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.

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Well, earlier this month Piatkus, the Little, Brown imprint who published my debut novel, Maid of Oaklands Manor, announced to the world that they are sending the book to print! PRINT, dammit! On paper (one assumes) and even in bookshops – Waterstones and Smiths have been mentioned – but even if that part of it falls through, it will be available to buy, and you’ll have to check the delivery options on this one!

maddancermaddancermaddancermaddancermaddancermaddancer  Beavis-02maddancermaddancermaddancermaddancermaddancermaddancer

I know I already have two paperbacks out, and a third about to launch. But those are my self-published ones, and it’s a whole different kind of a thrill. When I look at my Lynher Mill books I feel all this immense love for them, for the characters, the world I’ve helped them build (or they’ve helped me build) and the gorgeous, solid reality of them is a feeling unlike any other. (So, just because I can, I’m going to post the covers here, with further thanks to the magical combination of cover designer Jeanine Henning, and artist Sean Ryan, who between them took my rather dull photographs, of Cornish tin mines on a non-descript kind of a day, and turned them into the beauties you see here.)

                                                                       

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This blog isn’t about the selling, so these are not links, simply images.     However, if you’re interested in reading more about this Cornish Mythic Fiction series, please visit my website where you’ll find a few more details, and information on how to buy, or download a free sample.                           

But now onto Maid of Oaklands Manor. This one is also very, very special to me, and that’s mostly because it was inspired by the stories told to me by my late maternal grandmother Mary Nixon, nee Deegan (whose name you might recognise if you’ve read the book.) The story is not hers, although some of the events within it are true, but all the way through I had her in my head, talking to me in her slight, lilting Liverpudlian accent. I dedicated the book to her.

The difference between my self-published paperbacks being available, and the decision to send this one to print, is that this time someone else has decided it’s worth the financial cost – the book will print at over 430 pages – and that it’s fit to sit on the shelves alongside some of the greatest names in the world of books.

Piatkus have designed a gorgeous new cover for it, to tie it in with the second and third books in the series, and so, with a grin of utter delight, I give you the final, the perfect, Lizzy Parker:

Oaklands Paperback

“This blog isn’t about the selling,” she says! Well of course I’m going to have to leave a link to the pre-order page for this paperback, aren’t I? But the bonus of having had it available as an e-book for two years already, is that you can check out the reviews, and even view a free sample, before you decide whether you think it’s worth ordering the paperback. 

‘Look Inside’ the e-book here.

Pre-order the paperback here.

Thank you for reading, and, as always, please feel free to comment here or on the shared post on my Facebook  page. 

Guest Post – A L Michael – If You Don’t Know Me By Now.

Dickhead Quote

I’d like to welcome to my bog today, super Carina author A L Michael, whose new book: If You Don’t Know Me By Now, has just been released. This quote makes me laugh every time!   

Want to win a coffee-themed goodie bag? There’s a super prize draw, through Rafflecopter, HERE.

About the book:

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What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Imogen has come to London to make it as a writer. At least, that was the plan. Finding herself in a dead-end job serving coffee to hipsters was not on her to-do list. And even if gorgeous colleague Declan does give her more of a buzz than a triple-shot cappuccino, Imogen can feel her dreams evaporating faster than the steam from an extra-hot latte.

Until her anonymous tell-all blog about London’s rudest customers goes viral – and suddenly, Imogen realises that landing the worst job in the world might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to her! As long as she can keep her identity to herself…

Buy the book on Amazon UK

Buy the book on Amazon US

About the author:
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A.L. Michael is a twenty something writer from London. She works as a creative facilitator, running workshops in creative writing, writing for wellbeing, and children’s lessons. She has a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing, an MA in Creative Entrepreneurship, and is working towards an MsC in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. She is not at all reliant on her student discount card.

When she’s not writing or talking about writing, she bakes, runs, plays with her puppy, and gets continually distracted by shiny things on Pinterest. 

Review – Murder on the Minneapolis, by Anita Davison.

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The SS Minneapolis;  last word in luxury on a grand scale. From the outset, this story  pulls you off the pier and onto the ship, mingling with the passengers and experiencing the anticipation and excitement of the start of a sea voyage; you can hear the band playing, see the colours and the crowds, and  smell the salt air. Meet Flora Maguire. Instantly likeable, infinitely sympathetic.

As a governess to thirteen year-old Eddy (Viscount) Trent, and travelling alone with him, she is vulnerable to both prejudice and loneliness, but events very quickly conspire to ensure that, while the prejudice might continue among some of the other passengers with whom she finds herself sharing a table, she will never be lonely… whether she wants to be or not. She also proves herself to be resilient, courageous and with a gung-ho attitude she might well come to regret.

