EYES SHUT

I am really pleased to be able to feature the beginnings of a novel from a brand new author. I think its BRILLIANT. But I am biased as I have known the author for many years and always loved his non fiction work too.

You’ll enjoy this very much – as always, please share, and share the word, lets get more new authors on here!

EYES SHUT

David W. Gifford

Chapter 1

           For now, forget the author’s name on the book jacket, I’m the author, Hawk Hawkins. How so? Someone is out to kill me—that’s how so. I get killed, he takes over, simple as that. No joke!

           That’s where you come in—I need a reader to help me get through this, alive, and you’re it. As long as we’re on the same page, I’m going to be chatting with you just like this. You okay with that? Cool. More on my predicament later. Oh, one more thing, as you can tell already, this is not a typical suspense nove. Buckle up!

To get you involved on this mid June, rainy morning, you and I are waiting for an old friend of mine, Joe Cervie, at The Hilltop Family Restaurant in Erie, Pennsylvania, both here celebrating the thirtieth reunion of our high school graduating class, my first ever class reunion.

Yesterday morning, standing in line at hotel registration, Joe came up and reintroduced himself, the first time he and I talked or laid eyes on each other since  graduation.

“Hey, John Hawkins, good to see you, it’s been a law-u-n-g time.”

John? John who? Back in high school everybody called me Hawk. Weird. Amnesia?

We shake hands. Pain. Joe’s a knuckle buster. Insecurity problems, right?

“It sure has been, Joe, a very long time, but you look the same,” I lied jokingly.

“Yeah, who you kidding?”, said Joe. Read my mind.

Truth told, I wouldn’t have recognized Joe Cervi in a Police Lineup. Changed almost beyond recognition? You think I’m showing some age? Joe is the Dorian Gray of our high school yearbook. First, it was his eyes: dark, film covered, corpse like, eyes. No exaggeration. Worse, from the top of his head to the bottom of his chin, Joe has more wrinkles and lines in his face than a GPS map of New York City. A bit shorter than I remember him, too, and much heavier.

“But oh so prosperously attired and accessorized: gray, lightweight, fine Italian wool suit, burgundy red tie on a windsor spread, white shirt collar; black alligator shoes; thick, black framed glasses; what looks like a Rolex; and a toupee convincing enough to look almost real. Dressed like that, if he sticks around here too long he’ll

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miss the opening race at Royal Ascot.”

“How about dinner tonight?”, asked Joe.

“Sure, sure, Joe, where and when?” I don’t know why, but straightaway I had an uneasy feeling about this. Make a note of that, will you?”

“There’s a classy looking steak joint three blocks up next door to the Renaissance Suites Hotel”, said Joe, pointing in which direction, “you like a good steak, don’t you, John?”

“Hell, yes, I like a good steak, but if you’re the invitee, Joe, then you’re the payee, fair enough? How does 7:30 work for you?” Without well practiced negotiating skills I wouldn’t be alive today.

“Meet you there.”, said Joe, spinning around, hand waving bye-by, and heading toward the lobby door.

Now, there’s a guy in a hurry, am I right? How long did that take, less than a minute? Nobody behaves like that. Weird. So weird I did a little snooping—once an investigative reporter, always an investigative reporter. Not only is Joe not registered at this hotel, Joe’s not registered for the reunion, either. What gives? Apparently, God isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways.

I’ll tell you about dinner later, but first I’ll bring you up to speed with Joe and me.

At age 10 my family moved to Erie from Rochester, NY. Kismet. Joe’s house was opposite mine, and from fourth grade through high school we were best pals. I mean we did everything together: sports, getting into fights, double-dating, sweating out missed periods, peeling rubber from stop light to stop light up and down State Street—I got arrested for Reckless Driving on a Drivers Permit; no joke!—everything we did, we did together. Crazy, funny guy; broke me up all the time. But until yesterday, I didn’t know if Joe was dead or alive. Why we lost contact after high school I’m still trying to sort out.

Anyway, last night we did have dinner together. WHAT an asshole. Trust me, you had to be there. Here I am one of the truly great guys of our time, as you will soon discover, and Joe turns out to be the best argument yet for Pro Choice. Good line, huh? No? True. Wasn’t thinking.

After ordering drinks I reminded Joe he used to call me Hawk, for which he quickly apologized, explaining I’m listed in our high school yearbook as John Hawkins,

and he didn’t want to offend me. I didn’t forget his name. Weird.

Actually, it started off well enough with Joe taking my picture on his cell phone,

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and the two of us reminiscing, if you can call it that. I’ve got the memory of a sieve,

but one escapade after another leaked through Joe’s brain like water through a fish

net. I can’t get over it. How is it possible to forget the time we skipped school, drove

across the Ohio state line to check out the girls at Ashtabula High, and driving home in a pouring down rain, without warning Joe tries to pass a car off the right hand shoulder of the road, loses control of the wheel, the car veers right, jackknifes left, ploughs straight through the front lawns of four or five houses—and then in trying to get back on the pavement—the car spins out, rolls over twice . . . finally coming to a thudding stop in the opposite lane of traffic. How does one forget that? Amnesia or Alzheimer’s? Weird. After awhile I felt like a script prompter, center-front stage at the Metropolitan Opera. Ah, but I will say this for Joe—once the penny finally dropped in his head, s-l-o-w-l-y grasping cognitive recall—I never heard anyone laugh so hard, so long, or so full of joy in all my life.

During dinner, Joe began by telling me everything I didn’t want to know about how rich he got in the stock market—in explicit, agonizing, torturous detail. Damn near talked me into becoming a stock broker. After which I felt like I was being interrogated by the FBI. What did I do after graduation? Where did I go to college? What did I major in?  What was my first job? What happened next? Go on. And? Then what? What then? Good grief, who the hell wants to hear someone’s life story over dinner? Weird.

Faking politeness as best I could, I told him to check out my website, it’s all there. He said he already did that; said he was impressed. Still not deterred, now Joe wanted to know what my investment philosophy is. This time, impolitely, I told him I didn’t have an investment philosophy. And then Joe went too far: Joe got personal—asking me if I married rich, and if I was loaded. I shut it down, fast.

“None of your damn business, Joe!”

“You should have seen the look on Joe’s face—my Adam’s apple now in the crosshairs of a pissed off Pit Bull. Bang! Joe unhinged. Seriously. Joe unleashed the most wacko, out-of-orbit political rant you ever heard—one nutso declaration after another, each delivered with a balled fist: the president is part of a Muslim conspiracy to take over the country; America is in desperate need of a volunteer national militia; the pinko media kills unborn babies, messing with his right to bear arms and we’re asking for a revolution; and on and on and on. Where oh where was this coming from, something he read on my website? Politically, I’m a TR & FDR Progressive, but you’d never know it from my website. Weird. Yes, reader, I should have gone with my instincts before we had dinner. What are you, a critic?

“Initially, I was so taken back I just sat there, my mouth agape. But not for long. Having correctly diagnosed Joe’s politics a tad right of Ghengis Kahn, and now fully aware our once-and-never-again-friendship was in the early stages of rigor mortis—no

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way was I going to listen to any more of his crap. My turn, and that’s when he and I really got into it. How bad? Let’s just say it got a little “pusy” between Joe and me.

Pus filled, know what I mean? What’s that? A bit too graphic? Too late.

What follows, reader, is the only double entendre you will find in this book—we went our separate ways. Joe one way—where to, no clue—me the other way, back to my hotel. Separate politics, separate ways. Why, at the last second before leaving I agreed to meet him for coffee this early in the morning I cannot explain.

Back in my room, I flipped through my high school yearbook to once again review what I remembered about Joe, beginning with the obligatory write up under his picture. Nothing checks. I just can’t believe how much he’s changed. And how is it possible for Joe to look a dozen or more years older than me at the same age? Mummified the way he looks today, somebody should put a tag on his toe and blow taps.

By the way, reader, what do I call you? Hold that, we haven’t got time, Joe just showed up. Amazing, he doesn’t look hung over.

“Hey, Joe, what do you know?”, I asked as he approaches our table. As a kid, he always hated that.

In proper receipt of my still simmering hostility, but still in denial for his behavior last night, Joe answered, “What do I know, Hawk? Hawk—I know everything—ask me something.”

Whoa! That’s a heck of a line! “What do I know? Everything, ask me something.” I can use that as part . You call it plagiarizing, I call it taking out a loan.

Nonetheless, not about to be out-dueled by the new and deteriorating Joe, I parried with, “How am I, Joe? Joe—I’m damn near perfect! How are you?” Good comeback, huh? Huh? I never know with you.

“Hawk, I believe I made it unmistakably clear last night, but thank you for asking, anyway. I am doing quite well, Hawk, q-u-u-u-ite well.” Plutocratic, pompous bastard.

                 “Well, Joe, handcuffed to a Rolex as you are, I’m not the least bit surprised. Tell me, how much does that thing weigh?” Uh-oh, he winced.

“Hawk”, Joe said ominously, “last night I took all the insults I’m going to take from you—high school stiff, sand box stuff.”

Ratcheting it up again—I can’t help myself—I said, “Joe, you’re spot on. Not counting the ten different people inside me you never met since high school, I’m the same guy you remember the night we graduated.”

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“Ahhh-so”, Joe rebutted, “multiple personality problem is it, Hawk?”

How about that? Joe just put two quick witted lines together. Maybe he’s smarter than I thought he was. A lot smarter.

“No, Joe. it’s just that in growing up, most people transcend intellectually.”

Finally a waitress came over and took our order, two coffees. First time I noticed a growing annoyance among customers nearest us.

“Come on, Hawk, I thought we put all that nastiness to bed last night.”

“You’re right, Joe, I can’t argue with ignorance. So, this morning, just for you old pal, politics are officially off the table. Let’s talk about something less combative, okay? I mean, seeing as nobody is going to take your Second Amendment rights away, you must be a deer hunter, right Joe?”

Joe didn’t like that remark, either … not at all.

