Short Story – ‘Mood Lighting’

Good morning, all. And happy weekend! Hope all is well with you and yours.

As promised, here is a brand new short story. Another bittersweet SciFi/Spec ficlet, just over 1000 words. A reflection one what the future might hold, both good and bad.

Thanks for reading!

Mood Lighting

red-670-front“We’ll get an appeal. We have to. Even if we don’t, if we could at least get the lawyer to release a statement, get the word out on the networks about what’s happened…”

“Why? What’s the point?”

Angelo stared at me. Those wide, black eyes, so dark that when we first met I could see the stars in them, now bored into me like jackhammers. 

“What?” I asked wearily, rubbing the skin around the implant where it was still raw and itching, doing nothing to improve my mood.

“If you’ve even asked that question, perhaps you’re right. Maybe there is no point. Maybe there never was.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Yes it was.”

The hurt I’d caused tightened his jaw.  He’d never been any good at masking his feelings. And if I’d been in a vindictive mood I’d’ve stated that was how we’d ended up in this mess in the first place. But I wasn’t. For once. I was just tired. Tired, sore and aching with the bashes and bruises but also with the effort of not-acknowledging the pain the look on his face generated in my chest. 

“I don’t know what you want me to say. There was always a chance this would happen. Are you telling me you never prepared yourself for this?”

“I thought we would win.”

I couldn’t fight a dry smile. “Of course you did.”

Angelo turned his back to me. He leaned his forehead against the bars on the cell door and closed his eyes. I wondered if he was getting one of his migraines. 

At least that’ll shut him up for a while.

The kick of guilt I felt in response to this thought was harder than constant needling pain of our near-constant fights ever since the arrest.

“I’m sorry,” I heard myself say. He didn’t move. “I know it means nothing now. But for the record, I am sorry.”

“I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to be angry.”

I searched about inside myself for a reaction. I knew I was disappointing us both when I found none. I kept my mouth shut.

“You just don’t care any more, do you? About any of it.”

Again I searched. Again, I came up empty. I hung my head so I wouldn’t have to meet his look. 

Silence stretched on. I shifted on the itchy blanket of the bunk and stared at the grey wall. Angelo slid to the concrete floor, rested his head against the wall. 

“It was my fight,” he said softly after such a long time I wondered if he’d finally said his last words to me. “I see that now. I want to say I’m sorry for dragging you into it. But I can’t. I still think we were right.”

I managed a shrug. “I’m not saying we weren’t right. I’m just saying we lost. And were probably always going to.”

He rubbed his temples. His lips had paled. A migraine was definitely coming. I wondered if they’d be worse now we’d both been Implanted. I checked my instinct to go to him and rub his neck where I knew it helped. I didn’t examine the hesitation too closely to find out whether it was because I didn’t want to or because I didn’t think he would welcome it. Deep down I knew it was a bit of both.

“If no one speaks up, people like Richmond will be able to carry on doing whatever they want, no matter how it hurts people. Destroys lives. Divides families.”

“People like Richmond will always get away with it,” I murmured after a while. “They have the money. The lawyers. The clout.”

“We had a lawyer.” I wrinkled my nose and was gratified to see a grey smile brighten Angelo’s face a moment. “Ok, yeah. So he wasn’t great. But his heart was in the right place.”

“Heart gets you nowhere in this world.”

Angelo looked around us at the grey walls, the strip lighting, the single, blinking red eye of a camera in the corner. “It got us here.”

“I thought that was my point.”

“You have so many points these days, Cheri. It’s hard to keep track.”

I picked at a snagged fingernail. The bruises across my knuckles were starting to heal. The cuts didn’t sting so much. The the implant still pulsed angrily into my skull but the discomfort had already eased since the morning. Soon I wouldn’t even be aware it was there. Just like they wanted. “I thought my point was there was no point.”

Angelo sighed and closed his eyes again, a line forming between his brows. His shoulders had come up and his neck muscles were taught. I kept quiet, knowing any further attempt at talking was not only genuinely pointless but would ratchet up the severity of his headache. I glanced at the wall chorno and was relieved to see it would still be several hours before they crashed the door open to dump dinner trays on the plastic table. We still had the time and space to hurt.

I stretched out on the bunk and stared at the white ceiling. I didn’t close my eyes. Exhausted as I was I knew I wouldn’t sleep and I didn’t want to see the scenes from the day before playing out on the inside of my eyelids. Not again. Not so soon. Neither did I want to think what life would be like from now on, in here or out there, now my thoughts, feelings, physical stats and sensations were being logged on a server somewhere for behaviourists to analyse.

“Richmond got into power because he has money,” Angelo croaked a few minutes later. “He had the money to push his Implant technology onto the open market. Richmond isn’t rotting in this cell instead of us because he had the money for better advertising and a better lawyer. When did it all come down to money, Cheri?”

“Do you really want an answer to that?” He cracked open one of his dark eyes. I sighed. “It’s always been, my love. It probably always will be.”

“If you always thought that, why did you join me? If you really believed it was hopeless, why fight at all?”

“Because it was your fight. And it was important to you.”

Angelo raised his head. His face was tight with the internal thunder of the gathering headache but his look was clear, empty of the anger and hurt that had sharpened it over the last months. He looked like himself again.

He climbed up onto the bunk next to me, moving stiffly like someone whose limbs were strung with wire. The flashing light behind his ear from his cranial implant was a moody red, indicating that his physical state was unsettled even if his mental was calming. He put a hand, bruised and bloodied as my own, onto my arm. The weight of it sent a warm rush through my body and I felt a tingle behind my ear as my own implant flashed from amber to green. The camera in the corner whirred, the monitoring systems no doubt alerted to our change in mood by the Implant transmissions. But Angelo just sat there, eyes closed, one hand resting on my forearm whilst the other propped up his chin like his head was too heavy to hold itself up.

I covered his hand in my own. His light eased to amber and his shoulders loosened. We sat there in silence. We didn’t move even when they brought food. The lights went out as night came in but we still sat, hands entwined, until our pulses gradually adjusted to beat in time with our Implant lights now flashing green into the darkness. 

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Checking In

Good morning, everyone.

Just a quick one this morning. Know it’s been a while since I’ve posted on my WordPress, but I wanted to assure you that this is not an indicator of nothing happening. I’m (as usual) tackling a number of varied projects at once and, what’s very exciting, making photo-1434030216411-0b793f4b4173some progress with getting them released. However, stages are still early and the publishing industry is a slow-moving beast and, naturally, things are taking longer at the moment.

Be assured, there are stories being written and steps being made to getting the published. As soon as I have concrete news on it all, you will be the first to know.

For those who follow the blog, thank you for sticking with me. Don’t forget I have a juicy backlog of Short and Flash Fiction available for free on here should you wish to indulge. If you prefer your updates more real-time and are a fan of all things SciFi, writing and (invariably) cats, feel free to follow me on Facebookand Twitter.

Also a huge thank you to everyone that commented, shared or ordered books as a result of my ‘Shameless Self Promotion Saturday’ post at the weekend. I was really touched and more pleased than I can say to find out how many of you out there enjoyed the Orbit Series.

(As a side note, these are all available on Amazon as paperback or Kindle, or you can order signed paperbacks direct from me. See the post for more details and/or message me on my Facebook page)

As a thank you I have a new, super-short piece of dystopian fiction ‘Mood Lighting’ that I’ll share this weekend to tide everyone over as well.

I hope everyone is bearing up in these continued unusual times. I hope you, like me, are able to be comforted by those familiar fictional worlds we have enjoyed in book, TV and film form all our lives, those that continue to stick with us, good times and bad. My ultimate joy is creating my own in the hopes they may provide similar joy to others in the future and the process of creating them continues, no matter what is happening in the real world.

Keep trucking, friends. Peace out.

Posted in Musings on Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Red Sky at Night

Greetings all. I hope we are managing to stay safe and sane in these continuing, confusing and sometimes-unsettling times. One of the many things I’ve been doing with the extra time is going back through old or unfinished short stories with a view to potentially curating and self-releasing a spec fiction anthology (working title Another Way To See – to include some old faves but also some shiny, new and/or previously unreleased shorts. Watch this space)

In the process of doing this I stumbled across this little contemplative piece that I, at first, had no recollection of writing. Turns out I wrote it years ago, 2013 I believe, based on the experience a friend of mine had visiting Lake Bodom in Finland. The way he spoke about it and how unsettling it had been really stuck with me and I must have felt compelled to set it down in words.

It is fictionalised and I have taken some artistic liberties with the description of the lighting (it is actually midsummer when Finland barely gets any night, not midwinter) but still an interesting exercise in contemplating whether the true nature of a place is defined by what you bring with you.

If you are unaware of the tragic and harrowing history of this particular location, you can read about it here. Not for the faint-hearted.

I won’t say ‘enjoy’ like I normally would, but I hope you find reading it interesting.

 

Red Sky at Night

584241-gettyimages-1138854537Looking back I could no longer see the road or the single lamp post that passed as the bus stop. There had been no other headlights or engine noise since the bus had coughed its way onwards without me. I paused, staring along the path with the breeze fingering the back of my neck, took a breath and carried on. 

Even with a breeze, nothing, not even the fingers of the pines, seemed to be moving. The skuds of snow gathered along the edge of the path were frozen solid, unlike in the city where the scraps loosed by ploughs whirled across your path like dancers in a waltz. I shivered, not just from the cold, and wondered again why I’d come.

‘When in Rome,’ I muttered to myself, partly just for the sake of making a noise. But the smallness of the sound just drew more attention to the silence. It was a quality of quiet I’d never known before, like the very air was empty.

I should have waited until morning. But the thought of the late train and night bus had been too intriguing to pass up. At least, at the time it had. Now it had gone eleven pm and the sun still hadn’t set and the dying light painted everything a rusty colour: a colour like drying blood. Dramatic, maybe, but I knew I wasn’t imagining it, despite everything else I seemed to be conjuring up to populate the laden shadows. 

I trudged on, boots crunching through the frozen grass, pulling my scarf up around my nose and watching my breath fog in the strained air. The trees ended just ahead. I’d come this far. I at least had to get down to the water. 

I watched my boots rather than look ahead as the path tumbled down the last few crunchy feet, only looking up when I stood at the edge of the black water. I pulled my phone out of my pocket but didn’t raise it to take a picture. I swallowed, trying to shake the feeling of being watched. It was just a lake. Sure, the light was odd and it was quiet. But that was it. It was just water.

