Dangerous To Know (Work In Progress)

I’ve decided to put up the first chapter of the new book I’m working on – ‘Dangerous To Know’, which continues the story of Aidan McRaney. As it’s a work in progress, it’s all subject to change, but I was excited about sharing it.

CHAPTER ONE

THE ANNIVERSARY

Tonight, it is my intention to both enjoy myself and be the most attentive husband I can be to the beautiful woman I married. If only the couple seated opposite would desist in throwing small, but surreptitious glances in our direction. I find nothing more disconcerting than being stared at. Whenever I return my attention to my wife, I’m ultimately conscious of their scrutiny.

A recalcitrant thatch of leonine blond hair sweeps from a particularly high forehead.  The inordinately polished features are sun-bronzed, classical, and as if he has recently returned from holiday. The perfect curve of full lips accentuate a handsome face. The man is as  elegantly cut as the grey linen suit he sports, with matching tie and white shirt. Unlike myself, he’s wearing no off the peg job.

His companion, whom I judge to be somewhere into her late thirties, is the perfect accompaniment. Her features are small, almost delicate. Yet the mouth hints of a defined twist, that might border on the cruel. The assumption is further embellished by the deepest set of flinty grey eyes.

She wears a sapphire blue dress. The dress is fitted, and does precious little to conceal the protuberant bulge of flesh in evidence beneath her arms. Her hair, like the man’s, is blonde. Boyishly cut short, her hair is baby-fine. Darker roots tinge the blonde. Numerous  bracelets slither to elegant wrists, when she lowers her arms to the table, in order to pay attention to the man.

“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you, Aidan? You checking out that woman?”

My wife is a discordant buzz in the distant reaches of my subconscious. I regard her  incredulously.  “God no! But they have been checking us out practically since we arrived.” Caitlan snaps her eyes and clucks her tongue, descending a braceleted wrist over mine. “You’re just being paranoid. You haven’t been the same since you returned from that last job. Always looking over your shoulder. I find it unnerving at times.”

“I’m sorry. After what happened, do you  blame me? Anyway, you know it’s over.”

“I hope so, because we need to move on. We have this now. It has to be over.”

I cast a cursory glance at the couple. Their meal has arrived. They appear to be more interested in that event. Caitlan is right. I should relinquish the paranoia. Especially tonight. We have been married two years. Our special occasion. Where else could I have taken the most beautiful woman in London? At least in my considered opinion. Sargents just happens to be one of the most select restaurants in the West End. The prices are extortionate, but no expense has been spared.

Wearing a green satin dress, caught into the slender proportions of her tiny waist, who would remotely suspect that she has recently given birth? Our daughter is barely eighteen months old. Now the familiar emerald eyes snap wide again. She embraces my own with such love, but with an admix of the concern I can’t help but interpret in their depths.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to unnerve you. There won’t be anymore of those jobs, I promise.” I sip from the glass of Sancerre at my elbow. I make a face. I would have preferred a Scotch. I promised my wife that I wouldn’t drink so much. She hates the whisky and admonishes me about breathing alcohol fumes over our daughter. “I’m trying to get this landscape business up and running.”

We wait for our meal to arrive. It seems to take forever. I realise that I’ve managed to polish off most of the wine. I’m about to pour the final dregs into my glass when Caitlan says,  “The thing is we never seem to talk anymore.”

I stare at her amazed. “What are we doing now then?”

“I mean…” Her hesitation is almost painful. Her white throat undulates beneath the string of emeralds. “Your sister…” she attempts to explain.

“What about my sister?” I drain the last drop of Sancerre, whereas Caitlan still nurses her first.

“She’s always there, at our flat. Always inviting us over, and you never refuse. I know she means well.”

“Sure she means well. An unpaid babysitter. What more do you want? She’s someone we can trust. I thought you and Bridget got on okay.”

“We do. But the way she idolises you and worries about you, it’s as if you were her son rather than her brother.”

“That’s ridiculous.” I endeavour to suppress a rise of laughter. “Listen to yourself. I suppose it  stems from when I was a kid. After Mum died, Brid sort of took over the motherly role with us.”

“Well you’re not a kid anymore. You’re thirty one years old. So there’s no reason for her to interfere is there?”

“Brid doesn’t interfere. Come on, this is our anniversary. Do we have to discuss this shit right now, babe?”

I reach for her hand. A thin stemmed vase separates us. The vase contains the six red roses that I had ordered to be placed at our table. After all it is St Valentines. The candlelight bathes her features, suffusing them with colour. Her long dark hair is coiled into a plait atop her head, which had been perfectly coiffured by my sister.

Bridget often tells us that it’s a pleasure to do things for her brother and his lovely wife, as Caitlan has changed my life for the better. Now Caitlan boasts some unwarranted bee in her bonnet concerning my sister’s alleged shortcomings.

“Why is it, whenever we need to have a serious discussion, you always call it shit?”

“Because, right now, we don’t need to have a discussion about anything. We’ll talk when we get home.” I’m compelled to let my words trail because Sapphire Dress, a forkful of steak en route to her mouth, has those rather expressive sculpted eyebrows arched with interest. It’s as if her intention is to savour the argument she believes is about to ensue.

“Your sister will be there.”

“She’s babysitting Catie. If she’s not there I’ll be just a wee bit concerned, don’t you think?”

I hadn’t intended sarcasm, but tonight, when I wish for everything to be perfect, Caitlan appears to be in an argumentative mood. She’s invariably delicate, quietly spoken. A persona complimentary to the beautiful dress she wears. “So come on, sweetheart. If you have something to say, please say it. Let’s get this, whatever this is, over with.  Our meal should be here soon. You and Brid have a row?”

“No, we haven’t had a row. It’s-it’s just…”

“Just what?” I bring her hand up to my lips.”I need to know so that we can get it sorted. I don’t want you to be unhappy. If it’s something to do with my sister, then I’ll have a word. I know she likes to mother us all. Maybe it’s the age difference between you. All I’ve seen is Brid going out of  her way to help with Catie, so we can have a night out, and I notice that you rely on her too.”

“Not as much as you do.”