“Back off, Hawk. I live hunting. My granddaddy taught my dad how to hunt, my dad taught me how to hunt, and with only three more trophies to go, my living room walls will soon be lined, corner-to-corner, with the mounted heads of all twenty-seven hunting game in North America. So, yes Hawk, I’m a deer hunter. So what? Overpopulated deer herds need to be thinned out every now and then, or is that somehow news to you? And don’t give me any flap about hunters using fully automatic assault rifles to shoot deer! Shoot a deer with that kind of fire power and you’d blow venison clear into the next county.”

“Joe, just answer one simple question, will you? When you go deer hunting, who shoot firsts, you or the deer? Where is the sportsmanship in that? They’re standing there, motionless, staring back at you—waiting for you to shoot?”

“You’re a real wise guy, aren’t you, Hawk. Look, I didn’t come here this morning to argue with you.”

“Then why did you ask me to meet you here?”

“Because” Joe bellowed, I thought you might be interested in becoming a multi-millionaire, that’s why!”

           I was staggered. Silence. Something is very wrong here.

“You mean to tell me, Joe … after last night … you still thought I might be interested in partnering up with you on some kind of investment?”

Joe looked at me just like a deer in headlights. More silence. Weird. Come on,

reader, you and I are out of here.

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6

Maybe class reunions are where friendships go to die, whadaya think? Yeah, thanks, that is a good line.

Later at my hotel, I didn’t see Joe at breakfast, lunch, or at the big closing dinner. Figures, right?

Early Monday morning I cancelled my 10AM flight home, had brunch with some old classmates—two of whom I didn’t remember, or recognize, same difference—followed by lunch and 18 holes with my old golfing partner, Frank Vaught, and later dinner with he and his wonderful wife, Carroll. Great friends. In driving back, day dreaming at night on my way back to the hotel, I couldn’t help wonder if my late wife and I should have stayed in Erie.

The next afternoon, finally back home in Santa Fe, NM, I discovered my answering machine stuffed with calls from my bank—each message telling me it was important to call them. I did.

“Mr. Hawkins, thank you for calling. As a precaution, Mr. Hawkins, we’re checking to see if sometime today you withdrew $30,000 from your online, business checking account.”

“No, of course not, I’ve been traveling all day—what the hell are you talking about?”

She told me. $30,000 had been withdrawn from my business checking account, the FBI and all three major credit rating agencies had been informed, an investigation was currently underway, and her company would be in touch with me soon. End. STOP.

Cold stone sobering. Why me? Who? How? How pissed off would you be?

Weird. Just that morning back at the Erie airport waiting for my flight to be called, I read about an identity theft ring preying on the elderly in Florida.

No, it’s not as if my house burned down; this was the second time this identity

theft thing happened to me. Just over a year ago another credit card company took

me through the same drill—ticking off nine bogus charges, among which was a $46

charge at a Pizza Hut in England. The good news? Owing to a New Mexico state law

protecting  bank fraud victims from financial liability, zero $ liability. Ditto for this latest heist.

The last time this happened I didn’t find out how it came down. This time?  This time—the snooper within me reawakened—I’m going to find out who did it, why me again, and how they did it, you dig? Not that that is my only motivation.

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          Then, in the middle of unpacking, it finally struck me. What if my friend, Joe, is somehow involved with this? Out the door I went, straight to police headquarters where I was passed on to Detective Captain Garcia. No, it wasn’t his beat; hacking into a bank account is a federal crime—that’s the FBI’s territory. Didn’t stop him. Immediately called the FBI office in Albuquerque. Yes, the bank did advise them,  but in the interest of time—police at all levels; city, state, federal—exchange information all the time—ask if he would provide them a preliminary report. After which I took him through Friday and Saturday step-by–step. He didn’t miss anything. I was then told the FBI would be in contact with me.

Wednesday and Thursday passed without a call from the FBI or my bank. Weird.

On Friday morning the FBI called to schedule a Monday morning appointment at 9AM at its Albuquerque office, adding that, “Given how much ground Special Agent Downing has to cover, he thought it wise not to make any plans for the rest of the morning.” Like what? This stuff happens every day. What’s so different about this rip off? Weird.

Chapter 2

 

          In case you’re wondering, reader, I’m not the nervous type. But this test of nervousness seems a little different: the possible connection with Joe, the sixty mile drive, the long walk up to the FBI’s City of Oz frontage, getting lassoed by a lanyard security ID—passing through a metal detector of a configuration I’ve never seen before, escorted to an elevator by a living statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger, entering alone, pressing the UP button for the top floor, and—as the elevator doors finally swing open—there waiting for me stands Special Agent Mathew Downing. How’s that for FBI efficiency?

Okay, reader, you’re in.

“Good morning, Mister Hawkins.” We shake hands. Pain. I don’t get it.

“My father was Mister Hawkins, call me, Hawk.”  (part of my vast repertoire; but

to be honest, a concealment of emotions I was feeling unrelated to Joe— I’ve had dealings with the FBI before.

“Good, my friends and colleagues call me, Mat. Cup of coffee? Glass of water?”

“Glass of water would be great, thanks! Coffee puts me to sleep.”

“Seriously? Insomnia?”

“Worse, the Mayo Clinic and John Hopkins Hospital are in a bidding war for my brain—insomnia being the least of my problems.

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Retort? None. Just a warm, smiling, Irish, grin. We’re off to a good start.

What’s a Downing, you ask? Official? Suspicious? Government issue Superior? Maybe. All I know is what I see: looks like he’s in his mid thirties, looks like he’s athletic, looks FBI-well-scrubbed. Most obvious, however, he’s wall-eyed—the opposite of cross eyed with one eye looking at you, the other eye slightly off center. Still, a good looking guy. His office? Must be an FBI decorating code: “Early  Sterility”.

Interesting. Rather than taking the “power seat” behind his desk, then gazing down at me in the designated “children’s” chair, Downing invites me to sit comfortably on a nearby couch, pulling up a regular chair for himself—each of us at eye to eye level. Good people skills.

“Mister Hawkins”, apparently said out of respect for his elders, right?, “forgive

me for appearing to rush things, but considering how much ground we need to cover

this morning, if it is alright with you I’d like to get right into it.”

I nodded, affirmatively. Add “business like”, reader.

“Based on your report to Santa Fe police and our follow-up with Erie and Youngstown, Ohio police, here is what we know so far. First, the Joe Cervi you met in Erie, is not Joe Cervi, he is an imposter. The real Joe Cervi, with a Youngstown address, was murdered ten days ago, his body found face side up in a loading zone behind Walmart—listed until Friday as a John Doe.”

Downing continued, now reading directly from what looks like an official document, and I quote: “According to the Coroner’s report, ‘Death was caused by a sharp instrument cutting upward through the lower neck, front-to-back, to the bone. Both hands were chopped off at the wrists. His open palms, each deeply punctured through the life lines—probably an ice pick—were found, side-by-side, purposely placed over the victim’s eyes. It’s what the mob references as a “message job”. According to Youngstown police, Mr. Cervi was likely killed for being sideways on his lonesharking payments. It appears the deceased had a gambling addiction.”

“Having lived in Erie, I’m sure you’re aware of Youngstown’s mafia history: murder-for-hire and car bombings dating back for decades—not that Erie doesn’t have a mafia history of its own.”

“Joe was killed by the mafia?”

“Yes, no question, probably by en enforce; too small for contract work. To continue in the interest of maximizing our time, Mr. Hawkins, Erie police checked out the Renaissance Suites Hotel you suggested Cervi might have checked into, but no one under that name registered there on the nights in question. However, a man fitting the description you provided, did register as an Arthur Sunderland. And, as we

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expected, Sunderland—an alias the FBI has no record of—paid for his accommodations and meals with cash. Foolishly, however, he left a book in his room—a high school yearbook—inside which was a letter from Mr. Cervi addressed to you but returned to him, marked wrong address/return to sender.”

“The letter expresses how much Mr. Cervi was looking forward to the two of you getting together at a high school reunion—probably to relieve you of some badly needed cash. Parenthetically, said yearbook is believed to have been found in a  Dumpster directly behind Mr. Cervi’s apartment building.”

“Can I see the letter?”

“Right now it’s in the hands of Forensics, but I’ll get a copy to you as soon as I can. Any more questions before I go on?”

“No, I’m knocked out by all this, that’s all. If you knew what a great kid he was,  you would be as confused as I.  Any idea who this masquerader is?”

“No, but it is only a matter of time. To continue, Mr. Hawkins, so you fully understand your situation, most bank frauds are faceless crimes—done by replicating a computer’s IPv4 address or by using malware to take over partial control of the victim’s computer without them knowing it. That’s why it’s impossible for the FBI to go any further without your cooperation.”

“Is this imposter mafia or a lone entrepreneur? If it’s the former, we have crime mapping software capable of matching your data against the MO’s of all variety of hackers. But if it’s the latter, then you’re at some risk. Just out of curiosity, Mr. Hawkins, our investigation indicates you postponed your original flight from Erie to LaGuardia. What prompted you to do that?”

“Nothing, really, I just wanted to play golf and have dinner with a good friend of mine.”

“The reason I ask, Mr. Hawkins, is simple—you may be lucky to be alive today. If there is a connection between Mr. Cervi’s killing, and you being the only person able to recognize his imposter—changing your travel plans last week might have saved your life! Criminals suspected of murder and federal bank fraud will track you around the clock. You’re a witness . . . they want you dead.”

Good grief, I’m thinking to myself, where the hell is this thing going? For your safety, reader, there could be a time when I have to go it alone. Understand?

“Here is our dilemma, Mr. Hawkins. By happenstance, it appears someone may have stumbled onto a scheme targeting wealthy elderly people via high school and college yearbooks, fund raising letters from colleges and universities, fraternity and sorority newsletters, social media postings, etc. On the face of it, the mathematical

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improbability of such a scheme seems highly doubtful—too labor intensive for the likely ROI. Until we did the math.”

“Calculating how many graduation reunions there must be every year in every community in this country, the FBI would be derelict in its duty in not considering the potential of such a scheme. Personally, over the years I have seen a number of high school and college yearbooks in Goodwill stores. Moore puzzling to the FBI, however, is why anyone at this imposter’s level—clearly a player in some capacity and not a minion—would test the veracity of this scheme himself, thereby exposing him to the possibility of being identified. Not normal behavior. Save for John Gotti, players like to keep in the shadows. If this guy really is a player…well…that’s where you come in. So let’s hear what you can tell us this morning, shall we?”

