Review: A Matter of Love and Death, Caron Albright

I’m delighted to be part of the BFOR Blog Blitz, and I have a beautiful book suggestion for you: A Matter of Love and Death, by Caron Albright. Set in Adelaide, Australia, in the 1930s, this is a cosy mystery with a similar tone to Anita Davison’s Flora Maguire series.

But first, a little about Books for Older Readers:

“The Books for Older Readers facebook group and website was established in October 2017 to promote books (mainly fiction) with older protagonists or themes such as ‘second chances’, which tend to appeal to readers in mid-life or beyond.”

You can find them on Facebook 

And on their website 

And now, without further ado…

 

A Matter of Love and Death, by Caron Albright.

Amazon blurb: 

An absorbing 1930s mystery that you won’t be able to put down

Adelaide, 1931. Telephone switchboard operator Frances’ life is difficult as sole provider for her mother and adopted uncle. But it’s thrown into turmoil when she overhears a suspicious conversation on the phone, planning a murder.

If a life is at risk, she should tell the police; but that would mean breaking her confidentiality clause and would cost her the job. And practical Frances, not prone to flights of fancy, soon begins to doubt the evidence of her own ears – it was a very bad line, after all…

She decides to put it behind her, a task helped by the arrival of their new lodger, Phil. Phil takes her to a nightclub, where she meets charming but slightly dangerous club owner Jack. Jack’s no angel – prohibition is in force, and what’s a nightclub without champagne? But he’s a good man, and when Frances’ earlier fears resurface she knows that he’s the person to confide in.

Frances and Jack’s hunt for the truth put them in grave danger, and soon enough Frances will learn that some things are a matter of love and death…

 

My review.

Right from the very start I was drawn into the atmosphere, and the time and setting, of this story. The town and its inhabitants are described beautifully, really making me feel part of the unfolding drama, and the author uses all the senses to keep her readers fully immersed.

Frances is a down-to-earth heroine, very forthright in her beliefs, and the way her life becomes entwined with that of some mysterious and puzzling characters is believable and well told. Her friendships are endearing and genuine; Pauline, in particular, fizzes her way through the story, the perfect foil for sensible, level-headed Frances. I’d like to find out if she had her own story, I think it would be an interesting one!

 Maggie, Frances’s mother, is caring and selfless, to the point of her own detriment, and Frances is hard pressed to keep her focused on their own family’s needs. Unlike many roles of this nature, she is not merely ‘the mother,’ she’s a brilliant character in her own right, reminding the reader that no-one appears in someone’s story fully-formed, they all have their own value, and their own history that has shaped them. Anyone of a similar age will connect with her instantly, and appreciate that Frances is the well-rounded individual she is because of the way she’s been taught.

It’s refreshing to live a story through the lives of a family not absolutely mired in debt, but still struggling, while taking great pride in their home; very identifiable for most of us, and told with honesty and a gentle humour. The mystery is secondary to the unfolding relationships, but it does keep you guessing, and the resolution is satisfying when it comes. The relationships themselves are portrayed with warmth, and the love the extended family and neighbourhood have for one another is clear; you get the impression they would go through anything together and remain strong.

Overall this was a lovely story, with engaging and sympathetic characters, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

 

Buy this book on Amazon UK

A Tooth For A Tooth

Hello, and thanks for joining me! Today I’m offering this little bit of festive silliness, written as part of a writing forum challenge about a million years ago, and the ideal length to read over a quick tea break. The challenge was to take a well-known fictional (?) character, and drop them into a Christmas setting. Enjoy!

A Tooth for a Tooth

A festive short story

by Terri Nixon

 

 

It had been doomed to failure from the start. I knew it, we all knew it, but would they listen? Then, when it all kicked off, guess which mug was called in to sort out the mess. Which was how I found myself, on Christmas Eve, hanging on by my fingertips for dear life , with sweat trickling into my eyes and the hands on the church clock across the road marching mercilessly towards the twelve.  I let out a groan; I wanted it to be exasperation and it was… partly. But the bigger part was pure scaredy-cat whimper.

Where the hell was she?
To take my mind off the enormous lump of nothing beneath my swinging feet, I allowed my mind to scamper back over the path that had led me here. I must have been mad to take the job on to start with, but I’d been desperate – why else would I have been stupid enough to sign up as corporate troubleshooter to a bunch of shiny-faced over-achievers like The Directors?  They threw buzzwords around like confetti and made all the proper, concerned noises about their Investment In People, but I’d lost count of the times they’d driven out the best qualified person and replaced them with one of their own inside contractors.
This case was a prime example: Tania Featherfly – even her initials suited the job – had been the best tooth fairy in the business, but, like so many other small franchises she’d had to increase her prices to maintain those high standards. I remembered the board meeting and hearing the words: ‘Economic Downturn,’ and ‘Credit Crunch’ bandied about, but all it really boiled down to was: “My Lot Are Cheaper, You’re Fired.” And bingo – tooth fairying was farmed out to a pool of corporate suits with as much sense of tradition as a brick.
Tania had, quite rightly, been somewhat annoyed at being laid off so close to Christmas – from Hallowe’en onwards, a lucrative time for the collection of enamel– so she’d decided to do something about it. But did she go to the administrators and offer to work at lower cost? No. Not her style. She thought it would be far more entertaining to follow the new contractor on his rounds, and start removing perfectly healthy teeth while they were still in the mouth.

And there was certainly no money being left in return for these filched fangs.

That was when I got the call. Luckily, the only person to wake during one of Tania’s dubious ‘extractions’ had been the chairman of the board who’d fired her, and only then because she’d really gone to town on him; quite the revenge-seeker is our sweet little Tania.
I still remember him trying to talk through a mouth that had only one tooth left in it.  “Joe, it’s vital you get every single one of those teeth back where they belong, before midnight.”
I took a moment to decipher what he was saying, then asked, “Why midnight?”
“Come on, you know this is a special night.”

“Christmas Eve, sure. But what difference does that make?”
The chairman sighed. “Midnight GMT, Christmas Eve? Think about it.” With exaggerated patience, he quoted: “If there be mischief abroad in The Netherworld at that time, all magic will cease to have effect.”  When I didn’t answer, he growled, “The guy in the red suit?”
“Ah.”
“Yes, ‘Ah.’ The Human World will be thrown into turmoil, there will be no belief in anything anymore. And that means?”
“Err, no teeth left out for collection?”
“The penny drops. Now get onto it. And, Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“I hardly need remind you which teeth are top priority.”