And history. And silence.

I gazed across the dark water, feeling a chill I could almost see. I thought back to the Scottish lochs I’d biked around, the coasts of the islands in the North Sea I’d explored, walking the edges of Lutvaan in Oslo and tried to make myself see Bodom as I had seen them. But whether it was because of what I knew or whether it was because the place genuinely felt…loaded….I couldn’t. I fiddled with my phone but no longer wanted a picture.

The night bus wasn’t due to make its return journey to the train station for at least another hour, assuming I’d read the timetable right, so I wandered along the shoreline watching the light redden and the water not-ripple. I picked up a stone to throw, almost desperate for movement, but then ended up throwing it back into the trees. I paused at every clearing, looking around at the shadowy spaces and wondering whether I was there. 

I managed another half hour of silent trudging before stopping still, looking along the winding path that stretched into the rust-coloured light and decided I’d seen enough. I cut up through the woods rather than turning back down the path with its view across the water to a thousand other shadows clustered between the trees that might or might not be the place. But even with my back to the water I could still feel it, lying deep and silent and black behind me. 

It was a relief to escape to the shadows strung between the trees. I told myself the darkness would feel more natural, more like the nights I was used to. But the hope evaporated the further in I moved. It was close to midnight but it was still light enough to see, even if this light was old and grey. Weary, almost. 

I made out a break in the trees and went towards it, hoping I’d found a cut-through to the road but five paces later I stopped, heart thudding in my chest.

I turned but of course everything was empty and still. I swallowed. Not only was I creating feelings but now I was making myself hear sounds. I carried on and if I hurried a little faster up the hill, I told myself it was only because of the cold.

The tree break wasn’t the road, just a cleared space with along an overgrown track. I stepped out into the perpetual sunset and made myself take a picture. I told myself it was just a place, after all. The light wasn’t good. The picture was grainy. But as I looked at it on the screen, perfectly capturing the ruddy, stained colour of the air, I suppressed another shudder.

I followed the track uphill, hoping it lead back toward the road and hoping more that I had imagined everything.

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Short Story – ‘The Visitor’

Good afternoon, good folks. First, another quick check-in. How are we all doing? Thinking of anyone and everyone at this peculiar and unsettling time.

Just remember, wash your hands, stick to the rules, check in on ALL friends and relatives, not just the vulnerable ones (though make sure you focus on them!) and, also importantly, be sure to take care of yourselves. Read something new, or something old and well-loved. Break out your favourite movies and TV shows and DON’T feel guilty about a little bit of extra sofa-time. Do some exercise if you want/are able (Yoga with Adrienne is my personal favourite – yoga for all situations and for all levels) and try to stick to some form of routine.

Also, why not order yourself some nice things from local businesses that are doing delivery? You won’t be spending much money in the high streets, pubs or venues for the foreseeable so why not have the double bonus of treating yourself to something you can maybe afford without those extra expenses to think of, whilst also supporting a small (or large!) business that may well need all the help it can get at the moment.

Things to think about ordering:

Beer from a local brewery

Band merchandise/CDs/Records

Flowers from a local florist (for yourself or a friend or relative who maybe needs a lift right now)

Cupcakes/baked goods

Takeaway from your local restaurants that are currently closed

Meat from a local butcher

Veg from a local greengrocer

Milk from your milkman

There’s no end of it, really! Just whatever suits you, and your purse.

And so we come to the main reason for this post.

Amidst all the uncertainty and upheaval, it’s important to hang on to some positives. The gift of time is always a useful one and, lord knows, something we are likely to have plenty of in the weeks to come. So please find below, hot off the Pages App, a brand new short story. A ghost story, maybe? You decide. A bittersweet yarn, but one which I hope brings some comfort in its own way.

 

The Visitor

“I’m sorry?”15-3743

“What, dear?”

Who helped you fix the boiler?”

Rose blinked at me with the kettle hovering under the tap. “Herman.”

It was my turn to blink. “Who’s Herman?”

Rose clicked the kettle on as she fetched the tin of teabags from the cupboard. “The ghost, dear.”

“The…the what?”

“The ghost. I’m sure I must have mentioned him.”

I watched her put teabags in two of her chipped yellow mugs with a sinking feeling in my stomach. “No. No you haven’t.”

“Haven’t I?” Her thin brows pulled together in a frown as she poured hot water into the mugs. “Well that’s odd. He’s been visiting a while now.”

“Visiting?”

“That’s right. Bourbon?” She handed held out an open packet of chocolate biscuits.

I took one with numb fingers and followed her to the kitchen table. “How often have you seen it, Auntie Rose?”

“Oh, I’m not sure,” she said, swirling a biscuit in her tea. “Not every night, that’s for sure. Think he just pops by when he feels like it.”

“And what does he do, this ghost?”

She bit the soggy end from her biscuit with relish, wiping the crumbs from her lips with one of her embroidered napkins. “Do? Why, the same as anyone, dear, I suppose. Sometimes he’s just passing through, asks how the garden is, that sort of thing. Sometimes he sits and talks.”

I put my biscuit down untasted. “And…it’s not…I mean. It’s not Uncle John?”

Her eyes dropped to her teacup. “No.”

“It’s just when someone dies, it’s sometimes normal to picture them – ”

“It’s not John,” Rose stated, meeting my eyes with a slightly hard look. “John is gone. Don’t you think I know that?”

“No, of course,” I said hastily. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you…”

“You didn’t, dear,” she said with a slightly pained smile. “I miss him, obviously. But I’m not losing my marbles. I know John’s dead. For the best, in a way. He was in a lot of pain at the end, you know.”

I swallowed some tea with a suddenly dry mouth. “Yes. Mum said. I’m sorry.”

“So, well, it is lovely to see you as always, dear. But I think you’ve had a wasted trip. The boiler’s working fine.”

There was a moment of silence whilst Rose teased another bourbon from the packet.  

“I’m sorry I haven’t visited sooner.”

“I understand,” she said, dunking her biscuit. “The divorce can’t have been easy, I know that. And your big, important job and everything. Sometimes there’s just not enough time for everything.”

I pushed the bourbon around the saucer with my finger. “So this…Herman? He told you how to fix the boiler?”

“Oh yes, he’s a whizz with things like that. One of the connector pipes was a bit loose was all. I just needed to tighten it with a spanner.”

I was willing to bet that when John was alive Rose wouldn’t have even known what a spanner looked like, never mind a connector pipe. 

“Is it ok if I take a quick look anyway? Just to be sure?”

“Of course.”

I drained my tea and pulled open the cupboard that housed the boiler. The green power light was on and it was making a low, level hum. The pressure readings were normal and when I ran a test cycle everything went through fine. I could see the problem pipe, connector bolts newly greased and tightened at the back. I tested it with my fingers and found it sound.

“That certainly seems to have done the trick. Just make sure it gets its service next month.”

“Already booked for the 14th. I put it on the calendar.”

I nodded and gently closed the cupboard door. I surveyed her closely as she wiped biscuit crumbs from the table top into her hand. 

“Apart from…Herman…has there been any other…changes around here? Anything seeming out of place? Stuff being moved, things not where you think you’ve left them?”

Her brows pulled together again over her thick glasses. “I know where you’re going with this. And you’re wrong. I’ve not got dementia, dear.”

“I didn’t say that. It’s just – ”

“Just what?”

I sighed and stared at the leaf-patterned linoleum. It was faded and scuffed but spotlessly clean, like always. The mustard-yellow mugs still hung on the mug tree by the kettle. Her collection of potted herbs crowded the windowsill. Behind them lace curtains were looped back on strands of ribbon she’d embroidered herself god knew how many years ago. Everything was as it was the last time I’d visited. And all the times before that, stretching right back to childhood. The only thing different was that John’s chair at the kitchen table was empty.

Well, I also had to admit that Rose had lost weight. Her peach-soft skin hung a little loose from her jaw and neck. The tendons on the back of her hands stood out like wire. Mum had said not to worry. She was still eating, she had just been under a lot of stress and was only just getting into a routine of cooking for one. Her eyes, the colour of warm cocoa, had always been welcoming and easy. They were tired now, a little red, but the warmth was still there. There was grief, yes, but there was also the readiness to comfort. The readiness to understand. Even though she was the one who should need both those things. 

It didn’t seem to make sense that she should seem so…ok. So unchanged, apart from the slightest suggestion of sadness in her smile. How could your entire world turn upside down and you remain the right way up?

Apart from seeing ghosts, that is. 

“Just what, dear?” she prompted me when I still hadn’t said anything several moments later.

“Do realise how it sounds, Auntie Rose? When you say you’ve been talking to a ghost?”

Her face went blank. “How it sounds?”

I chewed my thumbnail, remembered she never liked the habit and dropped my hand. “Have you mentioned it – ”

“He has a name, dear.”

“Have you mentioned Herman to Mum?”

Her smile gained a small amount of life. “Your mother is a dear woman. And is still my favourite niece. But she wouldn’t understand such things. I mention him to you because I thought you would.”

I sat back down at the table. “Did John ever see this ghost?”

“No, no. He’s only started visiting since John passed. He’s a lovely boy, but I don’t think he and John would have got on.”

“Boy?”

“Oh, well that’s how he appears to me. Anyone under 50 to me looks like a child, dear.”

I fought a frown as I tried to get my head round this. “So he’s a young ghost?”

“I don’t know if he has any real age, or what we would think of as age. But he looks like a young man. Handsome one too, if I do say so myself. If I’d been forty years younger, I’d’ve been quite taken, I don’t mind admitting it.”

“And what does he do? Besides passing on DIY tips?”

She gave me a look but her smile didn’t falter. “He just likes to chat. He knows a lot about 60s music. And Jazz. Oh and he’s a great reader. Big fan of mystery stories.”

I took a bite of the biscuit to buy some time whilst my mind flopped back and forth. “You’ve got a lot in common then.”

“Oh, yes,” her smile brightened still further. “More than me and your uncle did if I’m completely honest. John was never a big reader.”

“And Herman…he’s not someone you knew when you were younger?”

“No, dear,” Rose said, rising and brushing the biscuit crumbs into the sink. “Though, now that you mention, he does look a little like the young man that lived next door to us when we were children. Was forever fetching our balls out of his hedge. Never once complained though. Always returned them with a smile.” She smiled a small, secret smile of her own. “Gosh, I’ve not thought of him in years.”

