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23 December.

Bud’s phone vibrated on his bedside cabinet. He reached for it and knocked it on to the floor. He swore, sat up and found the phone. He checked the display. Mac.

‘What the hell is this? It’s,’ he checked his watch, ‘it’s 2 am!’

‘You in bed already? I thought you’d be out at a party?’

‘Not many parties on an empty campsite, Mac. This better be good.’

‘Oh, it’s better than good. I knew you’d want in on this one.’ Mac left it hanging. Bud thought for a moment, then bit.

‘Ok, go on, what?’

‘Stolen vehicle…’

‘Give it to uniform’

‘Delivery vehicle…’

‘Still uniform.’

‘Reported by Chris Cringle. AKA St Nicholas. AKA Santa Claus.’

‘Mac, you are an absolute F…’

‘Bud, trust me, this one’s for real. But for all the reasons that are going through your head the Chief Constable wants this one kept to a tight circle. He took the call, he phoned me, I’m phoning you. Get dressed, I’m ten minutes away.’

Bud rolled over, dismissing the whole call as a drunken prank. Right up until the point where Mac banged on the camper door. Ten minutes after that he was dressed and in the passenger seat of an unmarked car.

***

And in the back seat was a vaguely familiar face. White hair, slightly longer and shaggier than fashionable, teamed up with a white beard and a red and white baseball cap, in the dark all Bud could really see was a pair of piercing blue eyes which looked like they should have a twinkle, but didn’t. Bud was still half way to saying how much of a wind up he thought the situation was when the man spoke.

‘Bud. Mac tells me you can help. I hope you can, time is running out.’

A shiver went down Bud’s spine despite the blasting heater in the car. He had never heard a voice so lost, but more than that. So old. So of its season. It came from a special place. It was a voice that smelt of cinnamon, cold like a snowy day. It held the fear of the shortest day, and the hope of warmer days to come in equal measure. Later Bud could only describe it as the sound of Christmas. His sarcastic comments dried up in his throat. His cynicism disappeared. Mac turned to him.

‘You hear it too, right?’

‘I hear it.’

‘So. We have to find Mr Cringle’s, er, vehicle.’

‘Just so I’m clear, and I’m trying really hard not to sound sarcastic here, we’re looking for a sleigh, reindeers, one with a red nose. That vehicle?’ Bud asked.

Cringle spoke. ‘If that’s what you expect to see, that’s what you’ll see. Others see a log cart pulled by wild boar. Some see a giant sack that I carry on foot. Most today see an articulated lorry with Coke logos.’

‘And, this is actually a real, physical, vehicle. Not an analogy or some metaphysical…whatever’ Bud’s vocabulary failed him.

‘It’s real. It’s as real as I am.’ Cringle saw Bud’s face in the mirror, ‘It’s as real as you are.’

Despite his usual professional scepticism, Bud believed the man implicitly.

‘And an obvious but critical question, where was this vehicle stolen from?’ Bud resisted the desire to add, If it’s the North Pole it’s outside our jurisdiction’.

Mac answered, ‘Industrial Estate just outside Derby. Mr Cringle was staying overnight after a personal appearance.’

‘So we’re headed to Manchester?’

‘Yep.’

‘Why Manchester?’ Cringle asked.

‘A load stolen from Derby? Most logical place for someone to try to get rid of the contents, and the vehicle itself. Different force, lots of routes there, big market to get rid quickly, good transport links back out again.’

‘And you’re assuming the perps saw an artic?’ Bud asked.

‘If they saw anything else then we’re all in trouble.’ Cringle replied before Mac could speak.

Both men felt the chill again despite the heat in the car. Mac put his foot down. Later he would never be able to explain why. He just knew he had to.

***

‘Stop! That’s it!’ Cringle shouted as they were driving through the outskirts of the city. Bud looked.

‘It’s just a shonky transit! Bud exclaimed, I’m sure they’re up to no good, but it’s not what we’re looking for.’ Mac pulled over anyway, turned to Cringle.

‘You sure?’

‘Close your eyes. Think of your 5th Christmas. Waking at 6am. Running downstairs. Seeing a house full of presents. Smelling turkey roasting.’

‘That was never my Christmas, definitely not my 5th one!’ Bud reacted. Cringle looked at him. Looked straight into his eyes. Bud felt like his memories were being read, like someone was scanning through a filing cabinet in his head.

‘The bike.’ Cringle said. Bud shivered again. Cringle frowned and shook his head. Put his hand on Bud’s shoulder. Bud tried, but he couldn’t, break eye contact. Time passed, Bud had no idea how long. When Cringle removed his hand Bud looked back at the van. He couldn’t focus on it. At the same time he was seeing the transit, the Coke Artic, a sleigh and reindeer and lots more besides. He could focus on the men emptying the contents into a seemingly derelict shop.