 

So I’d collected a copy of the evening’s itinerary, and set out. First I had to find Tania and talk her into coming with me, which might be difficult. Not the finding her part, that was easy;  I just started at the end of list and worked backwards through the as-yet unvisited kids, all sleeping happily with sugar plums dancing on their heads … or whatever.
Eventually I ran into the new operative. I didn’t think there was any point telling him what was going on, he didn’t look the type to cope well under pressure, so I just nodded as he sidled past on the window sill. He gave me a nervous look, obviously aware of my position within the company.
I smiled. “Nothing to worry about, Brian, you’re doing a great job.” I kept smiling and nodding while he slipped off into the night, looking over his shoulder, suspicion still furrowing his brow.
I glanced at my list – how far behind was Tania? Was it worth trying to beat her to the previous house or should I just wait here til she arrived? I didn’t have to ponder long; she’d followed so closely on Brian’s heels it was a miracle he hadn’t seen her. Actually no, it wasn’t: Tania was good.
I stepped into her path as she alighted on the sill. “Hey, Tania. Thinking of pitching for the Santa franchise next year?”
She gave a helpless little squeal, then glared at me, dropping the pretence.“Oh, it’s you.”
“Nice to see you too. Look, you have to stop what you’re doing.” I tried to sound understanding, but Tania’s glare intensified, and she held up her pliers.
“Get out of my way, Joe, I’m busy.”
I dropped reasonable, and launched into pleading. “You have to help me put this right.”
“After what they did to me? They can kiss my fairy ass! Now move, I’ve got a lot to do tonight.”
“Look, it won’t work. You’ll just end up destroying us all!” I said, my voice rising in frustration . “Please, Tania, we’ll sort this and then go to the board together. Try to work something out.”

I gestured at room beyond the window. A red and green woollen stocking lay draped across the foot of the bed, and the boy’s face reflected that curious mixture of utter peace, yet enormous potential for mischief, that only a sleeping child can convey.
“Don’t mess it up for them,” I said, and I knew I’d succeeded in chipping through her layer of betrayed fury. She hadn’t become the best tooth fairy in history by accident; she genuinely liked her customers – under normal circumstances.
“We don’t have time,” she said, and I was relieved to note a touch of regret in her voice.
“We will if we work together. Come on, we’ll go back the way you came.”

And so, with Tania back on side, albeit accompanied by mutinous muttering, we’d started back along the path of destruction she had laid. In each room I prised open the child’s mouth, while Tania consulted her own list then selected the proper tooth from her gilt-embroidered bag.
Some of the kids were awkward little sods. They’d turned over onto their fronts, making it nigh on impossible to get a good grip on their jaw, and one or two opened sleepy eyes and blinked a few times while Tania and I stood dead still, so tense we could hear each other’s heartbeats.
In the fourth house we re-visited, I was holding open a little girl’s lips while Tania shoved the tooth back into the socket, when the girl spoke in her sleep; “Don’t want no coal …”
I gave a yell and jumped out of the way just as the girl’s hand flopped out of the covers to brush at her mouth. Her finger caught the back of my head and sent me tumbling onto the pillow, where I floundered in a mass of blonde curls.
“Well that’s one kid with a new wobbly tooth tomorrow,” Tania said. “I’m not going back up there to glue that one in place.”
“At least you can fly,” I grumbled.

We worked well together, in fact, and even managed to sort out the chairman’s revolting teeth and replace them in pretty good time. All purloined premolars were soon firmly back in their rightful mouths. When we got to the second-to-last house, I thought Tania looked a bit troubled.
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, come on, let’s get this one done.” She caught at my arm to lift me into the room, where the boy lay flat on his back, his mouth obligingly wide open. I grinned at Tania, celebrating our luck, but she still didn’t look pleased.
I chose not to say anything, and a glance at the bedside clock told me we’d better hurry to get the last house done in time. A sense of great achievement filled me; I’d done it again! Troubleshooter Extraordinaire saves the day! I might even get a pay rise out of this one.
We landed on the last window sill and I turned to Tania, rubbing my hands. “Come on then,” I said. “We’ve got a few minutes spare but let’s not take it down to the wire.”
“Joe, there’s a problem.”
“Problem?”
“There are no more teeth left in the bag.”
“What?” A cold feeling wormed its way through me and I could feel my grin dropping away like a shed skin. All my happy thoughts sank into my feet and started seeping out of my boots.
“I thought so at the last house, and now I’m sure; that was the last one.”
“But it can’t be!” I grabbed the bag – it was one of those bizarre ones that has endless depths when it’s full, but when it’s empty, it’s empty. “There’s nothing there,” I said dully, turning it inside out.
Tania bit her lip. “No, there isn’t.” Then her face lit up. “Oh! I know where it is!”

Relief banished my scowl, but only until she spoke again. “I threw it in the pond.”
“What?” I stared at her, incredulous. “Tania, you –”
“I was angry! This was the first house I’d done, and I just threw it away when I came out of the room. I saw it land in the pond.”
“And this helps us how?” I snarled.
“I can get it back. There are water nymphs in that pond.” And without another word she jumped into the air and was gone – leaving me stranded on the windowsill of a fourth floor room, the church clock slowly ticking towards the destruction of everything.
I sat down. There was little point in wearing a path in the wood by pacing up and down, and at least if I kept my back to the night I wouldn’t have to look at those mercilessly marching hands as midnight crept ever closer.
A sound made me look up hopefully. Tania back already? But it wasn’t her. Instead there was a rushing of air and I closed my eyes against the dust and bits of leaves that blew into my face. When I opened them again I was just in time to see the current Santa Claus franchise holder leaping back into his sleigh.That guy was fast! I was lost in admiration for a moment, but as the sleigh took off again the downdraught hit and, suddenly numb with fright, I found myself sliding towards the edge of the window sill.  There was enough breath left for me to yelp as my feet lost contact with the solid surface, and somehow I twisted and caught at the edge of the sill.

And that’s how you found me. Hanging on, blinking sweat out of my eyes and almost able to hear that church clock ticking away my last hope.
“Tania!” I yelled. “Hurry up!”  My hands were slipping, and my heart pounded harder than it ever had before – it occurred to me I could actually die here. I felt sick and my arms started trembling with the effort of holding on, my fingertips burning against the rough wood.
Finally, blessedly, I heard her land on the sill. “Got it!” she beamed, holding up the missing tooth. Then she gave me an impatient look. “Well, come on, we haven’t got all night.”

I managed a glower. It was quite a good one, considering my situation, and even as I put all the force of my fury into it I could appreciate the way it must have burned her. Or it would have, if she hadn’t turned her back and ducked into the bedroom. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine I was doing pull-ups at the gym. I never went to the gym.

My fingers were slipping again, and this time I had no hope that Tania would swoop in and grab me at the last second, because she was already gone. Another slip, maybe half an inch but felt more like a foot, and my fingertips were on fire now.

“Tania!” I gasped, close to blind panic now. “Hey!”

“Oh, for goodness sake,” she said, and swooped in to grab me at the last second.

I’d known she would.

Thinking it over, safe and warm in my bed on Christmas morning, I decided I’d been quite the action hero, and I allowed myself a smile of satisfaction. Tania would have some explaining to do, but we’d work something out – at least she’d helped put it right and I could relax again, knowing I’d saved the Netherworld from a terrible fate.
The phone rang. I picked up, still smiling.  “Merry Christmas!”
“Joe? We have a problem: we just had to fire Santa and he’s not happy …”

 

The End.

Merry Christmas!

 

© 2011 Terri Nixon. (updated 2016)

Blog Tour – A Knightsbridge Scandal, by Anita Davison: Excerpt

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Anita Davison’s latest Flora Maguire mystery: A Knightsbridge Scandal.  

 

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About the book:

1903 London is bustling and glamorous. With troubling secrets simmering, and worrying signs of war, Flora Maguire must solve a deadly mystery which leads right to the heart of the corridors of power.