The discover of a dead body, early in the voyage, pulls all the varying characters together, and we are treated to sniping, fawning, back-biting, suspicion, humour, affection… a group people very much of their time, with the attitudes to match. The characters in this story are fully fleshed out, with  back-stories and ideas of their own, and although the story is told from the third person, limited viewpoint of Flora herself, the reader still gets the rounded experience of learning what makes everyone ‘tick.’ Over the course of the voyage, and the investigation that follows that initial grim discovery, we grow to like characters we thought we wouldn’t, to re-think initial impressions…  and this reader found herself thinking ahead to possible further books in a series based on the main characters in this one, and hoping that the ending wouldn’t preclude the possibility of meeting Flora again!

Overall this was a lovely read; tense in places, fascinating in others, and the phenomenal level of research shows in the details sprinkled throughout. Descriptions of the opulance of a ship such as this are not over-done, but give a real flavour of what it must have been like to travel on her, and to mix with a populace in the throes of great social change. Highly recommended.

You can buy Murder on the Minneapolis from Amazon UK — or Amazon US.

Tied Up With Love – A Guest Post from author Amelia Thorne.

Hello, my lovelies!
I’m proud to be hosting a first-chapter sneak-peek at Tied Up With Love, the new book by Amelia Thorneauthor of Beneath the Moon and the Stars.
The book is released on Valentine’s Day (the day after tomorrow! What do you mean, you’d forgotten? Go and get a card, quick!) and promises to be a best-seller in double-quick time. So be ahead of the game, and you’ll be able to say you were one of the first to buy it!
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‘We’re from KMW. Do exactly as you’re told and you won’t get hurt…’
Being grabbed off the street, blind folded, tied up and thrown into a van was not what Izzy expected to happen when she stepped out the door that morning. But when an accidental kidnapping at the hands of the sexy Ethan Chase and his ‘Kidnap My Wife’ sexual fantasy business leads to just that, Izzy seizes the chance to turn her misfortune into a brilliant new job opportunity…

Since then, life has been one big tangle of new client meetings, fake kidnapping pick-ups, and handling the temperamental, but drop dead gorgeous ‘bad boy’ Mr Chase. But, as liberating as being tied up in Ethan’s life is, Izzy knows the time is fast approaching when she must make some decisions and take charge of her future. The only question is: will Ethan allow himself to be a part of it?

Chapter One

Izzy watched as the grey van skidded round the corner and tore down the street towards her. The driver definitely seemed to be in a rush. The van had blacked out windows, a foreign plate and was being driven really badly. It careened across the empty road, mounted the pavement right in front of her and stopped just before hitting a lamppost.

She was standing outside a recording studio and for one deliciously exciting moment, Izzy thought someone famous might step out, with mirrored shades and a huge entourage. Admittedly, the recording studio was generally used for making advertising jingles, but allegedly Chesney Hawkes had once been there.

Izzy inched closer. Nothing exciting ever happened in her sleepy little town of Greater Chessingburyford. Maybe today…

The van doors were suddenly thrown open and out stepped the biggest man she had ever seen in her entire life. His elf ears were huge and stuck out into comical points, his enormous eyes were magnified behind thick rimmed glasses. He looked friendly, kind of sweet, like a big puppy. So it came as the biggest shock in the world when he yanked a cotton bag over her head, threw her over his shoulder and bundled her into the van.

Izzy heard the van door close, plunging her into darkness. As the van took off, Izzy’s brain finally caught up with what had just happened. She had been kidnapped.

She was lying on the floor of the van – it was dusty and she could see a pair of black boots out the bottom of the bag. The legs attached to them knelt by her side.

‘We’re from KMW. Do exactly as you’re told and you won’t get hurt. Put your hands in front of you.’

Izzy obeyed, suddenly feeling a sick wave of panic consume her.

Rope was tied around her wrists, and although it wasn’t tight it immediately chafed her skin.

KMW? Who the bloody hell were they? Like KGB or FBI? What did they want with her? More importantly, what were they going to do with her? Would she be beaten and tortured? Would they kill her once they were finished?

Her throat was dry but she managed to find her voice. ‘What do you want?’

‘Someone wants to see you. We’re taking you to Oakwood House now. It’s in the middle of nowhere so no one will hear you scream,’ Black Boots said.

Izzy heard herself take a deep shuddering breath.

‘I don’t have any money.’

‘I don’t think it’s your money he’s after.’ Another male voice, which somehow Izzy associated with the huge man who had abducted her. He laughed and the lewdness of it sent shivers down her spine.

‘Leave it out Gizmo,’ Black Boots said.

Strong hands were suddenly around her arms and she was pulled up and sat in a chair. ‘When we get to the house, we’ll take you in and down to the basement. It’s been requested that you’re tied to the bed. After that you’ll be left alone.’

Izzy felt physically sick, her heart was racing in her ears, cold sweat prickled down her back.

