Birdseye

By Paul R. Green

As the black limousine made its stately way off the wasteland the man watched through rheumy eyes as the three idiots began arguing and hitting each other once more. They obviously hadn’t seen him when they’d made their half-arsed check of the place on arrival at the bit of derelict land; no doubt dismissing his huddled, dishevelled shape as just another piece of detritus on the pile of rubble at the edge of the abandoned site overlooking the grey northern river.
He waited until the men had got back in their own car and driven off before moving, joints screaming as much through his meagre diet as his age. His movement startled a couple of black headed gulls that were checking the heap for whatever it is they looked for on piles of old bricks and timber, and the man jumped as they suddenly took to the air with hideous shrieks. He shuffled over to where the idiots had stood, and was happy to find a discarded half-smoked rollie, which he didn’t hesitate in retrieving with grimy fingers and bringing straight to his eager mouth.
He drew deeply on the fag-end, determined to glean as much of a hit as possible. The smoke filled his lungs and he coughed violently, before being forced to hauk out a disgusting wad of phlegm.
The second draw produced the same reaction, but he still went back for more, sucking at the tobacco until there was nothing left, his eyes looking along to where the cars had returned to the road and back to the city proper.
From where he’d watched in the rubble he hadn’t heard much of what the men were discussing, but he had seen the man who’d been retrieved from the boot of one car and transferred to the limo after having his feet encased in concrete. Or at least he thought he had; he often got confused these days. No; the splashes of hardening concrete and the discarded cigarette suggested that what he had witnessed was no hallucination.
He wondered what to do now. He was a smart man, or at least he had been once, and he knew that what he’d seen meant something, and that if it meant something it had power. His problem was that without knowing who these people were he didn’t know how he could use it. He decided to talk to Jesus.

***

His lungs were on fire as he walked up Dean Street’s arduous slope and he had to stop to catch his breath before attempting the steep stairs up toward the cathedral. He was thankful that there were few people about at this time on a Sunday morning, just the occasional couple – no doubt on a romantic weekend break – hand in hand as they headed down to the Quayside: or the odd straggler from last nights debauchery, looking almost as dishevelled as himself, though their clothes were much more stylish. None of them looked at him; not really. The couples always just happened to cross the road before coming to him, and the stragglers were too drunk or hungover to see anything but the two feet in front of them in their quest to find their way back to wherever it was they’d come from.
At the top of the steps he stopped again to cough up another wad of phlegm and try and get his breath back before making his way to an ornate doorway that stood across from the majestic grandeur of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. Above this particular doorway a grotesquely carved rabbit, black as coal with blood red fangs sat and stared with baleful eyes at all who crossed its path. The man smiled; he liked the gargoyle, remembering the first time his dad had shown him it, back in that other life. Beneath the rabbit, sitting in the recessed doorway, nursing a cheap plastic bottle of wine, was the man known locally as Jesus.
“Captain Birdseye!” Jesus shouted as he spotted him approaching. He hated the name; it being taken from his vague resemblance to an old advertising character. He hated it, but tolerated it all the same as he didn’t feel he deserved his other name; the name belonging to the man he was before now.
“What news on the Rialto?” Jesus stood and beckoned him over to the stand in the shade of a tree that stood in the cathedral grounds, offering him a drink as he drew closer.
The bottle buckled slightly with a plastic crackle as the man accepted it and took a hearty swig. The red wine was cheap, but welcoming. He licked his white moustache and beard, savouring the tiny beads of alcohol he found before he handed the bottle back.
“I’ve got some news to trade, but I don’t know who with. Thought you’d be the man to see.”
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Said Jesus, spreading his arms wide as he spun around to salute the edifice behind him, before coming full circle to face the man known as ‘Birdseye’. “So ask away, my son. Ask away.”
“Dodgy bastard in a flash suit. Drives a limo; actually, a chauffeur drives it, but you know what I mean. Who is he?”
“And did this snazzily attired chauffeur driven gentleman of questionable birth wear anything distinguishable upon his feet?”
“Couldn’t see proper, like, but he might’ve been wearing them things gangsters wear. You know what I mean? Like socks, but that go over your shoes.”
Spats.”
“Aye, that’s them. Spats. He might have been wearing spats.”
“Their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; devastation and destruction are in their highways. Isaiah.”
“Isaiah who?”
“I was quoting Isaiah. The man you’re referring to is Keith Lawrence, calls himself The Don. Trying to make a name for himself. Whatever you want him for I’d say forget it. He’s trouble.”
“A man trying to make a name for himself has enemies. I’ve seen something they might find useful. Who are his?”
Jesus gave the man a sorrowful look.
“You don’t want to get in between men like these, my friend.”
“Want’s got nothing to do with it. We don’t all have the faithful leaving donations on our doorstep.”
The man known as Jesus raised his arms in surrender.
“It would have been remiss of me not to say, that’s all. The path you choose to walk down is your own. So seeing as you seem to know your way, allow me to enlighten you. Now the Don is enjoying, what you might call, a bit of a purple patch at the moment. Since Jimmy the Vampire got put away a few months back things have been fairly quiet. Well, except for a few internal disagreements, that is.”
Birdseye took a seat on the low wall. He’d been hoping for more than this. He’d thought about contacting Jimmy the Vampire, but even if he wasn’t in the nick there was no way Birdseye was going to go all the way to Sunderland to try and find him; and the Vampire never came to Newcastle. He’d earned the nickname due to his refusal to cross the river for fucks sake!
“There must be someone.” Birdseye said.

“Look, mate, the only one who’s anywhere close to the Don’s level at the moment is Sister Mary, but she’s been savvy enough to stick with nicking motors in Hebburn.”
“How do I talk to her?”
Jesus sighed.
“I’ll set it up.”

***

Even the hum of the electricity station didn’t spoil his walk towards the meeting place by the Tyne. The sun was out, and for once there was no wind blowing up the river to chill his aching body. As he made his way to the car park off South Shore Road he went over what he planned to say to Sister Mary. He needed to play this smart, think about the long game, but it was hard when he was so accustomed to concentrating on where the next meal was coming from. He just had to make sure he got a good trade for the information, and not just settle for the first thing she offered. He also had to trade smart; no fags, no booze. He wanted a job, or if not that then at least the chance to prove himself an asset. He had skills. Useful skills to someone with ambition. Or at least his other self did. All he needed was a chance. That, a hot shower and a real bed for the night.
As he approached the rendezvous point he began to sweat. It wasn’t just the exertion from walking all the way down here; he was nervous. What if she laughed at him? Would she even come? If she sent one of her cronies would they be able to make a deal?
He grew short of breath and had to stop. He bent over and drew in air in an attempt to sort himself out. He forced himself to clear his head of all the negative thoughts, finding the song of a small bird in the nearby trees to focus upon and blotted everything else out.
He let out a long, slow breath as he straightened and calmly walked to the car park.
There was already a vehicle there; a black something expensive. He was no good with cars; and what was it with gangsters and black cars? They always showed the dirt up, especially on sunny days like today.
The car flashed its headlights and he made his way toward it, feeling like some kind of spy in one of those films he’d watched back when he was someone else. He instinctively went to the back window which was, of course, tinted.

As he stood waiting he saw his reflection properly for the first time in as long he could remember, and chuckled to himself – He really did look like Captain Birdseye!
The window descended with a subtle hum and his face was replaced by the occupant’s.
“I believe you saw something you shouldn’t.”
All the warmth of the day leeched from his body as he stared into the eyes of the Don.