Flora Maguire has escaped the country to enjoy some time in fashionable Knightsbridge, London. Extravagant shops, exuberant theatres and decadent restaurants mean 1903’s London is a thrilling adventure, but there are dark secrets threatening from the continent.

When the body of a London socialite, and leading light of the burgeoning women’s movement, is found outside The Grenadier public house, Flora can’t resist investigating. Mysterious letters are discovered in the victim’s belongings, strange links to the foreign office and why do the clues keep coming back to the assassination of a Baltic king?

As Flora closes in on the killer, it soon becomes clear she is no longer safe in London, but will her husband Bunny be able to get to her before it’s too late?

An excerpt from the novel: 

Flora alighted onto the platform into clouds of white smoke from the steam engine that hissed beneath the massive iron and glass canopy of Waterloo Station. Porters darted between travellers pushing squeaky-wheeled trolleys loaded with luggage towards the line of hansom cabs that waited beside the platform; the odours of hot horseflesh wet leather and manure mixed with the sweet fragrance of dried lavender from the flower seller’s stalls.

Flora handed her maid a portmanteau, then followed in the wake of the porter who had careened off with their luggage, her neck craned to keep him in sight. Disembarking passengers jostled on the platform as Flora carved her way through ladies in wide hats and harassed looking nurses holding dawdling children by the hand. The soot smuts on their faces reminded her of childhood train journeys spent with her head stuck out of the window, eyes narrowed against the wind as it tugged at her hair; something every child should do at least once.

Sally hurried along the platform beside her, the bag hefted on one hand and three hatboxes bouncing like balloons on their strings in the other.

Suitcases bumped Flora’s shins, their owners making no effort to move aside, reducing her progress to a series of shuffling steps and starts. Spotting a gap in the crowd, she dodged between two slow-moving matrons, only to collide with a man in a black homburg hurrying in the opposite direction. He barely paused to apologize, simply lifted his hat an inch before disappearing into the crowd.

Flora glared at the miscreant over her shoulder, muttering at his lack of manners as her turn arrived at the barrier.

The guard clipped their tickets with a machine hung around his neck, releasing them into the arched cathedral roof of the main hall. Coming to an uncertain halt as the crowd disbursed into the vast expanse of the station, she glanced up at the monochrome, four-sided clock that hung from the ceiling,

‘He said he would be here to meet us.’ She bit her lip as the first pangs of anxiety gnawed at her. ‘Our train arrived on time, so where is he?’

What if he had forgotten her? Would she be able to find his apartment unaided?

‘He must have been held up.’ Sally transferred the cumbersome bag to her other hand, flexing her fingers with a grimace. ‘Don’t fret, Miss Flora, I expect he’ll be here directly.’

‘I’m not fretting.’ Flora fidgeted, irritated at having been so transparent. ‘I’m merely surprised he isn’t here waiting for us.’ For the tenth time since leaving Richmond, she wondered if it had been wise to agree to this visit on her own; misgivings her husband had dismissed.

‘I would accompany you, my love, but I’ve a complicated legal case on at the moment. After all, William is hardly a stranger; you’ve known him all your life.’ His reasoning had not acknowledged her anxiety at all.

‘Perhaps.’ Though not as my father, a voice inside her head reminded her. The last time she had seen William, her behaviour had been less than cordial. When the truth of her parentage had come to light, she had laid the blame squarely on him, fairly or not. Circumstances had kept them apart since then, though his invitation to stay at his London apartment came as no surprise, but one Flora had thus far avoided. Now she would have to prepare herself to face him all over again.

‘Where’d that porter go?’ Sally dropped the portmanteau at Flora’s feet with a relieved grunt. ‘I’ll have something to say if he’s run off with our luggage.’

‘I very much doubt that. He has a job to do, and not everyone is disreputable.’

‘You weren’t dragged up in Flower and Dean Street,’ Sally muttered darkly. ‘Can’t trust no one down there.’

Flora pretended not to hear, immune to Sally’s tendency for drama and a belief that lurid stories of a childhood in Whitechapel gave her notoriety among those who had led more affluent lives; a judgement made on virtually everyone. Flora raised herself on tiptoe, her eyes narrowed in an effort to locate the porter’s face among the noise, smoke, and clamour of the busy station that had begun to make her head pound.

‘There it is!’ Sally pointed to where Flora’s elephant grey trunk with its military style fastenings sat on a trolley, their porter idling in conversation with the news seller, apparently confident of his fee.

Sally hurried towards him, her voice raised in protest as she heaved the bag she carried onto the trunk, piling the hatboxes on top. The largest tumbled off again and rolled across the concourse floor. With a theatrical groan and slump of her shoulders, she gave chase and after a tussle with an urchin boy who got there first, grudgingly parted with a coin before stomping back to the trolley and returned the box to the pile.

‘Mrs Harrington?’ An unfamiliar voice drew Flora’s attention from the comic sight of her annoyed maid to where a man stood a few feet away; a bowler hat held in both hands at waist level.

‘Yes, I’m Mrs Harrington.’ She gave the concourse a final, swift glance in a last effort to locate William, then turned to the young man. ‘May I help you?’

She judged him to be somewhere in his mid-twenties, and definitely someone she had never met before. Standing an inch or two taller than she, with a compact, but substantial build. Symmetrical features sat beneath arched brows with startling eyes so dark, the pupils looked the same colour as the irises.

‘And who might you be then?’ Sally stepped between Flora and the stranger, her chin lifted in challenge.

‘My name is Peter Gordon.’ He took in Sally’s belligerent expression with a wry smile of amusement. ‘I’m an associate of Mr William Osborne; he sent me to meet you.’

Flora had expected him to have an accent to go with his Mediterranean looks, but his diction was pure Home Counties.

‘Can yer prove it?’ Sally demanded.

‘Sally,’ Flora warned, sotto voce. ‘Although my maid does have a point, sir. I was not expecting to be met by a stranger.’ Despite her uneasiness, there was something compelling about him.


My review of A Knightsbridge Scandal can be found here.

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Anita’s earlier novels are set in 17th Century England, with a family saga set in Exeter during the Monmouth Rebellion and a biographical novel about Elizabeth Murray during the English Civil War in Surrey. Her fascination with the revival of cosy mysteries made her turn to the early 1900’s for inspiration where she found Flora Maguire lurking. The series of five novels was taken up for publication by Aria Fiction, a digital imprint of Head of Zeus Publishing.


LINKS:

Flora’s Secret is available here  and Betrayal at Cleeve Abbey is here. 