‘She’s shaking,’ Gizmo said.

‘I know,’ Black Boots said, with a note of worry in his voice. ‘Look we’ll be there in a minute. We need to gag you.’

The bag was pulled from her head and she blinked in the muted light, getting her first glimpse of Black Boots. He was young, maybe early twenties. He was good looking and had brown eyes and warm skin of Mediterranean colouring. He proffered the bandana and she flinched away from him. Gizmo, she noted, was calmly reading the paper.

‘Please, let me go. I’m rubbish in bed, your boss or client will be very disappointed.’

Black Boots narrowed his eyes as he looked at her. ‘You don’t know what this is about, do you?’

Izzy shook her head.

‘Crap, he’s supposed to tell you. We say it time and time again, they have to tell them.’

‘We’re here,’ called the driver and she looked over to see the back of a shaved head in the driver’s seat. Izzy felt the van come to a halt.

Black Boots pushed his hair from his face and sighed. ‘Dave asked us to bring you here, you don’t need to worry.’

‘Dave?’ Izzy asked and Black Boots nodded. Who the bloody hell was Dave?

The door to the back of the van was suddenly thrown open, bright sunlight temporarily blinding her. As she opened her mouth to speak, Black Boots slipped the bandana in her mouth and tied it round the back of her neck.

Gizmo stood up and ducked to get out the van, then turned round and in an easy movement lifted her carefully back over his shoulder again.

She had never been as scared in her life as she was right then. She had read about this sort of thing in the papers, but never thought for one moment it would ever happen to her.

They were quickly inside and she had a chance to see dark wood flooring before Gizmo was carrying her down some stone stairs. He walked into a dimly lit room and laid her on the bed. Black Boots knelt on the bed next to her and lifted her arms above her head to tie them to the headboard.

Something snapped inside of her, there was no way she was going to let this happen. She lashed out with her feet, kicking Gizmo in the side of the face. He leapt back with a wail, she elbowed Black Boots in the nose and blood spurted from it satisfyingly. She leapt up and ran but only managed to get two feet before Gizmo had grabbed her and dragged her, kicking and wriggling back to the bed. Black Boots quickly held her feet down while Gizmo tied her hands proficiently to the headboard.

‘Jesus,’ Gizmo rubbed his head. ‘Anyone would think she doesn’t want to get shagged.’

Black Boots touched his nose. ‘This is exactly why she should have been told. I don’t get paid enough for this.’

Izzy wriggled against her restraints, pulling on the rope so hard it made her wrists sore.

‘Good luck to her husband, that’s all I can say, she’s going to skin him alive,’ Gizmo said.

There were footsteps on the stairs and Black Boots looked towards them. ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell her? That’s part of our agreement. She’s petrified.’

‘I did,’ said a voice, veiled in the darkness.

Izzy strained her eyes to look at her kidnapper and slowly he emerged into the light. A thin, scrawny looking man with glasses peered at her.

‘Who the hell is that?’

‘Your wife,’ Gizmo said.

‘No she bloody isn’t.’

Black Boots looked back at her, his tanned cheeks suddenly going pale. ‘That’s not your wife?’

Scrawny Man shook his head. ‘I’ve never seen her before in my life.’

They all stared at her. Maybe there was some little ray of hope. They’d clearly kidnapped the wrong person and now she would be set free.

‘Hang on a minute,’ Scrawny Man said. ‘If she’s here, who the hell has got my wife?’

‘No one, there are no other teams. Your wife is probably still standing at the pick-up point. Or gone home, bored of waiting.’

‘Bloody hell, I’ve paid four hundred pounds for this and you can’t even pick up the right woman. I bought Viagra and everything.’

‘Look, Ethan will be in touch with you. We’ll arrange a full refund or an alternative date but right now we have the very small matter of abducting a complete stranger off the street to deal with.’ Black Boots gestured to Izzy in exasperation and Scrawny Man nodded.

‘Right, of course. If the press get hold of this I want full anonymity.’

‘The press won’t get hold of this – besides, you’re not actually doing anything wrong.’

Scrawny Man nodded again. ‘I better call my wife.’

Izzy watched as he retreated back up the stairs. Gizmo and Black Boots continued to stare at her.

‘What are we going to do now?’ Gizmo asked.

‘I can’t believe you grabbed the wrong woman.’

‘Me? You told me it was her.’

‘The boss is going to kill us,’ Black Boots said.

‘We could not tell him.’

‘How do you suppose that’s going to work? We let her go now, she’ll go straight to the police. The police will come straight to Ethan with your description, you’re hardly inconspicuous.’

Gizmo paled. ‘I’m not going back to jail, no way.’

Izzy moaned against her gag and Black Boots approached her like she was a caged wild animal.

Carefully he removed the bandana from her mouth.

