Fiction Friday – Balancing the Books – Part 2

Welcome back to another exciting Fiction Friday!

This week it’s Part 2 of Balancing the Books. Next week will be the concluding chapter, and if you’ve enjoyed this, there should be an eBook available on Amazon in time for Halloween. Until then, turn down the lights, and enjoy the story. 


The path down beneath the floor was unstable. The wood in most of the room was rotten. It was dark, but with each move he made, more of the floor crumble away and yielded to the moonlight. Eventually, he decided on the staircase.

“Hurry,” said the woman.

A small strip of plaster and exposed metal supports lined the wall to the staircase. He pushed his back to the wall and inched, slowly nearer the stairs. They were as rotten as the floor, but the supports had held their shape as they’d fallen. Now it was almost as if the stairs had always gone down into the black pit. His heart beat loudly in his chest, and he scared himself. Against it all, he was enjoying it. Only the woman spoiled his good mood. If she was here, if she wanted it to, then he would have to do something about that. Maybe she could be reasoned with, oh but if she ever told anyone else. He scared himself again. He didn’t know he had it in him.

He sidestepped slowly along the wall, once or twice he slid his foot a little too quickly, and plaster crumbled out from underneath him, but before long he was gripping the ornate bannister of the staircase. He couldn’t tell how far the flow below was, perhaps he could have jumped, but he wasn’t going to risk in.

The old bannister has separated from the wall, but ornate wooden supports fixed it to the stairs. It trailed down into the darkness like a snake. The rotten wood could not take him, but if he gripped the rail tight and kept his feet between the supports, he could probably go to the bottom safely.

Once again, Walker descended deeper into the house. His footing felt unsure, but now he had something to hold on to, he kept a tighter grip of his sanity too. Even as he dropped beneath the floorboards and the only light was the night sky above, his iron grip on the rail was like a beacon of shining light. Once or twice, a childish urge struck him. That this would all go so much faster if he straddled the rail and slid to the bottom like he had done as a child. He resisted the temptation. One bad decision was enough for now.

“Are you here?” Said a voice.

“Nearly.” Walker shouted. “How far down is the floor?”

“Oh not far,” she said, sounding further away than she had before. “I’m in the next room, follow my voice.”

Walker reached the end of the rail. The woman’s voice was distant now, he didn’t want to lose her. Gently he lowered his feet, but they touched nothing. He stepped around, trying to find some trace of the stairs but there was nothing around him. He was suspended, gripping the remains of a bannister and a trail of plaster and iron struts. The biting urge to retreat came to him again, but he didn’t dare. The climb had been bad enough, and the woman. She got down there somehow, she knew another way out. He was certain of that.

Walker let go of the rail.

The floor could only have been inches from but the drop felt huge. He lost his footing as he landed in the rubble. He braced himself, but felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. He could feel a trickle and blood. He ran his hand inside his shirt, the blood was bad but the cut didn’t feel deep. Nothing he had to worry about. Once on his feet, he stared at the darkness around him, ahead was a pale light. The woman had to have gone that way, or else stumble into the dark.

“Hello?” He called out but there was no response. He felt his way with his hands until he came to the edge of the room. There was a clank of bottles. The wine cellar? He was close. She had known the way. The light was coming from a doorway up ahead.

“I’m hear. He hear the woman whisper but he still couldn’t see her. “I thought I heard someone.”

“Yeah,” Walker dusted himself off and entered the next room. It was lighter in here, the was a window that led to the surface, this had to be the cellar under the gardens.

“No, someone outside.”

“Shit.” He followed her voice. “Did you tell anyone you were here?”

“Nobody.” She said. “Let’s hurry, it’s this way.” Footsteps shot off in the darkness, he tried to remember the plans. She was heading exactly where he thought she would.

“Here,” she hissed. “It’ll take two of us, if we find it quickly we can be out before they find us.”

Walker saw the woman for the first time. She was in the corner of the room, a little light came through the window but she only caught the edges. She was tall, young, but she hid her face. He saw a hint of scarring. Another of the family’s victims? He felt a little sorry for her. Not sorry enough. He’d worked too hard to share.

“It’s down here.” She slipped into a gap beneath the bricks.

“What’s back there?” He shouted, but there was no answer.

He braced himself. Fished the lighter from his pocket. It started first time and he got a good look around him for the first time since he pushed open the gate. The gap in the bricks was old, it led to a short passage. He couldn’t see the woman, she must have gone on ahead. He closed the lighter, if she could make it without the light, there was no point wasting the fuel. He slipped off his jacket. The shoulder of his shirt was stained with blood. The colour made his stomach turn. He placed a foot inside the gap in the bricks and pushed through being careful of his shoulder. He thought he heard her footsteps ahead but he couldn’t be sure. Placing his hands on the side of the passage, he went to claim his prize.


That’s all for this week, tune in next Friday when it our tale comes to a close. 

Fiction Friday: Balancing the Books – Part 1

Bruce-Castle

Fiction Friday is back!

I’ve been posting short stories online for a few years now, but the run I enjoyed the most was when I first started Fiction Friday. The goal was simple. Approximately 1000 words written, edited, and published in a single day. It’s where I developed my love for Flash Fiction and it’s when I wrote some of my favourite stories. Since I stopped Fiction Friday, updates of writing have been a little bit more sporadic. I’ve wanted to bring it back, but I’ve also wanted to move on from shorter flash fiction. With that in mind, things are going to be a little different. Writing will be going up on Fridays, but it will be serialised. Today’s piece, Balancing the Books, is part one of three. I hope you enjoy it. 

Owen.


