Stripper Killer – a short story about partying to excess

Intro to Stripper Killer

This short story about a rather dangerous stripper is a modified version of the opening chapter to Creation. The first of the five book vampire series Drakul, Creation tells the story of estranged vampire king Tepesch Drakul and the struggle to restore his race. Tepesch and his family seek to combine human and vampire DNA to allow assimilation. The novel opens with estate agent Jake’s stag party. Jake has just sold some disused warehouses to a mysterious buyer.

Stripper Killer

The rope seared his wrists as Jake squirmed against the sweaty plastic chair. He scanned the stamping bawling mob for a friendly face but found no pity in their eyes, only cruel anticipation. A storm was coming, the whole weight of atmosphere pressing down. The feeling that something bad was about to happen was getting stronger. Jake’s scalp prickled as the first bellow of thunder came, a dull thud that vibrated upwards through the chair followed by a tearing explosion. Lightning painted faces into clown masks. The incessant drumming fought back, deafening. The crowd bayed, waving bottles and cans, but when the woman finally appeared, everything changed.

The mob fell silent and parted respectfully to let her through, no one dared speak as she sauntered up to Jake. He inhaled her scent, something musky and wonderful that set his senses aflame despite the danger. The alcoholic haze cleared with a popping sensation and the room stopped spinning. Sounds faded to nothing as he observed the woman with startling clarity and it came to him then, that the stag night was a bad mistake.

She was dancing directly in front of him and Jake had never seen anyone move the way she did, gazing hungrily with parted lips as if in a fashion shoot whilst she brushed against him. The police officer’s hat sat at a jaunty angle on flowing blond hair. Her face was almost elfin, the ears delicately pointed. Her eyes were enormous, the gaze questioning and promising. Black, spun with Tiger’s Eye, set wide above Slavonic cheekbones, they gleamed with the essence of lust. To poor Jake, dreams of forbidden pleasures swirled in their depths. Her full bottom lip was blood red and pouted dangerously. She was looking straight at him as if they were the only people in the room, even in the world.

An errant thought flitted through Jake’s over-heated brain – someone like her would never be interested in an overweight, beer-sodden lump like him – but he was lost and he was damned and truth had no meaning. Even her mocking laugh turned him on but below his lust was a deep void of fear. When she stuck out her pointed tongue, he noticed small silver balls nestling above and below the dark flesh, matching the metal pierced through her right breast. The chrome was dewed with condensation and the tongue was strangely dark as if she had been eating liquorice, but he doubted she would do such things. Her perfect teeth were very white, the canines pronounced – catlike, sexy.

She held onto her hat as she lowered her head to whisper secret words whilst she continued to sway to the music, but the words meant nothing to Jake. He was only aware of her cold tongue caressing his ear and that cinnamon smell seeping into his brain. Sweat, musk, pheromones. His own swelling urgency, the distant yells of his friends.  Jake felt reality slipping away until he seemed to be floating in space, tied to his plastic chair, alone with the woman.

The music changed as ‘Addicted to Love’ throbbed through the room, and Jake’s infallible memory clicked into place – Robert Palmer, 1985. An ancient classic if a bit sexist, as Jenny had once pointed out, as someone who had never been a love addict. It had never sounded so good. As the cop danced before him, she undid the tight, dark blue shirt and took it off. The little he knew of females told him she was as excited as he was, from the swell of her lip and each nipple standing proud in its dark aureole.  She moaned softly and a thin trickle of saliva escaped from the corner of her wanton lips, the remarkable eyes half-closed.

Jake felt he was going to explode or have a heart attack or both and as she brushed against him, he wished more than anything that she and his friends would go away. He wanted order restored and he needed Jenny. He longed to put on his striped cotton pyjamas and slide under cool sheets, safe and alone with a book and a mug of tea. Jake was to be married the next day, but the man who craved normality was staring down a precipice and about to fall.

Robert Palmer screamed out the message. You can’t be saved, oblivion is all you crave

At that moment, it was true.

Her hips swayed enticingly as she slowly unzipped the dark blue miniskirt and let it fall, running her fingers down her gleaming thighs. Her lips moved, but she wasn’t singing to the music. Each sighing word was a shining jewel spinning a web of poison and he was the plump, tasty fly. 

“Caruu aamisa, caruu yazu,” she mouthed and wiggled her tongue in his ear. He could guess what it meant. The song thundered on. Your heart beats, in double time, another kiss and you’ll be mine

Two a.m. Jake remained lashed to the chair as the drunken cries and singing receded. The old biddy in the flat below had ceased banging on the ceiling and laid down her stick. He was finally alone and grateful for it, but still thinking about the stripper no matter how hard he tried. He heard the strange mantra of lust whispered endlessly – caruu aamisa, caruu yazu.

Thunder rattled the windows.

Jake peered at the sky as lightning punished the spire of a distant church, leaving him dazzled. He tried wriggling but the rope tightened obstinately and he realised he was soaked in sweat. It occurred to him that he could probably stand up and walk into the kitchen to get a sharp knife, and the sense of relief made him feel like weeping. He would free himself then take a shower and go to bed with his cup of tea, Earl Grey. All would be well in the morning, when the sun came up and drove away the darkness, and he would be with Jenny for the rest of his life. He tried to stand as the first hailstones clattered against the glass, but it was more difficult than he had expected.  His feet scuffled against the marble tiles as he tried another lift-off and nearly toppled backwards.

It could be worse, he could be in Poland, or tied to a lamppost . . .  or both . . . and he had not done anything to regret. Not done exactly but boy, he’d thought plenty and Jake could still detect that primordial smell. It seemed to hang in the air, unsatisfied and insatiable. Addicted to Love seemed to be stuck in his head and at that same moment, the lights dimmed to twilight.

“Hello, lover.”  The stripper seemed to appear from nowhere.

Jake let out a small yell of surprise.

She placed a finger against her lips. “Shh.” She pouted the sound, as if blowing him a kiss.

He gaped at her, wondering what to say whilst he experienced the plunging sensation of pure fear. The police hat was gone and her hair had been tied back in a ponytail to reveal a perfect neck, but his thoughts of lust were flown and all that remained was a strange anxiety. This was not a lad’s adventure any more, it was real, disturbing, wrong. She moved in front of him so that her endless, naked legs were either side of his, and her stilettos clicked against the expensive Italian tiles that his mother chose. She had abandoned the ridiculously short skirt and the police officer’s shirt hung open. He could not avoid seeing inside and a voice in his head was telling him to be very careful. His mouth dried up.

“What are you doing here? I thought you’d gone.” It came out as a panic-laden squeak.

“I came back, Jake. You have something I need.”

“Look, my wallet’s in the bedroom, in the right hand drawer. There’s plenty of cash. Take it and I won’t tell anyone, I promise. Take it and go, please go.”

The stripper smiled perfectly and tossed her head, swinging the ponytail. “I have much money. That is not what I need, Jake.”

He was nonplussed. “So what do you want? Tell me.”

She smiled again, so perfect and yet cold. “I will show you.”

She moved in closer and trapped his knees between her cool thighs. It was surprisingly painful, her grip unexpectedly strong. She put her hands on her hips, lifting the police shirt in the process, and he found himself staring at her crotch and its narrow strip of golden fuzz. The ruby in her belly button gleamed like fresh blood.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to insult you. But I d-don’t want you here, you understand.”

“We have unfinished business, lover,” She chuckled.

Her voice was husky, the accent exotic. Central European, he surmised pointlessly as he tried to make sense of what she was saying. He squinted up at her.

“What’s your name?”

The stripper laughed loudly, the sound harsh in the silence. “I am Angelica Drakul, but you will call me Angel. Yes, my name is Angel.”

Angelica widened her stance and sat astride him whilst unbuttoning his beer-sodden shirt, her elfin face filled with mischief and a betrayal of cruelty. Her tongue curled out to dab her top lip and flicked again as if tasting the air. The image of a snake came unbidden.  The snake’s eyes were soulless drops of gleaming jet, her skin pale and perfect but so cold in the choking heat of his flat. 

Before Jake could protest, she had undone his trousers. She laughed throatily as he pushed the chair backwards across the room, panicking. She grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him forwards with astonishing strength. The sound she made was half way between pain and delight and he had the unpleasant feeling that she was about to feed.  The drop of saliva that fell from her tongue onto his lap was almost black and his mind cleared instantly at the sight.

“I want you to stop. Take the money and go,” he shouted.

Her expression hardened as she stood. She yanked his trousers off with brutal force, lifting his body half out of the chair so that it rocked forward alarmingly, and Jake weighed well over two hundred pounds. 

“Jenny and mother will miss you,” she whispered.

She straddled him again, taking his head between her hands.  Her bear-trap nails drove into his skull as he screamed. The fingers were icy. She was panting as quickly as he was praying and a strand of dark saliva swung from her lip, but he felt no breath on his face. The hands suddenly twisted his head with shocking force, the room blurred and Jake heard a cartilaginous crack. There was no pain and all sensation ceased instantly.

He found himself looking down on his vast, flaccid body as if it belonged to someone else. He knew he should be screaming or fighting back, but he could only experience an absurd sense of disbelief. Angelica did not simply lift herself off. She seemed to float upwards, drifting toward the ceiling and he was a puppet with severed strings. The weight on his chest made it hard to breathe and he knew what she had done, but he also understood it was not over.  He licked his lips and his tongue tingled with pins and needles.

“You’re going to kill me.” Each word an effort.

Her eyelids lowered in silent acknowledgement. “Are you frightened of death, Jake? Do you know what death is?”

All he could think of was why him, when there were so many others more deserving. He needed to say goodbye to Jenny and the thought that he would never see her again was more than he could bear. Jesus would look after him and he imagined the son of God taking him by the hand, guiding him into the light but below the comforting image was a gaping void.  The finality of death was more terrifying than he had ever realised and he felt utterly alone.

She was watching him with a cruel smile. “Did you pray hard enough? I don’t see him.”

“Jesus loves me,” he gasped.

“How sweet you are, a fat little boy who believes in Jesus. Would you like to see me, Jake?”

Jake tried to understand the question. Part of him no longer cared, part of him needed to know the truth. “Yes.”

The stripper slipped off her shirt and darkness seemed to swirl around the perfect form until he could only see an outline. Within her cocoon of darkness, the woman was growing taller. Needle teeth glinted where soft lips had been. Grey scales rasped as long limbs unfolded and the air was freezing. Bony wing struts scraped against the ceiling, setting the lampshade swinging and the dim light played over the monstrous shape. Angelica’s eyes alone remained unchanged and Jake stared into them, transfixed.

The thing before him was ancient, brutal, hideous yet strangely beautiful. The giant head tilted and lowered to his neck, a strangely intimate gesture that was more invasive than any atrocity. Jake felt a rush of warmth when Angelica looked up at him, blood poured from the grinning shark’s mouth. Sleep washed through him, but Jake was not ready to go and life had never seemed more precious than at that moment.

“Mmm.” She licked a curved talon. “Very tasty, Jake.”

He managed to utter one word. “Why?”

She shrugged. “I get bored, you know?” The words were sighs.

The snake-woman was bored so he had to surrender his future and his very existence. Jake was dying and he had never seen God and he had never seen Jesus, but he had finally seen the devil. As he watched with detached interest, the dark angel knelt down before him and bent her scaled head towards his lap. He could not see what she was doing to him because of the mound of his stomach but he could hear, and the trickling sound was his own blood pooling between his feet.

His mind was slipping into a confusion of memories and he allowed his eyes to close. Sleep would be his escape and when he awoke, he would get married. Sleep would make the devil go away.  She must have known what he was thinking because she sucked hungrily, a race against the last of his free will. The huge, curved wings trembled against her slender back.

When Jake’s eyes closed and his tongue lolled, Angelica stopped. The transformation was almost instant. She ran bloodied hands over the perfect body, gasping with pleasure. It could never be enough and frustration was already bubbling up inside. She knelt next to the dead man and stroked his hair back in place, disappointed but also angered by his passiveness.

“Was it good for you, Jake?” she whispered.

Frog Heaven, or be careful what you believe

Intro

A short story about religious belief within the frog community.

Frog Heaven

A very old wrinkled frog stood in front of a group of tiny frogs. Her bulging brown eyes scanned the group. Only two months ago, these youngsters had been no more than black specks in the spawn tanks. Now look at them sitting there, bright young faces alert. 

“Stop catching flies and pay attention!”

Flies were everywhere, hatching out of the trays of heaving white maggots feasting on dead chickens. And hiding in the darkness under a maggot-tray sat Hercules. His eyes swivelled upwards, waiting for delicious creamy snacks to topple over the edges. His shiny green sides already bulged with half-digested maggots, but he crammed even more into his wide mouth. The frog was huge.

“Hercules, come out this instant. What are you doing there?”

He tried to shake his wide head, eyes popping.

“Open your mouth, boy.”

The elderly teacher reached forward with her stick and forced his mouth open. A fat white maggot fell out. There was a shocked intake of breath, then the stick whistled down and Hercules bounded into the class, crouching to try to make himself a smaller target.  A small brown and yellow frog gazed at him with admiration.

The teacher said with a touch of sadness, “Today is your final lesson, and you will learn the answer to two great questions – where have we come from, and where do we go when we leave this world? In the beginning, before our world was created, there was nothing at all. Not even a fly.  Then, the Great One created two angels, one big and one small. Some of you have seen the angels, haven’t you?”

The little frogs agreed they had.

“The Great One told the angels to make the world, and they made it round and tall, just for us. Then the Great One created the first people. Two spawn were made from the tears of the Great One, and they were laid in a tank of tears. When they were growing, the angels brought food for them and they became the first people in the world, and that is where we came from.”

Hercules raised his webbed hand. “Please?”

The old teacher sighed. “Yes?”

“Who made maggots and flies?”

“Anyone?” invited Mrs Wartybottom.

The little frogs chanted the answer. “The Great One.”

“That’s right, because everything was made just for us people, and every one of us, even the naughty ones, will one day go to Frog Heaven.”

There was a great babble of croaks as the frogs took in this amazing thought, until Hercules raised his webbed hand. “Please?”

The old teacher sighed once more. There was always one. “Yes, Hercules.”

“How do we get there? I want to go now.”

“There’s a special doorway. You’ve all seen it, in the grown-ups’ room. Only the strongest and bravest can jump through that doorway. It’s called the Door of Darkness. It opens on the night of the full moon.”

The little frogs cringed at the words. The Door of Darkness.

“Then you must climb the Stairs of Strength. The angels will feed you as you climb. Wonderful worms, marvellous maggots and crunchy crickets. As much as you can eat as long as you climb.”

Hercules raised his webbed hand. “Please?”

The old teacher sighed. “Yes?”

“What happens at the top?”

“Anyone?” invited Mrs Wartybottom.

The other little frogs chanted the answer together. “Frog Heaven.”

“That’s right. At the top, there is the Doorway of Light and on the other side is Frog Heaven, where the world is green and bright, and water and food are everywhere.”

