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She parks the van in a different place every night. At least once a week she’ll find a campsite and shower. In between times pull ins, car parks and quiet roadsides will do. Bathing in rivers and drinking from her carefully rationed wine stores. She sleeps with the doors double locked, the windows closed and the phone off. Avoids the radio, hides from the newspapers and hasn’t seen a TV, let alone watched one, for weeks. There’s a lap top hidden in the van somewhere, but she’s not looking for it.

No one knows her, her anonymity is closely guarded. Last week she tried to stay for two nights in one place and someone tried to make friends. That’s not the plan. She needs some time being no one and be nowhere.

All too soon she’ll be back. All too soon she’ll be Miss Brown, the art teacher. But not yet.

Author’s note: This story is part of a work in progress, a series  stories inspired by the people and places of the Peak District National Park.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015

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“Hey, wake up. I’ve got a story for you.”

“Hmpff, get off, I’m asleep.”

“No, it’s great, there’s this character from one of your stories story who keeps complaining you’re writing her parts too one dimensional.”

“I’m asleep”

“You’re awake now. You might as well listen. Get your note book out, it’s a great story.”

“A story about a character, that is someone I made up, that doesn’t think I’m telling her whole story…I guess it’ll keep my therapist happy if no-one else!”

“Yeah, be cynical. It’s a great story – a series of stories actually – she’s a recurring character, comes across as a real hero, saves the day, the lot. Only really she’s horrible, really nasty, not just an anti-hero – actually a real bitch.”

“What?”

“And she wants you to tell her all of her story your next comic. With the extra plates, the ones showing her torturing and killing.”

“Hang on, I can understand the challenge that I’m making characters in short stories pretty one dimensional. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed. I can accept the challenge that I’m only telling part of a character’s story, I’m writing flash fiction not epic novels. But now I’m being accused by one of my characters of not making her a big enough bitch in a story I’ve never written, in a form I don’t write?!”

“But it’s a great story…hang on, what do you mean you don’t write comics and you don’t recognise your characters? What day is it? Isn’t it full moon?”

“No”

“Ah, my bad. As you were.”

“I’m awake now!”

“Sorry. You know how it is, cut backs, there aren’t enough muses to go around so we have to double up. I must have just opened the wrong link on my browser. Brought you someone else’s inspiration, as it were.”

“So that’s why I have days on end when one story sticks in my head and won’t let any others out – you’ve got me on some sort of muse holding service!”

“Err, yes, it’s like an answering machine message – you know, work on this one until I can get back to you. Anyway, I’d better take this story where it belongs.”

“Wait, don’t be so hasty. How does this character feel about being a pulp fiction heroine? I think I have an idea!”

“Oh dear, I’m in trouble now…”

(C) Chris Johnson 2014

Adam was feeling good. He’d just done a deal, a big one, one that could make his career. He’d sold the farmhouse that had been on his company’s books since before anyone could remember. His mind, as ever on the money, was working out his commission and what he might spend it on; boat, holiday, replacement Range Rover, redecorate his apartment.
The traffic slowed, Adam cursed. He felt a headache coming on, reached for a cigarette.
Inching forward for a few minutes, he finally saw the cause of the hold up. A farmer, trailer full of sheep on the back of an ancient pick-up, two flat tyres. The farmer flagged him down.
“Give me a hand mate?”
“I’m in a rush, meeting.”
“You’ll not get far unless I can move this trailer”
Adam grunted, “Ok, hitch her up, I’ll get her out of the road.”
The old farmer introduced himself as Seb. Within ten minutes the trailer was hitched up and Seb was in the passenger seat.
“It’s only a couple of miles, and it’s in your direction.”
Adam was about to argue, he’d only agreed to move the trailer out of the way, but something made him think that an argument was not something Seb would want to listen to.
Ten minutes down the road Seb indicated a left turn. Adam was concentrating so hard on getting the long trailer turned without risking any damage to his car, that he nearly rammed the tractor and trailer blocking the road.
“Rigwelter!” Seb exclaimed, and was out of the car and away across the fields like a shot. Before Adam could react a couple of huge looking lads were standing on either side of the car, an old man by his door, shotgun held at just the angle that wasn’t quite a threat, but made the threat an option.
“Out.”
Adam complied.
“Sheep thief. Does thou know what we do with sheep thieves round here?”
Adam started to argue; “No, I was just helping Seb. He’d got two flat tyres.”
“He’d got two flats’ cause he got them shot out, trying to steal my sheep,” he nodded towards the trailer, “them sheep what you’re stealing now.”
Adam tried again to protest his innocence. The old man smiled.
“Well, that’s fine. Marlon here,” he nodded to one of the hulking lads, “will just drive your car and my sheep back to my farm. Me and you’ll go in the tractor, nice and friendly like.”
Adam thought, very briefly about arguing, but the shotgun and the sheer size of Marlon made mind up.
“Eric.” Said the man once he was in the tractor and heading back up the main road. He held out a hand the size of a shovel, and as course as sandpaper. “And you?”
“Adam.” They shook hands. Adam felt his bones grinding together.
“Good bible name that. Religious man Adam?”
“No, my mother was. Not me.”
“Ahh. You might want to learn quick.”
“Sorry?”
“Don’t be. You’ll get the same chance all sheep thieves get.”
Adam protested his innocence again, but Eric didn’t appear to be listening.