“Was he called Herman too?”

“No,” she said like it was a silly question. “Mr Dawson, to us. Richard, I think Father called him. And Herman doesn’t really look like him. Just something about his manner reminded me of him. Herman has blue eyes just like John, in fact. But he’s Scottish, I think. From Edinburgh. Such a comforting accent, don’t you think?”

“So what makes you think Herman’s a…I mean…how do you know he’s a ghost? Is he dead?”

“That’s a very personal question for someone, dear,” she admonished. “I would never presume to ask.”

“What I mean is, is he…real? I mean, does he knock on the door and you open it for him?” I asked as my mind reeled through several alarming scenarios.

“He asks to come in but he doesn’t come through the door.”

“So he just steps out of thin air?”

“It doesn’t feel quite that strange. But essentially, yes, I suppose he does.”

“So what makes you think he’s a ghost, specifically?”

“Well, what else could he be?”

There was a question. 

“Has he told you what he is? Or why he’s here? Or if he wants anything?”

Rose folded her arms across her faded apron. Her lips were pressed into a thin line but her brown eyes, as ever, were warm. “So many questions. Don’t you take anything on faith any more?”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “I’m sorry, Auntie Rose. It just doesn’t make much sense.”

“Why does everything have to make sense?”

Another good question. I crunched another biscuit at her insistence then helped her wash up. She chatted about the garden, the spring flowers coming in, pointing out her primroses through the kitchen window. I promised to pick up some compost for her, nodded and smiled, kept the chatter going, even as concern threaded itself through my insides like cold vines. She seemed so…normal. Old. Tired. Grieving. But still herself. 

The thought of her sat alone at night, talking to someone who wasn’t there, filled me with ice water.

“You know what, I don’t have to rush back,” I said as she was showing me to the front door. “Maybe I will take that bed for the night, if that’s still ok?”

She beamed, the first real smile I’d seen from her all afternoon. “I’ll make up the spare room. I have some butcher’s mince in the fridge too. I could make those burgers you used to like so much for tea.”

“That sounds lovely.”

And it was. The radio gently burbled out her favourite jazz channel. The smell of the homemade burgers as they browned under the grill went right through me. Their warm, savoury taste, cut through with the sweetness of homegrown red onion the sharp kick of her homemade chilli ketchup, filled something in me I hadn’t realised was hollow. It tasted like thirty years ago. It tasted like home.

We chatted about anything and nothing. She didn’t ask about the divorce. I didn’t ask about Herman. We talked about John and I managed to tell her how sorry I was I never got to see him in the hospice. She patted my hand and told me it was ok and the hard knot of guilt in my belly loosened a little.

We watched Countdown and then a Harrison Ford film that was on the TV. She started nodding in her chair as I washed up our cocoa mugs and I told her I would stay up a little longer when she finally announced she was going to bed. 

I fixed some coffee, turned all the lights down, put the TV on low and prepared to wait the night out, without being able to tell myself why.

I watched another made-for-tv film. Then the news. Then the late night talk shows. The grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight. I clutched my coffee cup tighter, even as I silently berated myself for being foolish. I looked around the room. Nothing.

Midnight ticked along to 1am. I got up and moved quietly through the kitchen, the dining room, then back to the sitting room, looking for anything that might appear like something it shouldn’t. Any odd shadows or an angled piece of furniture creating illusions in the moonlight. Anything to prove my poor aunt wasn’t going crazy. But everything looked normal. It was quiet, still and peaceful, smelling of potpourri and furniture polish. I was all so familiar I ached. 

Eventually I padded upstairs and gently pushed open Rose’s bedroom door. I saw her silent figure in the bed, the covers gently rising and falling with her sleeping breaths. I switched on the torch light on my mobile and scanned the whole room. It was empty apart from Rose.

I took a moment to register how neatly she kept to her side of the bed and how big and empty the other half looked, then crept back downstairs.

I nodded off somewhere towards 4. Rose woke me with a scolding a few hours later, berating my addiction to the television which she surmised must have been what stopped me from going to bed. She didn’t meet my eye as I followed her into the kitchen where she bustled about making coffee and scrambled eggs. 

“Did you sleep alright?” I asked carefully.

“Fine, thank you dear.”

“No…visitations?”

She gave me a baleful look over her shoulder. “Herman doesn’t visit me in my bedroom, darling. That would be most improper. Besides, there was no need for him come last night.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you were here, dear.”

I drove home carefully, yawning and fighting a headache. I rang Mum from the car, told her I’d stayed with Rose and that she was sad but well. Yes, her cupboards were well stocked. Yes, the boiler was fine. The service was booked for the following month.

She hesitated then asked me how I was. I skirted the question, as I always did, and heard the relief in her voice when she was able to say goodbye.

Weeks stretched on. I got the promotion I’d interviewed for, but lost the first court battle for some disputed company assets. I slept for five hours a night, if I was lucky, and only with the aid of a few large glasses of wine. The rest of the time I was on the road, on the phone, on the laptop, in my lawyer’s office.

I rang Rose often at first. And I managed to visit a couple more times, though not as often as I would have liked. 

No surprise there.

The knot in my stomach returned. 

It didn’t loosen even during my last visit to her, possibly because I only had time to empty the bags of compost I’d picked up from the garden centre and swallow a quick coffee before racing back to my car. She waved from the gate and I watched her shrink away in the rearview mirror, chilled by the inexplicable feeling that that she wasn’t really there. But then my mobile rang and I saw it was the solicitor and forgot everything else.

When Mum phoned to tell me Rose had died I was in the queue at the coffee shop. The barista asked for my order but I couldn’t remember what I wanted. I drifted back outside, shut myself in my car and cried. I rang Mum back but she was too busy dealing with Rose’s solicitor to talk. Even the next day, after everything was signed, she was too busy emptying the house to do more than tell me she hoped I wasn’t drinking too much. I stared at the blank bedroom wall in my spartan flat. I’d dropped my mobile on the floor but I didn’t bend to pick it up, even when the office number flashed up and it started buzzing across the bare boards. I held my head in my hands and tried to cry because I thought it might make me feel better. But no more tears came.

It was a simple funeral. About a dozen people tried their best to sit evenly in the pews to make the church look fuller than it was. Apart from us, her closest living relatives, there were a couple of members of staff from her local bookstore and the cafe she’d baked cakes for. I wondered where all her friends were. Then it occurred to me maybe John had been her only friend. She’d certainly never mentioned anyone else.

Apart from…

I scanned the gathering for a young man, someone I didn’t recognise, possibly there on his own, sat near the back. Maybe in the shadows.

But there was no one. There was no one at all under 50 apart from myself and I only just squeaked under that yard stick.

I returned home and opened a bottle of wine. I turned the TV on just to fill the silence and stared, unseeing, at the screen.

It was as I was draining my glass and realising with a curse that it was my last bottle that she asked to come in. I blinked groggily into the shadows. I muted the TV and listened. Nothing.

No one spoke. No one knocked on the door or rang the bell. But I knew she was asking to come in. Asking if she could see me.

I swallowed and, somehow, said ok without opening my mouth. She stepped out of the shadows. She was younger, though not young. Perhaps mid fifties, her hair still holding on to a flush of brown. The lines around her eyes and mouth were less pronounced and there was a roundness to her cheeks. This will have been how Rose looked when I was a child. Except it can’t have been. She never had round cheeks. She’d always had very fine cheekbones. Film-star cheekbones, she’d called them. Grandma had had round cheeks, I thought. My father’s mother, that is. No relation to Rose. She was also the one that had worn those pearl earrings that now caught the light from the TV, turning pink and blue all at once.

I knew I should have been scared. But I wasn’t.

“Hello, dear.”

“Auntie Rose?” My voice sounded far away, like a radio tuned to an unfamiliar channel in a distant room.

She shook her head. “Not Rose, dear, no. I’m Iris.”

I scanned my brain to try and think if Rose had had any other sisters besides my maternal grandmother. There was a brother who’d died in infancy, I was sure. But no third sister.

“I’m not a relative, dear.”

“Who are you?”

“Iris.”

“You look like Rose.”

“Do I?” Her smile was as warm as a new spring day and her brown eyes were the colour of fresh coffee. “That’s good.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You understand more than you think you do, dear,” she said and sat in the armchair opposite me. “How are you feeling, love? You don’t look so well. Are you eating?”

The rational part of my brain wanted me to shout, to run, to be indignant, angry, confused or just plain terrified. But all I felt was the fuzz of the wine and the warm flooding sensation that swam through me at the sound of her voice, unknotting my stomach and muscles as it went. “I’m…I’m not good. I don’t think. And I haven’t eaten properly in….” I rubbed my eyes. “Too long.”

“I understand, dear. Life is hard sometimes, you know? Sometimes there just isn’t enough time for everything.”

I dropped my hand and looked at her. She was so real, so solid. Not an illusion or a wine-induced hallucination. The armchair dipped under her weight. The light from the TV shone on the glasses she wore on a beaded chain around her neck. She was there and yet not. She looked like Rose and yet…didn’t. There was more of a resemblance to my mother than Rose had ever had. And her hair was styled the way my favourite dinner lady had worn it in secondary school. She used to save extra beetroot for me because she knew I liked it. She also picked me up and dusted me off when some other kids pushed me over in the carpark, sending them all off with a flea in their ear.

I hadn’t thought about her in years but I could suddenly hear her broad Lancashire accent and taste the pickled beetroot clear as day. And she, along with my mother and both grandmas, was looking out at me from my Auntie Rose’s cocoa-brown eyes.

“I know you.”

“Of course you do, dear. You’ve known me your whole life.”

“You knew my aunt.”

A nod. “I did. Lovely lady. Liked her Agatha Christie.”

I felt a smile spread over my face despite everything. “So you’re….you’re Herman?”

Iris put her head on one side, a comforting tilt to her mouth as she adjusted the buttons on her shell-pink cardigan. “Not to you. For you I’m Iris.”

“Who was Herman?”

“Herman was someone your aunt needed. I’m here for you, now. Come, dear. Tell me what’s going on.”

I told her. Everything. The breakdown of my marriage. The promotion I’d fought for but didn’t really want. The business I was about to lose to my ex despite having spent years of my life building it up. Everything I felt like I’d lost by sinking so much of myself into things I felt no longer mattered. May never have mattered.