Ghostly Haunts

by Jan King
I was the figure watching to see if you would let go or not. Luckily you didn’t.
Death by your own hand is considered selfish in some ways, although I believe it is also
right for some.
It was right for me. Let me start at the beginning. My name is Amber Green. I had always
been fit. My dog and I used to go on long walks, no they were more like treks. I would pack up
sandwiches, a bottle of water and some treats for Sliver and off we would go into the wilds of
Devon.
I wasn’t young but I looked after myself. Then came the devastating news. I certainly wasn’t
expecting this turn of events. I had been feeling very tired of late and quite listless, not my
normal happy self. So I booked an appointment with my doctor. She suggested a blood test
to eliminate certain diseases.
I had the blood test. The upshot of this was that I had a terminal illness. I sat there in the
doctor consulting room dumbfounded. I didn’t know how to react. What should I ask? All sorts of
questions were whirling in my head. Instead I got up, said thank-you to the doctor and went home.
Sliver greeted me at the door. I started to cry. What will I do with Sliver?
Once I had sat down with a cup of tea and digested this information, I thought where do I go from
here. The internet and google. After many hours of research, I knew that I would have to draw up a
schedule.
This would entail finding a home for Sliver, but not until I couldn’t walk a mile unaided that I would
put my plan into action.
I did let go…. hence my ghostly appearance at this place.Black Eyed Angels Swam With Me

Ashes

By Paul R Green

Orland Clay hawked and spat out a blackened gob of saliva. Bent double with hands on knees he watched wearily as the spitball hit the street, and slowly oozed down the soot-stained cobblestone leaving a slick silvery trail like a deformed slug.
The crack of splintering timber brought the young guard’s head up in time to see the final death throes of the burning building. The main roof beam rent in two, each part crashing through what was left of the first floor and stirring a cloud of glowing embers to dance and swirl like fireflies in the night sky. The searing wave of heat and debris roiling out from the conflagration forced the young guard to turn away and cough up another soot-blackened gob.
“You alright there, lad?” A meaty hand slapped him on the back, startling Clay for a second. The deep, mellifluous voice belonged to Clay’s sergeant and mentor, Churt DePard. Clay pulled in a deep breath, the hot air tasting of burnt wood and, rather disturbingly, roast pork as he inhaled and straightened to answer his superior.
“Just getting my breath, Sarge.”
“We’ve stopped it spreading at least. Get some water in you then come find me, lad. I want your knowledge on this one.” The big man put a fatherly hand on Clay’s shoulder before striding away to bellow orders at the townsfolk who had stopped passing buckets to gawk at the building’s final collapse.
Clay watched for a moment, wondering what knowledge he could possibly possess that the veteran sergeant didn’t.

***

The fire had burnt out, reducing the warehouse to a smouldering ruin of smoking ash and charred, stunted beams that to Clay’s mind looked like a giant, twisted hand clawing at the grey winter sky. Scattered amidst the wreckage, though the bulk of them were near what should have been the exits, lay a number of burnt bodies; most seared to the bone, and none of them promising any means of identification. A disturbing number of the them were too small to be adults. Clay looked at his ash-caked boots and tried not to think too hard as to just what that ash consisted of. He’d been stood for a while now, waiting for his mentor to speak; knowing better than to interrupt him while thinking. At least his feet were warm, he thought, thanking the gods the cobbles had retained some heat from the blaze.
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.” Clay was startled from his thoughts and forced to jog after his
sergeant as he strode away from the smoking remains.
“Where are we going? What did you see?”
“You’ve seen what I have. Tell me.”
Clay had half expected this, the gruff sergeant had for some reason taken the young guard under his wing; occasionally drawing him into investigations where other watch members would either not see the bigger picture or took the easy option and ignored it. Along the way DePard would challenge Clay, forcing him to think about his reasoning as well as his actions; teaching him how to be more than just a fight-breaker and a turn-key. For his part, Clay, quite liked the special attention and insight that his mentor was providing, though he could do without the occasional jokes made at his expense by his other more traditional colleagues.
“The fire was obviously deliberate.”
“Obviously?”
Clay smiled. This was all part of the game; he had to explain his reasoning.
“Yes; the warehouse was clearly being used as a doss house; with all the refugees arriving since Kerrigan started his crusade, they’re springing up all over town. And although it’s possible someone could have knocked over a lantern or candle or some such, that wouldn’t explain how the fire spread so quickly, nor why so many people were unable to escape. I spotted what looked like chains where the doors would have been, so it’s a reasonable assumption that the doors were fastened on the outside. You could argue that it was an accident and that the doors were regularly sealed this way to prevent either discovery of the unsanctioned dosshouse or theft of the warehouse contents proper,” he paused.
“But” DePard hadn’t slowed, another one of his quirks; he was of the opinion that it was always better to be going somewhere, even if he then had to change direction should new evidence present itself.
“I’m inclined to think that the killer either knew they’d be trapped inside or brought the chains himself and made sure of it. Either way, it’s murder.” He looked to DePard.
“Not bad, Clay, but without an explanation for the rapid spread of the fire you’re still relying upon conjecture as to it being a premeditated act of murder.”
“I’m no expert but looking at what’s left of the place, most of the damage is to the external walls. Agreed?”
DePard nodded.
“And, yes, the inside is badly burned, but the fire was fought from the outside in, which begs the question if the fire had started inside the property then why isn’t that where the worst of the damage is.”
DePard grunted.”Well then, lad, where do we go to act upon this deduction?”
“Seeing as the fire was on the edge of the Warrens; King B.”
The sergeant actually stopped. King B was a notorious criminal, running a city wide gang of
prostitutes, thieves, and assassins. He was also the de facto mayor of the Warrens. The watch, those of them not on his payroll at least, had been after him for years, but King B was a cautious man with a keen mind and had so far kept out of gaol. He was also very difficult to get close to, relying upon a chain of henchmen and go-betweens to act as buffers.
“You know where to find him?”
“He’s not hard to find. Hard to get to yes, but not hard to find.”
Clay turned back the way they had come, allowing himself the hint of a smug grin as his sergeant was forced to follow.