‘Please, let me go. There’s obviously been some terrible mistake. I promise, I won’t go to the police. I won’t tell anyone.’

Black Boots looked back at Gizmo. Gizmo shook his head, ‘She’s seen our faces. There’s no way I’m letting her go.’

‘Are you insane? We’re not criminals. What are you going to do with her, kill her and dump her body where no one will ever find her?’

Izzy’s heart, which had been slowing when she realised she wasn’t the intended target, started galloping again.

‘Please. Please don’t hurt me.’

‘We’re not going to hurt you.’ Black Boots leaned over to untie her from the headboard. But as she sat up Gizmo marched over and pulled the bag back over her head.

‘What are you doing?’ Black Boots said.

‘We’ll take her to the boss, he’ll know what to do.’

‘Jesus, Gizmo, we’re just making this situation worse.’

But Gizmo, it seemed, wasn’t to be talked out of this. He picked her up and threw her over his shoulder again. She saw the stone steps and then the gravel outside, and she was back inside the darkness of the van a moment later

*

The van journey was quite short but Gizmo and Black Boots were silent.

They surely weren’t going to kill her.

But she had seen their faces, she knew the van’s number plate off by heart. Why would they let her go?

How had it come to this? Her day had started so normally. Since being fired from her job two weeks before, she hadn’t had to get up too early, but her beloved cat Pete had woken her up demanding to be fed. She’d studiously ignored the first trickle of bills that had arrived on her doorstep. There were bound to be many more to come. She’d fed the cat, fed herself the remains of the cereal, gone for a run and spent three hours applying for different jobs. Bar maid, waitress, secretary, cleaner, bin man – or in her case, bin lady – sports coach, carpenter and driver’s mate, she’d applied for them all. She came across well on the phone, she had good experience and was never sick. She worked hard and most people seemed interested until they asked the fateful question. ‘Why did you leave your last job?’ Being fired for breaking her boss’s nose was not a selling point. Most people rapidly lost interest after that.

She’d wandered down to the college to see if there were any more free courses she could sign up for but she’d already done most of them. She’d just been on her way to meet her Aunt Sophie for coffee when Gizmo and Black Boots had crashed into her life.

The van stopped and she heard them climb out, leaving her alone in the darkness.

‘WHAT?’ roared a voice nearby as no doubt their boss, Ethan, was just informed they had kidnapped the wrong person.

‘WHAT?’ roared Ethan even louder as he was no doubt told she was still tied up in the van with a bag over her head. He sounded like a man not to mess with and Izzy found herself shaking again.

She heard running footsteps and the van door was thrown open. The bag was yanked from her head and she looked into the fierce blue eyes of the most freaking gorgeous man she had ever seen. He was huge, not quite as big as Gizmo in height but certainly the same broadness. He had curly dark hair and the same Mediterranean skin tone as Black Boots, which made the azure blue eyes stand out even more. In fact his eyes didn’t belong in someone so dark and they made him look interesting and unusual. He stared at her for a moment. Was he checking her out? Izzy nearly laughed at this crazy thought – she was dressed in tatty leggings, an oversized hoodie and battered knee high boots, there was definitely nothing sexy about her, but the look in his eyes was undeniably hunger, as if he wanted to eat her.

He moved forward to grab her and Izzy flinched away from him.

‘I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. I’m Ethan Chase. I’m so sorry about all this. Let me make you a cup of tea and I will explain everything.’

He took her arms in surprisingly gentle hands, pulled her to her feet and helped her down from the van.

Her legs were shaking and she wasn’t sure if she could stand.

‘Are you ok to walk? Here, let me help.’

Before she could answer, Ethan swept her up into his arms and carried her like a baby into his office. Gizmo and Black Boots were standing to one side, looking sheepish.

‘Get out, both of you.’

They hurried out and Ethan placed her in a chair. He knelt next to her and started to undo the rope around her hands. The office was a mess. There was a big desk with a phone that was ringing quietly. Paperwork was strewn everywhere, in piles on the floor, even on the big comfy sofa in the corner. There was a very swish looking computer with some kind of diary on the screen and mouldy coffee cups in various degrees of decay were all over the floor, windowsills and on top of the filing cabinet.

Sunlight was spilling through the open door and Izzy looked out at the fields and trees stretching as far as the eye could see. She tried to pick out landmarks so she knew where she was, but apart from a distant church, it was a landscape of green.

She would escape. She was a fast runner, she knew this. When she went jogging, she could run for very long distances and barely break into a sweat. Gizmo and Black Boots were lurking by the van but she could run in the other direction, leap over that fence and be down the hill before they could get anywhere near her. She looked at Ethan. He was very strong though. The shirt he was wearing did seem to be bulging at the arms. Even his exposed tanned forearms were muscular. The element of surprise would help her. With her hands released she put her head in them and pretended to cry.