I told her about not being able to talk to Mum about it because she didn’t like not knowing what to say. Not being able to talk to Dad as he had never really done ‘talking’. Not being able to talk to any friends because I’d pushed them all away. And now that Rose was gone and her house was sold subject to contract, it felt like the last parts of me that had known a time when things had been good were getting swept away.

She listened. She said nice things. She patted my hand. Her skin was warm and she smelled like violets, a scent my dad’s mother had favoured and had worn every day of her life, even when she had gone into hospital one day, never to come out again. She didn’t do anything, or say anything particularly remarkable. She didn’t need to. She was just there.

Then she wasn’t.

I woke up on the sofa the next morning with a crick in my neck, fur on my tongue and a pounding head but with an inexplicably light feeling in my chest. Nothing real had changed. But something in me had shifted. I felt like I had as a child when I’d fallen and skinned my knees, or when my first elderly relative had passed away. Bad things had happened. I was allowed to be sad. But that didn’t mean life was over. Or that it was all my fault.

I got up, showered on the hottest setting, fixed coffee, took a deep breath and rang the office.

Iris visited again. She asked how the new job was going and helped me pick some colours for decorating my flat. She scolded me gently for not buying furniture that I liked but making do with what I’d scavenged from my marital home. She talked to me about things from my childhood I’d thought I’d forgotten about. Places we’d gone on holiday. Rose’s homemade scones. The card games she had taught me which John had then taught me to cheat at, much to her consternation. When Dad had used to let me help sort his fishing rods before a trip. The time when Mum used to smile more.

Iris talked about Mum. And her relationship with Dad. Things I must have already known, deep down, but had never let myself consider. We talked about how I’d taken a chance to escape but how she had never felt like she could.

The next time I rung home I asked Mum how she was and was slightly ashamed to find her surprised by the question. I persuaded her to let me take her out for dinner, without Dad, so we could talk. Properly talk. Reluctantly, she agreed. And we did.

It was hard. On both of us. We both said honest things. And stupid things. But then we said sorry. Iris suggested that I ask Mum to make it a regular thing. She agreed. With less responsibility at work I had the time to spare and found I enjoyed it. I even started cooking at home and Mum enjoyed being cooked for more than she predicted.

“I’m sorry?”

I looked up from my plate to see Mum staring at me with a confused look. “What?”

“Who did you say suggested adding fresh chilli?”

I blinked at her, paused in the action of pouring her a glass of wine. “Iris.”

“Who’s Iris?”

I wiped my mouth on my napkin and thought hard about where to begin.

 

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sending Virtual Hugs

90392080_10157124621742308_6587386943275794432_oI thought this would be a good opportunity to check in with everyone, albeit from my usual seat in my usual ‘office’ (the living room) with my usual (typically unproductive) coworker. It’s true that a writer’s time is often spent indoors as a matter of course. There are always deadlines, messages to return, drafts to edit, research to be done and, always, always, always, another story waiting to be written.

So, on the face of it, it is largely business as usual here. But having the choice of going outside taken away, as well as the urgency and reality of the situation in every news and social media feed I follow, doesn’t half conspire to unsettle the soul. And that’s not even mentioning the (completely necessary) cancellation of conventions and events like Scarborough SciFi Festival, which means a loss of income and, sometimes more importantly, loss of chances to meet up with friends and readers alike.

So I would just like to take a moment to reach out to every last one of you, as I know everyone will be effected in some way, and wish you and your loved ones all the best in this tricky time. Remember its no one’s fault, most people are just trying to do their best and, on the whole, everyone is looking out for each other and coming together for the greater good. This is a wonderful thing to behold and something that can’t pass without expressed appreciation.

A particularly loud shout out needs to go to the the key workers in the health services, food retail industry, delivery drivers of all kinds and everyone behind the scenes slaving away to find effective prevention methods and, hopefully soon, a cure.

Wash your hands, stay indoors as much as humanly possible, please try to only buy what you need and remember to check in (remotely!) with vulnerable friends, neighbours and relatives on a regular basis.

I will be using the extra time to continue shopping short fiction and novels around agents, publishers and magazines whilst drafting out a few new shorts for the WordPress (we all need fun, free entertainment right now more than ever, right? To see what I already have available in a wide range of genres, go to my short fiction, flash fiction or free novellas section) and, maybe, starting the next draft of the next novel in the virtual pile in my head.

Health and love to you all! We will get through this by sticking together even whilst we’re staying apart.

J

 

Posted in Musings on Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Partridge in a Pear Tree – All Ye Faithful, Part 1

And here we go, as promised! Read on for part one of my festive romance murder mystery US romp. Yes, that is a genre. And yes, it is supposed to be fun, so enjoy!

I shall post all 12 parts over the next 12 days, the conclusion on Christmas Eve. Merry reading, all!

(Find out what I’m wittering about by reading my last post)

**Please note, All Ye Faithful is an LGBT romance, M/M to be precise, and contains strong language and adult content, so may not be to everyone’s taste. If this is not your thing please scoot along to my All Publications, Short Fiction and Flash Fiction pages for other things that might be more to your taste**

All Ye Faithful – Part 1

1

 

James Solomon knew it was unprofessional, even unethical, to be grateful for the murder of a high-profile businessman the day before Christmas Eve. But even his robust professional pride couldn’t put a dent in the relief he felt when the call came through.

He climbed out of the rented car outside Benson Industries HQ and shivered in the brisk sea breeze that brought with it the smell of salt and iodine. Gibson slammed the passenger door with a sigh. Her blonde brows were drawn together in a mix of annoyance and exasperation. A woman in a sheriff’s uniform stood near the doors finished a call on her cell and hurried over to meet them.

“Agents. Thanks for coming so quickly.”

“That’s no problem, Sheriff,” Gibson replied, face now professionally blank. “The sooner we start the better. Sheriff Coyle, right?”

“That’s right,” the middle-aged woman said, her smile doing nothing to warm the pale set of her face.

“Agent Gibson,” Gibson said, shaking the other woman’s hand then, indicating James, “Agent Solomon. We’ve had the incident reports, but can you fill us in in your own words?”

“Sure. Follow me,” Sheriff Coyle said, voice sounding a bit steadier. She proceeded them to the wide, glass entrance and swiped a card through a reader. The doors hissed open and James followed her and Gibson in, grateful to be out of the early morning chill. The corridor was long and brightly lit. The reception desk was empty. The black eyes of cameras were the only ones watching them. “The vic is Derek Benson, fifty-five years old. Born here in Winton then got a job with the FDA in Maryland after college. Struck out on his own age thirty, now he’s the owner, CEO, director, you name it, of Benson Industries. It’s a specialist pharmaceutical company. Started off real small-time, deals with local drug store chains and the like, but they’re pulling in some pretty big business these days. Benson was found in his office this morning by the janitor, shot three times in chest.”

“Time of death?” Gibson asked, tapping notes into her phone with a long, manicured finger.

“Our ME is putting it around nine pm last night, though he says he can be more accurate after the post mortem.”

“And you said the security camera footage is missing?” Gibson said, eyeing another camera as they strode past.

“That’s right,” said the sheriff, almost guiltily. “They’ve got too many feeds for storing on hard drives. The security system backs everything onto disk. The disks from eight pm last night to three this morning have been taken.”

“No online backup?” James asked, not hopefully.

Coyle shook her head. “I don’t think Benson trusts the Cloud and all that. A bit old fashioned with some of his thinking, I’m hearing. They’re dusting the Security Room where the disks were kept for prints now.”

“Did Benson often work late?” Gibson asked. James pulled all the reports up on his own phone and skimmed them as the elevator hummed up to the seventh floor, re-absorbing the information alongside Coyle’s commentary.

“Word is he put a lot of hours in, sure. But there was some kind of presentation evening on last night. All the heads of department and senior staff were here. Plus some of the lab rats were working late on a deadline.”

“Lab rats?” James asked as Coyle stepped off the elevator onto a level that was all glass walls and spacious offices with big desks and bold, minimalist furniture.

“The technicians,” she said, glancing this way and that as if wary of what might be hiding in the maze of glass. “We have a list of everyone that was in the building at the time from the swipe, though so far no one saw anyone leave the conference room or the labs.”

“How many people are we talking?” asked Gibson warily.

Coyle pulled a battered notepad from a back pocket, flipped through it. “Thirty one.”

“That’s a lot of people with opportunity,” Gibson muttered.

“One of them was his wife,” Coyle added, flicking through her notes. “Rachel Benson.”

“His wife was at his business meeting?”

Coyle nodded. “She’s a senior partner in the firm. She delivered one of the presentations.”

“At what time?”

“Pretty much the exact time they reckon he was shot,” Coyle said. “Sorry.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want it to be too easy,” Gibson muttered.

“What did you think of the victim?” James asked, watching the sheriff closely.

“Me?” she said, brow creased. “I didn’t know him.”

“But you knew of him,” James pressed. “Big company. Small town.”

Coyle gave him a nervous glance then looked away. “He did stuff for some local charities. Donated to some nature conservation causes and the homeless action, that kind of thing.”

“But?” James prompted, seeing a slight tightness in her face.

Coyle looked uncomfortable. “He hired most of his staff from out-of-town. They don’t live here, they don’t contribute to the economy, and they can get the locals backs up. Snobbish, some say. Elitist.”

“Is that what you think too?”

“I don’t have much contact with them,” Coyle hedged. “And I don’t listen to gossip. But I do know a lot of money comes through this building and not much of it feeds back into Winton. We’ve started interviewing,” she added, turning a corner. “Managed to get a few of the folks from the meeting in early this morning, including the wife. But we’re still trying to get hold of most of them.”

“What do you make of the wife?”

Coyle looked at James like she was trying to figure out if he was testing her. “Reserved.”

“She’s not upset?”

“Oh, she’s upset,” Coyle said. “But she’s not the sort to go to pieces in front of the likes of me.”

“The report said murder weapon was his own gun?” James then asked, carefully logging the last reply away for further consideration.

“Sure looks that way. He kept it in his desk.” Coyle stopped at one of the glass doors where a uniformed officer, looking a little green, stood to attention. Through the wide glass walls, James could see the body of Derek Benson slumped in his large, designer office chair. Blood was splattered up the window behind him, looking like red rain suspended in the grey, December sky. The crime scene photographer was taking close-ups of the bullet wounds whilst his partner, who looked old enough to have been the scene technician at the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, was bent over the black, glass desk, sweeping for prints as delicately as if he were applying makeup.