***

Churt DePard had seen a lot of things in his lifetime; been in some tough places, but there was something about the Warrens that he always found disconcerting. He tried to put it down to his watchman’s instinct reminding him that he was in an area of the city with a much higher than average crime rate, and a virtually nonexistent watch presence, but he knew deep down that it was something else; something much older and primal. It was in the way everyone moved; slow and deliberate, never turning their backs. It was the way everyone watched you, whether that be the bold stares of the bravos and street toughs, or the surreptitious glances of those lurking in the shadows. Even those that could be described as regular citizens, the merchants, smiths, butchers and beggars all seemed to stop what they were doing and stare balefully as the watchmen passed by.
For his part, DePard projected an air of calm authority, back straight, hand on sword hilt, though his eyes constantly swept his surroundings for any sign of trouble.
“In here.” Clay indicated a bakers and stepped inside. DePard followed.
The smell of fresh bread, a favourite of DePard’s at the best of times, was like an exotic perfume after the pungent smells of the city streets, and the heat from the ovens provided a welcome respite from the winter chill.
The bakery was busy as loaves were loaded into baskets to be delivered in time for breakfast to those as could afford it, the work overseen by a short fat man with arms that could shame a blacksmith. Seeing the two men enter he turned to face them as he continued wrapping bread. The broad, yet handsome face was marred by a scar running up from his chin through his lips and along one side of his nose; the light scar tissue vivid against his dark skin.
“Orland. How good to see you. If you’re here about my guild fees, though, you should know that I have strong views when it comes to extortion.” The deep baritone only slightly effected by the scar.
“Don’t worry, uncle, I’m not after your money.”
The baker mimed a relieved sigh. Then moved round to smother Clay with a powerful embrace; the young guard thinking it a good job his cloak was white as his uncle’s flour covered arms wrapped around him. The baker stepped back, affectionately patting Clay’s cheek.
“Well I know it’s not a social call. You rarely visit, and when you do you’re always considerate enough to come out of uniform.” He smiled and turned to DePard. “It’s not that we have anything against you Doves but the neighbours are apt to get nervous when a couple of white cloaks come visiting. Especially when one of them’s Churt DePard.” He held out a flour covered hand.
DePard was surprised at being identified but managed to keep his expression neutral as he
accepted the strong handshake.
The baker gave the sergeant an apologetic look.
“There’s a lot of folk round here still bitter about Goven Chandler.”
DePard sniffed. “Goven Chandler was a rapist with a taste for young flesh. I’d kill the bastard again in a heartbeat.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, sergeant. Don’t get me wrong. Folks round here wanted him dead. They just wanted to do it their way; make sure he suffered.”
“He suffered.” DePard’s eyes were ice.
The baker still gripped DePard’s hand.
“Of that I do not doubt. However, his victims’ families don’t think it was enough. I think they were hoping for a more protracted experience for mister Chandler. That, and for him to go to his death with fewer testicles of course.”
“You don’t get fewer than none.” DePard’s expression hadn’t changed.
The baker grinned, slapped a floury hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and released his grip on the other hand.
“Are you sure you’re not from the Warrens, Sergeant?” He rocked back on his heels before moving back behind his counter. “Now what can I do for you?”
Clay stepped forward.
“I’ll get straight to the point and not insult you by asking if you heard about the fire on Wagonway Road.” Clay said as the baker returned to wrapping loaves.
“Terrible news. I hear there were folk caught inside?”
“At least twenty; some of them children. And not caught, trapped. The doors were chained so they couldn’t escape.”
The baker’s chestnut eyes, the irises rimmed with a speckle of lighter brown, flicked up to meet Clay’s. For a split second fire seemed to flash from the hazel specks.
“We need to know who did it, Uncle, they need to be stopped.”
The fire was gone, tamped down to a less noticeable, but much hotter slow burn.
“There’s plenty talk on the streets and in the inns, especially those around the docks about how the refugees are becoming a problem. How the city should be housing them elsewhere. Not our problem, sort of thing. That’s just human nature, though; no one likes to share too much and some people have a different concept of what constitutes too much. This though, if it’s true,”
“It is.” Said DePard.
“Then this is something else.” He stared at DePard, judging him. “My business is fortunate enough to get a lot of customers, Sergeant; it gives me an understanding of this community. I’ll keep my ears open.” He shifted his attention back to his nephew. “Now, do you want a couple of stotties to take away?” He was already wrapping a couple of the flat breads.
“Thank you, Uncle. You don’t get them up our way.”
The baker handed Clay the warm parcel as he saw the guards to the door.
“All the more reason to visit us more often, Lando; out of uniform though, eh?” He said giving Clay a hearty slap on the back as he ushered them onto them outside and closed the door.

The wind whipping down the narrow street stripped away all warmth and the comforting aroma of fresh bread, replacing them with the rotten smells of decaying street waste and the biting cold of winter. Clay tucked the parcel into his tunic, enjoying the warmth it provided, before pulling his cloak tight and looking to his sergeant.
“So your uncle knows King B. Should I be concerned?”
“No. I’ve chosen my side.”
DePard nodded his approval.

***

Bokeem Clay watched his nephew and DePard as they walked away. He was angry, and the anger was building. He was angry that the boy had come here in uniform. He was angry that he’d brought the sergeant. He was also angry that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch. But that was nothing compared to how furious he was that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch without his say so.

***

The glow of the lantern threw light into the open warehouse space as Hero pulled the door open and stepped inside. He winced at the overpowering smell of fish, wishing his boss had chosen any of the many other buildings he owned as he pulled his kerchief up over his nose in a futile attempt to suppress the stench. His boss followed him inside, his face only flickering slight acknowledgement of the offensive odour. The five other men, King B’s employees all, were also employed as dock hands and therefore seemed immune to the smell.
One of the men, a tall, heavy set bruiser, pulled the door shut against the winter night and took his place by The King. He somehow seemed even larger when stood by his boss. The others split up to light more lanterns.
Suspended upside down from an overhead beam at the rooms centre, three naked men – none of them over eighteen – their hands bound behind their backs, slowly twisted at the end of the ropes lashed around their feet.
Bokeem Clay approached his prisoners until he stood just in front of them. Three of his men moved behind the captives and held them so they faced their boss.
“It has come to my attention that one, two, or maybe even all three of you, can assist me in my enquiries.” The King’s voice echoed around the large room.
The captives said nothing.
“Let me make this simple for you. I know that your group was responsible for the fire and
subsequent deaths at the warehouse on Wagonway Road. I know that you three boys were in the Tack spouting your vitriol just before the aforementioned conflagration. What I would like you to tell me is who started the fire, and who gave the orders. That’s all. Two names and this all ends for two of you.”
The King studied the three men as his words sunk in. Their faces a curious purple, a combination of the cold and the blood settling in their heads. None of them had the look of real killers about them, though he knew they were responsible for the fire. They were cowards; hiding behind the mask of their cause, bravado swelled by the group they belonged to, committing their despicable acts through fear of losing face in front of their so called mates. Never realising those very same mates were as like to be feeling the same peer pressure and fear of rejection. Bokeem Clay despised men like this, but he knew just how to use them.
“Hero.”
His man stepped forward.
“That one.” He pointed to the largest of the three prisoners, and walked off to the manager’s office in the corner of the building where one of his men was brewing a pot of coffee. There was no need for him to watch as Hero lowered the selected captive to the ground and manhandled him through a side door.

***

As Bokeem was pouring his third coffee Hero entered and nodded. King B joined his man and they returned to stand before the two remaining captives. He took a sip of his coffee before speaking.
“I know you’re curious as to the fate of your friend. Right now your limited imaginations
are conjuring up all sorts of unpleasant scenarios involving red hot tongs, bread knives and
toasting forks. All you need to know, however, is that your friend told us what we wanted.”
He took another sip of coffee, savouring the warmth as much as the taste as the hanging men’s eyes darted from him to each other and back. King B smiled; they were his.
“Now what many people fail to recognise about using torture to extract information is that the subject, in this case your absent colleague mister Reeves, is just as likely to tell his questioner what he thinks he wants to hear as he is to tell him the truth.”
Again, he gave the men time to digest what he’d said as he took another mouthful.
“So, what that means is, and I’m sure you bright young lads have already figured this out, is that we require some form of corroboration; a verification of your colleague’s claims so that we don’t act upon inconclusive information. I’m sure you understand.”
“It was Solomon Pitt made us do it.” Both men spluttering out the name almost instantaneously. “He said it would send a message.”
The King nodded.
“Pitt planned the deed no doubt. And he did send a message; just not to the people you boys
think.”
A look of understanding appeared on the face of one of the prisoners.
“It wasn’t about the Northerners. It was about the warehouse. The message was for you.”
“Clever lad. And he chose you boys to deliver it. Obedient young pups, blinded by hatred and fear.”
He said waving his mug in their direction.
“And you two,” he said, “went through with it. You two, and your friend back there, carried out his plan and burnt those women and children to death over geography. And that, that’s on you. Pitt might have sent you but no one made you do it. That’s just how lickspittles like you justify your cowardly actions to yourselves.”
He handed his coffee to Hero, trading the tin mug for a bread knife.
“A man is responsible for his own actions. Always.”

***

DePard pulled the last of the potatoes from the patch he kept behind the barracks, checked it for rot, and satisfied there was none, added it to the sack by his side. The crop was small, he’d been busy and hadn’t been able to tend his garden as well as he’d have liked; he was also late in harvesting. Still, he’d have some good compost next season, he thought, looking at the pile of rotting waste he’d fenced off in one corner. He stood, brushed dirt from his knees and turned to see Clay waiting by the door.
“We’ve been left a gift.”
“Oh?” Said DePard.
“A man named Reeves was bound and left outside the Tack. Roper and DeMarc found him this morning when they went back to help with seeing to the remains.”
“He hurt?”
“Broken nose, a few bruises. More scared than anything. Claims some upright citizens overheard him bragging about his deeds and took the law into their own hands.”
DePard chuckled. “In the Warrens?”
“Don’t be so dismissive of the Warrens, Sarge. The watch might not be welcome but the folk there do have a code.”
“Don’t fuck with King B?” De Pard chuckled again. “Don’t pout lad, I get it. Places like that, they breed closeness. A sense of community you don’t find in the likes of Park Square and Temple Grove. But whether they think so or not, they still come under our watch, and as much as I’d like to believe that some good citizens handed over this Reeves out of a sense of community and public duty, I think we both know that your uncle wouldn’t have delivered him to us unless there was something to be gained. I think we need to have a word with this Reeves.”