Balancing the Books

The old Manor was even uglier in the night. Its crooked spire seemed to hunch against the moonlight like the building itself wanted to huddle in against the cold. At least it was a clear night, Walker hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight and the building’s electrics were probably ancient. He didn’t bother with the gate, he’d tried it earlier in the day. It was slow, it was noisy, and anyone but Alfred Hitchcock could squeeze through the bars. The house was empty. He’d checked the records in the library. Nobody had lived there since the thirties. Before that, it was little more than a vacation home on the coast. But it was here. It had to be. He’d traced the family tree back five generations, there was nowhere else it could be.

Once through the gate, he felt a little safer. He’d been here in the morning, but some kid on the street had spotted him. He didn’t want to draw too much attention to himself. God alone knew why. He only wanted what was rightfully his, after all. The cops wouldn’t see it that way. Cops never did. So he’d beat it, decided to come back when all was quiet.

He walked the long walk from the gate to the house a younger man. Secluded behind overgrown hedgerows and ancient walls, he might as well own the place. He laughed. He didn’t feel like it, but he laughed anyway.

He’d memorised the layout, but even so it was disorientating in the dark. He’d been heading for the old servant’s door. The staff quarters were far from the cellar, but they were also likely to be the least well maintained. If there was a rotten window frame, or an ancient lock then this would go a little smoother. Things hadn’t gone to plan, however, and he’d ended up fumbling his way to the front door. He placed a hand on the wood. It was cold as steel, but aged and rough. It was ugly too, heavy and oppressive. It loomed over him, daring him to try and feel equal to a door. He didn’t. God damn them, he didn’t. So he kicked it. It wasn’t locked.

Two steps from his goal, all that time spent, and he felt hesitation. Was it really worth it, after so long? Would it even make a difference? He thought of his father, dying in the hospital. Penniless and rotting away. Would it change anything? His father would not want him to waste his life looking for retribution. Hell, the old man died in blissful ignorance. Who was he kidding? The argument was over the minute he saw that crooked spire. He had come so far, he could not go back.

The entrance hall was illuminated by a large gap in the ceiling. The floor was damp and at least one of the walls had been torn down in some previous expedition into the dying house. Walker peered around him. His hand reached for his old lighter, but he stopped himself. He might need that later. His eyes were adjusting, and even through the dank gloom he could see the outlines of a glamorous home. The urge to explore was strong, but he pushed it down. There was no time for that. He recalled the plans in his mind.

He needed to get towards the cellar. The old manor had been built on the house before it, burned down in 1843 by the old General’s mad wife, or so the story went. Once there would have been a staircase beside the left wall, but that was demolished now. If the staircase remained, it did so under two tonnes of bricks, mortar and dust. He would need a new route. The stairs would take him to the family’s quarters, from there he could walk around the building and come down near the entrance to the gardens. He smirked. Lucky they were so rich, most people didn’t have two potential routes from the front door to the back.

He stepped on the first stair and knew instantly it was a mistake. He tried to withdraw as soon as he heard the wet creak, but it was too late. His foot went through, then it went through the floorboards below. The pine might as well have been wet newspaper, but the nails and the beams weren’t. They collapsed with the floorboards, but they held together and pulled their neighbours with them.

Walker had only a second to roll away from the collapse, and he made it, but half the staircase didn’t. He was starting to see what had happened to the other wall. He cursed himself. It was a stupid mistake. He shouldn’t even be here risking his neck. He got to his feet, part of the roof had caved in with the floor. There was a little more moonlight now. He could trace a line along the debris, piles of bricks holding their own. Piles of debris that held tight, maintaining the illusion of solid ground. A short climb and he could be back outside. He started to shift some of the wood, doing his best to brace the remaining structure in place. Anything that didn’t brace, he tossed down the hole. He didn’t need the extra weight.

“Going already?”

Walker spun around. A woman’s voice. “Who’s there?” He called.

“Oh, no one in particular.”

Walker laughed. “I should have known someone else would beat me to it.”

“You want it too?” she asked. He couldn’t see her, the voice seemed to float up from the newly created hole in the floor.

“You bet I do.” But he didn’t want to share it.

“Follow me,” said the voice. “I know the way.”


Balancing the Books continues next Fiction Friday.

Grady’s Retirement

 

Horse in WinterThis is an idea I was kicking around for a while, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it as a flash fiction piece or build it up into something more elaborate. In the end, I really liked the simplicity of it, so I just wrote it as I imagined. I’ve wanted to write more fantasy for a while, but my goofy Terry Pratchett infused childhood always takes over. This was an attempt to keep it (reasonably) serious. Let me know what you thought. 


Grady’s Retirement

It had been many seasons since he last set foot inside The Jolly Toad. The inn lived up to its name in only one respect, its landlord was a bug-eyed old sod who, sadly, was anything but jolly. But an inn was an inn and after he returned from the longest of his travels in a long time, he was happy for a bed and a mug of beer. With or without the smile. The place could be a little rough, he felt his hand rest on his sword instinctively. He pushed open the heavy oak doors and was pleased to see it was almost empty. Business was slow since Winter set in, but as long as he kept the fires burning, there’d always be enough coin to keep the lamps lit.

It was a small place, smaller than he remembered, and the floors hadn’t been swept in a long time. The old man ran it himself, too cheap to pay for help. He caught the old man’s eye, who returned a curt nod and then waved towards a seat in the corner. He felt the ache in his legs set in as he made his way to the seat. It would be good to take the weight off. His bags dropped with a clank, he unclipped his sheathe and let the sword lay on the table. If anyone wanted to fight him for it, let him. This would be his last trip out beyond the Forest. With any luck, he need never draw a sword again. Once he pulled off his battered gloves, he could feel the warmth of the fire return to his fingers. The old man dropped a mug of beer on the table with a slop. He slipped a hand inside his bag and dropped a purse of coins on the table. The old man took it. He would worry about collecting the change in the morning.