“Okay. Sure I’ll admit it, I do rely on her. She’s that kind of woman, everyone cries on her shoulder. What’s all this about?”

If only Sapphire Dress would cease her indefatigable staring. I’ll have to say something. Risk a scene. I’m beginning to find that flirty stare distinctly unnerving. While the throbbing pain searing through my left shoulder serves to remind me of a  past I’d prefer to forget.

“We have each other. I want it to be just us.”

“You know I want that too. I want you all the time, but I still don’t see…”

“I know you and Brid are close, but does she have to hug you all the time?”

I fail to suppress a grin at what she intimates. “She’s been like that ever since I came out of prison. As if she’s scared of letting me out of her sight. You make it sound as if we’re having some wild incestuous affair. That would be just plain weird.”

“No, of course not.” Colour flames her face again. It’s conducive to making me wish that I could make love to her right here and now. If only she’d  refrain  from behaving quite as shrewish. Regardless of her disapproving glances, I’ve practically polished off the remainder of the Sancerre, and the meal hasn’t yet arrived.

The smoothly shaven blond guy across from us toasts Sapphire Dress with entwined hands and a glass of Riesling. Maybe it’s their anniversary too, or they are simply displaying a friendly affinity. So perfectly innocent, as Caitlan suggest, and I’m being my old paranoid self. There’s no law against staring is there? It’s just that I don’t like people staring at me when I feel as if they have an ulterior motive.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Caitlan exclaims so sharply, it now seems that everyone in the restaurant is staring at us, no doubt anticipating an argument. One I’m determined to suppress. I have no desire to continue this ridiculous discussion.

“Jesus, Caitlan, keep your voice down,” I hiss with embarrassment. “Go on, get this over with. Whatever it is has obviously upset you. No, Bridget and me are not having an affair.”

“When you’re at work she comes to see if I’m okay.”

“What’s wrong with that? It’s the kind of caring person that she is.”

“I know, but she’s always looking about the flat. I can’t help it if I’m untidy. Catie takes up most of my time. She has kids. She knows what it’s like. She also expects me to go to Mass with her every week, when I just want to spend some time with my husband.”

“So that’s what it’s all about. You going to Mass. Don ‘t look at me. I get enough disapproving looks from Father Anselm. Like I said, we’ll discuss this when we get home. If you don’t want Brid to come around, or take you to Mass, then I’ll tell her. Or better still you can.”

“When we’re all together,you seem to talk to Bridget more than you talk to me.”

“Caitlan.” I smooth a hand over my beard with exasperation. “Don ‘t tell me you’re jealous of my sister. I know you don’t like me looking at other women. Maybe we should live on a female-free desert island somewhere.”

Not only do I relish the taste of a double Scotch right now, I could also use a cigarette. I have planned this night, with my sister’s help, to be so perfect. Even the once blooming red roses are beginning to wilt in the heat of the crowded restaurant.

Waiters, bedecked in red shirts and black trousers, move through the various tables, trays of steaming hot food borne aloft.

Flicking a glance to my watch, I can’t help but complain to my wife over the late arrival of our meal.

“I just want to be alone with you so much,” Caitlan says.

I want to remind her that I’m alone with her now. Well sort of.

The waiter, a pimply faced individual, deposits our food before us. “Your order, Sir,” he declares. “Sorry about keeping you waiting,” he adds by way of apology.

When Caitlan interjects, “We’re going to have another baby, Aidan.”

 

 

 

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Short Story: The Man Who Rode With The Devil

KANSAS, 1876

The man known as Ty Hohner was something of a legend in these parts.

At an early age the Half-Breed Indian had either left or been evicted from his tribe, for whatever reason best known only to himself. Some people reckoned he might be Cheyenne. All Hohner rightly recollected was that his mother was Indian. His father a white man who’d been shot dead by his wife’s own tribe.

All Clay McConnell needed to know about the Half-Breed was he had to kill him.  McConnell had repeated it to himself over Hohner’s wanted poster, the one he snatched from outside the Marshal’s office in Hays, as if it were either a mantra or a prayer.

Hohner’s career as an unchallenged gunfighter was well known, and ultimately feared. Not merely throughout Kansas, but in Texas, Nebraska and beyond. Even lawmen hesitated at taking him.So what hope did a twenty three year old farmboy have? Wasn’t the desire for revenge and an unbridled anger enough?

rode with the devilFolk in these parts whispered Hohner’s name to recalcitrant children, in the  depths of night, as a warning. They called him ‘The Shadow Man.’ They reckoned a trapper had once spotted Hohner in the mountains. The trapper told how the man, stripped to the waist at early dawn, clad in Indian apparel, had blood smeared over him. The story went that as soon as he was spotted, Hohner appeared to vanish like a shadow. As the trapper had a reputation for drinking his weight in red-eye, no one actually believed him. However the tale seemed to stick with superstitious folk.

The less than superstitious preferred to believe their own eyes, and Hohner’s true reputation was earned from the challenges he issued. Usually over some triviality or other. For Hohner’s boast was that he had never killed a man in cold blood. His skill lay in the fact he counted on people’s weaknesses in order to satisfy his thirst for gunplay.

Six weeks previously, Clay McConnell’s sole interest was in marrying his childhood sweetheart, Jane Meadows. They had set the date, and he was engrossed in preparing a home for his new bride. His friend Davey Oakes was to be his best man. The two young men had grown up together, and Davey helped on the McConnell’s farm. Silas McConnell’s wife had died of the consumption two years previously.

Davey was seeing a saloon girl called Sally. The Miners was the boys invariable watering hole. Sally was pretty and she laughed a lot. Davey was besotted by her.

Astride the palomino, the only horse anyone had ever seen him ride, Ty Hohner  entered  the town.  The man was handsome, there was no doubt of that, and appeared to be in his mid thirties. In the familiar black buckskins, high leather boots displaying the dust of his travels, the Half-Breed appeared ignorant of his observers. Truthfully, the man was capable of weighing them up, assessing whose blood he could spill, as long as they were wearing a gun.  He carried his own weapon, a long barrelled .45 Colt nestling in a fine hand-tooled holster.