The next full moon, Hercules practised his jumps and they were fantastic. He bunched the huge muscles in his mighty thighs and shot into the air as if fired from a cannon. The other little frogs watched as he sailed overhead.  Hercules left the class and swaggered into the Grown-Ups room to show off. The noise was deafening inside. Huge frogs, some even bigger than Hercules, were leaping and stretching, waiting for the door to open.

The other little frogs followed Mrs Wartybottom to the grown-ups’ room.   Finally, the moment arrived and the little wooden door creaked open. Adult frogs started plopping into the doorway. Hercules leapt high into the air and vanished through the doorway, and the little brown and yellow frog cried.  Before Hercules could jump back down, the door shut and he was in darkness.

It was warm and damp behind the door. Water dripped onto his small head. A cricket chirped and he could hear its rough legs scrape over stone. Other frogs moved past him in the darkness until he was quite alone. Gradually he got used to the dark until he could see faintly. Ahead was a giant step.  Summoning all his strength, Hercules jumped and hung from the edge by his little front legs, but he was not strong enough. He fell back and landed on something squishy. Before it could slither away, he pounced. Hercules had never eaten wonderful worm before. He shoveled it into his huge mouth using his front legs until his head bulged. Down it went.

After a few more tries, Hercules managed to jump up the first step and froze. A long feeler pricked him and he pressed his body down. Chirp. Hercules knew that this was a cricket, but it was so big. Using all his courage and speed, he pounced again, crunching down hard on the cricket’s head. The green goo was the best thing he had ever tasted. By the end of the day and many more crickets, Hercules bounded up to the next step. The more he ate and jumped, the bigger and stronger he became.  He was almost at the top of the stairs when he heard the voice.

“Hello,” it croaked. It was the deepest, saddest sound he had ever heard.

“Hello,” said Hercules. “Can I eat you?”

There was a pause, then a deep chuckle. “You might try,” the voice answered.

Movement. An enormous something was on the step. “Follow me,” it said.

Scared, Hercules followed the shuffling noise, squeezing down a narrow crevice at the edge of the step. He followed and the light grew stronger. Eventually it was so bright that he couldn’t see, and the ground beneath his feet became warm. He narrowed his eyes and gasped. The world went on forever. Above was a ceiling of blue. Cool and delicious air passed over his skin, and in all directions the land was green and brown.

He whispered, “Is this Frog Heaven?

Ancient, wise eyes blinked in amusement. The toad’s skin was as dry and rough as old stone. “Foolish boy. You live in a tower ruled by a man and a woman, not by angels. You’re looking at the real world, the outside. Look down there. That black water used to be my world. That’s where I was born, one hundred and twenty years ago. Humans did that to it. Now, look up.”

Hercules saw he was sitting on a staircase winding its way up the outside of the tower. He had been climbing a similar staircase on the inside, but these steps were much wider, designed for humans and at the top was a wooden door.

“Is that…”

“Please don’t ask me again.” The toad’s dry voice was cross. “Follow me if you dare, and I’ll show you.”

It took them several hours to reach the top, helping each other over the most difficult bits of the climb. Then Hercules peeped around the door. In the gloom stood the vast angel and the tiny angel.  Smoke filled the air and stung his eyes, making him cough.  The small angel was working on a complicated machine, oiling various parts of it, turning a large handle. The vast one was also busy, lifting something limp and green out of a bucket and feeding it into a hole in the side.

“Try it now, Pierre,” she said in her bubbly voice. The man turned the handle again, and then there was a terrible noise. Wheels span and blades flashed.

“Watch, and don’t make a sound, if you value your life,” hissed the toad.

The big angel waddled to the wall and opened a small door. A ramp connected the doorway to the machine. The doorway reminded Hercules of the Doorway of Darkness, then he realised with wonder that he was looking at the Doorway of Light.  Something small and green hopped out of the door and landed on the ramp. More and more frogs came out, hopping eagerly up it. Hercules could hear their exited voices shouting praises to the Great One. When they reached the top of the ramp, they plunged into the gaping mouth of the machine.

Then something dreadful happened and Hercules wanted to scream, but the toad clamped a webbed hand over his mouth. Frogs’ legs rained down into a basket below, whilst the machine spat the remains of the faithful out of the window and they tumbled into the black pool. Their screams faded as they fell, followed by little splashes.

Hercules turned towards the toad, tears in his eyes. He was about to speak when there was a dreadful cry.

“Look at that big fat one. He’s getting away.”

The angel called Pierre seized a gleaming meat-chopper and jumped towards them. The toad grabbed Hercules and they leaped down the steps, but they couldn’t move quickly enough. The two angels were right behind them and getting nearer. Something made Hercules stop – quickly, he pulled the toad up against the side of the step. A massive shape rumbled past and for a moment it went as dark as night. The angels screamed as they plunged from the stairs, tumbling over and over. The little animals watched in astonishment as they hit the black pond headfirst and stuck fast, legs thrashing, before slowly sinking out of sight. A ghastly brown cloud belched into the air and blew away over the countryside.

One year passed, and it was time for Mrs Wartybottom’s new class to leave school.  They were sitting on a log at the edge of the pond. The green waters smelt wonderful and the air was filled with insects of all kinds. Above, the moon hung in the sky like huge round spawn. “Listen carefully, my dears, whilst I tell you about Frog Heaven.”

A large young frog raised its arm. “Please?”

She sighed. “It’s very simple really. Frog Heaven is where we live now, so be kind to each other, eat crunchy crickets and be happy. Life doesn’t get any better than this.”

Somewhere nearby, bathed in moonlight, Hercules sat next to the little brown and yellow frog and the moment was, at last, quite perfect.

A Red, Red Rose – or when florists go bad

Intro

The idea of short story ‘A Red, Red Rose’ comes from a scene in Creation, first of the 5-book vampire series Drakul. Helpless bystander Lorna King is no longer a wishful dreamer when investigator Mark Williams visits her flower shop. Thanks to Josch13 of Pixabay for the featured image.

A Red, Red Rose

The smell of freshly cut flowers used to be one of the reasons Lorna loved her job so much, the scent of spring mornings or summer’s evenings. Today the violent reds, pinks and greens struck at her eyes. The florist’s shop was tiny, situated at the end of a small parade. Sam designed the name on the white boarding above the display window and Lorna painted the words in gold and green – ‘ Red, Red Rose’.

O my Luve is like a red, red rose. That’s newly sprung in June; O my Luve is like the melody. That’s sweetly played in tune.

Sam read her the poem on their second date. The name of the shop still brought a smile to her lips, corny but somehow uplifting, and she remembered how they’d argued about that comma, when painting the sign. Sam had argued it was the mark of genius. a know-all. Humming to herself, Lorna began working on a new flower arrangement, laying out daffodils, ferns and a spray of Baby’s Breath. She picked up a red, red rose and the petals were so soft, brushing her skin as she inhaled the sickly scent.

Laura clenched her hand around the stem, feeling the sudden pain as the thorns stabbed. The sensual aromas and colours in the shop screamed. A rose bush spilled petals, each a dark red gout of blood. She wanted to go down on hands and knees, lapping them up. Moisture filled the air, as heavy and oppressive as an approaching storm.

As she cleared up the petals, Lorna wondered what Sam was doing at that moment. He had left home early that morning, agitated and unable to tell her anything about his secret work. She had lost her temper with him, swearing and so angry. She told him to go, pushing him out the door and afterwards she had cried, but the tears were of rage and not of sorrow. He phoned her a couple of times and sent texts, but she had not replied to them.

Now, the anger was returning once more, fuelled by the heady scent of roses. Lorna began to suspect Sam was snooping. Maybe he was following her, checking up on what she was doing, but she could do what she damn well liked. Lorna used his surname but in truth they weren’t married. Could have been, but as usual he hadn’t got around to it. Damn the man and damn his silly job. Lorna looked at her watch and sighed.

Outside ‘Red, Red Rose’, a dense fog had descended and pressed against the windows so that the place seemed to be floating through clouds. Blood thumped in her ears like drums thundering deep in the glossy undergrowth as a bead of sweat trickled down her ribs. She touched her throat and it was wet. Her top was sticking to her skin and she eased the fabric away, fanning herself with a roses brochure but the sweat kept on coming, until a drop ran into her eye. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked.

More sweat trickled down the inside of her thighs. She wanted to yell with frustration, but what for, she did not know. Maybe she had a fever. Maybe she should close up and go home but the very thought of home made her more annoyed. The place was claustrophobic, so much like Sam and so little like her. Sam did not really know her at all, the real Lorna. He still imagined she was a dippy flower arranger, someone ruled by emotions and impulses. A dreamer who believed in the power of red roses.

Lorna was much more than that, if only he could understand. She knew that he had never expected her to succeed – not in his heart – and he wasn’t really interested if she did. He would ask her how her day had been, but it only ever seemed to serve as an introduction to talking about his day.

Okay, Lorna had a few problems getting the business off the ground but she did look at it as a business, didn’t she? Well fuck him. She wiped her forehead on the back of her hand and had to shake off the drops. She stood sweating in the steamy, earthy shop as if she had caught malaria or yellow fever. “Jesus, it’s so sodding hot in this place.”

The word was as bitter as nutmeg on her tongue.

Lorna wasn’t just hot. She was on fire, her skin tingled and the drumming of her heart was ever louder. Finally, she went into the washroom at the back where she kept a change of clothes, because flower arranging could be a messy job. She undressed slowly, peeling her clothes off in a slow, soggy striptease until she caught sight of herself in the moisture-dappled mirror and wiped away the condensation. Her underwear clung unpleasantly. Her skin gleamed with sweat and her hair hung in damp tendrils around her face. She seemed taller, thinner.

Lorna knew she should have been worried by such changes but instead she felt secure, as if they were supposed to happen and they were strangely intimate. She piled her hair up and pinned it, splashed herself with cold water and towelled herself as much as she could. The water almost sizzled off her skin but the sweating had eased. Lorna needed something other than sex and more than love. The want gnawed at her insides. The rose thorns burned.

The doorhandle to the shop rattled. The door opened and she heard a man breathing. She heard the door close and his clothes rustled as he put his hand in his pocket and jingled his keys, the sounds startlingly loud. He took a step, then another and rubbed his chin. She heard the stubble rasp against his palm. “Hello? Is anybody there?” called the stranger.

“Yes, hang on, I’ll be out in a second.” She prayed that he would not put his head around the door as stark naked, she pulled on the dress. It was made from a silky white material patterned with roses, and seemed a little too short when it didn’t used to be. She smoothed it over her body and the dress immediately clung like a second skin. She checked herself in the mirror before she went into the shop, self-conscious but determined.

The man looked to be in his early thirties. He had not shaved, she noticed with displeasure. But he had a nice smile, wide and generous. His brown eyes were tired but warm, so different from Sam’s pallid blue gaze. The crumpled raincoat made him look like an archetypal American detective, sort of sexy if she stretched her imagination far enough.

“hi,” he said softly with wandering eyes that stroked her body. “My name’s Mark Williams. I’m a journalist – I wonder if I could ask you some questions.”

Lorna licked her lips. Questions? She didn’t want questions, she wanted sex. The shop was a steaming jungle and she was the lonely wife of the plantation manager, ignored whilst her dull husband was up-river. And now, a handsome detective had arrived and all he wanted to do was to ask questions whilst the blood thundered in her head.

“About roses?”

He smiled shyly. “I’m trying to find a missing woman. Her name’s Angelica. She’s the daughter of a wealthy industrialist – Tepesch Drakul. You may have heard of him.”

“I’m a florist. What d’you think?”

He shrugged. “It’s just that your husband knows something. So I wondered-”

“If I’d betray his confidences. You know Sam?”

He repeated his shy smile. “You’d be helping him – besides, I know when I see a woman in need. Or am I wrong?”

Then the cheeky grin hit the magic spot, and she almost gasped aloud. The stranger was not wrong. He idly picked up a rose and pricked his thumb with a sudden intake of breath. He sucked it, leaving a smear of red on his mouth.

“Wait a minute, I’ll close the shop,” she said urgently. His eyes stroked her as she walked towards the door. Lorna wanted more than stroking. She locked up and pulled down the blind before turning and leaning against it. Her knees were practically trembling.

He took off his coat and wiped his brow, pushing his dark brown hair into damp-looking spikes. “Should we go somewhere? It’s awful hot in here.” He sounded as nervous as she felt.

“Where did you have in mind?” A little voice in her head was screaming to stop, but the hunger was tearing at her guts. “How about your place?”

It was as if she was listening to someone else speaking with her voice. Guilt and sorrow were consumed like leaves in an autumn fire. Doubt flickered in his eyes. “My place? Are you sure?”

“Yes – like you said, a woman in need.” Take me to your place or I’ll do you right here and right now, on the floor of my flower shop in full view of the street.

He said he had arrived by tube and so they got in her Mini Cooper. She drove fast whilst he gave directions, his tone increasingly urgent. She watched him casting sidelong glances at her legs as the dress rode up, and she allowed it to. “This is going to be good,” he said thickly.


The journalist lived some twenty minutes away and his apartment overlooked the river, but Lorna could not care less where it was. When they arrived, he followed her up the stairs to the first floor and she was an animal on heat. She felt him watching, but not her face.

“It’s this one,” he said, fumbling with his keys. She felt like screaming.

Her stomach rumbled and the hunger felt like it was eating her alive. When he finally opened the door, she pushed him into the apartment and thrust the door closed behind her with her bottom, kicking off her shoes. He was already fighting with his crumpled raincoat and she helped him, laughing whilst he pushed up her dress. She pulled it off as he started to unbutton his shirt and she ripped it off, kissing and licking his skin. She bit him on the neck and he yelped. At the same moment, someone knocked on the door.

“Leave it,” she moaned.

The knock came again, louder and insistent. “Shit,” he said. “Shit, I’ll see who it is.”

He peered through the spy hole whilst Lorna gnawed her lip. The intensity of her emotions was scaring her. This was not sexual hunger or some mindless cruel way of getting back at Sam. This had nothing to do with him and even less to do with her and only then did she remember what had happened and it astounded Lorna.

He had come to her.

He had come, blotting out the night and swooping down on their little house and she had invited him into her room. Lorna knew his name. She knew how he travelled the stars, and the pain and ecstasy of his long, long life. She needed him, not this apology for a man. The strange eternal spark that powered him had jumped between them and now it was consuming her, a voice from the far reaches of space-time. It was whispering secrets and sending her a stream of knowledge she could not disobey.

Eat, the dark voice said. Eat, drink. It was a communion from hell.

Williams was staring through the spy hole and his erection seemed bigger than ever. Lorna pushed him aside, putting her eye to the door. A smartly dressed blonde was outside, strikingly sexy, with high cheekbones and wide-set, dark eyes. The woman peered back as her lips moved and absurdly, Lorna could understand what she was saying. It was a mix of thought and emotion, images and sounds, and the images were terrible. She was not shocked by what she saw but she knew she should have been, profoundly so.