As he rested his eyes, he became aware that someone was moving around him. Whoever it was dragged something. He opened his eyes groggily, he must have fallen asleep. In front of him was a boy, no more than seventeen. He must have come through the snow, but he wasn’t dressed for it. He looked like he’d come straight from the stabled. Only his hat, wide brimmed and falling under its own weight, looked touched by the weather. Behind him, he dragged a heavy wooden chest, braced with Iron. A sturdy lock over the latch. The boy reached out a hand and smiled.

“The innkeeper says you might be able to help me.” But the old man was nowhere to be seen. “You came from past the forest, right?”

“Aye,” he nodded. “But I won’t be going again.”

The boy shuffled into the seat opposite, keeping an eye on the old chest at all times.

“That’s a shame, Swordsman. I could make it worth your while.”

“I’m no swordsman. Just a trader.”

“Come, come!” Said the boy. “A trader beyond the forest is like a Knight in the capital.” He fished out a coin purse of his own and dropped it on the table, beaming. “I’m willing to pay handsomely for a guide, and an adventure!”

The boy’s eyes lit up, but he’d seen it all before. Thrill seekers from the city, he’d be dead within a week. He tried to change the subject.

“What’s in the chest?”

“Caught your eye did it?” The boy looked afraid for a moment, then grinned. “Spells! From the Old College.”

He laughed. “The college is a myth.”

“Oh it is,” the boy ran a hand along the chest. It seemed to make a noise, like music. “But I’ve been there all the same.”

“Sorry kid,” it was time to end it. “Not interested.”

The boy was crestfallen. “Fine then.” He bit his lip and lifted his chest like a child cradling an anvil. He turned, but lost his footing almost immediately, stumbling towards the fireplace. He grabbed the boy just before the flames touched him, but the chest landed right in the middle.

“No!” The boy screamed, but it was too late. A noise filled the air, like voices. Whispers filled the adventurer’s ears and the boy ducked and hid under the table.

The boy scuttled away to the other side of the bar, leaving his would-be guide alone, staring into the flames. As they consumed the chest, the noises grew louder. Colours exploded from the fire, but he did not duck or flinch. He reached for his sword, but he was glued to the spot as the contents of the chest were burned. He definitely heard music now, a half forgotten melody from his childhood, but he didn’t just hear it. He could feel it, swirling around the tips of his fingers like a dream. And then a nightmare. Visions of monsters, of every fear escaping from the flames, while the walls around him seemed to melt away. Then everything went black.

He opened his eyes. Something was not right, he looked around, but there was nothing but snow. The inn was gone, and wherever it was, it left nothing of itself but the fireplace. Standing perfectly, every brick with the mortar between, stood alone in the snow. A fire burned in it, but he could feel no warmth. Without thinking, he reached for his sword, but he hands felt wrong. He looked down and saw not feet, but the hooves of a horse. He tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat and a mewling whinny was all that emerged.

A voice whispered just behind his ear. “Now, now.” He felt a hand down the back of his neck, and then a weight. Something was on his back. The voice whispered in his ear again. “It looks like we’ll be going on that adventure after all.” He felt the boy’s feet kick at his side, and he started running towards the forest.

Uncle Frank

Hey guys, this is only a quick piece but I liked how it turned out so I wanted to share it anyway. Let me know what you think.


I don’t remember a lot about Uncle Frank. He was old. Probably not that old. I’m nearly thirty now, nobody seems as old as they used to, but he was older than my Dad. I was still in plaid skirts and pigtails when he moved out. I don’t even remember much about him as, y’know, a guy, even though he lived here. My mum found him funny, I know that. Dad? I guess to dad he was more of a burden. Dad was younger than me when Frank moved out, but I don’t think I’ll ever be the same age as my Dad really. The man was born with a pipe and slippers in his hand, y’know what I mean?

Its just a lot of little images about Uncle Frank. Like the way he’d start the day with a glass of whiskey cut with gripe water. “Good for the digestion.” Dad would roll his eyes like Captain 50s, and puff away behind his paper. Uncle Frank would roll his eyes right back at him and drink his breakfast. That’s about it. That, and the scar. It ran from his forehead to beneath his eye and still makes me shudder.

Frank had to move out when I was seven and things get a lot fuzzier after that. I know we went to visit him at his home, because I remember Dad sitting me down and explaining in no uncertain terms that I was not to smuggle a bottle a gripe water to him. I did anyway. I did stuff like that back then. If he hadn’t warned me, I’d probably have forgotten. And that’s my last memory of Frank. Pale faced, staring out of the window while strangers goggled at him. Even his scar looked faded and ageing away with the rest of him.

When I think of Frank, I end up at an earlier memory. It couldn’t have been long before, it was the summer Uncle Frank gave me his gun. Everything else from those days is hazy, but this comes through clear. Like a big-screen TV, y’know? We’re stood in the garden. There’s a high fence that my Dad replaced with little wall years later. Uncle Frank was babysitting, but I didn’t mind. I’d spent most of the day with my friends. Then something had upset me, I’d gone home in tears and Frank had tried to comfort me. He was useless at it, so he tried distracting me instead. Silently, he lined up five glass coke bottles on my Dad’s old workbench. Then he disappeared inside and returned with a small wooden box. He pried the lid apart and retrieved the gun. I’d seen guns on TV and in books, but I’d never seen a real one before. It had been in the house of the whole time and I never knew.

Uncle Frank dropped to his knees behind me and with his giant hairy arms he reached over my shoulders and planted the gun in my hands. Adjusted my fingers, tiny next to his, until they held the gun like it was made for me. Slowly he pointed me towards one of the coke bottles, and I squeezed the trigger.