“We don’t get much murder here,” Coyle murmured as if in explanation, her eyes on the corpse. “Winton’s a peaceful spot. We get some drugs, some drunk and disorderly, a bit of fraud. But stuff like this?” She shook her head.

“A big company shoe-horned into a small community,” James ventured, watching both officers’ faces. “Can cause friction.”

Coyle raised her eyebrows. “Big companies are fine. But BI’s too big. And only likely to get bigger.”

“Oh yes?” Gibson prompted, pulling on some gloves and pushing open the door.

“That’s what people are saying this presentation evening was about,” Coyle said, hanging back near the door as Gibson bent over the body. “They’re striking a deal with some sort of international distributer for their newest antiviral.”

“Do you know which distributer?” James asked, examining the stark art hanging on the interior wall.

Coyle frowned at her notepad, ruffling the pages. “It’s in here somewhere. I’m sure it went in the report.”

“It did,” Gibson replied firmly, giving James a hard look. “Loadstone Inc.”

Coyle smiled a relieved smile and Gibson went back to scrutinizing the crumpled form of Derek Benson. James examined him over her shoulder. His chin was on his chest. A rope of blood-speckled saliva hung from a corner of his lined mouth. His skin was yellow-grey and James knew that if he’d tried to move him he would be stiff with the rigor of someone dead nearly twelve hours. His eyes were closed. His hands, hairless and manicured, rested in his lap. His brows were heavy and dark. His hair, thinning, was iron grey, though still almost black at the nape. He wore an expensive suit and a dark, conservative tie. Blood soaked his shirtfront and pooled under the chair.

The gun was on the floor by the desk. A desk drawer on his right stood wide open. James bent and peered at the small keypad on the drawer front.

“It has a lock, but not a complex one,” he said.

“And there’s no signs of a struggle,” Gibson replied surveying the rest of the tidy office.

James nodded. “Someone he knew. Someone he trusted too, or at least someone he wasn’t afraid of, or he’d have been standing.”

“But that could be any one of the thirty one people in the building last night,” Gibson said sourly. She stood with her hands on hips, glaring at the corpse like it had done her personal harm. Which, in a way, James reasoned, it had. “The question is, did he get the gun out himself, or did the killer?”

“Business expansion,” James said, tilting the computer monitor to face him. “Not always a popular move.”

“But why was he here?” Gibson murmured. “Big-deal presentation evening in the conference room, the future of his company in the balance?”

“And he’s sat in his office on a whole other floor,” James affirmed. “Writing an email to Personnel.” He gestured at the screen. Gibson came to his elbow and bent to examine the open, unsent email with Contract Termination typed into the subject line and a blinking cursor in the blank form.

Gibson was quiet a moment. James stepped to a set of black vinyl bookshelves and scanned the titles. Business management, chemistry, biology, academic journals and government studies on pharmaceuticals, and several battered volumes on natural history and the history of Winton and the surrounding area.

“I think we have all we need,” Gibson said to Coyle, who was stood by the door watching them with an expectant air. “The ME can take him away now.”

Coyle nodded and stepped back out into the corridor, dialing a number on her cell.

“How about you stop making digs at the local law enforcement, Agent?” Gibson scolded softly.

“If they slip up this early on, it’ll end in roadblocks,” he returned, watching Coyle through the glass. “And we need to establish local feeling about the situation.”

“Consider it established,” Gibson said wearily. “Are you getting anything on this guy?”

“He loved his town,” James murmured, looking around the office again. “But I think he loved his company more.”

“His company grossed several million last year,” Gibson said, moving to the door. “I can see why he had a soft spot for it.” Coyle was just hanging up the phone when they rejoined her. “Ok, Sheriff. Please continue to round up the employees from last night. We’ll question them here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Most of them will be turning up to work at eight anyways.”

“Good,” said Gibson, looking at her watch. James could see her repressing a sigh. “Tell them they can only have the building back when we’re done. That’ll get them through the door.”

Coyle nodded and hurried off.

“We’re doing the interviews here?” James questioned.

“One,” Gibson said, holding up a finger and moving back toward the elevator, “it could get the killer twitchy and we might get a hit early, which means I can be back in time for my husband’s Christmas Eve punch evening tomorrow. And two,” she said, stabbing the elevator button with more force than was necessary. “Getting everyone across town to the Winton Police Station with its single interview room and stone-age wifi will add hours to the whole damn circus. I’m not paid enough to be here at this time of year any longer than necessary.”

James didn’t comment. He set up his interview station in the room he was offered by another local police officer, put the digital recorder on the desk, pulled out a new, leather-bound notepad and went through the early reports on his phone for the third time as the clock ticked towards eight am.

He frowned when his personal phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, saw the number and cut the call. Shortly after, a police officer ushered in a tall woman in a business suit looking flustered and annoyed. James could already see a queue of similarly well-dressed and irritated people lining up outside. He flipped open his notebook, indicated the chair opposite, and began.

Three hours and seven interviews later and James was hoarse, tired and frustrated as he flipped through his interview notes which revealed absolutely nothing. Benson was generally liked. Everyone was quietly hopefully that the deal with Loadstone Inc would be good for the company, and, James figured, for their own wallets. No one knew why Benson had chosen not to attend the presentation evening.

James waited for the next candidate wearily, tapping his pen on the desk. When the door remained shut, he checked the corridor. It was empty but for a few local police officers attempting to calm two loudly-protesting members of Benson Industries’ senior management who were still waiting to be seen and extremely unhappy about it. He sighed, was about to call them in, then spotted a vending machine further down the hall and his blood sung out for caffeine.

He slipped away while their backs were turned, punched in his selection and received an ominously greasy coffee. He glanced back, saw the impatient employees being shown into Gibson’s interview room and took the opportunity to step out a side entrance that had been propped open by the Crime Scene team for quicker access and escaped into the open air. He found himself on a concrete walkway at the back of the building. There was a bench against the wall and cigarette butts littered the floor. He took a seat with a sigh and sipped the coffee. It was revolting, but hot and the caffeine began poking holes in his fatigue.

The land rolled steeply away from the back of the building, down to the sea. A couple of gulls, looking brighter than jewels against the low, grey sky, wheeled in the salty breeze. He took a moment to just breathe the smell and feel the chill on his skin.

It was so quiet, so unlike the city which was, he felt, at its worst this time of year. Added to the usual roar of traffic, blare of sirens and thunder of planes was the incessant Christmas music blasting from every storefront and pouring forth from every cab radio. It was all gaudy lights and swarming crowds scrambling for the tacky, overpriced products piled in storefront windows.

He found himself closing his eyes a moment, letting himself enjoy the cold, blessedly-quiet sea air, when his phone buzzed again. He swore, pulled it out, stared at the screen for a long moment, then answered.

“There you are,” came the irritated, high-pitched voice. “You avoiding me, James?”

“I’m working, Angelina.”

“The day before Christmas Eve?”

“Yes,” James said, controlling his tone with an effort. “I’m afraid the murderer didn’t consider their timing.”

Angelina huffed down the line. “This is the third year running, James.”

“I know that – ”

“Dad’s starting to think you’re doing it on purpose.”

James swallowed his first response, kneading the bridge of his nose. “It’s the job.”

“Bull,” she snapped and James winced. It took a lot to make his sister even half-swear. “Even the FBI get Christmas off occasionally.”

“I’m the only one in the unit without a family.” James argued. “It’s only fair – ”

“You have a family, James.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Dad’s not getting any younger you know.”

“Dad’s fine.”

She sighed again, sounding defeated. “He misses you.”

James didn’t reply.

“Yes he does,” she retorted in response to what he didn’t say. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you both lately. I know he said some dumb stuff about Glen, but you know what he’s like. Mum wouldn’t want you to – ”

“Angelina,” he put in, firmly. “I’ve got to go. I’m interviewing.”

“Of course you are.” Her disappointment was harder to hear than her anger. “Well, I’ll tape Ryan and Jackson opening their presents, shall I?”

“Yes,” he said. “Please.”

A pause. “Stay safe,” she said, but in a way that made it clear she might love him, but was still mad, and hung up. He rested his head against the bare brick and stared at the sky, waiting for the flush of shame to ebb.

“Bad day, huh?”

James looked up, startled. A young man in a lab coat was stood by the door, giving him a sympathetic look through thin-framed glasses.

“Working day,” he replied noncommittally.

The younger man smiled, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his faded jeans and offering them. When James waved them away he gestured at the bench. “Mind if I…?”

James did mind, but couldn’t think of a professional way to refuse. He glanced back at the door, knowing he should get back. But it was so quiet out here.

He shifted over to allow the young man to sit. James picked up the slight sent of good coffee and herbal shampoo. He blinked and shifted further away as the man lit a cigarette with a silver zippo. The thick smell of tobacco smoke filled the air, thankfully masking the other, more appealing scents, and the wisps wove about his head like snow clouds before whipping away in the breeze.

“You’re one of the FBI agents, huh?”

“Agent Solomon,” he confirmed, not meeting the curious look.

“Poor old man Benson,” the other murmured after a pause, smoke wreathing from his lips. “I can’t believe it. Shot, huh?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Man.” The young man shook his head. James examined him out the corner of his eye. He had long, caramel-colored hair pulled into a loose tail that hung down his back. What looked like home-cut bangs framed his fine-boned face and fell in his eyes. James noticed with a start that the eyes were the most startling pale green he had ever seen, the colour of bottle glass or young leaves. “It’s unbelievable,” he continued. “Shit like this just doesn’t happen round here.”

“So I believe,” James said, looking away.

“It’ll be sex or money, right?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Murder.” The young man had an almost impish grin on his face. “It’s always about sex or money, right? Or both?”

“We’re pursuing several lines of inquiry.”

He laughed, a bright sound at odds with the grey morning.

“I’m sorry, and you are?” James said with a spark of irritation.

“Leo,” the other held out his hand, unaffected by or not noticing his tone. “Leo Hannah.”

“And what’s you’re connection to the victim, Mr Hannah?”

“Just Leo,” he insisted, dropping his hand when James didn’t take it. “I work here. Lab rat,” he added, tugging on the lapel of his white coat.