Soon the town would buzz with news of his arrival. The man whom they claimed rode with the Devil, that Death followed in his wake.

In The Miners Saloon, two young men were halfway to intoxication valley. Drunk with the whisky, and with his love for the pretty saloon girl, Davey Oakes remained unaware of the tall man in the black buckskins who had entered. Sally had observed his entrance however.  The last time had been in an Abilene saloon, where she had worked as a dancehall girl.

So the man was handsome, and knew it, with the wild black hair he sported, worn long to his collar.  The piercing equally  black eyes had roved over her body, enough to indicate that she was his. Sally couldn’t pretend that she felt comfortable with this man, and recollected that when he got close, she  smelt the stench of stale blood on him.

Hohner was unable to contain his jealousy when he discovered the girl he considered his in the arms of another man. Although it wasn’t simply the proverbial green-eyed monster which attracted him, it was the anticipation of spilling another’s blood, which prompted him to call Davey Oakes out.

The youth was obviously enamoured of the girl, Hohner described to The Miners patrons, as a whore and a gold-digger. That she had been his mistress and had slept in his bed. All lies of course, but Davey Oakes didn’t know that. After all, the Half-Breed sounded convincing enough. Davey had barely moved a hand toward his gun when Hohner’s weapon was a lightning flash from leather encased fingers.  The young man was tossed against the counter, blood pooling through his shirt. Eyes gazing sightlessly upward with two bullets in his heart.

With a cursory shrug of his shoulders, Hohner acted as if he had simply swatted a fly. To the astonished folk in the saloon he muttered something about not wanting to drink there anyway, and not mixing with bad company. Swinging the doors aside, he moved into the street, where he was accosted by the Marshal. Hohner explained the kid had drawn first. “You only gotta ask the folk in there,” Hohner told the lawman nonchalantly, gesturing toward the saloon.

Unable to receive any other explanation for the shooting than the one Ty Hohner had vouchsafed, the Marshal was left with no other choice than to allow Hohner to leave unimpeded. He did so the following morning, before sun-up. A drunk witnessed Hohner leaving town, while staggering home in the early hours. He testified that when Hohner went to the Livery to fetch his horse, the other animals became so skittish, “they made helluva ruckus in there, like they was in a panic.” The drunk reckoned all the dogs started barking too when Hohner rode by.

In the wake of the death of his best friend, Clay McConnell had cause to wonder why the Marshal should have allowed Hohner to leave quite  so readily. According to the poster, Hohner was wanted for murder. Talk around town hinted that Marshal Blades was afraid of the Half-Breed Indian, and was relieved to see him go. Even he was too scared to take a man known as ‘The Fastest Gun’.

The man had to be stopped, and Clay McConnell had convinced himself that he was the one to do it. All his erstwhile intentions, his forthcoming marriage to Jane and the running of the farm, were abandoned now. Instead of preparing for his wedding, McConnell practised indefatigably with both a long Colt.44 and his true favourite weapon, the Henry rifle. Hitherto, the rifle had been used merely to kill the rats in his father’s barn.

Jane had hoped to discourage him from his foolhardiness, explaining how she either didn’t want to be a widow before she was even wed, or visiting her husband-to-be in prison. If the law were too scared to go up against this man, his father said, then it was suicidal for his son to even try. Cleaning the Henry, paying attention to its every part, Clay McConnell told his father he had vowed on Davey’s grave to get the man who killed him.

Killing Hohner had been easier than even Clay McConnell had realised. The body was draped over the palomino’s saddle. The weeks of intensive tracking had paid off. The young man had barely slept, and would have been barely recognisable to Jane with his wild beard of a mountain man.

He discovered Hohner astride the palomino, skirting the edge of the canyon. It was midday. The sun was high in the Heavens. Wrapping a cloth about the Henry’s barrel, so it would not catch the glint of the sun, thus alerting his target, the rifle exploded the back of Hohner’s skull. With the sun in his eyes, the  other man was caught unawares. So it was a cowardly act, shooting a man in cold blood. McConnell was aware it was suicidal to try and take him any other way.

Lying flat on his stomach behind a rock, marginally obscured by sagebrush,  McConnell levelled the rifle on the man down below. The Henry only had to speak three consecutive times.  It  was enough. Once in the upper chest, twice in the back of the head. Hohner slipped to the ground, while the palomino stood motionlessly by.

It seemed an age that he waited. McConnell recollecting all the stupid nonsense from the townsfolk. That Hohner rode with the Devil. Well, where was his devil now?. The man was dead wasn’t he? A furtive prod with the Henry was enough to confirm that fact.

As afternoon turned into sun-down, McConnell was aware that he’d never make it to Hays before morning. The pinto was tired and so was he. Now it was over, Clay McConnell realised how incredibly tired he really was. He decided he’d have to make camp for the night. After collecting enough brushwood, he commenced to start a small fire. He’d tethered both the pinto and the palomino, with its gruesome burden, to the nearest tree.

The Henry had perpetrated considerable damage, disfiguring Hohner’s features extensively. Where the two rifle bullets had penetrated one of his eyes had opened up like a flower, splintering the nose and hideously desecrating the once handsome features. Unwilling to look into those dessicated features any longer, McConnell had thrown a blanket over the body.

As he settled down, he was conscious of the pinto’s restlessness, as if the horse were anxious to be gone. No amount of stroking and placating seemed to quieten the animal. McConnell realised that sleep would scarcely be forthcoming. He was glad of the fire however.  The lonesome howling in the distance heralded the presence of a coyote.  He had never heard such a mournful sound, and he heard plenty of coyotes in the six weeks he had been trailing Hohner.  The sound was ostensibly magnified, as if to indicate the presence of more than one.

He had no idea what it was that compelled him to lift the blanket, as if it were to satisfy himself that the Half-Breed was really dead.  The last time he had gazed on that face  it was congealed in dried blood and unrecognisable.

Now, now, he could scarcely believe what he was seeing. Ty Hohner’s features were as handsome and clear as they had been when he had entered The Miners Saloon, and shot his friend. The bloody tissue had healed, somehow miraculously. But that was impossible. No one could escape such terrible wounds.

