Digits – a #FlashFriday story

Lies - High ResolutionVictor watched his master getting into the car, observed his five-fingered hands about this daily task. Twisting keys in the lock. Lifting the handle. Spreading for balance as he leant across the seat. Flicking delicately across the buttons of the stereo and tapping a rhythm to echo the music. Finally they gripped the wheel as the black Mercedes crunched off down the gravel drive.

Victor looked down at his own hands. Two wide, metal digits faced each other across a motorised palm, padded in case he clenched too tight. A hand to grip and prod. Open and closed, nothing more. A binary hand for a servant of silicon and tin.

Victor rolled into the kitchen, rubber tracks silent on the polished floor. He carried plates and mugs to the dishwasher, gripping and releasing each in turn, then prodded a button. As the machine rattled mindlessly into action Victor fetched the vacuum from a cupboard, pressing the on switch and gripping the nozzle as he dragged it around the floor, chasing down dust. Later he carried his mistress’s shopping in from the car, a long succession of plastic bags gripped and released safely back in the house.

Left alone in the late afternoon, he went to the breakfast table and reached out toward a slender vase of roses. Twin fingers spread wide, then closed gently around the bottom of the vase.

Grip.

Release.

Grip.

Release.

Lift, and turn so slightly, holding the delicate tube up to the light as he had seen his master do.

The vase swung down between his two flat fingers, petals and water cascading across the table.

*

At night, Victor plugged into the security system, overseeing the house through its hidden cameras. In the bedroom his master and mistress slept with hands entwined, fingers meshed.

The master enjoyed coin tricks. Victor replayed a memory, watching a circle of copper dance across those hands, fingers twitching and turning, making the metal flit back and forth, dart into the air and disappear, only to reappear between two outstretched digits. Five such delicate, flexible instruments – what joy to be human.

Victor wanted to see the fingers up close. He unplugged himself from the security net and quietly rolled down the corridor. Gripping the handle, he pushed open the bedroom door and approached the humans as they slept.

His mistress turned in the moonlight, fingers stretching out and running through the sheets, pulling them tight. Victor leaned forward, reaching out, trying to sense what each finger was doing, how such a marvel worked. The master shifted, disturbed by the mistress’s movement. Eyes opened slightly, then widened, staring up at Victor with an expression the robot had never seen before.

*

After de-bugging, Victor was sold to a shop. He gripped and released, fetching and carrying all day. When the till opened he would turn away, unable to look at the change being counted, unable to understand why.

 

*

‘Digits’ was first published in Carillon in 2007. It’s also one of the stories in my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, still free on the Kindle until Sunday.

Day Labour – a #FlashFriday story

Lies - High ResolutionThe snapper leaves looked like giant green tacos hanging from the vine, folding and unfolding in a languid breeze. All the plants were bigger on these low gravity worlds. You could have slept wrapped in a leaf.

‘Cut ‘em off at the stem,’ Dwight said, pointing at the fruit, each berry a bright globe a foot across. They looked as appetising as the toxic dirt from which they grew, blue fruit on an orange planet, a bright place that burned the eyes. ‘One in five of y’all pushes the trolleys, the rest fill ‘em with fruit. Full trolleys get emptied into the hopper. When the second hopper’s full y’all can have a rest and some water.’

Dwight’s eyes screwed up in something that fell short of cunning. ‘I catch any of you greasers slacking, you can forget about gettin’ paid.’

He handed out the tools, hooked knives blunt from long use and barrows with wheels that wobbled and stuck. No-one stopped to fix them. We knew that trap. You spent half an hour sharpening blades or tightening screws, then the farmer said that wasn’t what they hired you for. They got better tools, and you lost half an hour’s pay. Even at three bucks an hour, that wasn’t something our band of travelling labourers could afford. We’d traded our blankets for food in the spring, pushed past endurance by lean bellies and screaming children. Now winter was coming, soon the work would dry up, and we needed warmth and dried beans to see us through.

We set to work. The vines had sharp ridges and even my calloused palms were soon scraped raw from pushing them aside to reach the fruit. No matter which way I approached, one of those big damn leaves would flop down in my way, forcing me to move them. I asked Dwight if we could cut down the leaves. He snorted.

‘Damn plants are worth more than your planet-drifting ass. Don’t you cut shit without I say so, or you’ll be sorry.’

As the day wore on the leaves opened wider, unfurling soft pink tendrils and spines like long, dripping needles. We all tried to keep away from them, but after a lunch of grass-seed tacos and cheap re-pork we were sent into the heart of the snapper field, where the biggest fruits lay.

‘An’ there’s a bonus for the best fruit,’ Dwight declared with unconvincing bonhomie. How he’d judge who got the best I didn’t know. Probably the girl with the best tits and most compliant smile. But it got everyone going again, hooked knives flashing in the shadows beneath the stalks.

The leaves were real close now. They seemed to be sinking as they spread, forming a veined green wall all around us, until there was no way out of the field without pushing them aside. It was a relief to be sheltered from the sweltering sun, but the rustle of the creeping green made my hair stand on end.