Anita’s Blog

Facebook

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Review -A Knightsbridge Scandal by Anita Davison

a-knightsbridge-scandal
Having read and loved the first two titles in this series, I was naturally delighted to be asked to review the third Flora Maguire novel: A Knightsbridge Scandal.
Once again, the indomitable Flora launches herself into a world of intrigue and deceit, lies and danger… this time becoming embroiled in the conflicting worlds within the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the discovery of the body of one of its leading lights. Flora’s powers of deduction are at full stretch on this one; dark alleyways contrast with the glitz and glamour of high society, but danger lurks equally in both.  Clues are not always what they seem, and characters keep you guessing right to the end.
The descriptions in this book are fully as beautifully written as in the previous two; Ms Davison’s deft touch with a verbal paintbrush is evident in everything, from the weather to a fine china cup. Food leaps off the page and into your hands; the damp fug of the street leaves its smell in your hair; and the chilly air of a pre-Christmas London brushes your skin. You are absolutely in the moment.
 With the delightful, and often amusing, addition of her maid, Sally, Flora’s newest adventure becomes a sparkling and witty two-hander. The men lurk pleasantly enough in the background, offering sage advice and trying not to get in the way, while the women just straighten their shoulders  and get on with the job.
I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Mrs Harrington, nee Maguire, and I very much look forward to reading her next adventure!
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Review – Betrayal at Cleeve Abbey by Anita Davison

Today it’s my great pleasure to welcome Anita Davison. Anita is the author of the brilliant Flora Maguire Mysteries, published by Aria Fiction.

First, a little background, from Anita, to book one:

Flora’s Secret by Anita Davison (Book 1 in the Flora Maguire Series)

Flora Maguire is a twenty-two-year old governess to Edward, the son of Earl Trent. Raised by her father, Riordan Maguire, the head butler on the earl’s Gloucestershire estate, she is used to watching the lives of the aristocracy from the side-lines.

After a family wedding in New York, where Flora has been included as part of the family party, the earl and countess decide to extend their holiday, thus Flora is entrusted with the task of escorting Edward home to England to attend school. Conscious of her status as an upper servant among a complement of only first class passengers, she avoids the dining room on the first night and meets the charming Bunny Harrington on deck, who catches her peeking under the canvas at his new automobile.

The next morning, Flora finds the body of a man at the bottom of a companionway, a death pronounced accidental by the ship’s doctor. Flora’s doubts about what happened prompts her to have the man’s death acknowledges as deliberate, and to do that she has to find the killer.

She enlists the help of Bunny, who is at first sceptical, but after a burglary, a near drowning during a storm and a second murder – the hunt is now on in earnest for a killer as the Minneapolis approaches the English coast.

Book 2 in the series, Betrayal at Cleeve Abbey is out now, followed by Book 3, A Knightsbridge Scandal, due for publication in early in 2017, with two more stories scheduled for later in the year.

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About Betrayal at Cleeve Abbey:

Even the most glamorous stately houses hide secrets and lies from the past…

For fans of Downton Abbey, a thrilling and romantic mystery set in the glorious Cotswolds landscape.

Flora Maguire is now happily married to Bunny Harrington and living in Richmond when she receives an alarming telegram informing her of her father’s tragic death in a riding accident at Cleeve Abbey.

Heartbroken, she and Bunny return to her former home, where she was Governess to Eddy, Viscount Trent, and her father was Butler to Earl Trent.

Flora’s intention was to bury him next to Lily, her mother, who sadly passed away when Flora was a small child.

Mystery surrounds the final resting place of Lily. No-one is willing to talk and, with her father now dead in a suspicious accident, Flora must once again strive alone to uncover hidden family secrets.

My thoughts:

I remember writing a review for the first in this series, Flora’s Secret, and being bowled over by the captivating writing style, and the fresh voice of the main character, Flora Maguire. I clearly recall hoping we would meet Flora again at some point. I also remembered the unfolding story, and how it was so beautifully structured, and the great sense of everything being exactly as it should be, by the end.
What I hadn’t fully remembered, until I came to read Betrayal at Cleeve Abbey, was the author’s ability to describe everything – from the ornate beauty of a well-appointed room, to the glorious simplicity of a perfectly-fried egg – with the kind of immediacy that puts you in that room, (or poises your fork above the egg!) and makes you feel such an integral part of the story you forget where you actually are.
This second book in the series is no less evocative than the first in any of those respects; from the very outset – when we are with Flora on a sticky hot day, and feeling her slightly grumpy discomfort – right the way through until the end, we can see, taste and smell everything. And we can feel the gradually building tension as Flora investigates, and unravels the mystery behind a seemingly-accidental death on the hitherto-familiar estate where she spent her childhood.
This death, in contrast to the slightly detached fascination of the previous incident on the Minneapolis, hits much closer to home. Flora’s emotions are tugged in all directions as she learns family secrets that have been shared by people she has always trusted, and struggles to keep the clear head she needs if she is to see justice done.
As with the descriptions of physical sights, sounds, and other everyday occurrences, we are gently but skilfully drawn into the very heart of Flora’s fears and dilemmas. Again, the viewpoint is third person, but limited to Flora, so we discover things at the same time, react in much the same way, and rejoice in every small triumph.
The secondary characters in this book are as well-drawn as those in the first; the contrast between social classes is clearly marked, without resorting to stereotypes, and the kind of family dynamics that favour no class or situation, shine through the dialogue and little ‘asides.’

I very much look forward to the next outing with Flora… Although, feeling so much part of her world, I just hope I’m not the one she’s investigating next!

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Ask No Questions

INTRODUCTION: Thanks for taking the time to check out this short story. It’s something I wrote a long time ago, in about 2002, but recently updated. For readers of my ‘usual’ fare, either the Historicals or Mythic Fiction, a word of warning: this is from my Horror-head! Please feel free to leave comments and/or share this blog post with anyone, but be aware it is copyright protected, so please do not reproduce all or part of it without first contacting me. Thank you 🙂 

 

 

Ask No Questions.

A short horror story by T. Nixon

 

Charlie Bryant crawled clear of the car, dizzy and only vaguely aware that the little moans he heard were his own. The wet grass beneath his sweating hands was a relief, and he clutched handfuls of it as he pulled himself up the side of the ditch, ignoring the scratch of thistles and the tingling sting of nettles. Finally he scrambled onto the solid surface of the road, and only then could he bring himself to look back at the wreckage steaming in the ditch. The car was crumpled beyond recognition.

Charlie bent over, certain he was going to throw up, but in the end he only spat onto the tarmac. A thread of saliva swung from his lower lip, stretching, and for a moment he watched it in detached fascination, before blinking back to reality and sweeping it away; it was already cold, and the mild revulsion he felt went some way towards easing the shock as he wiped the back of his hand on his trousers. He straightened again, and eyed the car nervously; his phone was still plugged into the charger, but there was a rank smell of diesel drifting through the night air – one spark from the door handle could be all it took… he moved away up the road, his heart tripping uncomfortably, until the smell faded. He held his watch up, angling it to catch the faint moonlight that struggled through racing clouds. Almost three a.m. He peered through the drizzle in both directions and swore under his breath; be lucky to see anyone out here at this time of the morning. He looked back at his car again, his mind skittering briefly over the contents, assuring himself that nothing incriminating remained in the wreckage. As further reassurance he patted the waistband of his trousers, and felt the familiar, comforting weight still there. Best get moving then.

Concussion might be a problem if someone picked him up; it wouldn’t do to say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Hopefully it was only mild, but he couldn’t even remember how the crash had happened. Some kind of animal in the road? Or another car that hadn’t stopped? More like it, and whoever it was didn’t even pull over to see if he was alright … bastards. Charlie’s confusion melted into righteous anger, altogether more palatable. He frowned, trying harder to remember, then shrugged; he was totally screwed up about the job. Who wouldn’t be?