“How can I help you?”

At this point I’m just sitting here, amazed at what the FBI came up with so

quickly, and how instantly it all added up for me: this guy looking so much older

because he is older; failing to register for the reunion; his quick exit from the hotel lobby after introducing himself; staying at another hotel; picking a restaurant three blocks away from the reunion venue; paying for everything in cash; taking my picture at dinner . . . all a precaution to avoid anyone else being able to identify him. Then there is his failed memory; and why he seemed to be a totally different person than the Joe Cervi remembered as a kid—mostly because of his explosive temper. More diabolical, why all those questions, and why—in pre-qualifying me as a possible mark for his scheme—the real purpose of breakfast was an exercise in due diligence: quantifying my interest level in speculative, deep pocket investments most likely requiring large amounts of cash up front. Man, he played me like a kazoo. Oh how much faster this investigation would go if I had taken this guy’s picture at dinner as well. I can still see my cell phone strategically placed in the center of my office desk so I couldn’t forget bringing it. Idiot, you’re a bull’s eye. Weird.

Now entering the room walks an attractive looking young woman carrying a laptop and introduced to me as Jackie, a forensic sculptor/artist. Nice warm smile and a handshake with feeling. Good people skills.

With Downing taking notes and studying me, microscopically like an Entomologist, and Jackie providing multiple choice responses for the following descriptive categories, the next two hours were all about Joe’s impersonator.

Get ready, reader, you’re about find out how the FBI works from the inside-out. Fascinating.

Race: Caucasian; Lineage: Italian; Age: looks sixtyish. Height: 6’; Weight: 230; Body Type: thin neck, large chest/sloping shoulders/long arms & legs/tapered

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fingers with manicured nails; Posture: standing-stooped over/sitting-leaning forward; Hair: black toupee, swept back; Face: big face fronts a small head (to body mass)/unremarkable looks/large, noticeably protruding ears/narrow, forward sloping forehead/high cheek bones/strong jaw line/olive skin tone/bumpy, heavily wrinkled skin with deep vertical line; Eyes: large eye sockets/ deep-set, squinty, dark, bleary (film covered), darting eyes/dark bushy eyebrows; Glasses: thick black frames; Nose: normal size/beaked; Mouth: thin upper lip/fleshy lower lip; Teeth: upper-large incisors/lower-crooked; Dress: Custom fit Italian designer suit, black alligator shoes/suspenders; Feet: large; Gate: walks with head down; Accessories: gold Rolex on left wrist/ shiny, black stone ring on right ring finger; Interests: money; Politics: Tea Partyer?/militia extremist?; Religion: likely Catholic-Pro Life; Opinions: kept conversation on me; Intelligence: street smart;

Verbal skills: talker, with hands; Speech Pattern: full octave range, including volume; Body Language: animated; Drinker: heavy/Scotch; Smoker: yellow, right finger tips/gritty voice; Scars: small horizontal across nose; Tattoo: snake intertwined with a cross immediately behind his watch.

Trust me, reader, if the description above fits, it’s him. That is how the FBI is able to distribute a recognizable likeness of this guy. Me, I had the aid of multiple-choice options. You? See if you can put him all together. What’s that? What do I look like? Who’s your favorite 007. Nice pick. It’s like we’re twins. Weird.

Next up, from dozens of clinically recognized personality types listed, Jackie asked that I select up to fifteen descriptions closest to identifying the makeup of this dude: haughty, impatient, angry, belligerent, obsessive, unforgiving, volatile, greedy, malicious, fearful, risk taker, opportunistic, scheming, shifty. And two of my own.  Las Vegas casino greeter straight from Central Casting, and nobody I want to share a foxhole with.

Now what, I wonder. I didn’t take long to find out.

“Mister Hawkins, before you leave, let’s take care of some new business, shall we?”

“New business, what new business?” I’m naturally suspicious.

“Let’s start with what you do for a living. My report lists you separately as a journalist, an investigative reporter, or a photojournalist? Which is it?”

“Depends on the gig, including all three at times.”

“I have here a précis on you, Mr. Hawkins,”—I have been expecting this, reader—  “and it appears—in whatever role you’re engaged in—you have quite a reputation for becoming the story rather than reporting the story, beginning with chasing down,

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tackling, and disarming a suspect only minutes after he stabbed his wife’s boyfriend; getting shot at by a funeral director, of all professions, only seconds after he shot to death his estranged girlfriend to death; while on patrol with two plain clothes cops in the 41st precinct of the South Bronx—Fort Apache as NYC police call it—taking photos of a gang member chained head and foot to a radiator in an abandoned building—the back of his leather jacket slashed open diagonally like chefs slice London Broil steaks—so much blood in that photo it’s impossible to identify the victim’s race.”

“I’m not done, Mr. Hawkins. To continue, after reporting a mob threat on your life to NYC police, it seems that an unidentified source “vouched” for you just in time to save you from getting wacked. The bigger mystery, to me at least, is how the FBI found that out. Finally, not that there isn’t more on you, somewhere in that mix you got accepted to the Police Academy only to get discharged for insubordination. How do you manage to put yourself in situations like these?”

“I have a Police radio.”, I said flippantly. “Are you done?”

“No, Mister Hawkins,” responded my short-lived new best friend, “you’re a worry to me. Software created to construct a determinative, composite profile of people with histories, behaviors and backgrounds, similar to yours, revealed 125 personality types that might be a match for you, eleven of which would disqualify me from working for the FBI. In alphabetical order: aggressive, angry, headstrong, impatient, loner, non-conformist, revengeful, risk taker, and tenacious. Bottom line, Mr. Hawkins, with respect to this investigation—in words as clear as I know how to put them—I’m telling you right now to stay out of this. Can I have your word on that?”

“You decide, Mat. Yes if the FBI is obsessive about keeping my windpipe open, and no if I end up having to protect myself. That’s a call only you can make. As for your personality trait analysis software, without the participation of the person being analyzed, that’s horseshit! Besides, 125 personality traits minus 11 personality traits you find personally offensive, equals 114 positive personality traits qualifying me to be your boss.” (I can’t help myself!)

Is Special Agent Mathew Downing pissed, you ask? Special Agent Mathew Downing is very pissed. Jackie, on the other hand, is grinning like a party clown. Interesting.

“It is seditious remarks like that, Mr. Hawkins, that worry me all the more. Get between the FBI and people wishing you harm . . . and you could end up dead.”

“With or without the FBI’s help, I could end up dead either way, what’s the difference?”

Dave Gifford/DGI © 2013

(to be continued)

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Burgundy, by Jennifer Allan

He watched the girl for a long time. She had no idea he was there and had abandoned herself thoroughly to her sorrow with the passion and drama that only teenage girls seem capable of. He loved that about them; their devotion to their own wilful misery. There was something so naive about it. Touching. When the harder, grinding troubles of the real world began to fall on them as they grew up, they began to bear things with more stoicism and that, for him, was the hardest and strongest loss of their innocence; this girl was still able to fully throw herself into whatever likely triviality she was facing and she wept for him with a poetic and childlike grace.

He stepped to her, then, careful to make his presence obvious without intruding. Soft shoes shuffling over the chalk and filth. He watched her stiffen as she heard his step and pull her head up on her swan’s neck. He had not seen her face. He stepped towards her from the shadows and she knew he was standing behind her, yet she did not turn. That puzzled him; the children usually jumped up when they knew someone was there, but she did not. She remained frozen on the floor, legs splayed in a mass of dirty white netting, skin tight and hard from the cold and the tears. He moved closer to her. In what little light there was he could begin to make out the features of her profile, swollen and blotched as they were, and lit only in the faint glow from his lamp. She was older than he had thought from behind; at least sixteen or seventeen and strangely pretty, though they were all beautiful to him. Ethereal.

He sat beside to her with an effort on the floor and noticed that her tutu was torn all over, ripped – even shredded in places, and that she still wore her dancing shoes bound painfully to her feet. Silently he handed her his handkerchief and she took it, though her tears had dried in black, grease paint smudges down her cheeks. She dabbed ineffectually at them and smeared the black around her face quite pathetically. Her lips were parted and burgundy-dark in her pale face, like a fresh blossomed bruise.

He’d never noticed her dancing. From his place in the shadows, in the wings he knew all of the girls; if not their names then definitely their faces or the way they moved and he was almost certain that he had not seen her as part of the show tonight.

She was wispy and frail and she’d had her back to him when he’d noticed her, her bare shoulders starkly visible in the almost pitch darkness. Red velvet curtains coated in decades of dust surrounded her like a frame and he had seen her little body shaking with silent wracking sobs. She was sitting on the filthy stage; there would be trouble for that in the morning, he knew. All of the other chorus girls had been packed giggling and screeching off to bed an hour ago, and even if she could manage to sneak back in to the dorm unseen there was no hiding the stage smut smeared all over her costume. He grimaced silently for her.

He usually tried to help the girls, especially the younger ones, who would often leave something behind that they would need for the next day. He had lost count of the times he had restored a lost ballet shoe or trinket to a distraught child afraid of disgrace from the mistresses in the morning. There was something insufferable to him to see a girl in tears – or hysterics as some of them came close to in their little panics. The dance mistresses were strict and cruel on occasion, and the newer girls found it difficult; away from their mamas. He tried to look out for them without them knowing, for he, with his ancient face and shuffling movements, had become to them all a shadow, of ghost, a figure to be avoided. They never knew what to make of him, the girls, even now – and he had been a part of the furniture for fifty odd years, part of the scenery and the torn curtains, the cracked mirrors, the ropes and the hoists. The older girls were used to him and always told the younger ones not to mind him, that he was just a quiet old man – nothing to be scared of. But they were never comfortable around him themselves when he was actually there. There were just muttered words and lowered lids and hasty exits.