I heard a sound like a branch snapping and a muffled scream. Spinning around, I saw little Evo’s trolley standing deserted. Next to it was a leaf, folded over on itself with lumps and bumps wriggling inside it. I ran. I could hear Evo’s indistinct cries of alarm as he tried to struggle out of the leaf. Blood dripped from its tip, then stopped as the plant closed up tight.

I raised my knife and tried to cut the leaf open, but I couldn’t get the cutting edge inside the hook against the broad surface of the leaf, and the tip was too blunt to break through the membrane.

Others came running as I yelled. Chiquita, her mind as sharp as her features, instantly took in what had happened. She turned and ran for help, but a leaf snapped shut around her as she brushed past.

The snap of closing leaves and screams of their victims rose all around me as the others rushed to help or fled for safety. The full leaves rose through the canopy, swollen green bodies swaying against the cloudless sky.

My heart was pounding. I wanted to run, to scream, but I forced myself to stay calm. I flattened against the ground and crawled between the stems, dodging the tendrils that curled out of the leaves, licking the ground as they searched for food. Whenever one came near I froze, hardly daring to breath in case I caught its attention. It was a couple hundred yards to the edge of the field, but getting there took the longest half hour of my life. Bad as it was hearing my friends’ screams, worse still was the gurgling that followed, as they disolved in the snappers’ digestive juices.

Dwight stood beyond the edge of the field, smoking a cheap cigarette and grinning to himself, a shotgun slung over his shoulder as he watched his crops getting fed. He didn’t see me crawl out from among the roots, covered as I was in dust. He didn’t even think to look for escapees, had clearly seen this a dozen times before and knew there was way out.

He knew wrong.

I crept around behind him, my footfalls masked by the horrible gurgling, a curved knife still in my hand. I grabbed his hair, yanked his head back and, in the moment before he could react, hooked the knife round his throat. It might have been blunt, but I was strong with anger and it was sharp enough for the job. I harvested one final fruit.

I found a lighter in Dwight’s pocket and an oil drum around back of his trailer. When I’d finished with them I ran, not looking back until dusk. When I finally turned I saw flames filling the snapper field, bright orange as the toxic ground. Burning as fiercely as my grief.

 

*

‘Day Labour’ was first published in AlienSkin back in 2010. It’s also one of the stories in my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, coming out on Monday – you can pre-order it for the Kindle now.

*

NaNoWriMo update:

I’m writing this at 5.30om on Thursday, when I haven’t done my daily NaNo writing yet, but I’m pretty confident I will. I’m still a couple of days behind, but work is more under control and currently involves a couple of editing days, leaving my writing brain free for City of Blood and Steam, my NaNo novel. So maybe now’s the time to catch up.

It looks like I won’t be hitting the monstrous 200k writing all in that this month threatened. Editing days mean I won’t be writing quite so much on the freelance project, and I recycled an old story for today’s blog post. Still, we’re looking at over 150k in 30 days, including my 50k of NaNo, and I’m pretty much on track for that.

Love That Never Lived – a Flash Friday story

Around three in the morning Bradley realised that the grief was too much for him. A shape had appeared on the hospital bed, curled up beside Jen in the soft light from the bedside lamp. A baby, as small and wrinkled and perfect as he had always imagined, curled up in a white blanket. A hallucination taunting his sleepless brain.

The infant opened its eyes, peered around with the unfocused gaze of a new-born. Bradley wanted to reach out and take it in his arms, to hold it safe and close.

‘You’re not real,’ he whispered. Jen wouldn’t hear him, she was too wiped out by morphine and blood loss, but the louder he spoke the more real this would be. ‘We lost you.’

The words struck him as hard as the blood that had trickled down Jen’s leg, the look of horror on her face as they sped through the dusk shrouded streets to the hospital.

The baby lifted a hand, reaching out towards Bradley. Already it had grown, face filling out, eyes widening to stare across Jen towards him. It still looked only a few months old, but he could see that it had Jen’s eyes.

It? She. The baby was a girl.

Bradley shrank back into his chair, pulling away from the bedside. A nurse looked in through the window, smiled sadly at him and moved on. But behind her a little old lady peered in, smiled and waved at the baby.

‘You can’t be real,’ Bradly whispered, but he reached out across Jen, lifted the baby up in his arms. She was just like he had imagined her, and yet so much more. That smile, those eyes, the tiny fingers curling around his own.

The breath caught in Bradley’s throat. He felt as if he were choking on the enormity of loss.

‘I can’t…’ he whispered. ‘I can’t hold you. You aren’t real.’

Tears poured down his cheeks. His whole body shook to the rhythm of his sorrow.

‘I miss you,’ he said. ‘I never met you but I miss you. How does that happen? How do you love someone who never got to live?’

‘Bradley?’

He looked up at the murmur of his name. Jen’s eyes were open, tears in them too. He made to lift the baby up for her to see, but the little girl was gone. Instead he went to the bed, lay down beside Jen and let the tears flow.