Have you ever had a sensation you can’t explain? It’s hard to put into words, until one day you find someone else who felt the same way? I’m not much of a reader, but when I was in college I learned a bit about a lot of things. Y’know that book by Proust? Where the smell of a cake takes him back to moment years before? Well, I still know exactly what happened the second I pulled that trigger, because every time I see fireworks, or pull a party popper, or ride the dodgems. Anything that leaves that acrid taste in the air, and I’m there again. I could count the hairs on Frank’s arm, smell the booze on his breath. I’m in the moment.

My shoulders shake a little. Frank is hurting my hand a little, but I don’t think he knows. I squeeze the trigger, it feels different to my expectations. I feel the gun jolt a little in my hands, and I realise this is why Frank is gripping so tight. I expect to be able to see the bullet, but I’m not even sure where to look. Before I have time to process my thoughts, the coke bottle shatters. Then the moments ends, Uncle Frank stands and ruffles my hair,

He walks back inside, but he leaves me holding the gun. Without him to take the weight, my hand drops and it feels like it ways a thousand pounds. When my parents get back, that’s how they find me. Stood in the middle of the grass holding the gun. I don’t know what happened to it after that.

Joshua’s Gift – A Short Story

Manor in WatercolourHey guys, it’s time for another story. I suppose you could call this a horror, but it’s a lot gentler than the last one. This is more of an old fashioned cobwebs and crypts tale. I’ve wanted to write something like this for a while, but I wanted to get away from full moons and thunderstorms so I recast it upon a hot summer’s day. Let me know what you think. 


Beckett pushed open the old oak door. The house was old, and large. Rumour was it had once been larger, the surviving wing of a Tudor manor that had been burned to the ground nearly two hundred years before. What remained had been patched up, but had the feel or a diseased stump, soaking up the life around it and refusing to die. He stood now, facing the open door. The sun was hot and choking, but he was still reluctant to enter the shadows inside. There was a smell, like cobwebs and rotten fruit, but he was here for a reason. He could not go back and face his family until the job was done.

He stepped across the threshold and gave his eyes a moment to adjust. If he was right, there’d be nothing to worry about until sunset. It was hardly modern in there. He was stood in a small hall with an ornate staircase in the centre, three doors led off from each wall. He picked a direction and set off deeper into the building. The first door led him to the dining room. A thick layer of dust coated everything. A place was set on the table, but the plate was filthy. He peered through the grime and saw a cluster of maggot shells as rotten and ancient as everything else. He would not find Joshua in here.

The next room was a long conservatory, and someone had been there recently to clean. The glass sparkled and sunlight warmed a set of comfortable looking chairs. Beckett could see out into the garden, a mess of weeds and vines that he couldn’t get to from the front. Behind him, something smashed.

Beckett swung around to see the old man. He was tall and clearly frail, the remains on a small teacup were shattered at his feet, and he could see the man’s hand shook involuntarily. He stared at him with wet, whitened eyes and his sagging mouth trembled when he spoke.

“I don’t know you.”

“No.” Beckett stepped towards him, but the fright was too much and the old man collapsed into a chair. “I’m here for Joshua.”

The man cradled his skull with shaking hands. “The master is resting.”

“I won’t disturb him.”

The old man didn’t seem to hear him. “The master is resting. Come back later.” He clutched at thin air as if he still held the cup and then lost focus altogether. Beckett turned away. The old man’s mind was gone. Taken. He would not be the last. But he could still mange a lie. Joshua had to be there, he couldn’t be anywhere else.

Beckett opened the warped glass door and stepped out into the garden. He might as well be in the jungle, vines and reeds escaping from the pond clogged the path, but it didn’t take him long to spot it. Another relic from the Tudor days, no doubt. The entrance to the crypt was twice his height, but had long since been consumed by climbing ivy. A statue he guessed had been an angel stood on top, but was covered in green except for the tips of its wings. All the remained free was the gate, which looked as new as the day it was fitted.

It swung open easily. He had expected it to be locked, but it made sense. Nobody from the town outside the walls was going to attempt to make it this far. Too superstitious. After all, they had a good reason to be. Hell, he was terrified himself, but he was here now. The old man had seen him. If he didn’t see it through, he was as good as dead anyway.

The steps down were uneven stone, worn through years of heavy use. It was dark at first but shafts leading up to the surface were placed at regular intervals, until he reached the floor. They were only just below the ground, but here two large grates let light and air through, making it less claustrophobic than he had feared.

Beckett knew he was safe. Until night fell, he had nothing to worry about, but still he noticed he could feel his heartbeat somewhere his own head. His chest pounded so much it started to hurt. If anything, it was even hotter down her, and the filtering light caught every speck of dust and dirt, turning the air into a hot, musty fog that seemed to clog his throat.

There was only one coffin in the crypt. It sat on the far wall, where the light barely reached. He walked to it and placed his hands on the lid. It was varnished wood, cherry if he was not mistaken. It felt cold to the touch, and expensive. A brass plate was screwed in to the top, but the letters had worn away years ago. He dropped his battered old surgical bag down and lifted out the crowbar.

“Stop!”

That single world must have taken the last of the old man’s strength because he dropped to his hands and knees at the foot of the stairs.

“I’m sorry,” said Beckett. And he was. “I don’t have a choice.”

He jammed the crowbar into the side of the coffin and with a single application of force, the lid popped off. He laughed when he saw the nails. Barely a centimetre into the wood.

The body inside was not a body at all, but he’d been expecting that. He finally came face to face with Joshua, a man who was, by all accounts, nearly a thousand years old, and yet had the face of a seventeen year old boy. Its hair was plaited and tied and its face was red and flushed. It had fed recently. It had to be tonight.