He rarely spoke, just ambled around with his broom, his tape, his hammer. He’d fix the things that needed fixing, shift the things that needed shifting and  try to stay out of the way. Their faces were always the same, he thought, whenever he did something for them; slightly incredulous that he would be helping them, fearful – and of course they would never stay with him for long. A few seconds of sobbing, whispered thanks and away in a dash; a flurry of petticoats and talcum powder. Distaste shining through their gratitude, repulsion through their surprise. Then over the next few days puzzled glances if they should meet backstage, whispered conversations with friends, shudders maybe, and then they’d forget all about him again.

He knew the stories they told about him in the darkness of the wings, knew the nonsense and atrocities attributed to his withered, disfigured old face by the sillyness of teenage imagination. He could shrug it off. It was enough for him to be near them all; to breathe in the air of their little triumphs, their tragedies even if he could not share in them.

He asked her if she’d lost something or of there was anything he could do. Didn’t she know she’d be in trouble if she was caught out of bed? What had happened to her skirt? She shook her head wordlessly at him and turned her face to his. Her hair was plain brown and scraped back into a tight bun at the back of her head and her eyes were blue and glassy with tears, like a doll, he tilted his head to one side. Behind the blotches and the grease paint she was very pale. Translucent in the lamplight, nearly. There were many people who would not call her pretty at all, but there was a delicacy to her that was compelling. He was afraid to touch her, to comfort her in case she should break in his hands or disappear. Instead they sat together in silence and darkness. Soon she wordlessly rose to her feet, his handkerchief clutched in her little fingers. He looked up at her. Her eyes were focused and dark behind their blueness, her breathing steady now. She walked awkwardly away from him, the wood in her stained satin shoes clunking gracelessly.

He didn’t know how long he sat there. His work was done and with no windows it was impossible to tell the hour, but it was late he knew. His face was impassive in the dark. He pulled himself to his feet and shuffled painfully back to his room.

When he’d begun working here they had made up a room for him under the stage in a tiny place full of pipes and cogs and wheels. No-one had ever seen fit to move him. It was always hot in there and loud and dirty and it was a part of who he was, who he had become. He suspected that he was essentially forgotten, that one day they’d begin to notice that the scenery wasn’t being mended or that the stage was even dirtier than normal, and then they’d come down to find his body in the latter stages of decay on the thin metal bed in the Pipe Room, as the girls called it. He chuckled to himself at the thought of that and stood his broom up behind the door where it lived. The room had changed very little in the time he had lived there. His bed was tucked in the far corner behind the pipes with its ragged little blanket. He’d tacked some pretty things to the wall over the years that he’d  found that had never been claimed; a tiny torn ballet shoe, scribbled drawings left by the younger girls in their dressing rooms, a collection of powder puffs in faded pinks and blues and browns, still clinging to their feminine scent.

And his prized possession; a delicate, snow-white hair net. It had tiny white sequins woven into the mesh  He didn’t know how he had it, but he thought it was beautiful and he never touched it. Just lost hours gazing at its fine stitching and simple elegance. It was pinned to the paper-thin wall at the end of his bed. He liked to fall asleep looking at it, feeling the strange, bitter nostalgia and sense of  feminine beauty it held for him from a world he could always see, but could never touch.

His cupboard contained one change of practical work clothes identical to the ones he now shrugged off and folded neatly on his chair. Underneath his bed was an enormous old leather trunk that he had once used to store things in, but now he couldn’t remember for the life of him what he could ever have had that was worth storing. For the thousandth time as he kicked his shapeless old boots under the bed he felt the trunk’s sturdy presence and resolved to finally find out what on earth he’d been keeping in there for so long.

But not tonight, never tonight. He was dog tired and had no idea of the time. He would wake up early to make the stage preparations for the pre-matinee rehearsal as usual and he needed his sleep. He fell into the thin mattress and was asleep before his eyes were closed.

His days ran together, a blur of darkness, heat, grease and paint. The girls swarmed around constantly, though they seldom noticed him. His air was thick with the sound of their laughing and bickering and tears; rank with the bitterness of their sweat and with the cloying taste of their powder and perfume. He breathed in their vitality, their youth and beauty. He looked often for the girl-swan he had seen that strange night, but he could never pick her out amongst the others. His eyes were rheumy with age and disease by now and he struggled to make out features in the white netted clouds of girls that brushed by him.

He saw her once again, before it all happened. She passed him on the stairs. He knew it was her immediately from the way she lifted her head to meet his eyes. None of the other girls would ever have done that, he knew by now; knew better than to try to speak to them or smile at them. It was not what they wanted. He had grown to accept their stiff avoidance and downcast eyes. He didn’t think to ask why she was coming down from  those stairs. The girls had no business being up there and by rights he should have taken her to the mistresses for a serious talking to, but he knew he would not.

She smiled at him now.The greasepaint was gone from her face and her dress was unsoiled, though her eyes were ringed painfully with black sleepless bruises and her skin had a sickening pallor to it. She was tiny standing on the stairs, though and he felt again that he daren’t move any closer to her. As she passed him he fell back into the curtains.The other girls didn’t like to be near him, went to lengths not to touch him, but she didn’t flinch away. The encounter lasted seconds and then she was gone.

It was then that things began to get frightening. He was an old man. He had lived at the theatre nearly his whole life and never once in that time had anyone ever bothered him or harmed him. Repulsion and disgust he had learned to live with a long time ago, back-biting, rumours, lies. But here was a place where he felt safe; ignored and alone. When he returned to his room that night he found his old trunk pulled out from beneath his bed. It lay there insolently, like an intruder. He had stopped in the doorway and stood stock-still to stare.

It frightened him, to see it just lying there like that – somehow threatening. He didn’t know why, but it was a shameful thing and he wanted just to push it back under the bed. But now it was out it could never go back. Someone must have come in here and pulled it out, he decided. It hadn’t been opened, it was still tightly bound with the cord he remembered wrapping around and around it one day. Why had he done that? Why had it been moved? The girls were all too scared to come in here. He’d heard them and their games; daring one another to come and touch the door, just run inside for five seconds, steal something from the wall. Even the fingertips of the very bravest only ever grazed the splintered wood of the door. Then screeching and laughing and chaotic running.

He didn’t know how long he stood there, but eventually he strode over to the box and lifted by its perished handle. It was light. He’d expecting it to be heavier; weighed down with his forgotten memories, with his whole life, but it felt almost empty. He threw it from him to the corner of the room where it lay upended and unperturbed. He felt it there, but turned his back on it and lay on his bed readying himself for another sleepless night.

It was later the next day that he found her. After the weeks of peering into the faces of tens of nameless girls he could see her, starkly and clearly in the grey light of the upstairs bathroom. The mirror was shattered and the window was broken and shards of silver glass lay all around her fragile shape on the urine stained floor. The girls weren’t meant to come up here. The toilets were broken and the floor was unsafe, the workmen came up here to drink after the show. They were rowdy and dangerous and had a quick eye for a slim figure and a pretty face.

Burgundy-dark streams trickled from her nose and lips into the pools of water around her and flowered slowly, silently with a sickly metallic scent. Her eyes were blank and staring. She did not see the dirty walls, the crumbling plaster or the rotting wood in the last place she ever lay down. Tears were drying on her cheeks, streaking through the blood and the grease paint. Broken teeth and torn nails, bloody hand-prints on the wall. She had struggled. She had not died easily.

Strips of shredded netting drifted slowly down from the ceiling, like snow after a storm, to settle in the redness pooling out on the tiles.

Dazed he fell out of the room seeing  nothing. He staggered into one of the stage hands who was passing. He recoiled, but caught the old man and shot him an alarmed look. Wordlessly he gestured up the stairs and steadied himself against the wall. Nauseous, panicking. The boy ran up the stairs and looked back puzzled behind him when he reached the top. He shrugged at the old man, confused, who did not see his blank and bewildered expression, just the sad and hopeless face of the girl he had left on the bathroom floor. He stepped away, not looking back.

The air was filled with buzzing and the hot air swirled before his eyes. He shook his head to clear it and fell sideways into a stack of paint tins. He lost it then and began to run back to the pipe room. His legs and back screamed in protest, but he ignored them and ran blindly down the steep stone steps. Around his feet he could see swathes of the aged brown cord that had bound his old leather suitcase, they snatched at his ankles and twisted maliciously around his feet to trip him. He stumbled and fell more than once, bruising his wrinkled hands, jarring his shoulders.

As he flung himself into the safety of his room he knew what he would find. His sweating, shaking hands steadied themselves as he made ready to turn and face the room. He knew what he would see; his suitcase lay on the bed, the lid flung brutally back, gratuitously exposing it’s insides. Sitting beside it, calmly now – or in some sinister semblance of calm,  he sifted through its contents. He was surprised to see that it was full of roughly torn bits of paper and old photographs. The photographs were of the theatre, backstage. Of pretty girls dancing, of sweat drenched embraces and black-faced grinning stage hands. Pulleys and ropes, gangs of young men with bottles of beer in rolled up sleeves and braces, gauzy costumes, blood-stained shoes, heat and life and energy.

And there he was, but as a young man now in sepia, his strong-arm tightly around the waist of his girl-swan. She was laughing into the camera, flushed and radiant in browns and yellows, fresh from the stage. He was looking at her with a fierce pride and intensity in his dark eyes.

On the paper there were sketches in pencil and smudged charcoal. His own. His name was scrawled in the bottom corners. The yellowed, curling pages of every one detailed precisely and with chilling accuracy the scene from which he had fled in the bathroom upstairs. Over and over again, the same horrifying scene scrawled in black and white. The way her head had tilted, so that her cold lifeless eyes had seemed focused directly on him, the curl of her fingers, the blood matted in her hair. His eyes clouded over once more as he frantically sorted through the madness, the self loathing and horror that he had found in his trunk, to find even one image of normalcy – a sketch of a room, or a dancer that would somehow make everything alright again. But there were none. He saw over and over his hands dark with her blood, his face flecked with it, heard those awful sounds.