“Do you know her?” he asked.

“She wants to join us in a threesome,” she said, wondering what that would be like as she reached for the lock.

Williams grinned as Lorna opened the door with trembling hands. The woman strode in and kissed her on the mouth. She towered over Lorna, wearing a Burberry raincoat over a short leather skirt and black stiletto-heeled boots. She smelled of cinnamon.

“Hello lover,” the woman said. The accent was central European, the voice a husky sigh, the lips kissing the words. The eyes were honey-flecked and utterly deep. Lorna knew immediately that she would do whatever the stranger told her. A silent communication bound them together and it felt right. What the stranger wanted, she wanted. Lorna sensed a sea of pain and an insatiable rage. Revenge, death for death. She looked at Williams, his shifty eyes working out an escape route as he understood he had betrayed them both. The journalist ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.

“Get him,” the blond woman hissed.

Lorna ran to the door and kicked at it. The door burst in, torn off its hinges and slammed into Williams. She reached the cowering man in two strides, grabbing the mobile as she experienced a strange feeling of detachment. She was watching a stranger that looked just like her. The face of the other Lorna was distorted by a fury she could never know. She crushed the mobile in her hand, feeling it collapse like an eggshell and dropped the tangle of broken plastic and circuit board on the rose-patterned carpet.

He shrank away. “You – you’re one of them,” he whispered. “Please don’t hurt me. I won’t say anything. I thought you liked me.”

Lorna grabbed him by the arms and dragged him to the bed, throwing him on it where he lay with knees drawn up, whimpering and begging. She felt a bone break with a dry crack and his passivity unleashed something wicked inside her. Lorna leaped upon him not knowing what she would do, only aware of the hunger. She threw him onto his back as easily as if he was a child and sat astride him panting heavily, gripping his throat. Lorna put her hand on his face before he could scream again and saliva dripped from her mouth as she lowered her head. The gush of fluid made her spasm uncontrollably and every moment of passion she had ever experienced became a shallow imitation of that single moment.

She took her hand away and Williams squealed, but that only made her burn more fiercely. She drank and felt his life force flow into her. It was a golden taste so different from the salty, metallic smell of blood.

She bit into his body repeatedly whilst his legs thrashed against the bed, until his limbs trembled and finally he lay still. The frenzy never seemed to end until she stopped from sheer exhaustion and slumped against him, satisfied and yet horrified. It did not seem possible that he could have so much blood. He lay in a small lake of crimson and she was completely drenched. The woman helped her from the bed where the remains of Mark Williams lay, and the one misty eye still stared at her reproachfully. The blood reminded her powerfully of the roses in her shop. Say it with Roses, she thought crazily.

The stranger led her to the shower. “Get cleaned up, flower girl,” she said, sounding almost kind.


“You’re Angelica, aren’t you?” the novice asked.

“Yes. Sam King’s been looking for me.”

“I don’t want you to hurt him,” Lorna was saying, her voice shaking. “Don’t. Promise me you won’t hurt him and I’ll come with you.”

Some humanity still dwelled within the girl but there were no tears in her eyes, only the unfathomable depths of her new family and Angelica was quite certain that eventually, Lorna would kill Sam.

“I promise,” Angelica said.

“I’m afraid.” Angelica could read it in Lorna’s face. She pointed a shaking hand at the bed. “What in god’s name did you make me do? I’m a florist. I sell roses.”

Angelica kissed her forehead. At the very centre of Lorna’s fear was the insurmountable thought that she might do the same thing to Sam. Angelica felt strangely moved by Lorna’s devotion, but it would not do.

“Does the farmer murder the pig when he slits its throat? Does the fisherman murder the fish, as it drowns in the air? How many countless hundreds of millions of animals are killed by humans every day? They die in fear and misery, spending their short lives in crowded prisons and they are shown no compassion or kindness. Their deaths mean nothing to humans, who buy their meat in boxes or turn them into liquids and pastes. We must feed too, Lorna dear. They are not immortals like us – humans are born to die. They are born to be food. Why else would there be so many, and so few of us?”

Lorna was not listening. “How could I have done that? Why don’t I feel anything? Suppose I hurt Sam?”

Angelica smiled despite her irritation. “You are beyond his reach and he is not important any more. He is not worthy of your love.”

“How do you know that? Have you ever loved anyone?”

Angelica held her close and looked deep into Lorna’s eyes until the girl stopped sobbing and breathed quietly. Angelica listened to her heartbeat and it was already slowing, now no more than twenty beats a minute. In a few hours the heart would hardly beat at all, ready for its long journey and her emotions would be distant memories. No such luxury awaited Angelica. How she had loved, and there would be no diminishment of her loss. She stroked back Lorna’s hair.

“Now listen to me, lover. You will go home and sleep. You will not remember any of this, and I will come to you soon.”

Lorna gazed up at her. “Will I see him? Tell me I’ll see him.”

Angelica shook her head. “No. You will not see Tepesch Drakul again. But you may send him a gift. You can say it with roses.”

Mirror Mirror – a short tale about becoming a better man

Intro

In this short story about an old mirror, Jonas begins to see the truth about himself and it’s a life-changing experience.

Mirror Mirror

Jonas Hagget made his final offer. “Look, I’ll give you all I’ve left. That’s six quid in your hand, right now, and you won’t have to take this old thing home again. You ain’t going to get a better offer.”

He held out the money and smiled innocently.

The elderly couple glanced at each other with the suggestion of a smile, and the man nodded. Jonas left the car boot sale in triumph. The mirror – his mirror now – must be worth at least two hundred. It was dark when he arrived at the small apartment he shared with his girlfriend Debbie. She was not pleased.

“I haven’t seen you all weekend, Jon. I don’t see any point in going on like this – I’m twenty-nine, and I spend more time alone now than before I moved in.”

Jonas knew what was coming next. He’d heard it before.

“You’ve got no money and no prospects. How can we have children, when I’m the only one that earns any money?” Debbie’s voice started to wobble. “I don’t think you want children, anyway.”

He hated it when she did this. “Look, you knew what I was like when you came here. How can I be someone else?”

Having made his point, he flounced to the spare bedroom to polish his new acquisition. The room, which Debbie had intended for their offspring, was already filled with junk beach-combed from numerous car boot and garage sales. He hammered a nail into the wall and hung the mirror up, stood back and looked at himself. A thirty-something year old man, heavy brows, a scowling, sallow face. Not someone to buy a mobile phone from, and yet that was his occupation. He saw Debbie enter the room and stand behind him. She used to be vivacious and attractive but she now had a permanently wistful expression.

She said, “Where did you get that piece of crap, anyway?”

“I bought it from this old couple. They had no idea how much it’s worth. You can see how ancient it is from the patina at the edges,” he said, caressing the frame.

Debbie was not interested in patina. She was looking at him in a calculating way, as if a decision was being made.

Unaware of the risk, he carried on. “There’s a slight duplication of the image, but it doesn’t matter. Look, you can see two of me.” He waved his arm in the mirror.

“I can’t see anything wrong,” she said, then added ominously, “Look, Jon. We need to talk,” and walked away.

When he entered the living room she was waiting with arms folded, and he felt his stomach lurch. “There has to be a big change, Jon.”

He swallowed. “Or…”

“Or it’s over.”

He looked at the floor between his feet, noticing a lump of chewing gum he had dropped whilst watching the big match. “Well, I’m listening,” he said cautiously, putting his foot on it.

“You don’t pay me any attention. You don’t make any money. And you go out and spend mine, drinking with your stupid mates or buying this – this junk. This crappy old mirror.”

That was going too far.

“It’s not crap. I work just as hard as you, and you should try selling mobiles, instead of giving lectures to a bunch of teenagers. You don’t know what work is.” He stood up aggressively. “You go out with your friends and now I’m going out to meet mine. I don’t want to hear any more about this, okay?”

Before she could reply, he banged out of the flat.


When he got up the next day, Debbie had already left without saying goodbye. He dressed carefully, adjusting his tie in the old mirror, and kissed his reflection. Today he would show her. The mobile phone store was located in the new, characterless shopping plaza that dominated the town centre. Jonas tried to look knowledgeable and welcoming but as always, the customers headed for his colleagues. Mr Adams the store manager looked at him and frowned. By eleven, Jonas was having a crisis of confidence, and so he slipped out to the Boots store opposite for some deodorant. He re-entered the store via the rear exit, but at the top of the stairs he ran into Adams.

“Jonas – I don’t know how you did it.”

Jonas flushed, and fumbled for an excuse. “Well, I…”

“Selling four mobiles in thirty minutes- it’s unheard of. I was going to let you go, then you do this.” Adams punched him on the shoulder.

Jonas entered the store, sensing the respectful glances. Although he had no more successes that morning, he still felt lucky. So at lunchtime he visited a betting shop to invest some of Debbie’s earnings. On return from lunch, he discovered that had sold another three mobiles. He felt proud, confused and a little scared. However, the afternoon passed quietly with no further sales. He arrived home feeling self-important, until he saw a vase of red roses.

Debbie came up to him, smiling. “Oh Jon, they’re lovely. I do love you too.”

She kissed him passionately and he responded, whilst trying to read the greeting card. As soon as she had left the room, he snatched it up. The message read, ‘To my darling Debbie, I’ll love you always, Jon. xxx’.

Jonas squeezed his eyes closed and tried to remember, but could not recollect buying the flowers. Besides, it was simply not something that he would do. Encouraged by the kiss, He helped to prepare supper and even opened a bottle of his vintage wine (£1.35p from Blackbushe market). Later that night, Debbie was feeling passionate and Jonas did his best, but he was tormented by the written message. before he went to sleep, he went to gaze into the mirror.


The next day, there was another surprise. To get back from the betting shop to the phone store, Jonas walked along the far side of the piazza, looking into the shop windows to avoid being seen. When he was opposite the phone store, he caught its reflection in a shop window. Someone that looked identical to him was working there, but this person was chatting eagerly to two customers. He turned slowly and looked again, but the man had already moved out of sight. When Jonas re-entered the store, he had miraculously sold not just three mobiles, but an incredible five, two of which had extended guarantees. He looked around, but there was no one that looked like him.

Adams shouted, “My god, man. We’ll have to order more stock just for you.”

However, Jonas did not sell a single phone that afternoon.

When he arrived home, Debbie was looking pleased with herself. She was wearing an extremely short skirt and looked flushed. “I didn’t hear you go out, Jon. Christ, you excelled yourself this time. In fact, how about another quickie before we eat?”

Jonas flopped onto the sofa. “Sure, I’ll have a gin and tonic. You look like you could do with a drink too. What you been doing, jumping up and down?”

She laughed uncertainly. “That’s one way of putting it, tiger. I didn’t mean a drink.” She sat beside him, throwing a slim, bare leg over his lap.

Tiger? Jonas felt annoyed. First, the roses. Not from him. Then, this flirtatious behaviour. She was making fun of him. These were mind-games. After all, she taught psychology, didn’t she? Maybe she really was having an affair and using these tricks to confuse him. His head pounded. Before she could make another move, he stood up abruptly.
“Sorry, but I’ve got to nip out again. The lads are expecting me at the Greyhound. You know how it is.”

He checked himself in the mirror, then walked up the road with hands in pockets and shoulders hunched, mind in turmoil. However, after spending the evening discussing women with his friends, Jonas concluded sadly that Debbie was indeed having an affair. As he looked up at their apartment, her revealing silhouette slid across the blind and when he entered the room, Debbie was lying on the rug naked, other than stilettos. Two glasses of champagne stood on the table.

“All right, where is he?” Jonas demanded, pale and angry.

Debbie was bewildered. “What?”

He stepped towards her. “I go out for a couple of hours, and you get up to this. What’s going on?”

She sat up and sniffed as a tear trickled down her cheek. “You’re frightening me, Jon. You only went out for a minute. You said that your friends were less important than us – you undressed me.” She faltered.

Jonas felt deflated. He felt that she was telling the truth, so what exactly was going on? He was either loosing his memory or his mind. “I’m going to bed. I’ve got a headache,” he snapped accusingly. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Debbie, but I’m going to find out.”

As he lay in bed trying to sleep, his brain would not be still. Someone else must be selling the phones. Someone else must also be shagging his girlfriend, because she had never looked like that after doing it with him. He would set a trap the next evening. Behave as normal all day, then catch them at it. That would do it. Jonas left work early in a foul mood.


As soon as he got home that evening, he shouted to Debbie, “I left something at work. Back in an hour.”

He went down the stairs, opened and closed the door, and hid in the cloakroom. After a little while, he heard laughter from upstairs. Since when had Debbie laughed with him like that? He continued to listen. He could hear music, a crash and more laughter. It was the little laugh she used in bed. Jonas crept up the stairs with a snarl. Now he could hear something bumping rhythmically and he knew what that meant. He pushed open the living room door and stopped in horror. His girlfriend was straddling a naked man, her bare back towards him and thrusting enthusiastically. The man saw him in the doorway, raised his head and grinned.

Jonas felt his world spin and collapse around him. Clutching his head and moaning, he ran down the stairs and left the house. He staggered down the street into the pub at the corner and ordered a double scotch. As the alcohol did its work, he tried desperately to understand what was happening to him.

It started after I brought the old mirror. That bastard shagging Debbie was my double. Where do you find doubles? In mirrors. It’s something to do with that fucking mirror.

Jonas realised that the pub had gone quiet. He’d been talking to himself. Loudly. Before the barman asked him to leave, Jonas sidled out and wandered home. Without thinking, he let himself in and climbed the stairs, then went into the spare room. He walked up to the mirror. There was nothing special about it until he looked more closely. Now he could see that the double reflection had gone and the image was sharply defined. He sat down in an old armchair behind the door and waited. After about an hour, the door swung open, partially hiding him. Footsteps crossed the room as a shadowy figure approached the mirror. As he watched, the stranger climbed into it as if the glass was a pool of liquid. Jonas switched on the light and confronted his reflection.

“I know what you’re up to. Let’s see you,” he said as firmly as he could manage.

Nothing happened at first. Then the double image separated, and from behind his true reflection the other Jonas appeared. Jonas resisted the urge to look behind himself. The three of them stared at each other – Jonas, his reflection, and the mirror Jonas. Jonas touched his head and so did his reflection, but the mirror Jonas laughed. Jonas could hear it clearly.

“What are you?” he asked quietly.

“Well, let me see. I’m what you should be. Better at work, kinder to Debbie, much better in bed. And in the living room. Who are you?”

Jonas ground his teeth. “I may be a failure at all those things matey, but at least I’m real. Now, tell me this. How did you get in there, and how come you look like me?”

The other looked at Jonas through slitted eyes. How did I get in here? That’s a secret. You need to move closer so I can tell you.”