Twenty minutes up the road Eric pulled the tractor in to a farm lane and stopped at a farm house. Adam immediately launched into a sales patter.
“I could sell this for you when you decide to retire. It’s got to be worth a fortune. Land for a campsite, golf course, 4x4s, that sort of thing. The house itself could be a great holiday let, maybe converted to flats and apartments. You got brick barns too?”
Adam didn’t notice until too late that Eric had turned first red, then purple with rage.
“This is my land, farm land. When I’m gone Marlon and James will farm the land just like I do and my father and his father. You city scum ain’t turning this into a playground. Just where do you think all your food’s coming from when you’ve bought and sold all these farms. Now out, over there, bottom of the quarry.”
***
“This is country justice. You stole my sheep, I caught you. You climb the quarry,” Adam loked up at sixty feet of limestone walls, loose rocks and sparse vegetation. “You get to the top, you can walk away.”
“If I fall?”
“Brother keeps pigs. Family joke. Eat anything will a pig.”
Adam started to argue. Seb cut him off.
“Or I could just have an accident with this here shot gun, I’m an old man and my fingers sometimes shake.”
Adam started to climb. He carefully picked his way up the unstable wall. What seemed like days, and was probably hours later he started to think he could make it. His hands and knees were bleeding, his suit in shreds and he was covered in sweat, but he finally got a hand over the top.
As soon as he did a boot landed on it. Adam looked up. Marlon.
“Dad says no-one ever makes the climb.”
Adam looked down, Eric was waving his hands in the air and shouting. He looked up again. Marlon was distracted. Adam took the chance to free his hand. As he reached over the edge someone grabbed his arm. Looking up again he saw the uniform and face of a policeman.
“Let me help you up.”
As soon as he was safely over the top Adam started to tell his story.
“So you’re telling me that Eric made you climb the quarry because you’re a sheep thief?”
“I’m not, but he thinks I am!”
“I’ll need to investigate.”
He cuffed Adam, then walked him down to the bottom of the quarry.
“Eric,” he said as he uncuffed Adam, “You know I’ve told you before about country justice. You know our Mum would never have approved.”
Adam looked from man to man, noticed the family resemblance.
“Once is far too easy. You gotta give him at least the best of three.” He smiled at Adam. “Off you go again, young man.”

Big thanks to Ant for the inspiration. C

(C) Chris Johnson 2013

The University hadn’t changed considerably since Freddy had last been there, fifteen years earlier. After a couple of wrong turns he found the office he had been looking for

“Freddy, I didn’t know you were coming out today! Come in, come in!”

“You wouldn’t know, would you, Professor. When was the last time you visited me? Five years, more?”

“I wrote. It just got harder and harder to get away, you know how it is.”

“No, I don’t know how it is.”

“Anyway, you’re here now. Have you seen your probation officer? Got somewhere to live?”

“I want to talk, Noel. Do you have any students coming or anything?”

“No, I’m done for the day. You want to go eat or get a pint?”

“No, we’ll talk here.”

Freddy punched his half brother. Noel stumbled backwards, collapsing into his office chair.

Another couple of punches soon saw him semi conscious. Freddy tied his feet together and his hands to the arms of the chair.

***

 Noel knew that it was later, but he didn’t know how long he’d been semi conscious.

“All this because I didn’t visit you in prison?”

“No, it’s not for not visiting.”

“You killed my father, your stepfather. Frankly you should be pleased I bothered to visit you or write to you at all.”

“This is not about whether or not you visited.”

“Well if it’s about money, there’s some for you in my top desk drawer. Mum left it for you when she died, along with a letter that I’ve never opened.”

“It’s not about money.”

“So what it is about? For God’s sake Freddy, I’m your only family and you treat me like this. You’re out on licence, you’d go straight back if I so much as breathed a word of this to your parole officer or the police. What if campus security come by?”

“They won’t, these rooms are shag pads for you lecherous professors. They’ll leave you alone in case you’ve got a hot little under grad in here.”

“Freddy, what is this about, come on man, let me out and let’s get some food or a drink?”

“No. This is important.”

“What, Freddy, what’s important?”

“Innocence and guilt.”

“What?”

Freddy repeated himself, this time punctuating each word with a slap to Noel’s face; “Innocence,” slap, “and,” slap, “guilt!” slap.

Blood began to trickle from the corner of Noel’s mouth.

For a few minutes Freddy looked out over the university park. When he spoke his voice was calm, measured.

“So this is your life, Noel. The office, the undergrad girls, a view of the park, a nice home somewhere? You got a car? I bet you drive some smart sports car don’t you? Money in the bank, maybe a girlfriend?”

“It’s not my fault. What happened to you, what you did with your life, it’s not my fault.”

“Oh but it is, baby brother, it most definitely is.”

“Why? I never asked you to murder my father!”

Freddy walked back around the office to stand in front of Noel. He leant down, their faces only millimetres apart. He spoke, slowly.

“I didn’t murder your father. I didn’t murder anyone. But you know that.”

“Freddy, not this again. I couldn’t give you an alibi, it would have been a lie!”

“You didn’t have to give me an alibi, you had to tell the truth. And now you will.”

“I don’t have a clue what you are getting at!”

“Noel, you killed your father. You did it. I didn’t want you to give me an alibi, I wanted to set one up for you. But then Mum turned on me, protecting little Noel as always, and that was it. I did the time because even my own mother turned on me.”

“Freddy, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t kill my father. The police proved their case against you. For God’s sake let’s have that drink. There’s a bottle in the desk drawer.”

“No.”

“So, what now? You going to torture me until I admit to something I didn’t do…”

Freddy punched him, hard. Noel spat out fragments of broken tooth and a mouthful of blood. Then continued;

“Then what? turn me in to the police and claim some sort of pardon and compensation?”

“No. It’s too late for that. You’ve had your good life, I went away to give you that. I’m institutionalised. I’ll be back inside within months anyway, so I’m just going to collect my debt from you first.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this.”

Freddy put his hands around Tony’s throat and strangled Noel. Afterwards he found the bottle in the desk drawer, opened it and took a long drink. Then he saw the envelope with his name on, an unopened letter addressed to him in his mother’s handwriting, just as Noel had said. He opened the letter.

Dearest Freddy,

I am so sorry. I could never bring myself to say this while I was alive, so I’ll say it now. Thank you. Thank you for taking the blame. Thank you for doing my time. I had to kill him before he killed me. I’m glad that you saw that. I’m glad that you saw that your brother needed at least one parent. I’m forever grateful to you for the second chance you gave to Noel and me. I hope you can now make the most of your second chance. Give this letter to the police, get your name cleared. There’s thousands in the bank for you, and the house is yours.

Clear your name, claim your inheritance and live well my dear, beautiful, dutiful, innocent son

Your mother.

Freddy looked at the corpse of his last relative. He opened the office window, tore up the letter and threw the pieces to the wind, took a long pull on the bottle and picked up the phone.

“Which service do you require?”

“Police please,” he replied, between sobs “There’s been a murder.”

(C) Chris Johnson 2013

I saw the shadow pass across the frosted window in my door three times before it finally stopped outside. I heard a knock.

‘Come in!’ I shouted, and got up, closing the lid of my lap top and sliding it in to a drawer of my desk.

I met my visitor at the door and looked her up and down. Tall, long red curls. A looker too. I didn’t recognise her, wondered how she’d found me. She’d been crying, her green eyes were blood shot. I offered her a seat, and a drink.

‘You got any scotch?’ She asked. She looked at me, looked round my office and added, ‘or, based on the look of this place maybe I should ask for bourbon? What is this, a film set?’

I smiled, pouring us each a Black Jack. ‘I often got asked that question or a variation of it when people came to visit me for the first time.’

‘You’ve got this place done out like a cliché of a 1930’s New York private detective. Come to think of it, you’re dressed like one too. You for real?’

I handed her a bourbon, took a drink of mine.

‘I like it. I find it helps me to concentrate, Miss?’

I left it hanging. So did she.

‘Does this impress clients, or scare them off?’

‘Clients?’

‘Yeah, whatever, I’ve got a job for you and I need someone below the radar. You took some finding, I had to ask around, so I suspect you’re not well known? And no doubt you’re either very cheap or very expensive?’

‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name and I have no idea what it is that you want? Can we rewind a little?’

‘You can call me Scarlett. It’s close enough. I need a detective.’

‘I’m not…’

‘I don’t care how busy you are, or how expensive you are, I haven’t got time to find anyone else.’

‘Haven’t got time?’

‘I have to get this pen drive,’ she pulled a USB stick out of her bag and placed it in my hand, ‘to the right people within the next 24 hours. They’ll pay me well for it.’

‘So what’s on it?’

‘Some files that I stole from work.’

‘I’m not getting involved in anything illegal!’

‘Call it whistle blowing then. I need you to find the right people, deliver this and bring back the money. Simple.’

‘Scarlett, you need a courier not a detective, and certainly not…’

She banged her glass down on my antique desk.

‘I don’t have a name and address you idiot, just a place and time to meet with someone. I don’t know if I can trust them so I want to send someone who can help, maybe follow them if need’s be. I need a private detective. That’s you.’

‘You don’t seem to understand, or you don’t want to hear…’

‘I understand, you’re a bit odd with all this ‘30’s noir stuff, but you’re it. I haven’t got time to go looking for anyone else.’

‘Please listen to me. This 30’s noir stuff is a movie set. Well, set dressing anyway. I’m not a detective, I’m a writer. I write detective novels set in 30’s New York. This stuff helps me write. If you need help, call the police. Or a real private detective. I’m not who you’re looking for.’

She burst into tears again.

(C) Chris Johnson 2013

“You have to listen, you have to hear this.”

The man bounced about on his makeshift podium, shouting to be heard over the hubbub of other speakers at speaker’s corner and the traffic noise from Marble Arch.

“Please, it’s important. Please stop and listen.”

He had a small crowd, probably more interested in his behaviour than anything he might have to say.

“Get on with it!”

“Yeah, what is it you’ve got to say?”

A smartly dressed man wearing medals shushed the others into silence.

“Sir, if you start to speak people who are interested will listen. You can always repeat yourself if people arrive mid way through your rendition.” He gave a slight bow of his head, then looked intently at the speaker.

Pausing, the speaker visibly shook himself, drew himself up to his full height, then started speaking in a quiet yet firm voice.

“The Government are after me, they want to silence me, stop me from telling people what I know. I have been followed for days now, and it can only be a matter of time before I’m assassinated.”

A few more people started to gather round. The man with the medals glanced around.

“I found out the truth. I am a web designer and programmer. I was approached by a civil servant, and asked to write a programme to search the web for patterns. Certain words, phrases and images. They wanted it set up so that they could change the search criteria themselves, for social research. I thought it was odd that I was asked to work from home rather than in Whitehall, but it didn’t really make any difference to me. They agreed my asking price for the contract and my contact spoke to me twice daily. I wrote the programme downloaded it on to the IP address they’d given me.

“Two days later I realised I’d left a back door open in the programme. I decided that all I could do was to hack my own programme and close down the back door. That way they’d never know I made a mistake and I would know I’d finished the job properly. I logged on to their network through the same IP address and opened my programme. That’s when it happened.”

“What happened? Get to the point!”

“My computer crashed, it couldn’t handle the data flow. When I finally got it re-started and tried again all I got was error messages, then it crashed again. I tried to recover it but nothing worked. They must have found my back door and booby trapped it.”

“Or your computer just crashed?”

“No, this was deliberate. I was scared. I sat around for an hour or two. Then I went and got an old PC out. By the time I’d hooked it up my home wi-fi network had gone down. I went to look at the router and I saw the man who had contacted me to write the programme stood by a black Range Rover parked outside my flat. I was sure he’d come to kill me for what I know, or what I’d done.”

The old soldier stroked his chin.

“I’ve been on the run for three days, hiding from them. But I decided if I tell enough people I’d be safer than if I keep the story to myself. They can’t kill us all!”

He stopped, staring at the crowd as if challenging them to argue with him. One woman cleared her throat.

“So what is it that you’ve found, other than that they’ve fixed your programming mistake?”

“Don’t you see, they can see everything that’s on the internet.  They can search for anything, draw together all of the data on any issue, subject or person and use it”

“So can I, it’s called Google you fool!”

He leaned forward, hopping from foot to foot as he replied in a louder voice.

“No, no, it’s not like that, it’s quicker and more detailed and…”

But he’d lost his crowd, they slipped away first in ones and twos then in groups;

“Stop, you have to listen, you have to hear this.”

Eventually only the old soldier remained, still listening intently, head bowed while apparently fiddling with his medals.  Anyone close enough may have just heard him speak quietly.

“Stand down the snipers, no one’s listening.”

On nearby rooftops, men in black began to disassemble their rifles.

(C) Chris Johnson 2013