They left the hospital the next afternoon, Jen pale but well enough to go home. As the doors slid open Bradley saw another figure beside them, a little girl wobbling along with a toddler’s rambling gait, unseen and ignored by the staff and patients around them.

All except one old lady in a wheelchair who waved at the girl, then looked up at Bradley with a smile. He stopped, knelt down to speak with her.

‘Does the sorrow ever leave you?’ he asked.

‘No dear,’ the woman said, patting his hand. ‘But neither does the love.’

 

*

 

A miscarriage is a hideous thing to deal with. I’ve written about it in this story in part to deal with my own experience from a few years back, but not everybody can process it that way. So just in case anyone reading this is struggling to cope following a miscarriage, here’s a link to the The Miscarriage Association, who provide support in the UK. Far more people have to deal with this than you think. You are never alone.

*

NaNoWriMo update:

It feels almost unbearably casual to follow that one up with something unrelated, but life is what it is, even the parts that nearly break us. Yesterday took me to 10,264 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, keeping me on target. I may have to let it slide a little over the next few days as I catch up freelance writing – we’ll see.

Stay With Me – a Flash Friday story

7953444098_b59d5abce7_zElena Dubrass sipped her tea and stared across the plantation. From here on the porch she could see fields of snappers, their verdant heads bobbing to catch the frogs that occasionally hopped across their roots, while grey-faced gilgar labourers worked their way along the lines, draining the sap.

A cloud was appearing over the jungle, like a wave creeping up a beach.

She heard their butler Stiviss approaching. He had an eery elegance, his scales glistening above an impeccable tailcoat. And though his features were ill-suited to smiling, there was a warmth in his voice that she seldom heard from Harald, whose long absences were not what she had hoped for in a husband.

‘If I may, mistress.’ He placed the cake stand on the table. ‘You might wish to join Mister Dubrass in town.’

He looked as happy as she felt at the prospect of her going to Harald. This life must be lonely for Stiviss too, separated from his kin by a higher station.

She leaned back in her chair, layered skirts rustling. There was a lonely beauty to this place, with its scarlet frogs and its hungry plants, its snake-faced natives and its golden sunsets.

‘Why go to town?’ she asked, taking a honey wafer. He had been harping on this issue for days.

‘The frogs.’ He held her gaze a moment, then turned abruptly away. ‘There are few left, and they are turning brown early – an ill sign.’

‘Nonsense.’ She would rather stay here with Stiviss than be chased by superstition towards Harald.

A cry rose from the plantation, and then another. Gilgar were running out of the fields and into the jungle. Elena stared the way they had come, towards the dark shape she had taken for a cloud. She could hear the buzz of razor locusts descending to devour the snappers. She had witnessed small swarms before, felt a thrill of fear as she shuttered the house against them, but never so many, and never so fierce.

‘Mistress, the balance has tipped,’ Stiviss said. ‘They will devour us all.’

She gazed enraptured at the approaching swarm. She had known this place was beautiful, but outside of the jungle it had felt safe. Now it was a dark thing that made her heart race.

‘Into the house,’ she said, pulling herself away from the sight.

Stiviss shook his head and pointed at the mansion’s upper floors. Already locusts were swarming across one corner of the roof. A window cracked and then shattered beneath the weight of the swarm, a shutter falling free with a crack of flying nails.

‘You were right, Stiviss,’ she said. ‘We must go into town.’

She began to hurry round the house, realised that he was not following. She turned and saw him standing, gaze shifting between her and the jungle, face full of doubt.

‘Come on,’ she said, grabbing his hand. ‘If I’m losing this place then I can’t lose you too.’

His hand tightened round hers and they ran for the barn.

The buggy was out and they leapt aboard as the bulk of the swarm reached the fields. Jasmine, the old brown mare, snorted in panic as the buzzing grew.

Stiviss helped Elena up, those ridiculous skirts getting in her way. She cracked the reins and they jolted off down the dirt track, stray razor locusts slashing at them with sharp, narrow legs.

Jasmine raced with all the fuel of fear, but the swarm was faster. Elena felt them slashing at her arms, saw blood run pale down Stiviss’s face. The creatures seemed to have more taste for him, and for Jasmine, whose flanks were soon raw and seeping. The horse stumbled and fell, the buggy grinding to a halt as she panted out her last.

‘Quickly!’ Elena leapt in terror from the carriage, began running up the road. Behind her, Stiviss slid to the ground with a thump and lay groaning in the dirt.

She ran back, winged bodies battering her face, and put an arm around him.

‘Stay with me,’ she said. ‘We have to get to town.’

‘This is just a warning.’ He shook his head. ‘Just the beginning. Too many snappers, eating all the frogs. Nothing left to eat locust eggs. The balance has tipped. The jungle will devour your fine colony.’

‘And you?’ she asked with growing horror.

‘My people will be safe,’ he said. ‘We are part of the jungle.’

‘But you… this…’ She gestured at his wounds, then at the buzzing swarm.

His wheezing laugh turned into a wince.