His hands shook as he bunched up the papers strewn carelessly over the bed and he placed them back in the case. Photographs on top, of course. Neatly piled, edges hastily smoothed. Calmly, slowly, ordered.Blank eyes.Then he gathered up the matted mess of cord from his feet and began to wrap it around and around the trunk. Around and around until the trunk itself was barely visible again, until its contents were hidden, forgotten, undone. Then he flung it under the bed and focused his swollen streaming eyes on the snowy hair net above his bed. It was so pretty, it almost reminded him of someone he might have known a long time ago…

He had to sleep soon. He was dog tired and the stage had to be cleared out for the pre-matinee rehearsal and there was a mountain of props to be shifted before then. Dreaming of white lace petticoats and laughing, dancing-girls he drifted into sleep.

 

Jennifer is an extremely talented writer and journalist based in Cardiff. You can find her fabulous website and blog here.

jenny-meddled

 

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‘Easter’ and ‘Our Spot’

Another new contributor to the short story blog today, another lady (where are you guys?!) called Catherine Smith. Cath has elevated the short story to an artform with these very short shorts! So short in fact, I have published two together, so that you get to see as much of Caths writing as possible.

These are both brilliant little vignettes, and are terribly evocative. You’ll read them and instantly be wanting more. A great talent to have. Leave Cath a comment here and I’ll make sure she gets it.

Easter

Cottage

Cottage (Photo credit: IanGMclean)

 

Steph couldn’t wait. It was Easter and that meant one thing – the annual family get together at her grandparents’ place down in Cornwall. It had become something of a tradition over the years, ever since her grandparents had decided to retire and move back to where they’d grown up, met and lived until her grandfather’s job had taken them away to London. Every year the whole family would make their way from wherever they happened to be and stay from Good Friday to Easter Monday – even Uncle Dave would come over from Connecticut, so important was this weekend in Steph’s family calendar.

 

She wasn’t sure what it was she looked forward to most about these weekends. Certainly, getting away from the bustling pace of city life for a few days of Cornish sea air was part of it – walks along the beach, BBQs on the terrace, camping in the back garden; what Ivy Pine Cottage lacked in bedrooms, it more than made up for in outside space. Her grandmother’s cooking was another; she couldn’t remember ever coming through the front door and not being greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread, cakes or hot cross buns. She loved catching up with her various relations, finding out what they’d all been up to, and fussing over Bonnie, her grandparents’ playful and much-loved labrador.

 

Perhaps what she looked forward to more than anything else though was Ivy Pine Cottage itself. It was a quaint, old place, that looked as if it had grown from the land on which it stood, so naturally did it blend in with its surroundings. Steep stone steps led up, past the ivy and beneath the old pine tree that gave the cottage it’s name, to a wooden front door with a wrought iron knocker. Going inside was like stepping back in time; a crackling fire and ticking grandfather clock stood either side of a small black-and-white TV, the furthest modern technology had been allowed to intrude into the living room. Watercolours and oil paintings lined the walls; faded sepia photographs stood in frames on the mantelpiece. Tiny doorways that her dad always had to duck through connected the various rooms and nooks and crannies, each filled with more photos and memories. At night, the place echoed with the sound of Bonnie’s gentle snoring as she lay asleep on her rug in front of the fire. If a house could be a hug, or a favourite pair of slippers, this was it.

 

The conductor announced her stop then, forcing Steph to abandon her daydreaming and get her things together. She smiled and waved at her parents, who’d come down the night before and had offered to meet her at the station to take her the last few miles. She turned to look at Paul and smiled; this was to be his first Easter at Ivy Pine Cottage, and she very much hoped it wouldn’t be his last.

 

© Catherine Smith

Our Spot

English: White Hill beauty spot. This is a ver...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 “This was our spot. Every Sunday when it was nice we’d pack the folding table and chairs in the boot and drive out here, stopping off along the way at our favourite bakery to pick up some rolls and pastries to take with us. It was our chance  to have some ‘us’ time, away from friends, family, work and the rest of the world. We’d sit and look out at that amazing view over a chelsea bun or pain au chocolat  and while away the hours without a care in the world. Sometimes we’d go all afternoon and not say a word to each other, just enjoying being alone in each other’s company, only looking up every now and again to share a look or a smile before going on to the next chapter or nodding off again in the sunshine.

 “It was always so peaceful here, with only the sound of the birds and leaves rustling in the breeze to break the silence. No matter how stressful the week before had been,  a few hours up here and everything was better. If we’d argued, which we hardly ever did, we’d leave the best of friends again, whatever little thing forgiven and forgotten.

 “One Sunday, my world changed forever; one minute he was sitting next to me in his usual spot and the next he was down on one knee with love in his eyes and the most beautiful ring I’d ever seen in his hand. It’s still my most treasured possession. Well, after him.”

 “Possession now, am I? Charming!”

 Her husband came over from the car, interrupting her story, and bent down to kiss her with smiling eyes, as in love with her now as he’d been all those years ago. Her eyes shone as brightly as the ring on her finger, which had aged a little better than she had, though no less gracefully.

 “Granny and Grandad sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”

 Their two young grandsons giggled mischievously and tucked into the rolls and pastries from their favourite bakery that now covered the folding table, enjoying their Sunday afternoon.

 © Catherine Smith

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The Mammal Cage

Here goes with a new short story submitted by the talented Mary Jeddore Blakney. Click her name below to go through to her personal site where you’ll find loads more stories including her new work ‘An analysis of the Cardassian Language’ You can leave Jae a comment here and I’ll make sure she gets it. Enjoy!

The Mammal Cage

by Mary Jeddore Blakney

Desert

(Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

Piper woke up and coughed. Dizzying pain shot through her head. She shaded her eyes with her hand and began to open them, but the stabbing light nauseated her, and she shut them fast. She spat out sand and tried to stand but only fell on the burning, shifting surface. She tried again and again but always ended up in a crumpled heap on the sand. She stopped when she thought she heard voices.

They were voices alright, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. She tried to yell to them for help but all she could manage was a hoarse squeak. Her throat burned. She tried to look for them but the sun on the sand was too much for even a quick glimpse.

The voices came closer, and she realized they weren’t speaking English. There seemed to be two of them, and they picked her up and put her in some sort of vehicle and drove away.

She didn’t open her eyes until the vehicle had stopped and the voices had moved her to a cool, relatively dark place. But even then, she may as well not have bothered. The images she saw made no sense.

She’d been laid on her side on a sort of table: that much she could tell without looking. And when she opened her eyes, she could make out walls and a ceiling, painted white or off-white. She thought the room might be an unusual shape, not square, but she was so dizzy she couldn’t be sure.

But what made no sense at all was the people. The people who spoke a foreign language, who were now beginning to wash her face gently with cool water, looked like people yet not like people. They stood upright and wore clothes–strange clothes. They had hands with four fingers and a thumb. But they were scaly-skinned and a color somewhere between gray, green and brown. Their fingers ended in claws and their bald heads wore spines. “I’m hallucinating from the heat,” she thought, “or just dreaming. I should try to go to sleep, so I’ll wake up.” One of the lizard-people rinsed the sand out of her mouth and gave her a cube-shaped thing with a tube sticking out of it, helped her put it to her mouth. It was like an oddly-shaped juice box with the straw in the bottom instead of the top. She sucked on the straw and cold water rushed into her mouth and soothed her throat.

Meanwhile, someone was washing the sand off her arms and legs and putting some sort of cooling balm on her sunburns. She felt sleepy and her headache was beginning to subside. She finished the water box, put her head down, and went to sleep.

When she woke up, she found herself lying on a sort of cushion in a huge metal cage. There was water there, not in a little juice box but in a big solid box like a square bucket. She cupped her hands and drank. The water was lukewarm but clean, and she was thirsty. Beside the water was a purple object she’d never seen before, on a six-sided plate. She sniffed it, but it had a sharp, pungent, awful smell. Maybe it was insect repellent. The only other thing in the cage was an empty box with a hinged cover, possibly made of some sort of plastic.

She looked through the bars at the room outside the cage. The walls were a plain, painted white, not broken anywhere she could see by either pictures or windows. Maybe there were windows around the corner, though, because a soft light came from somewhere, and she didn’t see any lamps or light fixtures. The ceiling was painted white, too, but exposed beams gave it a more interesting look than the walls. The furniture–if it could be called furniture–was large and lumpy and couldn’t be easily classified as anything. There were no chairs, no tables, no couches, no desks or bookcases or anything else that had a name. There were four big shapeless soft-looking brown heaps and one or two highly-polished heavy-looking wooden blocks with designs carved into the tops. She had to say ‘one or two’ because from the cage she could see one distinctly, and the other one barely, so it could have been a second wooden block or something else entirely. The floor was a mottled lavender color, and when she reached her finger between the bars and poked it, she found that it was made of something rubbery. The bottom of the cage was lined in something similar, but in sort of a brown color, and under that were the metal cage bars.

What she didn’t see was any people. Quietly, she reached her arm between the bars in one end of the cage where there seemed to be a door, and felt for the latch. She thought she found it, but couldn’t be quite sure. She wished she’d had a mirror so she could see it as well as feel it. At any rate, if that was the latch, it was locked. She examined every inch of the bars, and found no other opening, nothing else that seemed to be a latch, no way of popping the hinges, just a woven mesh of round metal bars, about four inches apart.

She knelt and had another drink from the water-box, stood up, took a deep breath and yelled, “Help!” She breathed again and yelled, “Help me, I’m kidnapped!” Again and again she yelled, as loud as she could. Once she attempted a good shrieking scream, but it sounded unimpressive and hurt her throat, so she went back to yelling. Then she listened. All she heard was silence except for a faint sound of water sloshing, as though someone were taking a bath in another room with the door open.

“Hello, is anyone there?” she called in a more moderate voice.

Silence, not even sloshing.

“Is anyone taking a bath?” she called. “I need help. I’ve been kidnapped.”

Nothing.

After that, there was nothing she could do but wait. She was hungry and needed to use the bathroom. Her headache had started to come back, and she was bored. She decided to pass the time by practicing her French. At least she’d be well-prepared for next week’s final. She exhausted her tiny French vocabulary pretty quickly, making up as many different statements as she could come up with, and telling them to the big brown heaps. Questions, she asked of the lavender floor, but of course it didn’t answer. She had just begun to attempt a review of her American History class, when she began to hear noises.