“You cannot kill him.” The old man coughed through the choking air.

Beckett laughed. “I thought you’d be happy to see him go.”

“No,” the old man shook his head. Then he lowered himself to the ground and lay on his chest. His face was wet with tears.

“He really has broken you.” Beckett felt guilt for the old man then remembered why he was there. “Relax, my friend. I’m not here to kill him.”

He opened the surgical bag again and removed his equipment. A length of surgical tubing and a set of needles. In a few moments he’d set it up, and gently inserted a needle into the creatures arm. Beckett hissed as he inserted a needle into his own arm. He pulled back a syringe connected between the two of them. The vampire’s eyes opened, flickered from side to side and then closed again. When its blood began to flow down the tube it was dark and thick. When it entered his veins it made him feel cold to his shoulder.

He could not be sure when he had taken enough and so he kept the transfusion going until Joshua lost the blush from his cheeks. Too much, he supposed, could be dangerous, but no worse than everything else he had done today. When he was done, he pulled the needle out and left without bothering to clear up the rest. He passed the old man and still lay in the dirt, but whatever pity he had was gone. When he stepped back out into the garden, something felt different. The light felt cold without any of its colour, and it started to sting his skin already. It was time to find shelter.

Hungry – A Horror Story

SmWell, it has been a while since I put some fiction of my blog, but I’ve been trying to get away from Flash Fiction and start writing longer stuff which takes a fair bit more time, so I’m spreading the work out more. This isn’t much longer than an old Fiction Friday post at around 2,500 words, but it’s an idea I’ve been meaning to write for a while and I think it turned out pretty well. 

A word of warning, however. I don’t write much outright horror, I’m usually more of a suspense and thriller guy, but this is a genuine gruesome tale so if that’s not your thing, then you might want to give it a miss. If you feel brave, read on. 


Hungry

Jessie hesitated for a second before launching herself after it. At a hump on the grass, all four paws left the ground as she launched into a mess of weeds and brambles, before emerging triumphantly with the battered old tennis ball. She trotted back with it firmly between her jaws and then dropped it at Sam’s feet. At least he was wearing gloves today, the ball was sodden with dew and drool, and was one good bite away from tennis-ball heaven. A good reward for five years long service. Sam lobbed the ball again and Jessie was gone, over the hill and through a net of thorn bushes. Sam walked on.

It was good to get out early. The new house was big and bright, just the sort of house Claire wanted. He bought more out of spite than anything else, but it was empty, imposing and judgemental. He hated every moment he spent in it, but it was his now and he needed at least ten years of pretending to like it before he could move on. The isolation was nice, at least. He had a good walk to the next house, and a patch of scrubland behind him for walking the dog. One afternoon he’d brought his notes out with him and got a good but of work done between pitching long throws for Jessie. That almost made it worthwhile.

She wasn’t back yet. He walked a long arc round the corner of the bank, before the fence lining the furthest reaches of the old farm started to box him in, until he was pointing in the direction Jessie had gone, and started off in that direction. She’d be distracted by a squirrel or a rat or something. She was only a mongrel but she had the nose of a bloodhound, and the attention span of a sparrow. As he neared the patches of thorns, he whistled, but there was no response.

“Jess!” He yelled, he thought he heard something, but it was faint. He walked on, circling the worst of the bushes and finding the old patch. “Come on, girl.” He heard it again, a whimper. She’d probably run through the thorns and lodged something in her paw. He followed the noise until he found the gap in the soil. It was a small opening, just big enough to climb down. Halfway between a cave and burrow, with a large rock embedded in the soil above the entrance. The whimpering came from inside.

“Come on, Jess.” He whistled again. Either something in the bushes had scared her down or she’d chased something in and become stuck. He slipped off his jacket and crouched down. It would be a tight squeeze, but he could probably make it. He pulled out his phone and pointed the light from the screen down the burrow. Jessie still whimpered somewhere inside, but he couldn’t see her. He would have to go in.

There was just enough room to crawl down, holding the phone in front of him for light. The soil at the entrance was dry, but got a little muddier as he went. He’d crawled about half the length of his body when he saw her. She’d become tangled in a mess of roots. He reached out a hand, and started unwrapping them from her back leg, but she was panicky and pulled about. “Easy, calm down.” It didn’t do much good. “We’ll be out of here soon.” He freed the last of the roots from her leg, he couldn’t make out much from the light of the phone, but he could see her turning. He started to inch back the way he had come.

Jessie was facing him now. He could see she was panicked, but it still caught him off guard when she bolted. Laid down in the burrow like this, she didn’t see, much smaller than he was. They were almost out now, but as she tried to force her way past him, something shifted. He felt soil crumbling over his feet and then pain. Sam could only guess, but the weight that now squeezed his right leg felt a lot like the stone that had been lodged in the soil. The burrow was completely dark now, he tried to move his leg but couldn’t, he couldn’t even feel his foot. He tried to shout for help, but that set something off again. Jessie was still in the burrow with him, and the more she moved, the more she pushed his body away from his leg. It felt like it would wrench his foot off. He tried to lift but it was no good.

Sam was trapped.

His first response was to struggle, but it was a waste of time. He couldn’t shift his leg in such a way as to free it from the stone, he couldn’t push the stone with his other leg without driving it further into his leg. Besides, the more he struggled, the more his fellow prisoner pushed up and down the tunnel. She barked. She was only a small dog, in the tight space it was deafening, and he reached a hand to stroke her. She was still distraught, but calmed at his touch.