She stared in horror at the ruin of the buggy, at the red mess that had been her fine horse, at the pain across Stiviss’s face. And then she looked at the jungle, the swarm thinner near its foliage. A place full of beauty and terror, full of the unknown. Could it be safe? Could she ever become one with that?

She should run for town, flee all of this with Harald. But what if she took a risk, for all that beauty?

And for Stiviss.

She lifted him in her arms, struggling under the weight and her own pain. She had never had to carry a person before, but between his kindly face and the locusts’ assault she somehow found the strength.

‘Stay with me,’ she said as she ran from the road, locusts slashing her all the way.

‘Stay with me,’ she groaned as she stumbled into the trees, the creatures still buzzing around her head.

‘Stay with me,’ she murmured as she collapsed into the undergrowth.

Now the swarm no longer reached her, held off by the thick greenery and the easier prey that small birds made.

She turned her head, saw Stiviss smiling back at her. The jungle was lush around them, frogs croaking, birds singing, the scent of sweet, strange flowers on every breath. And through the pain, through the buzz of the swarm vanishing into the distance, she felt freedom.

 

*

If you liked this story then you can find links to the rest of my Flash Friday stories here. You might also enjoy my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus. And check out the #FlashFriday tag on twitter, which seems to get used for a bunch of things, including other authors posting their flash stories.

Tomorrow sees the beginning of NaNoWriMo, in which I descend into the pits of madness trying to keep on top of my own word count as well as my freelance writing work. If you’re also doing NaNo you can find me on the website as gibbondemon, feel free to add me as a buddy and we can egg each other on through the insanity.

 

Picture by tvnewsbadge via Flickr Creative Commons.

A Pinch of Sorrow – a Flash Friday story

The funeral left Steve feeling hollow. Not grief stricken and lonely like his father. Not laughing at happy memories like his mother had wanted. Just empty, like his heart had been eaten away by her cancer. He longed to cry or laugh or do anything that made this feel real, that made it seem like this moment would pass. But there was nothing.

As soon as he could he ducked out of the church hall, past the trays of limp sandwiches and his cousins smoking by the door. He nodded acceptance of their condolences, climbed into his four-by-four and drove.

He travelled in silence. No radio. No CDs. Just the rumble of the engine. He wasn’t going to the office – his mother had always said he spent too much time there. And he couldn’t face his own house, still half-empty a year after Jen left.

Instead he found himself in front of his parents’ house. He parked and walked inside on autopilot, found himself standing in the kitchen, kettle in hand, halfway through making a cup of tea he didn’t want. His eyes were caught by the cookery books beneath the window. The largest and most battered was an old hardback notebook, the one his mother had inherited from his grandmother and that she had kept adding to over the years. The one she had said should be passed down to him.

He pulled out the notebook, fingered its brown-edged pages that smelled of flour and spices, hoping it might stir up his feelings. The recipes were full of his mother’s little jokes.

‘Add a teaspoon of joy.’

‘Mix with two measures of love.’

‘Just a pinch of sorrow.’

But though every recipe contained an emotion, still nothing stirred in Steve’s heart.

He stopped at a fruit cake, one she had made every Easter. She only went to church at Christmas, but something about Easter had mattered to her. When he left home Steve had copied out that recipe so that he wouldn’t miss his mother’s Easter cake. Though it never tasted quite right it was a reminder of her love.

He needed that reminder now.

7128243591_c9ec9bb338_zHe rummaged through the cupboards for sultanas and flour, beat eggs, stirred it all together.

But the dough still didn’t taste right.

He ran down the ingredients again. One line caught his eye.

‘A pinch of sorrow.’

She had always treated those parts so seriously, and he had always ignored them as a strange little joke. But today of all days he wanted to respect her. So he felt inside himself, found the small pinch of sorrow that was all he could feel, and imagined adding it to the mix as he stirred.

Still nothing. He knew it even before he dipped his finger in the thick batter. The whole thing was just another hollow gesture, like the party at the church, like watching her coffin go into the ground.

He suddenly felt foolish, stood here with a bowl of cake mix when he should be mourning. Why couldn’t he even cry?

Filled with frustration he flung the bowl at the wall. It shattered, spattering the paintwork with sticky blobs, shards of glass tumbling to the floor. He sank down onto cold tiles, staring at the mess.

As if released from the ruins of the bowl, a memory came back to him. Squatting on this same floor when he was young, made to sit quietly after fighting with his sister, he had watched every movement his mother made. As his own anger passed he somehow knew that, even when she told him off, his mother still loved him. He watched her as she made that cake. Weighing out sugar, sifting flour, adding raisins. Even the gesture she had made when she came to the pinch of sorrow, like twisting a dial in the air. The same sign his grandma made for good luck or to curse the neighbour’s cat.

He hadn’t thought of that movement in years, but something stirred inside him. Perhaps it was the memory of his mother’s smile. Perhaps it was the way that cat had disappeared, or his grandma’s runs of luck on the bingo. It might just be superstition and desperation, but today the little things mattered.

Steve took a fresh bowl from the cupboard, set to making the cake once more. Weighing, sifting, stirring.

When he came to that instruction, ‘Add a pinch of sorrow’, he twisted the air in that old gesture and thought of what he had lost. Of his mother growing frail in a hospice bed, her flesh fading with her spirit, but the light still bright in her eyes.

Sorrow sprinkled from his fingers, glittering as it fell through a shaft of sunlight and settled in the bowl. With a sense of wonder Steve stirred it in, then dipped his finger and tasted the mix.

He trembled at the perfection of its flavour. Tears poured down his cheeks as grief shook him, grief and gratitude for the woman who had brought him into the world, who had raised him for all those years, and who had left one last lesson in her parting.

Steve tasted sorrow, and knew it would pass.

* * *

 

For more Flash Friday fiction, as instigated by Lisa Walker England, check out the #FlashFriday hashtag over on Twitter, or read some of my previous efforts.

If you liked this story then you might also enjoy my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available now on Amazon and Smashwords and only 99c until the end of this weekend.

 

Picture by Michelle Schrank via Flickr Creative Commons.

Swallowing Lies – a Flash Friday story

‘Lying is an art,’ Falling Leaf said, pouring from the small earthenware teapot. ‘I do not go to such lengths for those I despise.’

Aoandon’s clawed blue fingers reached across the low table and closed around her teacup. Her lips parted, revealing a flash of teeth as sharp as her horns. Falling Leaf shuddered and fought down the instinct to flee. After all the pains and preparations to reach this point, she could not give up now.

‘Lying is as much my realm as any other story,’ Aoandon said. ‘It would help you little today.’

Falling Leaf straightened the folds of her second best kimono.

‘Is something wrong with the tea?’ she asked, noticing that the oni had not yet taken a drink.

‘Lying is one thing,’ Aoandon said. ‘Poisoning another. A matriarch will do much to rid her village of a menace.’

Falling Leaf inclined her head.

‘You are wise,’ she said. ‘My tea is just the same as yours.’

6122637004_a4aa714592_zShe took a sip from her own small cup. This was the finest tea she had, the freshest young leaves from the tip of the bush, harvested and dried under moonlight. But today even this tasted bitter.

She drained her cup and poured another. The oni smiled, drank, and held her cup out for another serving.

‘What does it benefit you to haunt us?’ Falling Leaf asked. ‘To traumatise children, frighten old people to death, make men so scared that they will not go into the fields for the harvest?’

Aoandon smiled. In any other face that smile would have been a thing of grace and beauty, but it sent a shiver through Falling Leaf.

‘Your people’s fear is to me as rice or fish or fine tea,’ Aoandon said. ‘It sustains me. It invigorates me. It makes my life worthwhile.’

‘You lived in the shadows for so long,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘Showing yourself in only in the moments after ghost stories had ended, feeding off the fear of those moments. Is that not enough?’

‘Barely.’ Aoandon held out her empty cup again. ‘And one can never have too much. Your people told so many stories, so many lies, I no longer needed to hide from the light. Would you stay in others’ shadows, given the choice?’

‘I raised seven children.’ Falling Leaf filled her own cup too, enjoyed the soft scent of the steam. ‘One of them is head man, as his father was before him.’

‘Half truths are still truths, but I am the devourer of stories, I see through the gaps. You are trapped, just as you have always been. You come here reluctantly, the village’s pet story teller sent to bargain with a demon. But all you really want is out. Please, deny any of it – I will know if you are lying.’

Falling Leaf looked down at her own trembling hands. The creature knew her better than her husband had, better than her children did, better than she had even known herself for many years. All that time forcing herself to be good and diligent, until it was too late to follow the craving for freedom she finally recognised. Until she was as scared of her own broken heart as of the oni that plagued her people.

She looked up, tears running from her eyes.

‘This is good tea,’ Aoandon said, reaching out and pouring for herself. ‘But you cannot have hoped to persuade me with just tea. So tell me, why should I seek out the life that you yourself cannot accept? What words can possibly persuade me?’

‘None,’ Falling Leaf whispered.

‘And what lies could possibly trick me?’

‘None.’

‘So you see, I am going nowhere.’ Aoandon tilted back her head, raised the teapot and poured its contents straight down her throat. The finest tea in the village, gone in five long gulps. She slammed it down on the table so hard that the pot cracked. ‘Delicious.’

With a click and a small thud the teapot fell in two, spilling damp green leaves onto the pale wood of the table. Tiny black berries stood out amidst the debris. Aoandon stared at them, her face crumpling in outrage and then fear.

‘The fruit of the drifting tree,’ Falling Leaf said. The trembling had spread to her whole body now. ‘I traded my best kimono for them.’

‘These will kill me,’ Aoandon said. She jerked to her feet, staggered and fell shaking to one knee. Her terror finally made that blue face beautiful. ‘But you… It will kill you too.’

‘Yes.’ The tears had turned to blood now, and Falling Leaf’s vision was fading.

‘Your people asked you to do this?’ Aoandon’s words were turning into a rasping wheeze. ‘Yet you would die for them?’