‘Now, there’s no need to cry, I know it was scary for you, and I’m really sorry for that…’ he leaned in to comfort her and she punched him as hard as she could in the face, sending him sprawling on the floor.

She leapt out of her chair and ran through the door.

‘Jesus, not again,’ Black Boots said.

‘Gizmo, stop her,’ roared Ethan.

She ran towards the fence, but her legs were shaky with the adrenaline that was coursing through her and she couldn’t run as fast as she needed to. Gizmo lumbered towards her, she swung her fist in his direction but he caught both hands and threw her over his shoulder again. She fought against him but with one strong arm round her legs she could do very little to stop him. He plonked her back in the chair again, grabbed the rope that Ethan had taken from her hands and tied her to the chair.

Ethan had a blue ice pack pressed to his eye, making him look like an obscure pirate. With his thin lips and his dark eyebrows slashing downwards across his forehead, he was definitely pissed.

‘Now you will listen to me…’ Ethan started, his voice sounding like a growl.

‘HELP!’ Izzy screamed. ‘SOMEBODY HELP ME. HELP!’

Ethan rolled his eyes and moved into the little kitchen. As Izzy continued to scream, she watched him pour two mugs of tea and put a splash of whisky in one of them, then he came round and sat on the desk in front of her. He waited patiently for her to stop screaming, but if she screamed for long enough someone was bound to come.

After yelling for help for a good minute or two with no sign of anyone coming to her rescue, Izzy flopped back in the chair, exhausted.

‘Finished?’ Ethan said.

Izzy nodded in defeat. He clearly wasn’t going to hurt her, and with her not being the intended target she might actually get to go home tonight with all her fingers still attached.

‘Good. Now you’ll listen to me. We’re a company called “Kidnap My Wife.” We offer a service to couples who want to spice up their sex life by staging a kidnapping. We agree a time and place with the couple for the wife to be waiting at, we turn up in our van, kidnap the wife and take her to our house down the road where the husband is waiting. What happens next is a variation on a theme, the wife can be tied to a bed, or a chair, the husband normally acts out some kind of fantasy for him or her, and they end up having sex. It’s all above board and legal and hugely popular. We’ve been operating for about five years now. With the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey our list of clients has gone through the roof. It seems all women like to be tied up and threatened. Claire Reynolds was our client today, you look a lot like her I’m afraid and were in the right place at the right time. She must have been running late. You have my complete and utter apologies. I can assure you this type of thing has never happened before.’

Izzy blinked at him. It all sounded very plausible. She looked around the office for any evidence to this and sure enough she could see several headed sheets of paper with the ‘Kidnap My Wife’ logo on the top.

‘Now I’m going to untie you, you’re going to drink this tea and we can talk about some kind of compensation before I take you home.’

He knelt next to her and untied the rope with skilful fingers. The bruise on his eye looked painful.

‘I’m sorry I punched you,’ Izzy said, quietly.

He didn’t say anything as he shoved the cup of tea into her hand.

She went to take a sip but the smell of whisky was strong and she pulled a face.

‘Drink it.’ Ethan glared at her and she quickly took a big gulp. The whisky burned the back of her throat but at another scowl from Ethan she took another big sip.

‘Here.’ He passed her the ice pack. ‘Put this on the back of your hand, it will be sore tomorrow.’

She obliged and watched him go back round the other side of his desk. He shifted a big pile of papers from there onto the floor and sat down watching her.

‘So how much to make you forget about this?’

Compensation? That hardly seemed fair, yes she had been terrified but it had been a genuine mistake. All three men were going to have bruises to show for their accidental brush with her. Surely that made them even.

‘Shall we say two thousand pounds?’

Izzy choked on her tea and she saw the small smug smile of satisfaction from Ethan, knowing she had been bought.

Two thousand pounds. Bloody hell. That would give her spending money for her trip to Australia. If she was careful, it would pay for her bills and her food too, for the next five weeks until she left.

Ethan rifled through the papers on his desk until he found the cheque book. He quickly filled it in and offered it across the table towards her.

She looked at the three zeros, shining temptingly with their wet ink. Why shouldn’t she take it, she had been traumatised after all. But a small business like this, two thousand pounds could be the make or break of it. What if this money was the difference between paying their bills and putting food on their table? What if giving her money would bankrupt them? She wouldn’t take it.

The phone rang incessantly between them and suddenly an idea formed in her head. It was mean and underhand but right then she didn’t care.

‘I don’t want your money.’

Ethan looked confused by this.

‘I want a job.’

His eyebrows shot up. ‘Are you kidding?’

‘That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.’

‘I’m not giving you a job.’

‘I’m sure the police would be very interested in my story. Taking you to court and suing you for traumatisation would be long and messy. Poor Gizmo out there could end up behind bars again. The papers get wind of this and it’s all over for your company.’