“And what exactly do you do?”

“Uh, well,” he scratched his forehead with a thumbnail. “I’d have to look at my email signature to give you the proper title. But basically, I look in microscopes and play with the scanning machines.”

James watched as the younger man took another deep draw in his cigarette. Under the lab coat he wore a loose t-shirt and low-slung jeans. There were battered sneakers on his feet. His hands were long-fingered and fine, with a number of tiny scars and work-hardened pads. His face was boy-like, the green eyes large and fringed with thick lashes, making him look younger than James reasoned he must be. His look and manner both seemed easy, unguarded, in stark contrast to everyone James had interviewed that morning. He entertained a half-notion for a long moment then heard himself asking, “Did you know Mr Benson well?”

Hannah snorted smoke out through his nose. “Nah. He’s the one with the shiny office on the seventh floor and I work in the basement, you get me?” he threw James another disarming smile. “But I do know you’ve got your work cut out for you.”

“How so?” James asked carefully.

“Well,” Hannah said, raising one eyebrow. “I’ve only been here a year, but even I know you either loved the boss man, or you hated him.”

“Your colleagues have not ventured the same opinion,” James said carefully.

Hannah snorted again. “Top brass? No, they wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

Hannah rubbed his thumb against his fingers just under James’s nose. James caught again the subtle scent of herbs and coffee and closed his throat. “Dollar dollar, yeah?”

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to explain.”

The other’s mouth turned up at the corner. He looked at James closely, like he was a slightly diverting article in a usually-boring newspaper. James resisted the urge to break eye contact. “Top brass want to be in the top pocket of whoever takes over, right?”

“I suppose.”

“Well,” he shrugged like it was obvious. “Until they know who’s gonna take over, everyone’s gonna play it cool, right? Especially with the cops. Then you can tell the new boss what a good job you did saving the company’s face.”

“And saving its face doesn’t concern you?”

He narrowed his ivy-green eyes momentarily. “I think catching who did it concerns me more.”

“That’s good,” James replied and pulled out his notebook. “So you would say the senior management had a wide range of feelings about Mr Benson?”

“That’s a very college-educated way of putting it, but yeah,” Hannah replied. “You only had to see him in a room with his department heads to see they either worshiped the ground is size tens trod on, or wanted to slip a land mine under them. He’s…was…too old-school for some, I think. Had principles.”

“Good principles?”

“Strong ones,” Hannah replied. “Demanded loyalty, you know. And respect.”

“These heads of department. That would be Horatio Torez, June Michaels and Harold Boon?”

“Yeah, those guys. Super top-brass.”

“Could you be more specific about their relationship with Benson?”

Hannah looked out over the sea. “Not really. We don’t exactly share the same break room. I can only tell you what I guess, you know, the impressions I got in meetings and stuff.”

“And what were those impressions?”

He hesitated the barest moment, then continued. “Michaels and Boon always looked like it was only the size of their pay checks stopping them from beating Benson’s head against the table. Whereas Torez, well…”

“Yes?” James prompted.

“Let’s just say I’ve never seen a guy so into another guy that wasn’t into him back.”

James took a moment to untangle that. “Torez is gay?”

The green eyes slid his way again. James tried to figure out what was going on in the appraising look. “Both ways, I think. But he keeps it on the hush-hush. He was in the military, you know.”

James hadn’t known. He made a note. “How do you know about his orientation?”

Hannah shrugged again and James wondered if it was a little too easily. “I know someone he dated for a while.”

“And Benson?”

“Happily married for years, I believe. To a woman, I mean. Rachel? You must have that in your files.”

“But they were close? Torez and Benson?”

“Hell yeah. Torez is into that whole respect thing, too. And big on chains-of-command. Benson was like his commanding officer and a father figure all rolled into one, I guess? Torez had a pretty rough upbringing. That’s not a secret. I put it all this in my statement, by the way. For the lady cop.”

James cocked an eyebrow. “‘Lady cop’?”

“The pretty one. Older, but still got it. Blonde.”

“You mean Agent Gibson?”

“Sure, that sounds right,” he said, grinning again. “She took it all down. Although…”

“What is it?”

“I didn’t mention it before because…well, there’s no proof. That’s what you guys want, right? Evidence? Proof?”

“What do you have?”

“Just a feeling, really.”

“About what?”

“A feeling there’s been, something, I dunno…something funny between Torez and the old man recently.”

“Something funny?”

“Yeah. Sassy said she’s heard they’ve had beef, though no one knows what about.”

“Sassy?”

“Sallyann Andrews. One of the mail runners,” Hannah explained. “She hears everything that goes on. Likes to pass it on, too.”

“So she heard a rumor. What makes you think it’s true?”

Hannah contemplated the sea for a long moment, brow creased slightly. “Torez came down to the lab last week for a meeting. He sure looked like a man with a weight on his mind.”

“When did Sassy first mention hearing about this disagreement?”

“Uh, few weeks ago? A month? I’d have to check my IM history to be sure.”

“If you could do that, and give me a call,” James replied, pulling a business card from his pocket.

“Sure, happy to…James?”

“Agent Solomon is fine.”

“Sure thing,” Hannah smiled again, wider. James wondered if there was a glint in his eye or if it was just his dry spell playing with his radar.  “And hit me up if you need anything while you’re here, yeah? I know this town pretty well. You got my number on file, right?”

James examined his face a long time but couldn’t make anything of the boyish guilelessness. “We do.”

“Seriously,” Hannah added, his smile dropping. “Anything I can do to help. I liked Benson. I didn’t know him well, but he gave me a shot, you know. When no one else would. Kinda feel like I owe the old man.”

James stood, pocketing his notebook and checking his watch. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Sure thing. Oh and, Agent?”

“Yes?”

Hannah nodded to the paper cup in his hand, still half-filled with lukewarm dregs. “If you want a decent coffee, there’s a place on the seafront. Arbuckles. That shit’ll knock your socks off. Tell ‘em Leo sent you.” His smile made his eyes shine like stained glass in the sunshine. James hurriedly suppressed the thought just as Gibson appeared at the side door, looking harried.

“There you are,” she said, glance sliding to Hannah who raised a hand in greeting as he dragged on his second cigarette. She nodded politely then gestured James to follow her in.

“What is it?” he asked as he stepped back inside.

“I want you in on this one,” she said, pacing back toward the interview rooms.

“Who is it?” James asked as he followed.

“Renford Muntz. The janitor.”

“The one that found the body?”

“That’s right.”

“You think he’s good for it?”

“I don’t know. I can’t tell if he’s guilty or just hates cops. Keep your eyes open. Mr Muntz,” Gibson’s tone stiffened with politeness as she opened the door. Renford Muntz  sat hunched at the table, chewing on a splitting thumbnail. His deep-set eyes flicked up as they entered, then dropped again to the table top. “This is my colleague Agent Solomon. If you don’t mind, I would like to go through your statement again with him present.”

“Why?” the man rasped without looking up.

“He’s a good judge of character. If you truly have nothing to hide, he’s a good guy to have on your side.”

The man huffed, spitting out a gnawed piece of nail. James studied him as he took a seat next to Gibson. Muntz’s dark, wiry hair stuck up in all directions like he’d been running his hands through it. His skin was sallow and his stained coverall strained at the seams as he bent his large frame over the table. There were bags under his eyes and dirt under his fingernails. His jaw moved constantly and he blinked more than James would consider normal.

“So tell me again how you found Mr Benson.”

“Again?”

“For Agent Solomon’s benefit. Please.”

He sighed a large sigh. James watched him tugging at the ragged thumbnail with stiff fingers. “Like I said, I came in at four like always,” he grumbled. “I do the top floors first cos those stuck-up assholes don’t want me around once they start pretending to work.”

“You do what, exactly? Cleaning?”

“No, there’s a cleaning crew for that, ain’t there?” he grouched. “But it’s my job to make sure everything’s in order and that they done their job right.”

“Ok, so you were inspecting the senior management’s offices,” Gibson continued without inflection. “Then what?”

“I saw him through the glass. I called the police.”

“Your swipe card confirms you arriving at three-fifty-five am, Mr Muntz. The call to the sheriff didn’t come through until four-twenty-five. Did it really take you half an hour to get up to the seventh floor, see Mr Benson had been attacked and call the police?”

“I did some other offices first, didn’t I?” he snapped, shifting in his chair. “And when I got to his, I didn’t see the blood at first. Thought he was sleeping.”

“Do you know where the disks from the security system are kept, Mr Muntz?” James asked.

He shrugged, staring hard at his fingers. “Sure. Security Room. First floor.”

“The disks with all the footage from last night are missing.”

“Killer musta taken them,” he scowled at James.

“Mr Benson was in the process of writing an email when he died,” Gibson said. “To Personnel. Do you know anything about that?”

“No. Why should I?”

Gibson paused. James watched Muntz. Sweat began to shine on his forehead. “A number of your colleagues mentioned you and Mr Benson have had a few disagreements recently. About your behaviour towards your colleagues, among other things.”

“Lying bastards.” Muntz’s hands twitched then were still again.

“It’s not true, then?”

“Course it’s not.”

“Why do you think they would say so?”

“Cos they’ve all got it in for me, that’s why.”

“Who specifically, Mr Muntz?” James asked.

“All of them,” he spat. “Everyone. They all want to see me out on the street.”

“Does that include Horatio Torez?” James ventured.

Muntz stared at him a moment, mouth slightly open. James could feel Gibson’s questioning glance but kept his eyes on Muntz. The heavyset man blinked and scowled heavily. “Sure, him. All of them.”

“Why did they all have such strong feelings about you?” Gibson asked, voice carefully level.

Muntz shifted his bulk in the creaking chair. “I don’t know, do I? I’m different, I guess.”

“How are you different?”

“I ain’t rich, for one,” he snarled. “And they think I’m not smart. But I am. I knew what they said. I knew what they thought. They think I’m dumber than shit, but they don’t know half the stuff I know about this place. They don’t know what I could do, given the money and the right chances. I been here years. Known Mr Benson longer than any of them too. Jealous, that’s what they are. Every one of them.”

“Who do you think would want to hurt Mr Benson, Renford?” James said, watching the ruddy face carefully.

The bloodshot eyes weighed him up a long time. A corner of the mouth twitched within the bristled depths of his beard. “How should I know?”