‘They did not ask me,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘They never would.’ The world was black now. She lay down. The floor was soft and warm. ‘I told them I had come to make peace.’

 

* * *

This story is part of Flash Friday, as started by Lisa Walker England. It was inspired by a writing prompt suggested by Paige Reiring, and I learned about the antagonist from this cool post.

If you liked this story then you might also enjoy my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available now on Amazon and Smashwords.

 

Picture by David Offf via Flickr Creative Commons.

Flash Friday: Secret Sinners

14968393110_7ef3c0a697_zDetective Shadowvalt flicked his tail restlessly from side to side, his trench-coat flapping with it. Coming into churches always gave him the creeps – too many items that could be used to hurt or to banish him. And old churches like this, their grey stones soaked in a thousand years of faith and desperation, they were the worst.

Its secret sanctification to Hell only just took off the edge.

He ground his cigarette out beneath his hoof, was amused to see a look of outrage cross the face of the Reverend Green’s husband. What sort of person suffered such a petty feeling when his wife was freshly dead in front of him? Or wore a brown jumper and slacks, for that matter? Sometimes humans were just too funny.

Shadowvalt peered down at the body in its priestly vestments. Bullet hole in one temple. Brains spattered across the pews. Gun in hand. Could it really be that simple?

‘Um, excuse me?’ The grey-haired lady was Mrs Welby, the head of the local Women’s Institute. Apart from the Reverend and Mr Green she was the only person on church grounds when the death took place. She was apparently fighting down fear in favour of an old-fashioned calm. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Hell takes care of its own.’ Shadowvalt glanced at both humans. Neither seemed shocked at his claiming a shared allegiance with the late Reverend Green.

‘Like gangsters take care of their own?’ Mr Green’s voice was hollow, broken.

‘Sometimes.’ Shadowvalt lit another cigarette, waved PC Griddlenotch in from the back of the church. ‘Let’s deal with the obvious possibility first.’

Griddlenotch had a sniffer imp on a chain, the little creature’s skin shifting from green to a sickly brown as he led it down the aisle. The constable stood picking one of his noses while the imp sniffed around the body, its skin changing once more, this time to a glaring yellow.

‘That means it smells fear,’ Griddlenotch said, yanking the imp back as it starting gnawing on the corpse’s ear.

‘Not depression?’ Shadowvalt asked.

‘Depression’s more a sort of blue-grey.’

‘Not suicide then.’ Shadowvalt wasn’t surprised. Handguns weren’t easy to come by in middle England. There were far easier ways out.

He turned to Mrs Welby.

‘What were you doing on church grounds at ten at night?’ He leaned forward, deliberately exuding a cloud of sulphur to keep her off guard.

‘Flower arranging,’ the old lady replied. ‘For the Harvest Festival.’

Shadowvalt nodded towards the half-assembled arrangement on the pew beside her. It was riddled with poisonous berries, bound in tangles of Japanese knotweed.

‘That’s a dark sort of arrangement,’ he said. ‘Only an expert flower arranger could pick them so well.’

‘Thank you dear.’ Mrs Welby smiled.

‘And only a minion of my dark master would make those choices.’ Shadowvalt watched her face fall before continuing. ‘How senior were you in the local cult? Second in line? Making you the leader now, I suppose.’

‘Please.’ Mrs Welby fell to her knees, hands held out in front of her. ‘You’re right. Take me. Take me away to Hell to face our dark master.’

Shadowvalt took a deep breath. If there was one thing he hated more than a sycophant it was a stupid sycophant.

‘You do know that the fate of His loyal minions is different from that of murderers sent to the Pit?’ he asked. ‘Some people operate the racks, others are strapped to them.’

‘Oh!’ Mrs Welby smoothed down her floral print dress, eased herself arthritically back into her seat. ‘Then it wasn’t me. I was in the vestry, making offerings of blood. You can ask by demonic supervisor.’

Shadowvalt turned to Mr Green. He was staring in despair at his wife’s corpse, his face pale, hands trembling. Unlike Mrs Welby, who now seemed fascinated by the bloody sight, he was clearly in shock.

‘How long have you known that your wife was a Satanist?’ Shadowvalt asked.

There was a pause while Green realised that someone was talking to him and then looked up, blinking as he processed the question.

‘Since yesterday,’ he said at last.

‘It’s still sinking in?’

Green nodded.

‘You believed didn’t you Mr Green?’ Shadowalt asked. ‘In what she preached publicly, the Christianity she claimed to hold dear?’

Green nodded again.

‘How did it feel, knowing that her heart belonged to someone else?’ Shadowvalt leaned in closer, staring into the man’s eyes.

‘I could cope,’ Green said, tears running down his cheeks. ‘When I thought that she loved God more than me, I could live with that. But this… Him… You…’

His face turned from sorrow to rage. He jerked to his feet, glaring at Shadowvalt.

‘This is sick! This is wrong! This is not the woman I loved!’

