I can’t stay. I can’t run away.
Please undo these handcuffs!
I can’t stay. I can’t run away.
Please undo these handcuffs!
“Enjoy your walk, you’ve got a lovely day for it.”
“Thank you.” Isla replied, having just picked up a selection of picnic food from the nearest shop to their destination she walked outside to where her companion, Eric, stood with a guitar case slung over his back. He was smoking a cigarette and had a face like thunder.
“Why do we have to walk to this place? Can’t we take the car? Why are we going anyway?”
Isla rolled her eyes.
“You said that you would do this for me and with me. It’s important. You know it has to do with the husband that I lost. I need to close that chapter before I can move on.”
Eric shrugged, and set off to follow a pace behind. He was smarting slightly that in the two months they’d been dating she’d never let him get as physical as he would have liked. But she was perfect in every other way, and way out of his class, so he’d decided that he was prepared to wait. Then she’d suggested this walking trip, and hinted at more if he supported her visit to a place that had some relevance to the husband she’d lost two years earlier. He’d agreed reluctantly and was beginning to regret it.
They walked for about at hour, first on a flat path then picking their way across some fields and up hill to a dense patch of trees. Finally, having followed Isla in to the trees and around in circles looking at half a dozen places that all looked alike to Eric, she spoke again.
“This is the place”, Isla said, “this is where we have our picnic.”
“Why among all these trees when we could sit over there and admire the view?” Eric asked.
“Because amongst these trees we’re hidden from everyone else, dummy!” she replied, giving him a wink.
Like a shot Eric dumped the guitar and started fumbling with her shirt buttons.
“Not yet, we eat first.” She said, batting his hand away. She took a blanket from her rucksack and spread out the food. “Come on, stop sulking and eat.” She popped open a can of lager and handeed it to him. Eric sat down across from her. “Not there, come and sit here, next to me.”
He drank down the first can in two gulps, thirsty from the climb.
“Did you bring any more?” he asked.
“There’s four. I don’t want one, so they’re all yours.” She turned her back on him to get another can from her pack, pooped the top and very carefully poured in to the lager a small amount of white powder. Eric drank, again taking almost half of the can with his first drink.
Isla picked up her guitar, and checked the tuning. “Eat something,” she said to Eric, “I just want to play a little while before I eat.”
Eric felt drowsy, putting it down to the walk up the hill and drinking too quickly he started in on the sandwiches. Isla was playing a soft song, and had started singing. He didn’t recognise the words. He found himself closing his eyes and lying back trying to make some sense of the song. Before long he was fast asleep. Isla carried on playing. The tune becoming quicker and the words, ones she’d learned from a dusty book found in a library basement, became simpler and simpler as if the song were regressing through language back to the very earliest forms of communication.
A mist started to rise. It crept over Eric; soon Isla could barely see his sleeping body. As she continued to sing and play she could make out what looked like tiny people dancing to her song in the mist. In her nightmares these people were very real, with pointed teeth and tiny swords the size of toothpicks. In her waking hours she told herself that all she could really see were eddies in the mist. But if that were true, her conscience asked, why are you here?
She carried on playing. Tears formed in her eyes and made it even harder to see through the mist as the tiny dancers worked themselves to a frenzy. The words ended, her last syllable echoing as the dancers in the mist all held that note for slightly longer than she did. Still she played, the music getting simpler and simpler until finally she was just tapping a rhythm on the guitar body. And then she stopped. Reluctantly she drank a small mouthful of the lager, lay down and slept.
She woke an hour later. The mist had cleared. Eric had gone. She sat up with a start, consulted a notebook and then shouted a few syllables similar to those in the song she had played earlier. A few seconds later a voice replied, this time in English.
“This time we accept.”
Isla started to cry again. From among the trees a man staggered towards her, as if drunk. He was not unlike Eric; tall, good looking with dark hair. But this man was not Eric.
“Tom! Isla shouted, “It’s me, over here.”