The pain in his leg had been bad, but was easing now. His leg bled. He could feel it, but the wound could be treated if he could just get out. At last, he remembered his phone. He’d been using it for light, but hadn’t tried to make a call. His heart sank as he peered at the harsh, bright screen. No signal. It was rough out there at the best of times, now he was beneath a layer of soil. He felt his heartbeat pick up a little faster, his breath got away from him. He couldn’t seem to get enough air in his lungs, and when he breathed deep, he filled his nose with the smell of dirt and rotting leaves. It made him want to gag. Jessie picked up on his fear too, the light from the phone caught her eyes. They were wide and flicked about the place.

Sam told himself to stay calm. The way back was trapped, but the stone had not covered the entrance completely. On his bare ankles, he could still feel a trace of wind and on the air was the smell from the old brewery at the edge of town. He would not suffocate. That was something. Getting help would be a little harder, he thought about digging with his hands, getting enough space to let the dog squeeze through, and then hope for the best. She was hardly Lassie, but his options were limited. He started to pull clumps of soil out, but the weaving roots that had tangled her up in the first place were threaded through the top of the burrow. One hard pull and he’d bring the whole lot down on himself. He would have to wait. If she got desperate enough, she might just tunnel back the way they came and free some room for his leg.

Sam watched time pass on the phone. He turned down the brightness of the screen as far as it would go, and felt a little more nervous every time the battery indicator dropped a percent. He alternated between leaving it off for as long as he dare, and watching it intently hoping to see the phone pick up a signal, but it was no good. Jessie was still nervous, squeezing from one end of the tunnel to the other. Occasionally she would stop and sniff the air, but he couldn’t smell much beyond the damp soil now. His leg itched and tingled now.

He must have fallen asleep, because he was woken by the sound of a motorbike. Only a little engine, some off-road scrambler. Kids from town sometimes brought them on to the hill and bounced over the banking. This was his chance. He screamed at the top of his voice, he saw Jess get nervous by the noise. “Come on.” He shouted at her, his voice was tired and cracking, he needed her to make some noise. He felt a rumble in the earth just as Jessie started barking. The noise was almost deafening, but it was no good. The sound of the bike became more distant. They must have passed right over. Sam shouted for what felt like an hour after, but nobody came.

He was too scared to look at the phone now. The battery indicator had gone red. He didn’t know how long he’d been down there, and he was starting to get thirsty. Night must have fallen outside, because the tunnel seemed darker than ever and he started to get cold. He tried to keep Jessie sat by him, to borrow some of her warmth, but she was twitchy and couldn’t stay still. He heard her attempt to nibble a root and give in quickly. Though the space was tight, he was glad he was not trapped alone. He started to fall asleep again, but some glimmer of hope nibbled at the corners of his brain. It had been Monday when he walked the dog, if it was night now, in the morning it would be Tuesday, and on Tuesday the local Wildlife Spotters were usually out on the hills.

Jessie whimpered, walked in a little circle before sitting again and he placed a hand on her back. If they could just hold on a little longer, if he could just stay conscious until tomorrow morning, they might make it.

Sam’s head shot up. At some point he had fallen asleep. It was dark, his throat was sore and he was in pain. He knew he was not supposed to fall asleep, but he could not remember why. He tried to look around, but it was pitch black, and he remembered where he was. Why he could not sleep. Wait for people. He had to be awake when they passed or he wouldn’t have a hope. He doubted he could last another week down there. And yet he was exhausted. It was still night, he hadn’t slept for long, he could tell.

But why had he woken up. In he dreams, he had felt a sensation in his leg. That old pain from the rock, he worried it was becoming infected, and he hadn’t felt anything in his foot for too long now, but there was something. A sensation; a noise.

“Jess?” The noise stopped. He tried to reach down to his leg, but he could just touch his shin with the tips of his fingers. The skin that had been tacky with blood and grit was wet and smooth. The dog pushed past him and sniffed around his face. He heard her lick her lips. The fear took a while to set in, but when it did, it consumed him. His leg was still trapped, and the sickening smell that now filled the tunnel was clearly coming from him, but it was having a different effect on Jessie. He tried to count up the hours they had been trapped their, and while he counted, he heard her whimper and fuss. Even in the pitch black, he thought he caught a glint of white teeth hiding in her mouth. He was cold, and wet, and hungry, but so was she.

He shifted his weight to the side, tried to block her from getting to his feet. He told himself he had nothing to be scared of, that the two of them had only to wait until morning. She couldn’t be that desperate yet, but the smell of his festering wound seemed to be filling the air and the more he tried to keep her back, the more she struggled.

He lost focus again, the tiredness a constant threat, like the dog and went he came to, he could feel her sniffing at his leg again. The leg was numb to the pain, but he was still aware of her nose and tongue poking at the wound. With his other leg and kicked out at her, hoping to put her off the idea, but he caught he harder than he meant to. She snarled and barked in response before pushed past his ribs again and curling up in front of his head. There his listened to hear breathing, near his fast. The sound was not soothing, but its repetition became like a trance and the heat of her body rocked him closer and closer to sleep. He tried to fight it, but it was no good. Sam slept again.

In Sam’s dream, he was not in the burrow. He told himself to stay awake, to fight until morning, but it was no good. There was no need anyway, he told himself he was at home, in his own bed. Back in his old house and Claire was beside him. No, she was moving now. Sam slept until the pain hit his leg, for a split second he was awake and understood completely, but the old numbness soon returned. The smell of rot and decay still hung around, but there was a new smell. Something fresh, something clean. In the pit of his stomach he felt hunger again, but he was getting dizzy now. He would sleep for a few more hours, and then see what they were having for breakfast.

Prey – A Short Story

Tavern SceneIt has been a while since I published a flash fiction story to the blog, but I’ve been a bit lax lately and they’re good for getting back in the habit. The setting for this story was Paris in 1719, during the Mississippi Bubble, one of the first major economic collapses in modern times. Parisian society was caught in a fever, trading shares in The Mississippi Company, which had a monopoly on French trade to Louisiana. A great account of this can be found in Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is a must read book exploring dramatic examples of mob behaviour. 