“You just said you knew the company better than anyone,” James remarked. “Don’t you have any idea?”

The big man leant forward on the table. “You want my guess?”

“I do.”

“One of the heads. Yeah, one of those guys.”

“The heads of department?”

“Yeah, That idiot Boon or that stuck up bitch Michaels.”

“And why would they want Mr Benson dead?” James said, leaning his elbows on the plastic tabletop to mimic the other, watching the twitching, sweat-sheened face closely.

“They hated him, that’s why.”

“Lots of people hate other people, Renford. It doesn’t mean they kill them.”

“This big deal,” he snapped, “means big changes, right?”

“I imagine so.”

Well, they’d get more money if they were in charge instead of him, right?”

“Yes, I imagine that’s right,” James said smoothly, pretending to look at his notes. “So one of them will take over the company now? Get all the benefits from the expansion for themselves?”

“Course. It’s always about money, ain’t it?”

“Most of the time,” James agreed.

“Well then.”

“Just Boon and Michaels?” James asked lightly. “You don’t think Torez would have wanted the same thing?”

The man swallowed thickly, looked at the table. “No.”

“Why not?” Gibson prompted when the man offered no more.

“I dunno,” he said, slamming a fist on the table. “Just no, ok?”

 

TBC

 

<——— Back to Intro

On to Part 2 ———–>

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Event Announcement: SciFi Scarborough 2020

Greetings everyone!

74959934_2799684600082027_8002022765395705856_nYes, I will be back for SciFi Scarborough 2020!

This will be my 4th appearance at this great event. Always a friendly, inclusive atmosphere with great guests, stalls (both industry and independent) and panels. And let’s not forget the wonderful setting of Scarborough – beach, seafront and don’t forget the top-drawer fish and chips.

Everyone loves a bit of SciFi By The Sea.

Click here for website & tickets.

Was very sad not to make it for 2019 so thrilled to be returning for 2020. Will eat twice my allowance in chippy teas to make up for it.

Come by and see me in the Artist’s Alley where I’ll be selling & signing copies of my Orbit Series.

See you there, adventurers!

A little gallery of previous years:

21246_1567507626838134_5020415784188111948_n 10441352_1567910390131191_6867539577831113226_n 12963434_1702268960028666_3385680550558947676_n17879865_1860286944226866_3158807640696560399_o 31138145_2031011853821040_518083389312466944_n 1897966_1568005393455024_636347236956554276_n

Posted in Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Re-Release – Crime and Punishment, SciFi Anthology OUT NOW

UntitledWell, don’t this look shiny? The SciFi/SpecFic collection featuring my story ‘New Tricks’ Crime and Punishment has been re-vamped and re-released by the wonderful people over at Future Chronicles.

‘They say that karma is a bitch, that justice is in the eye of the beholder, that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Yet even in the future, or in the furthest reaches of the galaxy, there will always be those who will covet what others possess, who are driven to violence through rage or through design. And there will always be those who seek justice

“Chronicle Worlds: Crime and Punishment” is a pulse-pounding title in the award-winning Future Chronicles anthology series from Samuel Peralta, series editor and USA Today bestselling author in his own right.

The volume brings together Nebula Award nominee Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Amazon Breakthrough Novel finalist Michael Patrick Hicks – and some of the most exciting new voices in speculative fiction – to explore the boundaries of transgression and justice in the future.’

Untitled 2

Head on over to Amazon to grab your copy now!

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Harvey Duckman Presents – Vol 2 **OUT NOW**

Harvey Duckman presents the second in a series of collected works of suspense 41f6FwVEsjLand mystery in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and steampunkery…

This anthology features work by exciting new voices in speculative fiction, including both established authors and previously unpublished writers.

These short stories give a glimpse into some fantastic worlds that are already out there for you to enjoy, as well as a taste of more to come.

Volume 2 includes stories by: Phil Busby, A.L. Buxton, J.S. Collyer, R. Bruce Connelly, Phoebe Darqueling, Paul Goodchild, Lynne Lumsden Green, Craig Hallam, Jon Hartless, Mark Hayes, Andy Hill, Fred Johnson, Peter James Martin, Ben McQueeney and A.D. Watts.’

I’m lucky enough to have my short story ‘Ash’ featured in this wonderful collection.

Get your copy and/or check out Vol 1 on Amazon!

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Updates & Previews

Old vintage typewriterHaving never stopped writing stories since I was old enough to hold a pencil , and having released three novels between 2014 – and 2016 (my debut space pirate trilogy, the Orbit Series) it feels slightly weird not having anything new ‘out’ in nearly three years. It’s not that I’ve been idle. I’m not sure what would happen if I ever actually stopped writing, and appearances and sales at conventions have been numerous and tremendous amounts of fun. But I am currently negotiating the previously-unchartered territory of agent-pitching and publisher-researching. Anyone with any writing or publishing (lucky you!) experience will tell you that this takes time, patience and perseverance.

So whereas I’ve done a fair amount of writing in the last few years (for example, completing book 1 in a brand new SciFi Series, currently called the Waste series, and subsequently working my way through a list of potential agents with it) there’s not been much to share or show. At least on ‘paper’ (or on screen! Well, except my Christmas Ghost Story The Highwayman – thanks to everyone that read & enjoyed!).

Whilst that process ticks on, I have begun work on book 2 in the Waste series. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t stop moving forward, you’re bound to get somewhere, even if it’s not where you originally planned to get to…and maybe go on a few interesting detours along that way. I’ve also made some tentative ventures into the realms of the LBGT Romance novella, having read a fair few in my time and always enjoying the prospect of a challenge and trying something new. I’ve written two so far, with a third almost done. The first two are still waiting for homes but I have relatively high hopes for the third. Watch this space!

(I may consider serialising the romance novellas on here if they aren’t picked up elsewhere. We’re talking vampires, murder mysteries and police procedurals in the romance vein, so a good mix of genres, themes, and settings, so hopefully there’s some genre-fiction appeal in all of them)

My short story Ash, originally published by Dagda Publishing in the short story collection Tuned to a Dead Channel, has also had a spit-and-polish and been submitted for potential inclusion in the second instalment of Harvey Duckman Presents, the first in a series of collected works of suspense and mystery in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and steampunkery edited by the wonderful people over at Sixth Element Publishing. I have my fingers crossed for that and will share any news in due course. In the mean time, head on over to Amazon to get yourself a copy of Vol 1, bound to be up the street of any discerning SciFi, horror or steampunk fan.

I’ve always enjoyed having several projects on the go, so I’m having an absolute ball behind the scenes, but not having anything to share with readers still feels a teensy bit on the self-indulgent side. Especially when so many people ask me when my next book is out, what are you working on now, when can I buy the next one?

Sadly that is quite genuinely out of my hands, but in the meantime I thought I might share the opening to the new novel just to tide things over. If people are interested I’ll share a bit more another time and will, of course, be shouting it from the mountain tops as soon as it looks to me being made available in a more formal capacity.

Read on for more!

To quote my query letter, Waste is ‘Indiana Jones meets Mad Max’, the story of Tomikoa Ru, a Reclaim Expert and Wreck Diver commissioned to retrieve an old document from the sparsely populated wasteland that now covers a significant portion of the planet. When a mysterious police detective investigating the murder of a prominent businessman turns up on the scene wanting to tag along, Ru’s life goes from complicated to controversial and, of course, nothing goes quite according to plan.

We have LGBT elements, romance elements, quad bike races, blood, bullets, kidnapping, abseiling, murder, mayhem the lot! Hopefully it won’t be too long before I get the chance to share the whole story with the world. In the mean time, enjoy this little snippet.

 

WASTE

Chapter 1

file_580705

Pic: ‘Alien City At sunset by scarab1’

It was summer. The air was hot and full of moisture. On the lower levels, where the vines were thickest, the leaves spewed humidity like stale sweat. Everything smelt like living rubber, mixed with the cloying, syrupy smell of the blooms.

The vacuum panes of Rannick Reclaim HQ kept out of the worst of it, and most of the noise from the Conditioners. But I could feel the thick, wet air, heavy with the endless roar of the over-taxed appliances, pressing in behind the polyfibre like water closing in around a sinking ship.

I’d been living in Kanto for over ten years by that point. When I first arrived, I’d told myself I’d get used to it. Now, as I watched the Pruners firing lasers into the newest lengths of vine, still very far from used to it, all I told myself, over and over, was that I was surely, by now, due some luck. Overdue, even.

My hand tightened around my solder wand. I looked up from the drop into neon-studded darkness under the window to the tall, vine-free spires glinting against the skyline. I visualised, for the millionth time, or perhaps the hundred-millionth, the view from the apartments, design offices and laboratories on the topmost levels. I imagined the clear light, the cool, filtered air. I imagined the educated, wealthy, influential people that lived and worked there. Designers, engineers, splicers, commerce dealers.

I knew I’d do well there. My early tutors said I could read wires like other people read story-mags. I had learnt circuits almost before I’d learned to speak. But I was born with entirely the wrong strains. In entirely the wrong part of the world. To entirely the wrong people.

As I looked toward the spires, I, again, prayed to gods I didn’t believe in for a chance. Any chance.

Looking back, I wonder what I would now give to have never heard Li Ava’s name. To have never have heard of the original Algunac. To have never been given the opportunity to earn more yang in one job than another thirty years in salvage and repair work would have got me.

Hindsight’s a kicker, ain’t it? Though, to be fair, no one ever said otherwise.

I slammed the lid of the projector unit shut and slouched to the store room. Dropping myself in a chair and putting my feet up on the desk, I rubbed my tired face.

“Good evening, Tomioka-sama.”

I started, blinking. “For the love of…really?”

A slim, dark-haired figure stood behind me, smiling his perfect smile and bowing respectfully. “Forgive the intrusion, Tomioka-sama – ”

“I blocked you from work,” I growled, tapping keys on the info station. “I triple blocked you – ”

“ –  but I have been authorised to inform you of a special deal Haku Enhancements is running at this time. For just one reasonable down-payment of ten thousand yang, you could be eligible – ”

“Quiet your hole,” I growled, scanning the code flying across the screen.