***

The forge was an old guard tower at the rear of the western barracks. It had been heavily damaged in the big siege over twenty years ago and was now mostly a hollow shell. About ten years ago the then head of the watch, a man named Thorn, had had the rubble cleared from the one ground floor room that still had four solid walls, if not a ceiling, and began using it for the questioning of prisoners. The room was an old store and therefore windowless; light, what little there was, came from torches in the wall sconces of the room above – or at least those that could be safely reached.
Reeves was strapped to a single chair in the centre of the room. The chair itself bolted to the floor, but the main feature of the forge wasn’t the walls, or the light, or even the chair; it was the smell. The room reeked of fear, as if every man who had sat in that chair had sweated a part of himself into the porous stone floor and over the years that essence, that physical manifestation of hopelessness and defeat had spread drop by oozing drop until it permeated the whole room and the very walls were now covered in a nervous sheen.
Reeves watched fearfully as DePard and Clay entered and took their positions. The younger guard moved behind him leading Reeves to naturally try and follow his movement. The thick leather restraints prevented him turning his head far enough leaving him to speculate on, or more likely worry about, where Clay was and what he was doing.
A noise brought his attention back to the big sergeant who set down a small table in front of the prisoner. Resting on the table was a cloth bag. DePard pulled a scroll from his belt, opened it up and read from it.
“Crispin Reeves. Of an above average height and stocky build with hair of a clean straw colour and eyes of blue. Tattoo depicting the sigil of Crispin the Defender on right forearm.”
“Nowt wrong with that. Crispin is a hero to this city. Me Mam named me for him.”
DePard ignored the interruption.
“Lives with parents and three brothers above the kilns off Artisan Square. A few overnight
detentions for drunken affray and common assault. All of them off the back of trips to the Warrens. Seems to me you’re the type of boy who likes trouble. There’s no other reason I can see for you to be straying so far from home.
“I’m a citizen of Stonelake; can walk where I please.”
“True enough, lad, and as a citizen you’ll know the punishment for murder.”
“I’m not of age as to be hanged without witnesses to the crime. I know that much.”
The boy tried to hold DePard’s gaze but couldn’t and squirmed in the chair as his eyes broke away.
“A lawyer now are you, boy? Well, just so you’re clear, how you’re tried is at the discretion of the magistrate, and the opinion of the watch weighs heavily upon her decision. Which, as far as you’re concerned, means I get to decide whether you’re tried as man or boy, and whether your future’s in chains or on rope. What say you, Clay? Is Crispin here merely a confused young boy lead astray by a wicked bigot, or is he a true grown man who knows his mind?”
Reeves jumped as two hands clamped onto his shoulders. He tried unsuccessfully to jerk his head away from the hot breath that suddenly spread across his neck.
“These are the shoulders of a man, sergeant. Broad and strong. I say he hangs.” The breath
disappeared along with the hands, as Clay slipped back into the shadows.
Before Reeves could gather himself DePard suddenly leant forward, bringing his face within inches of the boy’s.
“The way I see it you’ve spent your time playing at being a big man. Well congratulations, Crispin, you’re being treated like one now. And will be right up to the point of your execution. No doubt you’ve been to a hanging, lad; stood laughing with your mates as the
prisoner danced his last jig. Will they laugh at you I wonder? Point to your soiled britches and makecrude jokes as you gasp your last, and your mother pulls at her hair and wails.”
“It was Pitt. Solomon Pitt.” The words came through ragged, tearful breaths.
DePard smiled as he leaned back.
“And where would I find this Solomon Pitt?”

***

For the second time in as many days DePard and Clay found themselves standing in front of a burnt out building. This time it was the remains of an inn called The Phoenix. DeMarc joined them from where he’d been talking with an old man.
“Let me guess,” said DePard, “a tragic accident. No witnesses.”
“Actually plenty. The old man says there were about a dozen of them. They nailed the doors shut, doused the walls in oil and put torches to the place. Anyone who tried to leave caught a crossbow bolt for their efforts.” He indicated the charred remains of a figure draped through what was left of a window. “They were all masked though, of course.”
“Of course. Any survivors?”
“Not sure. The old geezer reckons he saw someone jump from an upstairs window into the canal, but he also says he caught at least a couple of quarrels. Roper’s leading a search along the banks to see if a body or trail turns up.”
“Good work. Let me know if he finds anything. And see if you can’t get a better description from the old man.
“Will do, Sarge.” DeMarc headed back toward the witness who was starting to slope away. “Oi, Grandad! I’m not finished with you yet.”
DePard turned back to Clay, “I’m hungry. Fancy a stottie?”

***

“I hear the good citizens hereabouts found you your arsonist.” Bokeem Clay said from behind his counter where he was pre-slicing a loaf – ‘For the widow Fens, you understand. She has trouble with her hands. Arthritis.’
“Seems we may have a copycat. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Phoenix.” Said DePard.
“A tragedy. One of the oldest inns in Stonelake. Well, the site is. If memory serves this is the third Phoenix to be built there. The original inn was called The Refuge, believe it or not; burnt down during the trout riots. Stood less than a year before taking a direct hit during the siege. The second incarnation lasted a whole decade before mysteriously burning down one night. Funny thing was the landlord’s wife just happened to be visiting her sick aunt that night, so only her notoriously unfaithful husband was killed.”
DePard actually laughed at that, surprising his protege.
“And now this. Maybe they should change the name.”
“Or find a new trade?” said DePard.
“Indeed. Something less prone to incident and accident.” Bokeem mused.
“Like baking?”
“Ah, but baking can be a hazardous profession,Sergeant; too many ways the unwary amateur can be burnt.” The baker juggled a hot loaf as if for emphasis.
“And quite a competitive business I would think.”
“Cut-throat.” He said with a smile as he drew the serrated blade of his bread knife through the loaf. “Was there a purpose to your visit, Sergeant? Or is this just a social call?”
“Oh, let’s call it a bit of both. I just thought that now we’ve become acquainted I’d keep you abreast of what’s going on. Think of it as a public service.”
“Well, as you now know, we’re a tight-knit community in the Warrens, Our Lando’ll tell you; so you needn’t have bothered.”
DePard smiled a grim smile. “It’s no bother. I’m quite happy to call in whenever I’m passing, which will be much more often from now on I think, due to all the recent trouble hereabouts.”
“Oh, I think that’s all blown over now, Sergeant. The arsonist is safely locked up in your very own cells, and his co-conspirators appear to have befallen a tragic, yet poetic fate at the hands of the very community they purported to have represented. I did try and tell you that the people round here prefer our own form of justice.”
“And I’m sure I don’t need tell you that I represent the law here. Me, your nephew here, and any other man wearing the White. Much as we appreciate the community’s assistance in the capture of Crispin Reeves, we’ll take a dim view of any vigilante actions. You break a law in my town, I take you down.”
The two men’s eyes were locked on each other.
“As a respected voice of the community you can spread the word at your next resident’s meeting.” DePard said.
Bokeem Clay held the sergeant’s gaze for a moment more before shifting his eyes to his nephew. The younger guard, didn’t flinch, causing his uncle to give a grudging shrug of respect.
“Until next time then.” He said indicating the door.
The two guards exited the bakery and slowly walked back to their barracks as a light snow began to fall from the grey sky.