‘Mac, that’s it. Let’s do this.’

Ten minutes later two of the men were bloodied, bruised and cuffed. Cringle was whispering in the ear of a third. He was crying. Sucking his thumb.

Cringle shook Mac’s hand, then Bud’s. ‘I’ll take it from here.’

‘We need to process these three. We’ll need to dust the van for prints…’ Mac’s voice tailed off. ‘…that’s not going to happen is it?’

‘No, it’s not. Thank you both.’ Cringle replied. He got into the vehicle. Within seconds it had gone. As had the three men. The cuffs were lying on the floor where they had been. They checked the derelict shop. There were tracks across the floor, disturbed dust. But no sign of the vehicle contents.

‘What just happened?’ Bud asked.

‘Unless you want to be called Scully for the rest of your career, nothing.’ Mac replied.

‘Scully? I’d be Mulder surely?’

‘Mate, if this is anything but an elaborate joke on us, and if this gets out, I’m at least going to make sure I get Mulder. Which means you’re getting Scully.’ Mac said, as he walked back to the car.

***

25 December

Bud’s phone vibrated on his bedside cabinet. His hand reached out from the cocoon of bedding, and knocked it on to the floor. He swore, threw back his bedding, sat up and found the phone. He checked the display. A text. No sender ID. Look outside. He pulled open the curtain. The ground was covered in a light snow. He smiled. His phone buzzed again. Not through that window. Outside.’

Bud pulled on a thick coat and boots and opened the door. Parked alongside his van was a brand new motorbike. Envelope taped to the seat, his name on it. Bud tore it off, went inside, switched on the heater, made coffee then finally opened the envelope and tipped the contents onto the table. Bike keys, registration in his name and a note. 6 words.

Your bike.

Sorry it’s late.

Cringle

Bud drank his coffee. Made another one. Stared at the bike through the window. Finally, he sent Mac a text. Merry Christmas from Scully…

© Chris Johnson 2019

 

Author’s Note.

This story owes a massive debt to the giants whose shoulders I stand on. Particularly Robert Rankin, Neil Gaiman and, of course, Sir Terry Pratchett.

Bud Robinson and ‘Mac’ MacDonald will be back with more of their action adventure stories. Bud’s stories are neither being written nor will they be published chronologically. For what it’s worth, this story is set significantly earlier in his timeline than Bud’s Halloween while he is an active undercover policeman, but at a time when he is between assignments.

 

 

“Nanny, why is that grave covered in iron?”

“Well, Ellie, that’s a question and a story.”

“Please tell me Nanny.”

“Very well. Sit down here on this bench in the sun and I’ll explain to you. When I was a girl about your age, my Nanny told me the story that she’d been told by her Nanny. It goes like this.

“You know that you’re always told not to go into the deep woods alone, especially at night or in the winter?”

“Yes, Nanny.”

“And you know why?”

“The Faer folk, Nannny, they might take a liking to me and keep me for their own. Then I’ll never grow up and marry and if I ever come back everything will have changed and no one will know me except for some old lady who was my friend at school and is really my age and I’ll have to live with strangers and no-one will marry me and I might be forced to move away.” Ellie gasped for breath.

“That’s right, Ellie my love. But do you know why people know all of that?”

“No, Nanny. I though you just did.”

“Well, it’s to do with that grave and a story my great, great Nanny told us.”

Ellie squirmed a little closer to her Nanny on the bench and looked up into her tanned, craggy face.

“Please tell me Nanny.”

“Very well, but sit still and listen carefully.

“Many years ago a young girl, about 16, pretty and unmarried went to the woods one afternoon to gather some bluebells for the dinner table. But when she got there she sat down to rest, for it had been a hard winter on the farm and she wanted to enjoy the spring air. She soon lay down with her head on her coat for a pillow and fell asleep.”

“Oh no, Nanny, she mustn’t do that!”

“Well, you know that and so do I, but she didn’t.

“Anyway, while she was asleep it fell dark and the Faer Folk came out to play among the flowers and make their music and dance their dances. The girl awoke to the noise and instead of running or shouting she started to sing. Now one of the Faer men immediately fell in love with her. He started to dance with her,” Ellie gasped, “and soon she was so caught up in the dancing and singing that she had been there all night. So when he offered her some wine and bread she took it without thinking.”

“No, she mustn’t eat Faer food!”

“No, she mustn’t. But she did, so you know what happens then don’t you Ellie?”

“Yes, she had to stay with the Faer Folk for ever and ever and never grow up and never get married and…”

Nanny gently interrupted Ellie.

“That’s right.