“Forgive me sir,” the holo-ad continued to croon, perfect smile unwavering, black, almond-shaped eyes shining, “but we really couldn’t let this opportunity pass you by. Your nominated requirements – ” He held out his arms and turned in a slow, circle, sending me a far-too-familiar look over his shoulder as he did so, “are within our ability to provide. All we would need would be a competitive down payment of – ”

I swore, roundly and at length, causing the genetically-enhanced me to put his fine head on one side and examine me with an indulgent smile. I took the profanity level up a notch then let out a long breath as I finally spotted the gap in my adblocker code and plugged it. The holo-ad flickered and disappeared. The room seemed dimmer somehow.

I stared at the floor where he’d stood, the image with my height, my build but with the face and hair I’d need to even think about applying for a position in the northern quarter. I felt something go out of me and dropped back into my chair, turning on the netscreen in an attempt to fill the air with something other than the absence of the hologram.

The channel was showing a serious-faced woman, with dark hair that looked real, reporting the latest on the assassination of business executive Solomon Ran-Jo. My ears pricked up briefly when they mentioned the sizeable, private reward being offered for the capture of the main suspect, but then the report turned to details of the struggle between the victim’s kazoku and the state over who had the right to his company name and gene patents, as well as his reportedly extensive and priceless collection of pre-Wrack artefacts and curiosities.

I sighed disgustedly and flicked to a backdrop channel. The image of soft clouds bumbling over a sky too blue to be real filled the screen as the soft sound of music drifted from the surround sound. I wheeled the chair over to the workbench and pulled over a half-built metric analyser. The tangible nature of the work soothed me. I didn’t exactly relax but at least the chrono ticked towards the end of the day without me thinking about throwing myself out the window from sheer frustration.

I had, in fact, almost managed to completely turn my mind away from of everything I liked most to forget, when I heard the sound of Rannick muttering in the lobby. I sighed and paced through to meet him.

“Ru,” he started, gesturing at the walls where the 360 image of peaceful woodland wobbled and flashed with white streaks. “What going on?”

“I’ve tried, sir,” I protested. “The projector needs a new image pane. I’ve re-routed the old one more times than anyone sensible would.”

“You can see the cracks,” Rannick gestured up at the ceiling where splits in the paint could be seen. A tentative finger of vine had starting to force its way through the gap.

“They’re out on the cutting frames again today, sir,” I said. “That should sort it for a while. And I managed to keep the logo focused,” I added, nodding to the bold Rannick Reclaim emblazoned in animated, red letters over the front desk.

Rannick’s glance slid to me and, to my surprise, a smile he’d obviously been trying to hide snaked its way up one side of his mouth. “Well, maybe I’ll just order us a new image pane. Maybe a whole new projector? And get ourselves our own Pruning contract whilst we’re at it.”

I frowned. “You hit your head on the flycar door, sir?”

His grin widened. “I have some news.”

I searched his face warily. “News?”

“Good news.”

I blinked. “A commission?”

He folded his arms, hazel eyes shining. “Only the commission of the century.”

I couldn’t keep a smile forming on my own face. “What is it?”

“Our break, is what it is,” he said, smile widening. “Our big break.”

“How big, sir?” I prompted, following him into the storeroom. He opened the chill unit and started rooting around at the back.

“Sir?”

He straightened holding up the last bottle of fruit fizz. “How does twenty thousand yang sound to you?”

“Twenty thousand?”

“Each.”

I stared at him. “You sure you didn’t hit your head?”

He clicked the cap off the bottle and started pouring into plastic tea-beakers. He handed one to me. His eyes were alight. “This is the one. The one we’ve been waiting for.” He clacked his beaker off mine and swallowed down the drink in one go. “I told you, didn’t I? That we can deliver something no one else can, and that it would pay off?”

I froze, beaker against my lips, my buoyed spirits slumping like a mudslide.

“This is enough to get your eye sorted,” Rannick insisted. “Maybe enough for a deposit on your ear, too.”

“What’s the job, sir?” I didn’t whine only through the greatest effort of will. Rannick’s smile became a little strained as he re-filled his beaker. “Rannick-sama?”

“A long-haul Reclaim. A high-profile one. For Li Ava.”

I lowered the beaker. “Li Ava?”

“The very one.”

“Of the Li kazoku?”

“The very same.”

I swallowed. “But she…but they…”

“What did I tell you? This is the real deal, Ru. Not scratty Borderland retrieval or battlefield salvage.”

“What’s the package? Where’s the package?”

“Just slow down a moment.” He looked at me a moment. I kept my face neutral with an effort as I watched him bracing himself. “The Waste. Mandaal, to be precise.”

I stiffened.

“Now, Ru…”

“We already did one Waste Reclaim this year,” I protested.

“Forty thousand yang, Ru.”

I tightened my grip on beaker. “Mandaal?”

“You’ve been before.”

“I remember. Vividly. It’s just…”

“I know. I don’t like it either. But just think of the money.”

“Sir – ” I started, but Rannick put his beaker down with a clack and folded his arms. A little hardness had crept into this round, friendly face. “This is what we do,” he said firmly. “This is what we offer that other salvage companies can’t. This is what is earning us the biggest payout of our career.”

I rubbed my good eye. “But it’s not that simple is it?” I tried, desperately. “We’re broke, Rannick-sama. What about prep? Supplies? All the yang in the world won’t be any help if we never make it back because we can’t afford decent transports or desert gear. And the inoculations have gone up in price this last quarter too, I know for a fact.”

Rannick’s smile was easy. “Li’s forwarding us all expense monies in advance.”

I blinked again. “She’s what?”

“She’s invested.”

I stared at him. “What exactly does she want us to retrieve?”

The guarded look came into his face again. He fiddled with the control for the netscreen. “Well…that’s part of the catch.”

“What is part of the catch? And how many parts does the catch have?”

“Two,” he said, sliding me a look, tapping his lips then adding quietly: “I think.”

I dropped myself back in my chair and took a moment to martial myself. “I’m listening.”

“The first part of the catch is…I don’t know what she wants us to Reclaim.”

“You don’t know?”

“They wouldn’t tell me over the comm.”

“Blood and sand, sir. How do we plan anything?”

“Well, that brings me to the second part of the catch.”

“Which is?” I asked slowly.

He levelled me with another frank look. “She wants to meet you.”

“Me? What the hell for?” Rannick’s face fell slightly and I ducked my head. “Sorry, sir. I just don’t understand.”

For one of the first times in the seven years I’d known him, Rannick looked distinctly uncomfortable. “She’s heard you’re from there.”

I felt my jaw tighten. Blood rushed to my face. I took a moment to control my voice. “She heard…?”

“Ru – ”

“Sir, I’m not from the Waste.” I stood, feeling hot all over. “You know I’m not.”

“I know that. But she doesn’t. And you look enough like it to get away with it.”

Blood thundered in my ears. What I was thinking must have showed on my face because he held up his hands.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Ru, but let’s look at the facts. You speak the language. You’re the right size. You look like one.”

“I…” I couldn’t continue. Anger choked me.

“Look,” Rannick insisted, putting a hand on my shoulder. It was warm and he tightened it there for a moment, leaning in to look me in the eye, his lined, fine face filled with a warm earnestness that always worked on me. Damn him. “I know you’ve never liked it, but you can’t deny it. Especially not now, when you’ve been given the chance to make it work for you for once. For us.”

“Why does where I’m from make a damn bit of difference?” I managed to get out.

“I get the feeling she thinks only one of their own stands a chance of getting anywhere near the package.”

I frowned again. “I would struggle to get near Mandaal again,” I said, suppressing a shudder. “You know that, sir.”

“I’m sure you can do it. So is she. She’s some sort of expert on Waster history.” He either didn’t notice or didn’t care about me flinching at the word. “And she knows what she needs. Apparently that’s you.”

“If she’s that much of an expert she’ll be able to spot I’m not native.”

“Of course she won’t.”

“They have white hair.”

“So do you, under the dye. They shave theirs, anyway. You could – ”

“Sorry, sir, but I’m not shaving my hair.”

“Fine. But otherwise…you’ve got the skin, the eyes, all of it.”

“You’ve seen real Wasters, Cheng. You know – ”

“A layman’s eye, though,” he cut in, voice a little harder. I kicked myself for using his given name this moment of all moments.

“She’s not a layman, sir,” I said, carefully.

“This argumentative streak is not attractive, you know.”

I held his gaze, biting me tongue, feeling heat flush my face again.

“Don’t be offended,” he said, in a gentler tone. “At least, no more than you already are. But, honestly…anyone Tai would struggle to spot the difference between you and a born-and-bred Waster.”

“Seriously, sir?” I burst out, more desperate than angry now. “This is agreed to?”

“Nothing set in stone. Not until she’s met you.”

“One look at me and she’ll know.”

“We’ve got a week. Dig out some traditional clothing, research some customs. Who cares if you weren’t born there? We’ll pretend you were, do the job and walk away with her money. Isn’t that what we always do?”

I chewed on my thumbnail and stared at the floor.

“Please. Ru. Pretend you’re a Waster, for one meeting. Would that be so bad?”

I looked up. My throat was on its way to closing. “Can I think about it, sir?”

It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He was regarding me with a mix of annoyance and regret. “Ok, Ru. I can’t do this without you, you know that. Take tonight. But don’t think too hard. You could talk yourself out of something that could change everything.”

I nodded, stiffly, staring at his boots. He patted me on the shoulder again and strode past me. I heard him shutting the power down in the lobby. The room dimmed as the projector powered down, the image of the forest vanishing completely to leave the cracked, white walls bear.

I sat at the work desk and prodded at the metric analyser blindly as Rannick activated the security systems and locked the stock chamber.

“Don’t work too late.”

I didn’t answer. My temper was still fluttering too close to the surface.

“Hey…Ru?” His voice was different. I glanced up. He was at the doorway with his bag. The familiar lines of his face under the straight, brown hair were set in an expression that was almost apologetic. “You…do you wanna come over tonight?”

I blinked. I must have looked truly pathetic. The small rush I felt in my belly at the idea made me feel even more so. Rannick and I hadn’t spent a night together in…months. Nearly a year. Over a year, even? He was seeing a woman, I knew he was. He’d even talked about getting Verified, and I had the impression it wasn’t just for the repo funding. I wouldn’t compromise that for him, no matter what either of us was feeling.

I forced a smile. “Nah, you’re ok sir. I’ve got some work to do at my place. But…thanks.”

His smile was warm but the flicker of relief I saw in his eyes hurt more than it should. He left, whistling, and I was alone.

Posted in Novel Excerpts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment