Mirror Image

Today’s Friday Flash-Fiction challenge by Chuck Wendig. 20 ‘psychic’ powers were listed, random number generator picked me number 14: Aura Reading.

I admit, I went slightly over the 1000 word limit, but it feels like the shortest piece I’ve ever written. It’s a rough excerpt of a fiction novel idea I’ve been throwing around inside my head for the last couple of years (slightly tweaked to fit the Aura Reading requirement). I don’t know why, but this piece makes me feel sorta grey inside. I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know your thoughts.

 

Mirror Image

 Langley Brooks followed the police officer through the bustling halls of the precinct. Business was booming today; the whole building was filled with cops escorting people around, some of them cuffed, some of them drunk, some of them sobbing. It hurt Langley’s eyes to see them all. Vibrant auras danced around them, some held close to the bodies like a mother holding a child to her bosom, other auras expanding out to a distance of a foot or more. Each one was a miniature sun of swirling, ever-changing colour, coming from some unknown source within every person. It was enough to make Langley wish he’d brought his protective dark-glasses, and he cast his eyes down at the floor in an attempt to protect his vision from the aural assault.

        This floor was no different to any other police station floor. Tiled. Grey and white alternate stone flags. The cleaners did their best, but the brown patches on the white tiles told a thousand stories. Over here, a drunk had bled from a gash on his head taken when he’d fallen over. Over there, a girl—prostitute, probably, high on coke or heroine—had fought against her restraints which had cut into her skin, showering the floor in crimson drops. In the corner two boys had stood slumped against the wall, sullen and defeated as blood dripped from half a dozen shallow cuts—their knife-fight had not been serious enough to warrant a visit to the hospital.

        At least, that was how Langley imagined the brown stains had got there. The yellow ones were easier to judge; vomit. Drunks, most of it. Some of the stains fresher than others. Just like every other station.

        He was led by the officer to a door, which had ‘observation room 3’ written on in wonky lettering. Only two other officers were inside that room, plus Langley’s guide, which was a blessed relief. Their auras were smaller, held close, but spikey. That was cops all over; the more experienced they got, the better they became at not showing their auras. The spikes were like tree-rings; one for every year of service. One for every year of seeing the worst in humanity. One for every year working with the no-life drunks, the child-abusers, the drug dealers, the gang-members, the prostitutes and their pimps… the list went on.

        The man who approached Langley was familiar to him, and he had the smallest aura, and more spikes, than anyone else in the precinct. His age-lined face looked particularly haggard today, but there was a tiny, fervent light in his brown eyes.

        “Langley. Glad to see they sent someone I know.”

        “Chief Norton,” Langley replied, a small nod of his head to show his respect. “What have you got?”

        Norton turned and looked through the large one-way glass panel. A man was sitting cuffed to the chair in the interrogation room. Langley observed the suspect for a moment; clean-shaven. Well-dressed. His shirt buttoned to the top, but no tie; that, of course, would have been taken by the officers upon his arrest. None of this mattered. It wasn’t what Langley had been brought here for. There was only one thing Norton wanted from him.

        “Wife-killer,” Norton said. It was only because his aura had twenty or so spikes in it that he was able to say that without emotion. The colour did shift slightly, though; from dark purple to dark red. His anger was understandable; Norton was a family-man. “He denies it, of course. We have enough evidence to lock him up for life.”

        “That won’t be necessary,” Langley replied, glancing at the prisoner one last time before turning his attention to the chief. “You were right to call me. Not a single sign of an aura around him. Nothing at all; not a hint of fear, nor a single thought of regret. He’s an Antipath alright.”

        “I knew it!” Those three words were filled with righteous vindication. Norton turned to his lieutenant. “Go and fetch me an X26 form, and alert the on-call doctor. Tell him to bring the injection kit, and then inform the coroner. I’m sure he’ll want to remove the brain for study before the body is incinerated.”

        The lieutenant left, as eager to see justice dispensed as his superior officer. Silence reigned for several moments inside the observation room, and then Norton turned to Langley.

        “How do you think they do it?” the chief asked him. “How do they slip through the net?”

        “I don’t know,” Langley said. The testing of children on their fifteenth birthday was the best method of weeding out the Antipaths—known in previous decades as Psychopaths and Sociopaths—but there were always a few who escaped detection, proving that no system was perfect.

        “Well, however they do it, we’ll have one less to worry about after today, thanks to you.”

        “May I use your bathroom?” Langley asked.

        “Sure, my friend. You know the way.”

        Langley left, his body moving on autopilot. The brown stains were a blur as his feet carried him down the cold tiled corridor, to the men’s bathroom. He made it just as a sweat broke out across his brow, and he steadied himself against one of the sinks, glad that the bathroom was devoid of people and their auras.

        He turned on the tap and splashed cool water on his face, letting it wash away the sweat. Looking up into the mirror he saw his own empty blue eyes looking back. No aura danced around his body, no nimbus of colours which spoke of his mood. He, like the Antipath he had just condemned to death, was devoid of that spark of humanity.

        Where would he be now, he wondered, if the tests administered to him on his fifteenth birthday hadn’t picked up his own Antipathic tendencies? If he hadn’t undergone the rigorous years of training to help him develop and hone his latent Seer ability? Would Norton still call him ‘friend’ if he knew that Langley, too, was an Antipath? Would the ‘normals’ turn on those like Langley, if they learnt that every single Seer was merely an Antipath lucky enough to have been found young enough to train, by the tests?

        He didn’t know, and he hoped he never would. With a last look in the mirror, he wiped the water from his face and returned to the observation room. He couldn’t protect a murderer, but he could at least watch as justice was administered to the nameless man. It was a debt Langley owed to him; to all of them. If not for the grace of God and the Antipath Testing Bureau, death by lethal injection might have been his own fate.

 

Friday again, and time for another Chuck Wendig Flash-Fiction challenge. This week we visited a fantasy character generator and selected one of the five sentences generated to base a story on. I decided to be contrary and incorporated elements of all five into a single 996-word story.

The sentences:

  • A youthful native is trying to prove himself to his unrequited love.
  • A diseased grandmother is trying to kill a dragon to acquire its treasure.
  • A brave savage is trying to prove himself to his unrequited love.
  • A clever sorcerer is being assaulted and pursued by mysterious, demonic spirits.
  • A thoughtful thief is seeking the Labyrinth of Insanity.
  •  

    And as for the story, I give you:

    Why Grandma, What A Big Mace You Have

     The heat was intense. I could feel my skin blistering, the fire building inside my plate-mail armour. Though I couldn’t see my hair, I knew from the acrid smell filtering down through my helm that it wasn’t faring any better than my skin.

            “We’ll halt here for five minutes, take a breather and have a drink.”

            I stopped walking immediately, casting my silent mental thanks at the old lady who led us. Her cheeks were a mixture of red from the heat and black from crawling through narrow tunnels, her curly dark grey hair was frazzled and dry, and her blue eyes—a milky cataract film covering them—were beginning to water. But there was still a spring in her step which I admired; she alone seemed unphased by the toil of this quest.

            With unspoken relief I removed my heavy steel helm, relishing the freshness of the hot air. Grandma—for that was the only name she had furnished us with—grinned at me. She put down the heavy mace she carried easily over one shoulder, resting it against the tunnel wall, and rapped on my chest-plate with her gnarled, arthritic knuckles.

            “Bet you wish you hadn’t brought that along with you, eh, tin-man? You look like a baked potato… almost as wrinkled as me!” She cackled at her own joke.

    I didn’t dignify that with a response, because she was right. This was my first adventure, and I knew, just as everybody knew, that a knight who goes on a quest to fight a dragon has to go wearing full armour and riding a gleaming white horse.

            My gleaming white horse had died of colic two days into our journey, and inside the confines of the dragon’s lair, heated by its deep, heavy breaths, my armour was acting as a sort of mobile aga. In fact, I probably would have been more comfortable in an aga; none of the stories about knights and dragons ever mentioned the fact that plate-mail weighed about a hundred and eighty pounds and it chafed something dreadful.

            I took out my canteen and took a few sips of warm water which tasted suspiciously of sulphur. And as I drank, I glanced around at my companions, all of us hired by Grandma to help her complete her quest. Nyla, despite being a thief, was surprisingly honest about her motives. She wasn’t here for dragon-treasure or glory; this was merely a waypoint on her true quest to find the Labyrinth of Insanity. It was the ultimate proving ground for a person looking to take the title of Master Thief, which was currently held by a man named Moffat. He’d gone into the labyrinth thirty years earlier and come out gibbering about flying squirrels. He hadn’t been right in the head ever since, but Nyla was more confident about her own chances.

            The situation between Uther, the burly, loin-cloth wearing barbarian from the Black-foot clan, and Brevik, his young warrior-in-training, was a little more complex. They were both here to prove themselves to their desired mate. What they didn’t realise was that they both wanted the same woman – Rilva, chieftan-daughter of the Red-fox tribe. I foresaw violence in both men’s future, when they found out. Hopefully that wouldn’t be until we were on our way home.

            Last was Kiran’Timal’Plox, a brilliant sorcerer from the faraway land of Minn. Spirits from the demon-realm walked in his footprints, hounding him constantly, trying to lure him over to ‘their side.’ It was only through sheer force of will and strength of character that he was able to keep them from touching him and claiming his soul.

            We’d had another companion, early in our quest. William had been a plain and simple wood-cutter, and was Grandma’s unofficial protector. He’d died three days ago, sacrificing himself to the hungry mountain-giants so the rest of us could escape into the dragon’s lair.

            I heard footsteps approach, and looked up to see Nyla standing in front of Grandma, a determined expression on her delicate face.

            “I need to know,” she said firmly. “Why?”

            I felt the whole group hold its breath. One of the terms of our employment with Grandma was that we didn’t ask why she was so determined to undertake this insane quest. In fact, it was the prime rule. And Nyla had just broken it.

            Grandma merely looked at Nyla in silence for a moment. And when the moment began to stretch out, Nyla shifted uncomfortably, her dark eyes glancing from side to side as she checked her escape routes. Unfortunately for her, there were none.

            “Do you know how I got this?” Grandma asked softly, gesturing to her wolf-hide jerkin. Nyla shook her head. “I had a granddaughter, once. Red was her name. And the fool girl led a wolf to my house.” She patted the mace as it leant against the cave wall. “Luckily, I was prepared. You don’t raise six daughters and two sons without knowing how to take care of yourself and your family. But from that moment, I got the bug.”

            “The bug?” Uther asked, deference in his voice. He’d seen Grandma use her mace to split ork-skulls barely a week hence.

            “The hunting bug!” she old woman said. “Wolves, mountain lions, forest-eagles… even slew myself a manticore, six months ago. But I’m not as young as I used to be. I have a sickness which is slowly killing me, and I know my time grows short. This is to be my last hunt. A dragon-head will look nice mounted on my cottage wall, pride of place above the mantle, and the treasure-hoard will see my family right for generations.”

            She picked up her mace, hefting it over her shoulder, and rapped on my armour again.

            “Come on, tin-man.” Her nick-name for me, but she meant it fondly; since William’s sacrifice, she’d nominated me her new protector. “We’ve got a dragon to meet.”

     

    Another Friday, another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge! This week, Smashing Sub-Genres. My RNU gave me 5 and 9, corresponding to “Space Opera” and “Sword & Sorcery.” I love these genres, and I’m pleased with my story. 994 words. Hope you enjoy.

    The Final Push

    Rodan Zal was a dead man.

            He’d known it from the moment Kiyani Mirazola Tunnanathia, Empress of the Three Suns, Heir to the Krezara Throne, High Sorceress of the Miradon Mage Circle, had glanced at him across the marble-floored grand hall, conveying a heated ‘come-hither’ stare with her violet-hued eyes.

            Within a week he’d been made her Chief Protector—a glorified title for a personal bodyguard. He was expected to die for her. And the instant he’d made his vow, swearing upon the blood of the sons of the Empire that he would lay down his life to keep his empress safe, he’d known that not only would he die for  her, but because of her.

            “The moment you begin to bore me, I will have you executed,” she’d told him, in the sumptuous confines of her personal chambers. “I suggest you make your best efforts to entertain and please me.” She had allowed him no objections as she’d made the meaning of her words clear. The silk dress had simply slipped from her body as she stepped towards him, flowing across the extravagant rancar-skin rug which decorated the cold marble floor with all the grace of a hunting cat; and one pleased with its catch.

            He’d backed away, hypnotised by the flames dancing in the depths of her eyes, until he could back up no further. Then she had pounced, pushing him over to be caught in the embrace of the silk-covered bed. Silk was the only material she would allow to touch her skin, so she’d used her magic, the deep purple glow of the energy enveloping her naked body, wreathing her in an amaranthine nimbus, to pull the clothes from his body and hold him in place. There she had used him again and again until he was completely spent, leaving him to wonder if this was how her last Chief Protector had died.

            Now, as he was flung back against the wall, disturbing the tapestries which hung there, he knew the time of his death was upon him. His eyes flickered to the rancar-skin rug, where lay the lifeless body of the unfortunate messenger, his neck twisted at an impossible angle.

            His empress stalked back and forth, ignoring the body. She hadn’t liked the news he’d brought, and once somebody had displeased her, she never let them live to make the same mistake twice. No longer was she a cat pleased with its catch; had she a tail, it would have been lashing in irritation to match the flickering flames of anger which were growing in her eyes. The halo of magic energy coalesced around her body; he knew she used it as a blanket, from which she drew comfort.

            “I should have been there!” she growled more to herself than to Rodan.

            He repeated the words that had gotten him flung against the wall in the first place. “You could not have changed anything, Empress. You would have died, too.”

            “I am the High Sorceress of Miradon Mages!” she hissed angrily.

            “You’re also the last Heir to the Krezara throne,” he pointed out calmly. He’d learnt, over the past year, that the only way to survive her anger was to not show fear, to appear unflappable. “You must survive.”

            “Over ninety percent of our fleet destroyed. The entire Circle wiped out. My father’s flagship captured.” The nimbus around her body intensified as she fed her own anger, working herself up.

            “Empress, the Lorgun fleet will be here soon. We should regroup at a safer location.”

            “I will not flee!” She lashed out with magic, and he felt an intangible force constrict around his chest, making it difficult to breathe. “I am not a coward! Let them come! I will tear them apart!”

    Rodan didn’t want to die. Over the course of the year he’d survived the Empress and managed to keep their indiscretion from becoming public knowledge, saving himself a painful execution—it was the punishment inflicted upon a common-man who touched a member of the royal family, except to save their life. He’d be damned if he was going to be killed now by some filthy Lorgun invader.

            “Kiyani,” he gasped. “The Empire has fallen. If we are to resist, and make our enemies suffer, we need you to lead us. To throw your life away now would be to hand complete victory to the Lorgun barbarians.”

            There was a cessation of pressure on his chest. A thoughtful look replaced the flames in her eyes. “Perhaps you’re right. I could lead a rebellion. What’s left of our people will follow me.”

            “They will flock to you, moths to your candle,” he told her, because despite all of her titles she was still only nineteen years old, and a naïve romantic beneath her volatile nymphomaniac façade. “Your presence will buoy their broken spirits, and they will bask in your radiance.”

            She smiled, cold, calculating, and approached him, running her fingers along his clean-shaven cheek. “And you will be there, by my side, to advise me? To keep me warm during the cold nights filled with fear and despair?”

            “Yes, of course.” Right then, he would have agreed to anything.

            “We’ll have to be married immediately. Now that I lead our people, I must lead by example. I cannot live in sin. Besides, our children must have a legitimate father.”

            Images whirled around his head, visions of daughters who ordered him around, and beleaguered sons hard put-upon, each of them with the royal, violet eyes of their mother. There would be no escaping such a fate, but at least he would live for another day.

            “As it should be,” he said calmly.

            “Good!” She grabbed a silk blanket from the bed, wrapped it around herself. “Summon the servants. Have them bring my rancar-skin and meet us at the ship. It will have to suffice as our bed for now. And be quick about it; I’m starting to get bored.”

     

    This is a story I wrote for a no-prizes flash-fic contest. The topic was “the old wooden ship.” I am rubbish at titles.

    1000 words exactly.

    The Ship


    Triumph. A four-rigged, square-mast English galleon built in 1562, she’d been the pride of the fleet during the battle of the Spanish Armada. Condemned in 1618, Triumph had been dragged ashore and stripped of her planking, and there she had lain for centuries, her skeleton exposed to the animals and the elements. Seagulls nested in the remains of her keel, and what was left of her barnacle-covered hull had been colonised by crabs, limpets and urchins.

            When Captain Thomas O’Malley had seen her scarred shell lying in the salty tide-pools, he’d fallen in love immediately. He didn’t just see her as she was now, broken and moss-covered, painted grey by centuries of seagull droppings; he saw her as she had been, tall and proud at the head of the English fleet, her square-rigged sales open to the wind’s kiss. And at that moment, he’d formulated The Plan.

            There had been doubters, of course. When he’d spoken to other captains, they’d laughed openly at him. You’re crazy! they said. What’s left of that ship isn’t worth salvaging! Her rotten bones will crumble to tinder the moment you try to move her! But O’Malley had proven them wrong. He’d saved what little of the wood he could, and built around it. At her heart, Triumph was the remains of the old warship she’d been during the prime of her life. But the flesh surrounding that ancient heart was new; Triumph had been reborn.

            Fine English oak, hard and durable, had been used for her keel. Pine, imported from Norway and purposed specifically for her, became her masts and yards. For the hull and decking, teak had been brought over from India, a fine hardwood ideal for boat construction. The interior of the ship had been decorated with mahogany and cherry, chosen for their warm, rich colours, which contrasted wonderfully against the silver-foil ornamentation. Truly, Triumph was a multinational vessel.

            The other captains had laughed at her construction materials, and O’Malley’s desire to keep her authentic. A wooden ship! they’d scoffed. It will leak. You and your crew will be killed five minutes after you unfurl the sails. And where are you going to put all the navigational equipment? Everything will be too unbalanced; the moment you hit turbulence, or an eddy, you’ll go spinning out of control.

            Again, O’Malley had shown just what a determined mind was capable of. A small cargo-hold just below the aftcastle had provided an excellent place to locate the navigational equipment—out of sight and easy to protect during storms. Two dozen of his crewmembers took time to familiarise themselves with the old style equipment, learning how to use the ship’s wheel to steer, how to man the rudder, how to unfurl the sails—though the latter action, O’Malley decided, would be automated, to provide faster response times.

            Once she’d been built in the dry-dock, and given a thorough look-over, the captain and his crew had taken her on her first shake-down. He’d felt a little awkward at first, not unlike a young man courting his first woman, each of them unsure of the other, each exploring their own limits, dancing around each other with coy smiles. It had taken two or three short journeys for both O’Malley and his crew to become accustomed to Triumph’s motion—the pitch and list of her body, the way her sails reacted to the winds, how she handled in the currents detected by the navigation computer—but they finally worked out the kinks and had her running as smooth as any modern ship.

            Now she stood tall and proud once more, moored to the dock, ready for her maiden voyage. She had something modern ships did not; personality. No cold, clinical metal hull for her, no iron steps and railings, no name painted in harsh black lettering above the keel. She alone amongst the ships at dock was a beautiful gem against the backdrop of the stars which twinkled from their own blanket of black velvet space. Her name was emblazoned in white paint and fancy lettering at the back of her aftcastle, and observers watching from the dock pointed and stared at the novelty of the ancient wooden ship.

            Standing on the deck, just fore of the wheel, Captain O’Malley watched as the last of his guests climbed aboard, smiling at the traditional wooden gangplank. Some of the women were fearful, grasping at the hands of their husbands as if they feared the ship might list just as they prepared to board, but Triumph behaved as beautifully as a well-mannered filly, holding steady and true.

            The moment arrived. His passengers were aboard and some had taken up observation positions where the cannons would formerly have been mounted, so eager to begin their cruise. O’Malley glanced over to his first-mate, and smiled.

            “Signal the harbour master. Anchors aweigh.”

            The moorings were released. As soon as Triumph was freed her shackles, she began to dance gently, and the small tug-vessel at the front of the ship took up the slack, pulling her away from the dock before she could dance her way back towards it. Finally, when the ship was clear, the tug released its tow-line and Triumph was truly free.

            “Easy does it,” O’Malley said calmly to his helmsman. “Navigation, how are we looking?” he asked into his lapel communicator.

            “Detecting a current on our port-side, Captain,” the navigator reported. “Transferring information to helm.”

            “Very good. All hands… prepare to enter slip-stream. Unfurl the solar-sails. Maintain power to the atmospheric shields.”

            There was a soft rocking motion as the sails came down and caught the solar-winds, then another as the ship entered the river of solar energy. The Earth became a blur as Triumph sped away from it, dancing in the solar-current.

            “Slip-stream entry successful, Captain,” helm reported with a grin.

            “I told them we’d do it. Well done, old girl!” He patted the ship’s rail and smiled. “Now, helm… set our destination co-ordinates. They’re waiting to welcome us on Jupiter.”

    Another fine flash-fiction challenge courtesy of Mr Chuck Wendig. He gave us five sentences to include in a story. The one I chose was “The shape fights the motionless ink.” Because why the hell not?

    I hope you enjoy!

    Rorschach Redux

    The inmates whispered quietly to each other as Simon Attwood was led down the narrow, cell-lined aisle.

            “There he is,” they mouthed to each other, their words coming out as hissed breaths. And each time Simon took a step forward, the metallic jingle of the chains which bound his legs to each other, and his hands to his legs, were an oddly musical accompaniment to the muted whispers. “They say he killed his wife and two kids. Butchered them with a kitchen knife. Kept stabbing and hacking long after they’d gone. He’ll probably fry.”

            The other inmates looked on with disapproval in their eyes. Most of them had killed, but few of them had killed family. Some lines you just didn’t cross. For that reason, Simon was kept apart from the other prisoners. He was put in a cell, released from his chains, told to sit on the bunk and wait.

            For an eternity, Simon waited. He coped by living inside his own head. He was dimly aware that things happened in the prison; he was brought food and drink, his dry-pan toilet was removed once a day for cleaning, other prisoners shouted at each other and on occasion they fought, incurring the wrath of the guards. But he was apart from it all, wrapped inside a protective mental cocoon of happier memories, like Christmas with his parents when he was eight years old, and the time he and his college buddies had drunkenly trashed their rivals’ frat house.

            Things began to change when the guards brought him out of his cell and took him to a small white room, which had in it a small white desk behind which sat a small white man wearing a long white coat. In his hands he held a clipboard, which itself held sheets of white paper. It was all very sterile, very clinical, and when the guard sat Simon down in the chair at the front of the desk, he did not object.

            “Good morning, Simon,” the small white man in the long white coat said. “My name is Doctor Hart. Do you know why you are here?”

            Simon nodded, mumbling because he hadn’t spoken since the conviction, and the words tasted strange in his mouth. “They think I murdered my family.”

            “That’s right.” Hart looked down at his white paper. “I understand that your legal rep claimed diminished responsibility on the grounds of mental instability. That you believe monsters killed your family?”

            Simon nodded.

            “Can you tell me a little about the monsters?”

            With a shiver, Simon began.  It had sounded so strange, the first time he’d explained this. By now, he’d said it so many times that it was more than familiar, but the memory of what he had seen still left him cold.

            “They’re shadow-men. They live in the shadows where darkness meets light and they come out to kill the people you love.”

            “And you saw these shadow-men?”

            Another nod.

            “Can you describe them for me?” Hart asked.

            “Their faces…” Simon closed his eyes briefly as a horrible memory flashed through his head. “They’re like a liquid, always moving, their eyes and their mouths flowing around their heads. Their hands end in terrible dark fingers, like shadows of knives—”

            “It’s okay, Simon,” Hart said quickly. “I’d like you to think now about a place that makes you happy. A place where you feel safe and comfortable.”

            The guard, Walt, waiting patiently beside the door, released his hold on his truncheon as the prisoner stopped rocking back and forth and uncurled his fingers from the fists he’d subconsciously made. Walt gave a small shake of his head as Hart continued to take Attwood to a happier place; no doubt at all this one was a nutjob.

            After two or three sessions, Simon was transferred to a mental institution. The other inmates watched him go, whispering to each other across the narrow aisle.

            “There he goes. Definitely loco. Did you see the emptiness in his eyes? Those are a dead man’s eyes. Man, I’m glad he’s gone.”

            The institution was nice. It had airy rooms and toilets which actually flushed, and even gardens in which patients could walk to aid their recovery. But Simon wasn’t allowed in the gardens, and he was kept away from the other patients. Perhaps, Dr Hart said, once they’d gotten his medication dosage right, Simon could go outside and sit in the sunshine for a while.

            Dr Hart’s therapy continued. One day, Simon was led into Hart’s office and seated at the now-familiar oak table. Hart smiled at him, and held up a piece of white paper with an angry-looking black blob in the middle of it. Simon froze, barely even registering Hart’s words.

            “Today I’d like to try something different. Please tell me what you see.”

            The blob began to ooze its way across the paper, a swirling maelstrom of tar-like liquid, and a monstrous face began to form. A white smile split the lower half, of the face-blob, a cold and malicious grin aimed directly at him. Hello again, Simon, said a voice inside his head. In response, Simon screamed.

            Two hours later, Dr Hart stood with his colleague, Dr Windle. Their attention was focused on the tiny window in the door. On the other side of the door, Simon Attwood lay still on the soft floor, watching the soft white walls in a drug-induced stupor. A single sentence spilled over and over again from his lips, whispered but just about audible; “The shape fights the motionless ink.”

            “Another shadow-men?” Windle asked casually, and Hart nodded. “Hmm. Good job. How many does that make now?”

            “Six institutionalised, four suicides and nine imprisoned or executed. Three on the run, but we’ll pick those up later.”

            “The human mind is a fascinating place,” said Windle. He closed the flap on the door’s window and turned to Hart with a cheerful smile. “So, what should we make the next group see?”

    Another Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge! I must admit, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the last one. I struggled to think of anything to write for any of the titles. This is my final product, not quite up to my usual standard.

     

    Grave Deeds

    How far will a sane man go to die?

            It was a question I asked myself as I crawled prone through the narrow dirt tunnel, conscious of how little oxygen there was down here, worried about ploughing over random worms and giving myself a shit-load of negative karma.

            At the time, it had seemed like such a good idea. In life I had been too big, too powerful, too successful. I had three prices on my head, each one of them larger than the last, and no idea which gangs had put them there. There’s only so long a chief of police can operate under those conditions. The solution had been simple; I’d needed to die.

            The corruption within the government ran so deep that I could trust nobody with my plan. First had been the problem of death itself. For that I’d hired the services of a coroner willing to sign a death certificate with my name on it. Then I’d paid a chemist in Baltimore a princely sum for a substance that would put me in a state so close to death that only God himself would be able to tell the difference—or so he assured me. That had been the easy part.

            Clearly, only my persona could stay dead. I myself had to come back, to continue my work. Unfortunately, being buried alive in a coffin is not exactly conducive to living. Even if I’d managed to bust my way out of it and crawl up into open air, I could see the headlines in my mind’s eye; “Recently deceased chief of police returns as zombie: mass panic ensues!”

            No, crawling up from my grave was a terrible idea. But what if I could crawl underneath it? Inspired by Steve “Hilts” McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’ I decided to create a tunnel. Only, it wasn’t Nazis I was escaping from, but the prison of my own success.

            I’d paid the undertaker handsomely to reserve me a plot. I’d hired a couple of local men to spend weeks digging an escape tunnel from beneath the grave to the tree line some distance away. They masked the entrance to the tunnel using thin dirt-covered sheets of chipboard. Then I paid for new lives for them on the other side of the country.

            My coffin had needed to be unique. I’d bought it from a stage-set production company, claiming to be the director of some indie horror film. A small lever hidden within the velvet of the coffin lining allowed the bottom to open. My weight would cause the chip-board to break, and I’d land in the tunnel ready and raring to go.

            The plan, of course, was best-case scenario. I hadn’t counted on waking from my near-death experience to darkness and a panic attack. How was I supposed to know I had an irrational fear of pitch-black coffin interiors? It’s not as if I’d ever been buried alive before.

            After I’d finally calmed down, I remembered the lever. Finding it wasn’t easy, because my muscles were all stiff and my fingers didn’t want to work immediately. A little voice in my head told me I was rapidly running out of oxygen. I had another panic attack before I found the lever.

            The door opened, I fell through, landed on the chipboard which quickly broke, and then I was in the tunnel, landing badly and choking on a mouthful of dirt that I’d somehow scooped up on the way down.

            Another thing I hadn’t been expecting was the smell. I had no idea why I stank of formaldehyde, and I didn’t particularly care to think on it too much. In addition, the tunnel smelled of old, mulchy, musty earth, like soil, only more… soily. So there I was, lying aching and bruised in a tunnel, retching at the smell of formaldehyde and dank earth, panicked almost out of my wits because I was convinced I had only minutes’ worth of oxygen left, and in complete darkness.

            In hindsight, I realise I should have requested to be buried with a torch. But I’d never had to plan my own death before, much less my own resurrection. Live and learn; next time I’d know better.

            I’ll tell you honestly; I have no idea how far a sane man will go to die. But then again, sanity was never one of my strongest points. And perhaps, if I ever make it out of this tunnel, I’ll be able to give you an answer.

     

    Another entry for a Chuck Wendig flash-fic challenge. Fourteen opening lines were given, one was to be chosen. Here is my piece.

    The Watcher

    I never trusted that statue in the garden behind the house.

    To my six year old eyes, it was grotesque. Two feet tall and hewn from something like limestone or granite, it was a vicious-looking gargoyle, mouth opened to bare uniform teeth, deep-set eyes beneath an over-hanging brow, wings half-open as if it had just settled onto its dirty stone pillar—or was about to pounce on an unsuspecting victim (invariably myself).

    The stone gargoyle was Aunt May’s pride and joy. She said he was called Clyde, and that he was a very special statue. The last was always accompanied by a wink. For a very long time, I didn’t know why.

    He sat beside the lily-pond, guarding the goldfish. The local herons stayed away from the garden because of Clyde, and I couldn’t say that I blamed them. I would have stayed away too, given the choice. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time during school holidays at Aunt May’s house. Mum said it was good for me to get out into the country, to enjoy the open air and the wide fields of meadow grass (she never brought up the copious amounts of cow dung).

    For four weeks during the summer, and every Easter half-term, I was shipped off to Aunt May’s house with my suitcase of clothes. When I was young, I used to cry about it. Mum thought I cried because I was going to miss her. I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t want to go because the gargoyle made my skin crawl. Even as a six year old, I knew that sounded ridiculous.

    Aunt May had a dog called Spot, and he was my constant companion during those holidays. He didn’t like Clyde, either. Whenever I threw his ball too close to the lily pond, he growled and backed away, refusing to retrieve it. We would have lost a lot of balls over the years, had Aunt May not gone and fetched them for us, smiling and shaking her head over my fear of her statue.

    Every time I arrived at Aunt May’s, I’d hear Uncle John tutting over the latest rural scandals. Some predator, likely a fox or a cat, got into Mr Duncan’s chicken coop last night. One death, and all the eggs sucked dry; Little Milly’s rabbit was snatched from its open run last week, probably that damn kestrel again; The Ramsgreaves’ cat was found torn to shreds two days ago—looks like someone set a terrier on it, the bastards.

    Each excuse sounded feasible, and I’m sure that to the adults, they were very logical reasons for the mishaps in the village. I, being a child, and therefore much more informed, knew better. The deaths weren’t caused by foxes or kestrels or terriers. It was Clyde who had killed those animals. I just didn’t know why he didn’t eat Aunt May’s fish, too.

    When I lay on my bed in Aunt May’s spare room at nights, I fancied I could hear scratching on the window. It sounded just like claws against glass, and with every spine-chilling scratch, Spot (who was allowed to sleep on the bottom of the bed) would whine, and edge closer to me. I knew he and I shared the same thoughts; that Clyde was trying to get into the bedroom. Probably to drag us off and eat us, because that’s what gargoyles did. In the morning I would convey my fears to Aunt May, who’d chuckle and tell me that the scratching was caused by branches of the old apple tree brushing against the window, and that she’d get Uncle John to prune them.

    For some reason, Uncle John never did. Or perhaps she simply didn’t ask.

    Aunt May and Uncle John were like second parents to me. They never had children of their own (they tried a lot, I heard my mum once whisper to my dad), and I was like a daughter to them. I was nineteen when Uncle John died. A heart attack; he died in his bed. Part of me wondered if he’d heard scratching on the window just before his ticker gave out.

    Aunt May lived to the ripe old age of 76, and bequeathed her house to me. After the funeral, Mum and I went around to the house, to start packing things up. Until then I’d been living in a tiny apartment, so I was looking forward to having more space, and a garden of my own. Of course, the first thing I planned on doing before moving anything into the old house was getting rid of Clyde.

    When I looked out of Aunt May’s kitchen window, towards the lily-choked pond, my heart skipped several beats. Apart from the pond, and the ancient apple-tree, the garden was empty. The panic immediately turned to relief, and I told Mum how glad I was Aunt May had gotten rid of that old gargoyle before she’d died.

    What old gargoyle? Was Mum’s reply.

    You know, the one that used to sit by the pond. Clyde.

    May never had a gargoyle, Mum frowned, looking completely puzzled.

    Of course she did. Don’t you remember? Aunt May took a picture of me and Spot in front of it one summer when I was ten or eleven. The picture’s been on her mantelpiece for years.

    Mum was adamant. She went to the mantelpiece, and showed me the photograph. The skin on my entire body broke out into a chill, goosebumps peppering my flesh. Spot and I were in that picture, both of standing uncomfortably in front of the lily-pond. But where I remember Clyde standing for over forty years, was nothing but empty space.

    I put the house on the market that weekend, and it was bought by a family with three young children. I never went back, to ask if they’d ever seen an ominous-looking gargoyle loitering around the pond, looking after the goldfish.

    Some questions are better left unasked.

    Last week, Chuck Wendig asked us to post an opening line for a story, on which a flash-fic piece could be based. I immediately fell in love with the line by S.W. SondheimerIt all started with Batman underpants. I decided that even if this wonderful opening line wasn’t picked as a ‘winner’, I would write a flash fiction piece around it anyway.

    Sadly, it didn’t win. So without further ado, I give you my story.

    It all started with Batman underpants

     

    It all started with Batman underpants.

    Most people laugh when I tell them that. Then they see the look on my face. The smart ones back away, leaving me to continue searching for the meaning of life in the bottom of my pint glass. Those with less sense, or cursed with curiosity, take the stool next to me, and ask me to elaborate.

    I take a moment to think about how best to sum up my fall from grace. How best to explain how New York’s brightest up-and-coming detective lost his job, his family, and any chance at a career in law enforcement. What should I say first? That it was a tragedy? That I was the agent of my own downfall? That I should have listened to my partner, who was far more wordly and experienced than I?

    Usually I continue by rote, the words rolling from my tongue as smoothly as the beer rolling down my throat; it wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t our normal route. We’d come out this way hot on the tail of a stolen vehicle, but we’d lost it in heavy traffic. We drove around for almost three hours hoping to pick up a glimpse of that chevy, but lady luck was against us. Heavy fog had rolled in across the bay, thick as pea soup. As my partner, Danvers, put it; so thick I can’t tell my ass from my elbow.

    A call came in over the scanner. Every cop, in the first week on the job, learns how to listen to the scanner without actually listening. Through all the calls and the chatter, you learn how to filter out anything that’s relevant to you. Most of the time you barely even notice the messages from dispatch.

    I wish, now, I’d ignored that call.

    Somebody had reported a robbery at a convenience store, corner of 3rd and Main. A mere two blocks away from where we were rolling through pea-soup fog. The shop owner had the perp at gunpoint. We should check it out, I said. Danvers, of course, tried to dissuade me. Cool your jets, hero. I’m sure a patrol will be out there soon enough.

    Of course, I was young, and still fairly new to the job. I thought I had to impress my superiors with my go-get-’em attitude. Danvers shook his head and sighed, and I knew I’d won this round. We pulled up at the convenience store just a few minutes later.

    The shop owner was an Indian man, or maybe Pakistani, or Bangladeshi. Always hard to know where your shopkeeper is from, these days. At any rate, he was pointing a shotgun at a tall young man cornered at the far end of the store. What struck me first was the perp’s expression. He didn’t seem afraid. In fact, when Danvers and I walked in, his face positively lit up with glee.

    That should have set off warning bells in my head, but I was too wrapped up in the moment and the adrenaline.

    I questioned the shopkeeper. This man came in and stole a pair of Batman underpants from aisle two. Check him, if you don’t believe me. So I checked him. And sure enough, there were the offending underpants, secreted away inside his coat pocket.

    Seriously? Batman underpants? Out of all the things you could have stolen, that’s what you chose?

    The perp shrugged, as if to say, So what? I happen to like Batman.

    I asked him his name.

    Jack McKinley.

    And that did set off the warning bells in my head.

    Yeah, that’s right, he said. Maybe you’ve heard of my dad, William?

    William McKinley. The Mayor of New York. The Big Kahuna. And I was first on the scene to find his son stealing underpants. And not just any underpants; Batman underpants.

    They say hindsight is 20/20. I know, now, what I should have done. I should have slapped the kid with a caution, driven him home and handed him over to his dad. Here you go, Mr Mayor, I found this young tyke getting himself into a spot of bother, but no harm done.

    That’s what I should have done. But the look on the kid’s face ignited a fire within me. He knew he’d get away with this. He’d done it before. That smug, self-satisfied smirk… I wanted to wipe it away. Teach him a lesson he wouldn’t forget.

    I remember his expression when I whipped out the cuffs, spread him against the wall and started reading him his rights. I remember Danvers’ expression, as I did it. Open-mouthed shock, plastered across both faces. Danvers went pale. Shakily, he took me aside, told me that was enough, that I’d put the fear of God into the kid, that I’d made my point.

    I didn’t listen. I was young, and new to the job, and oh so naive. I still believed in things like truth and justice and the American way. I still believed the dream. In my head, I was still seven years old, playing dress-up; a child living in an adult’s body, wrapped in a trench-coat and given a shiny badge to flash around.

    You probably don’t need me to tell you what happened next. The Mayor was furious. The case folded. I don’t know whether the shopkeeper was bribed or blackmailed, but the result was the same. All charges dropped. My head was placed on a proverbial pike; I hadn’t realised that half of policing was about politics. Had somebody told me, when I was seven years old and playing dress-up, that if I wanted to be a law enforcer, I would have to dirty myself and the laws I held so dear, I would have become a street-sweeper instead. It would have been a better way of cleaning up the mess.

    Five years on, I’m a private investigator. Wives pay me to follow their husbands, and vice versa. Occasionally I get a missing dog case; the highlight of my month. And every night, at six o’clock, I come to this bar, and drown my woes in beer. Sometimes I can even afford a little whisky.

    Once in a blue moon, some schmuck like you notices me, and asks how I got here. And it takes me right back, back to that pair of Batman underpants.

     

    From time to time, users with Polish-sounding names leave comments on my posts, and they get flagged up as spam. But maybe they’re not really spam; maybe it’s just Polish people with a really bad translator trying to show their appreciation for my blog.

    I’d like to take this opportunity to thank some of those Polish-sounding people for taking the time and effort to respond to my work (any associated links have been left out for obvious reasons).

    Earlier today, piernekiche said:

    “In place of of texting my daughter pertaining to laundry, I accidentally texted a banker from function and it autocorrected to whores.”

    Well, piernekiche, you wouldn’t be the first person to fall victim to auto-correct, nor the first to be rumbled by a banker, either. It’s something auto-correct and bankers share in common; they cannot be trusted. Never.

    Good luck with contacting your daughter (regardless of whether she’s a whore).

    At stupid o’clock last night, wirtualne biuro katowice said:

    “Great write-up, I’m normal visitor of one’s site, maintain up the nice operate, and It is going to be a regular visitor for a lengthy time.”

    So nice to hear from another visitor! I thought I was the only one on Earth right now! Though I do take exception to your use of the word “normal.” Surely we should be beyond assigning ourselves such primitive (and judgmental) labels. I do hope you enjoy being regular.

    Yesterday, torty ślubne katowice (possibly a relation to the above commenter) said:

    “Fantastic goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff previous to and you are just too fantastic. I actually like what you have acquired here, certainly like what you are stating and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still take care of to keep it smart. I cant wait to read far more from you. This is actually a tremendous site.”

    Being an alien visitor to this place, I don’t actually possess a heart, but rest assured, if I had one, it would be warmed by your touching comments. I’m very glad my fantastic, enjoyable smartness has made an impact. I have to ask, though… was that you I saw spying on my spaceship from the bushes with your telescope the other night? If so, please could you stop doing it? I don’t know how, but you always manage to time it when I’m in the middle of taking a relaxing sonic-shower. I may not be human, but I have rights.

    On the 4th April, szko³a dla doros³ych warszawa said:

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    Umm… okaaaay. I don’t know what “pleasure” you’re talking about (are you confusing me with a purveyor of pornography, perchance?) but I certainly appreciate your, umm… yeah.

    The day before that, młóto browarne said:

    “whoah this blog is great i love reading your posts. Keep up the good work! You know, lots of people are hunting around for this information, you can aid them greatly.”

    What?! People are hunting for this information? How do they know about it? My reports to my Homeworld are for my High Commander’s eyes only! Wait, are you a sneaky government agent spying on my communications? Tell your colleagues to cease their activities or I will be forced to take action!

    On the same day, adwokat pszczyna said:

    “Just about all of whatever you point out is astonishingly accurate and it makes me ponder the reason why I hadn’t looked at this with this light previously. This article really did switch the light on for me personally as far as this topic goes. Nonetheless at this time there is actually 1 factor I am not really too comfy with so whilst I try to reconcile that with the actual main idea of your position, permit me see just what all the rest of your readers have to point out.Very well done.”

    I really have no idea which factor you’re not comfortable with. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not into probing. Or is this about that meteorite incident? Look, I’m sorry; how was I supposed to know that playing Meteor Pinball in your solar system would injure so many people? I promise I won’t do it again, okay? Also, many thanks for pointing out how astonishingly accurate my reports are. I’m glad somebody thinks that way; my High Commander certainly doesn’t appreciate how much hard work I’m putting into this assignment, even though I didn’t ask for it or even want it.

    And last (for the moment) on the 31st March, Anonymous said this:

    “I was recommended this website by means of my cousin. I’m no longer certain whether or not this submit is written by means of him as no one else recognise such specific about my trouble. You are incredible! Thanks!”

    Human, whilst I humbly accept your claim of my incredibility, I suspect you have some deep-seated emotional problems. Whatever “trouble” you’re going through, I suggest you seek professional help. A blog is not a healthy outlet for your issues.

    PS, please tell your cousin to stop perving on me in the sonic-shower.

    Thanks.

     

    A piece I wrote for a flash-fic contest, based around the topic “A Street Corner in November.”

    Like it? Hate it? Let me know your thoughts.

    The Frost Prince

            Tiny ice crystals clung to the dirty stone wall of Hudson’s Bakery, each crystal a minute speck of pristine white which glistened beautifully in the moonlight. Mary studied the tiny crystals as she stood beside the street corner; watching each one grow larger as the temperature dropped helped to take her mind off how cold she was, helped her to ignore the way her breath frosted when she exhaled, how numb her toes felt inside her thin leather shoes. Not for the first time, she cursed God for sending winter so early to London this year.

            A stone’s throw away from her usual corner, a dozen ships were moored at the old stone dock. Two of them were newly arrived, one carrying goods from Africa, another come to collect passengers to take back to the New World. Freedom was the name emblazoned on the hull of the transatlantic ferry, and for a brief moment, Mary toyed with the idea of trying to sneak onboard, to stowaway, to find a new life and fortune in America.

            It was a fanciful dream. She knew she would be severely punished, if she was caught. Even if she wasn’t caught, she had no skills to speak of; the only thing she knew how to do was lie on her back, which was all a prostitute needed to know. But whether you were a prostitute in London or a prostitute in New York, it was still the same old song. The same men, with their grubby hands and breath reeking of stale alcohol, paying the same meagre fee for a quick roll in the sack.

            Besides, George was waiting for her, back home. If she didn’t return before dawn, he’d wonder where she had gone.

            A group of men approached from Freedom, and by their garb she saw they were sailors. Mary smiled and hitched up her dress, exposing one pale, slender leg. As the men passed, boisterous and jovial, two of them carrying bottles of rum or gin, she exhaled slowly, letting her barely-covered bosom rise and fall seductively. One of the men glanced at her, and she smiled with all the coyness she could muster, but he walked on, trailing after his friends. The noise of their merry-making died away, leaving only the sound of the Thames gently slapping against the side of the ships at dock.

            Mary let her dress fall back down over her chilled leg. It had been a long shot at best. Sailors were good fare during their shore-leave, but only if you caught them alone. Once they were ‘out with the boys’ it was hard to separate them.

            “Are you working tonight?”

            The voice was deep and scratchy. It came from behind the shop, from the shadows clinging to the alley between the bakery and the cobbler’s workshop. Mary narrowed her eyes, squinting into the darkness, trying to see who spoke. Some men hid in the shadows, paranoid about being seen near a working girl. But a customer was a customer, and as long as he could pay, Mary did not judge.

            “Aye, sir,” she said, leaving the ice-crystal corner, strolling towards the alley. “If you’ve coin to pay, of course.”

            “Of course.” He stepped forward, into the pale moonlight, and she caught a glimpse of his face; narrow and clean-shaven, it was a face of harsh angles. That didn’t matter to Mary. After four years of working the streets, she no longer saw faces. They were all the same; indistinct featureless blurs. Even when she saw the same man twice, it was rarely his face she remembered.

            “Here you go,” he said. He took out a small coin purse and counted several silvers. When he handed them over she pocketed them, glancing through her lashes at the dark suit he wore. Clearly he was no sailor, and no labourer. Why a well-to-do member of society would want to hire the services of a working girl, she did not know, but then again, she did not particularly care.

            “Come along this way,” he said, stepping back into the alley. The darkness swallowed him, and Mary hesitated. As a rule she tried to keep to the main streets, which were well-lit and populous. But this man was a customer, and that he had paid her in advance proved he wasn’t likely to swindle her.

            Lifting her head a little higher and fighting the unease she felt in her stomach, she followed him into the shadows. It wasn’t easy to see, in the alley, and twice she tripped over broken pieces of wood which had been casually strewn aside, but she could hear his footsteps up ahead, and she hurried along after him, trying to keep pace.

            “What’s your name?” he asked.

            “Mary Nichols,” she replied.

            “Well, Mary, what would you say if I was to tell you that I’m going to make you famous?” There was humour in his scratchy voice.

            “What do you mean?”

            She heard him stop, and in the dimness of the alley she could just about make out that he turned to face her.

            “My name’s Jack.”

            There was a flash of something cold and bright, which reflected the moonlight as the ice crystals had, and Mary felt a searing pain across her neck. Ice flashed across her skin, chilling her. But then something warm began to pour down her chest. She went light-headed and sank to the ground. Her life did not flash before her eyes, because she’d had no life to speak of. Just one more painted face in a city of filth and sin. The last thought that crossed her mind before it ceased to work was that George would wonder why she hadn’t come home. Her son would grow up believing his mother had abandoned him.

            When the sun rose over London, the tiny ice crystals on the wall of the bakery began to melt. And a tiny river of red ran along the ground, spilling into the dirty gutter.