He had been walking for less than twenty minutes when he heard the engine coming up behind. A heavy, rattling diesel engine. Charlie turned and almost fell over his own feet when he saw the bus. It was closer than he had thought and he barely had time to wonder at its even being there before relief took over and he waved frantically for it to stop. It drew slightly past him before halting, and Charlie saw it was one of the old fashioned kind with an open entrance at the back and a wide step to swing himself aboard. Thankfully, he pulled himself up by the bar and stepped into the interior. It pulled away and continued its slow journey down the lane. Buses had improved their services since he’d last had to rely on them; they’d never have run a late bus between town and the outlying villages back then. Must be a works one.

Charlie looked around for a seat – something he would have expected to find easily at this time of night, but the bus was packed. No one turned to see who had flagged them down all the way out here; they remained, rigidly facing forwards. Nobody was talking. No-one was fiddling with their phone, checking Facebook or listening to music. He wasn’t used to travelling on public transport anymore, but even he knew that on a bus everyone was plugged into something…

The silence felt heavy. Damp. Thick. Charlie suddenly wanted to get off –wanted it very badly indeed. He reached out a shaking hand, pressed the bell, and stepped back out towards the platform. A figure appeared in front of him, its face lost in the semi-darkness, blocking his way. He pushed forward, knowing deep down there would be no polite apology and an easy exit, but he pushed anyway.

The shadowy bulk remained firm, and a moment later Charlie felt a hand on his upper arm, gripping him tightly until he gasped in pain, his fingers splayed wide in reaction to the pinch on his nerves. The hand jerked him roughly around until he faced back into the bus, and shoved him into the narrow aisle between the double seats. He tried to glance sideways at the people nearest him, but a cold set of fingers settled on the back of his neck and jaw, making it impossible to turn.

The terror began to build then, starting in his temples until his head seemed to swell with it – the pressure behind his eyes was frightening. Panic was close, very close… His heart hammered harder than ever, he could feel it in every pulse-point. For the first time in his life Charlie understood how fright could kill. He tried to force himself to think it through rationally. He’d somehow stepped into the middle of a hijack situation; everyone was scared to turn, to see their attackers in case that made them dangerous witnesses. It was best not to try to look anywhere but directly ahead. Maybe he’d have a chance to get at the gun in his belt which, although had seemed close to hand a moment ago, now felt as unreachable as the wrecked car he had left behind.

But through these thoughts, the truth bit deep. This was no hijack; it couldn’t be solved by the timely intervention of some crack police squad, even if one were to materialise out of the night. The grip on his neck eased, and Charlie realised he was at the front of the bus, and that there was a single empty seat. Shakily he slid into it, keeping his face fixed ahead as the other passengers did.

The seat was cold under him, the cracked red vinyl split to allow stuffing to escape, and he saw an old, carefully folded ticket tucked under the metal strip that ran down the length of the bus. Without knowing why, except that it was a relief to see something so ordinary amidst this strangeness, he picked it out and unfolded it, and his throat tightened with a new, colder fear.

Charles M. Bryant. Welcome Home!

He lurched upright, clutching the ticket with whitened fingers. Stumbling out into the aisle, he turned towards the exit, and froze as he saw the faces of his fellow passengers. Some were young, some were old, some men, some women. And all were very clearly dead. A scream started somewhere in Charlie’s brain but got no further. The shape which had blocked his way, and which now stood at the back of the bus again, turned to face him fully, and Charlie felt himself grow light, his vision narrow, his muscles weaken. He tried to reach out, to grasp the back of his seat to stop himself from falling, but his fingers had no strength and, as he fell forwards into the aisle, the ticket fluttered from his hand and landed beside his slack face on the floor.

***

 

Charlie Bryant had taken up his current employment soon after the army had kicked him out. It was logical. He was due for a move anyway; even a dedicated regular like himself was well over the hill now. And the past few years of specialist training meant he was made for the job. It wasn’t so much a career change, he rationalised, as a move to the private sector.

Charlie wasn’t one to think too much, to ask too many questions. First his old dad and then the N.C.Os had knocked it into him … ‘You’re not paid for askin’ fuckin’ questions, Bryant! What are you not paid for?’

‘Askin’-fuckin’-questions, Corp!’

‘So switch off that light and build that fuckin’ AK back together.  You got thirty-eight seconds.’

Head down, he’d heard the pin pulled, and the knobbly grenade wobble across the floor of the bunker as the corporal’s boots clattered out, the harsh voice counting back as it faded,

‘Thirty seven …’

Thanks to the legacy of Thatcher and her bollocks of a government, he’d soon found himself unemployed and broke. And there wasn’t much call in Civvy Street for his kind of training. This job he could do, and it was lucrative. What more did he need to know?

His best mate, Warren, had been a squaddie too. Same outfit. But … well he didn’t like the wet stuff. He’d taken the golden handshake just about a year before Charlie had taken the boot up the arse.

‘So, what’d they get you for in the end?’ Warren had asked him as they leaned at the bar. He’d offered a cigarette – back in the days before the nanny state had banned smoking in pubs.

‘Fight.’ Charlie accepted the cigarette and lit up with a deep drag. ‘No biggie. But… well, it happened at the wrong time, in the wrong place and I half-killed the wrong person.’ He shrugged. Warren raised a questioning eyebrow; Charlie exhaled in a sigh. ‘Soddin’ adjutant!’

Warren had just laughed. ‘Fuck’s sake!’

They hadn’t discussed Charlie’s dishonourable discharge any further but, after several more drinks, Warren had fixed him with a shrewd look and asked if he had any plans for the future.

‘Make some money. Have a laugh,’ he’d replied vaguely. ‘Why, got any ideas?’

‘Oh yes, my son. I have an idea – and you’ll make plenty of money. Can’t guarantee the fun though.’

‘No problem. I’ll make the money now, have the fun later. Talk to me.’

But he hadn’t needed the fun, not after the money started to roll in. He’d abandoned all thoughts of socialising, of having a normal family life, he lived for the job now; it suited him perfectly – except for the first time.

 

 

Two days after their conversation, Warren had delivered an envelope containing a name, address, description and a down-payment. Fanning the money in his hand, Charlie grinned, scarcely able to believe this was only half his profit.

Later that night he’d thought he would never smile again. It had gone badly. Nerves. He’d missed with his first shot and aimed just as badly with the second, although he had at least hit the target somewhere. He stood over the screaming man, his mind spinning, his stomach churning with disgust; disgust at himself and what he had done, but also at the sight of the writhing, stinking person at his feet. The middle-aged man had soiled himself as Charlie had pulled the trigger and, since the bullet had punctured his groin, massive amounts of blood had mingled with the faeces, and even the third and fourth bullets had failed to silence his screams. Now there was more blood from a huge, ripped wound in his side and one in his chest, and Charlie had stepped forward to end it, not trusting his own shaking aim any longer.