“Why should I be quiet, old man?”
Braker had watched the boy for an hour now, the more he drank the more foolish he became.
“I’m a patron like anyone else?” He slapped money down on the bar and then went back to boasting among his friends. Braker watched the landlord slip the coins into his pocket, shake his head and then leave the boy to his folly.
“Carry on, Jean!” Shouted one of his friends.
“Well it was as easy as all that. I’ve only been in Paris a few weeks, and I tell you I’m going to leave this city a rich man.”
He wished the young fool would keep his mouth shut, but if he didn’t listen to the landlord, he wouldn’t listen to some interfering Englishman. Now the word was out, Braker didn’t want the other patrons getting any ideas, but the lad continued.
“A drink to John Law, I say.” His friends raised their glasses. “I tell you, three days ago I bought and handful of shares in this Mississippi company of his and they’ve doubled in value since then. At this rate…”
“Aye, at this rate.” Muttered the landlord. “Half of Paris stood at the door of M. Law day and night, and for what? Paper?”
Braker watched the boy’s face fall, he was clearly stewed in ale now and the rest of the bar seemed uninterested. The fever that had gripped most of Paris hadn’t yet reached the houses of the poor yet, and whatever the boy was doing in a place like this, he had certainly never been poor. Neither had Braker, he’d taken a walk to the house of John Law himself. He felt his breast pocket nervously, but his stash was there safe and sound. He would not leave his home without his shares, but he knew better than to loudmouth about it like the child he saw before him.

“Paper!?” The boy sounded aghast. “I shouldn’t expect you to understand,” he sniffed and peered around the tavern. “Grotty little place like this, what do you know about economics?” The landlord waved him away and went back to cleaning glasses. “After all,” he said to nobody in particular. “Was it not M. Law and his bank that saved the country from the last disaster?” The crowd that followed the rich boy was dissipating, and Braker almost felt sorry for the lad. Up among the toffs he’d start a frenzy just mentioning the Mississippi company.

He watched the boy until he could see he was reaching his fill. When he started to button his cloak, Braker got to his feet too. He reached inside his jacket and felt for his old sword. It was tarnished and bent out of shape, but it would do the job. Brake patted down the pocket with his shares and smiled to himself. The boy was right, wealth made overnight, but the more shares the better, and Braker had put all the money he had on the little he now possessed. Rumour was Law would stop selling soon, unless the Regent intervened, and Braker couldn’t wait for that.

Soon the boy pushed his way through the drunks by the door and stumbled into the night air. Braker wasn’t far behind. He stepped slowly and carefully. The boy was too merry to notice him, but Braker didn’t believe in taking chances. He’d need a quiet spot to slip the sword in and unless the boy lived in the same slum he drank in, Braker knew he might need to walk for some time.

He’d followed the boy nearly twenty minutes when he turned a corner into an alleyway between two houses with dark windows. Nobody would see them there, but when he turned the corner too, the boy was nowhere to be seen. He stepped forward into the alley, covered his eyes and peered through the fog of the gas lamps. Had the steamed young gentleman collapsed into the gutter? Perhaps he could be off with the shares without bloodshed, that was as good an option as any, Braker supposed. He leaned down to see better through the mirk, but it was no good. The boy was lost to him.

Unfortunately, the boy found him first. The sensation was new, but Braker had seen enough of war to know the sound of a knife through the back. It had missed his heart, but as he struggled to breath, he knew it had pierced his lung. The knife was removed, and Braker fell onto his face. The wet street soaked into his jacket, and even now he panicked for the papers in his jacket. Firm hands turned him onto his back, and under the lamplight, Braker saw the boy clearly. He smiled back at Braker and started to search his jacket.

“Sorry for that, my friend.” Said the boy, Braker spat curses and blood in return. “You’re English? How are you finding Paris?” The boy found Braker’s papers and his eyes gleamed. “I really am sorry, but I see from your sword you had the same in mind for me.”
Braker tried to speak but his wind was gone.
“No need to apologise.” The boy closed up Braker’s jacket and then got to his feet. “It was a cruel trick, I know. Beneath me really, but I really would like to leave Paris a rich man.” Braker felt his strength leaving him.
“Anyway…” The boy pulled Braker’s eyelids closed, he tried to open them but he had nothing left. “…they’re all doing it.”

The Visitor – A Short Story

Hey guys, this was supposed to be posted last week, but it just wasn’t ready yet so I pulled it for another pass. It’s good to go now and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think. In other news, the switch to the new domain is completely final now. I’ve got everything working as I like it, so I can get back to posting and enjoying blogging for a bit. I’m still getting little bits of feedback from the Two Cephalopods Walk in a Bar freebie which finished the other week. If you grabbed the book and enjoyed it, you’d be doing me a massive favour by reviewing it on Amazon. If not, don’t worry, it’s never too long before another freebie. That’s all for now. If you like this story, check out The Octopus of Suspense, or Octopus Returns, which contain a lot of my other stories. Or, click the “Fiction” tab at the stop for some stories you can read free right here. 

The Visitor

1953

Grayling sanded the rail. There was a knot in the wood, it took longer to sand down. A dark spot in the finish and he couldn’t paint it until the whole thing was smoothed out. When it was done, he could finally sit back and say the job was complete. He looked out across the water, grey clouds hung off the coast, but the last of the summer sun was bearing down on him. Looked like he would be done just in time.