His eyes flashed. The cheque was crumpled in his tight fist. He stood up, towering over her. ‘That’s blackmail.’

She stood up too, though this did nothing to diminish the height difference between them.

‘That’s correct, it is. I’m good though. I can type a hundred and twenty words per minute, I did events management as part of my business studies degree, so something like this is perfect for me. I have years of secretarial experience in various different roles. I work hard, I will be here nine to five every day to answer your phone. I’ll clear up all this mess and establish some proper system round here. You’re obviously good at what you do to run this company for five years and still be standing, but I’m guessing you’d be better suited in the field. If I’m here dealing with the paperwork and the phone calls then you can have two teams out doing the kidnapping. You and Baldy in one van and Gizmo and Black Boots in the other. And most importantly I can implement procedures that will assure this kind of thing never happens to anyone else ever again.’

Izzy could see the vein in his neck pulsing away but he didn’t say anything so she pushed home her trump card.

‘I’ll be going to Australia in just over five weeks, so even if you hate me being here, in five weeks I’ll be gone.’

‘How long are you gone for?’

‘Six weeks initially, maybe longer. I may get a job out there so I’m not sure if or when I’d be coming back. I wouldn’t expect you to hold my job open for me when it could be months before I return.’

‘You’ll need good references.’

Izzy shook her head. ‘No references.’

He narrowed his eyes.

‘You gave Gizmo a job despite his criminal record, you can give me a job on face value too.’

‘Gizmo is my brother. I don’t know you.’

‘Six weeks.’

‘Three. Then if I’m not happy you leave without a word.’

‘Fine, but you’ll still pay me for those three weeks. Six hundred pounds a week.’

‘Three hundred.’

‘Four hundred and fifty or I walk out of here now and go straight to the police.’

He glared at her, breathing heavily through his nose. ‘I want you here at eight-thirty tomorrow morning.’

She nodded, barely able to believe her luck.

‘And you’ll dress a lot smarter than you’re dressed now.’

She nodded again.

‘Now get out of my sight.’

She hurried out the door into the warm welcome sunshine and Gizmo straightened from leaning on the van, ready to catch her again if need be.

‘Gizmo,’ Ethan called over her shoulder. ‘Take her home.’

Gizmo opened the van door for her chivalrously and she ran towards it before Ethan could change his mind.

‘Wait.’ Ethan appeared in the doorway. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Isabelle Franklin.’

Ethan nodded and walked back inside, slamming the door between them.

*

The Frog and Sausage was warm and cosy, with little booths under turret type roofs and winding stairs that led to further seating areas. It was one of Izzy’s favourite places in the world. The food was amazing, the customers friendly and laidback and right now she was sitting next to a roaring fire listening to the rain howling outside.

It didn’t sit right with her, blackmailing Ethan into giving her a job. She just wasn’t that sort of person. Being underhand and conniving was not part of her make-up. She would just have to prove to Ethan that she was a hard worker and that he hadn’t made a mistake in hiring her.

The door slammed open and amongst the leaves and rain that blew in, so did a bedraggled yeti, hair like a bush, struggling with her umbrella. The yeti forced the door closed, dumped the now broken umbrella in a stand near the door and planted a wet kiss on Izzy’s cheek before sitting down at the table and taking a big glug of cider.

Izzy smiled at her. Bex always made a dramatic entrance. Bex swept the tangle of blonde hair out of her face, ran her fingers through it and seconds later the effortless beauty that Bex so easily pulled off had returned. Izzy always thought that Bex could be a supermodel, being so tall. She had big pouty lips that many women would pay good money to have, flawless skin, big blue eyes and a great pair of breasts. She was stunning. Unfortunately the fashion industry didn’t see beauty in size twenty women, which was their loss, Izzy thought.

‘Good day at the office?’

Bex shrugged. ‘My teeth fell out when I was with a visitor. It was hardly the professional image I was going for.’

Bex’s job was as far removed from the glamour of the catwalk as it could be. Working for The London Dungeon as one of the historical characters meant she spent most of the day wearing filthy clothes and looking as ugly and hideous as she possibly could be.

‘I’m sure teeth falling out works quite well with what you do, adds to the gore.’

‘When your fake black teeth fall out leaving behind a perfect set of white gnashers, it kind of lacks the authenticity my job requires. I couldn’t find my teeth this morning so I had to borrow someone else’s and of course they didn’t fit and kept falling out. For the most part I managed to hide it, but during one big speech they fell out, straight onto the floor. The visitors all just burst out laughing, I was gutted. I had to quickly pick them up and put them back in, but they were already covered in ten tons of fur and dirt. It felt like I was chewing on fluff for the rest of the day. But I did scare the crap out of a few grown men and made a few children cry so yes, it was a pretty good day.’