Tonight I will do it

by Fatima

The air feels so nice blowing through my short, dirty-blond hair. It’s a little too cold for me to be out here tonight, but this is my usual routine. Tonight I will do it, I will not hold back this time I will jump. Tonight will be my last night to do this routine. As I grip the bar of the rail tighter, ready to let go, let go of all the disappointments, and the ways I can not change. I look up, and there is one star in the night sky. That same star that is there every night. The star that blinds me a little when I look back at the nothingness below me, black is all I see. That star that lets me know everything will be okay. I leap back over the rail, my bare feet touching the prickly grass on the other side. I put my dirty old chucks on and begin to walk home. When I turn back around to look at that one star that gives me faith, I see a dark figure with long hair blowing in the wind. She turns around and we meet eyes. I turn back around trying to avoid the thought of her seeing me. When I turn back around to see if she is still looking in my direction, she is gone. Was that a part of my imagination? Was I being followed by a ghost, or did that really happen? All these thoughts in my head confusing me, so I run. I run away from, my thoughts, my pain, even myself. I reach home, check the time, 2:54a.m. I crawl through my window. The note I wrote was sitting on my bed, I rip it up as soon as I get in. I slip out of my pink sundress I love so much and put on my pjs. Slide into bed and whisper, ‘happy birthday to me.’

Stranded 

By Barbara Tsipouras

 

I don’t know how I got here, nor where I am. Michael calls it vX1. What a strange name for a place. And when I asked where that is he said, “in my hometown.” But that can’t be. Apart from the landscape, nothing else reminds me of home. Perhaps this is the future. It must be the future.

Everything was nearly perfect when I met Michael. I guess that’s what they call ‘love at first sight’. I hadn’t believed this could ever happen to me. He looked into my eyes and I felt a shiver run down my spine and I knew immediately that he’s someone special. There was this connection between us I had never felt before. Michael was so gentle, so aware of my needs, listened carefully to whatever I had to say, understood my thoughts and feelings better than I did. I secretly planned our future together.

Until one day he told me he had to leave and he probably would never return. He told me that he loved me, but that we couldn’t stay together. He talked about his ‘mission’ – whatever that was; he never really explained – said he had to go home. He had got an urgent call. They needed him there. And I? Didn’t I need him? Wasn’t that important to him? I saw that he was hurting as much as I was. He couldn’t even promise to come back. I couldn’t let him go.

After hours of discussing and weeping and halfhearted explanations and more crying he finally said there was a way he could take me with him, but that would mean never to return. I’d have to leave everything behind and never look back. Could I do that? Yes, I could. He meant more than anything to me.

I can’t remember the trip. I just don’t know how I got here. When we arrived I felt dizzy, disoriented. At first I didn’t notice the difference. We seemingly still stood on the same beach, but when we came into town everything was different in a strange way.

Michael’s family welcomed me with open arms and everybody seemed to know who I was. They served us dinner, brown rice with vegetables, without fat, without spices. And only plain water to drink. The breakfast the next day was as tasteless as the dinner, some cereals with milk, but without sugar and no coffee, just herbal tea. When I asked for sugar they said they didn’t have any.

I wanted to call my parents to tell them that I’m with Michael and they don’t have to worry about me, but my battery was dead and nobody could lend me a charger. Nobody has ever seen a smartphone! But they communicate with their houses. They have flat screens on the walls, tell their house who they want to talk to and that’s it. They don’t need to go grocery shopping, they tell their fridge what they need and get it delivered. Life seems to be easier. And safer. There are no locks at the doors, they don’t bother to close the windows when they leave.

But it’s also boring. I wanted to go partying in a club, a pub or at least a cafe, but I was disappointed, no such things in this strange place.

I tried to watch the news to get an idea where I am and what’s going on, but they had only reports about other “dimensions” – what the hell is that? – no wars, no crimes, some politicians discussing issues I didn’t understand, only the weather forecast was somehow familiar.

As long as Michael was with me I was just happy to be with him. Everything else didn’t matter. But yesterday he went on his next ‘mission’. He didn’t answer my questions about where he would go, to do what exactly or when he will be back.

Why doesn’t he trust me? Why doesn’t anybody trust me? I get no answers to all my questions. Everybody is friendly but when I ask where I am, what this place is, if this is the future, if there’s a way back, they just change the subject.

I feel stranded in a place or time I don’t belong to. I’m lonely. Have I made the right decision? Is love enough? What if Michael won’t return?

It’s My Turn

by Barbara Tsipouras

It’s my turn now. I know it. But where to hide? Where to seek help? There’s nowhere I could possibly go and nobody who could possibly help me. It is too late now. I’m deeply involved. He’s here right beside me in my bed.

Two years I waited for him. Two years I missed him, was faithful, always visited, brought him whatever he wanted and when he finally was released I embraced him with all my love and was glad to see him full of energy, ready to re-start life.

I didn’t see how twisted and screwed he was, took him back into my house and my bed, had big dreams.

He hates to be famous for that damned video. Hates being famous for being pummelled. That video was the reason for his suffering in prison. All the abuse.

I thought he had overcome all that. It was over. Nobody recognizes him anymore. The video is long forgotten.

Until he told me.

At first I didn’t take him seriously, thought he was joking. But he was not.

Today I saw it in his eyes, the desire to be finally caught, to be found, to be famous of his own accord. He wants to go back, respected and feared.

Two months have passed. In the beginning he always came home filled with joy, satisfied that he did it again. Seeking approval he told me in detail, how he bought the knife and stuck it into the next old guy passing the street or went to buy a gun and shot the vendor. Or the poor girl he strangled in the park. He was so proud of all these random kills.

I did nothing to stop him. Nor did I leave. I thought it would stop, but it didn’t.

The police never came. Now there is no joy anymore, merely exhaustion. He’s tired, disillusioned.

Nobody besides me knows what he’s done.

His thirst for fame is unbroken. I saw it in his eyes. And I’ll be the victim to send him back to prison as a celebrity. That’s his aim. I’m the target.

Now, after aggressive and passionate sex, appropriate for the last time, he’s lying by my side. Drunk as usual, breathing hard and snoring.

Torn between love, fear and hatred I look at him.

He still has the chance to wake up.

But he won’t.

Good Luck Charm

by Alister Davison

The engine stops, and I savour one last breath of conditioned air, drawing it deep into my lungs as if it’s my last.

The way my luck is holding out, that may well be the case.

Got to admit, I thought I’d escaped. Getting to grips with a new routine hadn’t been easy, but it was worth the sweat and tears if it kept me away from prying eyes and meddling hands.

At least they were subtle about it. I’d just entered my apartment building, looking forward to getting started on the pile of books I’d taken from the library, when a figure stepped in front of me, blocking my way to the stairs.

I knew the procedure, it was one to which I’d bore witness many times. I placed the books on top of the mailboxes, turned around and put my hands behind my back. In silence, I was cuffed and gagged, a cloth bag placed over my head. It makes for an uncomfortable car journey, that’s for sure; my arms cramped an hour ago and my fingers have gone numb.

Still, at least I’m alive. For now.

Doors open – one, two, three – allowing stifling air to force itself inside. The car rocks as the other occupants get out. The two goons either side have been keeping me upright, so I fall to my left without their support, lying there like a fish long out of water.

It takes a couple of seconds for them to haul me out like a prize catch. I hit dirt, dusty and dry, the brightness of the day evident even through the hood.

It blinds me when they pull it off. Takes my eyes several seconds to adjust to the crystal blue sky, the Nevada sand crushed and compact, an equally dazzling reflection of the sun from up above. Sweat wicks from every pore, a combination of the oppressive heat and recognition of the brown wing tips a few feet from my face. The immaculate white spats that cover them are a startling contrast to my dusty Converse.

“Get him up.” The voice is soft, almost melodic, but the goons hurry to do as instructed, lifting me up by the armpits. I sway a little on my feet, which are the focus of my gaze as I try to orient myself, almost falling again as they remove the gag, cutting it with a switchblade that sparkles in the sunlight.