He stood over the man, who stared back up at him in agony and terror, his eyes pleading for help, for some explanation. But how could Charlie explain what he had not been told? He had been contracted to kill this man, that’s all he knew, and he had screwed it up. Oh, man, had he ever screwed it up…

Charlie pressed the gun to his victim’s head and forced himself not to close his eyes as he squeezed the trigger once more. Finally, blessedly, the man was silent. With a last look at the carnage he had created, Charlie left the house, gagging, and unscrewed the now almost pointless silencer from his gun and dropped it into the nearest wheelie bin. With trembling fingers he pulled off his gloves, and stuffed them deep into the pockets of his coat, before getting into his car two streets away and fumbling for the ignition key.

It had been three days before he was able to contact Warren McKinley for the remainder of his payment. He dreaded retribution, but McKinley waved away the apology.

‘Forget it; it was your first time. Call it your apprenticeship. You did it, that’s what matters, and you didn’t get caught. The scent’s been well and truly directed elsewhere. Wanna know where?’

Charlie hesitated. ‘Nah.’ But he had to know something else now, especially after the mess he had made. ‘I was wondering though… what did he do?’ His brain provided a replay of the shattered man begging for an explanation, and he bit down on his own lip to silence the phantom voice.

‘Didn’t do anything,’ Warren said blandly. ‘He was the main shareowner in a company that our client wanted to take over. Now he’s out of the picture, our client can proceed.’

‘That’s all? He was just… shit. Forget I even asked.’

‘Yeah,’ Warren advised. ‘Better that way. Now, you want me to get you more work or what?’

For three months Charlie had refused, but gradually his mind began to chip away at the layers of sick loathing he had built up, and the memory of the smell and the screams faded. He contacted Warren.

After that it got better. The next hit was a retired teacher who’d been giving his pupils after-school lessons they could well have done without. One such pupil had finally had enough after a young adulthood plagued by nightmares, and paid Warren to help him win his revenge. Warren had told him all this over a few pints, but Charlie was only half listening as he poked a finger into the corner of a sealed envelope and finger-counted the twenties stuffed inside.

For twenty years he received his orders and his envelopes. During that time Charlie was responsible for the deaths of eighty people. He never took a partner, he never said ‘no’ to a contract. And he never asked again. He’d abandoned all pretence of interest in who the victims were, and how they’d managed to fall foul of Warren McKinley.

On October 16th this year, Charlie had taken his last contract. A month ago he had been given the details for a young man, pleasant-looking, no movie star, but didn’t look like a tosser either. Charlie had always been a good shot but tonight there had been too much distance between him and the mark, and the shot had hit the bloke in the abdomen instead of the chest. Charlie had to shoot him again. It had been the first time since the beginning that the hit hadn’t gone to plan, and as usual he didn’t know anything about this victim, but it had shaken him just the same. Even from that distance he had seen the shock and pain in the young man’s face, and as the man – Jarvis, his name had been Jarvis, he remembered – had folded to his knees, something had whispered in Charlie’s head that this was the end. He met Warren one last time.

‘I’m out.’

Warren hadn’t seemed surprised, he’d simply nodded and handed Charlie a fat envelope. ‘Yeah, I know.’ He caught Charlie’s surprised look, and laughed quietly. ‘I’ve been watching you, watching the questions start to build up again. It’s time to get out. This’ll be the last.’

Charlie nodded slowly. He pocketed the envelope he knew would contain the balance of payment for the Jarvis job and details of his last assignment, and reached out his right hand to shake Warren’s for the last time. ‘Don’t contact me again.’

‘Understood. You’ll find full payment for your final job in there too.’ He patted Charlie’s jacket where the envelope bulged. ‘You’ve been good at this, Charlie, you know that. I pulled the work but I could never have pulled the trigger the way you could. Don’t worry, I won’t contact you. But you’ve got my card.’ The laugh was flat, emotionless, but Charlie saw something like regret in his old friend’s eyes, and he stood quickly. Feelings he could do without – at least for now. He had left those behind twenty years ago, and now he had one more job before he could allow them back into his life. After that, who knew? Maybe he could begin some kind of normal existence, whatever that was.

Back home he opened the envelope, extracted a thick wad of banknotes, then shook out the other contents. A black and white photograph fell out, along with a piece of paper noting the name, address and known movements of the target. He picked up the photograph and felt his scalp tighten. His heart slithered in his chest, and he dropped the picture back on the table.

Warren’s face smiled back up at him.

This was no candid shot taken by a secret camera – this was posed and deliberate. Along with the name, details and address was a card with a printed message.

‘Don’t ask.’

Charlie didn’t.

 

Ten forty-five p.m. Charlie Bryant sat in his car, screwing the fresh silencer into place and trying to conquer the rising horror that threatened to push reason aside. He was about to kill his best friend – not in a rush of passion or the heat of the moment, but in cold blood. It had to be a sickness. It had to be. Warren was dying and he wanted to end it before the pain got too bad. What better way to cheat dismal fate than to get the one man who never said “no,” to whack you instead? The one guy he could trust.

He had almost called to refuse the job, but his memory was tugged back to the gentle regret in Warren’s eyes as they sat together on the park bench for the last time.

‘You’ve got my card.’  Oh yeah, Charlie had his card alright … and his photo and itinerary for good measure.

He took a deep, shuddering breath, checked his weapon, and tucked it away into his waistband. He didn’t know who to hate more, himself or Warren. How could the bastard do this to him, his best friend?

‘Fuck it.’ What was the point? It would be like hating the gun he held, the trigger he squeezed; just a waste of emotion, and emotions didn’t come cheap these days.

He glanced at his watch and climbed out of the car, squinting at the sky. A bit of drizzle blew around in the stiff breeze; wouldn’t be many people out and about tonight. His legs shaking more than ever before, he walked the usual two streets, this time to Warren’s home, and slipped into the large front garden and around to the back of the house.

There was movement in one of the upstairs rooms, and after a while the kitchen light came on. Charlie ducked down out of sight, his heart pounding, then relaxed. What was the point in hiding? Warren knew he was coming. His wife and daughter were both out, according to the itinerary, so it had to be the man himself who had come into the kitchen. Charlie stepped boldly up to the back door and let himself in.

Warren turned, and the pleased surprise on his face made Charlie hesitate for the briefest moment, before professionalism took over and he brought his gun out, aiming it at Warren’s head. For christ’s sake be quick

Movement in the corner of the room distracted him and the shot went wild, smashing into a cupboard in a splintering thump. He turned to see a woman in her dressing gown, a hot lemon drink in her hand, a tissue pressed to her nose as she stood, paralysed at the sight of the gunman in her home. No time to think, get the job done…

The next shot was more audible than the dull ‘whump’ of the first, and Warren had moved. The bullet took him in the left shoulder and he screamed as he went down. Charlie’s vision swam; the memory of his first kill came drove all other thoughts from his head; the shrieks, the blood, the smell – God, the smell …

He smelled it again now, and the nausea threatened to choke him. His hand shook. ‘Lie still! Still, dammit…’

But Warren was scrambling feebly backwards, his face a mask of pain, terror and bewilderment.

‘Charlie… what’s… Christ, man! What ...?’

Charlie’s voice was a sob. ‘Don’t. Fucking. Ask!’  One more bullet, and the questions were over.