‘You’ll miss it when you leave.’

‘Yes I will. How was your day?’

Izzy felt the smile stretch on her face. ‘I’ve got a job.’

‘That’s fantastic, well done Iz, doing what?’

‘Have you heard of a company called, “Kidnap My Wife?”’

Bex’s face fell. ‘Isabelle Franklin, what have you got yourself involved in?’

‘It’s nothing dodgy. It’s a fantasy role play thing. We kidnap men’s wives and take them to some big house and the husbands tie them up and have sex with them.’

‘How is that not dodgy?’

‘It’s not, the wives know about it. Think Fifty Shades of Grey on a lesser scale.’

‘So people pay to be kidnapped and tied up?’

‘Yes.’

‘And what’s your job in all of this sordidness, you better not be the one being tied up.’

‘No – office work, answering calls and all that.’

Bex was clearly still not happy about it. ‘Who do you work for?’

‘Ethan Chase.’

Her eyes widened. ‘Ethan Chase? Oh god honey, you don’t half pick them. Couldn’t you get a nice sensible job in a library or somewhere safe like that, working for some eighty year old man that loves poetry and bird watching?’

‘What’s wrong with Ethan?’

‘What’s right with him? His family have a terrible reputation, if you’d grown up round here you would have heard of him. He’s a total womaniser too, different woman every week. He lays on all the charm, wines and dines them and they’re putty in his hands. Then he shags them and never speaks to them again.’

‘Well that’s ok then, I don’t plan to sleep with him – just work for him.’

‘Or under him.’

‘Bex…’

‘Is he fit?’

Izzy shrugged. ‘If you like that sort of thing.’

‘And what sort of thing is that?’

‘Big, muscular, blue eyes that look inside you.’

‘So yes then. Just don’t be another notch on his bedpost. My friend’s sister went out with him. He took her to dinner, shagged her and she never heard from him again. She did say he was like a god between the sheets though and if she had the chance to do it all over again she would in a heartbeat.’

Izzy stared at her glass, not quite sure what to do with this information.

‘Good with his tongue too, if you know what I’m saying.’

‘I think everyone in this pub knows what you’re saying. He’s my boss. I’m not going to sleep with him. How awkward would that be once it turned sour – which it sounds like it would do. And he would have to be a complete idiot to sleep with one of his employees. Rule number one, don’t mix business with pleasure.’

‘So you’re not attracted to him at all?’

‘No.’ That was a lie. She knew it and Bex knew it.

‘Does he have a nice arse?’

‘I hadn’t noticed.’ Though Izzy knew Bex had seen her blush. Thankfully she was momentarily saved by the arrival of a cowboy, wearing jeans over beaten brown boots, a blue shirt rolled at the sleeves and a black Stetson.

‘Mmm, now that’s a rump I’d like to get my teeth into,’ Bex said, her eyes suddenly dark with lust.

She stood up and stalked over to the unknowing cowboy, sank her talons into his behind and nipped at his ear. To his credit, he only jumped a little bit, then he whirled round and gathered her close, kissing her so deeply it was almost pornographic.

‘Put her down,’ called Brian the landlord as he plonked a pint down on the bar. ‘You don’t know where she’s been.’

Bex parted from her conquest and he whispered into her ear. Bex giggled. ‘Give me half hour.’

He whispered in her ear again and her eyes widened. ‘Ten minutes then.’

Clearly satisfied with this response, he dipped his hat in Izzy’s direction and walked back out.

Bex stared after him for a moment, and then finally recovering herself she re-joined Izzy at their table.

‘I’m in love with my fiancé, did I ever mention that?’

‘Only a few thousand times. You should have asked Gabe to join us for a drink.’

‘He’s gone home to sort a few things out.’ Bex ran her tongue across her teeth unconsciously and Izzy tried to block out from her mind what exactly Gabe had gone to sort out.

Izzy quickly changed the subject. ‘So apart from the womanising are there any other reasons I shouldn’t work for Ethan?’

‘Well rumour has it he’s a drug dealer.’

‘Come on, I don’t believe that for a second.’

‘I’m just saying what I’ve heard. Whenever things get stolen in this area, everyone points to his family. They’ve never had any money or real jobs but they all live in nice houses. He’s got a hell of a temper.’

Izzy had already borne witness to some of that, she could cope with grumpiness.

‘Quite violent, I hear.’ Bex took another big gulp of cider.

‘With women?’

‘No, I’ve not heard that, but he’s got into quite a few punch ups in his time.’

‘Maybe wrong place, wrong time.’

‘Wrong man more like. He hit a policeman when he was younger.’

Although Izzy was not surprised about this, she still felt like she needed to defend him. ‘I prefer to judge people on the type of person they are now, not who they were in the past. We all have a history, ours is hardly squeaky clean.’