I work my jaw, up and down and side to side, but say nothing. There are moments when being discreet will keep a man alive; this is one of them. Instead, I stare down at my trainers.

The spats move closer, but the shadow stretches out to the side, as if it’s shying away from me. “Jimmy the Boy. We meet at last.”

Jimmy the Boy. I’m closing in on thirty and they’re still calling me that, as if I was the same punk kid that tried to pick Big Sal’s pocket all those years ago. Sal gave me a thick ear, then a home, followed by a life. Whenever I think of him, I wonder how he’d have felt about my running away.

I look up at the man who’s had me brought here. Immaculately dressed in designer suit, shirt and tie; even in this heat, there’s not a drop of sweat on him, as if he’s still in New York’s corridors of power. His only concession is a Stetson, which somehow shades his face in a way that makes his dark eyes seem to glow. He swipes a hand across the brim of the hat, cuff links glittering.

“You’ve taken some finding, which has incurred much expense, as well as some slight discomfort to yourself, but our employer deemed it necessary.” He leans closer, mint evident on his breath. “Now here you are.”

In the movies, right now is where the hero would say something cool. Me, it’s all I can do not to piss myself. I’ve heard of this man, who rose quickly in the organisation, graduating from henchman to right-hand in a few years. Guessing why I’ve been brought here, to the middle of nowhere, I look frantically for a shallow grave, but there’s no sign of anything except cooked, hard earth.

“We’re not here to kill you,” he says, as if he’s read my mind. “One more task, James, one that will truly free you from the Organisation, if that is what you wish.”

He reaches into his jacket, taking out two photographs. Only one is handed to me; a picture of a casino, façade covered in glittering lights.

“The Seers?”

Spats moves closer, arm over my shoulder like he’s my best friend. I don’t like contact at the best of times, so it’s an effort not to shrug him off. “I don’t know how you do what you do, son. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s some kind of Rain Man voodoo.”

“There’s a pattern in the cards,” I whisper as if I’m imparting a great secret. “Some see it everywhere, in everything, but with me it’s just the cards.”

“I’m only interested in the results.” He’s so close, that minty breath is sickening. “Let me show you this, just in case you’re not fully motivated.”

The second picture is that of a woman and a toddler, at play in a park. Sal’s niece and her son, five years old.

“Call it added incentive.” Spats steps away.

His words are unnecessary; implying the threat has always been enough. There are things words don’t have to say, whereas my acknowledgement will save lives. I may not have seen them for years, but still; family is family.

I look away, see my reflection in a goon’s mirrorshades. Unkempt, tired, not the man I used to be, nor the one I want to be. One last caper, then out. Always tempting – how many times have I told myself just one more? – but now there’s no choice.

“All right. What do you want me to do?”

***

Win. And win big.

That’s my only thought as I stand at the entrance to the Seers Casino. The building’s lit up like a gold Christmas tree, the dancing lights creating a discotheque reflection in my polished shoes.

I straighten my tie, roll my shoulders and shoot my cuffs as I take the deepest breath of my life. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m happy enough in these expensive clothes, wearing them like a knight would a suit of armour, but my lucky tooth and silver pen are back home, and the only routine I’ve been able to go through is the folding of the handkerchief in my jacket pocket.

Three times. First with a triangle of silk tongue poking from the pocket’s mouth. The second fluffs it out, so it blooms like a white rose against the deep navy (my lucky colour). Finally, I fold it square again, place it to form a white stripe across the top of the pocket.

There. I’m ready.

To win, as instructed. Win big, like nobody in the Seers ever has. The place prides itself that nobody’s ever hit the jackpot enough to do it any damage. It’s completely independent from any criminal control; no group takes a skim, no single person is paid to look in another direction from time to time. Clean, when there’s no such thing.

So, I tell myself, I must beat the unbeatable.

Here’s a new thought; if I don’t, people I care about will die.

That’s what’s on my mind as I step through huge sliding doors, catching the eye and the smile of a blonde in a golden bikini, a huge set of tail-feathers rising up behind her. She welcomes me to the Seers Casino; the lingering look we share makes it sound more than a customary greeting, but I’ve been fooled before.

Still, I must admit I can’t help liking what I see. Golden curls, eyes the colour of a summer sky, a brightness to them that puts the glitter and glitz of our surroundings to shame. If they’re truly the mirror to her soul, then I doubt it’s anything short of wonderful. Just as I’m feeling a mental connection, one that almost has me believing in love at first sight, a voice shatters the moment.

“Hey, Kitty! Kitty!”

Her smile slips for a fraction of a second. “It’s Katherine, dammit,” she mutters. Then, all is as before, bar the fat man in a tux with straining seams, shirt collar so tight it’s turning his round head into a purple grape. He’s a heart attack waiting to happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Katherine is wishing for right now.

She opens her mouth, but doesn’t get the chance to speak.

“What was I saying before? You can’t just stand there like a dummy. You’ve got to work it!” He sneers at me, the lascivious tilt of a time-served creep. “Am I right?”

I slip my hands in my pocket. “I was hoping this beautiful lady would accompany me to the tables. I could do with a good luck charm.” It’s no lie; being kidnapped has made this all a rush, my usual tokens foregone in favour of haste.

Katherine smirks, slipping her hand through the gap between my arm and my body. Her perfume is like a sweet narcotic, and her touch, far from unpleasant, sends a spark through me. I feel good, like I could take on the world, even turn around and walk out of here a pauper. With her at my side, I’d be satisfied.

If it wasn’t for the whole death-threat thing, maybe I’d ask her.

We walk between rows of fruit machines, their single arms raised high like worshippers praising the gods of excess. An old woman pumps coins into one of them, while an even older woman hits the jackpot, leaping out of her seat as if she’s been healed by a miracle worker, coins spewing out into a plastic cup.

Katherine leans close to be heard over the noise. “What’s your game?”

Unable to decide if she’s asking me why I’m here or what I’d like to play, I give her answers to both. “Blackjack. I’m here to beat the unbeatable.”

She smirks at this, but I sense humour rather than disdain in her voice. “How does a private table sound?”

“I’m in your capable hands.”

Katherine guides me to the table. The croupier is a man as thin as the cards he deals, his construction all joints and angles. His clothes are expensive, tailored to fit like a glove, which doesn’t do him any favours.

He watches me sit. There’s a wide grin on his face, but still I feel like I’m being interrogated, examined for any tell-tale signs or ticks. There’s a moment of pressure in my forehead, like a flash of toothache, and his grin slips, quickly replaced by a smile as he starts rattling off the house rules.

They’re the same in most of these places, and I know them by heart. Still, I listen, eyes closed to take in every nuance of his voice. Sometimes, it’s the way people talk that give them away as much as a raise of the eyebrow or a rub of the wrist.

“All right,” he announces, opening a fresh deck of cards. “Let’s play.”

***

I’m an hour in, a few thousand up, when I first see it.

Nothing more than a glance, an exchange for only a fraction of a second, but I kick myself for not noticing it sooner.

I’m being played. Hustled at my own game. How, I don’t know, but I suspect this beauty at my side has something to do with it. Too good to be true, and I fell for it. I don’t know who I’m annoyed with more, her or myself. People’s lives are depending on me, and I let myself get distracted by Miss Tailfeathers here.

“I need a break.” I slide out of my chair and stride away, leaving the two of them. Let them stay in cahoots; I can move on, play another game.

Except I’m already deep in this one. The patterns are forming, and I can guess which cards will be next out of the shoe. I can do this. I have to do this, or people will die.

My heart pounds against my ribcage harder than a wrongful arrest. I lean against the wall and close my eyes, but all I can see is Spats’s face in shadow under that hat, eyes aglow as if he’s the devil himself. For all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what he is.

“You need to clam down.” I recognise Katherine’s voice, and the sincere concern within. Opening my eyes, I see she’s handing me a glass of water. “Drink this.”

I take a sniff, making sure it’s not vodka, then pour it down my throat. It cools all the way down to my core, but that fireball of irritation refuses to be put out.