‘So you argued, and then…’

‘Yes!’ Green practically spat the word. ‘She betrayed me. She betrayed him. And so I… So I…’

He looked down at his dead wife. Sorrow once more crumpled his face.

‘Oh God, I killed her.’

He sank back into his seat, sobbing like a child.

Shadowvalt had his answer. He turned and walked off up the aisle.

‘Wait!’ Mrs Welby called out after him. ‘Aren’t you going to arrest him?’

‘A Christian kills his secret Satanist wife, in a church, with a weapon of modern secular industry?’ Shadowvalt laughed bitterly. ‘This one will be a complete jurisdictional mess. I’m leaving it to the locals.’

He lit a cigarette and, with a huge sigh of relief, stepped out of the church and into the night.

 

* * *

Demon Detective Shadowvalt fights more unholy crime in ‘The Suspicions of Shadowvalt’ and ‘The Faces of the Fallen’, both in my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus. It comes out on Monday and is available to pre-order now on Amazon and Smashwords.

 

Picture by Michael D Beckwith via Flickr Creative Commons.

Friday flash fiction – Tick-Tock

I can hear the clocks all around me filling the shop with the tick-tock of gears, the swish of pendulums, the chimes on the hour or the half or the quarter. One of them lies half-assembled in front of me, a collection of parts taken from the boxes that old Mistress Venables kept so meticulously labelled, laid out as she taught me.

My face flushes at the thought of her. Her hand clipping me around the back of the head. The rebukes scattered among the lessons like numbers across a clock face. The sound of her screaming at me that she would find a new apprentice, that the shop would never be mine.

The feel of my hands around her throat, squeezing tighter and tighter and-

Damn it, the cam wheel won’t turn. I pull it out, glare at it, try to work out what’s gone wrong. But all I can think of is the ticking.

11271766325_25c24f49fc_zIt must be a faulty wheel. I curse Venables for leaving me such rubbish, fling it away into a corner and take another from the box. I peer through my magnifying glasses, place the cam wheel with needle-sharp tweezers, lining up its two sets of teeth with the others around it. I smile at my handiwork, wind the spring and release it. Gears grind instead of flowing then fly from their places, flung about the room by the flailing spring. I curse and hurl the lot away from me, its case shattering against the wall, pieces tinkling into the darkness beyond the lamplight.

I breath deeply, trying to calm myself despite the ticking of the clocks growing ever closer around me. How did Venables find this racket soothing? How did I? How does anyone?

I reach for the boxes again. There’s her tiny, meticulous penmanship on the labels. ‘Locking wheel’. ‘Third wheel’. ‘Rack hook’.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? These are her parts, her clocks. They’re out for revenge, trying to stop me working. Even dead she can’t leave me in peace. Every clock in this room, every clock in the shop, they’re full of her parts.

I’ll throw the old parts out in the morning. They’ll be costly to replace, but what price sanity?

Still, this clock is due tomorrow, and I want to be paid. I curse myself for wasting the first frame, turn to fetch another from the shelf.

The clocks are closer. They loom over me out of the shadows, louder and louder. Never quiet. Never still. Their endless tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

Her parts. Her clocks. I see what they’re doing, stopping me working, ruining my reputation, ruining me.

I won’t have it.

I reach down into my toolbox, never taking my eyes off the clocks. I don’t dare. My hand closes around a hammer.

Then fast as a second hand I’m up, sweeping the clocks from the shelves, smashing in their stupid faces just like I did hers. I grab and throw and swing and hit, the workshop a whirl of flying gears and crumpled cogs. I realise that I’m laughing, drowning out the sound of the ticking, and I go with the noise, relish it along with the shattering sounds.

The clocks are all smashed, scattered across the floor. I stop, bent double to catch my breath, my broken laughter turning into a hoarse wheeze.

Tick-tock.

I look over my shoulder but there are no clocks left.

Tick-tock.

This time from the other direction.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

It won’t stop.

I back up against the workbench, pull my legs up beneath me as I curl up on top, as far from the ticking shadows as I can get.

But the sound won’t stop. It’s coming at me from every direction. Louder and louder, like an itch in my brain that won’t ever end. Not as long as I can hear.

With trembling fingers I reach for the one tool left out on the workbench. The noise is overwhelming, a cacophony of ticking filling my workshop, my ears, my mind. Only one way to stop this.

I jam the needle point of the tweezers down into my ear.

Soon the ticking will stop.

 

 

For more Friday flash fiction check out Lisa Walker England’s blog or the #FlashFriday tag. For more mechanical stories from me check out Riding the Mainspring, available for the Kindle through Amazon and on other formats via Smashwords.

Picture by William Warby via Flickr creative commons

A Flash of Power

Today marks the first in what will hopefully become a regular fixture on this blog – Flash Fiction Friday.

Last Friday, Lisa Walker England declared her intention to post a piece of flash fiction on her blog each Friday, because it seems odd for fiction writers not to put fiction on their blogs. That made a lot of sense to me, and I’ve decided to join in.

So here, hastily written but hopefully still entertaining, is my first Flash Friday piece. Enjoy!