“So the girl lived with the Faer Folk for many years and she took the Faer man who loved her and married him in the Faer way. They lived happily and time passed outside the Faer world quickly, as it does. The people of the village looked for her for many months but in the end her mother decided to stop the search. Everyone thought her dead, so they held a funeral and dug that grave and put a stone up for her but never did it have a body in it for many the year.

“In Faer Land the girl was going to have a baby. Now Faer Folk and humans can make babies, but pure human mothers have a very hard time with them. Eventually it looked like the girl was dying. The Faer king spoke to her husband. He said: ‘You must take her to the human village and find a midwife who can help.’

“So the Faer husband did just that. Now it happened that about 60 human years had passed while she was in the Faer Land and the village midwife was the younger sister of the girl. The midwife recognised her sister immediately so she helped her and carefully nursed her until her daughter was born. Once the girl was born the midwife hatched a plot to separate the Faer Man and his wife so that she could keep her sister and niece with her in the village. She told the Faer man that his wife needed a lot of human medicine and that to return to the Faer Land would kill her. Then she reminded him that if he stayed in our world the amount of iron around would make him grow old and ugly very quickly. She suggested that he go home and leave his wife to be cared for by her relatives.

“But the Faer man loved his wife and daughter and did not want to return to Faer Land without them. So he decided to stay and grow old and ugly just to be with her. So, even as his wife started to grow older and more beautiful, he became bent and ill, his face became lined and he died even while his wife was still young.

“Now, while he had lived in the village he had been a good worker and a good Christian, so his wife wanted him buried in the church yard. Some of the villagers did not like that idea, but the vicar was a kindly man, if somewhat stupid, and agreed. So the grave that had been dug for the girl was opened up and the Faer man’s coffin put in to it. Many people came to the funeral, for he was a well liked man, and his wife sang for him, something similar to the song they first danced to.

“The lady grew old in the normal way. But she always loved her Faer husband, so she never remarried and, helped by her beautiful daughter, she tended his grave daily. Eventually she died a very old lady and was buried with her husband. Her daughter married and went to be a farmer’s wife, and so could not tend the grave quite so often.

“So life went on, until about six months later the church gardener started to notice piles of soil in the church yard near the grave. He put it down to moles and put down some poison but still they came. Now the people of the village started to wonder if it was the Faer Folk coming to claim the bodies. So they had the blacksmith build an iron cage and put it around the grave. Stories say it goes eight feet down and there’s not enough room for an adult hand to fit in to it anywhere.

“Since then there’s been no moles in the church yard. And no one’s seen the Faer Folk in the village, although they are still sometimes to be seen up on the hill in the woods.”

“Is it a true story, Nanny?”

“Go and touch the iron railings, Ellie. Over there, on the sunny side so I can see you.”

“Nanny, they’re really warm! I thought iron was cold.”

“It’s warm to those of Faer blood, Ellie. For you see the girl was my Nanny’s mother.

Now come on, your mother will have that Sunday roast about perfect by now and we’ll need to wash our hands and faces for dinner.”

(c) Chris Johnson 2017 & 2019

Author’s note. There are some interesting graves dotted around all over the country and the Peak District, where I saw the graves which inspired this story, is certainly no exception. Each grave tells the story of a life, some shorter than others some more action packed than others. This story was inspired by two specific graves. I won’t mention the names or locations as that may be offensive to the living relatives. I’ll just suggest to my readers that if you are near a graveyard and have some time, take a walk around and think about the people whose lives are commemorated in that quiet, peaceful space. 

Bud’s phone vibrated on the counter top. His hand reached out from the cocoon of bedding, patted around until he found it, and pulled it into the warm nest. He checked the display. Danny. His annual call. He hit the green icon, then put the phone on speaker. All he could hear was the sound of wind across a microphone for a few seconds. Then a gap, as if someone was waiting for him to speak, followed by the same thing again.

After the second time Bud responded, ‘This has got to stop Danny’

The wind noise came back, this time louder. A casual observer may have thought more insistent, if they believed that the noise was in any way deliberate.

‘No’ Bud said, and hung up.

The phone vibrated again. Danny.

‘I said no. I meant no. It’s time to let it go, move on.’ Bud hung up again.

The phone vibrated a third time.

‘Don’t make me block you!’

The phone vibrated a fourth time. This time it was a text not a call.

You knowe whay 2 doi,,,

Bud sighed, and texted back.

2 hours

He crawled out of his warm bed, into the October chill of a cold campervan.

***

‘Mac, it’s Bud. Danny called.’

‘Bud, you know…’

‘Mac, don’t. He called, ok? You know what we need to do.’

Mac sighed. ‘I’m not doing this every year Bud, this has to stop at some point.’