McConnell, who had been momentarily filled with guilt because he had killed a man in cold blood, was now horrified at what he was seeing. No amount of eye blinking, and rubbing at them in an endeavor at adjustment made any difference.

The face was unblemished. The piercingly cold brown eyes were intact. When they  suddenly snapped open, McConnell could only recoil in disbelief, almost falling into the fire in his haste to get away.

The tableau enacted in the play of cold full moonlight. It now threw everything, including Hohner’s glacially smiling features – a smile fuelled with profound self-satisfaction over the young man’s terror – into a  kind  of devilish relief. Except now the eyes were blacker, reminiscent of  some hellish chasm.

The man was dead. All this was a trick of the moonlight. It had to be. The back of  Hohner’s head had been completely pulverised. A Henry rifle takes no prisoners.  When the long drawn out wail of the coyote shrilled through him again, McConnell levered the Colt from his holster. The chill of the barrel was comforting.

Come on, Clay, you’re letting your imagination get the better of you. No one heals themselves. It’s just not possible. The man was a legend, sure, and you killed him. Think of all that money the Sheriff in Hays will pay.  What is it?  A $5,000 reward. Think of what you and Jane can do with that.  It’ll be a great start to your married life. Dear Jane. 

Slipping her photo from his jacket, he allowed himself a smile. She was beautiful and he loved her so much. As soon as he reached Hays with Hohner’s dead body, and he was dead, he would be able to claim her. They wouldn’t wait. They would get wed straightaway.

The man was evil. He had to be stopped. He shouted it into the night. “I did something none of you lily-livered bastards have the guts to do. I killed the fastest gun. It was me, Clayton McConnell…” However, his words were allowed to trail as something rustled in the bushes. It sounded like footfalls, the tread measured, but heavy, moving through the undergrowth.

He traced the gun in the direction of the sound while attempting to counsel himself there was nothing there. All his imagination again. The moonlight. The dead man draped over the saddle. The minute scratch of guilt because he had shot Hohner in cold blood.

As if guided by an unseen hand, he found himself drawing closer to the palomino. The horse stood idly by, as if impervious to the night. The blanket remained in the position McConnell had left it. Undisturbed. The pinto neighed restlessly, rearing his head at McConnell’s approach, as if the horse were urging him to be gone. “Easy, boy,” He stroked the animal’s back absently. All the while maintaining an uneasy gaze on the undergrowth, the Colt raised, a finger itching the trigger as if in readyness to fire.

The snap of a twig, reminiscent of a pistol shot, served to startle him. He turned in the direction of the sound. “Show yourself, or I’ll shoot.” There was a tremble in his voice. Despite the chill of the night, cold sweat had begun to break along his backbone.

Apart from the night sounds and the wailing of that damned coyote, there was no other response.  Yet, what was it that succeeded in drawing a return of his attention to that ignominious grey blanket? He slowly, carefully, lifted it, his heart beating an almost painful tattoo inside his chest.   The body had gone!

Clay McConnell staggering, half-falling, blindly into the brush. His mind was no longer his own. Terror gripped him, as if a thousand cold needles had pierced his heart. Nothing had prepared him for this, the creature that now came blundering out of the undergrowth, the scrub and small trees parting in its wake. It just stood there, something that should not have intruded on this world.

Its teeth were bared and sharpened to fangs, half fashioned into the semblance of a grotesque smile. That was how it seemed to McConnell under the white-cold moonlight. Its body, covered in matted brown shaggy fur, was shambling. Its height, he could but conjecture, was the height of a six foot tall man.  The face, if it could be called that, was covered in the same shaggy tangled fur. An elongated snout protruded from that grotesque countenance. The ears were pink and strained to every sound. From within that hirsute, monstrous mask, two piercing yellow eyes seemed to glint with anticipation on the man. Eyes mirrored in the starkness of moonlight.

The deepest, threatening growl that emanated from the creature was as no other sound he had ever heard on earth. Nor was Clay McConnell ever to hear it again.

When the creature swiftly sprang up on him, McConnell was thrown into the dust. A vain attempt to fire his pistol only succeeded in the shot going wild. His spinal column was wrenched apart, as if it were little more than paper. Raising the limp body up to the moonlight, the thing emitted a wild raucous growl.

******************************

Dusty black buckskins robing his hard-packed physique, the man known as Ty Hohner entered the town of Wichita, Kansas late in the evening, astride the beautiful palomino. Some of the folk who had witnessed his approach crossed themselves inwardly, although they had no idea why.

Hohner’s handsome features conveyed a smile of pure self-satisfaction. He remained the unchallenged. The enigmatic stranger capable of instilling fear into the weak hearts of those who considered him the man who rode with the devil.

They called him Half-Breed. Ty Hohner could easily trace his ancestry. The reason why he was abandoned by his tribe. His father had to die from a bullet made only from a silver cross. This man the Cheyenne knew as Ty-Ohni.

The Wolf.

Story by JM Shorney

Illustration by Peter Shorney

Progeny Of A Killer: Chapter Two, Part 1

I thought I’d put up bit more of a taster for my current work in progress, my new novel Progeny Of A Killer. If you want, you can go to Chapter One Parts 1 and 2.

It’s probably best to add a little warning that there’s some violent content and strong language.

Cartwright’s Confession

“Who… who are you?” Cartright asks, now displaying an initial sense of fear. Particularily as Mitchell has yanked his arms so far behind him, the limbs are in danger of being snapped.

“Guns? I thought you were just going to beat me up. That’s what usually happens. I thought you were them kid’s dads or something.”

“Shut the fuck up! You talk too much.” The gloved fist I slam into Cartright’s  mouth takes him by surprise. He jerks his head back as blood drizzles from a lacerated lip. “The only talking we want you to do is to answer some questions.” I return the Browning to my holster. I warn him that just because I’ve put my gun away it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to kill him.

“Is Rosie okay?” Perspiration beads his forehead, dripping from his hair into his eyes. He blinks it back swiftly.

“We ask the fuckin’ questions.” Mitchell binds rope around Cartright’s hands, tightly interlacing the hemp to the back of the chair. While he does, Cartright emits an agonising ‘ouch’ of pain.

“Now, you fuckin’ perverted bastard, you’re going to tell us who that little girl is on the tape. The poor kid. You fuckin’ set fire to her. She tried to scream, but you gagged her, you bastard.” The blow Mitchell delivers resounds like a thundercrack as it connects against Cartright’s jaw, causing the tears to spring into his eyes. His pleas for mercy go unheeded when another blow almost sends him reeling from his chair. Mitchell is a powerfully built guy. “I asked who was she?”

Our faces remain concealed. Cartright attempts to penetrate the masks, while his eyes are narrowed as if with recognition.

“You heard him, bastard!” My anger is a formidable living, breathing force.

“Why should I tell you? You’re going to kill me anyway ain’t you?”  The words issue almost like a challenge, an open defiance. It’s as if he’s sure of himself, even when Mitchell, pulling the weapon from his jacket,unceremoniously whips him across the jaw. He wraps a muscular arm about Cartright’s windpipe, practically shutting off his breath.

“That depends on you, you bastard. You want to live? Then talk. That little girl. You still haven’t told us who she was. What did you do to her afterward? And her family, how do you think they feel? I bet it didn’t occur to you to think what they might be going through.”

Cartright’s nose is bleeding profusely. Blood continues to ooze from a split lip, seeping between a couple of shattered teeth. He spits out the blood, narrowly missing our boots. He regards Mitchell and I with an open defiance once more.

“She’s fuckin’ dead ain’t she? We fuckin ‘ buried her. Go on, fuckin’ shoot me if that’s what you’ve come for. He wanted us to do it. We didn’t want to burn the kid. It was his idea…” He ceases his talk immediately, as if he’s said too much.

“Who wanted you to do it? Who is behind all this? Because I don’t think  for a minute, that you’d have the brains. Not that what you did needs brains.” I listen to the impassioned anger present in my voice. It would be so effortless to simply plug the bastard where he sits, bound and helpless to the chair.

Cartright hesitates. I bring my face up close to his. Martin Cartright’s bloodied lips remain firmly closed.

“I… I don’t  know his name. He ordered us to abduct the kids, film ’em.”

“So was it his idea, whoever he is, to set fire to that  wee girl after you’d finished with her? She was hooded. Still alive…” I allow my words to trail. All this sickens me to the stomach. I never imagined how evil people can be even while I was in prison.

“You okay?” Mitchell enquires, concern in his voice.

I barely glance his way. My attention is centred on my attempt to discover more information from this monster. His bloodied lips negotiate a grotesque twisted line. He hisses, “if you kill me you’ll know nothing.”

“You only have to move your head, Cartright, and my pal will snap your neck. You said ‘us’. Is Louis Platt the other guy in the film?”

Aware of his hesitation, I repeat my question angrily.

“What film?”

“The fuckin’ home movie. Is that how you want to die, Cartright?” I mock contemptuously.

“What?” Perspiration breaks out along his brow again. There’s an unmistakeable stench of urine pervading the room.

“You filthy bastard! Come on, we ain’t got all night.” Mitchell hisses impatiently. “Now tell us about Louis, where he lives, and about the bastard whose pulling your strings. We know it used to be Lamond, but he’s brown bread. So who is it?” Mitchell wraps a gloved hand around a handful of Cartright’s hair and yanks it hard.

“Okay, okay, I… I’ll tell you. And if I do you’ll let me go?”

Let him go? To inform the guy whose pulling his strings? Our orders are to obtain answers from Martin Cartright. It’s the way Sir George Treveleyan works and this underground agency of his. Discover as much information we can from the mark, then terminate his life. Like I said it’s shit.I t’s no wonder that I drink, as I find no other outlet from this heinous occupation.

“So, Mr Cartright, who are you working for?” I adopt a more conciliatory tone, conscious of Mitchell’s eyes narrowed my way in the slits of his mask, warily. “Your pal Louis, you think he’s going to care? Or the guy you’re working for? They aren’t going to shed any tears at your demise are they? You want to take this rap alone? We kill you, and your pal Louis and the boss man whose behind all this are probably laughing. They’ll think you gave your life away to keep them in the clear. Ray Lamond’s dead. We know you worked for him. So whose taken over?”

“He’ll kill me if I talk.”

“And we’ll fuckin’ kill you if you don’t.”

“He’s like you. I mean he talks the way you do,” Cartright stammers. I observe there ‘s more urine leaking through his tracksuit pants.

“Filthy bastard, you fuckin’ stink. You’ve fuckin’ peed yourself again, ” hisses Mitchell.

I bring my face up close to Cartright’s. “So your pal Louis. His surname, is it Platt?”

“Yeah, his name’s Platt. Louis Platt.”

“Where does he live?” I insist.

“In Camden. He lives in Camden.”

“And the boss man. Tell us about him.”

Cartright is practically crying now, as evidenced by the drizzle of wetness that stains his cheeks. Tears intermingle with perspiration. As he’s bound to the chair, he’s compelled to allow both of them to fall unchecked. “I… I don’t know his name, but he’s a paddy. That’s all I know. A voice on the end of the phone and a package in the mail when he wants a job.”

“A paddy? You mean he’s Irish, this boss?” I cup a forefinger beneath his chin. “He talks like me?”

“Yeah, but harder,” his words are allowed to trail because Mitchell has wrapped both hands about Cartright’s head, as if it’s his intention to twist it right off. A singular twist in the correct place is capable of splintering the bones in the neck, enough to render him paralysed for the rest of his life, or to kill him.

Look out for the second part of chapter two this Thursday!

Short Story: Be Home Before Dark, John

In her rounded and softly moulded features, Mother’s eyes were deeply seated and of a soft gentle grey.  The way she dressed was reminiscent of the turn of the century.  Her bodice, fashioned with small white buttons, she wore high to the neck.  On her breast she sported a porcelain brooch, a present from Father that she had worn since they were married more than forty years ago.  Her hair was pulled tightly back from her forehead and worn in a bun.  I had never seen her hair loose.  Like her relationship with my father, that was something she kept.

“Be home before dark John” she said.  And there was no mistaking the anxiety in her voice while she adjusted the scarf about my neck, the scarf she had knitted for my brother Edward the previous winter.

behomebeforedarkWhen mother’s eyes strayed towards my father seated in his high backed chair by the fire, he turned slowly, the glance exchanged, though heaven knows how for my father was totally blind.  In spite of his blindness theintonation lay between them all the same.  I suppose that’s what happens when a man and a woman have been married as long as they have or have had as many children.

I was the youngest of ten; five brothers and four sisters, or I would have been if my six year old nephew Lenny hadn’t joined us.  Lenny was my sister’s illegitimate child, not that I fully understood what had happened to bring a return of my sister Kate to our humble cottage, sporting a swollen belly and two swollen eyes to match.  Kate had once been a pretty girl before she met and married the man she called ‘the major’.  Lenny wasn’t the major’s child.  The major had taken her in but Lenny got frightened when he major hit his mother.  When Mother spoke about the major she hinted that he wasn’t really a major; that he hadn’t even fought in any war and when she said it the familiar trace of bitterness punctuated her words.  I knew it wasn’t because of my sister’s predicament.  I had three brothers, Albert, Arthur and George fighting the war in Belgium in a town calledYpres.  Arthur had left behind a wife and a six month old infant son.

Laying my bike against the hedge beside the rail tracks I sat down on the grass, opened up my lunch box and began to tuck in to cheese sandwiches made with mother’s home baked bread, to find that the bread was still warm.  The disused railway sidings were my usual Saturday afternoon haunt, the tracks abandoned now; something to do with the relocation of the railway closer to town.   The deserted old sidings brought a return of the sadness I’d experienced on waking this morning.  The sadness was so overwhelming it almost made me cry, but fifteen year old boys don’t cry.  There was no reason for the sadness but I just couldn’t help it.  I would be sixteen next April and I knew in my heart that if this war went on any longer I would be sent to the Front too.  I heard from Edward they were taking lads as young as sixteen and seventeen as soldiers.  ‘But whatever you do John, please don’t tell Mother.  It would break her heart if you went as well’ Edward had warned.  Mother wouldn’t stand in my way of course.  We were at war. We were also British and it was expected that every young man in our village should wish to fight for his country.

It was late September.  Warmed by the unaccustomed afternoon sunshine, my belly filled with hot sweet tea and my mother’s bread, I suppose I must have dozed, for coming abruptly awake I realised that it was already dark.  In the distance I heard the screech of a night owl – the only sound to penetrate the stillness.  I had no watch so I had no idea of the time.  I could only guess how late it was and Mother’s words ‘be home before dark John’ slipped into my head once more.  Dark!  It was already dark.  Jumping up, brushing off my trousers and grabbing the bike, I leaped onto the saddle and pedaled as fast as I possibly could in the direction of the village.  I knew I had to make it home before Mother discovered that her youngest son was absent from supper.

The coldness of pale moonlight, a halo of steely silver, danced amidst the hedgerow and lent the road not only a sense of eeriness, but also of loneliness and desolation.  Mother would certainly be worried by now.  Why?  I didn’t know, after all I was old enough and strong enough to take care of myself.  The depression of earlier suddenly hit me again as I approached the village and the two white walled thatched cottages huddled closely together at the side of the road.  The feeling of sadness was so strong now that the tears filling my eyes blinded me a little and I was forced to swipe an impatient hand across my face.  What did I have to cry about anyway?  I was almost a grown man and grown men don’t usually cry about missing supper.  The light from the cottage window, illuminated by the flicker of the oil lamps, was a welcoming sight.

Suddenly and without warning I saw ahead of me what appeared to be a gigantic glowing light, but no kind of light that I had ever seen before.  Hanging suspended in the air it must have been at least six feet tall and about three to four feet wide.  It was also opaque; solid so that I was unable to see either the road or the surrounding area through it.  Cylindrical in shape it appeared to shimmer like a heat haze on a hot summer day.

I had already dismounted.  Only the cold grip of the bike’s handlebars beneath my clutching fingers indicated that I was awake and not dreaming, although my boots seemed to be fixed as if secured by nails to the road.  My heart banged so loudly in my chest I thought I would faint.  I stood there for what seemed a lifetime, rooted to the spot while the cylinder shaped light continued to pulse as if endowed with a life of its own.  I only managed to tear my gaze away from the thing with the realisation that the hour was late and I visualised Mother regarding the clock uneasily when I had not returned.

Thinking about Mother made me realise that I could move again.  The light had given me quite a shock at first but no light, as strange as it was, was going to prevent me from getting home.  Bravado fuelling me, I guided the bike forward.  It was obvious the light had no intention of letting me pass so I thought to outwit it by steering the bike off to the left of it.  Intercepting my actions as if we were playing some odd game of chess, it moved in the same direction.  When I attempted to veer to the right, the light definitely and defiantly had a mind of its own, for it also moved in that direction.  I was beginning to grow really afraid now as my bravado of earlier evaporated.  Nonetheless, when my mother’s anxious face rose up before me in my mind’s eye I knew what I had to do.  I had no alternative but to pass straight through the light.  Closing my eyes tightly I gripped the handlebars until my knuckles were white.  Muttering a half remembered prayer I’d heard in church, I marched deliberately and with determination head on into the light.  As I did so it exploded with such a deafening ferocity it almost shattered my ear drums and thundered through my head like a hundred stampeding horses.

Not daring to glance behind at the outcome of the explosion I jumped back onto the bike and as if all the legions of hell were after me I raced toward home.  I wasn’t about to hang around to discover if anyone else had heard the noise, though of course they must have done.  An explosion of that magnitude had to have been heard for miles around.  Tomorrow I would find out.  Tonight I was much too afraid to even think about it.

When I finally reached home I found Mother, Father and my brother Edward already seated at the supper table.  “John, whatever’s the matter?” Mother exclaimed, rising from her chair and glancing at the clock anxiously.

Wiping his moustache and lips on his napkin Edward said “We were getting worried John.  It’s late, and not like you to miss your supper.”

Still panting and breathless from my wild ride, I enquired if any of them had heard the terrible explosion tonight.  Oddly all three shook their heads.  It was Edward who asked what explosion I was talking about.  But they must have heard it.  My ears were still ringing.  Guiltily I stole a glance at the old grandfather clock in the corner of the room.  It was ten minutes to ten.  No wonder they were all so concerned.

The following day I made it my mission to enquire in the village if anyone had heard the explosion, particularly at the two old cottages along the road where the light had shattered when my bicycle collided with it.  Strangely no one had.

It was a week later that Edward and I returned from working on the farm to find my mother slumped in her favourite armchair, my father’s glaucoma-ridden eyes stained with an unaccustomed wetness.  I saw that the hand he rested on mother’s shoulders was trembling badly.  Kate was there too.  She held chubby little Lenny in her arms, tears running unashamedly down her cheeks.  A black edged letter I recognised as a telegram was clutched in her other hand.  She passed it to Edward.  I had never seen such a letter before but young as I was I knew exactly what it meant.

“It’s Arthur.  He… He’s been killed in Belgium” my sister blurted out, cuddling her son to her bosom protectively.

“What happened?” I heard Edward ask, a thickness in his voice.

“There was an explosion in the trenches” Mother said.

“What time did it happen?” Edward asked and I felt his arm slip around my shoulders.

“About nine thirty, ten o’clock, last Saturday night.”  Kate’s words ended on another broken sob.   I froze.  The exact time I had seen the light and heard the explosion that no one else seemed to have heard…

Eighteen months later I was sent to the Front as a boy soldier.

In March 1918, badly wounded in the leg, I was honourably discharged from the Army.  I was almost nineteen years old.

1914-18

The image above is of my uncle, Albert Smith, and comrade who served with him in the Royal Berkshire Regiment in the 1914/18 War. My uncle was one of the first to be called up, and was known as an Old Contemptible. He had spent his first Christmas behind enemy lines, just after the recent First battle of Ypres. Queen Mary had dispatched some Christmas goodies, mostly consisting of tobacco, to the troops.
My uncle spoke of a sighting of the Angel of Mons, which is now believed to have been nothing more than a peculiar cloud formation. However, as feelings ran high during that time, the soldiers believed that it was a sign from God.

Progeny Of A Killer: Chapter One, Part 1

THE COLLECTOR

 London, 2012.

The basement was more spacious and accomodating than I had imagined. It was reached by yet another staircase. This one remains uncarpeted. My boots echo noisely on the bare boards. Flicking on the shadeless bulb, I observe it’s one of those low energy affairs. The light glows brighter, enough to illumine my surroundings. I kill my torchlight and slip it into my jacket. Pausing to light a cigarette, I scan the room in disbelief at the extensive amount of DVDs and VHS tapes occupying a couple of the large teak bookshelves. The only light in the twelve foot square room emanates from the bulb. A 42 inch TV, complete with DVD and video player, sits on a glass shelf.

To all intents and purposes, the basement appears innocent enough. A veritable haven for any movie buff. Except these aren’t the kind of movies you can enjoy with a beer and popcorn.

There’s a couple of hard backed wooden chairs face the T.V. I deposit my weight on one of them. I allow my gaze to traverse the room for anything that might be worthy of note. Nothing does it seems, apart from that huge television now standing idly by, collecting dust on the glass top.

I rest a hand on the chair arm, thankful that I’m wearing gloves, because something that looks suspiciously like blood is caked into the arm.

The stench pervades my nostrils and I swiftly leap from the chair. I taste the sliver on the leather. It’s definetly blood. I quickly rub the glove on a handkerchief.

Inspecting the shelves I read the titles. You certainly won’t find ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘Casablanca’ here. Nevertheless the titles catch my eye. Titles. Dates. Martin Cartright worked for the gangster, Raymond Lamond. He’s still working for someone, because Lamond’s been dead since February. The dates on some of the DVD’s are more recent. April. May. Up to August. Even two weeks ago.

My curiosity is aroused, and I remove the tape from the shelf. The smoke anchored an omnipresent fixture. A decidedly uneasy sensation now permeates my insides as I slip the DVD into the player. Sometimes, as now , I wonder what the hell I am doing here in a guy’s basement, awaiting his return. Upstairs, Dennis Mitchell guards his woman, whom he’s forced to the floor, before tying her up and gagging her. It was the reason why I volunteered to check out the basement.  I couldn’t bear to look into that woman’s terrified features any longer.

Two masked men had burst into her Brixton home, pulling guns and forcing her upstairs. This is shit. I know it, but I can’t help myself. It has to be my alter ego who flicks the remote of that DVD player. I wish to God that I hadn’t. Our brief is to check out some of the stuff Cartright houses in his basement.

The static is momentary, swift to clear. And there it is. My heart pounds. A trembling hand traces my bearded jaw thoughtfully. The scene unfolds. A child. A little girl wearing a grubby dress. There’s a suspicious saturation down the front, as if maybe she’s peed herself. The film is black and white. It’s only saving grace. She’s wearing socks that were once white, but are now grubby. No shoes. Her feet and hands are securely bound to a chair.  Who the girl is, or how old she is, I have no idea. She has a white hood, similar to the old fashioned flour sacks, pulled over her head, and tightened with a drawstring at the neck. I feel every tremble that she makes.

The two men with her are masked, balaclava hoods exposing only their eyes and mouths. One of the men is quite rotund, in possession of a stomach that is badly running to fat. In marked contrast, the other is positively skinny. Both are wearing camouflage. Because I cannot see their faces, they remind me idiotically of Laurel and Hardy. One thin. The other fat. ‘That’s another fine mess you’ve got me into.’

A laugh of sheer nervousness escapes me at the comparison, plus a physical sickness because I know that the fat one is Cartright. He’s the one touching the child up, while she sits there helplessly bound to the chair. She emits small, animal-like whimpers behind the hood, which makes me believe that she is gagged as well. I freeze when I think of my five year old neice, Samantha. My wee baby girl barely six weeks old. I can’t avoid the element of hysteria that rises. Only for it to subside, when breathing out I’m conscious of the semi-automatic .9mm Browning that nestles behind my jacket, as if the gun were an old friend. Oh yeah, Cartright. It won’t be much longer now, you bastard.