Jonas stepped nearer and an arm shot out, grabbing his shirtfront. He felt as if he was plunging into water, and then the illusion passed and he was once more in the room, looking at the mirror, and the reflection was as before. To his surprise, the fake Jonas reached forward and took hold of the mirror’s wooden frame, and lifted it. The room Jonas was in span wildly and he fell back into empty darkness. He shouted and screamed, but there was no sound. Jonas found that he could assume any position and float, as if in space. Some distance away, he could see a rectangle of light. He tried to swim but he could not get any nearer to it, and so he closed his eyes and slept fitfully.

Jonas was awoken by the sound of his own voice. He could hear himself talking to Debbie.

“Let’s get rid of all this junk. I’ve asked someone to come round to collect it. We want to use this room for the baby, don’t we?”

“Oh, Jon, I’m so pleased. I can’t wait to get started.”

There was the sound of kissing and then panting. Jonas sat, floating in darkness, gritting his teeth. Then without warning, he felt himself propelled towards the light, where his double was standing. Jonas pressed his hands to the glass, even kicked it, but it made no difference.

“I just wanted to say goodbye,” was all his double said.

Before Jonas could reply, there was a massive shockwave that felt like an earthquake and the image in front of him shattered into hundreds of shapes. He felt himself falling and pulling apart, but there was no pain. When he opened his eyes, he was looking at the ceiling through a tiny triangular window, and he could see part of Debbie’s face looking down at him. Next to her, the new Jonas was smiling.

“Whoops,” she laughed, then swept up the shards of mirror and dumped them in the bin.

The Willow Tree – a tale of love and loneliness

Intro

Trees aways fascinate me – almost as if they possess different personalities. This short story concerns a man who falls under the influence of a malign willow tree containing the spirit of Ceridwen, and the blowhole which is her cauldron. If you missed your geography lessons, a blowhole is a sea cave where waves can explode upwards through a hole in the roof…

Willow Tree

Crumbling granite scrunched under his boots as Gavin climbed hard. He kept his head down to protect his face from the stinging spray, spitting out the saltiness. Briefly, he glanced down the windswept hillside to where the sea bellowed furiously through the blowhole. He could feel it hammering into the cave below his feet and the ground heaving in protest. The blowhole was an ancient cauldron trapped below molten lava now cooled and worn away. And this cauldron was filled with many secrets. lost in his thoughts, Gavin kept walking, until the rhythms of effort and breathing calmed his troubled mind. After a while, the angry voice of the blowhole faded to a grumble.

The cliff-top wind whipped at him viciously, awaking buried memories. Janine tanding in front of the fire, the brightness making her fair hair glow red, shining through her short dress. He recalled how her eyes had been filled with love, but not for him. And he’d wanted her badly at that moment, misreading her parted lips and flushed skin, until she spoke.

“I’ve been seeing someone else. For over two months – he works at the hotel. I think I’m in love with him – he says he loves me, so I’m leaving you. He’s picking me up tonight.”

With hindsight, he should have exploded with passion, seized her roughly, told her that she was his world, that he couldn’t live without her, made love to her, anything. Instead, he had somehow ended on the path he was now climbing. Heading up past the blowhole’s evil eye. Hearing the eternal pulsing of the waves as they shattered against the rocks, the roar of seas plunging into the cave below. Even the ground beneath his feet was alive.

And on the way, he’d called in the see the old willow.

But something else happened before you left the cottage. Can’t you remember? Won’t you remember?

He pressed his hands to his ears and shook his head, shutting out the old willow’s laughter. No! She left me, that’s all.

A little while later, Gavin made his way back to the willow tree, walking in a dream. The old tree was massive and gnarled, but able to out-dance the youngsters when storm-music played. It felt like time stopped as he talked to the old tree and touched the age-roughened bark. Later, he returned to the cottage long past dark, his problems shared and his heart at peace for a little while. That evening, he toyed some more with his half-finished novel, writing the same page over endlessly in search for the perfect sentence. The whisky did not help – each time he closed his eyes for inspiration, he heard the old willow and this time, it was laughing.


“Henry? Where the fuck are you?” Rebecca Hudson was more worried than angry as she searched for her dog. It had been well over an hour and she did not know the woods. Eventually, she caught a glimpse of a cottage through the trees, and decided she needed help. When she finally arrived, the animal was lying down in the doorway, being pampered by a gaunt weather-beaten man with long silver hair.  His clothes were work-worn, the waxed cotton jacket the colour of damp autumn leaves. He glanced up at her approach and smiled shyly.

“Your dog, I assume.”

“Thank God you found him. I don’t know how to thank you.” She tried to keep the wobble out of her voice.

“He found me. He’s had a drink and he’s fine. Red Setters are such beautiful dogs.”  He stroked its head gently.

She liked his slow voice and the clear Welsh accent, and he seemed kind. “They look nice – but they’re a bit brainless, aren’t they? Come on, Henry.”

The dog glanced at her but remained. Gavin caught her eye then and they laughed together.

“I’m Gavin Longfellow. You have leaves in your hair, by the way.”

Rebecca combed her fingers through the tangle, aware of her shapeless anorak. She smoothed it against herself instinctively.

“What an unusual name. I’m Rebecca. Rebecca Hudson.”

His reached up and his handshake was firm and confident. He seemed shy.

“Are you – do you live in this area?” he said awkwardly.

She nodded.  “I’m moving into the village. I’m an artist. I sell paintings on the web – or try to – so I can live anywhere as long as there’s WIFI, and it’s cheap. Somewhere I like.”

He kicked off his mud-encrusted boots and stepped into the cottage. “Why don’t you stay for tea? I’m not doing anything else and it looks like rain’s coming. And I do have WIFI.”

Rebecca paused. The place was isolated. Thunder rumbled on cue. There was something about him – an air of secrecy. She got the impression it had been an effort for him to ask.

He was smiling at her. “I don’t bite – unless it’s full moon.”

She paused. “Okay – but I can’t stay long. I’m not even sure where I am.”

Inside, the cottage was simplicity. Oak floorboards, white walls and ceiling. Water from the well, candlelight. The rough walls were a metre thick and the blackened fireplace must have seen five hundred winters. The man and the old house belonged to the wild landscape. Rebecca handed him her coat and pushed back her long dark hair before sitting at the table. He hung her coat next to his on the back of the door. Henry lay down beneath the table and stretched out.

“What do you do out here?”

As he filled the kettle, he explained. “I mostly write bland magazine articles, but I’m also working on a novel.”

She studied him. “What about?”

He sat down opposite, and she saw something in his face momentarily. Sadness? Or wariness. He seemed to find it difficult to explain.

“It’s set here, in Devon – and it’s about a group of people re-living a Celtic myth about Ceridwen and her magical cauldron. Anyway – towards the end, the main characters understand what’s happening to them and they try to change their fate, but of course they can’t. It’s supposed to be romantic, exciting and a little sad.”

“So, do they live happily ever after?”

He got up to make the tea, and served it with scones, jam and cream. The cream smelled off. “I haven’t decided. Can people change their fate, do you think?”

“They must be able to. I have to beleive that.”

After tea, Gavin took her to see his willow, tree and she was touched by his affection for it. Yet at the same time, the old tree disturbed her. She could almost imagine a face etched into the crevices and whorls, and it was not a pleasant one. “What’s the deal with the willow – if you don’t mind me asking?”

“This old woman’s my friend. I come here to share my problems. She listens and accepts who I am. We usually find the answer, between us.”

“She?”

“I imagine the willow tree is Ceridwen, from an old Welsh legend. She was mother to a hideous son, Morfran, and a beautiful daughter called Creirwy. Her cauldron created life. “

She said, “Ceridwen’s a long way from home, then.”

He gave her a curious look. These are all Celtic lands, Rebecca. Maybe the tale came from here. There’s something else you should see. I like to think it’s her cauldron.”

Rebecca found the blowhole awe-inspiring and evil. A vast, grass-lined funnel narrowing to a small black orifice that breathed in and out as the waves pulsed underneath. To her, it was a pursed wet mouth inhaling the living world, rather than creating. She held his arm as she peered into it.

“What is it?”

“Under the blowhole there’s a big cave. It was made by waves throwing boulders and stones. Sometimes, you can see waves jet through the blowhole – like a whale spouting. You can enter the cave from the bottom of the cliff, but it’s really dangerous. No one goes near it.”

She shivered and crossed her arms. “Why, what would happen?”

“You’d most likely be pounded to bits. The boulders get tossed around like a grinding machine. You can even feel the vibrations through the ground.”

“It’s horrible. I think it’s alive and wants to eat me.”

He laughed, although she had not been entirely joking. “They used to sacrifice people, in times gone by. Usually virgins, according to the local vicar.”

He almost seemed angry as he spoke. She moved back from the danger, but the blowhole seemed to pull at her. They walked on further, finding a place to watch the sun slide into the smooth red ocean before heading back together to the cottage, and she stayed much longer than she had intended.

After a few weeks, Gavin invited Rebecca to move in until she found a place of her own and she duly agreed. Later, when she was unpacking her few things, she had a surprise.

“Gavin, whose are these clothes, in the wardrobe?”

When he came into the room, she was holding a leather miniskirt against herself. “Look at these boots, too. Red stilettos. Not my style.”

He seemed confused. “I forgot all about those. They were Janine’s. She liked to wear that kind of thing. Her clubbing gear, she called it. I should take it to a charity shop – thanks for reminding me.”

“Not much clubbing around here, is there? Were you, was she…”

“My girlfriend. She left over a year ago. We weren’t compatible. Actually, she found someone younger and more exciting. Someone who liked clubbing.”

She laughed to hide her embarassment. “She must have left in a hurry then. How long was she with you?”

“About six months – look, she just took everything she needed and went off with him. Spain or somewhere. She was like that, impulsive, crazy. Look – I don’t want to talk about her, now that you’re here. But you can wear the clothes if you want.” He grinned.

As the months passed, Rebecca grew accustomed to Gavin. She appreciated his small signals of affection and decided she was comfortable with understatement.  One evening they sat on the beach, talking, watching the gentle waves suck and nudge the pebbles. He gazed out to sea and sighed. It was the sound of a heavy burden.

“Penny for them?”

“I’m not someone who can show his emotions easily – sometimes I feel so tight, like nothing can get out. Like the old willow tree.”

She stroked his hand. “Some people are like that. Your feelings swim deep and surface rarely – like a whale. That doesn’t mean that you feel any less. Others are like the Flying Fish, skimming along, letting off little bursts of emotion for everyone to see. Does that mean that they feel more than you?”

“I don’t know. I hope not. Whale, eh? I suppose that’s better than a Flying Fish.” He attempted a smile.

Only then, finally, did she understand. “You loved Janine, didn’t you?”

He cast a stone into the sea. “I can’t remember. It’s like she was never here.”

“But she was.”

He turned to her. “I love you, Rebecca.” The words struggled out. “And the past doesn’t matter.”

She said quietly, “I love you too.” But she suspected he was wrong about the past.

A few weeks later, Rebecca opened a small art studio down by the harbour, but it was her new friends that visited the cottage, not his. He told her he was content simply to watch her paint. He said he liked the way her neck curved. The way that the light caught the transparent blueness of her eyes and turned them the colour of the sea. Rebecca was increasingly unsettled, and could not tell him why. Once, Gavin found her weeping but they were tears of anger. After, she mused how Janine was still there in so many ways. Not just the clothes. His sad glances, and the small, personal things a woman would not leave behind. Eventually, Rebecca could bear no more. She had to know, even if it killed her.


Gavin was with the search party when they found Rebecca on the shore at first light, spat from the cave in the cliffs by the retreating tide. Henry was by her side, whining anxiously. For days afterwards, Gavin sat by her hospital bed, holding her unfeeling hand and watching the respirator puff in and out, sighing like the willow tree.

“She will wake up, won’t she?” Gavin asked her mother, a brusque, stocky woman.

She looked at him curiously and for a moment, he felt he was looking back in time. He caught a glimpse of long black hair, her face a pale oval, her eyes commanding.

She said, “Only the power of love can save her now. Call to her, Gavin.”

Gavin found himself studying the monitors with detached interest, sometimes almost unaware of Rebecca lying in front of him. He told her that he needed her, he begged her to come back, but his heart felt dead.  But when the wind blew, he heard the sighing of the willow tree and within, a woman’s voice and warmth grew within his heart. He reached for Rebecca’s hand and his skin was burning.

“Come back to me,” he whispered, at first so quietly that the words were invisible. “I love you. I need you. Please come back.”

Nothing changed. When Gavin finally returned to the cottage, he found her letter and it was a hammer blow. It read, ‘I know you killed Janine. I think you put her body down the blowhole. I have to know.’

All the terrible memories he had hidden flooded back. He felt he could not breathe. He staggered outside and took gasping breaths, even tried beating his fists on his chest. A little while later, he found himself walking through the aspen groves once more until he found the old willow tree. It alone seemed to listen and understand. Gavin stood for hours, moving backwards and forwards in time with the swaying branches, until the singing wind soothed away his pain. He worked his bare feet into the cool soil, letting it ooze between his toes and the smell of the decaying leaves was sweet. Then he rubbed his hands over the cracked bark and then laid his face against its coolness. Slowly, he fell to his knees.

“Ceridwen, I know you can hear me. I hear you talking to the others when the air is quiet. Ceridwen make her well, give her life and I will do what you want..”

He didn’t remember going back to the cottage, and the next two days passed in high fever. On the third day he awoke clear-headed. He managed to walk barefoot to the clearing in the woods, and he did not return.

When spring finally broke, the aspens burst into silvery leaf.


“Find him, Henry. Find him for me.”

Rebecca walked between the trees whilst the red setter jogged and zigzagged, snuffling the ground. It was as if the very land had swallowed Gavin up, but she had to find him, she had to. All the time she had lain in the coma, he had been in her dreams. Sometimes she heard his voice, and felt the hot wetness of his tears. The day she awoke seemed as only yesterday, but later, she learned that two years had passed in a second as she lay in the hospital bed.

Now, Gavin’s cottage was a dusty ruin and her love long gone, although she had seen him only a little while ago in her mind. Gavin the lover, Gavin the murderer. She did not believe he could kill. She walked into the aspen grove, finding her way to the old willow tree. When she touched it, she knew the tree did not want her there.

The police had found two shattered skeletons in the cave below the blowhole, belonging to a man and a woman. They told her the man was Gavin, but she had refused to accept it. Standing beside the ancient tree, she wondered if she had somehow deserved what came to pass. Finally, she wiped her eyes and called to Henry. He remained where he was, pawing at the base of a small new willow tree and whining. The young tree swayed and whispered with the aspens, sharing its feelings with earth, sea and sky. Only then did she believe she would not see him again.

Langley – or ancient evils never die

Intro

I wrote this haunted house short story a long time ago – it might have been my first attempt at a short story!

Langley

Peggy Joint’s gnarled hand fumbled with the latch before she entered the garden of Langley Hall. Soon after, the ritual commenced. Her shrivelled lips mouthed the ancient words that she and her mother had used each year at the same spot. As she struggled with the weight of the stone, movement caught her eye.