A Flash of Power

The factory rushed up and down the Lancashire hillsides, a vast mass of red bricks and frantically clattering looms, its wheels gouging up fields, ripping chunks from roads, smashing aside drystone walls. Dirk Dynamo clung to the roof like a trooper to his gun as the building continued in its unstoppable course, straight ahead, no distraction or diversion.

‘Tell me again,’ he bellowed over the roar of the engine and the rumble of constant thunder. ‘Why was this a good idea?’

Timothy Blaze-Simms had braced himself against the base of the lightning conductor. With one hand he held his top hat in place, while the other hand held up a rod covered in glass tubes, strange dials and long curling wires.

‘Mobility allows it to travel to the best power source,’ he said. ‘And there’s been some splendid work in Europe on tapping into the power of storms.’

‘But adding the lightning generator?’ Dirk jerked an angry finger upwards. Above the copper globes and sparking wires with which much of the factory was topped, black clouds filled the otherwise clear sky. Every couple of seconds a lightning bolt burst out of the roiling mass, usually hitting the conductor but occasionally lashing the rooftop around them.

‘How else would I know how they worked together?’ Blaze-Simms said.

‘I’m telling you now,’ Dirk said. ‘They work together badly.’

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He pointed past the conductor and down the latest hill. The outer slums of Manchester sprawled before them, a teeming mass of humanity about to be hit with a crushing weight of bricks.

‘Ah.’ Blaze-Simms looked almost as alarmed as Dirk felt. ‘But I’m almost there. The transverse static sensor says-‘

A flicker of electricity leapt off the conductor and hit the device in Blaze-Simms’s hand. The glass tubes exploded. The dials smoked. The wires burst into flames. He flung the whole thing aside as it started to melt his thick rubber glove.

‘Bother.’

‘Guess we’ll do this the old-fashioned way.’ Dirk scrambled across the rooftop to where long cables ran from the lightning conductor down into the factory and its engines. He pulled the bowie knife from his boot and glanced up at the clouds. Metal knife, metal wires, lightning. This could go very wrong.

He watched the pattern of the lightning strikes, waited for a lull and heaved with his knife at the thick cable. Muscles bulged so hard the seams popped in his shirt. Lightning lashed down again. Just as it hit the tower the cable split and Dirk went flying backwards.

‘Yes!’ he yelled in triumph.

‘No!’ he shouted in frustration as the lightning jumped the gap between cables.

‘We could try earthing it.’ Blaze-Simms’s tailcoat flapped behind him as he stared shamefaced towards the fast approaching city.

‘How?’ Dirk asked.

‘There’s some spare cable in the upper parts room.’ Blaze-Simms pointed down the side of the building to a balcony with a winch and double doors flapping in the storm wind. ‘We can run it from here down to the ground and then-‘

‘On it.’

A drainpipe ran from the roof down past the balcony. Dirk swung himself over the edge and clambered down the cold metal of the pipe.

He’d barely gone six feet down when a flash of lightning struck the top of the drainpipe. Sudden juddering pain ran through his whole body and he was flung from the pipe, hurtling into the empty air.

He shot out his hand, just managed to grab the balcony as he flew past. He gripped as tight as he could with fingers jolted by lightning and the impact of the steel rail.

Thirty feet below, sharply tracked wheels tore the grassy green skin from the countryside.

Dirk swung his other arm up, desperately trying to get a grip as lightning lashed down, now joined by rain.

‘Goddamit Tim,’ he bellowed as the factory smashed into the first slum dwellings, ‘do something!’

‘I am.’ Blaze-Simms appeared grinning above him, the severed end of the conductor cable in his hand. ‘The drainpipe runs all the way down you see, and-‘

He stuck the end of the cable into the steel opening of the drainpipe. A flash lit him up like the New York skyline and he tumbled back onto the rooftop.

Along the wall from Dirk, the drainpipe hummed with power. The factory’s wheels were coated in a bright blaze of electricity as the lightning ran down the pipe, across the wheel-rims and down into the ground.

Robbed of power the wheels slowed and ground to a halt. Inside the factory looms clattered to a standstill. Lightning still lashed around their heads, but it now ran safely away into the ground. Bewildered Mancunians emerged from their houses to stare at the new building in their midst.

Dirk heaved himself up onto the balcony and climbed up the building as fast as his aching body would allow, avoiding metal along the way. Reaching the rooftop he rushed over to Blaze-Simms’s smoking body.

‘Tim? Tim, you alive?’ He grabbed the Englishman by his lapels and shook him hard.

Blaze-Simms’s eyes fluttered open.

‘No more moving factories,’ he mumbled.

‘No more factories,’ Dirk agreed, grinning with relief.

‘Maybe a museum,’ Blaze-Simms said.

 

* * *

If you enjoyed this then you can read other adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, of the ever-adventurous Epiphany Club, in my collection Riding the Mainspring, available as an e-book through Amazon and Smashwords.

 

Picture by Dustin Ginetz via Flickr creative commons.