Susan McKinley was dragging in sharp, shallow breaths, the tissue still pressed against her face, her eyes wide and blank as she stared past Charlie, unable to move in her terror. Never before in his career had Charlie taken a life he wasn’t contracted for, but he had no choice now. He swivelled his gun towards the stricken woman and shot her. Once. A small, dark red hole appeared in the centre of her forehead as she fell to the floor, and Charlie had a moment to wonder bitterly why he had been unable to do as well for Warren, before another shape appeared in the back doorway. He saw with the low tingle of alarm that this time he was the one with a weapon sighted on him.

Warren’s daughter, a cool twenty-three year old, stared at him over the barrel of her father’s hunting rifle. It looked incongruously large in her slender hands, but Charlie had no doubt she would use it, and use it well.

‘Well well,’ she said slowly. ‘I seem to have stumbled on a terrible murder scene. I might have to defend myself.’

Charlie stared back at her, confusion fighting with an unaccustomed sensation; fear. ‘Caroline, you’re supposed to be out with—’

‘My mother?’ Her gaze fell on the woman who lay by the other door. ‘Yes, that cold put the mockers on things a bit.’

‘What are…’ Realisation set in and his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Oh, my God. It was you.’

‘Well what did you think? That he was suffering from terminal cancer, like in some crappy detective programme? Come on, Charlie. How long have I known you? I credited you with a little sense.’  With trembling fingers, she held up a brown envelope identical to the one that had contained Charlie’s final instructions.

‘This is the contract you were supposed to have. Turns out it was your old Corporal. Probably no real reason other than Dad not liking to be shouted at. Anyway, I swapped them before he left to meet you.’

‘But why?’ Charlie felt his own hands shaking, almost uncontrollably, but he held the gun as firmly as he could, nevertheless feeling it slip slightly in his sweaty palm.

‘Ask no questions, Charlie. Not important. The thing that you should be worrying about now is what I tell the police? We do have a choice here.’ It had the feel of a prepared speech, but the chill in her voice transmitted itself to Charlie’s heart and he couldn’t find any mocking words to break the spell and retrieve his dignity. She stepped around the body of her mother, carefully avoiding the spreading pool of blood under the mat of dark hair on the floor. The gun she held wavered but didn’t drop.

‘Do I say that I disturbed you, and you ran away? That I didn’t see you? Or that I found you here standing over the bodies of my parents and I shot you in self defence?’

Charlie couldn’t answer her; his mind was still struggling with the knowledge that this girl had arranged the murder of her own father and her mother.

She smiled suddenly, but her long hazel eyes were still icy. ‘So which is it to be?’

Dear god she was serious, she was giving him a choice. He cleared his throat, thinking fast.

‘What’s in it for you if you let me go? Why not just shoot me anyway since you’ve done all this groundwork?’

She shrugged. ‘Letting you go means less questions from the police. If I have to shoot you it’ll all become … more complicated.’ She sighed. ‘We could always shoot each other, but you don’t want that any more than I do.’

‘Your father was my best friend. You made me kill him.’ Charlie heard the self-pitying tone in his own voice and wondered at it; what right did he have to feel sorry for himself?

For the first time, Caroline’s composure broke. ‘And he made you kill my fiancé!’ Bright tears sprang to her eyes and she knuckled them away furiously.

Charlie stepped back, caught off guard. ‘What?’

‘Last month. Robert Jarvis. You shot him twice. Ring any bells? But then why would it? You don’t care enough to find out. If you did you’d have maybe refused the contract. But you never ask do you? So I knew you wouldn’t this time.’ Her voice faltered, and now she just sounded tired.  ‘Get out, Bryant. Next time I see you there won’t be a choice.’

Charlie turned and stumbled from the kitchen, half expecting to feel a bullet slam into his back, but it would hardly look like self-defence if Caroline shot him now.

The two streets to safety felt like two miles, but finally he jerked open his car door and slid behind the wheel, fighting to control his racing heart. Warren and Susan McKinley, both dead…

He lowered his head onto his hands as they gripped the steering wheel, and breathed deeply as he fought the urge to weep for this and all the other times he’d done exactly the same thing. What right had he to cry now, for those faceless people? For their families? None. He gunned the engine and drove away into the night, heading south back to London and home.

***

 

Charlie began to stir. His face, pressed against the floor of the bus, was numb with the cold and as he opened his eyes he saw the ticket lying face up beside him. At once the fear and disbelief returned and he closed his eyes tightly against reality. A moment later he felt a hand close on his shoulder, digging long, thin fingers into the muscle there. He bit back a shriek of pain and terror, struggling to his knees to alleviate the sharp agony.

From where he knelt he saw the cold, dead faces staring at him and as his mind, tired of pretense, cast aside all other possibilities for this madness, he began to recognise them. There – that was the old schoolteacher who had been playing after school, there was Robert Jarvis, the side of his head curiously flattened … but really, not so curious, was it? The second bullet from Charlie’s gun had torn away half his face. The owner of the bony fingers squatted beside him, and Charlie moaned as he saw again the face of Warren McKinley.

‘Hello, Charlie. Just tell me. Did I look sick to you? Did I?’

‘I … thought … I didn’t know …’

‘You didn’t ask,’ Warren hissed.

‘You told me not to! Christ, you said it often enough!’

‘No, Charlie! I agreed with your rank cowardice! I never held back any information, but all you cared about, was that what you didn’t know couldn’t hurt you!’ Warren’s voice rose to a scream, spittle spraying from tight, white lips and beading on Charlie’s face.

‘It was Caroline!’ Charlie reached up to wipe away the moisture from his cheek, and found his hand gripped and bent backwards at the wrist, further and further until the bones in his fingers and forearm started to burn.

Warren’s voice was calm again. ‘No, it wasn’t. She was no more the killer than I’d been all those years. You were the triggerman. You were the guy who worked in the wet. Now, come with me, friend, I’m going to find some answers for you.’

He gave one more twist, and Charlie heard the bone snap; the pain was instant and huge. He almost greyed out, but was brought back to reality by Warren gripping his cheek and twisting until he was certain the ghost was going to tear him apart where he knelt. Even the pain of his broken wrist was almost eclipsed by this new and unlikely agony. He was pulled to his feet by the skin of his own face, and pushed forwards until he was standing in front of the nearest passenger.

‘Simon Bignall,’ Warren told him conversationally, and switched his grip so he was holding Charlie tightly by the back of his neck, as he had before. ‘Simon, did you have something to tell Mr Bryant?’

‘You killed me three years ago,’ Bignall said, his voice calm. ‘Never said what the reason was. You took out my eye.’ Suddenly on his feet, he shot out his thumb and jammed it deep into Charlie’s left eye socket. Charlie’s knees gave out and he stumbled, clapping his uninjured hand to his eye, feeling blood seeping through his fingers.

He heard himself sobbing, but Warren paid no attention, and dragged him on to the next seat on the bus, where Rob Jarvis was sitting, his head bowed, his hands clasped across his waist. Without warning Jarvis sat bolt upright and, with one terrifyingly swift movement, drove his blood-soaked fist into Charlie’s stomach. His expression contorted with disgust at the mewling sound Charlie made as he staggered back.