“Someone in the hall at last. Now we’ll see.” She stared at the outline of a woman silhouetted against one of the bedroom windows.


Laura Overton stared down into the unkempt garden. “David, someone’s there. An old woman dressed in black. She’s just standing by the gate, staring at me.”

David pulled his jacket around him and shivered. “It’s just a nosy local, then. Why did your grandmother leave you this place? You haven’t seen her for years.”

“I saw her when I could. It’s not easy getting to Dartmoor from London. I seem to recall that you were always too busy with your rehearsals, whenever I suggested it.”

“You’re here now. No crowds and no pressure.  Just what the doctor ordered.”

She could see his breath cloud the air. The damp made her bones ache.

He pointed to the large rectangular outline above the marble fireplace.  “The previous occupants certainly stripped the place bare.”

“Oh, that’s where the picture of a man and woman used to hang. It used to creep me out. I wonder what happened to it. I’m glad it’s not there.”

He pulled her to him – for warmth, she suspected. “It’s funny how we remember odd details, isn’t it.”

She barely heard him. “The house feels so familiar, somehow. I can’t have been here more than once or twice.”

“Mmm.” His not-interested sound.

“David, you’re shivering – once our stuff arrives and the house heats up it’ll be really snug, you’ll see.”

He grinned. “There’s only one place we can get warm quickly, Laura. Come on, you can share my sleeping bag tonight.”

It was the first time that they had made love for some while.


The next morning, she lay in bed watching the pallid sun rise through bare branches, and listened to the silence. Her husband’s voice, berating an unfortunate member of his orchestra down the phone, destroyed the moment. She gripped the sleeping bag tightly, and willed herself to relax.

When David reappeared, Laura was standing by the window wrapped in a blanket. “I can’t leave them for a single day, Laura. They’re worse than-“

She hated the anger in his voice, and how quick he could change. “David, you promised not to do that here, remember?”

“Okay, you’re right, honey.  It’s just that we’re only two weeks away from the recording session.”

He put his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder, and then a silence developed as he chose the words. Taking her hand, he looked at her using his sincere face.

“Laura – look, something’s come up. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go back to London today. Will you be all right here?”

She looked at him quizzically. “I’ll have to be, won’t I? You know I’ve got an interview at Buckfastleigh library, David.”

He said with reluctance, “If you want me to stay, I can rearrange…”

“No, no. I’m happy to be alone here. I feel wanted. Don’t you feel it too?”

He shook his head. “Not really. It’s cold, and I keep cracking my head on beams.”

Over breakfast, David talked animatedly about his latest project, and how perfect Miranda was for the lead. The body of a dancer. Such a clear voice and perfect pitch. Laura would fall in love her, should she come to stay. She would be a good friend. Laura felt relieved when the Mercedes finally drove out of the gates. David’s restless energy would have soon turned to irritability.

Miranda. Laura dared not dwell on the image created by that name for a moment longer. She knew that it was only her anxiety. The same primordial force that had made her fail as a university lecturer and forced her away from the city.  Langley would help David’s composing and there was plenty of room in the house for his music studio or his colleagues, come to that. Feeling more positive, Laura donned her walking gear. She would spend the morning on the moors, exploring the old silver mines.

Fog was already beginning to fill the valley as she entered the garden, but the brown back of Holne Moor rose above it, reminding her of a surfacing whale. Gnarled fruit trees reached above the greyness and the silence pressed down. Laura felt the breath catch in her throat. A child was standing in the garden, staring at her. Laura stifled the urge to cry out. The little girl seemed unreal. Laura began to speak, but as the fog wreathed about her the child faded to an outline.

She felt sick. She dared not tell David that she was imagining things again – not after what she had put him through these last few months. Summoning her courage, Laura walked forwards, intent on challenging the illusion until she stubbed her foot painfully. She knelt, carefully parting the tangled grass stems to uncover an ancient headstone, cracked by frost. It had fallen on top of a square black rock. She pulled the headstone clear. The name and dates had been weathered away. She rolled the black stone away with some difficulty, but it revealed no more about the occupant. She shivered involuntarily as the damp wind chilled her back, before heading back the house. When a fox shrieked behind her, she ran. 

David did not call that night.

The removal van arrived the next morning. She left the two men unpacking whilst she went to her interview and when she returned, they had already taken all that she possessed inside. It seemed to make little impact on the enormous house, but now it was undoubtedly home.  Laura took some leftovers outside for the fox. Despite the hill fog, there was no mistaking the figure, standing near the grave.

“Why are you here again?” Laura faltered.

It wasn’t a child this time. The old woman walked over to Laura, and held out her crooked hand.

When Laura took it, she found herself looking into an ancient face with young eyes.

“It were you that moved the black stone.” The old woman sounded angry.

Laura was taken aback. “It’s my house and my garden. I own Langley.”

The bony hand gripped tightly. “Listen to me, girl. You are in danger. Take great care.”

Laura felt angry. “David and I can take care of ourselves…”

“Not him. No, not him at all.”

Laura freed her hand with difficulty. “I don’t want you in my garden.”

“my name be Peggy Joint. You will find me when you needs me.”

She hobbled back up the garden towards the gate, leaning heavily on a black stick. Laura followed, and watched her leave before returning to the house, the expedition forgotten. She focused on the forthcoming interview, forcing the unpleasantness from her mind.

That evening, Laura was seated beside a comforting log fire when her mobile rang.

“Hi, how did it go today?” said David’s distant voice.

“I’ve got the job –I had to go by taxi, but I think I could cycle there in future.  All our things arrived, so that just leaves twenty boxes to unpack. How about you?  When will you be home?”

An awkward pause. “Ah. Listen, I can’t come back until the weekend. I’m sorry but it’s out of my hands.”

Before she could stop the words, Laura asked, “and how’s Miranda getting along?”

Another pause. “She’s fine, Laura. I’ve invited her to Langley, so you can meet her. I’m sure you’ll become friends.”

Laura felt her skin prickle. “I’m sure we shall.”


It was Laura’s second night alone. She slept in her tracksuit, duvet pulled over her head. As sleep came she heard the cattle lowing on the moor and her fox barked close by. However, she did not sleep well and awoke from a dream, damp with sweat. Only when she was unpacking books the next day did the dream snap into focus, and it made her gasp.

She walked to the Green Man pub for lunch. Whilst the barman poured her cider, Laura caught sight of herself in the mirror over the bar, framed by two bottles of scotch. Blond hair framed wide-set green eyes, a passionate mouth veiled by humour. Maybe a worry line or two. Why should she worry about Miranda?

“New ‘ere?” The old barman held the glass he was polishing glass up to the pale light.

Laura sipped her red wine. “Yes. I’m Laura Overton. I own Langley now.”

He blew his nose noisily. “Ah. So you’re a Mortlock, are you?”

She smiled. “Yes, that’s right. I was left the house by Alice when she died.  Did you know the family?”

“I certainly knew Eden, your grandmother. She were a character all right. I can even remember her mother, Agatha, although she was quite different.”

She took another sip of the wine. “How d’you mean?”

“Nervous, like. Eden and me were at school together, in Scorriton. After John died, Agatha moved to the Scilly Isles with Eden and rented out the house.”

She absorbed the information. “Right.”

He extended his hand. “my name’s Abe Carter.”

Laura shook hands. “Why’s there a grave in the garden?”

Abe’s eyes widened. “I remembers now. That be where John Mortlock were buried. Your great grandfather, in fact. I’d forgotten all about that.”

Laura was intrigued. “You have to tell me more,” she said.

Abe laughed. “Am I teasing you? I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you much. I were just a boy at the time, and there was a lot of kids’ tales. He made his money making false teeth.”

She laughed at that. “Really?”

He nodded seriously. “Aye, for folks in London, they says.”

She wondered if he was pulling her leg. “Go on.”

“The story went that he were a bad lot. Womanising and gambling. He did something very bad, a murder – and God punished him for it. He were burned to death. I suppose that the villagers felt that he shouldn’t be buried in the family crypt after that.”

Laura remembered the woman in the fog. “Is the house haunted?” She tried to sound casual.

He looked at her seriously. “They say that a giant black hound comes down from the moor at full moon.”

Laura detected a twinkle. “I’ll remember to get you one back,” she laughed.

The image of the woman with the cruel smile haunted her as she walked back to the house. “Unpacking should keep me busy,” she muttered to herself.  Later, as she reached into the first packing case, she froze. Floorboards creaked somewhere upstairs. Feeling strangely detached, she walked to the foot of the stairs and looked up. She started to climb, her pale face damp with sweat. When she saw the swinging cord that dangled from the attic trapdoor, fear rose in her throat.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” she whispered to herself.

She reached up and pulled down the trapdoor and the retractable ladder, then went up as in a dream. It took what little courage that she possessed to look into the attic. She could see that it was empty from the faint light thrown from a small gable window. Her legs felt weak as she stood in the middle of the attic. Dense swathes of cobwebs hung around her and thick dust was underfoot. A dark rectangular shape sat in the far corner.

Laura groped her way to it, snatching cobwebs from her hair and discovered several dusty paintings covered with sacking. Instinctively, she picked one out and then something brushed past her face. She screamed then scrambled down the ladder, shaking but triumphant.

As night fell, Laura lit the log fire and settled back comfortably. She sipped her sherry and contemplated the picture above the fireplace. It had fitted perfectly into the rectangle of clean wallpaper and now the man and woman looked back at her. She wondered why it had bothered her so as a child. The couple wore dowdy Victorian clothing. She was beautiful and smiled warmly but her eyes were sad. A little girl held her hand. He stood proudly, one foot planted victoriously upon a chair, hand on hip. He had a thin mouth that turned down at the corners and he looked at the others possessively. Laura did not like him, and even as she studied his face the forgotten dream switched back on.

“Don’t hurt me, please don’t. I can’t see.” Then came the blue flash and the huge noise. it made her ears sing.

Car headlights swept the room, breaking the thread of her thoughts and the memory died. She opened the door expectantly, and David walked towards her. The slim silhouette of a girl was behind him. Laura put her arms around his neck and kissed him warmly, but she felt him pull away.

“This is Miranda.”  Miranda.

Laura took Miranda’s small, cold hand. “You’re freezing. Come in, sit by the fire.” She managed a smile.

Whilst David brought in the suitcases, Laura led the girl to the sitting room and settled her by the fire. “Let me get you a drink. What would you like?”

Miranda rubbed her small hands together. “Anything with alcohol, Laura. No, make it a brandy.”

Laura studied Miranda as she sipped the brandy, noting the dangerously sultry brown eyes, perfect skin and pearly teeth. Miranda had everything. Pert breasts pushing against her alpaca sweater, short tight skirt, slim legs, sexy boots. Laura glanced at herself. Baggy old slippers, shapeless tracksuit trousers and top, no make-up.

“Excuse me a minute, I need to smarten up.”

“No need on my behalf, Laura. You look lovely.” Liar.

Laura chose her outfit carefully, not wanting to reveal her feelings about Miranda, but acutely aware of them.

Over dinner, which Miranda did not help prepare, Laura watched her husband. She was wearing a tight-fitting outfit that fell open to reveal her thigh. Her gold hair was piled up showing the smooth curve of her neck. However, his eyes were pulled back to Miranda’s sexuality. It was as if he could smell her animal attraction. The way she stroked the stem of her glass. Catching her bottom lip in her pearly teeth when he spoke.

“How long are you staying here for, Miranda?” asked Laura. She tried to sound relaxed.

“David and I have to go back on Sunday night, don’t we?” She had the nerve to put out her hand and touch David’s cheek.

David leaned away imperceptibly. “Yes, next week’s the dress rehearsal. Why don’t you come back with us, Laura?”

Laura felt like the odd one out. “It’s my first week at work. Otherwise I’d love to. Perhaps I’ll take a day off. When is it?”

“Thursday,” David answered.


The next morning, David took Miranda on a tour of the garden whilst his wife peeled potatoes. She watched them through the kitchen window. Miranda even looked sexy in outdoor gear. Then she took David by the arm and pulled herself into him. He glanced back at the house guiltily and waved when he saw Laura watching. Laura did not wave back. She left the kitchen and went to the bedroom, but could not see them anymore. Then she looked at the grave of John Mortlock, purveyor of false teeth, and realised that he was the man in the painting. The man with a murderer’s face. For a crazy moment, Laura wondered if she had inherited a haunted house.

Later that day, Laura told David and Miranda about the grave and the painting. When they finally left for London, Laura sat alone in front of the painting, with a sense of foreboding that grew steadily worse as the evening passed. Some trick of the light made it seem as if John Mortlock was watching her. Laura became aware of her isolation, and then the rising wind moaned down the chimney like a voice. She put the fireguard in place and went to bed.

She awoke with a start. It was first light and a blackbird was singing. A vague memory was diminishing, and Laura focused on it. Part of a dream, it was the woman from the painting. What did she say? Laura could not recall. For a moment there was an image of an attractive face with worried eyes, and a feeling that she should remember something – a warning of some kind, maybe. Laura shook her head, frustrated.

She enjoyed the first day at work. The staff were friendly and made her feel welcome. Then she visited Dr Jameson.

The young Scot studied her. “Laura, sit down. You look well.”

“I wish it were true, doctor. I still feel sick all the time. I’m sure I should still take Prozac or something.”

He took her hand, kindly. “Now listen, Laura. You can’t have any more medication.”

She was given a lift back to Langley by Theresa Bailey, a trainee therapist.

“So why did you kiss Doctor Jameson? And what was it like?”

Laura laughed. “It wasn’t like that, Theresa.  I’m pregnant. It’s just perfect, isn’t it?”  It was the key to her future.

As Theresa said goodbye to Laura, she added, “It’s going to be a bad one tonight. I should oil those old shutters if I was you.”

Laura unlocked the front door, happy to be home. She went through to the kitchen, looking forward to telling David the news when he arrived back. Without warning, a bag was pulled over her head, and something was clamped over her nose and mouth. Then consciousness faded away and she fell to the floor, her last thoughts about her baby. When she came to, she felt nauseous. She tried to move her hands to protect herself, but they were tied behind her back. It was dark. Laura was inside the boot of a car. Tears came at that point – from fear, not self pity. Laura thought that she would wet herself with fear, and every nerve in her body was on fire with anticipation.

After what seemed like hours, the car stopped abruptly and her head cracked so hard on the spare wheel that she felt blood trickle down her face. Footsteps approached and when the boot was opened, the wind came in with a roar. Laura was pulled out roughly and stood unsteadily, teeth chattering as cold rain hammered onto her head.

“Who are you? What – what do you want?” she screamed into the wind.

She knew the female voice that answered. “The house. We want Langley, without you in it.”

Anger seared through her then. “Let me see you.”

Hands fumbled at her neck and then the bag was pulled off. David looked ashen but determined. Miranda licked her top lip and smiled a cruel smile.

“Look at you. You’re so boring. Especially in bed.”

