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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.

 

 

The wreckage lay in the sun. Twisted, charred and burned. Ticking and groaning as it cooled.

In Nevada the choppers scrambled. Men in black racing the locals to the scene.

Perimeter set, the clean up begins.

All of the evidence, both of the small grey bodies, removed.

To Area 51.

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

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

Horses gallop across a field, their riders in red trumpeting and hooting, jumping over aeons old dry-stone walls and churning the ground to mud. Ranks of men, women and children line up against a wall. Sickles, scythes, knives and rusty shovels at the ready. Blood mud and carnage as they meet. Unearthly sounds break the day, screams from horses, men and ravens waiting their meals. Walls destroyed allow cows and sheep to stand sentinel to the madness, witness to the carnage but too afraid to get any closer. Hours later survivors pick over the corpses looking for their loved ones, their sons, husbands, lovers, or filching clothes and valuables from the bodies while Valkyries circle, waiting their moment to swoop.

In London the presses run the headlines. ‘The revolution has begun’

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

I remember when this frame was new, shiny, silver plated. It had pride of place on the fireplace. My mother would take it down and polish off the nicotine and dust at least once a week. More often if someone was coming round. She bought it for her favourite picture of me. Taken at my cousin’s wedding in June 1950, I was wearing my first ever suit, a new hat, highly polished shoes. I’d been allowed to stand at the bar with the grown up men for the first time, allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink beer with them. Bitter tasting, warm and flat, it tasted like nectar to my seventeen year old self. It explains the crooked smile. My mother thought I looked grown up. I thought I looked drunk. We were both right.

My mother died in 1965. The frame went into a box. It was, lost, forgotten. No one wanted it any more. Not until one day in 1968 when my nephew, John, in bell bottom jeans and a tie-dyed shirt, found it while he was looking for inspiration for a university assignment. He wrote the assignment, passed and so kept the frame and my picture in his bedsit as a lucky charm. The room that was always full of loud music, the smell of pot, sweat and cheap beer. The silver plate got black in the thick smoke, the glass got covered with dust.

The frame moved around with John for another ten years. From his bedsit until his first divorce he kept it on display. In the early seventies cigar smoke replaced pot smoke, dinner party conversation and playing children replaced the loud music. By the late seventies his marriage had broken down and the sounds of arguments and screaming adults took over. The silver plate flaked. The picture faded. Eventually Amy issued the ultimatum and John took the easy route. He packed a bag and walked away. She dumped the rest of his belongings on the street. All but the picture frame. It sat, forgotten again, on the top shelf of a book case full of unread Dickens, Shakespeare and Chaucer along with a hundred Mills and Boone romances with broken spines and loose pages. A witness through her days of tears, sadness and endless David Soul ballads. Right through to the day when Amy started dating again. It was the new boyfriend who noticed it.

‘Hey, Amy, who’s this bloke?’

‘I don’t know. It’s one of John’s family I think. I’d forgotten it was there.’

‘He looks drunk. Shame this frame’s not real silver, it would have been worth something.’

‘It’s just a cheap thing. I’ll give it back to John.’

She put the frame face down on a telephone table in the hall. It stayed there for three months. Dark, dusty and ignored until John saw it one day when he was collecting the kids and Amy told him to take it.

John passed the frame on to his nephew, Julian. He was real eighties success story, a young millionaire trader in the city with a blonde girlfriend sharing his converted warehouse apartment. It sat on a shelf in the bathroom because Julian thought it was funny to talk to his Grandad, who told endless stories of austerity, while he was literally pissing away a fortune in overpriced champagne. During one of his parties someone thought it would be a good idea to snort cocaine off the glass. The party went on for days. The conversation fast and meaningless. The smoke as thick as it was in the sixties, the drug of choice and the price of the alcohol massively different. Then the market crashed, and so did Julian. The frame was taken from his repossessed apartment in the mid nineties and sold in a job lot to a second hand furniture dealer. Where it stayed. For two decades. It got moved from time to time. Picked up, dusted, put back somewhere new. But no one wanted to spend six pounds on a faded picture of a stranger in his first suit on his way to his first hangover in a battered frame with few patches of silver plate left.

At one of those dinner parties in the seventies one of John’s friends drunkenly joked that there was a tribe in Peru that believed that having their picture taken stole part of their soul. He found it hilarious. But it’s true. I’ve looked out from this frame for fifty five years. I’ve seen so much. And I’m ready for another change of scenery now. Please.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015

I can smell the wild garlic, the mown grass, the scent of a late summer. Mile after mile seems effortless as I run in the light of the full moon. Running is freedom, running is life, running because, not for, not to.

At least usually. Tonight I can hear them following. Sometimes they gain, mostly they drop behind. But never far enough. Tonight I’m running for, not because. And I’m not sure where to.