The man called Tom staggered over.
“Wow, sorry, I must have fallen asleep while you were playing. That wine we brought for our picnic is stronger than I thought.”
“Did you have any strange dreams, Tom?” Isla asked.
“Yes, I did.”
“Let’s get our gear together and get back to the car, you can tell me your strange dream on the way and I can tell you mine.”
Isla packed the guitar carefully into its case and gave it to Tom to carry. She turned her back on the blanket and food. An observant person may have noticed the rotting remains of another, similar, blanket close by. Careful examination may have suggested a third. Forensic examination would have found two more.
As she turned to leave the copse for the last time Isla smiled her first true smile in two years.
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. The Low was particularly inspired by a picture I first saw in The Rook, Hartington. The picture is not there now, it’s hanging up at my home. The Rook is still there, and I heartily recommend it to anyone in the area for food, drinks and snacks and some beautiful art.
There are a number of ‘Lows’ across the Peak District. All of them have some mythical stories attached. This story was not written with any specific one in mind.
(C) Chris Johnson 2015
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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
“Angie! Angie, wake up!”
Towelling his wet hair, Grant walked into his bedroom.
Grant reached down to shake her. He really wanted her to leave before his house mates woke. He told himself it was to protect her reputation, in truth it was probably more about his. Like a number of newly qualified doctors he was older than the student nurses he often drank with and was well aware that a reputation could badly impact on his future employment prospects.
He touched Angie’s shoulder. It was cold. He pulled his had away, she rolled on to her back. That’s when he saw the blood on the pillow, dribble from the corner of her mouth.
Grant stood stock still for what seemed, to him, to be hours. Then he grabbed a bag, filled it with some clothes, found his passport, phone and wallet and headed out of the house.
An hour later blue lights strobed across the front of the house. Grant’s housemates stood around waiting for the police to tell them what to do. Grant was at the ticket desk at St Pancras praying that he could get on a Eurotunnel train before the police got his name and address on some watch list. He succeeded. He travelled fast, Paris, Mediterranean coast, North Africa, on and on further South into sub Saharan Africa. Days later, tired, hungry, dirty and unshaven he washed up at a refugee camp. Giving a false surname, he volunteered to help in the field hospital.
He used the internet terminal in the hospital office once a day to check for any news. By the time he’d arrived at the camp the main story, the death of one student in another’s bed had already been archived. The only news story that appeared to be updated daily was the search for him. He swore to himself not to go back.
Six months passed.
Grant stepped out of the operating theatre and into the shower tent. Wet, refreshed, he looked in the only mirror on the camp. A tanned, bearded and haggard man he barely recognised looked back.
Soon afterwards Grant’s boss offered him the chance to work even further into the interior of the desert. After six months there he moved on again, then again, then again. He carried on running from his own past, concentrating on his work. Forever moving to the next trouble spot, never taking any payment except for food and board.
Time passed. The man in the mirror’s beard bleached blonde in the sun, his hair grew first long, then bleached the same colour as his beard. He still occasionally checked the internet. It was clear that the police had stopped actively searching for him, but he was on a number of missing persons databases. He’d never seen anything indicating that Angie’s murder had been solved. He was sure he was still a suspect. He wasn’t sure that in some, unspecified way, he was guilty.
Grant’s boss found him one day, taking a nap in an otherwise empty dormitory tent.
“Grant, I need you to go to the UK on a fundraising lecture tour.”
“I need you to go. You’re intelligent, erudite and most important you could earn a good living in the UK but you’ve chosen to be here. It’s a story we want to cash in on, it’s a great recruiting tool.”
“Grant, I’ve been suspicious for a while that you’re running from something. But please, reconsider.”
“I have no passport.”
“We’ll get you one. Any name you want.”
“You can’t do that.”
“We do it all the time. We get passports for loads of refugees. What’s one more?”
Grant realised he had been cornered. “Ok.”