Bex had the good grace to blush, but it was only fleetingly. ‘A leopard never changes its spots.’

‘You’re so cynical for someone so young.’

‘And you’re so naïve for someone so old.’

‘Eight months Rebecca Dale, eight months older than you does not make me old.’

‘Look, your decrepitness aside, the whole Chase family is a bad lot from what I hear, one of them went to prison.’

‘Gizmo. Ethan’s brother. He’s been in prison.’

‘Sexual assault. I’m sure it was.’

Izzy felt affronted on Gizmo’s behalf. ‘That definitely wasn’t Gizmo. He’s not the type to do anything like that.’

‘So rapists are all a type are they, tall, white, brown hair, evil look in their eyes?’

‘No, but Gizmo is … kind of innocent.’

Izzy had chatted to him when he had driven her home earlier and it had become obvious very quickly that he had a sweet childlike naivety. He loved Ethan with a fierce loyalty that was incredibly endearing. He loved his job, loved the frost on the trees that clung to the bare branches like fur. He loved his dog Sampson so much that there were fifteen photos in Gizmo’s wallet that Izzy had seen. After ten minutes in the van with his exuberant enthusiasm Izzy had fallen a little bit in love with him too. There was no way he could be a rapist.

‘Of Mice and Men, that’s all I’m saying,’ Bex said.

‘He’s not stupid Bex, nor is he violent.’

‘You always like to see the best in people.’

‘And you always like to see the worst.’

‘I’m a realist.’

‘I’m an optimist.’

Bex smiled. ‘And that’s why I love you. Just be wary of him, both of them, and if they lay one finger on you – you tell me and Gabe, we’ll sort them out.’

Izzy decided, then and there, that she wouldn’t tell Bex how she had met Ethan and Gizmo in the first place.

Bex fished around in her bag and pulled out a pot of green cream. She stuck her fingers in and scooped out a dollop which she rubbed into her hands. It stank of a peculiar combination of coriander and green tea. Bex was always carrying these homemade concoctions around with her, but her skin always looked radiant and blemish free so it must have some benefits. Bex had made cures for dry skin, spots, scars, burns and chapped lips to name but a few. Izzy was sure she probably had a truth telling ointment and one for eternal life somewhere up her sleeve. Five hundred years before, Bex would have been burned at the stake.

‘Do you have anything for sweat spots?’ Izzy sniffed at the green gloop.

‘Where are the spots?’

‘On my bum. I bought some new jogging pants and I wore them once and they made me sweat so much I came out in spots. Most of them have gone but one little bugger remains.’

‘You’re such a classy bird, I do wonder why you’re still single. Please tell me you’ve done something about your scary bikini line. Last time I saw it, it was like some kind of terrifying swamp monster was trying to escape from your pants.’

Izzy blushed. ‘Admittedly I have let things lapse a bit lately. It’s hard to find the motivation when the only person that sees it is me.’

‘And me. And to be honest darling, that’s not something I ever want to see again. Come on then, show us your spot.’

‘I’m not pulling my jeans down in the pub for all and sundry to see.’

Bex stood up and frogmarched Izzy into the nearest toilet. ‘Drop them.’

Izzy rolled her eyes. She had known Bex since before she could walk. There were no secrets between them. Izzy unzipped her jeans and slipped them down a bit so Bex could inspect the spot.

‘Bloody hell, Iz, that’s huge. It’s got a life of its own that one. It probably has its own brain cells, its own thoughts. We should give it a name. Bert.’ Bex prodded it and Izzy winced. ‘Hello Bert.’

Just then the toilet door swung open and a very glamorous women walked in. The Frog and Sausage had a very strict dress code. Jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, trainers, wellies and the occasional cowboy hat were all welcome. This lady looked like she’d come straight from Ascot with her tailored suit jacket and matching silk dress.

She took one look at Izzy with her bum out and Bex bent over to inspect the spot up close and hurried back out again.

Bex burst out laughing and Izzy groaned.

‘I’m going to the loo whilst I’m in here, get another round in will you?’ Bex handed Izzy a tenner.

Izzy walked out into the pub and saw Ethan with the Ascot Lady. His eyes caught hers and Izzy felt something shift inside her.

‘I just walked in on two lesbians about to have sex.’ Ascot Lady was saying, pulling her jacket tighter around her as she looked around The Frog with disgust. ‘It’s obviously some kind of sordid gay bar. I’d like to leave.’

Ethan still didn’t take his eyes off Izzy and Ascot Lady turned round to see what he was looking at. ‘That’s one of them,’ she hissed.

Great. Just great.

Ethan put his arm round Ascot Lady’s shoulders and ushered her out. He glanced back over at Izzy as he walked out and she was sure there was a smirk on his lips.

*

 

Tied Up With Love is out on February 14th but you can pre-order your copy here http://amzn.to/1xJPpra