A cloud passes across the moon. I break out into the open, hoping for cover while it is darker. Sheep scatter. Bleating loud, they might as well be a siren call to my pursuers.

I hear the shouts behind. They’re forming into a pack. Getting clever. Soon one or two will try to outflank me. Then I’m done for.

I smell it before I hear it or see or hear it. A music festival. God knows why. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Still, a God send for me. Lights, people, smells, noise. And only about a mile away. I redouble my speed and head for the horizon.

Too late I realise that staring at the lights has ruined my might vision. I run flat out into a barbed wire fence. I land heavily, grunt. Cut and bruised. Blood trickles. Not good. I get back up and running, ignoring the pain, but I’ve given them another chance to catch up and now I’m leaving a trail.
Suddenly I’m there. I slink through the crowds. They’re concentrating on the stage, ignore me. I find a quiet spot. Hide behind a kebab van. Drooling with hunger, panting from the exertion and yes, I admit, shivering with fear.

I listen carefully, but there’s no sign of them following me. It’s not likely. Not into this noise, light, smells and number of people. They’ll wait until everyone’s gone. If I play my cards right I can follow the crowds back into the nearest town.

I eat, then change.

So the cycle starts again. I’ll be with people until they find out, then with wolves again until they smell me out.

A werewolf is never welcome anywhere. Not for long anyway.

Author’s note. The Y Not? Festival took place in Pike Hall, Derbyshire, on the same weekend as the blue moon on 31 July 2015. Which got me thinking… I took one liberty with this story, I’m pretty sure there are no wolves in the Peak District. Werewolves however; well, who knows?

(c) Story Chris Johnson 2015

(C) Picture Chris Johnson 2018

11898940_10153633488311095_2218785026502278564_nThe candle guttered as the breeze from the open window blew across the flame. The room was otherwise dark and silent, Charlie and Evie long having run out of conversation and retreated to their own thoughts. Charlie assumed that Evie was composing a poem. He had always envied her ability to ‘write’ in her head and only later commit to paper. He needed to see words on a page, to see what they looked like and to capture them before they were lost. He was thinking about money. Or lack of money. Hence the Friday night blackout. It saved on electricity. At least that was what Evie said. ‘With what we save on a Friday we can go out or have a take away on a Saturday, and anyway it’s a great way to come up with ideas and work on them’. Except it never seemed to end up that there was enough money left for a night out and he never came up with ideas that he could remember long enough to use.

Charlie knew that Evie was by far the better writer of the two of them. She seemed to turn her hand to any genre, sold articles and fake agony aunt letters and responses to the local papers and even had some interest from an agent for her unfinished novel. Not that they ever had any money, even with his part time wages and the money he managed to get from selling by the inch filler pieces on local clubs and societies to the local free papers, they still struggled.

A moth flew in and started to circle the candle. Charlie watched as it flew close to the flame, then further away only to be drawn back again. Evie gasped as it flew straight through the flame and trailed smoke as it circled a little wider for a while before, inevitably, being drawn back. Charlie just knew she was composing some deep meaningful poem. He tried to come up with some ideas himself. He could write about pilots in a dog fight. Something meaningful about how the pilots had more in common with each other than with the politicians who sent them to fight. He reached for the ever present notebook and pen, then realised that he couldn’t see well enough to write and Evie would never allow a light. Even so, he stared at the flame and started to plot the story even though he knew he would never remember it, hoping that something useful would remain somewhere in his subconscious.

Time passed. The moth continued to flirt with the flame and somehow just avoid being burned alive.

“Bed time.” Evie said. “Have you come up with any ideas?”

“A few” he lied.

“I’ve got a poem on the go. That moth was a brilliant inspiration, don’t you think?”

“I suppose.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, of course I am. Always.”

Evie went to bed. Charlie blew out the candle and closed the window before he followed her up. As he got into bed Evie recited some of the poem she’d ‘written’. She was using the moth circling the flame as a metaphor for a destructive relationship, subverting what appeared to be a love poem into something really quite dark in the final verse. It was genius. Charlie was devastated. Again.

Charlie dreamed. He was a moth and Evie was the flame he was circling. Every time he tried to get away she drew him back. But whenever he got too close he got burned. He woke with a start. Realising he would not get back to sleep he quietly got out of bed and went downstairs. The candle sat where it had been the night before. The moth was dead, its body preserved in the re-hardened wax. Before Evie woke he had packed and gone. Out into the darkness.

 

 

Photograph (c) Karen Downs-Barton 2015. Thanks to Karen for the writing prompt and kind permission to use her photograph. You can find her at: http://karendownsbarton.blogspot.co.uk/

Words (c) Chris Johnson 2015