She sat on the cushion and listened and waited. The noises came steadily closer, and soon she was sure there were people in the house. The question was, were they her kidnappers or someone who could help her? Either way, she was desperate to get to the bathroom. “Hello,” she called. “Who’s there?”

She wasn’t surprised to see two people enter the room and approach the cage. She was surprised to see how they were dressed. She hadn’t been hallucinating earlier: the people really had looked a lot like lizards, and here they were again. Now that she was alert, it was obvious that it was a costume, a disguise. “I guess that’s good news,” she thought. “If they’re hiding their identities, then it means they don’t intend to kill me.”

The lizard people were both men, and one was smaller than the other. The smaller one looked at Piper with a quick, curious, amused glance and continued through the room and around the corner, in the direction of the sloshing Piper had heard earlier. The larger one unlocked the cage and opened the door.

Piper’s desperately-full bladder gave her courage, and she hurried right past the big man and began to search hurriedly for the bathroom.

She found it, but it was the oddest bathroom she’d ever seen and she almost didn’t recognize it. The toilet, for example, was only about a foot high, had no tank on it, and was round instead of oval. She didn’t care: she was growing desperate. Quickly, she shoved the door to close it, only to see that the big lizard-man was holding it open. “Please,” she begged, “close the door.”

The man only laughed and kept his grip on the door. She tried to push him off, but his arm was huge and fit, and she couldn’t budge it.

Finally, she gave up. Fortunately, she was wearing a sort of tunic or smock-top, and she pulled it down over herself and was able to get her business done without too much immodesty.

There didn’t seem to be any toilet paper, but there were some squares of something that looked like blotting paper, and she used one of them. It was rough on her delicate skin.

She looked for a sink, but there didn’t seem to be one. Maybe she’d need to wash her hands in the kitchen. The big lizard-man still held the door half-open, half-shut, blocking her exit, and for the first time, she got a really good look at him and realized just how big he was. He must have been close to seven feet tall, or at least six and a half. He gestured toward a triangular object installed in a corner, but she didn’t know why. He switched hands on the door and reached his right arm out to put his fingers in the object. Suddenly, water began to flow from a hidden pipe, making little splashes on his clawed fingertips. Piper jumped and the man laughed. She put her own hands in the same spot, water poured onto them, and she did her best to wash them without soap.

When she was through, the lizard-man let go of the door and stepped away, letting her out of the bathroom. He gestured to Piper to follow him back to the cage, but she shook her head and turned right, looking for a way out of the house. He responded by putting his huge hand on Piper’s back and nudging her toward the cage. When she resisted, he pushed, and when she tried to squirm away from his hand, he knocked her off-balance and caught her again. So she walked to the cage and he kept his hand on her back. It was a cold hand.

The lizard-man followed her into the cage, ducking for the doorway, and guided her to the empty box. He lifted the cover and squatted over the box, like a mime using an imaginary latrine. Piper made a face and looked away. So the box was meant to be a chamber-pot. The idea was disgusting, but if she had to be shut in here again, even a box would be better than nothing.

He got off the box and closed the lid, and it was her turn to play the mime. She started by pretending to wash her hands. The lizard-man imitated the motion, and she wasn’t sure what to make of that, but she hoped that at least it meant he understood the request, and she moved on to her next one. But how did one use gestures to request toilet paper? Instead, she led him out of the cage and back to the bathroom, and grabbed a handful of the blotting-paper squares herself. Back in the cage, she set the blotting paper next to the box and put her hand to her mouth, pretending to eat. He picked up the six-sided plate with the purple thing on it, and tried to hand it to her, but she held her nose and pushed it away. He laughed and walked out of the cage, shutting her inside but taking the plate with him. Soon he returned with the same plate, or one just like it, this time bearing an object roughly the color of ivory. At first she thought it was an orange with the outside skin peeled off and the inside skin left on, but when he’d brought it close she realized it was a vegetable she’d never seen before. Unfortunately, it didn’t smell any better than the purple thing. In his other hand, he had a big five-sided bowl of water, which he set beside the box, but not too close to the blotting paper.

After that, they left her alone again, locked in the cage hungry like before. She saw the smaller man briefly as he walked back through the room, his strange clothes dripping as though he’d just taken a shower without remembering to undress. He wasn’t small, she realized: he only looked it next to his huge companion.

She tried to sleep to pass the time, but she was too hungry, and besides, her headache was getting worse. At least she didn’t need the bathroom anymore. By putting her mind to it, she reviewed all her courses, even going back over the French again. After that she tried to think of something else to think about, but her head hurt too much, and she just sat on the cushion with her head in her hands, staring at the brown floor for a long time. Occasionally, she heard the sloshing again. She didn’t know how long she sat like that, but eventually the pain in her head began to subside, and she stood up and began to pace the length of the cage, to stretch her legs. “I’m like a tiger in the circus,” she thought, “except I’m not the one with the claws.”

By the time the lizard-people returned, her stomach hurt from hunger as well as her head. She’d had to use the box, which was difficult because it was too high for her, but at least this time she had privacy. And the cover fit well and seemed to seal in any odors. This time it was the big one who gave Piper an amused glance and disappeared in the direction of the sloshing sounds, and the regular-sized one who stopped at her cage and unlocked it. She handed him the plate with the stinky vegetable, and he took it away and returned with it full of something else. It was some sort of tubular-looking green stalks that looked vaguely like overgrown chives or small scallions and had a smell somewhere between tomato paste and rubbing alcohol. She was so hungry she put one of the stalks in her mouth and bit it. It didn’t taste quite as bad as it smelled, and if she held her breath she could manage to swallow it. It felt so good to eat something again, and she finished the plateful.

The lizard-man grinned through his scaly mask and began to stroke her head, roughing up her hair a little as though she were a dog. She barely had time to turn away from him before vomiting it all on the rubbery brown floor.

To Piper’s relief, the lizard-man didn’t seem angry, only surprised and disappointed. Without bothering to lock the cage, he walked quickly to one of the odd-shaped room’s corners and retrieved an object that had been hidden from Piper’s view. It was a pale grey cylinder, about the size of the larger lizard-man’s thigh. He must have flipped a switch on it, because it began to hum, and he waved it over the spot where she’d vomited and all the vomit disappeared.

“Nice vacuum cleaner,” she remarked.

“Dice vacuub cleader,” he repeated–if it really was a he. It seemed to Piper that the voice was a woman’s, but then, she could have been imagining it. After all, she hadn’t eaten anything for who knows how long–not that had stayed down, anyway–and she was dizzy and having trouble focusing her eyes. She went to the cushion and sat down, and the lizard-person, whichever sex it was, left with the vacuum cleaner, locking the cage this time.

She let her body slump onto the cushion and closed her eyes: she couldn’t really see through them anyway. She thought she heard sloshing again, but couldn’t be sure if she was hearing or imagining or dreaming it, or if she was awake or asleep or somewhere in between.

She thought she heard voices: a man’s and a woman’s. She thought she should try to make out what they were saying, but then she couldn’t bring herself to care.

No longer hungry, she lay there, alternating between a vague desperation for some kind of change and an irrational wish to lie there undisturbed forever. Never quite alert and never quite asleep, she had no idea how long she remained that way. She only knew that at one point the two voices came nearer, and someone began to spoon something into her mouth. By reflex, she swallowed. She didn’t notice when the spooning stopped and she fell asleep.

When she awoke, her headache was gone and she was alone except for the sloshing sound.

She used the box, relieved to find it empty and clean, then had a drink of the lukewarm water and looked at the six-sided plate. To her surprise, it contained what appeared to be pieces of fresh fruit and cooked meat, although she couldn’t have said what kind of fruit or what kind of meat. It smelled delicious and she suddenly felt very hungry. She began cautiously by biting off the tiniest corner of one of the meat pieces, but it tasted so good that she soon had the whole plateful finished.

Then she went back to the cushion and slept again.

This time she woke with the voices quite close: the lizard-people must have come back while she slept. She sat up and saw them reclined facing each other on the two closest brown heaps, the big man on the heap to her left and the smaller one of ambiguous gender on the heap to her right. At first she thought they were having an argument: their strange words exploded from their mouths with a vehement force. But they looked relaxed, maybe even happy, their facial expressions and body language suggesting an intimate chat between close friends.

Between them was one of the heavy-looking wooden blocks, and now the deep carved recesses in its top were filled with what seemed to be strange fruits, nuts and flowers. Occasionally, one or the other of the lizard-people would reach for a handful of these and eat it.

She couldn’t be sure–she’d been so hungry when she’d seen them before–but it seemed to her that they had changed their clothes. At least, she didn’t remember having seen the shapes of their chests before. And yes, they definitely both had chests–male chests. On the big one, that was to be expected. But the smaller one, despite its male chest and masculine bearing, had unmistakably female hips and a decidedly feminine voice. It wasn’t even one of those voices that could have belonged to a man and been softened by training and practice. It was just a woman’s voice, pure and simple.

Piper stepped to the water-box for a drink, and froze. She looked through the bars at the reclining pair and suddenly understood. “You’re not wearing costumes,” she said to them, even though she knew they couldn’t understand her words. “Those are your real faces, your normal clothes, your regular kind of toilet. And I’m not your prisoner; I’m your pet.”

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Contact Us

contacts

contacts (Photo credit: striatic)

By Mike Bersin

“Satan’s here to see you Mr Johnson”

His PA’s unexpected voice startled Dave Johnson. “Sorry?”

“Satan’s here to see you Mr Johnson”

He quickly clicked the mouse and his pension pot calculations disappeared under a sales spreadsheet. He wouldn’t want to be caught with something obscene on his screen. He turned towards the door of the outer office.

“Uh, don’t laugh Briony, but I thought you just said Satan’s here to see me?”

“That’s what he says”.

Dave couldn’t actually see into her room from behind his leather-topped desk, but Briony was speaking with the exaggerated calm of someone unexpectedly confronting a large dangerous animal.

“Has he got an appointment?” Dave called, frowning. How do these people get past reception?