“We need to talk.”

“About what? How you and your friend are taking me for a ride?”

Katherine looks from side to side. I’ve learned to read people, and she’s panicking. Genuinely afraid. “Not here.”

She walks away, not looking over her shoulder to see if I’m following. I do, and we end up at an inconspicuous door with a small keypad above the lock. Katherine closes her eyes, then keys in five digits; a turn of the handle, a wiggle of feathers, and we’re in.

The room is small, the size of an elevator, lit by a panel that glows in the centre of the ceiling. It’s very much empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to descend into some underground lair.

“There’s something you need to know.”

***

If she didn’t look so sincere, I’d laugh. As it is, I summarise.

“So, you’re telling me the reason the Seers always wins is because it’s run by psychics.” Put like that, it sounds simple and rational. The rest of it, though… “And these psychics, you included, are from one of many parallel dimensions.”

Katherine rubs her forehead, eyes on me. “In a nutshell. That’s how I picked up on you, and your desperate need to win. You’re doing this for Sal; even though he’s gone, family is family, right?” She smiles now, and I swear the small room brightens. “Besides, there are some people in here who need to be taught a lesson.”

I’m disappointed. I’d thought, hoped, there’d be more to it than that. Despite my suspicions of betrayal, I still can’t help feel a certain attraction to her. I look down at my feet, saddened when I have no real right to be.

Her hand on my chin, that same frisson at her touch. She lifts, so I have no choice but to look into those summer sky eyes. “When this is all over, how about we stay together for a while, see how well we get along?”

I know how it works, that this could be an idea she’s planting inside my head like a seed, but I also know there’s more to it than that; Katherine is offering me a choice, not an ultimatum. Besides, it’s something I’ve been thinking of from the moment I clapped eyes on her.

I put my hand over hers, relishing the warmth of the contact. “Read my mind,” I say.

I’m expecting the mental equivalent of a burglar raking through drawers, but there’s no discomfort, barely any sensation at all other than a shiver up the spine, like you get when you’re being watched, only now it’s from the inside. She’s never been in here before, never manipulated me.

I push aside the relief to focus on the faith I have in her, myself, in anyone who’s willing to listen and help me save those who have been like a family to me when I deserved nothing. They had faith in me, all those years ago, and now it’s time to return the favour. What goes around comes around, a cycle of karma like the patterns I see when cards are being dealt.

Tears glisten in Katherine’s eyes. I swallow my own emotion; now that she’s not in my head anymore, there’s a void in there, one that didn’t exist until only a moment ago. It’s a mental impact that makes me sway, but she steadies me with her hands on my shoulders.

“It’ll pass.”

I almost don’t want it to, but I nod. “What do we have to do?”

Katherine smiles. “I’ve persuaded you to go back to the table. Given your outburst, you’ll be allowed to win. Not quite as big as you’d like, but big enough to be tempting when he says the three magic words.”

“He loves me?”

“No, but you will be screwed.” The smile becomes a grin. “That’s when I come in.”

***

Katherine was right. I’ve lost a few hands, but overall I’m doing well. Too well to be true, beyond even what I’d been expecting. To say I’m being hustled is an understatement; I’m close enough to a huge prize that I’ve attracted an audience of around a dozen, being willed on by each and every one.

Katherine remains at my side, thoughtful throughout. I catch her and the croupier exchanging looks now and again, but that’s to be expected.

Then, as if from out of nowhere, the croupier delivers the three words that could change my life.

“Double or nothing?”

My crowd ooh and aah, offering me conflicting advice at various volumes.

Have faith, I tell myself as I look at Katherine from the corner of my eye. I sit up, straighten my back, and smile.

“Let’s do it.”

***

The blue and white Mustang roared along the road, Vegas and that old life further behind with every passing second. Occasionally, the car swerved, riding the white line or the outer edge of the Tarmac that cut through the Nevada desert like an infected wound.

The driver looked in the mirror, wiping away the last of the make up with a tissue. She steered with her knees for a moment, placing a long dress over her shoulders and letting it shuck down to her waist. The bikini, she vowed, would be shed once she got to a motel.

Katherine saw the gleam of sun on metal a few minutes later. The Cadillac, exactly where James has said it would be.

Looking at the briefcase on the passenger seat, she felt a pang of regret. It faded as quickly as it had arrived; she’d done what she had to, and lies were inevitable. Such was life.

She slowed, pulling off the road so the trunk of the Mustang faced the other vehicle, drawing to a halt with a plume of dust. Ignition off, the car fell silent and the world felt bigger.

Katherine had predicted no trouble here, but it paid to be careful. Trust no one; that had been her mantra since coming to this Dimension in pursuit of a new life, one that was close around the corner.

No trouble, but it always paid to have a back up plan.

She picked up the case, along with a tyre iron she’d stowed under her seat, and opened the door. The day was a couple of hours old, so the heat was already bordering on the intense. Shoes on, she got out of the car, smoothing the dress down to her knees and cursing the high heels as she negotiated the lumpy terrain, coming to a halt at the back of the Mustang, placing the case on the trunk.

As the Cadillac’s doors swung open, Katherine let her makeshift weapon hang down, knocking it three times against the Mustang’s fender. The sound of metal on metal was reassuring, ringing out like a bell calling the faithful to prayer.

As she’d expected, the two goons came first. Men more muscle than brains, she knew they wouldn’t be the problem. No; any issues she was going to have would be with the owner of the legs that were now swinging out, spat-covered shoes planting themselves into the dust.

Their owner quickly followed, exiting the car in one fluid motion. He adjusted cuffs and tie as he approached, coming to a halt close enough so their conversation couldn’t be overheard.

“This is a surprise,” he said, lifting his head so the shadow of the hat slid from his face.

Katherine smiled as if she meant it. “It’s good to see you again, Monroe,” she lied.

No mental probe followed the untruth. Her former boss was being unusually respectful.

“You look well,” he said.

He did too, but there was no way she was going to be drawn in. Monroe was good – hell, he’d been one of the best until he’d Gone Native – and was well-versed in extracting information from even a brief conversation.

Katherine patted the briefcase, cutting to the chase. “This is what you want.”

“And Jimmy?”

That regret again, a weight on her shoulders, yet blessedly brief once more. “Do you care?”

Monroe lowered his chin, letting the shadow fall like a veil. He said nothing, but took a couple of steps forward, stretching out his arm. “I’ll take the money, Katherine.”

“I’ll need some guarantees first.”

He sighed, that of a teacher whose prize pupil has proved a disappointment. “Must we?”

“We must.”

“Very well. Take a look.”

Katherine met his gaze, pushing her ability into the void of his pupils, then further back into the mansion of his mind. There were many rooms, but Katherine knew exactly where to go. A door was opened and – in an instant – she saw it all.

The images flooded her mind, but she was adept at controlling them, sorting through them to pick out the most important. It was the reason the owners of the Seers had hired her, but now she was using the talent for herself, making it even easier to sift through and find the nuggets, the how and why of everything leading to this moment.

She saw the child, born a year after Monroe first came here almost three decades ago; the boy who had to be given away for fear he’d be killed or kidnapped by his father’s enemies; the ‘orphan’ who somehow made his way back into the fold – fate’s wheel spinning – although it would be another family that took care of him while his father looked on, knowing the truth could never be told; a young man with a gift who would make his father proud and, ultimately, make him play his own son as a pawn in his ambitious game.

Overwhelmed by it all, Katherine staggered, the tyre iron dropping to the ground. She would have fallen along with it if Monroe hadn’t taken hold of her arms, kept her upright. In that moment of weakness, she let her guard down, and a sliver of his own talent slipped through to dip into her mind. A brief invasion, but enough for him to ascertain the truth.

He could have killed her, right there and then, but all he did was laugh. “Clever girl. I’m pleased some of my lessons stayed with you. Who else knows?”

“Just you and I.”