“You’re crazy. David, you can’t want to do this. You love me.”

It didn’t make any sense. Laura kept thinking the same words.

The car was parked by an electricity pylon and the lip of the quarry was only a few yards away. Laura became fully aware of her predicament. The power cables sang mournfully in the wind.

“When you don’t turn up for work, they’ll try to find you but it’ll take a day or two. They’ll assume that you went for a walk, and fell,” Miranda shouted into the wind.

“You can’t do this. David, please-”

“Kneel down, Laura.”

Miranda pushed the sobbing woman to her knees as David walked back from the car, holding a tyre iron.

“David, listen to me. We’re having a baby. Please don’t hurt me,” Laura pleaded.

Miranda laughed, and held out her hand for the iron. “She’s lying to save herself. Give it to me.”

Laura stared at David. His eyes met hers and he hesitated. For a moment, Laura thought she saw someone else looking out from his eyes. He began to speak.

Laura was blinded by a blue flash so bright that it made her cry out. A dazzling arc of lightning played on top of the electricity pylon and showers of white-hot sparks cascaded around them. Even as the three watched, a power cable broke free and whipped through the air. Miranda’s head flew into the darkness of the quarry, and in the same instant the cable stabbed into David’s neck like a striking snake. He jerked convulsively and then erupted into flames.

Laura was still kneeling when Peggy found her at first light.

With Peggy’s help over the following weeks, Laura managed to recover from the trauma. She asked the old woman to live in Langley with her to help with the baby. One summer evening, when the baby had settled, she walked in the garden with the old lady. They stopped by the grave.

“Peggy, what really happened to John Mortlock?”

“Does you want to know, Laura?”

Laura nodded.

“He were an evil man, Laura. He had a mistress in London. She were called Kitty, I think. They planned to kill Agatha and Eden for the house. They took them to the quarry during a terrible storm, but John were killed by a lightning strike and Kitty were no match for Agatha. She escaped but were caught making her way back to London.”

“What happened to Kitty?” asked Laura.

“She were sent to Princeton jail and executed. Hung by the neck.”

Laura looked at the grave. “What’s the black stone for, Peggy?” The old woman tapped it with her stick. “It’s a devil stone, dear, to keep him there. You shouldn’t move a devil stone. Not never.”

The Ancient Relative – or the pursuit of perfection

Intro

I wrote the short story Ancient Relative quite some time ago now, thinking about how different from us our far future descendants might become, to cope with the world we are currently creating.

The Ancient Relative

“Rinse away, please.” 

The final patient of the day gobbed a mixture of filling, rotten tooth and spit into the silver funnel, to be whooshed away with a gurgle. Alan’s back ached after nine hours of picking, drilling and filling. His head ached from endlessly giving his new assistant the same instructions. At last he was done for the day and for the week. It was Friday – and his wife Maria was away for the weekend.

He knew that Maria Turner-Smythe was considered by some to be pushing forward the frontiers of the paranormal, and by others to be completely dotty.  A year ago, she had been elected Chairperson of WUU (Women of the Universe Unite), a radical group dedicated to linking all females regardless of the constraints of race, space or time. Since then, she had spent so much time on the Internet or at UFO conferences that Alan rarely saw her, so every cloud did indeed have a silvery lining. This weekend was a climactic event for Maria. She was to give the keynote address at the WUU Annual Conference.

…Which left him alone to play with his cactus collection. Filling tiny pots with the right mixture of soil and sand. Lovingly writing on the little labels. And best of all, sprinkling the tiny seeds on top, each with its tiny spark of miraculous life. To Alan, they were his children. The large greenhouse, originally constructed for Maria to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and other necessities was now filled with an alien landscape of cacti that resembled everything from small green hedgehogs to enormous grey-haired phalluses, and the floor was thick with sand.

The greenhouse was Alan’s home planet.

As Alan scrubbed flowerpots in the kitchen sink, his thoughts turned to his wife. He could not understand Maria’s obsession with WUU. Could it be possibly to do with him? But he was rational and in no way obsessive. She had become increasingly obsessive about the whole subject of UFOs and had been convinced by fellow WUU members that THEY were already here, controlling the media and advertising.  Maria explained to him that the only way of avoiding intergalactic warfare was for females of every intelligent race in the universe to get together and do their networking. 

Alan wondered whether he should try to get involved in WUU, so that they could share an interest.  Could men really participate in networking? Cactuses had failed as a form of communication between him and Maria. She made it very clear that she did not like extracting spines from her fingers, and the holiday to the Peruvian desert had not been a success. 

Pleasantly exhausted from another two hours of sieving and mixing soils, he sat on the patio supping a pint of beer and reading Cactus Grower’s Weekly, but at the back of his mind was a niggling thought. What could be so interesting about the possibility of life on other planets, when there were so many different types of Cactus on Earth?  If only Maria could try to understand the importance of his interests.

He sighed and went indoors. 

The kitchen could wait to the morrow. Its work surfaces were covered in the dirtiest flowerpots, destined for the dishwasher. Soil and sand seemed to be everywhere.  He smiled at the prospect of potting up his babies, then climbed the stairs wearily, a Cactus Keepers’ Annual under his arm.

As usual, he donned his striped cotton pyjamas, buttoned to the neck, pushed the lank strands of hair across his shining scalp, and of course, brushed his teeth properly for five minutes. Once in bed, he blew the dandruff from his glasses and placed them on top of the annual before snuggling under his duvet. His last thought before falling asleep was the hope that aliens might be half-human and half-cactus, thus unifying his interests with those of his wife.


At about 3 a.m., Alan awoke with a terrible pain in the chest.

His first thought was that he was having a heart attack, but he could not move his arms either. As his eyes adjusted to the light, his thinning hair tried to stand on end. There was someone sitting on him.  He worked his dry mouth and a strangled croak came out. The stranger made a dry rasping noise like a wood-boring insect. Alan could now see that it was indeed a huge insect of some kind. Very thin (but quite heavy), shiny like moulded plastic. Hairy too. The head was a smooth oval shape like a hazelnut, with a hooked mouth and bug eyes. It looked like some kind of praying mantis. Alan kicked his legs furiously until two gleaming claws waved into the air and clamped them fast. He relaxed, and to his surprise the creature nodded sagely.

Still holding him, it scuttled off the bed and then let go. Alan floated about one metre in the air, he estimated vaguely. His body started to rotate ever faster and as he span, he could see two streams of silver liquid being jetted over him from the sides of the creature’s head. Eventually he was encased in silver. Rather than being terrified, he felt drowsy and strangely relaxed.

When Alan awoke for the second time, he was sitting in what looked like his favourite armchair, but it was located in a room so big that he could not see the ceiling or the walls. There was only a silvery-white glow that faded into the distance. Nearby there was a new greenhouse of breathtaking proportions. He stood up, not noticing that his skinny body was quite naked, and walked over to it. Inside was the biggest collection of cacti he had ever seen, and at least half of the species nearby were unknown.  Te greenhouse seemed to go on endlessly. He walked through it for some time until he came to a white door. He entered and stopped in surprise.

The room was just like his lounge, complete with television and shelves filled with reference books. In front of the television sat a very old man, also naked other than his white beard, which was long enough to hide his genitals.  The old man looked up from reading an ancient cactus manual.

“Welcome, my friend. Do make yourself comfortable. Tea?”

Alan was so astonished that he sat down on the sofa, and was handed a Dresden china cup filled with an aromatic brew of Earl Grey tea.

“I know you like Earl Grey tea, Alan.”

Alan smiled. “Yes, it’s my favourite.  Now, I’m being very calm because I am a dentist, but I don’t think I can continue much longer. Who are you?”

As he spoke, his hand trembled, spilling some of the tea.

“I am Marcus Turner. My son married Wendy Smythe in 1879 thus creating the Turner-Smythe line, so you are my direct descendent, carrying the obsessive potting gene into the future.”

“Okay,” Alan said slowly, and took a sip of tea. “Go on.”

“It’s very simple, really.  The people that live in this city collected me when they were gathering cacti. They thought that I was a natural part of the greenhouse ecosystem, and I suppose I am.”

Alan started to worry. He did not want to take over as the curator of this alien collection.  “So why am I here? I mean, it’s very nice to meet you, Marcus, but…well, you’re just like me…”

Marcus shook his woolly head emphatically. “Not very interesting, you mean? You’re here for a different purpose, Alan.  You are here because you have something that they need.”

“What?”

The old man smiled. “You have cactus DNA in your body. Didn’t you know?”

Alan recalled the Sci-Fi channel. “Are they going to put something in my brain?”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Alfresia will explain it to you herself. She’ll be right along any minute.”

Alan heard the scaly scratching noise again and shrank back in fear. As the door opened, long black antennae waved in the air. In the strange white light, it did not seem so horrifying.  It was about the size of a human and walked like a human, but the body was as thin as pipe cleaners and seemed to be made of a beetle-like substance, black and shiny. Its shoulders were spiny, its fingers long and thin. It walked up to Alan and held out one of its repulsive claws. Years of etiquette kicked in and he took it then gasped as his fingers were crushed and his arm pumped up and down vigorously.  Then it turned to Marcus and started to speak.

“She says, put this in your ear so you can understand what she is saying,” Marcus translated. He opened his hand and on his palm was a shiny little worm. Alan prodded it doubtfully and it curled into a defensive ball.  He counted to five and placed the worm in his ear. There was a pleasant sensation like warm eardrops, and that was all.

“Alan, can you understand me?”  The voice was distant and tinny, but definitely feminine.

“Yes.  It’s remarkable. But what the hell is going on?  I demand to be taken home immediately. You…you…,” he clenched his bony fists in rage.

“Follow me, Alan,” she replied, then hopped up and strode from the room.  He had to walk fast to keep up and did not have time to say goodbye to Marcus.  They entered another long white corridor, and then the spindly insect figure stepped into a room.

When Alan entered, his jaw dropped. It was his dental surgery, complete in almost every detail, including the faded Van Gogh print and the tropical fish.  Alfresia was waiting by the chair and had donned a white coat. Alan wandered forward in a daze and settled into the chair.  The creature leaned over him. She was wearing a surgical mask above which her huge, multi-celled eyes reflected his face a thousand times. She turned and picked up a syringe from the instrument tray.

“Wait- I’m not quite ready for this,” he babbled, and a bead of sweat ran down his face.

“Alan, I am just going to numb your mouth a little bit. I have to take a skin sample and we don’t want it to hurt.” 

Before he could stall her anymore, she injected his gum with surprising skill. “There, not so bad, was it?  Would you like to sit and read a magazine for a few minutes, whilst I prepare for the next stage?” She waved a claw at a chair.

Alan sat, naked, reading a special issue of Cactus Almanac. It contained species that he knew could not come from Earth because of their colours – blue, red and purple. A few minutes later it was time.

“Nice and numb now, Alan?”

“Mmmm.”

He settled back and Alfresia turned with a long, silver blade in her claw. The creature looked at him with her head tilted to one side, and then made a curious grating sound. She moved so quickly that he did not have time to react, and then triumphantly held up a sliver of skin, before dropping it into a small metal container. There was no blood. The implement she used seemed to cauterise as it cut.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it, Alan? Would you like to wash out your mouth?”

She held out a cup of purple mouthwash, and he swizzled it then spat into a silver funnel.  She handed him a paper towel.

“Can I go now?”  He was incoherent.

She removed the facemask.

“Alan, try to understand me.  Right now, we are on Earth. We are the humans of the distant future and we need your DNA for our survival. You could call us genetic engineers, modifying our race so we can survive in hostile environments.  That’s why we travel the universe, collecting other cactuses and merging their genes with ours, but it all started with you. The planet has changed a lot, you know.”

He was shocked beyond belief. “You mean…?”

She laughed. “Yes, Alan. Only you can provide us with the essential genetic material. And your wife also interests us.”

“What, you want to take Maria as well?”

Alfresia looked like she might be trying to frown. “Why are males so stupid?” she asked via the earworm. “We are a race of females. We want to join WUU. So you must tell her that we will visit again soon. Goodbye, Alan.”


Alan felt he was falling and spinning. Streaks of light whizzed past and translucent veils parted, and then he stopped. Cautiously he opened an eye and looked around.

“Holy Christ, what the hell are you doing? Look at the state of the kitchen.” Maria sounded equally annoyed and astonished.

He was still stark naked, lying on his back on the cushion linoleum floor, and a small worm had just dropped from his ear.

“Maria, thank God it’s you. Thank God.”   Alan sobbed with relief.

She looked at him. “Honestly, Alan, you really need to get out more. Why don’t you look up an ancient relative?”

The girl with tattoos – or be careful what you wish for

Intro

A short story about a girl with tattoos who is not what she seems.

The girl with tattoos

Jason was strictly nocturnal, his life an endless round of night clubs, dark streets and immorality. Until one year ago, he had been studying philosophy at a London university and if you asked Jason why he dropped out, he would find it hard to explain, but it was to do with taste and the pursuit of truth.

Not any more.

After he had lived life on the other side, he could never go back. The other side was like diving into cool water on a scorching day. An initial shock, but afterwards everything so clear and real. Living on the other side had initially sated his primeval urges, but drugs and women no longer kept the devouring hunger at bay. He needed more, and something about his look betrayed his insatiable need.

“Your name Jason?” Her voice was rough from too many cigarettes and hard living.

He could only see her outline against the garish lights, but the little he could make out was enough. The nightclub music pounded through his body, exciting his senses to snapping point.

“Who wants to know?” he shouted back, moving up close.

Instead of replying, she walked towards the exit. The blasts of red light offered her silhouette to him until the excitement grew unbearable. He followed, a dog after a bitch in heat, curious, hungry. Outside, the air was a cool damp caress, soft on his fevered skin. He was about to call out to her, telling to stop when a man spoke.

“I’ll pay you five hundred.”

The man stood in front of car headlights, but Jason could see that he was big and well spoken, the voice authoritative.

“Legal?” Jason asked, his face screwed up against the light. He hoped it would not be.

“You don’t need to know.”

“What’s the job?”

A pause. “I want you to follow someone. She works nights, like you. I want to know what she’s up to. That’s all, to start with.”

“Half now,” Jason said, testing.

The man held out a brown envelope. “There’s two hundred and fifty and everything you need to know. Be here tomorrow, same time. If you do well, I’ve got a bigger job.”

“Wait – is it dangerous?”

The man smiled. He climbed in the car and reversed fast down the alleyway. Jason caught a glimpse of something lean, expensive and silver under the streetlights. Tyres shrieked.

He left the club a couple of hours later and walked back to his apartment through deserted alleyways, kicking at empty cans and takeaway boxes. Once inside, safe behind the deadbolts he lay back in the cream leather recliner and tore open the envelope. He tossed the bundle of notes on the glass table without bothering to count, and looked at the two sheets of paper. One of them was a list of locations and he knew most of them well. Nightclubs and bars the inexperienced would be wise to avoid.

The other was a photograph of a girl with tattoos.

