at Vesoul. As he fell to the ground, Harold moved in for the death blow. The double-edged blade sat inches from Pat’s face ─ his sorrowful eyes twinkled under the moonlight. “No, please mate,” he begged. “I swear I knew nothing, and she never mentioned a word of you!” The bayonet was raised high, Pat closed his eyes grimacing, knowing what was coming.

When suddenly nothing happened!

“Halt! Don’t do it soldier!” was the next thing they heard. It was a German accent.
Harold spun around, unable to move his arm being gripped by the hand protruding from the German uniform. No weapon drawn. “Back-off you Nazi swine!” he blasted. “This has nothing to do with you. We’ll fight afterwards if you like.” His eyes froze still at the face which was his own. Next to the face was a crumpled photograph. It was of two little boys beside a Christmas tree.
“I could hear your voice, yar vould… plain as if it vas yesterday, Harold,” uttered Eric with a tear. “We’ve lost… and I had comen to give myself up, yar. Don’t murder your friend, please. We have got so much to discuss, my brother!” Pat Williams was spared…