Two years ago, he’d have laughed if someone said he could build his own house. Now it was ready, well, maybe he’d get a good night’s sleep without worrying about the next day’s work. It was getting quieter now. Tourists usually filled the beach the last few weeks, but he hadn’t seen a soul all day. It was a small price to pay for peace and quiet the rest of the year. Besides, the house was firmly on his land. If he had enough, he could keep people on the right side of the fence. Most of them weren’t that bad anyway.

He worked the wood down some more, trying not to think about anything else. He whistled some tune he half remembered, he couldn’t remember the name. He couldn’t remember anything except that his mother liked it, and he knew that if he didn’t whistle all the way through at least once, he would be still hearing it when he went to sleep. He looked back into the sky, the clouds were getting nearer. He lifted off the sandpaper and blew away the dust. The dark patch where the knot had been was still visible, but when it was painted over, nobody would know any better. He would know, and it would niggle away at him. Little details always did. But if the clouds opened and it started to rain on the exposed wood, well a little dark patch would be the least of his worries.

He brushed down the rail, dropped the ragged sandpaper into his toolbox and went inside to finished the paint. When he returned, he saw the man on the beach. Not a tourist, he wore a suit. Even at this distance, Grayling could see that it was immaculately pressed. He walked right towards his house, and Grayling knew it was over.

He did his best to ignore the stranger, to hold on to the moment. He opened the can of paint, a blue he’d picked out just for the porch, and started to paint. He focused on the knot, trying to cover it completely. He went back to whistling, but he still couldn’t place the tune.

“Now, what is that song.” He said to himself.

“Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish.” The man was behind him now.

“Right,” said Grayling. He turned and dropped the paintbrush back in the can. “Harry Warren.”

“I believe so,” said the stranger.

“Here to visit the beach?” Grayling asked. The man shook his head and extended a hand. “I’m here to speak to you, Mr. Grayling.” He took back his hand and smiled. “Shall we go inside? I’d rather not catch a tan, if it’s all the same to you.”

Grayling walked the stranger into his house and invited him to sit. “Drink?”

“Please,” said the man. “Whatever you have will be fine.” Grayling laughed. Gin it was, how far would get if he poisoned the glass? Not that he could, who kept a stash of cyanide at their beachfront cabin. He gave the man his drink and then sat opposite, more than a little proud of himself. He’d played out this day in his head so many times, but never did he think he’d keep his cool so well.

“So, what can I do for you?”

The man took a drink and then placed the glass gently on Grayling’s coffee table.

“I’d like to tell you a story, Mr. Grayling.” He leaned forward. Grayling hated him, the bastard almost managed to look earnest. “It starts ten years ago, very far from here. The government gives a man a job, and it isn’t a very nice one.” He looks empathetic, even magnanimous. “The man, still young then, takes his expenses and his passport and leaves to do it. Word comes back to the government that the job has been done successfully, but the man in charge has been killed. He is given a hero’s burial, though no body is discovered.”

“Yes,” said Grayling. “That sort of thing was common a few years ago. Sad times.”

“Certainly. Now imagine it is discovered that the job was not completed. Not entirely.”

“I think I can do that,” he muttered.

“Well, then the government might start to suspect that some of their other assumptions were also incorrect. Might they.”

“Look, what’s all this about… what did you say your name was?”

The stranger stood and knocked back the last of the gin. “I didn’t. It wasn’t about anything exception professional courtesy, Mr. Grayling. Suffice to say, I am also a man who has been sent to do a job. I just wanted to really know what the job was first. I think we both deserve that.”

“I think it’s time you left.” Grayling stood and showed the stranger the door. “I’ve had quite enough.” The stranger nodded and left by the front door. When Grayling got up the nerve to follow him, the man was long gone.

When the rain began to fall, Grayling took his things inside. He stayed away from the windows, and without making too much commotion, he retrieved his old leather bound suitcase from under his bed and started to pack his things. As he worked, he felt the home he had built from the last year begin to close in around him, as if it were straight jacket. The walls felt smaller, and the doorways a little tighter, and the spot that had seemed so remote now felt exposed and in the full view of the world. How he had believed himself to be hidden, he could not understand.

He could pack light. Perhaps he had always known this day would come, because when he looked around he could see little that he could not do without. Now it was as if he had been living light, waiting for the day to come. He packed a change of clothes, he gathered all him money, his passport and the small collection of documents that would make travelling a little easier. When he belted up the suitcase again, it didn’t feel much heavier.

And then he sat. He didn’t leave the house. He watched the light fade outside his bedroom window and listened to the sounds of the beach surrounding him. He thought about the suitcase and he didn’t know why he’d spent the time with it. He was never trying to hide, he couldn’t stop them finding him. He just wanted to lay low enough to stop them having a reason to look. Now they knew he was alive, they would find him. His cheek felt cold, he raised a hand and felt that it was covered in tears. He did not have it in him to start running again, and how far would he get if he did.

Grayling sat on the floor until dawn came again. Then he opened up the can of paint and returned to painting his porch. He whistled Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish until he could really feel the sun on the back of his neck, and when it got dark again, he went back inside and slept through the night.

Why there was no Fiction Friday this week.

Pokemon Koffing

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll know that I’m currently enjoying a project in which I try to write a short piece of fiction every Friday. For the last few weeks these posts have been some of my only updates here as I’ve been working hard getting the latest Timewasters story ready for publication. Last week, however, there was no Fiction Friday story because I picked up a pretty nasty viral infection and spent most of Friday coughing and feeling sorry for myself. I’m still trying to shake it, but I’m feeling a lot better now. I know a lot of you enjoy ready my little Friday stories and the original plan was to write a late piece of Sunday afternoon but I’d just fallen behind on too many things. There’ll be a new Fiction Friday story at the end of this week, and I apologise again for skipping last week, but hopefully this will be the only time that happens.

Thanks for reading,

Owen.