She looked to be in her early twenties, with features that were almost Asian, her eyes almond-shaped and slanted, pale skin, many tattoos. Silvery hair, dark streaks. Those lips – they set his pulse racing. Poutingly full, with an enticing gap full of promise. The photograph looked like it had been taken in a nightclub. The girl with tattoos was wearing a skimpy mini-skirt and top, not much else that he could see. Her eyes had caught the flashlight and gleamed red. He stared at the photograph, memorised the face, tossed the paper on top of the money. The sun was beginning to rise and a grey light crept across the room. Jason was asleep before the first bird began to sing.


Jason awoke in the early evening, spending an hour on the phone setting up illicit deals for the night, put on his leather jacket, checked his stubble was the right length and set off. He did not find her until late. He leaned against the bar, watching the way she moved on the dance floor. A space had developed around her as the other dancers stopped to watch. She danced as if the music was not just inside her, but part of her being. She seemed to be wired up to the speakers, and every move made him want her more. Her sexuality was like a disease, spreading to every man around and eyes gleamed with a feral light as they stared.

The girl with tattoos turned, shaking her body seductively, and he could feel energy lance between them. Her eyes momentarily caught his but Jason turned away, glancing at her in the mirror over the bar, and she knew he was watching. She was dancing for him now but he said nothing, made no move. He followed her around three clubs watching her toy with men, teasing and rejecting them, shopping. At three a.m. she clicked her heels from the last nightclub and headed for a taxi, accompanied by a tall black man with a shaved head. Jason made his way to the meeting place and waited.

“Hello, Jason.”  The car headlights cut into Jason’s eyes as he turned to look at the man. “What did she do?”

Jason told him.

“That’s unfortunate. Do you want to do some more work for me?”

Jason’s instincts warned him against it, but he needed the money and he wanted the girl more. “Sure.”

Jason walked to his apartment, fixed himself a coffee and tore open the envelope. This time there was a lot of money and he did not need to count it. He put his hand back into the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper, on which was written ‘Take her home. Do not let her go with anyone. Don’t touch her. Do not go into her apartment. She will ask you.”

The girl with tattoos was already at the club when Jason arrived, and so he settled down with a vodka coke, watching her in the mirrors on the wall. She drew a lot of attention, dancing suggestively in a black skin-tight body suit – latex or similar – the light reflecting off her curves, laughing as she moved between couples, drawing hostile stares from the other women.  Jason turned away to order another drink and when he turned back she was next to him. A breast brushed against him and it felt electric.

“He asked you to watch me.” Her voice was soft, not English. “What did he say?”

Jason pushed back his streaked hair. “Only to make sure you were okay, to get you home.”

The girl with tattoos laughed. “Alone.”

“Yeah. Alone,” he agreed.

She ran her hand around his neck. He could feel her long nails crease his skin, then her lips brushed his ear. “OK, Jason. That’s your name, isn’t it? Come and dance with me, then you can take me home.”

Any contact with her made him burn up. He followed her onto the dance floor. At first it was intoxicating, but he soon became self conscious as the other dancers stopped to look. When he stepped back from her, she continued to dance alone until a man stepped forward and moved against her. Jason warned him. The man looked tough, but the girl pushed him away and turned to Jason.

“Come on. Do your job.” She took his hand and he led her from the club.

Outside, it had been raining and wet pavements flickered under the neon. He waved down a cab and they jumped inside. As soon as they were seated together, she was upon him in frenzy and he lost all sense of time. When the cab arrived at her address, Jason fought to calm himself and control the lust hazing his mind.

“Are you coming in?”

He shook his head. “Sorry.”

The girl with tattoos drew back her top lip in an animal snarl. “Bastard. Useless bastard.”

Jason recoiled in surprise at her fury. “Look, I get paid for this. At least tell me your name.”

“Carla.” She almost spat the words at him and ran to the door.

Jason felt tired. It was three a.m. again and the rain was coming down hard. He took the cab back to the club, and was already waiting in the alley when the long silver sports car glided in. The lights were left on as usual, pinning Jason against the wall. He heard the door slam, steps approached then the man spoke.

“You passed the first test. Here’s the final assignment.”

He held out the brown envelope, and Jason took it reluctantly. It was heavy this time. Before the man turned to leave, Jason stopped him.

“Who is she?”

The seconds ticked by. “She’s death.”

Before Jason could ask him more, the man turned away, walked to the car.  Jason dragged himself back to his apartment. He looked at the brown envelope and contemplated throwing it away, but the bulk of it told him that there was a lot of money this time. He threw the envelope unopened on his coffee table. It landed with a dull clunk.


Jason woke up at midday, and watched the news over coffee, but then he saw a face that he recognised.  “…was found murdered last night,” droned the newsreader.

Curious, he picked up the brown envelope and emptied the contents on the floor. The gun seemed strangely light in his hand. He released the magazine. It was loaded with bullets tipped with black. He ejected one and tapped it with his nail. The weapon was slim, made of some lightweight grey alloy.  He studied the sheet of paper. Six words.

Kill her. Or we kill you.

Jason poured himself a whisky, and looked out the window. It was dusk, streetlights a dingy orange. A storm was brewing, the skyline flickering with distant lightning, thumps of thunder.  He started to count the money.  £5000 this time, half now, half later.  Jason lay back and toyed with the possibilities, wondering how much a life was worth. He had been seen with the girl, but so had others. If he did the job quickly at her place, no one would know. He could be back at his own apartment in good time.  His conscience was overwhelmed by hunger. He realised that he wanted to kill and he wanted blood. He had no choice.

Breaking into her apartment proved to be easier than expected. A ground floor window was not closed properly. Jason climbed in quickly and shut the window behind him. Inside, the rooms were unusual. They looked almost unlived in, apart from the bed with its black satin sheets. The bathroom was empty, nothing in the medicine cabinet, no make-up, no towels. In the kitchen, same story. Empty fridge, empty larder. He sat down in the living room, wondering about what kind of person she could be, and waited. The sound of a key in the lock woke him.  He moved silently, taking position behind the door but the girl with tattoos did not enter the room. He cursed and peered around it. She was following someone into the bedroom – a man. He waited, his palms slippery with sweat, wondering what to do.  What difference would another killing make?

Then he heard it.

The sound was halfway between pain and pleasure, somehow animal. Jason smiled appreciatively but the smile froze when he heard the other sound – the hiss of a snake, but too loud. Not human. The moan was changing to something liquid. Without thinking, Jason ran into the room, gun raised.

Carla was sitting with her narrow back to him, long legs astride a naked man, head lowered, thrusting. The man’s limbs dangled lifelessly. This was not making love. It was feeding.

As he squeezed the trigger, she was inexplicably in front of him, her hand a band of fire around his wrist. He could feel her nails drawing blood as he looked at her.

“Hello, Jason. Come to kill me?” The girl with tattoos let go of him, laughing.

He looked into her eyes and they were mesmerising, drawing him close, her touch burning hot. She pushed him on top of the dead stranger and was on him, ripping open his trousers. Her breath panted against the skin of his neck and then the hissing began and when she sucked the warm liquid from him it was better than sex. He closed his eyes and gave himself to her.


When Jason awoke, everything was changed. He had no appetite for food or drink. The tiled floor was not cold against his bare feet, he could not feel himself breathing. At the same time, he could hear a barrage of noise coming from all directions. It was if the walls separating the apartment from the others had been dissolved away, and he even could smell the body warmth of the inhabitants. Only then did he start to feel the hunger and it ate at his insides like acid as saliva gushed into his mouth.  He walked into the living room to find her sitting in front of the fire and she was still naked.

“How do you feel?”

“I feel alive.”

The girl with tattoos laughed, mouth wide. Eyes slitted, cat-faced. “That’s amusing,” she replied, purring.

“I have a job to do. The man-”

She stroked his face. “I want you to kill him, for me. Use the gun.”

“Who is he?”

“He pays the weak and foolish – dispensable people – to kill my kind.”

Your kind?” She rose, and kissed him on the mouth. “Our kind.”

Meteorite – short story about a life-changing experience

The short story Meteorite was written for a competition rather a long time ago, and did quite well although I lost the certificate. it’s a tribute to the famous movie the Body Snatchers.

Meteorite

Max looked at the clouds anxiously.

“Typical.” 

Only an hour ago, he had painstakingly pegged quantities of voluminous underwear and bedding onto the washing line in his manicured back garden. Now they would all have to be draped around the inside of the small terraced house, making it untidy. Sighing at life’s hardships, he paused the rail-travel DVD he had been watching, heaved his vast bulk from the armchair and waddled into the garden.

Max lived a solitary fussy life, deriving secret satisfaction from his numerous obsessions, the best of which was cleanliness. The only person he would allow into the house was his twin brother Thomas because he shared many of the same afflictions. Thomas was coming round later that same day and staying for supper. Max knew that he would comment on the laundry drying in the house. He carefully took down and rolled up each pair of socks from the line and placed them in a black bin-liner but when he came to the first of the sheets, he stopped.

“That’s odd. That’s very odd.”

Two round holes had been burnt neatly through the sheet. He peered through one at the tidy house, and made a mental note that the curtains had not been drawn back evenly. Then he noticed that the two holes in the sheet were identical in size, and perfectly round, slightly black around the edge.  They had been burnt. He walked around to the back of the washing line, which was a large rotating frame on a pole. The duvet cover also had two holes burned through it, but these were lower down. Max walked back to the sheet and then lined up the uppermost hole in the sheet with the corresponding one in the duvet. Through the two holes he could see the perfectly mown grass. And something else.

When Max’s twin brother Thomas arrived, Max opened the door in a state of wild excitement. “Thomas, come into the garden. It’s like… a dream come true.”

Thomas followed Max’s equally rotund form through the house to find him waiting next to the washing line with legs and arms spread wide.

“Don’t come any closer,” he said. “They might be dangerous.”

Thomas stopped next to him. “I can’t see anything. What do you mean?” He screwed up his fat face and peered about.

Max pushed the glasses back up his button nose. “Look at the grass, and tell me what you can see.”

Thomas looked. “Rocks?” He sounded disappointed at the anticlimax.

Max laughed delightedly and a little crazily. “I’ll give you a clue. Look at the washing.”

Thomas showed signs of frustration. His nose twitched irritably. “Something has burned holes in the washing. Hot rocks. Where could they have come from? Volcanoes?  Too far away from England, never mind Woking. Good God, they must be…Meteorites.”

Max had hoped to be able to tell him. “Of course they are, Thomas,” he said condescendingly.

The meteorites resembled lumps of coal half-buried in the lawn. Max pulled on his yellow kitchen gloves and knelt down on a newspaper.

“Careful, Max.” 

They had both read the same sci-fi stories as children – meteorites that emitted strange green light bringing dire consequences, or alien bacteria that could change people into vegetables while they slept. Even so, Max prised the rocks out of the soil with a trowel and dropped them into a salad bowl before carrying them proudly into the kitchen. In a moment of generosity he handed Thomas the magnifying glass. “You look first,” he said.

Thomas bent over the rocks. “Mmm,” he mouthed. He moved the glass around and looked up.

“Well?”

Thomas blinked through his thick glasses. “They’re black, with bits of blue. They look like… well, they’re just rocks.”

“Just? Just? What do you mean, just?” Max hated that word. It was so weak.

He snatched the magnifying glass back, but after a while he had to agree. “Well, they are rocks, but there’s a lot more to it than that, Thomas. These are history-making. They must be three or four billion years old, for a start.”

Reverently, he placed the bowl containing the meteorites on the window ledge before preparing lunch, which took them a long time to eat.  They spent an excellent afternoon together researching meteorites on the Internet, joining discussion groups with others around the world who had similar luck. Finally, it was time for Thomas to leave and Max was getting anxious to do his ironing.  At the door, Thomas lingered until Max realised what was going on.

“I don’t think you can have one, Thomas. They are part of the –” he paused, searching for an excuse, “scientific record.”

Max knew he had upset his brother. He watched him waddle down the front path, a lonely bear-like shape in the dusk. Then he locked the front door, and rushed to the kitchen to study the meteorites.

“Oh no. No, no,” he gasped. Thomas.  There was only one rock in the bowl now. Max lowered himself wearily into the chair, the bowl on his lap, and looked at the remaining rock, puzzled. Was it bigger than it had been? A reckless sensation took control and he watched detachedly as one of his plump fingers moved towards the rock and pushed it. The rock felt warm and slightly yielding. Gaining confidence, Max watched his hand enclose the rock and then he was looking at it resting in his plump palm.

“So, Thomas didn’t take one. They must have joined together,” he muttered. “Hmm. Perhaps I can see the join.” Then he sat up. “That’s strange.”

The rock looked different. Before, it had looked like a lump of coal, but now he could see that the surface was covered in tiny pits. It was a more pleasing shape, too. When he stroked its surface, the rock definitely felt faintly squishy. A small voice deep in his brain was begging him to put the rock down. With a huge effort of will he eventually did so, and mopped his florid face. When he checked the time he was shocked. It was 2 a.m.


The next morning, Max called his brother. “It’s Max. Look, did you come round here this morning?”

“No, you just woke me up.”

Silence followed until finally Max said, “It’s gone. Both of them have gone.”

“What? What are you talking about, Max? I’ll come round, okay?”

Max was waiting for him. “After you left there was only one meteorite in the bowl, and now there are none.”

Thomas sounded unsure if he was being accused. “I haven’t been back to your house. I wanted to have one of the rocks but you said they were part of the scientific record, remember?”

“If you didn’t take it, Thomas, then where is it?”

“What do you think, Max?”

Max shook his head. “How should I know? Maybe they joined together somehow. I’ve got no idea, alright?”  He was close to tears.

The brothers decided to search the house. Max puffed up the stairs. He had not been upstairs for some while, as he slept on the ground floor and he found the physical effort too much. He searched the bedrooms first. They were mostly filled with piles of dusty, unopened Internet purchases and little else. Then he approached the bathroom and saw that the door was slightly ajar. He pushed it open and looked in cautiously. The room had no window and was dark. He reached up with some difficulty and pulled the light cord. There was a click, but nothing else happened. Peering into the gloom, Max had the feeling that something was not right. Where the toilet bowl should be, there was something bigger. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he could make out the shape of a person sitting on the toilet.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

He listened. At first there was no sound, then after a moment, he distinctly heard breathing, and saw slight movement. Then a faint green light began to grow around the toilet. Max stood and stared, too scared to move. Now he could definitely make out the body of a person, but it was not sitting on the toilet as he had first thought. It seemed to be growing out of the bowl, like a plant in a pot. The lower half was a ridged green column, similar to a cucumber, which then merged into what resembled a human torso, albeit a green and spiny one. The figure had rudimentary arms and a stub of a head with a slit which pursed out as it breathed.

Even as he watched, the slit trembled. Two dimples started to pucker inwards above it where eyes should be. Max felt a dull pain in his chest and realised he had not exhaled for some time. He finally did so, noisily. Immediately, the cucumber-thing shivered and the stubby head moved in his direction. Max fled from the room and locked the door behind him, then went down the stairs as fast as he dared.