“He says… he says he doesn’t need one”

“Tell him to piss off”

“Why not tell me yourself, Dave?” The voice was rich, deep and mellow. Dave, who as far as he could remember, had never had a gay impulse in his life, stared open-mouthed. The man who had just walked into his room was magnificent. Two metres tall, two hundred pounds, perfectly styled mane of jet black hair. Impeccably dressed in a very expensive suit. Groomed to perfection. In the prime of life. Gorgeous. Dave’s nose twitched. There was a faint smell of struck matches in the room.

“You were expecting horns and a forked tail?”

“I wasn’t expecting anyone – ”

“Anyone as handsome as me?”, the beautiful voice completed for him. The man smiled down benevolently. “How can I accomplish my supreme work unless I’m… supremely seductive?”

Dave felt himself blushing. “Look I don’t know how you got in here or who you are – ”

“I’m Satan”. The man nodded in a matter-of-fact way and shrugged. “Somebody has to be”.

Dave wondered; how dangerous was this nutcase? But he wasn’t scared. Briony would have pushed the button under her desk and a couple of security men would already be on their way.

“Briony?” He called, “Briony?” There was no answer. Perhaps she had slipped out to seek help. How long would it take security to ascend fifteen floors? To stall for time he asked; “How do I know you’re who you say you are? Can you prove it?”.

The tall man reached in his jacket pocket and slid out what appeared to be a solid gold iPod. “Just check out that tracklist”, he said, indicating the screen.

“Wow” said Dave, “Impressive”

“The Devil always has the best iTunes”

Dave pulled a face.

“What about this then?” The man gestured strangely with his left hand and the air in the room was suddenly full of tiny complex algebraic equations, minuscule lines of small-print, intricate designs for printed circuits, wiring diagrams, tax avoidance schemes, pharmaceutical formulae and geometric celtic patterns, all floating in a million tiny items of double entry book-keeping.

Puzzled, Dave tried to see beyond the maze of little shapes. The other figure winked at him through the shifting patterns.

“They say the Devil is always in the detail”

This has gone far enough thought Dave. He leaned towards the door. “Briony? Briony!”

“She can’t hear you”

“She can’t hear me? What have you done to her?”

“Nothing harmful; she just can’t hear you. She thinks you’re in Manchester. And she has no memory of me coming in here at all”.

Dave sprang up and made a dive for the door. Dave sprang up and made a dive for the door. Dave sprang up and made a dive for the door. Finding himself still behind his desk after his third attempt, he stopped springing. This has got to be some kind of weird dream, he thought. I’m going to wake up any second. Unless. Unless this guy really is the Devil.

“What do you want? Am I going to die?” he asked.

The man shrugged “Everyone’s going to die. Sometime. And your time is”, he glanced at the clock, “In about ten minutes”.

Dave struggled to frame a coherent question. “So… what do you want?”

“You”

“Me? Why? Why have you come for me?”

“It’s the votes. Like Strictly. Have you any idea how many people have sincerely wished you to hell during your life?”

“But I’m only thirty-one!”

“You’re going to spend the whole of eternity in either heaven or hell. How long would you like to live?”

“Seventy-five? Eighty?”, said Dave hopefully.

“Seventy-five years is exactly the same fraction of eternity as thirty-one. It doesn’t make any difference in the long run”

Dave nodded agreement glumly. Numeracy had its disadvantages.

His companion pursed his elegant lips thoughtfully. “But there’s another reason. You show promise”

“I show promise?” Dave slipped a glance at his watch. Where were security. Where was anybody? Silence. It was if the two of them were entirely alone in the building. In the world. In the universe. What if he was Satan?

“This business you have here. Of which you are Managing Director”. Satan indicated the plate on Dave’s office door.

“PanUniversal?”

Satan nodded. “PanUniversal. It’s a perfect example of all those organisations that make everyone’s life just that little bit more miserable”.

“That’s not what we’re here for” said Dave, offended.

“No, but it’s what you achieve”. Satan crossed the office and sat back in the sofa. “And low level misery is very important. Very important. Arms dealers, secret police, the National Rifle Association, they can all destroy lives in an instant, but what suits my plan is the unrelenting grind of a lifetime of failure and disappointment. The little aggravations and frustrations that make a person’s time on earth… a complete waste”.

He paused and studied Dave’s face thoughtfully. “Any tinpot dictator can kill or maim a million people. But to ruin the quality of life for billions? That’s talent”.

Dave frowned. “But I don’t understand. How do we do that? We give people what they want. They buy them. People want the products and services we provide. We don’t force them. They pay money willingly. How do we ruin anybody’s life?” He paused suspiciously. “You’re not a communist, are you?”

“Hey. Don’t knock communism. Have you any idea how much misery has been caused by communists”

“So how does PanUniversal ruin people’s lives then?”

The handsome man smiled. “Well, your website for a start”.

“Website? What’s wrong with our website?”

“Have you ever tried clicking on the “contact us” button?”

“Why would I? I am us”.

“Well I’ve tried clicking on it. When people have a problem with your company, and they do, regularly and frequently – well done by the way – there is no way they can get hold of anyone who has sufficient authority to put it right. Ever. To get anything done they have to forget the internet and write snail-mail to your board, or better; your industry regulatory body. That’s worth a couple of thousand heart attacks a year. And the FAQs! Who writes those?”.

“Not me. Why?”

“They’re brilliant! Exquisitely fabricated to look almost exactly like the problem you’re currently experiencing, but actually nothing like it, so completely useless! Frequently Asked Questions? No-one has ever asked those questions!”

“Give it a break! We’re no worse than anybody else”.

“Yes!” The big man leapt triumphantly to his feet. “PanUniversal! We’re no worse than anybody else! What a strapline for the age!”

He paced round the room. “And your call centre! Genius!”

Dave scowled. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Everything! No-one you speak to can ever fix anything. And I love the way you train them to call people by their first name as if they were mates! Priceless! You’ve taken the whole fucking car insurance premium out of my bank account three fucking times and I still haven’t got the fucking policy documents! OK Mary, my name’s Gavin, how can I help you? I love it! Did you know there are more people die of heart failure while talking to a call centre than die in road accidents?”

“Never!”

“No. You’re right. I’m Satan. I tell lies. But it’s still a gratifyingly big number. And you know what happens when you ask to speak to a manager?”

“Of course I do. They lean back in their chair, make the universal onanist sign towards their headset and ask if anyone wants to pretend to be a manager. I used to work in a call centre”.

“Yes you did. You didn’t grow up in this industry did you? Your Aunt bought the business for you”

Dave looked sulky. “It’s not my fault my Aunt made a fortune. It’s not her fault she made a fortune. She was a dietician. There’s always money to be made from people’s unshakeable belief that you can lose weight by eating things.”

Satan pushed himself off the sofa and walked to the window. Looking down on the warehouse roofs below, he asked; “Do you know anything at all about the stuff you sell?”

“I don’t need to!” retorted Dave, “I’ve got an MBA!”

“Ah yes”, he was chuckling and shaking his head, “The idea that you can run any business, every business, according to the same set of scientific principles. A great idea. One of my best”.

“But you can! I do!” Dave was seriously aggrieved now.

“You do. You run exactly the kind of miserable business you can run when you don’t know anything about it. If you want to spread a little happiness in the world by being good at what you do, you generally have to grow up in whatever industry you work in and know it inside out! That’s another scientific fact. The man who runs the best cement company in the world, ever, started out forty years ago sweeping up in the loading bay. He knows exactly what his business is doing from top to bottom. Although”, he muttered under his breath, “Why you would want to spread a little happiness is beyond me”. He turned away from the window. “I leave that to my colleague”, and gazed at the ceiling, “Up there”.

“Where’s all this leading?”

“I’m delighted to say it’s all going to Hell in a handcart. But there are still a couple of things I want to compliment you on before I reveal your precise part in this little scenario”. He paused and patted his pockets. “Do you mind if I smoke?”.

Dave glanced up hopefully at the smoke detector, “Not at all”, he said, then started in surprise as a faint trickle of smoke began to curl from the other person’s nostrils. Then ears. Then eyes. And finally from his collar and cuffs. Neat trick, if it was a trick. Perhaps he is Satan. He can’t want to make me an offer, surely, thought Dave. Not the Lord of the Underworld. Still; here he is. If it is him.

“What really convinces me of your diabolic genius is the way you treat your staff”

“My staff?” said Dave blankly, as if he’d never before encountered the thought of them being treated in any way whatsoever.

“Yes. All that bureaucracy, form filling and box-ticking. You must make forty calls a week, always ask the client these ten questions. You know the stuff. Don’t you trust them?”

“Of course not. They’ve got no idea what they’re doing. That’s why we hire them. They’re cheap. The occasional expensive one left over from the previous management who’s good at their job, we usually manage to drive out eventually”.

“The ones who are self-disciplining? So you’ve never even considered dropping the micro-managing, putting your hand in your pocket, hiring the right people and letting them get on with it?”.

He caught the look on Dave’s face, nodded and grinned. “No, obviously not”.

There was a moment’s pause while the big man studied his reflection in the window, checking both profiles carefully and smoothing his hair.

“I particularly admire”, he continued”, The way you demand your staff send production forecasts to head office at the beginning of every week. Everyone knows they’re just guesses and can’t possibly bear any relation to the eventual results. But if they pitch low you give them a kicking, and if they pitch high, then miss, you give them an even bigger kicking. They can’t win. Magic. Do you ever read them?”

Dave snorted. “You’re joking. No-one does. It’s just a way of keeping them on their toes”.

“And making their lives a misery. Good man. How many people work in this company?”

“Five thousand give or take”

“And how many participate in the decision-making process?”

“Participate?” Dave’s lips moved slowly as if he had never heard the idea before.

“I mean; there are five thousand brains with an average IQ of 100 in your business. How much of that talent do you use?

“Well; none, actually. I decide what we’re going to do. The board agrees with me. Then we ship all the staff to a Strategy Conference, discuss the options, weigh the pros and cons, debate the upside and downside for three days, then tell them what they’re going to do.

Satan clapped his hands in delight. “So all that shareholders money is solely resting on you, and only you, having any good ideas. Better and better! So why do you have a Managing Director at each location?”

“So we’ve got someone to sack when the plan goes wrong”.