‘I know, I told him that. Come on, one more time? We promised, we owe him that much?’

‘Ok, you picking me up?’

‘No. The camper’s all set up. You can come for me.’

***

An hour after the first call Bud and Mac were in Mac’s unmarked police car, heading south at just over the speed limit.

‘I told him two hours, we’re good for time, you can slow down.’ Bud told Mac.

‘No chance. We get there asap, get this done and get out again. I’m on duty, remember, and this little annual sideshow is totally off the books.’

‘Whatever, just be careful. We don’t want to join Danny just yet.’

***

The prison buildings crouched low on the horizon, behind concentric high steel fences. Mac took the car off the main road, circling the prison fence until they reached a small chapel and cemetery just outside the fence. The two men got out of the car. Bud pulled a carrier bag from the back seat. Glass clinked on glass as the contents of the bag settled.

The men walked to a grave in silence, Mac rushing, looking over his shoulder as if to hustle Bud along. Bud taking his time, his face showing his inner battle to compose himself.

They stood by a simple, small grave marker. All it had engraved into it was a name, and two dates. Mac took out a half bottle of whisky and two glasses from the bag. Mac held the glasses while Bud poured.

‘We’ll get justice for you, Danny, I promise we will.’ The two men intoned. They clinked their glasses, sipped at the cheap spirit, then upended them and poured most of the contents onto the ground near the marker. Standing in silence for a moment, both men were in their own worlds when both of their mobiles chirped the message tone. They both took out their phones, read their messages, then showed the other.

I noe youu willl. Sooon? Get mee out of heer

Neither man could make eye contact with the other. Both looked at the grave marker.

Danny Beale

18/4/73 – 3/7/2015

‘He didn’t do it, you know that right?’ Bud asked.

‘I know, we put him in there,’ Mac nodded towards the prison, ‘and they put him in here.’

‘So we’re still looking for the right man?’

‘Yes, we’re still looking’

Their phones beeped again.

Gooood. CU next year. Mayybee

***

Neither man spoke on the journey north.

 

Story and note (c) Chris Johnson 2019

Author’s note

Bud Robinson and ‘Mac’ MacDonald will be recurring characters in a series of action adventure stories which are currently being written. Few, if any, of these will be supernatural in nature…but the characters were in my mind when I sat down to write a Halloween flash fiction tale and this is the story they told me.

Chris 27/101/9

Friday evening.

“But mum, it smells!”

“There’s no phone signal!”

I’ve got to walk all the way over there for the loo?”

“What if it rains?”

“What are we supposed to do now the tent’s up?”

“What do you mean we have to cook our own tea?”

“Can we go to the bar?”

 

Saturday morning.

“I didn’t get any sleep.”

“It’s too noisy, I was hearing things all night!”

“My sleeping bag is too uncomfortable.”

“My air bed is too soft!”

Where can I plug in my hair straighteners?”

“What are we supposed to be doing now?”

“Why can’t we just go home?”

 

Saturday afternoon.

“That was awesome!”

“Yeah, who knew how much fun the countryside could be?”

“I didn’t know you could ride a bike Mum!”

“I think the man at the hire shop fancied you Mum!”

“Wait ‘til I post my photos!”

“Let me see the one of the cute lambs again?”

“Can we bar b que for dinner?”

“Can I cook the burgers?”

“I’m going to sleep tonight, I’m tired already!”

 

Sunday morning.

“I’ve never slept so well.”

“It’s so cool to wake up to the birds singing!”

“Wow mum, bacon sarnies!”

“Cool, I love bacon!”

“Is that the fresh bread we bought yesterday?”

“Fab, I’ve never tasted bread that good before!”

“I can’t be bothered to straighten my hair and do my make up.”

“What can we do today?”

“I don’t want to go home yet!”

 

Monday morning.

“I didn’t sleep at all.”

“Me neither, the bed’s too hard.”

“And it’s noisy, I heard cars passing all night.”

“And the smell of exhaust fumes, yeuch!”

“And the duvet kept falling off, I want my sleeping bag.”

“I have to get up sooo early to do my hair and make up. It was much more fun when I didn’t have to bother.”

“And we have to sit in stuffy classrooms all day instead of being outside.”

“I want a tent in the garden.”

“I want to go camping again!”

“Can we, mum, can we? Next weekend maybe?”

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

“Paul! It is you?”

I turn and walk, speed up. He taps my shoulder.

“Paul, I know it’s you. Where have you been?”

Prison, but that’s not the point.

“Come on Paul, let’s get a drink?”

I turn again.

“Come on mate?” Less certain.

I walk away, dialling.

“Witness Protection. How can we help?”

“I’m blown!” I reply.

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2018