‘Think that hurts, do you?’ Jarvis followed him and sank his clawed fingers into Charlie’s mouth and cheek, pulling it viciously to the side. The heat of blood flooded down Charlie’s jaw, and Charlie could do no more than whimper at the enormity of the pain.

‘I fell in love with his daughter,’ Jarvis said. ‘That was my crime. I wasn’t good enough for him. Or for that bitch …’ Jarvis jerked a thumb in the direction of a middle-aged woman in a night-gown. She had a small, red eye in the centre of her forehead.

‘Hello, Charlie dear,’ Sue McKinley said, and, smiling, tipped the hot lemon drink from her hand onto his face, where the citrus burned like sulphuric acid into the raw wounds.

The ragged flaps of flesh which had once been Charlie’s cheeks stretched obscenely apart as he moved the visible jawbones. Words were difficult to form, but his remaining eye pleaded mutely as he gestured at Warren.

Jarvis understood. ‘Yeah, but you’re the one who pulled the trigger. Your bastard partner believed he had a reason, at least. But he couldn’t kill. Left up to him, I’d just be a nasty thought, but still walking around.’ He swung out his arms to take in the entire busload of dead. ‘We all would. But you … you don’t ask questions … not even when you’re looking your man in the eyes.’

It began in earnest then. Charlie stumbled away from Jarvis only to find himself surrounded. One by one the passengers exacted their revenge, biting, scratching, clawing and all the while shrieking their manic accusations. The noise was deafening, mind-twisting, the agony deeper and more savage than he could ever have imagined pain could be. He could feel shredded skin hanging off what remained of his face, his teeth were loose and spraying blood as he screamed wordlessly; his tongue lay useless and uncontrollable, every movement of his head sending it sliding into the sides of his blood-filled mouth. The lid had been torn from his single eye denying him any chance of shutting out the horror around him, but, dear God, there had to be a way out of this torment…

A flare went off in his consciousness; there was one hope left. He dragged the gun from the waistband of his trousers, and, turning it on himself with a wild-eyed scream of triumph, he jammed the barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger.

He felt it all. Felt the heavy, dull impact, and the blood spilling down his face, felt the horrifying sensation of the bullet mashing his brain and splintering his skull, blowing the back of his head away  … but there was no blessed release, just more intense agony, and the dark, screeching laughter as his tormentors closed in tighter. Then, at the rear of the bus, the open platform gaped like a black maw and his reeling mind saw his sole means of oblivion.

He ran the gauntlet of eighty ripping, slashing souls. He groped past the last few rows of seats, feeling his fingernails peel back as he snatched at the metal rails to claw himself forward. Talons raked like scalpels down the backs of his legs, the flesh there parting with sickening ease, and as the blood gushed under his feet he slithered in the stickiness. He gave short grunts of effort and desperation, but moving forwards in the leopard crawl he had perfected in the army he slithered on, flat on his belly until a sabre of pain sliced his body in two. Light-headed and puking, he turned and recognised the pale, chubby man, who spat Charlie’s own mangled testicles into his face. It was his first kill. The messy kill. The kill he had shot in the balls.

The blood from Charlie’s ruined face flooded his remaining eye and turned the nightmare crimson. But the black hole of escape from this hellish bus was inches away now… just inches… he gathered the last ounce of strength in his shattered body, forced himself forward over the fiery coal pit that was his groin, and launched himself into the blackness.

He hit the edge of a ditch and rolled down, sobbing with fierce, triumphant elation at the feel of fresh, cool air on his burning face. The wet grass beneath his sweating hands was a relief, and he clutched handfuls of it as he pulled himself up, ignoring the scratch of thistles and the tingling sting of nettles. Finally he scrambled onto the solid surface of the road, and only then could he bring himself to look back at the wreckage steaming in the ditch.

The car was crumpled beyond recognition.

 

© Terri Nixon 2016.

Why I Could Never Be A True Grammar ‘Nazi.’

Sometime over the past year or so I was accused of being a “Grammar Nazi.” I disputed this, and was told: “You ARE, because you’re always picking people up on mistakes.”

I was a bit taken aback at that bald statement, because I absolutely NEVER pick up anyone’s typos and questionable grammar simply for the sake of it. I want that on record here and now, and if you know me, and you really think about it, you’ll know that’s true. Granted, I have been known to find some typos funny, and have pointed out why they amused me; it’s always because they have turned something into a joke. ALWAYS. And I do have a low irritation threshold for careless grammar on public notices, but these people are paid to get it right.  I don’t believe that, in all my time on social media (going back to the early 1990s when I first started visiting forums etc)  I have ever ridiculed anyone — particularly a friend —  for iffy spelling, or dodgy grammar, unless it’s either been funny/ironic, and my comment has been accompanied by all the right smileys, or else they’ve had a pop at me about something and have tripped themselves up during a spat. (Then I’m all over it, because, y’know, why not?)

The reason for this is very simple: I don’t know much about grammar. Surprised? Maybe not! But the thing is, I read a lot, and I write a lot, and I see an awful lot of very clever conversations going on about various parts of speech, and rules pertaining to dangling participles (I don’t even know what they are, but it sounds like something that should be attacked with some sharp scissors and a tube of Germolene.)  I can string together the kind of sentence people generally enjoy reading, when I want to; I can write formal letters; I’ve written 8 complete novels and published 6, and I still don’t know what a modifier is, (or even if that’s a grammar thing, but it sounds like one, so I’m going with it!) I know the basics that any primary school-age child knows: yer verbs, adjectives and wotnots, but when you start getting into subjunctives and… see? I can’t even think of another one. Those kind of things make me blink and go, “huh? Yeah, but did you like the story?

(Knowing the correct form of to/two/too and there/their/they’re isn’t grammar, it’s spelling. I know spelling, mostly.)

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not asking for advice or information about these things, because I actually don’t care. I really don’t. I write by instinct; if something sounds right, I’ll leave it. If it doesn’t, *zzzip* out it comes. But it won’t be because I’ve looked at it and thought: “ooh, that’s a (insert grammarly stuff here) I mustn’t do that.” It’s because I’ve read it and thought, “blimey, that stinks.” I have the Oxford Style Guide to hand for checking things I’m unsure about, and the required style alters between publishers, and even between editors, so I’ll never get it absolutely right. But my point is that instinct is not to be sniffed at; it can work. You don’t have to be a grammar fiend, or an English graduate, to write a good sentence. You just have to read a lot and work out what sounds right.

I just wanted to set the record straight on this whole “You’re a Grammar Nazi” thing,  because it’s been burning in the back of my mind since this person, who I used to be quite matey with, (or, with whom I used to be quite matey?!) let me know what she really thinks of me. If you’re thinking: well, actually, she’s right, I want to ask you to think hard about that for a minute. People expect it of me, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. I think you’ll find most writers are so terrified of making mistakes on public posts, because of the glee we know would result, that we wouldn’t dare pick on someone else even if it was in our nature to do it. I pointed this out to my decrier, but it cut no ice. Ho hum.

If you spot any typos and/or grammar mistakes in this post, please feel free to never mention them.

😉

Thanks for reading! As always, comments welcomed either here or on the FB link when it’s posted.