Cartright’s  laughter is ugly and forced as his big gloved hand slides  up inside her, beneath her dress. I catch a glimpse of the young girl’s almost hairless pubes. It’s plainly obvious that she isn’t wearing any knickers.

The skinny man. Treveleyan suggested his name is Louis Platt. It’s Platt who rips at her dress. The material tears apart in his hands, as if the dress were rotten. The hand rises upward toward her almost non-existant breasts. I would put the child’s age at around seven or eight. Aware that I should switch it off, I pull the tape from the machine, and crush the ungodly filth beneath my boot. But Treveleyan wishes for nothing to be destroyed. “Evidence, my boy, evidence.”

So I stare as if hypnotised, when Cartright pours what appears to be an almost colourless liquid from a small red can over the child’s head. I observe her entire body quiver inside her bonds. My stomach knots. My heart races so predominantly I can practically hear the rush of blood as it crashes through my skull.

Cartright and his companion evoke ugly, perverted belly-laughs. Their laughter is so sadistic and evil that I can barely believe that it emanates from a human being and not a demonic entity, summoned from the very bowels of Hell itself. Neither can I help but expel an involuntary gasp and feel the need to vomit simultaneously. Unable to watch any longer, I switch the abomination off And bury my head in my hands.

I have no idea how long I remain there, killing and lighting one cigarette from the glowing butt of the first. There’s a sound of hurried footsteps on the stairs. Dennis Mitchell exclaims, “What the fuck, McRaney? I wondered what was taking you so long. Did you find anything?”

“Oh sure I found something.” I attempt to clear my throat. Kill yet another cigarette. My stomach remains a bundle of knots. I swipe a palm across my eyes. There’s no way I can possibly allow this guy to remotely detect that I have shed a tear. He’ll think I’m not up to it. Maybe I’m not. But what else have I got left? Three eviction notices on my flat. My concern that my wife and baby will be homeless. It seems that no one wants to know an ex-con, especially someone whose been inside for manslaughter. “If you want to know what I’ve found. Then take a look in that machine, man. See what that bastards been doing.”

Mitchell’s eyes are of a strangely flecked hazel when they bore into mine. “I know what kind of shit he’s into.”

“Take a look,” I urge, and pass the remote. “You take care of her then? The woman. How much do you think she’s implicated in this?”

“I dunno. She lives with the bastard. don’t she? The stuff’s in the basement. What do you think?”

“Well, did you ask her? Were you able to get anything out of her?”

“I’m going to have to call the boss.” His tone of voice borders on the sombre.

“What about? To send in the cleaners?”

“That won’t be necessary. We’ll take the bastards with us.”

“The woman isn’t the target,” I point out. “We didn’t know she was going to be here. We were led to believe he lived alone. That wasn’t our brief, Mitchell.”

“That’s why I have to call the boss. See what he wants us to do.”

“Let’s concentrate on Cartright.” I flick a glance at my watch. “How much longer? Maybe the wee bastard’s got wise to us.”

Mitchell purses his lips.”We don’t need to fuck up. I wanna get this over with as quickly as possible. Look, McRaney, why don’t you see if you can get some answers from Cartright’s bird?”

“Don’t fuckin’ tell me what to do, Mitchell.”

I’m angry enough at what I have witnessed without  him assuming an unwarranted authority. Nevertheless he is correct in his assumption. We need to get this over with. Had expected our target to be present. Disposed of. Then to contact Treveleyan to send someone in  to seize the condemning evidence. That Cartright has been abusing young girls, most of them under 16. The girls are invariably masked, as are the abusers. The atrocities sold on forbidden Internet sites.

Apparently the late, lamented Lamond brothers were reputed to have had their depraved

fingers in a lot of pies, that even I had been unable to guess at. I’d not remotely suspected paedophilia. But Raymond and Francis Lamond are now dead. Alternatively,as attested to by the recent entries on those incriminating DVDs, someone else is ultimately working the ‘kiddie fiddling’ racket. Martin Cartright, a known paedophile, is merely acting on their behalf.

Unable to forget what I’ve seen on that tape, I leave Mitchell to check out the DVD. I move into the room upstairs where the woman lies on the floor. Her hands are bound behind her, her feet secured. Duct tape seals her mouth. Rolling a balaclava over my face before she clocks me, I observe her move her head in my direction when I enter.

She offered her name as Rosie when Mitchell asked. I judge her to be somewhere into her mid forties. She’s not bad looking I suppose, despite the addition of the peroxide blonde. Slenderly built, she wears pink pyjama bottoms with a tee shirt top. Rosie mutters incoherently behind the gag. I peel the  tape from her mouth. She regards me without speaking from wide, terrified eyes. She obviously believes we are there to kill her. I cannot speak for my companion, but killing her is certainly not my intention. All I require is some answers. Hunkering down to her level, I warn, “don’t scream, Rosie. I don’t want to hurt you, understand?” I talk to her gently.  “Understand?”

“I… I understand.” She starts to cry silently, allowing the tears to slide unchecked down her face. I wipe them away.

“That’s good. Because I need to talk to you before Martin returns. It is Martin isn’t it?”

Her nod is perfunctory. I guess it’s difficult for her to keep her head erect when she’s practically eating the carpet. She lies half-in, half-out under the bed, flat on her stomach.

“Are you going to kill him?”

“Depends on what he tells us sweetheart. You live here? I mean is this your house or Martin’s?”

“It’s his, M….Martin’s.”

“I need some answers. How much do you know about the stuff in the basement?” I maintain a carefully controlled voice, in spite of the perverse desire to grasp  her by that peroxide hair so belligerently  that it will make her eyes water.

“I don’t know nothin’. It ain’t nothin’ to do with me.”

“You’re lying, Rosie. How can you not know when you’re living with it in the house ? I’ve just watched one of those DVDs. It was called The Burning. What do you suppose that means?”