He let her go, clapping his hands with obvious delight. “Bravo. Very well done, indeed.”

Katherine couldn’t believe it. “You’re pleased? After what I’ve done?”

“My dear, I’m pleased because of what you’ve done.” He leaned forward, whispering with minty breath. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy, but let me make a suggestion.”

He did so, and Katherine found a smile.

“Now, I’ll take what’s mine and be on my way.”

Katherine stepped aside, Monroe striding to the case and clicking it open. “Hmm,” he said, “never looks as much as it does in the movies, does it?”

“What will you do with it?”

“This will have done The Seers some damage, as predicted, and I’m sure they’ll be grateful of the added capital.” He grinned, teeth bright. “It’s a foot in the door, if nothing else.”

“And The Seers has been seen to lose. It’s possible to meet their challenge, so more will try.”

Monroe nodded, clicking the case closed. “It’s a shame to lose you, Katherine. I fear your previous employers wasted your talents somewhat.”

He moved to shake her hand, but the move was impossible due to the bundle of notes in it. “That should be enough to get you started.”

Stunned, she could only take the money and watch him walk away.

Monroe paused at the car door, looking at her over his shoulder. “Let’s be sure both our secrets stay hidden, eh?”

***

It took a few minutes for the Cadillac to drive out of sight, after which Katherine popped the trunk.

“We’re good?” James asked as he clambered out.

“Fifty grand good.” She offered him the bottle of water she’d taken from the glove box.

Katherine watched as he guzzled it all, letting some spill down his chin. Yes, she could see his father in him now, that same bright gleam in the eye.

“So where do we go from here?” he asked.

Katherine linked his arm in hers and they walked to the front of the Mustang. “We find a motel and get better acquainted,” she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “And after that… I’m told Monte Carlo is good this time of year.”

THE END

Cole

By Paul R. Green

The cut on his eye stung like a bastard as Otis rinsed away the blood and smeared Vaseline over it. “I told ya to watch his elbows” the corner man hissed as he threw the bloody sponge into the bucket and removed the ice-pack from Cole’s neck. His trainer’s words were clear to Cole, despite the incessant baying of the twenty thousand plus crowd outside the cage that had come to the Seers to see him take on Martinez. “Relax, coach, ain’t nothing coming between me and that title. Certainly not that preening cock” he snarled, eyes fixed on the wiry Latino currently stood atop his stool, arms held wide like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in his native Rio. He raised them up, flexing the muscles and whipping the crowd into a further frenzy. “You must admit he has a certain flair, though” the trainer conceded as the bell sounded for the fourth round. “Now go knock his punk ass into next week.”

***

Cole’s rise from a minor player in the Nevada leagues, fighting in clumsily welded cages for a hundred bucks a night to having a shot at the title could only be described as meteoric ; a term he’d never understood – didn’t meteors come crashing down?

Like most things in life in Cole’s experience, it had all come about thanks to dumb luck, or to be more accurate a dumb fuck, stupid enough to try and mug him outside the bus station in Parumph. Cole had been walking to his motel thinking of the steak he was going to order from the diner off of East Street, when the guy had sidled up alongside him, pulled a knife and demanded Cole’s wallet. Cole had stared at the knife for a few seconds, not exactly in shock, more out of disbelief; not comprehending why the guy had picked him when he had the choice of any number of potential victims, all of them less physically imposing than Cole’s six foot two, two hundred and forty pounds frame. He shifted his gaze to the man’s eyes. They were a rich hazel colour, though the whites were tinged with red as if the man had rubbed them recently – probably trying to keep the flop sweat that covered his forehead from blurring his vision. His hair was a short, mousy brown fuzz, as if just growing back in after being shaved to the scalp. That and the slightly too big clothes, all of them at least five years out of date, worn beneath a denim jacket that had seen better days and a crudely drawn skull tatt on the back of his hand suggested his would-be assailant wasn’t long out of prison.

Cole’s eyes quickly swept across his surroundings, the street was quiet but not deserted, though the nearest person to them was a good hundred yards away and oblivious to all but their destination and the music pumping through their oversized headphones. Cars passed, but no-one was really paying any attention to Cole and his mugger. Back from where he’s came he saw the bus pulling away from the station.

“Look, friend, walk away. You don’t want to do this” Cole said calmly, as he subconsciously flexed his fingers and shifted onto the balls of his feet. Apparently the man had wanted to though, and Cole had been forced to defend himself, neatly side-stepping the attack, blocking the clumsy lunge with the knife, and breaking the man’s arm in the process. The move that instinctively followed had caught the stumbling attacker across the back of the neck speeding his rendezvous with the sun-baked asphalt and leaving his assailant with a broken nose, a shattered jaw and three missing teeth.

And that could have been that if not for the girl on the bus who’d caught the whole thing on her phone. It had gone viral. Within a week he was competing in matches in Vegas, within a month he had an agent and had fought on both coasts. And now six months after ‘PUNK GETS PUMMELLED’ had took the internet by storm, Cole was back in Vegas – and this time he wasn’t just on the Strip, but sharing the bill with Hector ‘El Gallo’ Martinez at Seers Casino in a title fight with a purse worth a cool five mill.

***

“You think you can take me, Puto?” The words were sharp in his ear as Cole desperately struggled for air as Martinez pushed his face into the mesh of the cage. The champion was a lot stronger than his size suggested and coupled with his speed he’d caught Cole a sucker punch to the kidneys that had resulted in him being pinned to the cage as the crowd outside bayed for blood. And he was pinned. He’d exhausted all his options and knew his opponent had enough experience not to give him an opening. Not now. Not with the title so close.

Except?

What the hell? Martinez was switching his grip on Cole’s wrists where they were painfully held halfway up his back. This was it; time to man up and take the title, or go back to being paid peanuts to fight has-beens and wannabes in Fuknows, Nevada.

***

Cole groaned as he pulled himself out of bed, grimaced as he stood and the arthritis in his knees sent knives of fire screaming through his body. Five years at the top were beginning to take their toll; a fact confirmed as he stared back at his haggard reflection in the bathroom mirror as he took his first piss of the day. Maybe he should get a face-lift? Would that help or hinder his acting career? Probably hinder; action heroes were meant to be rugged. Maybe he should grow a moustache? But a proper one like Charles Bronson or Warren Oates. He had a few weeks before he started shooting his next picture; he’d start today.

He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a T-shirt and headed downstairs, instructing Maria, his cook, that he’d take breakfast by the pool this morning as he grabbed a mug of coffee and stepped into the California sun. He paused at the door, letting his eyes adjust to the glare, and smiled as he watched Rachel glide through the crystal clear water as she carried out her morning ritual of fifty lengths before breakfast.

***

Cole stared at the leaves floating on the pool’s murky surface, wondering if he should take the deal. He hadn’t fought in over three years – a long time in the MMA game – and, if he was honest with himself, wasn’t sure if he was in good enough shape to defend his title. He’d managed to avoid it so far thanks to his agents and management team, who used his Hollywood status and shooting schedules to sidestep any challenges, but his last couple of films had thanked and the same people who had been so keen to help were now worrying about where their next slice of Cole Tanner pie was coming from. Still, if he won, it could just be the boost his career needed. That and the five million fee, regardless of whether he won or lost, meant that deep down he already knew the answer.

***

Cole roared his contempt for his opponent as he slammed his forearm across his chest, sending the punk crashing to the floor. He quickly followed up by dropping onto him, leading with an elbow to the gut that forced the air from his lungs in a violent, spittle-flecked gasp. Whilst the challenger was still recovering, Cole flipped him onto his stomach and locked his arms behind his back. The crowd were going frantic. They were chanting his name. This was it. The match was almost his. All he needed to do was hang on for ten more seconds. Ten short seconds.

Not that short. Not short enough. Maybe he should just switch to a more secure group? Yeah, the more he thought about it, the more changing his grip seemed like a good idea.

Cole eased off for a second… Continue reading