“Yes, PC Hains?”
“Sir, we’ve got a hit on an old case. Facial recognition on CCTV at Heathrow.”
“Let me see.” He looked over the PC’s shoulder. “That is an old case. Ok, track him and bring him in to a local nick.”
The hotel manager opened the door to Grant’s hotel room at dawn, the PC with him was obviously wary as he entered the room. Grant was awake, reading his presentation for that day at the small desk in his room.
“Sir, please stand and turn to face me.” The PC said.
Grant’s shoulders drooped. His head too. “Ok” he said, and did as he was told. “Am I being arrested?”
“No sir, I’ve just been asked to take you to the station. Someone wants to talk to you.”
The interview room was something from Grant’s worse nightmare. After years of desert life and refugee camp hospitals, the damp, dark room felt like a tomb. An overweight balding man in plain clothes, escorted by the PC who had brought Grant in, came in to the room. Sitting, the detective checked Grant’s name and confirmed his address at the time of Angie’s death.
“Where have you been Grant?”
Grant told the short version of his story.
“You’ve been on the run?”
“The girl in my bed was dead. I am a murder suspect. You’ve never caught anyone as far as I can tell. I’m fairly certain I didn’t do it, but I was very drunk. Anyway you probably think I did?”
“She was murdered?” the detective asked.
“Yes…wait”, Grant frowned, “ I never checked. The internet news stories never actually said murder. I just assumed.”
“Some doctor you are. Didn’t even check. For God’s sake never work on me. Off you go.”
“Wait? What? I can go?”
“Natural causes. She died of natural causes. You would have been back at college that afternoon with a story that you could have dined out on for life. Goodbye Grant, good luck with your lecture tour.”
As he walked back to his hotel the early commuters gave Grant a wide berth as his laughter turned to massive, loud, sobbing tears.
(C) Chris Johnson 2013
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.
“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.”
“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
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?’
‘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 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
My response to “The Daily Post” Daily Prompt:
Alfie knew that he was in big trouble. Both of his compatriots had run and left him when he fell and broke his ankle. Conscripts to the army, and now deserters, he didn’t really blame them for looking after their own hides. Deserters were usually shot on sight, there was no room for heroics in the military state that was the UK.
Even before the coup, use of tactical nuclear weapons had laid waste to much of the country. Fighting in the streets had done for even more. Great chunks of the mainland were irradiated and lethal. He was lying in a foxhole now, in one of the fallout zones with, by the sound of it, dogs and men searching for him. Imagining the bullets striking his body, he shuddered for a second, and tried to burrow even deeper into the muddy ground. ‘Just pass me by’ he thought, praying for the first time in years to a god he didn’t believe existed anyway.
Knowing how close he was to death, Alfie’s thoughts seemed to speed up. Like he had suddenly recovered from a bad migraine, his mind cleared and he found himself able to think clearly about his options. ‘Make the most of it’ he thought. ‘Nothing is over until they find me.’ ‘Observation, that’s the key to survival’ he remembered the words of his drill Sergeant; he tried to move to somewhere he could see the approaching men. Pain shot through his damaged ankle, he caught his breath just managing to stifle a scream. ‘Quit and die’; another of the Sergeant’s favourites, so Alfie ignored the pain and moved until he could see the approaching men and dogs.
Rebels!. Soldiers always wore some variety of uniform. These weren’t soldiers they were rebels. ‘Unbelievable’, Alfie thought to himself, ‘I might still be saved’! Very carefully he poked his head above the edge of the foxhole. Waiting, still half expecting to hear a shot or a dog bark, instead he got a wave and a hand signal to stay down. “X-Ray papa to Zulu control” his saviour spoke into an old shortwave radio set. “Yes X-Ray papa, this is Zulu Control, go ahead”. Zulu control from X-Ray papa, we’ve found him, tell his two friends they got to us in time, we got to him first”.
(c) Chris Johnson 2013