“Thomas, I…” Words failed to form.

His brother looked at him with alarm. “What on earth’s the matter?”

“Oh, Thomas. There’s something awful upstairs. Something is growing out of the toilet. I’m sure it’s the meteorite.”

“Wait here whilst I go and look,” Thomas said. He gave Max a glass of water and then climbed the stairs.

Max could hear the steps creak, complainingly under the weight.  He heard the bathroom door open and he strained to listen. He was sure he could hear a voice. Thomas must be talking to it. For a moment, he thought he could hear a second voice that rasped unpleasantly, but then the door closed. He sat and waited, heart thumping in his ears. It was a while before he heard the creak of the stairs once more. Thomas was coming down them surprisingly quickly, and he did not say a word to Max, but left the house immediately.

Wondering what could have happened, Max laboriously climbed the stairs a second time, once more peering into the bathroom. Now, he could see that there was nothing in the toilet bowl, but on the floor lay something like a mucous coated fur-ball. But this particular fur-ball would fill a suitcase and an unpleasant, sweet smell made him choke. Starting to feel queasy, Max shut the bathroom door once more. With an awful sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he returned to the living room and sat down, wondering what to do. One thing was clear, the bathroom would need a clean.


The next morning, Thomas opened the door, and looked surprised. “Hello,” he said.

Max was nonplussed. “Er, hello, Thomas.”

“Thomas. That’s right,” Thomas murmured, and then he said “Come in.”

Max entered the house, peering about suspiciously. Thomas had returned to his chair where he had been reading. Max was shocked to see that it was a men’s magazine with a scantily-clad female on the cover. He looked around. His brother had been busy reorganising the room. His collections of books about trains and Victorian kitchens were piled up by the back door. The curtains were open so that sunlight flooded into the drab room. On the wall, Thomas had been testing different shades of paint.

“What’s going on?” Max demanded.

Thomas smiled. “Which colour do you like the best? I like the cream myself. Look, there are real floorboards under this green carpet. They’ll polish up nicely. I can expose the fireplace as well. Lovely old bricks.”

Max examined his brother. Thomas seemed taller and slimmer. There was something else – he was not wearing his glasses. Thomas always wore glasses.

Thomas read his thoughts. “Contact lenses, Max. You should try them. Now, what’s the problem?”

Max remembered why he’d come. “There was something revolting on the bathroom floor – I nearly threw up when I cleared the room up. You were there last one in there. What happened when you went in?”

Thomas shook his head sadly. “Max, listen to me. There was nothing in the room.”

Max felt annoyed. “There was. You were talking to it. You were there for ages.”

“I needed the toilet, I can’t help how long it takes. I always talk to myself when I’m on the toilet.”

“All right, explain the fur-ball thing.”

“Probably something that died. Maybe a cat got in the house.”

“It was too big. Besides, you said there was nothing in the room. Didn’t you see a fur-ball?”

Thomas said not. Max felt deflated. He went back to his own house with Thomas, who bounded up the stairs. Max puffed behind him. When he got to the bathroom, Thomas was standing in the centre of the room, licking his lips and fingers.

“The room was just like it is now. Nothing happened.”

Thomas seemed to have forgotten all about the existence of the meteorites.  Max was a little frightened by his brother.


Over the next two months, Thomas changed. To start with, Max was startled to see his brother jogging past the house, wearing a vast red track suit. Thomas jogged further and faster every day and the weight seemed to fall away. Compared to Max he seemed so energetic. He ate all the time and he read book after book. Most surprising of all, were the women. When Max phoned to invite Thomas round, Thomas said that he was too busy. But when Max walked round to his brother’s house he could hear what was going on inside quite clearly.

Max was not stupid. He had watched the ‘Body Snatchers’ film. He was now certain that the giant fur-ball on the bathroom floor had been the real Thomas when the cucumber-man took his place. Now the cucumber-man was living it up, enjoying Thomas’s life to the full. He was reading men’s magazines in his trendy terraced pied-a-terre with its pine floors and minimalist decorations, enjoying the company of attractive young ladies or hanging out at the fitness centre. His faded brown Morris Minor had been replaced by some ridiculous sports car. It was embarrassing. It was evil and embarrassing. No, not embarrassing. Evil and Annoying. Not evil, exactly.

It was unfair.

Max walked home, lost in thought. Unfair. The word had shaken him to the core. As soon as he arrived, he started to search for the meteorite. He looked everywhere. He was beginning to despair when at last he found it, jammed deep down the back of the cupboard in the kitchen, as if it had been trying to burrow its way out. Max pulled the meteorite out of its prison, feeling the warmth and softness. He could feel life. As quickly as he could, he stumped up the stairs for the very last time and dropped the rock into the toilet bowl. Then he sat down on the floor, and waited for his cucumber-man to grow.

Iceman – a winter’s tale of crossing time

Intro

A tale inspired by a skiing injury and the discovery of Otzi the iceman.

Iceman

Kris Jarrett stared at his leg, still anchored to the ski that failed to detach. The leg had a new joint, half way down his shin. He wasn’t surprised, he’d heard the dry crack as he fell.  On the far side of Kornock the village of Turrach nestled beside the frozen lake, lights twinking in the frozen air. He knew that no one would come this far off-piste, it was already six p.m. and the lifts were closed.  He was not scared – he was angry. Arrogance had made him break the most basic of rules and on the mountain, rule-breakers paid the price. Kris was determined not to panic, not yet. Fifty years of living in the mountains had taught him how to survive.

“This might hurt,” he muttered to himself. He calmed his mind in preparation, breathing deeply, bent forward and pushed the release mechanism on the binding with his ski pole, pulling his leg from the ski. The pain took a while to start, and then it blew through his body like a firestorm. The scream echoed off the crags like the cry of some mystical beast. He lay back, nauseous.  The wind chill was extreme, freezing skin, numbing fingers.  He lost time at that point.

When Kris eventually surfaced and forced his eyes open, the world was alien, the sky dancing with stars. The wind had dropped, and the surface of the mountainside sparkled in the pale blue light. The lights of the village had gone. He checked his leg. An ominous patch of pink was spreading through the snow. Again his instincts took control, and he focused his thoughts on stabilising the leg. Kris decided to use the ski pole as a splint, and one of the skis as a crutch. He would have to descend on the other ski, at least until he was low enough to dig a snow hole for the night. He made a mental list of what he must do, concentrating on the first task. Over the next five minutes, the pain would be extreme.

Kris started by strapping the ski pole to the top of the ski boot, breathing in short gasps. The boot lay limp in the snow as if his foot was detached from his body. Despite his ski gloves, his fingers felt like sausages, thick with cold. Clenching his jaw, he tried to straighten the break, starting by aligning the boot with his body. The sensation of grating bones frightened him, and a sudden flare of pain made him pull his hand away with a cry: a spike of white bone had lanced into it. He swore, pulling the break hard, straightening it, before falling back into the snow, covering his face with his hands to hide the sobs. It was a further ten minutes before he could sit up and complete the splint, binding the top of the ski pole to his leg using his scarf.

Now there was a chance of survival. Shaking with cold, he pulled himself up and balanced on his good leg, and looked around for the ski.  It was not there! God Almighty, he only had one ski. The other ski pole had also gone. He remembered taking it off after he fell, but where in God’s name was it?  He felt so tired now. Perhaps he should just lie down in the snow and sleep until morning.

His first attempt took him two metres before he crashed into a pocket of snowdrift. His ski sank a metre below the surface and the prospect of two broken legs flashed through his mind. He waited until his breathing calmed, listening to the silence. Softly, the wind started to skim snow over the icy crust into his face. The hissing increased, and he looked up. Clouds were boiling across the moon and he could smell the snow before it started falling. Big, soft flakes whirled down out of the blueness and collected on his goggles and he was dreaming of home; the fire cracking in the stone hearth, his brother Hans, serving gluwein in pewter tankards. His cows would be breathing out clouds of steam and eating the summer’s hay in the barn behind the big house. He would see them again.

“Give me strength,” he shouted into the snow, and the words echoed from Kornock. The mountain was laughing at him. 

Kris realised that he was desperately thirsty, and collected some snow, cramming it into his mouth. It melted away to nothing, bitter. As he lay there, his thoughts began to wander again. He began to remember his childhood, helping his father on the farm, working on the slopes. The pistes were crowded with noisy tourists and assaulted by machines, smashing and taming the snows each night but he liked the long mountain walks more than anything, because of the solitude. One summer they had walked in the mountains of Slovenia, staying in remote huts with the other travellers, singing songs around the fire.

Images flicked past. Races, the sensation of flying across the slopes, legs jarring, the wind tearing at his face, followed by images of his body, blue and still, lying buried in snow until the Spring. As the cold lulled him to an easy death, he could see his oldest son winning his first championship, and then the moment of his birth, the happiness on his wife’s face as she held the baby.

He heard a noise.

He lay quietly, listening and straining to see through the driving snow. A shape moving through the blizzard. A man. Loping across the snow, moving easily on snowshoes, at one with his world.

Kris called out. “Friend, I am here. Thank God you found me.” The wind blew the words away.

A deep chuckle. The man spoke in a strange language, familiar yet impossible to understand. When the figure came into focus, Kris could not help his reaction.

“God almighty” he whispered to himself, and then pulled off his snow-caked goggles to see more clearly. 

The iceman was dressed thickly in animal skins lined with straw. A shaggy hat of sheepskin came down to his shoulders, a hunting bow of wood across his back. However, it was his face that surprised Kris, because he had seen it so often in the classic features of mountain people, the large, broad nose and heavy brows, thick beard, leathery skin and laughing eyes. It was not a face of this time. The stranger shuffled up to Kris, and reached down with a thick arm. Kris took hold and was pulled up with great strength.

The iceman said something, pointing at the ski and motioning for Kris to take it off.  Kris did as he was told, standing unsteadily, holding the ski for balance. The stranger picked up the ski and ran his gloved hand along it, face filled with wonder. He hefted it, considering what it might be useful for then came to a decision, and threw it away. He reached out and took Kris’s arm, leaned down and lifted him across his shoulders. Kris could smell the strong tang of sweat and fur as he was carried downhill effortlessly. The man was strong. 

After what seemed like hours, they were deep in the forest. The iceman was heading for a cave, although Kris had never noticed one before. Once inside, the iceman lowered him gently onto a bed of hay.  A fire glowed at the back of the cave, the flickering light playing over drawings painted on the walls. Kris lost all sense of time and place. The drawings depicted mammoths and other wildlife that had died out long ago, but the colours were bright and the animals seemed to move in the firelight.

The iceman brought cool water in a leather flask. Kris drank hungrily.

“Who are you?” Kris asked, wiping his mouth.

The iceman cocked his head to one side, looking at him steadily. He pushed his matted hair from his eyes, and then pointed to himself. “Arthik.”

Kris imitated the man and pointed to himself. “Kris,” he said.

To his surprise, Arthik held out his hand, and they shook. He spoke rapidly, and Kris did not understand a word. He tried to show that he did not understand, but Arthik simply shrugged and walked to the back of the cave. He returned with a strip of dried meat and offered it to Kris. Something swung out from his neck and caught the firelight,  a crystal of rose quartz, hanging from a cord of plaited leather. Kris took the strip of dried meat and thanked him. Then, as he ate, Arthik started to paint on the cave wall, dipping his fingers into a pot of red liquid. Kris watched him in awe.

The man was a skilled artist, and before his eyes, Kris saw the figure of a man take form. The man was a skier, crouched, balanced to traverse a steep slope and Kris realised that Arthik must have been watching him before he fell. When Arthik had finished, he patted the wall with his hand and held out the pot of paint. Then he came across, and reached down, helping Kris to stand. Patiently, he helped Kris across the cave, and then took paint and put in on his palm, before doing the same himself. He pressed his open palm to the cave wall, then took Kris’s hand and pressed it alongside his own.

As the fire crackled and spat, Kris drifted off to sleep. The cry of wolves hunting in the forest nearby did not disturb him.

When Kris awoke, it was light and he was alone. “Arthik?”

There was no reply.

He realised that there was no sign of a fire and the iceman was gone. He was not lying on a bed of hay, but on the cold, hard ground. He tried to stand, but was so stiff and sore that it seemed to take an age before he could hobble to the cave entrance. Kris started to struggle into the snow, and had only travelled a few hundred metres when a distant shout stopped him. Someone was calling his name.  

“I’m here!” he yelled, and the voice answered.

Bright red showed between the trees as his rescuers approached.


Kris told no one of his experience and no one pressed him for an explanation. His friends and family had been surprised that he had fallen, and shocked that he had gone skiing in such a dangerous place. Kris avoided the subject. It was hard to explain why a man of fifty would try to achieve what he had failed to do when twenty-five. The incident was best forgotten. His leg mended and by the spring, Kris was already taking long walks, when he could find the time. One Sunday afternoon he was walking with Hans not far from the forest where he was found, when the story came out.

“Hans, you remember where you found me?”

“Sure. Not too far away from here. Somewhere in the forest.”

The two brothers continued to climb the path, and Kris did not answer for a while. “There’s a cave there. It was strange. After I broke my leg, I became delirious. I dreamed that an iceman found me and took me to this cave. It was so real! His name was Arthik. He fed me- then he painted, on the walls of the cave. But when I awoke in the morning, everything was gone. He had this ornament around his neck. Rose quartz.” He rubbed his face, wondering.

Hans grunted. “Bad injuries do that. Make you dream when you’re awake.”

Kris was irritated by his brother’s answer. “I want to find the cave.”

“Sure, why not?”

They descended into the woods, and Kris visualised the route someone would take from where he had fallen. He led Hans across the mountainside, until he saw rocks through the trees. This was the place.

“This is where he brought me,” he shouted, limping towards the cave.

The light was dim and mellow, the air dry and old, like a crypt.  “He laid me down here, on a bed of hay. There was a fire over there,” he pointed.

Hans walked to the back of the cave. “Just dust here now,” he said, kicking at it. A cloud of earth flew up, clouding the air.

Kris walked over to the wall. “Come and look at this,” he said in amazement. As Hans watched, Kris held his hand against the faint remains of a handprint.

“I did that, next to his handprint. Look, you can see it too,” he mused, pointing.

Hans looked closely. “These look like they were done a long time ago. You can see where lichens have grown over them.” Then he fell silent and stared. Painted on the wall, next to the faint outline of a mammoth was the weathered drawing of a skier. Some of the painting had gone but there was no doubt as to what it was.

“Is that you?” he asked quietly.

Kris nodded. “I watched him paint it.”

Hans went to the back of the cave again, lost for words. Where he had kicked the earth away, something caught his eye. The two men dug away the earth. There was something, hard and yellow-stained. They dug some more and then sat back, astonished. It was an ancient skull. Next to the vertebrae of the neck lay a crystal of rose quartz.