“Which it invariably does. Well”, he smacked his lips, “You’ve got a glowing future with me!”

“Glowing?”

“Incandescent, believe me. Just one last question”

Unable to decide between wondering when his alarm clock would go off and release him from this nonsense, or wondering whether, just whether, this strange and scary being really did have plans for him, Dave hesitatingly asked; “One last question before what?”.

“Before”, said the big handsome man in his rich gravelly tones, but didn’t complete the sentence. “Now the last question concerns your bonus, of, what was it, average £4,000,000 at each of your most recent three jobs.

“Four point two million”

“Impressive. You were three years at International Couriers, two years at Belgium Telecom, and four years at National Foods. Three different industries of which you had no experience”.

“I told you, I don’t need experience. I’ve got spreadsheets”.

“Yet you still got a big bonus at each one. How?”

“You’re interviewing me, aren’t you?”

“Just answer the question”

Dave shrugged. “Sacking people”. He thought for a moment. “Suppose there are eight branches and one of them is making a big loss. I can take a couple of years finding and employing people who know what they’re doing and helping them turn it round. Or I can close it down instantly. Either way the company is more profitable, and I get a fat bonus. Which would you do?”

“Right”, said the evil one “You’re the man for me!”

“So you want me as a… partner… down there?” asked Dave hopefully.

“Yes! Of course I do! I’m going to put you on the board! Well, on a board anyway!” grinned Satan and, seizing Dave’s arm, pulled him to the window and pointed across the car park, the dual carriageway, the shops and houses, the trees and parks, the distant hills and the sky.

“One day – all this will be yours!” he thundered, sweeping his arm theatrically across the panorama, and it seemed to Dave that he could see, in one glance, all the millions of businesses in every country in the world. “You, Dave Johnson, can have all the customers and staff in creation, to make truly miserable, for ever and ever, with your infinite ignorance and greed!”

“Wow!” breathed Dave, “You really want to work with me!”, then stared in horror as the handsome face began to glow a brighter and brighter orange, sinister flames started to lick upwards from the strangely contorting body, and sulphurous smoke coiled around the room. The exquisitely shaped mouth horribly opened wider and wider and wider and wider.

“Don’t be so fucking stupid! Why would I want a useless plonker like you! You’re going to spend an eternity in hell! – Mwah hwah hwah hwah hwah hwaaaahhhhh!”

Seizing Dave by his collar, and with a maniacal laugh, the blazing demon rushed him out of the office, across the lobby and shoved him hard through the open lift doors. “An eternity in hell!” he screamed again as Dave, joining in the screaming, plummeted vertically down through the darkness for five seconds, the exact time it takes to descend fifteen floors.

There was a large thud.

Me, hitting the bottom of the lift shaft, thought Dave.

He lay there without thinking anything else for a minute, then mentally checked his body for pain or damage. None. He checked all his senses. Nothing. No heat or smell of burning. No crackle of eternal fires. No screams of the damned.

Just where have I been condemned to spend eternity, he wondered?

He cautiously opened one eye. Lettering swam into focus;

“PanUniversal. Contact us”.

© Mike Bersin Jan 2013
 
The right of Mike Bersin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
 
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording and/or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.
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The death of a good man

Cowboy

Cowboy (Photo credit: Kevin Zollman)

He pushed himself up from the floor with his good right arm. The left flopped flaccid and useless against his body. Its was all white heat and pain. The bullet had smashed into his shoulder, spun him and dropped him straight to the floor.

He was aware of the towns people watching, but that didn’t bother him. All he was concerned about right now was the pain. He been shot before. It always hurt like hell but this was different. Something felt wrong in his shoulder.

The man who had shot him stared at him as he rose unsteadily and gracelessly from where he’d landed. There was a look of savage pride in the mans eyes that was really starting to annoy him. The man with the gun had cornered him after the shortest chase, and without so much as a warning fired off the shot that had smashed into his shoulder.

He tasted the dirt from the sidewalk and the familiar taste of iron that meant his blood was filling his mouth. He spat it out.

He felt unsteady, and that annoyed him too. He knew he looked foolish. He looked around at the faces of the people who were now gathering round. He didn’t see any support. He searched the eyes of the men and women and found either fear or the same blood lust that he’d seen in the gun man’s eyes. He started to become afraid.

He didn’t get afraid very often. The last time was when his Pa had whipped him as a boy. After crying to his Mom, who had told him to dry his eyes and get back to his chores in that resigned way she had. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t cry again.

He’d also promised that he would never let a bigger man beat a child, or a smaller man for that matter, if he was ever able to stop it. The times were tough growing up, and he’s gotten into any number of fist fights protecting those he saw as the weak. A woman beaten by her drunk husband one time, a slave owner who had taken the whip to his chattel another.

He’d had his share of beatings by intervening in that way, and been shot for the first time. It seemed worthwhile at the time.

His senses were spinning he realised. His mind racing back into the past. The man who had shot him was almost on top of him, marching toward him with a terrible purpose, his revolver held out in front like the of sword of an avenging angel.

He’d learned about avenging angels from The Preacher. He’d saved The Preacher from a beating one night as he himself had staggered home from a tavern somewhere. He’d been drunk, as had increasingly become his habit.

The Preacher was prone and getting kicked by some cowboy that should have known better. A clout from behind with the barrel of his Colt had rendered the assailant senseless, or at least more senseless, and he’d helped The Preacher to his feet. He’d seen him safely home, and slept his own excesses off in The Preachers barn. The next morning, he’d eaten with the mans family and soon found himself working for his keep.

The Preacher had learned him his letters and reading from all sorts of books in return for what The Preacher had called his good deed. The Preacher called him his good Samaritan. He’d learned that story from him too.

And he’d met Daisy.

He seemed to be leaning at a crazy angle. Sensing that he didn’t pose a danger, the townspeople drew closer, behind the safety of the man with the gun. He tried to take a step forward, but the man with the gun raised his other hand to stop him, he didn’t argue. He bent to pick up his hat and the unconscious act of brushing the street dust from it sent waves of pain surging through his shoulder and arm once more. He felt his awareness ebb and concentrated on staying upright. He knew he was swaying crazily, almost drunkenly.

Life had been good with Daisy, they had laughed a lot. They didn’t have much except the farm The Preacher had given them to start their lives with. He was 17 years old, had a farm and a wife and child. He was a man, just like his Father. It had turned out, a little too much like his Father in the end.

They worked and slept and were happy. They both loved to walk, and they visited The Preacher and his flock every Sunday, the five-mile round trip a pleasure in the Spring and Autumn, but a real test in the searing Summer and brutally cold Winter. His little family stuck together and did everything together. They grew together. Life was tough, but good.

The man with the gun was close now, he was standing right in front of him, and poking a finger into his chest. The man was shouting something, but all he could hear was the roaring of his blood in his ears. The finger poking was really annoying. This whole thing was really annoying. He’d know many people like the man with the gun, and never liked any of them. He’d always been stronger than them. Always been able to make them pay.

Anger started to replace some of the pain and he felt his mind clearing. He’d been drinking, and that’s how this posse had got the drop on him. They’d out numbered him and chased him out of the tavern. They’d cornered him down this dusty alley and as he’d turned to finally face them, the man with the gun had fired.

He remembered the first person he’d killed. That had been a shooting. There seemed to have been a lot of them since, but that first one had never left him. The look in the shopkeepers eyes as he’d realised he was gut shot and going to die. He’d slid miserably to the floor, leaving a streak of his own blood down his bright clean walls as the man who had shot him rifled through his cash box and taken what he’d needed.

He’d simply walked away from the store, jumped on his horse and ridden away. He’d never gone back to the town, or to his farm, but he’d been through a million others since.

Daisy had died the night before he’d killed the store keeper. His daughter the night before that. Consumption had taken them. He’d drunk and drunk but the pain of those deaths never went away. He’d spend most of the last five years drunk. And fighting. And stealing. None of it helped.

He’d initially thought he’d beaten Daisy to death, but he’d convinced himself it was the consumption that had killed her. She’d cried and cried when the girl had died and just wouldn’t stop. For as long as the girl had been ill, he’d been drinking heavily to numb the pain it brought him. His Pa had taught him that. He’d hit Daisy just so that she would just stop crying and give him a chance to think. His Pa had taught him that too. He hit her again, and again.

He remembered how his world seemed to be falling in on him, and everything felt like it was suffocating him.

Daisy had stopped crying after a while and he’d felt a little better. But she didn’t wake up. The consumption had taken her too, it had not been the beating he’d handed her, he was sure.

He’d left her dead body to find whisky. He’d found it in the small town that served as the centre of their little community and from there he’s struck out on his own.

He’d never love anyone again.

After that is was easier to take what he wanted than to work for it. He’d always been strong. Strong enough to protect the weak, and strong enough to turn on them too. His Father had despised weak people, and he’d finally understood why. They would snivel and complain when he wanted their things. A cuff here, or a beating there and he’d gotten what he wanted.

If they had a lot of things, or fought back really hard, he’d usually had to kill them. Usually the gun, but sometimes if he was hiding or needed to stay quiet, he’d use his hunting knife. The one his Pa had given him.

Stores, Farms, Banks. They were all easy targets. He’s rob and move on. He’d find whisky and spend a miserable drunken and ultimately fruitless night looking for someone to fill the hole in him that losing Daisy and his Daughter had made in him. Then he’d get into a fight and move on again.

His mind snapped back to the here and now. The man with the gun had a silver badge and it glinted in the sun as he covered him with his pistol.  Its was amazing how big a 45 calibre pistol looked this close up.

His senses were suddenly clear, his arm a throbbing companion that he knew would have to be dealt with later. First he had to deal with what was in front of him.

He opened his mouth to shout at the man with the gun to distract him or at least give him something to think about while he worked out how he could win this fight. But the gun roared once more.

The sound filled his head and drove everything else from his mind. The flash of the powder from the barrel blinded him, and he felt the slug smash through his teeth and into the back of his head.

Then he didn’t feel anything anymore.

A Fictional story by Damian Anthony

© Damian Anthony Jan 2013

The right of Damian Anthony to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording and/or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.
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